Marrow slapped the job request paper onto the table.
"Alright, boys," he shouted, glaring at the meeting's few participants. "We've got a mystery on our hands and a deadline to solve it. And since everyone important in this entire blasted place seems to have deserted us for the canyon, looks like it's up to us."
The fearless Marowak glanced around the room, taking a silent roll-call of the attendants. Char's team was all there, as was Kyria the Breloom and Nidoroch the Nidoking from his own team. He'd also roped in the straggling members of Team Flamewheel, namely the Weavile named Alastair, the Shuckle named Sandstone, and a very nervous-looking bird with black and red feathers called a Talonflame.
"I hope you understand I haven't been a member of Flamewheel for more than twenty-four hours," the bird cried, shifting her head. "I transferred from the Black Division only eight days ago and Prince recruited me just yesterday!"
"Don't care if you're two days old. If you know how to follow orders, we need you," Marrow said firmly. "Ahh, what the lovely bunch of ragtag misfits we are! Don't see how Arceus expects us to outwit Adiel when all of our best and brightest have gone off. Though, if there's one guy in the world I'd trust to put this together in some sensible order, it's Scythe. Thankfully we still have him. Wish he'd get here already."
Char peered over the table at the war-room doorway, and at the wayward assembly of Pokémon who awaited direction. But he didn't feel worried in the slightest; not today, not when his best friend had been brought so much happiness. He reached over and gave his Bulbasaur companion a giant hug. Saura's eyes still leaked with tears of joy.
Before Char could say an encouraging word, a frustrated Scyther barged into the room.
"Alright, alright, what's the trouble?" the Scyther sighed, fidgeting his blades together. "Make this quick. I have somewhere to be."
"'Fraid you've got to put your plans aside for today," the Nidoking said, holding the mysterious mission paper for him to see. "Adiel's getting weird again. Look, he's hijacked the mail stream to send us something."
Nidoroch set the paper back upon the surface. Scythe held it down with the tip of a blade and squinted at the lettering.
"Adiel wants Saura to go see his family," Marrow explained. "Question is, why? Why would he do something so blatantly… well, obvious? What does this mean? And what should we do about it?"
Scythe stood in consideration for a minute. The Pokémon of the group held their breaths, waiting for the renowned tactician to start barking out ideas and orders, and get the operation moving. Surely, thought Char, the world's leading expert on Adiel's mind games could shed some light on the very odd and unexpected move the Scizor was attempting.
But for some baffling reason, it was not to be.
The Scyther flicked the paper away and gave a curt chuckle. "Seems simple enough, bring a Bulbasaur home!" he said. "I've got faith you're more than capable of this. Now, if you'll excuse me, I really need to be going. Need to be at the canyon by dusk!"
"Scythe, cut it out, you're scaring us," Marrow squeaked, flailing to grasp at the paper again. "The canyon can wait. Half the base is already in that godforsaken place. I'm sure it's well-defended enough! And the settlement date isn't by nightfall tonight." The frantic Marowak pointed at the lettering indicating the job needed to be done that day.
"Well, you'll have to move quickly, then, won't you?" Scythe said cheerily. "Just like me! Oh, here's an idea: why not make this an exercise for Char?"
Scythe smiled wide, supposedly reveling in the brilliance of his own idea, but the rest of the Pokémon at the table only returned shocked stares.
"…What." Marrow said.
"Yes, that'd be perfect! Marrow, as Team Ember's tutor for the week, you should be helping them learn how we do things on a higher-level team! He's a smart Charmander, why not see if he has any ideas!"
Char couldn't make his mouth work. "Scythe… I'm… I can't…"
"C'mon, Scythe, I'm real tired of this," Marrow said in a flat voice. "Be serious. You're the only one who knows how Adiel runs."
"I am serious!" Scythe replied. "Trust me! Have I ever given you a reason not to trust me?"
Marrow blankly stared for a moment. "Uh… no," he managed to say. "I'm not saying I don't trust you, Scythe, it's just… I'm not seein' why you trust us."
"You'll be fine!" Scythe insisted, waving his arm. "Now, I really must fly. Tell me how it goes. Char, pay attention! You might be tested on this later!"
And the Scyther was gone, leaving a speechless and dismayed mish-mash of different teams with a gargantuan task: beat the notorious Scizor at his own game. Char shared a gaze of absolute dread with his teammates, seeing how even Otto was shocked witless.
"Did he just… abandon us?" the Talonflame squawked, fluttering her wings.
After gaping for a few moments, Marrow eventually just shrugged. "Scythe's just being Scythe," he grumbled. "Spend enough time around him and you'll get used to this. He makes the strangest calls, but there's always some reason for it. Shame we don't have Daemon around to choke it out of him and make him explain himself. Now on that reassuring note, since I've done the most research on this, I guess I'll be the stand-in leader…"
Marrow clutched the paper and walked around to the front of the table, the place where he had assumed Scythe would stand. He stood up straight, addressing the Pokémon in the room.
"I've stayed up all night to try and find where this thing came from," he explained. "I raided the post office in Iron Town, which you probably know the Division has some inside connections with, and I've found that this letter has made quite the impressive journey just to make it here. It was routed through at least three senders. Records say it came from the post in Sigil City, and before that, somewhere I've never even heard of called Shuca Town. Before that, it's anyone's guess. Unless we spend all week digging up the dirt, it's not possible to find where it really came from."
"Uh… so how did Adiel know where to send it?" Ray tried asking. "How did he know to send it to Team Ember? Does he have spies?"
"Well, I was gettin' to that," Marrow said in exasperation. "I have somethin' of a theory on how it got here. Adiel already knows that Saura likely spends his time around the Iron Town area. Remember the time when he tried to catch Saura by jailing all the Bulbasaur in the city? And we went and confirmed his suspicions by busting them all out again, instead of just turning the blind eye? And I'm sure he knows we have a strong presence in Iron Town. Probably he just submitted a mail-in job request to the rescue teams like any old citizen can, and by making sure it landed in Iron Town, it'd get filtered into the Division's mail. And since Saura's the only Bulbasaur in the base…at least, I think he is, last time I checked… that's how it wound up on Team Ember's board. So it's easy to see how it got here even assuming Adiel doesn't have spies in our base."
"If the letter took so long to arrive here, it couldn't have been done in a day," the Shuckle considered, tilting her head. "How would the sender figure we'd get the letter today? How could they be so sure we'd be carrying out the job today?"
"Hrmm, very good point," Marrow said, grumbling in thought, setting his hands down on the table. "Maybe too good of a point. Maybe Adiel's trying to measure the speed it takes for a letter to make it to the resistance, and if we show up in Purevine village today it'll give him his answer."
"Or maybe the Venusaur has been waiting in Purevine village all season," Nidoroch suggested. "Maybe the Venusaur is only impatient."
"What, for an apple?" Alastair scoffed. "You honestly think he'd wait a whole season for an apple?"
"No," Nidoroch shot back. "For Saura. Someone misses their kid."
"So, wait!" Saura shouted abruptly, surprising everyone in the room. "Is my father alive? Does this mean they're all alive?"
Char could see how Marrow hesitated to answer.
"Well, uh, Saura, we still haven't a clue," Marrow told him, rubbing the outside of his skull as though to ease a headache. "But something tells me, before this day's done, we'll know for sure. Rocky, you might be onto somethin' with your theory. How long ago was the lockdown? Thirty days, now? Yeah, if anyone's unaware, about thirty days ago Adiel came across the top of the Plateau and we had our latest lockdown when he stepped on the trapdoor up there. I don't know, I wasn't around the base when it happened, but they say he was headed to the south-west… right toward the Tiny Plains, Saura's home. I heard Houndoom were with him, but don't know what other forces he had. Imagine no one wanted to watch him too closely at that point. So we can assume he's in or around Purevine, and may have been there for quite a bit of time. Waiting for us."
There was another sudden span of silence, and Char thought he could feel a shudder pass through the room as everyone remembered they would probably be walking straight into Adiel's trap.
"Well, Jake, that's all and good, but what are we doing about Adiel?" the Nidoking said. "Unless you really think this will all just amount to the kid bringing his folks an apple."
"Don't know yet, still got to think on it," he replied, pacing to the other end of the room. "Facilities just opened, and the lower floors are just now waking up for the day. We've got a solid two-thirds of a day to find our answers. So while I try to draw up a proposal…"
Marrow collected a messy set of papers from the shelf and spread them out on the table. They were blank. He took a charcoal-stick and started scribbling a list onto one.
"Char, I want you to find Dusknoir. Likely you know the Dusknoir I'm talking about," Marrow ordered, giving Char a sideways glance. "Show him the mission paper and ask him what he thinks. Without Scythe here, that's our next best way of gettin' into Adiel's mind. Think you can do that?"
"No problem," Char said, reaching for the strange job paper.
"Ray, I'm gonna need you to visit Morrik and withdraw some of our stuff," he muttered. "Then I'm gonna need you to visit Kecleon and buy a few more things. Since you're the supply guy on Char's team, I'm hoping you know how to strike a deal with Kecleon."
Ray beamed. "Yeah, I've got it," he said confidently. "Just get me a bag and I'll take care of the rest!"
"Good, good," Marrow said. "Here's a list of what I need. Alastair, you go with him and help him carry the bag; it might get heavy. Good luck with the morning crowds, you two."
He handed Ray a barely legible shopping list, and Ray seemed quite excited to take it.
"Otto, I need you and Tallie to visit Silverwing and get me… oh… four or five mailbirds," Marrow instructed, beginning to write another list. "Tell them they've gotta be fast flyers."
"Of course," Otto replied.
"Uh, no idea who Silverwing is, so I guess I'll just follow you?" the Talonflame replied to the tiny bird.
"Good. Rocky, we'll need dragons. Big, fast dragons," Marrow said. "Money is no issue. If there's one Dragonite or one Flygon staying back at the base today, they're workin' for us today. And if you can't find any, recruit them from Iron Town. I heard there are some good Noivern roosting there now."
"Understood!" the Nidoking replied, grinning and clenching his claws. "I'll be persuasive."
"Sandy, you draw up the mission report we'll give to the registry." Marrow instructed, catching his tongue and eyeing the Shuckle suspiciously. "Um… that is, assuming you can write."
Sandstone wiggled her wormy arms. "I can write, silly," she giggled. "And I bet I can write twice as neatly as anyone who has hands. Just dictate."
"Lovely. Now, that should be everyone… everyone except Saura," the Marowak said, scanning around the room. "Saura, I've got a very special task for you. I need you to stay back here with me and tell me everything you remember about your homeland and nearby areas. Can you do that?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess," Saura croaked, looking unsure of himself. "I'll do my best."
Marrow slammed his hands down on the table, startling everyone. "Great!" he shouted. "Get to it, you all. And meet back here in three hours, and I think I'll have a plan for everyone. Don't dally. Whatever we're doing, we've got to be outta here by yellow torches and we'll be up in the air by noon. Oh, hey, and speaking of which! Pardon my poor memory, but would one of you please remind me of something: why do we rise?"
"So that he will fall!" most of the room replied in a boisterous cheer, the loudest responses coming from Team Ember.
"Great!" Marrow shouted, slamming his hands on the table again. "Now break!"
Later that morning, Croagunk and Seviper slunk out from the front door of their puny, low-class base down in the depths of the Gold Division. Croagunk carried a supply bag upon his back and eyed a torn strip of paper which he held.
"I'm not so sure about this," Croagunk grumbled as he read. "Crater Lake? This is fifty miles away. Meh, don't know how boss expects us to make it there in one day."
"Boss was unclear about the time frame; maybe we have more than a day to get there," Seviper said. "He never said when he was coming back."
"Yeah, well at least… Whoa, hey!"
Croagunk suddenly scowled at his companion, narrowing his eyes and stepping close.
"Nice scarf," Croagunk said, eyeing a piece of red fabric loosely hanging beneath the snake's head. "That's new, isn't it? I don't remember that bein' in our pile of loot from the other day. What kind?"
"Oh, this… rag?" the Seviper said, peering awkwardly down at his neck. "It's… I believe it to be… dodge scarf, I believe. To be honest, I forgot I was even wearing it…"
The Croagunk lashed out, gripping the scarf and pulling the Seviper's head close to his own. "Yeah? Wanna tell me where you got it? Cuz if I hear you blew all of our money on a shabby little worthless item like that we could have just stolen from somewhere, I'm gonna start selling pieces of you to recoup our losses–"
Seviper thrashed and squirmed free of his teammate's hold, shirking back against the wall. "Croagunk, I don't know where I got the scarf," he admitted. "Why is this relevant to anything?"
"You don't know?!"
"Yes, I don't know," the snake said again, glancing down and hiding his twinge of shame. "I might have found it on the floor. The memories are not clear."
"What? You forgot something again?" Croagunk groaned. "How—?! Again? Really? This has been happening a lot late. You're losin' your edge, vipey."
The viper uncomfortably shifted. "I'm not sure what is causing it," he admitted. "I wish I could remember. Unfortunately it is hard to realize I have lost memories until they are called into question."
"Remind me why you're our witness again?" Croagunk growled. "How am I suppose to trust you if you can't even remember where you got a stupid scarf? This is your job, you numb-skull!"
"Regardless, I do not see why this is relevant to anything," Seviper shot back. "Perhaps I found it in the entryway hall before my memories were wiped. It is only a scarf. I am only keeping it because I am frankly not interested in getting hit by one of your stray rocks again."
The Croagunk glared. "The only reason you'd be getting hit by my rocks is because I'm aiming at you, you overgrown worm—"
The poisonous team froze and stopped their bickering at the sound of a familiar Charmander's voice calling from across the room.
"Oh, not you," Croagunk growled as Char approached him. "We're busy. What do you want?"
"Where's Dusknoir?" Char demanded, standing up and trying his best to match the rival team's attitude. "I need to talk to him."
"Sorry, not possible," Seviper said. "The boss is on a business trip. We do not know when he's returning."
"Yeah, it's just us today," added Croagunk. "Now do you need something, or are you wasting our time?"
"Yeah, I need something!" Char growled, unrolling the mysterious mission paper and almost jamming it into the Croagunk's face. "Tell me what you think of this."
The Croagunk snatched the paper out of Char's claw and squinted at it. The viper swiveled his head and peered over his shoulder.
"Hmm. Bring Bulbasaur, yeah? Scizor? Geh-heh, well. Ain't this interesting."
"You put this on our job board, didn't you?!" Char accused, despite knowing the accusation was likely empty. "Are you trying to mess with us?"
"Actually, kid, I've never seen this before in my life," Croagunk said, waving the paper back in Char's direction. "Glad to see you'd give us credit for it, at least. But no, this ain't from us."
"It does seem suspiciously like something Adiel would bait you with," Seviper said. "Unfortunately, as we have already told you, we have been out of direct contact with Adiel for quite some time, so we could not tell you what type of trap this is. Are you planning to carry it out? It seems risky, even for you."
"Yeah, we're carrying it out," Char boasted, grabbing the paper back. "Want to join us? Scythe deserted us and you're the only two Pokémon left who know how Adiel works."
Team X glanced at one another before bursting into laughter.
"Look, we'd love to, really," Croagunk laughed, throwing a light punch at Char which he barely dodged. "Really. Sounds fun. Heh-heh. Sounds like more fun than we'd be having today at least. But Char… geh-heh, that's the worst idea you've ever had. There's, keh, there's just no polite way to put it."
"Indeed, how do you think Adiel would react when he sees that we responded to a letter he specifically targeted your Gold Division with?" Seviper said amusedly. "If we were to do that, it seems more efficient in the end to simply walk up to him and say, 'Adiel, we found the entrance to the base and we've been living there for months but we never told you!' It would have about the same effect, just with much less effort!"
Char growled, realizing they had a point. "Alright, fine," he grumped. "You win. In that case, got any tips for us, at least?"
"Tips? Hmm. Don't die," Seviper said. "Try not to get stuck in his pincers. When he squeezes your neck, it can pop your head right off."
Char rolled his eyes. "Yeah, thanks," he said dryly, turning to leave. "Don't die. Got it."
"But in seriousness, Char, if you happen to get captured, I suggest trying to reason with him," Seviper said. "Adiel is rational; he will avoid killing you if he thinks you are useful to him. So if things go wrong, just keep talking to him for as long as you can, and you won't die. It's something Dusknoir learned when he first recruited us."
Alright, that might be useful, Char realized. Reason with Adiel to stay alive. Ah, I hope it doesn't come to that. Hope we don't even see a glimpse of him. But just in case… Maybe if he's going to kill us, if I told Adiel I had the Call, I could buy time. That would make me useful to him.
Or maybe I could use the Call on Adiel! If only Celebi gets the timing right.
In fact, I wish I could use the Call on these blockheads right now to make them tell me more. Ah, this timing thing might be harder to use than I thought. I have to plan the day around the Call if I want it to do anything useful, and that's impossible to do when I don't even know when it's coming.
"Alright, thanks," Char said, quickly backing out of the encounter. "That didn't help much, but thanks anyway for trying. See you around."
"Yeah, have fun gettin' killed," Croagunk called to him. "Whatever you do, don't let Adiel know where we are…"
After Char was gone, Seviper and Croagunk waited and stared at the stairwell the Charmander had disappeared into.
"Hey, blockheads," the Seviper began to ramble to himself in a mocking tone. "Oh, not you. We're busy. What do you want? Where's Dusknoir? I need to talk to him. Sorry, not possible. The boss is on a business trip. We do not know when he's returning. Yeah, it's just us today. Now do you need something, or are you wasting our time? Yeah, I need something. Tell me what you think of this. Hmm. Bring Bulbasaur, yeah? Scizor. Well. Ain't this interesting. You put this on our job board, didn't you?! Are you trying to mess with us? Actually kid, I've never seen this before in my life. Glad to see you'd give us credit for it, at least. But no, this ain't from us."
The viper tilted his head and looked at the ceiling.
"My memory still functions," he muttered to his companion. "It has not been cutting out all the time. Only sometimes. I am not sure why."
"Yeah, well, fix it," Croagunk croaked. "Boss'll want to know what we did at Crater Lake. Oh, and speaking of that, we're already two minutes late. Let's beat it."
Otto flew deftly through the windows and passages of the base. Somewhere behind him, his red-feathered companion tried to keep up.
"Pidgey…! You can slow down now, please?" she shouted, frantically trying to keep an eye on him as she nearly hit a solid wall.
But the Pidgey paid her no mind, zooming and swooping even father ahead, until the trailing bird could barely catch a glimpse of him around each corner. When she folded her wings and dove through a narrow window, she found the main foyer of the Gold Division all around her, the giant central room where dozens of Pokémon continually mingled. Scanning the area, she found no traces of the fast little Pidgey, and decided to perch on the stony windowsill and resign herself to a rest.
"What is wrong?" Otto squawked, suddenly appearing from within the crowd, coming to perch beside her. "There is no time to rest. We need to request birds from Team Silverwing quickly."
"Well, maybe if you wouldn't fly so fast," the Talonflame grumbled. "What do you think you're doing? I don't know my way around this base yet. I couldn't see you!"
"Do you have an eyesight deficiency?" Otto wondered. "Do you need to visit a psychic or a doctor?"
"Awwk, no, it's called being tired, and confused," she snapped back. "I'm not exactly at the top of my game right now. Look… why do you even need me? You know where Silverwing is, why do you need me to come with you?"
"Because I alone cannot requisition them for a mission, as my rank is not high enough," Otto spoke. "You will represent Team Flamewheel, whose rank surpasses mine. They will obey our orders."
The red bird blinked, sighing in defeat.
"Look… whatever your name is, Pidgey," she said, shifting her head and staring him in the eye. "Can I be frank with you?"
The Pidgey didn't reply, instead meeting her gaze intently. She edged closer to him and lowered her voice.
"I'm terrified," she admitted. "Look, it's my first real day in the Gold Division and you're having me go up against Adiel. Excuse me if I'm a bit shaky. I expected a bit longer than this to get to know the place. And the Pokémon here. What's your name, anyway?"
"I am called Otto," the Pidgey replied. "You're Tallie, as that's what Marrow called you."
"No, that's not my name," she snapped back. "Nobody cares about my real name, and they just call me that because it's short for Talonflame, and… just… this day isn't easy for me… Look, just take me to where we're going, and try to fly slower so I can keep up, alright?"
"If you tell me your real name, I will call you by that," Otto replied. "What is your real name?"
The Talonflame only returned a deathly glare. Otto felt a sudden sting of intimidation, and averted his gaze by instinct.
"To you, I'm Tallie. Good enough?" she finally said, also looking away.
"Fine," Otto replied. "You were from the Black Division, correct?"
"Yeah, I was," she said. "So?"
"What was your role there?"
"What role did you play on your team?" Otto asked. "What was your skill?"
Tallie held her head high. "I was good at everything," she boasted. "I was a tracker, a fighter, an arsonist… That's what it's like down there in the Black Division, you know. You're good at everything. If you can do it, they make you an expert. See, they actually know how to train Pokémon down there. None of this sink-or-swim nonsense. It's hard to get in, but if they accept you, you have to live with Team Incubator for a while and they get you at your fullest potential in no time. They even use psychics to put some of the skills into your head. They taught me everything I needed to know in two seasons."
"Then you should not be afraid," Otto said plainly. "If you are as you say an expert at so many skills, it is likely you will succeed with whatever is required of you today."
"…Though," he added, "I doubt your training was harsher than Team Silverwing. They raised me from a feral to my current level of competence in sixty-six days."
Tallie blinked, sending the little bird her fiercest glare yet.
"Yeah, well, it looks like they might not have finished the job," she replied with scorn. "Now, are you going to take me to this Silverwing, or am I going to have to show you why I'm called a Talonflame?"
"I know already why you're called a Talonflame," Otto replied. "It is because you have the power to focus fire energy with—Oh, you were speaking sarcastically," he said, blinking at the revelation. "Sometimes I can't tell the difference. Which, I suppose, may make it seem as though my psychological development was stunted. But that is no fault of Silverwing's. The education they gave me was perfect. My shortcomings with speech comprehension are those which I willingly choose to keep, for reasons I do not have time to explain."
Tallie looked ready to retort, but she shut her beak before saying anything more.
"Don't fear," Otto said. "There are times when fear is useful. But it isn't useful right now. Rely on your skills. I look forward to witnessing your skills and learning from them. Now, come."
Otto shot into the air before Tallie could replay. She hesitated for just a moment, looked down at herself, then sped after him.
"This is a disaster," Alastair hissed to Ray as they tried to force themselves into the front door of Kecleon's shop. "In the Emerald Division, you have to walk two miles to the retailers and the item cache. I'd almost prefer it to this. I mean, how do you even see your way through this mess, Raichu? You're so small!"
"We, uh… we usually don't come down here so often at this time of day," Ray replied, giving up in his mission to find a way around the Grotle in front of him. "Usually I do my shopping when everyone's on missions. Because this, uh… this is hard."
Alastair cringed as he witnessed Pokémon bumping and shoving against one another in the confines of the store, somehow miraculously not knocking merchandise off of shelves or skewering one another with bodily thorns or claws.
"It's not usually this bad, either!" Ray added, growing concerned. "Kecleon's great at serving people fast. Even when it's busy like this. I think something might be wrong."
"Wish Prince were here; he'd part the crowd just by glaring at them," Alastair grumbled.
A Poochyena headbutted the Weavile, forcing his way out of the crowded shop. Two more canines followed him. "Alright! We got it, let's bolt!" the leader barked, paying no attention to the Pokémon he had just assaulted.
"Yeah, uh, you might want to stand at the right side," Ray noted to the scowling Weavile. "That tends to happen if you stand in the middle of the walkway."
Grinding his teeth, an evil gleam flashed through the Weavile's eyes. Grinning in glee, he said, "Oh, so is that how things work? Is that how you southerners do things around here? Well, why didn't you say so in the first place?"
"'Scuse me! Flamewheel's a-rollin' through!"
The Weavile lowered his head and slammed the nearest Pokémon in his way, a poor Machop, who stumbled into his neighbors and yelped in protest. Alastair ignored him, securing a significant foothold in the store.
"There! Now we're in! Much progress!" he reported, glancing back at the shocked Raichu. "Oh, look, I can even see Kecleon at the front desk! Looks like there's only one, I thought you said there were brothers!"
"If there's only one, no wonder the line's moving so slowly," Ray said, fretting his front claws together. "Which one is it? What color is he?"
"Um… the red one?"
"Red?" Ray gasped. "There isn't a red one. One's green, and… oh… oh no."
Wasting no time, the Raichu focused electricity until his body shined, then zapped himself overtop the clamoring crowd. He missed his mark a few times, landing atop the heads of some Pokémon, but disappeared before he could catch any disparaging remarks from them. Finally, he landed upon Kecleon's desk, reforming his body from a streak of lighting back into solid matter, and noticing he had landed in the midst of a transaction between a Medicham and a very red, very flustered Kecleon.
"Pardon me, Raichu, but I would very much appreciate it if you waited in line like everyone else," the Kecleon sighed, failing to hide a seething anger behind his polite demeanor.
"Yeah, and get off my stuff!" the Medicham screamed, lurching forward to snatch a box of items Ray accidentally had been leaning upon, causing him to fall over. "The nerve. It took me an hour to get through the line! If I find out you broke anything…"
"Oh! S-sorry, I didn't mean to cut in line," Ray said, stumbling back. "Honest! I, uh… I just noticed the line was moving kind of slow and I was wondering if maybe… any way I could help?"
"Yeah, by not slowing it down even more…?" the Medicham snapped in a huff.
"No, I mean… I noticed your brother wasn't here today, Kecleon, and uh… well, I know most of the stuff in your store! Here, I can help serve customers, if you want!"
The shopkeeper looked startled at the idea, and for a moment didn't respond. "I'm sorry, but I can't let you behind the counter. It's against store policy," Kecleon said plainly.
"Why? Afraid I'll steal something?" Ray replied. "Really? Do you really think I'd steal something from you? After all the times I've shopped here and all the times I plan to shop here in the future? Is that really something your favorite customer would do to you? And besides, you need help. I know it. Let me help you for just a few minutes, alright? I don't even have to get behind the counter if you want. Up here is just fine!"
"Ray, I am sorry, but it is simply out of the question!" Kecleon insisted, crossing his arms. "My brother and I have run this operation for over a decade. There is no need for you to –"
"Hey, Zeven!" Ray shouted, taking notice of someone in the crowd as though nothing was wrong. "Busy day today, huh?"
"Oh… Ray, what the blazes…!" the Sneasel shouted back. "What're you doin' up there? You should get down off the counter before Kecleon blows it!"
"Kecleon's a bit under the weather today, so I'm his assistant for now!" Ray cheered. "So, what'cha got there? Escape orb, fluster orb, pure seed…? And two bags of dried apples. And a no-sticky scarf. That'll be 300 golds. How are things going on Team Dread? Haven't heard from you in months!"
"Uh… …?" Zeven stammered, not really knowing how to reply as he got his money.
"Yeah, and throw in some extra for Kecleon, if you can. He could use some cheering up," Ray suggested. "Anything you can spare!"
"Really? You're asking me for handouts?" Zeven laughed flatly.
"Haggling is part of this job!" Ray laughed. "Just give me whatever you can! I'll, uh… I'll pay you back later somehow, okay? Alright, thanks! Have fun on your mission! Careful on the way out!"
Ray took the small pouch of money that the Sneasel had reluctantly handed to him, and set it on the counter in front of the reddened shopkeeper, who looked so fuming mad he didn't even move.
"C'mon!" Ray begged. "If we get two lines going, we'll have this place cleared in no time. C'mon, don't make me work harder than you! Ah, hey! Splint! Nice to see you! Wat'cha got there? Four pecha scarves? Hmm, going to the Briar Web today, I take it? Hmm, should grab some heal seeds while you're at it, too! Yeah, they're on special today, three-for-one! Just grab'em on the way out, I'm sure Kecleon trusts Team Carrier, one of his longest and best patrons!"
Ray tossed another pile of coins in front of Kecleon. And to his surprise, there was no longer a red lizard standing behind him, but a green one. Ray cast a gleaming smile at him, and Kecleon returned it.
And for several minutes, they both helped the impatient and noisy mob of customers get out of the store and on with their daily missions. Ray merely tossed the money on the counter in front of the shopkeeper, and those who wished to pay by Division credit or had items that Ray didn't recognize, he routed into the other line. Kecleon said nothing else in complaint, and soon the packed store had become a peaceful one, Alastair had come and gone to the front of the line, and the remaining patrons were browsing the isles and item stashes.
"Have you ever thought about hiring someone else to help serve everyone?" Ray asked the shopkeeper in the aftermath of the storm. "It seems it would be useful on the days you and your brother both can't be here."
"I have, and while I will not be ashamed to admit it is mostly a matter of pride that we keep the business family-owned, it is also not a small order to ask of anyone," Kecleon replied, sorting the coins on the counter. "We breathe and sleep our trade; you might as well give up any pretense of serving the Gold Division if you were to work for us. It's not something we would ask of any of our faithful customers, that is for certain! You have your operations to run, and we have ours. Though, I cannot tell a lie and say you have not been of tremendous help today, and it would violate my code of honor not to offer you a token of my gratitude."
Kecleon flipped a large golden coin in Ray's direction, and the Raichu eagerly snatched it out of the air with a bright smile and gleaming eyes. "…It was enough to help Alastair through the line as fast as possible! The mission we're running today is one of the most important we've ever run, I think, because it's for one of my best friends… But thank you! I'll probably end up giving this back to you next time I have to go shopping, though!"
"Then consider it a special discount for my very favorite customer!" the green Kecleon laughed. "Now, I do believe I can take things from here, brother. You should scurry along to your own work, if it's as important as you claim!"
"Yeah, I should!" Ray said, finally jumping down from the countertop. "Hope you have a good day! And, uh… oh, just one other thing I wanted to ask."
"Hmm…? What is it?"
"What got you so red this morning? …If you don't mind me asking. Are you okay? Did something happen?"
Kecleon paused and clamped his mouth shut, looking as though he might change colors again and explode at the Raichu. Instead, he gave a sigh. "It is nothing that concerns you," the shopkeeper replied. "…There is a street-rat thief who has been harassing me over the past days in Iron Town and St. Gracious City. That is all. Thieves are rarely a problem for my brother and I, you see… we catch every last thief who has ever stolen from us, and we give them a punishment so harsh, that when we finally let them go, they let the rest of the world know it's not a good idea to mess with us."
"Uh… yeah, so I've heard!" Ray said a bit uneasily. "You can't catch this one, can you?"
"This thief is demonstrating a level of skill we have rarely seen before, one which might rival our own," Kecleon explained, putting the rest of his money away. "Though it humbles us to say, they are giving us trouble. I am certain we will catch them soon, but until then, it frustrates me never knowing when they will strike and what priceless merchandise that will disappear in their wake. Until we find them, you might expect us to have… our colorful days, as it were."
"Oh… I understand! I totally do," Ray said. "Ah, I couldn't imagine constantly being infiltrated by a thief you can't catch! You should give them an extra harsh punishment when you finally catch them! Yeah, do your absolute worst! Nobody messes with the Kecleon brothers!"
"I assure you, kind Raichu, I have already determined, in excruciating detail, what we're going to do to the thief when we get our claws on them! Oh yes, they will wish they had never been born!" Kecleon said in a frighteningly cheery voice. "But that is not something we must dwell upon every minute of the day. We are professionals, after all. Now, kind Raichu, I simply must ask that you stop loitering in my store. Surely your team is waiting on you."
"Oh, you're right. Of course!" Ray said with a bright smile. "Have a good day, sir!"
"You as well. Have the most wonderful of days, and may fortune strike you upon your journey, so that you will find wonderful things to sell to me!" Kecleon called back as Ray scampered out the door.
When the next customer approached Kecleon with items to purchase, the shopkeeper almost did not notice. He was lost in thought momentarily, staring at the spot behind the counter where his brother would always stand when he was around. Unfortunately, the purple lizard was off pilfering from a shipment of goods at the seaside, rare items which had been shipped from the human lands, and would not be around for days more. He would need to continue running the shop in his brother's absence, all alone, with no assistance…
Perhaps, he thought, hiring a helper would not be out of the question, as long as he could find one which he trusted.
An hour later, the taskforce assembled in the war room again.
"Bothers me a bit that Dusknoir isn't around, but guess it can't be helped," Marrow said, shrugging to Char. "Alright, we got our stuff?"
"Everything on the list," Alastair grunted, dropping two full bags of equipment on the table.
"Good. And we got dragons?"
"A few answered my summons. Two Salamence and a Flygon," Nidoroch reported. "I know you were probably aiming for Dragonite, but I think there's only one of them in the Division, and she's at work today."
"Only three? Hmm… Well… I guess that can make it work. I'll steal someone from in town if we need. Alright, and we got mailbirds?"
"Yes," Otto reported. "Six are in the Antechamber awaiting the command of Team Remorse. They are among the fastest flyers Silverwing have to offer. They are led by Syr himself."
"Most of them were your common Pidgeot, I hope that's acceptable," Tallie added with a hint of condescension.
"Perfect. Got a lot of those working at the mail center in Iron Town anyway, which is just what we need to make our imposters look natural," Marrow said. "And don't worry about our 'common Pidgeot'. They can be fast when they want to be."
The Talonflame huffed and turned her head.
"Good. Ready to tell us what you're thinkin' about, Jake?" the Nidoking said. "You've got us all in suspense here."
"I'm getting to that! Alright, alright."
Marrow climbed up onto the table and pointed at the map.
"Here's Purevine," he explained, indicating a woody area. "This is where Saura's family is supposedly waiting for him. Our mission is to get Team Ember in and out of there as safe as we can, and make it look like they came alone, like it was just another old mission they were running. But we're also going to watch them, and if Adiel does something, we'll be there to get 'em out of the trap before they'll know what hit 'em, and hopefully we'll learn something in the process. Now, for a quick escape, I'm thinkin' we can do a pop-'n-pull. That's fooled Adiel every time, and terrain looks perfect for it. What do you think, Rocky?"
"There's a creek here," Nidoroch noted, tapping a claw upon the map. "Won't that get in the way?"
"Eh? Nah, it doesn't look too deep. Worst case, it might throw off Adiel into thinkin' we're not doing it," Marrow said with a passing chuckle. "Anyway, I was thinkin' about a fuzzy ripple, but that may not be necessary. We'll do a straight-shot instead."
"Fuzzy ripple. I haven't heard of this strategy," Otto remarked. "What is a fuzzy ripple?"
"That's when you don't want the enemy to know where you're coming from, so if you're having a strategic meeting, first you go out in all different directions and then arrive at the rendezvous from all sides, so they don't know where you really came from if they're watching," Nidoroch told him.
"Yeah, problem is, usually we need mons who know how to teleport, if we don't want that to take us five hours," Marrow said. "So what we're gonna do is a straight shot, which is in large the same thing, 'cept we all go to some random point out here, and we close in from there. Still keeps our origin point hidden, but it's much less effort."
"I see," Otto said. "And where is the point we will meet?"
"I'm gettin' to that!" Marrow cried. "Hold your feathers. Now look."
Marrow crawled down the map and indicated another point, far away from Purevine.
"Here's Sitrus City. Scythe told me you've been there before," Marrow said. "Now, first we'll have our mailbirds hop into the post office downtown in Iron Town, and they'll take over the mail route that goes through Purevine Village and into Citrus City. While they're doing that, we all hop on our dragons and fly out to Citrus City and wait for them to arrive. When they get in, they'll give the recon intel we need. They'll tell us if there's an ambush waiting for us and what kind of enemies we're up against. Got all that, Tallie? You'll be flyin' with the mail route today."
"Oh… uh, yes! I get it!" Tallie squawked, snapping to attention. "Simple."
"Right. Then after we get the status report and we have an idea of what we're headin' into, then we'll fly Team Ember out here, into the middle of nowhere, and they'll walk to Purevine," Marrow continued, dragging his bone club across the map to draw paths. "Meanwhile, Rocky and I will set up the pop-'n-pull, Tallie, you'll patrol this area for any enemy activity, and I'll put the dragons here, or maybe… here, so they'll be ready for an ambush. Alastair, can you be sneaky?"
"Can a Charmander burn things?" Alastair laughed. "C'mon, what kind of question is that? I'm born sneaky."
"Just what I wanted to hear. I'm givin' you two invisible seeds – heaven knows we have more than we can use now from the Ingrain Town debacle – and I'll drop you off here. Find somewhere to hide in the village, and stay close to Saura. If anything happens we didn't plan for, you'll be the one to cut the ropes, as it were. Keep your closest eye on Saura, since he's the one with the bounty on his head. If worse comes to shove, I'll take care of Ray and Char. Just make sure Saura's safe if this suddenly all goes downhill."
The Weavile only grunted in response, and wore a small, nasty smirk. Char thought he seemed most delighted at the notion of using an invisify seed.
"Good. Everyone understand what we need?" Marrow shouted, slapping his club on the table one last time. "Oh… and Char?"
"Yeah?" Char croaked, wondering why Marrow hadn't given him any specific orders. "Do you need me to do anything?"
"Yeah, you're the crux of this whole operation," Marrow said. "Your job, once we drop you off, is to act stupid. Pretend you didn't hear any of this meeting and you're just on a standard daily mission to give an apple to a hungry Pokémon for a bit of money. So just… do whatever you would do in that situation. That applies to you too, Saura. I know it's exciting that you might get to see your family, but the only way we can protect you is if you don't do anything unexpected."
"Yeah… I understand," Saura replied uneasily.
"Alright, looks like everything's all in place for Operation Appletree!" Marrow proclaimed, standing up tall. "Let's get in the air, fellows. This apple won't deliver itself!"
Char spent the next few hours alongside Ray on the back of a Salamence. In only the first two minutes of the trip, he already found himself having a profound new appreciation for the Dragonite fleet which had taken him to the Emerald Division; this dragon was not particularly friendly or professional, and seemed to resent the task of flying two Pokémon a few miles to the northwest. "Don't fall," it had told him outright just before taking off. "I won't catch you if you fall, so hold on."
After a particularly bumpy and stressful ride, the team landed in Sitrus City at about high noon and began the long wait for the mailbirds. They congregated at the city park, and broke into smaller groups to wander around the fields and not look too suspicious. Otto flew off to sit in the treetops, and Char walked with the rest of his team down one of the park's dirt paths, trying his best to enjoy the fresh air and calm weather while tensions were so high.
It seemed like a very long wait, especially to the young Bulbasaur, who stumbled around so awkwardly that Char wondered whether he'd accidentally ingested a whole canteen of fermented berries for breakfast.
"What's taking them?!" whined the wobbly Bulbasaur, changing from overjoyed and excitable one moment to downcast and despairing the next. "The mail should be here by now, shouldn't it, Marrow? What's taking them? Did they die?"
"Possible, I guess, but unlikely," Marrow said, peering up at the sky. "Don't know how the townsfolk down there would react to having their mail couriers captured or killed. Hey, easy! Watch where you're going, there. You'll fall over!"
"Sorry! I-I-I just… Ahh. Ahh! It's the headache, it's distracting me so much right now, I can't stop thinking about them. My family." he confessed. "I can't see straight. But… it's like it doesn't hurt, exactly. It's just distracting."
"Whoa, maybe the pain is going away?" Ray gasped. "Maybe if you meet your family, it'll go away completely!"
"Yeah! I really hope so!" Saura said. "And as soon as those mail birds get here, they can tell us whether or not they saw any Venusaur! And then I'll know they're okay!"
"Maybe. Don't get ahead of yourself," Marrow warned him. "We don't even know the Venusaur is your own family. It's not like Venusaur aren't common around these parts, after all. And besides, the Venusaur is only one of the things we're having 'em scout for. They've got to see if there's an ambush waiting for us. Maybe Adiel himself is in the village."
"Yeah, I know! But… maybe they are my family!" Saura cried, hopping about. "Maybe they are there! I just can't wait to find out… You don't know what this means to me."
"Char and I know," Ray said gingerly, patting the Bulbasaur on the head. "We saw those dreams of yours, remember?"
"Oh, I really hope they're there," Saura rambled. "I really, really hope it's all true, and they're alive… Please let them be alive…"
Marrow gently thwapped the Bulbasaur with his bone. "Hey now, don't lose yourself in all this touchy-feely business. Remember what we discussed," he said. "Act like this is Team Ember's operation. Even if your family is there, don't rush into this and do something you'll regret. You've got to be a professional here, or you might ruin it for everyone."
Char was about to offer a word of encouragement to his friend when he missed a step and almost fell flat on his face.
He figured it was just a bump in the road he hadn't seen, but it happened a second time: his leg wouldn't obey his command for a moment, and he began to stumble.
…Oh. This again, Char thought to himself, giving a heavy sigh as he dropped to all fours and tried to take careful steps. He knew that most of the group's attention was on Saura, and he hoped they wouldn't notice his odd behavior, at least until the Call passed.
The sensation had become all too familiar to Char now. He thought perhaps his mind was starting to adapt to the volume of the Call, and was growing to accept its role as a conduit for the massive psychic messages. He wished only that he knew what to use it for.
Ah, such terrible timing, he silently lamented. There's nobody here to use it on. Just Marrow, and my team… what would I have them do, anyway? There's not really anything…
Hello, Char!Celebi called to him. Having a good day? I hope so! But if you're not… maybe this will help you! Get ready for the Call!
Great, but what do I use it for?! Char angrily asked himself. You should have waited until I was up against Adiel, at least! But at this point, it's completely useless…
Char's thoughts were cut off when he felt the wave of energy bursting from his consciousness. He knew he only had a few moments to decide what command to give to any, or all, of the Pokémon around him, Pokémon who were still oblivious to the true nature of his hidden power.
Sighing, Char decided there was only really one thing to say.
Guys, he spoke with the powerful telepathy. Let's do our best today, alright?
When the pulse ended, Char could have sworn he witnessed Marrow's expression instantly change even through the ivory mask he wore.
"But… at the same time, don't lose that heart of yours," Marrow spoke. "Maybe you're right, after all. Maybe this won't be so bad."
"Yeah! We're going to be on our best today!" Ray cheered. "We'll put on a show Adiel won't believe! Right, Char?"
"Yeah, uh… right!" Char mumbled.
"And even if something goes wrong, we have a solid exit strategy," Marrow reminded him. "So don't you worry about any bloodshed or whatever. We're gettin' you out of there one way or another. But a nice family reunion would make this whole day just perfect, if that's what destiny's got in store."
"Yeah, we're in this for you!" Ray said. "I'll admit I'm a little scared, but if there's a chance we could make this the best day of your life, Saura, then it's worth the try!"
Char smiled. The sense of optimism was instantly contagious.
"Thanks, guys. You're going to make me cry," Saura said with an awkward laugh. "Ahh… hey, Char? Are you alright? You've been pretty quiet this whole time. Anything on your mind?"
"Oh, uh, not really," Char said quickly, standing back upright and snapping out of his daze. "Just... nervous like the rest of you, heh."
"Not what your tail says," Marrow said knowingly. "Maybe my memory isn't the best, but I remember how a Char's flame works, it'd be gettin' more fiery by now if you were afraid. But the way it's moving now, I'd say somethin' else is on your mind. You're distracted."
Char bit his lip. "Yeah, guess you're right. I'll, uh… I'll talk about it later, when there's time," he admitted, embarrassed in front of his friends and hoping everyone would forget about it before "later" ever came.
"Even so, don't let yourself get too distracted, you'll slip up on the job," Marrow said. "By the way, ever wonder why everyone can tell you're lying all the time? It ain't your face, it's the tail flame. It shrinks and flickers when you're distorting the truth. Might want to learn to control your thoughts a bit better. At least around those who've known a Char before. You're too easy to read!"
Yeah, yeah, I know! Sometimes it's too much to keep track of, Char wanted to say. How about YOU try mind-controlling everyone around you? It's not the easiest thing in the world.
"You sure you're going to be okay?" Saura asked him sincerely. "Is it bad? We can talk about it now if you want to get it off your chest…"
Char almost chuckled at the idea that Saura had any concern for him on such an occasion. "Nah, forget it. I'll be fine," the Charmander said. "It's not nearly as important as what you're going through right now."
"Yeah. I'm sure."
"Alright, if you say so," Saura muttered, swinging his head from side to side. "Darn, almost thought you could help me take my mind off things for a bit! Ahh… I can't take the wait! I can't take it! Ple-e-ease, Arceus, I want to know soon! Can't you hear me? – AHHGAA!"
Otto swooped over their heads and landed upon the road right in front of Saura, startling him so badly that he jumped back and landed on his side.
Huh… so Bulbasaur can fall over, Char thought to himself with a little giggle. Never would have believed it.
"They're here," Otto reported, as though oblivious of what he had done to his teammate. "The recon team has arrived."
"AND?!" Char and Ray cried in unison.
"Did they see any Venusaur?" Saura begged, righting himself and brushing himself off.
"They report seeing Venusaur, two of them," Otto answered. "As well as at least one Ivysaur."
Saura's face beamed, and his mouth hung open in a gaping smile.
"What about the enemy, huh?" Marrow demanded. "What's the ambush look like?"
"They did not tell me," Otto replied. "You will have to speak with the recon team yourself. They have only minutes to remain here before they must resume the course. Follow me."
It was hard for even the airborne Pidgey to stay ahead as his teammates scrambled after his lead. As they ran, Char could hear his Bulbasaur friend saying something under his panting breaths:
"Saurvor… Saurvor is alive… Saurvor is alive…"
Though he was happy there was a glimmer of hope for him, he knew he needed to keep a watchful eye over his friend; he couldn't forget about Adiel, who probably planned for the Bulbasaur to be so emotionally compromised when walking right into the trap.
But Char decided to let himself feel some of the same optimism he had given his friends with the mind-speak.
We've got this, he said to himself. Nothing's going to go wrong. I can feel it.
We're going to do awesome. There's nothing to worry about.