A/N: It's taken awhile to post this chapter, but the next few chapters should be posted sooner rather than later. I've taken so much time making chapter outlines that I might as well have written the chapters... Anyway, here's the latest chapter. Enjoy!
"Ooh, this is so exciting!" squealed Vileplume, clapping her hands together, her petals bouncing.
Coale and Elli stared at her quizzically. After relating their adventure in the tunnels, they had waited patiently to be advised, and were quite surprised.
"We think," Skarmory said, "that you've witnessed the birth of a Mystery Dungeon."
The pair's eyes' widened in shock.
Of all the things that could have been…, thought Coale, his mouth gaping. To think that it could have swallowed us whole…so much raw power…
"No one has ever seen that before!" exclaimed Vileplume, interrupting Coale's thoughts. "It's a brand new discovery!"
"We will dispatch necessary Teams for exploration of this new Dungeon," squawked Skarmory. "Since you both are the ones who made the find, we find it acceptable for you to join the exploration party, in due time."
Elli's eyes shone. "Really?! You mean it?"
"Of course," answered Vileplume.
A small bell sounded in the room. The sound confused Coale, but Vileplume seemed to understand it.
"Ah!" she said. "It appears you two have a visitor."
. . .
Announcements had already been conducted, during which Vileplume had given a short account of Team Starfire's adventure the previous day. The other apprentices had asked multitudes of questions, most of which were answered by a sheepish Elli. Coale noted that she seemed to give most of the credit to him, almost modestly, even though, from his own memories, he could find no recollection to support it.
Directly afterward had been their debriefing with the Guildmistress and Skarmory, and now the rotunda room was almost empty, with only a few visiting Pokémon enjoying casual conversation. Rays of morning light shone through the paned ceiling, casting a warm glow in the room. It was the entrance to the room that caught Coale's attention, however.
A small, red-eyed form floated lazily in the threshold. The edges of its eyes dipped slightly, giving the impression of permanent teardrops. It had three shadowy appendages, one on each side of its body, and the third at its front, facing toward the ground. The newcomer was flanked by Linoone, trying his best to slink back into the shadows.
"Hello," the shape said hesitantly. "I'm Yamask…the Swellow told me that my mask had been recovered."
"Oh!" exclaimed Elli. "We still have it back in Jetsam Village!"
"Not to worry," said Skarmory. "As soon as she found out, Kangaskhan had it sent directly here."
"Let me go get it," said Vileplume, excusing herself. She quickly ducked through another doorway. Sounds of rummaging could soon be heard, causing the assembled Pokémon to exchange awkward looks. With a loud "Aha!", Vileplume reemerged, mask held aloft. She presented it to Elli, who in turn presented it to Yamask. As soon as his shadowy arm touched his newfound treasure, tears began to appear around Yamask's eyes and he sniffed audibly, giving Coale and Elli a warm smile.
"T-t-thank you so much!" he stammered. "I don't know what I would have done without you!"
Elli turned her head, blushing slightly. "It's nothing really…" she started to say. "Anyone could have picked up your note; there are so many other Exploration Teams more qualified than us…"
"Nonsense!" cawed Skarmory, causing everyone but the Guildmistress to flinch. "Your Team performed admirably!"
Still, Elli looked as if she had trouble accepting the praise. After continuing to thank them profusely, Yamask departed, inviting Coale and Elli to visit him anytime in the Mountain Ruins. A strange silence appeared in his wake, and the pair turned to face the Guildmistress.
"Well then!" exclaimed Vileplume. "I have a new assignment for you both."
Both Coale and Elli stared at her expectantly.
"In light of your recent exploits, we think you could benefit from a bit of formal training."
"If you walk straight through the market, there should be a long set of stairs carved into the rock face. At the bottom are the beach and the Dojo, run by Breloom and Poliwrath. They've offered to give you a training course on Exploration Team fundamentals."
Vileplume then gave a very wide smile and laughed slightly.
She's worried about how we'll react, thought Coale. Do other apprentices dislike training? He looked over at Elli to see how she was taking in the news. Elli's expression masked her feelings.
Strange, Coale mused. She's never been able to hide her emotions before…
In an instant, Elli brightened. She smiled. "We'd love to go." Coale nodded his head in agreement.
"Well, that's settled, then!" said Vileplume, visibly relieved. "I'll see you both at dinner!"
She then proceeded to skip back to her chambers, petals bobbing all the way. Skarmory let out a loud squawk! and soared up to the rafters on his razor-sharp wings. With that, Coale and Elli departed.
They walked for the first few minutes in silence, simply enjoying the beauty of the morning. It was a day of partially clouded sky, and the sun's rays, brilliant but not blinding, shone through the clouds and made shimmering patterns on the surface of the lake. The area the light blanketed grew larger as Coale and Elli made their way to the junction and the notice boards.
As they came closer, they saw a large crowd gathering in a circle. At first, Coale thought they were looking for something on the notice boards, but as they drew nearer he saw that they assembled Pokémon were clustered instead around other forms at the center of the circle.
"Hey there!" a voice boomed. "It's you two!"
When the crowd parted, Coale and Elli were able to see that the voice belonged to none other than Rhyperior. Gallade and Roserade were also present.
"Glad to see you up and at 'em!" said Rhyperior with a grin. "Looks like you're making a full recovery!"
"It's all thanks to your team," said Elli. "If you hadn't shown up we'd probably still be down there…"
Coale shuddered at the thought.
"Well, it turned out for the best, did it not?" said Roserade. "That's all that matters."
"Anyway," said Rhyperior, "we'll be in town for a while. Your Guildmistress mentioned a surprise!"
Elli's eyes widened. "You know about it?!"
Gallade nodded. "We're not supposed to mention anything else about it, though. After all, it's supposed to be a surprise."
After a few parting words, Coale and Elli continued down to the market. Coale felt eyes on his back that made his submerged quills tingle.
"That crowd…" said Elli uneasily. "They wouldn't stop staring at us…"
Suddenly she brightened. "But whatever could the surprise be? Oh, it makes me jump inside just thinking about it!"
Coale too was wondering about the surprise. The way Vileplume had made it sound was quite enticing. Could it be a treat? A project? A contest? He did feel sure that, whatever it was, they were going to find out soon enough.
. . .
After stopping in the market to deposit some money, Coale and Elli located the stairs that Vileplume had spoken about. Waves crashed far below, tossing up a shower of spray that crashed onto the stairs, dampening them. Several of the steps looked worn, with chunks of stone missing and interspersed pockmarks on the edges. The staircase made an even curve around the rocky wall, descending downward toward an unseen destination. Unconsciously, and at the same time, Coale and Elli started down the steps, carefully placing each paw. After a hundred such footsteps, they finally rounded the rock face.
Before them was a vast rock overhang. It curved inward from the lake, giving it a mouth-like appearance. Early morning, reflected from the lake's surface, shone at an angle to the overhang, causing the mouth to appear a darkened cavern. Several monstrous pillars protruded from the sand, supporting the cavern. When Coale looked up, he could barely see the tip of the Guild perched atop the island, and he realized that they were standing almost directly beneath it. He then turned his gaze to the sand. He could hear the waves from the lake as the water cascaded against the shore. It was strangely quiet, he thought, but he felt it best to continue. He started down the remaining steps, Elli close behind.
When they reached the bottom, Coale appreciated the immensity of the overhang even more. It truly was a gigantic spectacle. He looked around. Strewn haphazardly in front of the Coale and Elli were various objects. There were round balls, which Coale thought looked quite heavy. Punching bags, held by taut straps, dangled from sturdy wooden frames. There were also several other instruments Coale didn't recognize.
"H-hello?" Elli called uncertainly. Her voice echoed, bouncing off the stone walls of the overhang.
There was no response.
Coale's brow furrowed. Perhaps we didn't come to the right place…
It was then that he heard Elli's sharp intake of breath. Across the cavernous room, he saw something he couldn't quite make out. As it drew closer, he realized it was a Pokémon, and it was running at a breakneck pace, approaching rapidly. Mere seconds later, the Pokémon was yards away from them. Without warning, it gave a savage yell, taking a flying leap at one of the hanging instruments. Its foot struck one of the punching bags. There was a tremendous tearing sound, and the punching bag split cleanly in half. An explosion of sand caused Coale and Elli to shield their faces momentarily. When they looked back again, they saw the Pokémon looking at them with a wide smile.
"Hey there!" it said in a distinctly female voice. "You two must be Vileplume's apprentices!"
The Pokémon had a cap-shaped head, almost appearing to wear a beret. Her arms appeared short, but both arms and legs sported bright red claws. At the end of her tail, four circular green spheres were arranged.
"I'm Breloom!" she said.
"I-I'm Elli," began Elli, "and this is Coale."
Coale nodded and extended a paw. Breloom shook it, gripping it firmly. In those few seconds, Coale could imagine Breloom's claw crushing through steel. His paw tingled when he pulled it back.
"Welcome to the Dojo!" said Breloom. "I run the Dojo with Poliwrath, who should be here any minute now."
Elli looked at her quizzically. "Poliwrath?"
As if on cue, there was a colossal splash, and a blue form catapulted from the waves, shooting up into the air. It did a somersault in the air, coming to land on one knee mere feet from the three other Pokémon. Elli flinched noticeably.
"Greetings," it said it a deep, bass voice. "I am Poliwrath."
Coale again nodded his acknowledgement, but this time neglected to offer his paw. Elli, staring up at the two Fighting Pokémon, seemed to shy away, intimidated. Her eyes darted around, never coming to rest on any one thing. Coale, however, managed to catch her eye and gave her what he hoped was a reassuring glace. Elli seemed to soften a bit.
"Right, then," said Breloom. "Let's get started. What do you two consider to be your strengths?"
For a moment, it was silent, save the sound of the waves.
"I'm decent at Psychic attacks…" Elli offered hesitantly. "And Coale has quick reflexes!"
Coale noticed that she was more confident in the strengths she identified with him than with herself. He wasn't sure about his reflexes, as he still appeared to suffer from memory loss, but she had known herself far longer, and in the short time that they had been partners, she had shown extraordinary command of Psychic attacks.
Breloom smiled. "In that case, I think we have the perfect set of exercises for you both."
. . .
The "exercises" Breloom had mentioned turned out to be much more difficult than Coale or Elli had imagined.
Elli was paired with Breloom and Coale was paired with Poliwrath. Coale watched as Elli worked with Breloom.
"Ok, Elli," said Breloom. "I'm going to hurl these objects at you, and I want you to stop them in midair with a Psychic attack. Got it?"
Elli nodded nervously, a single bead of sweat running down her forehead. She readied herself, steadying her paws.
Breloom had hurled the object so fast the Coale had not even seen where it had come from. Elli let out a yelp and jumped to the side. Coale then saw something light up for a second, and he spotted the object, wreathed in indigo light, slow slightly. But almost as instantly as it had appeared, the light flickered and then disappeared entirely, and the object whizzed off course by several meters, throwing up a shower of sand as it landed.
"That's ok!" reassured Breloom. "It was only your first time. You'll get better."
Elli returned to her original position, still shaken, steeling her eyes for the next projectile. Breloom hurled another object, just as fast as the first one. Elli squeezed her eyes shut in concentration. This time, the object slowed drastically before Elli's Psychic faltered.
Breloom smiled. "Good! You're doing better!"
Coale wasn't sure, but he thought he saw a slight smile cross Elli's mouth as she prepared for her next try.
Suddenly, Coale felt something whiz by his head, he jumped to his left, wildly looking around. A booming laugh came from Poliwrath, standing a few yards away.
"Ho ho!" he said. "I was just checking the extent of your reflexes. Gotta keep you on your toes!"
With that, Poliwrath rapidly spat jets of water at Coale. He strafed to the left, the first jet barely missing him. He had less than half a second's time to move again before the second came directly at him. Without thinking, Coale coughed up a weak Ember at the water, slowing it down and turning some of it to steam. However, after he wasn't prepared for the third jet of water, which hit him squarely in the face. He was knocked a few yards backward. When he attempted to get up, he hacked on a cough, fighting with double vision. Coale realized that the attacks weren't very powerful at all, and his fatigue was due more to his surprise and weakness to water than the attacks' strength.
"You're pretty resourceful," commented Poliwrath. "But, if you'd dodged in the other direction, you could have missed those other two Water Gun attacks altogether. Let's try another one."
. . .
Over the next week, the members of Team Starfire spent their days at the dojo. Breloom and Poliwrath continued to give them exercises, and sometimes Breloom worked with Coale and Poliwrath worked with Elli. After a few days, Coale was able to dodge all the projectiles and Elli could stop the object in midair almost every time. Coale had also worked on his Dig technique and Fire moves while Elli had done a little work with healing moves. The last few days were spent with Mystery Dungeon specifics. On one of these days, Poliwrath brought out several items and asked Coale and Elli to identify each of them.
"Now," said Poliwrath, "can you tell me about each of these items?"
Coale and Elli looked at the objects Poliwrath had set before them. The first was a pink loop, a sort of bracelet to be worn around a wrist or ankle.
"That's a Stamina Band," said Elli. "If worn, the belly empties slower."
The second item was a perfectly round sphere. Coale could see his distorted reflection within its deep blue depths.
"A Rollcall Orb," confirmed Elli. "If members of a Team get separated within a Dungeon, a Team member can use a Rollcall Orb to warp his or her teammates closer."
The last item was a seemingly plain and ordinary seed. The only remarkable thing Coale could glean from its appearance was its larger size when compared to other seeds he had seen.
"And that's a Reviver Seed," Elli said. "It's possibly one of the most valuable items an Exploration Team can carry. A Reviver Seed will revitalize a Team member when knocked out in a Dungeon. Reviver Seeds are often confused with Plain Seeds, which are worthless, and once a Reviver Seed is used it becomes a Plain Seed."
Coale stared at it, amazed that such a simple-looking seed contained such potential. So many things in this world were not as they appeared…
Poliwrath bent to gather the items. "Very well done, you two! As a reward for identifying all the items correctly, you get to keep them."
Elli's eyes shone. "Really?!"
Poliwrath laughed. "Yes, really. Now, the sun's starting to set. I'm sure the Guild will be having dinner soon. We'll see you both tomorrow!"
Indeed, the sun was sinking far in the west, and Coale felt his stomach growl impatiently. He and Elli thanked Breloom and Poliwrath for their time and started up the stairs.
"We should put these items in storage before heading back to the Guild," said Elli.
The pair ascended the stairs with purpose, gazing at the waves that reflected red-orange sunlight in a sparkling cascade. The market was bustling as they reached the top of the stairs. They waited for a few minutes behind a Castform at Kangaskhan Storage before deposited their new items. Afterward, they started up the winding path to the square.
As they grew closer, Coale began to see wary glances and hear whispers in hushed tones. He found that of all the Pokémon they passed, from a tiny Pichu to a bulky Machoke, not one would meet his gaze.
When they reached the square, the reasons became clear.
"Oh no," breathed Elli softly.
Coale and Elli walked slowly up to the news board. There was a cluster of Pokémon around it, each staring mournfully at the same thing. Coale knew what he was going to see seconds before his eyes fell on it.
Another portrait had joined Caterpie's, flitting solemnly in the evening breeze. The portrait depicted a pink and purple oval with a trail of wispy pink smoke curling upward from its forehead. Musharna. Its sleeping eyes looked peaceful, but Coale could not imagine harmony with a sense of dread overpowering his thoughts. He scarcely heard the voices around him.
"…the same ailment as Caterpie…"
He heard Elli's voice telling him that they should hurry or they would be late for dinner, but it was distant and detached, and Coale's appetite had deserted him. However, he allowed Elli to guide him away with her paw towards the warm lights of the Guild.
Dinner, fabulously prepared by Clefable, was tasteless. His soft bed, cool to the touch, didn't feel comfortable. Coale's body experienced the rest of the night, but his mind remained in the square, haunted by the posters. They appeared to him in his dreams. Caterpie and Musharna came to life from their portraits, fading away to be replaced by a gaping, cataclysmic void that threatened to engulf him. He struggled against it, fighting with all his might, awakening in a cold sweat.
Coale didn't sleep the rest of the night.