CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Reappearance


"You're the leader of Team Flying Water Lilies?" Blaize cried out, his tail-flame sparking and increasing in size. He shifted closer to stare at the large Swampert, clapping his paws to his mouth. "Y-you guys were famous! Even though your team name was… odd… everyone knew you. Then…"

"We vanished from society?" Typhoon guessed, sitting back on his great scarred haunches. "Nah. The team was reassigned to Nanab, which is pretty secluded. And we changed our name there, figuring that it was a new beginning. Newleaf is well-connected, but that little jungle village is cut off from the world."

Sterling's memory went back a few days, settling on the time when he had awoken in the Academy. They had formed Team Storm and been sent out to explore the school. And even though it had occurred quite recently, it felt like it had happened a long time ago.

He tilted his head to the side, studying the Swampert before him with new respect in his eyes. Typhoon wasn't some mere eavesdropper anymore – no, he was the leader of a famous rescue team. He had saved many, many Pokémon in his life, had helped them, and had conquered a vast amount of mystery dungeons.

It was a humbling realization.

Typhoon slipped out of the river at that point, heaving his massive body onto the grass. He looked a bit clumsy on land, but all of his bulk would probably count for nothing in the water. The seemingly awkward fin placement would give him speed, too.

"I'm assuming that you're Academy kids," Typhoon said, friendly as can be. He sat back on his haunches again, looking very, very big. "What's your team name? I've given you mine, after all, and nothing is worse than 'Flying Water Lilies.'"

"We're Team Storm. We chose it because rescuers are kind of like the nourishing rain, the lightning that strikes down its foes, and the thunder that warns its enemies," Blaize replied, clasping his paws together.

It had never been exactly official that they were rescuers, but so far, they had only really accomplished rescue-type missions. Sterling nodded in agreement, deciding that it was a better summary than anything he could have come up with.

"A motto, huh?" Typhoon grinned at them. "Ours wasn't nearly so well thought out. 'The water lilies that fly to save you!'" Then he broke into deep, rumbling laughter, which seemed to echo from deep within his body.

Sterling found himself smiling. It was hard to dislike this friendly Pokémon.

Then came a noisy chime from nearby. "So there you are! I told you to wait by the outskirts of town, not at the bridge!"

Sterling knew who it was without even looking – it was easy to recognize Lyric's distinctive chiming voice. He turned, twitching his tail, and, sure enough, there was their tag-along mentor.

"Ah! Lyricial!" Typhoon's smile grew wider. "The last time I saw you, you were still a wee Chingling!"

"And you were a bossy Marshtomp," the Chimecho replied, smiling as well. "It's nice to see you again, you big, stupid mudfish."

"Bratty bell-ghost," Typhoon replied teasingly. "I was just talking to Team Storm over here. They're your Green Ranked newbies, aren't they?"

Sterling was offended at this. "We're not weak," he interjected, indignant. "Just because we're small doesn't mean that we're newbies. Plenty of Pokémon are small but strong."

"But you're not," Lyric answered, now being unnecessarily blunt. "We can fix that, though. Say goodbye to this amphibious idiot, and we'll be off to try and catch our outlaw."

Sterling sat up, shaking his coat vigorously in an attempt to dislodge the dew clinging to it. Next to him, Blaize was brushing scraps of grass and dirt from his scarlet scales. When they had finished, Lyric gave Typhoon a friendly nod and drifted off in the direction of the (overcrowded) bridge.

The Swampert lifted one great paw to wave, calling a cheerful farewell. Then he slipped soundlessly back into the river, maybe to lie in wait for the next interesting conversation.


It was becoming clear that Blaize's words were true. Foreign teams were traveling to Newleaf Town, though Sterling had no clue why. As they passed over the bridge, he heard plenty of unfamiliar accents. They all sounded strange to him – had he really gotten used to the Newleaf accent so quickly?

When they entered the field leading to Pecha Grove, though, the rush of noise gradually faded. The only sound now was the rustling of the long grass, accompanied by faint breathing. For once, it was truly peaceful.

Sterling's worries seemed to fade as he bounded through the grass, weaving between the tall stems. There was nothing but the vast sky above and the green around him as he rushed along, quickly losing Lyric and Blaize.

It occurred to him that the grass had grown quite dramatically in the time since they had left. Perhaps it was a side effect of the mystery dungeon's appearance. After all, the distortion affected time as well as space…

Suddenly, he pricked his ears, angling them forward. There was a sound coming from just ahead – a body, pushing through the stems.

But Lyric and Blaize were behind him.

Instinctively, his fur began to bristle and his back arched. He suppressed the hiss that trembled in the back of his throat and slunk forward, trying to move quickly, yet quietly. If he could catch this other Pokémon by surprise, then it would be a simple matter to defeat it.

He turned left, taking the path that his instincts told him. Sure enough, a trail had already been torn through the grass, though the culprit was nowhere in sight.

Sterling pressed his body low to the ground, charging forward a few steps before slowing down. His instincts were roaring at him to be cautious.

And they also told him that this strange Pokémon wasn't a villager or a visitor. And if it was, it was a very unwelcome guest indeed.

There! Just ahead was a flash of color. Sterling nearly broke into a run, but stopped himself just on time. Losing the element of surprise would not be a mistake that he could recover from. He had to ambush this stranger, or else he would lose the battle – or the Pokémon would run away.

He paused by a thick clump of grass stems, swiveling his ears forward. The sounds of rustling and shoving had slowed somewhat, as if the stranger had grown tired, or was going to stop soon. And that was Sterling's advantage.

Triumph rose within him. He peered around the corner of the grass stems, his claws already sliding out in preparation to attack.

And there.

A Luxio.

With reddish-tinted fur and an unusually fluffy neck and tail.

And golden eyes.

There was no way to stifle the gasp that tore itself from Sterling's throat. His entire body suddenly felt limp and useless, and he felt like crumbling before this Pokémon – this Luxio who was not a stranger, but did not belong in this field, so far away from home.

Flare whirled, his fur standing on end, his muscles tensing. He relaxed somewhat when his golden eyes fell upon Sterling – and tensed again when he saw the silver eyes.

This was no comrade of his.

Sterling's heart beat even faster. Why was Flare here? No, no – he knew why Flare was here. It was not a question that needed to be asked. It was stupid. It was terrible. It was reality.

"Nice to see you again, my friend," Flare said, that old crooked smile spreading across his face. Yet there was a glint of teeth – something that had never been present before. This was a mocking smile, not a happy one.

"I-it's going a little far to call us 'friends.'" Sterling corrected his stutter, but it was too late to take back that moment of weakness. His scornful tone cracked and faded.

Flare stepped forward, extending his muzzle to sniff at the Shinx. They weren't close, but he had always had a sharp nose. "You've been living with the villagers, haven't you." It was not a question. "And I smell fire on your fur."

"Really? I can't smell anything else but your stink." But the insult was dead before it left Sterling's mouth. He was shocked, stunned, numb. Flare was here. Flare was here.

"I haven't washed in a few days, it's true." The former Flareon Shinx shook it off like it was nothing. Cool, calm, and collected, even when that destructive fire raged within him. Its hunger shone in his golden eyes.

"Water has never been good for me, though," he continued, shaking his head as if it was a truly sad fact. "Anyways, Sterling – how have you been doing? The hunting is good around this mystery dungeon. Fruit attracts rodents, and rodents are prey."

Sterling growled. For some reason, the thought of Flare in the place where he and Blaize had met was unacceptable. It was as if his old friend was tainting that sacred spot – even if the new mystery dungeon had tainted it more.

"Not going to answer my question? Fine by me. The less chatter, the better." Flare's crooked smile grew wider, revealing more teeth. That hungry smile. "You know why I'm here."

Yes. Flare was coming because Indigo had asked. The Pokémon who had once been his worst enemy was now his mentor, his ally, and his leader. Flare was coming because he was taking Sterling back, even if the silver-eyed Shinx was unwelcome in the tribe.

Nobody was allowed to leave Amp Plains. Nobody.

Not even freaks.

Then footsteps sounded from behind.

Flare's golden gaze snapped to the rustling grass. He turned, giving Sterling that crooked, toothy smile, and then he was gone. Off into the field.

Blaize appeared, holding a paw to his head. "Arceus, this is confusing. I don't remember the grass ever being this long." He was clearly worried about the formation of the mystery dungeon, but was trying to replace the thought with stupid humor.

Then he noticed Sterling's expression. "What's wrong, Ster? You look like a Haunter just licked you."

"Haunters don't live around here, and if they did, they would know stronger attacks than Lick," Lyric corrected, drifting up from behind. Her chiming voice was oddly soothing, and it snapped Sterling out of his reverie.

"I, uh, thought I saw something," the Shinx lied. "It's nothing important. Let's get going – we have an outlaw to catch."


Pecha Grove was, unsurprisingly, a forest composed mainly of Pecha trees. However, the temporal distortion had already affected the growth of the fruit. Many Pechas hung low, their pink skin discolored and mottled with brown. In the few days since the dungeon had formed, they had already rotted.

The trees seemed to droop beneath the weight of the berries, thrusting out their browning leaves and overripe fruit, as if pleading the world to take it away. A few Pechas had already dropped to the forest floor, decaying amongst the sparse undergrowth – but not many.

Sterling wrinkled his nose against the stink of the berries as he neared them. The grove had changed from when he had last seen it – but, of course, Flare had been in here. Flare's presence had caused the whole forest to rot.

Even thinking the name made his heart beat quite rapidly. He was glad for the distraction when a Pidove swooped down from above, squawking loudly and flapping its wings.

"Spark it!" Blaize shouted, lunging forward with his claws extended. He executed the Scratch attack with relative ease, knocking the gray bird back. In fact, it was even wobbling – thanks to his Nidoking father, Blaize had poisoned it.

Sterling charged as well, his fur flaring with electric energy. Beside him, Blaize struck out with a Metal Claw. Together, they successfully battered the pigeon into submission, leaving it unconscious on the forest floor.

"Good teamwork," Lyric chimed from nearby, floating along. "But we've got a lot more to go. This is supposed to be a ten-floor dungeon. Don't tire yourselves out."

Sterling, stepping back from the body of the Pidove, made an enormous effort to push the thought of Flare from his mind. There would be more time to think about it later.

But now…

"We have an outlaw to catch," he muttered, repeating his words from earlier.

He narrowed his silver gaze, studying his surroundings, and then headed onwards. Blaize slowed down to wait for him, and they set off again.


AN:

Flare makes his first appearance in something other than a flashback! Yep, the story is finally getting somewhere.

I should probably explain the jobs of rescue and exploration teams. Instead of explorers doing rescue work as well as exploring, which kind of defeats the point, their purpose is solely to hunt for treasure and explore new dungeons. They can also hunt legendaries, in which case they're called "seeker-explorers."

On the other hand, rescuers do most of the dirty work. They rescue Pokémon, escort them through dungeons, pick up lost items, and apprehend outlaws. Adventure teams (which is partially taken from the adventure squads of the Wii PMD games) do both rescue and exploration work.

Short chapters are short, long waits are long... I'm sorry! D: The next one won't be very long, either, since I'll be skipping a few dungeon floors.