Chapter 1: The Valley

The burrow collapsed.

Beraph backed rapidly out of the shower of dirt and pebbles, alternatively blinking and sneezing as the cloud flew unwelcome into her eyes and nostrils. She wasn't used to this—digging a short distance through rock and hard dirt was one thing, it had become second nature to bore down just enough to produce a meal of the mineral debris created in the process. That sort of digging wasn't deep enough to raise any concerns about causing a collapse, and besides, rock was plenty sturdy enough on its own. Digging through sandier soil, on the other hand, which already had an unsettling way of shifting and crumbling without the extra temptation of trying to hollow out a stable space far larger than any of her previous digs… She supposed it was partly her own fault for not taking the time to learn about making burrows. But honestly, who would've expected a great lump like Grixxi to come and kick her out of her familiar old limestone den when he already had a plenty big one for himself?

"Oh…that went even faster than the last one." The squat yellow, crackle-skinned rodent behind her could not hide a cringe, cyan blue eyes creasing up at the lower edges. "Honestly, Ber, just let me and Dola do one for you. Give yourself a break."

"No. It's my fault I got kicked out of my space. I need to learn how to do this, like everyone else." Beraph coughed again and pointed a claw at the Sandshrew. "And you don't get to argue, Dano. You and Dola have gone enough out of your way by letting me share your burrow. Let me at least do this so you're not troubled any further to try and shelter me from my carelessness."

Dano bit his lip to keep from responding, and Beraph took the moment to look out over their immediate surroundings. Dotting the sandy ground and gravel hillsides were any number of similarly caved holes or depressions, blatant evidence of her previous attempts. (She'd lost count sometime around the tenth. Or was it the twelfth?) Beyond those were bare and rocky slopes marked with a few other Pokemons' homes and the occasional scrub brush or sun-bleached, leafless tree trunk. All this was focused within the dip between two opposite-facing mountain slopes, running mostly in the bottom valley or at the feet of the walls and ending uncertainly with a few dens or nests a few miles before the valley opened up at either end and cut back down the mountainsides. A little over a day's journey to the east would bring one to Mender's Glen, really little more in substance than a few huts pitched by the banks of the river at the foot of the mountain, but still known even on the other side of the mountain by the Tembeling Forest region as home to some of the most gifted healers and herbologists in the central region of the continent. Looking west from Gaelthorn Valley, on the other hand, allowed one to make out the abrupt shock of hazy green as the foothills receded into the Tembeling Forest, about two days away. From there, Beraph recalled, was Ashhaven, a village larger and far more prosperous than Gaelthorn Valley around her. Ashhaven served not just as a hub of residence and travel, but as the base of operations for Tembeling Forest's rescuer's guild, the Tembeling Ides. Nobody could quite recall anymore how long the Ides had been around, their foundations were that ancient. However, the knowledge was certain even here in desolate Gaelthorn Valley that the Ides were very good at what they did, more than good enough to back up their reputation as capital navigators, healers, scholars, and—of course—fighters and rescuers when called for. Truly, to pass the entrance standards and be initiated as an Ide was a mark of commendation, confirmation of pushing and excelling beyond the strengths of a mere, informal and barely organized settlement militia, or even the trusty regional patrol corps.

It had been many long years since a Gaelthorn Pokémon had been accepted into the Ides. A few Pokémon like Beraph and Dano sometimes aspired past the worn-down survival mindset of other Gaelthorners and dreamed of being the first in generations to become a part of something so old and honored.

And here was Beraph, already defeated by her own digging and one swoop from a large bug before she'd even made it out of the valley. She sighed.

"Hey." Dano's short, blunt claws patted her shoulder. "Listen. It's not something anybody could've predicted, alright? Grixxi's the first to do something like this—take over another nest when his is still standing. It's not normal—and besides, he would've easily had the muscle over almost any Pokémon here."

Grixxi. Beraph's jaw clenched, teeth scraping against each other at the reminder. A hulking, blue-carapaced juggernaut of an insect, bipedal and yellow-eyed and proud bearer of an impressive, spade-ended horn on the forehead of his facial chitin. Easily the strongest resident in the valley, and to boot a great bully and domineer. There was hardly another Pokémon there who didn't know and scowl at the name, though never in his line of sight—nobody wanted to be on the receiving end of a throw or thrust from that horn, or even a punch from one of his single-clawed fists, which were plenty bad enough. Dano was right, though. Grixxi had broken the unspoken norm of the valley: take only as needed to get by, never build up more than enough surplus to last a few days in an emergency. It wasn't as though battles over homes were foreign. It was just that it only really happened when one Pokémon's den was destroyed or otherwise rendered inhospitable, and another, inhabited den fitted the needs of said Pokémon. When you found yourself in one of these confrontations against an invader, you typically had two options: fight and hold your ground, or yield and save yourself a beating by making a new home for yourself. There was no shame in the latter. An injury could be downright hazardous to an already hard living, and if you fought and got yourself hurt, then really, you only had yourself to blame for being rash enough to take on a Pokémon whose strength clearly exceeded your own.

Still, Beraph had to at least try. It was much later after the attack, when she'd been hurled jarringly out of her den, that she'd learned Grixxi was still moving comfortably back and forth between both her den and his own. No, she agreed, that was hardly normal or condonable. But it didn't do anything for the hot shame she felt, throbbing deep down inside like a lump of coal.

"I'll be that patrol Pidgeotto could've shown him a thing or two," she muttered bitterly. "I would love to see Feyes snap a good chunk or two off those wing cases of his."

Dano's turn to sigh. "Well, too late for that. She and that trader'll be in Ashhaven by now." He patted her shoulder one last time and turned to shuffle off. "Come on, Ber. It's getting late. We'll find you some more granite, and you can keep trying in the morning."

The mention of granite set Beraph's stomach growling. It had been almost a whole day since she'd last eaten, and as she looked down at her middle she found her eyes locked onto the dark, blotchy bruise on her abdomen and its single red triangle plating. A diet of mainly dirt and rock had toughened her dust-green hide quite a bit, granting her notable resiliency against claws or scrapes, but it was still just supple enough that sufficient force could cause injuries like bruising or internal breakage, types which didn't break skin (a point which had been driven home by Grixxi). Nobody could say that Beraph wasn't imposing in her own looks by some degree; she'd been told that the slanted, slim rectangular spike on top of her head, the pitch-black diamond markings lined around her sides and back, and the black spear-shaped streaks below and on the upper back corners of red-pupiled eyes gave her a flinty, stubborn and durable look, though the illusion was thrown somewhat by the stumpy, ringed tail and its radial crest of blocky square plates. She had spent many hours looking herself over, half torn between an eagerness to create merit to that toughness and remorse that she wasn't quite so impressive-looking or dominating as a Tyranitar, the Pokémon at the eldest stage of her evolutionary line—or even a Heracross like Grixxi, for that matter. Fortunately Gaelthorn Valley currently had no Tyranitar or even Pupitar in residence. Which just left Grixxi.

Yeah, right. Never in a hundred years, if I even live that long.

Another call from Dano brought her out of her reverie. Giving the bruise one last, tender press, Beraph turned from the latest of her failed home-making efforts to join Dano and Dola in their solid burrow.

It was commonly said that Gaelthorn Valley had a reputation for toughness which changed with the seasons—ice storms and bitter cold in winter, floods and landslides in spring, and baking heat with scratchy, dust-choked air for the summer. The next noontide was no exception to the summer rule; any visiting Pokémon would have been tempted to flop down uselessly in any patch of shade to be found until night came and restored functionality of the mind. Those who lived there year-round, though, had become so used to such conditions that to them it was just another thing which happened and had to be endured. As such, the locals were seemingly able to defy logic by being up and active two hours after the sun had climbed to scorching heights. Beraph, Dano, and Dola were just three of those bustling with purpose.

"That was really something, wasn't it?" Dola questioned, looking up from her lunch of a few hardy berries. Had she been a few feet shorter, she would have greatly resembled her brother Dano save for two long claws on her forepaws and the thick brown spikes liberally coating her head and backside. "How that merchant carried on and on about this patch of dust or that wrinkly berry. Honestly, has he never seen dirt or had a drink of water that wasn't flavored with nectar or whatever that sweet crap is that city Pokémon put in with their food?" She was, of course, referring to Hemlock's overnight stay a week ago, and made no secret of her feelings towards the "proper" Pokémon.

Beraph shrugged. "He is a city Pokémon. We can't expect them to understand a mountain life like ours." Still, she was secretly relieved that Feyes had swept him right on his way the morning after. She sank her fangs sharply into a stone, letting the pleasurable snap and rebound of mineral shattering between her jaws distract from the pang of irritation which arose.

"It is something, though, isn't it? That he's off to work with the Ides, I mean," Dano amended. "Even if he's not actually signing on with them as a rescuer, he still gets to work with them first hand. How many Pokémon can honestly say they get to do that?"

"Plenty of them from Ashhaven, I'll guess," Dola grumbled, "and not a one from this scar of a rock." She turned her gaze upwards after a moment to move from Dano's face to Beraph's. "At least, until you two get out of here and get taken on. Then you can prove that there's maybe more to Gaelthorners than pebbles in their brains."

Beraph's chest swelled out of habit to match Dano doing the exact same thing. Inwardly, though, the movement contrasted with an achy tightness against the very un-proud glumness she felt. It was true that for years she and Dano had conspired endlessly to sharpen their battle skills and find a way (somehow) to become rescuers with the Ides. Beraph had started out just as fervently hopeful as Dano, but as time had gone by and they were still stuck on the valley's outskirts despite all their training, it had begun to feel increasingly like she was just going through the motions of following a pipe dream, and holding out on the faint possibility that it might someday be salvaged. True, other Pokémon did remark that they'd gotten stronger for their efforts, but other than that there hadn't been any special attention or even praise (except from Dola, who really did it more to support her brother than out of any real belief that it could be done). No Ide had been up Bramble Run for more than three years, and the two times Beraph and Dano attempted the journey west had been quickly ended as the strength of the area's hostiles had forced them back to nurse their wounds and sulk listlessly. So not only did they have no way of reaching the Ides to begin with, they were still being pushed around by Grixxi—all the years' training might very well have never happened for all the difference it was making for them.

Still, Beraph felt worse admitting the truth of the matter to herself. Despite things, she did want very much to get stronger—she did want more than everything else to be able to call herself an Ide—and in a way, the thought that she might not amount to that felt something like strangling something tighter inside of herself and killing it just a little further.

Dola was already moving on from the subject while Beraph thought. "Anyways," she said, turning back to her food, "Let's finish up here and head on to the outskirts. I remember seeing a crack earlier which might lead to a hollow spot in the mountain. We can open that up, see if there is, and turn it into a proper den for you, Beraph."

Beraph paused, the half-eaten stone already partway to her mouth. "What?"

"Oh, don't 'what' me. If I'd known you were having problems with finding a new home then we would've done it for you from the start. Dano and I are making you a new den, and that's it."

Beraph turned to narrow her eyes at the shuffling Dano. "You told her." The phrase was flat, more accusation than question.

Dano cringed. "What else could I do, Ber? It would've taken you a month of trying and half the valley dug up before you got it on your own, at the rate you were trying to learn—"

"Then it would've been my problem," Beraph interrupted. "I've already intruded enough on you and Dola by taking up your space, and I am not going to add to that by having you two do all the work, too."

Dano looked up to meet her eye to eye. "You're not a 'bother', Beraph. Dola and I chose to help you because we wanted to. Now please, just let us." He lifted a claw and carried on before she could argue. "I know it's important to you to be able to do things on your own—that's what self-sufficiency is about, and you had that covered way before I or even Dola did. But Beraph, there are just some things you can't do by yourself, and there's nothing wrong with accepting help for those."

"Of course there is! If I need to ask help for something, then clearly I didn't do what was necessary to make sure I -could- do it!"

"Will you please just try and let us—"

Dano cut off in a yelp as a heavy blue horn thrust itself against his soft underbelly, tossing him gracelessly for a couple of yards. Immediately Beraph and Dola were on their feet, claws bared, but jerked to a halt as Grixxi swept his horn over to hover threateningly above them both. A long, buzzing wait hung thick on the air between them, Grixxi's unwavering golden-eyed stare boring into the hot, shaking glowers of the two Pokémon opposite him. He rotated a spike-hinged arm with a quiet rustle of chitin, bringing up a uniclaw in a silent but clear message. There was nothing Beraph and Dola could do but to finally lower their own claws and take a step back, eyes dropping to the ground. Beraph's bruise throbbed sharper.

Grixxi's posture loosened just slightly. If it was possible, he might have been smiling under his face plating. "You know," he rasped, "you two'd do well to mind your space and set an example for the little one. He was just so careless with how he was rushing and lunging about, I guess he wasn't able to move out of my way quickly enough." His gaze darted to Beraph, sharpening knowingly for a second. Then, with a swift bow to snatch up the berry Dano had been eating, he was off and on his way further into the valley with a satisfied trail of rapid clicks.

Dano wheezed, and Beraph and Dola whirled to see him push himself gingerly up onto his elbow. Beraph cringed at the sight of a quickly spreading bruise under the red scrape Grixxi's horn had left.

"How bad, Dano?" Dola was at his side, easing him up to a careful sitting position. She ran a quick paw over his side, probing tentatively around the bruised area. "Feel anything broken?"

Dano breathlessly shook his head 'no'.

"Alright, don't speak, just nod or shake. Get your breath back. Just sore, then?"

He nodded, wincing.

"That jack***." Dola muttered a few more choice words under her breath. "Okay. Let's get you back in the burrow. We'll do what we can for that, and you just take a day off from work." Hooking his arm over her shoulder, she helped him to stand, and looked over at Beraph. "Beraph, berries—think you can go and find an Oran?"

Beraph nodded, hot with shame over her inaction in Dano's defense and unable to look his sister in the eye. "I can. There's some bushes just outside Bramble Run that should have a few by now."

"Then do that, please. We'll see you later."

The Sandshrew and Sandslash hobbled off towards the burrow, leaving Beraph standing there. She glumly nudged her half-eaten stone away—the event had taken away any appetite she'd had—and looked around to make sure Grixxi was truly gone before shuffling off west down the valley.

Gaelthorn Valley opened and widened out briefly onto a narrow but long ledge, about a mile long and overlooking Bramble Run and the surrounding terrain. This strip was mostly sand and twiggy, scraggly plants, just like the rest of the mountain, and yet some of those bushes would occasionally produce tough Oran berries to be picked for use in recovering from injuries such as Dano's. With luck, Beraph hoped, she would be in time to take one or two, if they hadn't already been plucked by some other needful Pokémon. Medicinal relativity aside, Beraph also liked to sometimes come out here and just sit and look over the evidence that there was more world than just the stuffy, tight Gaelthorn Valley. From the angle she could not see straight into Bramble Run itself—only bits and pieces at points where those steep walls turned just the right way for her to look inside—but she had a good view of the open landscape around it and most of Tembeling Forest beyond that. If she squinted and looked harder at the forest, she could partially make out the cluster of gaps close to its center marking Ashhaven and the pond at its north-eastern fringe. To Beraph, who had grown, slept, fought, toiled, and breathed a life of things dry and scratchy and rough, that forty-mile wash of shimmering green felt like both a shock and a relief—cooler than any drink of water, a whispery, urging promise of life with tranquility and purpose. And beyond even that…

She was on the wrong side of the mountain to even hope for a glimpse at Asil or Farir, leagues away, nor was she far enough north to be in sight of the lower borders of Borealis. South-west of Tembeling Forest, though, the trees thinned out and gave way to a vast, greenish-tan stretch of smooth, rolling grasslands. Somewhere that way, she'd been told, was Faramond, and—supposedly—winging back towards the east and further south from there would bring a Pokémon to Edlin's fens and shoreline territory. She liked to imagine that she could barely see the faintest distortion of the ocean's edge, but without knowing exactly how far away it was, who knew whether it was just wishful thinking?

She stopped and looked back to Gaelthorn Valley. Nothing but grit and heat and dead trees. There was nothing here that was green or soothing that wasn't a Pokémon. Inside, she felt her chest yawn with a quick panicky feeling, and she squeezed her eyes shut against it. That feeling was becoming more and more common these last few years. Even when it wasn't about to swallow her whole, it was still there as a semi-conscious itching and pricking. For all her life the Valley had given her shelter, food, company—now it felt like a cage. It felt like she was suffocating the longer she stayed here.

The thought brought the image of that green forest back to her mind. She understood—Ashhaven somehow held the answer to curing this restless frustration. Whatever the forest was like, it had to be better than the tedium, uselessness, and wariness that was her Gaelthorn life. I could find something good to do with myself, she thought, if only I could just get out of here.

She looked bitterly at Bramble Run. The last time she and Dano had started down that pass, a trio of roving Mankey had soundly throttled them both before they'd gotten an hour in. Never mind reaching Ashhaven. I can't even get any further than the start.

Beraph let out a low breath and scuffed her feet over the ground. By now she'd reached a clump of bushes which, thankfully, dipped under the weight of about a half-dozen squat blue berries. At least she could help Dano heal. She ventured a paw into the tangle of twigs, moving carefully so as not to needlessly break any. Then she heard it—a sound, something like a faint bark, some distance below.

What?

Beraph straightened and scanned the slopes. Seeing nothing out of place around her, she turned her focus instead to Bramble Run. There was one spot a little more than halfway in her direction where the ravine was shallower and allowed a small view of the trail, and it was this which she narrowed her eyes at. For a long while nothing happened, nor did any further noises come. She was about to give up and get back to the bushes when a shout finally echoed up the ravine again. The trail seemed to shift, a bit of color flickering across it that did not belong.

She blinked rapidly. Was she just imagining-?

No. Another smudge of color slipped through, brighter than the last—indigo, almost. That definitely hadn't been a shadow. A third blot passed through, and then all was still again, obscured as the pass went deeper again.

Beraph watched blankly, slow realization coming to settle on her.

Somebody was coming up Bramble Run to the Valley.

She reached into the bush and snagged two berries, ignoring the twigs which scratched harmlessly over her hide, and began to sprint back to the burrow.

"More Pokémon heading to Gaelthorn? Are you sure about this?"

"Absolutely. I heard them talking. Well, not about anything in specific, but they were definitely heading towards us."

Dola seemed skeptical as she daubed Oran juice onto Dano's side. Dano, however, seemed to have forgotten his pain in his fresh excitement.

"Do you think maybe it'll be someone from the Ides? I know it's been years, but that's got to change sooner or later, right?"

"Probably it's just more merchants," Dola grumbled, "and they'll just be passing through to Mender's Creek, whatever the case. Just so long as it's not that Nidoran again. Or worse, bandits."

Beraph also found it hard to believe that Ides might be coming up their mountain. Still, Dano was just so hopeful, the idea of voicing agreement with the cynical Dola made her feel about as guilty as if she'd just considered doing like Grixxi, kicking them out of their home and claiming it for herself. Now she wondered—why had she said anything in front of Dano to begin with? Of course Dola's guess on merchants or raiders could be correct, in which case Beraph had done right to bring back word so the other Pokemon in the valley could be on the alert. It wouldn't have been the first time Gaelthorne had had trouble with wandering ruffians looking to score some territory from an isolated gaggle of Pokemon out of the way of civilization, or even the occasional mad feral, such as the Starraptor, Grave, who had appeared around a year ago and been responsible for two Gaelthorn fatalities in his hunts. On the other hand, poor Dano had never stopped hoping to see a rescue team come up that pass, even when Beraph's enthusiasm had slackened. He was affected in some quiet and desperate way, though, each time a Pokemon showed up and turned out to be anything but a rescuer. How many more disappointments would it take before even he just gave up beyond hope of encouragement? With a mumbled excusal Beraph ducked out of the den, casting her eyes downward to avoid what was sure to be a bitter look from Dola.

Her first stop was to the valley's exit, where a halfhearted five-minute vigil did not give any consolation with even another echo from the on-comers. Turning to leave, Beraph's throat hitched and tightened as she found herself looking Grixxi eye-to-eye, some dozen or so yards away. She ducked her head and began to walk swiftly aside, praying to avoid a confrontation. Ignore me, ignore me, ignore—

"Beraph? Beraph!"

Beraph exhaled just a bit as two other Pokemon, a brown and tan striped weasel and a bulbous, segmented black Pokemon with red and white-ringed pods, situated themselves on either side of her and began to move casually back into the valley, in a way which led Beraph to fall almost herdedly into step with them. Mercifully, a quick glance back at Grixxi proved him to be ambling away to some other area away from them.

The Linoone's voice dropped to a low mutter. "Good job Cochavi and I were passing by, eh? I doubt he would've just let you go without another tussle if we'd let you go on alone." He jerked his head meaningfully over his shoulder the way they'd come before speaking relaxedly again. "So what were you doing out by Bramble Run anyways, Beraph? Not planning on grabbing Dano and running off on us again, are you?"

"N-no, Miles. Believe me, I've already learned a thing or two from the last time we tried." Beraph hesitated for a moment before explaining to Miles and Cochavi what she had seen coming back from her berry run. The three were back in the more readily populated center of the valley by the time she finished her explanation, the Linoone and Claydol quiet as they processed her words.

"Are you sure there was nothing to mark them as merchants or otherwise?" Cochavi's outer shell hummed with the hollow voice projecting itself from him. "And the three were all you saw?"

"Yes, there were three. No, I couldn't see or hear anything to identify them, or even their species. They were pretty much just moving, talking specks of color from where I was."

Miles frowned and 'hmm'ed thoughtfully. "Well, thank you for letting us know, at least. Have you told anybody else?"

"Just Dano and Dola so far. I was on my way back to spread word when you two found me."

Miles turned to address Cochavi. "Care to go on ahead of us? We'll be saving time with your telepathy letting people know."

"Of course. I'll see you both again shortly." Cochavi seemed to bob as if in affirmation before hovering away towards the other residents. Miles and Beraph watched him for a moment as he went about his task, pausing before each small group of Pokemon in what seemed to be a silent communion before said group departed to carry on the news.

"Well?"

Beraph blinked. "Well what?"

"What do you think? Could they be rogues?"

Beraph considered. "Well…it's possible, but I don't really remember other bandits sticking to the pass. With how hard the patrol's worked to hang onto that, wouldn't it just save them more time to go around and use the higher terrain around the pass? It hasn't really stopped Grave, has it? More likely it's just more traders."

Miles turned to give her a flat look. "And? That's your only guess?"

Beraph bit her lip to keep from voicing her other, tentative thought—that teeny, stubborn little voice of habit that couldn't help but want to agree with Dano. It could be the Ides.

"Come over here a moment, would you, Beraph?" With a paw on her shoulder Miles steered Beraph over to an out-of-the-way alcove, away from curious ears. He looked around a bit to confirm that they were truly alone, then looked back down at her. His voice came out blunt. "Be honest—are you still holding on to your idea of joining the Ides?"

For a moment Beraph found herself stuck for words. Because honestly, even with the failed attempts at leaving, and the years gone by with no results—hadn't she still been acting on some faint hope of that? "It might not even happen anymore," she finally managed to say. "It's been long enough that—"

"Maybe that's how you've come to see it. But Dano's still hoping, isn't he?"

Beraph sucked in a sharp little breath at the pang that Miles' interruption brought. With narrowed eyes he continued, "I'm sure he looks up to you as the stronger one. If he's stuck with the idea for this long, it's because he saw how eager you were to see it through. He thought you were going for something that you thought was possible, and because of that he found inspiration to follow along with you. It's because of you that he's been holding out this long. How much longer are you going to let him go on before he hits on the truth and is crushed?"

"I've been talking to Dola about it. She hasn't said anything about it to you before because she doesn't want to be the one to pop her little brother's bubble. But face the facts, Beraph: it's been years since you started this, and what have you got to show for it? You've both gotten a little stronger, sure, but you haven't been able to make progress through the Run, and to be frank, neither of you have really done much else to make yourselves distinguishable, never mind how easily Grixxi's still dominating you both. It just isn't healthy for Dano to be wasting any more energy than he already has holding out on this. Are you going to let him spend years withering away when that chance at joining the Ides never comes?"

Beraph's stomach knotted tighter. Silence hung heavy between them, punctuated by Miles crossing his arms and looks expectantly at her for a response, and consciousness of her heartbeat throbbing dully in her ears. It took another try before she could speak around her suddenly dry mouth. "I…I can't. Dano'd be—"

"Then you're not acting in his best interests," Miles cut in sharply. "Look—it's up to you to decide whether to leave Dano hanging or not. But if you're concerned at all for his well-being in the long run, then you'll put an end to this craziness and bring him back to his senses. Tell him he needs to stop carrying on about the Ides and start focusing on more practical things. I suggest you get your act together and do the same."

He turned suddenly and whisked away, leaving Beraph to sit in dumb, shocked silence. She swallowed hard against the hot sting of tears prickling her eyes. She'd been thinking along those lines herself for a while, yes, but…well, to hear it directly from another Pokemon, that was somehow so much sharper and brutal than any bruise she could get. Each one of Miles' words stuck and burned into her, driving home the truth of his accusations. Worse, though, was the thought of going back to the den to tell Dano to give up on trying to get out of Gaelthorn and pursue what he'd been after for years. I can't do that! she wanted to scream. I can't do that to Dano. Not after he's tried so hard to make something of it. I won't. Miles is wrong.

Is he, though? asked that tricky, seeping doubt Beraph had grown so accustomed to. It's not like I can really argue against his point about us getting nowhere with all our training. Maybe Grixxi isn't a fair standard of strength, but come on—Dano and I together couldn't even take care of three Mankey. What if I really would be doing Dano a favor by convincing him not to risk his life like that again?

Many more minutes passed as Beraph stayed in the shade of the alcove, numbly watching the other Pokemon dash and flap around. Very soon they'd be in formation for keeping vigil—flyers and stealthier Pokemon grouped about the valley exit to keep watch and report back at the first sight of the oncomers, bulkier residents hanging a ways back to act if the travelers were hostile, and young and infirm taking shelter in their caves, holes, or nests. Only once had Beraph been asked to join the defense line, and after all of a tense wait of half an hour it had turned out that the flying figure approaching the valley wasn't even Grave, as suspected; it was nothing more than one of the patrol corps doubling back after forgetting an item which had turned up forgotten in the berry bushes. Dola, with her more vicious claws and toughness, had a better chance at being called out to the defense group, whereas Beraph and Dano were far more likely to end up huddling in the den once again, silent and straining their hearing for the 'all clear'. Maybe, Beraph considered reluctantly, it really was better this way. By resigning themselves to being two of those who stayed in the holes during alert, they'd be out of the way of the more experienced Pokemon, and not have to risk their lives unnecessarily. Dano especially—Beraph hated to think about him getting crippled or killed for following after her again. And could she argue with his safety? She, at least, was tough enough to take a bit more than he could, but Miles was right at least about her not being 'tough enough' for it to count towards more than just getting through each day. Perhaps she should talk Dano into staying at home, and then she should do the same. There'd still be Grixxi to deal with, but she would find a way to deal with him, if only to endure. Then, once things were settled and she was done screwing around with a pipe dream, she'd be able to settle down and become practical and safe (safer, considering that this was Gaelthorne Valley—never a gentle climate), and…

And, ultimately, still frustrated and restless. No matter how much she tried to pad around it, Beraph knew she'd still feel strangled from staying here. She gritted her teeth and stood, stepping out into the descending dusk. One thing was for sure: she would have to talk to Dano about this, one way or another. She also knew that it was all too likely to end on a sour note. There was still Dola to consider, after all, once the news was broken to Dano.

She stumbled as her foot suddenly sank into the ground.

"What the—"

A quick glance down confirmed that she'd slipped on the slope of one of her failed digs. Snorting in irritation, Beraph yanked her foot back up and staggered awkwardly back onto solid ground, further dislodging sand and chunks of rock. This reminder of one of her most recent failures proved to be too much. All the day's feelings of shame, bitterness, and uselessness seemed to clump together into a hot, screaming clump at her center, and with a quick, harsh shriek she kicked out hatefully at the nearest of the stones. She had the fleeting satisfaction of watching the stone sail away in a long arc before disappearing somewhere around a turn in the valley, and then just as promptly felt the gloom descend again—still stirring, but quieted, somewhat. She let out a long sigh and turned to trudge back to Dano and Dola's den.

Dola was already gone by the time she returned, leaving Dano curled up and sleeping fitfully in a shallowly dug depression in the corner. He stirred, though, and opened his eyes as Beraph slid in.

"Hullo, Ber."

"Evening." She nodded. "Dola out with the defense?"

"Mm-hmm." Dano pushed himself up to sit. "Things go alright while you were out?"

"Well enough, I…guess. Nothing else happened with Grixxi, and the scouts'll be watching for movement in the Run."

Beraph had to look away from the hopeful gleam in Dano's eye as he turned to face the rough direction of the run. A long moment passed before Dano broke the silence. "We don't usually get as many people passing through here as this, do we? Usually they're all weeks or months apart, not…well, not a week, like this. But I don't think it's bandits. Ber, this could really be—"

"Dano," Beraph blurted out before she could stop herself. She hesitated at seeing him turn a confused look on her before forcing herself to admit it. "I don't…I don't think it's going to be Ides."

A few seconds passed of silence. Beraph shut her eyes and bit her lip, afraid to see what expression might be making its way onto Dano's face.

"But…nobody said for certain that it can't be. I could understand, maybe, if the guild was shut down or something, but Hemlock didn't say anything about…don't you think there's still some chance?"

Beraph groaned quietly and flopped over onto her back, soothed only a little by the small puffs of dust which flew up to settle over her limbs and face. "Honestly, Dano? I just don't know anymore." After another pause she found herself talking to fill the silence. "I mean, it's just that—well, for years, any trouble that's come up around here has only really needed the patrol to come and solve it, at worst. And with Pokemon like Hemlock coming through to bring supplies from other towns, why else would the Ides ever need to come up here?"

She sat up again and gestured in an arc behind her towards inner Gaelthorne. "I dunno, Dano. I guess I did think at first that reaching Ashhaven and joining the Ides might be the way for us to get out of here and get to someplace better, but now, I guess maybe I've gotten to where it's not so much about the Ides, so much as just…" She trailed off mid-sentence as the twisty, indignant feeling in her gut betrayed her words. "Oh, who am I kidding?" she sighed. "Of course it's joining the Ides that matter. I've wanted that for years, more than I can remember ever wanting anything else. But how are we going to do that, when we can't even get past the entrance to the pass?" Beraph dropped her head forward into her paw to rub at the tense spot just in front of her headspike. "I hate it here, Dano. I feel like I'm ready to do just about anything by now to get out of here and find my way to Ashhaven, except—except if I could do it at all. The longer I spend here, not being able to see another way out and not getting any stronger, I feel more and more like it's getting harder to breathe, or even to sit still long enough to think. And I know there are Pokemon like Miles, who think it's just useless motions and that we should give it up and eke things out here like everyone else, but how can I possibly just stay here my whole life and deal with—"

Beraph's breath jerked into her chest and then froze at an avian whistle from outside. She and Dano whipped their heads around to stare tersely outside of the den's entrance, hardly daring to move for any possible threat of danger. The call was answered some seconds later by another cry, from elsewhere in the valley, and then, slowly, the echo and murmur of voices began to grow more audible.

Beraph blinked, and frowned, puzzled. It was clear at least that the travelers had finally come into view, but the noises were lacking in the sharp, urgent yells and barks that accompanied the usual reaction to a hostile Pokemon. That would have left the option of another merchant or patrol…except the noise was too excited and rushed for that.

Dano turned slowly to look at Beraph with wide eyes. "That's…that's not…what d'you think is-?"

His question was choked off by a yelp as the den darkened, the entrance blocked by somebody thrusting themselves inside.

"You two, come out and have a look at this." Dola was panting from her evident sprint across the valley. "Just—come." She turned and sped back out of the burrow, but not without shooting Beraph a curious look of mixed perplexment and disbelief, as if to silently say You probably still won't believe this when you see it.

Beraph and Dano exchanged but a quick glance before she had his arm around her shoulders, helping him out into the open. Hastily the two shuffle-limped as fast as they could up the valley, where it was becoming obvious that other Pokemon were clustering. Beraph was surprised to see even some younglings mingled into the group. She squinted and scanned the throng in search of—yes, there was Dola, disappearing into the thick of it. And there was Cochavi, his indiscreet hovering bulk ever distinguishable above the heads of most everybody else.

"Cochavi!" He wheeled about smartly at Beraph's call. She waved an arm, beckoning him over, and with a quick few words of parting to the rest of the group he sailed up and over the others to descend in front of the two.

"Beraph, Dano. Quick of you to come." His head ratcheted to fix his sights on Dano's healing bruise. "Oh…you're wounded? When did this happen?"

"Earlier today, it's…well, it's a story." Dano rubbed his side ruefully. "Cochavi, what is going on? Why is everyone crowding around?"

For a moment, the air around Cochavi seemed to become lighter, in a way which gave Beraph the strange impression that the Clay Doll Pokemon was smiling in his own equivalent way. "Ah. For that, I think it'd be better to simply show you. Come."

With Cochavi leading them through the crowd Beraph was able to help Dano through while mostly avoiding clumsy treading or bumping from the others, though there were still a few tight brushes against somebody. Very soon they had reached the middle of the crowd, and a good view of the newcomers.

Beraph could only gasp and stare dumbfounded, too shocked to be overjoyed by or even properly process the sight.

The sleek crimson and blue bird, with his white underbelly and narrow wings, crest, and bi-pointed tail, she could recognize straight away as one of the patrol corps if only by the standard tailwind-emblazoned pouch looped around his neck. Albeit the Swellow was not anybody she knew by name or memory, so he must have come in from an adjacent sector. Beyond him, it was his two companions on whom Beraph—and the gathering of Gaelthorners—were primarily focused. The taller, seemingly little more than a fleshy, brown block with slits for eyeholes and sinuous pale-banded limbs seemed for the most part to be hanging back and observing while his partner, a bipedal orange-furred rodent with brown-striped back and legs, curling ears, and a long, thin tail tipped with a crest like a lightning bolt, was involved in most of the conversation with the Gaelthorners. However, it was not for appearance alone, or even being strangers, which was the cause of the commotion.

The Raichu's bandana had been wrapped and tucked fastidiously around his neck to drape neatly over a shoulder, whereas the Hitmonlee had settled for just knotting his own around his upper arm. Both scarves, however, were identical, colored the same sky blue and bearing the same green zigzag border along the edges.

Garb of the like might not have been seen in the valley for years, but even for younger Pokemon like Beraph, there was no mistaking the meaning of such a thing, not after such strong stories had managed to trickle their way up into even isolated Gaelthorn Valley.

This was the mark of the Rescuer. For whatever reasons, the Tembeling Ides had made an appearance for the first time in over a decade.

Beraph felt a nudge at her elbow, and turned to see Dola looking at her with a face that surely must have been at least as dumbfounded as Beraph felt.

"Alright," Dola muttered after a moment, "I guess I was wrong. You get full rights to rub it in and say 'I told you so'."

TBC. . .