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EVERYONE: Village Pokémon

Village Pokémon
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Somewhere, far beyond shifting forests and meadows of long-blooming flowers, there is a village of Pokémon that hides away from strange creatures called 'humans'. A local Espurr and her friends go out to gather needed supplies from the world outside, and in the process, set events into motion which forever change their haven.
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Hey everybody, it’s been a long, long while, but I’m back with some fresh writing that isn’t an expansion to a pre-existing story, namely a story that once upon a time was my submission to PMD Writers’ Union Discord’s Spring 2023 writing contest where I did something completely different from my other PMD fics. Once upon a time, this was going to be a one-shot built around some combination of a trio of prompts of ‘A Setting Sun’, ‘Shadows’, and ‘Overcoming Great Odds’. Obviously, that didn’t exactly pan out, and in grand @Spiteful Murkrow tradition, the story came back the better part of a year and half a NaNoWriMo later as a multi-part short story.

As one of those stories that’s a sideshow to a sideshow I’ve got going on from my primary work as a writer, I can’t exactly give any promises regarding the update schedule for this story beyond “whenever I have the time and energy to spare from other projects for it and feel like posting something”, though I will be aiming to get out the first two updates during Thousand Roads' ongoing Review Blitz. In present planning, the story was built around having six parts, with five already existing in some stage of rough drafting. There could very well be more at some point down the road given that the premise of the original run wouldn’t exactly be hard to expand, but there will be at least six updates before I decide that I’m done with this story.

Special thanks goes to Random_Games87 from AO3 , who beta read the chapters of this story prior to release, and to the proud Discord users of PMD Writers’ Union, PMD: Writers United, and a couple other Discord servers I’m probably forgetting at the moment who helped fill in some little details here and there that I was stuck on during development.

Though that’s enough boilerplate from me. So let’s jump right into a world of Pokémon, if in a part of it that’s a bit more hidden away than normal from prying eyes:
 
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Part 1 - The Haven


Part 1 - The Haven



It was the same nightmare again. The hands grabbing at her, the harsh lights glaring down from above as the needles pricked and jabbed at her body. The way she’d hear the voice in her lungs and the voice in her mind both scream out and beg her tormentors to stop, only for both to go ignored.

“Tigri?”

The images in her mind’s eye went dark and light started to seep past Tigri’s eyelids. She opened them as sunlight began to fill in from the mouth of the den and illuminate her surroundings: the earthen walls, the small pile of dried berries in the corner, and the small resin and metal containers which they used for safekeeping that she and her brother found washed up along the river.

Tigri sat up in her bedding and looked down. Her legs were both there, along with her gray pelt, and past them was a pile of dried straw and reeds. The strip of sullied cloth that she’d loop around her wrist to show she didn’t belong to the wilds outside town was lying just beside it., Further off next to the den’s wall, there was a trio of bottlecaps—the first pieces of salvage that she’d found since escaping the place with the harsh lights.

“Tigri?”

Tigri turned her head towards the den’s mouth as an approaching shadow blocked the morning sunlight coming through: another Espurr. His mouth was firmly closed, but she’d heard his mind’s voice in her own as clear as day. That was Stig, her brother, or at least she called him that since he was the closest thing she had to one. The two of them had fled together from the place with the harsh lights a couple of years ago and kept going around in search of refuge until they’d made it here to Abri. Something about ‘Tigri’ and ‘Stig’ still sounded strange to her, but apparently most Pokémon here took names based on the sounds that came naturally to their speaker’s tongues, and they’d done much the same to fit in.

It was just as well since Tigri wasn’t sure whether or not she or Stig had names back in the place with the harsh lights. Let alone whether or not they’d sound any better than the ones they’d chosen.

Stig’s eyes and mouth remained locked in place, as was common for their kind. A number of the other villagers told her in the past that they found it a bit strange and eerie, but it’d never bothered her since their faces always felt overly expressive. Like they just had some instinctual compulsion to let the whole world know their feelings.

A part of her was thankful that Espurr weren’t like that. She could only imagine how awkward it’d have been if all their neighbors further along the path that ran by their den could tell when she’d been having nightmares.

“Are you okay, Tigri?”

Stig spoke with the voice in his mind again, the voice that they and others of their kind could better control who overheard it. There was a pang of concern to it as he came deeper into the den and looked over at her. Tigri locked eyes with him briefly, before she sighed and got up, answering him with the voice in her lungs.

“I’ll be fine, Stig,” she insisted. “It was just one of those nightmares again.”

Stig stared at her briefly before taking a cloth band off the ground in front of his bedding and slipping it over one of his arms. He continued and stepped out into the light outside, before waving back at her to follow.

“If you say so,” he said, faintly moving the corners of his mouth. “Though we should get going. The jobs on the bulletin board tend to go quickly in the morning and Rouge is probably already waiting for us.”

… Right, they would be working outside the village today. And the sooner they got to it, the better.

Tigri snatched her own cloth from beside her bedding and slipped it over her right arm. She noted to herself that she ought to wash it sometime soon to get the dirt that’d caked onto it out, but she supposed she had bigger priorities at the moment.

Tigri stopped to let her eyes adjust to the morning light after stepping out of her and her brother’s den. Whenever she’d look back at it, she’d see the trees of the forest off in the distance, almost as if they were living in the wilds.

But then she saw the other dens and nests neatly lined up along the clear dirt path under the shade of tall branches overhead, to hide them from view from above. In front of them, there’d occasionally be a small container set out such a box or a basket, to hold messages that the others called ‘mail’ which would occasionally be left for them. And further still down the path, there’d already be a glimpse of simple huts and trails of smoke coming up from them.

The main square of Abri, the little haven where Tigri and Stig lived, and where the bulletin board with the morning jobs was.



Even with it just a few minutes north by walking from her den, Tigri wasn’t sure if she’d ever get used to entering the center of Abri from the village’s outer parts. It was a collection of simple huts and shelters fashioned from tree branches and leaves which were laid out in a village square. As the place where almost all of the Abri’s shops and amenities were located, it was the beating heart of the village, and the main place for its residents to gather together:

For special occasions, for important announcements, or merely just to wile away time in each other’s company.

The walk into the square always went by in the same order coming up the lane from her den. First was the enclosure of split logs-turned-counters where the local family of Kecleon ran their ‘General Store’. Their son—‘Achille’, named after someone from their old life that his parents had taken a liking to—was setting out the day’s wares of berries and odds and ends that they’d turned up from beyond the forest surrounding Abri. On the other side of the path from the General Store was the local ‘Bank’ that had been fashioned from a stony den with a simple hut built over its entrance, which Mache the Gabite jealously guarded. Achille’s family apparently got the idea to help her set it up after the Dragon-type stumbled across a hoard of human coins in the Mazewoods. It had taken some explaining for the villagers who were around at the time to wrap their heads around the idea, but the Kecleon explained that using the coins as an intermediary for trades as something called ‘money’ would dramatically reduce the amount of haggling over whether such-and-such berry or pebble was a fair trade for each other...

Tigri wasn’t sure whether or not that was a good thing. Some of the locals who had been around long enough to live through the introduction of money into Abri swore that there had been more arguments among the villagers ever since they started using it. There was also that part of her that wasn’t sure if she felt comfortable about the idea of the Pokémon here using a human practice so casually. Especially when Abri had been founded as a refuge for Pokémon that either didn’t want to or couldn’t live in the wilds to hide away from them.

Next up was the square’s center, along with the round, sunken pit in the middle that was ringed by rising sets of barriers that formed crude seats with a slightly elevated stone on its right side—Abri’s battlefield. A place for locals to spar whenever Lind the Chesnaught was there to run his ‘dojo’ out of it, and when less combatively-minded Pokémon were gathered nearby, a public forum to make public announcements. Elder Gide or Ticho, Abri’s Aegislash leader and his Farfetch’d assistant who also helped manage the bulletin board, usually did the honors. The two were there that day and seemed to be waiting on Lind to show up, as they talked about something involving the berry harvests that sounded a bit worrisome from their tone of voice.

Tigri decided she would be happier not knowing what was going on, and walked along the battlefield’s rim. Watching over them from posts raised at regular intervals along it were the wooden carvings of Abri’s Founders. The Pokémon who’d founded the village, so long ago that nobody in it could agree what the names they gave themselves were and remembered them by epithets like ‘Lucario the Wanderer’ or ‘Weavile the Runegiver’.

Varen’s Storage Shop came next, where the Diggersby proprietor kept a watchful eye over the belongings of residents who’d run out of space to store them, including the residents who hoarded food for the winter. Tigri had always wondered how secure those belongings were at Varen’s when rickety walls aside, the part of the shop aboveground had been built in almost the same style as the unwalled pavilions that most of the other shops and buildings in the town square had. She supposed it must’ve done something, at least, since Varen apparently did a good enough job at keeping her customers’ belongings in one place to make a business of it. Couaf and Farel were in front of her shop today, old friends who had led her and Stig through the Mazewoods back when they were still on a Team like her own. Elder Gide had tasked them to be Deputies for Sheriff Ron earlier in the year, though something about them seemed unusually on-edge that day.

“I can’t believe Ron, how on earth does he just sleep through a human roaming through the meadow?” Couaf fumed. “If I hadn’t found the trail that human left behind, we’d never have known about it!”

Tigri stiffened up and bristled at the pair’s chatter. She’d heard stories of how humans had been heroes or saviors for other Pokémon, but that wasn’t the case here in Abri. Being discovered by humans was a source of perpetual dread for the villagers, and everyone had an unpleasant story of their own involving them or else knew someone else who did.

Stories of fleeing from horrid places like the one she and Stig had. Of being abruptly snatched away without mercy or pity and crammed into cages. Of suffering through just about every conceivable torment because of a human or one of their partners.

“I told Elder Gide that we needed Pokémon who could stay alert for guard duty,” Farel sighed. “At least the trail didn’t go into the forest outside town, so Patron and his pack’s Illusions must’ve done their job keeping the Barrier secure.”

Tigri glanced up at the shading branches overhead. Their cover from the sky above was a welcome reassurance that they were currently hidden, even if she wasn’t sure how reassuring it was to know that it was because of Patron and his pack that they hadn’t been discovered yesterday.

Word around town was that he and Elder Gide had been getting into increasingly bitter arguments about food lately. Based on the chatter he and Ticho had regarding the berry harvest, Tigri supposed that it wouldn’t be long before he made an unwelcome appearance in town.

“Heeeey!”

Tigri turned her eyes up towards a chirping voice that rang out through the air. There, up ahead, was Carat the Shuckle’s juice bar with stump stools set out in front of a split log counter, and more importantly, their destination just past it: Brais the Fletchinder’s ‘Post Office’. It was a place where Pokémon passed messages left on stones or chips of wood to one another, sometimes with a bit of help from Brais if they couldn’t read or write well in the village’s runes. The Fletchinder was on duty that day behind a low-slung counter in an open-walled pavilion, looking up with a chunk of bark in her beak. And off to her side, waving his wings excitedly, was Rouge. Brais’ Fletchling child and their teammate who served as their spotter on Team Aspirant.

The Fletchling swooped forward and settled on the ground, ruffling his feathers as Tigri and her brother walked up.

“I was starting to wonder when you’d come!” the Fire-type chirped.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Rouge,” Stig said. “Are there still missions left on the bulletin board right now?”

“Yeah! Yeah! There’s still plenty!” the Fletchling insisted. “Except… I’m not sure if there’s many left that you can reach.”

A flash of unease pulsed through Tigri’s mind before she turned towards a wooden board on the other side of the with pegs driven into it. There, a Rhyhorn and a Greninja pulled a wood chip hanging from one of the topmost pegs before making their way off—Orne and Nobi from Team Rapid. The wooden chips that the missions were listed on were always ordered with the hardest and most dangerous ones put on the top with the easiest ones were sorted towards the bottom since the stronger villagers would usually be tall enough to reach such heights on their own.

Except… it looked like most of the bottom half of the mission board had already been picked clean.

“... We have ways of getting things from higher up if we have to,” Tigri insisted. “Let’s see what’s left for us to choose from right now.”

Tigri shuffled along with her companions for the bulletin board and… nothing. Not a single footprint or slash-shaped rune to be seen beyond a faded ‘Ori was here’ in the wood from the time the local Smeargle artist had vandalized it after binging on overripe berries. Tigri turned her head down, her face and eyes remaining unmoving as the voice in her mind hissed in frustration.

Ugh. Of course.

Don’t get down so fast, Tigri,” Stig’s own mind-voice answered in her head. “Looks like there’s still one of the easier missions left.

Tigri glanced up, just in time to see Stig hold out his arm and focused on a blank chip near the bottom right of the board. He twitched his ears as a faint pink aura settled around the wood chip and an unseen force tugged it from the board. He dispelled his mind’s grip on the chip and let it fall to the ground, where much to Tigri’s surprise, there were neat rows of small gouges carved into it. Tigri didn’t recognize all of them, but they were clearly village runes. Supposedly, they looked like that thanks to being based on scratches that Weavile the Runegiver used and taught Abri’s first villagers to read long, long ago, mixed with footprints to represent their creators and the jobs they did. Kind of like how the Kecleon footprint by the spot for the requester on this one could be taken to mean ‘Kecleon’ or ‘merchant’.

There were a few possibilities as to who had left it in particular, though the small group of runes above it left no room for confusion:

“Looks like Achille needs someone to help gather stock for him to sell from the river in Longbloom Meadow,” Rouge said. “The salvage that washes up there can get a bit bulky, but there should still be stuff that will fit our sled which we can take back.”

Tigri paused. It would’ve been a straightforward mission. One that they’d normally be able to complete quickly enough to be paid before going to sleep that night, and one that they’d done before, except…

“Are we sure that this is a good idea?” she asked. “The Furfrou Brothers were saying that they’d spotted signs that a human went through the meadow recently. Maybe there’s a reason why nobody’s taken this mission yet.”

Rouge stiffened up and squirmed uneasily. He must not have overheard Couaf and Farel earlier given his sudden lack of enthusiasm. Stig for his part didn’t look particularly fazed, as her fellow Espurr shook his head with a dismissive harrumph.

“Look, we’re all small and it’s fairly easy to hide among the flowers if we have to,” the male Espurr insisted. “Besides, Couaf and Farel have always been paranoid types. Who’s to say that they didn’t mix up those tracks with some from ones from the Wild Pokémon that go through the meadow?”

“Aegislash!”

Tigri’s ears flared as yelps and startled cries in the square rang out behind her. There, appearing in a flash of magenta from the northward path into it, were a trio of Zoroark: a younger-looking male and female who flanked an older male with mussed fur and a set of scars on his right arm.

“Oh great, Patron’s here,” Rouge muttered. “So much for it being a pleasant day today.”

Right. Unlike the inhabitants of Abri, the Pokémon of Patron’s pack and many of the Wilds that lived nearby took names based on their feats or accomplishments in life. Tigri guessed that such names must not have sounded as on-the-nose to them as they did to her and her fellow villagers. The younger Zoroark at Patron’s side growled at passersby and cowed them out of the way as the elder Zoroark sauntered forward, heading straight for Elder Gide. The Aegislash looked up as Patron stopped with a glaring crouch before the Steel-type narrowed his own eye with a low, metallic-sounding sigh.

“What do you want, Patron?”

Our tribute. You villagers are supposed to have those berries for my pack every moon,” the elder Zoroark spat. “Do you honestly expect us to be able to maintain those Illusions which keep your village hidden when our kits are whining for lack of food and their elders’ bellies go empty?”

Patron and his pack had always been a bit baffling to Tigri. Apparently, they were one of the groups of Wilds that the town had struck an alliance with, which had happened some years before her and Stig’s arrival.

Word among the villagers was that they’d lost a battle for territory in the Mazewoods before being forced to find shelter beyond it. Whatever the story, they helped keep the town’s entrance to the meadow outside the Mazewoods hidden through a ring of Illusions to disorient outside intruders and allowed the village’s carnivores to scavenge wherever they lived. In return, every month, Abri and its inhabitants would surrender a share of the berries and plants they gathered and grew in tended patches.

One would think that such an alliance ought to have kept both sides as close and friendly to each other, and yet, for as long as they had been around, Patron and the others in his pack never bothered to hide the fact that they looked down on the Pokémon that lived in Abri. Some of the older Pokémon who lived in Abri said that their alliance with the town only began in the first place after there had been a fight between them that ended with members of his pack taken prisoner followed by a treaty of friendship made afterwards to settle things down.

Tigri didn’t know how true those stories were, but it’d certainly explain a few things if they were. Whenever the harvests were leaner, Patron would simply threaten that his pack would stop hiding the village. A state of affairs that nobody in the village could tolerate for long, and one way or another, it would eventually fall to the villagers to grin and bear any shortfall until the next month.

She assumed that that was what he was up to now, and Elder Gide’s reaction all but confirmed it.

“Patron, the berries have been slow to ripen this year,” the Aegislash huffed. “I understand that you and your pack are in a precarious situation, but everyone else here is, too. There are some things that can’t be rushed and you know it.”

“Well, that’s your problem and not ours, now isn’t it?”

The male Zoroark flanking Patron trained his gaze on a Skiddo in the crowd, who stiffened up with a sharp yelp. Tigri briefly felt feathers rustle against her fur and looked up to see Patron’s other lackey shooting a predatory gaze over at Rouge, who squirmed and ducked behind Stig.

… Tigri knew that Patron and his packmates were hunters, but with that smirk on his face, he wasn’t seriously threatening that they’d…?

“We’ve been having some bad luck ourselves lately. As I’m sure you already know, our current territory doesn’t exactly have rich hunting grounds,” the Zoroark reminded. “If you’re not going to help keep us fed, perhaps some of my packmates will just go ahead and start making up the difference with some of your village’s empty mouths-”

Elder Gide shot forward and slammed his shield into Patron’s face with a sharp, flinch-worthy smack. The leader Zoroark flew off his feet and hit the ground with a thud. He righted himself and flashed his teeth with a low growl when there was a metallic glint and the sound of swishing air. It took a little bit for Tigri to see it, but as the dust settled, she saw the Aegislash had grasped his shield with one of his tassel arms and leveled the point of his bladed body at Patron’s throat. The younger Zoroark snarled and flashed their claws at Gide, only for the female to summarily crumple to the ground from a spray of pin-like projectiles sailing in. The male underling sprang back in surprise, and Tigri whirled her head over in the direction of the Pin Missile to see Lind the Chestnaught glaring off from the side. The male underling had a brief flash of alarm cross his face and began to move his paws as the surrounding air started to distort, only for the Dark-type to abruptly stop with a squeaking yelp.

It was Team Rapid’s Greninja, who had snuck up behind the Zoroark and cornered him with a watery blade leveled at his throat. The female Zoroark stumbled up, but after glancing around the square, her fighting spirit swiftly ebbed away. It wasn’t hard to see why: all around the square, the villagers had closed ranks and ringed the three Wilds with growls of their own, while others were hurrying in from further off ready for battle.

From the ground, Patron remained fiercely defiant, as Gide glared back down with a look that looked as if it could pierce the pack leader’s very pelt.

“Don’t ever make a threat like that again to my villagers, do you hear me?” the Aegislash growled. “If you’re really so confident that our present arrangement means that you can deal with us as you please, we’ll drive your pack back to the Mazewoods so you all can try your luck holding territory there again. Tonight.

Patron visibly wavered, and even though she couldn’t make sense of their thoughts and feelings as she could with most other Pokémon, Tigri could see as clear as day that the threat had visibly spooked his underlings. There was a brief pause as she heard the male of the pair squeaking something along the lines of “w-we weren’t actually going hunt anyone” from behind Nobi’s watery blade.

Elder Gide wavered for a moment and let Patron go. The Zoroark shot up and dusted himself off, with his female underling scurrying over, as Team Rapid roughly shoving the male back to his side.

He turned away, before sullenly growling to his packmates.

“Ombre, Chasseur. We’re going.”

The three turned and slunk off for the northern path as the villagers parted ways, a few of them throwing in jeers from a safe distance as the Zoroark passed. The elder Zoroark hesitated briefly as the other Zoroark scurried off with their ears pinned tight against their heads and looked back at Elder Gide with a sharp glare.

“This isn’t over, Aegislash. Not by a long shot.”

There was a moment of tense silence as Patron followed and moved his arms. The air shimmered afterwards and the three abruptly vanished in a flash of magenta light. An uneasy silence followed as the villagers began to disperse and the village square began to return to normal, or something approaching it anyways.

Even so, worried murmurs about the whole episode still floated here and there through the air, and the more Tigri thought about it, the more she was starting to have doubts about taking the mission they’d found.


“... Maybe it’d be for the best to stay home today,” she murmured. “Between the human sighting and Patron going and making threats like that…”

“Hrmph, that sounds more like an argument to keep going,” Stig retorted.

“Yeah! Imagine giving a bully like that the satisfaction of pushing us around!” Rouge piped.

Tigri hesitated and looked off towards the northern end of the town, to the route they would need to take for their mission as her thoughts drifted back to her past before coming to Abri. Team Aspirant wasn’t exactly a strong team, and if trouble came, surely one like Team Rapid would fare better against any dangers they came across.

Tigri snapped to attention as her stomach growled. She looked down at her body, and then over at Stig and Rouge. The three of them looked lean and like they hadn’t been eating much lately, and based off the exchange just then, it was likely that the food in the village was about to get tighter still.

The Espurr hesitated. She still wasn’t sure this was a good idea, but in light of their present troubles, did it really make sense to just keep hiding away?

“Come on, let’s go and get our sled from Varen’s shop,” she insisted. “If there’s going to be trouble coming, we might as well stock up before food becomes too tight.”



Varen kept the items that she stored in her Storage Shop in a warren of tunnels that the Diggersby had dug to provide the space that she’d use to hold onto things that were beyond the space of local villagers’ nests and dens to store. Some of it was clutter like a portion of Mache’s collection of glass beads or the scavenged rugs that Achille and his parents kept for whenever one of them went off to ply their trade deep in the Mazewoods. Others were taken up by tools that local Teams like theirs kept for missions where their bodies or their abilities alone wouldn’t suffice, including the sled which Tigri and her teammates had built for salvage-gathering missions like the one they’d accepted.

They’d cobbled it together from a dish of green resin and a pair of cords they’d pulled from the river. The sled was easy enough to pull over smooth surfaces like layers of snow, but the way it scraped against the dirt and pebbles along the path to Longbloom Meadow always grated Tigri’s ears.

CHUNK!

Tigri briefly lost her focus as the weight against her mind dropped and the cord she’d been telekinetically pulling at fell in the dirt. Off to the side, Stig came to a stop as the cord he was levitating visibly sagged. She looked back at the sled, where she saw that its resin had glanced off an exposed root in the dirt and turned it at an angle. Her brother let go of his own cord, before rubbing a paw at the back of his head sheepishly.

“Sorry, I didn’t notice that root there, Tigri,” he said. “Though at least it doesn’t look that hard to get around. Help me lift the sled a little bit off the ground and it should be easy enough to clear.”

Tigri sighed and breathed in as she focused her thoughts on the sled itself. There was a pulsing feeling in her head as the resin dish rose from the ground little by little. After getting it high enough to pass the root, she pulled it towards herself along with Stig, when a sharp chirp filled the air.

“Hah! Did you see the looks on those Zoroark’s faces! It was priceless!”

Tigri lost her focusand the sled fell against the root with an audible tonk before sliding forward. She briefly saw Stig darting aside, and sprang back herself before the sled could run into her.

She turned her head upwards, where Rouge was there twittering from a branch above them with his chest feathers proudly out and sighed. She’d been starting to get used to Rouge’s habit of running his beak off, but even after almost a year together on Team Aspirant, he still had a way of breaking her concentration at the most inconvenient times.

“Rouge. Stig and I need to be able to focus while we’re pulling the sled,” she sighed. “Also, we’re about to go through the fringes where Patron and his pack maintain the Illusions around Abri. Maybe keep the laughter to yourself until after we’ve made it through the Barrier, hm?”

Her words came out a bit snappier than she'd intended, and from Rouge’s chastened reaction from above, he must’ve noticed himself. The Fletchling ruffled his feathers uncomfortably before Tigri’s ears pricked from Stig stepping forward as look up at the Fletchling himself.

“Not that the moment wasn’t pretty funny, but probably shouldn’t rub it in too hard, Rouge. I doubt whoever’s watching over the path today would pick a fight over it, but it wouldn’t be the first time someone from Patron’s pack gave a village they were upset with the run-around,” Stig said. “Besides. Based on our surroundings, it looks like we’re going to need you to stay closer to the ground as our lookout.”

Rouge tilted his head, before fluttering down to the ground. He came to a hopping stop and turned aside with an uneasy twitter.

“... Right,” the Fletchling said. “I suppose it would be pretty embarrassing to get separated from each other from less than a couple of wingspans away.”

Tigri and Stig returned back to the cords of their sled as the Fletchling carried on down the path. It was best not to fall too far behind along this point of the path since the Barrier was kept up by active effort, and as such its Illusions were prone to shifting or opening and closing behind Pokémon that traveled through it.

She and her brother pressed on, levitating the pull-cords and tugging them with their mind’s strength as they followed after Rouge. It was usually hard to notice the edge of the Barrier while approaching it, since Patron and his packmates typically made its Illusions quite convincing. All the better to confuse and disorient unwanted intruders attempting to pass through, and the reason why Rouge carried out his role as Team Aspirant’s lookout from the ground whenever they approached this stretch. The Fletchling carried on as he normally did when they came here, walking ahead with an occasional hop forward as he’d go over to pebbles laid out along the edges in a zigzagging pattern on opposite sides of the path and periodically breath out a couple embers along the route’s edge.

Everything went as they always did, except after a little ways down the path, Rouge spat up a few exploratory embers again, which was suddenly followed by a sharp pop.

“A-Ah!”

Tigri abruptly dropped the cord as Rouge flitted back back with a start. She ran over with her brother, building pinkish light in front of her forehead as she caught up with the Fletchling. When she reached Rouge’s side, she stared briefly and let the light in front of her head dissipate as she saw the culprit for the pop among the brush: a burst lump of charred resin wrap resting amidst a small mound of broken glass and resin fragments.

Stig caught up along with them with a panting huff and looked at the mound beside the path himself. His mouth curled down with a frown, before he started retracing his steps back to the sled with a quiet harrumph.

“Boy, someone’s going to get an earful over that,” he said. “I thought that Elder Gide told everyone not to just dump unwanted salvage out on the fringes like this.”

Tigri shot an askew glance at the mound of ruined salvage before returning to her pull-cord and continuing to tug the sled along. What on earth had happened to compel one of the villagers to leave behind such a mess? Salvage like the sort they gathered from the riverbank in Longbloom Meadow was usually treasured since it wasn’t possible to make it in Abri. Such items typically were only discarded when they were completely ruined or soiled beyond any other possible uses, which she supposed everything in the pile was.

Even so, she could’ve sworn that spent salvage like this was normally buried or burned. She knew that the older Pokémon in the village said that it used to be much rarer for salvage to wash up along the river when they were young, but had the Pokémon in Abri really gathered so much that they were having trouble dealing with what they weren’t able to use anymore?

“Ah! I think that’s the Barrier just up ahead!”

Tigri raised her eyes and slowed to a stop alongside Stig as she noticed that the sunlight coming down ahead of them seemed a bit strange: the shadows on the trees up ahead weren’t lining up with where they ought to have been at this time in the morning. Rouge batted his wings in the center of the path and spat up a spray of cinders. They sailed through the air on the path’s edge, as holes of magenta-colored light opened up, with rays of sunlight visible through them.

It was as good a sign as any that they’d found the edge of the Barrier—the wall of Illusions that ringed Abri to hide it from the outside world.

“Looks like Patron and his pack cast their Illusions closer to the village than normal this time,” Stig said. “I suppose that’s one way to tell they were annoyed by what happened in the square…”

Tigri turned her head over to Stig and gave a worried tilt of her head.

“Are we sure that it’s safe to go ahead?” she asked. “Patron sounded a bit more upset than he normally is when he’s annoyed about tribute, and if they’re messing with the Illusions themselves…”

“Nah, you know how he and the others in his pack are. Always quick to make threats until Elder Gide or one of the tougher villagers stands up to them,” Stig insisted. “Besides, I can still see the guiding stones along the path. It shouldn’t take more than a small peck from Rouge for him to make sure they’re real as we go along.”

Rouge batted a wing back in reply before going over to the nearest stone along the path and pecking at it. It visibly budged and rocked, a clear sign that it wasn’t part of the Illusion.

So far, so good. Tigri and Stig paced forward, taking their time to allow Rouge to make his checks as they made their way deeper and deeper into the wall of Illusions.



Tigri turned her head back after seeing what was probably the dozenth rock along the path and saw that the way back to Abri suddenly curled back at a sharp right turn. She supposed that the Pokémon keeping up the Illusion today weren’t going to make turning around easy. Though at least didn’t seem to be interfering with their trek out of the village…

Are you sure you’re okay, Tigri?

Tigri fidged her ears as the voice from Stig’s mind filled her own. She turned over towards him as they carried along down the path, and saw he had already been looking at her. The entire time, he dutifully kept his mouth clamped shut as Rouge continued scouting the route up ahead.

You just have seemed a bit wound up from that nightmare this morning. Maybe it’s just me worrying as a brother, but-

Stig, I’m fine,” Tigri huffed back with her mind’s voice. “It’s just gathering salvage, it’s not as if we’re going out into the Mazewoods like the tough teams.

She drifted in her thoughts as the scratching of the sled against the dirt and pebbles lingered in the air. Even if the Furfrou Brothers’ chatter about the human sighting had been a bit worrisome to hear, their mission was much the same as others that they’d accepted in the past.

So then why did she have this gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction? It wasn’t just worries over whether or not things were really safe, no… it was something beyond that.

She thought it over, before speaking with her mind’s voice in reply.

I… just wonder if we’re really making a difference sometimes, Stig. We haven’t ever taken a mission further out than Longbloom Meadow and sometimes it feels like all we have to show for it is getting ourselves a bit more food in the seasons when we don’t need it the most.

I mean, that’s why half the Teams in Abri do those jobs Ticho puts up, right?” Stig replied. “Though I thought you said that you wanted Team Aspirant to help Pokémon that had been hurt by humans like us.

Tigri stopped and let her pull-cord fall to the ground, and turned to see Stig doing much the same. He let go of the cord and set a paw on her shoulder, this time moving his mouth to speak.

“Part of that is also being there to help them with the little things, Tigri. Even if they don’t always seem to make an obvious difference.”

Tigri fell quiet and looked aside. She knew in her mind that Stig wasn’t wrong, but…

“Guys! Guys! I think that I found the end of the illusions!”

She snapped to attention and looked further down the path where Rouge was waving a wing for attention. She must not have been paying attention, since from Rouge’s distance, it would’ve been easy for a sufficiently devious Illusionist to get them lost from each other. She turned her mind back to the pull-cord of the sled, and made her way along with Stig. Three guidestones in, and the sunlight began to filter in through the treetops in the way they ought it was supposed to, when she noticed it:

The sweet smell of flowers in bloom hanging in the air. A sign as clear as day that they’d almost there at Longbloom Meadow.
 
Part 2 - The Meadow


Part 2 - The Meadow



Tigri’s mind drifted as she and her teammates exited the Barrier, and idly watched as the sunlight and shadows resumed their normal appearances and the surrounding trees thinned out into the grassy bluffs outside the forest. Nobody really knew why it was so, but the flowers of Longbloom Meadow very much lived up to the name the villagers had given the place. They were always early to flower, sometimes before the winter snow had even fully melted, and late to wilt, often well after most of the trees had lost their leaves in the fall.

There were many conflicting tales about why the flowers in and around Longbloom Meadow were so different. Some said it was due to a quirk of the local weather, while other villagers insisted that it had something to do with the way the flowers were first seeded. Other explanations Tigri had heard were on the more fantastical side: that the flowers bloomed the way that they did because of the blessing of a god’s visit in the distant past. Or that it was the work of such a Pokémon who took pity on Abri’s residents from afar after they had been forced to flee from the site of an earlier haven untold years ago. Sometime before Elder Gide with all his years as a Ghost-type had even hatched.

Whatever the story behind the meadow’s blooms was, the effect was unmistakable, and every time Tigri and her teammates stepped out from the forest and into the grassy knolls just outside, it was impossible to miss

A sea of yellow flowers, filling the lowlands between the river to the west and the Mazewoods to the east. Tigri watched as the blooms swayed in the wind, and although muddy from her nearsightedness, she could see the rise of the plateau to the north which bounded Longbloom Meadow from the north. The place from which the river they were headed for came cascading down along a set of falls.

And every time she saw it, it filled her with that same sense of awe as the first time she saw it coming out of the Mazewoods with the Furfrou Brothers.

“Heh, It never gets old seeing the meadow like this, does it?” Stig asked.

Except, despite its appearance, Longbloom Meadow was still a place where Pokémon from Abri had to be careful. Wilds came through the place both from the Mazewoods and from the northern plateau, with changelings and Illusionists sometimes catching even experienced teams off-guard.

And sometimes, still greater threats drifted in from afar. Which if the Furfrou Brothers were to be believed, there had been one of that sort which had come through just days ago.

“Just be careful, you two,” Tigri insisted. “I know that the meadow’s considered relatively safe and that Pokémon like Sheriff Ron watch over it, but the Furfrou Brothers did say they saw signs that a human passed through here.”

“It’ll be fine, Tigri!” Rouge insisted. “With my wings, as long as I’m up high enough, I could see any human coming from halfway across Longbloom Meadow!”

Tigri hesitated briefly, before casting a glance back at their empty sled. It obviously wasn’t going to fill itself with salvage from the river, but she couldn’t help but feel a nagging sense of doubt about them being here. Elder Gide and Ticho didn’t say anything about it not being safe to continue doing missions outside Abri, but she couldn’t help but wonder if they’d have been better off trying to do odd jobs in the village until more time had passed, even if it wouldn’t have given as generous of a reward.

She paused and brought a paw to her chin. It was the job of Sheriff Ron and his Officers like the Furfrou Brothers to help watch over teams like them in the safer places outside of Abri like Longbloom Meadow, and they weren’t exactly bad at their jobs. Who knew? Maybe the Furfrou Brothers would even help them in person today. While they hadn’t run into each other much since they stopped working as a Team and started duties as Officers watching over Abri’s periphery, it wasn’t as if they’d stopped being helpful to them since they first led her and Stig to the village.

Tigri shook her head, as the more she thought about it, the more the decision seemed to make itself for her.

“Alright then, just be careful,” she said. “Maybe I’m worrying about nothing, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”



Before Tigri knew it, she and the rest of Team Aspirant were in the thick of Longbloom Meadow’s flowers, coming up the edge of the plateau that hemmed it in from the north. Allegedly, Patron and his pack made their dens somewhere up on the plateau, but the climb up and down was arduous enough that it wouldn’t have surprised Tigri if it was all just a story, even if she wasn’t sure where else they’d all live.

She opted not to think too hard about it and focus on finding her way forward. The sooner they got to the path, the better. While Longbloom Meadow’s flowers were nice to behold from afar, their height quickly made navigation disorienting for Pokémon who weren’t tall enough to see above them. That left going by the few landmarks which rose above the flowers like the occasional tall shrub or rise, and relying on scents and sounds to fill in the gaps for guessing how far one was to the different ends of the meadow. Or to help find stashes of salvage that had been gathered from the river, but were too heavy or bulky to take back to Abri all at once.

Every now and then, Tigri would stop along with Stig to test their senses as Rouge went on to scout ahead of them from the air. Tigri wasn’t too worried about the local Wilds. She and her teammates had brought their bands to show they were from Abri and the Wilds who came through Longbloom Meadow usually respected them. Or at least enough not to hunt villagers. The Wilds that came from the Mazewoods were always a bit more iffy since the village hadn’t fully made peace with all the Pokémon that lived there. Between its local Zoroark packs, Trevenant groves, and a peculiar glamor about the place that seemed to have a knack for disorienting would-be travelers, the woods lived up to their name quite well. To the point where there was a whole cottage industry in Abri just rescuing villagers who had gone in there and gotten lost.

And of course, Longbloom Meadow was the place where few humans that did come near Abri would first pass through, which was why Furfrou Brothers and Abri’s Snorlax Sheriff stood guard over it. According to village folklore, long ago, the central rise from which one could see the entire meadow had been the site where Abri originally had been attempted to be founded.

Except, as the story went, it was discovered by humans that had managed to make it through the Mazewoods, who then raided it and carried off much of its townsfolk, forcing those left behind to retreat into the forests further south.

Tigri shook her head. She didn’t want to think too hard about that story, let alone how true the tale was.

“Tigri?”

Tigri looked up at the sound of a sharp chirp and wingbeats above her. There, Rouge settled on one of the nearby flowers’ stalks, letting it flex and bring him down towards her level as the Fletchling curiously tilted his head and piped up before gesturing off to the left with a wing.

“You’re going the wrong direction. The path to the river’s that way.”

Right, that was why she and Stig had sought out Rouge as a teammate in the first place. Most other Teams in Abri that took missions around Longbloom Meadow similarly made a point of having a flier or tall Pokémon in their ranks who could serve as a spotter. Even with keen hearing and smell, sometimes there was no substitute for a set of eyes high enough that could see clearly and far into the distance.

“Right, thanks for pointing that out, Rouge.”

The Espurr pushed along, brushing aside stems and petals as she continued along through their shade and keenly listening in case for any potential Wilds passing up ahead. About a minute in, a rise came into view above the flowers. A sign of her approaching destination.

Her paw brushed the flowers aside when she saw blades of green grass that only came up to her waist and stepped out. There was the path over to the river, with the small ledge blocking it off that had to be inched past to the left. Tigri grabbed one of the cords on their sled as Stig took the other and Rouge pushed from behind before they started up the ramp. She or Stig was more than capable of bringing it on their own when it was empty, but for inclines like these, it was generally best to all pitch in as a team. She and Stig lifted it together with telekinetic force when they reached the blocking ledge before they inched around the side of the bluff in the way and caught up with their sled.

It was a straight shot afterwards on the earthen path. The meadows lying below them to the left, with the plateau’s stony face on the right, broken by only that eerie cave entrance. Tigri didn’t know what the story was behind it other than that some villagers said that it was haunted. The thought crossed her mind that it might just be the doing of Patron’s pack, but those stories predated the Zoroark pack’s arrival by quite a while.

Her ears pricked at the sound of rushing water up ahead and mist hanging in the air. She looked up, and there were the falls. The place from which salvage washed in from the outside world for Abri’s villagers to use. For containers, as materials to build shelters, and occasionally to eat whenever something edible washed up. Stig was there idly levitating a rock beside their sled, as he tended to do when he was restless. He dropped it as Rouge circled around and settled on the ground by him, and ruffled his feathers.

“I already went and checked along the riverbank,” the Fletchling explained. “Looks like there’s still plenty of unclaimed salvage left behind from those storms earlier this week”

That was a relief to hear. More salvage meant more money paid out by Achile and his parents. Tigri already had thoughts of what they’d do with the money they earned dancing about in her mind until they reached the riverbank. She and her teammates froze, as her and her brother’s mouths dropped and Stig raised his voice with an incredulous stammer.

“Rouge, you could’ve warned us that the salvage left behind was all bulky!”

Well, that wasn’t fully fair, since there was still some salvage that looked relatively easy to transport left behind in the riverbank’s muck. There were the bottles and cans that there always were, but the pieces that immediately caught the eye really were on the larger side. There was a pitted and scarred white chest big enough for the three of them to fit in and some sort of large hollow spike with white and orange bands on it. There was even a pair of large rubber rings, one with a filled metal center and one without.

Tigri had heard that larger treasures tended to wash up after rainstorms like the ones that had happened earlier in the week but it must have been quite fierce to wash objects this big up. The Espurr turned her attention to the chest and stepped forward to paw at it. It was made of resin, and much to her surprise, as big as it looked, it budged after she pushed it with her paw.

“I… think we might actually be in luck,” she said. “Some of these treasures aren’t as heavy as they look.”

Tigri focused and stared at the chest as a blupinkish aura enveloped it. She held out a paw and turned her gaze as it moved along in her line of sight as she carried it up the riverbank, bringing it over the to sled before she set it down with a sharp clatter. Stig went over and tested the pull cord with his mind and found that the sled still budged under its weight. Rouge himself was also curious, as hopped up onto the rim of the chest, and eyed it closely. There were a few scratches and pecks before the Fletchling popped up again, and peered down with a sharp chirp.

“It could stand to be washed out a bit, but good find, Tigri!” the bird chirped. “Why, it’s big enough for a Pokémon like me to make a nest out of it!”

Tigri went up and tested the pull cord himself. It was definitely heavier than they’d have liked for a single piece of salvage, but it was still manageable and left room for other treasures to be put inside it. She and her brother traded glances briefly before Stig motioned off at one of the hoops lying on the riverbank.

“Hm, let’s try that empty hoop next,” Stig suggested. “Carat has been looking for additional seats for her Juice Bar and it looks like it’d work quite well for one.”

Stig made his way over and focused his mind on the black hoop as a blue aura enveloped it. He raised the hoop, only for the glow to briefly falter and for it to slip his grasp in the air. Tigri reflexively focused and joined in focus, raing her own arm out at the rubber ring as it steadied. It definitely felt heavier, and she could feel her head pulsing more noticeably than when she’d moved the chest. Tigri started to tune out her other senses to keep her mind’s attention on the black hoop, but even so, she stole a glimpse from the corner of her eye at her brother before raising her mind’s voice.

It feels pretty heavy, Stig. Are we sure the sled will still move if we try to bring it along?

We might as well try,” his mind answered back. “Worst comes to worst, we’ll leave it here and let another team take care of it.

That made sense. And who knew? If they did need to abandon the hoop, Tigri supposed that it wouldn’t be a total waste. If nothing else, they could roll it down the slope back to the meadow, and seeing how fast it could go would probably be entertaining. The Espurr joined in along with her brother, side-stepping as the pair kept their minds focused on the hoop and made their way up the riverbank. The muck gave way to grass and things began to smooth out as Rouge followed watched them in awe.

Except, right as they reached the top, Rouge’s beak fell open and he motioned off at the river with a panicked squawk.

“A-Ahh! H-Human! Human!

The weight of the ring suddenly doubled in Tigri’s mind as Stig’s focus broke. Tigri’s own mental focus gave out and the rubber hoop crashed to the ground with a loud thump. Tigri didn’t even bother to turn and look and ran down the path as fast as she could. The surroundings flew by until they made it to the ledge, where they jumped down and beelined back for the meadow’s yellow flowers. Tigri darted deep inside it until she couldn’t see anything but blooms around her and crouched down against the flowers as low as she could go as her heart pounded in her chest.

She breathed in and out tensely, only to realize that she was all alone. She tried to remember where she and the others were separated and had to fight to keep the voice in her throat welled up as the one in her mind cried out desperately.

S-Stig! Stig! Where are you-?!

I’m alright! I’m hiding with Rouge right now! Just stay quiet, and don’t move!

Stig’s voice filled her mind, from where she couldn’t tell since mind voices were usually hard to discern direction with. Though from how faint it felt, she gathered that they were a ways apart from each other. Maybe he and Rouge were hiding at that cave or somewhere close. Trying to find them right now just risked being discovered. All she could do was to keep her eyes trained up past the flowers and try to control her breathing.

Much to her horror, heavy thumps began to ring out and grow louder and louder. The ground started to faintly tremble, as something which looked like a towering, icy block that was dripping water lumbered past the tops of the flowers. There was another creature that had a gait much like a Machoke’s with white fur on the top of its head and some sort of blue pelt that hung loosely around its body.

A human, just as Rouge had warned.

The human said something she couldn’t make out and stooped down. The creature got up again when she saw that it was holding the hoop she and Stig had been moving clasped between a pair of lanky arms. The white-haired creature abruptly stopped, and then the ice block creature did itself, as a low rumbling voice came from it.

“Huh? Did you see something?”

Tigri watched in horror as the icy block turned and a wedge-shaped head with yellow eyes came into view—an Avalugg’s. Or at least based on what Tigri had heard described of them in the past, it looked like an Avalugg. It must’ve been the human’s partner, and it was clearly far stronger than anything she could hope to fight off in battle. Maybe stronger than what even Elder Gide or Sheriff Ron could resist.

She held her breath and fought back screams in her throat as the thumps came closer and closer and the flowers about her started swaying. The human’s strange voice then spoke up again as the figure with the blue pelt turned.

Their eyes met through the flowers, and her last, lingering threads of composure gave way.

Tigri screamed, with both the voice in her throat and one in her mind. Her ears shot up from her head and she didn’t think as light began to pool between her eyes and she blindly flung a pinkish ray up at the figure. There was a startled cry, she turned to run, as the rumbling voice cried out in a bellowing roar.

Hey! Get back here!”

She didn’t look back. Her mind was too garbled to make sense of the other voices crying out as she ran through the flowers as quickly as her legs could take her.



Tigri tore deeper and deeper into Longbloom Meadow as fast as her legs would carry her, her breaths ever tighter and more ragged. She heard shouts and cries, which were intermixed with the sound of rustling stems and petals for frantic seconds that seemed to pass by just as slowly as they did whenever the needles would plunge into her body in the place with the harsh lights.

Her foot slipped on a pebble and she fell forward, landing face-first into the dirt. Tigri flinched and lay there, staring blankly at the earth as she waited for the human or his partner’s shadow to fall over her and then descend on her.

Tigri! Tigri!

Stig’s mind voice resonated in hers again, along with the sound of wingbeats. She turned her head up just in time to catch a glimpse of orange flying past. It was Rouge, circling overhead before he braked in the air and waved a wing with a sharp trill.

“Stig! She’s over here!”

Tigri breathed in and out and slowly got up as the Fletchling dropped down into the flowerbed with her. She looked behind her as the blooms rustled and saw Stig popping out, panting heavily, and with eyes that were seemingly wider than normal despite almost constantly being open.

“Tigri, are you alright?” he asked. “You scared us back there.”

Tigri pawed at her chest and took a moment to brush at her fur as she felt her racing heart slowly return to normal.

“Are you two being followed?” she asked.

“I spat up some fire at the human’s partner as a distraction before flying towards the Mazewoods as a feint,” Rouge explained. “If they were still following us, I don’t think that we’d miss them.”

Tigri breathed in and out as she reassured herself that Rouge was probably right. Whenever the human’s Avalugg partner walked, it made the ground quake. It… wasn’t a foolproof way of telling whether or not they were being stalked since humans had ways of hiding their partners until the last second, but she couldn’t imagine the human would want to be alone after being attacked. Perhaps the two had already started going back towards the river, or better yet, off to the Mazewoods…

“What do we do about the salvage we found?” Stig asked.

Tigri set her teeth on edge at her brothers question. If they went back empty-pawed, they’d have wasted an entire day with nothing to show for it. They couldn’t take it for granted that food wouldn’t run scarce this winter, so eating well and storing away what they could now could mean the difference between a lean but tolerable winter and one wracked with hunger.

She hesitated briefly, before turning her attention back to her teammates.

“Rouge, check from the air and see if you can find any sign of the human. The moment he’s gone, we’ll go back up to get our sled before returning to Abri,” she said. “Couaf and Farel are usually on duty near that spot where Sheriff Ron likes to keep watch over the meadow, and it’s on the way back. We’ll ask them for an escort back home when we reach them.”

The two nodded back at her as she turned her gaze uneasily towards the direction of the plateau. Biding their time was about all that they could do right now.

She just hoped that they weren’t making a mistake.



The walk back to the sled went by in fits and starts. Tigri would wait for Rouge to pop out above the flowers in short bursts to glimpse at what lay ahead of them and wait for him to return, before they crept ahead little by little. After a few repetitions of the cycle, she and her teammates grew convinced that the human and his partner were gone and continued on normally after reaching the slope and earthen path to the falls.

Or at least, they did until Rouge cried out in alarm from further ahead of them.

“A-Aah!”

Tigri’s ears flared and she froze in place as her eyes fell on the riverbank. Their sled, and the salvage that used to be there was all gone. All that remained of it were impressions in the flowerbeds, along with two sets of footprints leading away. One of a two-legged creature with treaded feet which were roughly the size of a Machoke’s, and one of a quadruped with round, heavy footprints that were set in a wide stance.

Her mind went blank in shock, as Stig’s voice pricked her ears with a stunned murmur.

“There’s nothing left. They took everything.”

Tigri hung her head as her eyes started to grow damp. They’d spent all this time just getting their sled out here and gathering all that salvage, and that human and his partner had come from nowhere and taken it all away.

And like the ones who ran her through with needles in the place with the harsh lights, she just couldn’t understand why.

She felt a nudge at her arm and noticed Stig pawing at her. He looked at her, meeting her eye to eye for a moment, before turning his gaze down the river with a low sigh.

“... Come on. There might still be some stuff elsewhere along the river,” Stig insisted. “Maybe there’s even something lying around which we can use to make a replacement sled.”

Tigri wasn’t sure how well that was going to work when they didn’t have any pull cables for them, but she supposed they could at least move a sled. They had their mind’s strength, and if it came down to it, their bodies’.

It was better than nothing, at least.

Tigri brushed aside some of the moisture from her eyes before turning back to her teammates with a quiet shake of her head.

“Where would we even start looking?” she asked.

“I saw some salvage lying around further downstream on our way over, which I initially figured we’d pick up on our way home,” Rouge said. “The place I saw it at isn’t far from where Sheriff Ron would be if we got into trouble again. Why don’t we start there?”

Tigri wasn’t sure that it’d really make a difference, but just flatly giving up meant going back to Abri and Achille empty-pawed. Who knew how long it’d take for the next batch of salvage to wash up and give them another chance at completing their mission?

When she put things like that, she supposed there was only one logical thing to say in reply:

“Let’s do it. Just… be careful, okay?”



The journey over downstream went by without incident… mostly. After the run-in with the human, Tigri and the rest of Team Aspirant made a point of sticking to the meadowed lowlands and not walking directly along the riverbank like they normally would. Just in case.

The trip went by largely without incident barring a brief skirmish with a wild Jigglypuff. Even so, Tigri couldn’t help but sense that something was wrong as they passed the river’s bend and neared the southern rise up to the riverbank, or at least where she remembered it was. The southern rise could usually be seen as one nearing from the way the flowers would thin out to grass and then a well-trodden path, except they just couldn’t find it today. Even Rouge looking down from above see a sign of the ramp, and the bluffs where Longbloom Meadow gave way to the forests just outside of Abri didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

Something wasn’t adding up right now. Even after accounting for their run-in with the Jigglypuff, it didn’t take this long to reach the southern path up to the river…

“Did we make a wrong turn?” she asked.

“No, I definitely remembered seeing the forest in this direction a ways back,” Rouge chirped back to her. “I know that they’re supposed to thin out into a some straggler trees by the river, but I don’t see them.”

Tigri tilted her head. Had they strayed too far east or too far inland? Or had some of those straggler trees fallen down in the storms earlier in the week? They admittedly hadn’t been to this part of the Longbloom Meadow in a while, but it seemed like a strange detail for nobody in the village to mention.

Unless this wasn’t what their surroundings really looked like, and this was-

“Tigri! Look out!”

Tigri jumped aside as the air shimmered in magenta light and a flash of red claws zipped overhead. She rolled aside panting and looked over to see Stig similarly crouched as Rouge spat cinders at their assailant. The air wavered, as holes of magenta light opened up and revealed the earthen slope of the riverbank just off ahead, along with an older-looking Zoroark with scars on his arm who approached crouched and growling.

“Patron?” Stig asked. “What are you doing here?”

The Zoroark paused and looked genuinely confused for a moment, before sizing Tigri and her teammates up carefully. Tigri watched as the fox’s eyes fell on her arm and the small band wrapped around it. His demeanor eased up afterwards, before he waved a claw with a dismissive scoff.

“Oh, you’re more of those village Pokémon. At first, I thought you were with him,” Patron harrumphed. “Get out of here and go back home, I don’t have the patience to deal with your kind interrupting my pack right now.”

“Wh-What are you talking about?” Rouge asked. “What are you doing?”

A flash of light caught Tigri’s attention, as she watched magenta light start to pool by the Zoroark’s legs as the holes in his Illusion started to seal up. The Zoroark turned aside and seemed to sculpt his surroundings with his paws, not bothering to look at her or the others on Team Aspirant as he focused on disguising himself.

“My pack and I are in the middle of tracking an intruder nearby here and it requires making careful illusions to deal with them,” Patron insisted. “Illusions you brats will mess up by rooting around.”

No, the riverbank where they were going to look for their salvage was right there. They didn’t seriously come all this way after everything with the human encounter just for Patron to mess things up because his pack got into some stupid territorial dispute.

… Except, there was no way that any of them could ever hope to beat him. Aside from Elder Gide and Sheriff Ron, just about everyone in Abri would struggle in a fight against Patron.

She gritted her teeth and began to turn aside. Sheriff Ron wasn’t far from here. If they could just wake him up and get him to come over, surely he’d surely force the Zoroark to back down…

“What a bunch of garbage! We were doing work for our village! We’re not doing anything to harm you and you have no right to-!”

Tigri’s breath hitched at the sound of an angry hiss from the voice in Stig’s throat. She felt her pupils briefly shrink as she turned for him.

“Shut up, village runt!”

The next thing she knew, there was a dark-colored pulse that flew in. Tigri tried to shield herself only for the pulse to catch up with her and send her tumbling to the ground as her teammates’ voices cried out. She got up panting and looked up to see Stig lying on the ground with a woozy groan. Her heart pounded in her chest as a blur of black and red pounced on him, and pinned him beneath a set of claws.

“I’m tired of hearing you village ingrates act like you own this place! Like it’s not because of us that you’re able to hide away from everything!” the Zoroark snarled. “Maybe Aegislash and the rest of his useless mouths seeing a few of their own coming back torn up will get the message across!”

Patron raise his free claw as images filtered through Tigri’s mind:

Of being in the place with the harsh lights and watching helplessly through cold metal bars as she heard the voice of Stig’s mind cry out from a place she couldn’t get to.

Of the day when they managed to escape and took off running through the grass outside ugly, blocky structures looming behind them.

Of cringing and hiding away from every footstep in the tall grasses beyond, dreading that it’d belong to a human who’d bring them back there.

Of when they first heard of Abri, the refuge for Pokémon who neither belonged in the wilds nor alongside humans.

Of their first day walking in, and of the sense of awe they had that the stories they’d heard in whispers of the village of Pokémon really were true.

No. She couldn’t let Patron end things here after all of that. She wouldn’t let him.

Get off of him!

Tigri ran ahead and leaped up, slapping a paw against the Zoroark’s head. It didn’t do much, but it managed to make him stumble and let go of Stig as he crawled off into the flowers. She fell back for her brother’s side as Rouge flew ahead with a series of sharp pecks at the Zoroark’s face. Patron growled and swiped at the Fletchling, before springing back into the flowers.

They never saw where he landed, as Patron’s body disappeared with a magenta sheen as if he’d been spirited away into thin air.

“A-Ah! He disappeared!” Rouge squawked.

Tigri panted and tried to study her surroundings. No, Patron hadn’t truly disappeared. That wasn’t how he or the others in their pack made their Illusions. They would disguise themselves as someone, or something, or warp their surroundings behind them.

Tigri heard rustling and whirled around. She looked off past Rouge where she thought she heard the noise coming from when she saw it: a patch of flowers that wasn’t moving with the wind.

“Rouge! Behind you!”

It was too late. The flowers melted away in a flash of magenta as Patron lunged forward and brought a downward slash with his claws onto the Fletchling’s wing. The Fire-type shrilled in pain and plummeted to the ground as Tigri tightened her grip on her brother’s body and felt her fur stand on end. Patron flicked a few loose feathers aside, before turning towards her. Their eyes met, as Patron bared his fangs with a low snarl.

You…

Tigri felt a chill run down her spine as the Zoroark drew closer and closer. Her mind went blank and the air distorted around her head as a splitting headache built up. The next thing she knew, the flowers around her were ripping away as she let loose a psychic burst. The air grew thick with flying petals and stems, except as it cleared, the Dark-type was still there, with her blow having done little more than muss his fur.

She should’ve known better. That resisting her mind’s power was part of the nature of Patron and his kind. Had she been calm and collected, perhaps she could’ve done something different. But her moment of opportunity had passed and she couldn’t do anything now.

He lunged ahead, red claws filling her vision as she froze in terror.

“Get away from her, Patron!”

Everything went by in a blur afterwards. Patron’s claws never reached her when a flash of cream and black blur shot in and knocked him off course. Tigri stumbled back as the two figures stumbled over each other with sharp snarls when another cream-and-black figure dove in. She glimpsed Rouge in the flowers off to her right and hurriedly went over to his side. He was struggling to get up and holding his wing out funny when he looked back at the sounds of the fighting behind them.

“A-Ah! That’s-!”

Tigri followed her teammates' eyes and saw them: Couaf and Farel, trying their hardest to pin Patron down with bites and tackles. The Zoroark eventually got the upper paw and flung Couaf off him and then batted aside Farel with a swipe of his claws. Farel stumbled back with a sharp yelp as Patron got back onto his feet and braced himself, readying a Night Daze as a shadowy aura gathered around his body.

He abruptly froze as a yawning growl came from deeper inland, or at least what Tigri thought was from deeper inland. She panted, and for a moment, thought she saw a hint of unease in Patron’s eyes. The Zoroark’s reaction seemed to give Couaf and Farel a shot of determination, as the elder of the Furfrou brothers trotted forward, and turned his snout up with a sharp scowl.

“That’s Sheriff Ron, nice job waking him up for us. You and I both know you wouldn’t beat him in a fight even if Farel and I weren’t here,” Couaf said between pants. “He’s always in a bad mood whenever he has to get up to deal with problems, so I’d strongly suggest you run off if you don’t want to fight him.”

Patron visibly hesitated, before turning his eyes back towards Tigri and her companions. She paused and held her breath. Patron and his kind were always unnerving from the way she just couldn’t pick up anything of their thoughts or feelings beyond what she could read from her own eyes. There was a pause where the seconds seemed to drag on and on before the Dark-type finally backed away. He narrowed his eyes, before turning back to Couaf and Farel with a flash of his fangs.

“Hrmph, so be it. I’ve gotten my message across, and here’s another one for you two to bring back to your ‘Elder’,” he snarled. “Until you all give something to make it worth my pack’s while, you all can hide your miserable ‘village’ by yourselves!

The Zoroark sprang back as a flash of magenta light overtook him and he vanished into the surroundings. The rustle of flowers being brushed aside lingered in the air, which died down almost as soon as it came, and before long, it was as if Patron had never been there.

Or at least it would’ve been had it not been for her own shaky breaths, or Rouge’s wounded wing, or Stig lying moaning in the flowers a short distance away. Couaf and Farel were there staring blankly off into the surrounding meadow, when the younger of the Furfrou brothers lowered his head with a quiet shake.

“Well this day has just been going fantastic,” Farel murmured. “First that human prowling around, and now this...”

“Save it for later, Farel,” Couaf barked. “Team Aspirant’s hurt!”

Tigri watched as Couaf hurriedly darted over to Stig and rolled him over, and discovered his eyes were closed and there was little sign of life beyond his breathing and a damp and sticky feeling on his chest’s fur. Tigri felt a swell of panic come over her and ran ahead only to hear a sharp squawk behind her.

“Ow!”

She looked back and saw Rouge wincing and holding out his wing. Farel went over and nosed at him, as a quiet grimace came over his face.

Was Rouge’s injury worse than she thought? She’d been so worried about Stig that she hadn’t paid close attention to her Fletchling teammate. Farel’s voice snapped her to attention, as he looked down at the wounded Fire-type and tried to calm him.

“Try not to move your wing, Rouge,” he said. “Let me help you out here.”

The elder Furfrou saw her from the corner of his eye and briefly turned to her with a stern expression.

“Stay with me and your brother for now,” Couaf said. “Farel will take care of Rouge. Stig should be fine after getting patched up a bit, but it’d be for the best to have someone keep an eye on him on the way back to town..”

“... Okay.”

Tigri turned and sidled up against Couaf as he attempted to lift Stig up by the scruff of his neck. Tigri focused as a bluish aura enveloped his body, and she set him on the Furfrou’s back. He crouched, looking over and motioning up with his snout.

“Get on,” he said. “Someone’s going to need to keep him steady on the way back to town.”

Tigri didn’t say anything and obliged. She took her place on Couaf’s back and latched onto him, one paw clinging to his coat, another to her brother’s body. She felt Stig’s chest rise and fall weakly as she looked down at him.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Couaf gave a passing “meet me at the infirmary” to Farel and set off after that. The whole time, Tigri didn’t say anything and looked down at her brother as the meadow drifted away in the corners of her vision.
 
Part 3 - The Crisis


Part 3 - The Crisis



The trip back to Abri seemed to go by in a blur on Couaf’s back. The yellow flowers quickly gave way to the forest, when the Furfrou reached the guidestones that villagers used to find the path to Abri through the Barrier, with the still-distorted shadows and sunlight on the ground indicating that word among Patron’s packmates hadn’t gotten around just yet. Maybe. Tigri admittedly hadn’t been looking all that closely in between monitoring her brother’s weakly rising and falling chest, and the ruddy fluid matting his fur. Before she knew it, the burrows and nests of Abri’s outskirts started to fill in again, with the Infirmary being the first of Abri’s structures to come into view. Unlike most of the village’s structures, it had been built with solid walls, and was deliberately positioned closer to the outskirts to be more quickly accessible by weak and injured Pokémon who stumbled into the village from outside.

Everything went by so fast after that. She and Stig barely made it into the door with Couaf before they were whisked into the backroom where Pelin the Delphox and Ernel the Leavanny were there to treat their wounds. Before she knew it, the two of them were lying in a set of straw nests set out on earthen ground in a backroom sheltered by a roof of twigs and branches. A few minutes later, Rouge joined them after Farel caught up and Pelin and Ernel alternated between the three of them to dress their wounds while Tigri’s ears would occasionally catch snippets of worrying chatter between the two healers.

Beyond that, Tigri had spent much of the time just staring off blankly and trying to come to terms with how all of this had happened. It wasn’t until she found herself chewing on the leftover pulp of an Oran Berry the Delphox used as a poultice as Ernel tended to Stig a few beds over to the left that Tigri realized just how much she’d been spacing out. Tigri turned her head up as a shadow fell over her and saw the Fire-type healer briefly glance off at Stig’s bed, before tapping her wooden wand against her free paw.

“Your teammates should be fine to go back home to rest by this evening, Espurr,” Pelin said. “Just don’t push yourselves for the next few days.”

Tigri supposed that ought to have been a relief to hear, except it wasn’t. A quick glance after hearing uneasy rustling from the straw bed to her right, reminded her why. Rouge was there, trying awkwardly to settle in with his wing still held in place with a splint. Pelin and Ernel had insisted that Rouge’s wound was just a bad sprain and Patron hadn’t actually broken any of the Fletchling’s bones, but it was still hard to look at.

She looked away as Pelin went over to tend to her Fletchling teammate, before the Espurr sank into her straw bedding with a low sigh.

“Where on earth do we even go from here?”

She didn’t have an answer to the question lingering in her mind. Rouge was the Spotter for Team Aspirant, and until his sprain healed, he’d be grounded and unable to see much of anything from the air. Pelin and Ernel had insisted that as frightening as Patron’s attack had been, Stig’s wounds were mostly superficial and he’d be able to go back out into the field after a few days’ rest… except, it wouldn’t change anything about how they didn’t have a sled anymore. They would either need to somehow get a new one or else have to settle with bringing back whatever bits of salvage they could hold with their limbs or their minds’ powers. Something that was bound to wear them out with even half the normal loads they’d bring back to Abri.

And worse still was the threat that Patron had made before parting which dwarfed all of those troubles: that the Zoroark and his pack would no longer keep the Barrier up around Abri. Yes, Abri had remained hidden before without their help, but it had been a smaller village back then and things were going back to those bygone days at a time when a human was quite literally prowling its fringes.

Abri was supposed to be a haven from the dangers of the outside world. It was why she and Stig had sought it out once they’d first heard the stories about it after escaping the place with the harsh lights… so why did it feel like everything about it had been going wrong lately?

“Tigri, if you’re able to walk, could you get up and come along for a moment?”

Tigri looked up to see the Furfrou Brothers walking up with serious expressions. Couaf lingered at the doorway to the waiting room, while Farel went up and to the front of her bed and peered down. She felt a twinge of unease and saw Rouge turn his beak up worriedly as Farel gave a quiet nod of his head.

“You’re not in trouble if that’s what you’re worried about,” Farel insisted. “I asked Rouge a few questions about your run-in in Longbloom Meadow on the way over and wanted to cross-check them with you. You know, standard procedure stuff for Officers.”

Really, this should’ve been the easiest thing in the world for Tigri, especially when the Furfrou Brothers had quite literally helped them into Abri back when the two were still working on a village Team. Except, she couldn’t shake that bubbling feeling of unease in her head when the power in her body felt like it was about to burst out. As it did during times when she felt stressed or overwhelmed. She looked over at Rouge to her right and then leftward at Stig as Ernel left his bedside, before turning back to the Furfrou looking down at her.

“Can’t this wait for another time?” Tigri asked. “I should really be here alongside my teammates.”

“It’ll take a couple of minutes at most,” Couaf said from the doorway. “You’ll be back here before you know it, and it’d probably be easier on Stig to keep things quiet so he can rest.”

Tigri supposed that the elder Furfrou did raise a fair point, and if whatever they had to say really was worrisome… maybe it was for the best that Rouge and Stig didn’t have to know about it right away. She got up and followed the Furfrou Brothers until they got to the waiting room at the very entrance to the Infirmary. There was a moment’s silence when they turned to face her and spoke up in a hushed tone.

“Try and answer us with your thoughts,” Couaf instructed. “Considering some of the questions we had for you, it’s probably for the best right now.”

A part of her wondered why they bothered to talk in such close quarters when she’d been able to get in snippets of conversation with her mind’s voice from further distances in the past…

Until it dawned on her that they really didn’t want others overhearing her, and the lowest risk of that happening was to use her mind’s voice up close where her powers would only need to be tapped sparingly, much like how the one her throat would while whispering.

Tigri stiffened up as the Furfrou studied their surroundings quickly and dutifully minded Pelin’s distance as she passed. After a moment to let the Delphox healer drift off, he leaned in towards her and spoke up in a hushed tone.

“To start with… what on earth happened out there, Tigri?”

Tigri breathed in sharply, and fought against the pressure in her head. She focused her thoughts on the Furfrou pair and then raised the voice in her mind for theirs to hear.

My teammates and I were headed off back to the riverbank to try and find salvage to bring back to town. We had our sled stolen earlier on and were desperate just to have something to show for our efforts before coming back home.

The Furfrou Brothers paused briefly as the voice in her mind spoke, only for them to ease as she continued on. It was probably just them getting used to her mind’s voice.

“By the Avalugg and his… partner, yes?” Farel asked.

His human, yes. Why do you ask?

“Do you have a description of what this partner looked like?”

Tigri hesitated. One of the things that she’d discovered since leaving the place with the harsh lights was that humans could shed and change their hides as they pleased, and did so quite regularly. Even if she described this human… would the two recognize him?

Um… well, tall, and I think male? He was fairly stout for a human and had some sort of blue hide and white hair on his head.

Couaf and Farel both stiffened up as their eyes widened in alarm. What on earth was going on here? The human hadn’t found any of them, so hadn’t the danger already passed?

“Couaf, that’s the same human that we spotted a couple of days ago during our rounds! Same hide and everything!” Farel whispered. “Why on earth would he come back?

“I don’t know, but I doubt it’s for anything good. Especially if he’s not even trying to hide himself,” Couaf murmured. “We needed to tell Elder Gide about the situation with Patron anyways, so we might as well bring this up while we’re at it, too.”

Tigri looked on as Farel abruptly turned and ducked out of the door in a hurry, Couaf turned his head after his brother briefly and started turning after him only to suddenly catch himself. The elder Furfrou hesitated, before looking down at Tigri with a low sigh and nudging her back towards the Infirmary’s backroom.

“Just… let us worry about handling all of this and stay with your friends for now, alright?” he asked. “You should take things easy for the next few days. If Patron was serious about his pack stopping their Illusions, I doubt there’s going to be much movement in and out of Abri for a while.”

Tigri watched as Couaf drifted off after his brother and retraced her steps back into the backroom with its piles of straw laid out. Rouge was there, settled in awkwardly with his wing still drooped over the side of his bedding. She flopped back down in her own straw pile and just laid there for a while, lying down and looking aside as the sounds of the Infirmary faded into the background.

She snapped back to attention after hearing a wince off to her left. She got up and realized that Pelin and Ernel were no longer there. Just how long had she been spacing out? She turned towards where the noise came from and Stig’s bedding shuffle, and her brother weakly stir and sit upright pawing at his eyes.

Her attention instantly went to his chest when he turned to face her. There was a blotch of gauzed silk over it that had been stained a dirty red color, a ‘bandage’ as Ernel had called it, to stop bleeding from cuts. Perhaps that was why the sight felt so uncomfortable to her since even if they looked very different, she and Stig were familiar with bandages from before arriving in Abri.

She fell quiet and looked away, fidgeting her ears against her head as she raised the voice in her throat with a quiet murmur.
“... Are you doing alright, Stig?”

“I mean, I could be doing worse, I suppose,” he said. “After all, even the tougher teams like Team Rapid wouldn’t be eager to get into a fight with Patron. I lived to tell the tale, didn’t I?”

… She supposed she ought to have been thankful for that, even if Stig’s attempt at making light of things wasn’t terribly reassuring. They had come here to Abri to flee the world outside, the world of humans, the world where the place with harsh lights had been.

And yet, here she was, watching her brother get hurt all over again and once again being unable to do anything about it.
“This was supposed to be a safe place…”

“Nowhere’s truly safe, Tigri. We already knew that before we set out for here,” he said. “If we weren’t living here in Abri, we’d be fending for ourselves in the wilds. At least here, we’re able to have a fighting chance together, and we have other friends to have our back.”

Tigri’s ears briefly fidgeted and she turned away. Yes, that was what had drawn them here to Abri, and even today, it had saved them in Longbloom Meadow. But how much longer would their friends’ help be enough?

Sometimes, it felt like they and the entire village were hanging by a thread. Abri had managed to persevere one way or another for untold years, enough so that it was sometimes hard to believe that the humans described in the stories about Lucario the Wanderer and Weavile the Runegiver shared a species with the ones they hid away from.

But at the same time, Abri hadn’t been immune to its share of disasters. Whenever the next one came… would they really manage to avoid getting swept up in it?

“Oh, my poor baby!”

Tigri and Stig turned at the sound of a sharp chirp and talons clacking against the ground, where there coming in from the waiting room was the Fletchinder from the Post Office—Brais, Rouge’s mother. She hurried over to her child’s side, craning her head down and nudging at the Fletchling as he shifted in his bedding and tweeted in protest.

“Mom, not in front of my teammates!” he protested. “Pelin said that it’s just a sprain, it’ll be fine!”

Tigri watched as the Fletchinder’s gaze fell on her and the Fire-type turned her head to face her. The Fletchinder postmaster gave out an accusing chirp and fanned a wing out with a sharp squawk.

“Tigri, how could you let this happen?” she demanded. “You and your brother insisted that you’d be able to keep Rouge safe while he was with you!”

Tigri wasn’t sure what to say back to that. It had always been explained that there were dangers as part of being on a Team that ventured into the world beyond Abri’s boundaries, but it was her job as Team Aspirant’s captain to try and gauge when she and her teammates were in too much danger and when to turn back. She wanted to explain what had happened out in Longbloom Meadow, except… she doubted it would accomplish anything other than to make Brais pull Rouge from Team Aspirant entirely.

She fumbled around with words in her mind to perfect before saying them with the voice in her throat, when a sharp knock rang out. She looked over, and much to her surprise, there were Orne and Nobi from Team Rapid at the threshold to the waiting room. The Greninja pulled a set of knuckles back from giving a rap at the doorframe with his knuckles as a grave expression lingered on his Rhyhorn teammate’s face.
“Sorry if we’re interrupting anything, but Elder Gide says there’s an urgent meeting at the town square in ten minutes,” the Rhyhorn said. “He said that everyone who’s able to make it needs to come.”

Tigri was pretty sure she already had an idea of what the meeting would be about. And she just knew tell that she wasn’t going to like what she would hear from it.



“Wow, they really did get the whole village here.”

Tigri shot an askew glance at Rouge, but it was hard to say that she wasn’t a bit surprised at the size of the gathering herself. Why, the crowd here had to be bigger than the ones from the Founding Day ceremonies of recent years! Achille and his parents from the General Store were present, as were all the other shopkeepers. Why, even Ron the Snorlax Sheriff was in the crowd and sleepily sitting up, a miracle in and of itself with how hard it was for the ‘mon to stay awake on his job!

A hushed silence fell as Elder Gide and Ticho, the Elder’s Farfetch’d assistant, approached from the eastern end of the square. They made their way down into the pit in the square’s center, where Elder Gide looked out over the surrounding audience and let out a low sigh.

“... I wish that I had better news to tell all of you. It just seems like one thing’s been happening after another lately.”
Uneasy murmurs began to filter about, before the Lind, the town’s Chesnaught Dojo Master made his way towards the front and gave a worried frown.

“Elder Gide, what’s going on?” the Chesnaught asked.

The Aegislash tensely fidgeted his tassel-like arms, before speaking up in a deliberate, serious tone.

“As some of you may already know, over the past couple of days, there have been sightings of humans in Longbloom Meadow not far from the village’s outskirts,” the Aegislash explained. “Earlier today, we received confirmation that those sightings were indeed of a real human. There is at least one we know of who’s been prowling around just north of our village for the past few days at minimum.”

Gasps and worried chatter filled the air as Tigri suddenly felt a lot smaller and more vulnerable. If the human they’d run into had been skulking around for that long, he was surely here for more than just some salvage. Uneasy murmurs began to filter around the square, as a few parents tucked their youngsters safely behind them. Achille shot an askew glance from one of the seats around the central pit, before getting up and raising his voice.

“Not that I don’t understand the concern, Elder Gide,” the Kecleon said. “But why did you call the entire village for this assembly? Abri has dealt with human sightings in the past, and they didn’t require this big of a response.”

Tigri stiffened up and saw Rouge set his beak on edge. Would Elder Gide reveal that it was because of her team that Patron ordered his pack to stop maintaining the Barrier? How on earth would everyone else take it?

She wasn’t sure if she wanted to know the answer to those questions.

There was a moment of silence as Elder Gide and Ticho traded looks with one another before the Aegislash spoke up with his spectral-sounding voice.

“That’s because earlier today, there was a dispute between Patron and some of Sheriff Ron’s officers,” Gide explained. “I’m sure you’re all aware, but relations between our village and his pack have been strained recently, and…”

“To be blunt, he’s told his pack to stop maintaining the Barrier that disguises the approach to Abri,” Ticho finished. “And it’s most likely going to be that way for the foreseeable future.”

Startled cries rang out afterwards as a few of the villagers got up to press Gide and Ticho for further answers while others wondered aloud how they were to go on with a human probing their village outskirts when the path into town was there for anyone to find. A few went back and forth about whether or not it was best to try and chase off the human while they could or if that was too risky when Elder Gide motioned with an arm for quiet. The chatter began to simmer down as the Ghost-type looked about his surroundings and continued on.

“In light of current events, all travel in and out of Abri is forbidden until further notice, barring exceptions that are explicitly approved by me,” the Aegislash explained. “Ticho and I will be focusing on trying to convince Patron’s pack to go back to maintaining the Barrier. In the event that proves unsuccessful, we will begin the process of organizing an excursion to try and find another Zoroark pack from the Mazewoods who’d be interested in trading our food for their Illusions.”

“Until then, we’ll do what we can to try and disguise the approaches to Abri and its fringes,” Ticho added. “We will put up some requests for tasks related to that later tonight on the Mission Board. Given the seriousness of our present situation, the rewards for those tasks’ swift completion will be more generous than normal.”

Tigri sighed and looked away. That would’ve been just the break that she and the rest of Team Aspirant would’ve needed, especially since they weren’t going to be getting rewarded well for salvage-gathering missions anytime soon. Except with two out of three members not in a condition to take further missions, they couldn’t even manage that. She sighed and hung her head as a few lingering murmurs lingered among the villagers before she noticed Elder Gide wasn’t talking anymore. The Aegislash let his eye drift over the crowd, before looking aside with a tired shake of his blade.

“That will be all,” he said. “My apologies for any inconvenience the sudden summons may have caused you, just… be careful for a while. And remember that we’re all counting on you to do your parts to keep this sanctuary hidden.”

“Everyone’s worked so hard to get this village to where it is today,” the Farfetch’d added. “It’d be a tragedy if it all came crashing down from a careless mistake.”

An uneasy mood settled over the gathering as Gide and Ticho began to make their way out of the central pit. Tigri watched as the crowd began to thin out as well, as Pokémon began to drift away and back out into the surrounding village with a palpable feeling of unease in the air.

She turned to Rouge and nudged at him to come along when the fluttering of wings rang out and a blur of orange and gray came to a stop between them. His mother, who wore a sharp scowl on her face. Brais threw out a wing, and pulled her child aside with an impatient tweet.

“Come on, Rouge. We’re going home. Pelin and Ernel told me that you’ve been discharged from the Infirmary,” she said. “You’ve had enough of this ‘Team’ business for a while. You’re going to help me at the Post Office until your wing gets better, and for a good while afterwards, too.”

Tigri stiffened up as Rouge let out a startled tweet. Was- Was Brais talking about forcing Rouge off of Team Aspirant entirely? She hurried over to the Fletchinder and reflexively raised her voice in startled protest.

“Brais, what are you talking about?!” Tigri cried. “You encouraged Rouge to join Team Aspirant in the first place because you thought it’d help him grow stronger in case he ever got into a fi-!”

“Yes, and I thought that you and Stig would be able to keep him safe while doing those missions of yours,” the Fletchinder piped. “Clearly, I was mistaken.”

The Fletchling wrestled himself free and turned back towards his mother. Tigri always found it weird how the eyes of other Pokémon shifted so much along with their bodies, but just from the tone of his voice and the way he frantically beat out his uninjured wing, he must’ve realized the same thing she did:

That Team Aspirant was going to lose a teammate if they didn’t do something to change Brais’ mind fast.

“But mom! None of us knew that Patron was gonna-!”

“No buts! We’re going straight home where you can rest safely.”

Tigri watched as Rouge visibly hesitated and looked aside with his beak on edge. Just what on earth was she supposed to say back to that? Her eyes fell back on Rouge’s sling when she realized that whatever Brais thought of Rouge staying on Team Aspirant, that there was something about the Fletchinder’s demand that wasn’t possible for Rouge to make good on at the moment.

“Brais, isn’t your home a nest up in a tree?” Tigri asked. “How on earth is Rouge supposed to make it up there like this?”

The Fletchinder paused as the words left Tigri’s mouth and hesitated, uneasily looking down at her child’s wing. Tigri breathed in quietly and rehearsed a few words to herself with her mind’s voice. She kept them to herself before she raised the one in her throat and spoke up with the words that would determine the fate of Team Aspirant:

“I… understand that you’re not happy about everything that happened today,” she said. “But part of the duty of Pokémon on a team is to look out for each other during moments when things do go wrong.”

She turned towards the Fletchinder, averting her gaze slightly. Just in case her stare was off-putting like some others had told her hers and Stig’s were.

“The den that Stig and I share is at ground level and has enough space for a guest that’s Rouge’s size,” she explained. “I… can understand if you don’t want him staying there the entire time until his wing’s better… but won’t you let Stig and me have a chance to try and make things right for what happened out in Longbloom Meadow? To let him stay there tonight?”

Brais hesitated for a moment, before hopping aside and shaking her head as she spread her wings.

“... Fine, but I’m serious about Rouge working at the Post Office,” she said. “I expect you and Stig to bring Rouge over there first thing tomorrow.”

The Fletchinder took wing and flew off from the square as Tigri watched after her. The Espurr sighed and looked over at Rouge. He was staring at the ground, with his eyes seemingly as blank as her own.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

“Get Stig from the Infirmary and go home,” the Espurr sighed. “There’s not much else we can do right now.”



Tigri didn’t know whether it was because of her injuries or the general mood, but the trip back to her den felt longer than normal that night. Not even Pelin and Ernel’s reassurance after coming to fetch Stig that he was well enough to go home and the cuts under his bandages would seal up enough for them to come off the following morning were enough to her spirits. By the time they returned to the earthen den, the sun had already started to set and the moon and stars had begun to peek through the treetops.

Their bedding had grown a bit stale and Tigri had been dreading dealing with it since there was surely not enough time to throw it out and set a new batch, let alone with Stig wounded to the point where he couldn’t do much other than just sit or lie down to rest. Except, Rouge insisted for some reason that their accommodations wouldn’t be an issue as long as there was enough open space in front of the den and some sticks to go around.

She humored the Fletchling and set about clearing out the musky old bedding and shoving it towards the den entrance as she started to spread out new bedding for the three of them. Much to her surprise, when she finished and made her way back out, the clot of dried grasses and leaves she’d dragged out was gone, and she smelled smoke.

Tigri warily made her way outside of the den, where she found Rouge and Stig sitting around a small fire set out in the dirt patch in front of the den. She briefly wondered how on earth the sudden fire had started, only to catch the Fletchling blowing embers at the twig pile and Stig focusing and dropped clumps of their spent bedding with his mind’s power for kindling.

“Told you it would be worth it,” Rouge chirped. “It would’ve been nice to do this without the sprained wing, but at least you two are warmer at the moment, aren’t you?”

Tigri turned away, she didn’t know what to say back to that. Or at least nothing that would preserve the Fletchling’s mood. There was a lingering silence before Stig turned over to Rouge with a gentle paw at his good wing.

“Rouge, remind me… Did you already check up on your bedding?” Stig asked. “Tigri and I don’t exactly have feathers or wings, so we’re not sure if the way we normally set our bedding out will be comfortable for you.”

The Fletchling titled his head, before giving an uneasy ruffle of his feathers.

“I actually didn’t and just assumed that you’d have a nest like mine, but on the ground,” he said. “Why? Are your nests different?”

… Why on earth would he assume their bedding would be anything like his? Rouge’s normal nest was in a tree, for crying out loud! Tigri couldn’t help but stare at Rouge after his comment, and Stig apparently couldn’t help himself either. There was an awkward silence, before the Fire-type gave a flustered tweet and turned away from the fire.

“Uh… Give me a moment, I’ll go and check.”

Rouge ducked off and made his way past the den’s entrance and out of Tigri’s line of sight. She watched after him briefly, when a wince came from beside the fire. She glanced back as Stig pawed at his chest where Ernel’s silken bandages were as an ugly streak was still visible on its surface. Stig remained silent for a moment, before turning aside blankly to gaze into the fire himself. There was something eerie and dangerous about its appearance, but at the same time, there was a comforting warmth to it.

Sorta like the world just outside of Abri’s fringes.

“Is something the matter, Tigri?”

Tigri remained silent at first. At a time like this, Rouge or some other Pokémon might narrow their eyes, but doing so had always felt unnatural to her. And her feelings got across fine enough through one or the other voice that she had. Stig waited quietly on her to answer for a moment before he broke the silence with his mind’s voice.

Well, aside from the obvious that we’ve all had a long day and that I feel kinda terrible right now.

She lowered her head, wrestling with one thought and the next to try and put forward. Maybe it made sense to start with the question that had been nagging her since arriving at the Infirmary, especially since she still didn’t know how to answer it herself.

What are we supposed to do now, Stig?

He turned to face her as the fire crackled beside them, before shaking his head and giving a quiet sigh as his thoughts re-entered her mind.

Lick our wounds and try again when we’re feeling better? I’m not really sure what you’re getting at-

“Stig, we’re probably going to have to find a new teammate after this.”

That time, the words came out of the voice in her mouth. As they tended to when she didn’t have the focus to project her thoughts to others. Times when she was stressed or at her wits’ end…

Times like right now.

“First we were worried about just having enough food after the harvests, and now we have to worry about Abri potentially getting discovered and destroyed,” she said. “Just what are we supposed to do about any of that?!”

She trailed off and sat down, slouching forward as she turned her gaze back to the fire.

“I… know that we set up Team Aspirant because we wanted to help other Pokémon who needed it like we did,” she murmured. “But all of this is so much bigger than anything we can handle. If we can’t even take care of ourselves, how on earth are we supposed to make a difference for anything?”

Nothing reached her ears or her mind aside from the quiet crackling of the fire. She sighed and slouched forward, when she felt a paw at her shoulder. Tigri looked up, and saw Stig’s eyes were looking into her. Wide and alert as always, but he nudged at her like he had on those days when they first fled.

“I don’t know, Tigri. But whatever’s ahead of us, we’ll face it the same way we faced everything since we left the place with the harsh lights,” he said. “Together.”

Tigri fell quiet as her mind turned back to their journey since then. To their harried escape from the place with the harsh lights through darkened rooms with unnatural walls and out into blinding sunlight. To the time they spent drifting the fields and wilderness ever southwards in search of the haven they’d heard stories about. To the way she kept urging Stig forward through the Mazewoods even when all seemed lost until Couaf and Farel found them and brought them to the village.

Even their escape from the human and the way they held out against Patron until they were rescued earlier today. All of it had only been possible because they and Rouge were there for each other and didn’t give in.

“Stig? The bedding you were talking about seems fine to me!”

Tigri snapped to attention at the sound of chirps coming from the den, as a quick glance revealed Rouge walking up. He paused and traded looks between her and Stig, before giving an uneasy shuffle of his good wing.

“Uh… was I interrupting something?”

Tigri hesitated, unsure what the best thing to say back to him was. After a few brief moments wrestling with the words in her mind, she decided that it didn’t matter.

What really mattered most was that they were all there as a team. Together.

She stood up and motioned with a paw at the Fletchling to come near.

“No, not at all. Come and join us by the fire you made,” Tigri said. “It really does feel nice, and I suppose we can’t take it for granted that we’ll be able to enjoy it so often in the future. Maybe we could trade stories we’ve heard? I heard that Pelin does that with her kits sometimes.”

Rouge lingered for a moment, before coming over and settling in beside them. Soon enough, they were talking again, and even laughing at a few points as they traded tales from their encounters around Abri and with its townsfolk. Tales of things like the latest scrap at Lind’s Dojo or idle gossip Rouge had overheard from his mother dealing with customers at the Post Office’s counter.

There was still a part of her which was still worried after the stories and the fire died down and they headed back off to the den for sleep. But at the same time, there was a calmness that she hadn’t felt in recent days as she grew convinced that whatever the future held, she wasn’t alone.



Tigri rested better than she expected. There were no nightmares that night, and the den felt a bit warmer than usual, probably from Rouge’s body heat. She dreamed of the day that the Furfrou Brothers had first brought them into Abri, and how awed and overjoyed they had been to discover that there was a place for Pokémon just like them who didn’t belong either among humans or in the wilds. Even if the other villagers had a difficult time seeing it from their expressions, it was a happy day for them. The happiest they had been in a long while.

“Tigri…”

But of course, like all days, it had to end eventually. Tigri stirred as paws nudged at her side, and she opened her eyes to see Stig looking down at her. The bandages that had been over his chest were gone, with the only remaining signs of them being a few lingering silken strands and a pair of ruddy streaks on his chest that could occasionally be seen as the fur over them shifted.

“It’s sunrise. Brais is expecting us to bring Rouge over to the Post Office right now.”

Tigri pawed at her eyes and sat up in her bed of dried grasses when she looked past her brother and saw Rouge already waiting for them at the mouth of the den. Right, she was back in reality now, where Team Aspirant had their Spotter benched from a wing injury.

And for all she knew, the few nights ahead while Rouge was still grounded and unable to fly up to his nest would be the last they’d spend together as Team Aspirant.

Tigri fought back a pulse in her head and brushed those uncomfortable thoughts aside. She trudged out of the den and stretched her limbs amidst the morning sun and dew. All that remained of their fire from the night before was a small pile of cinders and ashes, which she brushed off into the grass with a small nudge of her mind’s power. There was a moment of silence between the three before Rouge broke it with a quiet twitter.

“So… I guess this is it for now?” he asked. “We just go to the Post Office and then we meet again after mom’s work is done for the day?”

Tigri wasn’t sure if there was anything else they could do aside from that. It wasn’t as if deliberately making Rouge late for work would endear them with Brais when she was already probably leaning towards pulling him off their Team after he healed. The Espurr looked off down the lane and hesitated when Stig piped up.

“Why don’t we see what’s there for morning missions before we drop Rouge off?” he suggested. “The Mission Board should be on the way over to the Post Office anyways. And who knows? If Brais doesn’t mind it, maybe she’ll let us help her with her work with those messages she needs to send out.”

Tigri didn’t know what the likelihood of that would be, but she supposed it was worth trying. And if they really didn’t have anything better to do all day, maybe they could hang around the square and talk with Rouge during breaks. Brais was bound to give him plenty of those with his wing still sprained, right?

“I suppose that it’s at least worth trying,” she said. “Though I’m not holding my breath on us having a whole lot to do today. I’m not sure if Ticho could find enough stuff for all of Abri’s teams to do just inside the village if he tried.”

Tigri shuffled ahead and made her way northward with her teammates. The normal burrows and nests amongst the trees with their mail posts and mats went by, and then the undergrowth lining the path started giving way to the huts and pavilions which were built around the central square.

Much to her surprise, the lanes feeding into it were already busy with Pokémon, who all seemed to be gathered together and looking on at something further off towards its northern end.

“Look, I know that we didn’t exactly get off on the right foot yesterday, but this is serious!”

Tigri blinked at the sound of a yipping voice coming off from the northern path into the square, followed by a chorus of low grumbles. It wasn’t Patron’s voice, but there was still something about it which was uncomfortably familiar.

“Are those the Zoroark that Patron came with yesterday?” Stig asked. “What on earth is going on?”

Tigri turned and tried to see past the Pokémon ahead, except they were all too tall to get a good look. She cast a glance to her side and noticed the crude step stool set in front of Achille and his family’s General Store for shorter customers. She clambered onto it, and she stooped to help Rouge and Stig up before looking out over the square.

With the extra height, they could make out a gathering clustered on the north side of the Dojo’s pit, with Elder Gide and Ticho down on the right side of the battlefield sporting guarded expressions. On the side opposite of the Aegislash and Farfetch’d, sure enough, were the two Zoroark that Patron brought into town the day before to try and bully the villagers. Except, Patron wasn’t there with them, and there was a shaken-looking Zorua with them instead.

“Wait a minute, a Zorua?” Rouge wondered to himself. “Since when did Patron and his pack ever bring them along when trying to shake us down?”

“After how ‘welcoming’ you were yesterday, I’m shocked that you two expected a positive reception,” Ticho scoffed. “Why on earth are you here anyway? Since it obviously wasn’t to come and cast Illusions.”

There was a moment’s pause before the female Zoroark of the pair stepped forward and explained herself.

“It’s Patron,” she said. “The human that’s been roaming the meadows north of these woods snatched him.”
 
Part 4 - The Decision


Part 4 - The Decision



“What do you mean Patron’s been snatched?”

Elder Gide’s spectral voice sounded genuinely startled after the Zoroark pair’s explanation. Tigri stared blankly at the lot of them as gasps and startled murmurs went about the gathered villagers in Abri’s central square, mixed in with a few grumbles and the occasional mutter of “serves him right”.

Even so, regardless of their specific feelings, the unifying thread between everyone’s reaction was a sense of shock. Patron, the Patron, who led the pack that was all-too-ready to try and bully the weaker villages and make nasty threats whenever their tribute wasn’t forthcoming… was snatched by a human? Ticho traded puzzled stares between Elder Gide and the Zoroark pair and the Zorua with them before holding out his leek accusingly.

“What happened out there? Since that’s not exactly easy for us to believe from what we’ve seen of Patron before.”

Chasseur and Ombre hesitated briefly and while Tigri couldn’t pick up any of their thoughts, just their expressions made it obvious they were weighing their words. As hard as it was to imagine with the way they came into town just yesterday, the pair were clearly worried about saying something that wouldn’t sit right with the villagers. Ombre took a moment to stoop down and calm the audibly whining Zorua they’d brought along as Chasseur uneasily pawed at his mane and spoke up with an uneasy stammer.

“W-Well, that human that was roaming around these parts got close to our dens where our pups live,” Chasseur explained. “We weren’t really sure what to do about it since our dens don’t have trees or brush for cover like the ones in our old territory in the Mazewoods did…”

“So Patron decided that we should try to deal with the human. Or at least scare him off,” Ombre added. “We made an Illusion to disorient him and prepared an ambush with our stronger packmates, but-”

“He and his partners proved to be more than what you could handle,” the Aegislash finished. “I’ve seen enough in my years to know how this story goes with humans.”

The Chasseur and Ombre visibly cringed, before the male Zoroark raised a claw and spoke up.

“Uh. Well… that’s pretty much what happened, yes.”

Tigri’s heart skipped a beat as she traded surprised glances with Stig and Rouge. She’d figured that the human and his companions were out of their league from that Avalugg they ran into, but they really managed to fight their way through an ambush by Patron’s pack? And carry him off?

The little haven around her suddenly felt a lot smaller and a lot less safe. If this human came across Abri, would even Elder Gide stand a chance in a fight with his partners if they were really so strong?

The other Pokémon gathered in the square began to murmur, some in fearful awe of there being such a strong foe prowling just beyond the forests that hid their home. Others worried aloud about what they’d do if the human came into the village. Still, others had a decidedly unsympathetic air to them, like a Skiddo who made his way to the front of the crowd and piped up, if still keeping a noticeable berth from the Zoroark.

“So after taking every opportunity you could to try and lord over us since you all left the Mazewoods, you now expect us to turn around and help you like nothing ever happened? Is that it?”

Murmurs of agreement went about the gathering as glares began to settle on the pair of Zoroark. Even Elder Gide and Ticho seemed unimpressed, as they joined in with visible frowns.

“This isn’t exactly a trivial request you’re asking of us, and I’m frankly not sure why you need our help. You’re illusionists by nature and got the drop on the human once already,” the Farfetch’d harrumphed. “I’m sure your pack can regroup and try again to rescue Patron. You certainly won’t be wanting for motivation this time around.”

Tigri watched as the Zoroark squirmed, and they looked almost as cornered as they had when they and Patron had been forced to back down the day before. The Zorua in particular looked shaken and visibly quivered as Chasseur stammered and cut in.

“I-If that was possible, we’d already be doing that!” Chassuer cried. “Before the human’s sphere snatched Patron, he was badly wounded by the human’s partners.”

“Half of our numbers from that ambush fell in combat,” Ombre chimed in. “When we came back from our retreat, we had to drag them back to our dens. They’re in no condition to cast Illusions at the moment, most of them can barely stand right now!”

“We know that some of you are as strong as those Pokémon! Even stronger, maybe! That’s why we thought that your help would make a difference!” Chasseur cried. “We won’t be able to follow the human back through the Mazewoods since we’re not on good terms with the other Zoroark packs there. If we don’t free Patron before the human goes back into their territory, we’ll never get him back!”

Those two must’ve been desperate if that ‘Chasseur’ Zoroark was resorting to flattery to try and get his way. Even so, something about the pair’s explanation was strange, and Stig and Rouge seemed to notice it themselves from their dubious expressions.

“Wait a minute,” Stig murmured to himself. “The human and his partners were strong enough to knock out half of the Pokémon who attacked them, and they only snatched Patron? How on earth does that make sense?”

It… did sound weird now that Stig mentioned it, though humans were deeply capricious creatures. They knew that all too well. Still, all they had to go with was the word of Patron’s pack. Their kind had a reputation for trickery, one that was well-deserved based on what she knew of them and the other Zoroark packs that prowled the Mazewoods.

What if this was also some sort of trick? Patron’s packmates surely weren’t happy about what had happened yesterday, so who was to say that this sudden about-face from them wasn’t some sort of gambit of theirs?

“Pl-Please, that’s my daddy that the human took!”

Tigri snapped to attention as she saw the Zorua from the trio approach Elder Gide and Ticho, her ears pinned back and her eyes visibly tearing up. There was a moment’s silence before Ticho raised his leek and leveled it accusingly at the Zoroark pair.

That’s why you brought that kit along with you?” Ticho scoffed. “To play at our emotions to agree to a dangerous task that you won’t do yourselves?”

The Zorua flinched and backpedaled as the tone of the crowd took a more negative turn. Loud grumbles and growls began to fill the air, as villagers on the Battlefield’s bleachers began to chime in with words of sharp disapproval.

“This is low even for you,” a Gabite snarled.

“Yeah, everyone knows that Zorua can learn Fake Tears,” a Diggersby huffed. “Even now, you’re still trying to take advantage of us!”

Tigri… wasn’t so sure that the Zorua’s reaction was an act. She supposed that she wouldn’t know for sure from how it was almost impossible for her and Stig to pick up any thoughts or feelings from Dark-types like the Pokémon in Patron’s pack, but the Zorua looked genuinely hurt from the reaction.

“B-But this isn’t fake!” the Zorua insisted. “My daddy r-really is-!”

“I understand that, Zorua,” a ghostly voice said. “But you have your own burdens to bear in the wild, and we have our own.”

The Zorua and her caretakers froze as Elder Gide pulled the shield off his blade and tensed himself, training a harsh glare over at her caretakers.

“In light of our current troubles in Abri, it would be beyond foolish of me as an Elder to get its villagers wrapped up in still greater ones without a very strong reason for doing so,” the Aegislash said. “You all at least have the option of trying to reach out to your counterparts in the Mazewoods. We’re not endangering our village for the sake of Pokémon that don’t live in it who don’t have an interest in helping us.”

The Ghost-type trailed off a moment, before turning away with a quiet, metallic-sounding huff that lingered in the air.
“When something about the present state of affairs changes, we’ll talk. And not a moment sooner.”

The Zorua hung her head as her voice began to hitch and she started to cry. Chasseur and Ombre looked visibly alarmed, and they hurriedly made their way forward as their voices came out with audible whines. Tigri couldn’t help but flick her ears in surprise. Outside of getting in over their heads in a fight, she never heard anyone from Patron’s pack do that to one of Abri’s villagers.

“Look, we’ll put up the Illusions again!” Ombre pleaded. “We’ll even cancel next moon’s tribute and find some way of making up the difference on our own if you help!”

“A-And the human has a bunch of those ‘treasures’ you village Pokémon like at the moment!” Chasseur added. “If you all help us deal with him, you can have all of it!”

Tigri stiffened up and looked back at her teammates. She caught Stig giving a rare blink in surprise while Rouge tilted his head in blank confusion.

“‘Treasures’...? As in the salvage that the human and his partners took from us yesterday?” he asked.

Tigri supposed that the Zoroark’s description did match up with the salvage that’d been stolen for them. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was in the clutches of a foe they stood no chance against or everything else about how Abri was presently in danger, she’d be relieved knowing that all their hard work hadn’t just been destroyed.

She snapped back to attention at the sound of a metallic clang from Elder Gide, where he pulled his tassels back from rapping against his shield and turned his attention back to the Dark-type wilds in their midst.

“I already told you. I won’t have any part in risking this village’s well-being in affairs that don’t concern it,” the Aegislash said. “Could we even assume that Patron would make good on anything you promise here even if we did successfully free him?”

Chasseur and Ombre visibly paused and set their teeth on edge as the Aegislash’s eye narrowed, before they began to speak up one after the other.

“I mean… he obviously doesn’t know what’s going on right now,” Chasseur explained. “B-But I’m sure the rest of us would be able to talk him into making good on things!”

Tigri flicked her ears at the Zoroark’s reply. While she’d have hoped that Patron wouldn’t have been enough of an ingrate to just let being rescued go unrewarded, she couldn’t help but notice that Chasseur very specifically didn’t make any promises in his response. Elder Gide seemed to have noticed the same, as he shook in place and closed his eye with a tired sigh.

“That’s not good enough to justify putting the villagers who count on me in harm’s way,” the Aegislash replied. “Though if you must seek help from here, you’re welcome to try asking some of the villagers if they’ll aid you of their own volition…”

He motioned off at the crowd, as the suggestion was met with low mutters and growls.

“Taking on a human that even Patron couldn’t beat?” a Rhyhorn scoffed. “Good luck with that one. Nobi and I might be a bit daring about the missions we take, but we’re not stupid.”

“Hrmph, I hope the human snatches the rest of you,” a Vanillish spat. “Knowing you lot, this was probably all some dirty trick to take advantage of us!”

“We already have our own problems!” a Shuckle cried. “No thanks to you!”

The Zoroark backed in on each other and flattened their ears with low grimaces. The crowd began to thin as the onlookers began to drift off, a few walking in front of Tigri’s line of sight and cutting off her view. She tried to peek around them, only for one body after the next to cut her view off. By the time the view ahead of the Dojo’s pit and the Battlefield was clear again, she saw Ombre holding the Zorua in her paws as the younger fox sobbed into her mane. Ticho was already drifting off as Elder Gide looked at the three wordlessly before the Aegislash turned away himself.

“It appears you would be better suited trying to come up with alternative solutions,” the Aegislash said. “From what you told me, you don’t have much time. I would suggest going back to your fellows to see if there’s a way of freeing Patron without getting into a direct confrontation with the human.”

Ombre briefly opened her mouth to protest, only for her counterpart to sharply tug at her shoulder and start heading for the path northward from the square.

“Come on, Ombre,” he said. “Let’s just get out of here.”

Chasseur and Ombre drifted off as the Zorua’s cries slowly faded as they headed further and further for the fringes where Abri gave way to the forest. All the while, Tigri kept looking on after them, even as the square slowly returned to an uneasy semblance of normalcy.

Then she heard shuffling from beside her on the stool, and then paws pattering in the dirt. She looked down and saw Stig was wandering ahead, heading off towards the northern path.

She certainly hoped it wasn’t for the reason she thought it was. But she supposed that that part of her brother had never changed since even before they’d fled the place with the harsh lights.

“Stig, where are you going?” Rouge asked.

“To get our morning mission,” he answered. “I think that Tigri and I might have just found it.”

Tigri slid off the stepstool as her head started to ache and she raised a paw to her brow. She looked around, and after seeing the square still thick with Pokémon milling about, she spoke up with her mind’s voice in a sharp hiss.

Stig, what are you doing? Why on earth do we want to get involved with Patron’s pack?

Tigri. Wasn’t one of the reasons that we started Team Aspirant so that way we could help other Pokémon like us? Pokémon that had been hurt by humans?

There was a lingering silence before Stig turned his eyes back for the north.

I haven’t decided yet if I want to help those three, but they are Pokémon like the ones we started this team to help. We might as well at least hear them out first before making a decision.

Tigri looked on silently as her brother’s words reverberated in her head. She wrestled with them for a moment, before she took a step forward, and then another, and another…

“W-Wait, Tigri! Where are you going?!”

Rouge’s alarmed cries filled the air as before she knew it, she was halfway across the gap between her and Stig. She caught up with him along the path, as the huts in and around Abri’s central square gave way to trees and more and more of the surrounding forest.



“Tigri! Stig! H-Hold on just a moment!”

Tigri set her teeth on edge at the sharp chirps coming from behind. She had hoped that Rouge would have turned back already and gone to work at the Post Office, but she didn’t have the heart to shoo the Fletchling off. Not when a part of her wasn’t fully convinced that she was crazy for deciding to even hear the Zoroark out.

The last of the burrows and nests gave way to berry patches and then finally, to unclaimed forest. She didn’t realize how quickly one could get into the belt of trees that nobody from the village lived in when running fast enough. It was a place where wild Pokémon roamed about and where Patron’s pack normally kept Abri obscured in Illusions to hide it from outside intruders.

It was honestly difficult at times to tell whether or not the Illusions were really there with how thick and overgrown the surroundings were outside the path. The way that the shadows on the surrounding trees looked, and the presence of Zoroark and Zorua footsteps wearing along the dirt being the only real indications that those Illusions weren’t present right then.

The whole time, those footsteps along with the scents their creators had left behind were their main guide forward. Then came the sound of sniffling cries and hushed, faltering words of reassurance, which confirmed that they’d been headed off in the right direction.

“C-Calm down, Bijou. We’ll- We’ll think of something we can do.”

Stig turned up ahead in the path and motioned towards a section of damaged brush. Tigri crept forward alongside him and Rouge to get a better view, as little by little, she began to make out a forest clearing beyond the undergrowth. Both of the Zoroark from earlier were there, as was the Zorua, and that ‘Ombre’ Zoroark visibly had her claws full trying to comfort this ‘Bijou’, who had obviously been crying for some time. All the while, the other Zoroark, ‘Chasseur’, looked on with an uneasy grimace, and stared off towards the ground vacantly.

Crack!

Tigri flinched and flared her ears at the sound of a twig snapping, and turned to notice she’d broken one by rubbing up against a bush while pressing ahead. At once, the two Zoroark snapped to attention and Chasseur entered into a crouch, ready to lunge ahead at a moment’s notice with his fur bristling.

“Whoever’s out there, show yourself!” he snarled.

There was a moment of hesitation before Stig pushed forward and stepped out into the clearing. Tigri briefly reached out to tug him back, only to realize that she’d already given herself away.

There was no turning back now. She followed after her brother into the clearing as Rouge poked his head out, only to shrink back into the brush. She felt so exposed being out in the open like this, but fortunately the Zoroark both eased up after seeing them. They traded glances with each other and began to approach, as Ombre paused and cocked a brow.

“... Wait a minute, you two were in the crowd when we were in your village yesterday,” she said.

“We were there today, too,” Stig said. “Though before you say anything else, there’s something that I need to know…”

He stepped forward and briefly fought back a wince as he brought a paw to his chest. Tigri reflexively started forward, only for her brother to motion for a stop as he stood up firmer and stared up into the Zoroark pair’s eyes.

“Did you two really mean everything that you said back there?” he asked. “All those promises that you made before Elder Gide turned you away?”

There was a moment of silence as even Bijou quieted down, brushing away a few stray tears as she turned to pay attention. Chasseur and Ombre traded glances with each other before Chasseur folded his arms with a low huff and turned his snout up.

“Why on earth do you care?” he demanded. “It’s not as if it matters anymore.”

“But it does,” Stig insisted. “If you’ll actually keep your promises, we’ll help you.”

Tigri’s ears briefly flared as her mouth dropped open in shock when a sharp chirp snapped her to attention. It was Rouge, having freshly burst from the brush with his beak hanging agape. She fought back words from her throat to press Stig with the voice in her mind as one thought in particular dominated it:

Stig, what are you doing?

She whirled around towards him and had to fight against her inner frustration to keep her from launching into a hissing tirade of how irresponsible it was for Stig to be volunteering for a mission they had no hope of succeeding at. Her ears pricked at the sound of small footsteps approaching from ahead along with a small sniffle. It was the Zorua, ‘Bijou’, staring wide-eyed at her and Stig with a stammering protest.

“B-But a human took daddy!” she protested. “A-And his partners were really big and mean, too! How on earth would you three be able to help him?”

“Two,” Rouge corrected. “I can’t fly and mom’s probably getting worried about why I haven’t shown up at the Post Office yet. If you’re really going to do this, it’s just going to be you and Tigri, Stig.”

Right. Two. Tigri already wasn’t sure what on earth Stig was thinking with his offer, but this was just another reason to just forget about the whole idea and go home. As if their chances weren’t already lopsided enough, they’d be facing a human with partners who dwarfed them without their team Spotter!

The wilds clearly shared her doubts, as Ombre shook her head and turned away with a sigh.

“Look, kits. It’s cute that you’re trying to show that you care, but our pack isn’t about to try its odds fighting the human and his partners again on our own again,” she explained. “And not to be rude, but you three wouldn’t exactly make a meaningful difference.”

“But we can,” Stig insisted. “And we don’t have to actually fight the human or his partners to do so.”

Tigri shot an askew glance over at Stig, as even Rouge couldn’t help but chime in with a sharp chirp of disbelief.

How, Stig?” the Fletchling protested. “Even if you managed to sneak up on the human, how on earth could you get Patron away from him?”

“Well… Patron’s stuck in one of those sphere things humans have, right?” Stig mused aloud. “We don’t have to actually beat the human to free him, just to get that sphere Patron’s trapped in and get it away from him. Tigri and I can move things around with our powers, so as long as the human’s distracted, we should be able to sneak it away from him.”

Tigri paused and shot a sidelong glance at her brother. She couldn’t believe that she was saying this, but Stig’s idea actually sounded like it could work. They were already small and could hide among the flowers in the meadow easily, and if Chasseur or Ombre were there to help with creating Illusions, it’d be even easier to sneak up and leave without being detected.

It wasn’t exactly a safe idea, especially if this human and his partners were really as strong as what Chasseur and Ombre had described… but so many problems around Abri would be solved if they could somehow make this work. The town would be hidden again from the dangers that lurked beyond it, and they’d even get a moon where they wouldn’t have to pay tribute to Patron’s pack and could put it towards making the upcoming winter a bit less lean. And if they were really lucky, maybe they’d even get their salvage back to turn over to Achille to complete their mission from yesterday.

Those human spheres they used to snatch Pokémon were about the size of a pine cone, right? It wouldn’t be that hard to move around something that small with her mind’s powers… but from what distance? And under what conditions?

She scanned her surroundings and saw a rock about the size of her head just past the three wilds. It was a bit too big to be the right size, but it was good enough to test her own doubts.

“Actually… maybe Stig’s onto something,” she said. “Since we can move things much bigger than one of those spheres if we have to.”

She focused and held out a paw as the power in her head pulsed with warmth. As expected, the rock abruptly jolted and lifted from the ground. She raised her paw and the rock rose into the air much to Chasseur and the others’ yelping surprise.

The stone wobbled briefly from the sound of the yelp, but bringing the rock closer and closer from across the clearing wasn’t much harder than pulling a stick on a string in from the quieter parts of the river. It wasn’t easy to keep this level of focus, but the human sphere was bound to be smaller than this rock, and lighter too…

And the more she thought about it, the less and less crazy Stig’s idea started to sound to herself.

The Espurr broke her focus abruptly in front of her and the stone fell in front of her feet with a loud thud. She gasped from the exertion briefly and quietly cringed. If she’d done that near the human, she’d have given herself away in a heartbeat. She grudgingly turned her eyes up. After the point she was trying to make, she doubted Chasseur and Ombre surely would be impressed with how the display turned out...

Except, when she looked at the three wilds, they stared awestruck at her and the rock. A small grin came over Stig’s face, as he hopped onto the top of the rock, and waved his paws for attention, this time closer to his audience’s eyes.

“Also, we wouldn’t need your entire pack to help us,” he explained. “Even if just one of you made Illusions to disguise us, it’d easily be able to hide us while we snuck up on the human.”

A silence followed as the Zoroark traded uneasy glances with one another. They seemed hesitant, and even if they didn’t seem to make as big a deal out of her dropping the rock as she feared, it was hard for Tigri to fault them. She and Stig weren’t even close to the strongest or most experienced Pokémon in Abri, and they were asking for the two to trust them with the fate of their pack’s leader. The pair briefly narrowed their eyes only to catch themselves as Bijou stepped forward and gave a wary prod at the rock, before turning her head back at her Zoroark caretakers.

“Chasseur? Ombre? W-Will this really work?” Bijou murmured. “W-Would they really be able to get Daddy back?”

There was a lingering silence before the Zoroark’s expressions eased and Chasseur looked away with a quiet sigh.

“I’m not fully convinced, but I haven’t heard many better options lately,” he said. “We’ll take whatever help we can get.”

Wait, was that really it? Tigri was starting to get a bit worried now. She didn’t think that Chasseur and Ombre were lying about Patron’s fate, but maybe they were rushing into things. After all, these were the same Pokémon who tried to bully and threaten them just the other day! Could she and Stig really trust that they wouldn’t try to back out of their deal once they’d gotten what they wanted?

“Come on, we should get going right now,” Ombre said. “The human was still in the area when we set off and-”

“And we will,” Tigri hastily insisted. “Once your pack puts up Illusions to disguise our village again.”

Tigri breathed in and out quietly as everybody’s eyes turned and settled on with quiet stares. Even Stig and Rouge seemed taken aback by how she cut in, to say nothing about the wilds. From her place, Ombre folded her arms and narrowed her eyes in reply, before speaking up with a sharp harrumph.

“That’s not what your friend just proposed a moment ago-” she began.

“Maybe, but we make decisions together as a team,” she said. “And I say his offer doesn’t account for the risk that the human, or someone else with him, winds up following us back to Abri. As such, it makes sense for us to ask for something upfront to try and deal with it.”

The Zoroark were now giving icy glares. Tigri started to worry that she was losing them, before shaking her head. She’d gone this far, all that was left was to stick to the path she’d chosen and see how things shook out.

“It’d also give you an opportunity to prepare other plans with your pack in case we fail,” Tigri insisted. “It’d give us a little time to try and find others in the village who would be willing to help us. If we don’t get Patron back successfully, your packmates putting up those Illusions could drop them at a moment’s notice and go off to try whatever fallback plans you all had.”

Neither Chasseur nor Ombre said anything. Chasseur opened his mouth to reply, only to see Bijou staring up with a pleading gaze from the side. He hesitated, before turning away with a low grunt.

“... Fine. Give us fifteen minutes to gather who we can from our pack,” he said. “Though if we don’t see you, we’re moving on and trying our luck getting Patron back ourselves.”

The Zoroark set off, with Ombre and Bijou following along back into the brush as Tigri stared after them blankly. Fifteen minutes was hardly enough time to make a circuit around Abri’s square and come back here. Would they be able to have enough time to mount a meaningful search for help in the village?

“T-Tigri! Stig!”

She turned back alongside her brother towards Rouge, who trilled in sharp protest and batted out his unsplinted wing.

“Why on earth did you agree to help them?!” he cried. “It’s dangerous to be getting that close to a human! Elder Gide even is keeping Sheriff Ron and his Officers from going outside the village because even they don’t stand a chance against that human!”

Tigri blanched as doubts suddenly began to swirl in her mind. She suddenly felt so much more alone, and with that genuinely scared look in Rouge’s eyes… a part of her worried that she and Stig were about to make a terrible mistake.

“Because it’s a chance to help Pokémon hurt by humans. Both in Patron’s pack and here in Abri.”

Tigri flicked her ears as the voice from Stig’s throat spoke up. She turned as her brother walked forward and crouched in front of Rouge. He held a paw out, giving a gentle nudge at Rouge’s uninjured wing with a stern expression.

“That’s the reason why Tigri and I created Team Aspirant to begin with,” Stig said. “If we can’t make good on its purpose when we have a chance to because we’re too scared, then why are we bothering with working on it?”

Yes… she did remember they had said that back then. And the more she stopped to think things over, the more the memories of when they first made Team Aspirant came flooding back. Memories of the first day just getting walked through how the village’s Teams worked by the Furfrou Brothers and how happy they were to follow in their footsteps. Memories of their first mission just helping to gather odds and ends around the forest. Memories of how excited they’d been to have Rouge first join their team.

As daunting as it seemed. This was precisely the moment that they had founded Team Aspirant for. The moment that they had been preparing themselves for.

Except, Rouge seemed visibly unswayed. The Fletchling didn’t say anything back for a while before he pulled himself away and turned back for the brush with a low chirp.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help with this even if my wing wasn’t hurt,” he said. “I just- This can’t possibly end well and you know it, Stig. Just the two of you going up against that human and who knows how many partners he’s hiding.”

Tigri wavered, as thoughts of the Avalugg from the day before and how big it was came back to her. Chasseur and Ombre had mentioned that the human had partners. Meaning that there were others aside from just that one that they would already not have a chance against.

She let her gaze drift back to the rock and then back to Stig. No, there was a chance. A chance to make all of this right, a chance to protect Abri at a time when it was most vulnerable, with power that she knew that they had.

And as dangerous as it was, maybe they didn’t have to go into this on their own...

“It won’t be just the two of us, Rouge. Chasseur and Ombre will be there, at least,” Tigri said. “And if you help us, we can have even more help on our backs.”

The Fletchling paused and looked back at her, holding his head at a dubious tilt. She sucked in a breath, before continuing in a pleading tone.

“I… know you can’t do much in the field right now with your wing, but if the other villagers knew what was going on… well, I don’t know if a lot of them would help us,” she said. “But even one or two of them coming could make all the difference.”

There was a lingering silence before Rouge turned back and held his good wing out with a low murmur.

“I’ll… think about it,” Rouge said. “But… you two really don’t have to do this. You didn’t promise those Zoroark anything. You can still turn back.”

“We know,” Stig said. “But this is something that we want to do.”
The Fletchling didn’t say anything for a long while, before turning away with a low, deflated chirp.

“I... I understand. Good luck out there, then.”

Tigri raised a paw and started after the Fletchling, but there was nothing more to be said. He slipped back through the brush, and after a bit of rustling, he was gone and the clearing returned to silence.



The fifteen minutes Chasseur and Ombre gave them went by longer than Tigri anticipated. They’d managed to make it as far as the Infirmary to try and ask around for help, but everyone brushed them off the moment that it came out that they intended to help Patron’s pack. After a while, they just gave up on asking around and hurried back to the clearing to wait.

Had it really only been fifteen minutes? Tigri had started wondering if maybe Chasseur and Ombre had stood them up, only for a glimpse up at the sun above to reveal that the entire time, it’d hardly budged.

It was just her and Stig. Alone. With nothing but him and that anxious, fluttering sensation in her stomach as company.

“... Do you think that Rouge told anyone?” she asked.

“I’m sure that he has, Tigri,” he said. “You know how he and his mom are. They don’t have the reputation of being the town gossips for nothing.”

She’d been counting on that, but the whole time, the clearing had remained quiet beyond the idle stirrings of the forest and her and Stig’s paws pattering against the dirt. Every now and then, she thought that she heard footsteps or movement from the brush, but whenever she called out towards it, no answer would come back.

There just wasn’t anyone there. Not even a random villager who’d come and try and stop them.

Tigri turned away with a low sigh when she suddenly heard brush rustling and briefly glimpsed a flash of magenta from the corner of her eye. She whirled around to try and see who was coming, only to see empty forest.

Except, the brush and the trees in the background were completely still. And they didn’t move even when she felt the wind nip against her fur.
“Wait,” Stig said. “Why aren’t any of the branches moving-?”

Loud rustling rang out from the direction of the bushes on the right side of the clearing, followed by a magenta flash. Much to Tigri’s mewling surprise, Ombre and Chasseur suddenly appeared and stepped out hunched over and visibly short on breath.

“Sorry we’re late, but we made good on our end of the bargain,” Chasseur grunted. “Patron isn’t around to tell us not to keep these Illusions up right now. They stay up until either of us tell everyone to drop them.”

Chasseur and Ombre looked around the clearing expectantly, only for them to abruptly stop and their ears to droop. They were obviously disappointed, and even without her powers to pry into things, Tigri already had a good idea why...

“So nobody else came after all, huh?” Ombre murmured.

“Unfortunately,” Tigri sighed. “But it shouldn’t change anything.”

“You were ready to leave with just the two of us earlier,” Stig insisted. “As we explained back then, we don’t need numbers if we’re not going to get into a straight fight.”

Ombre and Chasseur traded uneasy looks with each other before Ombre lowered her head with a low sigh.

“I guess we’re not in a position to be picky right now. But are you sure you’re ready to leave now?” she asked. “The human made his camp at the central rise in Longbloom Meadow and we saw him headed there on our way over. It could be our last chance to catch up with him before he goes back to the Mazewoods.”

Tigri let her gaze drift down to the ground. She’d always known it was a distant hope, but the whole time, she’d thought that someone from town would come and join them.

She supposed this was it. Just her and Stig. Patron’s pack had already started hiding Abri again, and if they backed down and went back to the village, they’d have nothing at all to protect it.

Tigri paused briefly, before getting up and pacing forward with a quiet sigh. There was only one thing left for them to do right now.

“Yeah, we’re ready. Let’s go.”
 
Part 5 - The Encounter


Part 5 - The Encounter



Tigri had never seen what a Zoroark’s Illusion had looked like from the inside prior to this. She just assumed that it’d just look like another side of the ones she’d see while passing through the Barrier—objects with little details like their shadows that were amiss that would look solid until one gave a hard enough push or attack. In retrospect, it was probably silly of her to assume such things. After all, if Illusions could look real enough to trick their own casters, Zoroark like Ombre and Chasseur would constantly be getting lost.

Instead, the immediate surroundings from Ombre and Chasseur’s side carried faded tones, almost like Tigri was seeing things through a dome of some sort of faint, magenta-tinted haze. It was a bit surreal to see how as they moved along, barring the occasional turn of a wild Pokémon’s head when they made too much noise, the Pokémon they passed by would just react to them as if they were invisible. Eventually, they came across a set of round, heavy footprints in the flowers, and followed their trail, carefully overlapping their paces with the tracks as best as they could to avoid leaving ones of their own that could be followed.

Tigri’s head flared as the power inside her burbled from stress, and only got more and more noticeable as they kept following the Avalugg tracks. Every time she checked up on Stig, his mood similarly felt every bit as tense and on edge as her own. And for good reason, after all, Longbloom Meadow was only so big, and the Avalugg’s icy body would surely come into view over the tops of the surrounding flowers at any moment.

Except that moment just seemed to take longer and longer to come, without any sign of him or his human. For a moment, Tigri started to worry that they’d been too late and that they’d already left for the Mazewoods. Then a strange scent carried on the winds and reached her nose. Stig and the Zoroark seemed to notice it too, as they gradually slowed their pace and came to a stop while Ombre scanned her surroundings with an investigative sniff at the air.

“We’re getting close,” she said. “Chasseur, you take the right and come around from the north. If the human’s around here, we’re better off trying to flank the human from two directions.”

Tigri watched as Chasseur nodded back and started to drift off deeper into the magenta haze dome, only to stop and look back at her and her brother.

“Wait, isn’t one of you two coming along with me?” he asked.

It was hard to argue that Chasseur wouldn’t have had a point normally, but… things weren’t a normal situation just then.

Tigri’s ears pricked after a sharp wince and turned to see her brother briefly pawing at the lingering wounds on his chest. She supposed Stig hadn’t been struggling too hard on the journey over here so far, but he was still visibly off-balance from Patron’s clawing yesterday. Was it really a good idea for him to go off with Chasseur? Without her there to help him if something went awry?

… The very fact that she had to ask herself that question was answered enough for her.

“No. We’ll be sticking together,” she said.

Chasseur and Ombre blinked in surprise and the magenta-tinted haze briefly wavered. Ombre’s eyes widened when she hurriedly threw out a claw and closed her eyes in focus on it. The haze’s discrepancy faded as soon as it came, but Chasseur’s fur still stood on edge. Tigri supposed that was one way to tell that that must’ve been a closer call with the Illusion than she realized. The male Zoroark set his teeth on edge and sharply sucked in a breath, before looking down with a worried stare.

“You two are sure about this?” he insisted. ”I’m just saying, this isn’t exactly a casual stroll through the flowers and we’ll be taking a big risk. If something happens and one of our Illusions gets broken, it means the human would only see one of you.”

Tigri felt a spike of pressure in her head. Her eyes didn’t budge, as they normally didn’t, but she could feel her mouth curling and empty air against her teeth.

“Again, we’ll be sticking together,” she hissed. “Stig and I have come all this way together. If we’re really in serious danger right now, we’re going to stay together so we can give each other the best chance we can if the worst comes to pass.”

Stig looked at her and opened his mouth to interject, only to stiffen up and flinch as he brought a paw to his chest wound. Tigri darted over and helped Stig steady himself as doubts began to swirl in her mind.

They should’ve treated his wounds a bit more before they went to meet Chasseur and Ombre. Maybe it wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but it’d still have done more good than the nonexistent help they were able to rouse from the other villagers. She looked back up at the Zoroark and saw that both of them looked unconvinced. They stared wordlessly for a moment before they finally relented, Ombre turning her head to shoot a sideways glance at them.

“If you say so,” Ombre sighed. “Chasseur, keep an ear out for us while you’re coming in from the north. If it sounds like we’re in trouble, whip up a distraction and we’ll try to make a run for it.”

Chasseur nodded back, before making his way to the edge of the hazy dome.

“Alright, though if we do have to bolt, Ombre and I aren’t sticking around for you two if you fall behind,” Chasseur warned. “Our pack doesn’t need to lose more of its Pokémon to this human….”

Tigri wavered briefly, but before she could say anything, Chasseur had already reached the boundary of Ombre’s Illusion. There was a brief flash of magenta light, and then he was gone.

The nagging doubts in her mind grew along the pressure in her head as her power felt like it was struggling to stay contained in her skull. Maybe this was a mistake. Or at least bringing Stig here was. If it was just her and the human snatched her, at least Stig would still be able to carry on in Abri…

But for how long afterwards? Especially if the village remained unhidden and just waiting for a human to discover it? She didn’t have an answer to that question, and the more she thought about it, the more it didn’t seem to matter for their present circumstances. They were already in the middle of Longbloom Meadow with Abri’s present protection hinging on them helping Chasseur and Ombre to free Patron. It was far too late to question their moves. Doing anything aside from sticking to the path they chose would likely make matters worse, both for them and for the rest of the village.

All they could do was to see things through, and hope for the best.

She let Ombre lead and followed along with her brother, only for Zoroark’s ears to abruptly swivel. Tigri stopped, as her guide crouched to all fours and braced herself as if she was ready for a pounce.

“Be careful while walking up ahead,” she said. “We’re closer to the human and his partners than I originally thought.”

Tigri looked up and saw Ombre motion for silence before the Dark-type slunk forward. She and Stig followed in the Zoroark’s wake, carefully brushing the flowers aside to try and cut down on the amount of rustling as they crept through the blooms.

Every sensation seemed to grow sharper in her mind. The swaying of the blooms and brief glimpses of movement beyond them. The sound of the Avalugg’s voice ahead along with another that was in the strange tongue that humans had. The smell of strange musk intermixed with river silt.

Wait a minute, Tigri. Doesn’t it smell a lot like it does when we’re down by the river collecting salvage? Why does it smell like that in the middle of the meadow?

Tigri didn’t know what to make of that either until the sound of dull thumps up ahead turned her head past the tops of the flowers. She struggled to make out anything past the blooms, even on her tiptoes. She turned over to Stig and saw he was having little more luck, only for him to quietly click his tongue and go up to Ombre to tug at her leg.

“Ombre?” he whispered. “What do you see?”

“It’s the rise in the middle of the meadow,” she replied. “The human set up a tent there and it looks like he’s in the middle of taking it apart.”

It sounded like they’d come not a moment too soon. Ombre went ahead a few paces before crouching and slowing her pace to a crawl and Tigri did much the same alongside her brother. It quickly became apparent why: they’d reached the edge of the flowers where the blooms gave way to the meadow’s central rise, with no cover beyond Ombre’s Illusion to disguise them past that point.

Sure enough, at the top, there was some sort of fabric shelter that the human was collapsing and folding up with the help of an Abomasnow. The Avalugg from the day before was out as well, crouched as his back was laden with colored sacks piled up on them. At first, Tigri thought they were Trubbish of some sort, but it dawned on her that they were resin like the ones that sometimes washed up wadded up from the river, just filled. A few odds and ends were lying intermixed with them...

Including the white chest that they’d found yesterday, along with their sled.

“Ah! So they really did steal our salvage!” she whispered.

“Oi! Keep it down!” Ombre hissed.

The Zoroark pointed off to the human’s waist, where there, just to the side of where his blue pelt was hanging loose from his body, there was a set of red-and-white orbs along some sort of band.

“Those are those spheres of his,” the Zoroark explained. “Nobody in the pack got a good count of how many he has, but he’d have at least two for those partners with him. So if he’s got more than that, one of them must have Patron inside it.”

Tigri looked on with her brother, studying the human as he moved about and the loose pelt moved about to and fro. It was hard to tell just how far the band went, but there were clearly three of those spheres attached to them. Every time she tried to see if there were more, either his pelt would cover the band, or he’d turn away, or something else would get in her way to ruin the view.

All of a sudden, the Abomasnow stiffened up, before motioning off in the opposite direction of the mound.

“Wait. There’s something in the flowers.”

Tigri’s heart skipped a beat as Ombre quietly let out a sigh of relief. Something else had caught the Abomasnow’s attention and turned it away from them. The human and the Avalugg started to look off at where the Abomasnow was gesturing. Ombre cautiously crept out of the flowers and motioned at Tigri and her brother to follow. She complied and made her way out onto the grass still under the Zoroark’s haze, when she saw it:

The human had three red-and-white spheres on the band around his waist, with empty impressions afterwards.

“Whew, so he’s only got three of those spheres with him,” Stig whispered. “That means that whichever of them isn’t empty is the one that Patron’s in one of them right now.”

It seemed to make sense. Except… which of them wasn’t empty right now?

“... So now what?” Tigri whispered. “How do we tell which of those spheres has Patron in it?”

There was a long silence, as the three studied the human’s belt carefully.

“The first two balls look like they’d be easier for the human to reach. Wouldn’t they logically be the ones that he’d want to keep his partners in since it’d be easier to reach them?” Stig asked. “That’d leave the last one as the most likely spot, wouldn’t it?

“Wait, but what about the one in the middle?” the Zoroark asked. “If he had to grab one of the spheres without looking, the ones at the ends would be easy for him just by feeling him. Wouldn’t he be just as likely to put a Pokémon he doesn’t intend to let out in between?”

Gah, both of those arguments seemed to make sense... and knowing human spheres, there wasn’t a way of seeing what was inside them without opening them. The human was starting to move away now. If they didn’t take something, their opportunity would be lost entirely. She cast a glance between the Abomasnow and Avalugg, and then at the human’s waist.

“If there’s two partners already out and only three balls, then it should just be a process of elimination,” she said. “Stig and I can grab the middle and rear spheres with our powers. If they’re both empty, we’d just need to figure out a way of getting at the last one when the human’s distracted enough.”

It was a simple enough idea, and normally she’d be confident in their chances… except she couldn’t help but have her attention drift over to Stig and his chest wound.

“... Stig, are you still able to lift things with your mind?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t have come along if I wasn’t confident that I could, Tigri,” he insisted. “Just give the word for when the human’s distracted.”

Tigri sucked in a breath as she looked back at the human on the ridge. He was starting to move further away now. And if he got into the flowers, it’d be impossible to follow after him without making noise. She glanced over at Ombre, before warily stepping out into the part of the grassy clearing still under her Illusion’s dome.

“Help us get a little closer,” she insisted. “I can’t grasp things with my mind without having a firm idea of where they’re at.”

Ombre hesitated but ultimately relented and crept forward, with Tigri and Stig following after her. When they reached the base of the rise, Tigri caught a glimpse of the human clambering down a dirt path just in front of them. Her breath caught in her throat as the human passed by, when she saw the spheres on the band on his waist.

She held out a forepaw and focused, tugging gently at the ball closest to the back as it came off and floated in the air back towards the haze. Stig did much the same and the spheres floated off and was just about to enter the dome of haze marking the boundaries of Ombre’s Illusion. Tigri tried to hurry the process along as much as she could, but her head was pulsing from the power within her, and any little noise could tip the human or his partners off to their presence.

And then Stig’s sphere suddenly dipped in the air. She shifted her focus to help stabilize it only for her own sphere to wobble in midair. All of a sudden, a light shot out from the ball she was holding and it split open along a hinge. She dropped it out of alarm as the light settled into the shape of a Pokémon just outside of Ombre’s Illusion…

One that looked nothing like a Zoroark, but instead like some sort of giant ice crystal.

“Huh?!” the Avalugg’s voice rumbled. “Horace, what are you doing out right now-?

“Someone was trying to take my Pokéball!”

Tigri reeled as her mind went blank with shock. She hadn’t even considered the possibility that the human would’ve kept Patron someplace else-!

“Hey! There’s someone down there next to you!”

Tigri’s blood froze as the Avalugg’s voice cried out from the rise and the human and his partners’ attention all whirled on their position… right on Stig’s sphere still floating in the air.

“Ditch the ball, kid!” Ombre hissed. “We need to go!”

Stig hurriedly flung the sphere aside into the flowers as they turned to run, but it didn’t divert the four’s attention. The Abomasnow took his place in front of the human as he blasted out frigid air around his body and the air grew thick with flurries with stinging particles of ice.

The human’s voice called out and Tigri and Stig jumped aside as an icy flechette zipped in and struck Ombre in the back. The Zoroark pitched forward from the Ice Shard with a pained yelp as she frantically tried to scrabble up. Much to Tigri’s horror, the haze abruptly cleared in a flash of magenta as she looked back and saw the Abomasnow staring and pointing off at them.

“Gah! It’s those same Zoroark from yester-!”

Everything happened so quickly afterwards as A flash of black and red from the meadow cut the Abomasnow off. It took a brief moment for Tigri to make sense of things, but it was clearly Chasseur diving in with a snarl. Tigri looked back towards the flowers at the sound of frantic rustling and saw Ombre was already gone. There was a loud yelp from Chasseur as they briefly caught him reeling from an Ice Beam from the Cyrogonal, which was enough to erase the Zoroark’s confidence as he turned and fled for dear life through the flowers.

Tigri frantically grabbed at Stig’s paw and dragged him along, her mind empty of all thoughts other than escape as she ran for the flowers ahead.

“Ack!”

His footing slipped and Tigri felt her lose her grasp on her brother’s paw as the stinging ice ice in the air dashed against her pelt. She turned back and saw that he’d tripped and was lying on the ground.

Stig!

She hurried over and dragged him back up onto his feet when she saw a shadow fall over them along with a frigid breath. Her breath hitched and she didn’t dare look up. This was it. If they survived, they were going to be taken away. Back to the place with the harsh lights or somewhere else that was similarly horrible. She clung to Stig and braced for the icy end…

“Easy! Easy!” the Avalugg’s voice insisted. “We don’t need to fight like this!”

She looked up and saw the Avalugg standing a few paces away. His posture was wary and guarded, and he lowered his head with a puzzled tilt as the human and his other partners looked on.

“Are you alright?” the Avalugg asked. “We were trying to scare off those Zoroark that ambushed us earlier but we didn’t see you there.”

Tigri stared ahead vacantly for a moment, stealing glances back at the flowers. She sharply tugged at her brother to try and get him to move along. Whatever had come over this human’s partner to make him hesitate, they were best off taking advantage of it to get away.

Except, Stig didn’t budge. He brushed her paw away and stood firm, and bared his fangs and bristled his fur back at the Avalugg with a sharp hiss.

“Those were friends of ours. And you can stop pretending that you’re some sort of nice Pokémon,” Stig snapped. “You stole our salvage yesterday and we already know how you and your human snatched Patron earlier.”


The Avalugg blinked in reply, as the human and his other partners looked on and traded glances with one another. The human said something in that strange, discordant human tongue that was curiously low-pitched. Not like the voices the humans from the place with harsh lights had, but… almost uneasy, or worried.

“‘Salvage’?” the Abomasnow murmured. “Is he talking about that trash we’ve been picking up from along the river?”

“I didn’t think that Espurr even lived in the woods around here normally,” the Cryogonal said. “Do you think they’re really Ditto? Since we’ve certainly been running into them around here.”

Tigri wasn’t sure what was going on, but neither the Pokémon nor the human seemed like they wanted to fight them. The Avalugg hesitated for a moment, before shaking his head with a low sigh.

“‘Patron’... that’s certainly an on-the-nose name if I ever heard one,” the Ice-type said. “I take it that’s what you call the Zoroark my trainer caught the other day?”

Yes,” Stig retorted. “He leads the pack that helps disguise the place where we live. To keep Pokémon like you and the humans you teamed up with from finding us!”

The Avalugg’s expression briefly hardened into a stern frown only for it to waver briefly and for him to hang his head with a low murmur.

“I’m not fully sure what the story is with you two, but it sounds like there’s been quite a bit of confusion. And we’ve probably gotten off on the wrong foot because of it,” the Avalugg insisted before motioning with his head at the human with him. “But I can assure you, Wulfric genuinely doesn’t mean any harm to you or any of the Pokémon that live here.”

‘Wul… fric’? Was that what these Pokémon called their human? The name certainly sounded like a human came up with it. Tigri looked up and saw the human and his other partners starting to approach when she noticed something strange: the human was holding a resin bowl in his hands, much like the ones that the humans in the place with harsh lights would sometimes bring around. She stiffened up and reflexively pulled Stig back.

“What do you think you’re-?”

“My human noticed that your friend looked hurt and you two both looked a bit thin,” the Avalugg replied. “He wanted to tend to you two before you left. If your other companions didn’t run away earlier, I’m sure that he’d have offered the same to them.”

Tigri watched carefully as the human set the bowl down. She glimpsed past the edge where there were those brown food lumps in it. The same kind that the humans in the place with harsh lights used to give her and Stig to eat in between the times they took them under the lights to hurt them. In his free hand, the human held a purple and white bottle with a nozzle. It’d been a while since she’d seen one but…

“A Potion and some kibble?” she asked. “What exactly are you trying to prove? What do you really want from us?”

The human hesitated briefly as the Avalugg cocked a brow.

“A chance to explain ourselves? Or at least to see you not hungry and miserable before you leave?” he asked.

There was a moment’s silence as Tigri and her brother just stared at these strange interlopers. Was it safe to trust them? They were certainly strong enough to overpower them on a moment’s notice, and yet… they hadn’t for some reason.

“Wulfric may be a clever tactician and ruthless about battle strategies when we need to be, but he’s more than capable of being kind,” the Avalugg insisted. “If you’re not interested in hearing what we have to say, we’ll let you leave. But I’d think you’d appreciate at least being a bit better fed and having those scrapes treated.”

The Avalugg nosed over in Stig’s direction. Tigri paused and followed along as her brother briefly pawed at his chest as the streaks from under his fur came into view. They at least closed up and looked better than they were yesterday, but they clearly were still lingering.

She carefully eyed the Avalugg and his companions. If this was all really some trick of theirs, it was quite an elaborate one, and they were already at these four’s mercy. It wouldn’t do any good to flee without Patron, either. Tigri didn’t know how they’d find him, much less leave with him successfully, but they at least had a chance to free him as long as they were here.

“Fine, we’ll accept your hospitality,” she said. “But this doesn’t mean we’re going to let you take us from here without a fight.”

“Understood. Just take your time and settle in a bit.”

The Abomasnow prodded at this ‘Wulfric’ as he went over and stooped with the potion bottles. Tigri turned to the food bowl and slowly helped herself to the kibble, occasionally stealing glances at Stig in between the sound of spraying fluid and the occasional wince. She stared up at the Avalugg, giving a wary twitch of her ears.

“I just don’t understand you all,” she said. “Why are you acting kind to us when you took Patron captive just yesterday?”

The human’s partners turned their attention towards Tigri after her question, and eventually, their human did too. The Avalugg sighed before letting out a quiet grumble.

“Straight to the Mamoswine in the room, huh?” the Avalugg replied. “I’m not sure how much of it will mean anything to you, but the long and short of it is that Zoroark is in a Pokéball inside Wulfric’s bag. Considering how Wulfric caught him, your ‘Patron’ is most likely currently in medically-induced stasis.”

Tigri glanced off at the human and a bag sitting by his feet. She flinched briefly at the mention of ‘stasis’. Back in the place with the harsh lights, when she and Stig were kept in those balls of their own, there’d be times they’d entered them when noticeably injured or extremely weak where they’d black out entirely and lose consciousness.

She supposed that would explain why Patron hadn’t broken free all this time, though then that meant…

“So you did hurt him badly,” she said.

“He’s fine… ish,” the Cryogonal chipped in. “It’s nothing he wouldn’t bounce back from with treatment. But we weren’t confident about how he’d do in the wild if we just left him to limp off into the brush right away.”

“For the record, I said we should’ve just left him,” the Abomasnow chimed in. “We were hoping to make him a Ranger’s problem, but the woods that led us to this meadow here are easy to get lost in. Worse still, that ‘caster’ thing Wulfric had hadn’t been working properly here. Something about ‘bad reception’.”

Tigri quietly bit the inside of her cheek. She didn’t know how truthful these three were being, but what they had to say about Patron’s condition didn’t sound positive. She heard footsteps as Stig made his way over. He walked past the food bowl entirely and held a paw up accusingly at the Avalugg.

“We’ll take our chances,” Stig said. “We have healers of our own who can treat Patron for whatever you did to him and our village needs him back.”

His reply took Wulfric’s Pokémon aback, as the Avalugg tilted his head puzzledly.

“Wait, ‘village’?”

The ‘Wulfric’ human said something in his tongue, before motioning towards Stig’s arm. Off at where the cloth strip tied around it was. Tigri looked over at the Avalugg curiously and noticed that weirdly, he had an awed expression about him.

“I didn’t know that there were villages this far out,” he murmured under his breath. “Though is that what the armband is for? To show that you’re trained?”

“‘Trained’? Of course not! As if we’d want anything to do with humans again!” Stig cried. “The band’s to show that we’re from our village!”

A befuddled silence followed from the lot. Tigri knew that ‘villages’ were normally made by humans and that Abri was a sheltered haven, but was it really that strange of an idea? She wasn’t sure how much it made sense to explain things to these strangers when she and Stig couldn’t trust them. But from the expressions they were trading, she supposed that was one way to tell that Abri’s present location was still fairly unknown by the outside world.

“I’m not sure if I follow you, Espurr,” the Avalugg said. “You say that you’re from a village, but you don’t have a human training you? Just what sort of village are you talking abou-?”

Tigri! Stig!

A spray of embers suddenly came in and made the Avalugg pull his leg back sharply. The air behind them suddenly shimmered as a magenta light broke, and Rouge suddenly came into view hopping forward along the ground.

“Rouge! Get back here!”

Along with his mother sharply pulling him back and spreading her wings out to shield him. She looked up, at the top of the flowers, where face after face from the village was drawing forward braced and ready for battle. There were the Furfrou Brothers along with a good chunk of the town’s Officers—even Sheriff Ron was awake and present with them! Team Rapid and many other teams from town there too, with Nobi and Orne crouched and ready to lunge at a moment’s notice. At their fore of the group, there were Ticho and Elder Gide, with the Farfetch’d tightly gripping his leek, and the Aegislash held his shield in a tassel with his body’s blade bared for all to see. The culprits of the Illusion became apparent quickly enough, as Chasseur and Ombre meekly peeked out from behind the Ghost-type.

“That’s them right there!” Ombre exclaimed.

“Y-Yeah, you’d better look scared, human!” Chasseur yipped. “We’ve got reinforcements now!”

The Avalugg and the others hurriedly steadied themselves for a fight, as the human stiffened up and backed away. Tigri traded glances between Wulfric and his Pokémon along with the encroaching villagers. Most of them despite their aggressive stances, seemed afraid and like they were visibly wavering. Could they really hold out in a fight against this human and his partners?

Did they even have to fight in the first place?

“Wait, stop!”

Tigri waved her arms frantically as both the villagers and Wulfric’s Pokémon froze in their places. She looked around, before looking up at Elder Gide with what she hoped they would interpret as a pleading gaze.

“Stig and I are alright!” she insisted. “The human didn’t hurt us at all!”

There was a moment of incredulous silence after the words left her throat. A few uneasy murmurs went about the villagers before the Avalugg’s voice rumbled in the air.

Ahem.

Tigri looked behind her where she saw the Avalugg digging his feet in. He was still wary, though no longer ready to charge forward into battle and studying his surroundings carefully,

“I don’t know what on earth is going on,” he said. “But from those bands you’re all wearing, I’m guessing that you’re all from the same place.

The Avalugg nosed off in Rouge’s direction, as Wulfric walked alongside him, pulling out another purple and white spray bottle from his bag. Off to the side, the human drifted up to their partly disassembled encampment and rooted through it.

“We understand that we have a few things that you want from us,” the Avalugg said. “Instead of trying to fight over it, why don’t we talk things through a bit? Give us a chance to patch up some of your wounded and explain how we got here, and we’ll hear your story in return.”

There was an uneasy pause as the villagers traded murmurs and cast glances over at Elder Gide. He hesitated briefly before he set his shield back against his blade and folded his tassels behind him with a sharp harrumph.

“... Fine, we will humor you, and if we deem it appropriate, we will talk,” Gide said. “But don’t expect us to let you have your way with us over a few words.”



Tigri didn’t know what she was expecting from this ‘Wulfric’ and the Pokémon he had as partners, but they were certainly full of surprises. The Avalugg apparently was called ‘Serge’ by his human and his teammates and didn’t find the name strange at all. They made good on their promise of tending to Rouge’s sprained wing, which he was able to better move afterward getting a Potion applied. They even treated Chasseur and Ombre’s wounds from the earlier skirmish. The pair squirmed uneasily during their treatment before they hurriedly slunk back alongside the gathered villagers.

All the while, the other Pokémon from the village kept wary stares trained on the human and his companions. Wulfric and his Pokémon largely didn’t protest, though Serge seemed to grow impatient towards the end of the impromptu treatment, and he turned his attention back to Elder Gide with a low harrumph.

“Have we convinced you now that we don’t mean any harm?” the Avalugg asked. “Or are we going to have to break out the food again?”

A low growl came from the back of the crowd as Tigri saw that it was Sheriff Ron. There was a thin bead of spittle at the edge of the Snorlax’s mouth as a few murmurs went around the crowd about whether or not the human was serious about offering food. Elder Gide rolled his eye, before narrowing it at the Avalugg and his teammates.

“We aren’t in the habit of accepting gifts from strangers we don’t trust,” Elder Gide retorted. “Let alone from humans. Though I suppose we promised you an audience, I will leave it to my villagers to question you as they see fit.”

Elder Gide floated aside as Tigri waited patiently for the villagers to start asking questions, expecting that maybe Team Rapid or one of the other stronger teams would go first. None of them stepped forward, and they all either traded hushed whispers with one another or pretended to distract themselves with some of the nearby flowers or the clouds in the sky.

… Perhaps Achille would do it? He and his family were one of the strongest fighters in Abri, some said stronger than even Elder Gide, and the Kecleon always had been more fearless about humans than most others in the village…

“Wait, where is Achille anyways?” she whispered to Rouge. “I wouldn’t have expected him to miss a moment like this.”

“Er… he stayed behind in town to do an ‘inventory restock’ since a bunch of us bought items on the way out and a bunch of others were still buying stuff from him in case the human made it into A… er, the village.”

Tigri should’ve been less surprised, really. Even if Achille’s family had been the ones to introduce money to the village, they sure did their best to try and make sure those coins they found inevitably returned to them.

She looked back at Serge and the others before shaking her head and speaking up with the voice in her throat.

“... I guess I’ll start myself since we’ve already talked a bit,” she said. “How on earth did you all even find this place? The Mazewoods are a place that even strong Teams easily get lost in.”

“Er… that is how we found this place, or at least at first,” the Cryogonal of the group said. “We made a wrong turn during a trip south into the woods a few days ago and wound up coming across this place.”

“We obviously were surprised by it, since we didn’t think that there were still flowers blooming this late into the year,” the Abomasnow chimed in. “It just seemed like a shame that there was all that trash just lying along the river, so we came back to try and clean it up.”

Tigri supposed that meant that the sighting that the Furfrou Brothers had made of a human a few days ago had also been Wulfric. Did humans and their partners really consider the salvage that Abri treasured so much to be trash? Did being around humans make Pokémon more wasteful or something?

Stig walked past her with a puzzled tilt of his head. So it wasn’t just her that found the explanation strange.

“I don’t know why you’re calling that salvage ‘trash’, but you three are definitely a lot stronger than any of the teams here that gather it,” Stig said. “Just who are you?”

Tigri looked up at this ‘Wulfric’ and noticed that he didn’t seem to be following along with the conversation, but instead seemed to be studying them and their armbands. She turned back to his partners, as the Avalugg cocked a brow with a low rumble of his voice.

“‘Teams’? You probably mean something very different by that term than we do. Though we’re a team, of partners with my human. He’s what other humans call a ‘Gym Leader’,” the Avalugg explained. “It’s our job to grow strong and battle others that come to challenge us, as well as to use that strength to help better the place we live and its surroundings when they need help.”

Tigri twitched her ears and heard a few voices in the crowd audibly gasp, as some of the villagers visibly tensed up and others had flashes of fear come across them. She didn’t recognize the term, but these ‘Gym Leaders’ and their partners must’ve been quite strong indeed, from a reaction like that. Though now that the three mentioned it…

“Why are all of you Ice-types, anyways?” she asked. “Did you all come from a snowy mountain or something?

“More like from the bottom of one, but that’s more of a coincidence,” the Avalugg explained. “It’s part of Wulfric’s job to specialize in training Ice-types like us.”

“Yeah, we’ve got no shortage of others like us back at the gym,” the Abomasnow chipped in. “So you don’t have to worry about us catching you or anything like that.”

Tigri eased up at the pair’s explanation. Stig and Rouge did too, and even some of the villagers seemed to be swayed… with the visible exception of a Vanillish in the crowd, who cringed and ducked away.

Chasseur and Ombre were also exceptions. The pair stomped up, as Ombre crouched and bristled her fur with a sharp growl.

“A likely story!” Ombre snapped. “You caught our pack’s leader just yesterday!”

“Yeah! Last I checked, Zoroark like us weren’t Ice-types!” Chasseur spat.

The Avalugg narrowed his eyes at the pair, and Tigri briefly backed away, thinking that Serge might have been ready to attack. The moment passed before the Avalugg glanced over to the Cryogonal.

“Horace, tell Wulfric to send the Zoroark out,” the Avalugg said.

The Cryogonal hesitated, before curling his icy mouth into a wary frown.

“Are you sure, Serge? Cryogonal asked. “I’m not sure how these Pokémon are going to react to seeing him.”

“I think they’ve already gotten an idea of what to expect,” the Avalugg replied. “It’s probably faster to just show them if they’re serious about wanting him back.”

The Cryogonal went over to Wulfric and nudged at his back with the edges of his body. Tigri looked on as the Cryogonal guided the human through to the bag. Wulfric said something in reply that she couldn’t understand but sounded like a question from the way it was inflected. The human put his hand into the bag, before taking out a red-and-white sphere from it. He hesitated briefly, before pointing it ahead at the gathered group and clicking its center.

A jagged ray of light shot out as the form of a Zoroark took shape in front of Tigri and her fellow villagers. It settled as Patron came into view slumped over on the ground, before he stumbled onto all fours in a daze.

“Ngah… what is this?” Patron groaned. “Where am I-?”

“A-Ack! Patron! You’re bleeding!”

Tigri looked closer at Patron’s body after Chasseur’s alarmed yelp. As Patron attempted to rear up, she could see a visible, ruddy gash that ran along his abdomen. Patron clutched at it when he started to turn his head back and saw Wulfric. He stiffened up and sprang back with a sharp growl.

“Grr… you—!

“Give it a rest already, Patron,” Ticho harrumphed. “You’re in no condition to fight right now and we both know it.”

“You should be thankful that Wulfric was calling the shots in that battle,” the Avalugg huffed. “With the way you tried to slash him, I’d have stomped you flat if it were up to me. Literally..”

Patron flinched and clutched at his wound, before looking back and to the rest of Elder Gide’s party. The Zoroark leader hesitated and pinned his ears back, and Chasseur and Ombre both looked visibly worried. It was the first time that Tigri had ever seen Patron look defeated like this. Even when Elder Gide was at his throat the other day, he still was defiant.

But he wasn’t now, which was the surest sign that Patron knew he was in trouble.

“Though this is why we caught him,” the Cryogonal of the group explained. “Wounds like those are things that don’t heal easily on their own in the wild, but are easily treatable by human medics and a bit of rest.”

“I mean, I didn’t want to take the chance on him,” the Abomasnow scoffed. “But yeah. If we didn’t, it’d be an open question as to whether he'd last the week in the wilds like this.”

It was hard to argue the Abomasnow’s point, even if Tigri didn’t think that the wound looked that bad. She didn’t know how they did it, but she’d had seen Pelin and Ernel deal with wounds like those before, and the Pokémon they’d treated generally recovered fine.

Except, those were villagers in Abri, and Patron wasn’t one of them. Elder Gide floated over and sized up the Zoroark’s wound, before turning back to Wulfric and his companions with a quiet sigh.

“Well, it’s a bit unfortunate, but this is a matter between Patron and you,” he said. “Were he still an ally of our village, we would surely be compelled to interject and insist that you surrender that sphere you caught him in so we could heal him, but-”

“Just shut up and patch me up, Aegislash,” Patron snapped. “I can’t exactly cast Illusions for your village if I’m dead.”

Tigri traded glances with her teammates as they had a flash of surprise. As impossible as it seemed, they might have succeeded in their mission after all. There was a loud splutter from the other end, as Serge stepped forward, and raised his voice to interject.

“Now hold on just a moment,” the Avalugg insisted. “I understand that you don’t trust us, but that’s not the sort of wound you can just eat a few Oran Berries to shrug off-”

“Trust us, we’re already aware. We’ve treated worse ones in the past,” Elder Gide said. “Though if you all absolutely must get involved, have your human come over with a couple of those ‘Potions’.”

The Avalugg and the others traded glances, as Wulfric came over and gave a puzzled paw with his hand. The Ice-type stared back, as Tigri hesitated, before stepping forward with a wave of her paw.

“Avalugg, I… believe that you and your human are trying to do the right thing here,” she said. “But it would really be for the best if you let us try to handle things our way.”

There was a noticeable pause before the Avalugg lowered his head with a quiet sigh.

“... We’ll let Wulfric know,” he said. “Though I’m not really sure what you’re all planning on doing.
 
Part 6 - The Observers


Part 6 - The Observers



‘Wulfric’ and his partners were just full of surprises. The first one was that his partners all had strange-sounding names much like Achille and his family in town did, ones that didn’t seem to have much relation to what sort of Pokémon they were. The Avalugg was ‘Serge’, the Cryogonal was ‘Horace’, and the Abomasnow was ‘Roiland’, and none of them seemed to find those names strange at all. The second one was how effective those Potions the human kept in those resin bottles were at dressing wounds, as good or better than any poultice that Pelin or Ernel would use in the village Infirmary. Tigri remembered seeing them before in the place with the harsh lights, but for some strange reason, she couldn’t remember one ever having been used on her or Stig while they were there. Most bizarre of all was how alien Wulfric found watching Pelin and Ernel dress what remained of Patron’s wound. From Serge and Wulfric’s other partners' blank gazes at the time, they clearly found the sight unusual themselves.

“... Wait, why are you just staring like that anyway?” Tigri asked. “Pelin and Ernel are just treating a wound.”

There was a moment’s flustering between Serge and his companions before the Avalugg shook his head and spoke up in a low, rumbling tone.

“Sorry if we’re being rude,” the Ice-type replied. “It’s just that we usually don’t see Pokémon this different from each other working together like this.”

… Was it really so strange? Tigri knew that the wilds outside of Abri normally kept to their own kinds, but surely somewhere out there they’d work together with other Pokémon that weren’t of their same kinds… right? Her ears pricked as Patron stirred on the grass and shifted. Serge and his teammates watched intently along with their human as the Zoroark got up shakily and Pelin stepped forward to steady him. Patron leveled a sharp glare back but otherwise did nothing to challenge the three as Gide sized up the Zoroark and turned aside with a metallic hiss.

“... Patron should undergo further rest and observation before returning to his pack,” he said. “Pelin, Ernel, bring Patron back to the Infirmary. Nobi, take your team out to his denning grounds along with these packmates of his. Let them know about their leader’s whereabouts.”

Ombre and Chasseur shifted as the Aegislash’s attention fell on them and the pair seemed to hesitate for a moment. They both seemed to be weighing words in their mouths that they were unsure of whether to say when the female of the pair broke the silence.

“I… guess that works, but what about everyone else in our pack?” Ombre asked.

“Yeah, it wasn’t just Patron who got torn up during that battle yesterday,” Chasseur added.

Right, those two had said as much back in Abri’s central square, even if it was a bit surprising to hear their request. Abri tried to keep to its own affairs and the wilds, Patron’s pack included, generally did the same outside of specific agreements between them. Tigri knew that she’d struck a deal with Ombre and Chasseur, but that was behind Elder Gide’s back, and helping others from their pack wasn’t a part of it.

She snuck a glance at the Aegislash as he stared down the Zoroark with his eye. There was a lingering silence, before he shook his tassels with a grudging sigh.

“I suppose that we can make an exception to tend to them,” he said. “Do be aware that we are not providing such generosity unconditionally, and there is only so much we can do if their place of treatment is just lying out there for the world to see and walk up to.”

The various Pokémon nodded back before parting their respective ways, Patron and the medics back for the forest outside town, while Team Rapid slipped off deeper into the meadow with Ombre and Chasseur. Wulfric and his partners watched as the two parties drifted off, with a peculiar difference in reactions. Wulfric seemed particularly awed by the sight, while Serge and his teammates seemed downright flummoxed and shot askew glances over at Elder Gide.

“Wait, you all have an ‘infirmary’?” Roiland asked.

“What kind of Pokémon are you?” Horace chimed in. “How do you do the things you do if you’re talking so casually about ‘villages’ and the like?”

Gide turned off towards the other villagers and motioned off back to the forests outside of town. Even unspoken, the message was clear, and one by one the other townsfolk began to slip back off into the meadow for town. The Aegislash lingered and waited as the crowd drifted off, with Ticho standing guard with leek drawn.

“I’m afraid that we can’t answer that question, Cryogonal,” the Aegislash harrumphed. “Our village wouldn’t have survived all these years if it were glib about its secrets. Especially to your kind.”

Tigri felt a pang of annoyance spike from the voice in Stig’s mind and briefly heard Wulfric’s Pokémon grumble among themselves. Ticho interjected with a low tap of his leek against the ground that snapped her to attention. Beyond some crushed flowers, there was little sign that there had once been a large gathering here. All that remained of the party from Abri was just her and Stig, along with Ticho and Elder Gide.

“Come on, you two, it’s time to go home,” the Farfetch’d insisted.

“Can you give us five minutes?” Stig insisted. “This ‘Wulfric’ and his partners were genuinely kind to us earlier, and we’d like a chance to thank them properly before leaving.”

Gide narrowed his eye sharply and Tigri couldn’t help but feel her fur bristle as the Aegislash floated up and loomed over them.

“You two are hardly in any position to be making any requests right now,” he harrumphed. “You explicitly violated a decree that I gave out, and you endangered the entire village because of it.”

Tigri flinched and looked away. There was a moment of silence, as Gide closed his eye and turned for the direction of the Barrier with a low, metallic sigh.

“And yet, I can’t say that things didn’t turn out for the better because of your actions,” the Aegislash said. “You have two minutes. Consider it a gesture of appreciation. Ticho and I will be leaving afterwards with or without you, and we won’t be there to help you if something goes awry with this human.”

The pair shuffled off into the flowers, as Tigri stared after them in blank surprise. She caught Stig glancing at her from the corner of her eyes, when he suddenly spoke up with the voice in his mind.

“I mean, at least it doesn’t sound like we’re in trouble? For a second, I was worried that Elder Gide was going to strip our team’s rank or something like that!”

All was well that ended well, she supposed. Except, something wasn’t quite right. Wulfric was still looking off into the flowers in the direction where the other villagers had gone and paid a strange amount of attention to it. The human pulled his attention away and went up beside Serge, who turned his head as the human neared.

“Is something the matter, Wulfric?”

Wulfric’s voice piped up again and its muddled rhythm and tone seemed to change. It felt more animated, more excited. Perhaps Tigri was reading into it a bit much, but it sounded like he was surprised or awed about something, which seemed to rub off onto his partners, whose own expressions similarly took an awestruck turn.

She’d heard that Pokémon that spent a lot of time around humans wound up being able to better understand human language. Had they understood what Wulfric was saying? If so, what was it about?

“... ‘Serge’, right?” she asked. “Why’s your human reacting like that?”

“He’s just a bit excited right now,” the Avalugg explained. “My human’s heard stories of this place in fairy tales long, long ago when he was still a youngling. Tales about a village of Pokémon living together, hidden away from humans.”

Serge trailed off and turned his own head off towards the forest beyond the meadow. He stared at it, before peering back down at the pair with an incredulous murmur.

“He just wasn’t expecting that it would actually exist. None of us did, really.”

Tigri wasn’t sure how she felt about humans having stories of their own about Abri. For them to have them to begin with meant that at least one human had to have discovered it in the past and then gone and told others about it.

And yet, Wulfric seemed awed just seeing a glimpse of the villagers without even making it into Abri itself. Hardly the sort of reaction she’d have expected from a human who harbored ill intent towards the village. The human leaned in and said something that drew his partners’ attention as they started to head off to pack up the objects around their camp. The Abomasnow briefly drifted off, before stooping down and rummaging through a few heaps and returning with his arms filled with bulky resin objects.

“Here, I believe these are yours,” Roiland said. “I don’t know why on earth you want these ratty things, but clearly you’ve been able to find some use for them.”

The Ice-type set the objects down, as Tigri’s ears briefly flared in surprise. It was their sled and the white chest they’d found from the day before! She and Stig went up and pawed at them to make sure that their eyes weren’t deceiving them, but they were just as they’d remembered them, and just as real as the day they’d left them behind.

Tigri looked up as lumbering footsteps rang out and saw Wulfric and Roiland and Horace loading some bags onto Serge’s back. The Avalugg began to pace for a small trodden path down the hill and stopped briefly to peer down at her and her brother.

“We’ll be leaving now, since it sounds like that ‘Elder’ of yours isn’t the type who likes to be kept waiting,” Serge said. “Sorry about the misunderstanding with the… ‘salvage’, as you call it. It’s not the best thing for this place, but I suppose if you’re all finding uses for it, we can’t really begrudge you for doing so.”

As if on cue, Horace and Roiland looked up from helping Wulfric with all the salvage and camp supplies they had heaped up onto their Avalugg teammate, and came up alongside him.

“Yeah, we understand that you’ve kept quiet about this place for a reason,” the Cryogonal said.

“Your secret’s safe with us,” the Abomasnow grunted. “Just give us a little bit to get going and we’ll be out of here.”
“Wait.”

Part of Tigri wasn’t sure if it was a good idea and from the puzzled look on Stig’s face, she surely wasn’t alone, but… this Wulfric was so different from all the humans they’d known. All the humans that anyone in Abri seemed to know.

Could there be others like him out there beyond the Mazewoods? Were they rare? Were they common? It was a large and dangerous world out there, and yet Serge and the others seemed to be at peace with it.

And was it possible for them to also be at peace with it, too?

She didn’t have an answer to that question. There were definitely enemies out there lurking the world of humans outside. For that matter, she still didn’t know if she could trust Wulfric or not…

But she was at least convinced that she wanted to find out for sure one way or another.

“It’s just… my brother and I have never known a human that we could trust to not hurt us. Just about everyone in Abri is the same way,” Tigri explained. “I’m still not sure if I trust this ‘Wulfric’ of yours but... will you all be coming back here again?”

A moment of silence followed as the four traded glances with each other. Serge turned his body around, lumbering with his feet as he faced Tigri and Stig head-on. He paused briefly, before lowering his head and letting out a low rumble from his throat.

“We can if you want, though you and your friends don’t seem to trust us very much. Certainly not enough for us to actually come and visit this ‘Abri’ of yours,” Serge replied. “I assume that you want us to pace ourselves and show that we’re deserving of your trust before that happens. So… is there someplace outside that everyone would be comfortable with us coming back to?”

Tigri trailed off and fell quiet. Even if Wulfric and his partners had ultimately proven not to be the scourge that everyone feared, Serge was right. There was no way that the villagers in Abri would allow him or any human to enter town peacefully even if there weren’t Illusions hiding the path through the Barrier.

She caught her tongue briefly, before seeing Stig walk up and shake her head.

“We don’t have a place like that right now,” Stig said. “We’d need to find one outside of the village. Someplace where everyone will know that you’ll come without surprising them.”

The easiest place for that would be someplace here in Longbloom Meadow, but… where? The flowers, as pretty and aromatic as they were, were easy to get lost in and had wild Pokémon that passed through them. Hardly the sort of place where one could take it for granted that it was safe to hold a peaceful meeting. Why, they might as well come back to this hilltop!

… Actually, now that she thought about it… maybe they could come back to this hilltop. They were just missing some way of marking it off so that way the villagers wouldn’t be alarmed if Wulfric came back.

Tigri’s eyes fell on the ring and disc lying in the heap of salvage in the camp. She glanced down at the small mound of a hill underfoot and then at the two rubber objects as her mind turned back to how the ring had rolled back on the day when Wulfric and his partners surprised them.

And then a flash of realization crossed her mind.

“What about this hill right here?” she asked. “Since I think we might just have what we need to let everyone know that this is a place we can trust you to come to...”



Two weeks after parting ways with Wulfric and his partners, Tigri found that she’d been sleeping a bit better. That nightmare of the place with the harsh lights hadn’t come back for the past few days and happier dreams filled its place.

Tigri wasn’t really sure why that had been the case. Maybe it was because she was less worried about the future lately. Maybe the whirlwind of events in the past couple of weeks had simply led her mind to drift elsewhere.

Whatever the reason, she wasn’t complaining about it.

Come on, Tigri, this way!

This time, she dreamed of the first time she saw the yellow flowers in Longbloom Meadow. Of the way she looked past their stems to see Stig waving at her, all as the Furfrou Brothers waited on them from deeper among the flowers. Fantasy and memory had a way of blurring together in such dreams. She remembered that they had trouble getting lost whenever the Furfrou Brothers weren’t there to guide them, but that wasn’t really a part of it.

She remembered the palpable excitement she and her brother felt that day. About how the haven they’d heard rumors about really existed. About how they were safe at last from a world that had seemed to only hold harshness and cruelty for them. About how they had a chance to make a new start together.

Tigri?

Tigri heard Stig’s voice again, except it wasn’t part of her dream. The images in her mind’s eye darkened as the Espurr cracked her eyes open. She looked up and saw the earthen roof of her den again. The same old bedding was underneath her, the same cloth strip she wore out in the field was laying by its side near the same bottlecaps lying against the wall. And with Rouge’s sprained wing having healed about a week ago, the den was back to its same pair of inhabitants.

“Tigri?”

Tigri blinked as the voice from Stig’s throat reached her ears that time and she pawed at her eyes. Stig was already at the mouth of the den and waiting for her. Except, this time, there was something different about him.

“Come on, we’ve got a big day ahead of us,” he insisted. “The Furfrou Brothers left a mission for us in the mail.”

“Wait, they did?”

Tigri shuffled onto her feet and pawed at her eyes. Much of the past two weeks in Abri had gone by in a flurry after their encounter with Wulfric. There were debates among the villagers as to Wulfric’s intentions at the time, while Sheriff Ron and his Officers were kept busy with increased patrols. And of course, she could hardly forget about everything involving Patron being brought to town to recuperate… along with at least half a dozen other Zoroark who clogged up the Infirmary after his pack took up Elder Gide’s offer to treat their wounds.

It was a bit hard to believe that the Furfrou Brothers would still have time to ask them to join them on a mission right now. But she supposed that they had managed to convince Brais to leave Rouge on Team Aspirant, so it wasn’t as if they’d be shorthanded for whatever task the Furfrou pair wanted them to do if they accepted their mission.

She went up to the small basket set out at the entrance to their den where Brais would deliver their mail and found a wooden chip left in it. Tigri focused and floated it over with her mind’s power, settling it on the ground as she and Stig looked over the runes scratched into it.
“‘Need a team to help observe a human in Longbloom Meadow. Bring something to write with’?”

Tigri paused and stared down at the wood chip. The Furfrou Brothers were observing a human in Longbloom Meadow? Since when did they ask teams in Abri to help with that? And why them and not a stronger team? She turned her head to Stig her brother Espurr held his head with a puzzled tilt and uneasily flicked his ears.

“I’m not sure why they want to get villagers mixed up with a human sighting, or why being able to write would be so important,” he murmured. “Do you have any idea what this mission’s about, Tigri?”

It did seem peculiar. What was writing supposed to do to help if something went wrong in this situation? Did Couaf and Farel not think that the human that they’d come across was a threat?

She looked at the bottom of the scratched runes, where one final line on the wood chip caught her eyes:

“... Meet near ‘The Tires’?”

At once, her eyes lit up, and everything about how odd the Furfrou Brothers’ request suddenly made sense. After all, the Tires had only existed as a landmark in Longbloom Meadow for all of about two weeks, and there was only one human who would reflexively think of going there.

“So Wulfric and the others came back after all,” she said. “I’m not fully sure what they’re up to, but we might as well go and find out.”



The walk over from the burrow to Abri’s central square went by much as it always did: after a few minutes north, the nests and burrows gave way to the part of town where huts started popping up. First came the General Store and the Bank, where an older Kecleon seemed to be haggling with the latter’s Gabite proprietor over a larger-than-expected ‘withdrawal’ she was loath to provide. Then came the Battlefield where Lind the Chesnaught was on-duty watching over Nobi and Orne from Team Rapid as the Greninja and Rhyhorn sparred with… a pair of Zoroark as their opponents?

“Chasseur! Ombre! Come on, you’ve got this!”

Tigri paused and looked closer at the Zoroark pair. Sure enough, they really were Chasseur and Ombre. Tigri didn’t think those two had been that hurt from the skirmish with Serge, so why were they here? The Espurr turned her attention to the stands ringing the battlefield, where much to her surprise, mixed in with the expected audience of gawking villagers, there was Bijou… along with some other Zorua and even a couple of Zoroark.

The Espurr carried on, stealing incredulous glances as she went around the Battlefield’s edge with her brother. Tigri swore that she hadn’t seen most of those Zorua and Zoroark around the Infirmary over the past couple of weeks.

“Wait, am I missing something here?” Stig asked, flicking his ears with a befuddled frown. “Since I thought that when Patron and those other Zoroark were brought to the Infirmary, that there weren’t any Zorua with-”

“Well someone’s been making himself at home as part of his recovery.”

Tigri’s ears flicked after hearing Ticho’s voice carrying along as Stig trailed off and stared ahead. Much to Tigri’s surprise, Stig even blinked at the sight, and there was a noticeable pang of surprise that came from the voice in his mind.

What on earth?

When she followed her brother’s gaze over to the counter of Carat’s Juice Bar, she could hardly believe the sight herself. Ticho was there, perched on the chest they’d found which over the past couple weeks had seen new usage as one of the Shuckle proprietor’s stools. The Farfetch’d dipped his bill into a portion of Berry Juice while Elder Gide floated in place a little further down the counter, and between them, was none other than Patron seated at the bar—silken bandages on his abdomen and all.

Tigri almost blinked herself and slowed her pace as she passed by, just in time to catch Patron snatching a simple cup off the counter. The Zoroark raised it to his mouth with his ears pinned back, as the Farfetch’d beside him turned his bill up with a quacking laugh.

“For a Pokémon that likes going on about how strange and silly our way of life is, you sure take well to it!”

“Shut up. This is just a precautionary measure since we’ve got a history with that human prowling around the meadow right now,” the Zoroark harrumphed. “I’m well enough that once he’s gone again, it should be safe for us to return to our dens without having to worry about him or those pets of his following us.”

Patron gulped down the contents of his cup and set it back onto the counter with a sharp tak. Tigri waited for the Zoroark to go on some diatribe about how silly it was to be drinking juice or having vessels from it, but instead, he turned his attention back to the Shuckle behind the counter.

“Whatever that was, I’ll have another of it.”

Maybe Ticho had been onto something after all. The Shuckle gave a quiet grunt before slowly ducking behind the counter as Elder Gide floated up beside the Zoroark, idly brushing a set of tassels against his blade.

“It sounds like our village is a bit more useful than you gave it credit for, Patron,” the Aegislash chuckled. “Though it’s definitely easier for us to extend hospitality to outside guests when we’re not worried about running short on things around town.”

Patron got up and glared sharply, as Tigri subconsciously backpedaled and tugged Stig back. The Zoroark crouched, much like he would in battle, only to flick his ears and glance past them. Tigri turned and looked off in the same direction as Patron and saw the match on the Battlefield between Chasseur and Ombre and Team Rapid was still going on. And there in the stands, was Chasseur’s kit—Bijou—happily yipping and cheering her packmates along. Tigri and her brother looked back towards the counter, where Patron’s expression had softened. He visibly hesitated for a moment, before he pawed at his arm and looked aside with a grumbling sigh.

Fine, I’ll waive your town’s tribute for this moon. We can get by for one moon without it. If you’re still having trouble getting things together in the ones afterwards, we’ll talk about trying to work out a way to defer things a little bit,” the Zoroark said. “Just don’t get any funny ideas about this becoming a permanent arrangement!”

From the side, she saw Gide fidget his tassels and she could’ve sworn that his eye narrowed for a minute. Not from annoyance or frustration, but with an expression that the eyes of some of the other villagers would have when they had knowing or self-satisfied moods.

“Glad to hear that you’ve come around, Patron!” Gide said.

The Aegislash brought a set of tassels against Patron’s back with an audible pat. The Zoroark’s eyes briefly widened as he stiffened up with a sharp yelp, before whirling around with a sharp glare. Stig had to fight back a laugh at the sight, and Tigri found herself doing much the same. For all of Patron’s strength and how harsh and intimidating he could be, something about seeing him looking silly like this made him seem a lot less frightening.

Tigri and her brother carried on along the contours of the village battlefield as the roof of the Post Office came into view. Brais was behind the counter dealing with a patron, which was a sure enough sign that Rouge would be…

“Stig! Tigri!”

Right there, perched at the top of the mission board right next to the Post Office. Even if it’d only been about a week since his right wing’s sprain had healed, he was already putting it to use waving at them to hail them. Down at the bottom, the Furfrou Brothers were there, with Couaf being the first to notice their arrival, and Farel turning his head just afterwards. Tigri hurried over alongside her brother as Rouge flitted down from his perch to meet the two of them, ruffling his feathers with an impatient tweet.

“Took you two long enough! Couaf and Farel say that Serge and his human are already waiting for us at those ‘Tires’ you two set up in the Meadow.”

So it really was them. Tigri turned her attention over to the Furfrou Brothers walked up and looked down at them insistently.

“Rouge swore up and down that you two wouldn’t turn down our request, but we figured we might as well make sure just in case,” Couaf said. “You two got our mission notice in your mail this morning, right? If so, are you interested in coming along?”

“Of course!” Stig insisted. “The human you wanted to observe is Wulfric, right? Of course, we’d be willing to come and help you check up on him!”

Tigri couldn’t help but notice a few of the surrounding villagers staring at them after the words left Stig’s mouth, some worriedly, others with disapproving frowns. Truth be told, a part of Tigri couldn’t fully believe that this was really happening either. That they were really just going to go up and meet a human again, one of the creatures that Abri had been founded to hide away from.

She snapped back to attention from a scoffing bark and saw Farel shooting a sidelong glance at them.

“Gee, why don’t you go ahead and say that a bit louder, Stig?” the Furfrou grumbled. “Though we’re running a bit late as it is. Is there anything you two need before we start heading for Longbloom Meadow?”

Tigri traded looks with her teammates, before shaking her head in reply.

“No, let’s go.”



It wasn’t long before Couaf and Feral led the three of them out of Abri and the square’s buildings gave way to the outskirts’ nests and burrows, and then to the surrounding forest where the Barrier was. The trek into it along the path to Longbloom Meadow was wholly unremarkable—just the normal process of following the guiding stones that marked the path forward. The usual light and shadows in the surroundings were there too, and as always, ever-so-slightly off if one stopped to inspect them more closely. A sign that Patron’s pack was still keeping up its end of their bargain.

It almost felt surreal for things to be so normal again after multiple moons of one crisis after the next piling up.

Well, Tigri supposed that wasn’t fully the case. They’d been making their way down the path to Longbloom Meadow quicker than normal this time, though she supposed that the Furfrou Brothers’ keen sense of smell would help them find paths trodden earlier by other Pokémon a bit easier. For all the peace and camaraderie Patron’s pack had had with the village right now, there was no guarantee that it would last and that they wouldn’t find themselves back at odds with each other sometime in the future.

And of course, their mission today to go and observe a human would’ve seemed incredible to her just a couple of weeks ago. Much less the idea that it’d be a human that she and the others in Team Aspirant would willfully go up to observe.

She looked up at the sound of a sharp tweet from above and Rouge settling on a branch over the path. The Fletchling hesitated a moment, before tilting his head down at her and the others.

“We’re seriously the only team who volunteered to go on this mission, Farel?” he asked. “I know that getting close to a human’s usually a scary experience, but you’d think that someone would’ve at least offered to join us…”

“I tried to have Sheriff Ron come along just to be safe, but the lazy oaf couldn’t be bothered to wake up from his post,” Farel sighed. “That Snorlax would probably sleep through anything short of a meteor landing on the village.”

The elder Furfrou trailed off and slowed his pace briefly, before turning and giving a serious expression back in their direction.

“Are you three are sure we can trust this human? The mission didn’t say anything about how close we had to be to observe him or his partners,” Farel pressed. “If you don’t think it’s safe, it’s not too late for you to opt out. Couaf and I can handle the mission just by keeping watch on the human from a distance and we’ll still reward you as if you were there with us.”

Tigri caught herself and paused for a moment as her teammates traded glances with one another. She didn’t think that any of them were worried about seeing Wulfric, but…

I’m perfectly comfortable with it,” Stig said. “But I’m not the only one who makes decisions for our team. Rouge? Tigri? What do you think?”

There was a moment’s silence before Rouge flitted down between Tigri and her brother. The Fletchling seemed to hesitate for a moment, before murmuring under his breath.

“I mean, he didn’t hurt us last time even when he had the chance…”

Even so, there was still a hesitant tone to the Fletchling’s voice, and it was frankly hard for Tigri to fault him. She looked aside as unpleasant memories of the place with harsh lights came back to her mind. Along with ones about the things that the humans there had done to her and Stig. It was a bit hard to believe that Wulfric could really share a kind with them and yet be so different from them…

What if she’d misjudged him? What if Wulfric and his partners’ kindness last time was all an act? It wasn’t exactly easy to gauge a human’s true feelings when their voice was hidden behind that strange, dissonant language of theirs. Picking up on stray thoughts with her powers only went so far, and it was easy to garble things from a lack of surrounding context.

Except, back when they’d met, Wulfric and his partners seemed to be on the same page as each other. Those three, she at least could at least understand. Serge and the other two were strong enough that she doubted that even with the Furfrou Brothers’ help, that they’d last long enough in a fight to even run away. But at the same time, beyond their attitude towards Patron, they didn’t seem aggressive at all and like they just wanted to get to know them better.

Even if it was from a distance.

Tigri put a paw to her mouth in quiet thought, before turning over to Couaf and Farel. Now that she thought about it, maybe they did have a way to tell whether they could trust Wulfric and his partners’ motivations for coming back…

“Couaf. Farel. You two said that you saw Wulfric and his partners at the Tires, right? Did they move on from it at all?”

“They didn’t while we were there,” Farel said. “But I can’t say anything about if they’re still there or not.”

It was just as she’d told Serge to do if he or his human ever came back. She’d honestly been surprised at how quickly Serge and the others agreed to put up that sculpture that they’d made with those ‘tires’ at the top of the hill in the middle of Longbloom Meadow. Especially when the way they set it up kept the lot of them from being able to camp there again easily in the future.

She’d explained to them that doing so would mark it as a safe place where they could approach each other. It also meant that if they did turn on anyone who came there, that they’d still remain ignorant of Abri’s true location.

She hadn’t told them about that last part, but they clearly hadn’t forgotten their promises to meet at that hill if they ever came back.

The Espurr paused for a moment. She still wasn’t fully sure whether or not she trusted Wulfric, but if he had gone to the tires like she’d told Serge to and he was waiting for them there… surely it was worth giving him the benefit of the doubt.

“If he’s still waiting for us at the Tires when we get there, I think it should be safe to go up to them,” she replied. “Call it a Team Captain’s hunch.”



Beyond a brief skirmish with a Jigglypuff, the journey over to the ‘Tires’ through Longbloom Meadow went by without incident. The height of the meadow’s flowers still made going through the blooms tricky, but Rouge's ability to spot things from the air and the Furfrou Brothers’ extra height helped with getting a sense of direction. Not that Tigri really needed it once they got close enough to the central mound overlooking Longbloom Meadow.

With the hill’s height, Tigri could already see the upper ring which Serge had called a ‘wheel’ poking out over the tops of the flowers. Then, when as she and her companions stepped out into the grassy knoll ringing the hill, they saw them: just to the left of the sculpture, there was Wulfric in those same blue hides as last time standing, alongside his Avalugg partner.

“Wow, word really does go around quickly here,” Serge said. “And here I thought we were going to need to wait a bit with how early we came in the morning.”

It wasn’t that early in the morning, was it? Dawn had been almost an hour ago! One by one, Tigri and the others made their way up the small hill to where Wulfric and Serge were waiting for them. Tigri went first along with Stig, then Rouge came flying up from behind, and finally the Furfrou Brothers followed behind them with their tails held up and alert. They stopped opposite the tires from the human and Avalugg, as sounds with strange rhythms began to prick Tigri’s ears.

It was Wulfric’s voice, speaking that strange, dissonant language that humans had. A glance over and up at his moving mouth confirmed as much. The human pointed his hand down at Rouge, who visibly stiffened up for a moment. From the traces of his thoughts that she could glean, Tigri didn’t think Wulfric meant any harm, but it was hard to tell much of anything about what was going on. The Avalugg waited a moment, before giving a small smile and speaking up with a chuckling rumble.

“Wulfric says he’s glad to see you’re doing better, Fletchling,” Serge said. “He was worried about how your wing was hurt the last time we saw each other.”

Rouge reflexively batted his wing in reply and piped up with a flustered chirp.

“I mean, it was just a sprain, so it didn’t take that long to recover from it…”

Tigri noticed that the Fletchling couldn’t help but keep his distance from Wulfric. It was hard for her to really fault him since even if Serge and Wulfric had been keeping their word thus far, the two were so much bigger and more imposing than them.

There was a moment of silence on the hilltop before the Fletchling held his head at a puzzled tilt and bobbed his head to study the pair carefully.

“Why did you come back?” Rouge asked. “You’re not here to take all the salvage from the river again, are you?”

“No, no. The river doesn’t wash stuff up that quickly, we’re here more because of you,” Serge said, shaking his head. “ Last time, your friend… ‘Tigri’, right? She made it sound like you wanted to get to know us better. And we kinda wanted to do the same ourselves, too.”

A shock of cream fur filled Tigri’s vision as Couaf stepped forward and placed himself between her and the outsiders. Farel was doing much the same to her right. The two Furfrou Brothers carried themselves stiffly as their eyes narrowed and they studied the Avalugg and his human.

“What, is this some sort of trick?” Couaf demanded.

“Yeah, this sounds like you’re trying to get us to give away the location of our village or something,” Farel growled.

Wulfric’s voice spoke up again as he held his hands out, before stooping and setting down a bag in front of him. Tigri briefly glimpsed over the human, unsure of what he was doing, before looking back at Serge as the Avalugg shook his head.

“You don’t have to tell us anything about where your village is if you don’t trust us with its location,” the Avalugg said. “We just wanted to know a bit more about you specifically. Since you’re all… well… quite different from the other Pokémon we’ve run into living on their own before.”

A series of faint clacks followed by pattering noises came from Wulfric’s end as Tigri saw that he’d set out a series of bowls with kibble poured into them. He pushed them forward and stepped away, before saying something that prompted Serge to inch back himself.

The Avalugg turned his attention to her briefly, before turning aside and pawing at the ground with one of his forelegs.

“I suppose, we’re just curious about how you all got here. About how you’re able to get by with an entire village like this,” he said. “If you still don’t trust us enough to say anything, we understand. We just thought that you’d be open to it since the last time we met, you seemed like you wanted us to come back here.”

Tigri stopped and glanced at her brother with a worried fidget of her ears. A part of her still wasn’t sure whether or not this was a good idea. Even if Wulfric and his partners had been kind thus far, they were strong enough to be formidable enemies if they had a change of heart for any reason.

There was so much that she and the others didn’t know about them.

About whether they were safe.

About whether they could trust them.

And yet, where would she and the rest of Team Aspirant be if they hadn’t been willing to put themselves on the line? If they hadn’t taken the chances that led them to meet in the first place?

Stig nodded back at her, and at once, she knew what they needed to do.

Tigri stepped forward alongside her brother and settled down beside the middle bowl. Rouge hesitated briefly, before hopping along beside them. She turned her head up, and looked up at Serge and his human, as a small smile crept over her muzzle.

“We were, and we still are. What would you like to know about us?”
 
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