Early Game Encounter
That night, the Siglo Swellow's members gathered in the mess hall, just as they had done many times before. The ship's sailors sat near the different tables throughout the room, as Team Traveller and Team Zephyr had come together around a larger table that had been cleared out at the center.
Beatrix and Vicente counted off the Pokémon in the room as the last few stragglers came in. A few Pokémon were absent, having missed the proceedings from what everyone presumed was a lack of energy from a day's hard work. Even Pyry and Pekka had come for the occasion… even if they seemed to be trying their hardest to convince the rest of the gathering otherwise they wanted to be anywhere else from the sluggish daze they'd been in since they belatedly regained sobriety. A few of the nearby sailors shot the two disapproving frowns, including Natrix and Philips, the Raichu of the pair folding his arms with a sharp scoff.
"You know, the plan called for you two to act drunk, not be drunk," he grumbled
"Yeah, just how dense do you have to be to mix that up?!" Natrix snapped.
The Gabite and Vibrava both flinched from Natrix's scolding and cradled their heads. The comedown from their rum had left the pair with splitting migraines, which made so much as a stern bark affect them like a stiff blow to their heads.
"Ngah! Ei niin kovaa!" Pekka buzzed. "My head's still killing me!"
"Y-Yeah, can't this meeting wait until we're feeling better?" Pyry whined.
"No!" Kline bellowed, slamming his forepaws against Pyry and Pekka's table as the two jumped up with startled cries. "Every minute counts here, and we can't afford to put this off because you two decided to be irresponsible idiots!"
The pair shrunk back, giving whining moans over Kline's alleged "lack of pity" as the Zygarde irkedly shook his head and looked away. Nida cocked a brow as she looked at Kline, bringing a paw to her mouth puzzledly.
"Actually, why haven't we started the meeting yet, Kline?" the Nidorina asked.
"We're still waiting on Alice," Calidus replied. "She said she wanted to buy some provisions for the ship before our meeting."
The Talonflame's explanation prompted the other Pokémon in the mess hall to trade uneasy stares and whispers with one another. Vicente himself was among them, as the Hitmontop looked over at the Fire-Type worriedly and tilted his head.
"For almost two hours? Is she alright?" he asked. "It shouldn't have taken that long to-"
Everyone looked over to the entrance of the mess hall at the sound of a Sneasel's voice and approaching footsteps. There, they saw Alice coming into the room, holding a bulky shopping bag in her right claw and chewing at what appeared to be some sort of brown cookie. The Sneasel finished her snack, before shooting a beaming grin and proudly raising the bag in full view of the gathered audience.
"Hope you all look forward to tasting some of Vollezee's snacks, since I got a bag of those gevulde koeken and speculaas that Percy told me about!" she cheered. "It only took visiting three bakeries to get enough for everyone!"
Loud, disapproving groans went about the room. While some, like the former pirates, seemed more excited about the prospect of free food, most of the gathering, including Percy and Calidus, buried their faces in paws or wings upon discovering Alice had kept them all waiting for a snack run. Kline took the revelation particularly poorly, as he stomped up to the Sneasel with his fangs bared in visible irritation.
"Alice! What on earth would make you think that was a good idea?!" the Zygarde snapped.
An impish smirk spread over the Sneasel's face, the Dark-Type giving no answer beyond a small shrug of her shoulders.
"Because those stroopwafels were great and this way everyone on the crew gets to enjoy some of the local food?" she retorted. "Besides, how can you hold an important meeting without some snacks?"
"Team Sentinel knows we're in the city!" Kline fumed. "They could've ambushed you while you were going about!"
Alice blinked quietly for a moment, seemingly taken aback by her teammates's reply. After her initial hesitation, she looked the other way and gave a dismissive wave back to Kline.
"Well, they didn't, so… yeah. Besides, when was the last time anyone from Team Sentinel set up a trap around some random bakery?"
Percy let out a low grumble and pinched his brow. While Alice was certainly quick on her feet, she certainly could try a 'mon's patience at times. But there would be plenty of time to chew her out later, right now, they had more important things to worry about.
"Enough," the Gliscor sighed. "We don't exactly have the luxury of time to work with, so let's just get this briefing started."
Percy motioned for the Pokémon about him to come closer to the center table. Team Traveller and their companions waited for the sailors to approach and peer over, while Alice went around passing out snacks in the background, with Elty and Pleo taking a particular shine to the sweets. The Gliscor pulled a long roll of paper from under the table and unfurled it on its surface, revealing a rough drawing of a set of four floorplans that were drawn near each of the corners, which Kline pinned down with a forepaw.
"We made a map of the Archive to help plan things out," Percy began. "It's not as good as it could be, since we had to copy most of the floorplans in a hurry from a library, while we drew the basement level based off what Kline saw."
"It's as detailed as we could've hoped for half a day's observations," Kline insisted. "Anyhow, the Archive is sectioned off into a secure wing to its west by iron doors on the ground floor. The access to the basement level is behind them, with the actual Vault sitting in the center of it."
The Zygarde lifted his paw, moving it along the paper until he stopped at the center of the leftmost floorplan. Just then, a few crumbs dribbled onto the paper, prompting him to glance up and see Alice eating a cookie over the paper. After a brief, wordless glare, the Sneasel pulled back with a roll of her eyes, leaving Kline to dust the floorplan off in annoyance, before pointing at an unfilled circle that had been drawn in a gap between thick lines representing the Vault's walls.
"The door to the Vault and its locks are all made from solid metal. From the glimpses I could see whenever the guards opened the door, the interior also seemed reinforced on all sides," Kline explained. "Even if it wasn't constantly being watched, we'd never be able to break into it through brute force without alerting every guard in the Academy to our presence."
Guardia gave a puzzled tilt of her head, before giving a curious poke at the map with her club.
"That… sounds a lot harder to get into than I thought," the Cubone said. "I thought that we had a way of getting in, though. Will it really work against doors that are built so strong? While Team Sentinel's lying in wait for us?"
Kline paused briefly at Guardia's question, before shaking his head back and continuing on.
"I don't think that whatever Team Sentinel is planning is meant to happen before we make it into the Vault. Otherwise, they'd already have started searching places for us, like the docks," Kline insisted. "But that's a problem for us to get to a bit later. The solution to the issue of how to get into the Vault is simple: we have the Company open it for us."
The Zygarde's declaration drew nervous whispers and grumbles from most of his audience, a few sailors muttering comments such as "he's joking, right?" or "eso es una locura". Strangely enough, Team Traveller's members seemed wholly unbothered, as Pleo raised one of his purple-dyed wings up and piped up.
"They will, actually!"
Pleo waddled over to his bag and after pulling back the flap, stuck his head in. He briefly nosed about inside, before he took out his goggles and set them on the table. The Lugia's eyewear drew some puzzled frowns and brow raises from the audience, before the young Protector spoke up to explain himself.
"Sophie told me that my goggles were something that would normally be kept inside the Vault, and that if I brought them over the Pokémon there would take them," Pleo chirped. "We can use that to get into the Vault!"
The Lugia's plan drew skeptical looks from the rest of the room. The sailors tried to keep their doubts more polite and reserved, while the former pirates were much more forthright. After all, everything about the description of the Vault had made it sound like even a Protector would have trouble breaking it down, so then…
"Eh? How's that supposed to work?" a Sableye questioned.
"Yeah!" a Quilava added. "The Company's not just going to let you waltz in and snatch that ledger just because you have some way of getting the door open!"
"No, but they would if there was a big enough distraction happening from inside of it," Kline answered. "As long as I got in, it'd be trivial for me to both provide such a distraction and hide my presence afterwards. It'd also give Pierce and the others all the cover they need to come in as Company reinforcements."
Kline's explanation was met with puzzled murmurs from the rest of the gathering. An Unfezant peered over with a blank stare, furrowing his brow in disbelief.
"Wait, it does?" Pat wondered. "I'm not sure if I follow you there."
"Kline can turn invisible, remember?" Guardia replied. "If he changes back into that "Core" form he normally goes around in someplace where he's not being watched, we can sneak him in without the guards knowing. He could even do it right here below deck!"
"That's right. It shouldn't be that hard to sneak him in along with those goggles. And as long as he moves his Cells away from the ship before he goes in, it'll look like he's coming from everywhere at once." Elty insisted. "Once he gets in, he just changes back into his current Forme, raises a little hell, and there you go. A ticket for us to send in those 'reinforcements' to help out."
Elty beamed and wagged his tail, only to stop and trail off after noticing the ship's crew still seemed to be unconvinced. A Sliggoo narrowed his eyes, before casting a glance over at the Pokémon around the central table.
"Then who exactly are we sending in as 'reinforcements'?" the Dragon-Type asked.
"Older Pokémon who have a feel for the campus grounds and aren't already well known by the guards," Calidus insisted. "That's where we would come in."
"Right, the guards wouldn't be likely to turn down our help if we were in Company colors," Alice explained. "Once we're in, the inside of the Vault would be a mess, so it wouldn't raise any alarms if the Ledger didn't turn up right away."
"Exactly," Kline said. "Additionally, the very properties that make the Vault so robust also make it hard for others to watch from the outside, even from the likes of a Luxray trying to peer in."
The Zygarde moved his paw back to the location of the Vault on the floorplan, where there inside, four dots had been drawn in a pattern that looked like a diamond or a cross.
"That's why there's a small team of four guards normally posted inside with badges for Psychics to sense if something is amiss," the Keeper of Balance continued. "As soon as they're overpowered, I can throw their badges into a corner, and the Company would then be none the wiser to Percy and the others switching out the Ledger for a dummy book."
As soon as Kline finished speaking, Pyry and Pekka's eyes lit up. Even in the midst of their hangovers, the two sensed an opportunity for adventure and rare loot. With everything the Zygarde had told them, it sounded like they could literally just walk in and take whatever they wanted!
"Ah! That's easy!" Pyry cried, before Pekka chimed in with a buzzing flit of his wings.
"Yeah! We'd be able to find that Ledger in-!"
"You two are staying on the ship," Kline snapped. "The guards already know you quite well from your drunken brawl earlier, so you'd only cause trouble if you came along."
The Gabite and Vibrava froze for a moment, their enthusiasm deflating as the two Dragon-Types looked away with a pair of quiet sulks. Undeterred, Alice walked up and gave the pair some reassuring pats.
"Eh, don't take it too personally, it's just what's most practical. Besides, you two are pretty experienced sailors, and we're going to need all the help we can get to make sure we pull out of here in one piece," she insisted. "I'm assuming that Team Sentinel's prepared some sort of nasty surprise for us when we attempt to leave, and if we can't slip out in spite of it, then all of this will have been for nothing."
Pyry and Pekka blinked and hesitated at Alice's reassurance, before grudgingly conceding the point. Towards the center of the gathering, Beatrix shook her head, casting a wary glance off at Kline and the others.
"On that note, once you have the Ledger, how are you planning on getting back before anyone notices?" the Illumise captain asked. "Even with our disguises, we shouldn't risk lingering around more than we need to."
"Filbert and the others showed us a shortcut out of the Archive," Crom explained. "It goes right to the canal that runs through the main building, which connects directly to the central one of the entire city. As long as Dimitri's waiting in the water, we should be able to get out in a hurry."
"With only one swimmer?" Beatrix pressed. "Especially if you're expecting Team Sentinel to attack you after leaving the Vault?"
"One swimmer and three fliers. We're not exactly sitting this one out, and it should be just enough to carry everyone," Percy reminded. "As for Team Sentinel, we'll be putting together some orbs and seeds we can use to delay pursuers if something goes wrong on our way out. If Team Sentinel does come after us, it'll help us even the odds a bit."
The Siglo Swellow's crew mulled the Gliscor's reply, and the more they talked the matter over to themselves, the more and more it sounded like this plan could actually work. The sailors' mood began to take on a more confident turn, as Kiran looked around and gave a quiet ruffle of his feathers.
"… I know that this is a big risk, but we all knew that before we came here," the Swellow insisted. "Are there any objections to this plan?"
A few 'nays' came back in reply, as more and more joined in. Before Team Traveller knew it, the crew had whipped themselves up into an eager mood, with a couple more enthusiastic Pokémon chiming in with cries of 'Let's get on with it!' and 'We'll have that Ledger in no time!'. Team Traveller and their companions breathed out sighs of relief, as Kline stepped forward and gave a grateful nod back at the surrounding sailors.
"Thank you for trusting us. And rest well," the Zygarde said. "We've got a big day tomorrow, and we'll need to be at our best for it."
As the beating heart of the Company, Canalhouse City's more trafficked districts hummed with activity at almost all hours of the day. Even well past nightfall, the streets and canals remained busy with more nocturnal Pokémon who roused from their daytime slumber to take the place of their diurnal compatriots.
It was that hustle and bustle that had been Albert's motivation to finally get off the Siglo Swellow after almost three days without setting foot ashore. He, Charlie, and Marilyn needed a change of scenery from the ship's decks, and as the three con artists made their way along the central canal of Canalhouse City, the crowds on shore, the swimmers and watercraft in the canal, and the surrounding canalhouses more than satisfied that yearning.
The Nuzleaf soaked in the hubbub of the world around him and let out a content sigh. Perhaps when all of this was over, they'd come back and ply their trade here. After all, in a city this size, there were bound to be no shortage of suckers. The Grass-Type turned off to gawk at a passing raft, when from the corner of his eye, he spotted Marilyn fidgeting uneasily, before the Eevee shot a worried glance up at him.
"Albert, should we really be going this far out from the ship at this hour?" she murmured. The Normal-Type's question drew a dismissive scoff from her Nuzleaf teammate, who turned back with his hands on his hips.
"It's fine, Marilyn. We're not the ones who are wanted here," Albert insisted. "And after all the work that slave driver of a snake's put us through since Buyeom, we deserve a night out on the town."
Marilyn hesitated a moment, before perking her ears up and letting a small smile spread over her muzzle.
"I mean, I suppose seeing a showing of The Luxray King wouldn't be the end of the world," the Eevee chuckled.
Albert shot a cheerful grin back at his junior partner and continued on a ways, only for his eyes to notice that Charlie's gaze remained fixed at the paving stones underfoot. Before the Nuzleaf could pry further, the Riolu raised his head, shooting a small frown back at his ringleader.
"How much longer are we going to have to do this though?" Charlie asked, prompting the Nuzleaf to raise a brow in reply.
"Eh? What do you mean by that?" he asked.
"I mean, when are we going to go back to how things were?"
Albert blinked and bit his tongue in awkward silence for a moment. The Nuzleaf's features drooped, before he shook his head with a low sigh.
"Look, I know it hasn't been fun, but it's been barely over a week since we got sucked into all of this," the Grass-type insisted. "Just hang in there a little longer."
"And what about David, huh?"
Albert fell silent at Charlie's question. He said nothing in response, after all, just what could he say? The Riolu balled his paws up at his partner's lack of answer, and grit his teeth in frustration.
"We're just supposed to sit and let him rot while none of those jerks care about helping to get him back?!" Charlie cried. "How long are they going to make us do this?!"
The Nuzleaf slowed to a stop as he passed the mouth of an alleyway, before hanging his head. As Charlie and Marilyn caught up with their leader, they saw him hesitate and heard him let out a quiet sigh, before turning back to them with a glum expression.
"Charlie, we're three 'mons, and we don't even know where those square-necks took him!" Albert exclaimed. "I get that you're worried, but be reasonable here! What do you expect us to do?! Just go up to those 'Team Sentinel' goons to give them a piece of our mind?"
"That can certainly be arranged."
Albert froze, before seeing a dark-furred arm shoot in front of him and wrap around his throat from behind. The Nuzleaf felt himself get dragged back, when he abruptly heard the sound of strong wingbeats along with Charlie and Marilyn letting out stifled yelps. The Grass-Type flailed his arms and thrashed as he tried to break free of his assailant pulling him into the inky shadows of a darkened alley. Albert tried to turn and see his attacker, when he felt icy claws dig into his neck and his blood run cold.
Albert's mind went blank in a panic, and the next thing he knew, he was being thrown against a wall, with Charlie and Marilyn meeting the same fate after a pair of large, bat-like wings tipped with red claws did much the same. Albert sucked in a sharp breath and turned around, where much to his horror, he saw Ketu and Aldrich staring down at them with malicious sneers.
"Now there's some faces I never expected to see again," the Weavile said. "You know, you really should consider covering your tracks when sneaking off from your ship this late."
The Weavile sauntered over with a threatening smirk, flashing his claws as he neared the cornered shysters.
"I'm sure that there's a long, not terribly interesting story behind why you're here, but let's cut to the chase here," he snapped. "We've got some questions for you, and you're going to answer them. Right now.."
For a moment, the only thing Albert could hear were the sound of his, Charlie, and Marilyn's panicked breaths, as his eyes darted about for any sign of a way to escape. His Riolu and Eevee companions dug their paws in, trying their hardest to summon defiant scowls, only for their eyes to betray their barely-suppressed fear of the Weavile and Noivern accosting them.
"A-As if we'd ever work with the likes of you again!" Marilyn piped.
"Y-Yeah! You left us out to dry once already!" Charlie snapped. "How stupid do you think we'd be to trust you again?!"
Aldrich leaned in towards the two younger Pokémon with an overpowering glare, the pair letting out frightened squeaks as he bared his fangs and let out a low snarl.
"I don't think you understand just how bad of a situation you're in right now," the Noivern said. "You'd be wise to pipe down and answer our questions."
Albert, Charlie, and Marilyn squirmed and shrank back against the wall. After being satisfied he'd cowed the three into submission, Aldrich let out a sharp huff, narrowing his eyes as he continued to speak.
"In case you haven't noticed already, you're not going to fight your way through us. Not to mention we just caught you red-handed impersonating Company personnel," the Noivern harrumphed. "That alone would get you stuck picking Apricorns in a field for years, or considering what your current buddies are up to right now, rotting behind bars on Nagrobek."
Ketu's expression eased up a moment, and reached out a claw. The three flinched, expecting a sudden blow at any moment, when they peeked up and saw the Dark-Type staring back at them with a smile that seemed almost amiable.
"But there's no need for things to come to that. We're reasonable Pokémon and open to negotiating," Ketu insisted. "After all, we already have some idea of why you're here."
Albert and his companions stiffened up at the Weavile's words. They hadn't expected to run into these bastards again, and yet they already knew why the Siglo Swellow drug them along?
"You- You do?" Charlie gulped.
"A little bird told us that your new friends are going around searching for pieces of something called the 'Knights' Ledger'. We also heard that they're sitting on one of them right now," Ketu said. "Help us find it, and we'll pull some strings so that way you can see your little blob friend again. You do miss him, don't you?"
Charlie and Marilyn hesitated at the Weavile's question. Every bone in their body was screaming not to trust him and that Noivern. B-But those two knew where David was and how to find him! They could very well make good on their offer. Could. But even if they made good on it, at what cost would it come?
"I-I…" Marilyn stammered. "We…"
"The crew dips their toes into smuggling," Albert suddenly cut in. "If I had to guess, they probably have that Ledger of theirs shoveled away in Captain's Quarters."
Albert quietly sucked in a sharp breath and blinked nervously, casting a glance slightly downward. Ketu and Aldrich's eyes widened briefly, as if they were surprised by his answer, before the Weavile studied him with a scrutinizing gaze. After a brief moment of hesitation, Ketu narrowed his eyes, as ice suddenly sprouted on his claws. The Nuzleaf reflexively raised his hands to try and shield his face, only to feel an icy punch at his stomach. Freezing agony shot through Albert's body, the Grass-Type bowling over from the blow and crumpling to the ground much to Charlie and Marilyn's yelping alarm.
The Nuzleaf lay in place wheezing for air trying to nurse his frigid and bruised stomach. Just then, he felt himself get yanked up by his head leaf and Ketu's claws wrap around his throat as their points dug into his skin. Albert drew in shallow, frightened breaths as he looked up, and saw Ketu's face leaning in against his, his eyes locked into a piercing glare.
"Next time I hit you, it won't just be a little love tap," the Weavile spat. "So let's try this again, where is the Ledger?"
Albert hesitated and grimaced. While he hadn't gotten that close to the Siglo Swellow's crew, he still felt uneasy about throwing them under the ship—to 'mons who'd left David trapped in an Apricorn and ratted them out to the guards on Buyeom, no less! Why, there was exactly zero reason to trust a word that came from this cat's mouth!
Pain shot through the Nuzleaf's neck as he felt Ketu tighten his grip and dig his claws deeper into his skin. Whatever he thought of undermining the Siglo Swellow, one thing was crystal clear: this 'mon was ready to kill him if he didn't say something that satisfied him.
… He just wanted to know a location, right? It's not as if the Siglo Swellow wouldn't be able to defend the Ledger if he was able to slip away and pass a warning along to them, right?
"Look, they're always going in and out of the second-to-last sleeping quarters from the bow on the ship's port side. I've never seen it for myself, but I've heard wood clattering a few times when passing by there," Albert insisted. "If they really have this 'Ledger' you're going on about, there's gotta be some sort of compartment in there where they're hiding it!"
Ketu paused and fell silent at the Nuzleaf's reply, the Dark-Type pulling his claw back as he stepped back and curled his muzzle up into a knowing smile.
"See, I knew I could count on you to come through, Albert."
Aldrich shuffled his wings, turning to his Weavile partner with a small frown.
"Is there anything else you need from them, Ketu?"
The Weavile stopped and pondered for a moment, before closing his eyes with a wave of his claw back in response.
"Nah, I think I can work with what these jokers gave us."
"L-Look, you have what you want," Marilyn stammered. "So let us go already!"
The Weavile rolled his eyes and nonchalantly pulled back the flap of the satchel around his shoulder. There at the top, Albert and his companions saw the rind of a White Apricorn poking out. The three froze and felt the color drain out of their faces, looking up to see the Dark-Type shooting them a threatening smirk.
"And keep you from being able to say 'hi' to your Ditto friend again?" Ketu asked. "Now what kind of person would I be if I did that?"
Aldrich beat his wings together and brought a swirling, overpowering gale down on the three con artists, throwing their bodies about limply like a trio of Substitutes. As the winds of Aldrich's Hurricane died down, the alley returned to silence beyond the faint churn of lagoon water and Canalhouse City's nightlife in the background.
Ketu glanced over the unconscious forms of Albert and his companions, before he brought a White Apricorn down on Albert's head. A flash of light swallowed up the Nuzleaf as he collapsed into the Apricorn. The Weavile scoffed and reached with a thick cloth into his bag and pulled out another white nut before repeating the process with Charlie, and then once again with Marilyn. Ketu deposited the three now-filled Apricorns into Aldrich's bag, before turning his attention back to his teammate.
"So they really do have a volume of the Ledger," the Weavile remarked. "I dunno what they did to pull that one off, but no reason to complain about a lucky break."
Aldrich looked down at the Apricorns briefly and covered up the mouth of his bag, when he glanced over at Ketu with a wary twitch of his ears.
"You know, we could've taken care of this half an hour ago," the Noivern began. "Alice had her guard down with that shopping bag of hers, and she would have had a better idea of where the Ledger was being kept anyway."
Ketu flattened his ears and looked away towards the ground. After a moment's hesitation, the Weavile turned back with a low, bitter-sounding mutter.
"Yeah, well, it wasn't that easy and you know it," Ketu said. "She wouldn't break like some random sailor, which is why we waited for a group like these guys to turn up. Besides, things worked out fine, didn't they?"
The Noivern raised a brow and looked at Ketu skeptically for a moment. After a noticeable pause, the bat closed his eyes and relented with a sigh.
"Anyway, I'll let you take care of putting these jokers on the first ship to Nagrobek. As for me…"
Ketu walked out onto the street and turned his head slightly, his eyes picking up the sight of the lights from the Company's military harbor on the other side of the central canal. The Weavile crossed his arms, before a small smile formed on his face.
"I've got a mission to prepare for right now."
Much to her relief, Salvini's job guarding the Academy's grounds went by that day without incident. Her companions had gone without seeing anyone from Team Traveller, and after hours, they all had an urge to spend time with one another.
Her idea for an activity had been the one to ultimately win her friends' favor, namely to spend the evening together over drinks at a tavern near her new lodgings, not far from the modest apartment she'd grown up in for much of her childhood. Before long, the four found themselves happily wiling away their time and sobriety at a simple wooden bar in a room dimly lit with warm candlelight, as a Gothorita barkeep darted to and fro between customers.
The four spent the evening at a set of stools set out at the bar, with Hertsog at one end, Salvini at the other, with Phyllis and Payak between the two. The Ariados of the lot sat at a taller seat and raised a clay cup by slipping one of his legs into a holder, before bringing it to his mandibles. Payak gave a wary swig of the cup's contents and clicked his mouthparts, Salvini watching carefully from a shorter seat to his left to study his reaction as she gave a curious tilt of her head.
"So, what do you think?" the Grovyle asked.
"Well, it's not rakia…" Payak began. "But the jenever here isn't half bad! I think I could get used to it."
A small smile settled over Salvini's face as she watched Payak take another sip from his drink. It was nice to see that in spite of their circumstances, Payak was finally warming up to her old home, and what would be her companions' for the foreseeable future. The Grovyle reached for her cup on the counter, when she saw Hertsog staring down idly at his own drink. Phyllis had evidently noticed it too, as the Marked Leafeon tilted an ear back and pawed uneasily at his side.
"Is something the matter, Hertsog?" she asked. "You've been awfully quiet tonight."
The Mienshao turned his attention from his cup and glanced over at his Marked colleague. Hertsog blinked briefly, seemingly drifting in his own thoughts, before shaking his head with an apologetic sigh.
"Izvinyavaĭ," he replied. "I've just had things from work on my mind."
Salvini, Payak, and Phyllis traded glances with each other. Even if Hertsog was usually more reserved than them, it wasn't like him to be this withdrawn when they went out for drinks together…
"Did something happen on the job?" Payak asked.
Hertsog remained silent for a moment, and picked up his cup to drink from it, before setting it aside and turning on his stool. Salvini helped herself to the rest of her own cup's contents, noting that the Mienshao had a serious, guarded expression. Hertsog nodded back to Payak, before speaking up in a low voice, just loud enough for him to be heard over the chatter of the other patrons in the background.
"There was a disturbance that happened around the Archive earlier today," the Fighting-Type explained. "Apparently some drunken students had gotten into a fight with each other. Normally I wouldn't think too much of it…"
The Mienshao trailed off for a moment, before shaking his whiskered head with a low sigh.
"But there's just been some strange things happening lately, and it stood out to me," he remarked. " What about you? Did any of you see anything strange during your patrols?"
Salvini flinched mid-drink as Hertsog spoke, and broke down into startled coughing. The Grass-Type accidentally spat up a good half of her remaining drink onto the counter and tried to calm herself, when she turned and noticed her teammates staring at her.
The Grovyle brushed her mouth with the back of her hand as the Gothorita barkeep shuffled up and shot a sour frown at her. Salvini grimaced briefly, where after a bit of awkward stammering, she forced a sheepish smile over her face in front of her teammates.
"S-Sorry, I was just drinking a little too quickly," she insisted. "The stuff burns a little."
The Gothorita summarily wiped down the counter in front of her, Salvini squirming from embarrassment and deep unease as her teammates continued to eye her. Payak was the first to turn his attention back to his drink, shooting an askew glance back from the corner of his eye.
"I mean, I knew you liked your jenever, but I didn't think you were that eager to get through your drink, Salvini," Payak murmured. "Though to answer your earlier question, Hertsog, I don't think that I have seen anything strange."
Phyllis shuffled her forepaws uneasily at the Ariados' words. She seemed to visibly weigh whether or not to say anything for a moment, before opening her mouth to speak up.
"Actually… the other day I saw a Cubone and a Growlithe in the library that reminded me of the ones we ran into on Mengir," the Leafeon said. "I… told myself that it was probably nothing, since there's no logical reason why they'd be here, but…"
The Grass-type visibly shivered and pinned her ears back, as her voice came out in a low, worried whine.
"I… I know that it's going to sound crazy, but… what if that demon really did come back?" she asked. "What if he's right here in Canalhouse City while nobody even knows about it?"
Phyllis's questions were at once answered by a dismissive scoff, as Payak turned and glanced at her from his stool with an unimpressed frown.
"Nima? This story again? Phyllis, it was just a case of mistaken identity, it happens," the Ariados chittered. "There's no reason for you to still be so wound up over some overgrown Wingull!"
"… And if things weren't that simple, Payak?"
Payak and the others paused and blinked as Hertsog's question hung in the air. Payak turned on his seat to face his Fighting-Type companion, who was staring at him with a serious gaze, making the Bug-Type warily raise a brow.
"Eh? What are you getting at, Hertsog?" the spider wondered.
"Let's just assume for the sake of argument that Phyllis is right," the Mienshao began. "We… obviously wouldn't agree on whether or not what she saw was a demon, but… would you still be dismissing her concerns so quickly?"
The Ariados fell silent and hesitated for a moment, before giving a puzzled tilt of his head.
"You mean, if those brats really were here again?" the Bug-Type asked. "What are the odds of that happening, let alone that that bird with them actually being a Protector?"
Hertsog shook his head back and narrowed his eyes with a small frown, raising his voice to continue to press his point.
"I'm well aware of what the odds are, Payak. Again, this is a hypothetical," the Fighting-Type said. "If Phyllis is right and there really is… such a unique Pokémon like that in the city, would you still feel this way?"
Payak fell silent for a moment, before he quietly pulled his legs close to his body and grudgingly spoke up in reply.
"I mean, I guess I wouldn't… since that'd mean that bird really is a Protector. That's not the sort of 'mon you would want to get on the bad side of, especially not for how much we're getting paid," the Ariados admitted. "But why would the Company get involved with trying to 'monhandle a Protector like that?"
Salvini cleared her throat to suppress a nervous titter, which Payak thankfully didn't seem to pick up on. After a moment to compose herself, the Grovyle let her attention drift back to Hertsog, as he shook his head with a low murmur.
"I don't know, but Phyllis has been adamant that one of the Pokémon we ran into on Mengir was a 'demon'," the Mienshao insisted. "If nothing else, it makes sense to be a bit open-minded."
Salvini blinked at Hertsog's statement. While she hadn't expected him to be nasty about Phyllis' fears, hearing him even entertain the possibility she was onto something was… unexpected, to say the least.
"What… makes you say that?" the Grovyle asked. Her Mienshao companion remained silent at first, turning his gaze down at the counter with a shake of his head.
"There's… just been a lot about what's happened to us over the past couple weeks that doesn't make any sense to me," Hertsog replied. "I'm well aware of what the official explanation was, but between the way Commander Briggs and Administrator Zorn were conducting themselves, and the rumors circulating about what happened with those riots in Tidemill City… there's just some things that don't add up about what those two told us on Mengir."
Hertsog reached for his cup and gave it an idle swirl, before letting out a quiet sigh and speaking up to reassure his teammates.
"It's probably nothing, but still. It's not unreasonable for Phyllis to think there might have been something more to what happened back there," he insisted. "And perhaps whatever did happen there is not as behind us as we thought. After all, the higher-ups aren't doing a whole lot to act otherwise."
A brief silence fell over the group, as one after the other, the four returned to their drinks. Salvini reached for her cup of jenever and as she raised it to her mouth, she could hear Phyllis quietly murmuring a 'thanks for having my back there' to Hertsog.
The Grovyle shot an aside glance at the former Mienshao captain, wondering to herself if the Fighting-Type genuinely believed the words he'd said on the Phyllis' behalf earlier, or if he'd just said them as a courtesy to help her mood.
… Either way, she supposed it didn't matter much, since for all she knew, Team Traveller would turn tail and sail out of port tonight. Right now, perhaps it was best to just focus on her drink and have a good time with her friends.
The next morning, the skies over Canalhouse City were overcast and gray. The gloom above did little to lift Darzin's mood as he flew through the air, the dampness reminding him of a home he'd long lost, while the chill brought back unwelcome memories of his first few cold nights away from it.
Not that he'd have been in better spirits even without the weather weighing down on him. Much of the past couple days had gone by in a fruitless search for the Siglo Swellow, as time and again, his attempts to shadow the Guardian of the Seas and his friends kept failing due to him losing sight of them amid the crowds of the city. He had also made an attempt to find their ship and capture Lugia there, but in spite of combing the expected docks high and low, there was no trace of the dark gray sails they'd flown on Haipheh.
On top of it all, the indignity of Team Sentinel's ambush yesterday also lingered on the Dragonite's mind. After everything he'd endured to try and use the Guardian of the Seas as a bargaining chip with the rest of the Board, it'd be a snowy day on Sormus before he'd let that Kommo-o and his cronies ruin all his efforts at the last moment!
"Hrmph, if those meddling spies think that they can steal Lugia out from under me, they've got another thing coming."
He hadn't been able to track down their personnel files in a mere day, but even so, he had… methods that would hopefully take the lot of them off the board as competitors. The Dragonite shifted his glance over at his right claw, which he'd tightly balled up into a fist around a scrunched-up indigo cloth. The Dragon-type gave a firm squeeze at it, before training his attention down at the city's islets below.
Darzin flew ahead as the military harbor came into view among the gabled rooftops. The Dragonite looked down among the network of canals and streets below, studying the surroundings when he chanced to come across a waterside terrace directly south along the canal running past the harbor. There, the Dragon-Type spotted a Kommo-o and a Noivern seated among the tables and blinked, circling about for a better look. Alongside the two Pokémon was the same Sylveon from the day before, and a Mothim that he didn't seem to recognize, but could have sworn he'd seen somewhere before. But even between the three faces that he could recognize, it was clear that this was the group he was looking for.
"And here I thought I'd need to comb the Academy to find them again," he grumbled. "Let's hurry up and move this along."
Darzin swooped down from the air and landed on his feet in a low crouch, his arrival causing a noticeable thump that drew the attention of the nearby Pokémon away from their drinks and meals.
"There you are!" Darzin fumed. "Where on earth have you all been?!"
Team Sentinel looked up from the table, with Ellsberg jolting up and letting out a surprised buzz at the sight of the Dragonite.
"H-Huh?! Administrator Darzin?!"
The Bug-Type wondered briefly what on earth the Administrator was doing away from his duties at the Records Department, only to notice Sorge, Aldrich, and Zelle's reactions transform into frowns of sour annoyance. Zelle narrowed her eyes, throwing a feeler over her face and dragging it downwards with a low groan.
"You have got to be kidding me…"
"No, I'm not kidding," Darzin snapped. "And you'd do well to respect your superiors here!"
Sorge shot a dark glare across the table and balled his left claw into a fist. The Kommo-o paused when he noticed from the corners of his eyes that there were other Pokémon in Company lavenders staring at them. Sorge hesitated briefly and exhaled, before forcing a more muted expression over his face and leaning in with a quiet growl.
"You should rein in your attitude," the Kommo-o snarled. "How do you expect this to end any different than yesterday?"
Sorge noted that Darzin didn't seem fazed by the implied threat and instead bared his fangs back. Was it the other Company Pokémon nearby giving him such boldness? Him misreading their strength? Or just him being that much of a glutton for punishment?
Sorge didn't know, and frankly didn't care too much about the reason. Whatever had made the Dragonite think it was a good idea to seek them out, he was advancing on them all the same, and clearly eager for a confrontation.
"Bold of you to think that you're in any position to publicly deny me!" Darzin exclaimed, holding out an accusatory claw. "Though if you'd like to try your luck with expulsion from the ranks, go ahead and-"
"Hey there, buddy! Good to see you again!"
Darzin felt a sharp slap against his back as a wave of dizziness settled over him. The Dragonite whirled his head around and saw a Weavile smirking up at him just as his vision went blurry. The Dragon-type Administrator lurched in a confused stagger, only for Ketu to slip past him as he patted at his back.
"C'mon, It hasn't been that long since we saw each other!" Ketu exclaimed, shooting a smarmy smile up at Darzin. "Why, with that sort of treatment, you'd think we were enemies or something!"
Darzin tottered and struggled to keep his balance. He turned to his left in an attempt to follow the Weavile's voice but merely faced empty air.
"Ngah… who are-?"
The Dragonite wobbled forward, as Ketu waited for the Dragon-Type to raise a foot to turn to face him again, only to give a shove mid-stride that pushed the reeling Administrator off-balance. Darzin stumbled ahead a few steps before righting himself in confusion, leaving Ketu to fold his arms as he called out to the Dragonite in a smug tone in front of the nearby onlookers.
"Might want to lay off the jenever though if you're getting that wobbly from it, though," the Dark-Type insisted. "We need a moment to touch base first, so let's catch up with each other in a bit. For now, why don't you get some fresh air to clear your head?"
Darzin staggered into the table of a hapless party of guards, where he upended the group's meal and drinks with a chorus of yelps and protests.
"Hey! Watch it!"
Satisfied with his clawwork, Ketu ignored the unfolding commotion in the background and took a seat beside the other members of Team Sentinel, kicking his feet up onto the table with a sly grin as he let the splintered husk of a spent Totter Seed fall under the table. All the while, Ellsberg looked on in bewilderment, watching Darzin walk around in a daze, before turning his attention back to the others.
"What on earth just happened?" he asked, drawing a dismissive scoff from Aldrich in reply.
"Hrmph, Darzin beclowned himself yet again," the Noivern said. "Though what else is new?"
Ketu cast a glance back at Darzin after the sound of him bumping into another table rang out, before turning back to his Noivern teammate with a small shrug.
"Not too much. Like we expected, it looks like today's the day that Kline and his friends are going to try to hit up the Vault," the Weavile said, prompting Aldrich to look at him expectantly.
"I take it that you're ready to handle your end of things, then?" the Noivern asked.
Ketu fell quiet for a moment and studied the mouth of the military harbor, before giving a wary nod back to his friend.
"Mostly. I've got an idea of where to find the Ledger and it shouldn't take too long to zero in on it," he replied. "I'm pretty sure I could snatch it and get out on my own if I had to, but I could use a distraction on that schooner to buy me some more time."
Ketu's teammates remained quiet and thought to themselves what could be used to create a distraction on such short notice. A pained yowl rang out and caught the group's attention, as they glanced over to a nearby table and spotted a hapless Liepard getting up whimpering from a still-dazed Darzin having stepped on his tail. The five traded looks with each other, before Zelle raised a feeler and pointed off at the lurching Administrator in the background.
"You mean a distraction like that?" she asked. Ketu turned and let his gaze linger on the Dragonite for a moment, before giving a grunting nod in affirmation.
"Yeah, he'll do," he said. "Let's go ahead and point him where we need him to go."
Sorge started to get up, when much to his surprise, Darzin turned back and began lumbering towards them on his own. The rest of Team Sentinel rose from their seats as well, expecting Darzin to crash into their table, when he abruptly veered towards Sorge. He threw his right arm out to steady himself, his claw falling onto the mouth of the Kommo-o's bag. Sorge's eyes lit up with fiery indignation and he grabbed the Dragonite's arm with his left claw, digging into it just enough to draw a pained yelp and a few ruddy droplets.
"That's quite enough, Darzin," Sorge snapped.
The Kommo-o shoved the Dragonite away, sending him stumbling back and pratfalling onto the paving stones behind him. Darzin sat there, shaking feeling back into his arm and nursing his rump as a few stifled snickers came from the surrounding onlookers. The Dragonite frowned with a low, annoyed growl, before getting up and sharply glaring back at Sorge.
"What do you think you're-?!"
"Reacting as any other Pokémon would to having his stuff rifled through," Sorge harrumphed. "Even as an Administrator, you surely know better than to expect a 'mon to just accept that!"
The Dragonite bared his fangs back, but didn't get much of a reaction aside from an unimpressed frown from Zelle, who rolled her eyes and turned her attention towards Ketu.
"Hrmph, we've wasted enough time on this," the Sylveon insisted. "We should get going if we want to wrap things up within the hour. That schooner near the mouth of the military harbor isn't going to take care of itself."
Darzin blinked and fell silent after the Fairy-Type's words. Had she just slipped up? He wouldn't have expected Pokémon from the Intelligence Division to have such loose lips, but he certainly wasn't about to complain about it.
The Dragonite wondered for a moment how on earth Lugia and his companions would have docked their ship in the military harbor for multiple days. After all, only Company ships were allowed to dock at its piers!
… Then again, they surely would've had an easier time infiltrating the Academy if they had passed themselves off in Company colors. And it wouldn't be hard to confirm things one way or another. Why, the harbor was literally visible from this terrace! It'd only take a quick look to verify if that schooner was there, and if it was… well, snatching Lugia thanks to that Sylveon's mistake would be as convenient a way as any to repay the Kommo-o and his underlings for their intrusion.
The Dragonite turned and headed off from the terrace with an audible huff, only for Ketu to call out from behind him.
Darzin looked back, flexing the digits of a free and empty right claw much as if they'd grown stiff from exertion. Curiously, the Dragonite seemed to be at ease, as the faintest glimmers of a smile crossed his face, before being suppressed into a deep scowl.
"I'm a busy 'mon, Weavile," he huffed back. "Besides, even if you were extremely rude throughout it, I got what I wanted from our meeting."
Darzin leapt up, taking wing as he flew up into the gray sky and sailed along with the churning air currents above. Back on the ground, Team Sentinel's members watched as the Dragonite Administrator slipped off, before Aldrich let out a low scoff.
"Tch, he's not still trying to scheme against us, is he?"
"Hmph, just let him think he's accomplishing something," Sorge said. "Though there's your distraction, Ketu. Make the most of it while you can."
"Right," the Weavile replied. "Good luck out there with the mission."
Team Sentinel's members left the terrace and set off, Ketu heading off for the military harbor as his teammates began to make their way towards the Academy. All the while, as Sorge's team drifted off further into the city, the Kommo-o's bag jostled with his movements, and little did he know that there at its top, the corner of an indigo cloth could be seen poking from it.
- gevulde koeken - Dutch: A type of cookie made with a soft center filling made of almond paste. lit. "filled cookies"
- Nima? (Нима?) - Bulgarian: Expression used to express skepticism or surprise, analogous to "Really?" (BGN/PCGN 2013 Romanization)