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Of all the reminders that Lee now calls an alien world home, the most eerie is certainly the lack of crickets in the early morning.
Zinnia, in her excitement to return to her tribe, woke everyone up not-so-bright, but definitely early, as the sun was only just now beginning its journey over the horizon. Lee was the first to get packed up, leaving him ample time to watch the sunrise, nurse a steaming paper cup of coffee, and muse about how strange a food chain without insects is.
Indeed, pokemon outclass animals so thoroughly when it comes to survival that not even insects can compete. Mosquitoes, crickets, bees, cicadas, and every other noisy invertebrate that existed as background noise on Earth are wholly supplanted by their pokemon counterparts here, leaving the morning peaceful. So peaceful, in fact, it nearly feels unnatural.
'I'll have to dig into the subject of botany, sometime,' Lee thinks to himself while taking a sip of his coffee. 'With no insects actively pollinating plants, the plants themselves have to have become more aggressive when it comes to reproduction. Even with bug and grass-types assisting in pollination, there must still be some slack that the plants themselves are picking up.' As he thinks that, he looks to his side.
Joining him in watching the sun outside the hotel is Grovyle, who needed even less time to prepare than Lee. All Grovyle had to do was apply a softening ointment to the slowly healing burn scars around his body, eat his breakfast, and then he was ready.
'What is everyone else up to?' the zoologist wonders. He can vaguely hear what's going on around Ninetales in the hotel room and feel a faint annoyance that is not his own. It certainly sounds like Brendan and Zinnia are still tidying up. 'They sure are taking their sweet time, especially when Zinnia's the one who wanted us to wake up so early.'
Concentrating, Lee taps deeper into Ninetales' senses, letting his own become muted.
Through Ninetales' eyes, he sees the disgruntled vixen with the scruff of Shinx's neck held in her teeth. Together, the fox and pouting kitten wait outside the bathroom for Brendan to finish his shower.
'What happened?' Lee asks.
'Shinx, Goomy, and Electrike decided it was a grand idea to play beneath the beds despite being told that it's filthy down there.' Lee is sure that if Ninetales' mouth was free, she would click her tongue… Or at least try. Making such a sound is tricky with a muzzle.
Nine then turns her head, letting Lee see a frowning Mawile tongue-bathing Electrike, who shivers with each lick from Mawile's croc-like mouth. Behind them, Zinnia is wiping down a sheepish Goomy with some wet wipes on a bed. In the background of it all Lee spies Marshtomp and Octillery washing out the breakfast dishes in the kitchenette sink. Naturally, Octillery is flexing his new telekinesis for the job, picking up dishes and drying them off with a rag without so much as raising his tentacles. The ease with which the cephalopod has taken to the skill draws an envious pang from Ninetales.
'I'm going to bathe Shinx, pack our dishes, and perform a headcount, then we should all be ready. I'll return our room keys to the innkeeper and bring your bag out shortly,' Ninetales concludes.
'Do you want any help?'
A warm wave of gratitude flows from the fox into Lee's psyche, but she refuses. 'I can manage, Beloved, but thank you. Enjoy the morning away from the helm for once.'
Lee is sure he's physically smiling. 'You're the best.'
'Don't you forget it!'
Returning to reality, Lee is just in time to see Grovyle giving him a strange look. 'Oh, whoops,' Lee thinks to himself, somewhat embarrassed. 'I was standing there staring at him while talking to Ninetales. That probably looked a little creepy.'
Tilting his head just a bit, Grovyle lets out a short, inquiring warble in his throat. "Something you need?" the sound seems to say.
"Sorry about that. I was talking with Ninetales," Lee says in reply.
Nodding easily, Grovyle turns back to the sun, watching it rise with crossed arms.
Arms covered in a smattering of burn scars.
Unbidden, Lee reaches up and touches his own burns, feeling the stretched, dry skin. Grovyle is dealing with the same taut skin… But scattered across much of his body.
"How are you doing, Grovyle?" Lee asks, sending a gentle look to the mobility-impairing scars on Grovyle's limbs. "Less stiff now? I talked to Fallarbor's Nurse Joy after we left the Pokémon Center last night. After pulling up the records from Lavaridge, she said she's surprised with how far you've already come in your recovery."
Try as he might to remain stoic, Grovyle's yellow eyes take on a disgruntled light. The expression is so subtle that anyone else would have missed it. Grovyle doesn't give a verbal reply, but the rigid jaw clamping down on his signature chewing twig says more than words could.
'With Nine's evolution, Corvi's return and evolution, his injuries, and now Octillery learning a new move in one go, Grovyle is probably feeling left behind,' Lee realizes with a hidden frown. 'Or maybe even useless…'
"Grovyle, I can already see what you're thinking, so stop those thoughts about your worth compared to everyone else immediately," Lee orders, reaching out and giving Grovyle's shoulder a short squeeze.
The Grass-type's eyes shoot to Lee's, and Grovyle can't entirely hide his surprise.
"I've seen that look on my own face in the mirror more than once. Are you really so surprised?" Lee looks up at the sun, creeping its way over the trees. "I meant what I said when I swore I would help you get to the very top. Don't sweat things when this journey is nowhere near over."
Grovyle slowly turns away and looks back down at the ground, crossing his arms in thought. His twig bounces in his lips, giving away the conflict still playing out within his skull.
'Platitudes aren't going to do anything.' Lee blows a breath out of the side of his mouth and takes another sip of his coffee. Withdrawing his hand from Grovyle's shoulder, Lee slips it into his pocket and drums his fingers on his leg, considering what to say next. While fishing for an idea, Lee looks back down at Grovyle, his eyes gravitating to the leaves on the pokemon's wrist.
It's quite amazing how Grovyle's combat style has evolved towards using his leaves for blade attacks. Mastering Night Slash has been a long road for Grovyle, and X-Scissor is as devastating as ever, but both pale in comparison to Leaf Blade. At this point, Leaf Blade is as instinctual as breathing to Grovyle. Even without any focus on maintaining the move, Leaf Blade is razor-sharp and always bites deep into any foe unlucky enough to face him. Even against Fire-types and other Grass-types, Leaf Blade will leave unforgiving cuts that bleed profusely. Anything that would help Leaf Blade be more effective is sure to raise Grovyle to even greater heights.
Lee's mind suddenly goes back to the night prior, as he was getting ready for bed. Ninetales borrowed his phone to enjoy an e-book before lights out, and she was naturally reading about her favorite subject: history. The fact that she was reading isn't important, but the particulars of what she was reading is.
She was engrossed in feudal military accounts, back when samurai still served in Kanto and Johto. The fox pokemon's reading cited a number of actual manuscripts that the samurai used, one of which was on swordsmanship. According to the manuscript, a properly trained samurai could hold their own against hostile pokemon with nothing but their sword and martial skill in the event that their own pokemon were defeated.
'If humans armed with steel swords can do that…' Lee suddenly sees Grovyle's leaves in a new light. Gifted in the art of battle he may be, but Grovyle has nothing in the way of formal technique. 'Then what is stopping Grovyle from learning those skills and taking them to the next level?'
With a new path suddenly open before him and his second pokemon, Lee smiles and gives Grovyle a nudge. "Say, I think I have a new avenue of training that you might enjoy. It's technical stuff—light enough for you to do while the last of your injuries heal up, but groundbreaking enough that you might use it for the rest of your life."
Grovyle's head turns so fast that a human would've gotten whiplash. Yellow eyes bore into Lee, unable to hide how eager they are.
"I was doing a bit of talking with Ninetales last night, and she was telling me about the warriors in the olden days of Kanto—the samurai and their skills as swordsmen," Lee continues. "If the manuscript she was reading is correct, then regular humans could hold off pokemon who were trying to tear them up with swords and technique alone. What if we learned those same techniques and applied them to you?" Lee smiles, then looks at Grovyle's wrist leaves. "How good are you at changing the shape of your Leaf Blade?"
Rather than verbally reply, the Grass pokemon holds a hand out, one of the leaves hardening into his standard reverse scythe blade. The blade flattens out into a thick, imposing cleaver that runs down his whole arm. A moment later, the cleaver transforms into a long, rail-like blade with a gentle curve.
"Right there! That's what we're looking for!" Lee smiles. "Can you invert the curve and bend it forward, so you can hold it and manipulate it with your hand?"
Grovyle tilts his head and looks at the thin Leaf Blade. With a sound like warping sheet metal, the curve inverts, and the base of the blade bends forward, running along Grovyle's forearm and extending past his claws. Narrowing his eyes in concentration, Grovyle rolls the edges of the razor-sharp blade nearest to his claws into a rudimentary handle, then bends it one last time, making the 'handle' slap into his waiting palm. It leaves him holding a green glowing 'katana' of roughly four feet.
Lifting his newly styled Leaf Blade, Grovyle gives it a few test swings, and the thin weapon slices through the air with a quiet hum. Like the combat savant he is, his eyes widen as he realizes how much easier it is to manipulate his weapon when he's gripping it in his hand. All it takes is experiencing it firsthand.
"Combine some tried-and-true techniques with your new sword, and throw in the absorbing attack we're still working on, and you should be able to slice competitor after competitor to ribbons and still be fresh as when you first stepped into the ring," Lee says, watching Grovyle slowly rotate his wrist, pulling Leaf Blade along. "Does that sound like something you would be interested in?"
The look Grovyle gives his trainer is almost offended.
With a chuckle, Lee turns back to the sunrise. "I'll get copies of those manuscripts, and we can get started on the basics tonight."
For the first time in weeks, Grovyle smiles.
Once the rest of the crew have finished packing up, they join Lee outside. Ninetales, carrying Lee's pokeballs and bag in her telekinetic grip, pads over to Lee upon arriving, letting him don the bag and return Grovyle, holstering the pokeballs on his belt. Once all is said and done, Zinnia takes point and they begin the trek to the west towards the Draconid village through the valley.
As they walk, they begin to leave the range of the psychics guarding Fallarbor from the effects of the falling volcanic ash. Halfway into their trip and after a turn leading them southwest along the mountain range, the landscape around them has transformed into a dry, rocky, and, above all else, sooty environment, much to the dismay of Ninetales, whose coat attracts filth like a magnet. The trees are small and gray, with harsh shrubs and other short foliage making up most of the plant life. They pass few wild pokemon during the trek, and the ones they do pass are those of notable hardiness, such as Sandshrew, Skarmory, and a trio of Koffing, to name a few. It's only a short time later that they come upon a fork in the road without a sign, and Zinnia leads them along the right-hand path, making a sharp turn towards the northwest and through a dirt path much less trodden than the one they were on.
Upon the third hour of walking, Zinnia speaks up during a lull in the idle chatter of the group. "Not much longer now…" she murmurs. "The edge of the Draconid sovereign land is coming up, so remember what I told you guys: most of Hoenn's laws don't apply, don't let people walk all over you, and just play it cool around fully-grown Dragons. We might run into a sentry, and if we do, let me do the talking."
"How does the law thing work?" Brendan asks, sending a distrustful look toward the snaking path ahead. "Like, how did your tribe get exempt from the law? I've never heard of such a thing, and you'd figure that something as unusual as a whole village with self-sovereignty would be common knowledge."
Lee, already seeing the parallels from Earth, has a few guesses as to why.
'Seems eerily like a Native American reservation,' Ninetales observes, mirroring his thoughts. 'And considering the phobia of death that the Pokémon League has...'
Zinnia shoots Brendan a sardonic smirk. "The Draconids and the growing central government of foreign settlers got into it hundreds of years ago."
'Called it,' both Lee and Nine think at once.
"The fighting got pretty nasty near the end, but ended in a cease-fire before someone got the upper hand," Zinnia continues. "The Draconids got perpetual ownership of their ancestral land, monuments, and strongholds, no questions asked, and the rest of Hoenn got to expand into previously uninhabited areas." She fingers a pokeball on her hip, and the ball wiggles in reply. "I'm not surprised you've never heard about it. The League probably doesn't want to dredge up unpleasant history, and the Draconids don't believe in taking credit for the victories of others—even those of our own ancestors."
'A cease-fire? That's a better ending than I could've hoped for,' Lee thinks and nods. "Interesting stuff. Do the Draconids keep historical accounts written in Galarian? I'd love to take a look, if they are."
Zinnia sends him a smile as if she was expecting the question. "There's a handful of translated books that the elders keep. I'll ask for you."
The winding path eventually straightens out, leading up to a hill and under a wooden arch with a signpost upon the top. In scratchy lettering, the sign reads "Freksaran."
Hanging on the underside of the sign like an insect is a Vibrava, who eyeballs the group warily as they approach. Just a few feet away from Vibrava and leaning against one of the sign supports with his arms crossed is a man roughly Lee's size, with tanned skin and dark hair similar to Zinnia.
As they approach, the unknown man gives them a warning look and stands straight. His sharp red eyes lock onto Zinnia. "Thelban, tu yul terug? Frax se tu yul ke tuk?" he says, each word rough and accusing. Above him, the Vibrava flutters its wings.
"Ah, tu yul, vaz suf belon," Zinnia replies in kind, taking a challenging step forward. Behind her back, she gestures for Lee, Ninetales, and Brendan to stay still. "It's rude to speak such around non-speakers, you know this."
The Draconid tribesman doesn't seem impressed by Zinnia's words. "Pazen, vaz fo raen jir tu ma se? Ja Thelban, tu yul vrih ke inke, vaz tu nara jir fo tu yul frax ke parsa." He aims a hard gaze at Lee and Brendan. "Frax lat ke se yul shud, vo'ganhrus, zuk ma sifrih vaz bel ja tu yul giv fon ma geld."
Zinnia actually growls. The noise sounds like a human throat should be unable to create it. "They are neither dishonest nor weak," she grinds out. "I wouldn't have brought them here if they were. Perhaps you would like to test one of them yourself?"
Ninetales takes that as her cue to step forward, baring her teeth in a bowel-loosening snarl with her tails whipping behind her.
The sentry's face hardens and for a moment Lee fears that a battle is the only way they'll be able to pass. After a long second, the tribesman sighs, easing his stance and raising a hand to his Vibrava who also calms down. "Very well. Enter, if you must," he says gruffly. "Mind yourselves, outsiders. Visitors have been too common a sight recently, and each more a nuisance than the last. Take care not to follow a similar path."
"Visitors have been a common sight?" Zinnia questions, her eyes narrowing. "Who's been snooping around?"
The sentry clicks his tongue. "Who hasn't is a better question. We expelled a tall woman with dark hair a week ago who claimed she merely wished to rest here. She began to put her nose where it did not belong, asking questions she has no right knowing the answers to. Questions that she should not even have the idea to ask."
'A tall woman with dark hair?' Lee frowns, his mind going to the female admin of Team Aqua. 'What are they looking around here for? Can Archie not use Mega Evolution yet?'
Zinnia's eyes narrow further. "I see. We'll keep that in mind," she says, offering the guard a shallow incline of her head. "Belin guz yara."
The Draconid man nods. "Belin guz yara, Thelban."
With that, Zinnia beckons Lee, Ninetales, and Brendan along, and all four pass beneath the gate.
"Can we expect confrontations like that to be common?" Lee asks once they are a distance away from the gate. "Battling is fun and all, but…"
With a tired sigh, Zinnia shakes her head. "No. The sentries are specifically told to be hardasses. Not everybody is going to be like him. In fact, we shouldn't be bothered for a while. I'm going to need to do some sweet talking to convince the elders to let you guys into the Meteor Falls stronghold. My grandmother is one of the elders and should be the easiest to convince, so we will start with her. After that, I'll show you guys to my place so we can relax a bit. We might be here for a few days."
Brendan audibly hums. "Is there any special reason we need to go to the stronghold? If it's going to be a pain to get in, why don't we train here?"
The Dragon Tamer opens her mouth to answer, then stops, apparently reconsidering her words. "The village is secure, but the stronghold is extremely secure. I don't want anything we say to be heard by anyone who doesn't need to. Plus, there are some—" she hesitates, "—other reasons why we should train there. I'll talk about it more when we actually get there."
The young Birch frowns at the non-answer, but doesn't pester Zinnia further.
As they descend the hill, Lee looks down at the village nestled below, taking everything in with a critical eye.
"Village" is a generous term, as the hamlet can't possibly be home to more than a few hundred people. The humble buildings and houses, though relatively modern, bear signs of age and hand-worked upkeep. Around the edges of the village, there are a number of houses where the sparse electrical lines don't reach, and around those houses are what look like unpainted gazebos of impressive size. Only after squinting at one with a Flygon occupant beneath does Lee realize the gazebos are, in fact, covered Dragon nests.
The village has four main streets, which intersect in the middle at a large plaza. Up and down the streets and around the plaza are various businesses, though more rustic than anywhere else in Hoenn to his knowledge. The most prominent and easily recognizable thing on display is a great stone monument in the central square of the village. Even so far away, Lee can make out most of the individual Dragon pokemon of the monument, who are all nesting in a circle around a massive stone Salamence, whose head is raised high and defiant. The monument must be at least three stories tall, as it stands taller than any building. The symbolism isn't lost on Lee.
"Here we go…" Lee whispers as they make their way into the village proper. Lee keeps his eyes forward and his face schooled so as to not look nosy, but Ninetales has no such reservations and looks around for him, wordlessly offering her sense of sight.
It only takes a minute to confirm that Zinnia's tanned skin, dark hair, and to a lesser extent, her red eyes must be genetic, for nearly all the people they pass on the road share the same traits. Exceptions pop up here and there, mostly with eye color, as a number of curious Draconids have non-red eyes, and there is even a teen girl with the Draconid tan, but possessing vibrant red hair and yellow eyes. The only person that doesn't match is a blonde, fair-skinned man holding hands with a Draconid tribeswoman.
'Probably married into the tribe,' Lee muses.
The sheer abundance of young Dragon-pokemon is also mind-boggling. It seems as if for every person, there is a Dragon with them. Dratini wrapped around a man's shoulders like a scarf, a Bagon having his steel-like head polished with a rag by an elderly man, a Druddigon walking by holding the handles of a wicker bassinet gingerly in his teeth, with the sleeping infant within undisturbed. Countless rare pokemon the average trainer may go their entire life without seeing in person are out and about.
Zinnia leads them all past everything towards the northern border of the village and to a humble two-story home. Nothing about the residence strikes Lee as out of the ordinary.
"Granny's place. Looks the exact same as it did three years ago," Zinnia muses aloud. Stepping forward, she gives the door of the home three firm knocks, then takes a step back.
After a moment of waiting, the lock shifts, the doorknob twists, and the door is pulled open, revealing a diminutive elderly woman who can't be any taller than Brendan. Her gray hair is pulled back into a low ponytail, and her dark skin is weather-beaten, but her eyes shine a red surpassing even Zinnia's, rivaling the likes of Ninetales. Said eyes take on a fond light when they rest upon Zinnia.
"Ah! Tu welkan, my dear!" the elderly woman exclaims, stepping out to embrace Zinnia, who returns the hug with a wide smile. "You return. The years number three, nearly four, and such change they have brought upon you. Timid girl no longer, I see before me a proud woman."
'Timid?' Lee tries to imagine Zinnia acting in such a way, but the image simply won't come to him.
"Thank you, Granny. It's good to be back home." Zinnia's smile only widens as she and her grandmother release their embrace. "I wish I could say this was only a social visit, but my friends and I actually came here with some business in mind."
Zinnia's grandmother turns her eyes to Ninetales first, then to Lee, before finally finishing with Brendan. Where her eyes were warm before, now they are deadly sharp. "How curious. To catch the eye of the Draconid Lorekeeper is an action that brings either ruination or glory. Which will befall you lot, I wonder?"
The way she says that makes a shiver run down Lee's spine.
She then stepped back inside her house, beckoning everyone to follow with a hand. "We shan't waggle tongues upon the stoop. Come! Come inside and be welcome."
Zinnia follows without a second thought.
Brendan and Lee share a look, then step inside, following after Zinnia and her grandmother.
The inside of the home is just as humble as the outside, and quite a bit warmer than the moderate weather out in the village. The door leads directly into the living room, which has its walls decorated with handwoven tapestries and paintings upon stretched skin canvases. In the corner of the room sits a dusty television that looks like it came straight from the 80s, VCR, rabbit ear antennas and all. The furniture—a pair of couches and a lounger of dated appearance—all bear hand-stitched rips.
"Please, rest and relax, o' guests," Zinnia's grandmother insists. "I shall return shortly."
As the woman shuffles away into the nearby kitchen, Lee and Co. all sit-down and make themselves comfortable, with Brendan opting to take Lee's side on one couch while Zinnia sits alone on the other.
When a great snore suddenly shatters the peace, Lee's head shoots to the side.
'Oh… I can see why it's so warm in here…'
Curled up on a rug by the fireplace, over on the opposite side of the room, a fully grown Dragonite sleeps. The great beast's orange scales are marred by crisscrossing scars that sag with age. While not marked up as horrifically as Moore's Ty, the Dragonite certainly bears its own long-standing epic upon his body.
'Maybe he's less fucked up because he won more often..?'
"Don't mind him." Zinnia seems rather nonchalant about the Dragon only a dozen feet away. "Granny's Dragonite sleeps like the dead. The house would have to come down on top of him for him to wake up."
"If you say so…" Brendan says unsurely, and Lee is glad he's not the only one concerned with the pseudo-legend's presence.
The sound of glassware moving in the kitchen breaks up the silence, and, a few moments later, Zinnia's grandmother reemerges with a tray, upon which are four steaming cups of tea. Setting the tray down on a low coffee table, she sits by her granddaughter and offers everyone a smile.
"There, now we may proceed to the pleasantries." She smiles and takes one of the cups, prompting everyone else to also take one.
Lee takes a probing sip of his cup and struggles not to make a face. Whatever is in his cup is strong.
The old woman takes a deep sip of her own without so much as a twitch. Smiling, she sets it back down and begins speaking. "My greetings to you boys. I am Juniper, an elder of the Draconid tribe. Who might you be, to have followed our Lorekeeper to her home?"
Brendan, boisterous as ever, takes the lead with a wide grin. "I'm Brendan Birch, ma'am. It's nice to meet you!"
Juniper's eyes flash in recognition. "Birch, you say? Are you the son of Nigel Birch?" At Brendan's confirming nod, the elder continues. "Ahh. The prowess of Nigel Birch is known far and wide, including here in our lonely corner of Hoenn. Do you pursue the title of Champion?"
"Yes, ma'am," the boy replies and nods. "I'm halfway there with four badges, and I intend to get the other four and go all the way to the Ever Grande Conference."
"Four badges?" Juniper raises an eyebrow. "Are you on your first journey?"
Now the elderly woman seems genuinely impressed. "In a story repeated time and time again, it seems as if the son will surpass the father. How interesting!" she says, clapping her hands together once. "Perhaps I will have to have my old television repaired if a fine young man like yourself will be in the Conference."
Brendan blushes and looks away, taking a sip of his tea.
Juniper then turns her attention to Lee, looking at his scars, then to his eyes, then to Ninetales before settling back on his face. "And you, young man, who might you be?"
"Lee Henson, ma'am." Lee inclines his head. "I'm a Lab Trainer under Professor Birch."
The elderly woman takes much longer to consider Lee than she does Brendan. "Do you compete within the gym circuit as well?"
"I do," Lee confirms with a nod.
"And the badges you've acquired?"
"Four. All the same as Brendan."
"Yet." Juniper gives him a piercing look. "The title is not why you compete, is it?"
Lee, having halfway expected some sort of clairvoyant nonsense, smiles awkwardly. "Not really. I…" He stops, remembering what he vowed to himself in the Lavaridge Pokemon Center. "I want to live a peaceful life with my pokemon—" as he speaks, he reaches a hand down, rubbing his thumb on the heart-shaped patch behind Ninetales' ear. The Kitsune smiles and leans into the touch, "—and the best way to do so is to be so strong that no one can ever challenge us," he says, voice resolute. "The gym circuit and the championship is the grindstone we need to make it happen."
Beside him, Brendan looks at Lee with a measure of shock. Zinnia seems to have been caught flat-footed by the declaration as well.
Juniper, however, nods slowly. "I see…" she murmurs. "It has been many years since I've seen such a look in the eyes of a trainer," she says severely. Rather than elaborate, she then turns to Zinnia. "My dear, what is the business that you mentioned earlier? What do you require of me?"
Zinnia schools her face and takes a deep breath before settling her hands in her lap. "Granny, I want to take Lee and Brendan to Meteor Falls."
The old woman raises an eyebrow. "Then do so. One hardly requires permission from me to traverse the luminescent caves. Why, the beauty is something all should behold at least once in their lifetime, for –"
"Granny, don't play coy!" Zinnia scowls. "I mean The Crater."
There's a sudden shift in the atmosphere. Where things were warm and homey a moment ago, suddenly it's as if the air is thick with prickling needles of ice.
Juniper's eyes narrow. "Lorekeeper, you know as well as I do that such a thing is out of the question."
"I wouldn't ask if I didn't think it was necessary." Zinnia crosses her arms. "I know I'm asking for a lot, but I need you to work with me here, Granny. Please?" she asks, her tone softening into something uncharacteristically gentle. "I genuinely believe that I need help, and Lee and Brendan are the best for the job."
Zinnia's words ward away the cold atmosphere. Somewhat. From the corner of his eye, Lee can see Brendan's face growing firm, even if he doesn't know what he's required for yet.
The elder falters slightly, but shakes her head. "I cannot allow it."
Now a scowl finds its way to Zinnia's face. "I can't do it alone. The Crater is the best place to get them informed and for us to train. Elder Juniper, I need this."
Juniper shakes her head. "What you ask cannot be done."
"Can't, or won't?" Zinnia counters instantly. "You are the eldest and most esteemed of the elders, and you're telling me that you can't sway the others? You know what's coming, and what is at stake! I'm not asking anymore, I am telling you as the Lorekeeper what I require to do my job!"
"Thelban…" Juniper suddenly switches to Spoken Draconid. Her wrinkled face is twisted in conflict. "Konsidar fo tu yirn von ma. Sifrih mest archa vaz sakred liven inwin do inrik rokam von Metron'fall krate. Frendi vaz nai, frax bel fobid!" she exclaims, standing with her fists clenched, throwing her teacup off of her lap to spill on the floor. "Foolish girl! Such things are guarded to protect our people!"
Zinnia's entire face twists into a snarl. "A lot of fucking good that did for Aster!"
If the air was frigid before, it dropped to absolute zero at the uttering of those words.
Juniper stumbles, stricken. All at once, every single year she's lived seems to physically weigh down upon her, and she falls back to the couch heavily.
"The secret is already out, Elder Juniper…" Zinnia's anger drains away, leaving her visibly exhausted. Her shoulders slump, and her tattered cloak suddenly seems too large for her. "We fought someone several weeks ago, someone who could use Mega Evolution, and he was using it for all the wrong reasons. There's no point in trying to stubbornly pretend that it's sacred or exclusive anymore."
The elder says nothing, merely staring down at her hands. Then, she draws in a shuddering breath. "I see… I see…" she sighs. For several minutes, all is silent as she thinks. Just as the lull stretches into its fifth minute, Juniper speaks. "Very well, you will have my support. I will convene the council of elders and we will speak."
Zinnia inclines her head. "Thank you, grandma."
"Go." Juniper points towards the door, her voice weak. "Go, now. I am weary, and you all disturb me. I wish to rest."
As one, Zinnia, Lee, and Brendan all rise, filing out the door and leaving.
"C'mon, guys," Zinnia mumbles. "My place is just a few doors down."
"I'm sure you can have the guest room, Brendan," Lee insists, leaning against said bedroom's door sill and watching Brendan unpack his necessities. "I'll be fine on the couch."
Brendan levels Lee with a raised eyebrow, but doesn't protest further.
Zinnia's home is a small, rustic, one-story affair perfectly suited to a single person, but with three people and their pokemon, it's a bit cramped. With two bedrooms, one small bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room, it has all the very basics required for the house. Unfortunately, that means that someone is going to be sleeping on the couch until they can go to The Crater, which should be the tribal stronghold only accessible by flight that Zinnia mentioned.
'Didn't take Zinnia to be the homeowner type,' Lee thinks, pushing off of the door sill and walking over to the other bedroom. The door is open, so he peers inside, finding Zinnia lying face down on her bed, unmoving.
Lee gives the spartan room a once over. Other than a framed picture of a young, grinning Zinnia standing next to a gently smiling Draconid woman on the nightstand, the room has little in the way of personal effects.
'Is that woman Aster?' the zoologist wonders, noting how the woman is wearing the brown, scale-collared cloak that Zinnia is rarely seen without. He puts the thought out of his mind for now, and instead clears his throat to announce himself. "You okay?"
Zinnia groans into the bed covers. "I'm fine, just exhausted…" With herculean effort, she grunts and pushes herself over onto her back so she can stare at Lee. "I knew that Granny was going to fight at first, but I had no idea she was going to take that much convincing…"
"You know what they say about plans and first contact and all that." Lee shrugs. "Do you want to talk about it?"
His question earns him a smile. "You already know all about Mega Evolution, don't you?"
Lee considers his answer, then nods. "I know the basics, like how you need a keystone, mega-stone, and a bond between the trainer and pokémon to make it all work."
Zinnia sits up and crosses her legs. "That's the gist of it, but did you know that the stones are just training wheels? That Mega Evolution is possible without them?"
That throws Lee for a loop. "N-No. I had no idea." He shakes his head. "I thought that the stones were a hard requirement."
"They aren't, and Aster figured that out too." Zinnia looks up at the ceiling, her face set into a wistful smile. "Like I told you before, she was the Lorekeeper before me, and she was the best one in generations. She was a Dragon Tamer of unmatched skill. It was like she was a Dragon herself, able to just understand pokemon on a level no one has ever seen before, kind of like you, Dolittle. It was a wonder just watching her talk to a pokemon. If anyone was worthy of Mega Evolution, it was her and her Salamence. The only time I've ever seen a pokemon and trainer that close was with you and Ninetales."
Lee looks down to his side, where Ninetales now stands. So engrossed in Zinnia's words was he that he barely noticed the fox approaching.
Ninetales must have projected her mental voice outward and touched Zinnia, because the Lorekeeper levels Ninetales with a grin. "You better believe it, sister. They were thick as thieves, and could practically read each other's minds without any fancy telepathy. They were so in sync that, when Aster and Salamence battled together, Aster barely needed to say a word." Zinnia's grin begins to fall. "But despite being the best damn Lorekeeper in hundreds of years, the elders still denied her access to the stones needed for Mega Evolution."
'That seems rather foolish…' Ninetales says, blunt as can be. 'For what purpose?'
"Sycamore…" Zinnia hisses distastefully. "He's the regional professor over in Kalos. I think he knew the best way to get the right answer was to give a blatantly wrong one and wait for a correction. If what I heard is correct from some contacts of mine, then Mega Evolution's origin is a subject the really hush-hush upper parts of the regional Leagues like to debate about. Then Sycamore began to get nosy about it over in his home of Kalos, and when no one wanted to share, he made his own theory and touted it as fact. Naturally, someone with more pride than brain cells corrected him and put the Draconid tribe on his radar. Once the elders got wind of it, they got spooked and put everything under lock and key, not even allowing Aster access."
Lee frowns, once more reminded of the amount of cloak and dagger the Pokemon League gets up to.
…Well, not so much the dagger part, but there is certainly a lot of cloak.
"Ancient Draconid texts never mention the use of the stones in the first instance of Mega Evolution, though, and Aster noticed." Zinnia's grin is all but gone now, replaced with a grim face. "She and Salamence puzzled over how to Mega Evolve without the stones for weeks before finally figuring it out, and… when they tried, they…" Zinnia halts, unable to continue past the lump in her throat. "It could have all been prevented."
A shiver runs down Lee's spine, and he shares a look with Ninetales.
Despite her fur, Lee knows the fox's face is pale.
"I see…" Lee finds his voice after a long minute, his mind in a million different places. "I'm sorry if I dredged up any unpleasant memories, Zinnia."
She waves him off. "It's okay, Dolittle. It… It feels good talking to someone about it," she says, a thin smile finding its way to her face. "I'm going to take a short nap and sleep this off, so you make yourself at home, okay? Once I get up, I'll take you guys to Yukkani's for dinner. The village doesn't have much in the way of restaurants, but I'll be damned if Yukkani's isn't top-notch!"
Smiling in return, Lee nods. "Sounds like a good time! Enjoy your nap."
Lee closes the door behind him, leaving Zinnia alone, and walks back to the small living room with Ninetales on his heels. Seating himself heavily on the dusty couch, Lee sighs and idly pets Ninetales when she drapes herself across his legs.
"Okay, Miss Political Intrigue," Lee mutters. "I need you to become a master of Dragon politics overnight so I don't have to deal with all of this shit, okay?"
Ninetales looks at him with an unamused face. 'Pray tell, what do I receive in return?'
Lee pulls her into a tight hug, resting his head on top of hers.
The fox sighs. 'That will have to do, I guess.'
Due to the large amount of non-English lines in this chapter, I've included translations below. This is not the Skyrim dragon language as some thought last chapter, but a language I made myself.
Thelban, tu yul terug? Frax se tu yul ke tuk?
Lorekeeper, you've returned? Who are these outsiders you have brought with you?
Ah, tu yul, vaz suf belon.
Indeed I have, but enough of this tongue
Pazen, vaz fo raen jir tu ma se? Ja Thelban, tu yul vrih ke inke, vaz tu nara jir fo tu yul frax ke parsa. Frax lat ke se yul shud, vo'ganhrus, zuk ma sifrih vaz bel ja tu yul giv fon ma geld.
Perhaps, but for what reason would I care? As Lorekeeper, you are free to enter, but I do not see why I should allow the outsiders to pass. The last outsiders to come here were dishonest weaklings, coveting our secrets and acting as if we would surrender them for money.
Belin guz yara
Be in good health
You are welcomed
Thelban, konsidar fo tu yirn von ma. Sifrih mest archa vaz sakred liven inwin do inrik rokam von Metron'fall krate. Frendi vaz nai, frax bel fobid.
Lorekeeper, consider what you ask of me. Secrets most ancient and sacred live within the inner chambers of the meteorfall crater. Friends or no, outsiders are forbidden.
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