Disclaimer: I don't own Pokemon. Any similarities between real people, living or dead, or places, standing or demolished, in this story are just coincidence.
I am an animal lover, but not exactly an expert. Some biology and behavior referenced in the story may not be 100% accurate, or might even be outright pseudoscience.
A blade of brilliant green flashes through the air with a quiet hum, slicing half an inch into a large, craggily boulder before stopping. The blade's luster fades, revealing it to be a long leaf attached to the wrist of a scaled paw.
Grovyle frowns and pulls his leaf free, eyeballing the boulder littered with slashes before him with distaste. The rare dead tree around the path to the Granite Cave proved too soft, letting his attack pass through them without much in the way of resistance. A large man-sized rock a bit off the path, however, provided an ample target to sharpen his blade against. Grovyle raises his leafy arm again and charges Leaf Blade, making the leaves glow a bright emerald and stiffen into razors. This time, he growls and does a full, lightning fast spin for even more momentum.
...Only to underbalance and stumble partway, killing his speed as he corrects his course, lest he fall.
Leaf Blade stops only a fraction of an inch into the face of the rock.
With a disappointed grunt, Grovyle pulls his leaf from the stone and takes a step back.
A ways behind him, Lee sits with his back against a tree, watching his pokemon diligently train as they wait for Brendan and Zinnia to catch up.
"Don't beat yourself up, pal," Lee smiles encouragingly, looking up away from the Pokedex in his lap. "You've only had both that body and that attack for a day and some change. Try to limit how far you extend your arms and torso without moving a leg back as a counterweight. You'll get the hang of it. You always do."
Grovyle glances back at Lee, and after a second, offers a nod. He raises a humming Leaf Blade and focuses on the rock once more, letting Lee return to notes.
Lee raises his pokedex to his mouth and clicks on the 'record' button. "Log twelve, day fifty-two. Treecko evolved after his nail-biting victory at the tournament yesterday, which won us the whole thing. He proved his sheer talent by taking his dodging skills, refined from several weeks of dodging Swift, and refining them into Detect through observation of Absol, the ace of the other finalist. I even scanned him with my pokedex to confirm that he does indeed know Detect. With the new move, he dodged what would have been a game-ending blow to knock Absol out. Does that count as a win worthy of a grant increase for the lab?"
Lee stops for a second and thinks. "You did say any prestige I bring to the lab means more money from the League, right? Anyway, Grovyle is definitely pleased with his evolution, but it has brought its own set of problems. The sudden increase in mass his body has undergone combined with the reduction in mass from his tail has left him unbalanced. I was hoping instinct would correct this, but apparently not. It's not a huge issue, as Grovyle is nothing short of a kinesthetic genius and is already back to fighting condition. I suspect in the next week or two he'll be back to his previous level of acrobatics and then some."
The man pauses his recording to watch Grovyle tense, then drive his Leaf Blade into the rock again, cutting a deep gouge into its face with a resounding ting that echoes across the trees.
"In other news," Lee begins with a smile as he watches his pokemon. "Vulpix used Convergence in battle for the first time yesterday. It took nearly fifteen seconds to charge up between Vulpix's exhaustion and the stress of the battle, but with Zinnia's Shelgon holding that monster of an Absol still, Convergence wore Absol down enough for Grovyle to secure the win. The move's destructive power is incredible, and it doesn't seem to suffer from the same sort of backfire effect that other charged experimental moves of ours have. I'll have to research the cause of its stability more. Maybe more fireballs charging slowly is the cause? When we know more, we can begin on more moves."
"Lastly for this one, I kind of regret not going over history more during my prep time. I've been focused so hard on training my team that I've ignored everything else, and some idle browsing of Pokepedia last night was a kick to the head," Lee shakes his head and smiles sardonically. "I knew about the main regions and some rough history, but I still have to remind myself sometimes that this isn't a kids game, but real life. I had no idea that there were other regions like Fiore, Almia, Oblivia, Ferrum, Ransei, and a few even smaller ones I can't remember. No idea if they were in any pokemon games or not, and if they were, I didn't play them. I guess it makes sense that Professor Oak didn't seem suspicious when he heard I was from some small, isolationist land devoid of pokemon, kind of like an especially barren Orre. Ransei in particular stuck out to me."
Lee hums and silently wonders how to word this statement. "Ransei caught my eye for being the only region currently engaged in warfare. If Pokepedia is correct, they've been in a civil war raging between a fluctuating number of warlords for years, something I was not expecting at all. The mass embargo and travel ban placed on them from every major region doesn't seem to have slowed things, either. I expected the worst as I read on, but something seemed off. The casualties are practically nonexistent for a place embroiled in war... I can't help but morbidly wonder why? Military tech has obviously stagnated compared to what I'm used to, as America had a hulking military industrial complex, but some well-trained pokemon could cause death on a scale only surpassed by doomsday weapons like..."
Lee stops himself short, his mouth suddenly drying up. He sees Grovyle has stopped practicing Leaf Blade to instead watch his trainer with his arms crossed and a scaly eyeridge raised like an eyebrow. The gecko pokemon rolls his twig around in his mouth, waiting.
The zoologist clears his throat and raises his pokedex again. "Like, uh... Well, it doesn't really matter," he continues quietly, but Grovyle's eyebrow ridge raises a little more and gives away that he can still hear Lee. The man takes a breath. "Anyway, I guess there is also the flipside that factors the feelings of the pokemon in as well. I have no doubt a pokemon could slay a man easily, so the question then becomes 'would they want to?' and I'm guessing no in most cases."
"Hey! Did you have to run so far ahead!?"
Lee turns away from his pokedex and looks down the path to the Granite Cave, seeing Brendan, Marshtomp, and Zinnia walking towards him. Brendan smiles and waves before dashing forward, Marshtomp hot on his heels. Zinnia keeps her leisurely pace.
"That's it for now. Lee, out," Lee hits the 'end' button on his pokedex and stands up, dropping the pokedex back in his pocket. Grovyle leaves his rock to stand by Lee's side as Brendan and Marshtomp skid to a stop before them.
"I didn't run ahead, you guys just took forever," Lee sniffs. "It gave Grovyle and I some time to get a bit of early morning training in."
Brendan just sticks his tongue out at the older trainer, earning him a croaking laugh from Marshtomp.
"So, why are we here again?" Zinnia asks as she finally joins the group. She looks between Lee and Brendan with her arms crossed. "Something about Aron?"
"Yup!" Brendan nods. "Marshtomp and I were here all day yesterday looking for an Aron while you guys were battling. They're a little uncommon, but I should have found one after a few hours at least," the boy trainer says, whipping out his pokedex. On the screen is an Aron with a map of Dewford below it, and the Granite Cave has a red outline on it. "Unless Dad's database is out of date, but the Rangers are really good about their migration reports."
"I just pulled a fresh update this morning, so it's not the database," Lee supplies, pulling out his own pokedex. He goes to Aron's entry and sure enough, the Granite Cave is still highlighted. "Something funny is afoot."
"Hmm..." Zinnia taps her foot and looks up at the clear sky in thought. "Overcatching, maybe? Or an invasive pokemon?"
"If all the Aron were caught, it definitely would have generated an alert to some professor somewhere. I don't think it's that," Brendan shakes his head. "Dunno about any invasive pokemon that would want to hang out in a bog standard cave, though. Other than some ruins inside, there is nothing special about Granite Cave." He then turns to Marshtomp. "Any ideas, pal?"
The mudfish pokemon furrows his brows and rubs his chin in a show of thought, then he leans down and presses both of his palms flat on the ground before tapping the dirt of the path with a hindleg several times. For a long second, he waits, then stands and shrugs, his show of siesmolocation apparently returning no interesting results.
Inspired by Brendan, Lee looks over to Grovyle. "Maybe you can sense something amiss, Grovyle?"
Grovyle shifts his ever-present twig to the corner of his mouth and lifts his head. His long tongue darts out several times, collecting smells that his weaker nostrils surely would miss. He mulls to himself for a moment, then shakes his head.
"That's fine. We'll try again when we're in the cave," Lee smiles.
Zinnia's mouth lifts into a lopsided grin. "I hope you boys are okay with protecting little old me in that cave. Shelgon and Goomy still need to rest, and while Swablu is okay to fight, I'd rather her recover fully first."
'Glad to see she can dial-back the battlelust when her pokemon aren't at 100%.' Lee nods approvingly. "Vulpix is much the same. She still needs a few days to heal, but Grovyle and Corvisquire are ready," he says, silently giving the muted psychic tether to his vixen's pokeball a little tug. A tiny niggling bug of anxiousness still crawls around in his stomach from the idea of Vulpix being down, but the composed wood gecko at his side eases Lee's greatest worries.
"Shroomish took a nasty Bite from a lucky Zubat yesterday, so he needs a day or two," Brendan finishes the little roll call with a frown. "Little jerk ate a Take Down from Marshtomp for the trouble."
"So we've got four-ish battle ready pokemon between all of us. I've got absolute confidence in Grovyle-" said pokemon smirks at the praise "-and Corvisquire, and I know Marshtomp is a beast. Swablu and the others should be able to rest easy," Lee says, crossing his arms with a pleased smile. "Shall we?"
The three trainers and two pokemon begin the rest of the trek down the beaten path to the cave.
"Say, Lee?" Zinnia asks a minute into their walk.
"Hmm?" He replies.
"Who were you talking to when we walked up?"
Lee blinks, his hand dipping into his pocket to fiddle with the pokedex inside. "No one. The Professor wants me to do logs every so often and send them to him so he can pick my brain. The one you caught the tail end of was an update about my team's progress and some stuff I did some light reading on. You two heard of the Ransei region?"
Zinnia shakes her head with a sheepish smile. "Ah, I don't really keep up with news."
"Ransei is a small region that's been at war with itself on and off for almost a hundred years now. It's made of seventeen different kingdoms that refuse to come to an agreement. The various Pokemon Leagues have tried to intervene over the years, but eventually gave up in favor of an embargo and a bunch of sanctions. It hasn't worked since there is no formal blockade and smugglers like to take supplies there and sell them for huge markups." Brendan supplies. He flushes when four pairs of surprised eyes turn to him. "What? I didn't become a trainer at twelve because I wanted to wait, dad held me back two years to tutor me. Geography and politics were included!"
'Huh. So that's why he started late. Birch doesn't get enough credit for how thorough he is.'
"What's so special about this Ransei place that you talked about it in particular?" Zinnia asks as the mouth of the cave comes into view.
"It's the only place that's currently in conflict is all. I know Kanto and Johto clashed briefly like twenty years back, but it was over and done in a few short months with Johto's surrender and minimal casualties. Before that, there is almost nothing bigger than border skirmishes. It's just kinda strange that Ransei has dragged theirs out so long," Lee shrugs. "Anyway..."
The three people and two pokemon stop before the wide entrance to the Granite Cave. It's a massive hole in the side of a large, rocky hill that houses the rest of the cave system, easily large enough to let an Onix slither though. Off to the side, a warning sign bolted to the ground urges trainers entering to be wary and non-trainers to turn around. The sunlight barely penetrates the murky darkness within, and after several yards, everything beyond is pitch black.
Brendan is quick to unshoulder his backpack and zip it open. He dips a hand inside, and a second later withdraws an electric lantern. He flips a switch, and the lantern comes to life with an artificial blue glow.
"Alright! I'm not leaving without an Aron this time!" Brendan grins and steps into the cave. "C'mon!"
Marshtomp croaks and happily follows.
Lee slows for a second and turns to Grovyle. "Stay close to myself and Zinnia, alrighty?" He asks. "I'm sure we're going to piss off more than one pokemon by disturbing them, and you'll make them think twice about taking a swipe at the fragile humans, yeah?"
Grovyle crosses his arms and nods, falling into step right behind Lee and just in front of an amused Zinnia. "My knight in green armor," she snickers.
Brendan leads the train into the Granite Cave, his lantern providing just barely enough light to see ahead.
Lee lets his eyes roam, taking in the sights of the cave.
Just as named, the walls of the cave are all rough granite of different colors, mostly black, white, and gray. Stalactites of ringed granite, like a raccoon's tail, droop from the ceiling, each one glistening with moisture and many holding sleeping Zubats and a single large Golbat. The ground below their feet is worn smooth, probably from the countless visitors and pokemon treading upon it, and an experimental scuff of Lee's boot reveals that it's slick as well. The sounds of dripping water and wind echo all over, making pinpointing the location of individual sounds a chore. The further into the cave they walk, the cooler it becomes.
Zinnia shivers and pulls her cloak a little tighter around herself when a brisk breeze blows past. "Jeeze, I should have brought something a little heavier..."
SIlently, Lee agrees. His jacket, built to breathe and protect from the sun, offers little in the way of warmth. 'I wish Vulpix was well enough to travel outside her ball. She'd keep me warm...'
Brendan just rolls the normally rolled-up sleeves of his shirt down. "Yeah, but it beats the heat I say."
Neither Grovyle or Marshtomp seem bothered by the cold, or atleast Marshtomp isn't. Grovyle's neutral expression slowly falls into a frown as he subtly rubs his forearms. No doubt he'll need to bask in the sun for a while after this adventure, Lee thinks.
The path in the cave trails apart into several smaller, less worn ones with jagged stalagmites jutting from the floor. A pair of Geodude watch the group warilly from behind several of the stalagmites as they pass down the largest and most worn path, one big enough for a large pokemon to squeeze by without breaking any of the granite formations.
Twice, a pokemon irritated by the light and noise approach them from the gloom, one a Sandshrew and the other a Geodude, but both retreat when Grovyle growls and raises a Leaf Blade that hums with barely hidden malice.
"Where exactly are the Aron supposed to be, Brendan?" Lee asks after nearly half an hour following the boy. He looks around to hopefully see a sign of them, like any shed iron armor, but finds nothing.
A drop of water falls from the ceiling onto Brendan's face, making him grunt as he wipes at the spot. "They should be in the deeper parts of the cave, but I went all the way down until the tunnels abruptly ended. No stalagmites with fresh rubbings on them, no bites out of a few iron desposts I found, and no dropped armor. It's like they vanished!"
Lee frowns and looks over to Grovyle. "Can you scent the air again? See if maybe you can find anything else? The smell of unrusted iron is what we're looking for."
Once again, Grovyle tips his head back and flicks his tongue a handful of times. He smacks his lips and furrows his brows, then once more flicks his tongue. The gecko hums to himself and points to the path they're still on.
"Perfect," the man smiles. "You heard him. Lets keep going."
"This is the way I went before, though," Brendan says, crossing his arms as he does so and making the lantern light dance across the walls. "All I found was a wall where the path stopped abruptly."
"Did you bother to look at a map, maybe?" Zinnia snarks with a shiver, looking more and more miserable as time passes.
Brendan scowls. "Yes, and every map said follow this path."
"C'mon, don't fight," Lee sighs. "Lets just go and see this wall. Maybe the map isn't accurate."
The team of five continue walking.
"And right here is where it dead-ends!"
Brendan points to a misshapen wall covered in dirt. Just as he said earlier, the tunnel narrows before coming to a sudden stop.
Zinnia steps forward and wipes some of the dirt away from the wall, scrutinizing the lumpy gray stone beneath it. "I don't think this is granite, shrimpy. It almost looks like this wall was put here on purpose."
"That's what I thought, too," Brendan ignores his nickname in favor of glaring at the wall. "But it's not uniform at all like a person made it, and who would go to all the trouble of hauling all this down here anyway?"
Lee leans back on his heels and crosses his arms, scrutinizing the puzzling barrier before them.
It's too rough to have been made on purpose by humans, yet the color of the stone doesn't match the granite of the tunnel around them. A slight breeze blows around him and makes him cross his arms a little tighter for warmth.
'Probably not made by human hands, but maybe a pokemon? Roxanne's Nosepass was able to move obscene amounts of earth with Rock Tomb.'
Marshtomp seems to have an epiphany and blinks with a happy croak. He steps past a bewildered Brendan, the fin on the top of his head quivering. The mud fish inspects several points on the wall, his fin speeding up with each inspection.
"What's he doing?" Zinnia asks, watching the pokemon run his hands over the rough stone.
Brendan suddenly realizes what his pokemon is doing with a grin. "Mudkips can detect changes in water and air flow with their head fin, and Marshtomps are even better at it! If he's picking up on something, then air is escaping through here, meaning..."
Marshtomp draws back, then before anyone can stop him, he gets a running start and launches a Take Down right into the wall.
With a deafening, tunnel-rattling boom, the entire wall blocking the way is knocked down and blown into the next chamber as little more than oversized gravel. Tremors run through the whole tunnel and shake the ground below the group's feet.
Lee yelps and flails, and it's only Zinnia's quick, reflexive grabbing of his arm that keeps him from slipping and falling. Grovyle is even quicker, as he rushes across the slick cave floor and catches Brendan mid-fall before the boy can painfully meet the ground. A flurry of screeching Zubat fly out of the opened path just inches above their heads, no doubt roused by the noise.
After a second, the shaking stops, the dust settles, the Zubat all pass, and the way forward is clear.
"Hey, Marshtomp?" Brendan sighs as he pulls himself from Grovyle's hold with a quiet thanks. "Some warning next time? You coulda bought the whole cave down on us..."
The mud fish has the decency to look away shamefully.
Grovyle crosses his arms and glares at Marshtomp. He lets out a rolling hiss and chews on his twig with obvious agitation.
Whatever Grovyle said must be offensive, as Marshtomp's head snaps up to glare right back. He bellows in anger, the sound made all the more intimidating by the echo in the cave.
"Oi!" Lee's voice shuts both pokemon down before any more jabs can be traded. "Both of you cut it out," he orders as both pokemon look up at him. "There will be no infighting down here when you two are our main fighters. Marshtomp made a mistake and knows it, so there is no need to needle him over it, right?" Lee's eyes meet Grovyle's yellow. For several long, unblinking seconds, it looks as if Grovyle won't back down. Then the gecko pokemon finally breaks the staring contest and looks away, muttering something too low to hear.
Too low for anyone other than Marshtomp to hear it at least, as the Water-type looks mollified and replies with a much more calm croak.
"Anything else to add?" Lee asks, turning to Zinnia and Brendan.
"I think you got everything..." Zinnia snorts. She shakes some fallen dust from her hair.
Brendan looks between the opened way and Marshtomp. After a few repeats of this action, he seems to start and turns his eyes to Lee. "Uh, well it worked out this time, but Marshtomp and I will need to talk about busting stuff without warning," he says, trying to steel his expression into one of seriousness as he talks, but it looks somewhat comical on his young face.
Grovyle smirks when Marshtomp visibly cringes at the incoming punishment.
Off to the side, Zinnia smiles behind a hand and tries to play it off as a cough.
"Whatever you say," Lee nods. "Now, your Aron."
They all keep walking, and it's only after spying his own resting face in a passing puddle does Lee realize Brendan was trying to imitate his expression.
'Oh jeez. Don't grow up that fast, kiddo.'
The cleared path leads into an open chamber large enough that the light of Brendan's lantern can't reach all the way to the walls. The air inside is somewhat stale and humid, although the cooled breeze coming from behind them is swiftly changing that. Over the sound of the breeze though, is the sound of rock shuffling over rock.
Grovyle's head snaps to the side and his pupils dilate, staring at something Lee's human eyes can't see in the dark, making his stomach leap into his throat. The Grass pokemon steps forward and takes a stance in front of the humans of the group, with Marshtomp quickly lumbering to his side.
Out of the dark, a large Graveler steps into the light of the lantern.
The pokemon resembles a four-foot tall, knobby boulder on a pair of stubby, rocky legs. From its sides four arms jut out, two on each side that end in two thick fingers and a thumb each.
The pokemon levels them all with a furrow-browed expression and grit teeth. A growl that sounds like rough stones being dragged along each other rattles the bones of the people and pokemon before it.
...Then the Graveler falls forward face-first with a crash that kicks up chips of rock before going still.
"Is... Is it playing dead?" Brendan asks, daring to take a step closer.
Lee wastes no time in putting a hand on Brendan's shoulder, stopping the boy from going any closer to the huge rock pokemon. "Dunno, but let's not get closer. I like my limbs where they are, thanks."
"Uh, boys?" Zinnia slowly raises a finger to point at Graveler. "I think I found out why this guy passed out on us."
Lee and Brendan follow her finger to Graveler's back. Brendan gasps and Lee swears under his breath.
A gigantic bite-mark that looks as if it came from a demented crocodile runs all the way down Graveler's cracked and chipped back. Bits of Graveler's rocky shell are missing, and several white outcroppings stand out in sharp relief to the living boulder's armor.
Lee carefully steps closer to the prone Graveler and gently grabs one of the white protrusions from its back. He freezes when Graveler groans, but when the pokemon does not rise, he slowly pulls the white thing free and steps back to inspect it with Brendan and Zinnia crowding around. Brendan raises the lantern to shed light on the object the older trainer pulled from Graveler.
In Lee's gloved hand is a tooth as long as one of his fingers.
'Oh hell no.'
"A Mawile tooth?"
Lee looks to Zinnia, not stopping her when she picks the tooth up to inspect it. "You know what this is?"
Zinnia nods as she turns the tooth over in her fingers. "Yeah, Mawiles are Fairy-types, the bane of dragons, and a Draconid always knows her enemies well," she says with a smug grin.
"I thought they were Steel-types?" Brendan asks.
"Dual typing. Mawile was thought to be just Steel until a few years ago. No one was sure why Mawiles matched up better than they should have against dragons until Fairy-type was discovered." the dragon tamer corrects. "Anyway, this tooth isn't yellowed at all, and normally it's old teeth that go first, meaning the Mawile who did this is either young or stressed."
"Maybe both," Lee frowns, looking at the other teeth in Graveler's back. "How long was that wall up for? There are a lot of fucky things going on here and I don't like it. C'mon."
Lee, Zinnia, Brendan, Grovyle, and Marshtomp step around the wounded Graveler after Lee gives the rock pokemon a once-over to insure it incurred no fatal damage and resume forward at a slow pace. The two pokemon of the team carefully scan around so as to not be taken off guard again.
"It's too quiet," Zinnia murmurs after a few minutes of slow walking. She wraps her cloak around her a little tighter with a shiver when a breeze, the only noise in the cavern other than their footsteps, blows past. "There is no pokemon other than that hunk of rock behind us."
"And that Mawile, wherever it is," Lee amends, looking around at the darkened cavern. He reaches into his pocket and takes out his cellphone. He opens the menu on the device and turns on its flashlight, making the camera flash LED on the back light up.
The cellphone flashlight reaches much further than Brendan's lantern, faintly illuminating the walls and rock formations they've dodged around for the past several dozen yards. Everywhere the flashlight is pointed to, though, there is no sign of life, making the hairs on Lee's neck stand up. As he moves the light again, something glinting on the ground catches Grovyle's attention.
The lizard pokemon steps away from the group just long enough to grab the object from the floor and return, looking at it closely before offering it to his trainer.
"Thanks, Grovyle," Lee's smile fades as looks down at the bit of metal Grovyle presented to him.
It's little more than partially rusted scrap of iron the size of his palm. It's bent and warped slightly with what looks like a stab through it, splitting the metal on one side.
"Is that Aron armor?" Brendan asks, looking at the scrap in Lee's hand with open curiosity.
"I think so," the older trainer replies as he turns it over to look at the hole in it. It's sized like... "Wait, Zinnia? Do you still have that tooth?"
Zinnia blinks and digs a hand into the Silph pouch at the small of her back. "Yeah, right here," she presents the tooth to Lee, who puts his phone away to take it. It doesn't take long for Zinnia to catch on. "Do you think..?"
Lee slips the tooth into the hole in the iron scrap. The tooth falls to about half the length in, fitting perfectly into the scrap.
"And the mystery deepens," Lee mutters. "The Aron couldn't have been overhunted by a group of Mawile, cound they?"
"A single Mawile," Zinnia jumps in, looking at the evidence in Lee's hand with a careful, ruby eye. "They're solitary pokemon, and I don't think one could decimate an entire population."
"We should keep looking, then." Brendan says, his eyes roaming the dark cavern. "Cus something is not adding up here."
Zinnia slips the iron scrap and the tooth offered to her back in her pouch and Lee takes his phone back out, turning the flashlight back on. "Grovyle? Can you pick up any new scents? Maybe a stronger concentration of iron?" Lee asks
"Oh! And Marshtomp! Do you feel anything big moving through the floor?" Brendan hastily adds an order of his own.
Grovyle once again leans his head back and samples the air as Marshtomp drops to all-fours and stomps on the ground several times. Both pokemon look to the left a moment later. Marshtomp and Brendan are quick to take point as Lee, Grovyle, and Zinnia trail behind.
It only takes a minute and a few stumbles to find what the pair of pokemon were alerted to.
Along the far wall, there is an iron ore deposit that paints the wall a rusty scarlet color, and in the side of the deposit is a small burrow hole, one just barely large enough to let a pokemon under a foot tall walk through or let a slightly larger one crawl through. There are several other holes along the wall that the lantern light reaches, but the granite around the mouth of the one they find is worn smooth right where a pokemon might tread, more so than the others. Off to the side, there is one hole that is worryingly large, large enough for a Lairon.
Lee hazards a look at the large hole, shining his flashlight in. When no luminescent eyes suddenly open to stare back, he peers in closer with Grovyle bringing up his rear.
The walls of the burrow are coated in patches of natural rust, and in the back is a chamber spacious enough for several Lairon with room to spare. The granite and iron ore of the floor in the rear chamber is pulverized into a fine sand, probably for comfort. Lee reaches a hand in and feels around, noting that the burrow is cold.
He crawls back out and turns to Brendan and Zinnia. "It's cold. Whatever was in here, it hasn't been here in quite some time."
"Huh, why vacate a perfectly good nest like this?" Brendan wonders aloud. His eyes fall to the worn burrow entrance. "Maybe..."
The boy holds his lantern to the hole, and deep inside of it, a blazing red eye snaps open.
A thunderous growl ripples through the cavern and glittering teeth become visible in the lantern light within the burrow.
Marshtomp wraps an arm around Brendan's waist and leaps backward, pulling the young trainer away just as a massive pair of jaws bristling with teeth dart out of the hole and snap shut with a sound like a bear-trap deploying. The sound rings over and over in the cavern.
Lee gulps and takes a step back as Grovyle takes a stance with a glowing Leaf Blade ready.
Slowly, a Mawile crawls from the burrow, its gargantuan, salivating jaws held ready as its red eyes regard the humans and pokemon before it carefully. Video games and anime do no justice to Mawile's main weapon, as the croc-like mouth is practically bursting with dagger-like teeth rather than a dinky handful with long open gums. There isn't even enough room for all the teeth, as some of them are crooked or overtaking other teeth. The mouth gnashes, producing a sound like grinding steel and throwing spittle around. The small, humanoid pokemon carefully keeps its back turned to keep its second, much larger mouth aimed at them.
"So you're the one who drove out all the Aron?" Brendan asks with a huff as Marshtomp lets him go and takes his place in front of his young trainer.
The Mawile simply snarls. the action dislodges a tooth that clatters to the floor.
"Well, I'm not leaving this cave empty-handed again!" Brendan scowls. "Marshtomp, get ready!"
"Brendan, are you sure about this?" Lee asks, looking between the Mawile and the now grinning Marshtomp. "Remember what I said about team comps and the pokemon who fill the role, both in terms of their personalities and abilities."
"Oh, I remember," Brendan's grin matches the one on Marshtomp's face. He cranks the lantern brightness to max and sets it on the floor, illuminating a field just big enough to fight in "A Mawile works even better than an Aron. Get ready, Mawile!"
The deceiver pokemon across from them lets loose a shrill roar.
Lee and Zinnia share a look and back up several steps, Grovyle following without turning his back on the wild Mawile.
'I hope you know what you're doing, Brendan.'
"Marshtomp! Water Gun!" Brendan opens.
The mudfish pokemon takes a deep breath, then fires a battering ram of churning water from his throat.
Mawile's eyes widen, and it uses its jaws to grip a nearby rock and pull itself out of danger in just the nick of time. The Water Gun narrowly misses, carving into the ground and deflecting into one of the burrows.
"Again!" Brendan orders. "Don't let Mawile rest!"
Mawile's eyes narrow as Marshtomp's chest swells again. It snaps its jaws shut, then a pink glow shines through its teeth. The lips of the mouth bulge as if trying to keep something inside. When Marshtomp's mouth opens, Mawile responds in kind, opening its mouth with a roar and firing a wispy beam of translucent pink.
Water Gun meets the pink air bullet halfway, throwing water everywhere.
Marshtomp just lets out a gurgling laugh and ups the power of his Water Gun midstream, turning the firehose torrent into an almost solid pillar of liquid.
Mawile's unnamed attack shatters like glass and Water Gun barrels forward like a runaway truck. The dual-type pokemon can only bring its shut jaws to bear as a shield.
With an earth-rattling boom the Water Gun hits Mawile dead-on, throwing water everywhere and launching a wincing Mawile up into the air. It strikes the wall roughly from how hard it was thrown, but lands on its feet with a snarl and only scuffs to show so far.
"Is that all you've got?!" Brendan taunts. Marshtomp bellows in agreement.
Both of Mawile's mouths grit their teeth, making the same screeching steel sound as before. Then with a growl, Mawile rushes Marshtomp with surprising speed.
"Get ready, Marshtomp!"
Marshtomp's grin only gets wider when Mawile whirls around at the last second and throws open it's slathering jaws, which close around Marshtomp from either side like a spring-loaded trap.
Marshtomp's leathery hands shoot out, each one grabbing a single jaw each and stopping Mawile's Bite dead. The teeth dig into Marshtomp's skin, drawing droplets of blood. Mawile strains its jaw muscles, making Marshtomp's arms shake, but the jaws close no further.
"Marshtomp, let's show Lee, Zinnia, and Grovyle your new move!" Brendan laughs. "Use Seismic Toss!"
Mawile's struggles increase with a desperate growl.
"Damn, really?" Lee blinks. "Marshtomp must have had a Fighting-type as a parent. Little bastard is way too strong sometimes."
Grovyle just scoffs.
Back in the battle, Marshtomp bellows and lifts the flailing Mawile over his head by its jaws, then with a savage whirl of his arms, throws the pokemon at the ground head first like a sledgehammer.
An explosion of rock and dust is kicked up when Mawile strikes the ground like an abused toy, forcing the onlookers to cover their eyes. After several seconds, the dust clears, showing Mawile buried in the cracked granite floor head-first all the way to its shoulders. Its mouth of dagger-teeth lays limp, its tongue lolling out.
"Ha! Easy!" Brendan smiles and draws a pokeball. "Here we go!"
The empty ball flies from his hands and strikes Mawile, popping open and sucking the pokemon inside as a cloud of energy. It snaps shut and falls to the ground, wiggling to and fro, to and fro. Then...
The ball snaps back open, it's hinge breaking as it does so, and deposits the limp Mawile back on the ground where it remains unconscious and bleeding from a gash in it's skull
Brendan's smile falls and Marshtomp looks bewildered. "What happened?"
'It's not owned, or the pokeball would not have worked at all. Did Brendan just have a dud?' Lee wonders.
Marshtomp frowns and steps a little closer.
Inside Lee's head, he flashes back to Vulpix approaching a 'downed' Bagon. 'Hold up, I've seen this before...!'
"Brendan, it's playing dead!" Zinnia warns a second before Lee can.
Mawile's eyes snap open and its jaws lash out like a snake, biting Marshtomp right around his middle, and drawing a yelp of pain from him. Then with great effort, Mawile raises its captive in its jaws and drives Marshtomp headfirst into the ground much like a bastardized Seismic Toss.
There is no great crash or explosion as Mawile lacks Marshtomp's might, but Marshtomp still hits the floor with his skull, making a cringe-inducing thwack. Mawile grunts and tries to lift its foe again, but a retaliatory Water Gun from Marshtomp loosens the jaws around him and throws Mawile away, letting Marshtomp roughly land on the ground.
Both Lee and Zinnia wince when Marshtomp rises.
Marshtomp's body is a mess of stabs and cuts from the teeth that all slowly ooze red. On the top of his head, his fin is bent and his blue head is dyed purple from a migraine-inducing bruise that slowly swells into an ugly goose-egg. Marshtomp rears back and lets out an absolutely livid bellow, his loudest to date.
"You like to play dirty, huh?" Brendan's face darkens to match his pokemon's fury. "Two can play at that game. I didn't want to bust out the Ground moves to keep it all sportsman-like, but okay. Marshtomp! Mud Bomb!"
Marshtomp lets out a gurgling laugh as his throat bulges, then he opens his mouth and fires a speeding cannonball of earth at Mawile.
Mawile tries to dodge by biting a nearby rock formation and pulling itself away, but is just barely too slow. The super-effective Mud Bomb strikes home and explodes into a plume of damp mud, throwing Mawile end over end until it hits the ground face-first. The fairy tries to rise again, but falters and finally goes limp.
"This time for sure!" Brendan calls, whipping another pokeball at Mawile.
Like the last one, the ball bounces off of the downed pokemon and snaps open, sucking Mawile inside before clattering to the ground. It wiggles back and forth several times, then...
The middle button flashes and the ball goes still.
Brendan grins and walks over to the ball. He picks it up and shrinks it down, putting it on his belt by Shroomish's pokeball. "Too easy!" He says, pulling out his pokedex and navigating to his 'owned pokemon' screen if the sounds of his button presses are anything to go by.
Marshtomp grins and takes unsteady steps to his trainer, stopping and faltering over a divot in the ground.
"Oh man, you haven't been this busted up since our last gym battle, buddy," Brendan remarks, putting his pokedex away and unshouldering his bag. He produces an Oran that Marshtomp greedily gobbles down and a Potion that is liberally sprayed over Marshtomp's worst injuries.
"Good battle, Brendan," Lee smiles and walks closer, Grovyle silently shadowing him. "Mawile must be tough, to stand up to Marshtomp so well."
Brendan blushes under the praise as he treats the last of his pokemon's wounds. "Heh. Yeah. She'll do fine once the whole 'playing dead' thing is worked out." He puts his half-empty Potion away and stands again. "You alright to walk, pal?" He asks Marshtomp.
The mudfish rolls his eyes with a playful croak, striking a strongman flexing pose.
"Okay, if our little adventure here is done, can we go back up, please?" Zinnia whines. "It's cold as hell down here!"
"Isn't hell usually hot?" Brendan smirks. The smirk is promptly wiped off when Zinnia's hand darts out and pinches his cheek. "Owowow! Take a joke, woman!" He grumbles and rubs his cheek when he's released. "This is all I wanted to do down here, unless you have something to do, Lee?"
"At the moment, no," Lee shakes his head. "I do kind of want to see the ruins, but I might come back down with just my team and I to make it quick. Let's get going."
Brendan groans and brings his lantern closer to ensure his eyes aren't playing tricks on him, but the lumpy wall remains.
Someone walled up the doorway leading back to the main Granite Cave tunnels again.
With all of them inside.
"Fun..." Zinnia says in a sarcastic drawl. "So there is someone down here doing it and keeping an eye on the door, too. Oh well!" She looks at Brendan. "Mind having your masochist bust down the door?"
Brendan bites his lip and looks at Lee, silently asking permission.
"Not much else we can do..." Lee reluctantly approves. "Go for it."
"You heard 'em, Marshtomp," Brendan tells his pokemon. "Take Down on the wall."
Marshtomp grunts and runs right at the wall with a white aura around his body, crashing through it and throwing stone everywhere on the other side.
Several of the stones ping off of metallic legs.
Lee peers through the opened path and instantly wishes he didn't approve of the dumb idea to break the wall down.
Standing in the middle of the tunnel flanked by several snarling Lairon, is a full-grown Aggron.
The pokemon is huge, easily standing seven feet tall and so wide it almost takes up the entire tunnel. The grey, metallic armor covering its body is pockmarked with rends and scuffs, and its steel claws reflect the light of Brendan's lantern like razors. Each breath from its nose produces rolling plumes of steam in the cold air and an idle whip of its tail makes the earth shudder under their feet. Its blue eyes regard them coldly.
'Oh fuck. Is this guy the one who was sealing the door?'
It was then that Lee noticed the lack of Aron with Aggron and the several Lairon.
'So either they were left behind for safety, or Mawile really did...'
"U-Uh, Lee?" Brendan gulps. "Do you, you know, wanna do the thing you do? The 'not die from an angry pokemon' thing you did with Manectric?"
Lee takes a moment to find his voice. "Heads down, do not make eye contact. Make no noise. All of you."
Without waiting for a reply, Lee slowly steps forward to the front of his group and stops several arm-lengths away from the procession of Steel-types. "Hello, we apologize for intruding on your territory. It was not proper of us. Are you the one who was sealing the way?" The entire time, Lee keeps his unblinking eyes focused just to the side of Aggron's head, not daring to meet the icy blue gaze head-on, and never lets his teeth flash past his lips.
Aggron's low growl is punctuated by a burst of steam from his nostrils.
"I see..." Lee licks his lips to try and wet his dry mouth. "It was to keep someone in, or to keep someone vulnerable out, yes?"
Aggron's growl is the same as last time.
The scarred man resists the urge to blink. "You may be pleased to know that the interloper is gone, driven away by us. Your efforts wore her down. Your nests, your rightful property, are yours again," he says, omitting that Mawile now belongs to Brendan.
The metal behemoth is quiet for a moment, then slowly, he lumbers closer.
Grovyle is in front of Lee in a flash, his Leaf Blade humming and raised to strike. He stares fearlessly at Aggron, and Lee can practically feel his soul exit his body.
Aggron pauses to look at Grovyle, then makes a rolling, reverberating growl in his chest that makes steam shoot between the gaps in his metal mouth. It takes Lee a moment to realize that Aggron is laughing. He steps around the frozen Lee and Grovyle, carelessly breaking stalactites and stalagmites as thick around as small children as he makes a path of his own. He steps past Brendan, Zinnia, and Marshtomp, who move out of his way.
At the entrance of the cavern, Aggron raises his nose and takes several deep sniffs. He makes a deeper growl in his chest and turns an eye to the honor guard of Lairon.
One turns and runs down the tunnel while the rest shuffle past the group and follow Aggron, who lumbers away into the dark.
For several minutes they stay there until the sounds of Aggron's footsteps are gone. "Okay," breathes Lee. "Time to go before they realize their nests are full of water."
"Finally!" Brendan stretches his arms in the sunlight. "Time for a break!"
He and Marshtomp collapse in a heap, and Grovyle sits in the sun a short distance away, taking a deep breath and settling into a meditative stance.
Outside the cave, the sun has since fallen past the halfway point, and a look at his phone confirms to Lee that it's two in the afternoon.
He's also missed two calls from Birch in the cell deadzone that is the Granite Cave.
"Great," Lee mutters, opening his phone app.
Lee looks up from his phone to Zinnia, who stands before him with her hands on her hips with a frown. "What was that you did with that Aggron?"
"What was what?" Lee asks with his own frown. "I backed down, remained non-aggressive, and vacated his territory ASAP. It's the an- pokemon equivalent of kissing ass."
If Zinnia notices his near-slip, she doesn't show it. "That's not all you did. A pissed off pokemon isn't going to care for platitudes and will make an example out of you. I saw it. That Aggron was well and truly mad. What else did you do?"
"I explained it already," Lee shakes his head. "Why are you so insistent on this?"
Zinnia's mouth opens to answer, but she stops halfway. Then quietly, she says; "Aster could do that too."
"She could do what, too?" Lee asks, slowly becoming frustrated. "I still don't know what 'that' is."
"Talk to pokemon as easily as you."
That makes Lee stop. "I don't follow."
Zinnia sighs. "Aster. She had this way with pokemon, the same way you do. She just understood them and they understood her. She talked a raging Salamence, my Shelgon's sire in fact, down out of a rage that threatened to burn down our village. No one talks down a Salamence, Lee. She did something different from everyone else, and no one could do it like her, not until I met you. You and Aster are alike."
Lee blinks from the sudden info drop. "Well, uh..."
"Who is Aster?"
Both Lee and Zinnia turn, finding Brendan standing by them with big, curious eyes.
"She was the strongest trainer in my tribe and a dear friend of mine before she passed away." Zinnia closes her eyes and schools her face into a mask of neutrality. "She left the duty of Lorekeeper to me, the duty of being the strongest Draconid so that the Draconids could live through the strongest, most likely to survive member if calamity strikes."
'I didn't expect her to share that with Brendan.'
Brendan winces. "Oh, uh, sorry if I brought up any unpleasant memories."
The tanned woman smiles, but her ruby eyes are still dull. "Ha, don't worry about it. I've mourned and moved on. She would hate it if I was mopey over her anyway." She then looks at Lee. "Well if you're clueless about everything, I guess I need to keep following you till I figure it out. Go on, I won't keep you from calling your boss any longer."
"Gee, thanks," Lee rolls his eyes with a small smile and dials Birch, watching as Zinnia goes and sprawls out in the sunlight with a sound of delight.
The phone rings once, twice, then: "Professor Birch speaking."
"Hey professor, it's Lee. Sorry for not answering, I was down in the Granite Cave with no signal." Lee explains.
"Lee! Just the guy I wanted to talk to!" Birch sounds happy. "So, I got done reviewing your latest logs and I want to start off with how pleased I am with your progress. You're making ripples that will one day become huge waves, and your win at Dewford's little local tourney was excellent! Convergence is the talk of a lot of academic circles and forums alike. Take a look at the BattleNet forums sometime, it might be good for a laugh or some inspiration. In particular, Convergence and your Ember stunt with Murkrow shut up a few skeptics of your findings."
"Thanks professor," Lee grins.
"Anyway, I wanted to go over a few things and run a potential study by you and see how you feel about taking it on."
"I'm all ears, lay it on me," The displaced trainer says, slowly pacing under the shade of a tree by the Granite Cave path.
There is the sound of papers being shuffled over the phone. "So your list of wanted pokemon. Can you explain the reasoning behind them?"
"Sure," Lee aggressed, mentally recounting his list as he stares at a Taillow preening itself in a tree. "Vaporeon, I want to research its shapeshifting abilities and I need a Water-type for my team, and Eevee is to get the aforementioned Vaporeon. I wanted a Snorlax, but their upkeep is just too much at this point in my career."
"Wise choice. Trainers have bankrupted themselves feeding their Snorlax before."
"Yep," Lee lets out a short laugh. "Flygon, I want a dragon, but am not super confident in taking on a full dragon dragon yet. Audino and Chansey to help keep everyone in one piece. Seviper and Zangoose are whim picks. Persian and Luxray..." Lee pauses. "They're familiar, and I feel like I could raise one well."
"Ah, like your... what were they called? Lions?"
"Yes," Lee answers shortly. He pushes away the stinging melancholy and clears his throat. "Kangaskhan, I want for research into pokemon breeding and young rearing, but that can wait much like Snorlax. Mienshao..." Lee rubs the back of his head, feeling silly. "I want a Fighting-type, but a mammal that isn't humanoid. Call it a dumb hang-up..."
"No no, I understand," Birch reassures. "Funny circumstances and all."
"Funny circumstances and all," Lee agrees with a sardonic smile. "Latias and Latios are me shooting for the stars. I don't ever expect to find one, but it would be nice."
"I heard that there are regular sightings of Latias and Latios in the island city of Alto Mare off of Johto. If you're serious, that might be a good place to investigate."
'Alto Mare is real? I thought the pokemon movies weren't canon at all...' Lee feels his mouth drop open. "Uh, sure. I'll look into it. Where was I?"
"Braixen and Lucario."
"Right, Braixen was a joke. I can't double-dip when I've already got a fiery fox," Lee laughs to himself. "And Lucario was my first pick over Mienshao, but considering Lucarios are all natural empaths..."
"One under your care would be stressed out all the time," Birch finishes knowingly. "Well, sorry to hear that. Mienshao is still a good pick. Oh! And what is this last one that's scratched out?"
"Yes. The only letters I can make out are W and O at the end."
Lee is silent for a second to berate his past self for not tearing that out of his notebook. Shit. What is a good answer that Vulpix could come up with? "Uh, I misspelled Glameow and then decided I didn't want one."
"Huh, okay. Thank you, that sheds some light on all this. If your list ever changes, shoot me an updated one, please."
Lee breathes a silent sigh of relief.
"Anyway, onto the study I was talking about. Lee, you should know that the level of telepathy between you and Vulpix is unprecedented. If you can get some official studies done and figure out how to replicate your feat with other pokemon," Birch's voice hardens into a serious tone. "You could redefine the field of pokemon-human relations."
"What?" Lee asks with a furrowed brow. The Taillow he's watching flies away. "I'm not following you."
"Sharing senses with telepathy is impossible."
The scarred trainer takes a second to digest the fact. "But-"
"You and Vulpix do it all the time, yes. It was impossible until you and Vulpix came along. Think of the brains of humans and pokemon as two different computers, one transistor-based and one vacuum-based. Both can do the same basic tasks and resemble each other to a degree, but getting them to communicate without special hardware, in this case, mouths that can speak, can't be done. Sometimes a telepathic pokemon capable of basic things, like relaying raw emotions or images comes long, they aren't too rare. Then there are the really rare ones, ones able to convert their thoughts into understandable language. The talents of these pokemon are coveted, but Vulpix is on a level that only Legends are thought to be capable of. Lee..."
Lee gulps at how severe Birch's tone becomes. He can hear the capital L in Legend.
"You can tell no one of Vulpix's talent. You haven't, have you?"
"No, not a soul."
"Good. Her pyrokinesis is one thing, but sense sharing? If word got out, rich, powerful people would put their whole life-savings on the table to either buy her or pay a thief to steal her. They might even hurt you to get to her. Her talents are unique. This study of ours will be one to determine how she can do all these things with resources I trust without question... If you're okay with doing it."
With a tired sigh, Lee leans back into the tree he's paced past at least twenty times. "I'll need to talk to her first."
"Perfectly fine. Take all the time you want. If you accept, I'll begin making arrangements. Now, onto lighter topics," Birch loses his severe tone in favor of his usual joval one. "Is there anything you need from me?"
Lee thinks for a second. "Know any breeders who would give a discount to a Lab Trainer? Or any study grants the League might offer? I'm not paying forty grand for one pokemon."