The sun began to set over the courtyard, and I quietly watched the red and orange glows mix with the blues and purple of the cloud crammed skyline. It mixed well with the trees below, giving a healthy pallet of colors to the scenery.
Water trickled down my arms as I washed away the grass needles from my arm. They weren't deep enough to draw blood, but certainly still painful. When I washed enough of it away, I slipped down the column and sighed.
"Hey, you ok?" I glanced back up to see Chesnaught pop up from the other side of the column. He was dripping from his chest down, with just a few dents in his armor.
Forcing a smile, I nodded. "I'm fine, really. Thank you."
"All right, just checking." He picked at the column a bit and we watched one another. Chesnaught still looked worried, but I kept the smile up. Slowly, he sighed and relaxed his shoulders. "Well, ah, I should get going."
"Wait!" I cried as he turned away from the column.
"Yes?" Chesnaught leaned back against it and stared at me again.
My hands trembled and I fidgeting them around. "I…I wanted to…you're ok too, right?" I stammered.
The knight nodded and smiled. "Yep, I'm good. You can hit harder next time." He winked at the last part and I laughed nervously, my face burning again. "Are you sure you're ok? Your face is pretty red again."
"Y-Yeah," I tried to reassure him. "Just…had a thought about…sunsets."
"They're gorgeous, right?" He looked over the trees and out to the sky. "It's fun to take in all of the colors and shapes, huh?"
"Absolutely," I agreed.
We waited again, quietly, as he watched the sky and I shifted my gaze back and forth between the sky and the knight.
"Sorry. I should really get going," piped up Chesnaught.
"Ok," I murmured as he disappeared behind the column. "Bye."
A heavy sigh escaped me as I knocked my head back against the column.
"Three words," I hissed at myself. "Just three—"
"What's up, Greninja?"
Whirling around, I would have fallen over if I hadn't grabbed the column. Delphox leaned around the other side and gave me a quizzical look.
"Um…h-hi, Delphox," I breathed out.
"I thought I saw Chesnaught walking away," he mentioned and checked behind the column. "Did…you tell him yet?"
"N-No," I grumbled. "It's not something I want to just blurt out to him."
"Why not?" He glanced back down at me and raised an eyebrow.
"W-Well…I'm still getting to know him," I confessed; I really didn't want to rush into anything, tempting as it might be. "I haven't even been here a full week yet."
"You keep your thoughts in too long and he'll run off to marry that town girl," spat Delphox.
"Oh…I didn't think of that," I mumbled and dropped my head. A few seconds passed before I heard some dirt skid beside me.
Delphox placed his hand on my shoulder. "Come on, it's fine. And you're right; people don't exactly fall in love overnight." He paused, and then added, "Well, not without a little assistance." I picked my head back up and watched him as he scratched his chin. "You know, I'm normally one to scold Gardevoir for an idea like this, but I could try to brew a little love potion and—"
"Force him to like me?" I questioned. "I'd rather just confess to him."
"Mm, probably for the best," he agreed. "Love potions always have those sour endings from induced romances." He scratched at the back of his ear. "Well, maybe not always, I'm sure there's a happy love potion story somewhere."
"I'm still not using it."
"Ok, fine, got it the first time."
A knock sounded from above us and we glanced back up the column. Gardevoir and Samurott stood over us.
"Knock, knock, hello down there," laughed Gardevoir. "What are you two up to?"
"We were just talking…" Delphox started, but trailed off after making eye contact with Samurott.
"Talking about…?" Samurott picked up.
Delphox scratched at his stick. "Ah…sunsets?"
"Right. What kind of a fool do you take me for?" questioned Samurott.
"One that wants to waste time over our idle chit chat," huffed Delphox. "Gardevoir would coming searching for us, but why are you here?"
"Samurott tells me that the king has requested us for a task," explained Gardevoir.
"That doesn't explain why he's here," persisted Delphox.
"He also requested to see me," informed Samurott and folded his arms. "So, you can hiss at me some more or actually come with me to see our king."
The mage opened his mouth to argue more, but Gardevoir grabbed his arm and dragged him back toward the castle. I followed them along, with Samurott walking right alongside me.
"Did the king happen to mention what he wanted us for?" I asked him.
"Nope, he told me that he'd explain more when I collected everyone," clarified Samurott.
We strolled into the main hall and I scratched the side of my head. "Huh."
"So," Samurott whispered, "what were you and Delphox chattering about when we showed up?"
"Uh, nothing in particular," I lied, unsure about telling Samurott the truth. He was the only one of my friends who didn't know, but he was also the only one that socialized with the knights on a more frequent basis.
"Aw, come on," he quietly groaned. "Do you guys think I can't keep a secret?"
"Well, I…don't want things to get…weird between us," I admitted.
"Weird? Why would it—?"
"Oh, quit harassing him, Samurott," snapped Delphox as Gardevoir stretched her hand out and onto one of the throne room's doors. "We could hear you perfectly the whole time. And you wonder why we wouldn't tell you?"
Samurott frowned and turned his head away. Guilty, I placed my hand on his shoulder and sighed. "Look, I'll tell you about it after we speak with Nidoking. But, just…keep an open mind, ok?" He glanced back down to me with a smile and nodded.
"And you definitely need to do a much better job at keeping your mouth shut about it," added Delphox, to which Samurott glared at him.
"Are we going to spend another ten minutes arguing, or can I open the door?" asked Gardevoir. Then, delighted, she pulled her hand away and clapped, "Ooh, wait, let's actually get into a big fight! I have some new spells I can try and you guys should last longer than Armaldo did!"
"Just open the door," deadpanned Delphox.
Gardevoir stuck her tongue out at him, but opened the door as requested. We moved inside to the throne room, where Nidoking stood up from his throne and walked to the room's center. Samurott bowed, which I mimicked myself; this was the first time I was having an official audience with the king. Delphox and Gardevoir curtseyed.
"Ah, thank you, Samurott, and welcome back," Nidoking greeted. "And hello again to the rest of you as well!"
"Hello, your grace," returned Gardevoir. "What can we do for you?"
"Actually, I'm also waiting on a few knights that Rhydon should be sending over," the king scratched his chin.
"Knights besides me, sire?" questioned Samurott and Nidoking nodded.
Behind us, the doors opened again, with Gallade leading in Bisharp, Typhlosion, and, of course, Chesnaught. I pulled on my tongue as they approached us and bowed to their king.
"Earl Gallade, this is a pleasant surprise," laughed Nidoking. "I was only informed of the knights being sent here."
"Pardon the intrusion, milord," Gallade picked himself up. "I had heard that you sent the general on another task and wished to make my services available."
"Polite way of saying he heard Gardevoir would be here," I heard Delphox mutter.
"Very well, that's most appreciated," thanked Nidoking.
"Sire," Bisharp stood and stepped forward, "exactly why are we here?"
"Yes, right to it," nodded Nidoking. "Normally, I'd send Rhydon, but since he's away on another, ah, errand, I'll need the…eight of you to go to the Eventide Forest."
"Now? Later in the day, when we're more prone to attack?" questioned Delphox.
"It's the only time to enter because of the seals we put up," explained Nidoking.
"Magical seals?" inquired Gardevoir excitedly.
"Of course!" Nidoking beamed and matched her enthusiasm.
Typhlosion coughed to interrupt. "That doesn't explain why all of us need to go."
"Or what we're going after," added Delphox. He blinked and his face was full of distaste, perhaps because he agreed with Typhlosion.
"Ah, yes, there are two things that I desire," clarified Nidoking. "The first is just some berries for wine, Micle, Ganlon, and Apicot. I hid a stash secretly growing on one end of the woods."
"Um…why would you do that?" questioned Chesnaught.
Nidoking laughed, "They grow better out there!"
"But why do you need them now?" asked Typhlosion.
"Oh, I don't," shrugged Nidoking. "But it's better to knockout two birds with one stone."
Everyone besides the king exchanged expressions that varied between distaste and confusion.
"What's the other…thing?" I inquired. My input attracted the attention of others and they looked at me for a moment; I was quite tempted to pull my tongue up further.
"Ah, yes," Nidoking continued. "Someone else will need to unseal the enchantments around the hokora in the forest. There's a golden and gray stone inside, a type of…crown jewel." His tone slowed just a bit over the last words, but I seemed to be the only one to pick up on it. "It's quite valuable and until recently, I left it to be used as a tribute to the forest guardians."
Samurott scratched the back of his head. "You mean the legendary—"
"Yes, yes, myths and nonsense, I know," Nidoking waved him off. "At any rate, it's come to my attention that I'll need it back close by, so I'd like you to bring it back here."
"So, you need Delphox and I to unseal both of these," noted Gardevoir. "But why do we need three guards each?"
The king's face grew dark as he murmured, "Bandits. They tend to wait until later hours to strike and usually target individuals. A report buzzed around recently that there was a group that had a mage in their midst." He sighed. "Though they wouldn't know the incantations to unlock either location, they'll most certainly attempt to steal anything valuable that you take."
"Ok, so the more of us that go, the less likely it is that we run into them?" checked Bisharp.
Nidoking shook his head. "No, there's a pretty fair chance that you'll run into them regardless. The more of you that go, the more opponents you can fight off."
"Just how important is that crown jewel?" requested Delphox. "Does it really need to come back here now?"
"Sooner is better," noted Nidoking. "I'm going to have need of it in the coming months and would prefer it nearby rather than in the forest." When no one answered after that, he added, "Should I make it an official order, or can I trust you eight to handle this quietly and quickly?"
"It'll be an honor, sire," bowed Samurott.
"Certainly," agreed Gallade.
"Gardevoir and I don't really have a choice, do we?" sighed Delphox.
"Sounds fun anyway!" cheered Gardevoir.
"We won't let you down, sir," I added. If all of my friends were going, I might as well make sure I'm with them.
"That's right," Chesnaught chimed in. "You can count on us!"
"Got nothing better to do," shrugged Typhlosion.
"Consider it done the minute we leave," nodded Bisharp.
"Excellent, glad to hear it," laughed Nidoking. "Take a few weapons from the armory and try not to draw suspicion as you travel to and through the forest. And for the mages, I have the incantations…here." He took out two small papers and gave one each to Gardevoir and Delphox.
Gardevoir studied the paper. "Ooh, new magic words…"
"What language is this?" Delphox read the page and shook his head.
"A fairly old one, but you should be able to work with it. Guard those with your lives. Do the same for each other." Our group nodded and turned to walk out. "Good luck," the king called as we left.
"The armory is this way," motioned Bisharp to a door past the right stairwell. Typhlosion and Chesnaught followed him right through, while Gallade whispered something to Gardevoir to make her giggle before he went after them.
"Guess what you were going to tell me will have to wait, huh?" asked Samurott as he followed the group.
"Well, if we're going with them, then yes," I mumbled.
Samurott frowned, but nodded and held the door for me as I walked past him. Gardevoir and Delphox continued to read over their incantations as we left them.
Carefully, we ventured down a bluish gray stone walled staircase; something I would have expected based on the exterior of the castle. In fact, I had expected more interior walls like this. Only a few infrequent torches lit the way before we reached another door, dark brown and wooden. Bisharp opened it and strolled through, with the rest of us following him in.
We traveled through the hallway, with brown stones used here. Several doors were lined against the walls, but I couldn't tell the differences between them, nor guess at what lied beyond them. The knights reached a door about three quarters of the way down and went inside. Samurott nudged me forward when I didn't follow right away, as I still glanced around the hall before entering.
Silently, I gazed at the assortment of weaponry that lined the room. Various wooden chests were filled with armor plates, swords, hatchets, and daggers. Knives were lined up on a desk at the far end of the room. Along the walls were lances, battle-axes, shields, bows, arrows, quivers, long swords, staffs, spears, and clubs.
Each of the knights began fingering through the weapons, debating over what they wanted to take. Samurott took my hand and guided me behind a wall around the right side of the room.
"These are some that I brought," he presented a cabinet that cased a smaller section of the army supplies. Katana and tachi swords were lined on the right door, while naginata and bo staffs were on the left. Samurai armor was on the back of the cabinet, with shelves that contained smaller weapons, including shuriken, ono, and kama. He opened a drawer and took out two bladed scallops.
"I used to practice with these when I was younger," Samurott reminisced fondly and added them to his belt. His usual swords were sheathed on his arms, and I wondered if he ever took them off. "So, do you have any supplies yet?"
"Uh, in my room, but I didn't know we had an armory," I muttered. "Well, I imagined, but I never searched for it."
The samurai laughed. "It's fine, take some of my supplies! I need to restock soon anyway."
My hands went straight for his shuriken set, with a preference for the four-sided blades. I clipped them to my belt and let my hands drop to my sides.
"You can take more than just those, you know," he advised. I grabbed a tachi blade and slipped the strap over my back. "…You're being too modest."
"No, I just travel lightly," I corrected him, though he wasn't completely wrong. "Besides, I've got my own attacks to help out with these."
"True," Samurott relented as he slipped an ono into his belt. "But you should still have alternative methods of fighting prepared."
"That's what you supplied me with," I pointed out. "Plus, you're used to using a lot of weapons; that's not how I work, normally."
"Right, you rely on speed and flashy tricks," noted Samurott, though the latter sounded a bit condescending. "Sorry," he must have seen my frown, "they're useful, just different from what I'm used to." The sea lion patted his stomach. "Big and steady like a rock," he laughed. "Better for me to concentrate on fighting in one place."
"But…you don't seem that slow," I scratched my head.
"Oh, no, not really," he agreed. "Compared to the group we're going with, though, I'm probably only faster than Chesnaught."
At his name, I nodded and turned back to the cabinet.
"Someone mention my name?" Chesnaught called and I glanced behind my shoulder to see him peer around the wall at us.
"Just hoping you won't fall behind tonight," teased Samurott.
"Ha-ha. I can manage," assured Chesnaught.
Samurott laughed, "You better! If they pick you off first, that means I'm next!"
I tapped on the weapons in the cabinet and listened for Chesnaught's footsteps moving away. Instead, I heard them get closer.
"Do you mind if I take something small, Samurott?" he asked.
"Uh…sure, if you need to," mumbled Samurott. "Didn't think you were one for tossing blades, though."
"Not really, but Greninja got me interested in them," he explained as he slid up next to me. "You know, after you pelted me with all of those Water Shuriken attacks."
Nervously, I laughed and shut my eyes as I turned my head to face him. "Yeah, sorry about that." Too curious, I opened an eye to look at him. If I started to drool, I'd consider dragging the entire cabinet down on me.
"Don't be, that's what practice is for," he beamed. I watched as he reached in, but knocked a few weapons out of place. "Oops," he grinded his teeth together. "Uh…"
"Relax, I've got it," I murmured as I sorted them back. Yet, I was somehow not taking my own advice and saw my hands shake a little. Exhaling, I steadied my hands and fit the blades back into their proper places.
Fitting the last one in, my hand brushed against Chesnaught's arm and I bit my tongue. He didn't flinch and I glanced at his face, but he just smiled at me. Quickly, I picked up several six-sided shuriken and held them out.
"Thanks," he grinned as he added them to his belt. He also had a dirk tucked away, a stiletto, and two hatchets around the other side. A broadsword poked out from behind his back, well above his tail. "Um…did you need something from me?"
"You were staring at my belt, so I figured—"
"N-No, I was just, uh," I stammered. "L-Lost in thought. Sorry."
"That's ok," he soothed. "But, ah, your face is turning red again."
"It is?" Of course it was, I felt it flare up. "W-Weird."
"Maybe you should get that checked out sometime?" he wondered aloud. "Samurott, would you know anything about faces turning red involuntarily?"
"Embarrassment, for starters," deadpanned Samurott.
"Oh, did you think about something embarrassing, Greninja?" Chesnaught's innocent tone was enough to drive me insane.
"Why don't you keep getting yourself ready?" suggested Samurott as he pushed Chesnaught back around the wall. "I'll help him out."
"Uh, all right?"
Samurott walked back around and folded his arms as he studied at me.
"Stupid, right?" I whispered to him.
"Well, maybe if I knew what made you blush like that," he muttered. I only blushed harder from that, but gave him a quizzical look as well.
"Wait, don't you get it?"
"No, what?" I watched his eyes, but he stared right back at me. Clueless. Good, I needed him to be for now.
"Ah, it's about that thing I was going to explain…never mind, I'll tell you about this later too," I mumbled.
The samurai glanced around the wall and back to me. Still quietly, he started, "Is it important that no one else—?"
"Yes," I asserted, a little louder. "Delphox wasn't kidding earlier."
"Kidding about what?" Ugh. Typhlosion peered around the wall.
"How often he wants to blast fire at nosy knights like you," Samurott barked and shoved him back behind the wall.
"He does have a fiery temper," I listened to Gallade add.
"Do you get jealous that he's always with your lady?" teased Bisharp.
"N-No." Gallade paused. "Wait, she's not my lady!"
Typhlosion and Bisharp laughed as Samurott patted me on the back. I smiled and mouthed my thanks, which he managed to see in spite of my tongue.
We stepped back around the wall and walked out to the hall. As we passed, I noticed Typhlosion cling to a halberd while Bisharp favored short swords. Gallade checked the extended blades on his elbows and Chesnaught bent over a chest…
Abruptly, I turned forward and shuffled past Samurott out the door.
The door slammed and I jumped up from the chest of weapons I dug through. I turned around to face the door and the other knights. "Did someone slam the—?"
"Yeah, Samurott and his pet frog ninja," Typhlosion spat. "Why's he keep so close to that new guy, anyway?"
"They seem pretty similar," noted Bisharp. "Water, blue, ninjas and samurai go hand in hand, don't they?"
"Actually, I think samurai are more upper class with more structured code of honor, while ninjas are usually just assassins for hire and more open with their combat tactics," explained Gallade. "Though, Escavalier tells me that's not the exact case with his wife's clan." He paused and looked at me. "Chesnaught, you've fought Greninja. What do you think?"
"Um…he seems to have a practiced style, I think," I scratched at the back of my head. "He hits and runs quickly, and he knows how to find weak points. Is that what you mean, or…?"
"Who cares?" Typhlosion interrupted. "Either way, they get into a fight, they're going to need to make sure they survive."
"That's one way to look at it," observed Gallade. "Tell me, Typhlosion, how well have you studied chivalry and your honor codes of conduct?"
Typhlosion blinked. "Uh—"
"You do realize that those are essential for a knight, right?" continued Gallade.
"Well, yeah, of course!" Typhlosion's uneasily responded. "It's just…um…d-don't we need to get going?"
Gallade smirked. "Yes, of course." He glanced over all three of us before he walked out. Typhlosion sighed and picked at the floor with his halberd.
"You're just itching to get into trouble, you know that?" Bisharp mocked him.
"Clearly," shrugged Typhlosion. "Well, I'm all set. I'll see you two upstairs."
He lifted the weapon and walked out. Bisharp waited a few minutes before he tapped on my shoulder.
"So, did you ever find out about Greninja?"
"Find out what?" I asked.
"You know, the thing we talked about?" Bisharp quickly crept to the doorway, looked around, and then walked back to me. "If he's gay?"
Something about his tone rubbed me the wrong way. "I didn't find out, but why do you care, anyway?"
Bisharp shrugged. "I'm nosy."
"You told me that before," I nodded, "But that doesn't seem like a good enough reason for me to snoop into his personal life."
"Didn't you want to find out more about him?" he pestered.
"Yeah, as an ally and friend," I specified. "I don't need to know anything else."
Bisharp raised an eyebrow at me. "Well…I guess, but—"
"No, there shouldn't be a 'but.' What else do you need to know?"
He shrugged. "Nothing, I guess. You raised a good point."
Still, there was a look in his eye that I didn't like. "That's not enough for you, is it?"
"Doesn't matter," Bisharp shook his head. "Look, we should get going. Everyone's going to be waiting on us."
"I'll be there in a few," I nodded. "Just have a few more things that I need."
"All right, see you up there."
Bisharp walked out the door and I listened to him leave the hallway. Quickly, I rushed back around the wall and looked inside of the cabinet Samurott and Greninja had used before. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and I slowly closed it.
"Embarrassment, for starters."
So Greninja was embarrassed, but nothing in here would suggest that. Samurott was talking to him casually and I didn't pick up on the conversation until my name came up. And then, he went red, like when we were fighting earlier. Bisharp was most likely right, in that case; Greninja was gay.
"And he might have feelings for me…" I murmured to myself.
Wildly, I shook my head. Bisharp's words were messing with my thoughts. Nothing confirmed that about Greninja and he might just be upset over our practice sessions. Even though he insisted that it wasn't my fault, what if something I did actually triggered a bad memory for him?
As I closed the armory door behind me, I bit my lip and wondered what the truth was. And with that came another question to gnaw at my mind:
How did I feel about Greninja?
After I climbed the stairs, I thought that I could bury the notion. But as I walked back into the hall, I spied Greninja talking to his friends. He looked over at me, but then quickly averted his gaze. Suddenly, a new pair of thoughts occurred to me:
What if he actually didn't like me at all? Is it possible that I revolt him?
No particular reasons stood out for that, but I had knocked him around pretty hard when we sparred. And the first time I actually interacted with him was knocking him to the ground. Maybe he developed a secret distaste toward me?
"Well, if we're all here," announced Gallade. "Shall we?"
Everyone left the castle and we traveled through the left arches of the courtyard, for the path that would lead to Eventide Forest. True to the name, the sun was already down before we even arrived.
"So…what do you think of that Greninja ninja?" quietly asked Typhlosion, as we trailed behind the group.
I watched ahead as Gardevoir made Greninja and Samurott laugh at Delphox's expense. "He seems nice," I muttered to Typhlosion. "He's also pretty tough."
"Is that all?" Typhlosion pressed.
"That's all you need to know," I affirmed.
"Just wondering if you liked him," snickered Typhlosion. "Or trusted him."
Still cackling, he sped up away from me to bother Bisharp. I sighed and gazed ahead as Delphox whispered to Greninja. The two looked back at me, and I shifted my eyes to the left, and watched as we passed some trees and stumps. When I returned my attention to them, Delphox was laughing while Greninja had turned away.
Gallade fell back and whispered, "I couldn't quite make it out, but I do believe they mentioned you at some point."
"Yeah, I got that impression," I mumbled.
He waited a minute before he continued, "So, you've gotten to know Greninja pretty well, right?"
"You are the third one to ask me about us," I grumbled and slid a hand over my face.
"Sorry," he scratched his head. "I, uh…well, to put it candidly, I'm looking for ways to get closer to Lady Gardevoir." I turned my head and noticed that his cheeks were rosy.
"Isn't she already aware of your interest in her?" I asked.
"S-Sort of," he chuckled nervously. "And we've gone out on a few dates already." Gallade sighed. "But I'm nowhere near as close to her as I'd like to be. We talk, but it's only idle chatter when we pass one another in the castle halls. And aside from asking her out, she's almost always with Lady Delphox."
"Uh…I think you mean Lord Delphox."
"See?! This is exactly what I'm talking about!" Gallade shouted, and then froze as the rest of the group stopped and blankly stared at us.
"We still have work to do," I reminded them, and everyone started moving again.
"Thank you," he sheepishly grinned. "Anyway, that's my problem. I don't spend much time with Gardevoir, to the point that I can't even remember her best friend's gender." He paused. "Come to think of it, are they romantically involved? An on-again, off-again type of relationship?"
"Honestly, sir, you interact with them more than I do," I admitted.
With another sigh, Gallade nodded. "I know, but I was hoping that maybe you had befriended Greninja enough to listen to what he learned about her." He let out a light laugh. "I suppose that was reaching for the stars."
"Well, if you'd like, I could try asking him later about it," I offered. Wait, what?!
"Oh, would you really? Thank you so much, Sir Chesnaught!" he beamed and enthusiastically shook my hand.
I nodded as Gallade suddenly sped up and walked ahead, but kept a bit of distance between himself and Gardevoir.
When did I become a sucker for match making? I wondered.
A few more minutes passed and we finally reached Eventide Forest. Moonlight pierced through the trees, and decorated the paths below with spotted lights.
We wandered a little further in, and our surroundings grew darker, save for the bits of light that shone through. Eventually, we came to the fork in the road.
"All right, uh…which path leads which way?" asked Samurott.
"I believe the berries are along the right path," Gardevoir pointed to the path where more moonlight broke through the trees, and appeared a bit romantic, if not simply pleasant. "And that means the hokora is down the left path," she pointed to the other side, which was darker, with trees that had more twisted branches.
"Why are there always two ways: one nice road, and one terrifying trail?" Delphox voiced my thoughts.
"Beats me, but guess who got the berry incantation?" Gardevoir teased and waved her small paper around. "Mine has less words than yours, and I double checked with Nidoking before we left."
"W-Wait, really? That's not fair!" whined Delphox.
"Too bad!" cheered Gardevoir. "All right, let's pick guards."
"Dibs on Greninja, Samurott, and…Chesnaught," Delphox pointed each of us out with his stick.
"What?! You can't do that!" cried Gardevoir. "We're supposed to alternate after each pick! And I wanted Greninja and Samurott."
"Too bad," reiterated Delphox mockingly. "If I'm going down the fear inducing path, I might as well have good company."
"We're standing right here, you know," murmured Bisharp, to which Typhlosion nodded.
"Whatever," Delphox waved them off. "At least I left your Earl for you, Gardevoir."
She looked over at Gallade, who smiled brightly for her. Gardevoir giggled, "Well, thank you at least for that, my delicate Delphox." She burst out laughing as Delphox glared at her.
"Ok, we've taken far too long already," complained Samurott. "Let's go and be done with this quickly."
"All right," Gardevoir interlocked her arm with Gallade's. "Race you back to the entrance!"
"Oh, come on!" Delphox yelled as Gardevoir sped off, dragging Gallade along with her and forcing Bisharp and Typhlosion to chase them. The fire fox sighed. "They're going to be quicker than us; she has less words to spew out."
"They might take longer; they are collecting berries," Greninja pointed out.
"Maybe, but we're going down this abomination," Delphox glanced down our trail with distaste.
"Use that to motivate you along the way quicker," advised Samurott. "Come on."
The samurai led the way, with Greninja following him and Delphox grumbled as he went after them. I took a final look at Gardevoir's group in the distance on their trail before I rushed after my company.
"Uh…don't take this the wrong way," I tapped Delphox's shoulder, "but why did you pick me?"
"Out of every knight, you're the only one that ever remembered not to call me a 'lady,'" Delphox answered quickly. "There was no chance that I was taking Gallade away from Gardevoir, Typhlosion's a pest, and I don't know Bisharp well, besides that one time I burnt him to a crisp. So, that left you." He paused and deadpanned, "Congratulations."
"Um…thanks. I think," I murmured.
Abruptly, Delphox offered, "Would you like to talk to Greninja?"
"Because I want to bother Samurott about a few things, that's why," Delphox insisted. "Talk to Greninja about something nice. Or about sparring again, I guess; whatever you two like."
"B-But…" My pleas fell on dead ears, as Delphox rushed forward, walked next to Samurott, and tapped Greninja to go back by me. Judging by the alarm on the ninja's face, I don't think he wanted to talk with me either. Samurott nodded at something Delphox complained about, and then Greninja nodded and waited as I caught up to him. Greninja's face was red as soon as I strolled up.
"H-Hey," he waved and matched my walking speed.
"You don't have to wait for me," I tried to let him off easy. "I know you're much quicker and could outrun all of us."
"I guess, but that won't do me any good without Delphox's incantation," noted Greninja. "So, uh, you're…good company anyway."
He nodded quietly and we walked for a bit in silence. Doing so, however, only made the journey creepier, and if it weren't for the whispers from Delphox and Samurott, we would have nothing to listen to, save an occasional howl of wind.
"So, Greninja," I started up. "How…uh, close are you to Gardevoir?"
"Oh, um, w-we're becoming good friends," he informed me. "I don't know much yet, but she loves to compete with Delphox, she's super nice, strong, and…I think she's in a relationship with Gallade, but I'm not completely sure."
"W-Well, I…I guess," he murmured. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it," I shrugged and debated on telling him the truth. I did: "Gallade wanted me to grill you and see if you knew how to become better friends with Gardevoir; he wants to get closer to her."
"Ah, that's nice," Greninja shakily nodded. "She and I just…became fast friends, really." He scratched his head, and then added, "Actually, I became fast friends with all three of them. Um, Gardevoir, Delphox, and Samurott, that is."
"Got it," I nodded.
Greninja waited a moment before he asked, "Is that too weird?"
"I don't think so," I shook my head. "If you really click well with someone, there's no reason that you shouldn't be friends."
"W-Would you consider us friends, then?" he questioned.
Quickly, I nodded, "Sure, definitely!" Wait, what? I don't know him that well, we just sparred a couple of times. "We should hang out more often," I added. What am I doing?
He seemed to smile though. "Ok, w-we really should," Greninja managed and I watched him fiddle around with his hands.
"Are you nervous?" I asked.
"H-Huh?" Greninja squeaked and looked alarmed at me. "How did you know?"
"Well, I'm nervous," I admitted. "This road is creepy." While that was true, that was not the right reason…for either of us, I imagined.
"The road? Right, the road!" he capitalized on my suggestion. "It's…uh…really spooky. And it's late too."
Laughter escaped me. "You sound petrified," I teased.
"No, no, it's definitely scary," he insisted.
"But you've been in darker places, I'd imagine?"
"Uh…well…yes," he caved. "T-That doesn't make this any easier though."
"Not even just a little bit?" I nudged him softly.
"…Maybe a bit," he agreed.
We continued along quietly, and I noticed that Delphox and Samurott had stopped talking. The mage's ears twitched; he planned this, I knew it.
After a few more minutes, we reached a wide clearing. The hokora waited in the center, lit by the only moonlight that broke through the trees.
"Gee," Samurott chuckled. "And you guys thought I was terrible at keeping secrets."
"And that hasn't changed," muttered Delphox.
"Well, well," cackled a new voice. "Hear that, boys? Sounds like we found ourselves a secret shrine."
On the opposite end of the clearing, we saw four bandits waiting for us, weapons already drawn. They wore torn black clothes, in a futile attempt to disguise themselves.
"This group has wanted posters in town," I quickly informed the others. "The leader with the short battle-axe is Scrafty. His two henchmen are Toxicroak and Primeape. Their mage is new."
"Hear that, Hypno?" snorted the shortest one, Primeape, as he waved his club around. "Looks like we need to build up your infamy."
"Idiot!" The tallest, Hypno, bashed a magic staff over Primeape's head. "Now they know who all four of us are."
"According to the fat one, they knew that anyway," scoffed Scrafty as he threw off his hood. …Fat?!
"Actually, boss, I think that's just his shell," corrected the last one, Toxicroak, as he spun his daggers in his hands.
"Thanks, wise guy," snapped Scrafty. "How about you clowns make yourselves useful and clobber those royal snobs!"
"Snobs?" Delphox huffed with revulsion. "Anyone else want to teach these scum a lesson?"
"You're proving their point," deadpanned Samurott.
"Oh, shut up," spat Delphox.
Greninja and Delphox ran forward at Primeape and Toxicroak.
The ninja was the first one to reach the hokora, past it, and then threw two shuriken at the enemies. Primeape had gone forward too quickly and was sliced, but Toxicroak managed to dodge.
Delphox slid his wand out, raised it, and shot out a stream of fire at the two, but they both managed to evade the attack.
Samurott had gone around the other side and brought his heavy swords down on Scrafty, who managed to guard the attack with his axe. The two clashed and swung wildly at one another.
"Enjoying the show?" mocked a voice from behind me. Hypno.
"Just waiting on you," I countered.
Their mage flicked the pendulum that hung from the center of his robes. He raised his staff and fired out a vibrant colored beam. I rolled away as it blasted across the ground, tearing up the grass and dirt where I had stood.
Quickly, I slid out a shuriken and threw it out at Hypno. He deflected it easily, before it even reached him, and fired another beam at me. I leapt away and had a hand on my broadsword.
"Use your wrist more," whispered Greninja. I spun my head to find him speed past me, as he pulled out three more shuriken and tossed them at Primeape.
Mimicking his motion, I slid out another shuriken and used my wrist to throw it at Hypno. The shuriken spun much faster, and though Hypno still deflected it, he wasn't as quick about it.
I ran closer and swiftly swiped at him with my dirk dagger. Hypno cried out as I cut through his sleeve and sliced the arm that held his staff.
"Damn you!" He snapped and whipped out the pendulum with his free hand. Though I tried to look away, something made me focus on it, as the small, circular blade swung back and forth, slowly, back…forth…
"Chesnaught!" I blinked and watched a stream of red and purple fire blaze across the air at Hypno. He rolled across the dirt to put out the flames that caught on his clothing.
"Nice shot, Delphox, thanks," I complimented as the fox mage ran to my side.
"You're welcome," he smirked. "Now, what's say you to switching opponents?"
"He's all yours," I waved off as Delphox rushed at the downed Hypno.
Toxicroak tried to hold his head as I approached; Delphox's attacks must have done a particularly effective number on him.
"Watch yourself, Greninja!" I heard Samurott shout. The frog had just kicked Primeape into a tree as Scrafty broke away from the samurai and cleaved his axe at the ninja.
Without hesitating, I tossed my stiletto blade out and threw it at Scrafty's arm. He cried out as Greninja moved in and sliced at his chest.
"Eyes front, big guy," cackled Toxicroak. I whirled around as he leapt at me with his daggers.
I unsheathed my broadsword, countered the swipes, and knocked the blades away from him.
"Yield," I darkly commanded and concentrated my blade.
The bandit glared at me, and slowly raised his hands.
A loud screech filled the air and I winced my eyes too tightly. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain rise up in my side. My eyes snapped open to find the Toxicroak had dug his claw tightly into me.
"Should've taken your own orders," he spat and grinned wickedly. "Hope you enjoy the toxins."
I struggled to knock his arm away and coughed. My vision blurred, and things started to go black. I watched Greninja turn and give me a horrified look.
Toxicroak had just stabbed Chesnaught.
That was about all I processed from our eyes meeting before I sprinted across the clearing under the howl of the wind. He wouldn't hear me. But I want him to know.
"Like pain?" I barked.
The bandit didn't even have time to turn around. My tachi blade was whipped out and streaked straight down his back. Red, blood, spattered out from his back and I kicked him away.
"Enjoy your scar," I hissed.
Like lightning, I crashed down by Chesnaught as he collapsed to the ground.
"Hush, just breathe for me."
His breathing was hoarse, strained. A ball of water formed in my hand and I washed the blood and purple toxins away as quickly and carefully as I could.
After a minute, I heard Primeape come charging and threw a shuriken at his eye. It connected and he went down as his hand flew up to clutch it.
Chesnaught tried to speak again, "Gre…gren…"
"Shut up," I softly, but firmly ordered. "Just focus on breathing. I'm right here."
I kept the ball of water over his side until I couldn't see any more purple liquids spewing out of him. With the nearby dagger, I sliced off my hood and sleeves. I tied the three pieces together and readied to tie the makeshift tourniquet for his wound.
"What happened?!" Samurott cried out. His blades clattered against Scrafty's axe, but I heard him flip the weapon away.
"Stabbed, poison," was my answer.
A blast of fire and a scream of anguish were all I heard from Delphox's fight.
Steadily, I wrapped my bandage around Chesnaught and tightly tied it.
"Delphox, hurry up and open the seal!" shouted Samurott.
"Right," came his uneven response. "Uh…let's see…x…o…zo…xoho…idi…toe…idtoh cu, uh…zo…meed…meedcaw—"
"What are you doing?!" yelled Samurott. He growled again after that and I heard a gasp and a thud. Scrafty went down.
In spite of that, I kept my attention focused on Chesnaught's wound and kept cleaning around it, double-checking on the tightened tourniquet.
"Spells aren't that easy to recite, ok?!" snapped Delphox.
"Well, focus and read it over!" ordered Samurott. I heard the bandits near me start to get up from the grass.
"I'm going to need more time to read the whole thing!" he shouted back.
"You got it, start the spell!" affirmed Samurott.
Delphox started the incantation, which I barely understood: "Xoho idtoh kxo meedcawxk, A succ ke rhoub kxo…udsaodk jouc. Nxuk nuj…edso covk ad…kxaj vehojk aj dootot edso meho…"
"What's…that…?" Chesnaught whispered again.
"Spell. Unsealing the—"
My head jerked up and I glanced back to see Toxicroak and Primeape leap at me. A large, pale yellow blade slammed into both of them and sent them flying across the clearing, into the trees and out of sight.
"Don't mention it," he rested his hand on my shoulder and I heard him sheathe his blades. "We'll get him back as soon as we can."
We both checked on Chesnaught, who kept up his now steadied breathing. Then, we watched Delphox. "…cok kxo…jfahakj ev kxo…cowodtj ceeb uvkoh ij," he finished and stared at the hokora.
The shrine lit up under the moonlight and clicked. Delphox carefully opened the doors and took out the sparkling crown jewel.
"Uh, I guess this is it?" Delphox lifted it and presented it to us. "That's all I see in here." To make sure, he lit his stick and held it up. "Yes, that's all."
"Then we're done here," Samurott announced and helped me lift Chesnaught. "Let's get him back to the castle, now."
Delphox hesitated as we walked past him. "Do you want me to make sure that all of the bandits are—?"
"Not priority," insisted Samurott. "Move."
I heard Delphox run up alongside me and helped me balance Chesnaught. We lumbered our way back along the path, back to the forest entrance.
Gardevoir and the others carried baskets of berries as they met us outside. She gasped and quickly asked, "What happened? Is he ok? Do you want me to carry him?"
"Stabbed and poisoned, he should be, and yes please," Samurott answered.
Gardevoir's eyes lit up as she raised her arms and lifted Chesnaught slightly above the ground. I noticed her arms shake; she wouldn't be able to hold him up very long.
"We're…good…let's go!" she managed and forced herself along.
Everyone was silent as we traveled back to the castle, as fast as we could move.