Chapter 29 - The Burning Paws
Roxy took a moment to consider just where her life had taken her at this point.
She was currently riding on the back of a wild Pokémon, who also happened to be a predator, running through the endless forest like it was a joyride. Taka, her stoic and unsmiling partner, sat behind her, sharing the ride with her. The predator below, who could eat them both with a snap of her jaws, was kind and friendly and had stated her intention to never harm them, as thanks for saving her life.
Where was the nature documentary covering that?
To tell the truth, Roxy was having the time of her life. She had come to trust Vi as much as she could, given how long they had known each other, and was now just enjoying the sights. Being with a predator meant they didn't have to worry as much about other predators. She let her mind relax a little and watched the passing scenery as it whizzed by.
Vi was really fast, considering she was carrying two Pokémon on her back. She was also quite nimble, able to surmount large rocks and fallen trees while hardly disturbing her two passengers. Roxy jokingly wondered to herself if they could keep Vi for the entire journey.
"How long will it take until we reach the other end of your territory?" Roxy asked. They had already been running for quite a while, though she wasn't sure exactly how long.
"We have actually just entered my territory," Vi replied.
"What?" Roxy replied, flabbergasted.
"I told you, I was very far from my tribe's borders. That is why it was unlikely any of them would have found me."
"Oh really? Wow…"
Roxy and Vi had chatted quite a bit on their journey so far. Vi had asked to hear Roxy's story, as had been expected, and Roxy once again retold what had happened to her. Vi seemed fascinated, in particular, by the concept of 'pets'. She had also been very sympathetic to Roxy's plight, and commented afterwards that it truly felt to her like a sad story with a happy ending.
Roxy, in turn, had asked and learned what Vi's name meant. She was surprised to learn that, unlike literally everyone else she had met in the forest, her name held no secret meaning. It was just something her parents had liked. Apparently Vi's tribe held to a more 'traditional' naming system.
Taka had not said a single, solitary word the entire time. If he weren't riding right behind her, Roxy might have forgotten he was even there. He didn't even make any of his classic disapproving grunts and growls when someone said something he didn't agree with. He was completely silent. Roxy had considered prodding him to start talking, but decided against it. Taka was not one who should be prodded.
"So everyone in your tribe has that mark on their paws?" Roxy was asking.
"As soon as we hatch, and until we die," Vi replied.
"What about something like a Houndour? Do you have any of them in your tribe? Wouldn't the paint not show up?"
"Well, no, because Houndour and Houndoom have those white rings above their paws. We paint those black."
"Oh right," Roxy said, nodding, "…But, what about, uh…" She trailed off, trying to think of another example. The Salandit and Litten families were black in colour, but Roxy would be very surprised if an Alolan Pokémon were living in this forest.
"It has not been a problem, as far as I know," Vi replied, "Even if it were, though, we would find a way. The singe is an important part of our customs."
"Where did that come from?" Roxy asked, "How did that start?"
"Ah, I could tell you. However, I think it would be a much more enriching experience to hear it from my tribe. We have many wonderful storytellers."
"Oh, okay," Roxy said with a nod. It took her a couple of moments to realize what she had just heard. "Wait, what?" she spat out.
"Excuse me?" Taka said from behind her, making her jump a little in fright.
Vi glanced over her shoulder, somehow not losing her stride at all. "We will not reach the opposite end by sundown," she explained, "It would be better if we spend the night at the Den and then continue in the morning."
"I-" Roxy paused. "…What's 'the Den'?"
"That is where most of us live. We call it 'the Den'."
"Never mind that," Taka cut in, "If you are not willing to take us to the other end when night falls, then we will continue without you. We are not going back to your village."
"What?" Roxy spat out again, "Taka, what's the matter with you? That's a stupid idea!"
"What did I say to you before we left?" Taka gruffly asked, "What did I say would happen?"
"Oh, pff…" Roxy waved her paw dismissively. "She's not going to do that. They are not gonna do that."
"Why do you think you can act like an expert, pet?!" Taka shouted, "Not only have I lived here, but I have done this journey before!"
"Ooh, temper, temper…" Vi said in a somewhat saucy tone, "I was not aware that you were part Drifblim, Taka."
There was a moment of silence. "Excuse me?" Taka finally said.
"Only Drifblim are full of that much hot air."
Roxy didn't even have to turn around to know what kind of face Taka was making in response to that. She couldn't anyway, or Taka would see her stifling a laugh.
"Must I remind you that we are both armed?!" Taka exclaimed.
"Oh, I am quivering, Taka," Vi said in a bored tone.
Roxy shook her head. "Stop it, Taka. Just…think about what you're saying. Vi is the reason we're even able to be safely in this territory. If we leave her, nothing's to stop her tribesmates from attacking us, right?"
"She is cute and smart," Vi commented from below.
"She is also naïve…" Taka grumbled.
"Are you certain that the two of you are not a couple?" Vi asked in a playful voice, "I mean really… How can you resist charm like hers?"
Roxy snorted. "Yeah, Taka! Aren't I irresistible?" she said in a joking tone, and then giggled.
Taka was silent for a moment. Roxy knew he was thinking about his next words, but she had fun imagining that he was blushing and getting flustered.
"…You really intend to go through with this?" Taka asked Roxy.
"And you realize that traveling directly to the heart of a predator tribe, to the village where they all gather, is perhaps the absolute most dangerous thing we could do."
"Yeah, but stop worrying. Nothing's gonna go wrong. I just know it this time, okay? It's gonna be fine."
"What would your human say?"
Roxy pouted. "She would say, 'Stop being rude and show some damn gratitude.'"
The sigh that Taka heaved was the very definition of 'exasperated'.
"I promise," Roxy said, "At the first sign of trouble, we'll run. But that's not gonna be necessary."
Vi flashed her a quick glance. "Interesting how he likes to act as if I cannot hear him, is it not?"
Roxy sighed as well. "I'm sorry, Vi. We really do appreciate you helping us out."
The Vulpix chuckled. "It is not as if I cannot see his side. This conflict only exists because the two of you see the situation in completely opposite ways. He is steadfast, cautious, and places value on conservatism. You, on the other paw, are adorable."
"Wh…?" Roxy gave her a confused look, even though Vi couldn't see it. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"It means everything!" Vi said with a laugh, "It will help you win all of life's arguments!"
Roxy laughed a little. "You're funny, Vi."
Vi just let out a quiet chuckle and continued to run forwards.
A few hours went by, and nothing much happened except more running. Vi hadn't been kidding when talking about how large her clan's territory was. Conversation had simmered down somewhat, leaving Roxy to just watch the trees as they zipped by.
At one point, Roxy had asked why they hadn't seen any other members of the clan yet. Vi explained to her that most of their territory was considered hunting grounds, and that if one was not at the Den, they were hunting.
That statement had brought a heavy dose of reality back into Roxy's head. It was an unnerving thought that she immediately tried to stop thinking about, but this was easier said than done. A little bit of the doubt that Taka was full of began to seep over to her, but she shook it off. Months in the forest had taught her to fight back against her anxieties, and this time was no different.
It was a sobering thought, though. At the end of the day, the Burning Paws were still all predators and they lived the predator's lifestyle. There was nothing wrong with that; it was just nature. Roxy held fast to her belief that Vi was telling the truth and would keep them safe. She had made her decision hours ago, and she couldn't go back now.
She honestly did not believe she was wrong. She also prayed that she wasn't.
With every step forward, Roxy could feel Taka tensing up behind her. They were sitting so close to one another on Vi's back that she could feel just how tense and rigid his muscles were. She knew he wasn't scared; he was never scared. He was, however, very concerned.
On the bright side of things, the rain finally let up after a while of traveling. All three of them were soaked to the bone and probably wouldn't be getting dry any time soon, but it was a welcome reprieve nonetheless.
"The Den is just over this hill!" Vi suddenly announced, snapping Roxy out of her daydream.
"Wha? Really?" She looked ahead and saw a moderately steep rise in the land before them, dotted with trees just like everything else. She couldn't see over the top at all.
"We will be there in a couple of minutes. This is fortunate, since the sun will set before the end of the hour."
Roxy glanced up at the sky, or what little she could see through the tree cover. There were still plenty of rain clouds hovering up there, but Roxy could see a few tiny patches of purple sky. It was later in the day than she thought it was.
"Vi! There you are!"
Roxy jumped in surprise and nearly tumbled off of Vi's back as she shot her head over to the side. She had felt Taka tense up behind her as she was looking at the sky, but hadn't paid it any mind. Now she saw why, as the group had been joined by a Houndour.
He was slightly taller than Vi was, and he had a hardened look on his face. He looked rather young, but also looked like he had been through many harsh experiences. As Vi had described earlier, one of the white rings around one of his forepaws was coloured jet black. Looking closely, Roxy actually could see a touch of difference between his natural fur and the painted fur.
The Houndour had come up alongside of Vi and was now keeping pace with her. There was a flash of relief in his eyes as he spoke. "You were gone for so long, we did not know where you were."
"Moonbeam, I am so glad to see a familiar face!" Vi replied, "I was in trouble! I was worried I would not be able to make it home."
"You were?" the Houndour, Moonbeam, asked in shock, "Dear heavens, are you okay?"
Vi nodded. "Yes. Thankfully, I was rescued."
Moonbeam tilted his head and regarded the two passengers on her back. Roxy and Taka both held still, and Moonbeam kept his gaze on them for a couple of seconds. Then, he looked back at Vi and said, "I understand. Well, in any case, it is good to see that you are safe."
"What? Was it too much to have the entire tribe form a rescue party and spend days or even weeks looking for me?"
Moonbeam blinked. "I, uh…"
Vi snickered. "Gosh," she said in a playful, non-serious voice, "So lazy…"
The Houndour just looked at her for a few moments in silence. "Uh," he finally spoke, "In any case, I shall go inform Lord Ignis that you have returned." The two nodded to one another in understanding, and then he looked up at the two Pikachu once more. "Hello."
It took Roxy's brain a moment to catch up with what was happening. "Er- Uh…Hi?"
Moonbeam was already gone, though. Vi continued on in the same direction, but at a much more leisurely pace.
"Ah…" Roxy said, now that the encounter was over. She realized that had been the moment where she would discover if she was wrong or right about trusting Vi; the moment they met another of her tribe. And, to her mild surprise, it had gone off without a hitch. Though she had been so sure of herself, Roxy was so used to things going wrong that it took her by surprise.
Vi shrugged. She continued through the trees and eventually reached the top of the hill. As she started down the other side, Roxy looked ahead and saw that there were a number of Fire-Type Pokémon ahead. There was no sign of a village or anything of the like, but Vi's tribe was there nonetheless. She saw quite a few Vulpix, a couple of Ninetales, some Flareon, Houndour, Growlithe, and even more. It was a bit hard to see from the distance, but Roxy could tell that they each had a black-coloured paw.
As Vi made her way down to the bottom of the hill, she started to pass some of the Pokémon by. Roxy kept her eyes moving, and she watched each Pokémon that they walked past. Most of them lifted their heads to see who the newcomer was, waved when they saw it was Vi, and then went back to whatever they were doing. Few of them even paid the two Pikachu a second glance.
"Vi! Where have you been?"
Roxy turned her head around in the opposite direction and saw that a Flareon was approaching them. Her voice suggested that she was a female, and she seemed excited to see the Vulpix return.
"Well, hello to you too," Vi said to her in an airy voice, "You sure are a sight for sore eyes."
The Flareon chuckled softly. "Moonbeam told me you were in trouble. What happened?"
"Are you my welcoming committee? Do I get a special dance?"
"Seriously," the Flareon said, rolling her eyes.
Vi shook her head. "I will tell the tribe at the gathering, Fina. Wait until then."
"Oh, come on. You have to tell me something!"
Vi chuckled. "You have a nice tail."
"You asked me to tell you something, and that was something!"
Fina, the Flareon, laughed and shook her head. Her gaze shifted up to the two Pikachu on her back, but they stayed there for no more than a couple of seconds before returning to look at Vi. "Well, in any case, I look forward to hearing it. Sounds like an exciting tale!"
"An exciting tail you say?"
Roxy flinched as Fina suddenly swatted Vi across the nose with the tip of her tail. "Stop it, you," Fina said, though in a friendly tone.
The two shared a few more words, and then Fina ran off. The Flareon had barely acknowledged the two Pikachu at all.
"Wow," Roxy commented, "This is so interesting. I thought there would be more…"
One of Vi's ears swiveled back to listen. "More what?" she asked.
"Well, I thought more of them would be asking questions, or being…I dunno, curious. I mean, we are outsiders, aren't we?"
"Heh…Your mere presence alongside me is enough to tell everyone that you are a guest and you are not to be harmed or bothered. I am sure many of them have already guessed what kind of oath I have promised to you."
"Oh, really? I see…" Roxy glanced at all of the nearby villagers once more. "Does this mean we have to stay on your back?"
Vi laughed and replied, "Not necessarily. Just do not wander off and you will be fine."
"Hm…Okay then." She continued to look around, and made eye contact with a few of the Fire-Types. She smiled at them, and those she smiled at did usually smile back. They didn't wave or say anything, but no-one seemed unhappy that they were in the territory.
Vi climbed over another small hill, and then began to make her way down to a small depressed valley in the centre of surrounding hills. There were many more Pokémon here than she had seen earlier along the way. Most of them were milling about or relaxing, but a lot of them were sitting at the mouth of small holes that had been dug into the hillsides. Surrounding this small valley was a collection of underground dens, and suddenly the name of the area made more sense to Roxy.
This was where she saw that most of the villagers were either Vulpix or Ninetales. She wasn't sure that they formed a majority, but there did seem to be more of them than any other species. Many of them, along with the rest of the Pokémon, glanced up upon their arrival.
Roxy also saw that at the centre of everything, in between all of the dens and the small hills, there was some sort of construct made of tree branches. It almost looked like an effigy of something, but she couldn't discern any recognizable shape from it. It seemed to be the focal point, as everything else looked like it radiated outward from that single point.
Sitting next to the construct was a rather large Ninetales. In addition to his black paw, he wore a necklace of leaves around his neck, all of which had been painted black. He seemed pleased to see that Vi was approaching.
"This is really neat," Roxy spoke. She then turned her head over her shoulder to look at Taka. "Isn't it?" she asked, but then frowned.
Taka looked even tenser than he had looked before. It looked like something was really making him feel uneasy about their surroundings. Roxy returned her gaze forward to try and see what it was. It took her a few moments, but then she saw it.
Many of the Fire-Types, whether they were sitting under a tree or resting at the mouth of their den, were eating meat. They were small, unidentifiable chunks of flesh that wouldn't look out of place in a human supermarket, but it was meat nonetheless. She saw a few Pokémon, mostly young ones, gnawing on bones as well.
Roxy gulped and stiffened up. 'It's just nature', she said to herself over and over again, 'It's just nature. It's just nature. It's not like you're gonna end up like that…'
Then, something astonishing happened. Most of the Pokémon who were looking up to greet the newcomer saw that she had guests riding on her back. Many eyes focused on the two Pikachu for a few moments. Then, all at once, the Fire-Types started picking up the meat and carrying it back into their den. All of them did it at the same time. When they emerged soon after, the meat had been left inside. After less than a minute, there was no longer any dead meat in sight at all.
'They really are honourable…' Roxy thought, 'They did that so we would not be uncomfortable. And no-one asked them to do it, they just did it!'
Vi bounded down to the wooden construct and sat down a small distance away from it. She tilted her head and indicated for the two of them to disembark. Roxy did so right away. Taka seemed hesitant at first, and then warily stepped off of Vi as well. He ended up standing right next to her, somewhat placing himself in front of Vi and the large Ninetales with the necklace that sat nearby.
Vi then walked over to the Ninetales and bowed before him.
"Vi," the Ninetales greeted her, "Moonbeam tells me you were in trouble. I am glad to see you are unharmed."
"Thank you, Lord Ignis," Vi said as she stood up from her bow, "I am happy to have returned safely."
Ignis smiled softly and nodded. He then turned to look at the two Pikachu. "I see that you have brought guests." He didn't say it in an accusatory tone, or as if questioning as to why she would have done such a thing. It was simply an observance.
"Yes," Vi said with a nod, "I have them to thank for rescuing me from the hole I fell into."
"Is that so?" Ignis said, and then addressed Roxy and Taka. "The Burning Paws offer their thanks for rescuing one of our kind."
A moment passed with Roxy simply staring up at the much larger creature, but that passed and she instead smiled. "You're welcome! We couldn't just leave her there, after all."
"May I ask what your names are?"
"I'm Roxy, and this is Taka."
Taka shot her a quick, displeased look. She wasn't quite sure why.
Ignis nodded and said, "Welcome." He then turned to regard Vi once more. "Have you promised them anything in return?"
"I have," Vi replied, "I promised them safe passage to the northern border of our territory."
"Oh!" Ignis said, and then let out a hearty laugh. "Is that all? Well, that is no trouble at all. I presume there was not time to make it there before nightfall, so you have brought them here?"
"Well," Ignis said, turning to face the two of them once more, "Vi will provide you with a safe location to sleep, and you can continue on when the sun rises. I am sure Vi has already told you this, but as long as you are here, there is no need to fear harm from any one of us. You are our guest and receiver of our gratitude."
Roxy was definitely smiling now. She liked this Ignis character. She was guessing by the way that others referred to him as 'Lord' that he was the tribe's leader. He looked strong and battle-hardened, but the way he talked was so pleasant and gentle.
"Thanks!" she said to him, "We really do appreciate it. We're on a really long journey, and this helps us a whole lot!"
Ignis smiled and nodded at her. He then turned to Taka, and his smile faltered a little when he saw the sour expression that the other Pikachu was still wearing. Roxy wanted to whack him in the noggin for being so rude.
"I see that you," he said, specifically referring to Taka, "have doubts? Reservations, perhaps?"
Taka didn't reply.
Ignis smiled knowingly. "Well, you are certainly not the first. Perhaps the two of you would like to hear the story of our ancestors?"
Roxy's eyes widened a little. "The story of your ancestors?" she repeated, "What do you mean?" Taka, meanwhile, simply raised an eyebrow.
Ignis chuckled to himself, and then turned his head to address the rest of the tribe. "What say you, my brethren? Shall we tell the story of the Burning Paws?"
There was an uproarious response from the gathered Fire-Types, and not a single negative response could be heard. Before Ignis even said another word, some of the Fire-Types were already exiting their dens and starting to gather around the wooden construct. Seeing their approach made Taka tense up a little, but none of them came terribly near to the two.
Vi smiled eagerly and walked off to the side, beckoning Roxy and Taka to follow her. She led them a short distance to a fallen log, which she sat upon the end of. Roxy got the picture, and sat down next to her. It took a bit more encouragement, but eventually Taka sat down on the other end of the log.
"The Lord of the tribe is required to learn this story by heart," Vi explained, "It is to be told on every full moon, but we enjoy hearing it so much that we sometimes take any excuse to hear it. Ignis is a great storyteller!"
Some of the other villagers were now seated around the construct in a semicircle, while Ignis stood on the opposite side. He stood up on all fours and held his head up high in a sort of regal pose. Then, after a moment of silence, he held up his black paw towards the structure. Roxy glanced around and saw that the other villagers were doing the same thing with their black paws.
Roxy turned to her right and saw that, as she expected, Vi was doing it as well. She was briefly worried that she and Taka were supposed to do something as well, despite their lack of black paws, but Vi gave her a quick smile that quelled her worries.
"Today," Ignis suddenly spoke in a powerful, resonating voice, "our tribe is many. Long, long ago, our tribe was but a few."
In near unison, all of the tribe members put down their black paws.
"Life drew these firebreathers together, so many countless moons ago. No more than ten, but they stuck together like family. They stayed close to one another, they shared the same hunting grounds, and they worked together to survive. These are our ancestors."
Suddenly, every single Pokémon seated around the construct, including Vi, took in a deep breath and expelled a Flamethrower attack directly at the wooden structure. Roxy yelped in surprise as so many powerful jets of fire erupted all at once, and watched in awe as they converged into a single point. In mere seconds, the effigy was ablaze.
"The fire burned not only in their maws, but in their hearts!" Ignis proclaimed, his voice growing more powerful, "Like any firebreather, they lived for passion, for bravery, and for the simple rush of excitement that comes with life. They were not like we are now, and yet they were not so different."
Ignis began to slowly circle the burning effigy as he continued. "But one heart…One heart burned brighter than the rest. We know him as Firedancer. Whether or not this was his true name, none remain who know for sure. Even his exact kind has been lost to the floes of time. Was he a Ninetales? An Arcanine? A Flareon? It is impossible to tell, but unnecessary to know.
"From a very early point, he became the leader of this small tribe. The others all looked up to him and respected him deeply. He was smart, cunning, a strong warrior, and brave beyond belief. No-one dared to challenge his leadership. None could. When there were decisions to be made, or when trouble fell upon them, each one put their full trust into the paws of Firedancer."
Roxy had been gazing at the burning wood the entire time, and it finally hit her. The wood had been oddly shaped before, but now that it was burning the flames took on a more recognizable shape. She saw a distinct pair of ears and the curve of a snout. It really was an effigy.
"One fateful day," Ignis continued, "Firedancer was out hunting near the river. He was using the sound of the rushing water to mask the sound of his paws. The hunting winds were not kind to him on this day, however, as he could find no prey. He continued along the water's edge, hoping to find at least something to bring back to his hungry tribemates.
"Soon, Firedancer reached the top of a large waterfall. Sharp rocks lined the bottom, meaning almost certain death for any poor soul who was swept over the edge. Firedancer was not afraid of the waterfall nor the dizzying heights of the cliff he now stood upon. When he gazed around and still saw no sign of any other Pokémon, he decided to try his luck on the opposite side of the river.
"Luckily, there was a large tree nearby. Its branches stuck out over the river, and one sturdy branch was just long enough to reach out close enough to the other side. In a flash, Firedancer climbed the tree and started to cross the branch. When he would reach the other side, it would be effortless for him to leap the remaining distance and land on the other side. The waterfall raged beneath him, but he barely gave it a second glance."
Ignis closed his eyes, hung his head slightly, and started to slowly pace around the burning wood. "However, his bravery ended up blinding him, for Firedancer did not notice the large knot in the tree's branch. One of his hind paws got caught on the knot and he quickly lost his balance. Firedancer tried to hold onto the branch, but his paws could find no purchase. Powerless, he fell down to the raging waters below.
"Luck shined on him, though. Firedancer did not plunge into the river, but landed on a small rock situated in the middle. It was only barely large enough for him to stand on, it was very slick from the raging waters that surrounded it, and it was a few mere paw lengths away from the edge of the waterfall.
"Firedancer was still not afraid of the river or the waterfall, but he was now concerned. Luck had prevented his death, but now he found himself trapped. Firedancer was a fine swimmer, but the rock was located too close to the waterfall's edge. Any attempt to swim would just end up with him being swept over the falls. The rock was too far from either of the river's banks for him to jump too, and none of the tree's branches were low enough to reach.
Ignis stopped his pacing and stood still, placing himself directly between Roxy and Taka, and the effigy. "He considered his options, but found there were very few…"
Roxy was staring at Ignis, nearly unblinking. She found herself completely enraptured by the story. Hearing Firedancer's predicament gave her the same rush that she felt when watching a tense moment in a movie with her master.
"Hours passed," Ignis continued, "and Firedancer did not move from that spot. Things looked bleak. He was hoping that one of his tribemates would find him, but he realized that there was not much they could do anyway. Was there any way to get out of this alive? Was his life forfeit already?
"The answer finally came from an unexpected source. Firedancer heard a sound coming from the edge of the river and quickly turned his head. Standing there frozen, with a look of shock on her face, was a tiny Chikorita. She had not seen him until he had seen her.
"'Hey!' he called out to her before she could run away, 'Wait! Please, can you help me?' This was it. This Pokémon was his salvation. The Chikorita would easily be able to pick him up with her vines and carry him back to shore.
"The Chikorita simply stood there, unsure of how to react to this strange situation. It was clear, even from afar, that the Chikorita was young and quite meek. Her fear of Firedancer was quite valid. Getting no response, Firedancer called out once again. 'Please? I am trapped here and cannot get back to shore! Can you please help me?'
"The Chikorita shook her head, and adopted a more serious expression. 'N-no!' she called back. Firedancer was quite taken aback. 'What?!' he called back in disbelief, 'I will die if you do not help me! Would you truly leave me to die and just walk away?'
"'You are a predator, and I am prey!' the Chikorita explained, 'We are enemies! If you were not in this predicament, then you would be trying to eat me. The fact that you are trapped there is the only thing keeping me safe from you at this time. I am not a fool. I do not wish my life to end yet, and so I will take this chance and not look back.' She then turned around and prepared to dash off."
"'Wait!!' Firedancer called, making her pause and turn back to look at him. He frowned and gave her a pleading look. 'Please, I am desperate! I as well do not wish to die. I want to continue to live. Please, will you not reconsider?'"
Roxy turned and gave Taka a sidelong glance. This was all sounding familiar. She saw that Taka was watching, but still wore that scowl on his face.
"'What if I do choose to help you?' the Chikorita shouted back, 'What then? You will have been brought directly to me, and then you will eat me.' Firedancer frowned. 'Can you not carry me to the opposite side?' The Chikorita shook her head and said, 'No, I cannot reach, and I cannot climb trees.'
"Firedancer sighed and shook his head as well. 'You have nothing to fear, young one. As I have said, I am desperate for help. I am pleading for your help. Did you really expect that I would simply eat you after swallowing my pride like this? No, but if it will ease your mind to hear it from me, then I promise you. I promise that I will not harm you, I will not kill you, and I will not eat you. So long as you help me, you have my eternal gratitude.'
"This did indeed cause the Chikorita to pause. There was a truly genuine feel to the words that Firedancer spoke. The Chikorita was still young and naïve, perhaps a bit idyllic. She asked him to repeat himself and he did. She asked him to look directly in his eyes and he did. It took some time, but Firedancer eventually won the Chikorita's trust. She had heard his solemn promise to leave her unharmed.
"So, at last, the Chikorita agreed to help. She extended her vines as far as she could, wrapped them tightly around Firedancer's body, and slowly carried him back to shore. Firedancer was so grateful when his paws once again touched solid ground. He was so happy and relieved. He thanked the heavens for leading the Chikorita to him. The two smiled at one another, and thankful words were exchanged. It almost seemed as if, just maybe, a friendship had been born.
"The Chikorita smiled and nodded at Firedancer's words of gratitude. With that, she turned around and began to walk away. Not two seconds later, Firedancer raised his paw into the air and brought it down, slashing her neck."
Roxy gasped loudly, her paws darting up to cover her mouth. Her blood ran cold as vile images of the Chikorita's sudden murder filled her mind. She had been happily enjoying the story, and had been smiling at the nice way things had turned out. Now it felt like she had been punched right in the gut.
Ignis wore a serious expression, as did most of the gathered tribe members, though none of them were looking at the Pikachu. They were still focused on the burning effigy. "Firedancer brought home his kill," Ignis spoke solemnly, "The tribe ate well that night."
"Firedancer did not tell his tribemates about what had happened to him. For all they knew, the Chikorita was simply a Pokémon he had hunted and killed. Firedancer went to sleep that night with a full and satisfied belly."
Ignis allowed a moment of silence to pass before continuing. "When morning arrived," he said, speaking in a slow and somewhat eerie tone, "he noticed that there was still blood on his paws. This was strange, as he recalled having cleaned himself off last night before going to sleep. With a shrug, though, he got up and made his way over to the small watering hole near where his tribe lived.
"Firedancer dipped one of his paws into the water. A horrible, blood-curdling scream erupted from his throat as he yanked his paw back out, and he fell to the ground writhing in pain."
The gathered Fire-Types suddenly engulfed the effigy in a powerful stream of fire, making it burn even brighter. The flames grew quickly, becoming massive and furious. Roxy could only stare up at it with a stunned look.
"As unimaginable pain rippled through his right paw, a few light wisps of steam could be seen in the air. His paw had been burned, as if plunged directly into an open flame. The fur was charred black, the skin a disgusting mess. Firedancer, brave and strong though he was, could only howl in pain unendingly.
"His companions heard his cries and found him quickly. When asked what had happened, Firedancer could only point to the watering hole. None could see a problem, though, not even Firedancer. The water looked clean and untainted, and nothing appeared any different about the spot itself. A few twigs and leaves were dipped in the water, but nothing happened. Eventually, one very brave Pokémon dipped his tail into the water. To Firedancer's shock and the tribe's confusion, still nothing happened.
"Firedancer was taken back to his tribe to heal, but the pain was unbearable. What few treatments were available did not work at all. Nothing could abate the searing pain. His friends and loved ones gathered around, trying to ease his agony, but the pain only seemed to get worse.
"His tribemates were very confused and quite concerned. They needed to find an answer. A thousand questions were asked, but Firedancer could only repeat what had happened. No-one came close to an explanation. Eventually, some started to wonder if he had been cursed by a wandering spirit Pokémon, so they asked him what had happened the day before. Firedancer continued to lie and hide the fact that he had tricked the Chikorita into saving his life. Eventually though, the pain became too much to handle and he revealed the truth to everyone.
"The moment the words left his lips, the pain vanished. His paw remained charred, mangled, and completely useless, but it no longer hurt."
Roxy gasped as the wood forming the effigy suddenly started to collapse. The fire had burned through it and ruined its stability, and now crumbled to the ground into a flaming heap.
"The tribe took this as an omen," Ignis spoke in a low voice, "Some believed that Arceus had been watching this exchange between Firedancer and the Chikorita. Others believed that it was not a Chikorita at all, but a spirit or even Arceus itself in disguise. The tribe saw that Firedancer's duplicitous actions had angered the greater powers. It was his lies, his deceit, and his shameless backstabbing that had caused the water to boil and burn his paw. Firedancer had gotten lucky and escaped with his life, but none of the others wanted to press their luck, lest something even worse happen."
Ignis glanced down at the burning pile of wood, which was starting to simmer and fizzle out. "Firedancer was cast out by his tribe, banished from their territory and left to fend for himself. Those who remained made a solemn vow to never repeat his actions. A promise to speak truthfully, uphold pledges, keep their word, and place value above all else in honour. Each one of them painted their right paws black, to serve as a permanent reminder of what could happen to them if they broke this vow."
The gathered Fire-Types all stepped towards the pile of burning ash that had once been the effigy. Each one, Ignis included, lifted their paws and placed them on the ash, making it look as if each of them had been burned by the fire that had once been there.
A solemn, almost eerie silence prevailed.
"…Wooooowww…!" Roxy murmured in awe.
Vi grinned at her and walked back over to sit next to her. "Did you enjoy our story?"
"That was wonderful!" Roxy replied, "I think I got chills. What a great story!"
Ignis walked over as well and sat a fair distance from her. "It is not often we get to share our tribe's story with strangers."
"That was amazing!" Roxy said to him, "Vi was right, you're a great storyteller!"
Ignis smiled and nodded graciously.
"So that's, like…" Roxy continued, "Like, a legend you all pass down? Like a fable?"
"We base everything around it," Vi replied, "and it has served us well. We are a bountiful tribe with few enemies. Fortune often smiles upon us, even when it seems impossible."
"Generations have come, and generations have gone," Ignis added, "but we continue the ways of honour and righteousness. None of us have ever seen a reason to believe otherwise."
Roxy was smiling brightly now, thoroughly fascinated by what she had just seen and heard. It was just something else to add to the list of things she never knew wild Pokémon did. What if Pokémon biologists could see this?! Roxy realized that, in a way, this tribe had formed a sort of human-like religion. It was a belief system that they all seemed to live by, unquestioning.
Whatever seeds of doubt that had remained in Roxy's mind, they were all gone now. No-one could come up with such an elaborate and complex fable just so that they could trick a couple of Pikachu. Roxy knew that religion could be a powerful force. Some humans did some really wild things because of their religion, after all.
"Is that story true?" Roxy asked.
"None can say for absolute certain," Vi replied, "but we all choose to believe it is."
"Even if it is not," Ignis added, "the message is the same. We may be predators, but that does not mean we have to be evil. That does not mean we have to forego the basic rights and respects of every living creature on this planet."
"Wow!" Roxy gushed, "That's so interesting. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Isn't this amazing, Taka?"
She turned to look at her companion, hoping to see at least a little bit of intrigue or even just a little less cynicism and suspicion. Instead, she only saw that he had the very same miserable scowl on his muzzle. His forelimbs were crossed and he was still keeping a close eye on all of those that surrounded him.
Roxy sighed in frustration and pouted. "C'mon, Taka. Didn't you find it interesting?"
He didn't reply, so Roxy just shook her head.
"We appreciate your kind words, Roxy," Ignis said, "even if he has none. To each their own."
Roxy shrugged. "Sorry."
"No need to be sorry, cutie," Vi said as she suddenly sidled up right next to her, "I am glad you enjoyed it. I like the way the fire was dancing in your eyes when you were watching so intently."
"Heh… You burned down your…statue…thing."
Vi nodded. "And we shall build another."
"Really? You do that every time you tell the story?"
"Wow… Well, in any case, I think you and your tribe are great. You are very welcoming and you have such a strong sense of right and wrong. It's so…refreshing."
Vi smiled brightly. "Ah, you flatter me…" She then glanced up at the sky. "It is getting quite late. Come, and I shall show you where you two can sleep tonight."
"Okay!" Roxy and Vi both stood up, and then Roxy started to follow Vi as she turned and headed off. After a few steps, they both paused and turned around. Taka was still standing there with his forelimbs crossed, glaring.
"Your friend does a marvellous impression of a boulder," Vi quipped.
Roxy snickered. "Boulders don't grump like he does." They both shared a laugh together and then Roxy beckoned to Taka. "C'mon, Taka! Don't be silly. Come what may, we should both still stick together."
He raised an eyebrow. That seemed to be his only remaining sense of communication.
"Yes, I want you to stick with me, and not the other way around. C'mon already."
A sense of déjà vu washed over Roxy as Taka once again stood staring at them for a few silent seconds, then finally relented and began to follow. Roxy just shook her head in exasperation as Vi continued to lead them away.
"So, Ignis…" Roxy said.
Vi turned to look at her, and suddenly Roxy felt her stomach drop.
"I, er, I mean…Um…Lord Ignis?" she said nervously.
"Oh, no need for that," Vi said comfortingly, "He is lord of our tribe, but you are not in our tribe." She lifted a couple of her tails and gently patted Roxy's back with them.
"Ah. Okay, right," Roxy said, breathing a silent sigh of relief. Secure though she may have felt in this village, a faux pas was the last thing she wanted to let slip.
"What about him?"
"Is he your father?" Roxy asked.
"Ah, well…" Vi said, her voice dropping to a murmur as she glanced off to the side. For a few moments, Roxy was afraid she had hit a nerve. It was the first time she had seen Vi look distressed like this, even through the time she had been in the pit. Roxy was about to apologize, but Vi continued. "I lost my father when I was very young. I barely remember him, and I never knew my mother. Ignis is simply the one who looked after me as I grew up. Now that I am fully grown, we no longer have such a connection."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," Roxy said sympathetically. Then she added, "Really? You don't still see him as a father figure?"
Vi shrugged disinterestedly. "Perhaps," she offered, "It matters not though. He simply sees me as another member of the tribe."
"That…doesn't sound very nice," Roxy said with a frown.
"Here we are!" Vi suddenly interjected in a cheery tone.
Vi had brought the two of them to a small hole in the side of a hill. While the entrance was small, the inside seemed to be dug out quite a bit. "This is my den," she announced with a smile, "No worries, there is plenty room for the three of us in there."
Roxy stepped forward and poked her head in slightly. "I've never slept in a cave before…" she mused.
"Well, a cave is made of rocks. This is dirt, so it is a den."
"Ah, right you are. Sorry."
"I am happy you like it, though."
"Is it warm inside during the night?" Roxy asked, wondering if the surrounding dirt would make the inside warmer or cooler. Her scientific knowledge wasn't the best.
Vi laughed softly and then gave Roxy a smirk. "I can keep you as warm as you like, cutie."
Roxy blinked. "I, uh…"
"We are not sleeping in there."
Both Vi and Roxy jumped slightly upon hearing Taka's voice. It had been so long since he had said anything, they had almost forgotten he was there.
"What?" Roxy rebutted, "Why not?"
"Because I said we are not," he replied firmly.
"Taka, Vi is being such a gracious host. Don't just spit in her hospitality!"
Taka gave her a glare that actually made her pause and shiver a little.
"Oh dear," Vi said softly from the sidelines, "I do hate a lover's spat." When Taka gave her a glare as well, she just stuck her tongue out at him. "It looks like you two have issues to work out, so I will give you some space." She turned and crawled into the den, but paused right before disappearing from view and gave Roxy a look over her shoulder. "Try not to keep me waiting long…"
Taka didn't even wait for her to completely leave before speaking. "Roxy, I have followed you on this ridiculous detour this far, but we are not sleeping in a predator's den in a predator's village next to a predator."
"Are you kidding me, Taka? Don't you think they would have done something by now if they were going to eat us? Didn't you hear that amazing story? You think they did all that just so they could trick a few measly Pikachu and get a tiny meal?"
"I am not letting you sleep in a predator's den," Taka said, remaining firm.
Roxy was silent for a few seconds. "…You're not 'letting' me?"
"So I need your permission now? Am I some sort of property to you? Am I your slave? What's that supposed to mean?" she said to him, growing slowly angrier with every word she spoke.
"No, no," she cut him off, "You're not gonna let me. What shall I do for you, master? Walk a thousand miles in the middle of the night, driving myself to exhaustion just so we can get out of this situation that you think is dangerous even though it so clearly isn't?"
Taka paused for a few moments before replying in a calm voice. "Roxy…I am not letting you do this because I can't." When she gave him a confused look, he sighed softly and said, "I promised him."
It took a few moments for the meaning of his words to dawn on her, and in an instant all of her anger was washed away.
"I already feel like I am letting him down," Taka added, "because I could not convince you to keep walking and ignore her. Roxy, you are taking such a huge, unnecessary risk! You are too trusting of these Pokémon. No matter what they say, remember who they are under their skin. Who their blood tells them to be. Their very souls." He closed his eyes. "I promised him…but I cannot keep that promise if you do not listen to me…"
Roxy remained silent for a few moments as she drank this in. "You…" she whispered, "His last words…Y-you still…?"
A soft smile graced her lips. "Taka…"
"You are making it very difficult."
Roxy sighed. "I get where you're coming from. It's not like I haven't thought about it myself. Yeah, there's still this little part of me that's terrified I'm gonna be wrong and any moment now we're going to be swarmed and killed…But I trust her. I looked into her eyes and I trust her. The whole tribe seems really respectful to us and devoted to their beliefs." She paused and shuffled her paws. "I mean, I think even if the tribe does turn on us, I get the strange feeling that Vi still wouldn't."
Taka's grumpy look had returned.
"Anyway," Roxy continued before Taka could say anything else, "It doesn't matter now. We're here, aren't we? It would be suicide to go off on our own now. You know that, don't you?"
Though he grumbled softly under his breath, Taka did nod.
"Right," Roxy affirmed, "The best we can do now is to be ready to act if the need arises, even though I'm sure it won't. You're already so amazing and strong that I know you'll be able to do that at the drop of a hat!"
"You are not sleeping in that den."
Roxy nearly facepawed, and she groaned in exasperation. "Taka, they took their meat and hid it away when we showed up so that we wouldn't feel uncomfortable. We're clearly not the first prey that has come to visit them like this!"
Taka merely crossed his forepaws and gave her yet another stern look.
So, Roxy gave him one right back. "I'm sleeping in the den," she said with a tone of finality, "Not only do I think it's comparatively safer, but it's warmer and a lot more comfortable than being in a tree." When Taka didn't relent, she sighed. "If you want," she said, "You can stand 'guard' outside the den. Right here. If you hear me screaming my head off, then you'll be at my side in a flash. Am I wrong?"
"And that way you can keep an eye on all the others too. Does that sound like a plan to you?" She stared at him, expecting a response of some kind, but didn't get any. Sighing once more, she pinched the bridge of her muzzle and shook her head. "I'm tired," she stated, "I'm going to bed now. Goodnight."
Then, without waiting for any kind of response whatsoever, Roxy promptly turned around and marched into the den. Taka didn't follow her.