Frogsong (SWC: Graded)

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    Default Frogsong (SWC: Graded)

    So here it is, the fic I slaved over in a very small amount of time, even writing by camp fire light. It's like three in the morning, so forgive me if there's some errors I missed. Deadline's in a few hours, so I won't have time to edit until later, and that's assuming it's not claimed by then.

    This is my entry for the Summer Writing Competition. Thank you in advance to any who read/grade this. Info's at the bottom.

    ---

    Frogsong


    The small pond was quiet as day turned down to dusk. The lilies floated empty, their ledges hosting none of the blue-swirled Poliwag or even any of his fellow black and blue Tympole. The reeds bent gently in the breeze, and the small tadpole Pokémon rested his eyes in peace as he floated among them. Only his cream-colored face showed through the dark stems. The small markings above his eyes matched the shape of his cover.

    This place was one of the last refuges left in their land, one of the last sites not ransacked by the devil-lady that assumed her power over all of them.

    He shuddered, just like every time he thought of her, and the water around his small frame rippled and discharged tiny rings that showed his fear. He remembered life before this sanctuary. He could still see the abandoned towns and watering holes, the ashes covering the empty streets and coloring the blue liquid a bleak gray. The fires still burned and raged in a dark corner of his mind, reflecting the faces of villagers clutching their children tight, too scared to leave their homes.

    Those were dark days, and he was glad to be rid of them for as long as he could. Safety was never assured in these times though, and his environment could change faster than a striking Seviper. He knew a rattling purple Ekans or a hood-painted Arbok could come crashing through the barrier of ragged bushes and looming trees at any moment. They could be here and gone before anyone even noticed, gobbling them all up without a trace of remorse for fellow Pokémon. He really hated those snakes.

    He was always wary. While some thought Tympole were slow in the mind due to their simple flat faces, he thought that untrue. It was amazing to see what survival could do as motivation.

    He began a leisurely track around the edge of the pond, pushing past the forest of clingy reeds and diving under the lily pads only to emerge seconds later on the other side due to the small black and blue half bubbles on the sides of his body. They served as air sacs, letting him store extra air to let him dive longer as well as keeping his body afloat.

    His paddle-like tail maneuvered him around the stepping stones near the marble shelf, and he stopped moving as he gazed at the two worn pillars on either side of the stage. Since he was mostly ball-shaped, his light body floated on top of the water with little effort. The moon, finally taking the place of its brother sun in the heavens, made the structure glow, and he was reminded of the days when people didn't forget about simple things like giving thanks to the spirits. Even the Pokémon were changed.

    He sighed into the water, and small bubbles rose in quiet pops. Tympole had been somewhat endangered for some time now, thanks to the Snake Queen. He and his cousins, the blue tadpole Poliwag, were a delicacy for her pet snakes. He thought it was because all their entrails were close together, and the organs were sweeter than their webbed skin. The snakes were almost as bad as those nasty eels that sucked their innards out through the holes they made in their faces. At least snakes just swallowed you whole.

    There was also rumors that the witch hated their singing at night, something that had started off the hunt for them. So many of them had disappeared into crates and barrels and were never seen again.

    He didn't sing often anymore. The snakes were under every rock and behind every blade of grass, and though he missed praising the moon with his vocals, it wasn't worth endangering any of the creatures that took refuge here. In a way he was a hypocrite for lamenting lost things but being too cowardly to preform them himself. He knew, though, that soon enough this place would be discovered too, and then they would either have to move on or be slain. In this land, one always had to be alert.

    Then, his whole body froze in the water as the bushes rustled.

    ---

    Leaves crunched and twigs snapped sharply under her feet as she made her way through the woods, and though she knew it was good practice to be silent, she didn't really think it mattered. The worst of the danger was behind her anyway.

    That knowledge didn't stop her from casting her gaze over her shoulder though, just in case she was followed. She took a different route every time, and she thought she knew her own country well enough to lose anyone that decided to track her. That included the snakes.

    She brushed branches back from her face as her sandal-clad feet automatically took her where she wanted to go. The forest arms clawed at her white dress and tried to keep her cloak of the same shade, but she didn't mind stopping to carefully unhook the material from the grabbing twigs so it wouldn't tear. Any time spent away from that place was time well spent.

    She stumbled on, and the foliage finally broke to reveal her destination. The pond was quiet and calm, and it brought her peace just by being near. The moon shone brightly back at her from its reflection in the water, and when she looked up, it was framed between the two marble pillars like a private ritual with the crystal ball between the candles. From this angle, she couldn't see the notches missing in the columns.

    The small retreat was a relief on her soul.

    In a big whoosh of breath, she collapsed to her knees, her long hair fanning out around her like her cloak did. She let the tension ease in her shoulders and her whole body slumped a bit. The soles of her feet throbbed from being on them all day, putting on countless miles as she was bid to do this and that. Every limb ached, letting her feel every string keeping her animated sewn tight onto her bones.

    She crawled to the edge of the water on weary arms, rubbing her wrists when the task was done. The metal cuffs there would likely cut into her skin until she died. The decorative coiled serpent that wrapped around each one was a painful reminder of the chains that bound her.

    She shook her head, trying to clear the thoughts away, even though it was difficult. This was supposed to be a place of peace, and although the initial relief was there, she felt that unsettling bile returning to her stomach. Everything around her reminded her of the darkness that plagued them all: the barrier of trees required to hide this place, the lack of spirited life, even the energy in the earth was all wrong.

    She took a steady breath to calm her increasing heartbeat as she gazed around the area. She was safe; at least for now.

    The pond's stepping stones were on her left, arcing from the marble stage to the rounded piece of earth in the center of the water. It had probably been used for prayers and rituals once, but those customs had died out along with the spirit of the people. She remembered when the practices meant something, when there was magic in every action. She could recall her studies easily. She might've even used the platform herself if those things were still in practice. She could wish for a hero to help them. It was too bad she knew better. This was not the old world. Wishing would do as much good as waiting for the Snake Queen to release her from her prison.

    There wasn't much hope for them now.

    She peered over the pond's edge, seeing someone she no longer knew looking back at her from the water. Dead aqua eyes stared out of a tanned face, and her pale, white hair fell down like a curtain to hide what she had become. Exotic, the Snake had called her, something to be kept as a trophy and paraded around the country when it suited her. She had really just became a slave, another mindless minion to do the witch's dirty work and keep the people appeased.

    The freckles that painted her cheeks no longer stood out like they once did as a child. She touched them with roughened fingertips, lamenting lost days of sunshine and smiles. She noticed she had dirt smeared on the left side of her face, but when she scooped up a hand of water to wash it away, she noticed the red tint.

    Her hand stilled before reaching her cheek, the limb shaking in place as her eyes no longer saw what she was looking at. She could still hear the screeching, the tearing of flesh, the snapping of the snakes' jaws. Reminded of what she had done, she shook violently, and tears welled up in the corners of her eyes. They spilled down the sides of her face like the leaky water pump they used to have in the courtyard, and she couldn't stop them.

    She should have never opened the barrel.

    With a stubborn clench of her jaw, she viciously wiped the grime away, not being gentle with her sun-kissed skin. She would live with what she had done. She paid the consequences of her actions with pieces of her soul as it withered away into dust. She had never thought she would sink so low.

    The Snake Queen got some twisted satisfaction from sending her to feed her precious snakes that she kept in the lower part of the castle. The devil-lady knew the girl hated the things. They signified everything that was wrong with the kingdom, and they set her heart to stone in fear.

    It was a simple enough task. All she had to do was push the barreled contents over the cement ledge into the pit below and leave. The impact usually broke the wood enough for the Ekans, Arbok, and Seviper, and if it didn't, she didn't care. Their jaws could usually pry the straps off anyway, and they could tear the wood apart without her help.

    Her curiosity had gotten the better of her though, and now she would be haunted by the knowledge of what she had done. Left alone with the barrel and all those snakes, she had pried off the top as the teeth snapped below her. The contents had made her break down in tears, barely able to stay on her feet.

    Dozens of tiny Poliwag filled the barrel, their tiny round bodies too weak to even move their paddle-tails. Their normally-damp blue skin had been dried out, and those large imploring eyes had silently begged her to help them. The spirals on their white belly were just countdowns to their own demise.

    With tear tracks running down her face, the only thing she had been able to do was whisper she was sorry as she dumped the barrel over the ledge.

    She was not proud of what she had done, knowing she had sent countless innocent Pokémon to their deaths to feed those vile creatures. There was nothing she could do. The repercussions of not following the Snake Queen's orders would be even worse than the Pokémon's blood on her hands. She could never act against the demon.

    The light from the moon shined off her face as the water continued to drop from her eyes. She hated it, but she would have to go back eventually. They'd come looking for her otherwise. Her fingers brushed away the wisps of tears, deciding enough was enough. This wasn't how a princess was supposed to act, and even though Aria's family no longer sat upon the throne, that didn't change what she was.

    She sniffled as she gathered herself. Then she jumped as something on the edge of her vision moved. The water gently splashed as she whipped her head toward the reeds on the right end of the pond. Her hand was inching to her back, but a reassuring sound stilled the limb.

    A small cream face came out of the cover, his paddle tail propelling him closer to her. He had a cute worried expression on his face, amplified by the reed-like markings that looked like eyebrows. He was looking at the tears she was trying to wipe away. His eyes followed the drips down until they splashed into the water below her. He called out, humming a sweet tune for her to hear.

    Tympole were one of her favorite Pokémon. She loved listening to all the creatures that sang in the night. It reminded her of better times.

    The tadpole continued to make sound, and despite the water in her eyes, she smiled a little. Soon, a Poliwag joined him, jumping up onto a lily pad outside of the reeds. Another surfaced too, bobbing up and down in the water as they all sang out together. There was even a Politoed that appeared, a green and yellow frog with a curled string on the top of its head, a direct relative to the Poliwag. More and more frogs joined the group until all their voices resonated in a sweet sound that echoed across the water.

    “Oh, you don't have to do that,” she said while wiping away another tear. Her voice was a little cracked from distress and disuse, and she coughed. She was aware they were trying to cheer her up, and it almost broke her heart knowing what she had done.

    The Tympole bobbed under the water for a few seconds before springing up and out of the pond with a whoosh of water drops. He landed next to her knee, and she smiled as he nudged her knee with his head. She knew what he wanted, and even though it was probably a bad idea, this was the closest she felt to safe in a long time.

    Tympole began singing with the others again, and then Aria tipped her head to the moon and added her voice to the frogsong.

    ---

    Despite the numerous times she had been to this pond, Aria had only ever seen the one Tympole. There probably weren't many more. The Snake Queen had started gathering them first, feeding them as treats to her pet demons. She bit back the pain at the stab in her gut, trying not to listen to the little voice telling her that Poliwag would probably share the same fate. She couldn't help feeling guilty looking at the two tadpoles playing over by the stepping stones.

    She remembered the watershed by the lake on the other side of the country being filled with them at one point. Entire family lines had been there, and she used to always go and sing with them when they visited their summer home. If the tadpoles kept being cleared out, there would be no more Politoed. She hadn't even seen a Seismitoad in years.

    The Toads were the end of Tympole's line, a large blue Pokémon that had black and blue warts all over it. The vibrations it made were powerful enough to shake the earth. Its kind had always guarded the waterways from the serpents that attacked their livestock. There used to be a statue in one of their gardens, by the fountain. That had been one of the first things the fake queen destroyed upon taking over the keep.

    She rubbed her wrists, a reflex she adapted every time she was reminded of the Snake. She was out here at the pond again despite how much danger she put the baby frogs in. If she kept coming night after night, the serpents were going to find this place. Still, she couldn't stay away, not when this was the only place that held a shred of happiness for her.

    Tympole was humming happily by her side on the marble stage, glad to have company. She found that the creatures here really liked her singing, and it reminded her of old times when she sang for guests and her family in the castle. It used to be her favorite hobby, and she had often filled the dusty halls with tune as she did her chores. Now those halls were abandoned to the shadows, used as nesting grounds for the vile serpents.

    She was abruptly brought out of her trance by a snapping twig. Immediately her body stilled, and Tympole went silent beside her. Another sound reached her; the slow creaking of a branch as it was brushed aside. Something was trying to sneak up on them.

    Tympole shot off into the pond and disappeared below the water as she scrambled up and brought her hand to her back. From under the white cloak, she pulled a short blade, about half the length of her forearm. The moon shined along the steel, glinting on the sharp edge. She huddled back against the pillar on her right side for cover. Her eyes were stuck on the pond ahead, and her ears stayed glued to the sound behind. She held the knife in her dominant right hand, down her front, keeping herself out of sight behind the structure.

    The rough edges of the column bit into her back and a static fog buzzed in her ears, but she would not be afraid. Her father had taught her how to defend herself, and she would use that knowledge to protect the creatures that lived here. The demon would not get them.

    She planted her right foot and eased up on her left, ready to push off and lunge. She tried to time the sounds and listen closely, figuring out how close the thing was. A whisper of a leaf here, the crunching of dirt underfoot there. The grove of trees behind her betrayed the intruders as it whispered its secrets. From what she could tell, whoever it was would come out somewhere in between the pillars.

    Her hand clenched and unclenched along the hilt of the blade as her heart sped up. She closed her eyes for just a second and steeled herself as the trespasser grew near. Another faint snap urged her body into action with a silent war cry, and she envisioned the arc of her arm before she darted out from behind the column and swung.

    Her blade was met by a solid thunk, and the force of the hit sent her knife spinning out of her hands. She heard it collide with the column with a clang and fall into the bushes, out of reach.

    Not to be deterred, she kept going, ducking under a swing that was aimed at her head. There was more than one way to incapacitate someone, and she didn't need a knife to do it. At least she knew it was a human and not a demon.

    She quickly stepped to the side in a flash of white as the person lunged. A rush of wind drew her attention downward, and at the last second she jumped before something came crashing into her ankles. She had a horrible landing though, as instead of sailing over the object, she landed on top of it. The weapon caught in her cloak, and she was jerked backward as it swept upward. She went sailing, and the last thing she saw was a flash of the two pillars as she went flying through them.

    She hit the pond with a splash that barked in her ears. Her body seemed to pause for a moment, slowing down from the drag of the liquid. She sank, taking in a large mouthful of water that immediately spurred her limbs into action. The pond wasn't that deep, perhaps three or so feet at the longest point, but there was still someone out there, and as long as she was in the open water, she was vulnerable.

    She coughed and sputtered as her head broke the surface, and she scrambled to get her feet under her as she gasped for breath. Her mouth was already moving, a mumbled chant trailing from her lips as she bent one arm toward her chest and prepared to point with the other, ancient teachings at the forefront of her mind. She felt the water around her ripple and respond, and then she opened her eyes.

    Abruptly the pressure on the water ceased, and she dropped her pointing arm. The intruder was standing at the edge of the pond, on the marble stage between the two columns. Her eyes honed in on the brooch holding his open brown cloak together at his shoulder.

    It was a blue crescent moon. The symbol of her kingdom.

    Drops of water rolled down her earthen skin as she fought to control her heaving chest. She heard the water splash as it dripped from her silvery hair, and she fought not to brush the long strands over her shoulder that were trailing in the water. She rose to stand straight like she was taught in court, keeping one arm across her chest to guard herself. The other hovered by her belt, making it seem like she had another weapon, though she had nothing material.

    Her eyes scanned every detail of the man with the surprised look on his face. While there was no evidence to say that he really was a knight of her country, she wasn't going to strike him down with questioning him first. Tympole gave a questioning hum from under a lily pad, and she waved her hand at him discreetly as he stayed out of sight.

    She gave him hard eyes as she took in his features, narrowing the orbs to slits. She spied the blade sheathed at his belt first, narrowing in on the danger. When he didn't draw the weapon, she inspected the rest of him, keeping a small part of her mind alert for any sudden movements.

    Curly brown hair sat atop a tanned face, housing two piercing blue eyes that were a shade much more vibrant than her own. He was a well-built man that filled out his hide armor like he was meant to wear it. The covering was a dark bluish shade, but it was only like a vest, so she could see the white undershirt he had on. His sleeves were rolled and held up by the thick leather gloves on his hands. Both his brown slacks and gusty gray cloak were filled with gashes; he'd probably been in many battles.

    Either that or he was poor. Neither would surprise her.

    She was about to speak when another form thrashed through the bushes, skidding to a stop on the sleek marble. It was another Pokémon, some sort of gray, human-shaped creature. It had sharp eyes and an even sharper grin, and its face was tipped by a large black nose, even larger than some of the dogs they used to have at the castle.

    It looked strong though, explaining why it was the warrior's companion. Reddish protrusions on its shoulders, legs, and head gave it the appearance of bulging muscles, and she didn't really doubt it had them. It held a long log under one arm, something severed flat on either end, looking something like a bulky spear. She narrowed her eyes further. That was likely the weapon that had sent her on her swimming detour.

    Her body tensed at the thread, and she shifted, trailing one hand back to the water so her fingertips could dance across the surface. The energy in the pool swirled at her touch.

    “Easy,” a voice called softly, trying to soothe her. It came from the warrior. His hands were out, palms facing her, making it seem like he meant no harm. “Are you alright, my lady?”

    “Who are you?” she asked insistently, ignoring his question. Her eyes flicked to the man for a moment before settling back on the Pokémon. It was shifting from foot to foot slightly. That was a battler's instincts.

    “Forgive me,” he immediately replied, ducking his head in a short bow before straightening. “I am Adrian, son of Roland and loyal subject of this kingdom. This is Brin, a Timburr and good friend. We didn't mean to startle you, miss. Here, let me help you,” he started, and then he unclipped his cloak and crouched down to jump into the pond to retrieve her.

    She held up a halting hand and he stopped mid-motion, straightening back up and draping his cape over his arm. He watched her with intense eyes. Feeling self-conscious, she had to look away. Then she became aware of her predicament, now that the battle haze had faded a bit. She was soaking wet, and her stark white clothes contrasted highly with her darker skin. She firmly told herself she would not be embarrassed as she brought her trailing arm up to cover her chest discreetly, halfway folding her arms in thought.

    They didn't look to be too dangerous, though she knew better than anyone that looks could be deceiving. Still, she believed that he did mean what he said. Something told her it was okay, but she couldn't explain what it was. It was like a song only she could hear that rose in tempo and pitch as danger approached but smoothed out into a soothing melody when all was well. All she could hear was the sweet tune. She wanted to trust him, so for that moment, she did.

    She slowly waded through the water, one arm wrapped across herself and one trailing on top of the pool in her wake, feeling the currents. She neared the edge and the man leaned down to offer his hand, and to her surprise, the Timburr did as well. He even shifted the log from one arm to the next to he could offer her his right.

    With their combined strength, they easily lifted her out of the water. Her clothes thrummed a song as the water streamed from them, tapping on the water's surface and then the marble stage as she regained her feet. The garments were heavy, but she knew the Summer heat would dry them out soon enough.

    The warrior wasted no time in putting his cloak around her, and though normally she wouldn't have accepted that from a stranger, the breeze soaked into her wet skin and chilled it a little more than she liked. She thanked him with a nod, stepping back a bit from their proximity. She felt nervous being trapped between people she didn't know. A few steps toward the pillars eased her dancing heart, and she took a few more moments to study the newcomers.

    “You don't look like a knight,” she said. Aria remembered the guards stationed along her castle walls. Their blue-dyed cloaks all had the crescent moon symbol emblazoned into the center. Their chain mail never rattled as they stood at their posts, ever watching for trouble. It was too bad the danger hadn't been something they could see with their eyes.

    They all held a streak of justice she could sense though, and she couldn't deny that was present here.

    “Well,” he started, rubbing the back of his head and jostling his brown locks. He wouldn't directly look at her. Perhaps he was embarrassed. “Maybe not in name, but I am in spirit.” He let the comment linger in the air a few moments before speaking up again. “May I ask your name? Do you hail from around here?”

    His tone suggested that he might be looking for something, but she wasn't sure. “I am a slave of the Snake Queen,” she said solemnly, and she didn't miss how his fingers clenched and his jaw tightened. Even the Timburr shifted a bit more noisily than he had been.

    “I see. I am sorry for your loss,” he said without preamble, like he expected all under the snake to be suffering hardship. He was right. “But this may be exactly what we need. We are on a journey to destroy the Snake Queen and free this country.”

    Though she knew it was foolish, she couldn't help her heart soaring a bit at the prospect of getting rid of the one that called herself queen. A strong burst of her memories flooded into her, laughing and smiling, and halls filled with light. Then she remembered the piercing screams and the looming darkness, and her heart crashed back down to earth, weighed down by the chains of her punishment.

    “There is only one thing left to be done,” he said stronger. She could already see the fire burning behind his eyes, thinking he was doing right. He approached her suddenly, holding both of her shoulders between his hands so he could look at her squarely. “Take me to her castle, and let us be rid of this evil.”

    He accented his words with a little shake in his excitement, and for a moment she thought about what could happen if she led this man and his companion back to the keep undetected. Maybe he would be the one to overpower the demon queen and end their suffering. More likely he would end up as one more collectible in the snake's rock garden. He could join all of the other so-called heroes that were turned to stone. She could be wrong though. All she had to do was say yes and find out.

    She closed her eyes. “No.”

    She felt his astonishment in his limbs before his voice asked the question. “What?”

    His hands loosened their grip on her shoulders, and she used the opportunity to break away, backing up several feet as she took in his shocked expression. The Timburr didn't look as broken up. Instead, he looked at her with too-intelligent eyes, and even though it was silly, she felt as if he could see the secrets she hid.

    “Why not?” he asked, his voice rising in pitch a little. She knew he probably had suffered loss by the snake's hand as well, but she wasn't just going to lead them there. Especially not just to die. “Countless people have suffered to get us here, to give us this chance to save everyone! You don't know what they've sacrificed to-”

    “Don't talk to me about sacrifice!” she yelled, trying to keep her breathing and her voice calmer than what they were. He knew nothing of the things she had sacrificed, things she was still sacrificing.

    The man had looked about to continue, but as soon as she spoke, his words died abruptly in his throat, like he wouldn't think of disobeying her.

    With a huff, she undid the cloak, dropping it to the marble stage where she stood. Then she turned to go, ignoring his protests and his pleads for her to wait. She may have failed as a princess before, but she was not going to send any more of her people to die needlessly.

    She slid through the foliage with a resolved gait and didn't look back as she walked away.

    ---

    It was several days before Aria returned to the pond. At first she worried that the pretend knight was going to be discovered and longed to make sure her friends were alright, but more of her worried that someone would follow her and discover them if she just rushed off. It took much patience on her part, but she made herself wait.

    Tympole immediately greeted her with a chorus of cheery hums as soon as she appeared through the foliage. The lily pad he was perched on took a dip under the water when he launched off, shooting through the water and over the pond lip to meet her at the edge. Part of the dread in her chest lifted at the sight of him no more hurt than when she left him.

    She sat by the reeds on the right side of the pond, and it didn't take long for others to join them. The swirled Poliwag crawled out from beneath their rocks and sunken dwellings, playing without a care, as if she were one of them. She brought peace to herself by being near the water creatures, like a soft symphony playing through her body. She listened to their natural music and settled her worried spirit. They were still fine. She hadn't led to their destruction.

    The moon was nearly a full drop in the sky, and the night had barely started to wake. There would be several hours to pass before she had to drag herself back to that serpent prison. At the thought, that weary ache began to settle in her stomach again, but she fiercely shoved the worries out. She had to stay sane for those that needed her. She would be strong.

    It took about an hour of watching the baby frogs sing and dance around before she was as settled as she was going to get. That was when she heard the branch crack somewhere behind them.

    She completely stopped, like before, and not even her skirts rustled in the light breeze. She threw her senses into her ears as she silently wished for the woods to tell her what was going on. A leaf crunched evenly, and then another twig snapped at a similar pace. Her legs were tense beneath her, but she made no move to get up. It wasn't the sound of quiet creeping; it was a normal stride instead. Different then. Tympole hadn't retreated yet, but he was looking in the direction of the wood cover. He probably had more practice at this than she did.

    The brushing of a second set of leaves confirmed her growing suspicions. She half-turned her body as Tympole hummed a happy greeting, the black and blue sound sacs vibrating on either side of his round body.

    She saw the gray Pokémon's tree part the bushes aside before the Timburr came through. He looked out at them, and then nodded and grumbled a greeting in his own tongue as he looked at Tympole. His eyes barely registered she was there, and she couldn't decide if she was pleased about being too common to be remembered or annoyed at the lack of manners of the foreign creature. They were the ones that intruded on her, after all.

    Before she could choose which one she was, the Timburr moved aside as his companion came through the trees, brushing away the leaves that caught in his dark locks. His cloak was back on his own shoulders, and neither that nor any of his clothes had more rips or blood on them. He hadn't been poking around the keep then, unless he just didn't get caught. It was more likely the first. The snakes were quick.

    The warrior made eye contact with her, but his face betrayed that he wasn't surprised to see her there. She sighed softly. That meant he had probably been waiting for her to come back.

    He came over to her while the Timburr went to sit on the other side of the pond. She had to fight really hard to keep her body planted on the ground so she didn't just get up and walk away. “You again?” she murmured quietly, unsure if he would hear it. She had enough problems already. She didn't need a pursuer.

    “Excuse my outburst earlier,” he said as he neared, looking like he meant it. His eyes gave away a lot. “I think we got off on the wrong foot before.” That was an understatement, though she made no comment.

    The silence spanned between them for a time. Only the soft splashing of the water Pokémon was heard in the little oasis. She watched as he grew uncomfortable standing there, opening his mouth several times only to clamp it shut immediately after. The tips of his ears burned red through the curls of his hair as he shifted from foot to foot. Part of her drew some satisfaction from it. She said nothing to ease his apparent shyness. Even though she could understand his desire to be rid of the Snake Queen, perhaps more than anyone, he had upset her with his insistence. She was already at war with herself.

    He finally got out his question as the quiet proved too much for him for so long. “May I?” He gestured to the spot beside her with a brief wave of his hand, unsure if he was allowed to ask it.

    She nodded, even though she knew she should probably just leave. It wasn't that he was wrong in his quest; she just didn't want to see any more die. Too many had perished doing what she should have been strong enough to do long ago. This place was a sanctuary to all creatures that needed it. She wouldn't fault him for trying to do the right thing.

    They sat like that for a little while, and she watched how the man slowly relaxed. The tension drew out of his shoulders like water drained from a well. He seemed to enjoy the serenity as much as she did, so he had probably known enough of warfare to appreciate the down time. Even if it wasn't like hers, it was all the same in the end.

    Tympole wasn't bothered by the warrior, and he had no problem greeting the Timburr. It led her to believe that the two strangers had spent some time here while she was gone. The tadpole was curled up between the two people, and from the sweet, rhythmic breathing he expelled, she knew he was resting. If he felt safe enough to sleep, the newcomers were probably alright.

    The Timburr just discreetly watched them. She caught him sneaking glances every couple of minutes, either over his shoulder or under his arm as he worked on something. She thought he was fiddling with the log weapon laying in front of him. She noticed the man wasn't still after a while either, even though he seemed relaxed. He kept rubbing at the grass beneath him and checking something on his armored vest. Were warriors restless when there were no battles?

    “You seem familiar,” he said suddenly, breaking her from her wandering thoughts. “I didn't catch your name last time.”

    “I didn't give it.”

    He didn't say anything in response, letting her decide if she wanted to give it now or not. He didn't seem like he was trying to rush her by his actions either. He wasn't even looking at her. The man was sitting relaxed now, with his legs stretched out and his arms back to brace him.

    She wasn't really bothered by it. She had grown up constantly being watched, having every action she took scrutinized by her family and her subjects. Just one strange action often lead to a strict scolding that rang in her ears for weeks before it faded. She had learned to be guarded from the ruler they endured, knowing any one person would sell you out if it granted them a greater favor. Still, despite that, she believed there was no sour bone in this man. The song that wafted around her was nothing but sweet.

    She thought maybe it was having a human companion after so long that convinced her to open up a little. She was so tired of constantly building up the stone walls that kept wearing down from the crashing waves below.

    “My name is Aria,” she finally said.

    He smiled as he turned to look at her, and even for a soldier, it didn't look odd on him. “I thought as much. Only our princess could be so strong-willed.

    The girl bit back the harsh laugh that threatened to escape her lips. “Haven't you heard? I'm not a princess anymore. I'm fit to serve the people no longer.”

    “That's rubbish,” he spat, his limbs shaking with the force of his words. Then he winced, like he was used to holding his tongue around women. The old knights used to be like that, saying that foul language had no place in front of a lady. “You are still our princess,” he said, leaning up and gesturing with his hands. “The people know it. I know it.”

    She tried to not look uncomfortable as he looked at her. She could see he believed his words to be truth from the way he held himself. There was hope shining in his eyes, like she was the answer to all of his problems. She hated that, but only because she wasn't what the people needed. If she was going to do something, it should have been done by now. She wasn't even strong enough to save her family or herself. She was no more than a slave to a wretched witch.

    At her disbelieving look, he continued. “I come from far northeast, just over the Tivanian Mountains.” If she remembered correctly, that was about twelve times the distance a Rapidash could travel in one day. He had come a long way south.

    “There is a village there, one that specializes in harvesting the softest Mareep wool in the nation.” Her heart immediately doubled in tempo before he even finished. “I was traveling for about a year, and when I came back I found out what the snake had done to the village, what she demanded from us. There were rumors that the princess had been there too.”

    Her stomach soured as the bile churned inside. She couldn't imagine what those people must think of her. She was supposed to save them. Her failures rang a constant, haunting melody in her ears.

    “At first I was outraged at the ridiculous taxes imposed on a village that could barely afford to feed itself. Eight tenths of all goods and profits is too much to ask.” Adrian, the warrior of the north, took a long, winded breath. He rubbed his palms on his knees like they'd begun to sweat. “Then, I found out that the snake had wanted to raze the place to the ground. A woman at the Inn told me that only the princess had changed her mind, convincing her the town had value left in it.”

    “I tried,” she whispered, clenching her eyes shut. She slid back to bring her legs up, and she wrapped her arms around them tightly. She could still see the run-down buildings. The people had dirt smudges on their faces from working long with their sheep, trying to get enough wool to trade for food for the Winter months. She couldn't just let the witch kill them.

    She had pleaded with the snake, willing to do almost anything to save those people. There was only one thing she had ever begged harder for. Eventually, the fake queen allowed her request, imposing a heavy tax instead of burning them all. In trade for that, the witch burned one of the sacred forests down in the west. It didn't matter what she did in the end. Every little act of defiance had a heavy consequence.

    A soft touch on her arm brought her out of those horrible memories. She looked up to see a soft expression on the man's face. “You succeeded. You saved them. Your subjects are safe. I've seen it myself. How do you doubt yourself?”

    “The witch is still on the throne isn't she?” She had spared a town, but at what cost? Every day she let the demon continue her reign was another day of failure.

    “It doesn't have to be that way,” he murmured. His head was angled down and away from her, seemingly ashamed he had said it. That was okay, she already knew that. She was just too cowardly to act on it.

    She was too tired to shoot back a biting response. Her limbs cried out in agony for every moment they spent in the snake shackles. She knew he wanted her to lead him there. He believed he could fix it. Part of her knew he was in the right, but she was afraid of the consequences if they failed. She really should just help him, lead him into the fortress, but no matter how many times she repeated it in her mind, she couldn't utter the words. Her eyes slid shut as she sighed.

    “I can't.”

    Then she moved to get up, pushing up with her arms so she could get her feet under her. Her skirts shifted and her pale hair fell over her shoulder as she moved. Aria saw him reach out, and his hand nearly touched hers until she jerked it away. She didn't look at him, and she wasn't going to apologize. She didn't want to be comforted when he was right.

    She rose and paced around the lake toward the marble, aiming to take one of the longer ways back to the keep. She didn't think he would follow her, but she wasn't going to be careless. Tympole quietly inquired where she was going with a tiny chirp, but she didn't answer. Her steps were heavy and loud, a frustrated march that showed how disappointed she was in herself.

    “I don't understand,” he said, with the tadpole echoing behind him.

    She stopped for a second, but she didn't turn around. She didn't know how to explain it to him. She couldn't. The consequences were too great, even if they did manage to destroy the witch on the venture. She rubbed the shackles that bit into her skin. Sometimes she didn't understand either.

    She kept going and didn't answer either of them. She had to leave before she said or did something she'd regret. Her insides were shaking, and she tried to trap the tremors so they didn't shake her entire body. The girl kept going and didn't look back, edging the water as her thoughts attempted to consume her. Thankfully, nobody followed, and she heard no protests.

    The Timburr made a frustrating grunt as she neared, paying no attention to her. She paused when she was even with him, curious of what the Pokémon was doing. He was hunched over his cut tree and grumbling. What did the warrior say his name was? Brin?

    He was poking at some green moss on his log weapon. It spanned a deep crevice in the wood, scorched like something had blasted or burned its way through it. She recognized what he was doing from an old apothecary lesson she had as a girl. The head priestess had demonstrated how to heal bark with herbs.

    “Oh, that's herbal rejuvenation,” she said to Brin, coming even closer. The weapon was smooth in places, signifying it was well-used. No wonder he was trying to fix it. That was probably easier than crafting a new one.

    The gray fighter snapped his head up at her words, watching her closely as she came around the other side of the log, folding her dress under her has she knelt. “May I?” she asked, gesturing to the wood.

    The Timburr made an unconcerned grunt, shrugging as if to say 'good luck'. He looked like he didn't care as he turned his head away a fraction, but he was watching her closely. She tentatively touched the moss, some sort of plant mixture shaded a dull blue-green. It looked and felt as it should, but there was a void of energy where there should have been. “Well, the recipe is right,” she said, running her fingers back and forth over the wound. “But there's no life in them. I think you picked them from a dead zone.”

    Since the witch had taken over, many places that had once been filled with spirit had faded away and lost their magical spark.

    She reached over and dipped her hand in the pond, humming a soothing tune as she stirred her hand in a circle. Water dripping, she placed her digits on the moss and closed her eyes, never stopping the sounds vibrating in her throat. She waited until she felt the coils of energy dance under her fingers, and then she smiled as she opened her eyes. She hadn't used some of her skills in some time, and it felt good.

    “There, now there's some life to it. It should start mending soon.” A few weeks, if her judgment of the wound was correct.

    Aria got up to leave, and though she was still conflicted on how she was going to fix her country's problem, she took a little pride in Brin's surprised expression as she walked away.

    ---

    The meetings between the two went on as the hot summer months burned away to the falling leaves of Autumn. Adrian continued to meet her at the frog sanctuary, and Aria learned more about the outside world as she deliberated what to do about the Snake Queen.

    At first he continued to ask her about the way to the keep, and she responded to it by disappearing through the trees. She was half way surprised he hadn't tried to barge in himself. She was relieved he hadn't though, at least not enough to get caught. She liked the man, finding him refreshing after all her serpentine company. It was different to be in the presence of someone that didn't have a malicious ulterior motive hanging over their shoulders. She didn't want to see him die like the others that tried.

    The witch had human and snake slaves alike, and they constantly watched the grounds for miles with posts as far as the horizon at times. The countryside was littered with spies. It made sneaking around too tricky, especially if one tried to get into the castle proper. Basic traveling was hazardous enough. The forests were alive with spirits, but unfortunately, not all of them were on the same side.

    She had seen trespassers dragged in dead or bleeding out, either gushing from bite marks or with limbs missing completely. Wannabe heroes were granted the honor of being crafted into stone by one of the hood-painted Arbok, joining the other would-be saviors in the the witch's garden of stone. The whole east side was dedicated to them.

    Eventually he realized that continuously begging her to take him back was not going to win her cooperation, so he stopped asking. Instead, he told her of life beyond the keep and things she had been missing in the two years the witch had held her prisoner.

    Adrian had traveled all over the country, seeing what destruction the snake had caused throughout the land. Villagers that had once been bustling were now piles of ashes. Scared forests had been cleared. Bodies of water had dried to dust. Countless people and Pokémon had been slain on the snake's orders. She knew most of those horrible things already, but it was different hearing the story from someone who had seen it with their own eyes. After the mountain village, the fake queen stopped taking her to other places.

    The witch had done a number on the keep as well, killing all the knights and commoners that wouldn't bend their knee to her. Their noble squad of red-painted Zangoose had been slain too, just as easily as the humans. The snake had no reservations about sparing Pokémon. The white, fox-cat warriors had served her family for generations, and just like that, they were gone.

    After that, the witch took care of Aria's family.

    The princess didn't tell him any of that though. Adrian had decided to slay the snake because he cared for his people too. She didn't want to discourage his spirit or evoke a rage in him. Neither were good moods for fighting. She knew that one day he would get his wish whether she aided him or not. Soon he would tire of waiting and risk scaling the walls alone. She didn't want to distract him necessarily, but she could maybe prolong his death. Instead of the bad, she told him about happier days from her childhood like spending time at their summer home and dancing with the frogs out in the river.

    He told her about times from his adventures across the country, to places she hadn't got the chance to see yet. That was where he met Brin too, having saved the little gray fighter from a nasty Garchomp out in the desert. The Timburr had been trying to defend his food stash from the blueish land shark that had been terrorizing the desert, and after the two worked together to slay the beast, they had traveled the same road. That was how he got his armored vest.

    Soon Aria looked forward to their encounters. He was pleasant company, and she appreciated that she didn't need to be guarded around him or his companion. She could freely talk about the snake without fear of backlash, and she had someone that wouldn't laugh at goals and dreams of the past. He was more a friend to her than she ever had, and she valued that almost more than anything.

    The only problem was that with each passing day her worries grew, and she couldn't help but question if what she was doing was still right.

    ---

    She heard the even hum of voices as she parted the branches on her obstacle-filled path to the pond. Adrian and Brin had beaten her there today. She figured the sanctuary had been their base of operations for a time now.

    “...and they say she has this glittering orb that holds all her power. Some even say it's her life source,” Adrian said. She caught the tail end of whatever story he was telling Tympole, Brin, and a small group of three Poliwag that were sitting on one of the stepping stones. All of the Pokémon looked pretty engaged in it, with rapt attention on the warrior.

    “That's right,” she added when he paused, gesturing for the man to hold as he started to rise. “If you're talking about the witch. It's a sharp sea-green, and she usually keeps it fastened on an old oak staff covered in runes. That's not nearly all her power though,” she said, sitting down next to the warrior as she tucked her ankles to the side.

    The witch didn't need the orb to set the fires she conjured to burn the forests or to control the snakes around the keep. Aria had suspicions that the serpents weren't completely vile by themselves, even if she loathed them.

    “You sure know a lot about her,” he said, looking at her closely. He didn't mean it in a bad way, she knew, but she could tell he was curious. It was a fair comment. “Even for being in her servitude.”

    “You don't know the story of how she came into power?” she asked.

    Adrian shook his head. She was a little surprised he didn't. She thought every knew how the snake queen had overtaken the keep and made their soldiers look like little more than flies. The look on the man's face suggested he wanted to hear it though. He was leaning a bit toward her, and his blue eyes were wide and shining with some inner spark. She supposed the more one knew about the enemy, the better. Even Tympole and Brin looked interested, and at times, people didn't hold a Pokémon's attention for long.

    “Lucy was one of our court priestesses,” she began, finding it odd to call her by name after so long. She couldn't recall the last time she used it. “She was in the advanced circle, like my sister. They were once friends.” At least, she had thought they were. They did everything together, from lessons in court etiquette to chores like mending. They were even a similar skill level, so they were partners in their studies.

    Aria stared into the pond, seeing a world that no longer existed. Rising white towers were now huddled in shadows, much like the three Poliwag on the rocks. One of them jumped into the water suddenly, sending ripples crashing through the glass surface. It reminded her how everything suddenly changed.

    “But it didn't stay that way. I'm not sure what finally made her snap, but Lucy loathed my sister when it was over.” It was painful to talk about Meredith, but it was also strangely relieving, like a giant stone was being lifted off her chest. She didn't know if she'd ever talked about what happened with anyone. She missed her sister. She missed all of them.

    “Lucy became jealous of Meredith. My sister had everything she wanted, I guess.” The princess wasn't sure why the woman was so envious. Lucy had been a pretty girl from a good family that was well-respected and came from a long line of priestesses. She had Murkrow-black hair that hung well past her shoulders and sparkling brown eyes that glowed with intelligence. She had always been well dressed, and nobody had anything bad to say about her.

    Sure, Meredith had been exotic, as the witch put it, with similar tan skin and pale hair like Aria, but Lucy had her own sort of appeal. She'd had no trouble winning her fair share of admirers, and there were many wealthy suitors asking for her all the time. It hadn't been enough. Aria didn't see the desire of being a royal if you could accomplish what you wanted without all the extra responsibility. Unfortunately, the snake hadn't taken to the last part.

    “One night, Meredith caught Lucy painting circles on the floor with the blood of a Buneary she had sacrificed moments before. I think it was the screeching that made her investigate.” The painted marks had never been cleared off the stone in the main room. She wasn't sure if it would've come clean anyway. “They had some sort of argument, and then I remember the walls of the keep shaking as snakes poured out of every crevice.”

    There had been a few rouge practitioners as well, along with traitor soldiers that could be bought with enough coin. They still guarded her. Snakes and one witch wouldn't have been enough to destroy everything. The dark cloaks had been a little overdone, but she'd never forget what they did. Lucy had trained her own personal army in secret, and she had done it well. The surprise only aided them. By the time Aria had even known what was going on, there were already bodies strung around the rooms and blood splattered on the walls.

    She rose, pacing back and forth along the pond's edge as the nightmares she relived night after night fell from her lips. Timburr rose with her, to her surprise, making a softer sound and waving his hands. He was trying to soothe her, and she realized she must be pretty worked up for the gray fighter to react that way. She released her hands from her cloak, not noticing she had clenched them in it.

    “It was too late by that time though,” she continued, seeing the snakes slithering on the ground at her feet and hearing the clanking of blades as the soldiers fought. “Half the guards were gone by the time word got through the keep. Those left were ushering my family into the throne room. After she overpowered my sister, Lucy trapped them there like rats so she had her sorcerers could pick off the guards one by one.”

    Her breathing had picked up, and her white cloak swished back and froth as she continued to pace. Brin had given up trying to calm her down, instead watching her with a mournful look on his face, like he knew what was coming next. For all she knew, he had experienced something like it before. Other than the bit about the dragon, she hadn't learned much about him.

    Adrian wouldn't take his eyes off her, and she found it hard to look at him. His hands were clenched to fists on top of the earth, and his jaw was locked. His whole spirit screamed of injustice as she spoke, but she didn't want to get lost in the hope he offered. He couldn't right this one. They were already dead.

    “She slayed the King and Queen first, killing them with her own hand. She sneered as she gutted them.” The last thing Aria had wanted to do was watch her parents die, but she had stubbornly set her shoulders and did. She would know what happened to them to the very end.

    Both of the travelers and Tympole bowed their heads for the departed rulers. She clutched at her chest momentarily and said a silent thank you. Then she continued, no matter how much it pulled at her heartstrings.

    “Meredith was the worst. She was due to be married in the Spring, right after the flowers started to bloom.” They had done months of planning for it. Lucy had even helped, acting like she had been as excited as her sister. “Her husband-to-be was a well-known lesser lord from the north. He was loyal to his people, a respectable man to be king. I don't know if you knew of Nicolas. He was staying with us, getting used to the keep he would one day rule over.”

    Aria leapt to a stepping stone, still not being able to keep her feet in one place. She stepped to the next, and the two remaining tadpoles dived into the pond in opposite directions. She felt sick, but it was like she was charmed, stuck on the track to finish the story no matter how awful it was. “Lucy killed him slowly and made Meredith watch. She let her snakes inject their venom into his limbs as they chewed holes in him, and he suffered an agonizing death over the course of a week.”

    It didn't end there though. Aria had fought hard to intervene, even asking to take her sister's place, but Lucy didn't want her. It was Meredith she hated. “Her wizards held us back when she chained Meredith out in the gardens. She tied Nicolas to her after he was dead and let him rot. Lucy tolerated three days of wailing before she silenced her.” It had been the worst three days of her life. She could still hear her sister's shrieks echoing through her head. The last image she had seen of her sister had been with a contorted expression and tear tracks running down her dirty cheeks.

    Adrian closed his eyes for a moment, and she could see his shoulders shaking in a quiet rage. He opened his mouth to say something, but she turned away and continued her story before he could interject. She jumped to the center platform with a careful step, trying not to get her dress caught in her sandals. She could almost see the glowing runes etched into the small stage from previous rituals.

    “Warriors came after that, a long procession that marched in just to die. Lucy struck some of them down herself, but the majority were turned to stone by her snakes. I watched them all. She collects them in the garden so she can view their horrified expressions any time she likes.” Her hands shook by her sides, her nails biting sharply into her palms. Arbok, the large purple cobra with the red and black-painted hood usually did the honors. The slithering, coiled snake with the dripping fangs and flicking tongue was the last thing most of them saw.

    The garden was a broken checkerboard of soldiers. Sometimes Lucy's witches went there for target practice, firing the statues and either chipping them when they fell over or blasting them to bits. She had endured only a week of this before she set out to save them. She spent three days righting every fallen statue and repairing the ones she could. Then she said a prayer over every one, saving what was left of their honor. She didn't think it would do much, just a few silly chants around a bunch of deformed rocks, but she had to try. She tried to offer them the protection in death that they had tried to give her in life.

    “Do you see why I won't lead you there? I won't send you to die. I won't add another good man to that rock collection,” she spat. Then she chuckled bitterly, and she felt the water below her stir. Was the moon shining a little brighter tonight? There was a rapid beat rising in her, a steady thrumming that reminded her of a tautly-drawn drum. “Even if we did somehow manage to kill her, it wouldn't matter. Her servants would just kill-”

    A figure crashed through the barrier of foliage then, sending both warriors to their feet. Brin grabbed his now-healed log weapon and deftly swung it under his dominant left arm, ready to strike if necessary. Adrian had unsheathed the blade he carried, it's holder abandoned on the ground. The steel pointed toward the wood line, and the man was light on his feet. Aria had been so involved with her story that she hadn't heard anything. She whirled, her white hair flying, and she saw a flash of light as the runes sparked to life at her feet.

    “-Micah,” she finished, her eyes taking in the familiar tan skin and blonde hair of her brother. The white locks were passed on from her mother's side.

    The boy slid to a stop as he cleared the trees, taking in the scene. The girl saw his eyes shift to her first and then to her companions, making sure she wasn't in any danger. He had learned a few things in the last couple of years too. He relaxed as he took in the scene, and since he knew it wasn't good to surprise a group of warriors, he shot up his hands in an innocent gesture.

    He looked back to her after nobody moved, taking in the shining water and the way she was poised to take action. His voice was cautious with a hint of the innocence he still barely held on to. “What are you doing, Aria? Is the pond glowing?”

    The princess blinked, as if coming out of a trance, and the water immediately stilled, fading to a darker shade that reflected the moon clearly. The markings under her sandals burned out and disappeared, through she could still feel the energy humming. She had forgotten that Micah had been a little young when she and her sister started their studies. Only the first few lessons were open demonstrations. The rest of their practices had been shut away in secluded rooms to not disrupt the public.

    “My Lord,” Adrian mumbled, throwing down his blade and sinking to one knee before anyone could tell him no. Tympole chirped happily in greeting, but the Timburr was still guarded and wary. Aria could sense her brother's familiar energy though, so she knew it wasn't one of the watches in disguise. She didn't know if Lucy had one that was powerful enough to pull that off anyway.

    If she didn't marry, even though she was the oldest royal left, her brother would take the throne when he became of age or was the only one of them remaining. He was only fifteen, several years younger than she, so he wasn't ready quite yet. It didn't matter though, as Lucy was in charge. The snake had special plans for him. One of them was revealing to the public at a convenient time that he wasn't dead.

    “Micah, what are you doing here?” she asked, following the stepping stones to get back to shore. She rushed over to him, steadying her hands on his shoulders so she could inspect him. She breathed a heavy sigh of relief. He didn't have any marks on him.

    For a long time she feared seeing him with purple and black clouds on his face or with tiny bite marks all over his arms. She wouldn't put it past Lucy to torture her by slowly killing him with her snake venom. His clothes were intact though, the worn cloth somewhat similar to what Adrian had. Micah's sleeves of the button down weren't rolled though, and the garments had a few more dirt smears.

    “You were gone, but I wanted to tell you that I saw one of her floozies trying to break one of the statues,” her brother said, and Aria knew he meant the fallen heroes. She spared a small smile at the name he used for Lucy's subordinates. “It was amazing. His attack bounced right off and hit him in the face! He went rolling around on the grass clutching his head. I hope it hurt.”

    The girl showed her surprise for a second before smoothing her face. She didn't actually think her charms would work on the stone heroes. She had just wanted to show them some respect. The knowledge that her enchantments were successful sparked a flare of pride in her. She may not be as helpless as she thought.

    The prince grinned at his memory, and she was glad he took what joy out of it that he could. Then, his smile faded as he made a face. “And she was being weird again.”

    Aria didn't let him see the anguished expression on her face. With her hands still resting on his shoulders, she pulled him in for a tight hug, wishing she could make everything stop.

    She watched Adrian rise, gathering his blade and watching them with a crease in his forehead. She could almost see the spinning gears working in his brain as he put the pieces together. She refused to look ashamed as he saw her more guarded secret revealed. She fought hard to save her brother, and there wasn't anything she wouldn't do to keep him that way. She had already lost a sister; she wasn't going to lose him too.

    “Besides, I wanted to see Poli,” Micah said, pulling his head back from her shoulder to speak. As if on cue, a small, blue Poliwag with a notch in his tail fin jumped out of the water. The boy spared a glance for the warriors again before disengaging from her and running over to greet the water Pokémon with laughs and smiles. Aria committed every moment to memory.

    “So that's why you wouldn't help,” Adrian said as he sheathed his blade and fastened it to his belt. He came over to watch with her, seeing the boy splashing in the water to play with the tadpole. “They'll kill him if you stand up to her. She keeps you prisoner by holding him against you.”

    She nodded slowly. Lucy always kept him close, and though he was young, he wasn't stupid. There were still things he didn't understand, but he knew the witch was dangerous. He knew how to hold his tongue, especially about this place. He saw what she had done to their family. If not for the boy, Aria would have already tried to kill Lucy or have been long gone. If nothing else, she could have saved herself. He was the only family she had left. She wasn't going to abandon him. Then again, if not for the boy, Aria rather doubted she'd still be alive, either by her hand or the snake's.

    That was why she couldn't take action even if she knew she should. She couldn't risk not being there to protect him. They'd kill her if she rose a fist against Lucy, and if they didn't just kill him, it would be worse. Micah was still a boy. He shouldn't have to face these things alone.

    “Being weird?” Adrian questioned as Timburr came up to stand close to her other side. Maybe the gray Pokémon had siblings once too.

    She sighed. “It's why I have to stick around. Lucy doesn't see him as a boy, only as a tool to power. There will be conflict eventually. She knows the people will never fully follow and obey her.” She paused, having trouble wrapping her mind around the idea herself. “But they would a son of Micah's.”

    “What?” he exclaimed, stepping toward her like he couldn't quite believe what he just heard. “She wants to rule through his children?” He sounded disgusted, and so was she. Micah was still young, and Lucy was easily over ten years his senior. Even in their age that was not a dismissible gap, especially when one was still considered a child. Courting in their country generally waited a few more years than he was.

    Aria nodded again, glad he could fill in the gaps himself. The more she talked about it, the clearer the words became in her mind that Lucy was really trying to do this. “Lucy often comes on to him, but he doesn't really understand it yet. The only reason she hasn't made a serious move yet is because I pleaded with her to wait. She does it gradually, trying to woo him over without force. She's made more and more attempts lately though. I think she's done waiting, and I... I don't know what to do.” She worried her lip with her teeth, clueless how to delay the Snake Queen any longer.

    “I do,” he said, stepping even closer to her.

    She opened her mouth to protest, knowing what was coming, but Adrian shook his head and placed a finger over her lips before she could get a word out. “Aria, no, listen to me.” She did, watching as his eyes burned with some strong force. That was the first time he had ever used her name. Satisfied she wouldn't interrupt, he stepped back and dropped his hand. “You don't want to strike against the snake because of your brother, but the snake isn't going to wait much longer. Soon you won't be able to take action even if you wanted to. We can stop her, Aria. We can end all of this. You have to trust me,” he pleaded.

    They were interrupted by a cheery call. Micah approached with the swirled tadpole in his arms, dripping water along the ground from his tail. “So, who are these guys?” he asked, gesturing to Adrian and the Timburr with a sway of his body since his arms were full.

    Aria saw the happiness on his face and repressed a tear. She morphed her face into a smile for the boy's benefit. “This is Adrian from Tarvania and Brin, his companion,” she said as her mind swirled. The breeze blew her hair across her shoulder and sent tiny ripples across the dark water. This could've been a picturesque scene from any other time but now. “They're here to kill Lucy.”

    Micah greeted them with a smile, the statement not phasing him one bit. He acted like it was expected, and she wondered if he thought Adrian was going to die like the rest. She only heard a dull roar in her ears as the prince made small talk. The warrior was right. Her brother was not going to stay this innocent boy for much longer if Lucy had any say in it. Soon she would be able to do nothing, and then Micah would be tied in by duty. The snake would be able to use him forever, manipulating her people and making everyone suffer.

    So lost in her own mind, she almost missed the question Micah directed at her. “So you're going to lead them back to the keep?”

    Caught of guard, she stumbled a bit, not being able to make her mouth form the right words. “I...” she started, blinking to try and come back to the real world. “Yes,” she said without really thinking, and as soon as it left her lips, she felt the weight press down on her like bags of sand slung over her shoulders.

    Then she realized what she had just done, and the rolling waves inside her mind threatened to topple over and drown her. She had just sent him to die. The bile rose in her stomach, and she felt a little faint as she stumbled. Brin was at her side as soon as she took an unsure step, leaning her weight onto him even though he barely came to her hip. He did it smoothly, letting her get a grip on herself before anyone noticed. She shook her heard roughly, trying to clear it, and she caught Adrian giving her a worried look. Thankfully, he said nothing, and Micah didn't notice.

    “I'm surprised you are, sister. I don't think you've ever helped before. What made you change your mind?” Before she could gather herself enough to answer, her brother was already switching topics, continuing to speak. She thought it was an after-effect of what happened. He used to be a very quiet child. “I'm sure you'll be fine. Aria knows her way around the castle better than anyone, and Dad taught her how to fight, even though she was more into singing and dancing and stuff. You should've seen her perform. Mom always said that when she sang, the kingdom stopped to listen. There was this one time...”

    He continued on with his story, but Aria didn't pay any attention to it. Adrian kept sneaking her glances, looking from her to Timburr while nodding and asking Micah questions at the appropriate time to show he was listening. Her brother was content enough to chatter away. Eventually, she used the time to steady herself, and by the time she leaned away from Brin, she was almost certain she wouldn't fall.

    She paid attention to the tail-end of what Micah was saying, though her mind was still elsewhere. “That thing can probably slice through a snake pretty well,” he mused, looking at Adrian's sword. “I've been learning, but Lucy'd never let me use the real ones.”

    The warrior looked at the Timburr, and with a barely noticeable nod, he reached for the blade. “Well, my Lord,” he said, grinning a bit at the wrinkled face Micah made, “you best get your practice in then.”
    He unsheathed the sword, laying it flat to examine its sharpness before handing it hilt-first to the boy. “Brin will show you how it's done.”

    Micah's eyes were wide and shining as he accepted the weapon. “Really?” he asked, and Adrian just nodded. “Awesome! Come on, Brin!” he said, excitement dripping from every word. He dashed off to an open area along the bank immediately, and after giving her a once-over, Brin followed. The gray Pokémon spun his log lazily under his arm with a controlled motion. She knew he wouldn't injure the boy.

    Aria watched them with dull eyes, the blackness threatened her vision on the edges, a seeping darkness that was going to swallow her. “What have I done...” she murmured, starting to shake a little.

    Adrian was in front of her in seconds, gripping her shoulders. “Aria.” He gave her a short but jerking shake, but she couldn't snap out of it. She just kept staring at her brother, swinging the sharp weapon a little clumsily, not used to the real weight. The dark was closing in, and it was getting harder to breathe even though she kept drawing in large amounts of air. “Aria, look at me,” he said more sternly. He brought his hands up to her cheeks to force her eyes away from the boy, moving her head to look at him instead.

    The girl blinked once and shook her head slightly before focusing on the two blue eyes in front of her. The light in them helped her chase the blackness back, and then she nodded, slowing her breathing down so she wouldn't induce a panic attack. She closed her eyes and felt the breeze on her skin and the ground under her feet.

    “Okay,” she said, releasing a long breath. She opened her eyes, a little calmer than she had been. The panic was still there though, clinging to the edge of her awareness. It sent pangs to her heart in irregular jolts. She couldn't stop the wetness that gathered at the corner of her eyes. “I'm sending you to die.”

    He shook his head, wiping away a traitorous tear that slid on her cheek with his thumb. “That is the risk every warrior takes when they go into battle. You are by no means sending me. Everything will be fine. We'll go to the keep and-”

    “I can't,” she said, shaking her head and trying to pull away.

    He just moved closer, moving his hands down to her shoulders and shaking her for a second. “Yes, you can.” He sighed. “Think of your brother. If anything else, do it for him. Lucy will not wait forever.” She could see the logic in his words, but she was still hesitant. “We are not novices in battle. We'll be alright. And you,” he said, holding her at arms length like he was inspecting her. “You don't give yourself enough credit. I don't know what you do when the water glows, but you do something. I may not understand it, but I can feel it. You have power. I know you can use it.”

    She looked out to the pond, remembering how the runes had glowed on the ritual stand and how the water had glowed that eerie sea-green. She thought of the stone heroes in the gardens and how her spells had reflected damage done against them. She had been able to restart the rejuvenation on Brin's weapon.

    She remembered the other heroes and the horror stricken on their faces right before their death. She prayed this wouldn't be the same. “What if we fail?” she asked in a small voice. She wouldn't be able to live with herself is something happened to her brother because she wasn't strong enough.

    “I promise, if something goes wrong, we'll get out of there. All of us,” he said firmly, and she knew he meant more than just the three of them. “Trust me.”

    His words echoed in her ears, and she couldn't deny the truth in them. She closed her eyes as the feeling sunk in, and then the high stone walls crumbled away as the water flowed over them, flowing into a wide, still pond that sent a cooling wave through her whole body. She nodded, biting her lip and agreeing to the idea. They would go to the keep and stop Lucy, for better or worse.

    She heard him breathe a sigh of relief, and then she was pulled against him as he hugged her. She tensed for a minute but then relaxed with a shuddering breath. It was unlike her to hand the reigns over to anyone else. She had always been the one in control, the one doing all of the work because it was her burden to bear. This felt right though, relieving in a way. She didn't feel so overwhelmed. Someone she trusted could help.

    “I'll save you. I promise,” he whispered into her hair, and even though she always believed a princess should be able to save herself, she thought she'd allow it this time.

    “Wow, Aria, I don't think I've seen you smiling like that in a long time. What's up?” Micah asked, and the two abruptly pulled away as the boy and the Timburr approached.

    The princess shook her head and brushed her pale hair behind her shoulder. It was nice to know that somebody wanted to save her instead of the other way around. She touched her face gently, and even though there were tear tracks running down her cheeks, her lips were still pulled up into a soft smile.

    ---

    Aria hovered on the edge of the trees around the keep, lurking in a darkened area out of the sight of the guards. The two warriors and her brother followed, following her silent instructions as she led them around known snake pits and guard posts. She had got them to the keep undetected, but the following was the tricky part.

    A Murkrow called out over the empty grounds, and she looked to the wall to see dozens of the tiny black birds resting on the ledges. Their red eyes made pinpricks in the darkness, and the rest of their body blended into the night. An answering call from behind them made her jump a little. She remembered that Lucy hated those birds, one of the creatures she hadn't been able to make obey her. They were known for playing pranks in the woods, and if everything went according to plan, their presence could help them.

    The highest tower of the keep was illuminated around the edges, blocking out the light from the moon. The glow almost bluffed the castle's former glory when the stones had been stark white and their crescent moon banners had waved in the wind. Rows of Zangoose had perched on the walls, but now those spots were empty, the snake trusting the ground units to protect her. It was rare that anyone got past them.

    “Alright,” she said, turning back to the group. The side door she wanted was in sight. “Adrian, you and Brin will have to wait out here.” She pointed to the corner, where she was headed. There weren't any guards in sight, but that didn't mean they were there. “That's where we'll go in, but I want you to head around to the storm door leading to the basement. Use the forest to get around the keep. It's on the southeast corner.”

    She doubted this plan, but it's all they had. She couldn't afford to wait anymore. “I'll let you in later, and then we'll go look for her life orb. I think I remember where it is. Micah,” she said, turning to him and putting a hand on his shoulder. “I want you to go to your room and stay there. If Lucy tries anything, tell her you're tired and need to rest.”

    “But-” He opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off with a shake of her head.

    “No. You stay there. Got it?” He grudgingly nodded, though he didn't look the least bit happy about it. As long as he followed what she said, she didn't care. He would stay safe. She ruffled his hair softly. “Good, now get going.” It was better if anyone who was watching thought they came separately.

    Micah brushed past her but stopped before he was out of the trees, turning back to engulf her in a squeezing hug. “Be careful,” he whispered before running off toward the side door. Aria watched him go, hoping he would be alright. That ache started to burn in her chest, but she held it back. It was too late to stop now.

    She waited until he was safely inside before it was her turn. She turned to the warriors and thought about what they were about to do again. Adrian caught the look and sighed, shaking his head. “Everything will be fine,” he said. “We'll be waiting.” He softly touched his lips to her cheek as he and Timburr ducked through the branches to the other side of the castle.

    Aria waited until both of them were lost in shadow before turning back to the keep. She clenched her hands and steeled her soul as she stepped out of the trees and onto the cold grounds and went to the door.

    ---

    The stone echoed every soft step her sandals made, the scuffling a much louder roar in her ears. She had no need to be silent in her own keep, but she hated drawing attention to herself here. The torches flickered on the walls, giving her hair an odd glow in the dark. All she had to do was check on Micah and then wait until Lucy laid down for the night. Then she'd be a little freer to investigate if she could get past the snakes.

    There was a bright flash suddenly, illuminating the hall she was in and causing her to clench her eyes shut. Then her arms burned, and she cried out and stumbled against the rock wall as she looked down. Her shackles were glowing, the edges searing into her wrists with an imaginary heat that hurt just as much as the real thing.

    The witch was calling her.

    Aria gritted her teeth and stood up, bracing her shoulder along the wall until she got her feet solidly under her. She rubbed her wrists as the pain faded, and she stubbornly made her way to the throne room to see what the demon wanted.

    Two sorcerers were on either side of the doors, standing post in a mockery of the honorable soldiers that once had the same place. Their shadowy cloaks hung loose like rags on their slouching bodies, revealing their greasy hair and gap toothed smiles. They sneered at her as she pushed open the doors, and she turned her head in disgust.

    She tried to ignore the musty stench of old blood that stained the floor in splatters. If she didn't look directly at it, she could almost pretend the room was just coated in dust. She avoided looking at the occupants of the room too, them being little better than the slobs outside. They didn't need any more reason to interact with her. The witch's guards always leered at her, their gazes trying to stick to her skin like sweat. They acted tough in the snake's company, but most of them were cowards and wouldn't jump if she wasn't telling them what to do.

    There were only half a dozen people, but the number of snakes made up for it. Piles of purple Ekans rattled on either side of the thrones, their yellow eyes appearing and disappearing in a blanket of violet as they blinked. The skinny snakes were everywhere. They sat curled in the windowpanes and dangled from the ratted tapestries still hanging on the walls. They even coiled around the people's feet, though they didn't seem to mind. Out of all of them, these ones disturbed her the most. There were thousands of them littered around the castle.

    “I see you got my message,” a voice purred from the main seat. Aria cleared her face of all emotion and then looked up at the Snake Queen.

    Lucy had changed over the years. Instead of the well-kept girl she remembered, the witch had let herself go wild. Once straight locks had turned into a dark Rattata's nest, and her skirts were bunched in rags. A nasty smile graced the woman's face as she slung herself over the chair, her knees hanging off the arm. Instead of the ornate jewels she used to wear, her prize Arbok was draped across her shoulders and around her body. Its large tail coiled around the woman's middle, and it flicked the air with its forked tongue every couple of minutes.

    “Where's Micah?” Lucy asked in a sweet tone, and Aria had to bite back the scathing comment on her lips.

    “In his room. He's very tired.” She hoped the snake got the hint to leave him be, but somehow she doubted it.

    “That's too bad,” she whined, pulling her legs down to sit the correct way. Immediately, two Ekans coiled around her ankles like decorative jewelery. Arbok snapped at them when they tried to slither up Lucy's legs to her lap. “Oh well. There's always tomorrow.” The witch laughed a bit in an airy tone, and the princess wondered just how long she hadn't been right. It was sad to watch her in that downward spiral.

    “Donovan,” the fake queen said, crooking a finger to the guard standing behind her.

    He obliged, leaning forward so Lucy could see him. His dark cloak hid his plate mail, but she heard it clang softly as he moved. “Yes, my Lady?” he asked, though his eyes were glued to Aria. He was the one she avoided the most. She didn't doubt he would try to take liberties of her imprisoned state.

    “Have my babies in the basement been fed yet?” Aria didn't like the smile the woman was forming.

    “No, my Queen, they have not.” He wouldn't stop looking at her, and she gave him the best narrow-eyed stare she could. She hoped his eyes burned.

    “Oh dear,” Lucy said, bringing a hand up to cover her mouth. “Did you hear that, Aba? Our friends haven't had dinner yet. Aria should go do that at once, don't you think, my pet?” The witch stroked the chin of the cobra lovingly. Then she looked back to the princess and smile, making a shooing motion with her hands. “Off you go, dear.”

    Aria turned around and make it one step before the fake queen called her back. “Oh, and Aria,” she said as the princess looked over her shoulder, “be sure to take the top off the barrel this time. My lovelies are getting splinters in their teeth. Serai can go to make sure you do it right. That useless serpent is getting lazy.”

    The girl stilled completely at her words, hearing scales dragging on the stone as a dark form slithered out from the corner of the room. She fought hard not to shake as the extremely long snake approached her, its yellow knobs ticking the floor as they went over the grooves.

    The mostly black serpent slid to a stop in front of her, bunching up as he waited for her to respond. While Ekans were creepy, Seviper were terrifying. The snakes were rumored to be the sworn enemy of the Zangoose warriors that used to populate the castle. He had a sharp, red-edged tail that was said to cut through stones if needed. Yellow hexagon markings covered his back and face, leading to a pair of glowing red eyes and matching fangs. They glistened, and the poison could be called into them at a moments notice. She hoped the witch wasn't serious, but she knew better.

    “Well, go on. Don't be shy,” the witch reminded her, and Aria closed her eyes briefly as she tried to calm her nerves. “That thing couldn't hurt a fly.”

    The snake narrowed his eyes to slits as he glared back at the witch, moving closer to her. With slightly shaking hands, she crouched down, holding out one of her arms. He used her limb like a branch and slithered up to coil himself around her easily, looking like a scaly scarf. His skin was cool against hers, and she fought not to shiver as he threaded his head under her white locks so he could rest his head on her shoulder. His tail hung down her back, and she had to stand straighter so it wouldn't hit her hidden knife and knock it out of her cloak.

    She refused to freak out. She stubbornly marched out, saying nothing else as she exited the room as quickly as she could. She passed through three empty hallways before she came to a stop and braced an arm against the wall, breathing loudly and shakily. She had to close her eyes and focus really hard on what they were doing tonight.

    The Seviper waited patiently, making almost no noise. She supposed he wasn't too bad as long as he wasn't moving, but that was probably when he was most dangerous. She took a second to think about the exchange that had just happened. Was there tension among the snakes? Lucy obviously favored Aba, the Arbok, but this one had seemed a bit upset about it.

    Aria took a deep breath as she continued to walk, her new snake garment swinging at the same beat of her steps. She would love to just dump him somewhere, but she knew he'd go back to Lucy. To distract herself, she hummed a quiet tune, something from her childhood and playing in the river. To her surprise, Serai seemed to like it, and she could hear him making a soft sound along with her. She hadn't known snakes liked music.

    She continued to hum as she climbed the stairs and crossed over a couple more hallways to get to Micah's room. She wanted to check on him one last time before... She slammed a stone wall down on those thoughts, not wanting to think of the worst before it happened.

    A light warning hiss alerted her seconds before a dark form appeared in one of the veering hallways. The light poured in from the window, but the man was cloaked in shadow until he stepped out into the light. Aria felt the Seviper's tail swinging dangerously back and forth behind her, like a cat before they struck.

    “What do you want, Donovan?” she demanded, not being polite about it.

    She didn't like the grin he had on his face. “Who said I wanted anything?” He kept taking steps closer to her, and she tried to stay still, but when he reached out to touch her hair, she had to move back, keeping the strands away from his grimy fingers.

    “Don't touch me,” she said firmly, reaching out to the stone behind her. The night's dampness had started taking hold on the walls through the close window, and she could feel the moisture there. Energy stirred on her fingertips. “Aren't you supposed to be watching Lucy?”

    He shrugged. “She's down for the night. Why don't we-”

    She hadn't used some of her defensive skills in a long time, so she wasn't sure if the energy would respond fast enough. He was making a grab at her though, and she was not messing tonight up because of this moron. Before she could act though, Serai lashed out with his fangs, liquid dripping onto the rock below.

    The witch's soldier pulled his limb back just in time, and Aria just gave him a hard look. “I told you not to touch me.” She held her serious gaze as he stared strangely at the snake, thinking it best to move on. She watched until he disappeared around the end hall, making sure he was really gone and not lurking around some corner ready to ambush her.

    Then she breathed a huge sigh of relief, sinking against the window. She was shaking a little, but she got it under control after a few minutes. She hated that man.

    The Seviper adjusted around her shoulders, and she was brought out of her thoughts enough to stand up. Cautiously, she reached a hand up to his painted head. When he didn't bite her, she touched his nose softly, patting him. “Thank you,” she said softly. Serai rubbed his head against her neck in response, and she stilled until the shivering feeling passed.

    She hurried to Micah's room after that, and there were no more distractions. She could see a faint candle light under his door, so she walked quietly. Serai was silent on her shoulders as she pressed her ear against the door. Donovan said that Lucy had gone to bed, but she wanted to make sure the witch went to the right one. The wood scratched at her ear, but she listened carefully. Micah's soft snores could be heard. She breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped back. He was alone.

    She quickly touched the four corners of his door, murmuring ancient words under her breath. She drew in moisture from the wall, placing one hand just under the torch and moving her other over the lock on the wood. She closed her eyes as she chanted, feeling the coils of energy move around in the device. With a soft click it locked tight, and she tried the handle to test her work. It didn't budge.

    She touched the door one more time, her palm flat against the wood. She hoped her charms would hold until it was over at least. “Be strong,” she whispered, and then the two of them disappeared into the basement.

    ---

    The basement was more like a dungeon now, even though her family had never kept one. Lucy had added the chains and removed some of the oil lights, making the space seem much more dreary than it used to be. Food and materials weren't even stored down here anymore.

    She descended the stairs, and the rattling and sliding of scales got louder. The big trench, formally used as a type of canal when the lake south of the keep hadn't been dried up, was filled with hissing serpents. All of them were the purple Ekans. Their gold neck bands were barely visible in the piles. There were just too many. Aria shivered as she passed them, and she felt the Seviper tense a bit.

    The barrel was sitting right where Lucy always left it, ready to be knocked into the ravine. The princess knew the fake queen had done this on purpose, wanting to torture her. Probably in revenge for Micah. With shaking hands she approached the barrel, and with a painful twist, the lid popped off.

    It was filled with helpless Poliwag of course, like usual. These ones had a bit more life to them than the rest though, actually wiggling around and making noises. At the sound of food, the Ekans stirred more. She saw some of them trying to scale the wall, though without any vines or cracks, they couldn't manage it. The hole was deep.

    Aria took one look at the barrel and knew she couldn't dump it in. The weight on her shoulders reminded her of the consequences if she didn't, but her very soul screamed at her to stop. She sighed and moved to one of the long tables against the wall. She frowned at the black feathers scattered about it. The small dark form of a Murkrow sat on the edge, it's yellow legs hanging limply in the air. She touched its hat-like head and tilted it, but the eyes had gone dead long ago. She could see the bite marks through patches where the feathers had been pulled or bitten off. The witch was testing her poison on other things. The girl said a silent prayer for the bird, wanting to stop every evil Lucy was committing.

    Minding the departed spirit, she reached an arm out tot he table and leaned in order for the Seviper to slither off of her. Then she looked at him squarely. “I'm not going to kill those Pokémon,” she said. “I know you're supposed to make sure I do, but I don't take orders from Lucy anymore.” She knew he'd probably have to sound the alarm, but she might have a few minutes to get Adrian and Brin inside before everything blew up.

    Serai made noise as she went to back away, and fearing the worst, she closed her eyes and tensed, getting ready for the bite she figured was coming. Maybe she could crawl to the door before the poison took its full effect. To her surprise though, she felt the snake coil around her and wrap around her shoulders again, rubbing his head against hers. She froze, still unused to the snakes movements and puzzled at his behavior.

    He settled down comfortably, and he didn't protest as she started to move again. She took that as a good sign. Maybe he was just as tired of Lucy as she was. She wasn't going to really question it. She reached up to scratch his head as she said her thanks, and then she moved to the back door.

    She opened it carefully and came face to face with dragon skin. Adrian recoiled as he saw the snake and went to unsheathe his sword immediately, hissing a warning to the Timburr. She quickly shushed him, grabbing his hand before he could grab the weapon. Serai tensed and retreated into her hair, hiding in the pale strands like a child behind a mother's legs.

    “Easy, it's okay. He's with me.” Never in a million years had she thought she'd say that.

    She explained what was happening as quickly as she could as she ushered the two inside. She asked Adrian to help her move the barrel full of Poliwag to the door, but Brin took care of it, easily lifting it on top of his shoulders so he could carry it out and release the poor Pokémon. The two used that time to plan what they would do next. The snakes in the pit hissed in protest.

    “Micah?” the warrior asked, eying the snake around her shoulders warily.

    “As safe as he's going to be. I think she keeps the orb in one of the upper chambers. It shouldn't take longer than ten minutes to get there and back.”

    The rough plan they had was to steal the source of the witch's power. Without the orb, she could probably be overpowered by any one of them if a little luck was on their side. Aria remembered an old ritual they could use the break the orb back at the Tympole's pond, and if the rumors were true about that being her life energy, maybe it would destroy her too. If not, they would have to be quick and get rid of her before her followers could get there. They would probably draw her out once the orb was gone. She didn't think them that fortunate. There would be a battle either way, but at least it would be a little more fair. The woods stood as a more familiar battleground.

    “What are we going to do about them?” he asked, motioning with his shoulder at the pit. Brin rejoined them then, and they all listened to the angry hissing as they debated what to do.

    It was Serai that gave them the answer in the end, rising up from her shoulder to poke at one of the oil lamps above her head. It tipped as he nudged it, and she had to jump out of the way to miss the scalding drop that fell from the light. She looked at Adrian and then back to the Seviper. “You think we should burn them?” The snake bobbed his head up and down, slithering down her leg onto the floor. He reared his head and shook a little, but then a tiny puff of flame burst from his mouth as he exhaled.

    “Oh wow,” she said as she stared, finding it amazing that a snake could produce flames like that. Maybe some of Lucy's magic had worn off on him.

    “Well, it's a good idea as any,” Adrian said, and he reached up to take the lamp off the wall. The light followed him.

    With careful motions, he undid the oil door and poured it out into the pit. The Ekans recoiled and protested with shrill hisses as the sizzling oil splattered down. Aria hesitated for a second, looking at the poor Murkrow on the table. She didn't want to kill these Pokémon, but if they didn't, the snakes could signal the guards. The fire would do that too eventually. Heat rose, so the smoke and smell from the frying snakes would reach the upper levels after a time, and it'd be even sooner if a guard wandered down here.

    Deciding that purging them would be the lesser of two evils, she went to the other side of the room for the next lamp. Between the two of them, they removed five lamps and soaked the pit with burning fluid. The light extinguished as they threw the empty lamps in with the snakes as well, cloaking them in darkness. Aria called out to Serai, and she heard the snake gather himself at the end of the pit.

    At first only a tiny stream of fire spewed out his mouth, and then she felt the energy in the air hum as a large flamethrower lit up the room. He fired it downward, and the flames caught on to the oil, immediately lighting with a burst. The fire licked along the path, following the trail until it stopped at the other end, and then there was nothing but screeching snakes and a horrid burning smell as the snakes cooked.

    Aria coughed as the smoke wafted through the room, covering her mouth with an arm as she waved for the Seviper to meet her. He slid up her offered arm and secured himself around her shoulders as she made for the stairs. Brin led the way with Adrian gesturing her in front of him. The smoke and the cries chased them out of the basement like a hungry Ursaring after a Magikarp. At the top of the stairs, they slammed the door behind them.

    ---

    Years of running through corridors had ingrained a memory map of the entire castle into her brain. They were looking for a room somewhere on the second level, if she remembered right. The one with the ivory carved into the doors.

    She took them through shortcuts and up and down stairs. They moved as fast as their feet would allow while staying silent. There were few guards roaming the halls and even fewer snakes, which she was thankful for. They stuck to the shadows as they ducked around corners, and finally the room came into sight.

    Adrian and Timburr moved to the opposite side of the doors, weapons out and ready to strike if need be. Serai was tense on her shoulders as she reached out for the handle. She turned it carefully and pushed it inward, taking a second to do the same to the other one so both windows opened wide.

    A chorus of rattling greeted them, and Aria almost made an agonized sound at the sight of more Ekans littering the floor. The room was swimming in them, the serpents draped over every piece of furniture. Snakes coiled around the spokes in the chair, they poked out from beneath the bedspread, and they hung like living vines on the chandelier above the main table.

    Their prize sat on that table. The oak staff laid flat across it, and Aria could see the runes etched into the wood. The orb sat fastened to the top, a foggy ball that glowed a sea-green color. It didn't look like anything special, but she could feel the power that pulsed from it like a hearth fire, even from the door.

    It was a little strange that Lucy wouldn't keep an object of such power with her at all times, even though she was quite confident in her snakes. Some of the other practitioners had been gossiping though, and she heard that the more you used this object, the more it drained from you. It was like a sacrifice. For power, you gave up life.

    Brin grumbled, and Adrian nodded to him. “Good question. How do we get it?”

    Aria wasn't sure. The warrior stepped into the room as a test, inching his boot past the door frame with his weapon at the ready. A wave of hisses sounded the second he cleared it, and five of the nearest snakes leapt out with their fangs extended. Adrian jerked back and took a battle stance, but the snakes didn't leave the room, like there was a barrier that kept them locked inside.

    He huffed and brushed his bangs up, letting them fall down again as he tried to think. Serai bumped her shoulder and made a throaty humming noise, looking from her to the orb and back again several times. He made the throaty call again, and then Aria got a crazy idea.

    “I hope you're right,” she said to the Seviper, and then she closed her eyes as she started to sing a soft melody. She touched the cool, damp stone once before stepping forward, and she felt the energy stir. She took a second step and began forming the words to the tune, a soft, soothing song in a language nobody spoke anymore. The notes were light and airy, and she felt Serai swaying along with her.

    “Aria, what are you doing?” Adrian called with a worry in his voice. She heard his boots carry him closer, but she waved her hand at him, never opening her eyes or stopping her chanting. He puffed a heavy breath, clearly not happy, but this was working.

    She finally opened her eyes when she felt the table hovering in front of her. She didn't stop singing. The snakes were all soothed, resting in their nests. Some were curled up in their basket shapes and others were strung about like fishing lines. She reached out to touch the staff, running her fingers along the engravings on the wood. The power thrummed under her hand, and when she picked it up, her whole body tingled as the energy reached out to her.

    “Nice bit of work, inn'it?”

    Aria's singing came out a little rushed and a higher pitch as a figure stepped out from behind the wall. He flipped back his dark cloak, revealing the dusty blonde of Donovan. He had a fierce grin on his face, confidently stepping over the piles of snakes as he made his way toward her.

    Serai hissed as he came closer, and the girl looked back from Adrian to Donovan with a strained expression. She was trapped. She couldn't get through the door while Donovan was in the way, and she couldn't stop singing because it would wake the snakes. She had no choice but to go around the table to get away from the man, even though that put her further from the door. She backed away slowly, clutching the staff to her chest. The snakes began to rattle slightly as her song changed.

    “Aria!” she heard, and then Donovan was whirling to meet Adrian's blade with his own.

    The girl continued her nervous singing, trying to get around the two fighters. Donovan was aware of this, however, and he kept angling his body to get closer to her. When he dodged a downswing, he stepped in her direction. When parrying a blow, he made sure to turn so he could back up closer. Eventually she hit the hearth, the stone ledge pressing into her back. The song was failing for the snakes as they started to snap out of their trance. They were running out of time.

    Brin was in motion though. She saw him take his weapon in hand, and with a sturdy swing, he crashed it into the wall next to the door. Stones fell from the impact, the wall coming apart in pieces. He then picked up parts and hurled them at the stirring snakes, squishing their thin bodies under the rubble. He looked at her and pointed to the wall on the other side of the door, and she nodded. He was trying to barricade the room. That would work.

    She looked around for something she could use, but she wasn't that good at thinking while she was trying to concentrate on keeping the singing going. Adrian was barely holding Donovan off as they slashed around the room. What they needed was a distraction, something for the two of them to get away from their enemies.

    A tugging drew her attention upward as Serai motioned with his head. He was looking above the table, at the candle-lit light source. It was mostly made of glass, the pieces fused together with heat and strung up by gold painted chains. She'd have to stop singing to do it, but she was going to crash it.

    Power pulsed under her fingers as she touched the staff. She channeled energy for it as she abruptly stopped singing, instead chanting another sonnet of words as she switched focuses. She heard the snakes start to hiss and come closer as their scales dragged across the floor. Quickly, she said the words, and then the chandelier exploded.

    Aria gasped as she was brought out of her mind, traveling along the corridors to a room in the high tower. She saw Lucy shoot out of bed, her messy hair flying wildly. She knew they had the orb.

    The girl ducked her head as she made for the exit, holding up her hands to block the shards of glass still ricocheting off the walls as she ran. She shouted to Adrian, and the man regained his footing just as Donovan's blade bit into his side. He called out but didn't fall, instead bringing his sword up to clip the other.

    Donovan lost his weapon as Adrian struck, and before he could retaliate, Aria shoved him, running past as she cleared the door. He fell on top of a pile of snakes, and he flailed about as he tried to regain his feet. Adrian wasted no time and retrieved the other blade. He stabbed Donovan through the shoulder and into the nearest object, sinking the blade into the wood of the cabinet until the hilt touched the skin.

    Then he ran, and Brin was waiting. He slammed into the other wall with his entire body, and the whole entryway rumbled. Stones fell down from the ceiling in chunks, barricading the room as the hall shook. The Timburr didn't stop, throwing more rocks into the doorway until neither Donovan or the purple snakes could be seen.

    The rumbling stopped, and Aria took a deep breath, picking a piece of glass out of her shoulder. Adrian was clutching his side as he leaned against the wall, tipping his head back and breathing heavy. When he took his hand away, there was blood. She tried to look at it, but he waved her away as voices shouted down the hall. Other lackeys were on the way.

    “There's no time,” he said, pushing off the wall. “Let's just get out of here. Back to the basement?”

    She nodded, hoping he'd be okay. She could hear the echoing footsteps coming down the hall, and now that Lucy knew they had her orb, they'd need to move faster. She clutched at the staff as they ran, and she only hoped that Lucy didn't beat them to their escape.

    ---

    They crashed through the door to the cellar, throwing it open as heavy black smoke billowed out of the room. The metal strips on the door clanked against the stone as she stumbled onto the stairs, choking from the filthy air. She couldn't see where she was going, and about half way down she tripped.

    She went sprawling, hitting three hard, stone steps before rolling on the ground. She hit the table with her back, and every joint protested as they collected bruises from the fall. The Murkrow fell off from the impact, landing in front of her so suddenly that it got a short yell from her. She scrambled up, gathering her feet under her and using the table's edge to lift herself.

    She tried to take a step and cried out as a sudden pain shot through her ankle. She stumbled, but then Adrian was there. Luckily, the fires were still contained in the pit, though they promised to consume anything that got too close to them. Adrian helped her to the door, and the three of them hobbled out as the shouting got closer.

    They were halfway across the hard ground when Aria motioned for them to stop. “Here,” she said, shoving the staff into Brin's hands. “You two keep going, get the pond.”

    “What are you talking about? You're coming too,” Adrian protested, trying to guide her arm to grab his.

    She pulled away, shaking her head. “No, I have to delay them or we'll never have time. Brin, you said you could knock down those trees?” The Timburr nodded, and though she liked to preserve nature, this could get rid of the evil once and for all. “Do it, and I'll meet you there.” Adrian didn't look happy, but he started to go as she shoved him.

    As they went one way, she ducked to another. It would take her longer to get to her destination, but Lucy and her followers were going to fly through these woods if they didn't have some sort of distraction. Brin was working on the trees, setting up a trap that would hopefully stop some of them. Once they hit the trigger, the tree collapsed. If not to injure, they could be used as roadblocks, making them go around or over. Some of the trees in these forests were massive.

    She forced herself to run as she cleared the trees, taking a deep breath and calling out to the treetops, singing a woeful song of rushed notes and sorrow. Shadowy calls answered her, and then the leaves came alive as black-feathered bodies took shape. The Murkrow gathered above her, and once she had their attention, she called out, “Lucy is coming!”

    The birds didn't need telling twice, and with a chorus of gaggles, they veered off in different directions. Almost immediately, a smoky haze began to filter in through the forest, weaving through the trees and enclosing everything in a thick fog. Visibility dropped, and then the wind picked up too, rustling branches in every direction. A boost of pride flowed through her as the Pokémon answered her call for help. She knew they were capable of playing other nasty tricks, and hopefully this would work enough for them to destroy Lucy's power source.

    A mischievous laughter echoed through the maze of trees as she ran.

    ---

    Aria crashed through the trees, stumbling into the open area of the pond. Brin and Adrian went on the defensive right away, but she held her hands up as she limped, so they put their weapons back down. Adrian was wrapping his side with his cloak, now stained a reddish brown by his blood. He winced as he tightened it.

    He caught her looking and offered her a small smile, though she could see it was strained from the pain he must be feeling. “It'll have to do for now. We're not done yet.”

    She nodded, and then the weariness started catching up with her. She looked over to Brin and saw him still holding the staff, the shining orb still glowing that mystic green. They had actually gotten the life orb away from Lucy. None of them had died yet. They were getting somewhere.

    Her ears rang with a soft song from her childhood, and her eyes drooped as she realized how tired she was. The waves were soothing, crashing up against her like some sunny summer day at the coast. Her knees started to buckle, but before she could fall, Adrian was bracing her shoulders and shaking her.

    “Aria. Aria! Stay awake,” he said. She fought to keep her eyes open.

    An echoing boom sounded through the foliage, the sound of one of their traps being sprung. The sound brought her back to reality. She still had one more trick she could use.

    A wet drop hit her nose, and she looked up in time for another one to strike her cheek. Then, the rain started falling at a steadier pace, the water drops thrumming a drumming beat on the ground and tapping as they hit the water. Serai shivered and withdrew into her hair, and the girl remembered he was there. She had become accustomed to his weight on her shoulders.

    “It won't be safe here,” she told him, bending down to let him into the bushes. “Thank you for your help.” She smiled, glad that there had been at least one good soul in that nightmare place.

    She didn't know if she'd have enough time to destroy the orb with a ritual, but she was going to try. Adrian was watching her as she neared the pond edge, but she silenced his inquiries with a smile. She let the rain wash down her face as she looked up, the drops rolling off her skin and soaking her clothes. She slipped off her shoes, leaving them by the pond's edge. She closed her eyes as she began to hum, swaying back and forth to music only she could hear.

    There were steady drums and waving notes as she stepped out onto the water. The energy spiked under her bare toes, and she let the waves rush through her as she began her dance. She twirled and stepped and arched as she started to sing, and the pond responded to her. The whole surface began to glow, and the runes on the ritual stone flared to life in glowing orange and red.

    She came to a pause in the center of the lake, floating on the surface. Tympole jumped out of the glowing water and landed on the stone platform. He hummed curiously, but before she could answer, a troupe of Ekans slithered through the bushes.

    The purple snakes rattled and snapped their jaws, and Brin and Adrian automatically took a battle-ready stance in front of her, their feet braced apart and their weapons at the ready. Everyone was silent until the witch in black slid through the leaves. Her Arbok followed, its massive painted-hood displaying its battle colors.

    Lucy swatted at her hair, trying to get the nest of leaves out. She scowled and gave up, looking over the trio and honing in Brin, who was holding her staff. “Well isn't this cute,” she spat. “You've got some nerve, Aria, striking against me like this when I spared you and your brother.”

    “You betrayed my family. I owe you nothing,” Aria responded, walking to the edge of the pond to join the other two warriors on land. “We trusted you. My sister trusted you.”

    “Your sister was nothing more than an ungrateful little wench!” she shrieked, and the snakes echoed her shouts with sinister hissing that rose in pitch. Lucy breathed hard, glaring at all of them. Then she pointed at Brin. “Kill them. Get my staff.” Her words were cold.

    The Ekans sprung into action then, slithering and lunging at them as they tried to get at the staff. Aria couldn't do much, trying to complete what she had started on the pond. Still, she reached behind for her blade as she chanted, and she used it to ward off any threatening snakes as she focused on the water.

    The snakes sprayed poison from their mouths, coating the ground in a sizzling purple liquid. They traveled in waves, coming up in pockets to strike at them. Adrian swung his sword will precision, cutting off the lunging head of one snake and slicing neatly through the middle of another. He was barely holding them back though, and she caught instances of a snake biting him here or there.

    Brin was hindered a bit with the staff in one hand. Aria tried to make her way over to him. If she took it off his hands, his other arm would be free to help swing his weapon. She didn't make it in time though, as Lucy got tired of waiting. “Aba, get that thing!” she shouted.

    The Arbok reared up on its coils and shuddered as it gathered itself. Then, a powerful shot of sticky ooze shot form its mouth, barreling into the Timburr and sending him flying. The staff fell out of his hand, and as he landed, the Ekans piled him like vultures. The gray fighter was lost under a sea of snakes.

    Adrian called out to him, but there was no answer from the jungle of bodies. The serpents wasted no time in retrieving the staff, bringing it back to Lucy as she cackled. Snakes poured over the warrior, using his minor distraction to overwhelm him. They curled around his legs and immobilized him, and she saw him flailing. Then she saw the nasty look on the witches face and abruptly stopped her chanting. She tripped over snakes as she rushed to him. She wasn't going to let another hero die. He couldn't hear her calls.

    “Aba, let's add this one to our rock collection. Turn that fool to stone!”

    The Arbok sneered along with its master before weaving its head and looking straight at Adrian, its eyes beginning to glow. Aria knew if that connected, he'd be frozen forever as a statue. The almost invisible beam shot from its eyes, and the princess shoved the warrior aside just as the pain blossomed in her middle. She felt her insides growing heavy, and then she could no longer feel the energy of the water.

    Her last thought was that she saved him, and then she didn't think any more.

    ---

    At first the water-dweller had been confused about what was going on. He had jumped to the flat stone in the pond as the water started to glow, and then he saw the girl working her magic. The water had given his webby skin tingles, and he was unsure what it was. Then the snakes and their master had come, and he had been terrified. The Snake Queen sent his heart into a terrible beat, and he was paralyzed in hear. He did nothing other than sit and watch from the stone, seeing the humans and the warrior Pokémon battle the serpents and the witch.

    Tympole watched the princess take the hit for the warrior, her body instantly fading to a pale gray as it hardened into stone. She fell backwards into the water, and he knew she was gone. The pretty lady with the beautiful voice was gone. Something stirred in him then, seeing that sacrifice.

    The Timburr had fallen, but he wasn't gone. Tympole could still hear him struggling beneath the onslaught of serpents. He screeched then, putting his powerful lungs to good use. The sound flew across the water and filled the open area, bouncing of the trees and back to the center. The pond rippled and the leaves quivered under his voice.

    The witch hated it, and that just made him cry out louder. She clutched her hands to her ears in an attempt to block out the noise, and her snakes writhed and retreated under the strain. Then, Tympole called the water to him, and in a powerful surge, he sent it raging over the pond's lip to Timburr's aid, washing away his assailants and soaking the skirts of the witch.

    Timburr rose, and though he was scratched and bitten, Tympole knew that fighting spirit was still there. He could not say the same for the human, however. He looked lost, staring at the spot where the lady had been. A dark look shadowed his face, and the water Pokémon knew that she had meant a lot to him.

    The witch then noticed the gray fighter as he charged toward her. The human did not stand there though, instead charging boldly ahead to distract the witch. With a battle cry he rose his blade, preparing to strike. Then the painted snake reappeared, right in his path.

    With a hiss it glared, and the warrior put a hand out as if that could deflect the blow. Instead, it struck his palm, and the horrible energy spread through his body, turning him to stone just like the girl.

    The Timburr gave an enraged cry as he charged past the Ekans. His log weapon swung out in a powerful sweep then, catching the witch and her pet off-guard as he knocked them off their feet. The staff with the shining orb went flying from the witch's hands, and Timburr scrambled for it.

    Tympole knew he would need help though. Timburr wouldn't be able to battle them alone. The water Pokémon leapt into the water with the intent to help from a closer distance, but as he hit the water, something seemed strange. His body reacted to the glowing water, absorbing the energy the girl had awoken in the pond. There was a flash of light, and when he could see again, he had changed.

    He hopped up on shore, landing on two webbed feet instead of a round body. His tail had stayed mostly the same, but his body was now longer and stood upright. He had three large air sacs now, and he could feel the need to use the shock waves nested in them. Timburr made it to the water edge, but the Ekans were coming.

    Tympole, now a Palpitoad, began to hum, and this time, the ground resonated with him. He shook as he called, and the earth began to form a tidal wave of dirt, rolling over the field of snakes and hitting the nasty cobra and the witch. They were bowled over again, and the Snake Queen yelled to her pet.

    “Kill them!”

    The Arbok moved to glare again, and the two were at a loss. Timburr stepped in front, holding the sea-green orb out like it could offer some sort of protection. The snake attacked, but instead of crippling them like the humans, the beam bounced off the orb and sailed back at their enemies.

    The demon was chanting something, and the two knew that whatever magic she could do was greater than their own. The air around her swirled, and Palpitoad closed his eyes, preparing for impact. Then, she wailed, and the tadpole's eyes shot open. A black and gold Seviper clamped onto the woman's ankle, interrupting her spell and drawing her attention away.

    She seemed to notice her mistake immediately after, as the viper slithered away. The witch had time for one last scream before she was struck with her own snake's gaze, the attack hitting her square in the chest. Stone blossomed from her center, rapidly changing her limbs into heavy rocks. The orb on the staff shattered into dust.

    All was still as the Snake Queen perished. The Arbok seemed at a loss, coiling around its former master in apology. The Ekans waited one second and then scattered like Rattata, darting off into dark corners of the forest. Eventually, the Arbok left too, and when it was all over, the two survivors sat side by side at the water's edge, watching the rain until the skies cleared.

    Movement in the bushes had both of them dragging their tired bodies to their feet once more, and even though Timburr was panting with his exertion, he held his weapon at the ready.

    The boy came running through the trees, calling the two humans' names. He slid to a stop as he came to the pond, looking at the scene with wide eyes. He caught sight of them and ran up, looking around the field wildly. “W-where's Aria?” he asked.

    The Timburr answered, gesturing to the pond. At the boy's confused expression, the two Pokémon dived into the water to pull what was left of the girl out.

    Though her last moments had been tragic, the girl had a peaceful look on her face. Her last thoughts must have been good ones. One of her hands was arced gracefully upward, while the other was angling downward. The twist in her dress made it seem like she was dancing.

    The boy let out a pained cry at the sight, his eyes filling up with tears. Palpitoad despaired the fallen warriors too, and the gray fighter was not impassive. Then, the others joined them, and the Poliwag started a haunting melody as they mourned.

    ---

    The kingdom slowly recovered after that, as Micah took up the role of king and set out to right what the demon witch had destroyed in his kingdom. The waters returned, filling up the dusty pools. The forests regained their magic. People started believing again.

    Brin left on a journey soon after, though he traveled alone. He may have lost his companion, but the warrior in him would not be still. The Seviper departed after some time too, but there were many nights he could be found curled on the remains of Aria's shoulders.

    The entire country knew the story of Princess Aria's struggle. That was something Micah made sure of.

    He visited the pond often, even after everything that had happened. Lucy's remains had been destroyed, broken up into tiny pieces and scattered. Adrian and Aria were kept intact. When people asked about the stranger alongside the Princess, Micah simply told them, “That's the knight that saved my sister.” Some gave him strange looks, but they didn't need to understand. The two were placed together on the pond's edge, opposite the marble, forever guardians of that sacred place.

    On nights when the sky was clear, the King could often be found with his trusted companions at that very place. The sweet singing Politoed joined him, now thriving without Lucy's hunting. Even Palpitoad, now aged to the lumbering Seismitoad, made time to visit.

    When they all gathered, they remembered, and they lifted their voices to the moon in a frogsong.
    Last edited by WinterVines; 5th September 2011 at 09:57 PM.
    Morru Magnum likes this.
    ChainReaction 6:09 pm
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  2. #2
    Virbank Gym Leader WinterVines's Avatar
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    Default Re: Frogsong (SWC: Ungraded)

    Many aimed captures in this, but none of too high a rank.

    Attempted Capture: Poliwag (Simple), Ekans (Simple), Timburr (Medium), Tympole (Medium), Murkrow (Medium), and Seviper (Hard).
    Target Character Range: 60-90k
    Characters: A little over 123k
    ChainReaction 6:09 pm
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    Default Re: Frogsong (SWC: Ungraded)

    Claiming this, because omnomnom and I said so and I owe you a bunch of grades anyways. ^.^

    ...hopefully this won't take as long as my park post. Eheheh. Just kidding. *sheepish*

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    Default Re: Frogsong (SWC: Ungraded)

    Uh. Claimed and deleted for SWC. And by claimed I mean graded... gah, I'm tired of typing stuff now... XD

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