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Sojaveña Wilds Dusty Highway

"Look, just promise me you'll give her a chance, before judging her...?"

With the bramblin having been sent on their way and their wails died down, Kimiko relaxed. She hadn't even realized show tense she'd been, although really, it wasn't a surprise. She hoped no one questioned it.

And thankfully, it seemed they were more interested in resuming their previous discussion, which was fine with her. Unfortunately, while they all asked questions, Nico had looked worried, as though maybe he'd painted this Sinopa in a poor light. But really, it was the Wayfarers who had been - unintentionally - leaping to conclusions.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to judge! There's no dungeons where I'm from, either. This is all brand new to me. Every time I think I've heard the... strangest thing, something else like this comes up. What's normal to you, is... very unusual for me. And now I'm rambling. Sorry, really. No judgment here, promise."

Kimiko wasn't sure what to make of it, regardless. Nico made it sound like he though Sinpoa intentionally... fused with the dungeon, whatever that means. Kimiko couldn't quite understand what would drive someone to want to do that in the first place, let alone actually doing it, but... well, to each their own. It did make her all the more curious to meet her, though.
Nico gave Kimiko a little salute with his wing as he gained height in the air.

"That's alright, bud. I totally get it – I guess it's kinda like when I came here from out east, and had no idea how anything worked, eheh."

He seemed more relaxed now that he was in the air, at least!
Nico said:
"Come on, guys! We gotta keep up a good pace if we wanna make it to HQ in a timely fashion!"

Isidora put her water back in her bag and adjusted her hat back into place again. "Right, let's go." She was definitely curious about Sinopa's character, but that was for later. For now, she just focused on trying not to melt.
"I'm ready to move on if everyone else is!" Leaf fished her own canteen out of her saddlebags and took a drink, then tucked it away and started forward eagerly. "Maybe I don't know much about dungeons yet, but who better to learn from than the combination expert explorer and dungeon herself?" (Admittedly what she wanted to know most right then was whether you could really trick a dungeon. Seemed pretty complicated if the dungeon couldn't already think. Maybe they could???)
Koa stretched, then slipped back into the half trot he'd adopted for traveling, murmuring in agreement with the others.

"I'm ready!" He gave a wry grin as he glanced up at Nico. "I don't suppose Sinopa keeps Ranger HQ any colder than out here?" he asked lightly. If there was one thing in Forlas he still wasn't used to, it was being in a desert.
Nico laughed.

"Plenty colder. You'll be comfortable enough, pal!"

And with that, the seabird ranger pulled ahead, leading the rest of the way to Ranger Headquarters...

[Ch04] Bullseye (solo)
[[...after the Wayfarers' initial business with the Rangers is complete, shortly before setting out to find the Timeless Oasis...]]

Sunset on the Soja' was the only time to run. Scenery like being inside a painting at a museum. Cool enough the air wasn't on fire but not so cold it was like jogging into a refrigerator. Late enough that everyone else was focused on dinner and the wagons were scarce and it was like you had the whole desert to yourself, but not so late that you'd get nagged at back in town or run into anything nasty. (Probably.)

She had to make sure she didn't fall out of the habit, was the main thing. She'd missed enough days already, and it wasn't like Rey or Derby were here to bug her about it. (Or to go running with her.) Everything was always so busy in general, you know? Then the hunt for the Wolf that night, and then the long trek through unfamiliar territory to Ranger HQ, and then after that... she'd just been worried tired, a lot of the time. Sleeping almost as soon as her day was done. Sleeping, and hoping not to dream—

Leaf ran faster. Dry trees and bushes waved at her as she raced past. Orange faded into red faded into purple, all the colors flying along beside her. Woulda been pretty as hell if there'd been any room in her head for admiring it.

Being tired after running was the good kind of tired, the kind that came from exercise and hard work and a good ramp-down for the day. The kind of tired you got from a bunch of busybody fussing around and aimless preparation and worrying not having any idea what to do, though, that kind sucked, and she hated it. So did not knowing who to trust or turn to, mostly outside the Wayfarers but sometimes even then. The Coven. Powehi. Goddamn Giovanni, she still wasn't over that one. The Wolf. A new wolf lunging out of the dark, howling slashing tearing—

Faster. The first little stars in the multicolor sky grew into long streaks of light. The cool night air rushed by, just about fighting off the leftover heat she could still feel on her skin. Some tumbleweeds rolled along in her wake for a bit before bouncing away. Or maybe they were more bramblin. She was too intent on the road stretching out in front of her to tell.

She didn't normally go this hard on her runs. Usually much faster than she had as a human, of course, but she'd figured out how to pace herself well enough as a ponyta. (This was the kind of thing she'd probably get snipped at for: too fast, bad form, this is how you get a stitch in your side or pull something or twist something.) But that was all they'd been doing here, damn it. Pacing themselves, too slow, waiting and waiting and waiting until they stumbled into the next whatever and mostly just tripped over themselves and each other—

Faster, faster. Well, that was going to change now, wasn't it? They were getting stronger. (Faster.) Beetle was getting stronger. They had plans now, real ones, goals to reach for and allies to work with, that they were going to work with and not just talk about. Rangers to collaborate with, Escarpa to train with, dungeons to delve, legendary pokémon to find.

A goal. A target. If she kept her head down, kept her focus, kept going faster, faster, everything else would fall away. She could just point her horn right at it and punch straight through.

Faster, faster. For a moment it was like the sky and the desert had folded into one. Faster, faster. The stars were as long as forever, reaching together toward a single spot on the horizon. A target. Faster, faster. The white of the stars was everything, the wind was like ice around her but the heat was inside, outside, everywhere, driving the arrow toward the bullseye, faster, faster, faster

Leaf realized she was laughing even though she didn't remember starting. She'd thought it would feel weird, suddenly longer-limbed and heavier and taking up more space all at once, but no, it was flying, mane and tail streaming like a comet, the ground beneath her barely there. Faster, forward, for something. The arrow racing through the bullseye.

One effortless, sweeping turn and she was gliding back down the highway the way she'd come, another white star shooting onward through the dark until, at last, the little lights of Frontier Town popped up in the distance. She'd never noticed before how they seemed so dim and yellow, next to the stars. Still laughing, she slowed to a canter, then a trot, then a walk. Then a bit of a stumble—okay, okay, maybe the new legs would take some adjusting to after all, now that the rush was wearing off. Once again tiredness hit her like a sack of bricks. Good tired, though. She'd have to see if the maus could bring her a larger bed and then get some god damn sleep. Good sleep. Dreamless sleep.

She was going to be fine. They were going to be fine. After all, they were finally right on target.

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[Ch05] ~ Escorting Enemies
There had been some debate about whether to begin walking the Cipher admins to the Ranger Union HQ immediately, or putting them in the nearest ranger station until tommorrow, but in the end, Chief Ayda's call was to go as soon as an escort was ready. As she put it, the less time spent lollygagging, the less time anyone had to think of a way to spring the captured criminals. That, and she wanted Radiance-wielders in the escort, before they had time to get distracted.

And so an escort of rangers and Wayfarers were put together, and set off towards Pueblo Hideout. Braviary Cascada flew overhead, while the rest of the escort had to pound the ground below. The journey would be long and tough, even with the rangers' haste-enhancing wonder orbs and uncanny seeds to ease travel. At least Cascada had offered to carry a more diminutive Wayfarer if one came along. The admins were decidedly unhappy about being confined to a wagon pulled by Wyrdeer Sybil, but settled into a sullen silence after they got their initial complaining out of their system. Ein, for his part, had ridiculed his enemies' every decision for some time, until deciding – apparently arbitrarily – to fall quiet with a cryptic smirk.

By now, it was mid evening and they'd covered many miles – but even so, it was looking increasingly unlikely that the travelling party would reach Pueblo Hideout by sunset. That wasn't so bad. Nightfall would bring a cool relief from the heat of the day.
Dave, Bellatrix, Mhynt, Koa, and Isidora. So, of Wes’s Wayfarer companions, he was on good terms with three of them and he trusted their judgement.

The other two hated his guts.

Not the best mix of baggage to be having when escorting several of the most dangerous and powerful people Wes had ever met, but, well. Screw it. Koa had at least proved he’d pull his weight in a fight back in the lab, and so had Isidora—though hopefully there would be no need for fighting now that the admins were in cuffs.

Something about Ein’s continual smirking unnerved him, though. He kept telling himself that this was exactly what the scientist bastard wanted, just get under their skin and keep them on edge. But…if the admins were well and truly defeated, then Ein shouldn’t have anything to be so smug about.

Gods, I hate that guy.

Wes resigned himself to trudging alongside the wagon, close enough to keep an eye on them, but at such an angle he didn’t have to deal with the sight of Ein’s repulsive mug. Instead, he observed his less familiar companions—a handful of rangers—and listened quietly to the surrounding conversations without participating.

Soon, it would be all over.
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Bellatrix was quick to tune out any complaints made by the Admins. She remained near the front of the group to scout out any obstacles that came their way, making their prisoners easier to ignore. She had very little patience to listen to the whining of sore losers, particularly those who failed to impress her on an intellectual level. She hoped that the Blaguarro locals would do a satisfactory job in cleaning up the mess Cipher had left behind, though there was little time for her to linger and sort through the details when ensuring that the Admins would be successfully taken into custody was her top priority.

"Keep a look out and your guard up," Bellatrix said when she noticed the day inch closer and closer to sunset, cementing the reality of nighttime travel. "We have little idea what may come out upon nightfall."
It didn't matter if Wes was there. This was about seeing it through. Finishing what they'd started. Putting Cipher away for good.

Koa opted to move closer towards the rear. He kept glancing towards the back, in case something came after them. Ein's attitude annoyed him, and it made him suspicious. What if they had some kind of back up plan? Or what if Alex showed up? Would the combined group be enough to stop him?

He pushed down his worries and focused on scenting the air and scanning the slowly darkening horizon. "We should keep an eye out for a Zweilous too," he muttered.
"It's already on my mind," Mhynt said, sitting next to Koa but looking in the opposite direction. "But I can't see him anywhere. My vision at night is very good. But... I still can't shake the feeling we could be attacked at any moment. Out on the open. It's a necessary evil that we need to travel this way. But I wish it could have been over already."

But Mhynt also seemed to occasionally close her eyes as the sun darkened. The oppressive heat was becoming more like a warm blanket. At one point, she'd stumbled, but assured the others she was fine. It had just been a long and exhausting day for her. She wasn't used to being smacked into next week by a Shadowed Ein, either. Usually, she did the smacking.
The ranger heading up the party was an olive-green reptile – a 'Cyclizar' – who alternated between scouting ahead on all fours, and returning to the cart to match the convoy's speed on his hind legs. He'd introduced himself as Ollin, and was apparently a veteran escort ranger. As far as outward appearances went, he was calm and confident, but he sure did keep making a lot of patrols. Sybil pulled the cart, Cascada flew overhead, and Haxorus Razael – the rangers' second-in-command – quietly pulled up the rear alongside an anxious, miserable-looking midday Lycanroc. Observant Wayfarers might have noticed she wasn't wearing a ranger sash and badge.

Ollin returned from another of his excursions and gave a casual salute, as was his habit. Seth – who'd glued himself to Wes since the battle – returned it with considerable sass.

"Still clear ahead," he reported. "Nothin' but wildren within visual range, as usual."

"As usual," drawled Seth, lightly rolling his eyes (displaying how completely confident and not at all worried he was).

"As usual," repeated Cascada, from above. "And as expected. None would approach us without concealment."

"Guess not," replied Ollin, evenly. "So mind yourselves for wonder orbs, weird abilities, and the like."

It wasn't the first time he'd said this. It would very likely not be the last.

"...wonder orbs?" asked the Lycanroc, very quietly. Her voice was soft, almost meek, but the bassy reverb of Shadow was still obvious to those familiar with it.

"They're a kind of magical item," explained Razel, kindly. "They may have a number of extraordinary abilities. Fear not – we bring our own."

The Lycanroc nodded, looking uncertain.

Seth lightly thumped Wes on the shoulder. "Who's the day-wolf?" he asked, in a loud whisper. "Friend of yours?"
"Hey! Wait up! Mawile coming through!"

She never overslept, but of course it happened on the day of the escort. Luckily, daily jogs back home and dance conditioning had her in the perfect mindset to absolutely sprint to catch up. Having a spare head made it just a little harder, but she found the group in no time. She came to a stop at the back, stopping to put her hands on her hips while she caught her breath. She supposed she also didn't quite account for the desert heat. It was much different than jogging in Kalosian chill, or Alolan humidity.

"I'd ask if there's room for one more, but frankly, I'm not jogging back, so hello."
The growing darkness would normally be a comfort to Isidora, but after an intensive mission and an exhausting trip through hot desert, it only reminded her how tired she felt. And overhearing talk of Alex reminded her why she couldn't afford to let her guard down. So she stuck close to Sybil in front of the wagon, away from Wes and Odette, and leaned on the aid of her Mobile Scarf to ignore her body's complaints. If Dialga had any mercy, it wouldn't be too much longer before they had to stop for rest.

Though the prospect of actual proper rest seemed uncertain in this atmosphere. Everyone was prepared for something to happen, and for her part she wondered how much she could rely on Radiance if something did. While she had found it easy to draw out, the last battle only revealed to her that what she could actually do with it was still very limited. As things were now, it would make a difference in firepower, but not much in tactics, not if it only allowed them to augment what they could already do...

Still, this was a strong group (even if she was wary of some of its members). It would take a lot to overwhelm them all. Isidora just hoped her exhaustion wouldn't be the weak link in case everyone's fears became founded too soon.
The other Lycanroc had to be the one Betel mentioned. Leona? He wondered what her deal was, why Cipher had her. He wanted to approach her, but then decided against it. He wasn't in the mood for conversation, not when he wanted to stay alert. At least Odette was here as well, it was nice to have a friendly face.

"Alex can't turn invisible or anything, can he?" he asked, glancing at Mhynt as he scanned the horizon again.
After keeping her eye out on the front of the wagon, seeing that it was well looked after, Bellatrix fell back to walk alongside Odette, pleased to be with someone whose company she enjoyed. Her gaze fell towards the rescued lycanroc at the back of the group, severely shadowed based on her voice and overhearing a little of Tala and Anite discussing the situation they had found her in. She had hoped that the Relic the Wayfarers had recovered from the Timeless Oasis would have some form of curative property. Though given that Sybil was right there, there was no harm in asking.

"We're still trying to figure out the specifics," was Sybil's reply. "We have our theories but haven't been able to test them yet. Perhaps we can discuss them more once we finish with this lot." The wyrdeer threw her head back to gesture to the wagon behind her.

Bellatrix nodded. "And what of the rescue-wolf?" she asked. "Have you made arrangements with her?"
Mhynt shook her head at Koa. "Alexander usually doesn't like to hide or be stealthy. He's very direct. But that was when he held near-absolute power. Perhaps he changed his strategy in this world... He isn't even a Hydreigon yet. Maybe he can't afford to hide."

She'd been on high alert the whole time and it was starting to get to her. Her thoughts were scattered and her motions jittery. Her leaves trembled with every light breeze. Her instincts were telling her that something was wrong...

The ground trembled lightly. It was hard to tell if it was because of everyone's walking, though, or a very, very distant earthquake. It happens. It had happened a few times prior, as well, but it seemed entirely mundane and inconsequential those times as well.
Koa hummed in thought, his gaze shifting around the landscape once more. Mhynt's uncertainty did little to ease his nerves. There were too many unknowns, too many variables... He realized his hackles were up, and he forced himself to relax. Jumping at every shadow wouldn't do any good. At least Sybil sounded like she could have a lead with the Relic Stone.

The ground seemed to rumble underpaw and he paused for a moment, ears pricked. After a moment, he kept walking, but it was hard to shake the feeling like something crawling under his skin. He moved to walk closer to Odette for a bit, relieved too that at least Bellatrix didn't annoy him like before.

"Did you guys feel anything? Like rumbling?" he asked. Hadn't Cipher kidnapped mon by tunneling before? Or it was nothing...
Ollin stopped still, and patted the ground with his feet.

"Yeah," he announced. "Definitely a tremor. Could just be local wildren – onix and drilbur and the like are native to these parts."

"You gonna take the risk of assuming that?" bit Seth.

"Nah," said Ollin, evenly. "Could be your dude." The Cyclizar glanced at Mhynt, and gave the Grovyle a small wave. "Say it's the fella you're talkin' about. What's the counterplay for him? Zweilous, right? I got drake moves."

In the cart, Dakim shifted and rattled his cuffs. "There are a dozen of you. Surely you can defeat one pokémon?"

"Release us, if you're so afraid of defeat,"
said Venus, with less sincerity.

Ein said nothing.
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