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Cutlerine
August 18th, 2011, 03:25 AM
As one story ends, so another begins. Hot on the heels of The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World, here's the fourth of my adaptations of the main-series games. As ever, I'll rate it 15, since I know I'm liable to get dark and violent at some point. Also, there is swearing; as ever, though, most of it's in Nadsat, because I'm hopelessly weird. Also (oh God, I hate starting two sentences in a row with 'also') there are some drug references. The drugs in question don't exist and never will, but they're there.

Disclaimer: This won't be a straight-up comedy like my last story. This is because I've now written hundreds and hundreds of pages of comedy and am having difficulty writing anything else; I'm trying to train myself out of it and get back to something slightly more serious.

So, without further ado, here it is.

Chapter One: In Which We Meet a Student, a Professor and a Mysterious Stranger

'Skulduggery is a difficult thing to combat, if done right. After all, a competent criminal will have made an elaborate plan that pins the blame squarely on someone else, usually the butler. The good detective will be observant, think laterally, and, most importantly, not be afraid to consider the seemingly impossible...'
—Canola Grimes, The Art of Detectivery


I was walking through the back streets when I first met him – travelling between the bus stop and my apartment. It must have been close to one in the morning then; I’d meant to come straight home, but one thing had led to another and I’d ended up dividing the night pretty equally between drinking and dancing, with a touch of lecherousness. Actually, I was fairly unsteady on my feet right then, which made me move slowly – and that was probably the reason why we met.

I was leaning heavily against a wall and stumbling down one street when I caught a glimpse of something white down another; if I’d been walking normally I’m pretty sure I’d have missed it. I stopped, and because I was drunk, I dismissed the (high) probability of it being a mugging and had a look.

It was a mugging: a guy with turquoise bowl-cut hair and a silver space suit was menacing an old man in a three-piece suit. I blinked; I wasn't entirely sure this wasn't some sort of alcoholic hallucination. Then a woman dressed in the same way as the spaceman appeared, and I became fairly certain that this was reality. My imagination isn't usually so concerned with continuity.

“All right, Professor,” said the guy in the silver outfit. “You hand over your research now, and no one gets— ow!”

The old guy – the Professor – had struck him a blow on the head with the stout stick he held in one hand.

“Dear God!” he cried. “Can the elderly not enjoy a walk through the streets of a large city in the middle of the night without being assaulted?”

“We haven't assaulted you,” the woman said. “At least, not— ow!”

He'd hit her too.

“Look at yourselves,” the Professor went on. “You're a disgrace to the population of Jubilife.”

“Professor, give us your briefcase and we won't have to— would you please stop that, Professor!”

“Don't interrupt others when they are attempting to converse!”

“We're the people you're conversing with— ouch!”

“All right,” said the man, rubbing his temple and gesturing to his companion, who pulled a very large gun from her pocket. “Just give us the briefcase— and stop hitting me!”

“Don't think you've grown strong just because you're in a group— aaauuughh!”

The gunshot was deafening. I would have run – I was terrified – but not even adrenaline could sober me enough; I tripped over one heel and fell heavily against a wall.

“Someone's here!” cried the woman.

“Oh, dash it all,” grumbled the man. “OK, get the case and run!”

I heard their footsteps retreating down the alley; I hauled myself up, hoping they wouldn't return to the scene of the crime, and with my heart throbbing high in my throat I stumbled over to the Professor.

He was sprawled against a wall, head lolling back on his shoulders; I listened, and felt a wave of relief rush through me: he was still breathing. There was a horrible splash of red along his shirt, but he was alive.

I pulled my mobile out of my bag and started dialling: 4-4-4, the number for Sinnoh emergency services.

“Hello?” I said. My voice was shaking. “Yeah, a-ambulance, please... there's a guy here who's been shot.”

I gave the address and hung up, then stood up, not really knowing what to do. I was unpleasantly sober now.

“I thought as much,” said a voice from somewhere behind me. I started and turned, and saw that a stranger was standing there.

He was tall and lithe, and his face was composed of delicate features that argued for ill health, or effeminacy. Perched on his nose were rounded, rimless spectacles, and there was a mop of longish chocolate-coloured hair all tumbled about his face. He might have been fifteen, or twenty-eight, or anything in between; I found it impossible to tell.

Now, at one in the morning, he was wrapped up in a long black coat, the twin of the Professor's, and looking at me as if I were a curious butterfly specimen. He opened his mouth to speak – and then stepped right past me.

“They already got him,” he said, looking down at the Professor. “I can't say I wasn't expecting this...” He sighed. “All right.”

With that, he turned and ran off, in the direction the two muggers had taken.

I didn't think he was anything much at the time, of course. I thought he was pretty, in a pale sort of way, but other than that, he'd come across as a fairly cold-hearted kind of person. He had looked right at a man with a bullet in his chest, and passed on as if he were nothing.

The ambulance arrived a few minutes later, and after that I don't remember anything much: it was all a wild blur of lights and sirens and doctors, and a jumble of confused words piling one atop the other, high into the night like a mountain of postmodernist poetry. I was in the alley, and then I was in the hospital – and then I was at home, staring up at the ceiling from my bed, fully clothed, wondering if I was still drunk or if I was just dizzy from the shock of it all.

---

“Pearl?”

“No, Pearl's not here. I’m... someone else.”

I turned over and pressed my head further into the pillow.

“Pearl, I can hear your voice.”

“No you can't,” I reasoned. “Pearl is out. I’m asleep.”

“I'm coming in.”

I heard the sound of a key turning in the lock, groaned and sat up. Seconds later, a young woman with dyed-blonde hair and an annoyingly bright smile bounced in. This was Stephanie, and she was way too much to deal with early in the morning, especially when you had a hangover.

“Christ, Pearl, haven't you got changed from last night yet?”

“How can you be so awake at nine o'clock?” I asked, holding my head and wondering if it was going to explode. “I...”

I stopped. I’d just remembered what had happened after I’d left the club.

“Oh, God,” I said, my hangover suddenly seeming very far away. “He got shot...”

“What?” asked Stephanie. “What are you talking about?”

“On the way home,” I explained. “I was going home, I saw this old guy getting mugged. He got shot.”

“What? That's terrible!” Stephanie sat down next to me on the bed. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah... I’m fine.” I sat there for a moment, putting my thoughts in order. “Damn. I think I was going to give – did I say it was nine o'clock?”

“Yeah, why?”

“See you later!” I cried, leaping up and scrabbling around to find my bag. “I have to be at the police station!”

“What? When?”

“Fifteen minutes ago!”

With that, I swung my bag onto my shoulder and burst out the door.

“Lock up behind you!” I yelled back into the apartment, and ran off down the hall.

Ten minutes later, I was running through the Waverley Avenue subway station; ten minutes after that, I was rushing up the steps of the Hinah District Police Station. I flung open the door, ran over to the policeman behind the desk and said, breathlessly:

“Hi, my name's Pearl Gideon, I was meant to be here about forty minutes ago to see...” I wracked my brains. “Er... well, it's about the professor who was shot last night?”

The officer on duty stared at me. I smiled as broadly as I could, and tried hard to look less terrible: my hair was a mess, the remnants of last night's make-up was spread fairly evenly over my face, and it was obvious that I’d slept in my clothes. I looked like a vagrant hooker.

“Let me just check for you,” he said, and tapped at the keyboard of his computer. “OK,” he said at length, “it seems that someone is expecting you.” He sounded surprised; perhaps he'd just thought I was crazy before. “Detective Inspector Rennet. Third room on the left.”

He pointed me down the corridor.

“Thanks,” I replied, hideously embarrassed, and left. In my haste to get away, I forgot to ask if there was a bathroom anywhere that I could clean myself up in, and consequently probably scared the life out of D.I. Rennet as I burst into his office.

He was sitting behind a desk looking pensive, and looked up sharply at my entrance.

“Eh!” he cried. “Oh. Are you Miss Gideon?”

“Yeah,” I replied, closing the door. “I'm really, really sorry I’m late—”

“Well, the important thing is that you got here in the end,” replied Rennet, with only a hint of unpleasantness in his voice. “Please, have a seat.”

I sat down opposite him, and looked him in the eye; he was in his late thirties, the first streaks of grey beginning to appear at his temples, and he looked, like me, as if he'd been sleeping in his clothes, or maybe not even sleeping at all. He regarded me with tired blue eyes, and said:

“OK, Miss Gideon. If you would, describe for me exactly what happened last night, from the beginning...”

There was a click as a tape recorder started, and I began to speak; I hadn't got more than a couple of sentences in when the door swung open and the man in the overcoat from last night walked in.

“I've got it back for you,” he said, dumping a briefcase on the desk between me and Rennet. “Don't thank me, they were morons.” With that, he turned to go, and then saw me, staring at him in amazement. Was this normal police procedure? Did people walk into their interviews all the time? “You were there last night,” he stated unnecessarily. “It's good to know your friend dropped by. You could probably use the support after watching someone get shot.”

And without another word, he walked out again.

“Who was that?” I asked Rennet. “What's this about?”

“This is the briefcase Professor Rowan was carrying,” said Rennet, tapping it. “And that was, er, no one of significance. Now, Miss Gideon, if you wouldn't mind starting again...?”

---

When I finally left the police station at around noon, my head was full of the mysterious stranger. He didn't seem to be a member of the police force, but he was definitely affiliated with them – so who was he? What did he have to do with this Professor Rowan guy? And, most importantly to me, how on earth had he known that Stephanie had visited me?

These thoughts were going round and round in my head as I headed back to my apartment; in fact, so distracted was I that I completely forgot I’d missed another lecture, something that was forcibly brought home to me when I checked my phone and found a message from Stephanie telling me that she had notes I could copy if I so desired.

I did so desire, but even more, I wanted to wash and change, and then have lunch (it was now too late for breakfast, I noticed with regret.) I did that, and immediately afterwards headed out to Stephanie's place.

She lived a couple of blocks away, in the heart of Bantam District; it was about a thirty-minute walk, during which I had plenty of time to consider the mystery of the stranger and of the mugging. It was clear to me that the latter hadn't been an ordinary mugging; that briefcase had been important somehow. But that still didn't solve the mystery of who the man in the black coat was.

When I arrived at Stephanie's, the first thing I asked her about wasn't the notes (which were important) but what she thought about the weird stranger (which wasn't). I gave her all the facts, and she listened very intently; once I’d finished, I could tell that she was on the verge of delivering an earth-shattering revelation.

“The lecture was on Nietzsche,” she said, holding out a notebook. “Here are my notes. Oh, and please don't miss another lecture, Pearl. I can't keep doing this.”

I stared from her to the book and back again. “Stephanie, this is important!”

“Hardly as important as your dissertation,” she countered.

“You are not my mother!”

Stephanie rolled her eyes.

“I might as well be,” she pointed out – which was, I had to admit, true. There was no way I would ever have succeeded at university without Stephanie. “Look, I’ll make you a deal: copy out the notes, and I’ll tell you what I think your mysterious stranger is.”

“Done.” I snatched the book off her. “I'll do it at home. Now, Stephanie...”

“Fine,” she sighed. “He's a detective, isn't he?”

I felt very stupid then. It was either because I was very stupid, or because I’d failed to see the obvious. Of course the mystery man was a detective; who else wore a long coat and chased criminals in the middle of the night? It also explained how he knew Stephanie had visited me: he'd doubtless used his formidable powers of observation to deduce it, probably from the shape of my earrings or the clasp of my bag.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “That makes sense.” I felt oddly cheated. My mystery had been solved. “Well... I guess I’ll go home and write this up, then.”

Stephanie raised an eyebrow.

“I'd like the notes back by five,” she said, “so I can get on with my essay.”

My blood froze.

“Essay?” I asked, as casually as I could.

Stephanie sighed.

“I've written the title, due date and a list of the books you'll need on the third page,” she told me wearily, tapping the notebook.

“Steph, you've saved my life,” I said fervently, which got a small smile.

“I know,” she said without conceit, “and you're a lost cause. Now go home and write!”

“OK, OK!”

And once again, I was rushing through the streets, only this time I was heading back to my apartment – which, as it turned out, had been broken into while I was out. I knew it had been, because the person who'd done it was still there.

It was my mysterious detective.

---

“Who are you?” I said suspiciously. Because yes, I’m the sort of person who treats people who break into my home with belligerence rather than caution. This sort of person is also known as an idiot, Stephanie likes to say, but I prefer to think of myself as merely action-oriented.

“The question is, who are you?” returned the detective. “And I can answer that quite easily now. You're Pearl Gideon, twenty years of age, and a student of philosophy and German at the University of Jubilife. You were also,” he went on, “present at the unfortunate incident last night when Professor Rowan was shot.”

“Yes,” I answered, not really knowing what else to say. “But... my question still stands. Who are you?”

“My name is Ashley Lacrimére,” he replied, sounding bored. “I'm an amateur detective, but the police use me a lot because the police in Jubilife are about as effective as damp tissue paper.”

“Ashley's a girl's name,” I pointed out, and a trace of irritation passed across his brow.

“It was originally a male name,” he said sharply. “Now it can be used for children of either sex. Look, this is beside the point. I want to ask you what you know about last night.”

“I already spoke to the police.”

“And I have already told you that the police in Jubilife are useless,” Ashley said. “Do you think D.I. Rennet actually remembered to put tape in that recorder?”

“They're not that bad, surely?”

“No,” replied Ashley. “They're worse. Sit down, let's talk like civilised people.”

It was very strange, being invited to sit down in my own apartment, but I did anyway; I wasn't really afraid, since Ashley looked like a fairly weedy guy, and if I had to I could easily have overpowered him. (I was remembering the fact that he had broken and entered; for all I knew he was going to try and kill me.)

Ashley sat opposite me and looked at me for a moment. Then he spoke.

“Have you ever seen anyone like those people in silver suits before?”

“No,” I replied firmly.

“Are you sure?”

“I'm pretty sure I’d remember if I did. They were quite distinctive.”

“I see.” Ashley paused again. “Do you know who Professor Rowan is?”

I didn't, and said so.

“So it really was an accident that you were there,” he mused. “But that can't be...”

“What? Why can't that be?”

Ashley pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket.

“Because according to this,” he told me, “you are a target of the organisation the thieves work for, and have been for the last five days.”

I took the paper from him and had a look. There was a photograph of me – one I’d never seen before – and my name, age, occupation, place of residence...

And some big red type that said 'KILL ON SIGHT'.

---

“So you see my concern,” Ashley said. “If you were there by accident, and have never encountered any of those goons before, then it's something of a mystery why you would be on their hit list.”

“They're going to kill me,” I said.

Ashley frowned.

“Miss Gideon, are you listening?”

“They're going to kill me.”

“Evidently not. They're not going to kill you,” Ashley said wearily. “Rest assured, I would consider it a grave error if I allowed that to happen.”

“A grave error? Are you stupid or something? This is a notice that they're going to have me killed!”

“Calm down—”

“Not really the ideal circumstances for calming down, are they?” I snapped. “Some mysterious criminal organisation wants me dead!”

“But they're not going to,” replied Ashley, “because this is the order to have you killed, and we've got it.”

I stopped mid-rant.

“Oh yes,” I said. “That makes sense.”

“Now sit down, give me back the paper and put down that lamp.”

I did all three and asked:

“So... what do you know about these people? What happens now?”

“This organisation is new; I’ve never encountered it before,” he said. “This is the only thing those thieves had on them, and the main thing it offers me to go on is this logo in the bottom right corner.”

He indicated it, and I looked; it was a stylised letter G, curled into a tight oval with projecting corners.

“Do you recognise that logo?” I asked.

“No,” Ashley replied, as if talking to a small child, “I don't, or I would have already solved the mystery. But rest assured, I will solve it. That was why I told you about the logo; I thought it might reassure you.”

“You're leaving?” I asked as he stood up. “Wait! You can't tell me all this and leave!”

He looked puzzled.

“Why not?”

“Because – because – well, this isn't how things are done,” I protested. “I'm supposed to join you on some sort of cross-city adventure, solving the mystery.”

Ashley blinked.

“That,” he said slowly, “never, ever happens. Ever. Now goodbye, Miss Gideon.”

“Wait!”

He paused with one hand on the door handle.

“Yes?”

“Why did you break in here instead of waiting outside?”

He shrugged.

“I like to keep my hand in,” he replied. “Is there anything else?”

“Yeah. Why didn't you stop and help the Professor last night?”

“You were already doing it,” he said simply. “If I’d stayed as well, the thieves would have got away. Presumably, they'd have come to your house next and had you killed. And if that's all, I’ll leave now, and keep you informed of any further developments that might be related to you.”

With that, he walked out, and I was left alone in my apartment with a spiral-bound notebook and a head full of thoughts.

I weighed the options in my mind. Which was more important: this shadowy organisation that had tried to steal the Professor's briefcase and have me killed, or notes on Nietzsche and an essay to match?

Five seconds later, I’d put my coat back on and was out the door again.

Well, it's not like I had any choice. No one else was going to go and demand answers for me.

---

If you were of an unusually inquisitive disposition, and perhaps if you knew something of the amusing nature of the hijinks that pairs of criminals invariably get up to, you might well be wondering if the antics of the pair of space-suited goons who had shot the Professor would be chronicled here.

And of course, they will be.

Right now, these two crooks were lying low, which for them meant hiding behind a dumpster and hoping that the people who'd come after them for the briefcase had gone away.

“Do you think they've gone yet?” whispered the female of the pair. Her name, for those who don't know (and that will be all of you) was Liza.

“I don't know,” replied the man, whose name was, if you are still interested, Tristan. “I think we should wait an hour or two more, just to be safe.”

They had been waiting for several hours already; since four past one in the morning, in fact. It was now past noon.

From this, we might deduce (as Ashley would have done) that Tristan was not the brightest of people. But then, there were few intelligent people who would have freely done what he did for the wage he did it for. Popular opinion says that Liza was the brains of the pair, but if that was so, we must ask why she acquiesced just then to Tristan, despite the fact that his idea was positively moronic.

This is one of those things that we may never know the answer to, like the meaning of life and why we always get the shopping trolley with the wonky wheel.

“Gurrrp,” said the small blue Pokémon that sat between them. This may or may not have been an expression of its contempt for his owners; taking into account that he was a Croagunk, it is perhaps more likely that he was just croaking for no real reason. He was, after all, only a frog.

“Ssh,” hissed Tristan. “We could still be in danger.”

“I'm quite hungry,” said Liza thoughtfully.

“Oh, actually, so am I,” agreed Tristan. “Shall we make a break for it?”

“All right,” said Liza. She and Tristan moved into crouching positions, ready to run. “Count of three?”

“Count of three. One...”

Tristan recalled the Croagunk to its ball, so they wouldn't have to wait for him.

“Two...”

Liza checked that her gun was properly concealed. It would be very inconvenient to be arrested and have to explain it, much like that time she had had to explain to the Mossad what she was doing with fifty pounds of Semtex in the Israeli Ministry of Defence.

“Three!”

And the two criminals took off and ran for the nearest café as if the hounds of hell were snapping at their heels.

In actual fact, this wasn't an unfair estimation. Something was following them.

And, having observed where they had gone, it slunk away into the shadows like a phantom into the night.

olih
August 18th, 2011, 04:47 AM
Ooh, this new story sounds interesting. I like the twist on the D/P/Pl games. Liza and Tristan sound sort of like Fabien and Blake to me! And Croagunk is like ever-faithful Goishi... I'll definitely continue reading this story.

01
August 18th, 2011, 07:41 AM
The beginning is quite interesting, it seems Liza and Tristan are inspired by Fabien and Blake. The Croagunk is the counterpart of Goishi, isn't he? Anyway, good luck and I hope it will be just as enjoyable as The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World is.

Silent Memento
August 18th, 2011, 11:47 AM
I'm guessing that Ashley is supposed to be Looker's counterpart (or Looker himself; after all, he did state that it was a codename in Platinum and the B/W series).

While Tristan fit your description of an inept criminal to a tee, Liza seems more like a terrorist or a rogue agent than anything; you don't go into a government building with fifty pounds of Semtex if you're not going to blow the place to hell. The fact that she even got in the Israeli Ministry of Defense building with fifty pounds of Semtex under the Mossad's nose and managed to get out (obviously she did, or she would have been locked away for good - they don't negotiate with terrorists who threaten their homeland, and they sure as hell don't release terrorists that they capture - or killed. They're not picky on either one of those options) tells me a lot about her abilities; they take those threats very seriously. I would say that she's definitely more competent than Tristan is. Hell, I'd even say that she's more competent than the Croagunk; I think it's probably the one with the least amount of intelligence.

The point I'm trying to make is that she doesn't seem like an inept criminal at all, as you mentioned in the first paragraph of the Galactic trio's POV. Quite the opposite, in fact. If you were trying to portray her as such, I honestly don't think that she could have gotten anywhere near an Israeli government building with fifty pounds of Semtex; Mossad would have stepped in immediately and stopped her before she would have gotten close.

I'm very interested in seeing what you do with Pearl's character. I'm truly wondering what she's done to make Team Galactic want to kill her.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
August 18th, 2011, 12:22 PM
The point I'm trying to make is that she doesn't seem like an inept criminal at all, as you mentioned in the first paragraph of the Galactic trio's POV. Quite the opposite, in fact. If you were trying to portray her as such, I honestly don't think that she could have gotten anywhere near an Israeli government building with fifty pounds of Semtex; Mossad would have stepped in immediately and stopped her before she would have gotten close.

I'm very interested in seeing what you do with Pearl's character. I'm truly wondering what she's done to make Team Galactic want to kill her.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Indeed. Liza has hidden depths, as we shall see. Astute reader that you are, you have spotted my first clue, although I admit I didn't make it very hard to spot. (That's the reason I chose the Israeli government, rather than any other.) Her story will be unfolded as time goes on.

The fact that I mention inept goons is a reference to my old friends Fabien and Blake, who I'm silently crying for because I miss them. You're right that it does come across a little oddly when combined with my hint about Liza's background; I'll reconsider the combination. EDIT: Rephrased it. Now it's slightly weirder and probably gives more away than I wanted to just now, but never mind; it makes more sense.

Also, Ashley is not Looker. I really wish I could claim he was, because I've just realised that he has a French surname (that he shares with Phoebe in The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World, for kicks) and it'd be really cool. But no, Looker will appear, in his own bumbling Clouseau-esque character, because I find him too funny to make into anything other than himself.

The beginning is quite interesting, it seems Liza and Tristan are inspired by Fabien and Blake. The Croagunk is the counterpart of Goishi, isn't he? Anyway, good luck and I hope it will be just as enjoyable as The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World is.

Ooh, this new story sounds interesting. I like the twist on the D/P/Pl games. Liza and Tristan sound sort of like Fabien and Blake to me! And Croagunk is like ever-faithful Goishi... I'll definitely continue reading this story.

Just to clarify, guys, Liza and Tristan will not be like Fabien and Blake. I don't want to stoop to cloning characters from previous stories in order to make them amusing. Their Croagunk is not sentient, like Goishi; it's more like a frog than anything else.

But there is a funny talking Pokémon, so you can all rest easy there.

Cutlerine
August 19th, 2011, 04:13 AM
To celebrate the launch of this new story, have Chapter Two a whole day early.

Chapter Two: In Which Pearl Almost Kills a Man, and Meets a World-Class Practitioner of an Unusual Profession

'There was this one guy who was known throughout the underworld. He was one of those guys who's famous even outside of the country; he'd been to Europe and America, and made a killing there. It was a pity he wasn't a real person, or he'd have been the most respected guy in the business.'
—Griff Derre, The Collected Memoirs

I ran to the end of the street before admitting to myself that I’d lost him. I could say what I liked about Ashley, but he was excellent at vanishing; whenever he disappeared, I never had any idea where he went.

I swore petulantly, and went down to the police station. If this organisation had wanted me dead, there was no way I was staying out of the investigation.

“I want to see D.I Rennet,” I told the officer on duty. He looked puzzled.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I'm Pearl Gideon. I saw him earlier?”

“Really? The only person I can remember coming to see D.I. Rennet was this really ugly wom— oh God, that was you, wasn't it?”

I nodded wordlessly. It could have been me being an impulsive idiot, or I might have just been very action-oriented right then, but I was about five seconds away from punching him. I suppose I only had myself to blame, though; if I’d woken up earlier and spent some time fixing my appearance, I wouldn't have made such a bad impression.

“Uh, yes, sorry about that,” he said, scratching his head self-consciously. “I'll tell him you're here.”

He spoke briefly into a telephone, then nodded me through the doors.

“Sorry,” he called again, as I left the room; I considered making a snappy reply with an obscene gesture, but felt that doing that to a policeman was probably illegal.

“Miss Gideon,” said Rennet, as I slipped back into his office. “How can I help?”

“Why didn't you tell me that those spacesuit guys were under orders to kill me?” I demanded to know.

He looked like a chicken presented with a Möbius strip: mind completely blown.

“What?” he asked helplessly. “What?”

“Ashley showed me a paper they had that told them to kill me on sight,” I told him.

“Ashley? You know Ashley?” Rennet was now gaping like a fish out of water.

“Since about forty minutes ago,” I confirmed. “What's going on?”

Rennet blinked at me.

“Miss Gideon,” he said, with the deep dignity of a very, very confused man, “I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about, and I would very much appreciate if you'd tell me what's going on.”

So I sat down and told him all about Ashley and the death warrant.

“Well, he didn't tell us any of that,” he said when I’d finished.

“Why not?”

Rennet shrugged.

“He doesn't usually feel he has to,” he explained. “Usually, he just explains everything to us at the end. I thought we were already at the end of this case – just a mugging – but it seems there's more to it than that.”

“Are you going to investigate? This is important, it's my life on the line here.”

Rennet leaned forwards over his desk and smiled warmly.

“Miss Gideon,” he said, “the most competent agent in the city is on the case.”

“Who's that?”

“Ashley,” he replied, as if it were obvious. “Not much we can do. We're all completely useless here!”

He seemed to find that very funny, and laughed uproariously at it. Needless to say, being a citizen of Jubilife whose life was in danger, I didn't find it nearly as amusing.

“Right,” I said. “Er, is there any way I can contact him?”

Rennet shrugged.

“I'm sure there is,” he told me, “but I don't know it.”

I was now very close to leaping out of my seat and throwing it at him; perhaps he saw it in my eyes, because he hastened to add:

“But look, if you really are involved, I’m sure he'll be in touch. He'll want to keep you abreast of further developments.”

I was tempted to tell Rennet how useless he was, but I didn't because he was a cop; in the end, I contented myself with making my goodbyes, leaving and kicking a trash can really hard.

What was I to do now, I wondered. My investigations had got nowhere. I didn't know why or how I was mixed up in this, and I hadn't found Ashley. I sighed, and was about to go home and start copying Stephanie's notes, when I thought of someone else I could ask.
I smiled to myself and got on the next bus to the Albert Warner General Hospital.

---

“Professor Rowan?” I asked, putting on my talking-to-old-people voice. “It's me, Pearl Gideon. I called the ambulance for you last night.”

The Professor glared at me from under bushy white eyebrows. His eyes flicked to the left briefly, and I saw with some trepidation that they had been looking at his stout stick, which was at the end of his bed. I didn't think he'd be strong enough yet to start laying about me with it – I thought it was pretty impressive that he was looking as strong as he was – but I didn't want to take any chances.

“What do you want?” he asked gruffly. “Some sort of reward?”

“No, no,” I protested. “I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions about it.”

“Ah. Are you with the police?”

“No, I’m sort of a freelancer.”

“Ah. Like that young man who came by earlier.”

I couldn't help but let my eyes narrow a bit. I was a bloodhound, and I’d caught my quarry's scent.

“Oh? Did you get his name?”

“Some French nonsense,” replied Rowan. “Lackey or something.”

“Lácrimere?”

“That's the one.” He sat up a little, and looked at me suspiciously. “Why do you ask?”

“Er... he's got some vital evidence,” I said carefully, “and the police have asked me to find him so we can get it off him.”

“Can't they just ask him?”

“They don't have his phone number,” I replied truthfully. “Now, Professor, did he say where he was going?”

Rowan thought for a moment.

“He got one of those things you get on your phone,” he said, “and said he had to meet a friend for lunch.”

“One of those things you get on your phone – a call?”

“No!” cried Rowan vehemently, as if I were an idiot. “With words on the screen!”

“Oh, a text,” I said. “OK. Did he say where he was going?”

“No, he did not,” Rowan said. “Is that all? You don't want to hear about the gunmen?”

“In all honesty, no,” I told him, biting back the words because, you know, I saw them. “Thanks for your time.”

As I left the hospital, I gave myself a mental pat on the back. Things were going well. I knew Ashley had met a friend for lunch: that was something I hadn't known before. Now I just had to figure out where.

“If I were a genius detective,” I muttered to myself, “where would I have lunch?”

This line of thought got me nowhere. I wasn't a real detective; I couldn't work out where Ashley would have eaten from the colour of his coat or whatever. In the end, I did a circuit of all the restaurants and cafés within ten blocks of the hospital, and predictably enough, I didn't find him.

However, I did find the muggers from last night, having an all-day breakfast at a place called Café Desolée.

To give them their due, they were quite well disguised. Their spacesuits were hidden beneath long coats and their weird-coloured hair didn't really stand out much; back then, it was fairly fashionable for Sinnoh's youth to dye their hair strange colours. Mine, for instance, was dark blue at the time.

I only noticed them because the memory of turquoise bowl-cuts was still strong in my mind from last night. Still, noticed them I had, and so I thought I’d go in and see if I could talk to them.

This is the point where you tell me I was stupid, going after two criminals who'd shot a man in cold blood the night before. But it was broad daylight and the café was pretty busy; I was sure they'd realise that shooting me – or just pulling out the gun – would cause more problems than it would solve. So I wandered in and sat down at their table, at which they both looked up from their meals and gave me long, penetrating looks.

“Who,” asked one of them – the man, “are you?”

“Add to that, what the hell are you doing?” put in the woman.

“I think you know who I am,” I said. “You were meant to come and kill me last night.”

The man choked on a mushroom, and I watched with increasing concern as he tried to dislodge it from his throat; eventually, when he had gone bright red, I leaped up and thumped him on the back a few times.

“Oh, God,” I said, panicking, “it's not coming out!”

“Do you know the Heimlich manoeuvre?” the woman asked. She had gone white as a sheet, and appeared to have forgotten the forkful of egg that was halfway to her mouth.

“No, I don't know the Heimlich manoeuvre!” I cried back.

By now, half the restaurant was in uproar; people were shouting advice from their tables, and I was wishing that I’d handled the situation better. I’d come here to find stuff out, not kill people.

“I'll try,” said the woman, throwing her fork down and grabbing the man from behind; he'd gone a very nasty colour now, and the choking noises he was making were getting weaker and weaker. She wrapped her arms around him and jerked a few times – but absolutely nothing happened except that her friend tried to yelp in pain and ended up choking himself worse.

And it was at that moment, when I was sure that I’d just accidentally killed a man, that Ashley sauntered over from the back of the restaurant, administered a swift tap to the man's back and sent the mushroom flying across the room.

“That,” he told me coldly, “was definitely not the way to approach a situation like this.”

The woman suddenly seemed to recognise him then, and, grabbing her friend's arm, hauled him past us and ran out the door, pushing through the crowd. The man fell over once or twice – he'd only just started breathing again, and could probably have done with a glass of water – but she never stopped.

“And now they're gone,” snapped Ashley. “Well, make yourself useful, then! Go after them!”

And that was how I found myself running past a bemused crowd, out of the café and down the road after a pair of criminals, all the while wondering how I’d managed to mess the situation up so badly with one sentence.

---

They didn't get very far, of course: one of them was barely able to walk, let alone run, and they'd got all of twenty yards down the street before Ashley and I caught up.
“This is so typical!” ranted the woman. “For God's sake, Tristan, what sort of criminal chokes on a mushroom at a critical moment like that?”

“I – was – surprised into – swallowing!” he croaked back, leaning heavily on a wall and gasping for breath.

“That's enough,” said Ashley sternly. “You two. Who do you work for?”

“I've got a gun,” warned the woman.

“She has,” confirmed the man – Tristan.

“There are at least thirty people on this street,” Ashley told them. “If you want to make sure you're caught, then I would advocate shooting either myself or Miss Gideon.”

“There's no reason we should talk to either of you,” the woman said. She seemed to be getting annoyed. “We'll just catch our breath and be on our way.”

“Perhaps I could turn you over to the police,” Ashley said. “They already know you're guilty of the attack on Rowan last night.”

“If you tried, I’d have to shoot you.”

“And then you'd get caught anyway, only your sentence would be worse.” Ashley raised his eyebrows. “So there isn't actually anything you can do.”

I had to admire him: that was clever. I supposed that this was what a real detective did, instead of making suspects choke to death on mushrooms.

“Well, that won't work,” said the woman. “Because Tristan's got his breath back.”

And they ran off down the street and vanished into an alleyway.

I was about to start after them, but Ashley held me back.

“Forget them,” he said. “I already got everything I wanted from those two.”

“You did?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes,” he replied. “I did.” He gave me a look. “Why did you come here?”

“I was looking for you, and I found those two instead – look, does it matter? I was doing some investigating?”

“Leave that to me,” he said. “I don't think you're very good at it. You almost killed a suspect, and you didn't even touch him.”

“All right, I accept that that went wrong,” I said, “but I still have a right to know about these people. They were going to kill me.”

“You very nearly ruined the investigation!”

“Then wouldn't it be better for me to join you so that you can make sure I don't?” I asked, in a flash of inspiration.

Ashley froze. He remained so still for so long that I thought I might have killed him too. Then he sighed, and said:

“If I let you tag along for a little while, will you promise never to cause trouble like that ever again?”

“Yeah,” I said, and nodded vigorously to show just how much I meant it.

“Then I suppose you can join me,” he said despondently, as if granting me this request could very well kill him. “Right. Come with me.”

“Come with you where?” I asked, following him as he turned to walk back up the road.

“To the alley behind that café,” he replied. “I have a friend waiting there.”

Now I was confused and intrigued, so I followed in silence. When we got there, I couldn't stop myself from staring in surprise.

Ashley's friend was a Kadabra.

---

I’ve always prided myself on being open-minded. I think I might have even written something staunchly anti-racist for a school newspaper once. But I was still a little bit unnerved by the Kadabra standing in front of me; it's just so weird to be looked at by an intelligent being who isn't human.

“Pearl, this is Iago,” said Ashley. “Iago, this is Pearl.”

“Um... hi,” I said, desperately trying to remember whether Kadabra shook hands or not. In the end, he held out his claw and I shook it.

“Nice to meet you,” he said. That was the second shock.

“You speak... out loud?” I asked. Most Kadabra communicated telepathically – in fact, I’d never heard of one who didn't.

“Yeah. I do. I suffer from a rare disability,” Iago said. “I have no psychic powers.”

I blinked in surprise, and asked exactly the wrong question for the situation.

“Why do you have a Jamaican accent?”

“Because I’m Jamaican.”

“Really?”

“No, you dumb nazz. I’m Sinnish. It's just, the way Kadabra mouths are shaped means that everything I say sounds like this.”

He seemed to be annoyed, so I thought I’d better apologise.

“I'm sorry.”

Iago snorted, which made his moustache ripple.

“Don't be. I prefer to hang around with humans anyway. You're easier to – actually, that's enough about that. You're the girl hanging around and asking questions, aren't you?” I nodded. “Yeah, I saw your performance in the café through the window.”

“I think we should return to the matter at hand,” said Ashley quickly, before tensions rose any further. “I only came here to pick you up, Iago. Shall we get back home?”

“Yeah,” agreed Iago. “Sounds good. I was getting tired of waiting out here; the last people who went past got into some trouble with me.”

“Did you speak to them?” asked Ashley, as we walked back towards the street.

“No,” replied Iago.

“Good. Then the police won't get you.”

I was intrigued and slightly scared by this conversation, but I said nothing. I had the feeling that Ashley might send me home if I started making trouble.

Ashley flagged down a taxi, and twenty minutes later we were pulling up outside a row of old terraced houses in the middle of Rana District. The taxi driver wanted to charge extra for taking 'that grazhny fox', but Ashley refused on the grounds that Kadabra were legally equal to humans; things might have turned ugly, but Ashley eventually talked so much and so confusingly that the taxi driver threatened to kill him and drove off.

“Did we just steal a taxi ride?” I asked.

Ashley paused on the steps of the nearest house, and looked back at me.

“You're not one to judge,” he replied. “You almost committed involuntary manslaughter. Besides, I provide a valuable service to the city. I’m owed a free ride now and again.”

“And I just don't care, because I have no morals,” added Iago.

“Is that part of your disability?”

“No, I’m just a sociopathic bratchny,” he said, with surprising honesty. The swearing was also surprising: I didn't think there were any Kadabra that were that integrated into human culture.

Inside, Ashley's house was more spacious than it looked, though it didn't look like it had been redecorated since the seventies. I suppose he just didn't care about its appearance; he was more bothered about his work.

“Sit down,” he said, “and I’ll tell you everything we have so far.”

I did, and Iago dropped down next to me; he was weirdly light for something his size, and barely made an indent on the sofa.

“Those two criminals are called Liza and Tristan,” Ashley said. “They came to steal Professor Rowan's briefcase, and to kill Miss Gideon and myself.”

“And you?” I asked, surprised.

Ashley pulled out a piece of paper just like the one he'd shown me back at my apartment, only this one had his name and photo on it.

“And me,” he confirmed.

“But not me,” gloated Iago. “I'm unkillable!”

“Actually, you as well,” Ashley replied, and drew out another piece of paper. This one had Iago's photo on it, and made the Kadabra gulp.

“OK,” he said, “so I’m not unkillable. That's a real blow to my self-esteem.”

Ashley ignored him and continued.

“Pearl, Iago and I gave chase to them, and Tristan, in a moment of panic, hurled the briefcase at me. I was therefore able to return it to the police; of course, I had a look inside first, and uncovered a lot of papers on Pokémon evolution and the energy given off when the process occurs.

“I went to meet you, and instructed Iago to track Tristan and Liza, since Kadabra can move with inimitable silence.”

Iago sniffed deeply; if he'd been a human, I would have said he was insulted, but Kadabra are different, and I think he was pleased.

“Iago then led me to the Café Desolée, where I took a table at the back and watched them. From their conversation, I deduced that they were both very hungry and on assignment from somewhere in Eterna City.

“Then, just as they were about to mention names, you walked in and almost killed Tristan.”

Iago chuckled, which sounded like a storm made of gravel.

“Yeah,” he said. “That was really funny.”

“It was freaking terrifying,” I retorted.

“That was what made it so funny.”

“Calm down, children,” said Ashley. “If you recall, I said you could only help if you promised not to cause trouble.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.” I shut my mouth tight and sat up straight.

“Now,” he said, “do you remember when I told you that they wouldn't come to kill you because I had taken the warrant from them?”

“Yeah?”

“That was a lie. You are, in fact, in as much danger as ever. As are we all.”

“Oh, great,” sighed Iago. “First that racist nazz in the parking lot and now this. Today just keeps getting better and better.”

“Did you really think that they would just forget to kill you because they didn't have the warrant?” Ashley asked.

“I don't know. You tricked me,” I said, pointing an accusatory finger.

“I suppose I did. Well done me.” Ashley shook his head. “No, that's not the point. My point is that I have now told you everything I have so far discovered about these people. Now the only thing to do is to investigate this base in Eterna.”

“Great,” I said brightly. “When do we go?”

Ashley tilted his head on one side and gave me a look.

“What's that for?” I asked, feeling an ominous sort of sense come over me. “What's that look for?”

“You're a student,” he reminded me.

“Oh,” I said, suddenly remembering that I, in fact, was a student. And also that it was three o'clock and I had completely forgotten about Stephanie's notes. “I – no, I can probably manage. I mean, I could miss a day or two.”

“Really?” asked Iago. “Really? You think you're that smart?”

I couldn't think of a response that wouldn't involve a racist slur, so I ignored him and spoke to Ashley instead.

“I can do it,” I said stubbornly.

“No. I could do it,” Ashley replied. “You can stay here, and I’ll keep you posted.”

“I...” The problem was that Ashley was right. It was incredibly irritating, and I knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do to change his mind. “Oh, fine. I know when I’m not wanted. I’ll stay.”

“Excellent,” replied Ashley. “I think it's probably for the best. You don't seem to be the most competent of detectives.”

“Will you stop going on about that?” I asked, annoyed. “It wasn't even my fault!”

“You could have avoided it.”

“He's right,” said Iago. “You could have avoided it.”

“Stop blaming me! I’m new to this!”

“Fine.” Ashley smiled, which made him look surprisingly handsome. “I'll stop blaming you. Now go home and study.”

I sighed and got up.

“You'd better get to the bottom of this,” I said warningly. I might not have been able to continue the hunt, but I wasn't going to give up on working out why these spacemen wanted me dead.

“Trust us,” Iago replied. “There's a genius in this room. And Ashley's not half bad either.”

I lingered for a moment, then said goodbye and left. They were professionals, after all, and I had to trust them. Besides, no matter how much I wanted to go to Eterna, I had an essay to write.

---

“What do we do? What do we do?” asked Tristan.

“I'm thinking, be quiet!” Liza snapped, pacing.

They were currently occupying a garret on Tant Street, which was the sort of location where no questions were asked, no one went out without a weapon and no sane person ever visited. This was their base of operations for their tasks in Jubilife.

“OK,” said Liza at length, slowing her rapid pacing, “what do we know about these guys?”

“There are three of them,” replied Tristan. “That weird kid in the black coat, the girl and that fox. The kid's obviously clever, the girl seems stupid, and the fox is... I don't know. Does anyone know?”

“He'll be bitter,” Liza said. “All the Kadabra who live with humans are bitter.” She stopped and chewed her knuckle for a moment. “Look, they overheard us talking about the base in Eterna, so they'll go to Eterna, right?”

“Yeah...”

“So they'll take the train to Eterna, because that kid doesn't seem to have a car.”

“We'll blow it up,” said Tristan decisively. In the corner, the Croagunk croaked; his masters often spoke the words 'blow' and 'up', to the extend that he recognised them as portending something.

“Exactly,” Liza replied, smiling. “We blow it up and get rid of them.”

“Hang on, are we authorised to do this?” Tristan asked. “What will the boss say?”

“He hired me for this. He knows I won't leave any link between the explosion and the Team.”

Tristan nodded. It was clear that Liza was a professional when it came to this.

“There's just two things we need to do first,” Liza said.

“Which are...?”

“We need to find out what train they're taking – or bus, I guess – that's the first one.”

“And the second?”

“I need to go to 44 Ramsmith Road,” said Liza, looking out of the window.

“What? Why?”

“There's something I need to check,” she answered. “Do you want to come with me?”

“Not really,” replied Tristan honestly. “I'll just be happy to blow something up.”

The words 'blow' and 'up' had now been uttered so much that the Croagunk took refuge under the table. Doubtless, he thought, something was about to explode, and he wanted shelter.

“Come on, I’d like some company.”

“I don't want to go!”

“I'll buy you a Kinder Egg.”

Liza had calculated shrewdly. Tristan battled with his addiction for a moment – and then, as ever, it won.

“Fine,” he sighed. “Let's go.”

And they did, slipping away through the streets with such silent skill that it would have been hard to recognise them as the same crooks who had fled the scene of the shooting the night before.

olih
August 19th, 2011, 08:19 AM
Nice chapter. The whole mushroom scene was really funny! I also like Rowan's and Iago's personality.

Silent Memento
August 19th, 2011, 12:42 PM
Huh. Iago the Kadabra, eh? You know, ironically enough, I wrote a fic (an unfinished one on FFN) about two Kadabra siblings. One of them happens to be a total arse who wants to systematically murder the entire human race. With those revelations of Iago's sociopathic urges (even though he pretty much revealed it himself), I find myself attracted to his character already.

Pearl seems like an impulsive ADD-afflicted ditz to me, which is pretty much how I am a lot of the time - without the impulsive ADD-afflicted part. She also seems like she genuinely wants to help instead of sit on the sidelines (which is commendable). Therefore, I'm still wondering why she would say that she needed to complete her essay, especially after what Ashley said. It completely contradicts the opinion she had the last chapter (why do the essay when people are trying to kill me? I'm an action-oriented person, and I don't want to sit around while people are trying to kill me. I should probably help the detective), and it makes her seem out-of-character, although I must admit that I don't have as good of a grasp on her personality as I do the others. Maybe it's the college mindset of having to get things done or her being a spacehead or her friendship with Stephanie, but I still think none of them would be enough for her to act like that. Everything I've seen so far suggests that doing the essay would probably be considered inconsequential in the face of her own mortality.

I'm wondering what a Kinder Egg is. To the normal part of my mind, it sounds like chocolate or candy, but the cynical jerk in me says that it's probably a lot worse than that.

I have to say that Liza is impressing me as a villainess (definitely more than the villains were in the beginning of The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World). That is some serious forethought that she showed. She's almost as astute as Ashley is, in my opinion. I don't know why she isn't an admin - or is she just pretending to be a grunt?

Ashley is already starting to annoy me with his know-it-all superiority complex, and yet I can't bring myself to hate him. He reminds me a lot of Agent Washington in Red vs. Blue (don't know if you've ever watched it, though). Like Washington, most people would probably have a very hard time trusting Ashley because of his arrogance, if they even wanted to. Like Washington, Ashley is mostly surrounded by people more incompetent than he is, and he has to bear the consequences of it all. Even their jobs sound very familiar; Washington is a Recovery Agent, whose job it is to investigate crimes - the murders of fellow agents and thefts of their AI. All of that makes me wonder what Ashley's motives are.

I wonder if the main characters (Pearl and Ashley) have any Pokemon of their own. I don't consider Iago to be Ashley's Pokemon, as he seems like more of a business partner than anything. Besides, he's probably not going to be of any use in a fight; the Kadabra line have notoriously weak physical strength, and it's stated as such in their Pokedex entries.

The plot seems to be fine. I just wanted to point out the characters and how I noticed them.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
August 19th, 2011, 03:11 PM
Silent Memento, you're right. I've been thinking like a mixture of Kester and Puck for a long time now, and the sudden shift to a completely different sort of character has rather thrown me, I must admit; that's the sort of basic error I really ought to have caught as I was writing it. Gah. Anyway, I've fixed it now. Sort of.

(This is also why people like me, who absorb the characters they create and half-become them for a while, should probably wait more than two hours after finishing one story to start another. My mind has to clear properly.)

Your reaction to Ashley is exactly what I'd hoped for, which is excellent. He's annoying as hell, but sort of likeable at the same time.

Iago is an interesting one; I have a lot of fun planned for him later on, which may or may not involve institutional racism. I've always wanted to explore the relationship between Kadabra and humans, which I imagine is pretty fractured.

And Liza... well, if I told you about her, that would completely defeat the point of her subplot. For, as in my last work, almost every character in this tale has their own story to tell, and hers is large and sort of sad.

As for a Kinder Egg, Google them. They're nowhere near as sinister as you think. Regrettably, I share Tristan's addiction to them, which means I have a large bag full of worthless plastic toys that I have an irrational attachment to.

Cutlerine
August 21st, 2011, 12:11 AM
Chapter Three: In Which the Long Arm of the Law is Found to Extend to Sinnoh

'Name: classified. Codename: Looker. Place of residence:classified, classified, classified. classified is one of our most classified workers, possessing as he does admirable classified of many languages and remarkable powers of classified. There are a classified of classified relating to the classified of classified.
—International Police, Personnel Files

“OK, Pearl,” I told myself, placing Stephanie's notebook on the table in front of me and giving it a stern look. “You can do this. Just sit down, open the book and copy everything out.”

I took a deep breath. This was going to be one of those afternoons that required an iron will to keep under control.

“Pen – check. Paper – check. Studious attitude... OK, well, let's start and hope that that one comes with time.”

I opened Stephanie's notebook and read the first sentence, pen poised above my pad of paper.

“'In 1887, Nietzsche found out abou—' oh God, this is dull.” I slumped forwards, and my head thumped gently into the desk. Just as swiftly, though, I jerked upright again. “No! Must study! Right. 'Nietzsche found out about the work of by this point, Pearl, you've probably got really bored, but stick with it.'” I paused and re-read the sentence, confused. “How did she know?” I wondered.

Stephanie's message actually had the opposite of its intended effect; I wasted five minutes wondering how she'd known that I’d get bored at exactly that moment before remembering that I was meant to be copying her notes out. There followed ten minutes of furious scribbling, and then I started thinking about Ashley, Iago and Eterna.

I wondered if they'd left already. How long did it take to get to Eterna? Would they be there already? What would they find? A swirling mess of gangster movies whirled through my head: a long black car, a smoking gun, a man with a cigar, Marlon Brando...

“I have to do the essay,” I told myself. “Ashley doesn't want you there anyway. You'll get in the way.” I forced myself to write another couple of sentences. “Maybe I’ll go and check to see if they've gone yet,” I said. “You know, just go to their house, see if they changed their minds.” I stared at the page for a moment. “I mean, you never know. Maybe I can help after all. Yeah. I should check. Besides, this can wait a while. Can't it?”

Once those last two sentences had passed my lips, I couldn't have stopped if I’d wanted to. By the time my pen hit the desk, I was already halfway down the hall, shouldering my bag and hoping the door was locked.

---

“Where to?” asked the taxi driver. It seemed he wasn't unduly bothered by Iago's presence, which was refreshing.

“Dürer Station,” replied Ashley.

“Via the Conucom on Donatello Road,” added Iago. “I need to get some money out.”

“All right,” replied the cabbie, and the taxi started to move off.

Silence fell between Ashley and Iago for a while; then, Iago asked:

“Why didn't you tell her you know the name of the organisation?”

“Because I probably wouldn't have been able to convince her to stay here if I had.”

“Does she need to?”

“I went to her apartment. I’ve seen her essays. Believe me, she needs to stay here and work if she ever wants to graduate.”

“Right, right. Shall I start searching for 'Galactic' again?”

“If you would.”

In the lines of work Ashley and Iago pursued, one on either side of the law, the ability of total recall, common to all Kadabra, was a useful one. The only downside was that Iago had, over the years, filled his mind with so much information that it took him a while to sift through it all.

“Hey, did you know that Gardenia Willis has been engaged fourteen times?”

“I don't really care, Iago. Just focus on looking for 'Galactic'.”

Another silence. This one lasted until they got to the bank, where Iago got out, produced a wallet from somewhere in his enormously fluffy tail and took out a large quantity of Pokédollars before getting back in.

“There,” he said. “Now on to Dürer Station.”

“Right,” replied the cabbie amiably, and drove on.

“And Ashley?”

“Yes?”

“I've never come across any organisation called Galactic.”

"Ah. Well, I'm sure they'll reveal themselves in the fullness of time."

"If you say so," replied Iago. "If you say so."

---

I’d just got to the end of the road when I noticed a weird guy in a brown coat darting furtively from lamppost to lamppost, as if he could hide behind them; natural curiosity overcame my desire to get to Ashley's house, and I walked up to him and asked him what he was doing.

“Ah!” he cried, with a strong French accent. “You have discovered me! But please, tell me, how did you know I was actually a globe-trotting elite of the International Police?”

I stared.

“Um... I didn't,” I answered. “I just thought you looked weird.”

The man gave me an inscrutable sort of look.

“Ah, you say this,” he said. “But you, you are hiding the truth! Your perception is remarkable; you spotted me right away for what I really am!”

“If you say so,” I replied, realising that I was probably dealing with a lunatic. “Look, I won't bother you any further, I’ll just leave—”

“No, no. Do not leave just yet.” The man fumbled in his pocket and drew out a photograph. “My name is... ah, no, I shall inform you of my code name only. I am Looker.”

By now, as you can imagine, I was really regretting talking to him. That's the problem with being impulsive; half the things you do end up making things worse for you.

“OK, I’m Pearl. I really do need to go—”

“I have not yet told you why I am here. Look at this photograph. Have you seen this woman?”

He held it up, and to get rid of him I had a quick look – and then froze. I knew who that was. Sure, her hair was long and brown there rather than short and turquoise, but I knew her. It was Liza.

“Ah, I see you have seen her,” Looker said. “Tell me, where was she?”

“She shot someone last night,” I told him, staring at the photo. “But today I saw her near the Albert Warner General Hospital. She's working for some criminal organisation.”

“Indeed!” cried Looker. “Well, if you see her again, you must contact me.” He drew a business card from his pocket and handed it to me. “It is of the utmost importance that she gets put behind bars!”

“Why? Who is she?”

He shrugged.

“I am not sure,” he replied candidly. “Her real name, it is uncertain. What does she call herself now?”

“Liza.”

“Liza. Li-zaaaaa.” He rolled the word around his mouth a little, found he liked the flavour and nodded deeply. “Thank you.”

“What's she done?” I asked. “Why is the International Police after her?”

“That much, I cannot say right now,” Looker said self-importantly. “She is a very dangerous woman.”

“OK.” I looked at his business card. “Hang on. Where's your phone number?”

“Right here.” He indicated what I thought had been a barcode.

“But it's all ones,” I pointed out. “That's not a real number.”

“11111 111111,” he said. “It is a secret number. You must use it when you see this Liza again, yes!”

I was no longer entirely certain that he was a member of the International Police – there was a mental asylum on the other side of town, and he could have escaped from there – but I smiled, nodded and finally made my escape.

“Do not forget to call!” he cried after my retreating back. I started walking faster. “No, not because I am lonely – of course not. It is because of Liza!”

I broke into a run, rounded the corner and hurried along to the Waverley subway station.

“I am never calling that guy,” I muttered, waiting for the train. “Never, ever, ever. It's not even a real number.”

The train arrived, I got on and fifteen minutes later I was walking down Baker Street, trying to remember which house had been Ashley's. I had the funny feeling it might have been 221B, but there didn't seem to be one with that number; maybe I was thinking of someone else.

After a while I knocked on a door and asked the person who answered where Ashley Lacrimére lived; she told me that he was four doors down on the other side of the road, at number 17, but that she'd seen him leave a while ago in a taxi. I thanked her, thought, and decided that he was probably going to the closest major train station, which would be Dürer. He didn't seem like the type to travel by bus; in my mind's eye, I saw him in a first-class carriage, photographs, bloodstained scraps of cloth and other pieces of evidence spread out across a table. Yeah, that was how Ashley would travel.

I shook myself out of my reverie and headed back to the subway station. I had a detective to catch.

---

The cab driver watched Ashley and Iago as they walked across the square and into the train station; he even kept an eye on the entrances for a minute longer, to make sure they didn't come out again.

“OK Liza,” he said into his mobile phone. “They're definitely taking the train.”

---

Apparently, there'd been some accident at Dürer Station, so I couldn't ride the subway all the way there; I had to get off at the stop before and walk the rest. When I got there, I found the whole place cordoned off with reams of yellow police tape, and a restless crowd gathered all around it while desperate policeman tried to tell them that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Since this was so obviously a lie, it was just making everyone even more determined to get in, and I got the feeling that a battle was about to begin.

Being the experienced denizen of inner-city Jubilife that I was, I knew how to get through a semi-violent crowd without getting hurt. (Here's a hint: it helps to be young, female and pretty.) Soon, I was at the front, and asking a policeman what was happening.

“Absolutely nothing to worry about,” he told me. “Absolutely—”

At that moment, there was a colossal boom and a wave of fire rolled out of the front doors of the station.

“—nothing to worry about,” the cop finished, somewhat weakly.

“What's going on?” yelled a man standing next to me. “What the hell was that?”

“I believe it's called an explosion,” replied the policeman. “But look, it was only a little one, there's nothing to be worried about—”

BOOM!

A second burst of fire came out of a ground-floor window.

“Jesus Christ, how many of them are there?” screamed someone from behind me.

I sensed a riot coming now, and since I had other things to do than join in, I started to make my way back out of the crowd; as I went, I passed people taking out flick-knives and coshes. Yes, there was definitely a riot on the way. I popped out of the back of the mob and walked off, thinking.

If Dürer Station had been bombed, I thought, then it was possible that Ashley and Iago had been caught up in it. I bit my lip. I didn't particularly like either of them, but that didn’t mean I wanted them dead – and they were, from what both they and D.I. Rennet had said, the only people in the city capable of solving this mystery before I ended up dead.

A group of people rushed past me, bricks in their hands; from Dürer Square, I could hear the sounds of violence. I actually kind of wanted to go back and participate – riots in Sinnoh are usually quite fun, and only a couple of people ever get seriously injured – but I had to find out what had happened to Ashley and Iago first.

Then again, I could go and riot. It's actually our non-official national sport, and I’m quite good at it; I rioted for one of the university teams. It's also a community event, like a football match in Europe or civil war in Kanto; it's a good place to meet friends and have fun with like-minded people.

No! I shook my head. Sure, most of my friends would probably be at the riot – but there'd be another one next week. It wouldn't hurt to miss it, and I had important things to do now. I dragged my eyes away from a man running towards the station with a metal pipe in his hands, and kept walking.

Where would Ashley go if he hadn't gone to Dürer Station, I wondered. Would he—

“Pearl! What the hell are you doing here?”

I stopped dead and looked right. There, leaning out of an alleyway, was Iago.

---

“I could ask you the very same question,” I said.

“No, you couldn't,” he replied. “Think about it. The train station we were going to was bombed, so we left. The police saw Ashley and asked him to tell them the how, why and who about the bombing. I can't go near the police because of my history, so I hid over here.” He shivered. “I don't like riots, anyway. I always get squashed.”

I could believe it. He couldn't have weighed more than eighty pounds; he was so light and frail that he might as well have been made of tissue paper.

“Well?” he demanded. “What the hell are you doing here? You're meant to be studying.”
“I came to see how you guys were getting along,” I replied defensively. “Nothing wrong with that, is there?”

“Ashley won't be pleased,” Iago said.

“Well, screw Ashley. This is my life and I’m coming too.” I’m not sure I could have said that to Ashley, but Iago wasn't nearly as intimidating. I felt better for saying it, too – I’d got it out in the open, and it helped to focus my mind: I was going to help, and no one was going to stop me. Not even Ashley.

“Fine,” snapped Iago. “You wait here with me and tell him that. Then we'll see how far you get.”

I stepped into his alleyway – the riot police were coming down the street now – and leaned against the opposite wall to him. There was an awkward silence for a while, punctuated only by the sound of rioters having a fun time without me, and, desperate to break it, I ended up saying:

“So... Iago. That's an interesting name.”

Iago gave me a weird look.

“Is it a Kadabra name?” I asked.

“Jesus, you are dumb,” he replied. “Kadabra don't have names, they have thought patterns.”

“I'm not dumb,” I protested.

“I think you probably are,” Iago said. “Let me guess: underneath that blue dye, your hair is blonde, isn't it?”

“Not all blondes are stupid!”

“No,” agreed Iago. “I apologise for my generalisation. Let me rephrase: all humans are stupid.”

“That's a worse generalisation,” I pointed out. “And anyway, what about Ashley? Is he stupid too?”

Iago paused, and I mentally punched the air in victory. I’d beaten him.

“Ashley,” he said quietly, “is different. He is different from all of you.”

Something told me not to pursue that line of conversation any further, so I changed the subject.

“Uh... Anyway, how did you know my hair was blonde?” I asked.

“I didn't,” Iago replied. “It was just an insult that happened to be true.” He smiled, which displayed an unnerving number of fangs. “I love it when that happens.”

“I guess,” I said uncertainly, thinking just how much I hated speaking to Kadabra.

“Iago is the name of a villain in a play,” he said abruptly. “He's cunning, manipulative, and crafty. All attributes that I cultivate in myself.”

“Why?” I felt that that was the question I had to ask if I was going to get anywhere with Iago. Why did he hate everything so much? Most Kadabra at least tolerated humans, so what made him different? What made him want to be a villain?

I got no answer, though, because Ashley wandered past right then, glanced into the alley, and groaned.

“What are you doing here?” he asked despairingly. “Miss Gideon—”

“Pearl.”

“Pearl, I was under the impression that you had work to do.”

“Yeah, I do. But I figured that protecting my life and figuring out who wants to kill me and why was more important.”

Ashley glared at me.

“Go home,” he said. “I don't need or want your help.”

“No,” I replied stubbornly. “I'm going to help you, whether you like it or not.”

Iago watched this exchange with the detached interest of a naturalist watching two beetles fighting to the death.

Ashley opened his mouth, and then closed it again. I don't think he was used to people not doing what he wanted.

“Don't tell me I can't come,” I said warningly. “Because I’m coming.”

“I...” He sighed. “Fine. Come with us, then.”

“Yes!” I hissed under my breath. Then, aloud: “Good. I’m glad we've come to an agreement.”

“Right,” Ashley said. “Come with me, then. Iago, meet us at the bus depot in an hour.”

“The cops want you?”

He nodded, and Iago slunk off.

“OK, Pearl,” Ashley said, turning to me. “You can come with me. Just don't touch anything or say anything foolish. In fact, don't say anything at all.”

“Where are we going?” I asked, willing to overlook the insult in my excitement.

“Back to Dürer Station,” he replied. “Liza and Tristan just tried to kill me.”

---

“Aw,” said Tristan, looking into the yellow capsule from his Kinder Egg with an air of deep disappointment. “The toy's a boat. I hate the boats.”

“Shut up,” replied Liza, chewing her knuckle and watching the smoke curl out of the station windows.

“You don't understand,” Tristan said. “The boats aren't even any fun to build. Their sails are really annoying.”

And he hurled the capsule and assorted plastic components out of the window of the cab and onto the ground.

Liza, however, had bigger problems than unwanted toys.

“Oh, cal,” she breathed. “How the hell did they manage that?”

“What – oh,” said Tristan, seeing it. “That is surprising.”

For there were Ashley Lacrimére and Pearl Gideon, walking into Dürer Station – and very much alive.

“Gurrrp.”

“Quiet, you,” hissed Tristan. “How...?”

“I don't know,” replied Liza. “But I think we might have come up against a very smart opponent here.”

“Look, we failed. It doesn't matter, there's nothing connecting us to the crime, right?” Tristan asked. “So we can just try again later. As long as they never get to the base in Eterna, no one will know.”

“You're right,” agreed Liza. “Let's get further away from this riot and think of a plan.”

“Taxi!” cried someone, walking up to them; Tristan was too slow to react, and the man managed to get in the back of the cab.

“Northvale, please,” he said, “and step—”

“Get out,” ordered Liza.

“What?”

“You heard her, get out,” said Tristan. “I'm... off duty.”

“Oh,” said the man. “Can't you just—?”

“No,” replied Liza brusquely. “Now get out before we make you get out.”

The man said something unprintable and left the car; the Croagunk croaked belligerently at him as he left, and waved one poison-drenched fist.

“I told you to be quiet,” snapped Tristan, and the Croagunk ceased his warlike gestures, abashed. “Now do up your seatbelt.”

The Croagunk shook his head.

“Do it or I’ll recall you.”

“Gurrrp!”

Liza turned around and gave the Croagunk a look; it had the desired effect, and in a second, the little Pokémon had buckled his seatbelt.

“There we go,” said Tristan. “That wasn't so hard. Liza, are you going to do up your— ow, OK, I guess you're not.”

“Life's too short for seatbelts,” Liza replied.

“It'll be even shorter without them,” muttered Tristan.

“Just drive before someone else tries to get us to take them somewhere.”

“OK, OK.”

And they drove off, just as someone else called out for a taxi, and was sorely disappointed.

---

“Ashley!” cried D.I. Rennet. “Where did you go?”

“I told you, I needed to speak to my associate,” he said tersely. “Look, here she is.”

“Miss Gideon?” Rennet looked as if his head were about to fall apart like a chocolate orange.

“My new... assistant,” Ashley told him, with obvious distaste. “Shall we go back inside?”

We were just outside Dürer station, having made our way past the riot; it was a fairly small and pathetic one, probably because it was still early, and it's really a night-time activity. From what I could see through the remnants of the fancy glass doors, the inside of the building had borne the blasts surprisingly well.

“I wish more citizens would solve their own crimes,” Rennet told me admiringly. “That'd be really helpful.”

I stared at him for a moment, and then followed Ashley through the wreckage of the doors.

Inside, the station was fairly unharmed; it was just a little scorched around the edges. The same couldn't be said of the trains, however: two of them were smoking husks, and the others had tipped over with the force of the explosion. Since trains aren't meant to be tipped over, they hadn't taken that too well, to say the least.

“Ashley,” I said, eyes wide, “what happened?”

“Do you remember I told you that Liza and Tristan tried to kill me?” he asked quietly, striding over to the nearest wreck. A few men and women were poking around it in a desultory sort of way, but seemed to be making little headway.

“Yeah?”

“I noticed that the taxi driver that brought us here was Tristan in disguise. Since he didn’t attempt to kill us in the car, I assumed he was there to decide where we were departing from to reach Eterna. Iago and I went into the station and left by the Dome Street exit; a few minutes later, the train departed, and then it exploded.”

“You think Tristan and Liza blew up an entire passenger train just to kill you?”

“Two trains,” Ashley replied. “There were two that went via Eterna. And they weren't trying to just kill Iago and I.”

“They weren't?”

Ashley halted next to the wrecked train.

“They probably thought you would come with us,” he told me. “They wanted to get you too.”

Before I had a chance to absorb this information, someone called out:

“Ashley! Where did you go?”

“I went to fetch my assistant,” he said, turning to face the SOCO people who were poking around the train wreck. “Here she is. Miss Pearl Gideon, an expert on explosives.”

This claim had the effect of distracting me from the fact that someone had just tried to kill me fairly instantaneously.

“What?” I said, but people were already nodding and welcoming me, and – most terrifyingly, asking what I thought about the situation.

“I – I need to have a closer look at the wreck,” I announced, casting a dirty look at Ashley, who nodded and smiled.

With everyone looking at me, I walked as confidently as I could over to the place where the train's door had once been, and peered inside. There wasn't much in there; if there had been any passengers, they seemed to have ceased to exist when the bomb went off. I tried hard not to think about that; these SOCO people thought I was an explosives expert, and I didn't really know how to back out of this situation now without looking really, really stupid.

“Gelignite,” someone whispered to me, and I leaped on the word like a pouncing Luxray.

“Gelignite,” I proclaimed, straightening up. “They used gelignite.” I hoped to God that my assumption that gelignite was an explosive was correct.

“Really?” asked a man standing nearby. “How can you tell?”

“There's...”

“Boiled potatoes,” the person whispered again. I looked around surreptitiously, but couldn't work out who was talking.

“Boiled potatoes,” I said knowledgeably, and suddenly realised that I could, in fact, smell boiled potatoes. “I, er, can you smell it?”

“Yes,” said one of the SOCO women. “I – oh, of course! The taggant!”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding sagely. “The taggant.”

“So we're looking for someone who purchases their gelignite from within the country,” Ashley said. “Thank you, Pearl. You've been very helpful.” He nodded to the (possibly superfluous) SOCO team, took me by the arm, and led me away, towards D.I. Rennet.

“What the hell?” I hissed furiously at him. “Why did you do that?”

“If you couldn't handle that, you should go home now,” he replied mildly. “Besides, I can't see what you're complaining about. Didn't I help you out?”

“You were the one giving me the answers?”

“Yes.”

“What the hell?” I hissed again. “And what the hell is a tagga— oh my God, the lunatic's here.”

For there, talking to Rennet, was the weird Frenchman who'd accosted me earlier in the street: the man who claimed to come from the International Police, Looker.

olih
August 21st, 2011, 03:48 AM
That's a slightly creepy signature... Oh well. Looker as a Frenchman is an inventive idea. I wonder how Pearl will react? Riots being Sinnoh's un-official sport is really weird (funny too)!

Cutlerine
August 24th, 2011, 11:07 AM
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over this curious narrative of criminals and the law,
As I was writing, mind a-whirring, I thought that I perceived a stirring,
As of something gently purring, purring by my chamber door.
'Tis just the cat,' I muttered, 'purring by my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

That's my way of saying that I was distracted yesterday and forgot to post this. I'm not sure why it had to be a parody of The Raven. I don't even have a cat.

Oh, and olih, I always envisioned Looker as being French. It fits him so well. I mean, he acts and speaks like Inspector Clouseau.

Chapter Four: In Which we Expose the Iniquity of Bus Conductors, and the Truth about Iago

'In general, buses in Sinnoh are not a reliable means of transport. Continuous roadworks, poorly-maintained vehicles and conductors that appear to be recruited from among the ranks of the demons all conspire to ensure that any trip taken by bus will be one that the passenger will regret for the rest of their life. The advice of this writer is to travel by train wherever possible.'
—Sir Topham Hatt, Bt, The World Guide to Public Transport

“Who is Looker?” asked Ashley. He seemed annoyed that I knew something he didn't, so I stuck my tongue out at him.

“Not telling.”

“Then I’ll ask him,” he said and walked off to speak to Rennet and Looker. Feeling faintly stupid, I stood there for a moment, and then ran to catch up.

“Ah, Ashley,” said Rennet, turning to him. “This is Looker. He's an agent of the International Police.”

Ashley regarded Looker with a level eye.

“Good evening, monsieur,” Looker said brightly. “I have been told you are in charge of the investigation here? The Diamond, are you not?”

“Bonjour, monsieur Looker,” replied Ashley. “Oui, je suis le Diamant. Et vous voulez...?”
Looker's face lit up like a Christmas tree, and he conversed rapidly with Ashley in French. Once or twice, both men glanced over at me, and Looker chuckled; I ground my teeth and shifted from foot to foot impatiently.

At length, Ashley was done; he took one of Looker's cards politely, bid him au revoir, and told Rennet that if he knew what was good for him, he would leave this bombing alone before he got into something bigger than he wanted. After that, he took my arm again and steered me gently out of the station.

“He's hunting for Liza,” he observed. “But then again, I think you knew that.”

“What were you saying about me?” I demanded to know.

Ashley sighed.

“This is why I don't work with a partner,” he replied. “I always have to explain things to them.”

“Just tell me!”

“I introduced you as a world-class assassin turned detective, and asked him not to tell anyone of your true profession for fear of compromising our investigation.”

I stared at him.

“Why would you do that?”

Ashley smiled again, which would have deflected the anger and melted the heart of a woman who wasn't quite so good at being cross as I was, and said:

“If I have to keep you around, I might as well amuse myself with you.”

“Bratchny!”

“Let's not get personal, Pearl,” he said as we walked out into the square. “I'd like to keep things amicable.”

The riot had dissolved; there was no sign it had ever even occurred. It wasn't the best part, but it was one of the rules: you always cleared up after your riot, otherwise it actually did become illegal.

“Ashley, why do you have to be so nasty?”

“I'm not being nasty.” We walked across the square to the taxi rank. “This is camaraderie, isn't it?”

“No, you're just setting me up in tricky situations.”

“Interesting.” Ashley nodded deeply and held out a hand for the nearest taxi. “I'll work on that.”

Somewhat nonplussed, I changed the subject:

“What's a taggant?”

“A chemical added to something – in this case, plastic explosive – to identify it. In this country, it's mandatory to tag gelignite with boiled-potatoes scent, because our police forces lack enough sniffer dogs to be sure of catching subtler smells. Northanger Road, please.”

The taxi began to move.

“Are all plastic explosives made to smell like food?”

“Yes. Semtex is bacon, for example.”

I gave Ashley a sideways look; I thought he might have been joking, but then again, I wasn't sure he was capable of it. Despite my suspicions, though, his face remained serious.

“Right,” I said slowly. “What are we doing now?”

“There is a bus leaving for Eterna forty minutes from now,” Ashley replied, showing me the timetables on his smartphone. “We will be on it, along with Iago. Once there, we'll investigate further.”

The cabbie nearly drove off the road.

“You're going by bus?” he asked in the low, husky voice of one who has a debt to the Devil, and has just seem him in the seafood restaurant across the street.

“Yeah, Ashley, I think that's probably a really bad idea,” I agreed. “You know what they're like.”

“Yes, I do. And that's why Tristan and Liza won't expect us to go by bus. They'll expect us to go to another train station, like Lattre or Volze.” Ashley leaned back in his seat.

“Don't do it,” advised the cabbie, slowing down for the traffic lights. “It ain't worth it. Nothing's worth that.”

“Really, Ashley, I think he's right—”

“Thank you, Pearl, but my mind is made up.”

“I'll take you to Lattre Station for free,” the cabbie offered. He sounded like he was on the verge of tears. “Please, just don't do this to yourself.”

“Ashley, I refuse to go by bus!”

“Then you can go home,” he replied. “Look, Tristan at least seems to be native to Sinnoh; he doesn't even have a trace of an accent. He will expect us to go by train, and by the time he and Liza have found that we haven't, we will be out of the city.”

The cabbie shook his head, and heaved a great sigh.

“Well, I’ll take you to the depot,” he said, in the sort of voice that suggested he was talking to a pair of condemned criminals. “But on your own heads be it.”

And with those ominous words, he drove us towards Northanger Road.

---

“Three singles to Eterna, please,” Ashley said. I watched the bus conductor's face carefully, and my heart sank as I saw his eyes flash yellow with Hadean fire.

In the end, we had come via my apartment, where Ashley had given me five minutes to get together anything I wanted to take with me; since I was me and not Stephanie, I’d decided that as long as I had access to money, I could buy anything I needed, and probably packed way too little. It's the excitement, I think – I always just want to skip the boring preparation and go straight ahead to the fun bit. Ashley raised his eyebrows when he saw me come out with nothing but the handbag I’d gone in with, but said nothing.
Now, we stood at the front of the queue with Iago, attempting to buy a ticket.

“The fox,” the conductor said. “Double for him.”

Iago looked like he was on the verge of striking him down with as much fury as Jules Winnfield, but Ashley stopped him with a look.

“I'm going to pay for three adults,” he said, “and if you want more, I shall loose Pearl here on you.”

The conductor looked at me, and made some remark about that plainly not being a bad thing. I felt that I was probably meant to play along with Ashley's scheme here, and threatened to ram his unnervingly sharp-looking teeth down his throat. Even if the man was a demon, he apparently feared injury, and gave us no more trouble for the time being.

“Thank you,” said Ashley unexpectedly, as we made our way down the aisle. “That was kind of you.”

I gave him another sideways look.

“Are you trying to be nice?”

“Is it working?”

“I'll get back to you.”

“More importantly,” said Iago, “we need to hurry up and get the back seats.”

“Why?” asked Ashley, puzzled.

“Because that's where the cool kids sit,” I explained, wondering how he had made it through his teenage years without learning this. (This was, of course, assuming he wasn't a teenager now; I still had no idea how old he was.)

“Is it?”

“Ashley,” said Iago, laying a friendly hand on his shoulder, “you're a fine detective. Almost a Kadabra, even. But sometimes you can be quite an idiot.”

And he guided him to the back of the bus, much to the relief of the queue that had built up behind us but didn't like to interrupt what looked like a decidedly shady interspecies gathering.

Naturally, Iago grabbed one window seat right away, and moments later Ashley took the other. I sighed and sat down in the middle one.

“It's hot,” I said.

No one said anything; the other passengers were busy arguing with the conductor and taking their seats, Ashley was staring out of the window, and Iago was tapping his claws impatiently on the seat in front of him.

“It's really hot in here,” I said, adding some emphasis in case it would make someone react.

Still no reaction. The guy in front of Iago turned around and asked him to stop tapping; Iago replied that he thought tapping on a chair paled into insignificance when compared to the genocide perpetuated against his race in the forties by humans, and the man was forced to back down.

Ashley stared at the concrete walls of the bus depot, and sighed.

I tapped the air conditioning button above my head.

“This doesn't work,” I said, hoping that this would attract some attention. I was right; it did.

“Pearl, we're in Sinnoh, and on a bus,” Iago snapped. “This is a machine designed by Satan specifically to torture poor saps who can't afford train tickets.”

This drew some unfriendly looks from the passengers ahead of us, and I scooted over a few inches towards Ashley, desperately trying to look like I wasn't with Iago.

“I don't know him,” I whispered conspiratorially to the people in front.

Ashley sighed again, and I heard the pneumatic hiss of the bus doors sealing.

“The bus will depart now for Eterna City,” said the conductor. Through his speaker system, he sounded like some hideous cross between Darth Vader and Jigsaw. “There will be no stops.”

I could have sworn I heard a note of malicious glee in his voice; however, I did nothing but settle down and try to get comfortable in my seat, which seemed to be made mostly out of broken glass and beach stones.

As the bus rumbled slowly and noisily out of the depot, I wondered if travelling with Ashley and Iago had been such a good idea after all. I gave it fifteen minutes before we had our first breakdown – which was, in fact, wrong. It only took ten minutes before the bus stalled, halfway down Mansard Avenue.

No one was allowed to get out; we remained in the stifling heat of the bus for the full ten minutes it took the conductor to get out, direct some infernal wizardry at the engine and get the machine started again. All the while, a storm of car horns blared behind us, and while the bus's walls did an admirable job of keeping the heat in, they didn't keep the angry noise out.

A baby started crying, and I slumped in my seat, defeated.

“God, I hate buses,” I murmured, and tried to fall asleep.

---

An hour later, we were driving slowly along the motorway, a few miles north of Jubilife. We had broken down twice more, the baby hadn't stopped crying, and the conductor's grin had broadened until it seemed to cover his face from ear to ear, which was not only unnerving but kind of scary.

Now we hit the roadworks.

Sinnish roads are not great. We're the first to admit it; it probably doesn't do much for our tourist industry, but the first thing any Sinnish person tells a foreigner is that they should go everywhere by train, if they can. For the government cares a lot about our road network, and therefore it's almost always being repaired.

So it was that we became stuck in a seventy-vehicle tailback on Route 204, while someone resurfaced the roads up ahead.

It was at this point that Iago rummaged in the fluffy fur that made up his tail, withdrew a small bag and pulled out an Oddish leaf joint.

“You smoke odd?” I asked, surprised. “I thought Kadabra didn't like distracting their minds.”

“In case you haven't noticed,” Iago replied, “I'm not an average Kadabra.” He lit the joint and stuck it in his sharp-toothed mouth.

I glanced at Ashley, who might have been dead, asleep or thinking; I didn't like to presume any one of the three.

“I don't think you can smoke here,” I said.

“Actually, I can,” Iago replied. “I need this to get through this hell without going insane.”

I looked at the other passengers. They appeared to be studiously ignoring Iago and the plumes of sweet-smelling smoke curling out from between his moustaches; in fact, more than one of them was smoking themselves, and at least two of those were smoking odd.

“Fair enough,” I replied.

Now, I could write down what Iago talked about after that, but it's basically drivel about how blue my hair was and how he wanted to enslave humanity, repeated for three hours as we drove past Floaroma and up to Eterna. Iago might have enjoyed his bus ride, but I think he made it significantly worse for all the non-stoned people on board. The conductor should really have thrown him off, but he was probably enjoying the way he was ruining everyone else's journey. Thankfully, I managed to fall asleep, only to wake up a few hours later with a horrible pain in my neck. I was fairly certain that the seats were designed to do that to anyone who slept in them, as punishment for trying to avoid the torture of the bus trip by sleeping.

When I came back to our depressing reality, Ashley still hadn't moved from the position he'd been in when we set off.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“About twenty minutes from Eterna,” Ashley said, without opening his eyes – or indeed moving his lips. I supposed that that was how he'd given me the answers back in the bombed train station.

My phone beeped, and I flipped it open, stared at the screen and shut it again with a sigh. Apparently I had seven missed calls from Stephanie, and one from Gareth; I didn't care so much about the first ones, since Stephanie had a key and could get her notes back – but whenever Gareth called, it meant I was missing a party. A big one. The kind that can leave people dead from exhaustion or alcohol poisoning. In other words, exactly the kind I like.

I looked over at Iago. He was staring intently out of the window, and occasionally making remarks about how futile all human endeavour was, because one day his people would rise up and destroy it all.

Uncertain whether he was still high or not, and sincerely hoping that he was mistaken about the warlike tendencies of the Kadabra race, I leaned back in my seat and tried to work out if there were several babies that were taking it in turns to cry, or whether there was just one with impressive stamina that had managed to keep it up all the way from Jubilife.

The closer we got to our destination, the slower the bus seemed to go. By now, it was about quarter past seven; the sun was starting to set, and I was beginning to go insane from the heat, the noise and the monotonously regular breakdowns. I wasn't the only one. A woman a few seats ahead of us was rocking back and forth, knees drawn up to her chest, and muttering about a happy place; a man two rows ahead of her and to the right was softly sobbing into his hands.

Something made a horrible grinding noise, and the bus glided to the side of the motorway and stopped.

“I regret to inform you,” the conductor said in his terrible voice, “that the bus seems to have broken down. Please bear with us while we see what the problem is.”

He got out; some desperate soul made a break for it, trying to rush out after him, but the conductor froze him on the spot with the force of his smouldering eyes and locked the doors.

“God give us strength,” I heard someone mutter, and wholeheartedly agreed, though I had doubts that any deity would choose to help us. After all, we were in a bus: if anything, God was punishing us.

At length, the bus started up, and finally the buildings of Eterna started to appear around us; a small cheer went up from the passengers who were still capable of hope, and in vengeance for this, the conductor deliberately guided us into a one-way street network that would take us away from the station. We made two circuits before he decided he had broken our spirit, and took us along to the bus stop.

When the bus finally drew to a halt, no one moved at first; we could hardly believe that our torment was at an end. Then Ashley, who didn't seem to have been affected by the horrors of the journey at all, got up and left, dragging me with him. Iago followed, pausing only to glare briefly at the conductor – and then slowly, everyone else got up too, heading cautiously to the exit like slaves who can't quite believe that they've just been freed. I noticed as we left that the conductor took a tape marked 'SCREAMING BABY SOUNDTRACK' out of the bus's cassette player; that was one mystery solved, and another black mark on the conductor's soul.

“Fresh air,” I said, hardly daring to believe it. “It's so wonderful...”

“I know,” breathed Iago. “Like scamming an old man out of his pension.”

“Pull yourselves together,” said Ashley sharply. He grabbed us both by the wrists and dragged our unresisting bodies down the road. “Come on. I want to start investigating.”

“Whoa. Wait.” I stopped in the middle of the moonlit street and raised a hand. “I'm not doing that tonight.”

“Yeah, I have to agree with Pearl for once,” said Iago. “There's no way I’m doing anything now.”

Ashley looked at us in astonishment.

“Why?”

“We're exhausted,” I replied.

“And still slightly stoned,” added Iago.

“Fine,” sighed Ashley. “You two find somewhere to stay, and I’ll find you later. Go and – and eat and sleep, or whatever it is you want to do.”

With that, he turned on his heel and stalked off into the night.

“Eat and sleep,” I said. “Sounds good to me.”

“Me too,” agreed Iago. “Let's go.”

We started walking away in the opposite direction to the one Ashley had chosen.

“Is he angry?” I asked. “Ashley, that is.”

“No. He just doesn't understand.” Iago twirled a finger around next to his head. “He's wired differently. Got more in common with an Alakazam with a human, or even a Kadabra.”

I decided not to reveal my lack of knowledge about what made Kadabra and Alakazam different from each other, and contented myself with nodding sagely.

“You don't know what I’m talking about,” Iago said. “Never mind. You're only human.”

“You're in a good mood.”

“I'm not in my right mind. I’m aware right now that I hate you, but I can't bring myself to put the theory into practice.”

“I like you better when you're stoned.”

“Funny you should say that. Everyone does.” Iago paused. “Left here.”

I followed him around the corner.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Food,” he replied succinctly. “Do you like Chinese?”

“Not really—”

“Great,” Iago said. “There's a nice Chinese restaurant somewhere along this street, if I remember right. And I always do.”

I sighed and followed. Maybe I didn't like Iago so much after all.

---

Ashley knew exactly where he was going. Though his work didn't usually take him outside of the capital, he knew the other major cities of Sinnoh fairly well, albeit in a completely different way to most people.

He knew, for instance, that in Eterna, the best place to go to ask about any nefarious doings was the Gardening Society headquarters on Sanck Street.

This building was small and understated; there was almost nothing about it that might reveal what went on within. In fact, it looked very much like the garden supplies shop of a Mrs. D. Periwinkle-Bazaar, open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This was the only indication that something out of the ordinary happened here, for there is usually no garden supply so urgently needed that it cannot wait until morning to be bought.

Ashley walked in and went over to the counter; Mrs D. Periwinkle-Bazaar was on the other side, and she looked up, surprised, from a magazine as he entered.

“Oh! I wasn't expecting anyone so late.”

“I wonder if you could tell me about this,” Ashley said, placing the torn-out Galactic logo on the counter and sliding it over to her.

Immediately, Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar's mouth tightened to a thin line, and she looked at him with renewed suspicion.

“I don't know anything about it,” she said. “This is a gardening store—”

“You know as well as I that this isn't just a gardening store,” Ashley cut in. “I want to know everything you do.”

“Who are you?” Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar's hand was creeping towards a pair of shears.

“I am the Diamond,” Ashley replied. “And unless you tell me what I want to know, I shall have no choice but to destroy your organisation, no matter how many old ladies attack me with garden shears.”

It did not do to underestimate the skills of a qualified Gardening Society member. Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar lashed out with the shears with the speed of a striking cobra; Ashley, taken aback, escaped a cut throat by the slightest moment. He ducked, lost half a lock of hair and took a step back, just as the pensioner vaulted the counter and swung the shears down towards his face.

“This is not how I wanted to talk to you!” Ashley cried, dropping to the floor and rolling left into a rack of flowerpots. He scrambled to his feet and grabbed hold of Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar's shear-wielding arm before she could raise it. “Now look what you made me do,” he said, annoyed. “I've damaged your merchandise.”

“I know who you are,” growled Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar, tearing her arm free and elbowing him viciously in the chest. “People like me have to protect ourselves—”

“I'm not here for you!” wheezed Ashley, staggering back a step and fumbling in the breast pocket of his coat. “Your organisation doesn't interest me!”

But the spinster was not to be stopped: the blades flashed towards his midriff—

—only to be stopped with a sharp snick as they met something hard, jammed between the blades.

Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar froze.

“Calm down,” said Ashley. “I don't want to have to use this, especially not on a woman of your standing. You have so much left to live for. Your crime syndicate, for example.”

“What do you want with us?” Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar asked.

“I don't want anything with the Gardening Society,” Ashley replied wearily. “You're too simple. Money-laundering and extortion, open-and-shut. I’m on the trail of something much more interesting. Now tell me about Galactic and I will leave this shop and most likely never bother you again.”

Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar straightened up and withdrew the shears, then went around behind the counter again. This done, she raised her weapon in the air.

“I'll put these down if you put yours down,” she said.

“I think not,” Ashley replied. “I'm feeling a little threatened, so I might just keep it. Now,” he went on, “I'm going to ask you one more time. Please tell me everything you know about Galactic...”

---

“Are you going to eat any of that?” asked Iago. For someone so small and so light, he'd eaten a lot already, and I was hoping that he would be footing the bill.

“No,” I sighed. “I told you I don't like this.”

“That's why I came here,” the Kadabra said happily, taking my plate and twirling his chopsticks. “I knew I’d get to eat yours too.”

“You're sober again, aren't you?”

“I have been for a while. I’ve just been screwing with you.” Iago grinned at me through a mouthful of fried rice.

I couldn't help but smile, even though he was being horrible.

“You're so nasty,” I said. “So why do I like you?”

“Because I make you like me,” Iago replied, motioning to the waiter and calling for more food. “See, I’m a con artist.”

I should probably have been surprised, but I wasn't. Instead I sighed, nodded and took a gulp of my beer.

“It's the perfect career for a Kadabra among humans, even if I don't have any psychic powers. I can read your faces and bodies like open books, and it's easy to make you do whatever I want. I grifted around the world, worked my way back to Sinnoh and scammed Wolstein's out of twenty million dollars.”

I widened my eyes.

“That was you?”

“I guess so, but a psychiatrist once told me I’m a compulsive liar, so it might have been someone else.” Iago chewed thoughtfully. “It was a satisfying job, but it needed a guy they could trust, so I had to use a human frontman. Unfortunately, he double-crossed me, the bratchny, and ran off with the twenty million plus the nine hundred thousand I had left at the moment, then reported me to the police.” Iago snorted bitterly. “Ten years and that was the first time I was noticed. Of course, if you're a Kadabra who talks aloud, there's no disguising yourself; I couldn't get out of the country or dodge the cops. I went into hiding in Jubilife.”

He fell silent.

“I'm sorry,” I said, feeling monstrously inadequate.

“That's annoying,” Iago replied. “Why are you humans always sorry for things you didn't do?”

“All right, all right. What happened next?” I prompted. Perhaps it was the booze – he'd been drinking pretty freely, and he was a literal lightweight – but he'd been very open tonight.

“Next, we decided to leave the restaurant,” said Iago, and slipped out of his seat and ran outside.

I stared after him for a moment.

“You bratchny,” I breathed. “I...”

At this point, Iago reappeared.

“Look,” he said, hopping back into his chair, “if I’m going to mould you into someone I can bear to live with, you're going to have to learn to take a hint. I said we decided to leave. Note the inclusion of the word we.”

“We're not paying?”

“Do you have any money?”

“Some, but you ate about twenty thousand dollars' worth of food. If you want to dine and dash, I’m fine with that.”

“I thought you would be. You seem the impulsive type.” Iago's eyes flicked over to the waiter and back again. “Count of three. One... two... three!”

I can move pretty fast when I want to, and when I’m not drunk wearing high heels in the middle of the night. Iago and I were out of the door almost before our chopsticks hit the plates. The waiter shouted behind us – but we were racing down the street, and were out of his sight in less than ten seconds. Two minutes later, we'd lost him, and came to a breathless, giggly halt somewhere in Eterna's network of back roads.

“I haven't done that for ages,” I said through my laughter. “That was fantastic!”

“I know,” Iago replied. “I don't do that nearly as often as I should.”

“Ashley disapproves?”

“No, he just doesn't care. If he doesn't get a kick out of it, it's no fun.” Iago sighed. “Hotel and sleep?”

“Sounds good to me,” I replied, and we walked off. I wasn't sure whether we were friends yet, but it seemed that there'd been at least some improvement in our relationship.

---

At that very moment, in a building many miles away, there was a man sitting behind a desk and thinking. On the desk was another person; there was another chair, but this person, for whatever reason, wasn't using it.

Unfortunately, we join this couple halfway through a conversation, so we hear only a short, mysterious exchange that makes no sense to us without further exposition.

“How do you know all of this?” asked the man. He was very important, and so we shall henceforth call him the Important Man.

“We have our sources,” the person on the desk replied cagily. “We'll tell you when it's safe.”

“Well... all right. I trust you,” the Important Man said.

“If you can't trust us,” replied the other darkly, “then you can't trust anybody.”

“That's true.” The Important Man almost smiled. “Witty.”

“We know.” His companion's eyes smouldered. “It was our intention to be witty.”

“All right,” said the Important Man agreeably. “Now, I’d like to run through tomorrow's speech with you again...”

Silent Memento
August 24th, 2011, 12:14 PM
...Wow. Iago's thoughts on humanity are exactly what I think a Kadabra would have. I mean, look at all of the Abra that humans (most likely poachers) capture and sell at the Game Corner. I can't exactly blame Iago for wanting to enslave humanity, nor can I blame him for his world-against-me nature. From what I can tell about him (which, admittedly, isn't much), he trusts Ashley to a certain extent, and he's willing to give Pearl a chance.

Speaking of Iago, I have a theory about who betrayed him. That person is most likely rich, charismatic, and able to persuade a lot of people to do what he wants, including the police. Said person would probably have a legitimate job (for public purposes) and an illegal one (since he's a conman who's greedy and ambitious enough to bankrupt a very rich company and rob his partner blind while he's at it, I don't think he'd rest on his laurels).

I can think of only one person that fits that description: Cyrus. Apparently, in the anime, he has a legitimate job as a construction manager. In his spare time, he leads Team Galactic. He's extremely rich, and he has the same evil charisma as someone like Jim Jones, maybe more, since Cyrus used Galactic as a front for developing new energy, and nobody caught on to what he was really doing until the very end.

Yes, he's more like a machine than anything, but Cyrus has the ability to be a conman. The most important thing is knowing human nature and how to exploit it - and Cyrus can do that better than any Team leader in the Pokemon series.

While I didn't see any true errors, I would like to alert you to this sentence:

After all, we were in a bus; we must have been being punished for our sins.

I don't know if it's grammatically-incorrect; I'm good with wild theories, off-topic rambling, and characterization, but I'm not particularly skilled at grammar and sentence structure. Still, it just sounds so awkward to read aloud. Maybe it could be slightly tweaked?

Oh, and I now have a favorite minor character: the cabbie who hates buses. I never knew your name, but you, my good sir, are my new fictional hero. I had to ride public transportation to and from school during my freshman and sophomore years; I know exactly how you feel.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
August 26th, 2011, 11:18 PM
I've changed the wording there, Silent Memento. Oh, and the conman who worked with Iago isn't Cyrus. I'll tell you that much.

In other news, there will be no new chapters until Tuesday/Wednesday next, for I am heading off to oh-so-sunny Wales for a week, and then participating in the 3-Day Novel contest, which will leave me no time to write this story.

Chapter Five: In Which the Gardening Society Get Their Comeuppance

'The threat of raptor attack has decreased in recent years, but is nevertheless still present. In Dane Valley in particular, one should always be careful, especially in the spring, when the males attempt to attract mates by making as many kills as possible.'
—Bobby Muldoon, The Sinnish Countryside

“Oh. I see. Yes ma'am. Yes. Of course.”

Liza slid her phone shut and turned to Tristan.

“They already left the city,” she said grimly. “They took the bus.”

“Seriously?” Tristan took a step back, stunned. “Wow. That's dedication.”

“So I gather.” Liza sighed. “Get in the car, we're going to Floaroma.”

“What? Why Floaroma?”

“Because Commander Mars says so.”

This was reason enough for Tristan, and he got into the taxi without further complaint. As they drove off, he did attempt to inquire what measures were being taken to stop the trio of investigators that had discovered far too much about them for one day's work – but this was met with the curt reply that he would 'see'.

Something was definitely up, Tristan decided – but what exactly it was remained, as Liza had said, to be seen.

---

Ashley was walking back through the moonlit streets, wrapped in thought. The Gardening Society had been most informative, and he had a lot to ponder. If he had not had so much to ponder – if he had not been working on a puzzle in the middle of his brain – he might have noticed how quiet the city was, or that he was the only person walking down this street.

Regrettably, this was the sort of thing that would have been very beneficial to notice before the old ladies emerged from the shadows.

There were eight of them, and they materialised from doorways, alleys, the crevices behind lampposts; each of them wore the silver trowel pin that marked them out as a member of the Gardening Society, and each brandished a different garden implement in a way that made it clear that they intended to use them for something other than the manufacturer attended.

“Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar evidently thought herself insulted,” observed Ashley. He didn't seem to be unduly concerned, despite the fact that was surrounded by a ring of vicious pensioners.

“It's not that,” said Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar, who was heading the delegation. “Ordinarily, yes, we would sell information about Eterna's underworld. But these people are different. There are some powerful people involved. People who do not wish to have their interests threatened. And so we've got no choice but to make you disappear.”

Ashley raised an eyebrow.

“Really. You don't think people might have tried to have me killed before?”

“They probably have,” replied Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar. “But I don't see any way out of this situation for you.”

Ashley turned slowly on the spot, taking in each old lady in turn. He saw shears, secateurs, pitchforks, even a small lawnmower. He considered briefly the possible effects of being mown to death, and concluded it would be very, very unpleasant.

“This does look bad,” he admitted. “But there wouldn't be any fun in solving the problem if it was easy, would there?”

“Kill him,” ordered Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar, and the Gardening Society members advanced.

---

“Good morning, Sinnoh, and let me just say, it looks like today's going to be a scorcher. The weekend looks set to be perfect...”

I groaned, reached out and thumped – but my fist didn't connect with anything, which was weird because I’d hit the snooze button on the radio alarm clock so many times over the past year that I never missed.

“A quick round-up of the top news stories: the investigation into the explosion at Dürer Station is ongoing; raptor attacks in Dane Valley and the Wolds are at their highest since 1998; and Prime Minister Lionel Walsh has today set himself at odds with the President by opposing the proposed military operation in the Middle East...”

“Shut up,” I moaned. “I can't absorb news right now...” I lashed out again, and this time hit something that swore and punched me. Thankfully, whatever it was had all the strength of an anaemic Magikarp, and didn't do much other than surprise me.

Now I opened my eyes, and remembered that I wasn't in my apartment. I was in bed in a hotel room in Eterna, and in trying to hit the alarm clock I’d thumped Iago on the head.

“What the hell?” he cried, sitting up. “Jonas, I told you, I’ll have your money by—” He stopped abruptly. “Oh. Morning.”

“Good morning.” I blinked and registered the fact that he was quite a long way away – in the other bed, in fact. “Wow. I didn't know my arms were that long.”

“Neither did I.” Iago rubbed his shoulder. “You humans. Long-limbed and brutish.”

“Shut up.”

“...and here's Tiffany with the weather,” the radio said. I got it firmly in my sights, held it still with one hand in case it made a break for it and put it out of action with a well-placed fist.

“That's better,” remarked Iago. “The stupid thing was almost as bad as you.”

I turned to look at him.

“Are you going back to sleep?” I asked.

“Definitely,” he replied, and we were both just about asleep again when Ashley burst into the room.

“We have to leave Eterna,” he said, gasping for breath. “Come on! Get up, the pair of you!”

“Oh, what? How the hell did you find us?” I groaned, sitting up.

“I'm a detective, how do you think? Come on! We're leaving the city right now!” Ashley grabbed hold of both bedspreads and whisked them away from us. “Both of you, get up!”

“I'm up, I’m up,” Iago grumbled. “Jesus. Why do you never just shake my shoulder? It's always about the duvet-whisking with you.”

“We're in a hurry,” Ashley said, and I noticed now that there was a nasty-looking cut above his right eye. “Or rather, I am in a hurry, and you ought to be in a hurry if you don't want to be brought down with me.”

“What happened?” I asked, getting up and looking around for my shoes before realising I was still wearing them. “How'd your investigation go?”

“I'd rather not talk about it,” replied Ashley stiffly. “But please! We must go. Now!”

“All right, I’m coming.” Iago dropped lightly from bed to floor, staggered for a moment and clutched at his head. “Ouch. Did you get in someone's way again?”

“There's no time to talk now. I’ll tell you when we're safe.”

That sounded ominous, and Iago and I sped up our preparations accordingly. Thirty minutes later, we were aboard a train and heading west to Floaroma.

---

“Right,” said Ashley, peering out of the window. “I think we might be safe now.”

“What the hell is going on?” I asked him.

“I went asking about Galactic in the Eterna under—”

“Galactic? What's that?”

“The name of the organisation that want us dead,” Iago replied. “We didn't tell you because... yeah, we didn't tell you.”

I resisted the urge to punch both him and Ashley, sighed, and said:

“OK. Carry on.”

“I went asking about Galactic in the Eterna underworld, and though I got some information, I also made some enemies.” Ashley indicated the cut on his forehead. “I made the mistake of treating Eterna criminals like Jubilife criminals. My reputation doesn't strike so much fear into people here.”

Despite myself, I smiled.

“You made a mistake,” I pointed out happily.

Ashley glared at me.

“I'm only human,” he replied irritably. “I'm allowed to do that.”

“Was it the Gardening Society?” asked Iago. Ashley nodded. “Yeah, those old ptitsas are crazy.”

I wondered what connection a Gardening Society could possibly have to the underworld, decided that the reasons my imagination constructed would always outclass the reality, and just asked:

“OK, so what did you find out?”

“People calling themselves Galactic turned up about a month ago,” Ashley said. “No one knows where they came from or who they're working for. They came into conflict with Eterna's main criminal syndicate, the Gardening Society” – I suppressed a giggle; the idea of a gang of gardening crooks was just too stupid – “but they got over it quickly, since they actually didn't seem to interfere with anything that the Society does. Apart from that, all I found out was that recently, Galactic has been sending people east to Floaroma.”

“Why?”

“I don't know yet. That's why we're fleeing to Floaroma and not back to Jubilife; we need to find out what they were doing.”

“OK.”

There was now a silence.

“Have you nothing else to offer?” asked Ashley. “At this point, Iago usually offers a scintillating insight.”

I looked at Iago, who shrugged.

“Hey, you're playing the part of the sidekick here,” he said. “For once, I don't have to think; I’m just tagging along for protection from Galactic.”

“OK,” I said. “Er... Galactic want to steal flowers?”

Ashley gave me a long look.

“Honey?” I hazarded.

The look continued, and I was officially stymied. I’d named Floaroma's only two products, and now couldn't think of anything else.

“What's the only significant thing near Floaroma Town?” Iago asked.

“The big meadow?”

“No, you damn nazz,” he snapped, “it's the Valley Windworks.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “That. I forgot about that.”

“Now that you've remembered,” Ashley said dryly, “perhaps you'd like to apply your keen mind to the question of what Galactic might want there.”

“Do you already know the answer?”

“A process of deduction might have led me to a reasonable conclusion.”

“That's a 'yes',” clarified Iago.

“OK.” I sat back and thought hard: this was my chance to impress them with my skills as a detective. There was no reason why I couldn't do it; I’d been clever enough to get into the University of Jubilife, hadn't I? Besides, if I couldn't solve this one, I’d have to resign myself to being Ashley and Iago's idiot friend, which wasn't exactly what I’d had in mind when I followed them to Eterna.

“Some time today would be nice,” Iago said.

“I'm thinking,” I snapped.

What did I know about the Valley Windworks? It hardly ever showed up on the news, and it wasn't something I’d ever gone out of my way to research. I knew that they supplied Western Sinnoh with a large amount of its electricity, the way Sunyshore Electrics supplied the east; I knew that they used wind power, and I knew that the whole plant was almost entirely automatic from half a documentary I’d once been drunk enough to watch (though thankfully also drunk enough to almost completely forget).

“High-end windmill controlling technology?” I guessed.

Ashley looked surprised.

“I didn't expect that of you,” he said.

“Thanks,” I replied, sitting up straight in self-satisfaction.

“But you're wrong,” he went on.

“Oh,” I said, and slumped again. “What do they actually want?”

“I'm not sure,” he told me. “But your thoughts might shed some light on what they do want.”

“Why did you say you knew?” I demanded to know.

“If you were listening, he never actually said that,” Iago said. “He only implied. It's called a test, and, exceeding all expectations, you came up with something half decent.” He sounded sour. “Can I pay you Monday?”

“No. By the end of tomorrow,” Ashley replied.

“Were you betting on how intelligent I was?” I asked suspiciously.

“We might have been,” admitted Iago.

“I thought you thought I wasn't very clever?”

“And I still do,” said Ashley soothingly. “Don't worry about that. It's just that I thought you might posses some rudimentary deductive skills. And it seems you do, so Iago owes me seven hundred dollars.”

“That's not that much.”

“It is if you're broke. Which I am, because I’m unemployable.”

That cast a gloomy tone over everything, and we lapsed back into silence until Stephanie called me again, and I had to defend myself against the combined might of her angry worries and worried anger. She called me childish, selfish and moronic, after which I suggested that she could always write my essay for me. After that, she hung up, and I wondered whether I ought to apologise.

Some time later, we arrived, tired and hungry, in Floaroma's lone train station, which was about as busy as a graveyard at midnight. I think we were the only people who got off or on, and we were three of approximately seven people who were actually in the station, including railway staff.

“I feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere,” I complained as we stepped out onto the street.

“We are in the middle of nowhere,” replied Iago. “Which means... hey, I’ll see you guys later.”

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Gonna scam some hicks,” he called from halfway down the road. “I'll find you two later.”

With that, he vanished around the corner, and I turned to Ashley.

“So,” I said brightly. “Shall we get some breakfast?”

He looked startled, as if this word was entirely unfamiliar to him, and he suspected it might be a weapon of some kind.

“Breakfast?”

“Yeah. The first meal of the day, usually had before eleven o'clock so as to avoid confusion with brunch, elevenses, the mid-morning snack and, last but certainly not least, lunch.”

“Oh. Are you hungry?”

I decided that this was probably the reason Ashley was so thin and so small, and said that yes, I was hungry, as were all sensible people at ten in the morning when they hadn't had breakfast.

“Fine,” Ashley said. “You go and have breakfast, and I—”

“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “I came with you to be part of the investigation, and since I know for a fact that you didn't eat anything for lunch or dinner yesterday, I insist you come with me.”

“Food is uninteresting—”

“There are a lot of women who'd kill to be able to feel that way,” I observed, then grabbed his arm firmly and guided him down the flower-lined street. He seemed fairly resigned – he must have already worked out that I was much stronger than him – and so I steered him into the Cherrim Café without difficulty. As soon as I’d entered, I backed out again, for it smelled more like flowers than the street outside, and the girl behind the counter was wearing a hat shaped like a giant rose.

Eventually, I found a café that wasn't hideously weird, sat Ashley down and finally got to eat something. He barely touched his food, and eventually I had to admit defeat: I could lead Ashley to breakfast, but I couldn't make him eat. I said as much to him, and it turned out to be witty enough to make him smile, which restored any self-confidence I’d lost when he'd told me I was wrong on the train.

“Can we leave now?” asked Ashley, as soon as I was done. I said yes, paid, and left with him.

“Where are we going now?” I inquired.

“To the Valley Windworks,” he replied. “We'll see if we can't find out what Galactic wants there.”

“What if they're already there?” I asked, concerned. “I mean, if I were them, I wouldn't want to lie low in Floaroma any longer than necessary. It's... weird.”

“If they're already there,” Ashley said, “we'll spy on them.”

“Is that safe?”

“I've done it before. As long as you do what I tell you, it will be fine.”

“Oh. How reassuring.”

It was a half-hour walk down the riverside path to get to Dane Valley. Thankfully, the flowers that were omnipresent in Floaroma didn't seem to have penetrated too far into the surrounding countryside, so after about five minutes everything stopped smelling like an explosion at a horticultural show and started smelling more like fields.

The motorway was just a mile or two to the south, running parallel to the river and the trail, but you'd never have guessed; I felt like I was wandering through some untouched paradise in a far-flung corner of the globe, which inspired in me a good mood that was only a little spoiled by the fact that there appeared to be no mobile phone coverage here.

After a while, the ground sloped downwards, the river swerved away to the north, and the wind picked up; a sigh at forty-five degrees to the field it stood in told us we were entering Dane Valley, the windiest place in Sinnoh and consequently the home of the Valley Windworks. I could see it below us, a forest of white turbines, rotating as if in slow motion – and at the heart of the cluster, a long, low grey building.

But there wasn't really much time to look at the wild beauty of the valley. The sky demanded my attention, and since it was full of raptors I was going to give in.

Dane Valley, for whatever reason, had the highest population of Staraptor in Sinnoh. There had been a breeding colony here for longer than there had been records of their existence; one flock seemed to live there permanently, and hundreds more flew in each spring to find mates.

Because of this, there was very little animal life left in Dane Valley.

If the name didn’t give it away, Staraptor were one of the biggest dangers in Sinnoh. Fond of blood, high winds and blood – in that order – raptors were a lot like men, in that they, as far as behavioural researchers could work out, bragged a lot to each other about how powerful they were. Unlike men, however, raptors always capitalised on opportunities to prove it, and since this involved diving out of the sky and killing anything that moved, they were treated with a certain amount of caution.

“Ashley,” I said, staring at the mass of wheeling birds in the sky. “Why the hell did they build anything here?”

“Because it's perfect for a wind farm,” Ashley replied, following my gaze. “But don't trouble yourself about the Staraptor. There's a covered tunnel.” He pointed, and I saw that there was: the road that wound down to the Windworks vanished into a hole that I hadn't spotted before, because it was covered in grass. This was presumably so that Staraptor couldn't see the people walking through the tunnel, and therefore didn't beat themselves to death by falling on them.

“Oh,” I said. I actually felt disappointed. I’d thought that this would be the first bit of real action that we'd encounter on our journey: a frantic dash down the slope of the valley, a big stick in one hand and a pistol in the other, risking certain death to evade the deadly raptors diving all around us...

“Pearl?” called Ashley, from the tunnel mouth. “Are you coming?”

“Oh. Uh, yeah!” I replied, and ran to catch up.

Curse you, reality, I thought as I went. Why aren't you a detective film?

---

“Good morning,” said Iago cheerily. “My name is Lyle Langley, and I represent a charity—”

At this word, the door was almost shut in his face, but Iago knew how to get someone's attention.

“—that aims to put a torpedo in every classroom in the country by this time next year,” he finished.

The man opened the door again.

“What?”

“A torpedo in every classroom,” Iago repeated. “Did you know that 99% of Sinnish students don't have ready access to a torpedo?”

“Why on earth would you want to give students torpedoes?” asked the man.

Iago grinned mentally. He'd taken the bait.

“The question is, why is our education system depriving our children of full learning opportunities?” he returned. “In the UK, every child in full-time state education has access to all the necessary learning apparatus – torpedoes, railguns, monorails—”

“Monorails?”

“We're building up to that,” Iago told him. “We thought we'd start small.”

“And torpedoes are small?” The man was getting quite worked up now, Iago noted with satisfaction. Things were going well.

“If you compare them to monorails, then yes. Statistics show that high-speed single-track train networks are less expensive than torpedoes.”

“I could have told you that.”

“Then do you want to get involved?” asked Iago triumphantly. “We could use men like you, Mister...”

“Bennet.”

“Mister Bennet, you've got exactly the sort of perspicacity and forward-thinking nature that we need at Torpedoes 4 Kidz. You could easily reach the higher echelons of our organisation.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I'm talking about cold, hard cash,” Iago said. “I'm talking about torpedoes, railguns, monorails – and a child's happiness. Can you put a price on a child's smile?”

“Well, I—”

“Can you?”

“I—”

“Can you?”

“I don't know—”

“All right then, how about you just donate,” Iago said, holding out his tin. “Whatever you can, that'd be great.”

The man stared at him for a long moment.

“Please get off my property,” he said at last, and slammed the door.

Iago turned away and strolled down the drive, snickering.

“Humans,” he said contemptuously. “So easy to confuse.”

He held up the watch he'd taken from the man's wrist during the confusion, examined it for a moment, and put it with the others.

“Right,” said Iago, rubbing his hands. “On to the next neighbourhood...”

---

Tristan was standing guard.

Now, Tristan did not appreciate this. For one thing, he suffered from hayfever, and standing outside anywhere within a fifteen-mile radius of Floaroma Town guaranteed that a hayfever sufferer would more or less melt into one fluid mess of bodily secretions. Consequently, his eyes and nose were streaming, and as he stood on the steel-roofed veranda of the Windworks, he wondered if it wouldn't just be better to give up and commit suicide by throwing himself to the raptors.

Just as he had this thought, however, things started to look up.

For Ashley Lacrimére and Pearl Gideon were walking out of the covered tunnel, and heading straight for him.

“Halt!” cried Tristan, as they got to the veranda. He let them get that far at least, because he had no wish to watch two people being brutally killed by giant hawks right in front of him. “Stay there! I’ve got... a really big frog, and I’m not afraid to use it!”

“Gurrrp,” croaked his Croagunk, hopping out from behind him.

Ashley and Pearl regarded the Croagunk without fear.

“That's... probably not going to stop us,” said Pearl.

“No,” agreed Ashley. “I mean, I have a gun.”

He did indeed, and as he produced it from his inside breast pocket, Tristan appreciated that the tables seemed to have turned.

“Ah,” he said. “Well – it's only a little gun.”

Ashley had a look at it, as if he hadn't seen it before.

“Yes,” he agreed. “But I think that if I shot you with it, you would still get hurt.”

“You have a gun?” asked Pearl. She didn't seem to be keeping up.

“Yes,” said Ashley patiently, keeping the gun trained on Tristan. “Because frequently I end up in dangerous situations, and a gun is quite necessary.”

While he spoke, Tristan's mind was racing; what could he do, what could he do...

“Look out!” he cried, an expression of horror crossing his face. “A Staraptor!”

So deeply was the fear of raptors ingrained into the Sinnish consciousness that both Ashley and Pearl looked; seizing his opportunity, Tristan grabbed his Croagunk, ran inside the Windworks and locked the door, feeling smug.

“There,” he said. “That's stopped you.”

And, wrapped in the warm glow of self-satisfaction, Tristan leaned against the door and resumed his guarding duties from the other side.

---

Mrs Periwinkle-Bazaar rose slowly to her feet, rubbing her head.

“What – what happened?” she wondered aloud.

It was close to dawn – faint bands of colour were appearing in the east – and she and her Gardening Society hit squad appeared to still be on the street.

The rest of them begun to rise, groaning and mumbling, and Periwinkle-Bazaar organised a swift retreat to the garden supplies shop, where they discussed how the hell they had come to be unconscious after charging at one unarmed young man with garden implements.

There was, they decided, no explanation that came to mind. However, they could be certain of one thing: Ashley Lacrimére lived up to his reputation.

Cutlerine
September 6th, 2011, 02:02 PM
And, like the beating of that hideous heart, you just can't get rid of me: I return from my trial by fire, marginally less sane and suffering from the remnants of yesterday's RSI. To celebrate my return, here is a long-overdue chapter.

Oh yeah, and if you like me, go and nominate my stories for Fic of the Month. And then vote for them.[/shameless self-promotion]

Chapter Six: In Which We Come to an Impasse

'When you next turn on your lights, spare a thought for where the power's coming from. We work tirelessly, day and night, under the constant threat of raptor attack, just to safeguard your electrical supply. Think bravery. Think Western Electric.'

—Advertisement for Sinnoh Western Electric



I stared at the spot where Tristan had been for a moment, and then rounded on Ashley.

“You call that spying, do you?” I asked. “Now everyone in there's going to know we're here!”

Ashley shrugged.

“It can't be helped,” he said. “There was no way of evading him. The tunnel entrance is there, and the Windworks are here.” He pointed, to show me exactly where the tunnel and the Windworks were.

“I'm not blind,” I replied irritably. “But he's going to tell all the other Galactic people we're here, and—”

“I sincerely doubt that,” said Ashley. “Come with me. Quietly.”

We crept across the covered veranda, past the door and up to a window; Ashley pointed within, and sure enough, there was Tristan, staring intently at the front door as if it might leap forwards and attack him.

“He... what?”

“He's not very clever,” explained Ashley. “And he was told to stand guard. So he's doing so – from the inside now, because we're on the outside.”

“He's an idiot,” I clarified.

“More or less.” Ashley began to walk around the edge of the Windworks.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

Ashley looked at me as if I were as stupid as Tristan.

“Pearl,” he said, “I'm going to spy on Galactic. I did already point this out to you.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

All right, maybe I was as stupid as Tristan, if I hadn't got that. Smarting, I followed Ashley around the side of the building, along the wide veranda that was built along its walls; presumably, it was here to protect people from the Staraptor that wheeled and screeched above. Every time we passed a window, Ashley would stop, inspect it and the room beyond – but every time, he'd shake his head and move on to the next one.

“What exactly are you looking for?” I asked him.

“A way in that won't make too much noise,” Ashley said. “I have no idea where Galactic's people are in the building, and—”

“Get down!” I hissed, and pushed him over; a moment later, a man in the inexpressibly weird uniform of Galactic walked past the window.

“Ow,” said Ashley calmly. “Could you please warn me before you do that in future?” He got back up slowly. “They were at the window?”

“Yeah.”

He nodded, as if this were very meaningful, and continued to the next window. This one apparently met with his approval, for he bent down and had a look at the catch.

“Hm. Easy.”

Ashley pulled something that I vaguely recognised as a lockpick from his pocket, poked around with it beneath the lower edge of the window and put it away again.

“What's the matter?” I asked. “Not as easy as you thought?”

“No,” replied Ashley, opening the window. “I just unlocked it.”

So saying, he climbed up and swung himself in. Then he turned, leaned on the windowsill, and fixed me with his serious eyes.

“Now Pearl,” he said. “We are about to spy on a dangerous criminal syndicate who want us dead. If you want to come in with me – and I would be perfectly happy to find that you did not – you must be absolutely silent, and you must do everything that I tell you to. Is that understood?”

This was it. This was where reality would finally do the decent thing and turn into a movie. I tried very hard to keep the glee out of my voice when I replied.

“Yeah,” I said, nodding vigorously. “I get it. Silent and obedient.”

“Good,” replied Ashley, stepping back from the window. “Now get in here.”

The room the window opened onto was, like most of the rooms in the Windworks, full of pieces of abstruse machinery and computers that waited in silence until they calculated the perfect moment to beep. Some of them even had a little green light on. Yes, I thought, this was more like what I'd imagined. High-end windmill controlling technology.

We crept through this room and Ashley pressed one ear to the door; he then signalled that he heard nothing, and opened it onto a brightly-lit linoleum corridor. I say it was a linoleum corridor because not only was the floor covered in the stuff, but also the walls, and the ceiling.

“That's weird,” I said, looking around. “Very weird.”

Ashley gave me a look of intense frustration.

“Oh yeah,” I whispered. “Silence. Sorry.”

He slipped down the corridor, investigated a left turning and then beckoned me to join him. I followed, looked around the corner and saw a woman standing guard, wearing the stupid Galactic spacesuit and looking like she knew she was a walking fashion disaster.

“She's about the same height as you,” murmured Ashley, almost noiselessly, as we retreated back around the corner to confer.

I stared at him.

“You mean...?”

“Of course I mean that,” he snapped. He was still murmuring, but he snapped at the same time – it was a neat trick.

“Are you...?”

“No,” he said. “I'm not. Unless there are any child members of Galactic, we'd be very lucky to find one that fits me.” He had another look around the corner. “Besides,” he added, “the uniform looks stupid.”

I let that one slide.

“How do we do this?” I asked.

“You will subdue her, and then steal her uniform.”

“Subdue her?”

“Fine. Hit her,” amended Ashley.

“I'm not hitting her!”

“If I hit her, there is an eighty per cent chance she won't even feel it.”

“Is that a real statistic?”

“Quite possibly. Now go and hit her. You did,” he reminded me, “promise to do everything I asked.”

I sighed, for which I received an admonishing look, and stepped around the corner. I crept up behind the Galactic woman, hoped that her skull wasn't as hard as it looked, and whacked her over the head.

“Cal, what was tha—?”

Oops. It seemed I hadn't hit hard enough.

I took a step back, shaking my sore hand and wondering what to do; the Galactic woman turned around and shoved a gun in my face. This showed pretty commendable presence of mind for someone who'd just been hit on the head, but I wasn't really in any mood to appreciate that.

“Who the hell are you?” she demanded to know. “And why did you just hit me?”

“Um – er—”

“Wait. You're Pearl Gideon!” cried the Galactic goon.

Oh, great. I'd forgotten about that 'kill on sight' order.

“Please don't shoot me,” I managed to say.

“I'm not going to,” replied the woman.

“That's good to know.”

“At least, not yet.”

That was less encouraging.

“I am going,” continued the woman, “to take you to Commander Mars.”

“Who?”

I didn't receive an answer; the woman just grabbed my arm, spun me around and stuck the barrel of the gun into the back of my head.

“Walk,” she ordered, and, as I wanted to remain outside my brains if at all possible, I obeyed.

Though I did curse Ashley very mightily as we walked past the spot where he'd once been.

---

Iago now had seventeen watches, one from every residential neighbourhood in Floaroma. His route had been worked out carefully beforehand: he never went twice down the same street, so that at no point would he run the risk of any of his marks spotting him. (Provided, of course, that they behaved like good little idiots and stayed at home to call the police – or failed to notice the missing watches at all. Either way was fine by Iago.)

Now, not daring to collect any more for fear of being recognised, he stopped in a park and hid in a bush, to give himself some time to run through his vast memory and locate the name and address of a suitable fence to sell the watches on to. Iago knew a great many fences, and the search took him a full ten minutes; eventually, he decided on a local crook with whom he'd had dealings in the past: namely, one Jake the Shaker. This was not an epithet that denoted cowardice, as one might expect, but one that instead made reference to the man's endearing habit of literally shaking his enemies to death.

Iago had witnessed it once. It was not a pretty sight.

But, whatever misgivings he might have regarding Mr Shaker, he was the only fence in Floaroma, and so he went in search of him.

---

“Are you going to kill me?” I asked.

“If you keep asking, then definitely,” snapped the Galactic woman. “Jesus, don't you ever shut up?”

We'd been walking for a while now, through what seemed like miles and miles of identical linoleum corridors; I'd got hopelessly lost a while ago, and sincerely hoped that Ashley hadn't, because I couldn't really think of anyone else who might pop up and rescue me before the Windworks got redecorated with the contents of my head.

“I'll shut up if you promise not to kill me,” I suggested.

“How about you shut up, and I don't kill you right now?” asked the woman, jabbing me firmly in the back of the head with her gun.

On further reflection, I thought it best if I stopped talking.

Soon, we came to a set of sturdy doors, guarded by two more Galactics, who, like the one who'd taken me prisoner, seemed to know who I was. To my surprise, I recognised one of them as well.

“Liza,” I said. “Hello.”

My captor paused.

“Liza, you know her?”

“She attempted to kill my partner with a mushroom,” replied Liza, deadpan.

“With a... mushroom?”

“She very nearly succeeded,” said Liza gravely. She didn't seem surprised to see me here at all.

“It's not really how it sounds,” I explained. “It was just this – oh, this huge crazy misunderstanding, and—”

“Shut up,” said the woman with the gun at the back of my head. “Go through the doors.”

I did, and entered what appeared to me to be the bridge of a spaceship. It was a great semicircular room, a single curved window running around the edge; there were computer terminals all over the place, with lights and buttons and other input devices that looked so technical that I doubted they could be named by anyone who wasn't a Star Trek nerd.

A lone technician was working at the biggest terminal, under the direction of a severe-looking woman with red hair and the impossibly large cat that strolled around next to her. Off to their right was a man who appeared to be the offspring of Albert Einstein and a rather burly clown, with a pale face, wild hair and a bright red nose.

I blinked, and pinched myself. Nope. They were real, and I wasn't asleep. It was just that – well, they didn't look that much like criminals, and I could have sworn that the severe woman had once taught me German in high school.

She looked up at our arrival, stared at me for a moment, and then said:

“Pearl Gideon?”

“Yes, ma'am!” cried the Galactic who'd brought me here. “She was sneaking around the Windworks!”

“So, Lacrimére shows his hand at last,” said the severe woman, steepling her fingers and looking over them in a distinctly sinister manner. “You are working for him, I presume?”

“No!” I cried indignantly. “I'm working with him.”

The severe woman raised her eyebrows.

“I sincerely doubt that.” She indicated a swivel chair. “Sit down.”

Since there was a gun and a Purugly the size of a small lion in the room, I did.

“You may leave, Miss – whatever your name is.” She waved a hand, and the woman who'd captured me left.

“I am one of the four commanders of Team Galactic,” she announced self-importantly. “My name is Mars.”

“What about me?” asked the mad scientist/clown in the corner. “I, whose genius even our glorious leader recognises—!”

“You're a consultant,” replied Mars shortly. “You are of no consequence.”
“Sorry,” I said, “but... you aren't a German teacher, are you?”

Mars looked surprised, and the man working at the terminal stole an odd glance at her. The Purugly took exception to this, and growled at him; he coughed and hurriedly resumed his work.

“You are not the one asking the questions,” she snapped.

“Sorry.”

I judged I was about thirty seconds from being mauled by a big cat, and resolved to adjust my attitude accordingly.

“What would you like to know?”

“I want to know what the Diamond knows about us,” replied Mars.

“The Diamond?”

I didn't know anything about any Diamond. And I certainly didn't know anything about a diamond with the mental capacity to know things.

“The Diamond, Gideon, the Diamond!” cried Mars, agitated. “Lacrimére!”

“Ashley?”

Why was it that everyone I met thought I was an idiot?

The mad scientist guy stepped forwards with a low snigger, which was singularly disturbing.

“Ashley Lacrimére is known to the law enforcement agencies and criminals of the world as the Diamond,” he said condescendingly. “Haven't you Googled him? He runs a consulting detective agency, like the late Mister Holmes. The Diamond Detection Agency.”

Maybe I was an idiot, or maybe everyone around me was an idiot – but I was certain that Sherlock Holmes was fictional, and said so.

“She's right,” said Mars. “He is.”

“He most certainly is not—”

“Just – just get back in your corner!” Mars snapped, and when the strange scientist had complied, grumbling, she turned back to me. “Look, what I was trying to say was: what does Lacrimére know about us?”

“You don't run this organisation very well, do you?” I observed, with approximately five times as much bravado as I actually felt.

“Silence!” thundered Mars. “Answer my questions!”

If the poor technician had been working all day under these conditions, I thought, he deserved a medal.

“All I know is that he knows you're called Galactic,” I replied, eyeing the Purugly. “And that you're trying to kill us. And that you're based in Eterna.”

Mars looked slightly taken aback.

“Is that all?” she queried.

“Yeah.” I nodded, to show that this really was all we knew, and that she had no reason to attack me with her cat. “It is.” I paused. “Can I ask a question now?”

Mars looked at her watch.

“I suppose,” she said. “I'm going to be here all afternoon, and there's nothing to do until we're done.”

“So you're not going to kill me?”

“Is that your question? Because it's rather stupid.”

Mars fixed me with a pair of glittering eyes, and I was reminded unpleasantly that she was a high-up in a criminal organisation, and therefore probably had no qualms about murder.

“No,” I replied nervously. “That's not it.”

“Then...?”

“Why are you here?”

Mars shrugged.

“I wouldn't worry about that, if I were you,” she said. “You'll be dead soon, and it'll be the Diamond's problem.”

“Please?”

If I was going to die, I might as well die in the knowledge that I'd solved a bit of the mystery.

“We are here on the orders of our glorious leader,” replied Mars.

“Those orders being...?”

Mars' face darkened.

“I seem to remember that you asked if you could ask a question, not some,” she said. “You've asked it, and got an answer. If it wasn't the answer you wanted, tough.”

“Mars?” said the scientist.

“Not now, Charon, I'm talking—”

“No, really,” he said, and now I detected a certain note of urgency in his voice. Mars did too, and we exchanged a glance – then turned to look at the mad scientist.

“Good morning,” said Ashley. “Or good afternoon, I suppose, since it seems we've passed midday.”

“Ashley?” I cried, at the same time as Mars said:

“Diamond?”

He was standing there with his little revolver against Charon's head, which was surprising for two reasons: one, I was pretty sure there was only one way in here, and two, I'd never imagined he could ever be so heroic. It might have been the shock of it all, but I suddenly noticed how attractive he actually was.

Out of the two of us, Mars recovered first.

“You haven't chosen a very valuable hostage,” she said. “I don't care if you kill him.”

“What? I care!” cried Charon.

“Your so-called glorious leader might think differently,” I pointed out, feeling pleased with myself. Mars glared at me, and Ashley nodded.

“Quite right, Pearl. You played your part admirably.”

“I did? I mean, I did. Yes.”

Mars looked from me to Ashley and back again.

“What? What?”

“The part of the helpless prisoner,” Ashley explained. “Pearl is a world-class actress, used by police forces around the world in sting operations.”

I ground my teeth. Ashley was doing that thing again; abruptly, I forgot that I'd ever thought him handsome. On the plus side, I was still alive, so I thought I'd forgive him this once.

“This is a set-up?” asked Mars, looking around in horror.

“Does – does this mean I'm free to go?” asked the technician at the desk in a timid voice.

“It certainly does,” Ashley replied. “After you've answered some questions, of course.”

Mars glared at him.

“I guess you win,” she said, sounding resigned. “I always knew – Jackson, hold that girl!”

And with a startling burst of speed, the big cat leaped onto my chest, tipped my chair over backwards, and pinned me to the ground with its wide paws.

I stared at its little yellow eyes, and it bared a set of impressive fangs back at me.

“Um... Ashley?” I said, trying hard not to sound pathetic. “Help?”

“And now, if I'm not very much mistaken,” said Mars, drawing herself up to her full height and sounding smug, “I've just created an impasse.”

---

Iago strolled down the street, feeling pleased with himself and counting his earnings. Since he was a Kadabra, he knew within half a second of looking at the notes that he'd acquired precisely fifty-one thousand dollars and seven cents – but he liked to count it anyway. It made him feel richer.

The Pokédollar was not a particularly valuable unit of currency. There were around eighty of them to the US dollar, and so fifty-one thousand wasn't that much, really.

But considering that Iago had withdrawn his entire savings in order to pay for the bus tickets to Eterna, it was quite a lot to him. It was enough to pay back Ashley and much more besides. In fact, since Ashley was, for all his intellect, very good at wasting the not inconsiderable income his agency generated, Iago's windfall was probably going to leave him in charge of the group's finances for a while.

And that was the sort of responsibility that he liked.

“There's only one thing to do at a time like this,” he told himself, “and that's—”

“It's him! Lyle Langley!”

Iago's airy good mood turned to lead, and plummeted several hundred feet. He turned around, and beheld a policeman, in the ear of whom the familiar figure of Mister Bennet was shouting. As he watched, the former left the latter behind, and hailed the Kadabra in a loud voice.

“Hey, you!”

“Damn it,” said Iago, and ran.

---

“So,” I said nervously. “Is there a way out of this situation that doesn't get me killed?”

There had been about three minutes of utter silence since Jackson the Purugly had leaped on me. No one had spoken; no one had moved. Well, Jackson had yawned and dribbled on me, but I didn't count that.

“This is why I work alone, Pearl,” sighed Ashley. “I only have plots enough for one.”

“I have a solution,” said Charon. “You could get that gun away from my head. It's my considered opinion as a scientist that this would end the stand-off—”

“You're babbling,” said Mars. “Don't do that.”

“I'm sorry.” Charon fidgeted. “It's the stress.”

We lapsed back into silence. Jackson shifted its weight a little, and almost dislocated my shoulder; I knew Purugly were heavy, but this one seemed to weigh about sixteen tons.

“I suppose I'm not free to go, then,” sighed the technician.

“No. Get back to work,” Mars ordered, and he did.

“Someone's going to have to move eventually,” said Charon anxiously. “It might as well be you, Mister Lacrimére—”

“Do you want me to shoot you right now?” asked Ashley.

Charon shut up.

A few moments later, Ashley's hand moved stealthily towards his pocket.

“Whatever you're going after, don't,” said Mars immediately, and his hand froze. “Or I'll kill the girl.” She took a step closer to him. “Now hand it over to me—”

“Don't come any closer,” said Ashley, tightening his grip on the pistol. “Or I'll kill the scientist. Or is he a clown?”

“I'm an eminent scientist!” protested Charon.

“Obviously not that eminent, or I'd have heard of you,” pointed out Ashley. “Now be silent.”

Quiet descended over the room once more.

“Sooner or later, someone's going to come in here,” Mars warned Ashley. “Perhaps a grunt, who might shoot you. Then I could have both you and Gideon out of the way.”

“Er, Ashley, this probably isn't the time to be proud,” I said. “I'd quite like to survive.”

“Oh, be quiet,” he retorted crossly. “You're the one who wanted to come with me. And if you hadn't, I would have succeeded here.”

“You are so arrogant—!”

“You are an idiot!”

“And I have your gun,” said Mars calmly.

Ashley and I looked. She did, having purloined it while he was distracted.

“Pearl, you distracted me—”

“I think you probably ought to stop fighting amongst yourselves,” said Mars, putting the barrel of Ashley's gun squarely against his chest. “You're about to die.”

Ashley sighed, which I thought was a bit of an underreaction for someone who was about to become dead.

“Pearl, if I have the option of returning as a ghost, I am going to haunt you for the rest of your life.”

“Which will be about fifteen seconds,” Mars informed him. “Since as soon as you're dead, I'll kill her.”

And then she pulled the trigger.

Cutlerine
September 22nd, 2011, 05:10 AM
My computer, the comely Sabine, is now back in my hands, and henceforth you crazy people who are amused by my scribblings can look forward to further chapters from me, in both this and that other one I do. Whatever it's called.

Chapter Seven: In Which We Become Acquainted with What May Well be the True Nature of Genius

'Unfortunately, wisdom is not a corollary of intelligence. The most intelligent people in the world tend to be vain, arrogant – and complete bratchnies to anyone with an IQ under 150.'
—Tserrof Pmug, Intelligence is Overrated

Mars pulled the trigger, the revolver's barrel pressed against Ashley's chest—

Click!

I stared. Mars stared. Charon stared. The technician stared. Even Jackson the Purugly stared.

And Ashley pushed past Mars, flung himself with all his might into Jackson's flank, and cried:

“Get up and run!”

Ashley hit Jackson with enough force that the Purugly's tails uncoiled reflexively from around his waist; an impressively large belly flopped out into place, and the big Pokémon fell heavily onto his side, winded.

I didn't need any encouragement: free, I jumped up as fast as I could, yanked Ashley back onto his feet and burst out of the double doors. We ran past the grunts guarding the doors, leaving them rather surprised; they peered inside the operations room to see what had been going on – and were flattened by the doors as they flew open, forced almost off their hinges by several hundred pounds of tail-corseted cat.

“Catch them! Now!” thundered Mars, and Ashley shoved me hard with his shoulder, just as a ripple in the air flickered past; I almost lost my balance, but used the momentum to duck around a corner instead, and kept going.

“What – the hell just – happened!” I demanded, in between ragged breaths.

“That door!” cried Ashley, and all but threw me through it; a second later, I turned and slammed it in Jackson's broad face. I heard him yowl and back himself up for a second attempt; I was about to try and hold the door when Ashley hissed: “Don't bother! Just get out of here!”

We were in another of those rooms that were filled with mysterious machinery and enigmatic engines, and Ashley was darting between them towards a window; I followed, kicked over some sort of computer as I went in the vague hope it would slow someone down and then tripped over my own feet trying to jump up onto the windowsill.

At the same moment, Jackson smashed through the door with such force that he rammed one paw clean through it; it might have been funny, but he ripped it loose with such power and savagery that I couldn't help what might happen if he applied the strength of that paw to my spine.

“Quickly!” cried Ashley, from the outside. “Get out!”

I climbed to my feet, wondered briefly why I was so clumsy and swung myself out over the windowsill, just as Jackson cleared the computer I'd kicked at a single bound. Mars appeared behind him, Ashley's useless revolver still in her hand, and she shouted at him to get after us. I tried to shut the window, but the Purugly was faster; thankfully, he was too fat, and got stuck halfway through. I watched him squirm there for a moment, stuck my tongue out at him, and hurried off after Ashley, towards the front of the building and the safety of the tunnel.

“A good getaway,” muttered Ashley, as we reached the front veranda. “I stole Tristan's keys, so they can't unlock the door to get out any time soon. We'll be fine.”

I stared at him in shock.

“What kind of detective are you?”

Unexpectedly, he grinned back.

“The best kind,” he said, and started out across the grass towards the tunnel.

“That's so not true!” I shouted after him, and ran to catch up; above us, the raptors whirled and screeched, and I glanced up – to see about four of them suddenly detach themselves by the firmament and fall down towards us like murderous stars. “Ashley!” I yelled, but he had already reached the tunnel; he turned and looked, and motioned for me to run faster. I wanted to tell him I already knew that, but I didn't have the breath to; the Staraptor were dropping like stones, unbelievably fast, and curving their flight to intercept me. As I ran, they doubled, trebled, quadrupled in size, until I could see the whites of their fierce shiny eyes and the red of their sharp crests—

—and then I was in the tunnel, and three raptors peeled away to rise back up, their tiny brains unable to work out where I'd suddenly disappeared to. The fourth smashed head-first into the ground, rolled beak over heels and ended up on its back, wings spread wide and staring blankly at the sky.

“Thanks a bunch,” I said to Ashley, panting. “Really nice of you to help.”

“You were fine,” he replied dismissively. “I have had this entire situation under control for some time now.”

I cast a glance at the raptor; it looked back at me with an expression that indicated it was as angry at me as I was at Ashley. Thankfully, it didn't seem to be able to get up, what with its wings weighing about eighty pounds each and all, so I returned my gaze to the detective.

“You planned this? You so didn't! You were just lucky that your gun wasn't loaded—”

“I deliberately set up this situation to give me time to look around the room for clues—”

“Oh, come on,” I said, fixing Ashley with the hardest look I could muster, “you couldn't do that unless you had the foresight of Zero! It's completely impossible!”

Zero was some sort of criminal mastermind who had plotted the destruction of the world a few months back; I hadn't really followed the details, but it was on the news a lot. The point was, he was meant to have been able to predict apparently random events far in advance, and plan accordingly.

“And who's to say I don't?” he asked angrily. “You? You couldn't even get this spying right!”

“I thought you orchestrated it?” I replied. “If you were controlling everything, wouldn't you have known that I was going to get caught?”

Ashley blinked.

“I – I can prove that I set it all up,” he said eventually.

“You're not answering the question—”

“I can prove it!” he shouted.

We might have argued further, but at that moment the raptor figured out how to flip itself over, and started waddling towards us with evil in its eyes. Behind it, I could see that Liza and another grunt had reached the veranda, along with Jackson; it seemed like all the evil forces that Dane Valley could get together were being sent after us.

“Maybe we should continue this elsewhere?” suggested Ashley.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Definitely.”

And we started to run again, down the tunnel and away from the cat, the bird and the angry woman with guns.

Jackson was surprisingly fast for something so big and so fat; he caught up with the raptor in just a few bounds. The raptor took exception to him trying to muscle in on his kill, and pecked him on the head, drawing blood. This was apparently an insult no Purugly could stand, and soon the tunnel behind us was blocked by a furious duel between hawk and tiger; I didn't see much of it, being a bit busy fleeing for my life, but I heard the screeches and the yowls, and heard the ripping of flesh and snapping of teeth. A few feathers floated towards us, and quite a while later I was to discover a splash of bird blood on the back of my jeans, which stubbornly refused to wash out.

I think we owed the raptor our lives. If it hadn't picked a fight with Jackson, Liza and her colleague would have caught and shot us in moments. As it was, they got stuck behind a fight that no one wanted to go near, and which they couldn’t risk shooting at for fear of hitting Mars' Purugly.

And so we got away out of the tunnel, headed off the track and ended up stumbling through the woods for a while, with the predictable result that we didn't get back to Floaroma for another forty-five minutes.

One reason it took so long was that we both agreed that we had some arguing to catch up on. Once we were sure we'd got away and we could stop running, we slowed to a walk and Ashley started to tell me how he could prove he set the situation up.

“I have the information I gathered while there,” he explained. “The computer screen the technician was working at showed that he was diverting electricity from the grid and passing it off to some unknown source. Furthermore, there were white vans parked at the back of the Windworks, each one containing what appeared to be some sort of battery; these had been wired into the electrical supply.

“I noted that Charon's suit was made by Stanton's, a tailor only to be found in Eterna; Mars' shoes, on the other hand, had a thin layer of grey dust over them, indicating that recently she visited Veilstone City. Her accent suggests she comes from a middle-class family in the centre of the country, so perhaps she was visiting home or relatives.

“Finally, unless her hair was done abroad, the styling suggested it was the work of the Eterna-based Salon Dimanche.”

I raised an unimpressed eyebrow, but I can't raise one on its own and so ended up raising both.

“Basically, you found out nothing we didn't already know. They're based in Eterna.”

Actually, I was impressed – I hadn't noticed any of that – but I wasn't going to give Ashley the satisfaction of knowing.

“Yes, but you see that I was gathering information from the situation I created—”

“Liar,” I interrupted. “Why can't you admit you just made a mistake and picked up some extra information while we were in that stand-off?”

“Because it's not true!” protested Ashley. “I'm telling the truth! Just because you may not be intelligent enough to conceive of that scenario—”

“Oh, please! Will you stop going on about how clever you are? How old are you, anyway?”

I seemed to hit a nerve there, because Ashley suddenly fell silent, hunched his shoulders and walked away without looking back. If he'd been a cartoon, there would have been a little thundercloud over his head. I almost laughed – it was so childish – but then realised that, coming from me, that would be incredibly hypocritical, since I was also fairly childish.

“Well, go on then!” I shouted after him. “I don't need some jumped-up little bratchny like you to solve this mystery!”

Ashley didn't reply; he stalked off through the trees and vanished.

That was the second reason why it took so long to get back to Floaroma. He'd known the way, and I hadn't; when at last I finally arrived back on the path, he was waiting by the arch of flowers that framed the road back to town.

“I am only here to make sure you don't get lost out here,” he said. “I don't want anything more to do with you, Pearl. Here's a train ticket. It will secure you passage back to Jubilife. When you get there, go home, write your essay, apologise to Stephanie and stay there.”

I stared at the ticket, and then at him.

“What?” I asked at length. “I'm not abandoning this mystery.”

“You have made it quite clear that you hate me,” said Ashley. “And what's more, you haven't done anything except interfere with my work, and then tell me that it was all a coincidence. I don't want to work with you.”

“I don't much like you either, Ashley, but aren't we both in danger? Aren't you, me and Iago in this together?”

“We aren't the Three Musketeers,” retorted Ashley. “No one is paying me for this, so my only motivation is self-preservation and the fact that it's an interesting puzzle. Besides, you won't die. Iago and I will be more than sufficient to draw their attention away from you.”

“What if—?”

“There are no more relevant questions that you could ask,” said Ashley formally. “Goodbye, Pearl Gideon.”

I glared at him, then slowly and deliberately tore up the ticket.

“I'm not going anywhere,” I growled. “I don't know what kind of people you usually deal with, Ashley, but they're nowhere near as stubborn as me.”

He looked bored.

“As you wish,” he said. “Do not return to Jubilife, then. We'll see how long your money lasts. Or how many lectures and essays you can miss until you're thrown out of university.”

I paused. He had me there. I wasn't really very well-suited to uni – but I'd promised my parents I would get through it. And I really didn't want to have to go home and tell them I'd been kicked out.

“No,” I said. “I'm not leaving. Someone wants me dead and I want to know why.”

“Then I'll tell you when I find out,” replied Ashley. “I will say no more to you.”
He turned on his heel and walked away.

I stared after him for a moment, then ran to catch up.

“Hey! Wait!”

He didn't even acknowledge my existence; he just kept walking down the lane, back into Floaroma.

“Ashley!” I grabbed his shoulder, but somehow he slipped free and kept walking as if I wasn't there. “Oh, come on,” I said. “This is really childish.”

Still no answer.

“Fine,” I said. “You can't ignore me forev—”

“Oh, thank God you're back!” cried Iago, rising out of a bush. “I've been hiding here for about half an hour now. I was beginning to think they might catch me.”

Ashley sighed.

“You were found out?”

“I can pay you back for the bet, that's the important thing,” Iago said. “But, er, yes, it seems I might have underestimated the intellect of these small-town types.” He noticed me. “Hey, Pearl! How was the Windworks?”

“Windy, angry, and chasey,” I replied thoughtfully, “in that order. I guess the scamming didn't go so well?”

“I have the money, but there's also a cop running around trying to arrest me,” explained Iago. “I, er – I am slightly out of shape when it comes to grifting. Hey, you wouldn't want to team up with me for a two-man con, would you? I was thinking we could pull the Priest Heist in Jubilife—”

“Now's not really the time,” I said. “We have an Ashley situation.”

Iago looked from me to him and back again.

“He isn't talking to you?”

“No.”

“He wants you to go home?”

“Yeah.”

“And you don't want to?”

“Uh-huh. He's used to getting his own way. Aren't you, Ashley?”

“You really are a foul little creature, aren't you?” replied the detective.

“That means 'yes'.” Iago climbed more fully out of the bush. “Ignore him, he'll get over it once he's bottled up all his emotions and he's gone all calm again.”
“That doesn't sound very healthy,” I observed.

“That's what you humans say, isn't it?” asked Iago. “Kadabra think differently. For us, we take our negative emotions, trap them at the back of our minds and let them out selectively when we need to hurt someone. It's like shaking up a bottle of fizzy cola and opening the top, only instead of cola, it's raw anger that melts your brain.”

He was surprisingly amiable; I put it down to the money he'd got, and the relief that someone had finally turned up to save him.

“Only,” he went on, voice darkening, “I can't do that, so I get drunk instead and knife humans in back alleys.”

“We're going,” announced Ashley. “Back to Eterna. It seems there's nothing to be done here.”

“By train?”

“Yes. Give me your money, I'll buy tickets and a suitcase.”

“A suitcase?” I asked.

Iago sighed.

“It's necessary,” he said. “You'll see.”

I did. Half an hour later, we were sitting on the only platform, waiting for the early afternoon train to Eterna – and at our feet was a rather talkative suitcase.

“It smells of human,” the suitcase complained. “Where did you get this?”

“A shop,” replied Ashley.

“That'll be why,” said the suitcase. “They've probably touched it. With their hands. The same hands that are stained red with the blood of my brothers and sisters—”

I put my feet on the suitcase, and it gave a muffled cry of pain.

“Suitcases don't talk,” I said, and leaned back to wait for the train.

When the train arrived and we got on, the guard asked what was in the suitcase, since it was quivering so much; I told him it was a captured shipment of Mexican jumping beans, and that we were taking it to be burned at the Eterna Bean Pound. That seemed to do the trick and he let us through.

“See?” I said to Ashley pointedly. “I can be clever.”

Mexican jumping beans have been illegal in Sinnoh for a very long time; as a child, I'd been friends with the local bean dealer, and was the envy of all my other friends until they got Pokémon, which, to be honest, outclass jumping beans by a country mile. Despite my ingenuity, I didn't get a response, and took my seat next to him with a sigh.

The first fifteen minutes of the journey stretched out forever, since no one was talking to me; after that, though, I thought it was probably safe to let Iago out of the suitcase, and I hauled it off to the toilet so I could release him unobserved. Unfortunately, a woman in her fifties was walking past when we exited at the same time, which led to a slightly disgusting misunderstanding on her part. Which I'm way too embarrassed to even think about, let alone write.

When we got to Eterna, Ashley immediately sat down on the nearest bench and started fiddling with his smartphone, which didn't really fit my idea of what private detectives did.

“What's he doing?” I asked Iago, standing around and feeling useless.

“Looking up the registration numbers of those vans, I guess,” he replied, for he had been told all about our misadventure at the Windworks during the train ride. “If they're legit, it's pretty easy to trace them to their owners. Then you get an address, and boom! We find where Team Galactic are based.”

“OK,” I said. “What do we do in the meantime?”

Iago shrugged.

“Ashley doesn't need me until it's time to go there, and he doesn't want you.” He thought for a moment. “Food? Beer? I have money.”

He produced a black wallet from the folds of his tail.

I looked at Iago, then at Ashley.

“Yeah, all right,” I agreed, and left Ashley to it.

--

If you remember the Important Man, you will remember that the last time we encountered him, he was sitting in an office.

This was no longer the case.

He was walking in a meditative sort of way around a certain newly-furnished floor in a certain building in a certain city, and while he walked, he listened to the words of a certain blue-haired man, who appeared to be functioning as his guide.

“This is very impressive,” said the Important Man. “But have you given any thought as to how we'll actually get them up here?”

The blue-haired man hesitated. He did not look like the sort of man who usually hesitated, but hesitate he now did.

“Ah. No, sir.”

“You should fix that,” said the person who had once been sitting on the desk, and now followed close behind the Important Man. Since we once knew them solely for sitting on said desk, we shall henceforth refer to them as the Desk Sitter. “Either move this floor down, or find a way of moving them up.”

“Yes, thank you,” muttered the Important Man impatiently. Then, to the blue-haired man: “You have to find a way. Install a service elevator or something.”

“Couldn't we catch them in Poké Balls and move them—”

“Yes, of course we could,” said the Important Man. “That is, if you expect that it will actually be possible to do that.”

His tone was scathing and his eyes cold; the blue-haired man quailed before him. It was one of those classic villain-and-underling moments.

“Spare us this nonsense,” groaned the Desk Sitter. “It pains us to see such... stupidity.”

The Important Man ignored them.

“Just make the changes,” he snapped at the blue-haired man.

“Yes, of course, Mister Maragos,” replied this man in a wheedling sort of voice. “I'll go and think up a solution straight away – a service elevator or something—”

“Very good.”

And the man whom we now know as Mister Maragos walked away, down some corridors and back to his office.

---

“Who was meant to be keeping watch?”

The members of Team Galactic who had invaded the Windworks remained silent.

“I asked a question,” said Mars in a low voice. “And if I don't get an answer to that question, I'm going to start making assumptions. I might assume that you were meant to be on watch,” she said, pointing at the nearest grunt. “Or you.” She paused, and Jackson got to his heavy feet behind her, wound his tails tightly about his waist and growled.

He was, the grunts noted, very big indeed.

“And if I say you were keeping watch, then – well, isn't it obvious?”

It was obvious. Jackson yawned a prodigious yawn, and exposed about a hectare of tooth.

“So if any of you have anything to say...” Mars paused again; she had learned the benefits of pausing at the last training exercise she'd had. “Well, now's the time to say it.”

As one, thirty hands moved to point towards one man, standing at the back of the crowd. One man, who pointed feebly to the person next to him.

“What's your name?” asked Mars, moving through the ranks of grunts to get to him. Jackson followed close behind, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea for him and his mistress.

“Tristan, ma'am – Tristan Shandy—”

“Who's your partner, Shandy?”

It was company policy to send grunts in pairs, one with a Pokémon and one with a gun; it had worked for the Teams Magma and Aqua in Hoenn before they were inexplicably removed from the face of the earth, and the boss was one of those rare people who actually learn from their predecessors.

“Radley, ma'am – Liza Radley...”

“Then, Shandy, I suggest you pick up Miss Radley and go and kill Lacrimére and Gideon,” Mars said. Her eye glittered in a dangerous sort of way; it was like looking into the soul of a shark. “Otherwise I might just hold you personally responsible for letting them get in here, and therefore them escaping with rather a lot of valuable information. Of course, if you think I'm being unreasonable, you're welcome to talk to Samantha in Human Resources.”

Tristan looked relieved, and not a little confused.

“Just be aware that Samantha in Human Resources is entirely fictional, and has no power over me. But talking to her may well comfort you as you contemplate spending the rest of your miserable existence as part of Jackson's excess fat reserves.”

Jackson growled menacingly, then broke off, puzzled. Had his mistress just called him fat?

Tristan, for his part, merely gulped.

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Mrowr,” mewed Jackson indignantly, which may well have meant something along the lines of 'I'm not fat, it's glandular'.

“Get moving,” said Mars coldly, and swept away; Jackson remained a moment, looking upset, then shook his heavy head and followed her. “We're leaving now,” Mars snapped. “We can't afford to be caught. Get the vans ready; I want to be out of here five minutes ago.”

Immediately, the grunts scattered to go about their various duties; within moments, there were only two left.

Tristan stared blankly into space for nearly a minute, pale and trembling, before he turned to the space-suited woman standing near him.

“So,” he said weakly. “Shall – shall we get going, then?”

Liza raised one eyebrow into an arch of such perfect acerbity that it would have made a lemon weep, and said:

“I don't know why I follow you around.”

“Because... I'm handsome?”

“I doubt it.” Liza sighed. “Come on, then,” she said. “I suppose we'd better get moving. Do you still have the taxi?”

Tristan looked uncomfortable – or, since he already looked very uncomfortable, more so.

“No,” he admitted. “I dumped it in Floaroma.”

Liza closed her eyes.

“It'll have been impounded by now,” she said. “If you left it where I saw you park it, that is.” She sighed again, this time recalling a ruined flowerbed and smashed fence. “Fine. We'll take a train, but you're paying for it.”

“That's not—”

“I'll buy you a Kinder Egg.”

“Deal.”

And they left, Tristan feeling apprehensive but vaguely triumphant, and Liza feeling whatever strange emotions it was that she felt in that lonely, muddled head of hers.

---

Half an hour later, a secretive-looking gentleman knocked furtively on the door of the Windworks.

“Who is it?” called a shaky voice from within. “Is it the police?”

“Ah, better than that, monsieur!” cried the gentleman enthusiastically. “It is the International Police, and I am here to arrest Mademoiselle Liza Radley!”

The door opened a crack, and a long sliver of pale face became visible, punctuated by one bespectacled eye.

“What?”

“My name is Looker,” the gentleman said. “And I am on the trail of Mademoiselle Radley, who is, I am informed, right here in this building!”

“I don't know anything about any Madama-whatever Radley,” the face said, “but there were some nasty thugs in weird spacesuits here a while ago. I called the police when they left—”

“And naturally they will come, monsieur,” replied Looker. “But I, I am a member of the International Police, and I am of course, roads ahead of them, as you say.”

“I think you mean 'streets',” the man replied, “but they're gone. These two young people came and chased him off.”

Looker took a step back and made an exaggerated face of surprise.

“He has been here already?” he cried. “The Diamond has been and gone?”

“What? Who is this Diamond guy that everyone keeps talking about—?”

“So he was telling the truth,” Looker muttered frenetically, turning away and striking a thoughtful pose. “Mademoiselle Radley, she is mixed up with the Galactic... Pardieu! There is much to be investigated here...”

And he walked away, leaving a very confused scientist behind him.

Silent Memento
September 22nd, 2011, 08:50 AM
I thought that your computer was named Ophelia - or is this a totally different computer you're talking about?

I'll be combing through some grammatical errors:

“And what's more, you haven't done anything except interfere with me work, and then tell me that it was all coincidence. I don't want to work with you.”

There's a small typo with the first bolded part. The second part would sound a lot better if you added an "a" between the two bolded words or turned "coincidence" into "coincidental".

"It's like shaking up a bottle of fizzy cola and opening the top, only instead of cola it's raw anger that melts your brain.”

I'm not certain if the bolded words need a comma between them, but they look sort of awkward on their own.

“We can't afford to be caught. Get the vans ready; I want to be out of here five minutes ago.”

Neither of the bolded words fit with each other. Maybe you could use the word "wanted" or reword the sentence as "I want to be out of here in five minutes".

Either way, I'm pretty impressed with the character development. Jackson looked impressive in his first two chapters (although it makes me shudder when I think of the next admin and what her Pokemon can do...)

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
September 22nd, 2011, 11:03 PM
Noted and changed - in the first two instances. 'I want to be out of here five minutes ago' is a stock phrase often used in films and suchlike. Have you never come across it before? People say it when they want to be out of here really really SOON!

And Ophelia went blind a long time ago; the backlight to her screen broke, so now I have the vastly superior Sabine at my disposal instead.

As ever, thanks for taking the time to read; there probably won't be any more chapters until Sunday at the earliest, since I have a major art commission to take care of - but it's still nice to get something back up online.

Cutlerine
October 1st, 2011, 07:24 AM
And hast thou slain the Real Life beast?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
He chortled in his joy.

I'm back, though for how long I cannot say; things are still busy. However, I do have a chapter for y'all, so here it is. We're beginning to get into the meat of the story now. Mmm. Meat.

Chapter Eight: In Which Liza Continues Her Quest, and Pearl is Asked a Difficult Question

'For about two months, the tragedy of the Dennel family was famous throughout the country. In 1939, during a heavy thunderstorm, an unknown murderer chopped and sliced his way through six of the seven members of the family and the four servants. The only survivor, fourteen-year-old Ellen Dennel, escaped into the surrounding forest, where she was stalked and slowly driven insane by a Dustox. Today, the story is forgotten, and all that remains are the ghost stories.'
—Erik Mulheim, Things that Lurk in the Dark


“...and that's how you do it,” finished Iago, gesturing vaguely with his beer.

“Whoa,” I replied, wondering if I was drunk and deciding that I probably was. “I never knew pyramid schemes were so easy.”

He blinked at me blearily.

“Well, that's – that's what they say, you know? I mean – it's – I – you know.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It certainly is.”

“So this is where you were,” said Ashley, materialising from nowhere. “I leave you alone for five minutes, Iago...” He shook his head.

“In my defence,” replied the Kadabra, with the solemn dignity of a drunk, “it has been twenty-four minutes. And thirteen seconds. Which is quite a while.”

“Sober up. Now.”

“Fine! But – but you're the oppressor, you know? All you geno – genoci – people who hurt Kadabra.” Iago put his palms on his temples and focused briefly; there was a sound like tearing linen and he sat bolt upright. “Oh. Ow. Man. OK, I'm back.” He glanced at me. “Pearl?”

“I'm fine,” I said, getting up to show that I was. “Look.”

Either I wasn't as drunk as I'd thought, or I was a lot better at hiding it, because I didn't sway enough for anyone to catch me out. I suppose it did help that Ashley was ignoring me and had therefore turned his sharp eyes elsewhere, but I think I prefer the explanation that makes me sound better.

“You know,” said Iago provocatively as we left, “I think I quite like Pearl. It's been a while since I found anyone who's willing to get drunk with me at a moment's notice.”

Yeah, I thought, I should probably stop doing that. I can't do that sobering-up trick.

Ashley ignored him, and said:

“After some small unpleasantness with a faceless bureaucrat, I have traced the vans. They are registered to the Galactic Holding Corporation, which has its offices right here in Eterna.”

“So did we actually find out anything new?” Iago asked. “We knew they were here—”

“We now know exactly where these offices are,” Ashley replied. “84 Merlot Road.”

If, hypothetically speaking, I hadn't been me at this point, but some sort of omniscient narrator masquerading as a twenty-year-old university student, I might have made a remark about fulfilling a running gag here. But I wasn't, and so I didn't.

Merlot Road, when we got there, turned out to be a long, busy street that ended in a bridge over the River Semma; number eighty-four was a tall, imposing edifice that looked like it had once been intended as a modern office block, but had at some point been seized and worked over by an architect who really should have been confined in a padded cell.

“That,” said Iago, staring up at it, “is what I really hate about humans. No taste.”

“I agree,” replied Ashley. “Porticoes should not be that tall. Or thin. Nor should they terminate in a swan-necked pediment supporting a gigantic letter G.”

This might have been a second running gag, but I wasn't sure. And I didn't know anyway, not being an omniscient narrator or anything like that.

“And those finials aren't even neoclassical,” Iago pointed out. “That's Gothic. Who designed this piece of cal?”

“Are you two going to complain all day, or are we going to go in?” I asked.

“I'm going to go in,” announced Ashley, and started to make his way around to the back of the building.

I stared after him for a moment.

“How can he be so clever and so childish?” I asked Iago.

“If I can't understand, then your meagre human brain will never work it out,” he replied. “Come on. We should follow him. I do owe him, after all.”

“I thought you paid your seven hundred dollars' debt?” I asked, as we made our way over to a short alley marked 'Tradesmen's' Entrance'.

“That was just one debt of many,” Iago replied slowly. “Do you really think I would still be with him if I didn't owe him so much? He might be clever, but he's human. You people are...” He broke off and shook his head. “You have no word for it. Kadabra have a special thinkwave just to describe the nature of humanity. And before you ask,” he added, “thinkwaves that don't exist in Sinnish are literally completely impossible to translate.”

We found Ashley at a little door about five yards down the alley, pressing the button for the intercom.

“Hi,” he said, when someone answered. He'd suddenly acquired a Sunyshore accent, I noticed. “This is Dom Simmons of Sledder Pokémon Supplies. Makin' a delivery of food?”

“What?” replied the voice from the intercom. “You guys delivered yesterday.”

“Yeah, but I bin told to come here,” said Ashley. He really did sound completely different, I thought. “I got forty sacks of feed back here, and I bin told this is where they're goin'—”

“But we've receivedthis week's supply—”

“I'm gonna need to talk to someone abou' this—”

“Fine! I'm sending someone down,” the intercom voice said. “They'll be there in a moment.”

“Thanks,” said Ashley, and straightened up.

“How did you know that those people deliver here?” I asked him. Then, when there was no answer: “Iago, how did he know?”

The Kadabra pointed to a nearby rubbish bin; it was stuffed to bursting point, and on top could clearly be seen empty industrial-sized bags of Sledder Pokémon Supplies' Patent Meaty Flakes.

“OK,” I said, frustrated, “why is it that I only see things after people point them out to me?”

“Because you're stupid,” Iago said, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. “Positively moronic, even— oh, here's the guy.”

The door started to open and a Galactic man began to come out – but Ashley slammed the door hard on his head, and he slumped to the floor.

“Is he dead?” I asked nervously.

“Who cares?” replied Iago, which wasn't comforting; while he and Ashley climbed over the body and went inside, I checked the Galactic man for a pulse and breath, and was relieved to find both present. Satisfied, I followed them in.

We passed down a corridor unchallenged; the walls were grey and grimy, and I don’t think many people often went there. At the other end was a staircase, which we climbed with suitable caution; when we reached the top, we found ourselves in another, better-kept corridor, with a carpet and everything. Once again, Team Galactic were conspicuous by their absence.

“Swanky,” said Iago, running one finger down the wall and scoring a line through the paint. He sniffed at his now-white-tipped claw and nodded appreciatively. “This is good stuff,” he went on. “Won’t fade for a good twenty years.”

“Perhaps a long-term operation?” suggested Ashley. “Ah, no matter; we’ll find out.”

“What’s that noise?” I asked, and both of them fell silent. There it was, in the distance: a sort of screamysound, with wailing and growling added in for good measure.

“It’s coming from over there,” decided Ashley, and strode off down the corridor without actually telling us where he was going.

The hall was lined with doors, as such halls are wont to be, and it was in front of the last of these on the left that we stopped. It seemed Ashley had been right; here, the noises were much louder. I could make them out properly now, and realised they were Pokémon or animal cries: screeches and roars, bellows and moans.

“Why would there be so many?” pondered Ashley, and pushed the door open a crack. He set his eye to the gap – and footsteps sounded from around the corner.

I’m quite pleased with what I did next. It was a classic piece of swift, adaptive thinking, worthy of the heroine in a crime drama; I threw myself against Ashley, knocked him through the doorway, dragged Iago in after me and slammed the door, all in a split second. I straightened up, grinned and was about to ask one of those rhetorical questions pertaining to precisely how well I’d handled that when I caught sight of the room’s interior, and my jaw dropped wide open.

Stacked against the walls were cages, and in these cages were Pokémon, each with their ball clipped to the bars. That wasn’t the surprising bit, of course – I had heard them all from outside.

What was surprising was the quantity.

I’d never seen so many Pokémon in one place; there were literally hundreds, stretching out in rows, columns, heaps, into the distance. The room seemed to go on and on, and then on some more until it vanished into infinity; no wonder, I thought, that there was such a cacophony. There must have been over a thousand in there – and they were all sorts, too: Starly, Stunky, Glameow, Buizel – and that was just a fraction of them. I could barely even recognise some, let alone put a name to them.

“Jesus,” said Iago. “What poor bratchny has to clean out their cages?”

Ashley gave him a sharp look, so of course I had to laugh.

“Silence,” ordered Ashley. “The Pokémon can’t mask all the noise we make.”

“You’re talking to me?” I asked, as we started down the aisle between the cages.

“Only because there really is no other option,” he replied with a distinctly sour note in his voice. “Now close your mouth and keep it that way.”

Stung, I was about to argue – but then I remembered that we were infiltrating the base of an evil criminal organisation who wanted all three of us dead, and decided that silence was probably the best course of action available to me right now.

“That’s better,” said Ashley condescendingly. “Shall we play a game now? We’ll see how long we can go without saying anything.”

I made a rude gesture at him by way of reply; Iago sniggered and Ashley looked at me, unconcerned.

“Pearl—”

“Hah! You said something!" I pointed out.

Ashley sighed and walked off; Iago shook his head, smiling, and joined me in catching up.

---

“Do you know exactly how stupid you are, Tristan?” asked Liza.

Tristan considered. It was rather a deep sort of question, he thought.

“No,” he admitted at length. “But from the question, I’m going to guess... very?”

They were currently on the fast train to Eterna, and had just entered the forest that lay between it and Floaroma; here, the trees had dappled the light, and cast the undergrowth into a fantastical confusion of greens and browns.

“A bit more than that,” Liza replied conversationally. “You’re so monumentally sodding stupid that your brain should be preserved after your death, so that future generations can look at it and say: ‘My God, look at that, it’s the brain of the dumbest sodding man in Sinnish history.’ Are you beginning to get the idea?”

Tristan gaped. Where had all this sudden aggression come from?

“What?” he asked, after a while.

“Is that the best reply you’ve got?” asked Liza.

“Why are you so angry?”

“Let me think... oh yes, you turned a secure operation into an unmitigated disaster,” Liza replied. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but that is a reason to be angry with you, isn’t it?”

“Well – yeah, but—”

“But what? What could you possibly have to say that might win me over?”

“But... you’re not even a real member of the Team?”

Liza paused for a moment, then waved a hand dismissively.

“Irrelevant,” she said seriously. “I made a contract with your Mr. Maragos, and I don’t break contracts. Life has taught me that much. So I’m fully committed to the success of his plan. Whatever that might be.”

“I...”

Liza raised an eyebrow, and with that simple motion managed to take all the words out of Tristan’s mouth; finding there were none left, he ceased to speak and started gaping like a fish. And he stayed in this state for about five minutes, until Liza reached over and carefully pushed his mouth shut.

They travelled on in silence for a while longer; the forest blurred by like a series of Impressionist landscapes, and the wheels rattled and rolled beneath the carriage floor. Then, all at once and completely without warning, Liza leaped out of her seat, stared wildly out of the window and pulled hard on the emergency stop cord.

Immediately, a jarring screech of brakes screamed up from the track, and Tristan was flung heavily into the opposite seat. Liza alone seemed unaffected; she bounded out of their compartment, swung around the corner and hit the button to open the carriage door. A moment later – before the train had even finished stopping – she had leaped out onto the bank, rolled once and sprung up to run off to the north.

Tristan leaped to his feet with such force that he cracked his head against the window and fell over again; he got up a second time, more slowly, and in between some groanings and moanings he muttered:

“What the hell is with you?”

So saying, he staggered out of the compartment, blundered out of the door and fell heavily into a bed of nettles.

Naturally, he landed face-first.

Some time later, when his vision had returned, Tristan climbed to his feet and set off in search of his errant partner. (We shall, of course, preserve his dignity and gloss over his bout of clawing at his eyes and screaming for the mercy of every god in every pantheon that the world had to offer.)

“Liza?” he called. “Liz-aaaa!”

No answer was forthcoming.

“Really,” he muttered to himself. “She lectures me about wrecking missions, and now this...”

He wandered on a little more, and then stopped dead.

“Oh,” said Tristan. “That's what she was looking at.”

An ancient manor house lay before him, wood-faced and weather-beaten and very, very Gothic. This was a house where one might reasonably expect a raven to taunt one from atop a bust of Pallas Athene; it was a house where a university student might build a monstrous creature from grave-flesh; it might have been a summer getaway for the Addams family, or a home-away-from-home for one of the lesser members of the vampire court. It was also falling apart around the seams, which put a slight dent in the effect, but Tristan still thought it was terrifying.

Liza stood in front of it, by the wrought-iron gate, and stared at the broken semicircular window in the attic wall.

“Liza, what the hell is going on?” asked Tristan. He was beginning to feel that he ought to be alarmed.

“I recognise it,” she said slowly. “I remember this place...”

“You saw it from the train?”

Liza didn't answer. Instead, she reached into her bag and withdrew a battered leather wallet; she opened it, and pulled out a Sinnish passport that had a picture of her with long brown hair, named as Sophia Wright. It also gave her place of residence as Wickham Manor, Eterna Forest.

“I wonder,” she said. “Is this the one...?”

She pushed open the gate, which shrieked and made Tristan jump.

“You're – you're not going in there, are you?” he asked nervously. “Liza, that place looks like it's been abandoned for years – probably full of Ghosts—”

“Creeping across summer lawns at midnight,” Liza said absently, and went down the garden path. A moment later, she had vanished into the blackness beyond the imposing double doors.

Tristan hesitated, confused. He had no idea why they were here, what Liza thought she was doing, or what was going to happen to the mission. Furthermore, he suspected that this house was evil; it was all Gothic and dilapidated, which pretty much sealed the deal for him. He had seen too many horror movies to trust any abandoned manors in forests.

And yet...

“Liza?” he called, and took a step towards the door. “Liza, let's not go in – oh, screw it.”

He sent out his Croagunk, which took one look at the house and stared at him as if to ask if he had taken leave of his senses. As one, they gave a distinctly froggy gulp and took a few steps further. They were now past the gate.

“What was that?” asked Tristan.

“Gurp?”

“That!” cried Tristan.

The Croagunk appeared to be listening, but it seemed to hear nothing.

“It's the sound of witchcraft and devilry,” Tristan whispered in fearful tones. “I'm sure of it!”

The Croagunk looked alarmed, and turned around as unobtrusively as it could. This was, however, not very unobtrusively, and Tristan turned it around to face the door again.

“Don't abandon me here,” he said desperately. “This is a serious matter!”

“Gurrp.”

At this point, Tristan realised he was talking to a frog, and so preoccupied was he with thoughts of how stupid his conversation had just been that he failed to notice as he walked straight between the great doors of Wickham Manor.

---

“...and I know it's all for the energy project, but aren't there easier ways of getting hold of 1.21 jigowatts of energy?”

After what had seemed like an endless trek, we'd reached the other side of the room, where two oblivious goons were chattering away to each other. We'd thought it sensible to conceal ourselves behind some nearby cages, with the result that we'd now heard quite a bit of inane and probably referential conversation.

“What did you just say?” asked the second Galactic.

“I said, isn't there an easier way of getting hold—”

“No, after that. Jigowatts?”

“Yeah. What of it?”

“It's pronounced gigawatts.”

“No, it isn't.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it isn't. I talked to a scientist, and he said 'jigowatts'.”

“He can't have done. You misheard him.”

“Shut up!”

“You seem to have forgotten how an argument actually works,” observed the second man. “You need to refute a point properly, not just tell me to shut up.”

The first one glowered.

“Shut up,” he repeated, after while. “Just shut up.”

The second one opened his mouth to speak, and their argument might have gone on longer – but somewhere far away in Jubilife, Stephanie chose that precise moment to call me.

And my phone rang.

Loudly.

Ashley seemed to melt away into thin air as soon as he heard it; Iago did likewise, and so I was left alone with the two advancing grunts.

I smiled in a friendly sort of way.

“Hi,” I said. “I'm... uh... new?”

This gave them pause for thought.

“You're new?”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding vigorously. “I was looking for, uh, the way out.”

“If you're a member of the Team, why aren't you in uniform?” asked one Galactic suspiciously.

“I'm new,” I replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “So I don't have one yet. You know how it is. Falling standards and all that.”

“She complains like a Galactic grunt,” one of the men said to the other.

“Maybe she is one,” concurred the other.

“Well, yeah. I complain like one because I am one,” I put in. “Look, are you going to help me find the way out? I'm going home.”

The two grunts looked at each other.

“Why would you be going home? There're barracks in the building.”

“I'm new, remember?”

They looked confused.

“Oh. Yeah. New.”

“Look, I won't bother you any more,” I said, backing away. “I'll find my own way out. Thanks anyway!”

I waved, turned around and left as quickly as I could without giving the appearance of fleeing.

The two Galactics looked at each other.

“Hang on a moment,” said one.

“Yeah?” replied the other.

“That wasn't plausible at all.”

His companion blinked.

“That's true...”

They exchanged glances.

“Hey, you!” they shouted at my distant back, and ran off after me; it was, however, too late, and I'd already got past the entrance door and down the corridor beyond.

When doors seal behind you, there's definitely something nasty going on.

So thought Tristan as he advanced into the decaying entrance hall of Wickham Manor, Liza before him and the Croagunk behind. It was a truly spectacular entrance hall: decrepit chandelier; creepy statue; two sweeping staircases on either side of the room; and over all, a thick layer of dust that rose up in choking clouds with every step they took.

“Liza, let's get out of here,” said Tristan uneasily. “This place is evil.”

“I've been here before,” Liza said, and her voice seemed larger and hollower than usual. “There were people here... Someone called Anna...”

She ran her fingers down the side of the staircase, and left a trail of dark, unpolished mahogany. Tristan shivered; there was definitely something wrong with this place.

Someone wailed in the distance, and he jumped so hard that his teeth snapped shut on his tongue.

“Yowch!” he cried. Then: “What the hell was that?”

“I don't know,” replied Liza. She slipped softly down the mouldering carpet that led from front to inner door, and passed through as silently as a ghost. Tristan followed with some trepidation, and found himself in something that might once have been a dining-hall; now, there was nothing there but the old, dry bones of a roast chicken on the table. No one, it seemed, had been here for a very long time.

“There's no one here,” Tristan said urgently. “Liza, come on! We should leave.”

“I know there's no one here,” she replied, looking at him for the first time. “But I have to find out if this is the place.”

“What place? You're not making any sense! In fact, you're making so little sense that it's terrifying!”

Liza gave him a long look.

“I think I lived here, once,” she replied. “I need to know.”

“What are—?”

Tristan broke off, staring behind Liza with undisguised fear. A moment ago, there had been nothing behind her but the table – but now, there was someone standing there. A tall pale someone in a black tailsuit. Someone who was staring right at them.

“Tristan?” asked Liza. “What...?”

The man in black extended a white-gloved hand, and moved his mouth as if trying to say something, but no sound escaped his lips. Beads of cold sweat broke out on Tristan's brow, and he raised one trembling finger to point at the apparition.

“H-he... it... look...”

Liza whirled on the spot, a gun appearing from nowhere in her hand – but in the space between one blink and the next, the man in black had flickered and disappeared.

“What?” Liza looked at Tristan, who was rigid and shaking, like a stick in a cocktail mixer. “What is it?”

“There was – it was like – ghost!” Tristan managed at last, bouncing up and down a little in his excitement. “There was a man there! A ghost man!”

“A ghost? There's no such thing as ghosts,” Liza said dismissively. “Ghost-types, yes. But not ghosts.”

“I tell you, there was a ghost!”

“If there was anything, it was a Gastly playing tricks.” Liza put her gun away. “Look, I won't be long. You can wait outside.”

Tristan thought about walking back through the hall by himself, and decided that he'd rather stay with the person with the gun.

“I'll stay,” he decided.

“Then stop being stupid,” Liza said, and left the dining-room to explore further afield. Tristan scooped his Croagunk into his arms and hurried to catch up; so preoccupied with ghosts was he that he failed to notice the man in black standing by the door, holding out a hand and pleading silently with him.

---

“Smooth,” Iago admitted. “You don't want to give up higher education and be the front man for some con artistry, do you?”

“Nope,” I replied brightly.

His face fell.

“Ah well. Suit yourself.”

We had ducked into a side room and evaded the Galactic men's notice; however, Ashley had noted, the Team now knew that we were in the building. He had then gone on to say that he had figured out all he needed to about the room full of Pokémon, and wanted to get some information from whoever was in charge. Hence, we were now on the top floor, where he was certain that the boss would be; it was a tradition or something.

As we climbed the last part of the staircase, I could hear the sounds of people moving around above us; I paused and asked:

“Uh, Ashley? Should we really be going up there? It sounds like there are loads of people there...”

Ashley considered, and replied:

“I'll go up there. You wait here.”

Iago's eyes widened.

“You're going to—?”

“Perhaps,” Ashley replied. “I need an audience with whoever is running this operation. It doesn't matter how I get that.”

I couldn't help but feel I was kind of missing something here.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

Ashley looked at me; his glasses were in the way, so I couldn't be sure – but for a moment I swear his eyes flashed pale yellow, iris, white and all.

“There are certain questions that shouldn't be asked,” he said. “If you were to ask these questions, certain people might decide you were a danger, and have you eliminated. And believe me, they would be far better at doing so than Team Galactic.”

I blinked. He'd left me slightly confused.

“Er... is that a threat? Or are you...?”

Ashley sighed.

“Yes, it's a threat!” he said crossly. “For God's sake! This morning you wanted melodrama, now you fail to understand it – what's wrong with you?”

“What's wrong with you?”

This, I felt, wasn't really an unreasonable question.

Ashley ground his teeth, and kneaded his forehead with one hand.

“Just... wait here, would you? Please?”

The sudden 'please' startled me; I was taken aback for a moment, then felt rather smug.

“OK,” I said sweetly. “Since you ask so nicely.”

For a moment, Ashley looked like he was having trouble swallowing something, then he shook his head, turned on his heel and continued up the stairs to the corridor above.

“Egad!” cried what I could only imagine to be one of the more pretentious of the Galactic grunts. “The Diamond is here!

There was then a certain fleshy thump, and then the sound of something hitting the floor. Hard.

“Please do not attempt to stop me,” said Ashley, and there was something wrong with his voice; it was an octave lower than usual, and he had acquired the sort of foreign accent that not only implied he had never spoken Sinnish before, but that he had no real idea of how to pronounce words, or indeed how to work his tongue. “This is a matter of the gravest importance.”

I looked at Iago, a sudden chill running down my spine.

“What the hell is that?” I whispered.

“It's Ashley,” he replied cagily. “I can't really talk about it. Believe me, it's better you don't know.” He fiddled with his moustache. “He did try to warn you. You should go home as soon as possible.”

“What? This isn't just about me interfering with his work, is it?”

Iago made no reply; he whistled a little tune and studied his claws.

“Iago,” I said. “What does everyone else know that I don't? What's this investigation really about?”

He looked up at me with a wolf's grin, and I suddenly saw past the human in a fur suit, and glimpsed something wild and alien, something that made a bunched knot of fear tighten about the base of my spine.

“Pearl,” he said, and I no longer heard a Jamaican accent but something more akin to a growl. “Let me answer your question with another question. I am a Kadabra. I hate your species with a passion so great that God himself couldn't rip it from my skull. So what possible reason could I have for swearing fealty to a human like Ashley?”

---

Tristan had never believed in ghosts before, but he had revised his opinion as soon as he'd set eyes on Wickham Manor, and the sudden appearance of the man in black had confirmed his suspicions.

“Will you let go of my arm?” asked Liza in exasperation.

Tristan looked down. He appeared to be clinging to it in the same sort of desperate way as would a toddler to a favourite teddy.

“Ah,” he said. “Er. Sorry.”

He let go, carefully wiped Liza's sleeve where he'd been holding it, and nodded courteously at her. She replied with the stare of one who has been annoyed for so long that their irritation has crystallised into exhausted disappointment, and then moved on.

They were investigating the bedrooms one by one, but had found no signs that any of them had been lived in at any point after the 1930s. It seemed that the house's air of evil had protected it from looters or vandals; they encountered more than one purse of valuable pre-decimalisation coins, and, in one bedroom, a solid silver breakfast service. However, Liza did not appear to be interested in making money from these discoveries, and Tristan had the distinct feeling that removing anything from the house might bring down the wrath of the ghosts on his head – a feeling that was cemented when, as he bent over a letter bearing a stamp that had only five siblings in the entire country, a young girl appeared sitting cross-legged on the bed, holding out her hands and mouthing silently at him.

This had naturally startled him, and when startled, Tristan tended to act erratically; he leaped backwards, turned a miraculous double somersault and landed on his feet. So surprised was he by the caprice of fortune that had enabled this remarkable evasive manoeuvre that he staggered back another step and almost fell out of the window; when he had recovered his balance and Liza had come in to see what the fuss was all about, the girl had gone.

Liza had promptly told him he was a coward and a lily-livered poltroon (well, actually she had just called him a coward, but Tristan thought that the latter insult sounded better) and dragged him out by the ear; just as they were leaving, he thought he saw the girl again, starting to say something – but then the door clicked shut and she was gone.

They continued their search, Liza increasingly desperate and Tristan increasingly useless, but to no avail; it seemed that no one had been here for a long time. If Liza had been here before, she hadn't stayed long.

It was close to three o'clock before they left Wickham Manor, and Tristan didn't stop walking until they were back at the train tracks.

Which, of course, were now devoid of any train.

Liza stared despondently at the rails.

“We didn't find anything out,” she said unhappily. “And the train's gone.”

“You must have seen that one coming,” replied Tristan cheerily; he felt rather good now that they were out of that House of Doom. (The capitals were his.) “We were there for ages.”

Liza sighed and threw Sophia Wright's passport into a bush.

“Come on,” she said. “We can't be too far from Eterna...”

As they walked off, neither saw the pair of white eyes watching them from the shadows beneath the trees.

Silent Memento
October 2nd, 2011, 07:54 PM
This is really starting to get interesting. I'm going to go with a theory that's going to seem really, really weird (and I'm probably going to be extremely wrong, but bear with me here):

Ashley has some sort of connection to Dialga. I don't know where the yellow eyes came from, but I'm figuring that it has something to do with his condition. What is his condition? Immortality or - to be more specific - eternal youth. That's why he's so reluctant to discuss his age, why he's absolutely brilliant, but has never developed his body or maturity past his teenage years, why he's known as "The Diamond". Dialga probably has a hand in it, and that's why Iago follows Ashley. He may not swear fealty to a human, but he'd definitely swear his undying loyalty to one of the most powerful Pokemon on the face of the earth.

Now, how did he gain eternal youth? That's debatable, and I don't have any idea as to how that could have happened at the moment. Perhaps more will be revealed with the plot. What I do know is that Pearl has gotten herself into something that's far beyond her comprehension. Team Galactic wants Ashley and Iago dead because of the fact that both of them are powerful and intelligent enough to screw things up for them. However, Team Galactic wants her dead as well, so she's probably hiding something as well. And now I just got another theory that's even wilder than the previous one. I'll explain that:

Pearl, of course, might be influenced by Palkia in some way. Obviously, the powers aren't there as of now, but it could explain why the Team would target an otherwise-normal college student. ...And I'm going to stop before I go off on a rambling tangent that makes no sense whatsoever.

Liza is an interesting case. Now we know that Team Galactic is merely paying her for her services instead of her joining them because of their goals. Still, she's going over to every abandoned house to search for an object that's unknown to the readers. A part of me believes that she was born in Sinnoh or lived there when she was younger. Another part of me says that it's way too soon to tell. Yet another part of me is telling the other two parts to shut up and pay attention to the story instead of going off on wild theories.

Otherwise, I have no complaints. You've got me hooked.

Sincerely,

Mem

Cutlerine
October 4th, 2011, 06:38 AM
Oh, Silent Memento! Your crazy ideas entertain me so. The problem with me, as you well know, is that you never can tell whether or not you've guessed correctly.

On another note, I swear I've written, like, two more chapters - but they're stored on my external hard drive, Vinz Clortho, and because something's wrong with my only Internet-capable computer at the moment, I can't post them. So, uh, yeah. Looks like you folks are going to have to wait for all the exciting stuff that's happening.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
October 16th, 2011, 03:57 AM
From the ashes of real life I emerge, a phoenix of online wit and weirdness, a veritable Lazarus and sentient compendium of pop culture references, a disciple of the Golden Sprout and proponent of Far Fetched Fiction.

In other words: I'm back, though for how long is debatable. I've managed to get the story across to a different computer, but I've only got access to it today. I think I might be able to post again in about a week's time - but I can't be certain.

Therefore, enjoy this (now very strange) story!

Chapter Nine: In Which We Meet Three New Characters and an Old One


'It is recommended that the Trainer Sebastian Emerald be placed under surveillance for a minimum of four years. It must be assumed that if he comes to this country he will become a threat to our plans. It is also imperative that the location of Steven Stone be ascertained, and also whether or not he has obtained a new Metagross.

Finally, and most importantly of all, the professional thief Robin Goodfellow must be found and captured or killed at all costs.'

—From the files of one Mister C. Maragos



“Money,” I said. “That's why you're with him. You said you were in debt.”

Iago shook his head.

“Here's a tip for you: never accept what a con artist says at face value.” He gave me a sly look. “Whatever you might think, I am competent at what I do, you know. I mean...” He held up my phone, and then my purse.

“What? Hey, give those back!” I snatched them off him and returned them to my bag. “That wasn't con artistry—”

“Yeah, but pickpocketing is useful too.”

There came more thuds from upstairs, and someone shouted out in a commanding voice:

“What the hell is going on here?”

I took a step towards the upper floor, but Iago laid one hand on my arm.

“Trust me, Pearl,” he said, “there's a whole lot more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

I felt like things were getting very out of hand, very quickly; it was as if I had blundered into some vast conspiracy. Actually, I realised, that was precisely what I had done. Reality had caught up with my imagination – but not at all in the sort of way I’d been imagining.

“I mean that if you go upstairs I'll stop you.”

“You?” I had to laugh. “You're built like a ten-year-old girl, Iago... oh, OK, that does change things a bit.” He had just brought out rather a large knife from within the many folds of his tail, and was turning it over in his hands like a valuable statuette.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Did I ever tell you about the time I met an Australian?”

Thrown by the sudden change of topic, I took a moment to catch up with him.

“What? Er, no.”

“He pulled a knife on me,” Iago explained, “so I said 'Call that a knife? This is a knife' and pulled out my knife, which was bigger.” He laughed quietly. “Get it? It was funny because it was a reversal of the usual situation, where the Aussie has the bigger knife.”

“Uh huh.” I found it a bit more difficult to find anything funny in the situation, given that I was pretty much being held at knifepoint by a sociopathic Kadabra. “Did, uh, anyone end up getting stabbed?”

Iago looked thoughtful.

“No,” he said. “He backed down.”

I smiled; I didn't really want to get stabbed, and it was reassuring to know that Iago didn't have a history of actually using his knife.

“That's a relief.”

“Mind you,” he went on, “I did set up a line of piano wire across the road before he left, so that he sliced his head off when he drove away in his convertible.”

I stared at him in shock, and he guffawed.

“I'm joking,” he said, chuckling. “Jesus. Your face.”

“I'm really not laughing,” I replied solemnly. “In fact, I kind of want to push you down the stairs.”

“I'd stab you first,” replied Iago. “Nothing personal, you have to understand. Really, you're not too bad – for a human. But I'm committed to protecting Ashley's secret. Well, it's not really his secret, it's more...” He trailed off and shrugged. “Ah, I can't say. Believe me, I'd tell you if I could.”

I almost did believe him as well, but then I remembered that he hated humans and was a congenital liar, so I didn't.

Just then, a man in Galactic uniform came tearing around the corner and down the stairs; he didn't even register us, just pushed past and hurtled by as if he'd just seen the hound of the Baskervilles. Iago stuck out one clawed foot and tripped him as he went by, which sent him flying down the stairwell, bouncing off the far wall and down the next flight. I peered over the railing and saw him tumble all the way down; it was a good old-fashioned piece of slapstick humour, entirely ruined by being in a nonvisual medium.

Iago sighed.

“Pity,” he said. “I thought that would be funnier.”

“I know,” I agreed.

There came a snuffling animal sound from upstairs, and the sound of some sort of energy charging; a second later, there was a swift thump-crunch and the animal squealed. Someone gasped something incredulous, and then I heard Ashley's altered voice again:

“Let us go into your office. We can talk there without distractions.”

The sound of a door opening; footsteps; door closing – and silence.

“I think we can go up now,” Iago said, though he didn't put the knife away. “Just don't go into the office.”

We went upstairs, and saw rather a large number of Galactic men and women lying prone on the floor. For a moment, I was quite scared – and then I realised that a couple were unconscious, and the rest were pretending to be dead. I knew this because they started to get up and run away, as quietly as possible.

“Something scared them,” I said unnecessarily. “Iago, was that—?”

“Ashley? In a manner of speaking,” he replied. “No more questions now, because if I answered them, I'm afraid I'd have to kill you.” He grinned. “Haven't you just always wanted to say that?”

I hadn't, but didn't think it particularly wise to tell him that seeing as he was currently holding a knife that looked like it was fairly close to growing up into a sword.

“I don't see the Pokémon that we heard,” I said, changing the subject and fiddling with a strand of my hair.

“Its owner probably recalled it.” Iago shrugged. “Who cares? After what happened to it, it's in no condition to fight.”

“After... what happened to it? What did happen to it?”

“Ashley did,” he replied after a pause. “Sort of. Seriously now, I'm going to kill you if you ask any more questions.”

Before I could even begin to think of a reply, the point of his knife was at my throat, and once again I realised that he really wasn't human. Iago walked and talked and smoked and drank, but behind his triangular eyes was a brain that lacked any human ideals or morality. He would no more worry about my death than I would care about squishing a bug. Faintly, the part of my brain that was actually interested in university thought that Kadabra morality might make for an interesting philosophical discussion topic; the other parts of my brain, which were all quite scared, ganged up on it and told it to shut up, or else.

“OK,” I said, swallowing deeply. “No more questions. Got it.”

Iago withdrew the knife and leaned against the far wall.

“Apparently,” he said, as if he hadn't just held a knife against my neck, “this woman's name is Jupiter. That's got to be a code name, don't you think?”

“What?”

He pointed at a plaque on the door opposite him; I looked, and read the words 'COMMANDER JUPITER' printed there.

“Am I allowed to speak, or will you kill me if I do?” I asked.

“Depends how the mood takes me. Killing you would simplify things, but I'm not really supposed to unless it's necessary. Which is a roundabout way of saying 'yes, you may speak'.”

“How reassuring. I was just going to agree with you.”

“That's good— aha, here he is.”

I turned sharply, and saw Ashley emerging from Jupiter's room, adjusting his glasses with the middle finger of his right hand.

“What the hell happened in there?” I asked, despite Iago's pointed cough.

“We had a conversation, and Ms. Jupiter was very helpful indeed,” said Ashley. “Unfortunately, she didn't know why we were to be killed, or the overall aim of Team Galactic; it seems their leader keeps the amount of information known by each individual member as small as possible.”

“Which means they must have been expecting you to come sniffing around,” Iago said.

“Me, or someone else,” agreed Ashley. “Ms. Jupiter did mention that there were concerns about Cynthia Buckley, as well, and about some other people, whose names weren't mentioned to her.”

“Doesn't that mean that this is something really big?” I asked. “Cynthia's the Pokémon Champion of Sinnoh. If she would get involved...”

“Correct,” said Ashley, sounding surprised. “It means that whatever the Galactics are doing, it is Pokémon-based and has national consequences.”

“Those grunts in the Pokémon room,” I recalled. “They said they needed 1.2 gigawatts of energy. And they stole electricity from the Windworks.”

“Hey, since when did you have a brain?” asked Iago rudely. “I thought you were the sap we brought along so that we'd have someone to explain things to?”

“Knife or not, I bet I can get you in an armlock in about two seconds,” I retorted. “Shut up for a moment.”

“Yes,” said Ashley unexpectedly. “I rather think Pearl has seen it. Go on.”

I looked at him, surprised, and then asked:

“Ashley, what was in Professor Rowan's briefcase?”

He smiled.

“You did see it,” he said. “It was research on Pokémon evolution, and the light and heat energy given off as they evolve under captive conditions—”

“The Pokémon in the storage chamber!” I cried. “They were all—”

“Unevolved, yeah,” Iago finished. “I suppose you want congratulations for getting the answer right?”

“So now you see it too,” Ashley said, ignoring him. “Team Galactic are gathering electricity, by any means possible. That's what's going on.”

“But why?” I asked.

“I don't know yet,” he replied. “But I do know the name of the man who will. He's the one who ordered our deaths.” (Here, Iago suddenly looked interested.) “Ms. Jupiter very kindly dropped his name for me. The architect of this scheme and the leader of Team Galactic: one Mister Cyrus Maragos.”

---

Right now, Mister Cyrus Maragos was once again talking to the person we have come to know as the Desk Sitter. Again, the Desk Sitter was failing to live up to their name, but this was because they were in a park, and there were in fact no desks to sit on.

“This is it,” said Cyrus. “The statue.”

“It is terrifying,” stated the Desk Sitter.

Cyrus considered this view, and came to the conclusion that it was correct.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, it most certainly is.”

It must have been fifty feet high, and showed some primaeval beast rearing onto its hind legs; it was as if someone had taken parts of every movie monster going and stuck them together with the goal of forming some sort of ultimate hybrid. It had the long, swept-back head of the Alien and the metal-plated face and chest of the Predator; the powerful arms of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the claws of Freddy Krueger. As if this weren’t enough, it had a few other bonus features, apparently added as a sort of garnish to complete the nightmarish effect: a proliferation of spikes and plates, a pair of wings composed mainly of flat blades, and a tail that looked like it could level a building with a single swing.

“The inscription's worn right down,” Cyrus announced, inspecting it. “It seems that this won't be as useful as we hoped.”

“We believe this statue to depict a fusion of both of them,” the Desk Sitter said, as if Cyrus hadn't spoken. “It embodies your – our vision. That is why we have brought you here.”

“Technically, I brought you here.”

“Do not quibble. We dislike that.”

“You've no right to say that. You quibble too,” pointed out Cyrus.

“We do not. We say exactly what we mean, and nothing else.”

“That's not true. If you did, you'd have told me we were coming to see this statue instead of making me waste an entire morning coming here!”

“We thought you might be inspired by art,” said the Desk Sitter sulkily. “Evidently, we were wrong.”

“Art provokes an emotional response that I disap—”

“We have also categorised you as a philistine.”

“Oh, shut up,” said Cyrus, annoyed, and then became even more annoyed that he'd become annoyed. Then he got more annoyed because he'd become more annoyed, and so on and so forth.

“You are being emotional,” observed the Desk Sitter smugly.

“I'm not talking to you right now,” replied Cyrus shortly, swallowing the lungful of anger that was rising in his chest.

“That is an even more emotional response.”

“If I don't talk to you, I'll be able to get these damnable emotions under control,” growled Cyrus, and flung himself down onto a park bench to stare at the statue of the Unknown Really Scary Thing (as it was described in the guidebook) and brood in silence.

---

“We shall have to go after them,” announced Ellen, with the air of one who expects to be obeyed. She was sitting on the edge of the table and swinging her legs back and forth like a pair of pallid pendulums.

“Madam?” Bond was less energetic and more reserved; he stood to one side, straight-backed and tall.

“I know, I know. It's awfully dangerous,” said Ellen. “The Feeling says we can't, but – but it would be so awful if it wasn't stopped. It would be like – oh, I can't bear to think of it!”

“I know precisely what you mean, madam,” agreed Bond. For once, there was a slight tinge of emotion to his voice. He did know what she meant; he too had seen it at work before, and the memory was strong in his mind.

“Will they be able to hear us, do you think?”

“I cannot say, madam. Perhaps we should try harder.”

As suggestions go, this was not one of the greats, but it has to be said in Bond's defence that there was no possible way he could have thought of a better one.

“Mm. I suppose that might do it,” agreed Ellen. “Well, shall we go?”

“Let us not stand upon the order of our going, but go at once,” concurred Bond in a rather well-read manner. “As you wish, madam.”

So saying, he crossed to the door and held it open for her as she passed through.

“I must admit to having some misgivings about this venture, madam,” he said, following her into the hall. “I am not entirely certain if I am capable of leaving this place.”

“You simply must be able to, Bond,” replied Ellen. “I don't think I could manage without you.”

“You are set on leaving, then, madam?”

“I can't not leave,” Ellen said reasonably. “Think what might happen!”

“Indeed, madam,” replied Bond. “It is a fearsome prospect. Still... this Feeling...”

“Bond! I am in charge, and I say we shall at least try to leave!”

Bond inclined his head in the slightest of nods.

“Of course, madam,” he said, in a voice that implied rather more suppressed doubt than a servant strictly ought to show for his mistress's plans. Ellen paused at the foot of the main stairs, and shot him a look.

“I shall gather my friends. Prepare the carriage, would you?”

“If it still functions, madam, it will be my pleasure.”

Bond glided off in that singular manner that expert servants are capable of, and vanished out of the door; Ellen watched him for a moment, then headed upstairs to find her friends.

Their names were Chicory, Mans and Huluvu, and they were, Ellen found, willing enough to run ahead for them and point out where they needed to go; however, none of them would go further than a mile away from the house. That was understandable, of course, for this was a desirable territory for their kind, and they wanted to be certain that they could rush back to protect it from intruders in an emergency. Ellen agreed to their terms, and they left to embark on their mission.

Ellen returned to the hall and walked out down the driveway, where Bond was waiting with the carriage. It looked rather the worse for wear – the black paint was badly scratched, and chunks were missing from its wooden sides – but the wheels looked sound enough.

“Is it safe?” she asked.

“If not for others, then certainly for us,” Bond replied, holding open the door for her. “I have taken the liberty of cleaning the inside as much as possible, madam. I also packed your books, and some money for the purchase of more ink. Also of paint and nails, for as you so astutely observed, the carriage is in some small need of repairs.”

As he was speaking, one of the shafts fell off the front with a thump, something that Bond chose not to acknowledge.

“Oh,” said Ellen, looking at the fallen shaft. “Er, all right. Well, at least you took my books and pens. Shall we go, then?” She climbed into the carriage – which was, though more or less clean, distinctly rickety-looking – and took a seat, drawing back the moth-eaten velvet curtain to let in some light. Bond closed the door after her and ascended to the driver's seat.

There was a pause. Neither of them were entirely certain what would happen next.

“It is not too late to remain, madam,” called Bond from the roof.

Ellen hesitated – then squashed her fears and rapped on the ceiling.

“Follow Chicory and the others,” she replied. “And if we should cease to be – well, would that be so bad, Bond?”

“I take your point, madam,” answered Bond. “Since this then may be the last time we speak, I should like to take this opportunity to tell you that it has been a pleasure to serve you and your family these past years.”

“And I have appreciated your service,” replied Ellen. “So did my family, I'm sure. You're a splendid butler.” She took a deep breath and straightened out her shaking hands. “However, we shall survive, I'm sure of it. Go!”

“As you wish, madam,” replied Bond, and even he could not quite keep the tremor from his voice. There was a low whinny, which was quite strange as Ellen was certain there were no horses any more, and the carriage lurched forwards towards the gates. As it drew closer, Ellen felt the familiar Feeling rise in her chest; it felt as if her heart swelling up within her, ready to burst and blow her to pieces—

—and then they were out, beyond the gates and rolling southward, and the Feeling was gone.

“We did it!” yelled Ellen excitedly. “Bond, we got out!”

“So it would seem,” replied the estimable butler. His voice betrayed not the slightest hint of his relief, but Ellen knew he must be full of it; she certainly was, and she hadn't been nearly as afraid of the consequences of leaving as Bond had.

“Right, then,” said Ellen, trying hard to return to the important matter at hand. “Bond, we must think of a way to communicate with them...”

---

Tristan and Liza arrived in Eterna at about four o'clock, weary and footsore; Tristan might well have criticised his partner for delaying them so much, but he didn't quite dare. She was obviously slightly insane, and she also had a rather large gun. Together, these two things made her more than Tristan thought he could realistically take on in any sort of confrontation.

“So,” he said, dropping exhaustedly onto a bench and closing his eyes, “what do you suggest we do next?”

“Head to the Eterna base and see if there's any word there,” Liza replied. “I don't know why you're sitting down. Get up and get moving.”

Tristan gave an almighty sigh, and made a feeble effort to rise that moved him about an inch away from his starting position.

“Do I have to buy you a Kinder Egg to get you to get up?” asked Liza.

Tristan thought about it.

“Yeah,” he replied. “You do.”

“How about I don't buy you one, and just decorate the bench with your brain?”

Tristan opened his eyes and saw Liza's gun pressed against his forehead; he went cross-eyed trying to look at it, and decided to get up.

“Right then,” said Liza, putting the gun away and looking around to make sure no one had noticed. “Let's get going.”

And they did, and neither, predictably enough, noticed the battered black carriage rattling along behind them.

---

Leaving the Galactic building had been easy; we'd gone out the way we'd come, and only run into a couple of goons as we did so. They had all been too busy fearing for their lives to cause any real trouble for us, and so we found ourselves in the streets of Eterna again, searching for somewhere to sit down and think about the information we had, and plan our next move.

Eterna had quite a famous park on the east side, so I suggested we go there; Ashley and Iago both agreed, and while we walked I called Stephanie back to see what she wanted.

“Hello? Steph?”

“Pearl!”

I winced and moved the phone further away from my ear.

“Huh. What big lungs you have.”

“All the better to shout abuse at you with,” Stephanie returned. “Where the hell are you? Are you tryingto get yourself kicked out?”

“It's kind of important—”

“What are you doing that's more important than this? Your position at the university is already pretty damn tenuous—”

“Someone's trying to kill me!” I cried back, which not only shut her up but drew quite a few strange looks from other people on the street. Ashley and Iago took a few discreet steps away from me.

“What?” asked Stephanie. “Someone's... Pearl, what's going on?”

“I wish I knew,” I replied forlornly. “There's this group called Team Galactic, and they've sent assassins after me, and the detective and his friend—”

“You're with that detective? Pearl, why can't you let him do his job and solve the crime without you getting involved?”

“You sound like him!” I snapped back, annoyed now. “If someone wants me dead, I'd say I have a pretty damn good reason to get involved, wouldn't you?”

“What if you get—”

“Whatever happens, I'm safer here than anywhere else,” I replied, and then thought of Iago and his knife. “Well. Maybe not anywhere else. Which reminds me...” I stole a glance at Iago and Ashley, but they didn't seem to be listening. “Can you do some research for me, Steph?” I whispered down the line.

“What?”

“Well... look, I can't really explain, but can you look up Ashley Lacrimére for me?”

“Pearl, I am really confused and really pissed-off, and if I don't get some straight answers soon, I'm going to track you down and kick you off a cliff.”

“I can't give you any straight answers, because I don't know any answers myself!” I hissed. “Look, just do some research, OK?”

Something in my voice must have made an impression on her, because she replied in quite a subdued voice:

“O-OK. What am I looking for?”

“Something out of the ordinary,” I replied, looking across at Ashley and Iago again. “I know he runs a consulting detective agency, but I want to know if there's anything, like... weird about him.”

“Weird?”

“Well...” How could I put it into words? I wanted to know what had distorted his voice, what had put such fear into the Galactics in the building; I wanted to know what the hell was going on, why Iago was bound to follow Ashley, whose secret this was if it wasn't Ashley's... There were so many questions that I just had no idea what to say. “Just look for weird things. Secrets. Hidden stuff.”

“Why am I doing this and not you?”

“Because if I do it, I might just get knifed,” I answered truthfully. “Oh yeah, and you might want to keep it a secret that you're doing this. Or someone might turn up at your apartment and knife you, too.”

For a moment, Stephanie was speechless. Then:

“Jesus Christ, Pearl. What have you got yourself into?”

“I don't know,” I replied. “But don't worry. I'm going to find out.”

“That's exactly what worries me,” she told me. “I hope you know what you're doing...”

It wasn't an auspicious end to a conversation, but I'd got the message across and that was the important thing. I put my phone away, caught up with the others – I'd fallen behind – and we continued on our way to the park.

Its fame turned out to be deserved: a huge, broad expanse of grass, with a pond to the east, the occasional stand of trees and a fifty-foot statue of some terrifying ancient monster in the middle of it. On a sunny Friday like today, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a part of it that didn't have a few families picnicking on it, or a pair of young lovers lying in the grass. There was nowhere in Jubilife like this at all, and overall it seemed like a great place to just sit in the sun and relax.

Unfortunately, we were here to do more than relax; we'd be doing some sitting in the sun, but we had to think as well, and draw up a plan of action. We sat down near a tall pine tree where there was a view of the statue and of the pond, and a teenager with his blue-haired girlfriend about ten yards to our right.

“Nice spot,” said Iago, looking around. “I'll have to remember this place. Which I will, because I have perfect recall.”

“There's no need to be smug about it,” replied Ashley. Maybe it was because I'd been unexpectedly clever back at the Galactic hideout, but he seemed to, if not exactly like me, then certainly tolerate me more than before. “Let's discuss this Mister Maragos.”

“Well...” I thought. “Might he be...?” I hesitated. “Might he be in Veilstone?”

Ashley looked at me, puzzled.

“What makes you think that?”

And I was about to answer him when someone called out to us: an unfamiliar voice, with an unfamiliar accent.

“Iago? Iago, is that you?”

The Kadabra looked up sharply, and so did I; I saw a bright orange light approaching, lightbulb-shaped and glowing with blue electricity.

“What the... hey, is that you?” asked Iago, stunned. “It is, it isyou!”

The Rotom drew closer, and I noticed that there was a tiny speaker floating in the middle of its body, which was where its voice was coming from.

“Ah,” it said, taking in Ashley and myself. “Good afternoon, assorted meat creatures. I'm an old friend of Iago's, and my name is Robin Goodfellow.”

Cutlerine
October 19th, 2011, 11:14 PM
Chapter Ten: In Which a Certain Woman Appears, and the Plot Thickens

'From an early age, it was clear she was going to be someone big one day. No one can destroy that many buildings and not get some sort of recognition.'
—Stella Graffa, The Buckley Files: A Biography

If you live in Eterna City, chances are you believe in ghosts. You probably don’t show it, and if asked, you’ll always deny it – but in your bones, you know they’re there, in the shadows in the forest, slinking through the night like witches’ familiars.

Because if you live in Eterna City, you will have probably seen a ghost at least once; you will have seen the old house, Wickham Manor, a few miles into the forest, and the ruins of its once-proud estate, and as you went past, you might have seen a pale face at a window, or a flash of light where no light should be, or the locked gate creak slowly open as if under tremendous pressure. And if you are the brave sort, or the foolhardy, you might have thought to investigate further, and break open the lock on the old doors, and creep into the hall...

Yes, if you live in Eterna City, you are almost guaranteed to believe in ghosts. Ghosts like Ellen Dennel and her butler, Gabriel Bond.

Ghosts who were, even now, staring out at the city from their carriage in some dismay.

“Bond,” said Ellen, climbing slowly out of the carriage and up onto the driver’s seat for a better look. “How long have we been in the house, exactly?”

“I confess I don’t know, madam,” replied Bond, eyes fixed on the distant skyscrapers. “But I fear we may have been there for quite a while longer than we thought.”

They stood by the train tracks on their horseless carriage, Eterna laid out before them like a modern fairytale; everywhere, there seemed to be glittering towers and electric lighting, and square unfamiliar buildings with logos in a foreign language. Through the streets raced hundreds upon hundreds of motor-cars, all far more advanced than any Ellen had ever seen before, and much quieter too.

“Is this still Eterna?” she asked.

“I hope so,” replied Bond. “I think we have merely stayed at home for a long, long time...”

He trailed off and bit his lip in a rare expression of emotion; together with Ellen, he stared at the city for a while longer.

“It doesn’t change anything,” Ellen said at last. “We must still find them.”

“Yes, of course, madam,” agreed Bond. “But may I suggest that we do so on foot?”

“Walk?” asked Ellen, astonished. “Walk all the way through Eterna?”

Bond pointed at the motor-cars in the streets.

“It may well have escaped your notice, madam, but carriages appear to be a thing of the past.”

Ellen pouted, but had to concede that it was true; there wasn’t so much as a single horse to be seen.

“Fine,” she sighed, as it were the greatest concession anyone had ever made, “but I’m not leaving my books.”

Bond closed his eyes for a moment, thinking of what it would be like to carry Ellen’s books through a city on a hot September day.

“As you wish, madam,” he said eventually. “Perhaps we should get one of those motor-cars.”

This idea cheered Ellen up no end, and they set off for the city proper with one light heart and one heavy load between them, unequally and unfairly divided.

---

Iago jumped, darted a glance at Ashley, and whispered frantically to the Rotom; I made out the words ‘detective’ and ‘Diamond’, and guessed that this Robin Goodfellow was an old partner-in-crime of his whose secrets he did not want spilled here.

“Oh,” said the Rotom in question. “Ah. This is an awkward situation...”

“Shut up!” hissed Iago. He then turned to Ashley and I. “Heh. Uh, excuse us. We need to... catch up.”

The two of them retreated some way across the grass, and began a hushed conversation.

“I didn’t know Rotom were sentient,” I said. I’d known that most Ghosts were, of course, but I didn’t know that that applied to Rotom, or that Rotom showed any interest in human society beyond the usual Ghostly interest of using them for sport.

“They are,” replied Ashley, frowning. “And that one... there’s something familiar about him.”

“What accent was it—?”

“English,” said Ashley. “An English Rotom called Robin Goodfellow...” His frown deepened, and he dug out his smartphone to do some research. I turned my eyes back to Iago and Robin just in time to see the Kadabra start as if stung.

“What?” I heard him cry. “What sort of...?”

He lowered his voice fairly quickly, and the rest escaped me. Soon enough, the conversation was broken up anyway: the couple lying in the grass to our right got up and came over, the boy calling out:

“Puck! Sapphire called, we’re going!”

At this, Robin looked around, and called out something indistinct; I assume he then said his goodbyes to Iago, because he left with the couple a moment later, and Iago came back, looking pale and slightly shaky.

“Ashley,” he said as soon as he was close enough for him to hear. “Ashley, I’ve found out something terrible.”

“I knew it!” cried Ashley. “He’s the art thief!” He looked up sharply, but Robin and his human friends (or perhaps he would have termed them ‘meat creatures’) were gone. “He’s wanted in most of the world’s countries...” Ashley actually looked upset for a moment – but that moment swiftly passed, and he shrugged. “Ah, well. He’s gone now.”

“Ashley, listen!” said Iago, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him weakly. “I know how...” He looked at me.

I looked back. This sounded interesting.

“Pearl,” said Ashley calmly, “would you mind catching up with that young man who just left with Mister Goodfellow and asking for his autograph?” He handed me a pen and autograph book, and I stared at them.

“Is this your way of getting rid of me so you can have a private conversation?”

“Yes,” he admitted freely. “But I would also like his autograph. So would you, but you don’t know it yet. Go and ask him.”

“OK, I’ll do it,” I said, getting up. “But only because I’m curious, OK?”

Ashley blinked at me, which was both disconcertingly effeminate and disconcertingly pretty.

“As long as you do it,” he said, smiling. “Now hurry up, or you’ll miss him.”

What’s with him today, I wondered. He hates me this morning, flirts with me this afternoon... OK, so he’s really weird, but does that really justify this?

This wasn’t a question that I could answer (although as a philosophy student, I could have taken a stab at it) and so I put it to the back of my mind and ran to catch up with the couple and their Rotom, who were almost at the gates. I noticed that the girl was wearing roller-skates, which was odd, since I’d never really seen anyone wear those anywhere before.

“—said she would meet us at the statue of a priest on Hanan Road,” the boy was saying in Hoennian. I’m quite a good linguist – that’s why I study German as well as philosophy – and am fairly close to fluent in Hoennian. Which was fortunate to the point of being a plot device. “Puck? Any clue where that is?”

“Nope,” replied the Rotom cheerfully. “If I still had the Metagross, I could access Google Maps and tell you. But since someone—”

The boy winced.

“That was an accident, I told you – besides, you were going way too fast—”

Suddenly, the blue-haired girl turned around, apparently without moving her legs, and looked me dead in the eye.

“Why are you following us?” she asked. Her Hoennian had a strong accent to it; she wasn’t a native speaker. Somewhere in Asia, maybe?

Robin Goodfellow and the boy turned to see what was going on.

“Hi,” I said, suddenly feeling very stupid. “Er, look, I realise you have no idea who I am—”

“Oh, right,” said the boy. “Autograph, right?”

I gave him an odd look, which caused him in turn to give me an even odder one.

“Yeah,” I said, trying hard to sound like I knew who he was. “I’m – uh – a big fan.”

“It wasn’t really me,” the boy said. “Not all me, anyway.”

“Mm. Yeah, I’ve heard that said. But you – you played a part, you know?”

Robin Goodfellow appeared to be having great difficulty containing his laughter.

“Ah. Ignore him.” The boy took the book and pen, signed it and handed it to his girlfriend. “I assume you want hers too?”

“Uh... sure. Go for it.”

The girl signed, and then Robin said:

“And mine? You want mine, right?”

“Can you sign things?” I asked him.

“No,” he admitted. “But it’s nice to know that someone wants it.”

“Then I do want it,” I said gravely, “and am deeply sorry that I can’t have it.”

“That’s fine,” replied Robin magnanimously. “I forgive you.”

I took back the autograph book, thanked them all and went back to Ashley and Iago. On the way, I looked at their names: the boy was called Kester Ruby, and the girl...

“She’s signed in Japanese,” I muttered. “How helpful.”

When I got back, I found Ashley looking thoughtful, and Iago slightly calmer than before – that is to say, only really agitated instead of extremely.

“Here,” I said, tossing the book and pen back to Ashley. “Who were they, anyway?”

“Kester Ruby and Felicity Kusagari,” he replied absently. “Although I don’t think that that’s actually her real name...” He looked at me. “Sit down. We need to talk about Mister Maragos.”

“What were you talking about before?” I asked. “It was to do with what that Rotom said, right?”

“I believe Iago told you about asking questions earlier,” replied Ashley. “I’m afraid to say that he’s right. It’s why I tried to get you to go home; perhaps I should have phrased that better.” He fixed me with a serious look. “Knowing too much about me means danger, Pearl. So I think you’d better drop that topic and help us decide what to do next instead.”

“Fine,” I said; I could tell my assent made him slightly suspicious, but it didn’t matter: he didn’t know that I’d set Stephanie working on finding out his secret. I’d get to the bottom of this. “What are you suggesting?”

“You were telling me that you thought Mister Maragos was in Veilstone,” Ashley replied. “Why don’t you tell me why?”

---

“Look,” said Tristan, exasperated, “I understand that something’s happened. But what the hell is it?”

The guard looked down at him. He was a very big guard.

“Somethin’ ’appened,” he said roughly. “An’ now no one’s allowed in.”

They had arrived at the Galactic building in Eterna tired and ready to sit down for an hour or so, and now Tristan and his decidedly odd partner were arguing with the burly guards that had appeared outside the doors.

“We’re members of the Team—”

“Yeah, but you ain’t anyone importan’,” reasoned the guard. “So there ain’t no reason to let you in.”

“That’s a double negative,” said Tristan, momentarily distracted. “You shouldn’t do that.”

The guard bent down until his face was level with Tristan’s, and Tristan decided, after a second spend in searching the big man’s eyes for kindness and coming up short, that he would rather shut up and step back than be made into human meatloaf.

“You don’t have to let him in,” Liza said, taking over, “but let me in.”

The guard smiled an unpleasant sort of smile, looked across at his colleague, and asked her:

“And why would I le’ you in, little miss?”

Liza then put her mouth to his ear, shielded by her hand, and whispered certain words to him. And then the guard turned pale, stood up straight and saluted her before standing aside and letting her in.

Tristan and the other guard stared at him, amazed.

“What did she say?” asked the guard.

The first guard shook his head gravely.

“Ain’t no stoppin’ one like ’er,” he said. “She works for the Boss.” The second guard’s eyebrows rose. “An’ she’s a professional.” The eyebrows rose higher. “An’ she told me seven diff’ren’ ways she coulda killed me righ’ then.” The second guard’s eyebrows rose so high that they almost fell off the top of his head.

“Cal,” he said at length. “There really weren’ no stoppin’ ’er, was there?”

“Nope,” agreed the first guard. “None a’ all.”

Tristan looked first at one, and then at the other, and counted himself lucky he wasn’t Liza’s enemy.

---

Meanwhile, Liza herself moved swiftly through the building, wondering what precisely had happened. The few people she actually saw seemed jumpy and nervous, but there was no sign of any fighting – no wounds, no bullet-holes in the walls.

“What happened here?” she asked the nearest Galactic.

“The Diamond,” he replied shakily. “He came here and... oh God!”

That was about all she could get out of him, but it was enough to sharpen her curiosity still further. She went up to the top floor, intent on seeking out Jupiter and finding out what had gone on – but the lifts had been shut down, and there were more burly guards at the top of the stairs.

“What’s going on here?” Liza demanded to know, and got much the same response she had from the goons outside. This time, she couldn’t be bothered to do the cloak-and-dagger scare approach, and just told them outright that she worked directly under Cyrus; once one of them went off to confirm that this was true, it did the trick and she got past without further difficulty.

Up here, things looked different. There was a dark purple-black stain on the wall and carpet, which, when Liza sniffed at it, smelled faintly of rotting eggs. She looked left and right, and saw a couple of discarded guns on the floor, as well as a Poké Ball.

“What did he do?” she wondered. There had been a fight here – but no shots had been fired, and somehow Jupiter’s Skuntank had been taken down before it could flood the place with toxic gas.

There was only one way to find out the truth, Liza decided, and that was to ask: self-evidently, Cyrus had been called here, hence the security. She knocked on the door to Jupiter’s office and walked in without waiting for an answer.

“Ah, good afternoon, Liza,” said Cyrus pleasantly. “I thought you might turn up here; Mars said she’d sent your partner after Lacrimére, Gideon and that Kadabra.”

“Cyrus,” replied Liza. She didn’t call him Mister Maragos; she was a consultant and a specialist, not an underling. “What happened here?”

She surveyed the room: all the furniture was intact; there was no sign of a struggle at all. Jupiter was sitting at her desk, looking somewhat shell-shocked, and her colleagues Mars and Saturn were standing nearby, the latter attempting to comfort her and the former looking awkward, knowing that any attempt on her part to make a reassuring face actually came out looking more like a psychopath’s grin.

“The Diamond did,” replied Cyrus simply. “I have no idea what he did, but I know he was here, I know that he knocked out three agents and set fifteen more into a panic, I know he defeated Jupiter’s Skuntank in less than the three seconds it takes it to attack and I know that he extracted every last bit of information that she had from her in just a couple of minutes.” He looked at Liza with frank eyes. “I’m starting to see why he has such a reputation.”

“Sorry, sir, but – who is this woman?” asked Mars. “She looks like a grunt—”

“And as far as you know, that is all she is,” replied Cyrus with a dangerous smile. “Do you understand?”

Mars glanced at Saturn, who made a point of ignoring her, and nodded sullenly.

“Good,” said Cyrus. “Mars, Saturn, take Jupiter outside. Liza and I need to talk.”

“Outside where, sir?”

“Outside anywhere,” he replied. “I’m sure you must have some imagination in that head of yours. Use it.”

Mars acquiesced without further protest, and left with Saturn and Jupiter. Once the door had shut, Liza put her hands on the desk and swung herself up to sit on it.

“So,” she said. “What really happened here?”

“As I said before, it was the Diamond,” said Cyrus. “But of course, I know exactly what he did.” He held up a CD. “To stop the panic spreading, I have removed the CCTV footage of what exactly went on here. We’re treating it as hysteria, some mind-bending Pokémon that Lacrimére got in somehow – you know the sort of thing.”

“Yeah,” nodded Liza. She could do that. “I can sort that for you. Can I see the footage?”

“I don’t see why not.” Cyrus slid the disc into Jupiter’s laptop and moved the mouse about. The screen came to life, and a moment later the disc started to play.

Liza watched in silence, and growing consternation. There was something at the back of her head, a faint ringing in that dead space beyond Iraq...

No. The footage ended, and she couldn’t remember.

“That’s... impressive,” she managed. “What is it?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” replied Cyrus, and he almost seemed happy about it. “But it means we need to increase security.”

“I think... bullets should probably work,” Liza said. “If you see here” – she rewound the tape a bit – “look, here you can see a cut. And if it bleeds,” she added, which was reminiscent of the governor of California, “we can kill it.”

“I’ll have Mars keep that Purugly of hers handy too,” said Cyrus. “It’s the strongest thing we have, except for my Pokémon, and mine won’t answer to anyone else.”

“You can see Jupiter’s Skuntank get taken out in a single hit,” replied Liza. “Will the Purugly do any better?”

“It’s faster than it looks,” Cyrus told her. “It can dodge the attacks. Besides, it’ll be a useful distraction.”

Liza nodded; once again, it seemed Cyrus had thought things through properly.

“I’ll get onto the propaganda, Cyrus,” she said. “You handle security.”

He smiled and nodded.

“How is your work going?”

“Not well.” Liza sighed. “I haven’t found it yet. But,” she went on, shrugging, “I still have five more places to check before I give up hope.”

“And then...?”

“Sorry?”

Cyrus’ eyes were shining, as if they reflected a light that wasn’t there.

“What will you do afterwards?” he asked. “If you can’t find it?”

“I’ll join you,” she replied. “Because if that happens, I’ll be done with emotion forever.”

Cyrus smiled, and behind him, Liza thought she could make out a faint patch of darkness, a ragged shadow without anything to cast it.

“You’d be welcome,” he said. “I look forward to it.”

---

“You said Mars had been to Veilstone recently,” I pointed out. “You could tell by the grey dust on her shoes.”

“That’s right,” replied Ashley. “What an astute little creature you are.”

I bristled, but remembered that this was the friendliest he’d been to me in quite some time, and decided that for now at least I’d bear his condescension.

“It looks like we’ll need to go to Veilstone,” continued Ashley. “But I checked online, and it seems the pass has been blocked.”

There were only a handful of ways to get between West and East Sinnoh; down the middle of the island was a spine of jagged rock known collectively as Mount Coronet. Technically, it was about fourteen mountains, but they had all merged long ago and formed one colossal chunk of stone, dotted with peaks of varying height and shape. The inside was riddled with caves, which in turn were riddled with an alarming number of wild Pokémon; the upper slopes bore colonies of Abomasnow, and were too dangerous to traverse. This naturally meant that the only way across was through a few narrow passes that sat low down on the mountain, and that, of course, meant that the two halves of the nation were continually being cut off from each other, due to landslide, traffic accident or Exploding Graveler.

“Any flights?” I asked. It was a fairly vain hope – in East Sinnoh, it's always either raining or snowing, and air travel is dangerous – but it was worth checking out.

“Not until tomorrow,” Ashley replied. “The Abomasnow are agitated; there are snowstorms all the way up and down Coronet.”

“So what do we do?” I asked. “If we can't drive or fly?”

Ashley stood up.

“We seek alternative means of travel,” he said vaguely.

“Which is his way of saying that he doesn't know,” Iago confided. “Because there isn't anything we can do except wait. The storms'll clear up by tomorrow. Probably. Maybe. OK, they probably won't.”

Ashley walked off without saying anything, which was stupendously weird, and I jumped up to follow.

“Where are you going?”

“Back to Jubilife,” he said, frowning. “There's nothing more to be done here, and we can't get to Veilstone yet. In Jubilife, I'll be able to contact some East-side friends of mine, who can do a little investigating on my behalf.”

“On our behalf.”

Ashley gave me a look. I wasn't sure what sort of look it was, but it was definitely a look.

“On my behalf,” he said. “When we return to Jubilife, you are going to stay there.”

Ah. It had been that sort of look.

“No, I'm not,” I replied. “You really can't make me—”

“Would you care to put that to the test?” he asked sharply. I remembered where we had just come from: the fleeing Galactics, the information so easily obtained, the knife and the terrible secret; I remembered that I had no idea what Ashley could do, and that I was about three wrong words away from being killed.

Ashley smiled, though without any trace of humour.

“I didn't think so,” he replied, as we reached the park gates. “My apologies, Pearl, but your part in this ends here. I'll have someone come to guard you against—”

His last words were drowned out in a deafening roar; he broke off and looked testily down the road. I followed his gaze, and saw a huge black motorbike heading towards us at a speed that was probably not only in excess of the speed limit but also of Mach 1; it growled past pedestrians at breakneck pace and then suddenly swerved to a sharp stop right in front of the gates where we stood.

“OK,” I said, staring at the bike and its black-clad rider, who was now dismounting. “Ashley, is this an assassination attempt?”

He didn't reply, and I saw for the first time something approximating fear cross his face; that shook me, and I was about to make a break for it when Iago called out from behind us:

“Her again? What's she doing here?”

It was someone they knew, then. I relaxed a little, and watched the rider walk up to Ashley. The tension was electric; it wasn't just me standing and staring, but everyone else on the street. There was something about the biker (apart from her gigantic bike) that made you pay attention to her. Perhaps it was the way she was taller than everyone else, or the fact that she didn't remove her helmet; perhaps it was the confidence of her stride, or the way her leather-sheathed hands kept curling into fists – but whatever it was, it was potent stuff.

She drew close to Ashley, and he flinched away slightly; she grabbed his chin and tilted his head until he was looking up at her.

“Hello,” said Ashley, a note of uncertainty in his voice. “I can't say I didn't expect this, but I had my reasons—”

“Not now,” snapped the biker, and I could have sworn I'd heard her voice before somewhere. “We need to talk, Ashley.”

“Perhaps later—?”

“Now.”

“That idea also has its attractions,” conceded Ashley. “I suppose we ought to go, then?”

“Shut up and get on the bike,” said the biker, and a second later, both of them were gone, roaring away down the road and out of sight.

Dead silence reigned over the street. People were staring at each other, wondering exactly what had just happened; I was looking at Iago, trying to gauge whether or not he'd kill me if I asked a question.

“I knew this would happen,” he sighed. “Damn it. Pearl, we need a taxi.”

“What? Why? Where? Who?”

“Don't forget How and When,” Iago replied, grabbing my wrist and tugging me ineffectually up the pavement. “Then you'll have all of Kipling's serving-men.”

“What?”

“If you were an English student, you'd get that. Come on, Pearl, you're too heavy for me to drag!”

I started walking so he'd stop complaining, and asked my questions again, only more clearly:

“Iago, what just happened? Who was that?”

“She'll tell you if she wants you to know,” he replied, flagging down a cab and pushing me in. “Look, I can't say, you must have figured that one out. We need to follow them.”

“Where are they going?”

Iago looked at me as if I were an idiot, and not for the first time I wondered if he were right.

“To the Gym, of course,” he told me. “And, speaking of that – driver! Eterna City Pokémon Gym!”

And so, very confused and not a little scared, I buckled my seatbelt as the taxi drove off in the direction of the Gym.

Caliban
October 20th, 2011, 01:39 AM
Just dropping in to say that I'm once again reading and enjoying your current story!
To be perfectly honest, it is the only thing that I've been coming to PC for recently. xD;

And with that damned cliffhanger you just ended that chapter with, you may be sure that I will be checking the fanfiction forum frequently for your next chapter. <.<

Cutlerine
October 20th, 2011, 02:35 AM
Just dropping in to say that I'm once again reading and enjoying your current story!
To be perfectly honest, it is the only thing that I've been coming to PC for recently. xD;

And with that damned cliffhanger you just ended that chapter with, you may be sure that I will be checking the fanfiction forum frequently for your next chapter. <.<

Glad you're still around and enjoying things, especially if I'm the sole reason you're here (oh my God I'm so important). Anyway, since I have my computer back now, I'm going to try and get back into my usual habit of posting at least once every three days, and usually every other day - so tomorrow, you shall have the resolution you desire. Though not, perhaps the clarification; if this story ends up even half as strange as I think it will, nothing's going to make sense until right at the end, where it'll all fall magically into place. Hopefully. If we're lucky.

Cutlerine
October 22nd, 2011, 01:21 AM
Chapter Eleven: In Which There is Mystery

'Mysterious things moved mysteriously, in such a mysterious way that all the mysterious forces of Earth's mysterious corners could not have penetrated their mystery. And so mysterious things happened, very mysteriously, and the consequences were, in point of fact, mysterious.'
— Sunday Rockefeller, The Mystery Book

In the south of Eterna, four stone towers rise around an old cobbled courtyard; they have been there for five hundred years, and time has ground its mark deep into their stones: they are soft-edged, worn smooth by the quiet passage of the centuries and the silent ivy that winds its way, year by year, around the courtyard walls. Between these towers stand four crenellated walls, the last clue that the Eterna City Pokémon Gym was ever part of a castle.

It stands alone on a hill; if it were not for the skyscrapers, it would be the most commanding building in the city. As it is, it seems slightly cowed and not a little tired, worn out from the effort of keeping modernity from taking over its hill.

If you think this, you're probably a tourist, and have read the ridiculously sappy guide that they give out free in the information centre. In real life, the Gym's been fully modernised on the inside, and though it does look slightly out of place, it doesn't look tired. How does a building look tired, anyway?

We pulled up outside it at about quarter past five; we'd have got there earlier, but where the black biker passed, the traffic got a bit confused, and so the cabbie had to extricate us from about fourteen almost-traffic-accidents on the way. There was some unpleasantness with the payment, which Iago and the cabbie almost came to blows over, but I put together a timely intervention with a credit card, and sorted it all out. Two minutes later, we were passing under the archway and into Eterna's ancient Gym.

“You'd think they'd put in a door,” Iago observed.

“Yeah,” I agreed, but since there wasn't really anything else to say, we said no more about it. Instead, Iago went over to the receptionist, whose desk looked slightly anachronistic when set on flagstones, and said:

“I'm here with Ashley.”

The receptionist looked startled.

“You—?”

The Kadabra produced some sort of card from within the many folds of his tail and showed it to her; this seemed to clear everything up, as she suddenly straightened up and pointed him over to a door marked 'Staff Only'.

“Right through there, sir.”

Sir? That's... unexpected, I thought, and followed Iago.

We made our way down a stone corridor, through a heavy door and down another stone corridor; the Gym was nice, I thought, but it was getting a bit monotonous. It could have done with some windows, too. Eventually, Iago stopped in front of a door that was emitting noises that indicated some sort of argument was going on in there, and turned to face me.

“Pearl,” he said, “stay out here.”

“What? Why did you bring me here if you didn't want me to come in?”

“Because... because... I don't know,” he admitted. “Look, just stay out here, all right? This is not something you want to get involved with.”

“Yeah, because I'm totally not involved already, am I?”

“Oh, the little human can do sarcasm,” said Iago, with at least four times as much sarcasm as I'd managed to get into my sentence. “Isn't she clever?”

“Don't patronise me—”

“I'm not patronising you,” Iago interrupted. “For a human, you are in fact quite clever. Unfortunately, that counts for nothing when you're dealing with a Kadabra.” He sighed and put one hand to his forehead for a moment. “Pearl, I can't say this any clearer. This doesn't concern you. It might well kill you. It's also highly classified. If you go in, there are people who would try and silence you, and I think that one set of people after your life is enough, don't you?”

“Fine,” I answered sulkily. “Go on, then.”

“I'm glad you have at least some small capacity to see sense,” said Iago, and went through the door. I got a glimpse of Ashley's back – but that was all I saw before it closed.

Immediately, a sly grin crossed my face. Iago thought I was stupid; that meant he was underestimating me. He probably expected me to stand right outside and wait like a good little human – and as anyone who knows me can tell you, Pearl Gideon definitely does not fit that category.

I pressed my ear to the door, but couldn't hear anything beyond low angry noises; the wood was far too thick. I'd thought that might happen, so I went over to the next door and listened at that; I heard nothing, so opened it cautiously and went inside. Thankfully, it was deserted – I had no idea what I'd have said if it wasn't – and seemed to be some sort of office. Shutting the door behind me, I looked at the wall that separated me from Ashley, Iago and the mysterious woman, and smiled: just as I'd hoped, it wasn't stone. The same thing had been done at my family home – the bigger rooms had been divided up into smaller ones with flimsy plaster walls. The first thing my dad had done to it had been to tear them all out, and I knew from experience that sound went straight through them.

“Oh yeah,” I said quietly to myself, smiling. “This is how a real detective does things.”

I pressed my ear to the wall and began to listen.

“—greement,” someone was saying – the leather-clad biker. “You stay under the radar, we don't interfere.”

“I—” began Ashley, but the woman kept talking, as bossy people often do.

“I mean, what possessed you?” She sounded almost incredulous. “Why would you do something like that?”

“These people are doing something—”

“We know, Ashley,” said the woman. “Researching the energy given off by evolving Pokémon. We've had an eye on them for ages.”

“And you haven't done anything?” asked Ashley. “But surely this is your remit!”

“The only illegal thing they've done is what they did in Jubilife with Rowan,” replied the woman, “and we don't have the authority to do anything about that. It's the police's job. Your job. Wait, let's not get off the point.”

“The point? I was rather hoping you might forget about it.”

“Oh yeah,” said the woman. “Forget that you released in the middle of a city. That's likely, isn't it? You know, in the same way that a tiger coming through the door and eating me is likely.”

“You're not very reasonable when you're angry,” observed Ashley. “I find it much easier to speak to you when you're calm—”

“No! I have a right to be angry, Ashley, you've broken our agreement and you won't tell me why!”

“There was no other way to get what I wanted!” he cried back. “I wouldn't have done it if this was anything else – but there's something about this, Cynthia, there's something that doesn't feel right...!”

I didn't hear any more. I drew my head away from the wall, and blinked slowly in wonder. Cynthia. That was why the voice sounded so familiar. I'd heard it a thousand times before, on the news, during League Tournaments on TV, on the radio...

The black biker was Cynthia Buckley, the Pokémon Champion of Sinnoh.

---

“Liza!”

Tristan leaped up from where he'd been sitting on the steps and rushed to meet her as she left the Galactic building; as he approached the guards and noted the look in their eyes, he slowed, and in the end resolved to wait for her a safe distance away.

“Ah, the perfect welcome committee,” Liza said. “It's the one-man Laurel and Hardy show.”

“That's a compliment, right?” asked Tristan hopefully.

Liza paused to think.

“Sure,” she said, with a small smile. “Yeah, it's a compliment.”

“Oh. Thanks.” Tristan felt that she might be withholding part of the truth from him here, but said nothing about it. “So? What happened?”

“Lacrimére and his friends,” replied Liza succinctly. “They broke in and – well, it was probably the Kadabra, Iago. They caused a mass hallucination and stole quite a bit of information in the confusion.”

“Damn,” whistled Tristan. “That's bad.”

“I will forever be in awe of your mastery of stating the obvious,” said Liza absently, walking over to the road and looking up and down it for something unknown.

“You're in a good mood,” noted Tristan. “What's that about?”

“I had a productive conversation with your Mister Maragos,” Liza replied. A black sedan of the sort positively adored by villains the world over drew up beside her, and she got in. “Tristan. In.”

Tristan obeyed, somewhat confused, and as the car began to move away he asked:

“What's happening? What are we doing?”

“We're driving in a car,” replied Liza.

“I had noticed that,” snapped Tristan, somewhat crossly. “Look, what's going on? Where are we going?”

“Mister Maragos laid on a car for us, which was nice of him,” Liza replied, “and we're going to the Gym.”

By this point, Tristan was about five seconds away from biting off his own foot and using it to beat his brains out.

“Why doesn't any of this make any sense?” he wailed, at which the driver turned around and told him to shut up, or he'd end up embedded in the ground, a position from which he doubted he would ever recover.

“We're going to the Gym because the Diamond was just seen heading there on a giant black motorbike,” said Liza mildly. It seemed to Tristan that she was taking a perverse sort of pleasure in his discomfort – but then he realised what she had just said, and blanched.

“A giant black motorbike? So... she's...?”

“Yes,” confirmed Liza. “The League's involved now.” She grinned a lazy grin. “This is becoming more and more exciting.”

“It's getting more and more dangerous—”

“It's much the same thing.”

Tristan was of the opinion that it wasn't the same thing at all, but thought it wiser not to say so. He was also of the opinion that Liza was dangerously unsound of mind, but saying that would probably have been even more ill-advised than saying that excitement and danger weren't the same thing.

“Oh dear,” he said, mostly to himself. “This isn't looking good at all.”

And as the sinister black car rounded a corner and began to head south, a second sinister black car, longer and slimmer, slid out of a nearby street, and started to follow it – only for the driver to stall the engine, curse inaudibly, and cause a minor traffic jam before managing to get the car moving again.

---

I heard footsteps moving over to the door, and quickly left the office to lean against the opposite wall in the corridor; Iago came out first, looking suspiciously at me, and then Ashley, looking somewhat abashed. Then came Cynthia, and her face was so familiar that it seemed like it wasn't real, but there it was: the sharp grey eyes, one of which was hidden beneath the sweeping curve of her knee-length blonde hair; the perfect nose, the small mouth... All that was missing was her trademark faint smile, for she was currently wearing a tight, disapproving line in lieu of that.

It wasn't hard to act surprised; even though I'd already known who she was, it was still a shock to actually see her in the flesh. My eyes widened and I gaped slightly; Iago looked at my face, and seemed satisfied.

“You're Pearl Gideon, right?” asked Cynthia, looking at me. It wasn't an approving sort of look.

“Uh... yeah,” I replied, startled. Oh my God, I'm speaking to the most famous woman in Sinnoh!

“Iago will escort you home,” she said. “I suggest you stay there from now on.” She looked at Ashley. “I need to thank Gardenia for letting me use this place,” she announced. “You can find your own way out, can't you?”

“Is that a joke?” asked Ashley sourly.

“Yes,” admitted Cynthia freely. “Now be good, boys.”

“Don't worry,” Iago said. “I've got it covered.

“Considering what you let Ashley do today, you'll forgive me if I don't believe that.”

With that, Cynthia turned on her heel and strode off down the corridor, helmet under one arm. I stared at her until she turned the corner, and then looked at Ashley and Iago.

“Was that...?”

“Yes,” confirmed Ashley listlessly. “Cynthia Buckley.” He sighed. “I apologise for her. She's not usually like this.”

“It's just that Ashley made her very angry,” Iago added.

Ashley frowned.

“No, we made her very angry,” he said. “You're supposed to—” He looked at me and broke off. “Well, anyway. We ought to leave. The next train to Jubilife leaves in twenty minutes.”

On the way out, we were all subdued: Ashley and Iago because of their telling-off from Cynthia, and me because I was thinking hard about everything I knew so far. What did it all mean? Cynthia was somehow in charge of Ashley, who had done something that Cynthia called 'releasing' in the Galactic building. Iago seemed to be... what, exactly? Was he a friend of Ashley's after all, or was he some sort of employee of Cynthia's, meant to keep an eye on him for her? That didn't fit so well with what I knew about him as a con artist; since the League was part of the government, I'd have thought it was out of the question for them to employ internationally-wanted criminals.

And on top of that I had to consider Team Galactic, who wanted Ashley, Iago and I dead, and were looking into some sort of scheme to obtain vast quantities of energy...

“This is worse than philosophy,” I muttered to myself. “This actually requires a straight answer.”

I paid for a taxi to get us back to the train station – Ashley and Iago were running low on funds again; they seemed to get through money at the same rate normal people got through oxygen – and sat in silence the whole way through, thinking furiously and getting nowhere. The train journey itself was also silent; Ashley fell asleep, though woke precisely thirty seconds before we pulled into the station, and Iago stared vacantly out of the window for the entire trip.

All in all, it was close to nine in the evening when I arrived back at my apartment – not late, especially not for me, but it had been quite an exhausting day. Ashley and Iago had insisted on escorting me there, presumably acting on Cynthia's orders, and bade me a tired goodnight at the door.

“I'll come here tomorrow,” Iago said. “There's some paperwork you need to do.”

“Paperwork?”

“Yeah, paperwork.” He scratched his head. “Basically it says you won't tell anyone about anything you saw, and that you're going to stay out of our affairs from now on.”

“Huh.” Right. Like I was going to sign anything like that. I'd get to the bottom of this mystery, whatever it was – and I'd get there on my own if need be. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Pearl,” said Ashley, which startled me because he hadn't said anything for several hours now. “I'll be in touch when I find something out.”

I did my best to smile.

“Thanks,” I said. “I'll see you.”

“See you later, Pearl,” said Iago. “Well, hopefully not, but... you know.”

With that, they walked down the hall and out of my life – for the present at least. I unlocked the door and went inside, then immediately headed for bed. I was going to sleep now, so that I could get up early in the morning and call Stephanie. There were two mysteries to be solved now, and there was no way I was going to let either of them pass me by.

Morning came, and since I hadn't set the alarm I didn't wake up until ten thirty, which kind of ruined my plan. I'd half-expected this, so shrugged and put the kettle on while I called Stephanie.

“Steph? It's Pearl.”

“Pearl? Where are you?”

This was, I reflected, a slightly weird way to start a conversation, but I supposed it didn't matter.

“At home. In my flat.”

“You're back?”

“Yeah—”

“For good?”

“Um... yeah. Why not. Listen,” I went on, eager to change the subject, “have you found anything out yet?”

“It's ten thirty-nine,” Stephanie said, “so you've probably just got up. You're making breakfast right now, and then you'll take a while to get dressed... come over here in forty minutes and we'll talk.”

“You know me far too well,” I told her. “You found something out, then?”

“Sort of,” Stephanie replied enigmatically. “Like I said, come over and we'll talk.”

“About Ashley?”

“Amongst other things.”

Despite my best efforts, I couldn't get her to reveal anything, so I hurled my phone onto the sofa in frustration and set about finishing my breakfast preparations.

Fifty-three minutes later, I was walking up to the door of Stephanie's apartment; I reached up to press the doorbell, but it swung open before I'd touched it.

“Am I really that predictable?” I asked.

“I knew you'd be late,” said Stephanie. “Exactly thirteen minutes late, in fact.” She smiled. “Come in, Pearl.”

I came in, dropped my bag on the floor and threw myself onto her sofa.

“So,” I said, “tell me what you found?”

Stephanie said nothing, and I looked at her uneasily.

“Oh no. I know that look. What are you up to?”

No response, but Stephanie's smile broadened.

“What have you...” I trailed off, realising what she was up to. “Cal!”

I jumped up and lunged for the door – but Stephanie held up the keys, and I rattled the handle to no avail.

“I locked it,” she said. “Shall we make a deal?”

“This is about the essay, isn't it.” I didn't say it like a question.

“Yeah, that's pretty much it.” Stephanie pocketed the keys. “That essay's due on Tuesday. Today is Saturday. That's three days to do what usually takes you over a week.”

“I think the Ashley stuff is more important than the essay—”

“Ah, there's the thing,” Stephanie said. “See, I don't think so. And neither will Professor Legumulous. So I'll make you a deal: you get your information after I get some proof that you've done the essay.”

I glared at her.

“What's to stop me from going and looking up this stuff myself?”

“Pearl, you said yourself that you'll get knifed if you do,” she pointed out. “And by the way, I want an explanation for that – after the essay, of course.”

“You,” I said, with the voice of one who knows, “are evil.”

“And you are indolent and hedonistic,” replied Stephanie.

“I'm a – a Stoic—”

“I think you mean an Epicurean,” she corrected. “This is all further proof that you should be studying. You should have learned that years ago.”

“Look,” I said, trying a different tack. “Something weird is happening, and everyone who's caught up in it knows about it. I am also caught up in the something weird. Therefore I need to know about it. That's – that's perfectly valid inductive reasoning!”

“Pearl, are you seriously trying to beat me in a philosophical argument?” asked Stephanie. “Think about that for a moment, and tell me whether you still think it's a good idea.”

I intensified my glare, but it made my face ache and so I had to stop.

“You're sulking,” said Stephanie, trying hard not to laugh.

“No I'm not.”

“Yes, you are.” She shook her head, smiling. “You can be so childish sometimes.”

“What!”

“You're right,” conceded Stephanie. “That statement wasn't wholly accurate.”

“Thank you,” I said with dignity.

“You're childish all the time.”

“Stephanie—!”

She looked at me innocently.

“It's for your own good.” She pressed her notebook into my hand. “You'll need this. Thanks for bringing it back, by the way.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.” I remembered I'd left it on my desk before I'd left, and took it from her with no small sense of guilt.

“That's fine,” Stephanie said sweetly. “You need it more than me.”

“Why does everyone think I'm an idiot recently?” I complained.

“Because you've started to act like one,” she replied sharply. “Now go and work, or you'll never get the answers you're after.”

And so I left, with great haste and no little alarm, for I had what is technically known as a freaking enormous pile of work to do, and very little time in which to do it.

---

“We missed them,” said Liza. “That's annoying.”

“Why did we come here anyway?” asked Tristan.

They were sitting in the car, just outside the Gym; as they'd pulled up, a big black motorbike had roared away, which had seemed to cause Liza's spirits to sink somewhat.

“They came here,” Liza told him. “Buckley just left – we passed her, remember? She brought the Diamond, the Kadabra and Gideon here.”

Tristan stared at her.

“But... how did you know that?”

“Mister Maragos told me,” she replied. “He was in the park when he got a call from the Eterna base, and passed them on the way there – so he detailed an agent to tail them.”

“Why didn't that agent kill them?”

“Because,” the driver said, turning around in his seat, “if he'd tried to do so, he'd have been struck down with a vicious blow.”

Tristan blinked.

“What?”

“He couldn't have beaten Buckley, could he?” the driver continued. He had, Tristan noticed, a distinct Johtonian accent. “Beating her would be something that only happens once every hundred thousand years or so. You know, when the sun doth shine and the moon doth blow.”

“What?”

“Ignore him,” said Liza languidly. “He's just a running gag.”

The driver grinned and asked:

“Where to now? Mister Maragos told me to take you wherever you need to go.”

“I can't help but feel that I'm very out of the loop here,” Tristan said crossly. “Is Mars still angry with me?”

“I think it's safe to say she has bigger problems right now,” replied Liza.

“Cheer up,” said the driver. “You know what they say: when your chips are down and your highs are low – joy ride.”

“You are a singularly weird sort of man,” Tristan informed him.

“He's one of many.” Liza coughed. “That's enough. Uh... let's see...” She thought for a moment. “They know everything that Jupiter knows, which I should think isn't much more than Veilstone and Maragos...” Her eyes widened. “Veilstone.”

“Veilstone? They're heading for the main base?”

Liza smote her forehead in frustration, then decided that it would be better to smite Tristan, and consequently did so.

“Where else? Are you really as stupid as you seem, or are you just Sinnoh's best actor? I have to say that it seems very unlikely that one man can contain such a large quantity of idiocy.”

“I've had more than enough of this!” cried Tristan, and would have smote Liza back had not the driver intervened, and smote both of them. The general smiting levels inside the car were now approaching Old Testament standards.

“Look, tell me where you wanna go,” he snapped crossly, in yet another strange musical reference. “I'm a driver because I like driving in my car, and so I'd quite like you to tell me where we're going.”

“Cease this smiting!” cried Tristan, feeling that his path, like that of the righteous man, was truly beset on all sides by the iniquity of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.

“He's right,” said Liza, whom life had taught the hard way to recognise and rectify her faults as quickly as possible. “Let's see... take us to the airport. We'll fly to Veilstone directly.”

There was a silence, and the car went nowhere.

“To the airport,” repeated Liza.

“Oh, I heard you,” the driver said. “But... think about it. I'm a driver. And you want me to take you somewhere where you can fly to your destination? When your life's in a mess, you take the National Express – but this isn't even a coach, it's a plane! It's ridiculous!”

At this, Liza's brow darkened, and Tristan instinctively recoiled from her – but it was towards the driver that her ire was directed, and to his ear that she put her mouth, and into his head that she whispered certain exotic words. And it was therefore his diminutive frame that stiffened, and his voice that issued from between his dry lips in a quiet 'Yes', and his hands that keyed the ignition and made the car drive away.

Tristan sat in silence for a while, and then asked:

“What did you say to him?”

Neither Liza nor the driver replied, and Tristan came to the conclusion that the exotic words so often employed by Liza were not ones to be spoken lightly, and therefore resolved never to speak of them again.

However, as has already been related, there were no East-side flights to be had at present, and they left dispirited – except for the driver, who of course was overjoyed.

“If he can't get East-side,” Liza reasoned, “the Diamond would head home, wouldn't he?”

“What are you basing that on?” asked Tristan.

“He's broke,” she replied briefly. “It's not as if he can afford hotels. He'll go home and wait until things have cleared up.”

“So, we're...?”

“Yeah,” said Liza. “Driver—”

“My name's Stravinsky—”

“Driver, take us to Jubilife,” she said.

Stravinsky grumbled for a moment, remembered the certain exotic words, and decided to immediately stop complaining and drive instead.

Tristan sat very quietly, and hoped that Liza never had cause to speak those words to him.

---

“Bond,” said Ellen.

“Yes, madam?”

Bond's voice was rather strained, though he was doing his level best not to show it.

“It's nothing personal, but...”

There was a short silence, which Bond eventually broke by saying tersely:

“I'm all ears, madam.”

“Well,” Ellen said. She sounded rather apologetic. “Well, it's just... you're not very good at this, are you?”

The car ground to another halt, half on and half off the pavement, and Bond turned to look at Ellen. It was the sort of look that only the very dignified can pull off, and it was intensified a thousandfold by the fact that Bond had been dead for over sixty years.

“Miss Ellen,” he said, “it has been a great many years since I last drove a motor-car. The last one I drove was of approximately the same complexity as a flea's mind. This one has so many buttons, levers and pedals that I might as well be attempting to pilot an aeroplane. Under the circumstances, I think I am doing exceptionally well!”

“Oh. Yes. Of course.” Ellen fiddled with the hem of her dress, somewhat subdued. “Well... carry on, then.”

Bond turned to face the road again, but before he could get the car started again, a policeman tapped at the window.

“Evening,” he said. “Do you know exactly how many road laws you're breaking he...” He trailed off, blinked, rubbed his eyes and blinked again.
The car, as far as it appeared to him, was empty.

“They're very annoying,” Ellen said. “This must be the seventh one now. Bond, tell him—”

“Madam, they cannot hear us.” Bond waved a hand before the policeman's face, but got no response. “And it appears as though this one cannot even see us.”

“That's not happened before. Why do you think that is?”

“I suspect there are some people who can, and some who cannot.” Bond shrugged. “It is often that way in books.”

“Oh yes.” Ellen smiled at that. “When can we stop and get some ink?”

“When we have warned that young man about his companion.”

Bond managed to start the car, much to the consternation of the policeman; as it pulled away, the good man of the law jumped and fell over backwards.

“How are we going to do that?”

This was a question that had been occupying Bond for some time. If so few people could even see them, then how on earth were they going to communicate a message to their target?

“Yes,” he murmured to himself, “it seems as if she might have her wicked way after all...”

Cutlerine
October 24th, 2011, 08:28 AM
Chapter Twelve: In Which We Find Cars, Coursework and a Conversation

'The best example ever was in Bullit, where the eponymous hero chases a suspect through the hills of San Fransisco – but of course, if you're the kind of person who would read this book, then you probably already know that.'
— Gunther Holst, Car Chases and Other Badass Scenes

Closed curtains. Alternative Hoennian rock. Unmade bed. Nietzsche.

My God. If I hadn't been working, I'd have been, like, so indie and cool.

As things stood, I was slaving over my desk, attacking the keyboard with all the fervour of a Vigoroth on crack. I cracked the 'delete' key into 'del' and 'ete'; I didn't care. I was in the zone, and every word was falling into place with the inevitability of Ragnarok. I hadn't read a single one of the books I was supposed to be drawing on, but why should that stop me from turning out an essay of unparalleled genius? I was a tornado, an avalanche, an unstoppable tsunami of philosophical might. Let Nietzsche come! He wanted to transvaluate? So what? I could transvaluate with the best of them! I only needed to work out what it meant, and I'd be able to transvaluate the entire world!

So... yeah. By two o'clock, I'd given up. My energy had run out, and I drew the curtains, went out onto my ridiculously tiny balcony and thought about fun things while drinking coffee.

“You could do so much today,” I told myself. “The world is your oyster, Pearl. It's not like Stephanie's your only friend. There's Stella, and Paula, and Persephone, and Liam...” Realising how stupid I sounded, I cut myself short and changed tack. “I mean, you could go shopping, or catch a movie, or – well, anything. You're a rich kid in the city.”

At this point, I half-expected to fall asleep, and for the ghost of Friedrich Nietzsche to appear before me and tell me to work on the essay – but unfortunately, real life had stopped being a movie, and so nothing of the sort happened. Instead, my phone played a little jingle, and when I picked it up I saw I'd received a text from Stephanie:

PEARL! Get working, NOW!!

I contemplated chucking my phone over the edge of the balcony and down seven storeys into the traffic, but decided against it in the end, if only because I couldn't remember anyone's number without my contacts list.

“How does she do it?” I asked a low-flying pigeon, which looked at me, surprised, and consequently flew into a window. It bounced off, cooed abuse at me and flew away again. “Why am I so predictable?” I called after its retreating tail, but it had learned its lesson and didn't answer.

A second message came up:

Pearl... Get on with it.

I gritted my teeth, gulped the rest of my coffee and went back inside. Stephanie was my only lead; I had to get this done, or the mystery would stay just that: a mystery.

---

Two black cars speeding down the highway to Jubilife; if their close proximity wasn't enough to draw attention, then the fact that the second one was apparently driverless and kept accidentally turning its indicator lights on and off certainly was.

Now, as you will remember, there were three people in the first car, each of whom is here accorded epithets for no reason at all: Liza the Mysterious, Tristan the Idiotic and Stravinsky the Musical. And of these three people, two at least were intelligent enough to notice the car behind them.

However, the person who noticed was not one of these two people. As a matter of fact, it wasn't even the third one. It was Tristan's Croagunk.
At this point, we must step back in time, for we find ourselves asking a rather difficult question: namely, how did someone who was not actually present do the noticing?

It came to pass that Stravinsky was occupied in driving, and chattering inanely to Tristan, who was attempting to ignore him; for her part, Liza had her phone pressed to her ear, and was in urgent consultation with person or persons unknown.

“—look, I'm on the motorway, I have a bad signal—”

“—so he asked me if before I go, could I read his mind—?”

“—no, not at all – no, they'll be in Jubilife, but—”

“—but she didn't want to feel my bones—”

“—no, Jubilife – look, should I call you back—?”

“—so I said to Andy, I said: 'You're a star—'”

Under this pressure, Tristan was now beginning to consider how he might use the automated windows to attempt to cut his own head off. He thumped his thigh in a fit of angst, accidentally hitting the Poké Ball in his pocket.

As can be imagined, the effects were dramatic.

Firstly, and most importantly, a Croagunk materialised in the back seat. Secondly, the right leg of Tristan's trousers exploded as the matter within its pocket expanded to several tens of times its original size. Thirdly, Liza, startled, reflexively hit the Croagunk on the head using the nearest item to hand – her mobile phone.

Naturally, this caused the Croagunk to instinctively lash out in defence; presumably in the grip of some preternatural adrenaline rush, Liza moved so fast to dodge that its poisoned fist shot straight into the rear window, cracking the glass – like the mirror at Shalott – from side to side.

“My window!” cried Stravinsky.

“My Croagunk!” cried Tristan.

“My phone!” cried Liza.

“Gurrrrp!” cried the Croagunk, for, in being pounded onto the rear shelf, it had spotted a car without any driver, which, in its experience, was not something that happened. Ever.

The confusion then descended into a shouting match, which was abruptly cut short when Tristan followed his Pokémon's gaze and noticed that there were two unpleasantly familiar figures in the car behind him.

A pale man in a black tailsuit, and a young girl in a tattered blue dress.

“Oh God!” he shrieked, so loudly that all other noise in the car ceased, and everyone turned to look at him – including Stravinsky, which meant that the car almost, but not quite, came close to crashing.

“What is it?” asked Liza.

Tristan raised a trembling finger – but the figures were gone, and Liza saw nothing. However, this was actually more disconcerting for her than seeing someone, and she stared for a moment, bells ringing in her head, moths beating old faded wings against a tiger's heart—

She blinked, and tore her eyes away. She could feel something long forgotten pounding on the other side of a door in her mind; if she only had the key, she could let it through!

“Liza!” cried Tristan. “Did you see them?”

“Uh – what – yeah,” she replied, thinking he meant the car and not the ghosts. “The car...” She turned back to Stravinsky and shoved the Croagunk onto Tristan's lap. “We're being tailed. Lose them!”

“Yes,” agreed Tristan fervently. “Lose them! Now!”

“Don't worry,” replied Stravinsky. “Here in my car, you should feel safest of all; we can only receive in here.”

Tristan turned to Liza, distraught.

“Can you stop him doing that?”

She was a million miles away, hammering on a black steel door in a desert.

“What? What's he doing?”

Tristan gave up and hunched over his Croagunk, hoping against hope that his unearthly pursuers weren't trying to kill him.

“The black car behind us?” asked Stravinsky, looking in the rear view mirror.

“Yeah,” replied Liza as if in a dream; she smiled lazily and ran her fingers slowly through her hair.

Whether Stravinsky had the Second Sight, or whether he simply failed to notice the apparent emptiness of the car, is a moot point. He slammed his foot down on the accelerator and the sedan lurched forwards, beginning a heart-stopping slalom between lanes, skirting trucks and cars and even a caravan...

Tristan began to wonder whether or not Stravinsky might kill him before the ghosts did; he decided then and there, with the engine screaming in his ears, that he was a reformed man and that he should now make his peace with the higher powers. Unfortunately, not having previously been a man of faith, he got a little confused about what these higher powers might be, and ended up wavering between the Buddha and the Pope, which displayed an alarming ignorance on his part about the two religions in question.

---

Meanwhile, Bond was leaning very far back in his seat, his eyes very wide and his foot pressed very hard against the accelerator.

“Bond!” cried Ellen happily. “This is amazing!”

The estimable butler did not reply. In fact, his eyes were somewhat glazed.

“At this rate, we'll catch them soon!”

Bond opened his mouth, then shut it again, preferring instead to devote his concentration to keeping their purloined car on all four wheels and in roadworthy condition. This he displayed a remarkable talent for doing; had he been born fifty years later, he would almost certainly have become the driver for Sinnoh's only motor racing team. As it was, he was a butler – but one with a stupendous gift for driving. The faster he went, the less the car stalled; it was as if it were trying to tell him that this was the way to do it, that if he went fast, zig-zagging like a mad hare through wave after wave of traffic, he would surely catch his target...

“Good God,” he muttered, in a rare expression of emotion. “I'm rather glad I'm already dead.”

---

The road roared by alongside them; horns blared, cars swerved, a truck almost tipped over on its side. It was a proper car chase, lacking only some gunfire and an explosion to render it worth of the big screen – but there was still time yet, and anything could happen.

Stravinsky, a driver of lesser skill but greater experience than his buttling pursuer, was slowly but steadily pulling away from the spectres' car; he spotted an opportunity, cried out something about death or glory becoming just another story, and took a hard right around the front of a flatbed lorry transporting metal pipes. It was a textbook move, and the results were predictable: the lorry braked, swinging wildly to one side, and the cables holding its cargo down snapped, flooding the motorway with pipes. Cars fishtailed, trucks braked, people cried out and swore – and the pursuing car, caught up in the confusion on the other side of the lorry, was finally out of their hair.

For a long moment, there was dead silence; Stravinsky brought the car back into a lane of traffic, and drove on for about four miles while their heart rates returned to normal.

“What,” asked Tristan slowly, “just happened?”

“We lost our tail,” replied Stravinsky succinctly. Even he seemed a little shaken. “There's no way they're getting past that crashed lorry.”

“Who were they?” Tristan knew that they were ghosts, of course, but he had no idea why the ghosts should be chasing him; it seemed reasonable to suspect they were in the employment of some other power.

“I don't know,” said Liza. She seemed to have recovered from her strange trance; whether she could remember that there had been no one in the car or not is not recorded, but it seems unlikely, for she made no mention of it. “That worries me. They didn't work for the Diamond; he doesn't know where we are, and besides, we're just a pair of goons to him. They can't have been police – they'd've used a cop car.”

“Could they be League?” asked Tristan. Why ghosts would work for the League was unclear – but he couldn't think of anything else.

“League...” Liza's face darkened. “Could be, but again, why us? Team Galactic's goals concern them – but if they knew the half of it, they'd send out an Elite Four member right away, with a couple of Gym Leaders as backup – and they'd go right to the base. If they were chasing us, they might send ordinary Gym Trainers, who might try and tail us like that – but they have no reason to look for the Team, and no reason to choose us instead of the base.” She shook her head. “No, it doesn't make sense.” She looked out of the cracked rear window again, and was reassured to note a distinct absence of pursuing vehicles. “There's someone else involved in this. Someone other than Lacrimére, and other than the League...” Liza bit her lip and turned around again. “Driver—”

“I've told you before, my name's Stravinsky—”

“Driver, get us off the main road as quickly as possible,” Liza continued. “However stupid the Sinnish police are, they won't miss that enormous traffic accident.”

Stravinsky couldn't argue with this, and so he didn't, taking them onto a minor road as soon as they got to the next junction.

Naturally, no one saw the white eyes watching them as they went.

---

“So that's what transvaluation is,” I said to myself, nodding as if I understood what I'd just read. “Huh. Nietzsche really doesn't like Christianity, does he?”

As Professor Legumulous was to later tell me, this was a gross oversimplification, but it seemed justified at the time. I was back on the balcony, reading the books I was supposed to have read before starting the essay. I'd had a quick trip out to the university library earlier, and picked up about five of them – the maximum I thought I could reasonably be expected to pick anything up from in three days.

It was quite a nice day; Sinnoh's a northerly island and it's usually cold throughout autumn and winter, but this year the summer's warmth had lingered longer into September than usual. I was glad of it: I find it far easier to study lounging on a sunny balcony with a drink than in a library or something.

“No distractions, Pearl,” I told myself. “Back to the books.”

And I was about to start reading when someone knocked at the door. Cursing whoever it was, I laid the book aside and stalked back through the flat.

“What is it?” I demanded to know, yanking the door open and staring belligerently out. “Look, I'm being studious – oh. Hi, Iago.”

As swiftly as I could, I removed my glasses; they don't suit me, and I only wear them when I'm reading.

The Kadabra stared impenetrably at me for a moment, and then said:

“Good to see you studying. I brought that stuff for you to sign.”

“Right.”

There was a pause.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

“Oh. Yeah. Sure.” I stood aside and let him in; he looked around at the curious combination of obsessive tidiness and negligent disorder, shook his head and held out a sheaf of papers.

“OK, so I don't want to be here and you don't want me here. Let's get this done quickly. You sign these nondisclosure agreements and my knife and I don't make a return trip here at three in the morning.”

“You could lay off the threats,” I said, reluctantly replacing my glasses and glancing through the papers. “I know how much you want to stab me, you murderous bratchny.”

“Half right,” Iago corrected, fiddling with his moustache. “I am a murderous bratchny, but I don't really want to stab you. It takes ages – I have to hit people over and over before it really does anything.”

That was right; being stabbed to death by a Kadabra would be like being decapitated with a butter knife. I expected it would be very slow and very painful; hopefully, I'd pass out from blood loss before things got that bad.

Returning my attention to the contracts, I could see that they were, as Iago had said, nondisclosure agreements; since he was a con artist, I had half expected this to be a way of scamming me into signing over all my worldly possessions to him. I thought about the ramifications of breaking them, and decided that I could only get in trouble for doing so if I was found out – so all I needed to do was keep a low profile. Following this slightly skewed train of thought, I signed and resolved to break the contract at the soonest opportunity.

“How's the investigation going?” I asked, handing it back to Iago. He started examining the papers, making sure I'd signed each page, and said:

“All right. Ashley's called in a favour with someone in Veilstone; they're going to have a look around.”

“I checked the weather forecasts,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible. “Something flew over the northern pass and made a lot of Abomasnow very angry; the snowstorms won't let up for a week.”

“Yeah, air travel's out of the question,” agreed Iago. “We're hoping the roads clear soon.” He gave me a look. “Don't get any ideas, Pearl. You don't work with us.”

“I know, I know.”

I gave him my best innocent look, which always worked well on men (except Ashley) but which Kadabra seemed to be immune to.

“Huh. Sure.” He went over to the door. “See you later.”

With that, he was gone, and I had to force thoughts of Ashley and Team Galactic from my head, and return to my philosophy essay.

“OK, where was I? Transvaluation, that's right...”

I'm pretty good at making a lot out of one idea; so far I had one good point (this transvaluation one, in case you haven't already noticed), and I was milking it for all it was worth. I hammered out another eight hundred words on it, decided I'd gone overboard with the bit about the Budew, deleted five hundred words and wrote one hundred more; by seven o'clock, I'd got a workable draft of how the essay was going to run.

“Hell yeah,” I said, doing a fairly embarrassing fist-pump. “I am so smart.”

My phone rang, and I pressed the button to see a third text from Stephanie:

No you're not.

“Screw you,” I replied, though she never heard me, and threw the phone onto my bed.

I could get the essay done tomorrow; after all, Sunday wasn't a day for having fun. It was a day for nursing the hangover you had from Saturday night. And with Saturday night fast approaching, I had better work out what I was going to do. You might well argue that I obviously hadn't thought this through, because if I had a hangover I wasn't going to be able to do an essay – but as it was to turn out, it was kind of a moot point.

I picked up my mobile again and started scrolling through my contacts.

“Let's see,” I muttered. “How best to waste the evening...?”

---

“OK, Ashley, I gave you yesterday to get over this,” Iago said, “but I'm starting to get pissed-off now. What the hell are you hiding?”

The detective looked up from his seat as if he hadn't heard.

“What?”

“Don't 'what' me,” snapped Iago, slamming his glass down onto the table. “You released in the sodding Galactic building. Why? If it was just to get me in trouble, you certainly sodding succeeded!”

Ashley made a noncommittal noise.

“You're as bad as Cynthia,” he said. “I couldn't help it. I thought I was about to die.”

“You did that deliberately though, didn't you?” asked Iago. “You set it up so you'd have that excuse. Do you think I can't see through this? I have an IQ of 876!”

“Yes, I always thought the 5000 was a bit of an exaggeration.”

“Stop – sodding – joking!” cried Iago, sweeping his glass off the table with an angry movement; so weak was his arm that it barely travelled an inch from the edge. “It's not funny!”

“Well it is for me.”

“And it?” asked Iago viciously. “How is it for it?”

The atmosphere around Ashley dropped a full three degrees.

“'It' doesn't think,” he answered coldly. “It just is.” He stood up, and Iago wondered if he hadn't gone too far; after all, the last time anyone pushed him over the edge, Darkling Town had had to be removed from the map. “I did it because Jupiter would only have given up information under extreme duress. There was no other means of doing it.”

“That's just not true,” Iago replied. “You could have...” He trailed off, and Ashley gave him an inviting sort of look.

“What?” he asked. “Do tell, I'm all ears. What else could I have done?”

“OK, so I don't know,” Iago admitted.

“You see it too,” Ashley said. “The Galactics' security was too good for anything other than straight-up confrontation. If I'd tried to sneak around the edges, I would have got precisely nowhere.”

“Still...” Iago shook his head and changed tack. “Fine, then. What about the other stuff Jupiter told you?”

“What other stuff?” asked Ashley.

“She didn't just tell you about Maragos,” said Iago patiently. “I've been your keeper for five years now. I know when you're lying.”

Ashley sighed.

“She said Maragos was looking into the myths and legends of Sinnoh,” he replied. “She said he was demythologising.”

“That Bultmann thing?”

“Yes. Removing the fantastical elements to get at the core truths.” Ashley sighed again. “She said that the truths in those myths would let him become the ruler of Sinnoh.”

“The ruler of Sinnoh...?” Iago looked at him askance. “What the...?” His eyes widened. “Oh. You think...?”

“Yes. Like me.” Ashley gave him a very serious sort of look. “What Robin Goodfellow said to you in the park...”

“They stole it, didn't they? The Galactics.” Iago ran his hands through his moustache, much as a human might run them through their hair.

“I fear so.” Ashley paused. “It's why he wanted me killed, I suppose. This Cyrus Maragos... he wants to be the only one. He wants it running through his veins, boiling in his blood. I suppose I am a threat.”

Iago was silent for a while. When he spoke again, it was in a quiet, serious voice, and it was to ask a question that he'd never asked before.

“Does it hurt?”

Ashley looked away, and in the light his eyes looked yellow.

“Not often,” he admitted softly. “Less now.”

“But when you release?”

“Ah.” Ashley shut his eyes tight; he could hear something drumming on a door in the back of his head. “Yes. Always.”

Iago, not knowing whether to deride or sympathise, fell silent. It was probably for the best.

Cutlerine
October 27th, 2011, 01:43 AM
Side note: I've removed Nanaly the Staraptor; I just remembered she's from a different story and that my wires had got crossed somewhat. Sorry about that.

Anyway, on with the story:

Chapter Thirteen: In Which the Ghosts Confer and Pearl Makes a Startling Discovery

'A mystery, wrapped in an enigma, concealed within a riddle, obfuscated by a puzzle, hidden behind thirty feet of concrete. That's what the average detective novel case is, but somehow it always gets solved by the last page.'
— Popular fictional detective Samuel Stabbs, in an interview for Sinnoh Now!

Irritating radio. An aching arm. A pounding head. A weird smell.

Christ. It must be Sunday morning.

I groaned loudly, then hushed abruptly as a spike of pain dug into my head.

“Damn,” I whispered to myself. “That ain't no normal hangover.”

“What hangover?” asked a familiar voice. “I don't smell any alcohol on you.”

I groaned again.

“Iag-o,” I moaned. “What are you doing here?”

“I think the question is, what are you doing here?”

That was an ominous sort of sentence if ever I'd heard one. I had to see what was going on, so I opened my eyes, took a brief look around and closed them again before I panicked.

“Iago,” I said, trying to keep the note of alarm from my voice, “why am I in hospital?”

“A better question is why am I here,” Iago said gloomily. “Ashley said I had to come and see you. He was too busy thinking.”

“No, I'd actually like you to answer my question.”

“Huh.” He sighed. “Can you feel a pain in your arm?”

“No...?”

“That's because you got Poison Stung by a Croagunk.”

My eyes flew open again and locked onto my left arm: it was swathed in bandages from knuckles to elbow. I couldn't see much of it beyond the fingers, but they were an unpleasant shade of purple.

“I can't feel my arm,” I said, beginning to panic. “I can't feel my arm—!”

“That's fine, that's normal,” Iago said wearily. “The numbness will wear off. They got you the antivenin and fixed up the hole; I expect they'll let you go home today.”

“Cal,” I said. “What happened?”

The Kadabra shrugged.

“I was kind of hoping you could tell me that,” he said. “Ashley's keen to know. We think it was the Galactics – Liza and Tristan seem to have a Croagunk, and they also seem to be the ones sent to kill us three.”

I frowned.

A Croagunk... an alley... Liam and Persephone and Paula...

“No,” I said. “I can't quite remember.”

“Huh,” Iago said again. “Well, call us if you remember. I put Ashley's number in your phone.”

“You're leaving?” I asked, as he got up.

“Well, yeah,” he said, as if anything else was unthinkable. “I mean, why the hell would I stay?”

With that, he walked out, and left me alone in an empty ward.

I frowned. Why was the ward empty? This was central Jubilife; people should have been being shot and stabbed twice hourly, especially on a Saturday night.

A moment later, a nurse came in and asked me how I was feeling; I looked at her as if she were more of an idiot than I was.

“How do you think?” I asked, aggrieved. “There's a toxic hole in my arm!”

“Yeah,” she said thoughtfully, “we wanted to know how that happened.”

“Join the club,” I said dispiritedly. “I don't remember.”

“Well, maybe you'll remember later,” she said. “The police were after you, though, so I'd remember soon.”

I glared at her.

“Do you have anything medical to do or are you just here to make me feel worse?”

“I was actually checking to see if you'd woken up,” she said, unperturbed, “and I'll take your blood pressure and temperature while I'm at it.”

Both were normal, and she assured me that a doctor would be in to see me later before gliding out as if on oiled castors.

“This place is weird,” I muttered, and set about trying to remember what happened last night.

---

“What do we do now?” asked Ellen.

She and Bond were sitting on a log in the middle of a small forest. Their car lay in what is technically known as a twisted heap back on the motorway; Bond was a good driver, but there was no real way to avoid a sudden lorry wreck right in front of him. If they already been dead, both of them would have become so very abruptly and rather painfully.

“I confess I don't know, madam,” replied Bond, his calm having returned now that he had left the vehicle. “We still have to catch up with that young man and get him on his own so that we can warn him.”

“I know,” replied Ellen. “But – and this is going to sound awfully silly, Bond, but I think it's true – I think he might be scared of us.” She looked up at him, pale and anxious. “Does that sound silly to you?”

Bond considered.

“No, madam,” he replied at length. “That would appear to make perfect sense. One must remember that we are what people would usually call ghosts.”

“Oh yes,” Ellen said. “We are, aren't we?” She thought about that. “I'd scare myself if I was still alive.”

Bond almost smiled, but that would have been too presumptuous of him.
“Yes,” he said. “I think we are approaching this the wrong way.”

“Well, what's the right way, then?” asked Ellen.

“Madam,” said Bond, “I have absolutely no idea.”

Ellen sighed and started fiddling with the shredded hem of her dress again.
“I suppose we ought to find him, really,” she said. “But how?”

And it was at this moment that a pair of white eyes appeared in the middle of the clearing, right before their faces. They were accompanied by a nebulous, shifting cloud of purple-black gas, and a curious jingling sound that reminded one of a set of windchimes.

“Mans?” asked Ellen, surprised. “What are you...?”

For Mans was, as were Chicory and Huluvu, a Gastly, one of three that, along with Ellen and Bond, held possession of the remnants of Wickham Manor. As mentioned before, they didn't like to leave in case another Ghost took over, but evidently Mans had thought the situation warranted it.

Uh... Hi, Ellen, said he.

“What's he saying?” asked Bond. For reasons that he didn't fully understand, only Ellen had acquired the ability to understand what Ghosts were saying when they died; thanks to that, the three Gastly had been willing to overlook the fact that they were sort of human, and had become something akin to friends to them.

“He says hello,” said Ellen. “Mans, what are you doing here? I thought none of you could leave the house!”

Chicory and Huluvu have it covered. The Gastly jingled a little and bobbed up and down. How's your hunt going?

“Not terribly well, I'm afraid,” Ellen told him. “We chased him in a motor-car, but they got away.”

Yeah... Mans said. Well... that wasn't wholly unexpected.

“Pardon?”

We kind of knew you'd fail, said Mans, as delicately as he could. I mean – no offence, but you two haven't left the house in sixty-odd years. Some of them very odd, he added to himself.

“What – but... why didn't you say something?” cried Ellen. “It would have been nice to know something about the outside world before we left!”

We had bets going, Mans said. We wanted to see how far you'd get before you failed. He attempted a shrug, but it failed owing to his singular lack of shoulders. I won. He coughed. Er, look, I just wanted to tell you that we've got some friends on the outside, a Ghost called Pigzie Doodle.

“Pigzie Doodle?”

Yeah, don't question the name, he's a bit sensitive about it. Something about someone drinking too much at the christening, I think. Anyway, he hangs out in this sort of area, and we asked him to keep an eye on those people you wanted following.

Ellen's eyes widened.

“You mean to say—?”

Yeah. We know where they are.

“But – but that's marvellous!” Ellen turned to Bond excitedly. “They were tracking them too, Bond! They know where that young man is!”

“Is that so, madam?” asked Bond. “How... unexpected.”

Head to Jubilife, Mans went on. Pigzie will be waiting for you; Jubilife doesn't have many of your sort, so he should sense you arrive and find you shortly after you get there. OK?

“Yes,” said Ellen. “Wonderful.”

I need to go, then, Mans said. I don't like being outside the house.

And with that, he vanished as if he had never been.

“Where are they?” asked Bond of Ellen.

“In Jubilife,” she replied. “We're going to meet a friend of Mans' there, called—”

Just then, Mans suddenly reappeared.

By the way, he said. If they go on to Hearthome, don't go with them. There's an old Mismagius there, and she won't be as friendly as we are. She's perfectly capable of hurting you, too, so... yeah. Be careful.

“Oh. Thank you,” said Ellen, and added: “I wish you wouldn't keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.”

“All right,” said Mans; and this time he vanished quite slowly, beginning with the edges of the gas-cloud, and ending with the eyes, which remained some time after the rest of him had gone.

“Here,” remarked Bond, “one might make a comment about eyes without a Gastly, but I rather think it would be labouring the joke.”

“Yes,” agreed Ellen. “Now, shall we?”

“Of course, madam,” replied the estimable butler, and, taking up his young charge's hand, set off for the road and thence for Jubilife.

---

“And don't forget,” cried the doctor after me, “to come back tomorrow!”
He sounded decidedly half-hearted about it.

“Sure!” I called over my shoulder, with a far-too-cheery smile. “Whatever you say!”

My arm was stiff and sore but working; after a protracted argument with a doctor (during the course of which I'd threatened to put his head through a window) and a frustrating attempt to convince the police that I really couldn't remember what had happened, I was free. After I'd told them exactly what I thought of their suggestion that I stay in for observation, the medical staff had had no choice but to let me go, though they did gingerly press a tube of Chansey lotion into my hand and ask me to consider using it every once in a while. Preferably twice a day.

I still couldn't remember what had led to my spiked arm; my memory ended abruptly at the point where I'd started scrolling through my contacts. It had been explained to me that this was a result of the Croagunk venom – apparently, it acted primarily on the brain, sending you on a fairly hardcore acid trip from which, ideally, you never recovered – but that didn't help me remember anything. I would have to send out a mass text and find out who was with me last night, and if they saw anything.

More importantly, though, I had to get that essay done. Perhaps it was because I didn't remember it, but my poisoning didn't seem real; if I thought about it at all, it was as I might recall a dream. If it had a basis, it was in this whole Ashley/Galactic mess – and that meant I needed to figure that out. And to do that, I had to finish the damn essay.

It was while my mind was running along this sort of theme, playing motivational hero music in the background, that someone fell into step alongside me.

“Hello, Pearl.”

I jumped, almost fell into the traffic and was hauled back by a thin arm.

“Jesus Christ, Ashley! You scared the hell out of me.”

He shrugged.

“Sorry. I'm used to taking people by surprise; I suppose I do it instinctively now.”

“All right.” I gave him a look, then started walking again, in the direction of the nearest subway station. “What do you want?”

“To make sure that this little stabbing incident isn't going to trigger some sort of investigatory crusade in you.”

“Uh... right.”

“Is it?” he asked.

“No,” I answered, far too quickly. “No it isn't.”

Ashley sighed.

“Please, Pearl. Do you realise how much danger you are in?”

Looking back, I really didn't. I had never known real danger before; I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

“Yeah,” I said. “And I don't care.”

“I care,” he replied unexpectedly. “There's only one thing more tragic than a life cut short.”

“And that is?”

He looked at me sadly.

“If you keep investigating, you'll find out,” he replied. “It's the key to everything, really.”

Immediately, I memorised it: There's only one thing more tragic than a life cut short.

“I can't stop you,” Ashley went on. “Or rather, I can – very easily – but I won't. Not if you really want to. But you'll do this without me or Iago, and consequently in a great deal more danger even than you're already in.”

“I don't care,” I told him, pausing at the top of the steps that led down to the subway. “I'm not giving this up.”

He shrugged again.

“Whatever you say,” he said, turning to walk away. “Here is where our paths diverge. Goodbye, Pearl.”

“Bye,” I said after him. I wasn't entirely certain he wouldn't turn up again; he seemed to be quite like a bad penny in that regard.

“Oh, and Pearl?” Ashley called back, stopping for a moment. “I would leave Stephanie out of this, if I were you. You've no right to harm her as well!”

I stared, open-mouthed, and was about to ask him how he knew about her – but all at once he was gone, vanishing into the crowd like a ghost in the fog.

---

When I got home, I put all the mysteries in my head to one side for a moment – a feat that required an extraordinary amount of mental exertion – and got back to work on the essay. I had to know, I just had to; otherwise, I would get exactly nowhere.

But I couldn't help but let the puzzles trickle into my head: a forgotten stabbing, a mysterious 'release', a secret League project... how did it all fit together? And what did it mean?

I spent an hour wondering and wrote nothing; then, realising this, I attacked the laptop furiously for ten minutes, wrote a page and a half of nonsense, deleted it and started again. My arm was beginning to ache, so I took a painkiller and kept going; I couldn't stop now. I was back in the zone, or at least not far from the border of it, and so it was that by quarter past two I had a passable essay. Actually, it wasn't passable, it was awful, and it wasn't an essay, it was a crappy draft, but that would do; I just needed that information from Stephanie, and so I printed it out and rushed over to her place as quickly as possible.

“Pearl! What happened?” she said, as soon as I appeared. It took me a moment to realise she was staring at my bandaged arm.

“What – oh, that? Nothing. Just a little light stabbing. Look, I finished—”

“Stabbing?” cried Stephanie. “Oh my God, I didn't really believe you when you said you'd get knifed—!”

“What? No! It wasn't that!” I paused. Wasn't it? Sure, there had been Croagunk venom in me – but it could have been a poisoned knife, which would be more Iago's style: he wouldn't have to be strong to kill someone with that. I shook my head; there would be time to think about that later. “I'm not sure what it was. I can't remember. Look, can I talk about it later?”

But apparently I couldn't; I had to spend half an hour telling Stephanie all about the events of last night and this morning (what I could remember of them) before she would even look at my essay.

“Pearl,” she said at length, “I'm sorry. I was wrong.”

“What?”

This was unexpected. Stephanie was never wrong.

“I shouldn't have kept on at you,” she said. “You were right, this is serious.”

“Oh.” I straightened up self-consciously. “Well, uh, I did tell you.”

“I mean... you could have died.” Stephanie's blue eyes bored seriously into mine. “You could just as easily be in a morgue this morning as in my living-room.”

I hadn't thought about it that seriously yet – and I didn't intend to. That was the sort of talk that would remove my carefully-sculpted confidence in one fell swoop.

“I suppose,” I said, in an offhand sort of way. “It doesn't concern me.”

Stephanie frowned.

“Weirdly, I can't tell whether you're braver than I thought or stupider,” she said.

“It's braver,” I assured her. “Definitely braver. Look, I've done my essay!” I waved it around. “Can I see the information now?”

“What – oh, about your detective. Yeah, I'm sorry about that. It's mostly conspiracy theories.”

“Huh?” Conspiracy theories? I knew Ashley was more well-known than I'd thought – but not that well-known, surely? “Show me.”

Stephanie fetched her laptop, opened it up and paused to look at me.

“He doesn't want you doing this, does he?”

“Not... as such,” I answered cagily.

“Maybe he's right,” Stephanie went on. “I mean – you almost died.”

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn't – I can't remember. Show me the stuff.”

I was raring to go; I'd done an awful lot of work to get here, and I wanted the rewards. Now.

“Pearl... I think you should let this go,” Stephanie said, and it was only our long-standing friendship that prevented me from punching her in the face.

“What?”

“You just got stabbed by a Croagunk!” she cried. “Don't you see how dangerous this is?”

“Yes!” I snapped back. “I'm the one who got stabbed, aren't I? You're not running my life—”

“No, but I don't want you to die,” she said brutally, which shut me up. It had a lot more weight coming from her than from Ashley; now, it sounded real.

“I...” I trailed off, thought for a moment and started again. “I'm not going to die, Steph. I'm not the dying sort.”

“Liar,” she said immediately. “No one's 'not the dying sort'. You're not a detective, not a cop, not a Trainer – you're just a student, out of your depth. Pearl, this isn't a fight you can win!”

“I'll get protection,” I said stubbornly. “I'll – I'll get a Trainer to take me through the Celestic caves to Veilstone, and to help me investigate Galactic there—”

“Don't you see? This is part of the problem!” Stephanie threw her hands up in the air; I could tell she felt like saying 'Lord, I just don't care'. “You can't do this without endangering anyone else, can you? It's not right for you to risk your life – but it's worse for you to risk other people's!”

She was like an echo of Ashley, and I frowned at the memory.

“He's spoken to you, hasn't he?” I asked, in a moment of inspiration.

Stephanie hesitated for just a moment too long, and I knew she had.

“Pearl, I was worried,” she said, giving up. “I got his number from his website and told him who I was. He was very sympathetic.”

“He would be,” I muttered. “OK, Steph, so this is dangerous – I get it. But it's just as dangerous to do nothing, right? Because that's what I was doing last night. Nothing. I wasn't even working!” I was on a roll now; I leaned forwards and made an expansive gesture that almost knocked over a mug of coffee. “Do I sit here and wait for some assassin to get me? Or do I go out there and solve this mystery?”

For what seemed like an eternity, Stephanie stared at me, mind teetering back and forth between agreement and disagreement – and then it fell, and she shook her head.

“I guess you're right,” she said. I didn't recognise the tone in her voice. “I...” She broke off and smiled, though it wasn't a particularly happy smile. “I guess that means you're brave, not stupid.”

“Hey. Thanks.” I waited for a moment, then asked: “So... the info?”

“Oh. Yeah, all right.” Stephanie double-clicked something and swivelled her laptop around so I could see. “This is all I could get. I think you'll agree, it's pret-ty weird...”

---

To cut a long story short—

—it was.

In fact, it was quite a lot more than pretty weird. It was very weird and extra weird and lots more weird besides. Apparently, Ashley was a robot from the future, sent back to kill his enemy's father; he was also one of many clones of himself, created by an ancient civilisation that used him to guard their secrets; he was a dark magic construct, formed of river clay thousands of years ago and disguised as a human.

“People are weird,” I said.

“Yeah, that's pretty much what I thought,” said Stephanie. “Not much help, eh?”

“Do you know what the root of all these rumours is?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Stephanie. “Look at this.” She scrolled down to reveal a few dates. “A couple of months ago, Ashley Lacrimére flew to Hoenn to be a consultant – that's all they say in the papers, but from what I can work out, he was helping the government with that Zero stuff. In 2006, he thwarted this guy called Ivo Robotnik who had one of those take-over-the-world schemes that villains keep coming up with – apparently there was a hedgehog and a fox involved. In 1999, he caught the jewel thief Tarragon Rafflesia in Patagonia. In 1982, he found his way into the Black TMs stuff in Kanto – he was the one who led Russell Curtis into it. In 1959, he—”

“Wait,” I said, holding up a hand. “He looks about fifteen. He can't be more than, what, twenty-eight at the most?”

“Exactly,” replied Stephanie. “I've met him, remember? He came here on Friday night to tell me not to let you go.”

“You were in on a Friday night?”

“Not everyone is Pearl Gideon,” she countered irritably. “Look, let's get back to the point, shall we? I've got a record for him stretching back to 1904, when he met a retired Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs.”

“Holmes? Wasn't he fictional?”

“Apparently not. That's not the point, though. The point is—”

“—that Ashley has been around for a very long time,” I finished. My mind was going round and round very slowly, like I was Colonel Dedshott on ice; I couldn't quite make myself believe it. “Ashley Lacrimére's... over a hundred years old!”

Cutlerine
October 29th, 2011, 08:50 AM
Minor note: I think I might go on a sort of hiatus, or at least post chapters less frequently - NaNoWriMo is coming up, and I'll need to work on that rather than this.

Chapter Fourteen: In Which The Ghosts Arrive, and Pearl Leaves

'In America, if there's something strange and it don't look good, you can call Ghostbusters. Unfortunately, we don't have that service in Sinnoh – you just have to get a priest and a flask of curried nightmares, and accuse them of fraud. No one knows why, but this seems to get rid of them about eighty per cent of the time.'
Sid 'Bram' Stoker, Home Exorcism for the Modern Sinnish Family


“All right,” cried Looker, bursting through the doors, “the jig is, as you say, up!”

Total silence greeted him.

“Eh? What is this?” He looked around, but it seemed his first glance had been right: the place was completely deserted. “Mon dieu!” he muttered to himself, putting away his gun. “Ah, Looker, this time you have made the mistake of the ages! The Team Galactic – they are no longer here, and therefore so is Liza Radley!” He thumped a fist decisively into his palm. “It must be le Diamant and Mademoiselle Gideon, of course. The detective and the reformed assassin... ah, they must be a duo formidable!”

Looker ceased his monologue and went over to the stairs.

“Well,” he said, “if there is no longer Mademoiselle Radley, I shall look for clues. If I find them, enfin, I shall find out where she has gone now...”

---

There was a dead silence for at least two minutes.

“No,” I said at length. “That – that can't be right.”

“I know,” replied Stephanie. “That was what I thought. But there's definitely something to this. It makes sense of every theory – whether he can travel through time, or is immortal, or whatever, he turns up.”

“But it can't be true!” I protested. “How can he live forever?”

“I didn't say forever,” Stephanie said mildly. “He's only been around about a hundred years, from what I can tell.”

“You're kind of missing the point,” I told her. “People don't live that long.”

“Some people do—”

“They don't live that long and look that young,” I clarified. “Don't be pedantic.”

“All right, all right.” Stephanie shrugged. “I can't really accept it either. But from what we know...”

I shook my head.

“I don't know, Steph. It doesn't seem right...” I leaned back and sighed. “Well, whatever. It's not what I was looking for.”

“Well, what did you expect?” Stephanie asked. “You do know you asked a philosopher to do this, not a computer hacker or a researcher?”

“I know, I know.” I ground my teeth. “I don't know what I wanted. Something that would explain all of this.”

“I don't know anything about that,” she replied. “You could find someone who does.”

That got me thinking: who might know? League people – Gym Leaders and stuff – might, but I doubted they would talk to me. There was something else, some forgotten person I could ask – but I couldn't quite remember.

“Well, thanks anyway,” I said, scratching at my bad arm and regretting it as it lit up into a veritable Christmas tree of pain. “Gah. I have no idea what to do next.”

Stephanie smiled.

“It's probably for the best. I don't even need to read your essay to tell you that it's crap; you should go home and do it again.”

“Forget it,” I replied. “This is more important. They want to kill me, remember?”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “That little detail. I'd never have remembered that.”

After Iago, I was pretty much immune to regular sarcasm, which seemed to disconcert Stephanie a bit; she was used to being able to drive me crazy without any real effort.

“There's got to be someone who can tell me about Ashley,” I said, clasping my hands and resting my chin on them. “Somewhere in Sinnoh...”

Stephanie sighed.

“If I thought this was a good idea,” she said, “and if I was going to help you—”

“This being a strictly hypothetical situation?” I asked.

“Of course,” she affirmed. “So if I were going to help you – which I'm not – I'd suggest you get yourself East-side. To Veilstone.”

“To Veilstone?” I queried, confused. “To look into Galactic?”

“Well, you could,” she admitted, “though I think I'd leave that to the detectives. What I meant is, Veilstone's like Jubilife for the East.”

“Ashley said he has East-side contacts,” I said, suddenly seeing it. “He was going to get them to investigate the Galactics—”

“And if they're anywhere, they'll be in Veilstone,” she said. “It's about the only lead you have.”

“But,” I asked, a problem striking me, “how do I get there? Coronet's sealed off...”

Stephanie smiled.

“Oh, come on, Pearl,” she said. “You're rich, aren't you? If you want to go East-side, I bet the world would have a hard time stopping you...”

---

OK, so I admit it. I am rich. I've tried as hard as I can to avoid writing it down, but I guess it had to come out in the end. Thirty years ago, my family had been nothing; a couple of years before I was born, though, all the forces of fate combined to elevate them: my dad inherited a couple of million Pokédollars from a relative he hadn't known he had, a lucky stock investment had brought in four million more, and he'd been able to buy up all the pieces of the failing Spectroscopic Fancy Company, which he'd brought back to life and sold back to the original owners for a ridiculous profit. That in turn catapulted him and my mother from merely rich to super-rich. Then I'd been born, and, well, been fairly comprehensively spoiled.

Why haven't I mentioned it before? It, well... It makes people look at you differently. People who a moment ago would be your friends suddenly decide that you're their most hated enemy. Even if I am stupid (something that is still open to debate), it didn't take me long to learn that hiding certain facts about my background was usually the best way to go about making friends.

Not all people are like that, of course – Stephanie isn't, for a start. She's not above using me as a convenient source of cash when she runs out, but she doesn't treat me any differently from anyone else. In fact, the difference between her and other people is one reason why my parents wanted me to go to university; I was told I needed to learn a little more about real life, and meet real people – a name which seemed to suggest that my current friends were, in some way, counterfeit. The actual learning didn't matter; I stood to become the third-richest woman in the country some day, and would never need a job. It was just...

Actually, that's enough of that. This is a story about my trip to the end of time, just like the title says; let's keep it at that.

Stephanie wasn't wrong: it was easy for me to figure out a way to get to Veilstone. I went home, dumped the essay, found some sunglasses, a hat and a long coat, and, suitably disguised, slunk off towards the nearest Pokémon Centre.

I got lost on the way – twice. Unlike most kids, I'd never even attempted to become a Trainer. Usually, they tried for at least a couple of days before coming home; if they were lucky, they lasted a few months, or, if they were really good, a few years. The best of the best made a career out of it, and were still doing it when they were twenty.

I, on the other hand, had never done it; I'd been afraid to. I hadn't wanted to leave home and go wandering through the countryside – it had sounded dangerous, and more than that, like hard work. And if there was one thing Pearl Gideon didn't like, it was hard work. (I've also noticed that recently she's taken to talking about herself in the third person, but I think I'll let that one pass.) So I'd never got myself a Pokémon, and consequently never been to a Pokémon Centre – and so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I walked up to the automatic doors of the Hinah District Pokémon Centre.

Inside, it was pretty much as I'd imagined it: a glaringly orange colour scheme designed to burn out the retinas of anyone over the age of ten; a desk with a pink-haired receptionist; some stairs and a few doorways leading off into other rooms. There were a couple of kids talking amongst themselves at a glass-topped table nearby, and a Budew murmuring sweet nothings to itself between them. I frowned: I only had a basic schoolgirl knowledge of Pokémon, but I knew Budew were weak; those two Trainers were probably new, and not much good yet. They wouldn't be any help.

“Excuse me? Can I help you?”

I looked up, startled, and saw the receptionist was looking at me oddly; perhaps my disguise was slightly more conspicuous than I'd wanted.

“Yeah,” I said, coming over. “I need to get East-side through Mount Celestic, and it can't wait, so I'm looking for a Trainer to take me through the tunnels.”

There were more ways through the mountain than the passes and the air lanes; the whole place was shot through with caves like a cross-section of Swiss cheese. The downside was that these caves were full of wild Pokémon that, being quite strong, had absolutely no fear of humans whatsoever. Consequently, the only people who used the caves were Trainers and morons. (Since I wasn't a Trainer, I had a horrible feeling I fell into the latter category, but I was trying not to think about that.)

“I see,” said the receptionist. “Why are you dressed like that?”

“I'm a detective,” I replied. “Detectives dress like this.”

Actually, the only detective I'd ever met didn't, but that wasn't going to stop me; I was modelling my detective style on those old film noir movies from the 1950s.

“O-K,” said the receptionist, giving me a second odd look. “Try in the lounge; there are four or five Trainers in today.”

“Is that a lot?”

“It is,” she confirmed. “I don't even know why they're here at all, to be honest. There's no Gym in this city.”

“Yeah,” I pondered. “What would be the point of coming here?”

The receptionist shrugged.

“Beats me. D'you know—”

“Er, I need to go look for a Trainer...”

“Oh.” She drooped visibly. “OK, then. Bye.”

I got the distinct impression that the receptionist was somewhat starved of company; I supposed small children weren't the most entertaining people to talk to all day. And anyway, if five Trainers was a lot, she must spend most days alone in here...

I put her sad life from my mind (it wasn't hard, since I didn't really care) and went into the lounge; a moment later, I came back out, realising it was the canteen.

“First on the left,” the receptionist told me helpfully.

“Yeah, thanks,” I replied, feeling faintly foolish, and went in.

It was a large room, amply furnished with sofas, rugs and the biggest television I'd ever seen outside my house; dotted around were four kids sprawled at various angles over the furniture. They did this in such a way that they actually managed to cover five sofas between them – an impressive feat.

“...other news, the notorious 'Hamburglar' was arrested last night after a four-hour siege at an unspecified address in Chicago, America,” the newscaster on the TV was saying. “A bungled burger heist pulled off in conjunction with Captain Pete 'Crook' Jarvis led to him being chased by police to an abandoned warehouse, where they killed two police officers and wounded five more in the ensuing gunfight. Mayor McCheese is said to be 'overjoyed' by the news...”

I coughed.

“Uh, excuse me,” I said. “Is there anyone here who'll take me East-side through Mount Celestic?”

Four heads turned around to look at me, blinked, looked again, and stared in bemusement.

“Why are you dressed like that?” asked one boy, sitting up.

“I'm a detective,” I said, beginning to feel frustrated. Did no one else watch detective movies? Didn't they know the protocol? “Besides, I've got enemies after me; this is a disguise. Look, that's beside the point. Will anyone here take me East-side or not?”

The boy shook his head.

“Nah. I'm waiting for the Global Trade Symposium.”

“The what?”

“Over on the west side of Jubilife,” explained the kid next to him. “In a few days' time, there's going to be a huge event there – Trainers from all over the world will gather to trade Pokémon and stuff.”

“Oh.” So that was what the big building they'd been cleaning up for the past two months was for. “Are you all here for that?”

Four heads nodded.

“So none of you are going to take me East-side?”

“Nope,” said the first boy cheerfully. “We got here early and we'd like to keep it that way.”

“I'll pay you,” I offered.

“Sorry,” he said. “If I miss this, I have to wait two years before the next one.”

I ground my teeth.

“Isn't there anyone who isn't going to the stupid Symposium?” I asked desperately.

“She could try Marley,” said a girl who had previously remained silent.

“Isn't she here for the Symposium?” asked the boy.

“No.” The girl shook her head. “She's just passing through, from what I hear.”

“Wait,” I said. “Slow down. Who is this?”

“Marley,” replied the girl. “She's here too.”

I looked around, but saw no one.

“Really?”

“Not here here,” the girl said crossly. “I mean, staying at this Centre. She's probably in one of the practice rooms.”

“The practice rooms?”

“Second on the right behind the counter!” the receptionist called in from the front room. “Right past me!”

“Wonderful,” I muttered to myself. “You again.” Then, louder: “Well, thanks anyway.”

“No problem,” said the second boy, who was the one who had offered the least help of all. “Glad to help.”

I resisted the urge to put his head through the TV screen and tell him he'd done nothing (and believe me, it was only the fear of arrest that stopped me) and went out into the lobby again.

“Back so soon?” said the receptionist.

“Not to talk to you,” I said. My patience was wearing thin; not having had previous experience of Trainers, I didn't yet know that they were all seriously weird. “Just passing through.”

The receptionist sighed, crestfallen, and pointed silently in the direction of the practice rooms. I thanked her coldly, went through the door and found myself in a short corridor liberally studded with sturdy-looking steel doors. There were noises coming from behind one of them, so I knocked on it and went in.

Immediately, what felt like a solid wall of heat struck me full in the face; I closed my eyes and took a step back, coughing as the dry air prickled in my lungs. I forced my eyes back open a second later, and saw something that might have been the love child of a tiger and a chemical explosion beating the crap out of a punchbag in the centre of the room. It had also, for reasons unknown, decided to set itself on fire – hence the blast of heat. For the first time since coming inside, I was glad I was wearing sunglasses.

Behind the blazing monster stood a small girl who was just as weird as her pet: she looked like a fusion of Goth and ballerina, with a touch of extra evil thrown in for good measure. Dressed all in black and white, and with skin so pale it was almost transparent, she looked at me with a curious equanimity that I'd only seen once before, in Ashley.

“Return, Hamish,” she said, and the fiery monster vanished in a flash of red light; almost instantly, the temperature dropped about eight degrees. She stepped forwards, looked at me from under hooded eyelids, and asked: “Who are you?”

“I'm Pearl Gideon,” I told her, trying hard not to stare at her. I'd never seen anyone who was entirely monochromatic before. “I need to get through Mount Coronet.”

“What are you wearing?” asked Marley, though apparently without any real interest.

“I could ask you the very same question,” I retorted crossly; obviously no one at all in Jubilife knew anything about detective movies.

“You could,” agreed Marley. “You wouldn't get anywhere, though.”

I frowned. This was exactly like trying to talk to Ashley; it was like she was his little sister or something.

“Look, will you take me East-side or not?” I asked, changing the subject. “I can pay you.”

“How much?”

“I don't know. How much do you want?”

“I asked you first.”

“Uh... twenty thousand dollars?” I suggested.

“Thirty,” she said. “You're rich enough to afford it.”

“How do you know that?”

“Nothing you're wearing costs less than twenty thousand dollars,” she pointed out.

Damn. This girl was good.

“Fine,” I sighed, taking off the sunglasses. “Thirty it is.”

“Good,” said Marley. “When do you want to start?”

And so it came to pass that twenty minutes later, I was sitting next to her on a train bound east for Oreburgh, hoping against hope that she wasn't as weird as I thought.

---

“Are you sure about this?” asked Iago, looking around nervously. “If anyone sees us...”

“Calm down,” replied Ashley. “I'll just use one arm. I can hide it easily.”

“If Cynthia finds out...”

“She won't,” he replied forcefully. “At least, she won't if you don't tell her. If you do tell her, I'll probably have to get a new keeper, because either she'll kill you or I will.”

A discouraging amount of experience had taught Iago to know when he was beaten; his shoulders sagged and he sighed.

“Ash-ley...”

“Ah, you hate me now, but one day you'll look back on this and think: what a wonderful day out!”

“No, I'm going to hate you for all time. Filthy human scum.”

“If you were capable of hurting me, that'd hurt,” said Ashley calmly.

“If you believe that's an effective comeback, you need a crash course in insults.”

“Sticks and stones, Iago – though those wouldn't be much use either, would they? Now, stand aside and let me get through here.”

Iago reluctantly shifted to the right.

“If you lose control...” he said.

“I don't lose control,” Ashley said sharply. “Well, all right, sometimes I do – but not often. That is, I think, the main thing to be conscious of here.”

Both he and Iago were thinking of Darkling Town. It was universally agreed amongst those in the know that that hadn't been Ashley's finest hour.

“It'll be fine,” the detective continued, the grey draining out of his irises. “Don't you trust me?”

“Have I ever trusted you?”

Ashley's eyes flickered yellow, and his right arm shot out.

“No,” he said mildly. “I suppose you haven't. Shall we, then?”

The way now clear, he allowed Iago to pass through first, and then followed after, eyes grey again.

---

Being the astute people that you are, you will doubtless have noticed the absence of our favourite Galactic-affiliated duo in the last chapter and so far in this one – and those amongst you who are even more astute will have worked out that this must have something to do with the suspected Croagunk stabbing. Those of you who are exceptionally astute will have realised that Liza and Tristan must have been uncertain whether or not Pearl was dead, and so were waiting around the hospital to see if she came out the next day or not.

Those exceptionally astute people are, of course, correct, and so we find Tristan sitting in the car with Stravinsky on Sunday morning, watching the hospital doors and eating Kinder Eggs as quickly as he could unwrap them.

Where was Liza? She was at the Pokémon Centre with Tristan's Croagunk, who had been incapacitated during the events of last night and who needed to be healed. Tristan was unable to take him, having been banned from every Pokémon Centre in Sinnoh some years previously as the result of a series of unfortunate events involving (inevitably) three orphans and a count.

“There she is,” said Tristan, pointing to the young Miss Gideon, walking down the steps. “Damn it. She's not dead.”

“Yeah,” agreed Stravinsky. “I didn't think she would ever mend; I thought that never more would she crawl round, being embedded in the ground.”

“Will you please stop doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Referencing!”

“Oh, you get it,” said Stravinsky, surprised. “Wow. You're better-educated in Sinnoh, aren't you?”

Tristan thumped his forehead against the dashboard.

“Just stop!”

Stravinsky smiled, and started whistling 'Hotel California'. Tristan sighed, pulled out his phone and called Liza.

“It's me,” he told her. “She's alive. What? Hey, it's not my fault – no one could have seen that coming! Well— Oh you are, are you? I...” Tristan trailed off and his eyes went wide. After a moment or two, he crossed his legs. “Ouch,” he said. “OK. I'll shut up now.”

He hung up and stared ahead glassily for a moment or two.

“She whispered those certain exotic words to you, didn't she?” said Stravinsky.

Tristan nodded dumbly, and the driver patted him on the shoulder.

“It's all right,” he said sympathetically. “You'll get over it. You'll spit out the demons, popping out of holes.”

“It's... how would she... are there even any bones there?” Tristan asked in a trembling voice.

“I'm not a doctor,” replied Stravinsky. “What does she want you to do?”

“Follow her,” said Tristan, eyes refocusing. “See what she's doing now, and tell Liza where she can find her when she gets back.”

“Why not kill her?”

“Because she doesn't think I can get it right.”

“She's not wrong there,” muttered Stravinsky, and started up the car. “I'd better I better I bet you would bungle it.”

“That's such a badly-done joke.”

“Do you want to get out and walk?”

Tristan shut up.

“I didn't think so,” said Stravinsky with dignity, and drove off in pursuit of the blue-haired figure in the street.

---

“Bond, I'm ti-red.”

“Madam, you cannot get tired any more,” sighed Bond. “You are dead.”

“But I am tired.”

Bond wondered if perhaps complaining was Ellen's way of passing the time; he was quite sure that neither of them could get tired. He certainly wasn't, and they had been walking for about twelve hours now.

“We're almost there, madam.”

At first, they had tried to hitch a lift – but that had failed, as no one could see them, and those that could perceived them as ghosts, and drove on faster. Then, Ellen had had the idea of grabbing hold of the cars and riding on the roofs – but this too had been unsuccessful; being incorporeal, both she and Bond found it difficult to hold physical objects, and the cars moved too fast for them to get a grip on them.

So they had resolved to walk down the side of the motorway, and a long and tedious journey it had been, too; however, they could not abandon their quest, and so had no options but to continue.

Now, as the first buildings of the nation's capital rose up from the horizon and into view, Bond felt a certain sense of relief; at least Ellen would soon stop complaining. If he hadn't been such a good butler, he would have sighed – it wasn't her fault, really. He would expect nothing less of someone who had turned fourteen in 1939, and had then been brutally murdered.

Not for the first time, Bond wondered why he and Ellen had survived death, if that was the right word, and no other members of the household had; presumably, there must be some reason, but he was a butler, not a thanatologist, and so knew not what this reason might be.

“Gosh,” said Ellen, interrupting his thoughts. “Look at Jubilife!”

Bond did, and Bond blinked, and Bond gaped.

Jubilife was huge.

It spread right the way across the horizon, and no matter how far Bond looked to the left or right, it didn't seem to end; not only that, but it soared up into the sky higher than seemed physically possible. The buildings were glorious spears of glass and metal, taller even than those they'd seen in Eterna; the people were vibrant and brightly-coloured, with dyed hair and strange clothes. There were more motor-cars, and bigger ones, and above it all a swirl of pigeons blew across the city like greying confetti.

“Have we gone even further into the future?” wondered Bond, when his voice returned. “This is... this is more than Eterna.”

“By a long way,” agreed Ellen breathlessly. “How did they build all this in just seventy years?”

“I have no idea, madam,” replied Bond. “It scarcely seems possible that it could be done in a hundred years.”

And they might have continued rhapsodising for several hours longer if a red light the size of a tennis ball appeared in front of them.

Ugh, said the light, in a Ghostly sort of voice, I hate Jubilife.

“What?” asked Ellen, puzzled.

“What?” echoed Bond, not knowing who Ellen was talking to.

Something that greatly resembled a human skull (albeit sans mandible) materialised around the eye, and then a shapeless black cloud appeared around that.

“Oh,” said Bond. “Is this Mans' friend, madam?”

“Excuse me,” said Ellen, “but are you Pigzie Doodle?”

The Duskull – for such it was – drew his fog together indignantly and harrumphed.

I don't like that name, he said petulantly.

“But you are him?” persisted Ellen.

Yes, admitted the Duskull at length. But don't call me that, it's embarrassing. Call me Ishmael.

“You're a whaler?”

No, I'm a device for cheap gags, replied Pigzie Doodle – or possibly Ishmael – dismally. You're looking for the two humans who came into your house earlier, right?

“That's correct,” confirmed Ellen.

What do you know about them?

“Nothing,” said Ellen. “Well, we know that that woman is... we know who she is.”

“We would rather not say, in case she hears,” added Bond, deducing correctly what Ellen was talking about. “We have no idea what she might be capable of.”

Pigzie Doodle rolled his single eye from one socket to the other and back again.

Oh boy, he said. It seems I have a lot of explaining to do...

Silent Memento
November 7th, 2011, 05:36 PM
Wow. Cynthia, you're a huge hypocrite. How can you berate Ashley for releasing in a city as small as Eterna when Pearl did something similar in what could be the largest city in Sinnoh? (Yes, I do think that she released; she doesn't remember anything at all, she survived an attack that would have probably been fatal to her in just about any other case, and the Croagunk was beaten by someone who didn't even have a Pokemon - and as far as I can tell, the people who Pearl managed to recall seem more like drinking buddies than expert battlers).

Anyway, Marley's awesome. Nothing else needs to be said about her (and nothing can be said; her appearance was rather short).

I was a little surprised that Pearl was actually rich. I just thought that she was a normal college student. I guess she isn't, but it still doesn't explain why Team Galactic wanted to kill her instead of, well, take her hostage.

Stravinsky's an odd yet very likable character. You really do love to take the names of composers for your drivers, don't you? XD

I noticed a lot of references, but there were way too many to name in this review alone. A Series of Unfortunate Events is the main one, though.

Take your time for NNWM. Good luck.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
November 8th, 2011, 06:12 AM
Team Galactic do have their reasons, I assure you. Pearl being rich has nothing to do with their plot to kill her; it does have to do with one of the subplots, which is why I included it.

I won't reveal what happened last night in Jubilife just yet, but I will say that Cynthia has got no reason to be angry at Pearl.

Stravinsky is presumably related to Tchaikovsky in some way, because he has the same habit of making musical references - though he doesn't restrict himself to the twentieth century.

Marley is indeed awesome. There is a reason why she's the only one of the six Stat Trainers to make it into this story. Controversially, I like her even more than Riley; it's a combination of having a nicely different character design, and a team based around the Speed stat - such a team is inevitably destined to become really cool, you see.

Lastly, I'm glad to hear you're still reading and enjoying this. I hope you continue to do both, and I shall do my best to ensure you do.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
November 19th, 2011, 12:21 AM
Like a serpent, like the kraken, like the great glass sea snail coming after Doctor Dolittle, I rise from the deeps; I bring with me that rarest of creatures right now, a new chapter.

Exit Cutlerine.


Chapter Fifteen: In Which a Great Power Becomes Enraged

'They always said Mount Coronet was a dangerous place; they said that people who went there never came back. I didn't believe them, of course, but perhaps I should have – I mean, I went there, and to the best of my knowledge I never returned. This was back when you could buy a brand new car for a shilling, and still have enough money for a night's dancing and electrocution at the car wash. Which reminds me, where did I put my keys? And why does the water come out of the taps all twisted?'

—That Crazy Guy from the Bus Stop, Ramblings

“So this is Mount Coronet,” I said, looking up at it.

It was certainly big.

I'd seen it before, of course, but never at such close quarters; from here, it looked like it might split the whole sky in two, let alone Sinnoh. The top vanished into a wreath of mists; the sides stretched and contorted into further peaks, receding into the distance both north and south. It was the single largest mountain on the planet, and it was unimaginably huge.

At Marley's insistence, I'd had to leave my detective costume at home; I had refused, however, to relinquish the sunglasses, because when it came down to it, they were the most important part. Detectives in hot places couldn't wear a trenchcoat – but stick a pair of stylish sunglasses on your nose and you either look like a secret agent or someone from The Matrix. I was confident that they were all I needed to play the part of a real detective.

“Yes,” said Marley. “It is.”

I frowned at her.

“Do you ever say anything helpful?”

“I said I'd take you through the mountain,” she replied. There was absolutely no trace of emotion in her voice; it was as if she were a Dalek, only without the distorted voice. Obviously.

“Fair enough,” I said. “Shall we go, then?”

Marley nodded, and we headed for the small white building that squatted against the mountain's flank. There was a sign above the door that said 'Cave Entrance – Trainers ONLY!!!!!' I had a feeling the five exclamation marks were there for a reason.

Inside, the place looked much like the ticket office at a train station; however, instead of travel deals, the leaflets advertised things like Power Bracers – Boost Your Power!, and Gabite – the smart man's solution to removing unwanted carcasses! I shook my head. Trainers were weird.

“Hello,” said the man behind the counter, who was one of those people who, if it weren't for their head, would be entirely spherical. I wondered how he got out of the door when he had to leave; he was about twice as wide as it was. “Can I help you?”

Marley pulled a slim black wallet from her black leather bag, removed a black-edged card from it and laid it before him on the counter. She liked, I noted once again, the colour black.

“You're travelling through?” asked the man.

Marley nodded, and he inspected the card. I guessed that it was her Trainer card, the little document that allowed a small child to roam the country alone with a pack of super-powered monsters.

“OK,” he said, and turned to me. “And you, ma'am?”

“I'm not a Trainer.” I adjusted my sunglasses for maximum effect. “I'm a detective.”

The man looked confused for a moment.

“Um, OK, but you can't—”

“I'm working on a very important case.” I waved a hand around airily; it turned out to be the bad one and protested the movement with a sharp jolt of pain. The resultant flinch probably ruined the effect a bit. “Lives are at risk,” I continued, holding my arm and acting as if nothing had happened.

“I'm taking her through the caves,” Marley replied. “It'll be fine.”

I glared at her. I didn't need the guy thinking she was in charge here. For once, I was in control of the situation.

“You've been through before?” asked the man.

“Many times.”

“Then I suppose you should be OK.” He looked at me doubtfully, sucked in a long breath through his teeth and waved us along. “Go on, go through. Before I change my mind.”

I gave him a look (I wasn't sure what kind it should be, so it was just a look rather than an angry look or anything) and followed Marley through another little door, and into the dark.

I took off my sunglasses and blinked hard as the door shut behind me; at first, there seemed to be no light whatsoever, and then I thought I could make out the shapes of stalactites, of swelling mounds and smooth depressions, their outlines faint in the gloom.

At that moment, the whole place lit up like a bonfire, and I had to put the sunglasses back on hastily; a moment later, my vision still stained white and blue from the after-image, I turned to glare at Marley and the fiery monster she'd called Hamish, who had reappeared at her side. I seemed to be glaring at her a lot; I suspected it would soon become a common thing.

“You could have warned me,” I told her reproachfully.

She shrugged.

“You could have expected me to bring light,” she replied.

This was not to be tolerated, and I briefly pondered whether it would be ethical to kick her; in the end, I decided that it probably wasn't, and instead asked:

“Do you know someone called Ashley Lacrimére?”

Marley frowned.

“No. Why?”

“You remind me of him.” I sighed. “Come on, show me the way.”

Marley looked at me for a moment with solemn eyes, then started walking into the darkness, Hamish following to light the way with his blazing body. I brought up the rear, which was probably not nearly as safe a position as it felt.

The inside of the mountain was maddeningly quiet. Marley said nothing and trod silently; the only noise was the incessant drip drip of water and my own footsteps. All around us, the scenery seemed to shift in an endless series of combinations of the same four elements: wall, boulder, hole, bat.

Bat?

I jumped a mile the first time a Zubat appeared; it responded to my cry of surprise with a squeak, and flitted away down the tunnel, screeching wildly.

“They don't attack,” Marley told me. “They aren't dangerous until we get further in.”

Well, that was ominous. I nodded nervously, and tried very hard not to wonder what she might mean by it.

After a while, I became used to the never-ending parade of Zubat; there must have been thousands of them in that tunnel, because two or three of them appeared at least every five minutes. I started counting them to pass the time: one, two, five hundred, two thousand – and gave up pretty soon. It was clear that it would be impossible to count them all.

“How long is this trip going to take?” I asked, after about half an hour.

“Two days.”

“What?”

I stopped and stared, aghast.

“What do you mean, two days?”

Marley looked at me oddly.

“You didn't know? It's a long way.”

Two days! Two days away from all the comforts and amenities of civilisation! Worse than that, two days in a dark, dank, damp cave network that was inhabited by a large number of probably murderous Pokémon!

“You did know it would take two days, didn't you?”

“Of course,” I said hurriedly. “I'd be pretty stupid otherwise, wouldn't I? I mean, this mountain is huge.”

Marley made no reply; she raised an eyebrow and walked on, Hamish following after like a gigantic guard dog.

We must have walked for hours; there were about five hundred occasions when I wanted to stop, but I was damned if I was going to be outwalked by a small child. It was about the only thing I thought I might conceivably beat her at.

“How long have you been a Trainer?” I asked, about two hours later.

“You're talkative,” she commented shortly.

“I'm paying you,” I retorted. “You'll talk to me if I want.”

She sighed. It was the first time I'd seen her express any sort of emotion, and it was rather startling.

“Five years,” she said.

I managed to choke on a mouthful of nothing.

“What? You're fifteen?”

She looked at me oddly.

“Yes... Are you OK?”

“Yeah,” I coughed, putting a hand to my throat. “It's just – you look about nine.”

Marley apparently had no response to this, because she fell silent.

“Oh,” I said, feeling bad. “Sorry. I offended you, right?”

“Ssh,” she replied, holding up one hand.

“Right. Sorry—”

“Ssh!” she repeated violently. Hamish put his head down low and looked at me with golden eyes; a low growl rumbled out of his throat. “You too,” Marley snapped in a whisper, and the noise stopped abruptly.

That was when I heard the sound.

---

...which, combined with the Dernier Reforms last year, said Pigzie Doodle, have basically completely overhauled the economy. He paused. Did you get all that?

Bond looked at Ellen.

“What did he say?” he asked.

“I'm not sure,” she admitted.

So you didn't get it, sighed the ghost. Look, the first rule of... everything, he went on wisely, is to know your enemy. After that, you need to know the country. Sinnoh has changed a lot since you were last around, and I've seen most of it happen. He sighed. I miss the king.

“There's no king any more?” asked Ellen.

Pigzie Doodle bounced up and down angrily.

Weren't you listening? He was deposed and executed in 1976, and the Royal Family fled abroad to Cambodia!

“Why Cambodia?”

It has no extradition laws with Sinnoh, and technically the former queen Shainah is wanted for murder here... Look, that's irrelevant. The point is – the point is... He broke off while he tried to remember what the point was. It was background knowledge, he said at last. I thought it would be helpful if you knew something about modern Sinnoh, but I suppose I can skip to the most relevant bit.

“Thank you very much!” said Ellen eagerly.

It was very peculiar listening to only half a conversation, Bond thought; he had the feeling that the Duskull was doing most of the talking, and that he was missing out on most of the information being imparted.

A few years ago, a minor politician named Cyrus Maragos – parents were from Greece, I think – delivered this crazy speech in Sunyshore, Pigzie Doodle said. I wasn't there, but I heard about it from a passing Gastly. It was quite short, but it was insane, all about liberation and revolution. It was good, too, and the guy was a good speaker – the crowd got so rowdy that a riot – not a leisure one, a real one – was about to break out. The police got involved, and Maragos was arrested, I think. He was freed a couple of days later, and then he sort of disappeared. The papers made a thing of it at the time – the Sunyshore papers, that is; no one had heard of him anywhere else. In about a week, everyone forgot about him.

About three months ago, a group of people appeared in Veilstone, calling themselves Team Galactic. Pretty much every Ghost in the city left very soon afterwards; they started building something there that makes our ectoplasm ache.

“What does all of this have to do with the people we're after?”

I'm getting there! cried Pigzie Doodle irritably. My God, delivering exposition disguised as dialogue is getting hard these days.

“Sorry,” replied Ellen, suitably abashed.

I should think so, said the Duskull, forming a vague pillar shape in what might have constituted some sort of Ghostly gesture of indignation. The cheek of it...! Anyway. Where was I? Oh yes. Because of all the disturbance, most of the Ghosts in Sinnoh were keeping a pretty close eye on the Team, and we found out that the man leading it was none other than—

“Cyrus Maragos?”

Oh, really, said Pigzie Doodle despairingly. You absolutely ruined the line. I suppose humans will be humans, even if they've been dead for seventy years. Yes, Maragos was – is – the leader, and he met with the woman you're after a few weeks ago. She's using the name Liza Radley at present; the young man she's travelling with is named Tristan Shandy. There's a couple of lame jokes if ever I saw one, he added, half to himself. I don't really know what they're doing, but they seem to be mostly devoted to blowing things up and trying to kill three certain people.

“I see,” said Ellen, who didn't.

What a lying little minx you are, said Pigzie Doodle affably. Well, that's what I know about these people. Come on, I'll take you to them – or at least, to where I saw them last.

So saying, he flicked his ectoplasm up into a rough ball and drifted away down the street.

Bond looked at Ellen.

“What is going on, madam?”

“I have absolutely no idea, Bond,” replied Ellen thoughtfully, “but we ought to follow him, I think.”

So they did, and hurried to catch up with the retreating Duskull.

---

Thump-thump-thump-thump...

“What is it?” I whispered.

Marley shrugged.

“Something big,” she stated ominously. “Below us and coming closer.”

Thump-thump-thump-thump...

It was like a series of weights being dropped to the ground in quick succession; whatever it was, it seemed to have more legs than was strictly necessary, or possibly even desirable.

A question rose unbidden into my mind, and I was obliged to ask it.

“Does it know we're here?”

“Yes,” replied Marley. “It probably heard our footsteps.”

Thump-thump-thump-thump...

“Should we, uh, run away?”

“We could, if we wanted to make enough noise to bring everything in the caverns down on our heads,” she said. “Alternatively, we could wait until it gets here, see what it is and deal with it accordingly.”

It was the most I'd ever heard her say, and the fact that it revolved primarily around our imminent danger spoke volumes about her character.

Thump-thump-thump-thump...

“So, I suppose your – uh – thing” – here I nodded at Hamish, who was crouched low next to her with his hackles raised – “can take whatever this is?”

“It's possible.”

“That isn't the sort of answer I wanted, really,” I said. “I was hoping for a 'Yes' or 'No'. Ideally a 'Yes', actually.”

“Quiet.”

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Marley looked around sharply.

“Did you hear that?”

“It's different,” I said. “Those were—”

“Human footsteps,” she finished. “From over there.”

Thump-thump-thump-thump...

The first set of footsteps had sped up; it seemed Marley was right, and it was tracking us by sound, for it got faster as the second set of footsteps got closer.

“Who's there?” I hissed in the general direction of where I thought the footsteps were coming from.

“Only me,” said a deep, melodious voice from behind me; I whirled around and did my best not to look surprised. There was a man emerging from the shadows at the other end of the cave, his feet thumping softly on the old stone. He wore dark trousers and a very weird silver coat, and his hair was short, spiky and blue. All in all, he presented quite an odd image – but then, this was Sinnoh in the Noughties. He was actually fairly normal. “It isn't often I run into anyone while walking these tunnels.”

“Quiet!” hissed Marley at the newcomer. “It heard you!”

THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP!

The footsteps were so loud now, and so sudden, that I almost jumped out of my skin; unable to contain himself, Hamish let out a loud bark. For this heinous crime, Marley slapped him on the snout and told him in no uncertain terms to be quiet.

THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP!

Whatever the thing was, it seemed like it was very nearly upon us now; it was possible to tell where it was, and the three of us turned to face the left-hand side-tunnel with a sense of mounting dread. At least, I had that. I don't know if Marley did, because I'm not entirely sure she had emotions as a normal human would understand them.

“What exactly is that?” inquired the newcomer. He seemed fairly calm, so I wondered if perhaps he had a grenade or other similar deadly weapon to hand.

“I don't know,” I answered truthfully.

THUMP-THUMP-THUMP!

Silence.

There was a very long pause.

“What happened?” I whispered. “Did it go away?”

“No,” replied Marley. “Listen.”

I listened, and I heard: long, low breaths, wheezing through the room like warm draughts.

“Ah,” said the man. “Might I suggest that we're dealing with—”

Something huge and white burst from the darkness of the chamber in unnerving silence, charging straight for him; he cried out in surprise and leaped out of the way. The creature didn't stop; as soon as it realised he had moved, it wheeled around, lumbering off to snap wildly at a location that thankfully held none of us.

“What is it?” I asked, but that proved to be a mistake – the beast's great white head turned around 180 degrees on its shoulders, and I saw for a moment that it lacked for eyes—

—before it had turned its body around to match its head, and started to charge towards us again.

“Don't talk!” Marley yelled over the monster's roar, tugging me towards the side passage it had emerged from. “It hunts by sound!”

At that, the beast made a weird noise that sounded like a demonic car engine and swung one huge claw towards the sound; since we were moving, it missed, and simply knocked an alarmingly large chunk of rock off the wall.
We reached the side-tunnel, ducked inside and took a few steps further in; outside, the monster rotated on the spot in near-silence, listening intently. If it was a Pokémon, I'd neither seen nor heard of anything like it before: six or seven feet tall and fifteen or twenty long, it was something like a snake, something like a scorpion and something like an industrial excavator.

“Hamish,” said Marley. “Flare Blitz.”

Apparently this meant more to the fiery monster than it did to me, because he leaped forwards with a bark, a sheath of blinding flame flaring into existence all around him. He was too bright to look at, but I assumed he tackled the white monster, and I assumed it hurt, because the next things I was aware of were a pained screech and the smell of scorching.

“Remarkable,” said the strange man, looking on with shaded eyes. “You'd have thought it wouldn't be able to survive that.”

I forced my eyes back open and saw that the white monster, far from being roasted, was fighting back; it kept lashing out blindly with its great claws, and Hamish kept leaping away from them. This would make another little sound, and the monster would attack there – and so on. It looked like it would go on a very long time, unless Hamish happened to jump the wrong way.

“ExtremeSpeed,” commanded Marley, so quietly I almost didn't hear her over the roar of the beast, and Hamish suddenly sped up: in the blink of an eye, he had crossed the dangerous space between the monster's claws and its mouth, and dug his claws into its belly. Unfortunately, it seemed that its carapace was too hard for that to work, and, perceiving its foe to be underneath it, the monster threw itself flat on the floor with a titanic crash. Hamish, understandably, yelped and thrashed – but while he didn't seem unduly harmed by the gigantic arthropod pinning him down, he was certainly unable to free himself, and as the huge claw swung down towards his head, I felt sure it would be for the last time—

“Flame Charge!”

All at once, Hamish caught on fire, and the monster, finding that its belly was starting to cook, jumped up hurriedly. It retreated three steps down the corridor, hunched low over the floor to protect its wounded underside, and holding its claws in front of its face like a boxer.

“If you can, now would be a good time to help,” Marley said to the man standing next to me.

“Me?” He seemed surprised. “Oh, OK.” He rummaged around in his pocket and drew out a plum; this didn't seem to be what he was after, because he stared at it for a moment, set it carefully on a nearby rock and resumed his rummaging. A moment later, the white monster had managed to hit Hamish with what I think is technically called a right hook, and knock him into the wall.

The monster thumped forwards, feeling for Hamish; though still glowing, he wasn't moving, and so, satisfied, it started listening again.

“Any moment now,” I said to the man. “We'd really appreciate it.”

The monster turned to face us.

“Idiot!” hissed Marley, and the man pulled something out; this time, it was a Poké Ball, and he threw it down as the monster began to charge towards us; something that looked like the unholy love child of a dog and a goat appeared, and, perceiving that it was in imminent danger of being squished, breathed a very large quantity of fire over the monster.

This had the expected effect of making it recoil in pain and anger, and Marley took advantage of the opportunity to produce a second Poké Ball from somewhere; this one contained a collection of cylindrical faces that I vaguely recognised from the televised tournaments as a Dugtrio. It, or maybe they, looked at the dog-goat, then at the fire, and finally at the giant monster in front of it – and turned to Marley with a look in its six eyes that said that if it didn't get an explanation very soon, it was going to run away in terror, or possibly eat her.

“Don't panic,” she told it, or perhaps them. “Surround it and keep the quake localised.”

Quake? That sounded bad. Was she expecting an earthquake?

The monster swiped at the dog-goat, which ducked adroitly under its arm and started breathing fire from its other side.

“I hope you know what you're doing,” muttered the man. “I'd like my Houndoom back in one piece, please.”

Marley didn't reply; she was looking intently over the battlefield. The Dugtrio had surrounded the white monster with surprising speed; confused by the roar of the flames, the big beast was rotating desperately on the spot, uncertain of what was happening around it. I was more concerned with the fact that it didn't seem to be much harmed by the fire: aside from some minor singeing, it was pretty much undamaged. Whatever Marley was planning, it had better work – because the Houndoom was going to have to stop for breath at some point.

“Now!” she cried, and the three entities that made up the Dugtrio vanished underground, leaving nothing but fragments of rock behind them; a second later, the floor beneath the white monster bucked, swayed – and gave way, sending it and two tonnes of stone and earth crashing down and out of sight.
For quite a long time, there was dead silence. The monster's disappearance had been so sudden and startling that it threw everyone, even those who'd been expecting it. Then, the Houndoom looked back at the man and did something with one side of its face that could have been intended as the raising of an eyebrow.

“We're done, I think,” the man replied, edging cautiously over to the vast pit and peering down. “That—”

He broke off and leaped back abruptly as a white arm, thick around as a tree trunk, shot up towards his face.

“Jesus—!”

Marley darted forwards and threw something towards the arm; it hit the hard carapace with a dink and then—

The creature was gone again. The ball, for such it was, juddered violently for what were probably the most suspenseful thirty seconds of my life, and then lay motionless atop the rubble.

“Whew,” gasped the man. “That was slightly too close for my liking.”

“I knew it wouldn't break out,” Marley said. “The Earthquake hurt it a lot.”

“What was it?” I asked, feeling that whether it made me look stupid or not, I probably ought to find out.

“A Cave Drapion,” replied the man. “A rare subspecies that has adapted its claws for digging. They're far bigger and tougher than the usual kind; they need to be, to burrow through solid stone.”

“I see,” I said, though in fact I didn't. I had no idea what a Drapion might be, but I wasn't going to let on.

“They also have no eyes,” said Marley. “They don't need them in the dark.” This seemed to remind her of Hamish, and she looked over at him, lying by the opposite wall. She sighed and recalled him to his ball, which plunged us all into total darkness for a moment; a moment later, however, she sent out something that even I could recognise, an Electrode, which obligingly lit up the tunnel when asked.

The stranger recalled his Houndoom and reached down for the Cave Drapion's ball.

“Yours, I think,” he said, offering it to Marley; however, she shook her head and refused it.

“I don't want it,” she replied. “They're too slow for me.”

The man switched his gaze to me.

“Would you like it?”

Actually, I could think of nothing worse. Why on earth would I want to carry around nine hundred pounds of angry scorpion-demon in my pocket? Then again, it couldn't break out (I hoped) and the whole woman-of-adventure identity I was cultivating demanded I accept it. Besides, if it was rare, I could probably get rid of it pretty quickly, and give it away to some Trainer.

“OK,” I said, taking the ball from him and putting it in my bag. “I will, thanks.”
The man nodded genially.

“Excellent,” he said softly. “Now, I must be on my way – I have to make Oreburgh by sundown.”

I wished him goodbye, and Marley nodded silently; he walked on back the way we had come, and Marley and I, she recalling her Dugtrio, continued east in the light of her Electrode.

---

Cyrus was the sort of man who planned things, of that there can be no doubt. He made plans, and, if they needed to be changed, he would simply implement a back-up plan. Rarely did he depart from these, for he was that rare creature, a man who learns from the mistakes of his predecessors, and knew well how the would-be destroyer of worlds, Zero, had been foiled by a rupture in a plan, and how Archie Taniebre and Maxie Roberts of Hoenn had been brought down by a lack of careful planning. He would not follow in their footsteps, of that he was determined – and that was why he had not killed Pearl Gideon on sight, back there in the tunnel. Something would have gone wrong, he was sure of it – probably that Trainer girl she was with. He could tell at a glance that she was good, and he knew well the power of children to meddle with the affairs of 'the bad guys', as they were so often called. It had happened before in Kanto, and in Johto and Hoenn, and he did not intend for it to happen in Sinnoh.

Cyrus leaned against the wall and thought. It would be tonight, he decided. When they stopped to sleep, he would visit Pearl and her protector, and at least one of them would never wake up again.

Silent Memento
December 6th, 2011, 02:42 PM
I'm really sorry for stalling this review. I admit that I'm a lazy Yank, but there's no excuse for me not to have reviewed this chapter before now. Let me get started on a long one to hopefully make up for it:

Oh my gosh! A Drapion sighting! Those guys are awesome, but I'm guessing that Pearl isn't going to keep it. She's no trainer; if anything, the Drapion would end up being more trouble than it's worth in her hands.

I'm also noticing other aspects of Pearl's personality come out in this chapter, mainly her flaws. In this chapter, she showed a lot of quirks that a rich person is often portrayed as having.

Firstly, the aspect of being away from civilization was frightening to her; she's clearly a city girl at heart, and she's trying to be something she isn't when she tries to cultivate this sense of adventure. Adventure isn't just going on a journey; it's trying new things as well - and I honestly don't think that Pearl is nearly as adventurous as she thinks she is.

Secondly, she has the mindset of, "If I can't use this, I'll just try to give it away." It's clearly shown in her thoughts about what to do with the Drapion, and I don't think she's really thinking things through. I already mentioned that she's not nearly the trainer or adventurer that she thinks she is, but another thing that she's forgetting is that a lot of people aren't like that either. I put Drapion in a category that contains most dragons (save for Kingdra, Haxorus, and Altaria), Metagross, Aggron, Bisharp, Tyranitar, and Aerodactyl. They're simply far too wild and dangerous for the vast majority to consider training; that's why I've only seen Elite Four members and Champions train them (aside from Ghetsis, but he's another story altogether). They're cunning and savage predators with a serious aggressive streak, and there aren't a lot of trainers who could come close to taming them, let alone an average person who just happens to come along Pearl's path and wants the Drapion.

Still, that's just my opinion. If I'm wrong, feel free to correct me. That's just what I've noticed.

I'm amazed at how cool and calm Marley is under pressure. She's definitely competent enough to be Ashley's little sister - even though she says that she's never heard of him before. Still, that little frown can say a lot of things. Maybe she has heard of him but has never actually known him? Or am I reading too much into this?

Ishmael (I'll do him a favor and not call him "Pigzie Doodle"), your shattering of the fourth wall leaves me grinning every time I read your lines. This is why I love ghosts so much. They just have so much personality that isn't recognized by most writers. Kudos to you for giving them a voice (I've finally noticed that you've included at least one ghost in every single main fic of yours. I can't believe it took that long for me to realize that little fact).

Cyrus is an absolutely amazing villain. I think that he could very well succeed with his ultimate plan (whatever it happens to be) because he has literally everything going for him. Intelligence? Without a doubt. Competent hired help? Check, especially if you include Liza and subtract Tristan. Charisma? Also without a doubt. Ability to flit between the world of civilization and the underworld of criminal activity? Check. Legendary Pokemon wanting him to win? Giratina says, "Check."

The only other villain in your fics that I thought would win was Zero, and since he decided to give the good guys too much of an advantage, he ultimately failed. Cyrus isn't going to do that - and that's why I'm giving my edge to him at the moment. Ashley and Iago alone aren't going to win this fight, and since Pearl's too much of an unknown...well, that's my reasoning.

Overall, I loved this chapter. I'm impressed, and I'll be watching out for the next chapter.

Your friendly on-again-off-again lurker/reviewer,

Mem.

Cutlerine
December 7th, 2011, 11:30 AM
Greetings, comrade Memento! It has been a long time, both since I posted a chapter and since I heard from you last. That second has just been sorted out, so I suppose that as soon as these exams are over, I should get working on the first. The beginning's already there, it just needs an end. And a middle. And editing. Sigh...

Returning to this chapter, your observations strike me as astute (as ever). This chapter, as well as containing some long-overdue action, got me to the next event in the Platinum storyline (meeting Cyrus in Mount Celestic) and gave me a chance to flesh out Pearl a bit more, like you said. I have to confess, I wasn't really happy with her at first, but now I must say she's growing on me.

I do actually disagree with you on your 'Pokémon too dangerous to control' bit - but only about Kingdra. It's definitely one of those Pokémon too savage for most people in my opinion. Giant evil sea dragon that probably smashes people into a pulp that it can suck through its tubular mouth. Yep. Definitely too savage for common usage.

I'm glad someone agrees with me about Ghosts. I always thought that they're the biggest goldmine in the Pokémon world in terms of writing material, and pretty underused as well. So I've always tried to use them as much as possible - whether with Puck, Priscilla or Pigzie Doodle.

Oh yeah, and Marley is really cool. When I sat down to think of which Stat Trainer to include in the story, there really was no contest.

And as for Cyrus... he has a concealed weakness of his own. Which I'm not going to point out, because I enjoy reading your speculation.

Until next time, comrade Memento.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
December 14th, 2011, 02:31 PM
Ave, loyal follower(s). I'm back, with this. It ain't much - it'll take me a chapter or so to get back into this - but it's a start.

Chapter Sixteen: In Which Some Travel, Some Rest, and Some Fight

'Eh? Who the hell are you? No, I don't want to answer any questions!'
— Interview with Pigzie Doodle

Tristan Shandy and Liza Radley: where were they now? Pearl and her hired Trainer were travelling through Mount Coronet; Ashley and Iago were presumably likewise engaged; Bond and Ellen were haunting in Jubilife. The one duo we have not visited for some time is the Galactic one, and now seems as opportune a moment as any to do so.

Stravinsky and Tristan, upon following Pearl, had ended up outside her apartment building; after an incredibly dull wait enlivened only by the radio presenter, Lazlow, when he accused one of his guests of being a pimp, they followed her away again, to the place where, unbeknownst to them, Stephanie dwelt. Here again, they waited – and then they followed her to the Pokémon Centre, where they called Liza.

Liza, you will have noted, had not been with them so far that day. The reason for this was that she was at that time at an Internet café, writing a few statements to be made by the Commanders to the Team and emailing them to Cyrus to distribute. She had, it must be remembered, promised to help him with the somewhat demoralising incursion in their Eterna base, and this was the main way by which she chose to do it; a good stirring speech, she had often found, was one of the most effective ways of rallying an army of idiots. It had worked for most of history's tyrants; it would work for her.

Joining her partner and her driver at the Centre, Liza wondered what Pearl was doing. Why would she go to a Pokémon Centre? Being endowed with a brain, she took but a moment to deduce she was looking for a Trainer; the reason why she might be doing this took her a moment longer, but she very swiftly worked out that, since transport lines between East and West Sinnoh had been cut, it was likely that Pearl wanted to get through Mount Coronet. This was plausible if she had found out about the Veilstone base, which wasn't particularly unlikely. Liza pondered all of this for a moment, and then suddenly broke into a grin.

Tristan watched her uneasily.

“That isn't a good grin,” he commented. “That is not a 'let's buy Kinder Eggs for Tristan' grin. That isn't even a 'let's leave Tristan alive for now' sort of grin. That's a murder grin.”

Liza looked at him.

“Shut up,” she said, smile disappearing abruptly. “Not everything has to do with you.” While Tristan received a consoling pat from his Croagunk, which perceived the abyss of despair into which these words had flung him, Liza leaned forwards and spoke to Stravinsky.

“Driver!”

Stravinsky very nearly told her again that he had a name and that it was Stravinsky, but thought better of it. Besides, the joke was getting stale.

“What is it?”

“Find somewhere for us to stay and take us there,” Liza said. “I've a plan to carry out.”

---

“We cannot help but think that this is not a good idea,” said the Desk Sitter.

Cyrus started, turned around and saw them resting on a rocky protrusion, for all the world as if they had been there forever.

“Where did you spring from?” he asked.

“We were here before,” they replied. “Just not in plain sight. Look, are you actually planning to hit her on the head with a rock?”

Cyrus looked at Pearl, lying wrapped in her coat a little way down the passage, and then at the large stone in his hand.

“Yes,” he said defensively. “There's nothing wrong with that, is there?”

“But you have a gun,” the Desk Sitter protested. “And we feel that this rock plan is not likely to kill her instantly – she might cry for help.”

“The gun will wake up that girl, and might just draw the ire of some predatory Pokémon,” reasoned Cyrus. “Did you see that Drapion? I really wouldn't want to encounter another one any time soon.”

“You could run,” suggested the Desk Sitter. “Do not fear; your death would be as inconvenient for us as it would be for you.”

“I could run,” repeated Cyrus in disbelief. “That's your best idea?” He shook his head. “And you call yourself a Supreme Evil Being.”

The Desk Sitter frowned and loomed a little.

“We are Supreme Evil,” they replied. “That's why we are – look, forget it. Hit her with the rock and have done with it.”

Cyrus nodded triumphantly, turned back to his target and resumed his steady creeping toward his target. He crept, and crept, and crept a little more; now he was right next to Pearl, and he raised his arm in preparation for the strike—

The Desk Sitter coughed.

“Er, Cyrus,” they said. “We would be very careful, if we were you.”

Cyrus froze, and looked slowly to his left.

Marley's Electrode looked back.

“Now,” began Cyrus, and the Electrode's face cracked into the signature sadistic grin of their kind. Its surface began to hum with white light, and, deciding that he would prefer to remain unincinerated, Cyrus dropped the rock and beat a hasty retreat over to where the Desk Sitter was sitting.

But Electrode were not such reasonable creatures as to accept surrender; it made a very strange and rather threatening grinding noise, and began to roll toward them, the glow surrounding it growing more intense with every revolution.

“We would like you to run away now,” said the Desk Sitter nervously. “Really fast.”

The Electrode began to quiver, little rifts opening in its plastic skin to disgorge tiny beams of light, and Cyrus was forced to concur.

“It would probably be best to try later,” he said, and fled, just in time to avoid the first ball of electricity, which exploded with a violent whine on the wall behind him.

---

At this moment, several people were sitting in a restaurant in Eterna, deep in conversation. One was a Rotom. Two were a couple. Three were the people Pearl had met earlier in the park. And together with another, they made four.

“...so it doesn't look like anyone's even heard of it,” finished the fourth person, whose name, as the astute reader will have deduced, was Sapphire. “It's just vanished.”

“So could we just have lost it?” asked the second, who was, of course, Kester.

“Oh, yeah,” replied Puck. “Yeah, we totally just dropped it on the way here, while managing to keep the bag it was locked in.”

“OK, OK, so we didn't just lose it.” Kester chewed his lip. “So... how could it have disappeared?”

All eyes turned to Puck, who, gratified by the attention, drew his plasma together in a worldly sort of way and said:

“Well, any competent Ghost could've taken it—”

“But wouldn't you have sensed them?” asked Sapphire.

“Oi! Don't interrupt!” snapped the Rotom. Then, grudgingly: “And yeah, I suppose I would. Unless they were very strong and managed to hide their presence, or were very weak so that I didn't even notice.”

“Anything else?” asked Kester.

“Well, I—”

“Anything useful,” clarified Felicity.

Puck chuckled.

“She's sharp, that one,” he observed, apparently to himself. “I was going to tell you about the time I stole the Crescendolls from their home planet—”

“Puck!”

“All right,” he sighed. “Look, I, er, know some people in this country. The sort of people who'd be likely to know about things being stolen and the like. I could go and talk to them, if you want.”

“Are they crooks?”

“Yeah,” admitted Puck. “Three thieves, two murderers, a rapist and a mob boss, actually. Do you want to tag along?”

His three companions exchanged glances, and uniformly replied in the negative.

---

OK, whispered Pigzie Doodle, this is where I last saw them.

“Why are you whispering?” asked Ellen. “They can't hear you. And there isn't anyone here.”

They stood in a back road, which the night before had been the site of an incident involving a Croagunk's claw and a student's arm; today, however, there was absolutely no one around. It had taken them a very long time to get here – they had had to walk, and Ellen had insisted on stopping to rest a few times – and frankly the emptiness was somewhat disappointing.

Right, said Pigzie Doodle. Never mind that. He bobbed to the left, and then to the right. Ah, he said. Do you feel that?

“What did he say?” asked Bond.

“He asked if we felt that,” replied Ellen.

“Might I be so bold as to what we are supposed to be feeling, madam?”

Ellen turned back to Pigzie Doodle.

“Yes, Pigz—”

Ishmael.

“Ishmael, what is it that you feel?”

The Duskull sighed.

If Mans wasn't such a good friend of mine, I'd gladly consume your essence, he told her. I had hoped ghosts would be a bit more like Ghosts, but apparently human ghosts are, despite being ghosts, still human and not Ghosts.

“The word 'ghost' doesn't sound like a word any more,” observed Ellen.

Shut up. Look, you're supposed to be feeling the energy trail that that woman leaves behind her. It's about as broad as the streak of stupidity running through your skull, and leads off over there.

“Oh!” Ellen glared crossly at him for a moment, then pouted and looked away. Bond watched, vaguely confused and wondering whether he ought to intervene on the part of his young ward.

How childish. I guess death doesn't age you like life does. Anyway, oh ye of little brain, come with me and we'll find her.

So saying, Pigzie Doodle rolled his eye over to the other socket and began to drift away down the street.

“What happened?” asked Bond, bewildered. “Madam, what did he say?”

“Humph,” replied Ellen shortly, and stomped off after the Ghost. Bond stared after her for a moment, speechless, then sighed and followed. One of these days, he thought, he really ought to tender his resignation.

---

“Here we are,” announced Stravinsky. “A hotel.”

Liza looked out of the window, and watched a slate fall from the roof to the pavement.

“No,” she said. “Somewhere nicer.”

Stravinsky sighed, resisted the urge to thump her hard, well, fast and strong and drove off. A few minutes later, they arrived at the specified 'somewhere nicer'.

“Here we are,” he said. “A nicer hotel.”

Liza looked out of the window, and saw a neon light flicker.

“No,” she said. “Somewhere nicer.”

Stravinsky clenched his teeth, resisted the urge to thump her harder, better, faster and stronger and drove off again.

“And driver?”

“What?” he asked.

“Stop making veiled references,” replied Liza sweetly, with a smile that could have and once had killed a puppy. Stravinsky gulped, nodded, and drove off, trying very hard not to think of music.

When at last they had found somewhere that Liza deemed inhabitable, Tristan and Liza got out; Stravinsky gave them his number and told them to call him when they needed him, and then vanished off to the mysterious place where drivers go when they aren't driving. For their part, the Galactic duo went inside, to obtain rooms; this done, they retreated to sleep, wash and generally recover from the past few days, which had not been kind to them.

Having done this, they reconvened in the parlour, which was empty save for a pair of old ladies knitting opposite ends of an enormous, multicoloured scarf; aside from seeming oddly familiar, there was nothing threatening about these two, so Liza felt it safe to broach the subject of her plans.

“I've just called Cyrus,” she told Tristan. “He's setting a trap for Gideon and the Diamond at Veilstone.”

“What sort of trap?” asked Tristan.

“A honeytrap,” replied Liza, with one of those enigmatic smiles that always mean business in the movies.

“And what exactly do you mean by that?” Tristan put his hand in his pocket, discovered a Kinder Egg capsule in there and pulled it out for further investigation.

“I can't tell you,” replied Liza maddeningly, as Tristan popped open the capsule and stared at the bizarrely-shaped pieces of plastic within.

“Oh, what's this?” he murmured, and then realised what Liza had just said. “I mean, what? Why can't I know?”

“You're too low-ranking.”

“You're too low-ranking,” Tristan retorted, which was, as retorts go, not particularly effective.

“That makes no sense,” Liza pointed out. “Seeing as I'm not. Either way, I'm not going to tell you; it has to be a totally secret operation, since it's quite dangerous and would probably scare most of the Team out of the Veilstone building if they knew about it.”
Tristan thought about asking more, but decided that Liza was scarier than any trap, and didn't. He returned his attention to the Kinder Egg, and started putting together the little pieces.

“You are so very childish,” Liza told him.

“Oh,” said Tristan, not listening. “It's a rabbit in a waistcoat playing a trombone that squirts water from its ear. Of course; why didn't I see it before?”

Liza sighed, got up and went to her room, muttering about idiots and apparently failing to see the pair of pallid figures standing by the door.

---

When we awoke – or, more accurately, when Marley poked me into consciousness with her toe – it was to a somewhat disconcerting sight: the Electrode, at some point during the night, had apparently ruptured in several places, and was leaking electricity all over the floor.

“He found something to fight,” stated Marley. “That should have woken us” – she looked at me, considered, and went on – “should have woken me up. Perhaps he gave chase.”

Whatever the cause was, she knelt down and sprayed the Electrode with something that was presumably a Potion; within seconds, the holes in its skin had sealed themselves, and it was ready to go once more.

“Why doesn't that work with humans?” I asked Marley.

She looked at me as if I were as far beneath her as an ant below God.

“Because they're not Pokémon,” she replied. “Do you know anything about biology?”

I shook my head.

“Learn, and then you'll know.”

With that, we started going again, which was hungry work; there'd been no breakfast either, and I was positively famished by the time Marley judged we'd gone far enough to warrant a break and something to eat.

Swiftly, we fell into yesterday's pattern: walking, walking, walking until all the seconds and all the hours became one indistinguishable moment; at length, Marley decided it was night time, and we stopped again. We had experienced nothing like the Drapion attack yesterday, but we were bothered a couple of times by slow-moving beasts that even I could identify as Graveler. Marley would stop me in the middle of the tunnel, then point to the roof ahead; a second later, part of it would detach and fall to the ground with an earth-shattering crash, revealing itself to have eyes, limbs and a surprising grin in the process. When this happened, Marley would indicate for me to cover my ears, issue a command to her Electrode and then do the same herself; a second later, the most unpleasant noise I'd ever heard would echo down the tunnel, and the Graveler, justly affronted, would beat a hasty retreat – or as hasty a retreat as a ton of granite can manage, anyway.

So the day passed, and then another of those uncomfortable nights spent horizontal – I hesitate to call it sleeping – on a bed of stones; thankfully, that was the last night I would spend there, and, after a close encounter with something creepy that climbed along the walls and fled when Marley shone light on it, we beheld literal light at the end of the tunnel. Half an hour later, I was blinking, shading my eyes and thanking whatever higher powers might exist for the gift of fresh air.

We sat on rocks by the side of the mountain path for a while while our eyes adjusted to the light, and I took in the sounds of the river that wound through the valley below, of the wind around us, of the birds wheeling overhead; it was good, I reflected, to be alive. If being dead was anything like being in Mount Celestic, then I might be better off being cremated than buried.

“Oh God,” I sighed, when my sight had recovered. “Look at all this grass! It's so... so green!”

Marley blinked at me.

“Yes,” she replied. “It's grass.”

“Yeah, but – after being in there – and the sky – and it's outside...” I trailed off, acutely aware that I was babbling incoherently, and shrugged. “It's nice,” I finished lamely.

Marley shook her head and recalled her Electrode.

“More importantly, it's East Sinnoh. Are you going to pay me now?”

I thought. I had to get to Veilstone – that'd be easy enough, though; I could go by train. What about when I got there? I couldn't really go up against Team Galactic on my own; nor could I find those contacts of Ashley that I was in search of alone.

You can do it on your own, a little voice in my head assured me. You're Pearl Gideon. You can do anything. It was persuasive, I had to admit – but I recognised it as the same voice that had frequently got me into large amounts of trouble as a child, and shut it out with practised ease. I was going to need, I realised, some help.

“Marley,” I said at length, “would you mind if I changed the terms of our agreement?”

She looked at me suspiciously.

“We had a deal,” she said. “I take you here for thirty thousand dollars, no less. I've taken you here, now it's your turn.”

“I just want to extend it,” I told her. “Come with me to Veilstone and keep guarding me, and I'll double your money.”

“I'm not a bodyguard.”

“Everyone starts somewhere,” I pointed out hopefully. “This could be a valuable first step onto the careers ladder for you—”

“I have a career already. I'm a Trainer.”

I sighed and pulled my purse out of my bag.

“This is going to last all day unless I give in, isn't it?”

“Very probably.”

I counted out the money and handed it over.

“There,” I said. “Happy now?”

“Yes.” Marley stood up abruptly and threw down another Poké Ball; this one, much to my surprise, apparently contained something as big as the Cave Drapion and twice as toothy, and I watched, amazed and not a little afraid, as it spread leathery wings and turned to face its master with an affectionate scream.

Marley climbed up onto the back of this monstrous apparition, gave me a cursory wave, and flew off into the sky without so much as a backwards glance. I stared after her for a while, not quite believing what I'd just seen; I knew that giant Flying Pokémon like that existed, but I'd never seen one other than Staraptor, and I'd never really taken a long look at one of those, either, for fear of being brutally slaughtered.

“She is weird,” I muttered to myself, and stood up. I brushed some dirt off my jeans, decided I needed a change of clothes and some civilisation by tonight at the latest, and started walking down the trail. It ought to lead to some sort of Trainer-y outpost like the one that guarded the Oreburgh entrance to the mountain, and from there it probably wouldn't be too far until the next town. That would be Hearthome, I guessed, which was perfect: a nice big city, full of beds, shops and all the other necessary accoutrements of life.

After a while, the rocky crags gave way to a river at the base of a steep valley; there was a bridge over it, which looked far less safe than it actually was, and an ancient man standing halfway along, smoking a cigarette and staring at the waters below. I almost said hello to him, but thought better of it at the last moment, and didn't.

Beyond the river were yet more stony hills; I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever get to Hearthome now, but as I crested the first, I saw a grassy meadow spread out below – and, more importantly, a house on the other side.

Civilisation at last!

I smiled in relief and started on my way down. I could practically smell Hearthome now, and I was damned if I wasn't going to get there before nightfall.

---

“They're here,” said Ashley.

Iago didn't need to be told. He could sense it just as well as Ashley could, and using much the same means; both of them had a wild animal intuition that regular humans did not.

“How many, do you think?”

“Five.” Ashley's face was inscrutable. “I suppose this is the danger of acting outside the boundaries set by the League.”

“Can you tell me why I accepted this job again?” Iago sighed. “You're nothing but trouble.”

“I could tell you,” Ashley said, “but I don't suppose it matters. Put the knife away, Iago, I'll handle them.”

Iago's knife vanished into his tail, and he started climbing a tree. Ashley watched him go, then turned around and broke the wrist of the man standing there.

“You people are so funny,” he said, pushing him firmly in the chest and sending him flying to the floor. “Even after Darkling Town, you still come after me.” He ducked a bullet, turned around again and strangled the second assailant with a single swift movement.

The remaining three came at once, shooting from opposite sides; unfortunately for them, Ashley was no longer between them, and one of them managed to hit another in the shoulder. A second later, he descended from nowhere to land behind the wounded man and wrap one arm around his neck.

The fourth he speared through the throat; the fifth tried to flee, but Ashley staved in the back of his skull and he fell to the floor as if someone had cut his strings.

Iago sighed.

“Cynthia's gonna be pissed,” he remarked. “That's the second lot this month.”

Ashley grimaced, and forced himself back to normal.

“I'm going to need a new shirt,” he said.

“What about a new coat?” asked Iago. “That one looks beat.”

“No, I like this one,” replied Ashley, looking at the tattered sleeve regretfully. “I'll mend it when we get back.”

Iago jumped down and landed lightly on his feet.

“Right,” he said, suddenly business-like. “Shall I call the cleaners?”

Ashley considered.

“No, don't bother. Let's just dump them in the bushes.”

So saying, he set to work. There was no time to waste – he was aiming, after all, to get to Hearthome by nightfall.

Cutlerine
December 24th, 2011, 10:18 AM
Chapter Seventeen: In Which There is an Unexpected Reunion

'The Lost Tower. Historic burial place of deceased Pokémon, and good for an hour's visit. Spend much longer there, however, and you swiftly become somewhat depressed, if only because the place seems to attract mourners for some reason. There is absolutely nothing suspicious about it at all. Really, nothing. It's not like there was any sort of Ghostly accident there at all.'
— Miss Infa Maisun, The Government-Approved Guide to Sinnoh

Tristan was feeling good. He had what amounted to a free day – they didn't seem to be going anywhere – and he had three Kinder Eggs left in his private stash to consume over its course.

In short, today looked set to be fun.

“Heh,” he said to himself, holding his little plastic rabbit up to the light and turning it this way and that for a full examination. “Finally! Alone, in a nice hotel, in the city – and no Liza.” He leaned back in his chair, almost tipped it over backwards and hurriedly re-verticalised himself. This was not a word, but it did involve much humorous windmilling of arms, and drew the momentary attention of the two old ladies by the fire. However, after but a moment, they went back to their knitting, and were promptly forgotten.

This was not the only consequence of the re-verticalisation. It also made Tristan raise his head, and therefore see the two pale and spectral figures standing by the door.

“Oh, cal,” he breathed. It seemed like his prediction of fun for today was about to be proven very much wrong.

The tall figure in the black tailsuit darted forward, and Tristan attempted to jump backwards out of his way; unfortunately, he was still sitting down, and so he actually achieved nothing whatsoever. In a moment, the ghost was upon him, and Tristan watched in horror as he reached out towards him—

—and held out a calming hand, the index finger of his other hand pressed to his lips for quiet.

“Eh?” said Tristan. This was not, in his experience, how ghosts usually approached their victims. In his confusion, he forgot his fear, and the other ghost, that of the little girl, took advantage of this to join her compatriot. “Er – excuse me, but aren't you going to kill me?” he asked them.

This drew the attention of the old ladies again, who gave him a pair of questioning looks.

“Er, not you,” Tristan said, though as he had turned white as chalk and started to tremble, neither of the two ladies was inclined to believe him. “It's – it's just—”

He stopped abruptly, smiled nervously and then went back to looking terrified. The old ladies looked at each other, raised their eyebrows and returned to their knitting once more.

“What do you want?” Tristan hissed furiously – and the little girl suddenly leaned in close to him, which caused him to produce a curious strangled sort of noise and jerk upwards a couple of inches in his seat. She opened her mouth, and Tristan closed his eyes in preparation for having his soul sucked out...

When, a couple of seconds later, he failed to feel any sort of hideous agony, he opened one eye just a crack – and saw that all the little girl was doing was mouthing something. He frowned. Was she trying to talk?

“Are you – is this a ghostly curse?” Tristan asked cautiously.

The little girl and the tailsuit man looked at each other as two intelligent people will when confronted with a third person of staggering idiocy, and in the background, the old ladies gave Tristan another set of very strange looks. They were beginning to suspect that this young man might not be quite right in the head.

The two ghosts shook their heads, and mouthed some more. Tristan, summoning up some courage, stuck a finger into the tall one's chest.

“Good grief,” he murmured, eyes wide with horrified fascination. “You really are dead.”

This was more than the two old ladies were willing to put up with, and they left abruptly for saner pastures.

“Look, what do you want?” asked Tristan urgently, once they had gone. “I don't understand!” He felt in his pocket and found his wallet; pulling out a handful of notes, he thrust them at the spectres. “Here! I'll pay you, just – go away!”

The banknotes fluttered through the little girl's chest and down to the floor; she and her companion stared at them blankly for a moment, and then returned their gaze to his face.

“Please,” begged Tristan. “Life's not treating me well. I just want a day of rest...” He clapped one hand to his brow in a most melodramatic way, and slumped forward in his chair. “I've been led thither and yon, tugged back and forth and blamed for all sorts,” he went on, in the voice of one gripped by the blackest flavour of despair. “My driver's a joker, my partner's” – here he felt around in midair for the right word, and failed to find it there – “someone, and all in all this whole Galactic thing is more trouble than it's worth.”

The little girl tried to interrupt, but Tristan had got into his stride now, and it would have been difficult for her to stop him even if he'd been able to hear her.

“I thought it was going to be so much more than this,” he went on. “My cousin was in the evil Team business, and I remembered him saying at the Feast of Seymour last year that it was the best career choice he'd ever made. And when I lost my job this summer, it seemed the obvious choice, you know? So I was going to apply to Team Magma, where my cousin worked, but that got destroyed when all that Zero business happened – and I don't speak Kantan, so I couldn't go with the Rockets. And then I heard about Team Galactic, and I thought...” Tristan gave a woeful sort of shrug, and let out a sigh so mighty it almost blew the child-ghost's midriff away. “But it isn't any good,” he said, as if imparting a great secret. “I should have tried to find another job as an accordion-maker. Ah, those were the days!” All at once, Tristan perked up, and his face cracked into the soft, sad smile of fond reminiscence. “One day, I remember, I saw this novice who'd got all the buttons wrong – I had to put them back into the Stradella bass system for him!”

He laughed a little, and the ghosts once again exchanged glances. If they weren't very much mistaken, it was going to be even harder to get through to this man than they had thought – for he was, it seemed, an idiot.

---

Thankfully, I reached the suburbs of Hearthome a few minutes before sunset, saving me from another night in the wilderness; I asked a passerby, got directions to the closest station and took a train to the city centre, where I was once again surrounded by the comforting skyscrapers that came with advanced civilisation.

That was only half the battle, though – I was still pretty filthy, and I desperately needed a change of clothes and some food into the bargain. I wandered around, looking for a hotel, and was suddenly accosted by Ashley.

“Hello, Pearl.”

“What?”

I almost jumped into the traffic in my surprise; as far as I was aware, he hadn't been there a moment ago and there didn't seem to be anywhere he could have been hiding.

“Ashley?” I said, trying to regain my senses. “What the – where did you come from?”

“I was looking for a hotel, and so, it seems, are you.” He sighed. “You aren't going to stay at home, are you?”

“Uh... no,” I replied, still attempting to pull my mind back together. “What – have you been spying on me?”

“Not personally, no,” he answered. “I can't answer for the League, though; they have secrets to protect and you're uncomfortably close to finding them out.”

“Secrets like...?”

“Me,” he said pleasantly. “Come on. I know a hotel that will suit you.”

And with that, he started off down the street. I stared after him for a moment, and then ran to catch up.

“Wait!” I cried. “Aren't – what's with you? I thought you said you wouldn't be helping me!”

“I said that you would be in danger if you kept investigating on your own,” Ashley said. “And then you said you would keep on investigating anyway, and so I contacted Stephanie, who told me you'd be getting a Trainer to take you through the mountain. That was a clever idea, by the way; I should have thought of that myself. Anyway, I went through the mountain and got here an hour ago, to wait and see if you came – and you did, despite being led here by Marley and attacked by a Cave Drapion.” He paused. “If that wasn't an indication that it really wasn't possible to dissuade you, then I don't know what would be. I didn't want you to come – but if I can't stop you, I can at least protect you.”

I gaped.

“This... that was all a test?”

Ashley shrugged.

“I'm quite clever,” he said in an offhand manner. “It wasn't too difficult to set up.”

Something else clicked in my head then: he'd mentioned Marley by name.

“Do you know Marley?” I asked him.

He nodded.

“Very well,” he replied. “She doesn't know me, though.”

“What?”

“Haven't I made it clear yet?” said Ashley. “I stand to face severe punishment by the League if I tell you anything about myself – and believe me, they will find out. You have to find it all out yourself.” He lowered his voice. “Though I will say that Stephanie hasn't quite finished her little investigation of me; you might get some more information from her. Get a new phone before you call her, though – yours is being tapped.”

“What? Isn't this illegal?”

“Yes, and your father's acquisition of Sebastiano del Piombo's The Raising of Lazarus was illegal as well,” Ashley told me. “Hasn't being rich taught you anything? Money transcends the law.”

The conversation was going in an uncomfortable direction – I didn't particularly like to dwell upon the slightly unsavoury side of my dad's business – and I tried to steer it back to the reason for my quest to go East-side.

“Did your friends in Veilstone find anything out?” I asked.

“I don't really have friends,” he admitted. “They're acquaintances. And they've told me that they can't find any trace of the Galactics except a warehouse in the industrial district that's always guarded by those space-suited goons of theirs. They could get a warrant to search the premises, but I don't want to attract unnecessary attention.”

Ashley's contacts could get a search warrant? They must be pretty important, I thought; then again, was it surprising that they were? After all, if Ashley really had been around for a hundred years – something I still wasn't entirely sure I believed – then he was bound to have built up a fairly impressive list of contacts, and even more people who owed him favours.

“Here,” he announced, stopping. I looked up, and approved: this was the Khartoum Hotel, which had nothing to do with Khartoum and everything to do with the last word in Hearthome luxury. Tall, elegant and within easy walking distance of every single one of the city's major attractions – the Contest Hall, the cathedral, the shopping district and the club scene – a night at the Khartoum cost about the same as a new car. I'd stayed here before, but never when I was paying, and I cast a sidelong look at Ashley.

“You've already booked rooms here, haven't you?”

“Yes.”

“And I'm going to pay for them, aren't I?”

“Yes.”

I sighed.

“How long are you staying here?”

“Just tonight. I've only booked one room, as it happens, and that's yours. I don't sleep much any more.”

I filed that away under 'curious information about Ashley' and asked:

“What about Iago?”

“The Khartoum management doesn't allow Kadabra,” he said in disgust. “Illegal, and worse, immoral, but there's nothing I can do about it in such a short period of time.”

“Where's he staying?”

He shrugged.

“He'll find somewhere. Come on, you look exhausted.”

This was weirdly considerate for someone who habitually thrust me into awful situations, and I followed gladly.

The Khartoum was every bit as fantastic as I remembered, and even more so after a couple of days in a cave network; I showered, ordered a colossal meal from room service and promptly fell asleep. I was far less fit than Marley, and the walk had tired me more than anything I'd done for about four years.

I would probably have slept right through to about noon if Ashley hadn't reappeared at nine o'clock and poked me into wakefulness. How he'd gained access to my room I had no idea; it must have been a detective thing, or possibly an Ashley thing.

“Uhhhh,” I groaned, with considerably less coherence than either he or I would have liked. “What the hell?”

“Wake up, Pearl,” said Ashley. “We need to go; there's no time to waste – the nice people at the Gym reminded me of my duties, and now we have to make a stop on the way to Veilstone.”

“What?”

“Just get up,” he sighed. “I've bought you new clothes already – they're on the chair. I'll be waiting in the lobby and if you don't come down by half past I'll send in Iago with the knife.”

The door slammed, and I sat up, blinking sleep out of my eyes.

“What's so urgent?” I wondered, and then, as my mind caught up with Ashley's words: “Wait – he got me clothes?”

I did need them, but I didn't exactly trust Ashley's sense of style. I couldn't imagine him ever having had a girlfriend, or indeed any sort of personal relationship, and had a horrible sinking feeling concerning what he might have bought. Throwing aside the covers, I leaped out of bed as fast as possible, and half-ran, half-fell over to the chair, dreading what might await me—

“Oh,” I said, staring. “That's... that's fine, then.”

It seemed Ashley had good taste – or, to be more precise, an uncanny knowledge of what I liked. I couldn't have chosen anything more me even if I'd gone shopping myself; besides, he'd probably bought it all in half an hour, while it would've taken me at least three hours.

I showered again (I still felt filthy; that had been one grimy cavern) and dressed, noting as I did so that Ashley apparently knew my sizes slightly better than I did. That took me until half nine, and when I opened the door, it was to the unsettling sight of a Kadabra with a knife.

“Whoa,” I said, staring at Iago. “He was serious.”

“Of course he is,” he replied. “He doesn't have a sense of humour.”

I thought for a moment, decided Iago was wrong, and then decided not to tell him, as he still had the knife.

“Right,” I said. “Shall we go, then?”

We did, and found Ashley tapping his foot impatiently in the lobby.

“Finally!” he cried. “Pay them and let's go, Pearl, there's a car waiting outside.”

“A car?” I asked, approaching the reception desk.

“Yes,” he said, as I handed my credit card over to the receptionist. “Since Fantina isn't here, it's my job to keep the mist in check.”

“The mist?”

The machine beeped, and the receptionist gave me back my card, which almost felt lighter with all the money that had left its account. He smiled and thanked me, and I started walking out with Ashley and Iago.

“Yes, the mist,” Ashley confirmed. “At the Lost Tower.”

We went outside and, sure enough, there was a car; it was low and black and looked rather fast. Ashley opened the door for me, and Iago pushed past to get in first; I think he wanted the seat on the left for some reason. I got in after him, and Ashley went around to the front.

“You're pushing it, Ashley,” said the driver, a plump woman with yellow sunglasses, which were very weird but looked surprisingly good on her. “I've been waiting half an hour—”

“Then stop complaining and drive,” he told her. “Go on, go! I want to get this over with as much as you do.”

“Fine, fine,” muttered the driver, starting the engine and pulling away. “I didn't know you had a girlfriend,” she added, jerking her thumb at me.

“I don't,” replied Ashley. “She's a girl, yes, but not a friend; merely a colleague.” He turned around in his seat.

“What's she doing here? We don't need her—”

“She's working in Veilstone with us,” Iago cut in, “and the Lost Tower is on our way. Now shut up and drive.”

Ah. Yeah, I'd forgotten how rude he was. I was beginning to suspect that he wasn't that much like a regular Kadabra; he seemed suspiciously human – real Kadabra, I think, don't use the pronoun 'I'.

The driver said nothing, though the silence that now surrounded her was definitely of the offended sort.

“Where was I?” mused Ashley, apparently failing to pick up on this. “Oh yes, the mist. Pearl, this is a state secret, so I'm going to have to ask you nicely not to repeat anything I say now. Will you do that?”

“What happens if I do?”

“I visit you in the middle of the night,” answered Iago, “and you don't wake up in the morning.”

“O-K,” I said slowly. “In that case, I think I might be able to agree.”

“Excellent,” said Ashley brightly. “In 1982, there was an unprecedented disaster over the Lost Tower, when a migratory flock of Drifloon and Drifblim hit a violent thunderstorm just above it; 95% of them – that's about six thousand – burst in the lightning. Now, do you know how a Drifloon works, Pearl?”

I weighed up the pros and cons of pretending that I did, and decided on balance that I'd better confess that I didn't.

“No,” I admitted.

“There's a surprise,” said Iago, but Ashley silenced him with a look.
“Like most Ghosts, they're composed of living gas,” he said. “In their case, this gas is contained with a balloon-like structure made of keratin. However, this is very fragile, and if a large hole is torn in it the Drifloon can't grow it back fast enough to retain its gas. In this case, six thousand of them lost their gas, and, because that gas is exceedingly soluble, ended up carried down to the ground in the rain of the storm.

“Over the next few weeks, a grey mist was observed rising from the ground all around the Lost Tower. After a while, the area was so thickly covered that it was impossible to see three inches in front of your nose, and a short while after that it started consuming those people who entered it.

“It turned out that it was the gas from the Drifloon flock. It had merged to form one gigantic entity, composed of about thirty cubic metres of Ghost, and it was expanding with every person it devoured; if it kept growing at the rate it was, it would have consumed Hearthome within a month, which would have given it enough power to swallow every living thing in Sinnoh. Something had to be done.

“At the time, there was an Elite Four member who specialised in the Ghost type, Wesley Samuels, and he came down to get it back under control. He couldn't catch it – with that many minds, it found it very easy to resist capture in a ball – but he managed to get it trapped in the basement. Every so often, though, bits of it seep out, and in recent years that's been Fantina's job to sort out, since she's the only Ghost user in the League right now and is conveniently nearby.” Ashley sighed. “However, she's visiting her homeland right now, and Cynthia's too busy to come here in person, so the Gym's called me up and ordered me to do it, as someone who 'can probable sort it out'. Right now.” He indicated the driver. “This is Catherine – she works at the Gym.”

I stared at him for a long moment.

“Sorry,” I said, feeling somewhat confused. “That isn't a joke, is it?”
Ashley looked puzzled.

“Why would it be?”

“Er... no reason.” I shook my head. “Wow. How does that get hidden so well?”

“Sinnoh as a region is very prone to Pokémon-based disasters,” Ashley said. “There are minor ones every few days, three major ones every year and an apocalyptic one every decade. The government does its best to keep them hidden, or the country would be in a state of permanent panic; that's why the Sinnish League has so much more funding than its equivalent in other countries.”

“Isn't that sort of immoral?” I asked, feeling faintly uneasy.

“Not really,” Ashley replied. “The alternative is people complaining all the time, and that really would be annoying. To be honest, I thought you'd be more surprised about the Driftenburg.”

I stared at him again.

“You cannot be serious,” I said at length.

“No, I am,” he said. “Wesley had a rather odd sense of humour, and he named the spectral phenomenon the Driftenburg. It's quite clever, when you think about it – crashed dirigibles and all that.”

“Is this your life?” I asked him, slightly in awe. “Is this what you really do?”

He smiled.

“No, I'm just a detective,” he replied. “But since... for a long time, I've been obliged to do what the League wants, when the League wants. Hence this regrettable break in the investigation.”

We were now passing the city limits and heading onto the motorway, and all at once the car sped up; I supposed the Gym wanted the Driftenburg problem sorted out as soon as possible.

“Ashley, I have to tell you to stop talking now,” said Catherine. “You can't tell her any more than that, even if she is working with you.”

“That's all I was going to say,” Ashley told her soothingly. “I was just telling her about the Driftenburg. Speaking of which, how far had it got before you called me?”

“It had leaked out onto the ground floor. I hate to think how far it's got now.”

“You had the place evacuated?”

“Yeah, but it's probably overtaken the whole tower—!”

“No one is hurt,” Ashley interrupted. “That's the most important thing. Besides, it doesn't matter how far it's got. It's always been scared of me.”

A giant, man-eating Ghost, scared of Ashley? I knew there was something weird about him – whatever had transpired in the Galactic building in Eterna proved that. But what could possibly be up with him that he could strike terror into a monster like that?

“Might be the sort of thing that I don't want to find out,” I muttered to myself, and the car tore on towards the Tower.

---

Liza Radley, sitting at her table with a cup of coffee, spread the remaining five identity cards out in front of her. She had already discounted Sophia Wright and Lucy Gardner – but Riley Carter, Samantha Wilson, Jane Smith, Alex Knowles and Berenice Anders all had yet to be investigated. The problem was, she had to find each house first, and none of the remaining ones were in Jubilife.

“Sinnoh was the last place,” she muttered. “I must be close now.” She drank some of the coffee, made a face and set it aside; apparently, she didn't like coffee. That was odd – surely she must have tried coffee at some point since the desert? Or perhaps not, she realised; she had been very busy, and she couldn't remember now what she'd eaten yesterday, let alone six months ago.

All at once, Liza felt that old force pressing at the corner of her mind again, demanding to be let in; she focused hard, and something crystallised behind her eyes: a sunset over an old tower, and she was with a hundred other people, facing something huge and twisted that bore down upon them like the wrath of God—

Then the moment passed, and Liza sighed. Why could she never remember the whole thing? Everything occurred in fractions, bits and pieces of history bursting out of the box in her skull in fits and bursts. But whenever one fragment slotted into place, it revealed a hundred more holes; when she remembered one thing, she forgot a dozen others.

“There's something there,” she said aloud. “But what it is, I just can't see...”

“Do you want more coffee?” asked the waiter, abruptly interrupting her ruminations.

“What? Oh, no. Actually, can I have some tea instead?”

“Sure,” said the waiter. “I'll bring it right over.”

Liza smiled at him until he'd turned around, then let her face relax into a scowl again. Something was rotten here, and the key was in one of the five cards laid out before her. And if Cyrus' plan progressed at the planned speed, she only had two weeks left to find it.

Silent Memento
December 24th, 2011, 02:56 PM
Oh my...I've got a theory about Liza. Like all of my theories, it's insane, radical, and probably way off the mark, but...

Liza is one of the victims of Darkling Town. She's a ghost that's somehow manifested herself into a human body. That's why she can only remember things in small amounts; unlike Bond and Ellen, she doesn't realize that she's dead. I honestly don't think that Darkling Town is anything like this story's version of Kester's business from last year; a main character wiping an entire town off the map is very, very serious and has to be considered a major part of the plot.

Speaking of Bond and Ellen, I wonder how they're going to get their message through Tristan's thick skull. That guy's...wow. What a moron.

I found your explaination of why Lost Tower has the fog to be very realistic. Those poor Drifloon and Drifblim...

Now that my review is done, I would like to take the time to wish you a very happy holiday (if you celebrate them; if not, I'll wish you a happy winter season) and an especially happy New Year's Eve and Day.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
December 31st, 2011, 08:04 AM
Oh my...I've got a theory about Liza. Like all of my theories, it's insane, radical, and probably way off the mark, but...

Liza is one of the victims of Darkling Town. She's a ghost that's somehow manifested herself into a human body. That's why she can only remember things in small amounts; unlike Bond and Ellen, she doesn't realize that she's dead. I honestly don't think that Darkling Town is anything like this story's version of Kester's business from last year; a main character wiping an entire town off the map is very, very serious and has to be considered a major part of the plot.

Speaking of Bond and Ellen, I wonder how they're going to get their message through Tristan's thick skull. That guy's...wow. What a moron.

I found your explaination of why Lost Tower has the fog to be very realistic. Those poor Drifloon and Drifblim...

Now that my review is done, I would like to take the time to wish you a very happy holiday (if you celebrate them; if not, I'll wish you a happy winter season) and an especially happy New Year's Eve and Day.

Sincerely,

Mem.

With my entry for the Holiday Hop's writing competition finished and submitted, I finally have time to respond to your post. Firstly, thanks for still reading; I've been very bad at updating this story, mostly due to extreme business but partly due to laziness as well. I'll have a new chapter up in the next couple of days - maybe tomorrow, as a New Year's Day present thing.

Anyway, I'm glad you like the Driftenburg. In the next chapter, we finally meet it, which is going to be fun to write; I realise that this story took a while to properly get going, but I can tell from the way I've started to stay up late at night, excited by possible plotlines, that I've finally got into it.

As for Liza, I won't tell you everything about her - but you aren't a million miles from the truth. Darkling Town is not forgotten; we'll learn more about it in due course.

Thanks for your season's greetings, and I'll return them to you (slightly late, given that today's New Year's Eve and Christmas is long since past) twofold, since you're the only regular responder to this story.

Anyway, I must away; there are things to write, and Christmas biscuits to be eaten.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
January 2nd, 2012, 12:35 PM
Chapter Eighteen: In Which Pearl Has a Close Encounter of the Spectral Kind

'I met a most singular man to-day, a detective who works under the name of the Diamond. I believe he learned his trade from Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the renowned consulting detective. However, none of this is half so peculiar as what he has shown himself to be capable of today. It took five of the Gym Leaders and two Elite Four members to suppress him, and he was brought to me so firmly imprisoned that his bonds could have held back an army of demons. Within five minutes, he was loose again, and in the end we had to take exceedingly drastic measures to secure him, the likes of which would doubtless have killed any other man. Whatever he is, I am quite certain that this man cannot be human, and though I fear what he might do, I am eager for him to calm down, that I might question him and find out precisely what he is and from where he came.'
— Allegra Fairfax, private diaries

We were about half an hour out of Hearthome when Iago threw up.

It was very abrupt: he wound down the window, stuck his head out and vomited an impressively large stream of greenish fluid in a line down the road.

“Jesus—!” I jerked away from him reflexively, hunching up against the window. “Iago? Are you all right?”

“It's the Driftenburg,” replied Ashley distantly. “He can feel it.”

Iago flopped back into his seat and wiped sick from his moustaches.

“Christ,” he moaned. “Every damn time...”

“What? What's happening?” I asked. Things were rapidly getting very confusing, and quite foul-smelling with it.

“He's a Psychic type,” said Catherine. “They're weak to the Ghost type – and they can sense them when they're nearby, too.”

“However,” continued Ashley, “such is the strength of the Driftenburg that he can not only sense it from miles off but is also seriously disturbed by it.”

“Disturbed doesn't sodding cover it,” groaned Iago. “Aauugh... Stop the car!”

“No,” replied Catherine. “We've delayed enough already.”

“I'll die—!”

“No, you won't,” interrupted Ashley calmly. “Not unless you walk right into the mist. You just feel sick.”

Iago howled wildly and clutched at his temples; I regarded him uneasily.

“Er, maybe we ought to stop—”

“No,” said Catherine. “The Driftenburg's probably filled half the tower by now. When it leaks out even a little bit, it breaks the doors right open with the pressure and rushes out.”

Iago fumbled in the depths of his tail, and drew out an odd joint and a lighter; the way he was shaking, it was a miracle he managed to bring them together, but he did, and stuck the lit cigarette between his teeth.

“Hey, you can't smoke in here,” began Catherine, but Ashley waved her into silence.

“It'll calm him down,” he said. “Which should make for a quieter journey.”

“Cal!” screeched Iago, thumping as hard as he could on the seat and not even making a dent. “My head's going to explode!”

I wondered whether I could edge any further away from him, and decided in the end that I couldn't; I'd run out of room.

“Inhale,” Ashley advised. “Get those toxic fumes inside you.”

“Sod off,” growled Iago. “Can't – why doesn't this hurt you?” He leaned forwards as far as he could, thrusting his muzzle into Ashley's ear, and shrieked: “Why doesn't it hurt you? I know it should, it should burn your sodding brains out, but—”

“I'm human, Iago,” answered Ashley patiently. “Whatever happens to me, I'm still human. That's why it doesn't hurt.”

“I hate you,” snarled the Kadabra, and, flinging himself back into his seat, took a furious drag on his joint. “I hate you, even if you do smell like jealousy...”

“That'll be the odd kicking in,” said Ashley, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “One of the few times the vile stuff has its uses.”

I shook my head. This was getting seriously surreal.

Within a minute or two, the car was almost entirely full of sweet smoke, and Catherine and I wound down our respective windows to avoid getting stoned ourselves. Ashley didn't seem to mind too much; he appeared to have retreated into that strange trance state I'd seen him in on the bus.

“Pearl,” whispered Iago into my ear, sounding vaguely scared, “I don't want to alarm you, but I think I'm dead. Do you think I'm right?”

“I think I preferred it when you were just in pain,” I sighed.

“Your hair is really blue,” he said frankly, picking up a lock and staring at it, open-mouthed. “Did you know that?”

“Yes. Yes I did.”

At that point, another spasm of pain gripped him, and he curled up into a ball on his seat, whimpering about the ceiling coming down to crush him. I wondered if this meant we were close, and looked out of the window to see a side road signposted 'Lost Tower 4 miles', and Catherine bringing the car onto it. We were getting close, and looking ahead, I thought I could make out a dark shape further down the road. My breath caught in my throat; was this the Driftenburg...?

When we got closer, it turned out just to be a stopped car, but that in itself was cause for worry, because there was no one in it.

“Damn it!” Catherine slammed her foot down on the brakes, and turned to scowl at Ashley. “See what you've done with your delays? We've probably lost someone already!”

Ashley frowned.

“There's something wrong here,” he said. “The Driftenburg doesn't retreat after killing someone, it keeps on spreading – which means that whoever this car belongs to stopped it of their own accord and went ahead on foot.”

“But it's in the middle of the road,” I pointed out. “Who'd leave their car there?”

“Ashley's right,” said Catherine slowly. “If you were being eaten while you were driving, what would you do? You'd brake reflexively, or try and drive away – either way, the car would probably crash.”

“Or at the very least, it would come to a halt at some angle other than perfectly parallel with the road,” Ashley added. “Quite right, Catherine. Let's take that to the logical next step, shall we? Pearl, it's your turn to answer a question: why would someone stop their car and get out?”

“Uh... they wouldn't run away from the Driftenburg, because they'd get away faster if they drove, so... they were going towards it?”

“That's right,” replied Ashley. “Which can only mean one thing.” He opened his door and got out. “Someone's interfering with the Driftenburg.”

“Cal!” cried Catherine, thumping the steering wheel. “This is turning into a total disaster.” She took off her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes furiously, then got out and slammed her door shut. “Pearl!” she snapped, turning around. “Stay here and keep an eye on Iago. We'll be back soon.”

I looked at Iago, who looked back, smiled slyly and told me that he was in agony beyond all human comprehension.

“Can't I come with you?” I asked.

“We can't leave him on his own,” Ashley replied. “He's stoned and sick from the Ghosts. Don't worry, we'll be back soon.”

With that, he turned and walked away down the road. Catherine at least gave me another look, even if it was hidden behind her sunglasses, and then followed him.

“God,” said Iago, leaning back and staring upwards. “Pain is really something, you know? It's just so – so painful, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It is, isn't it?”

In a couple of minutes, Ashley and Catherine were out of sight, and I turned to speak to Iago again.

“Back in a minute,” I said, opening the door. “I'm going out.”

“If you see a fishmonger's, can you buy me some crabs? I really want some crabs.” Iago licked his fangs. “Actually, make that langoustines. No, prawns. No – well, something with a shell that lives in the sea, all right?”

“Shellfish? Uh, got it,” I replied as I got out. “If I see some, I'll get it for you.”

“Thanks, Pearl. You're the – well, not the best, but you're pretty good.” Then he started screaming again, so I shut the door on him and walked off in the direction the others had taken. Maybe Ashley had forgotten, but I hadn't: I still had things to find out about him, and following him on his secret League business seemed a pretty good way to find out.

---

“Bond, what are we going to do now?” asked Ellen. “He can't hear us, and I'm afraid I think he might be—”

“An idiot, madam?”

“Well, yes, Bond. An idiot.”

They were sitting on the sofa on the other side of the lounge; they had swiftly grown tired of listening to Tristan's ramblings, and had wandered off to think of a new plan. After a while, he had noticed that they had disappeared and, thinking that they had dematerialised or some such ghostly thing, he had got up and left.

Now they were alone, and neither of the ghosts of Wickham Manor really knew what they should do next.

“Perhaps we ought to ask that Duskull, madam,” suggested Bond. “He might have an idea.”

“He might,” agreed Ellen, “but he said he never wanted to see us again when we got here – that was why he left.”

“Ah,” said Bond, thinking that if only he had the ability to talk to Ghosts and not Ellen, he might have managed to get something done. “Did he perhaps leave his address, madam?”

“No.”

“Any means of contact at all?”

“Well, we could always ask Mans to talk to him again,” said Ellen, “but I rather think that Pigzie Doodle wouldn't answer.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “It was probably because we didn't know anything. He didn't seem to like that – which I thought was very unreasonable of him,” she added petulantly.

“Indeed, madam,” replied Bond, though he knew exactly how the Duskull must feel. “In that case, might I suggest we do a little research?” He tapped Ellen's books, which he had been carrying with him all this time and of which he was thoroughly sick.

“Research?”

“Yes, madam. Research – into ghosts.”

“Whatever do you mean, Bond?” asked Ellen, puzzled.

“There are a great many stories that mention ghosts moving things around or possessing people to speak through them,” he explained. “If we can see if there is any truth behind these, and how we might perform them—”

“—then we might be able to talk to Tristan!” exclaimed Ellen excitedly. “Bond, how clever!”

“I try,” replied the servant with estimable modesty. “Besides, what sort of butler would I be if I could not even come up with such a simple plan as that?”

And so saying, he stood up and conducted Ellen out of the hotel and off in search of a public library.

---

I could see the fog from here.

Ashley and Catherine had been fairly easy to follow; they hadn't got too far before I'd seen them, and I'd kept pace fifty metres behind them without them noticing. I had stuck to the edge of the road, where the trees grew close to the barrier rail, and in their shadow I was reasonably well hidden.

“Do you need any help?” asked Catherine. “Should I get my Misdreavus?”

“I don't think so,” replied Ashley, staring into the mist. It was dense and grey, and seemed almost a tangible object; it resembled nothing so much a twenty-foot concrete wall. “All right,” he said, addressing the fog. “Go back now, or I'll have to make you go back, and you won't like that.”

The surface of the fog suddenly began to boil; I started, and a strong wind whipped up out of nowhere, blasting outwards from the wall of mist. My hair was instantly ruined and I held it in place as best I could while still trying to concentrate on what Ashley was doing. All at once, a series of images and sounds flickered through my head: screams, thunder, a blue door, grass rippling in the wind, a man passing through a gate, half an orange, an eerie whistle...

“Stop complaining,” said Ashley dispassionately, and the mental slideshow ceased abruptly. “Now get back in the cellar, or I'll start torturing you.”

The Driftenburg boiled more furiously than ever, its surface rippling and twisting as if two monsters were fighting just beneath it, but it obeyed: slowly, it began to withdraw through the silent forest, shrinking back foot by foot across the leaf litter.

“That's better,” said Ashley. “Now—”

Suddenly, the Driftenburg lunged forwards, punching forwards in one powerful tendril towards Ashley's head—

—only to stop dead a few inches before it, as if it had hit an invisible wall. I couldn't see Ashley's face, but I would have bet anything that right then his eyes were burning yellow.

“I told you to go back,” he said, and the same awful transformation had come over his voice as had in the Galactic building: deeper, harsher, and accented in a way that indicated he didn't properly know how his own mouth worked.

Catherine swore and backed away from him, hand on the Poké Ball at her belt; obviously, she knew what this was, and feared it.

“Ashley!” she cried. “Calm down!”

“I am perfectly calm,” replied Ashley, still not looking at her. In front of him, the Driftenburg quivered, little waves of it trying to pull away and retreat – but it was locked in place, incapable of moving. I stared in horrified fascination; what the hell was going on? What was Ashley doing, and how? “I just think this foolish creature needs to learn the error of its ways.”

What happened next was indescribable; there wasn't actually much to see. The wall of fog began to shake, its outlines blurring as every molecule of it tried to pull away from Ashley and was drawn back by some irresistible power. That was all that I could see – but it wasn't even the half of it.

The Driftenburg screamed, and everyone in East Sinnoh must have heard it: it tore through my head like a bullet, shedding images of blood and pain at random. I saw a howling fox, its leg caught in a trap; a screeching monkey in the grip of a Braviary; a child with a round red hole where its face should have been, lying on a barren clifftop...

I must have screamed myself. I don't remember, but it seems impossible that I didn't. My mind was on fire, memories and thoughts burning in an all-consuming heat; I dimly recall falling over without even trying to stop myself, and landing hard enough on my face to draw blood, as I later found out.

“Ashley!” shrieked Catherine. “Stop! I order you to stop!”

“Why?” he asked, and his voice seemed to issue from every point in space at once, a fearsome cacophony of misaligned syllables. “It must learn.”

“For one, you're killing your assistant!”

“Pearl?” Ashley sounded very far away. “She is... exceptionally bad at spying.” He sighed, and his breath whirled about the forest like a tornado. “I shall stop,” he said reluctantly, and all at once the Driftenburg's screams died away, down to a low moan. “Will you go back now?” he asked, and I sensed the big Ghost leave – very, very quickly.

It was about then that I came properly to my senses, and sat up. My face felt wet and tasted salty; I touched it, and saw blood and tears on my fingertips.

“Oh God,” I whispered, drawing in a deep, shuddering breath. “Oh God.”
A shadow fell over me, and I looked up to see Ashley standing there, holding out a hand and looking very normal.

“Pearl,” he said softly, “this really wasn't a very good idea on your part.”

I felt tears gathering at the corners of my eyes again; I blinked furiously, trying to get rid of them, but there was no stopping them and they ran freely down my cheeks.

“Oh,” said Ashley. “No, don't cry. You're just in a mild state of psionic shock. It'll fade in a moment.” He took my hand and pulled me up; instinctively, I leaned into his chest, burying my face in his shoulder. “Ah,” he said, sounding vaguely uncomfortable. “Um – I haven't done this in a while. Er, there there.”

He patted my shoulder uncertainly, and gently peeled me off him. I sniffed deeply, pulled myself together and wiped my eyes.

“Sorry,” I managed to say. “It was – well, sorry.”

“Yes, weaker minds than mine find it hard to take the Driftenburg's voice,” he said thoughtfully. “I suppose I should have considered that, but when I... do that, I tend to get a little carried away.” He paused, perhaps thinking of some time when he'd got too carried away. “It usually ends badly.”

“You don't say.” I pulled away from him, and felt my nose, satisfying myself it wasn't broken. Then, this necessity over with, I looked Ashley square in the eyes – the normal, grey eyes. “Ashley, what are you?”

“I'm a detective,” he replied. “Isn't that enough for any one man?”

“Stop being cryptic, Ashley,” said Catherine, coming over with a certain weariness in her step. “That's one of the reasons people hate you so much.”

He raised his eyebrows and turned away.

“Very well,” he said. “Go back to the car; I need to go to the Tower and check that the Driftenburg is doing as it's told.”

With that, he stalked off to the Lost Tower. I think Catherine might have offended him. After all, wasn't it a detective's prerogative to be cryptic?

---

“Pearl!” cried Iago. “What the hell did you think you were doing, leaving a stoned, ghostsick Kadabra on his own in a car? I could have died!”

“I'm happy to see you too,” I said, dropping back to my seat and sighing. “How are you still conscious? I'd have thought your skull would've exploded when the Driftenburg screamed.”

He looked puzzled.

“It screamed? I didn't hear anything.”

“Well, it was sort of in your head—”

Iago threw up his hands in exasperation.

“That's it, then. Obviously I wouldn't have heard it – I have no psychic powers, not even enough to hear something like that.”

“But I heard it, and I'm not psychic,” I pointed out.

“Hum. OK, I'll give you that,” Iago said grudgingly. “Fine, I guess I was just too stoned to notice – which is sort of what I was aiming for, so that's really not such a bad thing.”

A moment later, Catherine got back into the driver's seat.

“Damn,” she said. “Iago, how d'you stand that guy?”

“Ah. He released?”

“Not fully. But even so... he's terrifying.”

“Yeah, I know.” Iago shook his head. “Have you seen the photographs of Darkling Town?”

“No...?”

“Don't. You'll have nightmares.”

Darkling Town? What was this? I made a mental note to get Stephanie to look that up for me. From the sound of it, it was some place where Ashley had 'released', as Cynthia had put it, on an epic and very scary scale.

Just then, Ashley arrived.

“It's sealed,” he said. “The wax holding the Cleanse Tags in place had broken; I melted it and stuck everything back down.”

“That thing's held in by wax?” I asked. “Isn't that basically asking for trouble?”

“Cleanse Tags don't work if not held by wax,” replied Ashley, as if it were something that everyone should know. “No one knows why.”

“There seem to be a lot of things like that in this country,” I muttered.

“So you fixed it all?” asked Catherine.

“Yes.”

“Good,” she said. “What about that car? Did you pick anything up with your detective skills?”

“A member of a known criminal syndicate,” replied Ashley smoothly. “There were signs of interference at the cellar doors; I would hand the whole case over to your people, but I happen to have a vested interest in this group, so I'll deal with it myself. As long as you have no objections,” he added.

“No, that's just one less thing for me to do. Where can I drop you off?”

“Since you've come this far, do you think you could see your way to dropping us in Solaceon?” asked Iago. “We're going to Veilstone.”

“Fine,” said Catherine. “If it'll get rid of you, it's fine by me.”

And with those less than encouraging words, she put the car into reverse, turned around and drove off back to the motorway.

---

“Have you found anything, madam?” Bond looked around. “Madam?”

It seemed that Ellen was not where he had left her.

“Madam, are you in here?” he asked.

A pale hand rose up over the back of the sofa and gripped it hard; a moment later, the top half of a face joined it.

“Bond,” said Ellen, eyes wide, “I think ghost stories have moved on significantly since I last read any.”

“Is that so, madam?”

Ellen stood up slowly, vaulted over the sofa and went to stand by Bond, all just a little too quickly for it to be convincingly nonchalant.

“I think children nowadays might be a little more, um, jaded than they were in 1939,” she said, as calmly as possible. “I... thought I needed a break.” She smiled up at him weakly. “Did you find anything?”

“There are lots of reports of ghosts being able to possess people, madam,” Bond said, deciding to humour her. “However, there seems to be very little academic literature that takes the possibility of the existence of ghosts seriously, and I couldn't find anything that would tell us how to use any spectral powers we might possess.”

Ellen chewed her lip.

“I suppose we have no choice,” she sighed. “We need to plan this properly – and talk to Mans to see if he knows anyone who might help us.”

“Such as Pigzie Doodle?”

“I'm not sure we'll be seeing him again, Bond,” said Ellen stiffly. “No, we'll have to see if Mans knows anyone else.”

“It would be much faster to ask Pigzie—”

“He never wants to see us again,” Ellen told him. “I think we offended him by existing for too long in the same area as him.”

Bond nodded deeply, to better give the impression that he understood.

“Ah. Of course. I should have known.”

“Well, I wish you'd told me earlier, Bond. Then I might have been able to stop him getting so cross with us.”

“I think, madam, that you would have tried to console Pigzie Doodle, only to find him... inconsolable.”

“Perhaps you're right,” said Ellen. Then: “Now can we leave? I don't like being in the same room as... these books.”

Bond hid a smile – it would hardly be proper for a butler to laugh at his employer – and, taking her by the hand, led her out.

“That's better,” said Ellen, as soon as they were outside the library. “Would you get hold of a motor-car now, please?”

Bond's inner smile disappeared in an instant. Of course. He had to arrange transport.

“Right away, madam,” he said, through gritted teeth. “If you would just care to wait here, I will return momentarily.”

A lesser man might have muttered angry nothings under his breath as he glided away. Bond, needless to say, did not.

Ellen watched him until he turned a corner, and then turned to look at the traffic – only to see a rather familiar shape hovering before her.

Well, well, well, said Pigzie Doodle, trying and failing to cross the stubby protuberances that passed for his arms. Look who's come crawling back.

---

If there is one person who is liable to be overlooked in this chronicle, it is Stephanie Sinistral, loving daughter, excellent student and annoyingly right best friend to Pearl Gideon. We must not forget, however, that it was she and not Pearl who was making the most headway with the investigations, being the one with ready access to a computer and no criminal organisation breathing down her neck.

And so we will take a brief moment to see what she was doing as Pigzie Doodle met with Ellen, as Liza languished in a coffee-house, and as Pearl was driven to Solaceon.

Having some free time, a curious mind and a helpful disposition, Stephanie was seated in front of her computer with a mug of hot chocolate (it was cold that day in Jubilife) and wide eyes. Where Ashley Lacrimére was concerned, the Internet had some very interesting stories to tell.

“In 1891,” she read aloud, “Lacrimére returned to Sinnoh after travels abroad, first alighting on Newmoon Island, at the now-forgotten port of Darkling Town. What happened next is nothing less than the stuff of legend...”

Silent Memento
January 3rd, 2012, 01:20 PM
Shoot, I forgot to mention a grammatical error (I don't know why, but it totally slipped my mind in my last review). It's at the end of the sixteenth chapter, where you use "she" to describe Iago. There's two other errors that I caught in the current chapter:

“Shellfish? Uh, got it,” I replied as I got out. If I see some, I'll
get it for you.”

You need quotation marks at the beginning of the bolded part.

“No, you wont,” interrupted Ashley calmly. “Not unless you walk right into the mist. You just feel sick.”

The "won't" needs an apostrophe.

Otherwise, I didn't catch anything. Now for the characters:

Iago has pretty much solidified his place as my favorite character in this fic (so far). I mean, I know that he's a really horrible Pokemon (you said so yourself on Serebii), but I can't help but be drawn to him. I don't know why, but...ah well.

Bond's really cool. Not only does he have the most awesome name for a butler ever, but he's just so calm and unflappable as well. There's not that many people who could work for Ellen, but Bond, like you said, is not an ordinary person. I also love that you gave the two ghosts in the Eterna mansion some screentime, much like you did with the character that Darren Goodwin is based on (the researcher in Petalburg Woods).

The part with the Driftenburg was awesome, and it's made me believe in my theory about Pearl a lot more because of this reason:

Catherine wasn't nearly as affected by the Driftenburg's scream as Pearl was, and Iago didn't hear it at all. It just makes me think that Pearl is special, much like Ashley and Cyrus are. I really don't know how it is, but that's my theory, and unlike my theory on Zero, I'm sticking to my guns.

And now I'm very interested in what happened at Darkling Town. I'll be waiting patiently for the next chapter, whenever it comes.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
January 4th, 2012, 03:51 AM
Shoot, I forgot to mention a grammatical error (I don't know why, but it totally slipped my mind in my last review). It's at the end of the sixteenth chapter, where you use "she" to describe Iago. There's two other errors that I caught in the current chapter:

Oh yeah. I should have caught those; I suppose it's because my computer went slow and I started typing faster than it could update the screen, so it missed out every few characters. I thought I'd gone back and replaced them all, but obviously I missed some. However, the 'she' for Iago is just a baffling error, probably born of... actually, I don't know. Thanks for pointing them out.

Otherwise, I didn't catch anything. Now for the characters:

Iago has pretty much solidified his place as my favorite character in this fic (so far). I mean, I know that he's a really horrible Pokemon (you said so yourself on Serebii), but I can't help but be drawn to him. I don't know why, but...ah well.

Bond's really cool. Not only does he have the most awesome name for a butler ever, but he's just so calm and unflappable as well. There's not that many people who could work for Ellen, but Bond, like you said, is not an ordinary person. I also love that you gave the two ghosts in the Eterna mansion some screentime, much like you did with the character that Darren Goodwin is based on (the researcher in Petalburg Woods).

The part with the Driftenburg was awesome, and it's made me believe in my theory about Pearl a lot more because of this reason:

Catherine wasn't nearly as affected by the Driftenburg's scream as Pearl was, and Iago didn't hear it at all. It just makes me think that Pearl is special, much like Ashley and Cyrus are. I really don't know how it is, but that's my theory, and unlike my theory on Zero, I'm sticking to my guns.

And now I'm very interested in what happened at Darkling Town. I'll be waiting patiently for the next chapter, whenever it comes.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Well, before you get too comfortable with your theory, don't forget that Catherine works in a building full of Ghosts every day, and Iago was not only further away but had scrambled all of his senses with Oddish leaves. I'm not saying you're wrong, but there are always alternative explanations - which is always good, from my point of view. Especially since this is (loosely speaking) a mystery/detective sort of story.

Bond is very cool. It's because he's from 1939 and a butler: a winning combination. It means I can model him on such butlering greats as P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves or (to a lesser extent) Beach. Also on Kuro****suji's Sebastian Michaelis, even if only a little bit. I also think that if you have a detective story, you can't not have a butler. It's sort of required, isn't it?

He and Ellen, otherwise known as the two ghosts from the Old Chateau, are actually rather important. They don't seem to be yet, but they are. Since they're ghosts, I had to ask myself the question: why? Why are there two ghosts in the Old Chateau, and what's stopping them fully leaving this mortal coil? The answer ended up becoming embedded in the middle of this story, so they got chucked into the melting pot with the rest of the characters.

As for Iago... well, I've made my feelings on him pretty clear. As time goes on, and we get to the point where he does the things that he does, you'll see exactly why I don't like him. The problem is that what he does is so very understandable - but he's still repellent, especially considering the other Kadabra in the story, and therefore what Iago says about human nature. I didn't mean for him to come out that way, but his character sort of made itself without letting me have a go, which means it's now unavoidable.

I now realise that none of that made sense to anyone who hasn't read the next two chapters, so I'll hurry up and write them to illustrate my point.

As ever, thanks for stopping by. It's much appreciated.

EDIT: Also, what's this about Cyrus being special? I'm not going to confirm or deny it, but I'm curious to know where this theory came from.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
January 7th, 2012, 02:24 PM
Chapter Nineteen: In Which There is Pseudo-Science and Philosophy

'Technically, those wanting to visit a Kadabra reserve need a permit, but in practice, the Kadabra let in those who they want to see and no one cares. The ability to read minds gives Kadabra an incredible ability to slice through bureaucracy; if ever one becomes President, the country will probably be four hundred times as efficient. Unfortunately, we'd probably also get a thought police who can actually read your thoughts, which would be utterly terrifying.'
— Simon 'Si' Onix, Si's Guide to Psychic Politics

“But I didn't come crawling back,” pointed out Ellen, puzzled. “You just appeared.”

Pigzie Doodle did something that resembled a barrel roll, which was presumably his way of indicating irrelevance.

You were about to, he said. I just cut out the middle man.

“Are all Ghosts as confusing as you?”

No. Most of them just hate you. There is a certain select group of us, however, founded by a Dusclops in the nineteenth century, who hate you with style. Pigzie Doodle paused. I am a member of that group.

Ellen wondered if she was meant to be impressed, decided that she was and widened her eyes, which seemed to please him.

Finally, I get through to you, he crowed. Excellent. Now, first things first, I need to tell you that I'm not helping you out of compassion.

“I was wondering why you were.”

No, it isn't compassion. He rolled his eye back and forth in a pensive sort of way. I'm even older than you, Ellen Dennel, and Sinnoh is just the latest stop in my grand tour of the world. I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Battleships on fire off the Cape of Good Hope. I watched London burn in the dark, near the Tanhauser Gate. None of those moments will ever be lost in time; they're locked behind this skull, unfading. I will never die. Do you understand how insignificant you and your problems are in comparison?

Ellen did not.

“I do.”

Lying minx. Anyway, the point of my inverted Rutger Hauer homage was to ram home the fact that I am eternal, and despite being a ghost, you are transitory. One day, whatever ties you to this earth will dissolve and you will leave. I will remain. When the world turns to dust, I will be here; when the sun explodes, I'll ride the shockwave to new planets. Do you understand?

If anything, Ellen understood even less.

“I do,” she said again.

You are such a bad liar. The point is... it would be rather magnanimous of me, wouldn't it? To help you, when I could just as easily drift away and leave you to your own helpless devices. But... Pigzie Doodle attempted a shrug. If I were to help... then there might be a place in history for me.

“What? Why would there be a place in history for you?” Ellen was really confused now. What on earth was he talking about?

Do you know what will happen if you contact Tristan Shandy and tell him who Liza Radley is?

“No...”

She will remember, replied Pigzie Doodle simply. She will remember everything. And there will be one almighty fight about it.

Ellen started.

“You mean to say...?”

Exactly, he replied. She lost her memory. I've been keeping an eye on her since she showed up, to tell the truth; I felt her presence right away and wanted to see whether it was time to flee Sinnoh. It seems she doesn't remember much from before last year.

“Then she doesn't—”

Remember killing you all, no. I read about that in the papers, actually. It seemed commendable, cleansing a nice spooky manor of humans – until I realised she'd killed most of the Ghosts as well.

“Do you mind? That was my family!” A mixture of anger and sorrow rose in Ellen's chest, to be swiftly joined by excitement: she hadn't felt so much about her family for many years.

I refuse to apologise on principle. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes: Liza Radley. The point is, if you tell people about her, it will be the final unmasking. People these days are a lot more knowledgeable about her kind than in the olden days. If Liza is revealed for what she really is, then either the people she works for or the Pokémon League – or both, I suppose – will destroy her. And therefore, if I am a part of that process... Pigzie Doodle trailed off.

“You are written into the history books as someone who helped to destroy... whatever she is,” finished Ellen, finally understanding. “I see, I see.”

Yes, replied the Duskull smugly. And that's why I'm helping you. Not for you, not for Sinnoh – but for a place in history, something I can look back on in four hundred years time and boast about to whatever Johnny-come-lately Ghosts are around then.

“Very well,” said Ellen. “We would gratefully accept your help, Pig— Ishmael.”

Well remembered. Now, you want to contact Tristan Shandy, yes?

“That's so, but if we are aiming to defeat her, don't we need to tell someone more important?”

Hey, let's start small, eh? Firstly, my dead little child, there's no way for you to talk to the living.

No way to talk to the living? That couldn't be! There had to be something they could do...

“Can't I write him a note or something?” she asked.

You can try, but something will always stop you, said Pigzie Doodle. The pen will break, the paper will be blown away, the ink will run out... It is a law of the universe that no communication may occur between the living and the dead, and so the universe itself will stop you.

“But we have to tell him!” cried Ellen. “That woman he's with—” She broke off. “Can't you tell him?”

I suppose I could, admitted Pigzie Doodle. But see, there's a little problem with being a Ghost: humans never believe you. They mistrust you on sight, especially Ghosts who feed off them like Duskull. It's the same reason that Wurmple never trust a Starly; they know better than to trust their predator. So, unless you can produce a Ghost that humans respect and love who is willing to work with a cruel and vicious emotivore like myself, we can't use that method to contact them.

“But we really have to find some way—!”

I know, I know, sighed Pigzie Doodle. You feel you have to warn him before he comes to any harm. He paused again. And I can tell you how to do it.

“You can?”

Yes, I can. He sounded very pleased with himself. It's a lovely old-fashioned rule, rooted in ancient magic, or possibly ancient science. It's often difficult to tell them apart if you look at the olden days. Arthur C. Clarke said something similar and yet totally different.

“How?” asked Ellen. “How can we break a law of the universe?”

Where the universe is weak, so are its laws, replied Pigzie Doodle. There is one place in Sinnoh where the fabric of space and time has worn thin from repeated abuse; there, the laws of nature are... more like guidelines.

“There is? Where's that?” asked Ellen eagerly.

I don't know that yet, replied the Duskull, somewhat anticlimactically. But I know how we can find out.

---

“Do you recall that I said I'd found evidence that the man in the car was a member of a known criminal syndicate?”

I thought for a moment. We were walking through Solaceon Town, a nice enough village with aspirations to be something larger and more important; Catherine had dropped us off near the edge, and we were making our way... somewhere. Ashley hadn't actually told me where.

“No,” I replied. “Can we get something to eat?”

“What?”

Ashley appeared to be suffering from selective deafness.

“Can we get something to eat?” I repeated. “I'm really hungry. And you probably are as well,” I added. “Or you should be.”

“I'm with Pearl on this one,” said Iago. “Shocking as it may seem, I'm going to agree with the idiot.”

“You just don't want to go there,” Ashley told him. “You hate it there.”

“Correction: they hate me there.”

“You could stay here—”

“I'm not allowed to leave you alone.”

I watched this curious exchange with a now-familiar feeling of confusion and vague hopelessness, and asked at length:

“What are you talking about?”

“We're going—”

“After lunch,” interrupted Iago, and Ashley glared at him.

“Fine,” he conceded. “After lunch, we're going to Veilstone via the Kadabra reserve on Route 215.”

A faint thrill of excitement and nervousness ran through my stomach.

“The Kadabra reserve? Why?”

“I told you I had East-side friends,” he replied. “I did, however, neglect to mention that they are not actually human.”

“That's... unexpected,” I said. “Uh, can we discuss it over lunch?”

“What is this unnatural obsession with lunch?” wondered Ashley. “Everyone wants it today!”

This was singularly weird, and both Iago and I informed him of it in no uncertain terms.

“Fine!” he snapped. “Find somewhere to eat, and we'll eat – but you're paying, Pearl.”

I was only too glad to, and just a few minutes later we were seated at a table in pleasant little café in a pleasant little square (with a pleasant little fountain) in the pleasant little village that was Solaceon.

“This place is very... pleasant,” said Iago suspiciously. “I'm not sure I like it.”

“It's fine,” I told him.

“Yes, you wanted lunch,” grumbled Ashley. “So you'll eat it and like it.”

The food arrived, and Iago and I set to eating; I'd got something for Ashley, but he still didn't seem interested. I wondered if he'd eaten anything at all since we'd first met.

“As I was saying before lunch so rudely interrupted,” he said, “the man who was in the car left a Galactic uniform by the cellar doors.” He threw a scrap of silver fabric with a stylised G on it onto the table.

“Wait – you're saying Team Galactic let out the Driftenburg?” I asked, fork hovering forgotten an inch from my mouth.

“That's right,” replied Ashley. “And the unfortunate man who actually cracked the seal was devoured for his pains – either that or he ran away naked and without his Pokémon, which seems implausible.”

“He had a Pokémon?”

Ashley fished in his pocket and came up with a ball.

“Yes,” he said indifferently. “I wasn't sure what to do with it.”

“Is it valuable?” asked Iago, eyes lighting up. “I could sell it on...”

That reminded me of the ton of scorpion-demon I had; I looked down at my bag on the floor, and nudged it further away from me with one toe. When Ashley wasn't looking, I'd give that to Iago and see if he could sell it for me – but right now, it was just dangerous.

“We'll see later,” replied Ashley. “I doubt the proprietor of this café would look kindly on me releasing it in here. Anyway, the Galactics released the Driftenburg, presumably to slow us down; if they know the Driftenburg exists, they must also know that I would be called in to stop it, and that I wouldn't fail to do so. It was too much of a coincidence for it to escape just when I reached Hearthome.”

“OK,” I said. “So what does this mean for us?”

“Nothing, really,” Iago told me. “Just that the Galactics know we're going to Veilstone. Also, we should now start assuming that Team Galactic knows everything about Ashley – which is plausible, given that pretty much every single fact about him is written down in the League headquarters, where someone could break in and read it.”

“OK,” I repeated. “Why are we going to the Kadabra reserve? You said your friends could get a search warrant, and Kadabra can't get warrants.”

“Well done,” said Ashley. “Very astute of you. The truth is that the acquaintances I have in Veilstone are not the same acquaintances I have in the reserve. The former are important; the latter are simply likely to have overheard what the Galactics are doing. Kadabra are gossips by nature, sharing their thoughts in common, and the collective mental power of the reserve's inhabitants covers the west side of Veilstone. If we can get any information about what the Galactics are doing that necessitated delaying me at the Lost Tower.”

Damn. How could one brain get so much information out of one car and a discarded silver spacesuit? And more to the point, when was I going to get even half as good as Ashley?

“Are you finished?” asked Ashley, as soon as I'd put the last forkful into my mouth. “Right, we're leaving.”

“Hey, what's the rush—?” Iago began, but Ashley grabbed him by one scrawny wrist and dragged him outside. It was quite entertaining to watch, actually: Iago kept wrenching at Ashley's fingers, and completely failing to dislodge them. I shook my head. It must be hard to be a Kadabra without psychic power; they were more or less completely useless without it.

I threw down a few notes on the table, then rushed out to join them as Iago, claws scoring lines in the pavement, was hauled off around the corner. I ran around and almost tripped over Iago's tail: Ashley had dropped him, and was nowhere to be seen.

“What's up?” I asked.

“Not me, that's for sure,” muttered the Kadabra angrily, and climbed awkwardly to his feet. “Damn it! That was very undignified!”

“You're not really a dignified sort of person,” I pointed out.

“Shut up,” he grumbled.

“Where's Ashley?”

“He went in there,” he said, jerking a clawed thumb at a nearby door. “It's a cab depot.”

“They have a cab depot in Solaceon?”

“Yeah. They do surprisingly good business, actually – they get the people wanting to travel between Hearthome and Veilstone, because the cab firms in the cities charge a hell of a lot for trips outside the city limits.” Iago's eyes suddenly lost their focus. “They have twenty-one staff in total and sixteen cars; their registered Sinnoh business number is 4923787; they're jointly owned by Roy Lamperouge and Steve Plath—”

“Iago?”

“Eh?” He looked at me. “Oh. Sorry. I think I hit my head when Ashley dropped me, and that tends to trigger a burst of memories.”

“Those were pretty specific memories.”

He shrugged.

“Well, I have a pretty specific memory,” he said. “By which I mean it's millions of times better than yours.”

“Yeah, but you can't forget the bad stuff, can you?” I pointed out. “Like when you were conned out of everything.”

“Oh, how wonderfully human,” growled Iago sourly. “I show you a miracle of nature, and you point out its disadvantages just because you can't have it.”

I smiled at him, and he growled at me again; the argument would probably have escalated, but Ashley reappeared just then, and guided us into a taxi that had mysteriously appeared in the road behind us. I supposed that with sixteen cars and not too much business, the firm probably had about five stockpiled at their depot.

“To the fox reserve, yes?” asked the taxi driver. Iago looked like he was about to smite him, but, realising that his smiting would have no effect at all, abandoned it.

“No,” replied Ashley coldly. “To the Kadabra reserve, if you please.”

“All right, if that's how you have it,” said the driver mildly. “But to the reserve?”

“Yes. Stop half a mile before the entrance to let us out, then use a different road to go half a mile after the entrance; wait there, and we'll join you to be taken to Veilstone.”

“How long is this going to take?” asked the driver.

“You'll be paid far more than you deserve,” Ashley told him.

“Oh. That's all right then.”

And he drove off and took us out of Solaceon.

---

“So, Kadabra,” said Ashley, as the countryside flashed by. “Tell me what you know about them, Pearl.”

All right, I thought, challenge accepted. I could talk about Kadabra better than most – they're pretty important in philosophy, and though it often seemed like I didn't, I did actually study that.

“They're all one,” I replied. “They have a belief system that seems a little bit like Taoism, wherein they perceive themselves as being participants in a single stream of life that pervades all members of their species.”

“Well done,” said Iago dryly. “Now do it without quoting the textbook.”

“Leave her alone,” Ashley told him. “I don't mind how she gets the answer, as long as she gets it.” He returned his attention to me and smiled encouragingly. “Go on, Pearl. Tell me more.”

“The key difference is that they believe this life force only fills them,” I said. “Because every single Kadabra, Abra and Alakazam is part of a huge network of psychic connections, they believe that there is only one of them alive, and they therefore have only the bare minimum of individuality.”

“Yeah,” said Iago. “Like you humans are any better, following your fashions and your systems of government and your scientific progress. What's that if not an excuse to give up individuality?”

“Ignore him. If he speaks again, I shall quell him.”

This was apparently a serious threat, and Iago shut up.

“Kadabra sincerely believe Alakazam to be the most perfect organism in existence, being a higher form of Kadabra,” I said. “I say 'organism' because, like I said, they believe there's only one of them. Consequently, they've never had a good relationship with humans, and there've been quite a lot of wars between them and us.”

“Which we won,” pointed out Iago, unable to contain himself, and Ashley stared at him so intensely and for so long that his triangular eyes almost retreated into his skull in fright.

“Carry on,” Ashley said.

“Which the Kadabra did indeed win,” I conceded, “and so kept the humans out of their ancestral homelands until the invention of machine-guns, which fired consecutive bullets so rapidly that they couldn't block them all with their minds, and later flamethrowers, which fired fire with the same effect.”

Iago pouted.

“There were a few genocides and a really nasty period of slavery and oppression and such, and then, when more enlightened times came around, a lot of Kadabra tribes were given their old land back, where they're allowed to live mostly unmolested.”

“You know more than I expected,” Ashley said. “Perhaps it's all that food; I ought to feed you more often.”

“I also know that Kadabra eat mainly meat and that most of them are allergic to gluten,” I added helpfully.

“Yes, that'll do,” he said. “What do you know about Kadabra social gestures?”

“Er... nothing,” I admitted.

He sighed.

“Oh well. So much for your philosophy, Pearl; it seems there are things in heaven and earth not dreamt of in it.”

“Is that a joke?” I asked, not quite daring to believe it.

“It was a good one when I first thought of it,” Ashley said gloomily. “But times have moved on, it seems. When you meet the Kadabra, don't try and shake their hands, keep looking them dead in the eye, and let them speak first. If they offer you anything, accept it with gratitude. If the Abra want to play with you, don't let them. Even if you can, don't try and hide anything in your mind from them. Most importantly, don't pretend to be sorry for all humans have done to them, don't pity them, and try not to lie.” Ashley looked grave. “Humans lie in everything they do: they phrase things to imply something other than what happened, or to spare someone's feelings; the way they dress or the way they stand are all part of a desire to project a certain image. It's anathema to Kadabra; they can neither lie nor be lied to, so they prize truth.”

I looked down at myself. Ashley had carefully chosen these clothes so that I'd like them – but I was willing to bet that Kadabra were less fond of expensive designer jeans and dyed hair than I was.

“Crap,” I said.

“Indeed,” agreed Ashley, raising his eyebrows. “You'll have to try extra-hard, I'm afraid – though at least you aren't wearing any make-up. They hate that.”

The car stopped, and Ashley opened the door.

“Come on,” he said. “Enough discussion; there's work to be done.”

Outside it was raining, and there are few things quite as depressing as a forest in the rain; the ten-minute walk to the reserve was a pretty nasty one. If I had been wearing make-up, it would have been ruined; as it was, my hair turned into wet blue strings and refused to go back. I supposed it was probably better for meeting Kadabra – if the style was all gone, it would be more truthful.

After a while, the trail rounded a sharp corner, and the large wooden gates of the reserve appeared as if by magic before us. There was a large blank plaque atop it, and absolutely no sign of anyone around.

“Is there a bell we can ring or something?” I asked, trying to shelter my head from the rain and failing.

“No,” replied Iago. “They'll hear us thinking and someone will come along to let us in.”

Silence fell again, and while I was waiting I started to worry about the reception we were going to get. I knew Kadabra lived their lives at the speed of thought; they would have heard us by now. They must have noticed me, and decided to make me wait.

“The Kadabra must like you too though, right?” I asked. “I mean – since you are a Kadabra, and you're... well, you're Ashley.”

“No,” replied Ashley.

“Me neither,” said Iago.

My heart sank.

“Oh dear.”

“Admittedly, it's Iago who causes the most problems,” Ashley said. “They don't hate him any more than they hate me, but they're more wary of me, since I could make trouble for them if they irritate me.”

It was at that point that the unmistakeable voice of a Kadabra sounded in my head: slow and laboured from the effort of converting thinkwaves into inefficient words.

Humans. We are Kadabra. Who are you?

“You know who I am, and that is enough to earn our entrance,” replied Ashley; I supposed this was the sort of blunt talking you had to do with Kadabra, but I couldn't help thinking how rude it was. “With me is my attendant, Iago, and a student of philosophy, Pearl Gideon.”

I felt curiosity drip into my skull, and knew it came from the Kadabra.

Philosophy...

For a moment, everything tasted very strongly of cantaloupes – even stronger than cantaloupes themselves – and then the sensation abruptly stopped.

The philosophy of Pearl Gideon is incomplete, partially incoherent and worthless, the Kadabra decided, and I realised with a small jolt that they'd just read my mind. What do you want with us, Diamond?

“I have questions to ask you,” said Ashley. “I would like to ask them inside, so that I and my companions don't get wet.”

Two humans and a demon. The voice paused, the Kadabra presumably mulling it over. You may enter, Diamond.

“Demon?” I asked Ashley in a whisper. “What do they mean, demon?”

“It's interesting,” he replied as the gates swung open, “that you looked at me when they said 'demon', and not Iago.”

Not really knowing what he meant by that, I followed him through the gate, across a little clearing and into one of the four large, dome-shaped buildings that I could see nearby. Cloaked by trees and dead leaves, it was almost invisible; when I got close, I could see it was actually made of cement, which dented the fairyland sort of impression. We passed over a roofed veranda, through a small round door, and ended up in a dimly-lit chamber which was full of Kadabra.

I stopped and stared. I couldn't help it. I must have seen about twenty Kadabra in my whole life up until then – and here were at least double that, all in one place. They sat on low benches in rows, facing inwards towards a central aisle; this aisle lay between us and a dais at the other end, on which three immensely ancient- and sagacious-looking creatures sat, legs crossed and eyes shut. Before each one was a little pot containing a pair of polished silver spoons, and I had no doubt that I was in the presence of a trio of Alakazam.

Three, I thought. All in one place! Most people never even see one. Then: Crap. They'll have heard that. Crap! That too. Aah! Stop thinking!

“Don't stop thinking,” Ashley whispered to me without moving his lips. “You'll come across as a liar.”

Diamond.

The voice was so old, and so slow; it brought with it ideas of glittering clarity, of unparalleled strength, of cold and mines and harsh white light...

“Pearl,” said Ashley softly. “Come back.”

I blinked, and the diamonds disappeared from around me.

“She has never heard Alakazam speak before,” Ashley told the assembled company.

We know, replied the ancient voice. We have seen it already.

I couldn't have said which one the voice came from, but it didn't matter: they were all one, weren't they? Their outlines seemed to blur together before me, and I felt beads of boiling hot sweat break out on my forehead; I wiped them away, blinked hard and willed the blurring away. Listening to these people was much harder than I'd thought it would be.

Diamond. What do you want?

Why didn't they already know, I wondered. Surely they had already read Ashley's mind?

“I want to know what you know about the humans who call themselves Team Galactic,” he said. “They want me dead.”

Your death would not be a loss.

“They also want Iago dead.”

His death would not be a loss.

“They also want Pearl dead.”

Her death would not be a loss.

“Talk about a limited vocabulary,” I muttered under my breath, and then bit my tongue: the Kadabra had probably overheard me thinking that.

“Iago and Pearl would miss their lives, if no one else would,” Ashley replied. “And I intend to see to it that they do not have to.”

The Alakazam and their attendant Kadabra were silent for a while.

You are always so difficult, they said at length. Why are you always so difficult?

“You do not exactly make things easy for me,” he retorted. “Tell me what you know about Galactic.”

Send the man who looks like a Kadabra away. We refuse to speak to him.

“You could broadcast the thought directly to me only—”

You will do it our way.

Ashley turned to Iago.

“Wait on the veranda,” he said, and Iago left without another word.

And the woman, the Alakazam said. The walls seemed to be crawling around me; Ashley turned to me, took one look at my face and asked if he could be excused for a moment. Without waiting for a response, he took my hand and led me from the room; I took one step and almost fell over, and the rest is quite blurry until we joined Iago on the veranda.

“Pearl? Are you all right?” Ashley tipped me backwards gently until my face was in the rain; that did the trick and I snapped back to reality with a jerk.

“Whuh? What – how did we get out here?”

“You had a bad reaction to the telepathy,” Ashley told me. “How do you feel?”

“Like a bubble made of lemon,” I replied, rubbing my head. “Also drunk.”

“I see.” He nodded, as if he really did. “Wait here with Iago. I'll be back soon.”

He went back inside, and I looked over at Iago.

“Seriously, what happened?”

He shrugged.

“You went weird from the telepathy. You're probably just not used to it; don't worry about it.”

“Oh... OK.” There was something else I had to say, something weird that I'd heard while in my trance... ah, that was it. “Iago?”

“Yeah?”

“Why do they call you a man who looks like a Kadabra?”

He was silent for a while, and I began to think he wasn't going to answer; I was just about to apologise for being insensitive when he said:

“Because that's all I am, Pearl.”

I knew something was up even before I'd processed what he'd said. This wasn't his usual tone; this was bleak, and unattractively full of self-pity.

“Kadabra and humans are both – relatively – smart creatures,” Iago went on. “There's just one key difference. Humans have their own minds, and Kadabra share theirs in common.”

“But you can't,” I said softly, seeing it.

“There's a brain cell somewhere in that skull of yours after all,” Iago said. “Yeah, this” – he indicated himself – “is what happens if you're a square peg in a society of round holes. I'm defective and I don't fit and—” He broke off sharply, aware that he was starting to ramble. “Shut up, Pearl,” he said eventually, and took to staring at the rain.

I had no idea what to say to him, and was pretty sure that whatever I did would only make it worse, so I said nothing and looked out at the rain with him. Even if he hated me, even if Iago hated everyone, company might make him feel slightly better. We stayed that way until Ashley returned; when he did, he immediately detected that something was wrong, worked out what it was and told Iago to go on ahead back to the car. Unusually, he obeyed without a word.

“He's really quite pathetic, isn't he?” remarked Ashley, leaning on the veranda railing and watching Iago hurrying away through the driving rain. “Split in two down the middle, with a mind that makes him think like a human but a body unfit to bear his thoughts. Humans discriminate against him for his body, and Kadabra for his mind. It's little wonder that he hates everyone around him. He's not really proud to be a Kadabra; it's just an excuse to dislike humans.”

“That's horrible,” I said. “It's just... God. Isn't there anything—?”

“Don't pity him,” Ashley advised. “Humans are at their worst when driven into a corner, and Iago has been in a corner for a very long time. If there ever was anything but bitterness in him, it's long since rotted away.”

“How can I not pity him?” I asked, starting to get angry. “How can you not pity him?”

“Because if he thought it would benefit him, he would kill you without a second thought,” replied Ashley. “He thinks like a human, yes. But don't make the mistake of thinking that he has the morals of one. He was raised by Kadabra, after all, and they do not understand morality; since they all exist as one organism, they don't need a code of ethics for how they treat one another. Iago has, of course, come into contact with the idea of right and wrong – but he sees it as a construct for the continued functioning of human society rather than an immutable law. For him, there is only what is good for Iago and what is bad for Iago. Someone as amoral and intelligent as him...” Ashley shook his head. “He is dangerous, Pearl. He's entertaining and often funny, but he is a very dangerous creature.”

“I'd kind of already worked that out, Ashley. You know, on account of how he keeps almost murdering me with a knife. It's noticing little details like that that gets you ahead in life.”

“You're angry with me,” observed Ashley. “How odd.”

“I'm not angry, I'm being facetious.”

“It is a very angry sort of facetiousness.” He sighed, took off his glasses and rubbed the raindrops off them. “Come on. Let's go back to the car. I need to tell you and Iago about what I heard from the Alakazam.” He glanced behind us. “Besides, I think they wanted us gone a while ago. The only reason I stayed to talk to you here was to annoy them.”

“Why would you do that?” I asked as we started walking.

“Because, contrary to popular opinion, I do actually have emotions, and one of them is annoyance,” he replied frankly. “The Kadabra and Alakazam are superbly talented at eliciting it from me. They're worse than swans.”

“Swans?”

“I hate swans,” Ashley said. “I can't stand them.”

“What, to eat?”

“No, in general,” he replied. “I don't like geese either. They're very angry birds, and they all seem to hate me in particular.” He shivered. “I was chased for two miles by a goose once.”

I suppressed a grin. Ashley Lacrimére, the great detective, the Diamond, Sinnoh's great national secret, was scared of waterfowl.

“Don't you laugh,” he said, glaring at me and pushing open the gate. “Have you ever fought a swan?”

“No.”

“They're much stronger than you think,” he said darkly. “I've only broken a bone once, Pearl, and it was a swan that did it.”

“Are you looking for sympathy?”

“No,” he said firmly. “I simply wish for you to understand that my fear of swans and geese is wholly rational and rooted in real trauma.”

“I don't think it can be rational,” I said.

“Well, I don't think it's rational to change your entire wardrobe every time the fashion changes,” he countered. “I also don't think it's rational to think that wearing sunglasses and a long coat makes you a detective. And I think it's very irrational to pretend that you don't need glasses to read.”

“Stop stalking me!” I cried.

“I'll stalk whosoever I please,” Ashley replied. “I'm a detective.”

“Aagh! You're so annoying!”

The really annoying thing was that he'd somehow managed to turn a conversation about his inadequacies into one about mine. I hate it when people do that.

“I know,” said Ashley, smiling. “I'm often told that I would be the worst person to be trapped in an elevator with. Although personally I'd find it worse to be trapped in one with you, if only because you would probably get cross enough to punch me eventually.”

“Gah!” That was all I could manage now, and it was a sign that I should probably stop talking before I got worked up into a vengeful fury and did something stupid like kick a tree. I've been down that road before, and it only leads to a broken toe and a night in the Accident and Emergency ward. So I shut up, and we made our way back to the car in silence.

Cutlerine
January 9th, 2012, 12:35 PM
Chapter Nineteen: In Which Little Happens but a Lot is Said

'After Jubilife, Veilstone is the second most important city in Sinnoh. Boasting a hugely successful financial district and the world's oldest suicide booth (a sixty-metre spike-lined pit inside a steel hut), it is far and away the biggest contributor to the Sinnish economy. It also has a long history of meteor showers, and even today there are strike shelters strategically placed around the city.'
—Ordi Nannsevei, The Big Book of Sinnish Cities

“Doesn't it seem to you like ordering their deaths was actually what got them involved?” Cyrus asked the Desk Sitter.

“Perhaps if you had done it as we told you to, things would have gone according to plan,” they replied haughtily.

“Look, I know you're knowledgeable about murder, but you are a little out of touch,” Cyrus pointed out. “When was the last time you killed anyone?”

The Desk Sitter paused.

“It does not change the fact that they are not dead yet.”

“Yes, I'm working on it,” said Cyrus irritably. “Stop needling at me.”

“There is very little else for us to do,” the Desk Sitter told him.

“Well, this trap should work,” Cyrus replied. “I mean, Liza came up with it.”

“Ah yes,” said the Desk Sitter. “That one. We like her.”

“I know.” Cyrus pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned forward on his desk. “But you can't deny that it's the actual order to kill them that got them involved. If they end up stopping us, you'll be to blame.”

“We were told they had to die,” the Desk Sitter said. “We do not fully understand why.”

“That's what makes it hard to see what's going on,” Cyrus replied. “I can only hope this all becomes clearer when we reach the point that the other you came from.”

“It is enough to make anyone confused,” agreed the Desk Sitter. “Even us.”

“You're very arrogant for a hallucination.”

“We are not a hallucination,” said the Desk Sitter indignantly. “We are great and powerful, and humankind has feared us since—”

“Since they first looked out of the cave and saw the eyes looking back out of the dark, yes, I know,” said Cyrus wearily. “You've said it all before.”

“You keep forgetting our fearsomeness.”

“You don't give me a chance to.”

Cyrus and the Desk Sitter glared at each other for a while.

“Well, I'm going to get back to work,” Cyrus said eventually. “Don't bother me.”

“We do not bother. We destroy.”

“Not right now you don't, you lunatic monster,” muttered Cyrus, and went back to his papers.

---

“How's your head now?” asked Ashley.

“Better, thanks,” I replied, vaguely surprised that he'd bothered asking me.

“Good. I thought you might faint in the reserve, and that would have been bad – the background consciousness of the Kadabra would have given you horrific mind-altering nightmares that could well have driven you permanently insane.”

“Really?”

“No, not really,” admitted Ashley.

“Are you going to tell us what the Kadabra told you or not?” asked Iago snappishly.

“All right, all right,” said Ashley mildly. “Calm down. They told me that they haven't been listening out for Galactic, so they don't know much about them – but they did overhear an unusual series of thoughts moving around the city.”

“What do you mean, an unusual series of thoughts?” I asked. “Are they thoughts about unusual things, or what?”

“Thoughts about unusual things in Veilstone? Come on, Pearl, you're smarter than that, aren't you?” asked Iago. “In a big city, people are thinking about all kinds of things, from murder to fraud to any of about four thousand fetishes.”

“All right. So what are unusual thoughts?”

“They were a dialogue,” said Ashley. “A dialogue between Cyrus Maragos and someone else, all taking place within Maragos' head.”

“OK, that is unusual,” I said. “How do they know it was Maragos?”

“Because the other person kept calling him by name,” replied Ashley. “During the course of this dialogue, several references were made to a message that was apparently delivered to the other person, who then passed it on to Maragos.”

“And this message is...?”

“To have the three of us killed,” said Ashley matter-of-factly. “Which means that there is someone beyond Team Galactic who wants us dead, presumably to stop us interfering in the Team's affairs – which means that it must be in their interest to see to it that they succeed.”

“Does that help us at all?”

“What do you say to doing some of the detective work for once?” asked Ashley. “Tell me if that helps us.”

“Uh...” I thought about it. Come on, Pearl, you're a detective now. You can do this! “I guess it means we need to look for who this person is...”

“No, it doesn't help us,” interrupted Iago wearily. “To find this person, we need to find Maragos. Ultimately, everything ends with him.”

“Yes, it does,” agreed Ashley. “It's strange... What I want to know is whether this is the same Cyrus Maragos who gave the speech in Sunyshore – and if so, what changed him from minor politician to criminal mastermind.”

I hadn't made the connection before, but now that Ashley had said it, it was so blindingly obvious that I felt like an idiot for missing it. He'd been in the news, I remembered; there was definitely something weird about him, and there couldn't be that many people named Cyrus Maragos in Sinnoh...

“You think he's the guy we're after?”

“Maybe,” replied Ashley. “Anything is possible, after all.” He looked out of the window. “Ah. It's stopped raining.”

“I hate comments about the weather,” said Iago. “They're so irrelevant. Then again, humans like to busy themselves about inconsistencies, don't they?”

I gave him a look, and he looked back for a minute before glaring at Ashley.

“What did you say to her, you mutant bratchny?”

“I merely enlightened her about the precise differences between Kadabra and humans,” he replied with a little smile. “She was very sympathetic, actually.”

Iago turned his eyes on me, and they blazed with such ferocity that I shrank back in my seat.

“Well, it wasn't sympathy as such,” I began weakly, and trailed off with a nervous laugh.

“Don't you ever—” snarled Iago, but Ashley tapped him on the shoulder.

“Ah, leave her alone,” he said. “She can be very annoying, yes, what with her insistence on eating and coming along with us, but I have to say that Pearl is growing on me. Haven't you noticed that I've stopped being horrible to her?”

“Don't worry, I'll do it enough for both of us—”

“No,” said Ashley sharply. “I like Pearl now, and that means she has my protection. Do I make myself clear?”

Iago muttered something into his moustache and fell silent. Ashley smiled at me over his head, and left me feeling slightly weird for the rest of the journey, though I couldn't have said why.

---

“So, Ishmael,” said Ellen, “how is it that we can find out where this weak point is?”

Following Team Galactic, replied Pigzie Doodle. It's simple. From listening to what Liza says, they're conducting some sort of investigation into space and time – that's where I got the idea of there being a weak spot from.

“You aren't basing this on any factual evidence, then?”

Hell no! cried the Duskull. I made up this whole plan on the spot. But it makes sense, right? If there's a weak spot in the fabric of spacetime, it stands to reason that the laws of nature are weak there, too. And if they're going to find this weak spot, then we can follow them and find it too.

“You made this all up, didn't you?”

Yes I did. Do you know why? Because I'm smart. And hey, here comes Jeeves.

“Who?”

Ellen looked up, confused, and saw a sinister black motor-car coming around the corner, apparently driverless; as it came closer, she could make out the translucent form of Bond at the wheel.

“Madam,” he said, bringing the car to a halt next to her and getting out to open the back door. “Your motor-car.”

“Where did you get it?” asked Ellen. “It looks just like the other one!”

“There is a chain of shops, madam – purveyors of sinister black motor-cars to those of ill intent. They appear to have branches in most major cities. I... acquired... both of the motor-cars from them.”

“Oh. That's all right, then.” Ellen indicated Pigzie Doodle. “Bond, Pigzie Doodle came back!”

Bond looked. Indeed, he said, it seemed that the Duskull had returned. Why, he enquired politely and without the slightest hint of suspicion, was this?

Fortune and glory, kid, said Pigzie Doodle. Fortune and glory. He chuckled, and the energy made his eye bounce up and down inside him. No, but in all seriousness, I'm going to help you guys speak to Tristan Shandy so you can alert everyone to what Liza Radley is, and then I'm going to earn my place in history.

Bond turned to Ellen.

“Madam, what precisely did he say?”

“He knows of a way we can contact Tristan!” And Ellen explained it all to Bond, only she was a little confused by all this 'spacetime' business, and it might have come out a little garbled.

“I see,” said Bond, who, having had things explained to him by Ellen, almost certainly did not. “Most intriguing. In that case, we ought to make our way to Veilstone, should we not? I believe Pigzie Doodle—”

Ishmael! snapped the Duskull furiously.

“—said that they were based there,” continued Bond without pausing, which was understandable since he could not hear him.

Good God, I need to change my name, said Pigzie Doodle dispiritedly. Why on earth haven't I done it already, that's what I want to know. And I suppose my question's never going to be answered. Actually, who named me? And he fell into a pensive silence.

“Yes, I believe that's right, Bond,” said Ellen, getting into the car. “Shall we go, then?”

“Naturally, madam,” replied Bond, shutting the door behind her and returning to his seat in the front. “Is our spectral benefactor coming?”

Yeah, yeah, muttered Pigzie Doodle. I'm coming. He drifted in through the roof and came to a rest above the passenger seat. Hit it, Jeeves.

“Did he say something, madam?”

“He said: 'Hit it, Jeeves',” Ellen told him helpfully. “Whatever that might mean.”

“Very good, sir,” Bond said to Pigzie Doodle, who looked at him in an appreciative sort of way.

Now, I like that, he said, and the sinister black motor-car made its sinister way through the darkening streets of Jubilife.

---

On balance, I decided I didn't like Veilstone. OK, so it was huge, full of shops, clubs and some amazing hotels – but it was also full of dust. There was a thin grey layer of the stuff over every street; you'd have thought that all the people walking down each street would have churned it away years ago, but it seemed to cling tenaciously to the ground like a drowning man to a rope. It wouldn't rise into the air and dissipate; it stuck to the soles of your shoes, and to the sides of buildings, but that was as far as it would go. It was like the whole city was painted grey, and it made the place pretty ugly.

“What's with this dust?” I asked, as we left our taxi behind and headed for the nearest subway station. “It won't go away.”

“No, it won't,” agreed Ashley. “No one knows why.”

“That is such a shoddy explanation.”

“Yes, but you can't very well dispute it. It's not as if you know why.”

He had a point; I sighed and tried not to get any dust on my jeans. It probably wouldn't wash out.

“I have a theory that it isn't really dust, but tiny Rock-type Pokémon that resemble granite dust,” Ashley said.

“Really?”

“No, not really,” he said. “Come on, Pearl. You've fallen for exactly the same trick twice this afternoon, and it's not even three yet.”

“Huh. Are we going to the Galactic warehouse you mentioned?” I asked. “The ones your East-side 'acquaintances' told you about?”

“Actually, we're going to see my acquaintances,” Ashley said. “I don't actually know where the warehouse is, and the fastest way of finding it would be to ask them.”

“Some detective.”

“That was wholly uncalled-for,” Ashley said, raising his eyebrows. “I don't have to keep being nice to you, you know. I could go back to treating you like a lobotomised Panpour.”

“What's a Panpour?”

“Something that should never have been born,” Iago replied darkly, which kind of put an end to the conversation.

Ten minutes later, we got to a subway station; as we descended the steps, I asked Ashley why he was taking public transport instead of a taxi, and he replied that he was tired of paying for them. At that point, I pointed out that I'd been paying for them, which he chose to ignore.

The train was quite crowded – which struck me as strange, since it was only three o'clock. Most of the people on board were kids as well, and a lot of them were dressed pretty weirdly. I didn't actually realise the significance of any of this until we got off and went back up above ground to the street, where I saw that we were directly opposite Veilstone City's Pokémon Gym.

Like Eterna's, it was old and belonged to a time before the rest of the city had even been dreamed of; it had once been a watchtower or something, judging by the look of it, and it had been expanded at the base to accommodate the arenas within. That wasn't the main attraction, though – that was the huge crowd of weird-looking kids gathered outside in the street, and the large temporary stage that had been set up in their midst. TV cameras and boom mikes were dotted around, swinging from side to side as if looking for prey; there even seemed to be fencing at points around the street, to keep the traffic out. Whatever was going on, it was planned and it was big.

“What's this?” Ashley wondered. “Oh, I remember – Wake was supposed to visit Marlene for a televised battle today.” He sighed. “How tiresome. I'd better catch her before the fight begins.”

Of course – the odd kids were Trainers. That made sense, given what I'd learned about Trainer fashion sense from Marley.

“A Gym Leader battle?” I asked, interested. “Can't we stay and watch?”

“Well, you can,” he said. “But I have a Galactic warehouse to infiltrate, and I'm not putting that off.”

I would have said more, but at that point I was shoved forwards by a group of Trainers trying to get out of the subway station and almost knocked over.

“I think we need to get out of this crowd,” murmured Ashley, and started to slink off to the left. Iago and I followed close behind, and after a few uncomfortable minutes, we had reached the barrier fence and got out of the crush. We made our way along the edge of the crowd, dodging the occasional surge of excited teenagers, and then along the side of the Gym building; it took far longer than I would have liked, but we did eventually get to the door, whereupon we were immediately stopped by a man who looked like he was strong enough that he had to register his hands as deadly weapons.

“Sorry, guys,” he said. “Gym's closed. Can't you see that?”

“Maylene will make an exception for me,” said Ashley.

“Really.” It was not a question. The big man leaned back and folded meaty arms. “What, you her boyfriend or something?”

Ashley raised an eyebrow, which made me ridiculously envious – I can only lift both at once.

“To be honest, I would have thought you were too busy grieving to come into work today,” he said. “In my experience, jilted lovers tend to be a lot less composed than you are. But then you are composed,” he went on, sounding interested now, “so you either have incredible emotional strength or you didn't care about her, which was rather nasty considering you've been married a year already. Now why wouldn't you care? I suspect an affair – and in fact you're going to take your new lover out today, right after you finish work. I think she'll like it, unless she's allergic to seafood.”

The man stared at him, and so did I. Unless I was very much mistaken, I'd just seen the full power of a true detective at first hand.

“Wha...?”

“Oh, please,” said Ashley, shaking his head. “You make it far too easy. There's a pale band of skin where your wedding ring used to be; since the skin is quite noticeably more tanned, you've obviously been wearing it at least one summer. Now, I'll admit that I guessed at the length of your relationship, but I was fairly certain it would be a year or under; if I recall correctly, 65% of Sinnish marriages currently end in divorce, and 81% of those fall apart within the first eighteen months. In addition to that, you don't seem the sort of man who'd have the intellect to conceal an affair adequately for any length of time.

“I knew you had broken up because the ring was gone and yet you're far too well-turned-out for a martial artist Trainer coming to work at the Gym, even on a day like this. You're wearing an expensive aftershave, your fingernails are freshly cut – you missed the left edge of that one, by the way – and you're also freshly shaven. Finally, and most obviously, you aren't dressed like your colleague over there.” Ashley indicated another massive man over by the stage; he literally towered head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd, and was dressed in that white outfit that martial artists wear. “Why would you be in work and so nicely prepared when you should still be upset over the collapse of your marriage? You must not have cared about your wife at all, so chances are you were having an affair, something that becomes more likely when we consider that the extent of your preparations today indicate that you probably planned to meet with your lover straight after work – which wouldn't leave you time to prepare later.

“As for the seafood, I noticed as we approached the edge of the tickets in your pocket. I can make out the word 'The' and the first letter of the next word, 'C'; the only shows in Veilstone at the moment that begin like that are The Cheese Thief, a play at the Morlow Theatre, and The China Dragon, a ballet at the Dupont. You are clearly not a ballet man, so it's far more likely you're going to the Morlow; The Cheese Thief is also a romantic comedy, ideal for a date. And what do you eat after you've been to the Morlow? You're a Gym Trainer, you don't have enough money to go to an expensive restaurant – and there is an excellent cheap seafood place two streets away from the Morlow that would suit your purpose admirably.”

The big man was still staring, and so was I. I had been hit by a horrible feeling that I was never going to be a good detective.

“You...” He seemed to be struggling for words. “How...”

“I just told you how. Now let me in.”

“Uh... no!” He recovered himself. “You can't come in.”

“Actually, I have an I.D. card here that says I can,” said Iago, holding it up.

“Yes,” said Ashley, far too quickly, “we have I.D. Look.” He grabbed the card off Iago and thrust it at the giant guard. He studied it carefully, suddenly looked very worried and opened the door.

“Right,” he said. “Go on in, sirs, ma'am.”

“Thank you,” said Ashley. “Come, Pearl.”

He swept in through the doorway, and I followed, still in a sort of trance.

“That. Was. Incredible,” I hissed. “Jesus, Ashley, that was like something out of a movie!”

“Yeah, it was also completely pointless,” said Iago, more cynically. “Was that really necessary?”

“I forgot about the I.D.,” Ashley said stiffly. “And it sometimes works. The surprise makes people rather suggestible.”

“Huh? Ashley, is that you?”

“Oh, Lord,” groaned Ashley. “It's Wake.”

Standing before us were the two people who'd be competing in the battle outside, and they could not have been more different: one was the size of a bear and muscled to match, and the other was about eleven, tiny, and skinny as a rake. If my senses hadn't been dulled already by the shock of Ashley's detective power, I'd probably have been almost as shocked as I was when we met Cynthia: these were two of Sinnoh's Gym Leaders, 'Crasher' Wake and Maylene Roberts, and they were both within three feet of me.

“Ashley!” roared Crasher, snatching up his hand in a bone-crushing handshake. “It's been too long – I was beginning to think that you were avoiding me!”

“Yes, I wonder why that is,” said Ashley, withdrawing his hand and shaking it back into shape. “I actually came here to see—”

“And Iago!” cried Crasher, grabbing for the Kadabra's hand and missing; Iago had jumped backwards to avoid having the wrestler break his arm. “I guess it's because you go around with Ashley, but I don't see much of you either.”

“Yeah, blame Ashley,” muttered Iago. “Why don't you meet Pearl?”

Crasher turned to face me, which was actually quite alarming – it was like watching a mountain suddenly rotate on the spot.

“So you're Pearl, eh? I've heard about you!” He lurched towards me, and I stepped to one side before he crushed me. I decided that perhaps I didn't like him quite so much; he wasn't a nasty person, but he seemed to be quite dangerous. “Cynthia doesn't think much of you,” he confided.

“She doesn't?”

“I think she thinks you're trying to st—”

“Crasher!” interrupted Maylene suddenly, in a clear, high voice. “I think Mister Lacrimére is in a hurry, and I'd like to deal with it soon, so we can start our battle on time. Would you like to go outside for a while?”

“Outside?” Crasher considered. “Aha! To entertain the crowd, of course! Leave it to me, Maylene. I am a fabulous warm-up act!” And he strode out, bellowing his famous theme song: “The ring is my roiling seeeaaaaa...!”

The four of us who remained stood still for a moment, savouring the sudden silence. Then Maylene jumped up and wrapped her arms around Ashley's neck.

“Ashley!” she squealed. “You've come!”

Much to my surprise, Ashley smiled and hugged her back.

“Yes, I have,” he said. “Evidently you missed me.”

“Have you brought—”

“Not today,” he said sadly, peeling her off him and setting her back down on the floor. “Another time, yes?”

“OK,” agreed Maylene. “Did you come about the Galactics?”

“Yes.”

“I'll go get the address,” she said, and ran off down a corridor. She looked like a nimble little monkey, all thin limbs and spiky hair. Ashley watched her go for a while, and then turned to see me staring.

“What?” he said. “I like children.”

“I have never seen you show so much affection,” I told him. “What have you done with the real Ashley?”

“No, seriously,” said Iago. “If he wasn't a detective, he could be a children's entertainer. For some reason, they love him, and his massive ego feeds off that.”

“That's not true. I just like them, that's all, and they like me back.”

Maylene came back a moment later holding an envelope.

“This is what my people gave me,” she said. “This is the address.”

“Thanks,” said Ashley, ruffling her hair and taking the envelope from her. “You were right, Maylene, I was in a hurry, so I can't stay today.” Maylene looked disappointed, but nodded understandingly. “But I do have another favour to ask of you.” Ashley indicated the door, through which we could faintly hear the sound of Crasher's singing. “Can we use the back door?”

---

Fifteen minutes later, we were in the heart of Veilstone's industrial district, looking up at one warehouse among a sea of hundreds; here, the dust on the ground had mixed with spilled oil to make a black paste, and there was graffiti on almost every wall you looked at. Ragged cranes rose up in their hundreds from behind the buildings; somehow, they seemed to me to be trying to escape. This was a bleak place, and it wasn't friendly.

It also had a lunatic Frenchman in it, which was something I wasn't expecting and didn't really want.

“Ah, Mademoiselle Gideon!” cried Looker, abandoning his staring at the warehouse and coming over to join us. “And le Diamant!”

“What about me?” asked Iago. “Actually, no, I don't want to talk to you.”

“Monsieur Looker,” said Ashley, smiling. “I suppose your investigation of the Galactics brings you here?”

“Looking for the Galactics, ah, it can only lead me to Mademoiselle Radley,” explained Looker. “But I am not so sure now that this place is, how you say, of any significance.”

Ashley looked interested.

“What makes you say that?”

“Why, monsieur it is completely empty!” said Looker. “There is nothing in there. I can find no secret passage or concealed clues.”

“Nothing at all?” I asked. “There has to be something, right?”

“If there is, I expect le Diamant could find it,” said Looker, casting a reverential glance at Ashley. “If you would thank?”

“Eh? I think you mean 'If you please',” said Ashley. “But yes, I'll take a look. Pearl, you're coming with me.”

“Why?”

“Because I need someone to explain things to as I find them out, and Iago has been in a bad mood since we left the reserve.”

“Why not Looker?” I asked. “He's your number one fan.”

“Yes, why not Looker?” asked Looker eagerly.

“Because he's too eager,” said Ashley. “There's no point if someone agrees with everything I say. I need someone who fights back a little bit – just enough for me to prove them wrong.”

“Oh yeah. That really makes me want to go with— hey, let go of my arm!”

“I am not listening to you right now.”

So saying, Ashley dragged me into the warehouse and slammed the door behind us.

---

Iago and Looker exchanged looks.

“He knows what he is doing, non?” asked Looker.

“How the hell should I know?” replied Iago irritably. “He's Ashley Lacrimére. Half the time he's a genius and half the time he's making stuff up as he goes along.”

“Ah, I see,” said Looker, who, thanks to the language barrier, did not. “Let us hope this is the best of halves!”

Iago stared at him for a moment, tried to decipher what he'd just said and gave up.

---

“Wow,” I said. “Looker was right.”

There really was nothing in here. The warehouse wasn't that big, and even in the gloom we could see clear across to the other sides; there was nothing there. No crates full of suspicious artefacts, no cages full of unevolved Pokémon, no gigantic van-based batteries... Nothing that seemed connected with Team Galactic at all. In fact, nothing period. This place was empty.

“Oh.” Ashley looked around. “Ah. Pearl, I'm sorry.”

“What? Why?”

“This is a trap.”

“What? How can you tell?”

“When I walk into a room and the door locks behind me, it usually indicates a trap.”

“The door what?”

I turned around and wrenched at the handle – but Ashley was right. It was stuck fast.

“What do we do?” I asked, trying not to hyperventilate. “What do we do? Is there going to be nerve gas? People with guns? A giant, angry Pokémon? Will they flood the place? Oh God, they're going to flood the place, aren't they? Drowning sounds like such a painful way to go—!”

“Pearl!” snapped Ashley. “Shut up!”

I did. He grabbed my shoulders and looked at me very intently; far away in the back of my head, a little voice told me that life was finally turning into a movie, and that I'd seen this exact scene in the cinema a few weeks ago.

“Listen very carefully,” he said. “I shall say this only once. You're not going to die, Pearl. Do you remember what I said in Hearthome? The reason I've let you come with me is so that you don't get hurt. I can guarantee that whatever is in this room, I can protect you from it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really,” snapped Ashley. “My God, this is like trying to talk to a stuffed animal.”

“Sorry.”

“Now, as to your earlier question...” Ashley let go of me and cast his gaze across the room. “This warehouse is definitely smaller on the inside than it is on the outside, which allows for the possibility of hidden compartments in the walls and ceiling. Look up at those ventilation ducts there: they're abnormally large. This can only be one sort of trap.”

“What is it?” I asked, noticing for the first time a low, booming droning. It had been there all along, I realised, but now it was getting louder, as if something were coming closer—

“A honeytrap,” said Ashley, and the bees arrived.

Silent Memento
January 11th, 2012, 06:57 PM
...I ought to get off my lazy arse more often and actually type out a good review before two chapters go by. I'm truly sorry about not doing that.

I just noticed that you had a new chapter up, but I'll go through the first one beforehand:

I (platonically) love Ishmael a whole lot. Honestly, he's even more of a jerk toward Ellen than Puck was to Kester, which shocks me. Maybe that's why I have such strong feelings toward the guy; I love the characters that you just want to strangle and hug at the same time (Agent Washington).

Anyway, there were a few typos where you spelled Maylene's name as "Marlene", but otherwise, I can't see anything.

I find your idea of the Kadabra society to be rather intruguing, although I find it confusing that they couldn't stop machine-guns with a single Barrier; I thought they had that in their arsenal of attacks. It also explains why Iago is so...fractured. I know he'll kill me for this, but I really do feel bad for him.

Much like Pearl, I was stunned at Ashley's astute observations of the jerk who cheated on his dying wife. It was almost eerie to see him dissect the information he had so effortlessly. Of course, he's had years of experience and has met with Holmes and Watson, so it makes a lot of sense for him to be such a great detective.

I wonder what kind of Pokemon is in the Pokeball of the now-deceased man sent to release the Driftenburg. It's probably not that important, but it is a rather interesting detail.

I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to cut the review short. I posted the damn thing while I was distracted and hit the wrong button. I guess that's life, huh?

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
January 13th, 2012, 01:15 PM
...I ought to get off my lazy arse more often and actually type out a good review before two chapters go by. I'm truly sorry about not doing that.

I don't mind. It is nice, I'll grant you that, but you're under no obligation to. Unless, of course, you object to the imaginary kitten I drown every time a chapter gets no response.*

I (platonically) love Ishmael a whole lot. Honestly, he's even more of a jerk toward Ellen than Puck was to Kester, which shocks me. Maybe that's why I have such strong feelings toward the guy; I love the characters that you just want to strangle and hug at the same time (Agent Washington).

Ishmael is great; I like him a lot. He's not nearly as nasty as Iago, and almost as much fun to write as Puck was. In fact, he complements Puck rather nicely, being a spirit of Olden Times to Puck's Now Generation - something that has hidden significance.

Anyway, there were a few typos where you spelled Maylene's name as "Marlene", but otherwise, I can't see anything.

I didn't get them all? Damn. I can't stop writing 'Marlene' for some reason. It really bugs me.

I find your idea of the Kadabra society to be rather intruguing, although I find it confusing that they couldn't stop machine-guns with a single Barrier; I thought they had that in their arsenal of attacks. It also explains why Iago is so...fractured. I know he'll kill me for this, but I really do feel bad for him.

I suspect that a few high-power bullets break a Barrier, and the next few tend to hit the Kadabra creating it before they can make another. Besides, I had to think of some reason why Kadabra wouldn't have become the dominant race in the Pokémon world - a most inconvenient oversight on the part of the game designers.

Yes, Iago is a piteous creature, doomed to think like a human. I'd feel bad for him too if I didn't know what was coming up with him.

Much like Pearl, I was stunned at Ashley's astute observations of the jerk who cheated on his dying wife. It was almost eerie to see him dissect the information he had so effortlessly. Of course, he's had years of experience and has met with Holmes and Watson, so it makes a lot of sense for him to be such a great detective.

Er, the wife wasn't dying. Ashley says that he's a 'jilted lover' and that they broke up; I'm not sure where you got the idea of the wife dying from. The guy was a jerk, but probably not that big a jerk.

As regards Ashley's powers of detection, I wrote that literally immediately after watching last week's episode of Sherlock, which explains it. It was very fun to write; I'm going to have to include more Holmesian bits like that.

I wonder what kind of Pokemon is in the Pokeball of the now-deceased man sent to release the Driftenburg. It's probably not that important, but it is a rather interesting detail.

Yes, it probably isn't important. At all. This is not a hint.

Anyway, I've had the next chapter all written up for a couple of days now, and I really must get around to posting it. Thanks for the response, and know that you'll be rewarded with the most revealing chapter yet.

F.A.B.

*No animals were harmed during the posting of this message.

Cutlerine
January 13th, 2012, 02:14 PM
Chapter Twenty: In Which Bees Hate You

'Combee (Frendomelissa dimorphus), like Miltank, is a tricky creature to keep. It seems that the danger posed by Pokémon increases in time with its usefulness to humanity, for Combee are both producers of the world's best honey and the greatest misogynist threat the world has ever seen. If you live in Sinnoh, it is likely you already know what I mean; if not, I shall explain. Female Combee eventually evolve to the hive organism and aerial honey-factory Vespiquen, which occupies a place of particular power in the Sinnish ecosystem; male Combee do not evolve, and leave the hives as soon as they are born to join swarms of other males. These swarms are driven by a unifying hatred for females and the power they wield, and roam the land in an attempt to kill every female organism on the planet.'

—Coriolanus Rowland, Coriolanus Rowland's Guide to Pokémon Husbandry

“Male Combee,” said Ashley, stepping in front of me with his eyes fixed on the vent. “Stay out of sight, Pearl; we may be able to avoid confrontation.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, panic rising in me. “Ashley, what do you—”

“Ssh!” he said sharply. “Male Combee are resentful of females, because female Combee evolve into Vespiquen and they don't. If they see any female organism at all, they'll kill them – but as long as they don't notice you, they won't attack.”

The bees spread out across the ceiling; they were each like fragments of honeycomb, with multiple faces and intimidatingly large stings. Their wings thrummed and their mouthparts clicked, and each of them bore three identical creepy little smiles.

“It was a clever plan,” Ashley admitted. “Lure us here by letting Maylene find out about the warehouse, then send in bees – you're a woman, so they'll attack, I'll defend you and so they kill me too.”

“I'm not being reassured!” I hissed in his ear. “Ashley, reassure me!”

The bees kept on coming; it seemed like most of the warehouse was a solid mess of sticky honeycomb and insectoid legs. Their relentless buzzing vibrated right through me, setting my teeth humming in their sockets and my stomach jumping, and I knew that in a moment, they would notice I was a woman and go on the offensive.

“Neither of us will die,” Ashley said calmly. “The only difficulty is that I daren't break down the door, since that will release them, and in all honesty I'd rather keep them contained so that as few people get hurt as—”

“Ashley!”

I'd seen it. Just one Combee, that happened to fly a little closer than the others; one Combee, that caught a glimpse of something blue behind Ashley's shoulder; one Combee, that saw a pale heart-shaped face and had a bolt of red lightning shoot through its head. I saw its tiny smiling faces each suddenly turn sour, its little eyes pop with rage, and its mouths open in three hideous snarls.

The next moment, the bees were on us.

They flew forward in a great curl, spiralling like a hunting Fearow, those inch-long stings all zooming towards my face in one great blood-curdling rush of terror—

—and then something pushed me to the floor and I heard a series of soft thumps as the Combee thudded harmlessly into something that definitely wasn't my head. I opened my eyes cautiously and found my field of vision blocked by what appeared to be a shield made of paper.

“What the hell?” I murmured, halfway between stunned and amazed, and was about to sit up when a strong hand pressed me back down.

“Stay there,” said Ashley – and his voice was, while not as distorted as it usually was when he released, slightly different; it was as if someone were doing an impression of him that was just half an accent off. “Don't move.”

The papery shield whipped away from me, and I saw that it wasn't paper, it was skin, and it was attached to Ashley's shoulder where his arm usually was, exploding through the sleeve of his shirt and his coat and spreading out into a huge, flat blade. The Combee wheeled away from us, buzzing in alarm at this new and alien threat; a few of them flew towards Ashley, stings out, but he whipped his shield between him and them so fast that my eyes could barely catch the movement. The ensuing gust of air blew half of them away, and the rest embedded their stings harmlessly in what had once been his arm.

“Damn!” he cried. “I can't stop their stings if they hit dead-on... How much venom is that?”

“What the hell!” I shrieked, staring at him as he turned and swept away another attacking cloud of bees; these hit his shield at an angle, and ricocheted away to crash into each other and the floor. Where they impacted, they cracked and let out streams of honey, gluing themselves to the floor.

“Shut up, I'm busy saving your life!” roared Ashley, eyes burning yellow; bees whirled around him, and his right arm shot out and expanded into a second shield-blade. One half of the swarm crashed into the left arm, and the other into the right; he flexed his shoulders, and the bees fell away in waves. Honey splattered across the concrete and over my jeans; so deep in shock was I that I didn't even notice the stains. Ashley was shifting shape in order to do battle with a swarm of three-headed bees right in front of me. That kind of took precedence over everything else.

Deciding Ashley was too strong, the Combee darted past him and towards me instead – but he turned and slammed his two shield-blades into the wall and floor either side of me, curling over the edges to enclose me completely within a shell of pale, flawless skin.

Damn, I thought distractedly. Wish my skin was as good as his.

No sooner had I thought this than the two shields tore away from me, leaving deep grooves in the walls where their edges had struck home; mashed wings and honey flew away to either side and spattered across the floor.

“Come on!” shouted Ashley, staring around at the bees with a wild look in his eyes. “You want me, not her!”

The Combee were not in agreement, and they dived towards me again, stings outstretched – but they thumped harmlessly into the flesh of Ashley's arm as it blurred back into position to cover my face.

“Ugh. This toxin appears to be powerfully psychotropic,” he muttered, which would have made me look up in surprise if I hadn't been staring rigidly ahead and wondering what in God's name was happening around me.

Ashley withdrew, his shields liberally studded with snapped-off stingers and bespattered with honey, and so did the bees; after losing about four thousand of their number in less than five minutes, they appeared to be reconsidering the wisdom of the attack.

“Hell's teeth,” said Ashley, one of his arms shrinking and reforming back into a human one,the stings popping out of the fluid flesh as it did so. “This is inordinately painful.” He shook it and it expanded into a shield again, then repeated the process with the other arm. Things were getting more surreal by the second, I noted vaguely.

The Combee, apparently deciding that they might as well try and kill me before Ashley repaid the favour, buzzed forth once more for another assault; again, Ashley blocked them, but this time they came in such quantities that they flowed over and around him, zooming past and heading straight for me—

—and suddenly I snapped back to reality, my self-preservation instinct kicking in and making me roll over and to the right. Five hundred bees, unable to stop themselves in time, crashed into the wall and broke into a delicious, toxic mess of honey and stingers; a thousand more saw the error of their predecessors and turned at the last moment to follow me—

—only for something to grab my ankle and drag me out of their way, allowing Ashley's shield-blade to sweep the Combee as one into the corner of the warehouse and crush them against the wall.

“Get up and keep moving,” said Ashley, letting go of my leg and reforming his arm into a shield. “If one manages to sting you, the others will go into an attacking frenzy.”

“OK,” I said, adrenaline rushing through my system and telling me to survive now and ask questions later. I jumped to my feet (which was pretty impressive, if I do say so myself) and stood behind him, eyes on the bees; we were at the centre of a column of clear air defined by the wary distance the Combee kept from Ashley.

“I'm not sure how many stings I can take before I pass out,” muttered Ashley to me. “I think I must have been stung about four thousand times now, and I'm starting to feel dizzy.”

“Are you trying to make me even more scared?”

“No, I am merely telling you the facts. It's common courtesy in a life-or-death situation.”

“Well, I have to say I'm pretty new to those – oh, cal!”

The Combee surged towards me again, and Ashley angled his shield so as to bounce most of them away; even so, a good four hundred ended up embedded in his arm, and I watched him wince through worried eyes. I had no idea what was happening, or how he was able to shift his shape like this, but what I did know was that if he slipped up even once I was going to very rapidly become dead, and that was something I really didn't want.

I ducked the lone survivor of the bee crash, and it hit the back of Ashley's head, sting first. Ooh. That had to hurt.

Ashley turned and swept at another swarm of bees, but the gust of air he generated simply blew them out of his reach; he couldn't attack them like this, only defend – and watching, I had to wonder how long he could do that. His breath seemed laboured now, and though his eyes still blazed yellow, his movements were definitely slowing down. I had the horrible feeling that I wasn't going to get out of this warehouse alive, and I didn't like it one bit.

---

Liza put down the phone, thought for a moment, and went to find Tristan; since he was in his room watching TV with his Croagunk, it turned out not to be a long search.

“Come on, you two,” she said. “The boss called. It's time to head out.”

“Really?” asked Tristan. “Can't, say, you go on ahead and I'll stay here?”

“You don't have a choice,” Liza told him. “Get up and get your things ready. Stravinsky's waiting in front of the hotel with our tickets.”

“Tickets?” Tristan paused, puzzled. “Where on earth are we going?”

“Pastoria,” replied Liza. “We're the explosives team, remember? And we've got a bomb to set.”

“A bomb?” Tristan seemed to be a few steps behind in his understanding of the situation. “What? Why are we putting a bomb in Pastoria?”

Liza wondered whether she ought to tell him or not, decided that it didn't matter, and walked out, calling over her shoulder.

“Come on,” she said. “I'll tell you on the way. Our flight leaves in fifty minutes.”

“What?” Tristan leaped to his feet. “Whose idea was it to book a flight so ridiculously soon – ah, it was yours, wasn't it?” he said, as Liza stopped and gave him a look. “And what a very fine idea it was, there's no doubt about that—”

“Shut up, get your stuff together and meet me in the car,” Liza snapped. “And in future, when you open your mouth, try not to put your foot in it.”

She stormed off down the stairs, and Tristan stared after her for a moment.

“Well,” he said, turning to his Croagunk. “That went as well as could be as expected, don't you think?”

“Gurrp,” replied the Croagunk, without apparently understanding what he had said, and hopped off the bed.

“Come on, then,” said Tristan. He tucked his oversized frog under his arm and walked out; he hadn't actually brought any luggage, since their food and accommodation were paid for by a credit card given to Liza by the higher-ups of the Team, and it wasn't necessary for him to bring anything but himself and his Croagunk. There was some unpleasantness at the front desk where Tristan explained he was checking out and the receptionist asked him to pay; however, Liza turned up with the card in the end and rescued him. A few minutes later, Tristan was in the back of Stravinsky's car and heading off to the airport.

“Get your Croagunk off me,” Liza told him, pushing the unfortunate amphibian off her lap and onto the floor. “Ugh. Nasty creature... what's its name anyway?”

“Jackie,” replied Tristan.

“How typically uninspired of you,” said Liza. “Name your Fighting-type after Jackie Chan. Huh.”

“Oh, he's not named after Jackie Chan,” Tristan told her cheerily.

“What? Who's he named after, then?”

“Jackie Gleason,” said Tristan, which left Liza very confused and made Stravinsky burst out laughing. For once, it seemed, he'd won – if only with his idiocy.

---

I was getting desperate now.

Ashley was struggling to stay conscious, I could see. His skin was black with crushed stings and the yellow fire in his eyes had dimmed; whatever arcane energies fuelled his strange morphing abilities, they were running low. He must have been stung several thousand more times by then, and I imagine that there must have been more venom than blood in his veins.

For their part, the Combee were wary. They could see that their opponent was tiring, but he had killed half the swarm now, and they had no desire to be completely exterminated. Wings humming, mouths clicking, they circled us; occasionally, a few would dart forwards and Ashley would block their path, but for the most part, we existed in a horribly tense stalemate, bees on all sides and safety on none.

It might have gone on forever had Ashley not stumbled and almost fallen; immediately, a cloud of Combee broke away from the rest of the swarm and swirled towards us. I threw myself flat on the floor, felt the wind of their wings pass over my back and—

—watched the bees slam sting-first into Ashley's side, driving deep and sticking like arrows. He brushed them away lethargically, crushing them into crumbs, and shielded me as another group of Combee buzzed towards us.

“Pearl,” he said softly, through the din, “I'm going to pass out soon.”

“Don't you dare!” I replied, which came out much less sympathetic than I'd intended it to.

“I love you too,” he said dryly, a bee bouncing off his forehead. “Look, these bees can't kill me, but they can knock me unconscious with enough poison – watch out!”

I curled up tight, pressing myself against him as the bees aiming for my head glanced off his shield; he stood up, setting me back on my feet, and continued, keeping a wary eye out for further bee attacks.

“Don't worry,” he repeated breathlessly, and fell over.

“Cal!”

Immediately, I dropped to his side, slapping his face and hoping against hope that he'd open his eyes—

He didn't.

I looked up at the bees, which were staring at him in disbelief. They held a hurried, buzzing debate, came to the consensus that they should attack me, and swooped down in a great giddy spiral, their tiny eyes locked on mine...

I saw the bees approach in glorious slow motion. They seemed to drift toward me as if time had become treacle, and they rippled through it languidly, without fear of my escape. There was nowhere for me to go, after all, and I was far slower than them. My mind shrank to a tiny point deep inside me, where it wouldn't trouble me with such things as fear or anguish; a sense of extreme clarity overcame me, and for one beautiful second I could see every vein in every bee's wings, every mote of dust in the air; I saw the honey on the floor shining like divine fire in the palm of God, and the pillars of sunlight that illuminated them glowing softly like Ampharos. The world was opened up to me in all its beauty, and I couldn't do anything except stare.
Then the moment passed, and I returned to mad screaming terror as the Combee bore down upon me like a tidal wave of demon honey—

WHOOSH!

The explosion came first, to be honest, but I didn't really hear it over the cacophony; what I did hear was the tornado-like roar of the purple-tinted wind that followed. It shredded the Combee in midair, tearing their wings asunder and fracturing their brittle bodies; bits of insect fell everywhere, bouncing off the far wall and pattering against the floor.

And then suddenly it was over, and everything was quiet once more. After the all-consuming drone of the bees, the silence hit me like a fist; I crouched there by Ashley with my hands still held over my face, incapable of moving or even full rational thought. I couldn't handle it. Too many impossible things had happened in too short a time: a swarm of Combee had tried to kill me, Ashley had shifted shape to protect me, Ashley had been beaten... The list went on and on, and terminated in the final, awful reality that I had come within three inches of death.

“Ashley?” cried a child's voice. “Are you OK? Ashley!”

Maylene, I thought, and took a deep breath. My mind revolved slowly on its axis and became something approximating normal, and I stood up on shaky legs.

Maylene was already over here, kneeling by Ashley's side in concern; in the doorway stood my saviour, a lithe figure that was slightly too short and too canine to be human. Its sharp snout and pointed ears gave the Lucario the look of Anubis, and, judging from what it had done to the Combee, it had something like the same power. Behind it were an assortment of martial arts masters, little men with onion-shaped heads and officious-looking bureaucrats; behind them was a titanic wall of flesh in blue trousers and a luchador's mask – Crasher Wake had come along too, it seemed.

“Dan!” shouted Maylene, turning around sharply. “Help me!”

Without a word, the closest martial artist rushed over and scooped Ashley up off the floor; his eyes widened as he saw the vast, flat blades that drooped from his shoulders, but he still said nothing.

“Someone call Cynthia!” yelled Iago from out of sight. “She'll be even more pissed if she hears this second-hand!”

A whirl of confusion and noise and people rushing to and fro ensued; someone was kind enough to escort me from the building and into a car, and before I knew it we were at the Pokémon Centre, and someone was speaking into my ear.

---

The discerning reader will, of course, already know what must have happened for the timely intervention of Maylene and company to take place. It does not take the detective skills of the Diamond to work that much out.

However, purely in case you perhaps want to confirm your suspicions, the causes are laid out here; they begin with a faint and peculiar noise, the suspicious nature of which was first picked up by our moustachioed antihero.

“Do you hear that?” asked Iago.

“Hear what?” replied Looker, listening.

“That.” One of Iago's ears stood up, like that of a dog that has heard an ultrasonic whistle. “It's...”

He walked over to the warehouse door and pressed his ear against it.

“Pretty thick,” he said, “but I think I hear... ah, cal!”

Iago whirled away from the door and grabbed Looker by the lapels.

“Have you got a mobile phone?” he asked urgently.

“Pardon? If you could speak a little slower, monsieur Kadabra—”

“I'm not monsieur sodding Kadabra, my name's Iago! And I want to know if. You. Have. A. Sodding. Mobile. Phone!”

Iago's voice increased in volume as the sentence went on, and by the end he was practically screaming into Looker's face – or as close to his face as he could get given his height, which was his neck.

“I have one right here,” said Looker timidly, producing it from his pocket.

“Thank you,” cried Iago, snatching it off him. He dialled swiftly, muttering in a very specific and highly crude way about the inadequacies of the French, and set the phone to his ear. “Hello? I need to speak to Maylene. She's busy is she? Crasher Wake, eh? Well, how about you tell her that her favourite state secret is in the process of being murdered by a swarm of angry bees!”

It wasn't really a question by the end. Iago had once again got louder as he spoke, and was shrieking by the word 'bees'.

“I— oh, for Christ's sake! I – fine, I'll hold.” Iago glanced at Looker. “Damn receptionists,” he said confidingly. “I always get the stupid ones.”

“Ah,” said Looker, backing away from him with rather less subtlety than one might have expected from an elite agent of the International Police. “Is that so, mon ami?”

“Yeah. It's not like I care about Ashley or anything,” Iago said with sudden eagerness. “It's just that if he does end up dead, I can probably expect to be arrested within twenty-four hours.”

“Naturally,” agreed Looker. “I do not doubt that you have the heart of lead, as they say.”

“Heart of stone,” corrected Iago. “Or heart of gold, I guess, but that's pretty unlikely since I'm about as kindly as a bucket of battery acid – oh, hey,” he said, as the phone twittered in his ear. “That made her listen, did it? Yeah, I thought it might. She knows where we are; get her here with that Lucario of hers now. Now sod off and do as you're told.”

Iago thumbed the button on the phone and handed it back to Looker.

“There.”

“What exactly is it that is happening?” enquired the French detective. “I confess, I am a little confused.”

Iago waved at the door.

“Put your ear to that and listen,” he said, and Looker did; a moment later, his eyes widened and he drew his head back sharply.

“Ah, this plot,” he said. “She is so fiendish... It can only be the work of Mademoiselle Radley!”

And he began to stride around in circles, gesturing wildly and pontificating in French, all of which was greeted with a quizzical eye and stony silence by Iago.

---

Cyrus looked at the computer monitor pensively. Things had panned out just as he'd expected, which was good; with any luck, he'd keep the Diamond busy for another half a week at least.

“That went well,” observed the Desk Sitter, but since Cyrus had company, he chose not to answer.

“Sir?” asked Saturn. “Shall I send someone for the girl?”

“No,” replied Cyrus, which made all three of the others look up nervously. Was the plan being changed again? It was a stressful business, this Galactic commander work; they were all worked off their feet as it was. Charon had his research team to deal with (and they were lamentably slow-witted), Mars had the mess from the Eterna and Windworks incidents to finish cleaning up, and Saturn was the second-in-command, which essentially meant he did the things that Cyrus didn't want to. (It will be noted that Jupiter was not present; she was at home with her boyfriend and a large bottle of wine, drowning her post-traumatic stress disorder in cheap alcohol.) “No, I don't want you to send someone,” continued Cyrus. “I want you to go yourself.”

“Me?” asked Saturn, pointing to himself. “As in, me, sir?”

“No, the other you,” replied Cyrus irritably. “Yes, of course I mean you, you cretin.” He waved a hand in the direction of the other commanders. “Take Mars with you too,” he said.

“Two Galactic commanders? For a simple kidnapping? Isn't that a bit... excessive?”

“I can assure you it isn't,” Cyrus informed him. “Both of you need to requisition Golbat from the storerooms, by the way. I expect you'll need them.”

“We have Pokémon of our own—”

“A Toxicroak and a Purugly are admirable enough, but you will need the Golbat,” said Cyrus patiently. “Believe me.”

“Yes sir.”

Saturn and Mars retreated from the room.

“Honestly,” said Cyrus to the Desk Sitter, “it's so much harder to get decent higher administration than I thought it was. I have the greatest respect for the Aqua and Magma leaders now – if they had to go through half the effort I have with these people then it was a miracle they ever summoned anything.”

“Ehehehe,” laughed Charon nervously, and Cyrus turned to glare at him.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded to know. “You're meant to have left!”

“Oh, sorry,” said Charon, making no attempt to leave. “I assumed that it was just those two leaving – the lesser commanders, you know. After all—”

“Get out,” said Cyrus flatly.

“—you surely wouldn't treat me, the genius even you—”

“Get out.”

“—recognise, in such a way—”

“Charon, if you don't leave right now I'm going to repurpose this Newton's Cradle in a very inventive and extremely painful sort of way,” said Cyrus, picking it up off his desk. “Now get out.”

“Right,” said the scientist, getting up and going to the door. “Of course. We geniuses need our alone time, right sir?”

He winked and stepped out, shutting the door behind him.

Cyrus and the Desk Sitter stared at each other.

“That man,” proclaimed Cyrus in a low, strained voice, “is the very worst substitute for a human being that I have ever had to work with.”

“He seems to stimulate emotion in you,” remarked the Desk Sitter. “That isn't desirable, is it?”

“He's more than undesirable,” muttered Cyrus darkly, and turned back to the video on the screen. Lacrimére was gone now, and all that remained were a couple of Gym Trainers, poking around at the sticky mess of bee corpses and making sure there were none still alive; if they escaped into the city, they could have a serious issue on their hands. “Well, I suppose we can't do anything more than wait now,” he sighed, eyes fixed on the grainy image. “The rest is down to the Diamond.” He picked up a phone (a cheap, disposable one; he wasn't stupid) and began to dial. “Now,” he said, a sudden smile spreading across his face. “Let's get this little game started...”

---

I know exactly where I was when I got the call. I was in the Pokémon Centre, in the hospital room where Ashley was being treated; there were burly Gym Trainers standing guard at the door, and no one was allowed in except for a certain doctor, who was, it seemed, on the payroll of the League. Maylene was there, and Iago and Looker – but not Crasher; he had been refused entry to the hospital area on the grounds that he would disturb the patients.

Ashley himself was all right, it seemed. He hadn't lied – the Combee venom had done no more than knock him out, though the doctor said there was enough of it to kill a bull elephant in his system. Given twelve hours or so, he would shrug off the effects on his own, but the hospital care, I was told, would have him back up in a quarter of that.

I was mostly OK now; Looker and one of the Gym Trainers (who, being male and not blind, seemed to have become infatuated with me) had, between them, managed to calm me down. After what I'd seen and experienced, I had a thousand questions – but I knew that I couldn't ask them of anyone except Ashley, and he was currently unconscious. Hell, I had no idea if even he'd answer; he was so fond of being cryptic that I sometimes think it's a wonder I ever even learned his name.

It was at that moment that Ashley's mobile phone started to vibrate across the bedside table.

Instantly, everyone fell silent – that is to say, everyone else fell silent and I, sensing that something was wrong here, followed suit.

“Is... is that Cynthia?” asked Maylene anxiously.

“We already called her,” replied one of her Trainers – the adulterous one who'd been watching the door, in fact. “She wouldn't be calling back on that phone.”

“What's the matter?” I asked, for once not pretending to know what was going on.

“No one apart from Cynthia has the number of that phone,” replied Iago slowly. “That's the phone that only rings in emergencies, Pearl – when Sinnoh needs a weapon.”

“Oh.” I stared at it. “Is someone going to answer it?”

Everyone looked at each other and shuffled their feet. The phone kept vibrating.

“Anyone at all?” I asked. “It's probably important.”

“Allow me,” said Looker, stepping forward with a flourish. “As an elite of—”

“No, I'll do it,” decided Iago, and snatched up the phone a moment before Looker's hand touched the table. “Hello?”

The tension was so thick that you'd have struggled to cut it even with a knife; this was the sort of tension you'd need a bandsaw to deal with.

“Who is this?” asked Iago. “No, I asked you first. I said, I asked you first – well, what the hell do you want to talk to her for? Oh, fine. Talk to her then.”

He held out the phone.

“It's for you,” he said. “No clue who this is – but it's a man's voice, quite deep, probably a good singer.”

“For me?”

“Yes, my little blonde parrot, it's for you,” said Iago sardonically. “Now take the damn phone.”

With some trepidation, I did, and a curiously familiar voice met my ears:

“Hello, Pearl.”

“Who is this?” I asked immediately.

“Not yet. I have a message for you that's in your best interests to hear. If you'll guarantee me that you won't interrupt, I'll tell you.”

“I won't interrupt,” I said impatiently. “What is it?”

“By now you will have stepped into and survived my honeytrap,” the voice said. “Although I can't claim all the credit for that – the idea came from an associate of mine. But I digress. The point is that this is only the beginning of what I have in store for you.” He paused. “You may speak now, if you wish. This is the interval.”

“What? What do you mean, this is only the beginning?”

He chuckled, and it was kind of sinister.

“Somewhere in Pastoria is a bomb, Pearl. A bomb that has the power to destroy at least a quarter of the city, and probably more.”

A sudden chill ran through my body; it travelled by way of the veins, and froze each muscle as it passed.

“And when does it go off?”

“Oh, you interrupted,” said the voice despairingly. “And you were doing so well. I'll have to have the time put forward an hour.”

“When does it go off?” I demanded.

“I'll put it forward another hour if you're not quiet,” he snapped, and I fell silent. “That's better. Now, you have two days, six hours, forty-two minutes and twelve seconds until this bomb explodes – in other words, Pearl, it will go off at midnight on Friday.”

“I've got one more question,” I asked, suddenly realising who this man must be. “Why are you telling me this, Maragos?”

Around the room, eyes widened.

“Finally,” said Maragos despairingly. “I thought you'd never get it. The reason I'm telling you this is that this bomb is extremely well-concealed. You know as well as I the efficacy of the police; this case is out of their league. I'm afraid to say that only one man in Sinnoh has any chance of finding and defusing it before the timer reaches zero – and that man, if I'm not very much mistaken, is currently lying before you in an unconscious stupor.” I could almost hear his smile down the telephone. “That'll be all, Pearl,” he said. “I'll see you later, I'm sure.”

The line went dead, and I lowered the phone, staring at Ashley and willing him to wake up.

“What did he say?” asked Iago. “It was Maragos, right?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “It was. Basically...” I thought about it. “Basically, it's business as usual.”

“Ah, crap.”

“Yeah,” I said thoughtfully. “Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.”

Silent Memento
January 16th, 2012, 07:53 AM
Er, the wife wasn't dying. Ashley says that he's a 'jilted lover' and that they broke up; I'm not sure where you got the idea of the wife dying from. The guy was a jerk, but probably not that big a jerk.

Yeah, after reading it a second time, I realized that they had just broken up. Oops. -_-

Anyway, the plot thickens. Nice work incorporating the bomb in the games in your fic. I thought that it was strange that the bomb in Pastoria (D/P/Pt games) had such an pitiful effect, while the one at Lake Valor blew all of the poor Magikarp to tiny bits.

Anyway, I find Ashley's new powers to be even stranger. He literally used his skin as a sword and shield. Still, I laughed like a jester when Pearl thought about how "flawless his skin was." That was absolutely priceless.

Iago's ranting at the receptionist was also funny, as well as Looker's obsession with Liza Radley. I can definitely see the Pink Panther reference now. Best theme song ever...of all time.

And now they're going to Pastoria? Wow. My favorite Sinnoh city and the home of one of my more evil protagonists. Those are good memories...

Anyway, I'm really excited for the next chapter. Many kudos for this one.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
January 17th, 2012, 01:57 PM
Yeah, after reading it a second time, I realized that they had just broken up. Oops. -_-

Anyway, the plot thickens. Nice work incorporating the bomb in the games in your fic. I thought that it was strange that the bomb in Pastoria (D/P/Pt games) had such an pitiful effect, while the one at Lake Valor blew all of the poor Magikarp to tiny bits.

Anyway, I find Ashley's new powers to be even stranger. He literally used his skin as a sword and shield. Still, I laughed like a jester when Pearl thought about how "flawless his skin was." That was absolutely priceless.

Iago's ranting at the receptionist was also funny, as well as Looker's obsession with Liza Radley. I can definitely see the Pink Panther reference now. Best theme song ever...of all time.

And now they're going to Pastoria? Wow. My favorite Sinnoh city and the home of one of my more evil protagonists. Those are good memories...

Anyway, I'm really excited for the next chapter. Many kudos for this one.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Ye gods... Has it been so long already? Sorry I haven't replied sooner; I discovered Skyrim over the weekend and... well, it doesn't need to be explained.

Uh, anyway. Yeah, Pastoria's coming up soon, which will be nice; I have a mortal fear of the city that stems from a Rock-type monotype run I did of Platinum, where I had to beat Crasher Wake with a Graveler, a Rhyhorn, an Onix and a Probopass. My God, it was hell.

So yeah, Pastoria ought to be interesting - especially because of the little modification I've made to the Galactic Bomb. It's also going to be weird, because if my calculations are correct, we're close to halfway through the story now, and things are starting to get revealed. Weird things.

As ever, thanks for replying, and I'll do my best to get another chapter up soon, though school is currently somewhat time-consuming.

Actually, I had a friend who could play The Pink Panther theme tune on the saxophone. It was fantastic. Ah, happy days.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
February 5th, 2012, 01:20 AM
Yeah, I did actually have this finished a couple of days ago, but I've only got around to posting it now. And since it's just finished snowing, I've got to make this brief so I can go outside and play in the snow like a four-year-old.

Chapter Twenty-One: In Which There is a Reference

'There had been rumours over the last few years about a man named Cyrus Maragos. They say he's a genius, a master criminal, and even sometimes a necromancer. Intrigued, I started tailing him three years ago, but though I followed clues from Gibraltar to Timbuktu, I never once got anywhere near him. It was like trying to catch Suicune, or Carmen Sandiego.'
—Narcissus Rex, Noir Memoirs

“...Oh,” said Tristan. “So that's what you meant by 'honeytrap'.”

“Yes,” replied Liza. She had just finished telling him about her plan to kill Lacrimére; it seemed it hadn't worked out quite as she'd hoped, but Cyrus – being the resourceful man that he was – had turned the situation to their advantage. It might be that they could not actually destroy the Diamond, but they could certainly keep him occupied until they were finished. It was a dangerous game when the opponent was so strong, but there was nothing to be gained from conceding it now; all they needed was a couple of days' reprieve to finish the prototype, and then a day or so longer to let them hunt out and capture the lake Pokémon.

“We are reaching our destination,” said the pilot over the PA system. “We should be touching down in Pastoria in fifteen minutes.”

“Are you ready?” Liza asked Tristan. He nodded.

“Sure. Give me the materials and I'll have it done in no time.”

“They'll be waiting for us when we get there. I'd tell you who's going to meet us, but you probably wouldn't manage to recognise him.”

“Is that an insult?”

“Only if you understand it.”

“Oh. That's OK then,” said Tristan, looking vaguely confused but content, and settled down in his seat to await the landing.

---

After I relayed Maragos' message, the room went very quiet. Which, as it happened, made Cynthia's entrance all the more startling.

“What the hell is happening here?”

The doors flew open so hard they bounced off the walls, and the Champion stormed through them so fast that her hair flew out horizontally behind her. Before anyone could so much as register her presence, she was at the bedside, staring deep into Ashley's eyes with the sort of look you might find on a kicked puppy.

“Ashley...”

“Before you say anything,” said Iago, recovering, “it wasn't my fault.”

Cynthia's face turned without the rest of her body moving an inch, and her eyes locked onto his as if they were about to fly out and strike him down.

“You,” she said in what was probably the most terrifying voice I'd ever heard, “can consider yourself fired.”

Iago stared at her. He looked like he'd been unexpectedly castrated.

“Er, Cynthia—”

“Now I do realise I must have given you a bit of a shock, Cynthia, but this seems like a distinct overreaction.”

Ashley sat up and blinked; he looked at each arm, shook them out and watched them return to their original shape.

“Right,” he said. “Will someone please explain the shocked silence to me? I do hate feeling that I've missed things.”

“Ashley!” cried Cynthia, and hugged him so tightly that I thought she might snap him in half. If I'd been thinking straight, I'd probably have thought that was an intriguing reaction, but I wasn't.

“Ouch,” he said, but got no reprieve, for a moment later Maylene did the same. “And ouch again. What's all this for?”

“You're... OK,” I answered, since no one else seemed to want to. “And that's... good. Yeah. That's good.”

“Why are you so surprised?” With a sudden movement too deft for me to actually see, Ashley escaped Cynthia and Maylene and appeared on his feet at the end of the bed. “I did say I'd be fine. I'm especially surprised at you, Cynthia. After all, you've seen me come back from worse than that, and – and I'm being insensitive again, aren't I?” he concluded, looking at the faces of the assembled company.

“Just a little,” Iago said.

“Ah. Well, never mind.” Ashley patted Marlene on the shoulder, and then, with some trepidation, did the same to Cynthia. “Now, our Grecian nemesis must have known that that wouldn't kill me; in all likelihood, he was trying to slow me down. I expect he has something else planned out, and since we're at the end of our investigation he's probably contacted us to feed us another clue. He wouldn't trust Iago, which means that I need to ask... Pearl.” He turned to face me. “Well? What did he say?”

I stared at him.

“You really don't care that you were just stung to death, do you?”

“Death is a very unsatisfying mistress,” he told me. “I try not to let her rule my thoughts.”

“Is that a joke?”

“Quite possibly,” he agreed. “Now, will someone please tell me what is going on?”

“First,” said Cynthia, grabbing his chin and turning his face to hers, “you're going to tell me what in God's name happened to you.”

“Ah,” said Ashley, nodding his way free and taking a nervous step away from her. “Dearest Cynthia, if I'm right, then some sort of disaster is about to happen—”

“Believe me, there's going to be a bigger disaster happening right here in this room if you don't start talking,” Cynthia said, voice dangerous.

“Bigger than Maragos blowing up Pastoria?” I asked, finally finding my voice, and everyone in the room turned to stare at me.

“You see?” Ashley said, gesturing at me. “A disaster, and on a rather large scale as well.”

“OK,” said Cynthia begrudgingly. “Pearl? Tell us about Maragos blowing up Pastoria, and then let me get back to interrogating Ashley.”

“Yes, you'd better tell us,” Maylene added. “We'd better tell Crasher, too.”

“You can tell him later,” the doctor said firmly. “He'll disturb the patients.”

“I don't want him here either,” agreed Iago. “He's probably the most annoying person in Sinnoh. Why the hell he was made a Gym Leader, I have no ide— and I'll shut up now,” he decided, as Cynthia shot him a look.

“Right,” I said uncertainly, once again the centre of attention and not at all sure that I liked it. “Well, Maragos said he'd planted a bomb somewhere in Pastoria, and...”

---

“There is no way in God's own earth that I can get on that – that thing,” said Ellen firmly.

Oh, come on, complained Pigzie Doodle. I know it's not an airship, which would most definitely be better, but they did have planes back in the 1930s, you know. Admittedly, Sinnoh didn't have more than a couple of them, and they weren't passenger ones, but still. There's no need to be afraid of it.

They were standing on the runway, staring up at a large and imposing passenger aeroplane, and neither Bond nor Ellen seemed to be in the mood to appreciate it.

“Madam, I must say that despite appearances, I believe we might be able to trust this craft,” Bond ventured. “After all, a great many living people are entrusting their lives to it – and we, being already dead, have surely nothing to fear.”

That's what you think, Pigzie Doodle said darkly. In the land of flesh, the spirit is choked; special evils are reserved for those who evade the dangers of the meat men. He shuddered, and a ripple went through his gaseous body. Childhood imaginary friends, for instance. Without a child's love and attention, they have to derive their sustenance from other places. Oh, and unicorns. I hate unicorns. So many of them are dreamed up, and only a few make it into respectable literature or film. Then you have the other Ghosts, of course – people like me, in fact, who subsist on thoughts, memories and souls—

“Ishmael? Would you please be quiet and listen?” asked Ellen. “I—”

Why don't you be quiet and get on the damn plane? the Duskull snapped back at her. It can't kill you, can it? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that Liza Radley beat it to the punch.

“I don't understand—”

Just get on the plane.

Pigzie Doodle gave Bond a suggestive sort of nod, which was about the only movement he could make, being mostly head; of course, being the excellent servant he was, the butler understood immediately, and took hold of Ellen's hand.

“Come, madam,” he said. “We cannot be put off by idle fears. This will be the fastest way of getting across to Veilstone.”

“Do you promise that it won't fall out of the sky?”

Bond looked up at the other aeroplanes. He had not seen one fall yet – and that didn't seem like the sort of thing he would be likely to miss.

“I give you my word, madam,” he replied solemnly, and led her across the asphalt.

Finally, sighed Pigzie Doodle. Ugh. What is it they say? Never work with children or animals. I'm definitely taking that advice from now on. He turned to face his two companions, and saw that they were no longer with him. Hey, wait for me! he cried, and whizzed after them to catch up.

---

“Dear me,” muttered Ashley, as we rounded the corner. “First Eterna, now this. It will take more than a fancy dinner to placate Cynthia this time.”

“A fancy dinner?”

“Yes – the last time I did something she disapproved of, I flew her to Paris and we had dinner there. I don't recall where, just... somewhere in Paris.”

We had finally made our escape from the Pokémon Centre; after I'd explained what Maragos was up to, Ashley had talked at Cynthia, Maylene and anyone who would listen until they were so confused they agreed to let him go, and not to tell Crasher about the bomb until he'd got ten minutes' head start. I had the distinct feeling that neither Ashley nor Iago were entirely comfortable being surrounded by members of the League, and that Ashley in particular was very glad to have got away from Cynthia.

“Why don't you want Crasher to know about the bomb?” I asked.

“He's not really the sort of person I want to work with,” Ashley admitted. “He's one of those unfortunate people who don't understand long words or irony.”

“He means he's a sodding idiot,” clarified Iago. “Which is worse than a regular idiot, because that's what you are, and I assume you understand long words, being a philosopher. Actually,” he went on, taken with this new line of thought, “that's all philosophy is, isn't it? Long words, cunningly arranged to give the impression of intelligent thought.”

“Shut up,” said Ashley affably. “Right. To Pastoria, then.”

“You don't seem too worried,” I noted, stopping at a crossing.

“Why would I be?” he replied. “I sincerely doubt that our Mister Maragos can come up with anything I can't foil. Cross now.”

“But there's a car comi—”

Ashley yanked me across the road, narrowly evading the broad grille of an oncoming truck; for the third time that day, I thought was about to die – and after nearly being shaken apart by a Ghostly scream and stung to death by misogynist bees, it would have been a disappointingly banal way to go.

“Are you crazy—?”

“Iago won't be able to cross for a while,” said Ashley, very quickly. “Which means I have a couple of minutes to speak to you without being overheard.”

I stared at him. What was this?

He led me out of the path of the pedestrians and glanced back; across the road, Iago was shifting from foot to foot, watching impatiently for the lights to turn red.

“What?” I asked.

“He has to report everything I say and do to the League,” he explained. “And I want to tell you something that is strictly top secret.”

My ears pricked up, and a surprised smile spread over my face; quickly, I changed it into a sly grin, and gave a knowing nod.

Ashley looked at me oddly.

“Are you having a neck spasm?”

“Uh, no, it was a knowing – actually, forget it. What was it you wanted to say?”

“The League's been infiltrated,” he said. “Someone knows everything about me, Pearl – and that means that someone got the information out of the League. Despite what Iago said earlier, it would be tantamount to suicide to try and break in to get at it; the Sinnoh League is probably the strongest in the Northern Hemisphere, and as you have probably worked out, they're very conscious of security. No, someone from within the League got at it – which means that Galactic has someone important working for them there.”

“A mole,” I breathed. Now this was proper detective fiction. We'd have to be careful about what we said around everyone, and have a list of suspects that we whittled down to two, and we'd almost choose the wrong one until the other made a small but fatal mistake that alerted us to his true identity—

“Pearl? Please don't go off on one of those wild fantasies of yours,” Ashley said, snapping his fingers in front of my eyes. “Stay focused, if you would – ah! Iago's coming. Look, just be careful what you say, understand? I have a horrible feeling that Maragos is getting a little desperate, and men like him are at their most dangerous when desper—”

“What the hell were you playing at?” Iago demanded to know, catching up and gasping for breath. “Running into the road like that?”

“It isn't as if a car could kill me,” pointed out Ashley.

“And what about Pearl?”

“What about Pearl?”

“Fair point,” conceded Iago. “Doesn't matter if she dies, does it?”

“Hey,” I said, annoyed, “at least the world benefits from my existence—”

“And it doesn't from mine?”

“No. You're a nasty bratchny barely worthy of sentience.”

“Ooh. Ouch.” Iago grinned broadly. “I'm hurt. Now, are we going to Pastoria? I have a feeling that we'll be in a lot of trouble if we let it blow up – and besides, I just saw Crasher Wake on the other side of the road.”

Ashley and I exchanged glances. Then, as one, we grabbed Iago and fled for the subway.

---

“A bomb in Pastoria,” said Ashley, making a steeple of his fingers and leaning back in his seat. “A bomb capable of levelling a quarter of the city.”

We were half an hour out of Veilstone, heading south at high speed through the Fulsom Woods in a first-class train carriage; naturally, I'd had to pay for the tickets. There had been some unpleasantness at the ticket office regarding whether or not a Kadabra was entitled to ride first class, but this had been resolved by the simple expedient of slamming the shutters to the ticket window on the clerk's fingers. Well, I had had a hard day, and I didn't really feel like talking things over.

“There are two things that worry me about this situation,” Ashley went on. “Pearl, would you like to guess at what they are?”

“Uh... you're worried that thousands of people will die?”

Ashley considered.

“There are now three things that worry me about this situation,” he amended. “One being that thousands of people might die. What about the other two?”

“I can't believe you didn't think of that first—”

“I'm approaching it as a logical problem, not an ethical one,” Ashley said. “It's more helpful – look, I don't need to justify myself to you. Are you going to answer the question or not?”

“All right, all right... You're worried that... that we're doing exactly what Maragos wants?”

“Correct.” Ashley looked despondent. “As I told you earlier, this is a delaying tactic on his part. He knows I can't refuse to stop the bomb going off; he intends to buy himself a couple of extra days' time. The worst of it is, he probably has a second scheme ready in case I solve the bomb case too quickly, or if he finds he needs more time. He holds all the cards, and it stops me from getting anywhere near him.”

“Clever, isn't he?” said Iago admiringly. “You've got to admit he's clever.”

“Oh, I do,” replied Ashley. “It doesn't make him any less reprehensible. If he's doing what I think he is, of course – and that's another thing. I need more evidence about that.”

“What do you think he's doing?” I asked curiously.

Ashley paused, and glanced at Iago.

“I'm sure she's already seen that much,” the Kadabra told him. “Go for it. Whatever.”

“Pearl,” said Ashley, choosing his words carefully, “do you recall that I am in some ways rather... different... to normal people?”

“Yes,” I answered earnestly, thinking of bees. “I can honestly say that I don't think I'll ever forget.”

“Well, based on what that thieving Rotom is looking for here in Sinnoh, I think that Maragos may be attempting to, er, make himself like me. Do you see?”
“He wants immortality and weird arm-blades?”

“There is more to it than that – but essentially, yes. And you can see how this might be a bad thing.”

I certainly could. Maragos was the bad guy, and if he ever gained whatever strange abilities Ashley had, then it would probably be the worst thing that had happened to the world since the invention of marzipan.

“Uh huh...”

“The thing is, I have no real evidence to back up this assertion,” sighed Ashley. “I need to find out more in order to know for certain what's going on, and I can't do that if I'm off defusing bombs in Pastoria.”

“Well... maybe someone in the League could do that for you—”

Ashley gave me a meaningful look.

“Oh,” I said. “Or maybe not.”

“What?” asked Iago, but he got no answer.

“Well, maybe I can do it for you,” I suggested. “I could investigate Maragos, and you can solve the bomb mystery.”

“That's a fantastic idea,” said Iago. “It'll get you killed, which will mean you can't divulge any League secrets. Like the Driftenburg.”

“He's right,” Ashley told me. “Not about it being a good idea, but about you being killed; if you can't survive a swarm of Combee without me, you won't be able to take on the Galactics alone.”

He had a point. I was better off sticking with the shape-shifting immortal detective than running around on my own.

“Right. Er, what was the other thing you were worried about?” I asked.

“Ah, that.” Ashley nodded slowly. “Maragos has a bomb that can destroy at least a quarter of Pastoria. Those were his exact words, yes?”

“Yeah...?”

“Pastoria covers approximately fifty-three square miles. To completely destroy a quarter of that would at least two hydrogen bombs, and probably more. So the question we must ask ourselves is: what sort of weapon, what kind of monstrous bomb, could Maragos possibly have put there?”

I stared at him. I hadn't thought of that – but then, I didn't know the area of Pastoria, or the blast strength of an atomic bomb. Did he just memorise all this stuff on the off chance it would come in useful one day?

“You may close your mouth, if you wish,” Ashley said kindly. “You'll look prettier that way.”

I realised I was gaping and shut my mouth hurriedly; I'd been doing far too much of that lately. It wasn't my fault – it was just that everyone around me kept being so damn amazing. At this rate, I was never going to catch up with them and become a decent detective.

“So what do we do?” I asked at length.

“We hope we defuse that bomb in time,” Iago replied. “Or, failing that, that we escape the city before it goes off.”

“Be quiet. Pearl, how long exactly did Maragos say we had?” asked Ashley.

“Two days, six hours...” I thought for a moment, and gave up. “Look, it's going off at midnight on Friday, OK?”

“No,” said Ashley. “That's not what I asked. What exactly did he say? How specific was he?”

“He was really specific,” I said. “Went into the seconds – what use is this? Surely there isn't a clue in the time—”

“You don't get it,” Ashley interrupted. “Maragos is clever, Pearl. He doesn't want us to give up and just chase after him in the hope of getting him to stop the bomb for us; he wants us to have a good chance of working it out. He gave us his first clue there – didn't you think it was strange that he counted the time down to the last second? He did it for a reason.”

“So,” summarised Iago, “you'd better start remembering. Or else Ashley's going to get cross, and I think we all have a good idea about what happens when he does that.”

“OK, OK.” I thought hard. What was it? Two days, six hours... then what? Four minutes? No, longer... Thirty? No, it wasn't a round number, it was something harder... thirty-two minutes? Forty— forty-two! That was it. And how many seconds...?

I thought for a while longer, and then said:

“I think – I'm not sure, but I think – that he said it was two days, six hours, forty-two minutes and twelve seconds.”

Ashley looked sharply at Iago.

“Search your memory,” he said. “See if you find a match. I'll try and come up with possible connections, but it may be a reference.”

“Got it,” sighed Iago, and closed his eyes.

“What's he doing?” I asked.

“Going through my prodigious memory in the hope of recovering some data relating to that specific time,” Iago replied without moving. “Now shut up and let me concentrate.”

I turned to Ashley, but he too was deep in thought; his eyes were hooded, unblinking, and he was staring out into space, occasionally muttering something incomprehensible under his breath.

“Fine, then,” I muttered. “I'll talk to myself.”

And I did, until they both violently shushed me, at which point I gave in and stared out of the window instead.

---

Veilstone had been dusty. Pastoria was... moist.

I'd been there before, but it was still an unwelcome surprise. The air was damp and cold, as if it had just rained – as indeed it probably had. Pastoria was the wettest city in Sinnoh by a long way, catching the rain that fell from the clouds that travelled east from the sea and ended up stuck on the side of Mount Coronet.

“Ugh,” I said, turning up the collar of my coat. “I hate Pastoria.”

“It's very atmospheric,” observed Ashley, looking around at the neo-Gothic buildings and wind-ruffled puddles. “I would have thought you liked it.”

Well, it was a good place for a horror movie, I could see that much. Dark and damp, with buildings that looked like they could once have been outhouses at Dracula's castle – it was undeniably creepy, but it wasn't a detective sort of place, and it was also just kind of depressing. There's only so much Gothic architecture and rain that a person can take before she starts thinking she's trapped in an Edgar Allen Poe story and commits suicide.

“No,” I replied. “It's horrible.” Then: “So, where are we going?”

“Nowhere just yet,” Ashley said. “I haven't thought of anything. How about you, Iago?”

“Ssh. Not yet.”

“All right.” Ashley turned to me. “I suppose we should find a base of operations, since we're going to be here a few days. Do you know any good hotels?”

“In general or in Pastoria?”

“Don't be facetious, it doesn't suit you. In Pastoria.”

“No.”

“In that case, I shall trust in the knowledge of this taxi driver.”

“What taxi driver?”

“This one. Taxi!”

One rounded the corner, and Ashley hailed it; a minute or two later, we were all inside and heading for the somewhat Norsely named Hrafn Hotel. Ten minutes into the journey, Iago had his idea.

“Found a match,” he said abruptly. “Got the link. It's Donnie.”

“Darko?” asked Ashley, turning around in the front seat.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, of course!” cried Ashley. “Twenty-eight days, six hours, forty-two minutes, twelve seconds!”

“That is when the world will end,” stated Iago. “Yeah. It's a Frank line.”

“Excuse me, but what is this?” I asked.

“Donnie Darko,” said Ashley.

“A 2001 film by Richard Kelly,” said Iago. “Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle and Mary McDonnell. Runtime 113 minutes, or 133 if you're watching the director's cut. Set in 1988, where the title character (Jake Gyllenhaal) keeps seeing a man in a rabbit suit named Frank, who incites him to commit crimes and tells him that in twenty-eight days, six hours, forty-two minutes and twelve seconds, the world will end. It failed to break even at cinemas, having been shot on a budget of 4.5 million dollars and only grossing—”

“Enough,” interrupted Ashley. “I think she gets the idea. It's a reference, Pearl; the numbers are too similar for it to be a coincidence. Maragos has given us our starting point.” He smiled. “Iago. Do you remember what Grandma Death says to Donnie?”

“Of course. 'Every living—' oh, yeah, that's quite funny, isn't it?”

He chuckled, and I had to ask what the line was; they might leave me out of their League business, but I was damned if they were going to leave me out of their jokes.

“'Every living creature dies alone',” said Ashley, laughing and unnerving the taxi driver, who edged away from him. “Oh, I laughed so hard when I heard that. The other people in the cinema were very annoyed.”

I didn't know what was weirder: the fact that Ashley found that funny or the fact that Ashley watched films.

“Er, O-K,” I said. “What does it mean, then?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” confessed Ashley. “Rest assured, though, that I will work it out presently. I just need a little more time to think.”

It might just have been me, but I didn't think that was true somehow; I had a strange feeling that Ashley knew exactly what it meant, and that he didn't want Iago listening in.

Wait. Was... was Iago the Galactic mole? Everything fit, didn't it? He'd do anything if the price was right; he had a defective heart, utterly barren and devoid of compassion. Was that why Ashley didn't want to say anything – he thought Iago might report it to Maragos?

I smiled to myself and gave Ashley a knowing wink, to which he replied with a puzzled look.

“Why— actually, I won't ask. I need to think.”

“We're here,” announced the cabbie, as the taxi drew to a halt. “That's four hundred and seventy-two dollars, then...”

I sighed and handed over my credit card. Not for the first time, I wondered if perhaps Ashley only kept me around as a source of cash.

---

Many miles away, a busy passenger aeroplane was making its way through the newly-cleared sky over Mount Coronet; the air hostesses had just come around and offered everyone an unspeakably foul but mercifully small portion of what might in some alternate reality be called a meal, and our spectral friends, comfortably seated in seats 31A to C, were beginning to feel that perhaps there was something to be said for air travel after all.

(It might be asked where the three human passengers who had been meant to occupy seats 31A, B and C were, for this was a popular flight; the answer was that they were currently in the car park, deep within that deep and dreamless form of sleep known as catatonic. Upon hearing this, it might be asked why they were catatonic in the car park, and to find an answer to that question one would have to ask Pigzie Doodle, for just as those unfortunate souls' minds were now diminished, so he appeared to have grown.)

“This is rather nice, isn't it?” said Ellen, looking around. “We're so high up!” Here she made an expansive gesture towards the window. “And it really does seem quite safe.”

“Indeed, madam,” agreed Bond, as if he had never entertained a doubt in his life about the safety of heavier-than-air travel.

I told you it'd be fine, said Pigzie Doodle, picking childhood memories out from between his teeth. But no one listens to a humble Duskull. No one even asks why someone who's been around longer than Christianity hasn't evolved yet.

And so it will be seen that they were all enjoying themselves, for Ellen and Bond enjoyed the novelty and Pigzie Doodle enjoyed feeling superior to them, and events might have continued in this vein until the plane landed had not at that moment there come a very distinctive sound from without.

“What was that noise?” asked Ellen.

Pigzie Doodle froze.

Er, he said. Well. You know that wonderful sound when a small child laughs, and it brightens everyone's day?

“Ye-es?”

Well, it wasn't that, it was an engine exploding. Buckle up, kids!

And then, as Bond would later put it, things got rather interesting.

Silent Memento
February 13th, 2012, 04:45 PM
Oh, Skyrim. If I hear one more "arrow to the knee" comment, I'm going to massacre a whole freaking village - and I haven't even played the game yet.

...Why do I get the feeling that Pearl's going to majorly screw things up? If Iago is the traitor, Ashley has to know about it - and if Ashley knows about it, it wouldn't make sense for him to be confused at Pearl's knowing wink. I get that he's poor at social interactions, but surely he can't be that bad, right?

Another thing doesn't make sense. If Iago is the traitor, he has to be suspicious at this point. That's two times where Ashley's cut him out of the loop in this chapter alone. If he's reporting knowledge to Cyrus, it has to make him nervous and feel like they're on to him. If Ashley's trying to make Iago feel comfortable in order to lull him into a false sense of security, he's doing a really poor job at it; he's drawing more attention to himself than Pearl, for fate's sake. If he's doing it to intentionally drive Iago away, I don't get it; it would be so much more useful to give a spy false information.

However, there's other possibilities (another really insane theory of mine that probably won't make a lick of sense. Joy.):

What if Iago isn't the traitor? That really leaves only one person: Cynthia. Cynthia knows just about everything about the league, and she's particularly close to Ashley. Iago would definitely give Cynthia updates, who would then report to Cyrus. It might explain why Ashley was confused at Pearl's knowing wink. Their thoughts obviously aren't on the same page.

Or Ashley could make a mistake. Not even Holmes was perfect.

Oh well. Ishmael is amazing, as he usually is. And I love how you've described Pastoria. I love that city (even though I don't care for Wake, it's still my favorite city in Sinnoh).

I'm really excited to see what the next chapter is going to turn out like. I'll be waiting.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
February 14th, 2012, 01:52 PM
Oh, Skyrim. If I hear one more "arrow to the knee" comment, I'm going to massacre a whole freaking village - and I haven't even played the game yet.

Oddly enough, I actually did that - massacre a whole village, that is. And it was wholly accidental. Because Skyrim entrusted control over someone's actions to me, I managed to fail the first mission of the game, which is asking someone for help. I killed a chicken in the first town, whereupon everyone in the place attempted to kill me and I was forced to burn each and every one of them to death, including the one I was supposed to ask for help. It was not one of my finer moments; since children are immortal, they all survived the massacre and sent hired killers after me for a very long time. Sigh. Such is life, I suppose; I seem to be doomed to be an accidental supervillain.

...Why do I get the feeling that Pearl's going to majorly screw things up? If Iago is the traitor, Ashley has to know about it - and if Ashley knows about it, it wouldn't make sense for him to be confused at Pearl's knowing wink. I get that he's poor at social interactions, but surely he can't be that bad, right?

Another thing doesn't make sense. If Iago is the traitor, he has to be suspicious at this point. That's two times where Ashley's cut him out of the loop in this chapter alone. If he's reporting knowledge to Cyrus, it has to make him nervous and feel like they're on to him. If Ashley's trying to make Iago feel comfortable in order to lull him into a false sense of security, he's doing a really poor job at it; he's drawing more attention to himself than Pearl, for fate's sake. If he's doing it to intentionally drive Iago away, I don't get it; it would be so much more useful to give a spy false information.

Mm. Theories are delicious, aren't they? Rest assured that there's an explanation that ties everything up, just as there always is. And I'm sure you know exactly how crazy it'll be.

However, there's other possibilities (another really insane theory of mine that probably won't make a lick of sense. Joy.):

What if Iago isn't the traitor? That really leaves only one person: Cynthia. Cynthia knows just about everything about the league, and she's particularly close to Ashley. Iago would definitely give Cynthia updates, who would then report to Cyrus. It might explain why Ashley was confused at Pearl's knowing wink. Their thoughts obviously aren't on the same page.

Or Ashley could make a mistake. Not even Holmes was perfect.

Oh well. Ishmael is amazing, as he usually is. And I love how you've described Pastoria. I love that city (even though I don't care for Wake, it's still my favorite city in Sinnoh).

I'm really excited to see what the next chapter is going to turn out like. I'll be waiting.

Ashley isn't perfect, I'll say that much. He's not really a genius, just... very experienced; he doesn't always win. But I've given too much away already; I'll have to rein myself in with thoughts of Crasher Wake.

Oh, Crasher. My old nemesis. Rock-type Platinum monotype run on an emulator? Without the ability to trade or go underground, you end up with this team by the time you get to Pastoria: Graveler, Onix, Rhyhorn and Probopass. It took me weeks to beat him; I would lose confidence, or get bored with the endless, endless grinding, and leave it for two days to come back again. That I ever beat him at all with those four is nothing short of a miracle, and a testament to the power of Probopass, who single-handedly took down the Gyarados and the Floatzel, and made a brave stab at the Quagsire only to be felled by Mud Shot. Damn you, Wake, I won! Why won't you leave me alone? I have the Badge, so stop! Torturing! Me!

...

Er... yeah, so I have a thing about Crasher Wake. I don't know why I force myself to do Rock-type runs, to be honest. It's really nothing more than softcore masochism, only without the benefit of enjoying the pain.

And the relevance of all this? I suppose it's an explanation for why Crasher Wake doesn't come off too well in this story. The slimy luchador *******.

Nevertheless, I don't have too much against Pastoria. I just thought I'd theme it, for some reason. I suspect this might become a regular thing; it's certainly quite prevalent in the next chapter. Which should hopefully be up either today or tomorrow, depending on how long it takes me to finish the damn thing.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
February 15th, 2012, 12:18 PM
Chapter Twenty-Two: In Which There is Much Detectivery

'Pastoria City's the best place in Sinnoh to write poetry. You can really feel the rainy miasma in your soul there.'
—Gloomrainia Shadowdespair, How to Write Goth Poetry

Stephanie Knew Too Much.

And she was under no misapprehensions about it. This was no conspiracy movie cliché – she really did know a lot more than anyone was meant to, and she had no doubt that there were going to be repercussions if she was ever found out.

Serious repercussions. Of the sort that generally befall those who Know Too Much.

Repercussions of the kind that involve midnight visitors and garrottes, or possibly black-suited agents and detention centres.

So naturally, Stephanie had taken precautions. There was now no incriminating information stored on her computer; she had wiped it all off, and consigned the hard copy she had printed to the shredder, and the remains to a fire. Now the only source of data she had was her own memory, and that, she felt, was pretty safe – or as safe as anything could be, anyway.

She was still fairly tense, of course. At any moment, she knew, someone might walk off the street and casually kill or abduct her; according to her research, the League had killed before to preserve its secrets, and would do so again without compunction. Ordinarily, Stephanie wouldn't have believed these conspiracy theories, but she'd met Ashley now, and found out about Darkling Town – and after that she would have believed almost anything about the Sinnoh League.

Yes, she Knew Too Much now. She knew about Allegra Fairfax and Nathaniel Pyke. She knew about the hushed-up Pokémon disasters and the star. She even knew about the chambers that didn't appear on the plan of the Elite Four building on Gibbous Island, the vaults below ground, where certain things that were best kept out of the public eye were housed.

And Pearl still hadn't called her.

It was getting quite annoying, really. Stephanie had got herself a new phone, and she would have thought that Pearl would have done by now too; after all, she was the one who'd wanted this information, not Stephanie. If Pearl didn't call soon... well, Stephanie wasn't sure what she'd do, but the tension definitely wasn't doing her nerves any favours.

So she kept going, fingernails bitten down to the quick, and waited for the phone to ring.

---

Inside, the Hrafn Hotel was even creepier than it looked from outside. A large battleaxe, crusted with ancient blood, hung on the wall over the reception desk; the receptionist himself had a steel eyepatch and a raven on each shoulder. He was also seven feet tall and dressed in what looked like bear fur.

“Greetings,” he rumbled, in a heavily-accented voice. “I am Wednesday. Do you have a reservation?”

“Is he...?” whispered Iago.

“Yes,” I replied. “Yes, he definitely is. I'm trying not to think about it.”

“No, we don't,” Ashley told Wednesday. “Will that be a problem?”

“It depends how much you're willing to pay,” he replied. “Many of our cheaper rooms are taken this time of year. Pastoria is a popular honeymoon spot.”

“Who in their right mind wants to spend their honeymoon in Pastoria?” I asked.

“Goths,” replied Wednesday frankly. “From the East.”

Ah. Sunyshore was notorious for its Goth population; you'd have thought Pastoria would have more, but they preferred to save it for their holidays, as a treat. A rainy, depressing treat.

“We have almost limitless funds,” Ashley proclaimed, which was a statement calculated to dismay the one with the credit card. “So. Three rooms, if you please.”

Three... There was something strange about that.

“What? Are you planning on sleeping for once, Ashley?” Iago asked.

That was it – Ashley had said earlier that he didn't sleep any more. So why did he want a room now?

“Yes,” he replied. “I'll need the rest.”

Iago looked suspicious, but said nothing; Wednesday told us that rooms 13, 666 and 42 were unoccupied, and held out the keys.

“Why?” I asked. “Surely Goths would want those rooms more than the others?”

“No, they're too nonconformist to be nonconformist in such a conformist way,” said Iago. “It's a weak attempt to assert some individuality. Pathetic, really; if you really want to show people that you're different, you're better off becoming a serial killer.”

Wednesday gave him an odd look, and shook the keys; Ashley took them from him, gave me one and Iago another, and led us away towards the stairs.

---

It turned out that I had room 13, which was something of a relief; I'm not really superstitious, but I wouldn't have liked 42. Unsurprisingly, it was panelled in dark wood and boasted a large four-poster bed; the cord that drew the curtains bore more than a passing resemblance to a noose, and the door-frame a gallows. I threw my bag on the bed, turned around and went back outside – where I was immediately accosted by Ashley.

“Come,” he said. “We have work to do.”

I looked at my watch.

“Ashley, it's eight o'clock; can't we get something to eat?”

“We'll stop off on the way,” he conceded. “Just come on, will you? The Donnie link throws up multiple lines of inquiry, and we have to investigate them all. Tonight, if possible.”

“You do realise I have to sleep at some point?”

“Real detectives don't sleep,” he informed me.

“Maybe they do, maybe they don't,” muttered Iago – which made me jump; I hadn't seen him standing behind Ashley. “Can we just get on with this? I'm hungry.”

“Well, that's what I'm trying to do,” said Ashley. “Now come on.”

A few minutes later, we were in yet another taxi – honestly, did Ashley never think to take the subway? – and heading for Banninet Street. This turned out to be a quiet cul-de-sac in a residential district, which confused me until Ashley and Iago led me down two roads and up to the (decidedly Gothic) iron gates of the Courmocan District High School. It didn't take a genius to figure out that we'd stopped short of our destination because it was pretty weird to go around visiting schools at half past eight in the evening.

“Why are we here?” I asked. “I thought I'd escaped school three years ago.”

“I never went to school,” said Ashley. “And I want to see what I missed.”

“Really?”

“No. Pearl, you really must stop falling for that one.”

“We're here because a large part of Donnie Darko is set in a high school,” said Iago. “And this is the biggest one in Pastoria. We'll check it out, and if we can't find anything we'll have to look up the others and go through them.”

“And if we find nothing there, we'll investigate the airport and any eerie old houses inhabited only by insane elderly women,” concluded Ashley.

“How long is this going to take?” I asked.

“It depends on whether or not you choose to sleep,” he replied frankly. “You should probably be prepared to stay up until nine in the morning; I usually manage to find some sort of clue by then.”

“If you think you'll need it, I think I have some ecstasy somewhere,” offered Iago, which was a comment that I chose to outwardly ignore but filed away for future reference.

I sighed and looked up at the gate, its bars glinting in the moonlight.

“Are we breaking in, then?”

“Well, I suppose I could ask Wake for permission,” said Ashley thoughtfully. “And I could cooperate with him and the Pastoria police force, get a warrant and the backup of the whole city.”

“So we're definitely breaking in, then?”

“Oh yes,” said Ashley, and started to climb the gate.

---

“You said it was safe!”

And I was right, wasn't I? I mean, you're not hurt.

“I'm dead!”

In my defence, that isn't a result of the plane crash.

Ellen slipped on the snow and almost fell back into the fuselage; at the last moment, Bond's white-gloved fingers wrapped themselves around her wrist, and steadied her.

“Madam,” he began, but Ellen didn't seem to be finished speaking.

“And you said it was safe too!” she cried, jabbing her finger at him and hitting him painfully in the sternum. Bond, of course, did not react, other than to incline his head slightly.

“I believe that this is a very rare occurrence—”

“You said that this wouldn't fall out of the sky!”

“I had every reason to believe that that was so—”

“The wing exploded!”

Shut up, snapped Pigzie Doodle, rolling over in midair and shaking a flight attendant's thumb out of his skull. You're fine. We're all fine. Well, except for the three hundred other passengers, but let's not dwell on that, hm? We just have to travel by foot now, and so our journey might take a bit longer than I'd previously anticipated.

“We fell from the clouds!” shrieked Ellen, kicking a piece of landing gear hard and sending it skittering down the slope. “We landed on a mountain! And – and now we have to walk to Veilstone!”

“Madam, the fact that the aeroplane crashed here is due to no more or less than extreme bad luck,” said Bond, as serenely as a swan. “Please, let us put all of this unpleasantness behind us, and move on.”

Perhaps it was the powerful aura of tranquillity he exuded, but Ellen actually did seem to calm down a little, and she sat down on one of the surviving seats.

“Very well,” she sighed. “I'm calm now.”

“Excellent,” said Bond. “Now, I propose we commend ourselves to the direction of Pigzie Doodle.”

“And hope he doesn't almost kill us again,” muttered Ellen.

“Madam,” said Bond, with just the faintest trace of warning in his voice, and she fell silent.

Everyone calm now? OK. Here's the plan. Pigzie Doodle paused. While you two were lying there unconscious, looking like sleeping puddles of mercury, I drifted upwards and had a little look around. The bad news is that with the engine on one side gone, the plane must've started turning in a circle as it fell, and it's... Well, let's just say we've landed in a bad place.

“Where are we?” asked Ellen, suddenly concerned.

We're just west of Hearthome, replied Pigzie Doodle. He was a little more serious than usual; it seemed like traces of worry had leaked into his voice. We're in about as bad a place as we could possibly be.

“What? What is it?”

Hearthome has a Ghost-type Gym, he said. There are a hell of a lot of us in one place, and because there are so many, even more of us are attracted. There's also a tower with lots of Ghost-types nearby, and a monstrous Ghost in the basement of it.

“What are you trying to say, Ishmael?”

That the city is stewing with Ghosts, Pigzie Doodle said. Ghosts who regard people like you as nothing more than prey. Ghosts who would see a lone Duskull as fair game; Ghosts who would view a Duskull that actually travels with human ghosts as completely insane and probably to be destroyed on sight.

“What is it, madam?” asked Bond, sensing that something undesirable was either about to happen or in the process of happening.

“We're close to Hearthome City, Bond,” Ellen replied, a slight tremor in her voice. “Do you recall what Mans told us about Hearthome City?”

Bond closed his eyes.

“Perfectly, madam,” he replied, and promised himself a career change as soon as this was over.

---

“I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad,” sang Ashley quietly. “The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had.”

“Stop being creepy,” I replied. It was bad enough skulking around in a school in the dead of night, every shadow appearing to conceal a hidden policeman or lurking monster; I didn't need Ashley singing weird songs as well.

“It's from the film,” he replied. “Iago can give you the details.”

“It's called 'Mad World',” the Kadabra told me immediately. “Released as a single in 1982 by Tears for Fears, it was covered in 2001 by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews for Donnie Darko, in a minimalist style. This version reached #1 on the UK charts and—”

“All right, you know everything, I know that already,” I grumbled. “You don't have to prove it.” We walked on for a little while longer, and then I asked: “Where are we going, anyway?”

“Down to the basement,” Ashley replied. “To the boiler room. It's the first place in the school we need to check.”

The boiler room, when we got there, turned out to contain about a thousand litres of water, which was probably meant to remain inside a tank but which instead washed out and around our ankles when we opened the door. I found it singularly unpleasant; there's something really quite nasty about getting your feet wet when the rest of you remains dry.

“Ah,” said Ashley, staring at the water. “It looks like we're heading in the right direction.”

“How do you know this is the right direction?” I asked; that was when he pointed out the axe in the water main.

“This happens in the film,” he said, as if that was explanation enough on its own, and stepped in. For a moment, I considered whether or not I should follow – the water level had dropped to about a millimetre since we'd opened the door, but it was still flowing freely – and then decided that my shoes were already ruined, and it could do no harm to enter.

“Get on with it,” snapped Iago from behind me. “I want to get this over with and have a beer and a pizza.”

That sounded quite pleasant.

“Might have to join you,” I said, going in and curling my toes inside my shoes as the water squelched around them.

“Well you can, since you can pay and I'm not averse to getting drunk with you,” he said. “Just hurry up.”

Inside, the boiler room was almost completely dark; I could just about make out the axe and the water, and a series of pipes around the walls that looked like they belonged on the maintenance deck of a spaceship, but that was it.

“Ashley?” I called in a low voice. What is it about being in the dark that makes you whisper? I knew Iago was behind me and a detective with superpowers was somewhere in front of me, but my heart was still racing; a whirl of images from the long, terrifying nights of childhood rattled through my mind: tigers on the ceiling, hands that reach out from under the bed, pale faces in the shadows with sharp-toothed grins and black-rimmed eyes—

“What is it?” asked Ashley, and now that he turned towards me I could see his eyes were two little rifts in the dark, cold yellow lights that lit up his nose and forehead.

“Uh, nothing,” I said, wondering if he could tell how nervous I was and deciding that he probably could. “Just... found anything?”

“Not yet,” he replied. “There's nothing out of order on any of the pipes, and I don't think the axe has anything written on it.” The glow of his eyes disappeared; I guessed he turned away to investigate something.

“How can you—?”

“You watched him fight off a swarm of Combee using only the skin of his arms,” interrupted Iago. “You really think he can't see in the dark?”

“Oh. Yeah. Er, right.” I stood there and fidgeted nervously for a moment. “Found anything yet?”

The yellow lights returned sharply.

“If you give me more than four seconds, I might be able to find something,” Ashley snapped. “Even I'm not that good.”

“All right, all right,” I said. “Sorry.”

It felt like an hour later when Ashley next spoke, but it was probably only a few minutes.

“Back outside,” he ordered. “We're done in here.”

“Did you find something—?”

“Not quite, but it's here,” he said cryptically, pushing past me. “Come on; I assume you don't want to stay here in this little lake.”

He was right; I didn't, and so retreated thankfully to the corridor, which, as it turned out, was now just as wet as the boiler room. In fact, the water level seemed to be rising; if no one noticed by morning, it was probably going to reach the classrooms above.

“There it is,” said Ashley, bending down and picking something up off the floor. “It washed out when the water came out; that's why I couldn't find anything inside.” He examined it. “I know who put the axe in the pipe,” he announced. “What about you, Pearl?”

“No, but I have a feeling you're about to tell me.”

“Go on. Guess.”

“Uh, OK. Is it... Liza and Tristan?”

“Well, Tristan at least,” said Ashley, holding out the thing he'd picked up; in the dim light, I could just about see that it was a piece of coloured foil. “It's part of the wrapper from a Kinder Egg – a curious European treat that I've noticed Tristan seems to like a great deal. Every time I've seen him, he's had one or two about his person.”

“Great,” said Iago sarcastically. “We could've guessed this much – have I got my feet wet for nothing here?”

“No,” replied Ashley. “Look closely.”

Iago and I crowded closer, peering at the foil – and realised with a start that it had been folded into a tiny origami unicorn.

“What the hell? A unicorn?” I looked up at Ashley. “Why is it a unicorn?”

He and Iago looked at each other.

“Do you think—” began Ashley.

“Oh yes,” agreed Iago. “He's using—”

“How strange.”

“Yeah. It is, isn't it?”

“That's enough,” I said, resisting the urge to knock their heads together. “What does the unicorn mean?”

They turned to me, man and Kadabra, and said as one:

“Blade Runner.”

---

“How's it going?” asked Liza.

“Nearly done,” replied Tristan, twisting two pieces of wire together and pressing them down into the casing. “OK?”

“Yeah.” Liza sat down on an empty packing case and watched him work for a while. It was quite remarkable really; Tristan might be a moron, but his skills as a bombsmith were unmatched. Was that a word? Bombsmith? If not, she decided, it should be. Anyway, she'd never seen such a complex bomb as he was making constructed so swiftly and with such accuracy; Liza was no slouch in the field herself, and she knew that the machine taking shape before her was good. “You dry yet?”

“No,” admitted Tristan, glancing down at his soaking boots. “You?”

“No.” Liza looked around and drummed her fingers on the wall impatiently. They were behind schedule – there was still plenty to prepare for the Diamond's appraisal – and there were another two address here in Pastoria, those of Berenice Anders and Samantha Wilson, which she wanted to investigate. Either of them could be the one...

“There,” said Tristan triumphantly, straightening up and dusting off his hands. “All done.” He was about to high-five his Croagunk, but then remembered his poisonous claws, and thought better of it. “So, er, what's next, Liza?”

“You're sure that's done?” Liza slid off the case and back to her feet.

“Yes. All we have to do is press the button and set the timer going.” Tristan indicated the button, which was of the large red variety that one is usually forbidden to touch. “Shall I?”

“No, not yet.” Liza checked her watch, keeping a careful eye on the second hand; this whole event had to be very carefully timed. “Get ready... get ready... get ready... now.”

Tristan's finger clicked down on the button, and the numbers on the digital display blinked into life.

“OK,” said Liza. “Timer's set. Let's move.”

“Where are we going now?” asked Tristan as they left. “The hotel?”

“I wish,” replied Liza, sighing and running a hand through her hair. It came away slightly blue, she noted; what was it about her hair that made it so resistant to dyeing? “No, we've got more work to do. You need to help me kidnap some people.”

“Ooh! Ooh! A kidnapping!” Tristan bounced up and down in excitement. “Can I tie them up?”

“The last time you tied someone up you managed to hogtie yourself.”

Here, Jackie let out an amused croak; he remembered that one.

“OK, OK. Can I knock them out prior to the spiriting away?”

“How? You're not strong enough.”

“I could use Jackie—”

“We don't want to kill them.”

“OK.” Tristan thought. “How about this: can I—”

“No,” Liza said firmly, pushing open the main door and stepping out into the cool night air. “You don't get to do any of that.”

“Well, what can I do?” whined Tristan. “I just built you the most powerful bomb in Sinnoh – I deserve to do something.”

Liza pondered. He did have a point.

“You can stick the duct tape over their mouths,” she conceded at last.

Tristan sighed in satisfaction, and joined her in the car. Things were looking up for him.

---

“OK,” I said, “will someone please tell me what is going on?”

“Iago?” asked Ashley. “If you would be so kind.”

Iago sighed.

“Fine, but let it be recorded that I object to being used as a fact regurgitator. Blade Runner, 1982, sort of based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Isaac Asimov. The main stars were Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer and Sean Young. It follows the efforts of one Rick Deckard, as he attempts to track down and destroy four genetic robots, replicants, who have illegally returned to Earth to track down their maker in an attempt to extend their lives. Like Donnie Darko, it wasn't a huge success at first, but has since become a cult classic.”

“For whatever reason, Maragos is using cult films as his clues,” Ashley said. “I suspect that this is him showing off, or perhaps he thinks I'll solve the case too quickly if he structures it like a conventional mystery.”

“So what's the unicorn connection?” I asked.

“The most famous symbol in Blade Runner is the unicorn,” Iago replied. “It's the means by which Deckard's reality is called into question; through showing him an origami unicorn, that weird guy with the accent communicates to him that he might well be a replicant himself. Hey, do you think there's a theme here?”

“There might be, I suppose,” said Ashley. “But that's beside the point. We were lucky enough to get what we wanted; now I suggest we leave, before someone finds us here next to an axe in a water main and puts two and two together.”

“We didn't get what we wanted,” I said, as we started heading for the upper floors. “I mean, where's the food?”

“A damn fine point,” said Iago, thumping his fist into the palm of his hand. “Ashley, I command you to let Pearl and I stop for beer and pizza.”

“Do I have to be there?”

“Not ordinarily, but with all this weird cal going on... yes. You have to stay with me at all times.”

Ashley ground his teeth.

“Oh, fine,” he said. “Suit yourself.”

“Great. Now, it's been six years, so it might have closed down, but there's a great place on Hircine Avenue...”


Note: As those of you well versed in Sinnish culture will no doubt know, 42 is a very unlucky number in Sinnoh, owing to a spectacularly bad translation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This is in no way a desperate attempt on my part to find a third unlucky number.

teamVASIMR
February 17th, 2012, 12:44 AM
Hi Cutlerine!

This story is getting very good now!

Review:

Disclaimer: I am not an English teacher, tutor, major, or student, and this is not writing advice.

Overall reaction: The first few chapters were not so good. Reading it felt awkward. (I think we all needed some time to get over Puck and Fabien et al.) Now it has broken out of the shadow of its predecessor and is coming into its own.

End review.

Fan stuff:

1. Driftenburg theme. A song popped into my head while reading. I wondered what it was for a while, and eventually realized it was this (yay for subconscious title match):
http://kjos.vo.llnwd.net/o28/audio/mp3/so145.mp3
Atwell, Shirl Jae. "Drifen." Neil A Kjos Music Company, 1997. <http://www.kjos.com/detail.php?table=author&division=4&auth_id=52>

2. Predictions.

a) Cyrus is bluffing about the power of his bomb. It's only got enough boom to kill Pearl. Or knock out Ashley for a few hours.

b) It's probably just an NBC weapon to kill Pearl (dirty bomb, germ bomb, and/or nerve agent/other poison).

c) Ok, ok, it's a nuke. Or some sort of exotic poke-nuke, if you will. But it's still only got enough boom to kill Pearl. Or knock out Ashley for a few hours. Because if high-yield weapons were available, they could have been used against Groudon/Kyogre.

Cutlerine
February 17th, 2012, 01:30 AM
Hi Cutlerine!

This story is getting very good now!

Review:

Disclaimer: I am not an English teacher, tutor, major, or student, and this is not writing advice.

Overall reaction: The first few chapters were not so good. Reading it felt awkward. (I think we all needed some time to get over Puck and Fabien et al.) Now it has broken out of the shadow of its predecessor and is coming into its own.

End review.

I know, I know. Basically, the problem is that I started too soon after finishing The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World. I didn't leave myself any time to reset my writingness to zero and start again properly. I've been meaning to redo the first few chapters for a while now, and this reminder is exactly what I need. I'll get to it in the next couple of days.

Fan stuff:

1. Driftenburg theme. A song popped into my head while reading. I wondered what it was for a while, and eventually realized it was this (yay for subconscious title match):
http://kjos.vo.llnwd.net/o28/audio/mp3/so145.mp3
Atwell, Shirl Jae. "Drifen." Neil A Kjos Music Company, 1997. <http://www.kjos.com/detail.php?table=author&division=4&auth_id=52>

2. Predictions.

a) Cyrus is bluffing about the power of his bomb. It's only got enough boom to kill Pearl. Or knock out Ashley for a few hours.

b) It's probably just an NBC weapon to kill Pearl (dirty bomb, germ bomb, and/or nerve agent/other poison).

c) Ok, ok, it's a nuke. Or some sort of exotic poke-nuke, if you will. But it's still only got enough boom to kill Pearl. Or knock out Ashley for a few hours. Because if high-yield weapons were available, they could have been used against Groudon/Kyogre.

It might not necessarily be a nuke, remember? It might be a different sort of bomb, a bomb that would easily take out a quarter of Pastoria but be completely unable to harm Groudon or Kyogre. That sort of weapon does exist - or it does now, because I made it up about a month ago.

From Cyrus' point of view, whether or not they solve the case and disarm it is irrelevant. If they fail, they die, which removes them from the equation; if they succeed, they've spent enough time trying that Team Galactic will have finished up their preparations and be ready to move into Phase Two of their operation. The only reason the bomb needs to be that strong is to provide a strong incentive for our heroes to find and defuse it.

Anyway, thanks for prodding me about the early chapters, and I'm glad you're liking the later ones. It's good to know that I have readers plural rather than a reader, singular.

F.A.B.

Silent Memento
February 17th, 2012, 03:36 AM
“Why?” I asked. “Surely Goths would want those rooms more than the others?”

“No, they're too nonconformist to be nonconformist in such a
conformist way,” said Iago. “It's a weak attempt to assert some individuality. Pathetic, really; if you really want to show people that you're different, you're better off becoming a serial killer.”

Oh, I laughed my head off at that quote. I really don't know know if you intended to do this or not, but that quote just reminded me of a character I wrote about - a goth trainer who moonlights as a serial killer.

I was wondering when Stephanie was going to make her appearance. You know, I wonder how many of the things that she mentioned are relevant to this plot...and I also wonder how many things she didn't mention.

Bond - is - freaking - awesome. He totally needs a new job, but I'm guessing that in spite of his thoughts, he wouldn't want to leave Ellen behind. He's just a really calm, tolerant, selfless, and believable character.

Tristan can't figure out that his own Croagunk would kill the person they're trying to kidnap, but he can build a complex bomb in a matter of seconds. Go figure.

There's one confusing thing about the Galactic duo scene:

“Nearly done,” replied Tristan, twisting two pieces of wire together and pressing them down into the casing. “OK?”

“Yeah.” Liza sat down on an empty packing case and watched him work for a while. It was quite remarkable really; Tristan might be a moron, but his skills as a bombsmith were unmatched. Was that a word? Bombsmith? If not, she decided, it should be. Anyway, she'd never seen such a complex bomb as he was making constructed so swiftly and with such accuracy; Liza was no slouch in the field herself, and she knew that the machine taking shape before her was good. “You dry yet?”

“No,” admitted Liza, glancing down at her soaking boots. “You?”

“No.” Liza looked around and drummed her fingers on the wall impatiently.

It's just a bit vague as to who's speaking in the bolded part. Is it Liza or Tristan?

Anyway, you're far from the only person who hates Wake. I can tolerate him, at least; I've never had real problems with him, since I use Luxray a fair bit. I think the only gym leader I hate beyond all reason is Whitney. Damn you, Miltank! Stop abusing stomp, attract, and milk drink, you fat, ugly cow! Just let me win for once!

...Sorry about that off-topic tangent.

Anyway, things are just starting to get interesting. I'll be waiting for the next chapter.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Edit: If this review seems weird, it's likely because I wrote it at four in the morning. My apologies.

olih
February 17th, 2012, 05:33 AM
This story is getting good ^_^ The characters are very believable, and the plot's moving along nicely :3 I like the slightly cynical theme of this, and Pearl as an unfortunate protagonist who has no clue was nicely done; it's kinda like your last story :P Great!

teamVASIMR
February 18th, 2012, 11:00 AM
1. Uh, Cutlerine, you probably shouldn't listen to me. I probably set off a volcano that, while it would erupt anyway sometime in the future, (I don't know where this sentence is going)
What I mean is, keep in mind you can't please everybody and afaik I'm the only reader who doesn't really love the first few chapters.

2. Whatever that bomb is, it is an "exotic poke-nuke" to me (and your user title is "Nuclear!") as of now.

3. The important thing is, did you listen to Drifen? The publisher's website has a full recording available for free (the thing they sell is the sheet music) so it is certainly NOT piracy. Go ahead and download the mp3. Do it. Do it, do it, do itttt.... Oh and turn the volume up.

Cutlerine
February 20th, 2012, 12:03 AM
1. Uh, Cutlerine, you probably shouldn't listen to me. I probably set off a volcano that, while it would erupt anyway sometime in the future, (I don't know where this sentence is going)
What I mean is, keep in mind you can't please everybody and afaik I'm the only reader who doesn't really love the first few chapters.

Ah, you misunderstand me. This is nothing to do with pleasing the readers - I really have been planning to overhaul them for some time now. You're not deceived; they really are of subpar quality. I always say that if a story can be made better, it ought to be.

2. Whatever that bomb is, it is an "exotic poke-nuke" to me (and your user title is "Nuclear!") as of now.

My user title is Nuclear! for a completely different reason. It's to do with my avatar.

3. The important thing is, did you listen to Drifen? The publisher's website has a full recording available for free (the thing they sell is the sheet music) so it is certainly NOT piracy. Go ahead and download the mp3. Do it. Do it, do it, do itttt.... Oh and turn the volume up.

I meant to... and I will, as soon as I get around to it.

This story is getting good ^_^ The characters are very believable, and the plot's moving along nicely :3 I like the slightly cynical theme of this, and Pearl as an unfortunate protagonist who has no clue was nicely done; it's kinda like your last story :P Great!

It's kind of like, yeah. That's what I was aiming for. However, Pearl actually has a whole different set of strengths and weaknesses to Kester, as will be revealed in time...

Oh, I laughed my head off at that quote. I really don't know know if you intended to do this or not, but that quote just reminded me of a character I wrote about - a goth trainer who moonlights as a serial killer.

That was entirely unintentional. It's just that serial killers are funny. Wait. No they're not. Scratch that.

I was wondering when Stephanie was going to make her appearance. You know, I wonder how many of the things that she mentioned are relevant to this plot...and I also wonder how many things she didn't mention.

You'll like the next chapter, then.

Bond - is - freaking - awesome. He totally needs a new job, but I'm guessing that in spite of his thoughts, he wouldn't want to leave Ellen behind. He's just a really calm, tolerant, selfless, and believable character.

I know, I know, he's great. He's the only character (besides Pigzie Doodle) whose ultimate ending I've actually worked out properly so far, purely because he's awesome.

There's one confusing thing about the Galactic duo scene:

It's just a bit vague as to who's speaking in the bolded part. Is it Liza or Tristan?

Fixed. I, uh, must've lost concentration mid-paragraph there and regained it two sentences later.

Anyway, you're far from the only person who hates Wake. I can tolerate him, at least; I've never had real problems with him, since I use Luxray a fair bit. I think the only gym leader I hate beyond all reason is Whitney. Damn you, Miltank! Stop abusing stomp, attract, and milk drink, you fat, ugly cow! Just let me win for once!

I found Whitney horrendously difficult the first time, and really easy after that. It's Jasmine's Steelix that got me - especially in Gen 4 Contests. Did you know it's a Master Rank Beauty contestant? And that it always wins? Damn snake...

Edit: If this review seems weird, it's likely because I wrote it at four in the morning. My apologies.

It doesn't seem weird at all, which is probably a reflection on me rather than you.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
February 21st, 2012, 02:39 PM
Chapter Twenty-Three: In Which Pearl Calls Stephanie

'Hm? Oh, at first it was simply to gain my freedom, yes – there's no question about that. But over time... well. It's something of a cliché, is it not? Albeit one that almost never occurs in real life.'
—Ashley Lacrimére, interview on The Ruby Rhodes Show

Eleven o'clock at night. The hotel was silent. All was set and I was ready.

I slipped out of my room and down the corridor, pausing at regular intervals to check that nobody was following me; as it turned out, no one was, and I reached the lobby without incident. Wednesday was still there behind the desk, and I approached him as sneakily as possible.

“Ah, Miss Gideon,” he said, when I was about thirty feet away. “What are you doing up at this hour?”

Blast. What hope was there for me as a detective if I couldn't even sneak up on a one-eyed man? As if they had read my thoughts, the ravens on the Norse receptionist's shoulders cackled, and I narrowed my eyes: had they sensed me and given me away?

“Little feathered bratchnies,” I muttered under my breath – and then, louder: “Um, hi. I was wondering if there were any mobile phone shops nearby?”

Wednesday looked at me as if I'd suddenly climbed into my own pocket and carried myself out.

“A phone shop? At this time of night?”

“Er... well, when a girl needs a phone...”

“I don't know if any will be open,” he said kindly, as if talking to an idiot. “Most shops are closed at night.”

“Isn't there even one?”

“Well...” Wednesday pondered. “None of the real phone shops will be open now, but there are all-night electronics stores on Muscat Street.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. I always wondered why you'd need an all-night electronics store. I suppose now I know.”

“Yeah. I guess you do.”

I thanked him and walked out, where the cab I'd ordered from my room was waiting. I smiled. It was like one of those crime movies where there's an elaborate con, and all the parts move perfectly smoothly in that really satisfying way.

After our meal earlier – which had been a hurried affair, at Ashley's insistence – we'd headed straight back to the hotel, where Iago and Ashley had begun thinking about possible places to investigate based on the Blade Runner clue. This left me at a loose end, so after sitting around bored for a while I came up with a plan: I would do what I'd meant to do days ago, and get a new phone. Then I would call Stephanie, and see what she'd found out about Ashley.

As for why I was being so stealthy about it... well, that wasn't strictly necessary, but it was fun and I enjoyed it, even if I was awful at it.

The all-night electronics store was every bit as unpleasant as I thought it would be; the only mobile phones it sold were cheap and frankly nasty. The one I settled on was the least horrible, but it was still a poor trade for my thirty-eight thousand dollar Devon model; still, it was the best I could get right now, so I loaded Stephanie's number into it, got back in the cab and called her on the way to the Hrafn Hotel.

“Uhmm?”

“Steph? It's Pearl.”

“For Christ's sake, I'd just fallen asleep,” she mumbled.

“At eleven-twenty?”

“Not everyone's Pearl Gideon,” she said. Then, as she woke up properly: “Wait. Pearl? Pearl, is that you?”

“Yeah, I just said—”

“What took you so long?” Stephanie demanded to know. “I've been waiting for this call ever since you left!”

“I only just got a new phone—”

“Only just? You're Pearl Gideon!” she snapped. “When have you ever passed up an opportunity to shop?”

“I've been pretty busy – I almost died—”

“It's been that way here ever since I learned the truth,” Stephanie said darkly. “Pearl, for the last few days I've gone to bed fully expecting for someone to come and knife me in the night.”

“Ah, I wouldn't worry about that – the guy whose job it is to knife people is here with me. Well, he's back at the hotel. Talking about movies with a superhuman detective in the hope of finding a bomb.”

“Are you feeling all right?” asked Stephanie, after a suitable pause.

“Yeah,” I replied. “It's just... things are weird here.”

She gave a short, sharp laugh.

“You have no idea just how weird they really are,” she said. “But I guess that's why you called.”

“Yeah.” I glanced at the cabbie and lowered my voice. “I've seen Ashley change his shape, Steph. I've seen Cynthia Buckley hug him because he'd shrugged off the effects of enough poison to kill an elephant. I've seen him make the strongest Ghost in Sinnoh scream for mercy without even moving. So tell me, Stephanie: what is he, and what is it that no one wants me to know?”

---

Liza punched the wall, splitting both her knuckles and the plaster; her fingers came away with a film of bloody dust.

“Cal,” she hissed at the floor, voice rasping with anger. “Not here either.”

74 Zana Road, which was supposed to be the residence of one Samantha Wilson, was in fact deserted – and had been for at least three years, judging by the state it was in.

She had searched so many, house after house after disappointing house, and now Liza was growing desperate. There were just four remaining places to check in Sinnoh – the last four in the world, in fact – and when they ran out—

“Stop,” she told herself. “You're going to find the right place. You will. It has to be one of these.”

And what if it isn't? asked the little voice inside her head. What if you find nothing? What do you do then, when it turns out that your life has no foundation after all?

“I go with Cyrus,” Liza replied, after a pause. “I let him unmake the world, and I join him where nothing matters any more.” She pulled away from the wall and rubbed her knuckles, wiping away the blood and plaster. “Bad cut,” she said, wincing and thrusting her hand into her pocket. She could see to it later; it wasn't like it would kill her.

Liza left the bedroom, and was halfway down the stairs when one of those blinding recollections struck her: she was by a tower again, and there was an arch – that was very important, she knew, that there was an arch – and something rushed down upon her and her brethren with the points extended out towards them—

When Liza opened her eyes, she was lying at the bottom of the stairs, in the remnants of a rotting rug, and her head was aching as if it had been hit with a mallet. She barely registered the pain, though; her whole mind, her entire being, was bent upon one thought, one supreme thought that blazed in her mind like an erupting volcano:

There was an arch.

How long she stayed there, lying on the floor and staring sightlessly at the ceiling, was a mystery even to her. It might have been ten minutes, or ten hours; all Liza knew was that when she came to her senses, and the image of the arch faded from before her eyes, her clothes were damp from the moisture in the decaying floor.

“What the hell?” she mumbled, sitting up and rubbing her head, which had started to pulse with slow, dull bursts of pain. “There was an arch...”

Then it passed, and Liza got to her feet. She was slightly unsteady, and put a hand against the newel post to keep her balance; as she did so, she noticed that there was blood on it – though when she investigated further, she couldn't find its source.

“That's...” Liza shook her head and blinked firmly, trying to clear her head. “It's probably nothing,” she decided eventually, and stumbled out.

---

“You have to understand, that's the most difficult question,” Stephanie said, her voice low and urgent. “No one's completely sure – there're lots of different explanations. But I know the main three, and believe me, I think that's enough to have the League after me – especially since I'm pretty sure at least one of these is true.”

“Are you OK?” I asked, frowning. Stephanie was almost gabbling; it was very unlike her. “You don't sound OK.”

“I'm fine,” she said. “Shut up and listen. Now, the first explanation is that he's somehow influenced by Dialga.”

“Dialga?”

“You never read any books of legends as a kid?”

“Only the Greek ones.”

Stephanie sighed; it sounded like it was born half of exasperation at my ignorance and impatience that she'd have to explain further before continuing.

“It's an Ancient Sinnish legend, Pearl. In the beginning was the One, the Alpha – Arceus. You know that one?”

“Yeah, of course.” I made sure to sound indignant; everyone in Sinnoh knew about Arceus, the old creator-god. He was a national symbol: you could find him in statues and paintings across the nation, on the flag, on tinned food, for God's sake. In fact, I could see a picture of him advertising newspapers in a shop window outside the taxi – tall and red-skinned, holding a copy of the Pastoria Gazette in each of his many hands.

“Well, the legend goes that Arceus created two lesser gods to start the universe going,” continued Stephanie. “Dialga and Palkia, the gods of time and space respectively. When they were born, the universe started to be.”

“Hang on a minute,” I said. “You think Ashley might somehow be channelling the power of the Ancient Sinnish god of time?”

“Everything fits,” said Stephanie. “I've uncovered records of Ashley that go as far back as 1891; he's immortal, Pearl. He doesn't age. Like his body is frozen in time.”

“Hm,” I said, unconvinced. “Steph, are you sure you're all right?”

“I'm fine, just paranoid,” she replied, surprisingly frankly. “Look, I'm serious about this. If Ashley is blessed by Dialga – or even is Dialga – it explains everything he can do. The only leap of faith is believing that Dialga exists.”

“It's a pretty big one,” I pointed out.

“I know. That's why I think the other two explanations are more likely,” Stephanie went on. “Well, at least one of them is.”

“Give me the likely one first.”

“Do you remember that Zero affair from this summer?” she asked.

“Yeah, vaguely.”

“Some people think Ashley's like Zero – a Ghost-type Pokémon fused with a human mind to create a new being.”

“That would explain what he did to the Driftenburg,” I mused. “And we know that that's definitely possible.”

“Yes. But—”

“How did I know there was going to be a 'but'?” I sighed.

“Because twenty years of life is just about long enough to teach you that nothing's straightforward,” replied Stephanie. “Anyway, I've got my doubts about this one. Ashley is supposed to be immune to having his mind read by Psychics, yeah?”

“Oh yeah – even the Alakazam at the reserve couldn't read it.”

“You went to the reserve? No – wait – don't distract me. The point is, there's no Ghost species skilled enough in telepathy to resist that. A really strong one might kill or stun a Psychic before it managed to read anything, but it couldn't actively resist having its mind read. It's more like he's a—”

“A Time God?”

“No, I wasn't going to say that. I was going to say, like he's a Dark-type. Dark-type Pokémon are completely immune to everything Psychics can do.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Dark-types can't get inside someone like a Ghost can.”

“That's not strictly true,” said Stephanie, sounding triumphant. “They can. I found a record of an old dual Ghost/Dark Pokémon from the sixteenth century – something called Spiritomb.”

“You think that could be in Ashley?”

“It's a possibility,” Stephanie told me. “It would give him the Ghost powers, and explain why no one can read his mind.”

“But it wouldn't explain the shape-shifting,” I said thoughtfully.

“The what?”

“Hang on, the taxi's stopping. Tell you in a minute.”

I paid the driver, got out and walked over to the hotel; it was cold and the rain was beginning to get harder, so I ran over to the portico before putting the phone back to my ear.

“Sorry. What was I saying?”

“You were telling me about Ashley shape-shifting.”

“Oh yeah. That. Well, I know he can do weird stuff with his arms.”

I told her about the arm-blades and the bees as I went in.

“Combee? Pearl, are you sure this is a good idea?”

“Hey, I can't back out now,” I said, nodding at Wednesday as I passed. “Look, we've had this discussion. What do you think about the shape-shifting?”

“I don't see how a Spiritomb could do that,” Stephanie said dispiritedly. “Maybe Dialga could. He's a god, after all.”

“Maybe.” I paused. “Is there anything else you know?”

“A lot. Where do you want me to start? The League? The secret Pokémon disasters? The vaults?”

I pressed the button for the elevator, and stopped to think for a moment.

“What do you know,” I asked, “about Darkling Town?”

---

They don't let their children out after dark in Hearthome. There's a reason for that.

When dusk falls over the city of show business, of glitz and glamour and gilt edges, the lights go out, and the theatres close. The Contest Hall doors are barred, and the night shift from the Gym patrol the leafy boulevards with torches and Haunter.

Silence falls.

And the Ghosts come out to play.

Walking through the midnight streets of Hearthome is always an unnerving experience. Rarely, if ever, does one see a Ghost, but they're there; you can hear them in the sound of approaching footsteps, of unexpected whistles and shrieks, of low, throaty chuckles. If you see anything at all, it will be a shadow on a wall, or a pale face that flickers in your sight for a brief instant before vanishing; occasionally, the star Pokémon coordinators on their posters will move to a different position, or leave the paper altogether for who knows where.

No, they don't let their children out after dark in Hearthome – and with good reason.

“Bond,” whispered Ellen, as they looked out over the dark, silent city below, “I'm scared.”

“I would be lying if I were to deny sharing some of your concerns, madam,” Bond admitted, “but I have faith we shall make it through.”

They stood atop a small hill west of the city, having made their laborious way down from the mountaintop over the last few hours; being much lighter than normal people, they had taken the journey in a series of jumps, drifting down from crag to crag like strange fusions of balloon and mountain goat. This was, it turned out, a far faster method of transport than the more conventional climbing, and so now, at midnight, they were just a few miles west of Hearthome, watching it with increasing trepidation.

We want to get to the train station, said Pigzie Doodle. From there, we can get to Veilstone relatively quickly, and without too much hassle. Thank God there are no Rotom around, he added. Plasmic bratchnies just love to mess around with the railways.

“What's a Rotom?” asked Ellen.

The vanguard of the future, said Pigzie Doodle in tones of such disgust that she dared not ask him more. Look, we should get going. It's midnight now; if we start moving now, we should get to Hearthome after dawn, when most of the Ghosts have retreated for the day.

Ellen relayed this information to Bond, who agreed that it seemed a sound idea, and together, the three of them began to climb down the hill and towards the city.

---

“Darkling Town? That's the key, Pearl,” said Stephanie. “That's the one time where there's solid, reliable evidence and eyewitness accounts about Ashley and what he can do.”

“Good. Are you going to tell me about it or not?”

The lift pinged and the doors slid open; I stepped in, pressed the button for the second floor and listened to Stephanie as they closed again.

“In 1891,” she told me, “Ashley returned to Sinnoh from wherever he'd been before, on Newmoon Island.”

“Newmoon Island?”

“It's this little place far north from Canalave. There used to be a town there – Darkling Town.”

“Used to be...?”

“Until Ashley came there.” Stephanie paused. “See, when you know there's someone like him around and you're a wealthy, egotistical kind of person, you want to own him. You must've seen what an asset he is for the League, even if he does spend eighty per cent of his time playing around with his detective agency.”

“Yeah. So, what – someone tried to catch him?”

“Yes. It was the Stone family, actually – you know, the mining dynasty from Kanto? Currently run Devon in Hoenn? They'd heard about him and, since the Stones haven't always dealt with their problems entirely legally, they decided he'd be good to own. So they sent some people after him, and they met him in Darkling Town.”

“I suppose he released?”

“If by 'released' you mean 'turned into a bladed monster and turned his attackers and Darkling Town into paste', then yeah. I don't think he was expecting anyone to try and attack him; he seems to have got a bit... carried away.”

I thought of Ashley and the Combee, or of Ashley and the Driftenburg. Yes. I could see that happening. One moment, he would be completely normal, then his eyes would flash yellow and... Well. I didn't doubt for a second that nothing in 19th-century Sinnoh would have been able to stop him.

Ding!

I stepped out of the lift, checked to see if Iago was spying on me (which he wasn't) and headed back to my room.

“Right,” I said. “So... what happened next?”

“The League turned up, thinking that some ridiculously powerful Pokémon had gone berserk,” replied Stephanie. “Two Elite Four members flew in, and sent a request for help about an hour later; the rest of the Elite Four and two of the Gym Leaders went in after them. In the end, it took the combined efforts of the Elite Four, the Champion and six Gym Leaders to stop Ashley.”

“Whoa. Stop there. That – that can't be right.” I thought of the bees. “He was beaten by a swarm of Combee earlier.”

“I think either his powers are waning with time or he's just not as angry as he used to be,” Stephanie said. “He was really pissed back then. Thinking about what you just said about him shape-shifting – well, they said he wasn't even recognisable as human until they got him back to the League HQ. Now I know why.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah, I know. They only managed to stop him because a lucky Leaf Blade cut his head off and knocked him out.”

“Only knocked him out... you know, I'm not even surprised any more.” I unlocked the door, went in and flopped onto my bed. “Tell me more.”

“The Champion at the time was a woman called Allegra Fairfax,” Stephanie told me. “If half the stories about her are true, she was probably the most powerful lunatic in the history of Sinnoh. I can't think of any other example where someone so out of touch with reality ended up with such a high position.”

“Probably someone European,” I suggested. “A king, maybe?”

“That's really helpful, Pearl,” said Stephanie with deep sarcasm. “Thanks for that. Anyway, she had Ashley cut up and stored in pieces in different vaults. Spent years interrogating him – though no one knows why. She did a lot of stuff like that – like banning Mightyena from all official Trainer battles, and stabbing her mother-in-law in the chest with a bayonet. That was what got her sent to prison, actually.”

“Nice lady.”

“Mm-hm. Once she was out of the picture, the next Champion was Edmund Carthelwick, who negotiated a deal with Ashley: they'd let him go if he'd work for them when they needed him. He agreed, thinking he'd just leave as soon as he was released.”

“But? I feel like there should be a 'but' here.”

“There is. But Ashley found out he couldn't actually break free of the League's control. No one actually knows why – there's a theory that being chopped up for so long weakened him or something, but I guess the only way you'll find out is by asking him.”

“So now he's stuck with them,” I said.

“Yeah. He was imprisoned again by the last Champion – you remember him? Jonathan Farnese? – but he saw his chance when Cynthia came to power and seduced her so she'd free him.”

“What?”

“They're lovers. You saw Cynthia with him, right? Didn't you know?”

“I... actually, yeah,” I said, thinking of Cynthia's reaction earlier. “It explains it perfectly – especially why she doesn't like me. She's the jealous type.”

“They've been together ever since she became Champion.”

“But Ashley? Seriously? I can't imagine him ever being in any sort of relationship...”

“He is human,” Stephanie reminded me. “And he's also at least a hundred and twenty years old. I bet he's had thousands of girlfriends.”

I tried to imagine it and failed. Ashley was just too... alien. No one could actually love him, could they? And he could never love someone either, I was sure. It just couldn't happen.

“I'll take your word for it,” I said at length. “For now, Stephanie, what does all of this mean? Is there anything conclusive you can say that would be the turning point in a detective movie?”

“You want a McGuffin? Pearl, this isn't a film—”

“Do you have one or not?”

“No. This was all I could find. If this was a film, I'd be a genius hacker and would've got the whole story already, but this is all I can get that we can reasonably believe to be true.” Stephanie paused. “Understand?”

I sighed.

“Yeah. Sorry. Look – thanks, Steph. You're a – a good friend.”

“I thought I told you this wasn't a film.”

“Shut up. It's close to twelve. I can only think in clichés at this time of night.”

Stephanie laughed, though it sounded a little off; she must be tired.

“It's OK, Pearl. I got pretty paranoid, but no one's come to kill me so far and I feel better for getting it off my chest. I should get back to bed now. I'll call this phone if I find anything else out.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Now, get some sleep for once. You'll probably need it.”

“Who are you, my mother? Anyway, I doubt I'll be getting to sleep any time soon.” I sighed again. “We're on one of those all-night detective cases. It turns out that in the movies they skip over the bits where the hero sits around for hours thinking about what they need to do.”

“That's real life for you, Pearl,” said Stephanie. “Anyway, some people have work to do tomorrow. See you later, Pearl.”

“Bye. Thanks again.”

The line went dead, and I looked at the phone for a moment, alternately contemplating how hideous it was and how surreal that conversation had been. Then my thoughts were interrupted by Ashley, who threw open the door and proclaimed in ringing tones:

“Pearl! Quickly – to Stanner Square!”

---

“There we go, darlin'. Wasn't so 'ard, was i'?”

Stephanie shook her head, beads of nervous sweat shining on her brow. The man in black smiled, and pulled the gun away from her head.

“Atta girl,” he said. “Gimme that phone now.” She handed it over, and he retied her wrists. “Cheers. Don' go nowhere, will you. Be back soon enough.”

With that, he walked out, leaving her alone in the dark.

Yes, Stephanie Knew Too Much.

And serious repercussions had come to pass.

olih
February 21st, 2012, 03:16 PM
Great chapter! The part about Hearthrome's Ghosts added an interesting bit of culture to Sinnoh. Also, that's a theory to think about, Ashley being infused with a Spiritomb... I do wonder what Pearl thought of Cynthia being with Ashley, since Pearl's thought of Ashley as handsome once or twice, I believe. I'm not saying it means anything, though. Anyways, I enjoyed reading this chapter ^_^

Silent Memento
February 22nd, 2012, 12:57 PM
And there's our first major character death in this story (since it's extremely doubtful that this man in black is going to leave loose ends lying about). I just wonder who he works for.

If he works for the League, I'm assuming that Cynthia will fly into a rage and send everyone to kill Pearl (including her Garchomp. I would now like to take this golden opportunity to tell Cynthia's Garchomp to go die in a raging inferno, you horrible jerk! Every single Pokemon I sent against that...thing was slaughtered by a mixture of earthquake and dragon rush. There's absolutely no reason why dragon rush should hit so many times in a row! It has, like, eighty-five accuracy, for crying out loud!)

If Team Galactic are his employers, then I can assume that Cyrus is going to redouble his efforts to kill the trio. Other than the fact that both he and Zero like to show people how smart they are, they're really nothing alike. Cyrus is the rare breed of cat that doesn't play with his mouse before he eats it; he strikes me as the kind of person who would go straight for the kill.

...You've succeeded in confusing me about Ashley. In my honest opinion, there's more than one way of gaining immortality in the Pokemon world (yes, I'm looking at you, Ninetales), so even Stephanie's theory about Spiritomb or some of the Darkrai theories I've seen on Serebii make a lot of sense.

Oh well. I'm just going to continue reading and see what happens. It's less confusing that way.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
February 25th, 2012, 02:02 AM
And there's our first major character death in this story (since it's extremely doubtful that this man in black is going to leave loose ends lying about). I just wonder who he works for.

If he works for the League, I'm assuming that Cynthia will fly into a rage and send everyone to kill Pearl (including her Garchomp. I would now like to take this golden opportunity to tell Cynthia's Garchomp to go die in a raging inferno, you horrible jerk! Every single Pokemon I sent against that...thing was slaughtered by a mixture of earthquake and dragon rush. There's absolutely no reason why dragon rush should hit so many times in a row! It has, like, eighty-five accuracy, for crying out loud!)

Ah, Cynthia. She really isn't coming across as nearly as nice as when I imagined her. The thing is, she only turns up when she's angry, so all we've seen of her is vengeance and fury. I really need to show her in a different mood at some point.

As for Dragon Rush, I believe it has 75 accuracy. It's like Iron Tail, only instead of lowering defence it makes you flinch. Flinchy flinchy flinchy.

If Team Galactic are his employers, then I can assume that Cyrus is going to redouble his efforts to kill the trio. Other than the fact that both he and Zero like to show people how smart they are, they're really nothing alike. Cyrus is the rare breed of cat that doesn't play with his mouse before he eats it; he strikes me as the kind of person who would go straight for the kill.

Cyrus has already tried three times to go straight for the kill. The last time was enough to convince him that Ashley isn't going to die; now he's just trying (and succeeding) to delay him. Perhaps I didn't make that clear enough.

...You've succeeded in confusing me about Ashley. In my honest opinion, there's more than one way of gaining immortality in the Pokemon world (yes, I'm looking at you, Ninetales), so even Stephanie's theory about Spiritomb or some of the Darkrai theories I've seen on Serebii make a lot of sense.

I know, I know. But what could possibly combine all the disparate elements that form my superpowered detective? That is the question. Could it be that there is more to Spiritomb than we know about? Or is it that Darkrai can manipulate the matter of the body it inhabits? It could even be the doing of Dialga. The only limit is your imagination - and what actually turns out to be true, of course. We'll find out in due time.

Great chapter! The part about Hearthrome's Ghosts added an interesting bit of culture to Sinnoh. Also, that's a theory to think about, Ashley being infused with a Spiritomb... I do wonder what Pearl thought of Cynthia being with Ashley, since Pearl's thought of Ashley as handsome once or twice, I believe. I'm not saying it means anything, though. Anyways, I enjoyed reading this chapter ^_^

You've actually just given me an idea for a marvellous subplot that I'll probably weave in around the Canalave City point. Thanks for that, and thanks for reading. I hope to have another chapter up sometime next week.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
March 7th, 2012, 12:12 AM
Chapter Twenty-Five: In Which Ellen and Bond Go From the Frying-Pan Into the Fire

'Most Haunted House: While Hearthome is known for its high Ghost population, the highest single concentration of Ghosts in any one dwelling in Sinnoh is Corvada Castle in the Celestial Hills. While only three or four of them have ever been seen, numerous Ghost Trainers such as Fantina Cousteau have conclusively proven that there are at least twenty-eight spirits somewhere within it. The occupants are, apparently, completely unaffected.'
—The Big Book of Sinnish Records

“What?” I asked. “What's going on?”

“Come with me,” said Ashley. “I'll explain as we go; there's no time to waste.”

Sighing, I dropped both my old and my new phone in my bag, hoisted it onto my shoulder and followed him out.

“We're not getting any sleep any time soon, are we?” I asked.

“Pearl, we have almost exactly forty-eight hours before a bomb of devastating potential goes off somewhere in this damp and Gothic city, and we have no idea where it might be. I think that anything as minor as sleep can be safely disregarded under the circumstances.”

“They never show this in the movies,” I complained.

“Perhaps you ought to try reading a book for once,” replied Ashley, reaching the stairs and gliding down them like a ghost. “None of those trashy crime novels, either – something realistic, where problems take hours or days to solve instead of minutes.”

“Hey, I—” I broke off, realising something was missing. “Where's Iago?”

“Here,” replied the Kadabra. I blinked; I was sure he hadn't been there a moment ago. It must, I decided, be my current state of fatigue that was responsible; I'd had a pretty tiring day what with the two near-death incidents and the break-in at Courmocan High. “How did you not see me?”

“I – it's been a tiring day,” I said. “Uh, where are we going?”

“Stanner Square,” replied Ashley, sweeping past Wednesday and towards the doors. “To the Jeffrey Lebowski Embryonic Research and Genetics Institute.”

“The what? Why?”

“Blade Runner is set in a future Los Angeles,” Iago told me. “None of the significant locations in it exist in Pastoria, but there are loose parallels.”

“The most obvious being the Tyrell Corporation, a biotechnology giant based in a pair of big pyramid-shaped buildings,” Ashley put in.

“So we looked for biotechnology concerns in Pastoria—”

“And came up with the Jeffrey Lebowski Embryonic Research and Genetics Institute,” concluded Ashley. He pushed open the doors and almost in the same motion slid into the waiting taxi outside. “Finding it was the part that took so long. There are fifty-four biotechnology companies of one sort or another based in Pastoria, but the only ones that have a vaguely pyramid-shaped building were that and Anthea Laboratories.”

“And of those, only the Lebowski Institute does any work on humans,” Iago added. “Anthea is just an experimental concern attempting to sequence new crops.”

The speed and density of their explanation set my head spinning, and it was with some effort that I managed to bring it back into alignment with reality.

“So... what're we actually doing?” I asked.

“We're going to the Jeffrey Lebowski Embryonic Research and Genetics Institute to look for clues,” replied Ashley, with a trace of annoyance. “Haven't you been listening?”

“Well, I have, but—”

“Well, perhaps if you'd spent less time talking to Stephanie and more time assisting with our investigation you would know.”

“How do you know—?”

“You put two phones in your bag when we left; you've obviously bought a new one to call her from,” he said dismissively. “Now, keep up with the plot, please. We have a genetics institute to get to.”

It took about forty minutes to get to the Institute; it was about three miles west of the Ganmet Monument, in a district that looked like it had been born of an architect a hundred years before his time: everything was glass or steel, ultra-tall and ultra-thin; those few buildings that didn't conform to the type were spherical or pyramidal.

“Whoa,” I said, staring out of the window. “I never knew that there was anywhere so modern in Pastoria.”

“They don't advertise it,” said Iago. “They rely on the Goth tourism. That and the hippies who come to watch Pokémon at the marsh, and they don't particularly like glass buildings either.”

“What about Trainers?” The city had a Gym, didn't it? It must get quite a bit of Trainer traffic.

“They don't bring that much money in unless they really go nuts,” he told me. “This isn't Gibbous Island.”

The taxi pulled up at the side of Stanner Square and we got out; Ashley made me pay by the simple expedient of walking away and leaving me there. By the time I'd caught up, he and Iago were at the main doors to the Institute – which was indeed pyramid-shaped, and plated in glass. It also appeared to be completely deserted: all the lights were off, and I could see no sign of anyone within.

“Do we break in?” I asked, looking around nervously.

“We don't need to,” replied Ashley. “Someone already did it for us.”

He pushed the door lightly, and it swung freely open.

“What...?”

“The lock is buckled and partially melted; I'd suggest Tristan's Croagunk has been to work here.” He glanced at me. “Come on, then. Let's see what they want.”

He slipped inside, and, with a brief look back at the dark, deserted square, I followed.

---

“Do you think he'll come back to get us out of here?”

Kester considered. On the face of it, the answer seemed quite obvious.

“No,” he said finally. “I think we're stuck here.”

“Damn,” said Sapphire, after a suitable pause.

“Yeah,” agreed Kester. “It's a real shame.” He looked over at Felicity. “What do you think, Liz?”

“I think he's coming back,” replied Felicity.

“Really?”

“Yes. He would not really leave you here. He would be lonely without anyone to show off in front of.”

Kester raised his eyebrows.

“I hope you're right,” he sighed, and leaned back against the concrete wall of the cell. “But I tell you what – I am going to kill him when he gets back.”

“I think there's a queue,” Sapphire told him dryly, which did absolutely nothing to raise their spirits. For there is nothing quite so singularly depressing as indefinite imprisonment – the more so when you are unlawfully imprisoned.

And most of all when you know that the only way you are likely to escape is if Robin Goodfellow decides to come back for you.

---

The lobby was all modern and shiny, and seemed to have borrowed its design scheme from a Macbook; everything had soft, curved edges and a clean, white look. We crept carefully through it – or at least I did; Ashley strode and Iago sauntered – and down one of several long, pale halls.

“How do you know where we're going?” I asked Ashley.

“Footprints,” replied Iago. “Pearl, you know how good his vision is—”

“Actually, no,” said Ashley.

“Oh.” Iago looked startled for a moment. “Well. OK.” I hid a smile; it was nice to see him wrong for once.

“So how do you know, then?” I asked.

“Listen,” said Ashley. We did – and sure enough, after a moment my ears caught a faint sound, too distant to make out properly. I couldn't tell what it was, only that it was; I turned to Ashley and asked him what was making the noise.

“I think it's a person,” he said, and I swear his ears grew slightly as he listened. “No, more than one. Even I'm having a little trouble at this distance.” He shrugged. “We'll find out in due course. Now, come on! If you want to get any sleep at all tonight, Pearl, we need to make some headway right now.”

We continued down the corridor, turned left down another and then right; now, I could make out the noise properly myself: the sound of someone's clothes shifting about them as they moved. Not Team Galactic, then, I thought; their spacesuits all seemed to be fairly skin-tight, which I supposed worked all right for Liza but which was probably a hassle for anyone who wasn't as slim.

“Not the Galactics,” murmured Ashley, at the exact moment that I thought it, and mentally I patted myself on the back. I was right.

Ashley motioned for us to be still, then paced up and down the corridor, listening; after a moment, he decided on the right door and pushed it open.

“Hello— oh!”

He turned to Iago and I.

“Well,” he said. “This isn't quite what I was expecting. Come and have a look.”

I did, and turned on the lights to reveal three people tied to office chairs, thoroughly bound and gagged, and blindfolded for good measure. At the sound of our voices, they all started squirming and mmphing through their gags.

“What the hell?”

“I know,” agreed Ashley. “Bizarre, isn't it?”

“Should we kill them?” asked Iago, which made all three fall silent again.

“We're not going to kill them. Why is that you feel this need to kill everyone we meet?”

“I know.” Iago glanced at them. “I just wanted to scare them.”

Ashley stared at him for a moment, shook his head and returned his attention to the three people in the chairs.

“Let's see,” he said, circling them like a shark. “Female, mid-forties, dog owner, mother of two. Male, early seventies – late sixties? – something around then, ex-military, evidently put up a fight when they got him. Male, sixteen or seventeen, Goth, just arrived in Pastoria this evening.” He stopped and pondered. “Now, I suppose the question is, why would the Galactics leave them here?”

“Aren't we going to untie them?” I asked.

“No,” replied Ashley sharply. “These people can't be trusted not to go straight to the police as soon as they're free; we really don't need anyone finding out that we broke into a genetics institute at quarter to one in the morning on a quest to save Pastoria. It'll cause a lot of unnecessary interference, Lydia.”

“What? Did you just call me—?”

“Sorry. That was remiss of me. My apologies, Miss Soames,” Ashley said meaningfully, and the penny dropped. These people could hear us – and so to cover our tracks when they eventually escaped, we needed false names.

“Yes. Right. Sorry, um, Zachariah.”

He stared at me and mouthed, Zachariah?

“Uh, yeah. Sorry, Mister Clutterbuck.”

Ashley tipped his head back to face the heavens and muttered some brief supplication to whatever powers might be capable of delivering him from my idiocy, then sighed and started talking again.

“We have to figure out why it is that they left them here,” he continued. “They're evidently a clue – or perhaps one of them is and the other two are decoys. Ah, but which one? There's the thing... No. We don't know that yet.”
“Actually, we do,” said Iago, holding up a piece of paper. “This was on the desk over there. Mister Clutterbuck.” He pronounced the last two words with a kind of unholy glee that I'd previously thought was the sole preserve of vengeful demons.

Ashley grimaced.

“Thank you, Herr Spatzendinger. May I compliment you on how well you're hiding your accent?”

Iago glowered, but, not to be outdone, countered in a heavy German accent.

“Ach, vell, you know. I try.”

I tried very hard not to laugh and just about succeeded. Ashley, the faintest of smiles on his face, grabbed the paper off him and read it out aloud, changing the names as he went.

“Hello, Messrs Clutterbuck, Spatzendinger and Soames. As you will no doubt have realised by now, there are three people in this room. Investigate them, and if you succeed, you will learn the location of the bomb.” He lowered the paper. “It's signed Liza.”

“Makes sense,” Iago said, nodding. He still used the faux-German voice. “I'm not even sure if ze uzzer vun can read.”

“She gives nothing away,” noted Ashley thoughtfully. “Hm. There are three of us and three of them, for a start. I suppose we ought to investigate one each, but—”

“—but one, I am not letting you out of my sight and two, that vould mean leaving Lydia to investigate one on her own,” finished Iago.

“Hey, I can do this myself, Spatzendinger,” I protested. “Maybe a bit slower than you, but I can do it.”

“We'll see,” said Ashley. “You can investigate the old man. Herr Spatzendinger and I will investigate the other two together.”

“You can't be serious!” cried Iago, his accent slipping for a moment in his passion. “Lydia? Investigating on her own?” He stared at Ashley for a moment, and repeated: “Lydia?”

“It's not ideal, I realise that,” said Ashley, and it was interesting to see that infuriating calm turned on someone else. To those on his side, I discovered, it was actually quite pleasant. “But we have only a little under forty-eight hours to find and deactivate this bomb. Time is not a luxury we have right now.” He looked at me. “Besides, Miss Soames is not that stupid. She'll be fine, with a few pushes in the right direction.”

“Thanks, Mister Clutterbuck,” I said with feeling, and the warmth drained from Ashley's face.

“Yes, I'd forgotten about that,” he muttered under his breath, and then bent down to pull the wallet from the pocket of the Goth boy. Unsurprisingly, it was made of black leather and studded with little spikes. Ashley flicked through its contents, pulled out a piece of paper and put it into his pocket, and replaced it. “Nestor Schultze,” he said aloud. “Sixteen, resident of 44 Forvell Road, Sunyshore. Herr Spatzendinger, search this lady here – and Miss Soames, I suggest you search the gentleman in the middle there.”

“OK.” I stepped up to him, and felt a frisson of excitement run down my spine; Ashley had given me little tests before, but never a proper bit of detectivery. Always, he either knew the answer or was simply one step away from it; this was my big break, my chance to prove that I too could solve a case. I would show him that I could discern the shape of the truth from its shadow, that I could work out the size and smell of reality from the footprint it left on an axe handle, or a body – in short, I would prove that I was, though maybe not as good as him, still a fine detective.

I looked down at the old man, tense in his bonds, and wondered:

Now where the hell do I start?

---

Midnight is a curious time. When it comes around, when the two hands of the clock meet for a perfunctory minute at the twelve, one finds oneself uneasy in the streets, forever glancing over one's shoulder to ward off the stalking shadows. In the West, it has been named the witching hour; in Sinnoh, where witches have never been particularly feared, they call it the ulñanacar, the 'hour of the dead'.

It was the hour of the dead now, and they were creeping into Hearthome by streetlight.

Ellen and Bond were no longer alive, it was true, but neither of them felt particularly dead, and both were acutely aware of the fact that a lack of true life would not protect them tonight. Whatever they were made of, and whatever strange force quickened it, would be devoured by any Ghost they met without hesitation. Usually, there was a body to shield the spirit from direct spectral attack; without any flesh to cover them, Ellen and Bond were currently feeling very vulnerable.

Pigzie Doodle, on the other hand, was drifting along about fifteen feet in front of them, attempting to look as if he had nothing to do with them.

“Could you stop whistling nonchalantly, please?” asked Ellen timidly. “This situation is eerie enough already.”

Huh. Suit yourself. He stopped and turned left around a corner. Come on. There's one of those sinister black car rental stores somewhere around here. We need wheels if we're going to make it through the city before we're noticed.

A throaty chuckle emanated from the mouth of an alley, and it was with the greatest of efforts that Bond stifled Ellen's shriek.

“Hush, madam,” he whispered, one white-gloved hand clamped over her mouth. “We must not give away our presence!”

Ellen, eyes wide and shining for all the wrong reasons, nodded silently, and he let his hand drop. Bond placed a finger on his lips, just to make sure the message hit home, and led her on down the street.

OK, said Pigzie Doodle, glancing around nervously. I think we got away with it. Just two streets that way and—

And what, exactly?

The Duskull froze, every molecule of his gaseous being stopping dead in midair. He looked almost solid.

Cal, he said in Nadsat.

“What was that?” asked Ellen, staring around wildly.

“I confess myself ignorant, madam,” replied Bond, gently pushing her so that her back was to the wall, and he was between her and the street, “but I fear I have to tell you that whatever it is, I can hear it too.”

You can? Ah. That means they're really strong. I was sensing something powerful, but—

But what, brother? Would you belittle us?

Eyes were appearing in the darkness all around them now, and Bond felt Ellen shrink into the small of his back. Unconsciously, his hands went to his bow tie, adjusting it; if there was company, a butler ought to make himself presentable.

Uh... crap. Pigzie Doodle span animatedly on the spot. I can't even count you all. Look, these guys have nothing to do with me. I'm... I was leading them here so that you could devour them.

And what about yourself? The voice was female, Bond decided, although it was hard to tell. He thought it came from the yellow-red eyes just in front of him, the ones that stood a little apart from the others – as if their owner was feared or loathed by her fellow Ghosts. As if, he realised with a sinking feeling, she were the leader.

Me? Pigzie Doodle laughed uncertainly. I, um, ate earlier. Full banquet of childhood memories at the Jubilife Airport, and agony for afters.

The lead Ghost's eyes blinked, and rolled upwards in amused exasperation.

Ghosts aren't so selfless as to help even their brethren, she said. You have some clever ploy, little brother. Her voice was low and predatory now; Bond felt Ellen shaking like a leaf behind his back. He had to confess that he was quite alarmed himself, but he stood firm and waited to see if Pigzie Doodle could sort it out. If not, he might find himself forced to intervene. What trickery do you have planned, little Duskull? asked the Ghost. What glorious deceit?

It's a plan to make my name echo through the ages, replied Pigzie Doodle frankly. Evidently he had decided that honesty would be the best policy. I want to be known, and remembered. Two thousand and eighty-four years already, and no one knows my name. I say it's about time I changed things.

How tedious, sighed the Ghost. Another Duskull who wants more than his immortality. You Old Ghosts are so... tiresome.

Ah. Does that mean I die now? inquired Pigzie Doodle.

Perhaps even Bond's heart might have skipped a beat here – but he was dead, and the organ in question had long since rotted away to nothing. Consequently, we shall never know whether the dialogue managed to push him across that fortified boundary that separates a butler from his emotions.

It does indeed, agreed the Ghost. But not by my hand. You're just a Duskull, after all. No, she continued, burning eyes snapping around to stare straight through Bond, I want that child.

Ellen. Bond might have known it would come down to this; it had been known for centuries that most Ghosts' preferred prey was children. Alive, they were tempting; dead, he suspected, they were irresistible.

He sighed. It looked like he would have to intervene.

“Madam,” Bond said politely, clearing his throat, “I regret to inform you that the young mistress is not currently available for eating. She has important business to conduct in Veilstone. Kindly stand aside.”

The unseen Ghost's eyes widened, and a furious murmuring broke out among her acolytes; obviously, it was not the done thing for the prey to resist like this.

Stand aside? the Ghost said incredulously. Did you just tell me to stand aside?

“It was a polite request, madam,” Bond corrected. “It would not be my place to tell you to do anything. After all, I am but a butler.”

Uh, Jeeves? You might want to stop that. She can consume you slowly or she can consume you quickly, and believe me, you want quickly.

Bond did not hear Pigzie Doodle, of course, and Ellen was currently in no fit state to convey the message. Hence, he simply continued to meet the Ghost's stare, and thought quite hard about what he was going to do next.

A butler? Now I really must devour you, said the Ghost hungrily. All that suppressed emotion... the rage and frustration of years and years of service, both in and after life, compacted into a little pill no larger than one of your fingernails. I will hang your soul from my neck, and drink it slowly over the next hundred years. Imagine! A century of ecstasy...

All right, calm down, you're making me hungry, said Pigzie Doodle peevishly. If you're going to devour them, get on with it so I can escape while you're busy.

Oh, I'm sorry. Did you say something, little brother? The Ghost spat the last word with such force that something dark flashed between her and Pigzie Doodle, striking him between the eyes; he collapsed in on himself and fell to the pavement like black rain, the skull-shaped plate of his face clattering down a moment after. For a moment, his eye flared crimson and his mental voice degenerated into a string of bloody images – and then the light went out and he fell silent.

Bond stared. Ellen wound her arms tightly around his waist and held on like a baby monkey.

That's better, said the Ghost. I do loathe the Old Ghosts. Always trying to make themselves seem more important, making themselves seem bigger than they are. It's fraud – and not even convincing fraud at that. She paused, perhaps savouring the moment. Now, then. Shall we get down to business?

“Madam, I have made my position clear—”

All at once, the Ghost's eyes jerked away from his to scan the sky, and around her, some of the smaller Ghosts started to disappear into the night, startled.

That *****! hissed the Ghost. She's back again! And she knows no one can stop her... She'll eat the butler – but she may leave the girl, which is something – but the butler! The *****!

Bond stared at her, bemused. What exactly was going on here?

“May I enquire as to what is happening?” he asked politely. The Ghost whirled and fixed her eyes on him.

You won't survive, she said savagely. She's coming. The new girl. I hope this is the last night she hunts here; we don't like her type here. The Ghost turned and addressed those of her followers who were still there. Well, don't just float there! She's coming, and I suggest you get out of here if you want to make it to dawn.

There was a flurry of vague wind sounds, and the spectral eyes disappeared. Bond waited a moment, but nothing happened; he could neither see nor sense anything hostile approaching.

“It would seem,” he said, “that we have escaped unscathed.”

Ellen dared to peek out from behind him, found his words to be true and stepped away hurriedly.

“Um, yes,” she said. “Of course.” She fidgeted for a moment, then looked up at Bond pleadingly. “Can we get a motor-car now?”

Ugh. Yes please, said Pigzie Doodle, his eye flickering back into life. And can someone pick me up? I can't quite seem to hold myself together right now. I'm not sure what that Mismagius did to me, but it was strong.

Ellen asked Bond to pick him up, and Bond knelt to scoop him into the curved plate of his skull-face. Surprisingly enough, nothing leaked out from the eye sockets; evidently the Duskull still had energy enough to keep himself from falling down there.

Ah, that's better. The pavement's filthy – I think I have chewing gum stuck to my left lower incisor. And – oh. Oh.

Ellen paused. This did not sound like a good 'Oh'. This was not the 'Oh' of an excited child opening a Christmas present. This was the 'Oh' of someone who has just noticed something very, very bad indeed.

“What is it?” she asked. “What is it, Ishmael?”

Why did those Ghosts leave? he asked. I was out cold for that bit, so why did they leave?

Ellen looked up at Bond. She hadn't really taken in anything the Ghost had said.

“Bond, why did the Ghosts leave?”

“Madam, they said 'she is coming', whoever that might refer to,” replied Bond. “They seemed rather afraid of her.”

That would make sense, said Pigzie Doodle grimly. OK. Run.

“What?”

RUN!

Ellen burst into a run, and Bond, working out what must be happening, followed after.

“Does 'she' refer to another Ghost, yet more powerful than the last?” he inquired of Ellen. In his arms, Pigzie Doodle rambled:

I can sense her too. My God. I've never felt anything like her. This one's older than me – much, much older, and that's saying something. Oh God, this hurts. She's like – like white gold, like Jadis, like mercury...

He trailed off, and Ellen told Bond:

“Yes. I – I think it might be...”

“In that case,” began Bond, but whatever he was about to say was lost, for at that moment she arrived, and, as Bond might have put it, their situation became somewhat uncertain.

Silent Memento
March 7th, 2012, 01:58 AM
Let me think about the identity of the newcomer. Female ghost-type? Incredibly old? Different from all of the others? New to the hunting ground? If I were to guess the identity of this ghost, I would say...Skuld. If I'm right, things are going to get very interesting. If I'm wrong, things are still going to be interesting because I'll likely get to learn about a new character.

Puck somehow managed to get Kester, Sapphire, and Felicity imprisoned and left them there to rot...did I mention that he's one of my favorite characters ever?

Wait a minute. You said that dragon rush has seventy-five percent accuracy? ...Insert swear-filled ranting and raving here.

As always, I'll be waiting for the next chapter to arrive when it does.

Sincerely,

Mem.

olih
March 8th, 2012, 03:04 PM
Who might this new ghost be...? I noticed you forgot to italicize some of Mismagius's speech, but other than that, great chapter! The reintroduction of Kester, Sapphire, and Felicity was interesting.

Cutlerine
March 15th, 2012, 05:53 AM
Let me think about the identity of the newcomer. Female ghost-type? Incredibly old? Different from all of the others? New to the hunting ground? If I were to guess the identity of this ghost, I would say...Skuld. If I'm right, things are going to get very interesting. If I'm wrong, things are still going to be interesting because I'll likely get to learn about a new character.

Puck somehow managed to get Kester, Sapphire, and Felicity imprisoned and left them there to rot...did I mention that he's one of my favorite characters ever?

Wait a minute. You said that dragon rush has seventy-five percent accuracy? ...Insert swear-filled ranting and raving here.

As always, I'll be waiting for the next chapter to arrive when it does.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Thanks. I predict a little more delay before we see a new chapter - an idea for a different story has gripped me by the throat and I can't rest until it's done - and I appreciate your patience.

And yeah, 75% accuracy. It's really, really annoying - but really good when it's my Garchomp using it.

Who might this new ghost be...? I noticed you forgot to italicize some of Mismagius's speech, but other than that, great chapter! The reintroduction of Kester, Sapphire, and Felicity was interesting.

Ah yes, thanks for pointing that out. I'll go fix it right away. As for the trio from Guide... they're not done yet. They're actually quite important to the story. As is pretty much every character I've introduced.

You know, eventually, every character from The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World and My Trip to the End of Time, by Pearl Gideon will recur, even if only in an incidental role. It isn't random people who have adventures; some people are born to strange sights, things invisible to see, and have to ride ten thousand nights until age snows white hairs on them.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
April 1st, 2012, 03:01 AM
Chapter Twenty-Six: In Which We Encounter A Second Man in Black

'Do you have any previous experience? Circle one (1) of the following:
I have worked as: a member of an antagonistic Team/a petty crook/a criminal mastermind/a henchman or minion/a demon's thrall/none of the above.'
—From the Team Galactic Application Form

Silence.

I was awake now, or at least I thought I was, but there was still total silence. No traffic outside, no radio music, no birdsong...

Complete silence.

I was sitting down, for some reason. Why was that? I'd gone to sleep in a bed, hadn't I? Or had I? My head was pounding and I couldn't even think, let alone remember; it was like the morning after I'd been stabbed by the Croagunk, but a thousand times worse.

OK, Pearl, I thought to myself. Open your eyes. Ignore the pain and work out what's going on.

And so, with an immense effort, I pulled my eyelids apart—

—to see utter blackness.

My heart rate soared and all at once I snapped back to full wakefulness on the back of a wave of adrenaline; in quick succession, I realised that I was blindfolded, gagged and tied to the chair I was in. In addition, I could feel something in my ears; I guessed they must be the reason I couldn't hear anything.

Oh, cal, I thought. Oh cal oh cal oh cal oh cal—!

I screamed then, or tried to, and tried to wrench myself free in the grip of a wild burst of all-consuming panic; I felt my muscles tense and clench and my fingers curl into fists so tightly that a surge of pain washed through my palms, but nothing happened. I was too well-secured.

I'm not altogether sure what happened next. I think it was more of the same – more thrashing and crying out for help – but I can't be certain. Everything had that heady, confused immediacy of panic about it, and it jumbled itself in my mind like sand caught in the surf. All I can safely recall are the little things that jumped out and stuck in my head, discrete flies in the emotional amber: I broke three fingernails against the chair arm; I burned my wrists with the rope; I tried to kick free and my shoe fell off.

I think it must have been about five minutes later that I stopped and slumped back in my seat, all my passion leaving me in one sudden rush. I took the chance to stab my panic in the back while it was taking this break, and, having thus calmed myself, tried to take some sort of rational stock of my situation.

OK, Pearl, I thought. Stay calm. Be cool. What are you tied with? Tape, it feels like – so that's not going to come undone. Where is it? Wrists, ankles, elbows, waist. OK, someone really doesn't want you going anywhere – or maybe, I thought in a flash of inspiration, they're inexperienced and they don't have faith in their ability to tie someone up effectively. That line of thought was interesting, but didn't lead anywhere, so I moved on. What else is there? Earplugs – pretty good ones, by the sound of things – and a gag and blindfold. I pondered that for a moment. The blindfold and gag seem to be tape too, which is going to be hell to get off since they go all the way around your head. There's something else to the gag, too – a rag or something, in your mouth. Ew. I hope that's clean.

At that point, I realised I was in danger of driving myself insane, so I stopped analysing my situation for a moment and took a few deep breaths before continuing.

The most important thing, I said to myself, is that you're here and tied up at all. That means that whoever kidnapped you doesn't want you dead.

Doesn't want you dead yet, corrected an annoying little voice in the back of my head, which I ignored, partly out of irritation and partly out of fear.

So there's hope that you could get out of this alive, I went on. Right? So stay focused, Pearl, and stay cool, and you might just get through this.

OK. That was the future dealt with. Now for the past: how the hell had I got here?

I thought back to the night before. At Ashley's direction, I'd gone through the old man's wallet, and found out his name and address – though right now I couldn't remember either of them. After that, we'd left, and Ashley had decided he wanted to go to sleep. I remembered thinking that was weird, but I wasn't going to argue with the possibility of sleep and neither was Iago. We'd headed back to the Hrafn, said hello to Wednesday on the way past, and...

I frowned. Past then, everything was shrouded in some black amnesiac fog; I couldn't remember any of it.

Maybe I was drugged, I thought. That would explain the headache, and maybe why last night's so fuzzy.

Just then, I felt fingers brush my ears, and I would have jumped right out of my skin if I hadn't been tied down. All that time with no stimuli whatsoever – and then, entirely without warning, a sudden human touch. It was a wonder I didn't pass out.

Whoever the mystery person was, they removed the earplugs, and the sounds of the world closed in around me again: birds outside, a distant wind, leaves rustling. No cars, though – so we couldn't be in the city.

“All right,” said someone. It was a man's voice, with a faint accent – was that Hoennian? Or Swedish? “Are you awake there?”

“Mmph,” I replied, trying hard not to sound sarcastic. I didn't really want to make this guy angry, but equally I couldn't talk.

“Ah. I suppose that must mean yes.” Footsteps, moving away a bit – and then coming back. An odd metal sound, and now something cold on my cheek—

“This might sting,” said the man. “Actually, it definitely will. And probably hurt a lot more than stinging. In fact, I'm not altogether sure why I said it might sting in the first place.”

That sounded ominous, but I didn't have time to work out what he might mean by it: as soon as he'd finished speaking, he ripped the tape off my face, and what felt like my entire scalp with it.

He waited for my shriek to die away, and said:

“You're welcome. I mean, I have just ungagged you. I could have left you like that, you know – perfectly justifiable, seeing as how I'm a criminal and all. A master criminal, you might say.”

“Really,” I managed to whisper through cracked lips and a hell of a lot of pain. My mouth tasted of cloth; I'd spat out whatever was in it, but it was full of that unpleasant dry sensation that you get when you accidentally fall asleep with your mouth open.

“Oh yes,” said the man, who I now saw was dressed all in black, wearing sunglasses and sitting opposite me. “Well, I'm not so much a criminal right now, seeing as how I'm working for a respectable organisation, but still. I have a long and distinguished career behind me as a crook.”

I coughed and tried to clear my throat.

“Where am I?” I asked, looking around. There weren't many clues – this was just a bare room, unfurnished save for the two chairs and a table nearby. From the light, I could tell there was a window behind me, but I couldn't see it.

“Somewhere west of somewhere else,” replied the man in black enigmatically. “From whence there is no escape.”

I stared at him. In the midst of my confusion, in the midst of my fear, a little bolt of disbelieving ridicule struck me.

“Did you just say 'whence'?”

“Yes,” said the man self-consciously. “What's wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” I said, swiftly deciding not to tell him it sounded stupidly pretentious, “it's just not a very commonly used word.”

“I'm a master of words,” the man in black told me, with a touch of pride. “Words, crime... In fact, there's very little I can't do.”

A curious thing happened then. I could've sworn I heard, somewhere in the back of my head, Ashley's voice muttering dryly to me:

A veritable polymath.

I had to suppress a smile. It was true: the man in black was peculiarly ridiculous for a kidnapper.

“What do you want with me?” I asked. It was a grim and uncertain sort of matter, and considering it brought me firmly back down to earth.

“Me?” He touched his breast. “Me? I want nothing with you other than payment. Now, my employers, they want you detained here until someone can come to collect you.” He shrugged. “Apparently they have no dedicated kidnappers of their own, so they hire in people like me to do it.”

“And who are those employers?” I asked.

The man in black smiled patronisingly and waved a condescending finger.

“Now, now, now,” he said, shaking his head in what must have seemed to him to be a very graceful way, “you and I both know that I can't tell you that. Of course, you have to ask me, because when people get kidnapped they always ask their kidnappers who they work for – but I can never answer, because it is tradition that the kidnappers never tell those they've kidnapped who they work for.” He sat back and took a bottle and a glass from the table. “It's how things work. Tradition, you know?”

He poured a liberal quantity of something disturbingly red from the bottle into the glass and sipped at it.

He's clearly an idiot, said the mysterious voice again, and this time I was sure I heard it. It was definitely Ashley, and it was definitely coming from inside my head. Feeling that if I ventured nothing, I would gain nothing, I thought back tentatively:

Ashley?

The voice made, however, no response, and I gave up. There would be time to ponder this strange phenomenon later; for now, I had to try and get some information out of the man in black. He really did seem to be an idiot, so I had fairly high hopes I'd manage to get something.

“Do you have any other questions?” asked the man in black. “I think you've done the Big Two now – you know, 'Where am I?' and 'Who do you work for?' – but you might have more, for all I know.”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“That's basically a variation on 'Who do you work for?',” he said, clicking his tongue in annoyance. “You should know I can't answer that.”

“OK, OK.” I thought. “Um... What can I ask you?”

“You may ask me,” said the man in black after some consideration, “how you were kidnapped, and how I came to be here. Yes. Yes, that'll do. So.” He looked at me expectantly, and with a couple of misgivings about his sanity, I asked him:

“How did you kidnap me?”

“Ah!” said the man, setting his drink back on the table and leaning forwards eagerly, “now that was all very clever. Totally ingenious – well beyond anything the Diamond has had to deal with before, I should imagine.”

I raised an eyebrow. I seriously doubted that.

“You may scoff,” said the man, shaking his head sorrowfully, “but you haven't heard my plan yet. It's a work of pure genius. Also, don't forget that I could kill you at any moment,” he added. “There are foul beasts well beyond mortal ken lurking behind you right now.”

I heard the rustle of limbs and the scrape of claws behind me, and suddenly felt a whole lot more serious. This guy was a kidnapper and a criminal – was it really that big a step to believe that he was a murderer, too? I looked back at his face, inscrutable behind his tinted sunglasses, and bit my tongue to stop myself saying anything.

“That'll do,” he said, pleased. “Now, to kidnap you, I had to learn of the Diamond's one weakness.”

Ashley had a weakness? Did he mean swans? I pictured the man in black scaling the walls of the Hrafn Hotel at night and stealthily slipping waterfowl into Ashley's room through the window, incapacitating him while he slipped into my room and drugged me in my sleep—

“Pay attention!” snapped the man in black petulantly. “Don't go slipping off into daydreams while I'm monologuing. It's very rude.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Won't happen again.”

“Now, as it so happens, my employers were able to furnish me with this information,” he continued, making a steeple of his fingers and leaning forward even further. He was almost bent double now, and looked very stupid indeed, though you could tell he thought it was a striking pose. “And so I discovered that Mr. Lacrimére is a borderline chocolate addict.”

I came very close to laughing out loud here, but, remembering the unknown thing behind me – whose shadow I now noticed, all sharp edges and points, on the wall in front of me – I held it in.

“When early that morning he left to get chocolate to sustain him as he thought, I slipped in, clubbed the Kadabra on guard over the head with a monkey wrench and injected you with a potent sleeping drug. Then I disguised you as an elf so that no one would ask questions, carried you into the back of my van, and drove out here.”

An elf? I looked down at myself, and saw with some surprise that I was dressed all in green.

“What was that part about the elf?” I asked, failing to see the relevance.

The man in black looked at me askance.

“Are not elves universally reviled in Sinnoh?” he asked.

“No. We don't even have elves. I don't think anywhere does, actually.”

“Blast. That's forty minutes of my life I'll never get back. And the money for the costume and the make-up kit!” The man in black sighed mightily and looked despondently at the floor for a while, after which he took a consolatory gulp of his drink. This seemed to revive his spirits a little, and he sat up again. “Well, I was misinformed then. No matter. I still caught you, from right under the Diamond's nose. Now, the other question, if you please.”

“What other question?”

“Oh, keep up!” he cried, slamming his glass onto the table. “For God's sake, I'm being an excellent villain here, and you're spoiling it all! Don't you remember that I said you could also ask me how I came to be here?”

“OK, OK!” I replied, alarmed. I had no wish to discover what it was that lurked behind me, and I had a feeling that if I irritated the man much longer the monster and I would soon be on frighteningly intimate terms. “How did you come to be here?”

“Well,” he said, striking an elegant pose, “frankly, it was a stroke of luck that I ran into my employers when I did. A series of unfortunate events had robbed me of my previous job, my rightful recognition as both a master criminal and a great global hero, and of my best friend.” He sighed again, with scarcely less might than before. “I had planned to set up my own Team, but unfortunately I lacked both the capital and the manpower, and so I took to wandering the world in a state of disconsolation, falling back on my old street performance tricks to fund each aeroplane flight.” Here, he gave me a look, and I guessed I was supposed to say something.

“What sort of street performer were you?” I asked tentatively.

“An acrobat,” he answered, with an air of melancholy. “A Baroque acrobat.”

I thought about asking how an acrobat could possibly be Baroque, but in the end decided against it, seeing as I wasn't entirely certain what Baroque meant.

“OK.”

“Well, I had flown into Jubilife from Barcelona,” continued the man in black, “and was performing in Hagai Square – do you know it? It's so beautiful in the spring – when I was approached by a man in a suit who knew my name.”

I did know Hagai Square, and I therefore knew that it was about as close to a demolition site as a functional city square could be without actually being demolished. The only people there were drug dealers and kids with knives, and I didn't think any of them would have given a Baroque acrobat anything but a mugging. For the first time, I began to wonder exactly how much of this story was true.

“He said to me, 'Are you—?'” He broke off. “Ah, but I can't tell you my name,” he said. “I'll use a fake one.” He thought. “He asked me, 'Are you Theophilus Danderine?'”

I tried to suppress more laughter, half-succeeded and snorted loudly through my nose.

“Are you all right?” asked the man in black. I nodded, not trusting my voice, and, satisfied, he continued: “And I said, 'Yes, that's me.' And then he said, 'I represent—' Ah, but I can't tell you who he represented. I'll think of a fake organisation... He said, 'I represent the Sinnish Bakery League, and we have a job we think is admirably suited for a man of your skills.' And I said, 'What might that be?' To which he responded by telling me to meet him in a certain place if I wanted to know more. So, to cut a long story short, I did, and got this job. In the process, by a remarkable coincidence, I was reunited with my friend, who, as it happened, had also been contacted by the Bakery League for a kidnapping job.”

Fighting the urge to laugh at the idea of a Theophilus Danderine being employed by the Sinnish Bakery League to kidnap me, I asked:

“Am I allowed to ask who he's kidnapping?”

“He's kidnapping someone you know very well,” said the man in black with a sinister smile of unsurpassed melodrama. “And I'm sure you'll meet soon, don't you worry about that.”

All desire to laugh left me in one sharp rush. That sounded ominous.

“What do you mean, meet?” I asked. “Who is this?”

“All in good time, Pearl, all in good time,” said the man in black, evidently pleased at having finally got a scared reaction out of me. “For now, let me just tell you the story of how I got into crime.”

“Why?”

“Because it's very important,” he said. “It's important that I be as fully developed as possible.” He grinned broadly. “After all, I am the main character.”

---

Town Called Malice, rendered in all the wondrous glory of a ringtone. A groan. A hand, groping across the table.

“Whuh?”

“Good morning, Cynthia darling.”

The voice was very cold, and very familiar. All at once, Cynthia was very wide awake.

“Ash? What—?”

“Where's Pearl?”

“What?” She sat up and brushed a lock of her overlong hair from her face. “What do you mean, where's Pearl?”

“I mean, where have your associates spirited her off to?”

“What are you talking about? We haven't done anything!”

“You mean to say it wasn't the League?”

“No!” Cynthia swung herself out of bed and felt on the table for her hairbrush. Whatever happened, she had to comb her hair every morning, or it tangled; wearing it four foot seven inches long meant that it was insanely prone to tangling. “No, Ash, I trust you—” She broke off abruptly, brush six inches from her head. “Wait. She's gone missing?”

“Yes.” He paused. “I... Cynthia, I'm concerned. If it were you, I know you wouldn't harm her. But whoever this is...”

Cynthia brought the brush down hard on her head and started dragging at her hair with the sort of force that indicated extreme concentration.

“Is it the Galactics?” she asked. “Could they be—?”

“No, darling, it couldn't be them. They already have me exactly where they want me, unfortunately. The problem is, if it isn't the Galactics and it isn't the League—”

“Then who the hell is it?” breathed Cynthia, yanking hard again and taking out a clump of three-foot hairs with a wince.

“That's what worries me,” said Ashley. To anyone else, his voice would have seemed as cold and distant as ever, but Cynthia, who had seen perhaps more of his wild and alien mind than anyone living, could detect a hint of worry in there – and it surprised her. To her knowledge, he only ever expressed worry about two people, and neither of those was Pearl. “Cynthia, have you identified the people who attacked me outside Hearthome?”

“I had Lucian go over them,” she said. “They were drones.”

“I hate those things,” remarked Ashley, remarkably calmly. “An obscene use to put a human body to.”

“I hate them too, Ash, but that's not the point. They look like Sporeola from Italy.”

“Medici?”

“I think so.”

Ashley paused.

“I sincerely doubt the Medici have had Pearl kidnapped.”

“She is the weakest one in your close circle, Ash,” reasoned Cynthia. “There's me, Maylene, Pearl, Iago and... well. Her.”

She didn't really like to think about her, or mention her either. She was an unpleasant reminder that Ashley was much than her lover, a relic from times past when he had walked the pages of history as something less than human and much more.

“I don't dispute that that's why they've had her kidnapped,” Ashley said. “Only that it is they who have done it. The Medici gave up on me two hundred years ago.”

“What about the cruise liner in the fifties?”

“I thought we'd agreed never to mention that,” said Ashley sharply. “Please. It was a very unpleasant time for all concerned.” Cynthia heard his shiver in his breath down the line. “I shall never be able to stomach sangría again.”

“Sorry, Ash. I forgot. But we can't rule out the possibility.”

“Fair enough, fair enough.” Ashley paused again. “Can you spare anyone? With Pearl gone, I have to spend even more of my time on this investigation and I can't look into this.” He almost sounded angry, Cynthia thought. “Is anyone free?”

“Fantina's in Europe right now,” she said. “I could get her to investigate, but she won't be pleased—”

“Someone has kidnapped my friend,” Ashley replied forcefully, and Cynthia knew for certain that something was up then; Ashley never called anyone his friend. He had a lover, and her, but that was it. He avoided friendship like the plague, ever-conscious of his immortality; Cynthia was well aware that the only reason he had ever seduced her was to earn his freedom – discounting her, he had had no other lovers since 1943. She counted herself lucky that he was still capable of love, and that she'd managed to trap him with it. Not that she would ever use that metaphor herself. “I think I'm entitled to irritate Fantina a little.”

“All right, all right!” said Cynthia. “I'll call her.” She hesitated. “So why... what's so special about Pearl?”

That had come out far more defensive than she'd meant it, she realised, and swore under her breath.

“She's a friend, Cynthia,” replied Ashley, sounding vaguely amused. “Only this, and nothing more. There's nothing special about her except how... not special she is. I spend too much time with the gifted, I think. I like her ineptitude.”

That had better be all you like about her, thought Cynthia darkly, and then shook the thought from her head. It was stupid of her.

“Now, darling, I'd better go. Tell Fantina to call me as soon as she finds anything.”

“Yes. Sure.”

Almost without noticing, Cynthia became aware of two dark shapes hovering in the corners of her vision.

“I'll see you soon,” continued Ashley. “Once this mess is cleared up and I see Maragos in League hands.”

The black-gloved hands moved swiftly: one over her mouth, another around her arms. Cynthia's eyes widened—

—and then the phone dropped silently onto the carpet.

“Goodbye,” it said. “I love you.”

Unsurprisingly, there was no response. After all, the room was empty.

---

It rolled around her temples, crashed down her sinuses, rumbled along her synapses and burst into little explosions behind her eyes; it cracked across her eardrums in jagged lines, and roared in her pineal gland, wherever that was. What was it, Liza wondered. Was it thunder? No, too protracted. A bulldozer? No, if a bulldozer was this close to her, she'd be in the process of being run over. Jet engines? No, that was just stupid.

“Turburweggip, umn.”

A voice? It might be, she supposed, but what sort of human could have this earthquake for a voice? And what language was it speaking?

“Tummerwackup, ummin.”

Actually, that sounded kind of familiar. It sounded a lot more like words now.

“I said, time to wake up, woman.”

Cold water and an unfriendly toecap swiftly moved Liza from drowsiness to reality, and she jerked her eyes open with an almost audible snap.

“What the hell!” she shrieked, and then managed to focus. Before her was a veritable Goliath – probably the biggest creature she had ever seen that still looked vaguely human. He must have measured three feet from shoulder to shoulder, and his black clothes looked like they weren't meant to be nearly as skin-tight as they'd become. “Jesus Christ,” said Liza, shaking water out of her hair. “Your mother had some serious child-bearing hips.”

The giant's brow lowered, almost completely obscuring his eyes, and Liza once again felt the toecap. Steel, she thought, clutching gingerly at her sternum. Definitely steel.

She was in a small, windowless concrete room, sitting up against one wall. On the plus side, she appeared to be completely unrestrained; on the minus, she had a sneaking suspicion that the colossus in black would be more than adequate restraint in himself.

“OK,” Liza wheezed, trying to get her breath back. “I get it. No sarcasm.” She broke off to cough for a moment. “What's this about? Is this another client being overzealous? Because I'm not taking offers right now. Check my Criminet status.”

Social networking for global villains had taken off in a big way in the last few years; Liza had registered eighteen months ago and the number of job offers had tripled overnight. Currently, though, her status was 'On a job', and so no self-respecting client ought to be getting in contact with her.

“No,” said the giant, and his voice sounded like a landslide in a distant valley. “Not that.”

“Then what?” Liza climbed to her feet, leaning heavily against the wall, and stared up at him with considerably more insolence than she felt. Though there were a remarkable number of things she did not know about herself, she was certain that she could be snapped in half fairly easily by this man.

“Not my business to know,” rumbled the giant. “Just caught you.”

“For who?”

Whom, a little voice at the back of her head corrected her, but Liza let it go; such fleeting missives from the past were common enough, and if she'd heeded every one she would gone mad a long time ago. Perhaps she had already, she reflected distantly. After all, her mind was pretty damn broken.

“Some people who want you and some others,” replied the giant shortly, and he would say no more on the subject.

Liza closed her eyes and felt for broken ribs.

“Who else?”

“People you know.”

You don't talk much, do you? Liza thought, but she didn't dare say it, on account of the possible snapping in half.

“I'm working with some very powerful people right now,” she said instead, testing the giant's reaction. “People who wouldn't like to see me kidnapped.”

“I'm working with some more powerful people,” rumbled the giant. “Now shuddup, woman.”

Liza raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. They stood in silence for a while, until she asked:
“So... are you just going to keep me in here?”

“No.” The giant sniffed deeply. “We're waiting for someone to come and pick you up.”

“Where will they take me?”

“Not my business. Or yours,” added the giant, upon reflection.

Liza sighed, and slid back down the wall to sit on the floor. Whatever was going on, it seemed it was going to be tediously cloak-and-dagger.

---

I'm really not sure why the man in black didn't take me straight to wherever his employers wanted me in the first place. I mean, when the man in the brown tweed suit came to pick me up, he asked him to come along too. He didn't seem to have been expecting that, and seemed quite nervous during the helicopter ride. At least, I assume it was a helicopter, from the noise – I was blindfolded again for the journey, and all I could hear was the clattering roar of the rotors.

I have no idea how long the trip was; just like before, time seemed elastic, stretching out in weird strings. All I know is that it gave me far too long to worry about what might happen to me at the other end. Where was I being taken? Was I going to be killed? Would the man in black's employers have better fashion sense than the brown suit guy?

By then, I knew I was working myself up to the point of hysteria, and forced myself to take some deep breaths – which did absolutely nothing to calm me down. A few minutes later, when the helicopter touched down, I was about ready to explode with terror.

There were a few long moments of absolute silence, and then someone grabbed my arm and pulled me up.

“Come on,” said a cold voice – the brown suit guy, I thought. “Time is of the essence.”

“Where are we?” I asked. My voice sounded all wrong: small and wavering, like a broken blade of grass, or a beaten Budew.

“Yes, where are we?” It was the voice of the man in black, and he sounded like he was blustering. A lot.

“That's not important. It's time to move.”

“What the devil is this?” cried the man in black. “I demand to know what's going—”

There was a click, and the man in black's tone changed abruptly.

“Or I could just go along with you and not complain,” he said. “Out of interest, what calibre is that?”

“.458,” replied the brown suit guy. “It's meant for big game.”

“Ah,” said the man in black. “Er. Lead on, then.”

I gulped. Things were not looking good.

We left the helicopter – I could tell because I almost fell down the steps, and because of the sudden rush of fresh outside wind – and walked across what was presumably the helipad to a door that opened with a peculiar grinding sound. I reached out to touch it as we went through, and found it was made of stone.

Where the hell are we, I wondered. What kind of place had stone doors?

We walked down a long set of cold corridors, with so many twists and turns that before long I was more dizzy than scared.

“When do we get there?” I asked.

“Silence,” commanded the brown suit guy. “Unless you have a burning desire to discover what the inside of your chest looks like.”

I didn't even dare reply. I was entirely certain that he was serious.

At length, we came to a halt, apparently at random, and I was manoeuvred up against a wall.

Don't people get put against a wall when they're about to be executed by firing squad? I wondered, and then immediately put the thought out of my mind. It didn't bear thinking about.

A moment later, my blindfold was removed, and I saw that I was right, that the person dealing with me was the brown suit guy. Bizarrely, I seemed to be in a dentist's waiting-room – and sitting and standing around, looking about as confused as I felt, were about ten other people. I recognised two as the kids from the park in Eterna, Kester Ruby and Felicity Kusagari, and another one as the man in black. There were two other men in black as well, one very large and burly and one positively gigantic, and a man in a green overcoat, and a girl a few years younger than me with a blue hat. Then there was another boy, and Liza and Tristan, and—

“Stephanie?”

“Pearl?”

We would've got further than staring, but the man in the brown tweed suit stopped us with a wave of what I now saw was a ridiculously large gun.

“The sound of the human voice is incredibly irritating,” he said. “My fingers are liable to become twitchy if I hear much more of it.”

No one spoke after that. I tried for a moment or two to communicate with Stephanie via a system of meaningful glances, but gave up pretty quickly; we really weren't having much success.

A moment later, another man in an identical brown tweed suit brought in another captive, and I realised with a jolt that it was Cynthia. Her hair was a mess, and she hadn't been given time to get dressed, but it was definitely her. Even if I hadn't recognised her, the abuse she was hurling at her captor would have given it away in a second.

“...I don't care if you've got a sodding elephant gun, I want to know where we are! Are you listening? No, I know you're not going to shoot me, you grazhny bratchny, or you wouldn't have sodding kidnapped me. So where the hell—”

The man escorting her clamped one hand over Cynthia's mouth.

“Here,” he said, shoving her forwards. He looked very tired, I noticed. “She's your problem now, Preston.”

Preston – my brown suit guy – didn't seem best pleased by this, but his compatriot withdrew with such speed that he didn't get to complain.

“Shut up and stand over there,” he said to Cynthia, who very nearly punched him in the face; as it was, she just glared daggers at him and stomped over to me.

“Pearl?” she said. “Is that you?”

“Who else would it be?” I asked, with a wary glance at Preston. However, he seemed to have admitted defeat with Cynthia, and chose to ignore us.

“It's difficult to tell with that weird make-up on. What are you wearing, anyway?”

“I'm disguised as an elf,” I said, not having the energy to explain. “Anyway, I could ask you the very same question.”

It was true. She was wearing black silk pyjamas and – more confusingly – a hairbrush jammed into her hair.

“Whatever. Do you know where we are?”

“No. I just got here.”

At this point, the Kester kid stepped forward as if to say something, but Preston presently reasserted his dominance by aiming his elephant gun at him, and he stepped back again smartly. Apparently only Cynthia got to break the rules.

“What?” Cynthia turned to look at him. “Do you know where we are?”

Kester looked at Preston, and Preston shook his head. Perhaps predictably, Kester remained silent.

“Let him talk to me,” commanded Cynthia, but Preston shook his head.

“Orders from above,” he said. “You, her and one other person only. No one else is to speak.”

“Well, who else is it?”

“He's not here yet,” replied Preston. “He's the last one.”

Right then, without any sort of warning or ceremony, a man appeared in the seat next to me. He had steel-coloured hair and sharp green eyes, and he was in the middle of lifting a forkful of lobster to his mouth.

Everyone froze. I mean, I knew that teleportation was possible – Psychic-types could do it – but I'd only ever seen it a couple of times, and I didn't doubt that more than one of those present had never witnessed it before.

The man with the fork paused too; the only parts of him that moved were his eyes. They roved left, then right, and then he put down the fork carefully on the magazine table beside him.

“Blast,” he murmured genially. “He must have got out.”

“Indeed he has, Mr. Stone,” said Preston. “I believe he's ready for you all now.”

“It's true,” agreed a voice from nowhere. “We are all assembled, and I am very pleased to be able to welcome you to my new... well. Shall we say lair?”

As if enough bizarre things hadn't happened already today, the walls fell backwards and away, like the painted pieces of scenery I now saw they were; beyond, sandy flagstones stretched away into infinite darkness in all directions.

“What the hell...?” I stared out into the vast space, trying in vain to make out any details – but there were none. Wherever we were, it was bigger than anywhere I'd ever been before, and I'd been to some pretty big places in my time.

“Hell indeed!” said the mysterious voice, and I saw a figure approaching through the dark. It was tall and thin, and try as I might I couldn't distinguish anything of it beyond something black that flowed out behind it. “Yes, Pearl, we are indeed in hell. I made it, I live in it, and I invite you all to share in it!”

“Oh my God!” cried Kester abruptly. “It's you!”

Everyone else except me turned to stare at him.

“Um... not to insult you or anything,” said the girl with the blue hat, “but the rest of us had already kind of figured that one out, Kester.”

Kester went red.

“Ah,” he said. “OK.”

“If you please?” said the figure, which was now close enough for me to make out its black globe of a head. “I was about to do the dramatic revelation.”

“Sorry.”

The figure stepped forwards into the lit area that had once been the waiting-room, and pulled the globular mask off to reveal he had the same face as the man who had just teleported into the seat next to me.

“Welcome, friends, enemies and countrymen,” he said, with an avuncular and supremely threatening grin. “I'm so glad to see that everyone survived the first act. I've been unavoidably detained at Hoennian President Loganberry's pleasure, but I'm here now, and we can all begin Act Two of my grand plan.” He looked over at me. “But of course,” he said. “You have no idea who I am, do you Pearl?”

I shook my head. I hadn't wanted to admit it, since everyone else seemed to recognise him, but I hadn't the faintest clue who this guy might be.

“Allow me to introduce myself.” He held out a long, pale hand. “My name is Zero, and I'm here to kill you all and destroy the world.” He smiled broadly. “Again.”

Silent Memento
April 1st, 2012, 12:07 PM
I know that the guy who kidnapped Pearl was none other than Fabien. And is that giant who kidnapped Liza...Barry Hawksworthy?! I thought that he had been ripped apart at a molecular level when Kyogre had been reassembled. How the hell is he still alive? There's a third man in black who's obviously Blake, who kidnapped Stephanie. So, I'm guessing that Goishi is with Blake or Fabien. Darren Goodwin and Sebastian Emerald were also kidnapped...so, where the hell is Iago, Ashley, and Puck?

And Zero has made his appearance again? What the freaking ninth circle of damnation is going on here? My mind has just exploded into little pieces - and those pieces have been torched in hellfire, frozen in liquid nitrogen, and vaporized into nothingness.

The too-long/didn't read part? Mind = blown.

Mind you, this is a good chapter, but I'm now completely and utterly confused about the plot. I'm guessing that that was your intention, though, so, kudos and congrats. I am a bit confused as to how Ashley communicated with Cynthia before she was kidnapped, but otherwise, the plot itself doesn't seem to have any gaping holes in it.

Fate almighty, I don't know how you're going to top off this chapter. All I know is that - in some spectacular fashion - you're going to try to do it and succeed.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
April 2nd, 2012, 12:41 PM
I think I know exactly how to top off this chapter, Silent Memento: with a gentle reminder of yesterday's date.

F.A.B.

Silent Memento
April 2nd, 2012, 03:50 PM
I think I know exactly how to top off this chapter, Silent Memento: with a gentle reminder of yesterday's date.

F.A.B.

...You tricked me even worse than you did in TTMGTDTW's ending. Ugh...I can't believe that I fell for it so badly...well, congratulations for being the only person to fool me on April Fool's.

With respect and complete and utter embarrassment,

Mem.

Cutlerine
April 23rd, 2012, 11:11 PM
Chapter Twenty-Six: In Which Crasher Wake Reappears

'Much like the mods and rockers of 1960s Britain, the Goths and hipsters of Sinnoh are violent enemies, and have been ever since they discovered each others' existence. Perpetually warring over which subculture is the more nonconformist and counter-cultural, they have been responsible for the largest gang wars of recent Sinnish history – the most infamous, the famous Sunyshore battle of 2009, resulted in sixty-nine arrests and left fourteen people in hospital. However, the fights rarely last very long: the hipsters cannot remain long all in one place, because otherwise they stop being hipsters, and so they tend to disperse after half an hour.'
—Emilia Hawthorne, The Tourist's Guide to Sinnoh

The city at night. In the south, the chimneys of the industrial district cut across the eye of the moon; in the west, the townhouses of the rich gaze smugly down from their lofty perches in the Coronet foothills. Most are asleep in bed, and those who are not are inside, sheltering from the cold and the Ghosts. Another night in Hearthome.

Through the night came a blurring orange comet, blitzing through the streets like a bullet, trailing blue lightning in its wake. It tore down a residential road, setting a horde of tame Growlithe barking wildly, and hurtled into a park, scattering the Shinx that had come out to feed. It zoomed across ponds, whizzed past factories, flew by Pokémarts.

Whoa, thought Puck to himself. I'm getting some serious déjà vu here.

He came to a halt by a distinctly sinister-looking car dealership and looked back down the street; if he was expecting pursuers, he was relieved, for it was empty.

I think I've lost them, he said. Good. Spiffing, you might say – but that would be tantamount to asking for a kick in the balls, so you probably wouldn't. He drifted higher up into the sky, and observed with interest a small stand-off occurring in a nearby street. Hey, look at that, he said. Ghosts – the human kind. You don't see many of them around these days. And a Frosla— He broke off abruptly. Hang on. Is that...?

Puck flew a little closer, and was rewarded by a faint, twisting pain in the core of his being – the wrenching ache that indicated his sense for other Ghosts was being overwhelmed.

Thundurus' spiky tail, he said, surprised and not a little alarmed. It's her. Puck flew closer still, and winced as the pain intensified dramatically. Yep. Definitely her. He backed away hurriedly, climbing higher into the night sky. Time to leave, I think. I'm not particularly interested in a reunion with her.

And with that, the Rotom shot away in a bright line of plasma, an orange star detached from the firmament, falling away to the horizon like a distant meteor.

---


Pastoria had never looked so nice: morning dawned and brought with it cloudless skies, without a hint of impending rain. Unfortunately, I really didn't have the energy to appreciate it – Ashley had only let me get to bed at about three o'clock and even with eight hours' sleep, I felt tired beyond all reasonable belief.

“Where the hell is all my energy?” I moaned sleepily at the ceiling. “How can I be this tired?”

All at once, I heard footsteps in the corridor, and I groaned loudly. That would be Ashley, wouldn't it?

There was a knock at the door.

“Pearl?”

Dead on. I closed my eyes and grimaced.

“All right, Ashley. Give me a minute.”

“You can have fifteen and then I need you downstairs,” he said. “It seems Crasher Wake has caught up with us.”

That woke me up.

“What?” I cried, sitting up. “What do you mean?”

“I went for a walk early this morning,” he told me, “and saw a taxi coming down the road, sagging heavily on the right. Curious as to what could be causing such a bizarre phenomenon, I followed it to the traffic lights and peered in at the window.” So deep was the following sigh that I heard it clearly through the door. “You can imagine what I found there – Wake was staring out at me. I made away as swiftly as I could, but I was close to the hotel and he turned up in the lobby a few minutes later, asking after me. He had the taxi door wedged around his waist; it seems he'd destroyed it while getting out. Huh. It would have been funny, had he not been so very annoying.”

“So what do we now?” I asked.

“We are to go to Pastoria's main police station,” Ashley replied. “Wake wanted me to come immediately, but I said I would wait for you to wake up first.”

“Oh!” I said, oddly touched. “Thanks. That was nice of you.”

“I assure you, it's more selfish than it sounds. I don't particularly want to face Wake without support.”

“That's still nice,” I said. “It's gratifying to be chosen as someone's moral support.”

“Oh no, it's purely massive support. In order to balance out Wake's one hundred and fifty-six kilograms, I'm going to need to add both Iago's forty-three and your fifty-five kilograms to my forty-nine. Though even with that, I think he's going to dominate the room.” He sighed again. “Anyway, I'll see you downstairs.”

I glared at the door.

“It's fifty-three,” I muttered crossly, and gave his retreating footsteps the finger.

---

She was tall, and cold, and unimaginably beautiful.

And Ellen knew at once that they were all going to die.

The ice-white apparition before them was terrifying – not because of any defect in her looks, but precisely because of that chill beauty she possessed. Those glittering eyes; that shining skin – even her shape, long and curved and curiously boneless, seemed without peer in the entire human race. Ellen, Bond and Pigzie Doodle were looking at perfection.

And true perfection is impossible, and so it was that Ellen fainted dead away in fear.

Oh no, breathed Pigzie Doodle. Jeeves, grab the kid and get out of here.

Bond did not move. He could not hear the Duskull, it is true, but any butler in his right mind would have immediately sprung to his mistress' aid in such a situation, and he remained standing there, staring straight ahead into the Froslass' eyes.

No no nonono! cried Pigzie Doodle. Don't look at her! Just grab the kid and get me the hell out of here!

The Froslass drifted back slightly, extending a hand, and Bond took an uncertain step forwards.

OK then, ditch the kid and just save me! We'll work out a system of winks for communication – just don't look at her and get the hell out of here!

Bond did not break his gaze. He hadn't so much as blinked throughout the entire time that the Froslass had been in his field of vision, and now he took another step forwards.

Oh, Christ, moaned the Duskull, ineffectually trying to pull himself back into a single cohesive shape. Don't you get it? She only seduces you so she can EAT YOU!

Whether the sudden sharp increase in the volume of Pigzie Doodle's voice had finally broken whatever barrier kept it from Bond's mind, or whether some other unknown stimulant checked him, Bond stopped abruptly, one foot still in the air. He lowered it carefully to the ground, cleared his throat and said, without removing his eyes from the Froslass:

“Madam, if you would be so good as to step aside, my mistress and I would like to pass.”

The Froslass froze. She had been doing this for three and a half thousand years, and this had never happened before. Had she heard correctly? Had the ghost-man really just said what she thought he had?

Since no reply seemed forthcoming, Bond repeated the request.

“We are travelling along this pavement, madam. Would you please step aside? My mistress is the last representative of a very old and important family, and I'm sure you would understand as a fellow member of society that she therefore cannot be kept waiting.”

Bond had based this presumption that the Froslass was a 'member of society' partly on the status that the other Ghosts seemed to accord her, and partly out of an instinct for flattering those who were close to killing him. It did not seem to be having much effect, however; apparently, their aggressor was still somewhat stunned by the fact that he was resisting her. Bond failed to see what was so extraordinary about it; after all, he was a butler, and no butler worth his salt ever lets his emotions get the better of him – even if faced with the best succubus that Hell has to offer.

He's... what the hell? Pigzie Doodle's eye spun wildly in the puddle of his body. You're resisting it?

“Madam?” repeated Bond again. “If you would be so kind...”

The Froslass's ancient eyes narrowed, and she spread her arms. Bond noted the swirling ice crystals gathering in her palms, and hurriedly picked up Ellen with his free arm.
“In this case, madam,” he said rapidly, stepping out into the road, “I must regrettably push past you. I hope you won't take it personally—”

The first Ice Beam hit the ground an inch from his heels, and Bond broke into a run, tearing down the street at a speed only attainable when one's continued existence is under extreme threat. From behind him came an ear-splitting shriek that burst the bulbs in the streetlights and sent a startled nightjar flapping from a tree, and a moment later Bond felt a wave of preternatural cold bearing down upon his back.

He resisted it! cried Pigzie Doodle weakly, staring wildly around. Can you credit it? I mean, he's been dead seventy years, but you wouldn't have thought the libido would've decayed that much...

“It would seem,” Bond muttered to himself as the street blurred past at breakneck pace, “that things have become tense again.”

With that, he devoted his energies wholly to running, and it would be no exaggeration to say that the longest night of Bond's afterlife was now well and truly underway.

---

Amazingly, Wednesday was still on duty at reception, and I had to wonder if the guy ever slept. He was leaning on the counter and talking animatedly to a man in thick glasses and his mousey wife, looking nothing like someone who had just spent at least fifteen hours (and probably more) on duty in a terminally dull job.

“...and so you see, that idiot killing that blasted otter was the worst possible thing,” he was saying in that rumbling, accented voice of his. “We couldn't go anywhere until we'd covered every last hair of its skin in gold. But,” he went on, “you didn't come here to listen to an old man ramble about his younger days. What was it you wanted?”

“A – a room, please,” said the man, looking slightly disconcerted.

“Ah, all right,” said Wednesday. “Do you have a reservation?”

“No. Is that a problem?”

“Yes, I'm afraid. There are no rooms available at present. Sorry, but you'll have to try somewhere else.”

The couple left, and I went up to the desk.

“Miss Gideon,” said Wednesday. “What can I do for you?”

“Have you seen Ashley – the man who was with me – around here anywhere?”

“Mister Lacrimére? Yes, I saw him go into the restaurant earlier. He was probably going to avail himself of our all-morning buffet breakfast – as you may wish to as well,” he added courteously.

I thanked him and went in search of Ashley in the hotel's gloomy Gothic restaurant; I found him sitting opposite a rather jittery-looking man, separated from him by a small ocean of coffee cups.

“Ah, Pearl,” he said, noticing me. “I'm sorry I wasn't in the lobby; I'm having some trouble getting Mister Samson here to move.”

Mister Samson actually appeared to be having some considerable difficulty in stopping moving, from the look of him; I wasn't sure how much coffee he'd drunk, but from the look of him and the empty cups it was enough to give a Blissey a heart attack.

“Uh, hi,” I said. “What's going on?”

“When Wake found the hotel, he left this man from his Gym here to watch over us and make sure we come to the station,” explained Ashley. “His name is, as I've said, Samson, and he's a sailor by trade. He's also been drinking coffee here since half-three in the morning, and is consequently a little wired, as they say.”

“He's out of his sodding mind on caffeine,” said Iago more bluntly, appearing from somewhere to lounge against the back of a nearby chair. “Look, just tip him out of the chair into a cab and let's get on with this. I don't want to spend any longer with Wake than is absolutely necessary.”

“Right.” Ashley turned back to Samson. “Hello? Can we go now?”

All at once, Samson burst into life, springing to his feet and nearly overturning the table.

“Go? Yeah! Let's go! Come on! To the police station! Go!”

So saying, he ran so fast out of the restaurant that he didn't have time to open the door, and knocked it open with his face. This didn't seem to worry him unduly, and he waited for us in the lobby, hopping impatiently from foot to foot, without looking in the slightest like he was in any sort of pain.

“Oh joy,” said Iago. “I can tell this guy's going to be fun to have around.”

“Iago, would you do me the largest of favours and shut up?” asked Ashley sweetly. “Thank you. Now, come on. The sooner we leave, the greater the chance of us getting to the station before Mister Samson manages to do himself any serious injury.”

We left, Ashley guiding Samson gently through the doors, and after a short ride in Samson's car (during which Ashley insisted on driving, on the grounds that Samson was in no way fit to take the wheel) we pulled up outside the Pastoria Central Police Station, five doors down from Wake's ridiculously over-the-top ziggurat of a Gym and twelve up from the army recruitment office that had been blown up last year. We put Samson in a taxi home and went inside; here, at the merest mention – and sometimes even sight – of Ashley, we were waved through layers of security without question, and ended up in a modern-looking office that seemed to be chiefly occupied by a large quantity of Crasher Wake.

“Ashley!” he cried in a voice so vast it was a wonder it fit in the room. “Good to see you.”

“Yes, it's an absolute pleasure,” replied Ashley in that dry way of his. “Who is this?”

He looked past Crasher to a woman so small in comparison that I hadn't noticed her at first; she looked oddly familiar, but I couldn't place her face.

“D.C.I. Siobhan Rennet,” she said, extending a hand. “It's an honour to meet you, Mister Lacrimére—”

“Please, call me Ashley,” he replied, shaking it. “Lacrimére is only my surname for legal reasons; it's very difficult to obtain a Sinnish passport with only a forename.” He smiled, and for a brief moment seemed to turn on a high-powered beam of charm: his face lit up with a divine, dazzling beauty, and for a dizzying second I think everyone in the room – even Iago – fell half in love with him. Then the moment passed, and he was once more ordinary Ashley Lacrimére, as distant and dispassionate as ever. “Have I met your brother?” he added, as if nothing had happened. “He works in the Jubilife force, doesn't he?”

I realised then that that was why Rennet looked so familiar: she was related to Nathan Rennet, the inspector who'd interviewed me back at the Hinah District station. It seemed so long ago now; had that really just been the other day?

“My cousin,” corrected Rennet, who now, partly because she had lived in awe of Ashley for so long and partly because of his blast of handsomeness, seemed to be having difficulty breathing. “He's at the Hinah District Station.”

“Mm.” Ashley nodded. “That'll be it.”

“Um... should we get down to this bomb business?” asked Rennet. “I mean – that's why you're here, isn't it?”

Ashley gave Crasher a look.

“Wake, did you not tell D.C.I. Rennet—”

“Call me Siobhan—”

“Did you not tell Siobhan why I was being called here?” he finished.

Crasher looked sheepish.

“Well, no,” he admitted. “It slipped my mind.”

“I see,” said Iago acerbically. “That wouldn't be hard, would it? I mean, what with its incredibly small size and all.”

“Yeah,” agreed Crasher, apparently missing the insult. “A small point, easy to forget and all that.”

Iago squeezed his eyes shut.

“Give me strength,” he muttered, and slumped back against the wall.

“But don't worry!” Crasher went on, turning to Rennet (with some difficulty, as he was wedged pretty firmly into the corner). “Ashley will find the bomb. After all, he caught the Zodiac Killer, didn't he?”

Rennet frowned.

“But I thought that was never solved—”

“That,” said Ashley, pinching the bridge of his nose in despair, “was highly classified information, Wake. And it wasn't catching as such, it was more of a... a tense battle to the death between man and machine. Anyway,” he said, moving on swiftly, “you are correct, Siobhan, I am here to investigate the bombings. I suppose it's too much to ask that Crasher told you what I asked him to look into, is it?”

“Those three names? Ernest Sargasso, Anne Richards and Nestor Schultze?”

“Oh. He did.” Ashley nodded his thanks at Crasher; if there was any mockery in the gesture, it was so subtle that I missed it, and therefore so did he. “Excellent. Pearl, Iago, you weren't awake at the time, but when I said I would come to the station later, I told Wake to use the intervening hours to investigate those three people we found.”

“I thought we were going to do that?” I asked, though I was secretly quite relieved; I thought that divining the old man's life would probably have been a little too much for an amateur detective like me.

“The police can do it faster,” he replied. “They have more resources and more manpower; we would have lost a whole day in following up the leads, whereas I suspect that Siobhan might have results already.”

“We do,” she confirmed, spreading some documents over her desk. “We put everyone we could spare on it, and we've already got quite a bit of information. The biggest part is that they were all found early this morning tied up in the Jeffrey Lebowski—”

“Yes, we know that,” said Ashley impatiently. “That's where we found them; they were left there as a clue for us by Team Galactic.”

“Ah. OK, that's one mystery solved.” Rennet paused. “Could we go openly against Galactic, do you think? Mount a proper police inquiry and raid their premises?”

Ashley shook his head.

“You wouldn't come up with anything,” he replied. “There will be full deniability, I'm sure; if pressed, they'll throw all the blame on the grunts they have on the ground and say it was nothing to do with them – and I'm certain that they'll have ample evidence prepared to prove that that's true. No, if we want to catch the Galactics, we'll have to work beyond the law – which means I do it.”

“Right. Uh, the people. Well, the other thing about them is that they're all criminals.”

“I suspected something like that,” said Ashley. “Carry on.”

“Ernest Sargasso – the older man – he's a retired soldier. He served in the Sinnish contribution to the UN force in Korea during the war, and although it was never proved, it seems pretty likely that he committed a few war crimes – rapes, murders, that sort of thing. Once he got back he was pulled in for a series of petty thefts and vandalisms over the years – even one count of assault – but he was smart, and we never had anything to pin on him for certain. Then – well, do you remember the Branck case?”

We all did; it had been big news a couple of summers ago. A fifteen-year-old girl, Emilia Branck, had been murdered (and possibly raped, police had said) on a walking trip through the Celestic highlands, and her body hidden in a tall tree, where it remained unnoticed for months until one of the decaying wrists snapped and a hand fell onto a family picnic. The killer had never been found.

“He was the number one suspect when we started investigating that,” Rennet told us. “Everything pointed to him – but we just couldn't find any hard evidence, and we gave him up to investigate Chris Durrell. Though he didn't turn out to have done it, as you know.”

“Nice guy,” I commented. “Are they all like that?”

“No,” said Rennet. “Ann Richards is just an ordinary shoplifter. Not quite compulsive, but she's certainly at it a lot – thirteen convictions over the last five years. Mostly things from the World Bakery Store on Kammer Street – Linzertorte and stuff.”

“What's a Linzertorte?” asked Crasher.

“The Linzertorte, one of the oldest known recipes in Europe, if not the world, consists of a very short and crumbly pastry base topped with fruit preserves, most commonly redcurrant jam,” explained Ashley. “It is topped with a lattice of thin pastry strips and often eaten at—”

“It's like a big jam tart,” I told Crasher, seeing the look of confusion crystallising on his face.

“Ah,” he said. “OK. Go on.”

“That's about all we have on her as a criminal,” continued Rennet. “Richards doesn't seem to have much else against her; other than the shoplifting, she's an unremarkable citizen.”

“There's no such thing,” proclaimed Ashley. “What about Schultze?”

Rennet hesitated.

“I don't really know how to put this,” she admitted. “I've never come across anyone like him before.”

“Oh?” Ashley's eyes lit up. “Now, this sounds interesting. Do continue.”

“Frankly, he's insane,” said Rennet. “He thinks he's some sort of vampire or evil wizard or something – calls himself the Great Magyor. From what he's said and the journal he had on him, he's come to Pastoria to start building an army of the dead to destroy the living.”

“Fascinating. Have you tried contacting his parents?”

“We called his home address in Sunyshore, but there was no answer. Apparently he and his family are pretty reclusive – his parents more than him, since he's seen around Sunyshore a fair bit with some of the rougher Goths. He's been arrested a couple of times, too, for knife-fighting and drugs.”

Ashley nodded.

“You haven't let him go, have you?”

“No, we thought you might want to talk to him and we need to get him seen by a psychiatrist anyway, so he's still here,” said Rennet. “We had to let Sargasso and Richards go though, I'm afraid – we didn't have any grounds for holding them.”

“I know. Don't worry about it.”

Ashley fell silent and checked the time on his phone.

“Did you want to speak to him?” asked Rennet.

“No, not right now,” said Ashley. “Thank you, Siobhan, you've been most informative. Keep looking into the lives of those three people – find out absolutely everything you can, no matter how irrelevant it may seem – and I'll be back later to hear it.”

He turned to me.

“Pearl, since you're liable to attempt to spy on me and otherwise be annoying if I don't invite you along, feel free to join me.”

With that, he opened the door, and probably would have walked out if I hadn't grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

“Wait! Ashley, where are you going?”

He sighed.

“I forget I hadn't told you,” he said. “Come on. We're going to the ice cream factory.”

---

Far to the north, further north even than Snowpoint, where the icebound forests give way to cliffs and the roaring ocean; where the skuas and the gannets shriek wild cries into the face of the wind and swoop screaming at the waves; where the occasional Sealeo hauls itself, worn out by the currents, to the stony scrap of beach at the base of the towering rockface – there, where there always seems to be a storm lashing at the deep in bleak, blind fury, and where authors get carried away on wild flights of Dickensian descriptive fantasy – there, a great ragged shape was silhouetted against the blank white sky, riding the blast like a spectral galleon at anchor.

Jupiter blinked.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“Yes,” confirmed Mars. “Yes, it is. Would you like to look through the binoculars?”

“Not really. It would be a bit disheartening.” He took them anyway, and peered out of the window of the jeep and across the empty space beyond the cliff. Yes, that was definitely what he thought it was, and it was definitely their target.

“What on earth is she doing, do you think?” he asked.

Mars shrugged.

“How am I supposed to know?” she replied. “She must do this often, or the boss wouldn't have told us to bring the Golbat.”

Jackson yawned in the back seat, and pressed one broad paw to the back of Mars' seat, an indication that he was now awake and desired food; she pushed it away, irritated.

“Not now. You eat too much as it is.”

Jackson's eyes flew open, and then immediately narrowed to thin slits. Eat too much? Him? That simply wasn't true. He wasn't fat at all. In fact, he was pretty damn svelte for a Purugly of his age...

He subsided into angry, rambling thoughts, and promptly forgot his hunger – which suited Mars fine.

“Anyway, I don't think we should fly out there and try and take her in the air,” she said. “It's too risky.”

“Agreed.” Jupiter looked out of the window again. “But when are we going to get a chance? We've been here for two hours now, and she hasn't stopped doing this. She must be frozen solid by now.”

“She'll come back to land sometime soon,” Mars said. “She can't stay out there all night, or she really will freeze solid. We'll get her, don't worry. We just have to wait.”

Just then, the shape bucked under the impact of a particularly strong gust of wind, then turned and soared away overhead, speeding south with an ancient, bone-chilling roar.

“Like that,” said Mars, and Jupiter gunned the engine. After several days of hunting and hours of waiting in freezing cold cars, it looked like the chase was finally on.

---

“OK, so are you going to explain this whole 'ice cream factory' thing to me or not?” I asked. “Because I don't see one around here, and I can't even begin to work out why we need to go to one.”

We were walking down a particularly Gothy-looking street, where the shops sold mainly black things with silver spikes on and silver things with black jewels on, and where virtually everyone in the crowd looked like they'd just come from the set of a Tim Burton film. This wasn't my world, and I felt ill at ease; from the looks I was getting, the people here didn't particularly appreciate being treated to a view of the latest in Sinnish fashion.

“We're making a stop to buy something on the way,” Ashley told me. “It's down here.”

“What are you buying? A goat's skull and some bat-shaped earrings?”

“Pearl, I can quite easily revert to treating you abysmally if you want me to.”

“OK, OK.” I sighed. “Why do you have to be so mysterious all the time?”

“He's an immortal shape-shifting detective,” pointed out Iago. “I think he probably has the right to be mysterious if he wants to.”

“Stay out of this,” I told him sharply. “You just make things worse.”

“Well, screw you too,” he said amiably, and startled whistling happily to himself.

“Come now,” said Ashley. “There's no need for such blatant hostilities. Let's keep our emotions under control, shall we?” I was about to deliver a cutting retort, but before I'd even got my mouth open he exclaimed, “Ah! We're here.”

I looked around, but saw no shops that looked like the sort that Ashley might ever consider entering.

“Are we?”

“Yes, we are,” he affirmed. “Give me your credit card, please.”

“What?”

“Well, I have a limited allowance from the League and you have a considerably larger one from your father,” he explained with an air of infinite patience. “It makes sense for us to conserve my funds, doesn't it?”

“You mean I have to pay for everything? It makes sense for you, maybe.” I clamped my fingers down tightly on my bag. “You're not having it.”

Ashley smiled, turned and started to walk away.

“You probably ought to have done that a moment ago,” Iago told me.

“Done what?”

“Grabbed your bag.”

I looked down at it, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary; I looked up, and saw Ashley raise his hand to display one of my credit cards over his shoulder.

“What the—?” It took my mouth a minute to catch up with my brain, and then I cried: “Hey! Give that back!”

No sooner had the words left my mouth than he vanished into the crowd – and thanks to his long, dark coat, he blended in pretty well among the Goths. I searched fruitlessly for him for a moment, gave up and stamped my foot instead.

“Now that's what I call petulant,” observed Iago. “Foot-stamping and all. I suppose there's nothing like a spoilt rich girl for acting like a brat.”

“I'm perfectly justified in acting like this!” I cried. “He just stole my credit card!”

“He's borrowing it,” clarified the Kadabra. “I'm sure he'll give it back. And you know Ashley – he's got morals and all that, so he'll only take the money he needs from it. You won't get it back to find a hundred thousand dollars are missing or anything.”

“I'd better not,” I said darkly. “Look, that still doesn't excuse it—”

“See, if it was me,” Iago went on thoughtfully, completely ignoring me, “I'd steal everything that was on it and flee Sinnoh to pursue my lifelong dream.”

I waited, but it seemed that was all he was going to say.

“You're supposed to ask 'What's your lifelong dream, Iago?'” he said, slightly annoyed.

I sighed.

“What's your lifelong dream, Iago?”

“I'm going to retire to an island in the middle of the ocean,” he said. “Miles and miles away from any civilisation – a little craggy rock in the middle of nowhere. Then I'll build a big Gothic castle on the mountainous bit (there has to be a mountainous bit; it's important) and divert a river to run through it, travelling through a series of channels cut into the floor of the corridors. There'll be a grate at either end of the channels, so the barracuda don't swim out of the castle. Oh yeah – there are barracuda. That's what the channels are for. I'll put barracuda in them, and feed my political enemies to them. Of course, there's always the possibility that I won't have enough political enemies to keep my battery – that's the name for a group of barracuda – alive, so I'll have to set up a source of human flesh. I'll probably establish a little village in the forest on the island, and keep everyone inside trapped there by fear by having a genetically-engineered barracuda-bear patrol the woods. Actually, if that sort of technology is feasible by this point in time, I'll get a butler with a barracuda head. If it isn't, I'll make do with a regular butler and a trained Charizard. I'll also spy on the villagers, watch their culture and mythology evolve, and turn it into a hit soap opera.”

I stared at him.

“Jesus. You've really thought this through.”

“I know,” he replied, apparently without noticing my surprise. “Kadabra tend to do that, and I have quite a lot of time on my hands.”

“You also have a weird fascination with barracuda,” I pointed out.

“They're the most perfect fish in the ocean,” he replied. “I love them. They combine elegance and beauty with fearsome jaws, size and speed. What's not to like?”

“You are really weird.”

“Why is it that people always think I haven't noticed that?” He snorted. “Seriously, Pearl. Do you really think I could be a Kadabra who sounds like a Jamaican, used to be a world-class con artist and now lives under the protection of the Sinnish Pokémon League and not know that I'm weird?”

“OK, OK! There's no need to be so aggressive.”

“It's the best defence. Plus, I'm keeping you distracted and entertained while Ashley's away.”

“This is pretty far from entertaining—”

“Oh, no. Pearl's annoyed.” He clapped his hands to his cheeks and opened his mouth wide in mock horror. “Whatever will we do?”

I looked at him for a moment, considering whether punching a Kadabra would result in my arrest on combined charges of assault and assumed racial prejudice; eventually, I decided it would, but only if someone saw, and resolved to hit him the next time we were alone.

“I can't believe people as pointlessly nasty as you actually exist.”

Iago laughed, which produced a sound almost impossible to recognise as laughter and which caused passers-by to give us a wide berth.

“Stick around with Ashley and you will,” he said, with a sharp-toothed grin. “I guarantee it.” He looked up. “And speak of the devil, here he is now.”

I glanced down the street, but could see no one but the Goths; Ashley's hair was brown, which was fairly distinctive among all the black, but I couldn't find it anywhere.

“Where?” I asked. “I don't see him.”

“Right,” said a Goth, detaching himself from the crowd and coming to stand by us. “Here's your card back.”

I looked at him again, and froze, eyes wide in surprise.

“Ashley?”

If I hadn't heard his voice, I probably never would have guessed it was him: in the few minutes he'd been gone, he had apparently dyed his hair, put on a hell of a lot of make-up, pierced his ears and completely changed his wardrobe for one with more of an emphasis on black, studs and skulls.

“You're a Goth,” I said, which was the first thing that came into my head and therefore sounded extremely stupid.

“Not really,” he replied. “It's a disguise.”

“You were fast,” commented Iago. “A new record, I think.”

I turned to him.

“He's done this before?”

“All the time,” said Ashley. “Cynthia likes it – and my continued liberty rests on keeping her happy. Haven't you noticed that she only wears black? She'd quite like to be a full-on Goth, I think, but it would be inappropriate for the Champion to be seen to be taking sides in the Goth/hipster war.”

“I wouldn't mind,” said Iago. “Let the Goths win, I say. They can't be as annoying as the hipsters. It's not humanly possible.”

Just in case this was some bizarre dream, I blinked hard – but when I opened my eyes, everything looked exactly the same as before. This was real all right; it just didn't seem to make any sense/

“OK,” I said slowly. “So you're disguised as a Goth. Am I allowed to ask why?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because of this visit to the ice cream factory,” answered Ashley. “I need to pretend to be The Great Magyor.”

“Who?”

“Nestor Schultze.”

“Who?”

“The mentally unstable Goth boy.”

“Oh, right. The psycho kid.”

“Yes, all right. The 'psycho kid'.” Ashley spread his arms. “What do you think? If you'd never seen his face, could you confuse us?”

“Definitely,” I replied, staring at him.

“You're sure? I modelled the style of Goth on what he was wearing when we saw him last night, but I couldn't get a Cradle of Filth T-shirt, so I was not certain I would pass—”

“Ashley? Seriously. You look fine. And by fine I think I mean scary.”

“Excellent. Here's your card back, and let's go.”

I replaced my credit card in my purse without even thinking about how much he might have spent, and trailed after him down the street, still vaguely shell-shocked.

“How did you have time to dye your hair black and pierce your ears?” I asked at length. “I can see how, if you knew exactly what you were getting, you could buy the stuff and change, but you didn't have time to do that much.”

“My hair colour is mutable,” Ashley replied in an offhand manner. “I would have thought our little adventure in the warehouse in Veilstone would have taught you that I have quite a sophisticated command of my body's shape and appearance, Pearl.”

“You can change it at will? Oh, God, I'm jealous.”

He smiled, amused – something that was made significantly creepier by the fact that his lips were now as black as Iago's heart.

“Yes, I thought you might say that. I imagine you change yours relatively often.”

I did, actually. Last month my hair had been green, which hadn't suited me as much but which had let me spy on someone from within a bush without being seen at one point with relative ease.

“As for my ears, every time I have them pierced they heal over within moments of having the needle withdrawn, so I just forced the spike of the earrings through the lobes,” he replied, in such a casual voice that you would never have known he was describing something unspeakably painful. “It aches a little, but it will stop once I take them out.”

I shook my head.

“Jesus. You're weird.”

“Actually, since you called me weird too, two out of three of us in this group are weird and therefore constitute the norm,” said Iago. “So you're weird, Pearl.”

“Shut up,” I replied.

“How eloquent,” he retorted snidely, but said no more; it seemed he'd vented his quota of spleen for today.

“Have we finished fighting?” asked Ashley. “Good. Taxi!”

---

In Hearthome, something was breaking the silence.

It roared around corners and thundered down streets, skidded across plazas and zoomed over zebra crossings, all with a heedless disregard for anything in its path; its tyres crunched on tarmac and squealed on concrete, and its passengers hung on for dear life.

Ellen was convalescing in a semi-solid pile on the back seat, and Pigzie Doodle was desperately trying to gather himself on the plate of his face; Bond, however, was sitting bolt upright, spectral knuckles white on the steering wheel, every ounce of his considerable stores of concentration bent upon one object: getting them and the car to the station intact.
For they did not drive alone that night. They had a pursuer, and she was possessed of the capability to hurl both beams of ice and ominous balls of shadow at them. And she was, Bond thought as he swerved around a statue, very unstinting with both.

He had been driving for fifteen minutes now, and he still hadn't found the station; the problem was, he had no idea where it was, and had just been heading in the same general direction that they had been travelling in before. Unfortunately for him, it seemed the Froslass knew the streets somewhat better than he did, and kept appearing unexpectedly at the side or in front of them, from which position she seemed to be a much better shot.

Another impact made the car rock on its wheels, and Bond raised an eyebrow a fraction of an inch.

“Dear me,” he murmured. “I fear this car will be quite unusable when we are done with it.”

You're telling me! cried Pigzie Doodle. For God's sake man, listen to me! Open up your – your inner ears or whatever and listen! Take a left here and then – no, I said a left – oh, sod it all, we're going to die.

Bond, wholly oblivious to the Duskull's pessimistic ramblings, turned left and came face to face with a sign proclaiming that Sinnish General Gas was examining a mains pipe up ahead, and would he please use another route—

Bond, unwavering, drove straight through the sign.

Uh, you do know what that sign meant, right? asked Pigzie Doodle nervously. There's going to be a big hole in the road. A really big hole, if it's a mains pipe. Jeeves, please tell me you're not driving into a big hole in the road—

Bond noticed a big hole in the road.

“Ah,” said he, noticing also that the speedometer told him they were travelling towards the big hole at seventy miles an hour. And “Ah,” said he again, noticing also that their Ghostly pursuer was gaining on them from behind. And “Ah,” said he a final time, noticing, as they drew near, the extreme depth of the hole.

There was no hesitation in Bond's eyes as he pressed his foot down still harder on the accelerator.

Oh no, breathed Pigzie Doodle. Oh no. Nonononono. Don't you even think about it—

Bond went one better than thinking about it: he did it. One of the car's front wheels passed over a sign resting at an angle, and the right half of the chassis followed it up and off the ground; at terrifying, giddying speed, the sinister black car flipped over sideways, flying through the air and descending, now upside-down, now sideways, towards the road on the other side—

—only to finish turning and land, with a spectacular impact that flung even Bond a little way from his seat, on all four wheels once again, having turned a full three hundred and sixty degrees in midair.

“I see,” said Bond thoughtfully, not allowing the car to slow even for a moment. “This motor-car must be designed for use in stunts.”

Holy cal! screamed Pigzie Doodle, hysterical now. Are you serious? Are you actually sodding serious? Cars can't do that in real life! And then, his hysteria suddenly evaporating: But I suppose we're avoiding the Froslass now, which is... um, which is great. Uh, keep it up, Jeeves. Bond. Whatever your name really is. A thin tendril of darkness rose timidly up from the puddle of his body, bearing his eye on top. I... hey! We're really close to the station! Right here! Turn RIGHT!

By a happy coincidence, Bond did indeed turn right, just as twin Ice Beams shot through where its rear window had been a second before, and a moment later he brought the motor-car to an elegant, skidding halt next to the ticket office.

The man inside stared out at an apparently empty, completely ruined car, and said timidly:

“Hello?”

A moment later, the doors of the car sprung open, and something white swooped out of the sky with a fearsome screech; at this, the ticket man decided it would be best to close the booth, and lowered the steel shutters over the window, closing out whatever insanity lurked outside. He must, he thought, sitting trembling behind the counter, have been mad to have taken the night shift here. He'd heard the stories, just like everyone else – of Ghosts that came in the night, eager to drain the minds and souls of any human they met – but he'd thought they always happened to someone else, and now they were here, real and bursting into his life with screams and wrecked cars...

Leaving the ticket man to his private misery, Bond sprinted for the platform, Ellen over his shoulder and Pigzie Doodle cradled in the crook of one arm. It wasn't as elegant as he would have liked, but when one was running for the life of one's employer, he supposed that no half-decent butler could do anything else.

His eyes shot up towards the electronic display hanging from the roof, and the quick mind behind them instantly divined its purpose.

“There's a train leaving in one minute from Platform Two,” Bond read to himself. “How fortuitous.”

A shriek reminded him of their pursuer, and he jumped off the edge of the platform down onto the tracks, throwing Ellen and Pigzie Doodle up to the other side and climbing up himself. Millimetres from his coat-tails, a Shadow Ball exploded as it hit the rails; shards of wood and iron sprayed high into the air, but Bond ignored them and snatched up his burdens once again.

“This is Platform Two, is it?” he muttered, looking around in distaste. “Hm. I'm not entirely sure I approve.”

This was said in regard to the fact that Platform Two, like the rest of Hearthome's main railway station, was made mostly out of concrete – but there was no time for aesthetic critiques now, Bond knew, and he ran for the train—

—only for it to start moving, just as he came close enough to press the button for the doors.

Sprinting alongside the train faster than he had ever been able to in life, Bond threw first Ellen, then Pigzie Doodle aboard; he was about to leap for the door himself, but the edge of an Ice Beam clipped his left heel and he stumbled, almost falling. In that one moment, the train began to accelerate, and the door vanished into the night with alarming speed.

Bond raised both eyebrows. It was an extreme reaction, but the situation called for it.

Recovering his balance, he ran along the platform as if the hounds of hell were after him – and indeed, something almost as horrific was. Cheered by the sight of her prey flagging, the Froslass redoubled her efforts, and now Bond's view of the train was obscured by dark flashes and shining crystals. He had been about to leap, but could no longer see where he was jumping; wary of falling and forever losing the train, he pulled back at the last moment.

A quick glance ahead confirmed a suspicion of his. He was running out of platform. Bond switched his gaze back to the train, and it became apparent that things were even worse than that: the train was pulling away from him, and now he was level with only the last carriage.

Three yards to the end of the platform, and a Shadow Ball hit the carriage, making it rock on its tracks. Bond sped up still further, pushing his ectoplasm to the limit.

Two yards, and he was level with the lights on the back of the train. The Froslass crowed in triumph; she knew that now there was no way her prey was escaping her.

One yard, and the train was ahead of Bond now, further than his arms could reach.

The end of the platform—

—and Bond leaped out from the edge, grabbing wildly for something, anything at all to arrest his fall—

—and his left hand closed around some sort of pole, some metallic protuberance on the train's back, and he hauled himself clear of the tracks, up the side and onto the roof.

Bond turned, straightened his tie and watched the Froslass shrinking into the night, her screams of fury fading with the increasing distance. He bowed as best as he could while clinging to a roof (after all, that was merely common courtesy) and then inched his way along the train, pressed flat to the steel to shield himself from the wind, until he reached the open door, where he slid down and into the carriage.

He sighed with satisfaction, shut the door and carried Ellen and Pigzie Doodle to the nearest empty seats – which were very near indeed, as the carriage was wholly unoccupied. A moment later, Ellen, who was looking more solid and human-shaped, blinked uncertainly and sat up.

“What happened?” she asked, looking around. “Oh! We got to the station. Did – how did we escape?”

Bond's shoulders moved in an almost imperceptible shrug.

“I simply drove us here, madam. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Oh. Good.”

And the train rattled on into the night, bearing its passengers westwards – and out of Hearthome.

Silent Memento
April 27th, 2012, 08:20 AM
Wow. Bond is a total badass. Who else can resist the charm of an immortal Froslass, escape, and finally evade her by making a car do a 360 degree flip over a chasm? Oh, and then modestly play it off like it was nothing special? He has that "it" factor that Puck has, except in a totally different manner. What an awesome character.

I have a question about the Mars section: was Jupiter supposed to be with her? I thought she was still recovering from her...encounter with Ashley. I believe that it was Saturn who was supposed to be with Mars; that's why you used the word "he" instead of "she" multiple times.

I'm very interested in seeing the Goth character that Ashley's going to interrogate. I just wonder if he's as crazy as mine...

Anyway, I'm sorry for not getting back to this story immediately; my life is as hectic as it's ever been. I just hope that this review helps in some way.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Cutlerine
April 29th, 2012, 02:50 AM
Wow. Bond is a total badass. Who else can resist the charm of an immortal Froslass, escape, and finally evade her by making a car do a 360 degree flip over a chasm? Oh, and then modestly play it off like it was nothing special? He has that "it" factor that Puck has, except in a totally different manner. What an awesome character.

I have a question about the Mars section: was Jupiter supposed to be with her? I thought she was still recovering from her...encounter with Ashley. I believe that it was Saturn who was supposed to be with Mars; that's why you used the word "he" instead of "she" multiple times.

I'm very interested in seeing the Goth character that Ashley's going to interrogate. I just wonder if he's as crazy as mine...

Anyway, I'm sorry for not getting back to this story immediately; my life is as hectic as it's ever been. I just hope that this review helps in some way.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Oh, good, you liked it; I was a little afraid I might have gone over the top with Bond a bit. Then again, I go over the top all the time, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.

And yeah. It is meant to be Saturn. It's just that since the whole story converted itself into 1,761,792 hash symbols rather than text, I've had some difficulty remembering what happened in previous chapters.

As ever, thanks for reading. With important exams now only a month away, chapters will slow to an almost nonexistent trickle, but rest assured that they will come. Eventually.

F.A.B.

c1234321
May 4th, 2012, 06:47 PM
First, please let me say that i absolutely love everything about this story. Everything. It captivated literally from the very first chapter. However, I cannot claim to have been a faithful follower of this story, as I began reading it....like yesterday. Still brilliant job so far. Cant wait to see how it ends. Now, like the others who have replied here, I wish to provide my own conspiracy theory. Mine is about Stephanie. I think she is being vastly overlooked, mainly because she is a minor character. Still, I think she is going to be important, and I feel like she is hiding something about her intellect from Pearl. Maybe this is just me reading into things too much, but I think that, based on the fact that she earlier seemed to know exactly what Pearl was thinking, in regards to the essay, and that just seemed vastly suspicious to me. I have been seeing a sort of Ashley-esque intelligence in her. Still, this might just be me reading into things too much. Still, fantastic story.

Cutlerine
May 13th, 2012, 04:05 AM
First, please let me say that i absolutely love everything about this story. Everything. It captivated literally from the very first chapter. However, I cannot claim to have been a faithful follower of this story, as I began reading it....like yesterday. Still brilliant job so far. Cant wait to see how it ends. Now, like the others who have replied here, I wish to provide my own conspiracy theory. Mine is about Stephanie. I think she is being vastly overlooked, mainly because she is a minor character. Still, I think she is going to be important, and I feel like she is hiding something about her intellect from Pearl. Maybe this is just me reading into things too much, but I think that, based on the fact that she earlier seemed to know exactly what Pearl was thinking, in regards to the essay, and that just seemed vastly suspicious to me. I have been seeing a sort of Ashley-esque intelligence in her. Still, this might just be me reading into things too much. Still, fantastic story.

Ah, new blood. Welcome! I hope you enjoy the story, and that its ending lives up to your expectations. As for your conspiracy theories, I can neither confirm nor deny them. However, this new chapter ought to give you plenty of food for thought; it's pretty weird.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
May 13th, 2012, 04:05 AM
An oddly serious chapter, this time. Serious, and full of Pinter. Pinter Pinter Pinter. Say it enough and it stops sounding like a word.

Interlude: Recently

The year is 2008. In three years' time, I will meet Pearl Gideon for the first time. Now, I am meeting a different woman – no, not a woman. She is seventeen, still a girl, and she has come to view the monster she has inherited. I was warned she would be coming, and told to be nice. For once, I shall do as they say: she is young and naïve, and I am old and cunning, and I know that I can make her believe we are friends, or more than friends. And when she does that, she will let me go, and I can set my head back on my shoulders and see what new wonders have crystallised in the world outside. I can visit my enemy, in her house in Eterna City, and ask her how her daughter is. I can do so much – but only if I am free.

She approaches, and I concentrate, refining my eyes, my nose, my mouth into perfect versions of themselves, smoothing out every last flaw and enhancing every asset. In half a second, I have the most beautiful face on Earth, and as soon as the girl looks at me I know I have caught her.

I can't help but smile. This is far too easy.

“Ashley,” says Lucian, eyeing me with distrust, “this is Cynthia. She's the Champion now.”

I meet her eyes. They are grey, like mine; however, where mine are dull and cold with age, hers glow with youth and excitement.

“Cynthia,” I say, through cracked lips. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I hope we will get along better than your predecessor.”

Cynthia smiles, and my fate is sealed. In one week's time, my head will leave the vault for her office. Two weeks after that, I will be whole again, and one night after that, I will sleep with her. The morning after that, I will realise with a sense of dread that I am falling in love with her.

---

The year is 2009. One year ago, I met Cynthia Buckley for the first time. In two years' time, I will meet Pearl Gideon for the first time. Everything happens in autumn. All you have to do is follow the signs, and you will find a spine of leaves running through my life.

I am sitting in a kitchen, talking to my enemy. Her name is Alicia Walker, and fifteen years ago I ruined her life. I also ruined mine, but that is no concern of hers. I have many lifetimes to ruin; she only has one.

She wants compensation, she says. I nod. It can easily be arranged, and I would gladly give it even if it could not. What would she like? Of course. Money. Would she like a nicer house, a better car? Would she like her daughter to go to a good school, too? Would she like funds set aside for her later in life, so that she can do whatever she likes with her short human existence and remove one worry from her mother's head? Yes, that would be good too. Is there anything else I can offer? Yes. I could leave and never see her again. That would make the deal complete.

I hesitate, then nod. The contract on the table is amended, and I sign it. As I leave, I see a framed child's handprint on the wall. It is the size of my palm, and I reflect that I no longer have any conception of a time when my hand was that small. I remember it happened, but the nuances of it elude me.

I feel stupid. I wait until I have walked a block from the house, and then I cry. It is the first time in four hundred years.

---

I do not know what the year is, but everything is dark and I have forgotten my name.

---

The year is 2010. Two years ago, I met Cynthia Buckley for the first time. One year ago, I signed a contract and cried. In one year's time, I will meet Pearl Gideon for the first time. It is autumn again. Everything is linked; everything follows the same twisting fractal patterns. You just need to live long enough to see the shapes crystallise in the chaos.

I have just awoken from uneasy dreams of things past and things that may yet be. My heart is beating hard in my chest, and I remember now why I gave up sleep. I hate the dreams.

It is dark, but I can see everything perfectly: the framed print on the wall, the pattern on the curtains, Cynthia's hair, winding in long blonde rivers across the sheets. I can hear her heartbeat, a slow, steady pulse, and the breath of the Hoothoot outside. I can smell stale human bodies and distant sewage, and the delicate aroma of approaching rain.

I turn my head away and shut out the world, staring at Cynthia's face instead. I imagine it growing old as I stay young, the anguish increasing behind it. I tell myself that she cannot be different from the others. Everyone will hate me, in the end. Everyone will hate me and fear me, and then everyone will die. A list of names, stretching from now until doomsday, flickers through my mind: Amanda, Sally, Jane, Zyrie, Michael, Harvey – and hundreds more, the result of four hundred and fifty years of weakness. All dead.

Cynthia stirs in her sleep, and her arm snakes over my hip and around my waist. For a fleeting moment, I know what I should do: push it away, get up and leave. I will disappear completely, vanishing into the wilderness, and find someone who needs a God.

But I do not leave. I pull her close instead, and wrap my arms around her, feeling the warmth of her living flesh through my cold skin. Now, for tonight at least, I forget the future and the past, and drown myself in the moment.

I suppose I am a fool. But then again, who isn't?

---

Chapter Twenty-Seven: In Which We Discover the Importance of Being Gothic

'Sinnoh has a long and rich religious and mythological tradition, which has been almost completely obliterated by its readiness to embrace Western modernity. In fact, so complete was its conversion that by 1880, the state religion was Christianity and most of the current generation had never heard of Palkia, Arceus or Corthenus – names that would not be revived until the traditionalist revival of the 1960s.'

—Cynthia Buckley, The Undiscovered Land: Sinnoh Before Garborn

The ride was forty minutes of steadily-mounting depression as we drove through a series of increasingly derelict and run-down neighbourhoods; at the end, we were left standing in front of a pair of rusting iron gates in the centre of an industrial district that appeared to have been left to rot sometime around the year 1955. If the factory beyond them had ever produced ice cream during my lifetime, I would have been incredibly surprised; it looked old enough for everyone who had ever worked there to have died by now.

“This place is nasty,” I stated. “You'd better have a really good reason for dragging me out here.”

“Actually, you wanted to come,” Ashley replied. “And I never claimed this ice cream factory was still operational.”

“Still operational? It looks older than the Lost Tower!”

“And that's not necessarily a bad thing,” he snapped, and I realised that he was older than the Lost Tower, too.

“Uh – no, it isn't,” I admitted. “I mean, my house is, like, three hundred years old, and I think it's great. Anyway,” I continued, changing the subject, “why are we here again?”

Ashley checked the time on his phone.

“We have twenty-six minutes,” he announced. “We have time. This way.”

He crossed the road, skirting a large pothole as he went, and Iago and I followed him for half a block down the street. After a while, he turned a corner and stopped, waiting for us to catch up.

“You wanted to know why we're here,” Ashley said. “This” – here he held up a folded piece of paper – “is why we're here.”

“What's that?” I asked.

“The paper he took from Schultze's wallet last night,” said Iago, frowning. “Ashley, what does it say?”

“'Magyor',” read Ashley, unfolding it. “'The meeting will take place at the abandoned Happy Miltank ice cream factory at half past one on Friday. I look forward to meeting you in person.'” He replaced it in his pocket, and said, “I think that's worth investigating, don't you?”

“So that's why you didn't want to question him until later,” I said. “You wanted to see what this was.”

Ashley shrugged.

“Something tells me this is worth looking into,” he told me. “And once I have that sense, I find it very difficult to leave a thing alone. You'll notice that the writer of the note has not met Schultze in person, so I think I ought to be able to fool them. We are roughly the same height and build, and I can do his accent easily enough.”

“What's my role in all this?” I asked eagerly.

“Stay back and don't give us away,” replied Ashley. “I hardly think the Great Magyor would ever be seen in the company of someone like you.”

It was disappointing, but it made sense; it just wouldn't be possible for me to join him. I was about as Gothic as a rubber duck.

“Fine,” I sighed. “I'll stay out of the way.”

“I'll watch from the shadows,” said Iago. “You've been leaving me behind too much recently, Ashley. I need to keep a closer eye on you.”

Immediately, my suspicion that Iago was the Galactic mole flashed into my head: did he suspect Ashley of trying to hide things from him? I watched Ashley's reaction carefully, but saw nothing other than a casual nod.

“As you wish,” he said dryly. “It is your job, after all.”

“That's right, and without it I go straight to jail, so I need to do it properly.” Iago gave him an odd look.

“I'm perfectly well aware of that,” replied Ashley, with the faintest of smiles. “And as long as you don't compromise my disguise, I have no problem with you watching.”

“Good.” Iago rubbed his hands together. “Is it me, or is it getting colder?”

“It is,” I said, pointing at the black clouds gathering in the west. “Looks like the sun can't last in Pastoria.”

“More rain? Christ, wasn't it enough to rain all yesterday and last night?”

“Evidently not,” said Ashley. “Iago, get into position in the factory now. The person I'm meeting will probably turn up early and wait for me, so you need to get there before them if you want to hide.”

Iago nodded.

“Good idea,” he said. “But you have to come with me and stand just across the street, so I can still see you.”

“If you think it necessary.”

“I do.”

“What about me?” I asked.

“I'm not sure. Perhaps you could buy some coffee or something and wait?” suggested Ashley.

I looked around, and saw nothing but the endless wasteland of ruined factories.

“From where, exactly?”

“Alas, that is a question you must answer for yourself,” said Ashley, with a hint of the old sarcasm in his voice. “Pearl, I will tell you all that transpires, but now we have to go. Do what you will; I shall find you again.”

He turned and walked briskly away, his new coat catching a gust of wind and flying up behind him like the wings of a crow; Iago hurried after him, and as I watched them go, I couldn't help feeling like I was alone, that there was nothing really that connected me to them. They lived in a world of nocturnal investigation and clandestine meetings; I lived in the day, my existence predicated almost entirely on fashion and alcohol. All at once, I felt stupid: how could I ever expect to have participated in their world, to have solved any part of this mystery, to have ever done anything that they would consider worthwhile? Perhaps I should go back to Jubilife and beg the university not to kick me out, or perhaps I should just go right back to home to Corvada and forget the whole thing ever happened.

And then, as quickly as it had begun, the feeling passed, and I remonstrated with myself for being so ridiculous: my life was at stake as much as anyone else's here; I had a right to be here. Besides, this was easily the most interesting thing ever to happen to me. I wasn't going to give it up just like that.

“But I still have no sodding idea where to get a coffee,” I muttered crossly, and trudged away in search of a café.

---

In the sky, the sun made a valiant last stand against the encroaching thunderheads; in the streets, people began to eye the clouds with unease, reaching for umbrellas or doubling their pace; in the Pinter Café, Liza drank hot chocolate and wondered how long she was going to have to stay in this miserable city.

“Is it time yet?” asked Tristan.

“No,” replied Liza shortly.

“Is it close?”

“Yes.”

“OK.” Tristan shivered a little. “I don't like waiting here. I mean, if the Diamond doesn't solve this, we all—”

“Don't mention it,” interrupted Liza, looking around to make sure no one had heard. “It's secret, remember?”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“And I don't like being here any more than you do,” she continued. “It's not the danger – if anything, this mystery's probably too easy for Lacrimére – but this place is depressing.” She finished her chocolate, contemplated ordering another one and decided she'd have a blueberry muffin instead. “It's like a monument to the love of death.”

“I think that's why it's popular.”

“With Goths, yes. It's not a place for normal people.”

Tristan seemed to accept this, but Liza was now less certain herself: did she really consitute 'normal people'? Her memory only went back seven months, and those seven months had seen her kill more people than lived in the whole of Celestic Town – to say nothing of her occasional flashes of recollection of past years. She had a sneaking suspicion that 'normal' was not a word that could ever be applied to her.

Still, she wasn't a Goth, so she didn't care for the Victorian gloom that pervaded Pastoria. Normal nor not, that was something she could decide on.

“Can I get you anything else?” asked a helpful waiter, appearing at her side from nowhere.

“Yeah. Can I get a blueberry muffin, please?”

“Sure. Anything else?”

“No. Thanks.”

The waiter paused for a long time, and Liza had just begun to get a sense of what was being left unsaid when he walked away.

“What was that about?” asked Tristan, looking puzzled.

“The weasel under the cocktail cabinet,” replied Liza, surprising herself with her own knowledge. “Come on. This is a themed café, remember.”

“It is?”

“Yes, you imbecile, it's— you know what? I can't be bothered.”

A moment later, the muffin arrived.

“Here you are, ma'am.” The waiter paused significantly. “I used to serve muffins all over the world. Well, all over the country.” He paused again. “I served them here once.”

With that, he left again, bringing mint tea to the elderly couple two tables away.

“OK, what was that about?” asked Tristan. His brow was so deeply furrowed with confusion that he could have held a coin with his forehead. “I really don't get this—”

“It's Pinter,” replied Liza. “What do you expect?”

“What the hell is Pinter?” asked Tristan in frustration, far too loudly; he drew disapproving stares and a very long and ominous silence from everyone else in the café.

“Tristan,” said Liza at length, “shut up.”

Cowed by the strangeness of the attack, Tristan did, and a few minutes later, his phone rang.

“Hello?” Immediately, he went pale, and handed it silently to Liza.

“What is it?” she asked, knowing exactly who was calling.

“Why can't I get you on your phone?”

“The battery broke. What is it?”

“Just a little status update,” came the reply. “We're almost done here, so if you can get back by tomorrow evening, we'll begin on Saturday morning.”

“Really? You're done?”

“Yes.” Cyrus sounded breathless, as if just saying the words was as exciting as the deed itself. “We'll have the chain by Sunday evening, I think, and then I thought we could get to the Pillar and set everything up by Tuesday morning.”

“And then we can wipe it all away,” said Liza. She was looking at the muffin, but her eyes were focused on something far more distant. “Every last dashed hope.”

“Everything,” agreed Cyrus. “And the world ends with a whimper, to give way to the new.”

“Nothing to look for any more,” Liza continued, as if she hadn't heard. “No need to search, because there are new lives to be had. Authentic existences.”

“Yes, there are.” Cyrus paused. “Now, finish up there and come back to Veilstone. I think the Diamond will have the mystery solved before the time limit, but it no longer matters; by the time he does, we should have a strong bargaining chip to keep him out of our affairs until they are so far advanced that there's nothing he can do.” Another pause; perhaps the atmosphere of the café was leaking down the phone line. “I'll see you there, Liza.”

“See you.”

Liza slid the phone shut and gave it back, eyes still unseeing. Then she glanced at the clock over the counter, came to a decision and stood up.

“Right,” she said to Tristan. “Come on, we're leaving.”

“It's time?”

“Yes. Come on, I need to change before we get there.”

She strode over to the counter and settled the bill; as she was counting out the money, the waiter said:

“You know, you could stay here. We have no women here.”

“That would leave my associate there without a woman in his group,” countered Liza. “The irony would be wonderful, yes, but he's too stupid to be left on his own. He'd probably manage to choke on his own breath.”

With that, she turned and almost ran out of the door in her haste, leaving a slightly nonplussed waiter behind her and trailing a rather confused Tristan in her wake.

---

There was a question on Bond's mind. It was a question of some importance, and one that he was slightly concerned about the answer to.

Namely: where on earth were they going?

He had not looked at where the train he had so hastily boarded was actually heading, nor did there seem to be any sign on board; from the rising hills and mountains through which they had been winding for the last couple of hours, they were heading west, but the twists and turns of the track to avoid the mountains had made it very difficult to work out which city they might be travelling to.

Beside him, Ellen was asleep, curled up into the seat-back; she might not need to sleep, but Bond thought it could hardly be bad for her. She was still young, after all, even if she had been in existence for decades, and was due her rest. On his other side was Pigzie Doodle, now reconstituted and hovering uneasily above the cushion.

I don't like this, he said abruptly, though no one heard. We're going west, which is exactly the opposite of where we want to be going. It's like trying to go from Moscow to St. Petersburg by way of Adelaide.

He drifted up to the window, peered out and sank down again, dissatisfied.

Nothing but sodding mountains, he grumbled. Did I ever tell you about me and mountains? There was no reply. Well, I suppose it doesn't matter. It's not like you can hear me.

Bond, oblivious to the Duskull's attempts to communicate, glanced at Ellen to make sure she was still all right and settled down into thought. They had considered jumping off the train and heading back towards Pastoria to get the right one, perhaps hitching a lift on a train passing in the opposite direction, but if no such train were to pass, they would have a very long walk ahead of them, and it would delay them even more than heading to wherever they were and coming back again on the next train. In short, there was nothing to be done but wait – but it would be nice if they at least knew where they were going. One could prepare more easily if one had that much information at least.

“I suppose there's nothing we can do,” Bond said at last, leaning back into his seat. “Never mind. There can't be much further until we arrive.”

Well, technically you're right, Jeeves, but I like to know where I'm going. The last time I found myself on a train at random, I ended up in City 17. And I ain't no Free Man, so you can guess how that went. Pigzie Doodle sighed. I do realise you can't hear me, but I also find it hard to stop talking. Centuries of travelling alone does that to a person. Anyway, did I ever tell you about Mombasa? There was me, this Gastly and a Misdreavus called Sandy, and we thought it'd be a good idea to possess a couple of elephants...

As the train rattled on, his story continued, growing steadily more unbelievable and sadly no less unhearable.

---

Ashley leaned against a wall across the street from the abandoned factory, in the shadow of an alley-mouth; the only hint that he might have been there was the shine of the light on his spectacles. (He had put them back on so that he could see more clearly; he would remove them for the meeting.) Had you passed, you would not have noticed him; it was not due to the dark colour of his clothing, but rather his unnatural stillness, like that of a chameleon waiting for flies. No mammal could be so utterly motionless; not even his hair moved. The very air around him seemed to be dead; it was as if he had rusted in place, become no more than an extension of the wall.

Ahead of him, five minutes before the appointed meeting time, a figure in black crossed the road, climbed nimbly over the gates of the factory and dropped to the cracked tarmac on the other side. A second later, she was out of sight, and Ashley removed his glasses, slipping them into his pocket. He had seen what he needed to.

“A familiar gait,” he remarked to himself. “And I think that might be a wig.”

He crossed the street himself, felt his ears to make sure they weren't healing and forcing the earrings out, and jumped to the top of the gate; he balanced there for a moment, one foot on a corroded spike, and then dropped down, landing lightly on the ground below. He strode towards the doors, flung them open and advanced into the dark corridor beyond.

“You've been very naughty,” he said, pushing through another door and passing onto the factory floor. Without his glasses, everything was blurry, but he could still see straight through the dark, to the iron-beamed ceiling high above, and to the figure at the other end of the hall line, past the hulks of once-great machines and the broad, rusting vats. For some reason, his gift had enhanced his vision but not cured his short-sightedness. “You've made me waste a lot of Pearl's money on this disguise.”

“You saw through mine quickly,” replied the figure, turning to face him.

“I recognise your posture and the way you walk,” Ashley said, slowing to a walk and putting his glasses back on. “And you're wearing a wig, I think.”

“I'm not, actually.” She felt at her hair. “It's gone black.”

“How does that happen?”

“I dyed it. I think.” The figure frowned. “I'm not sure.”

Ashley drew level with her in the dark and sighed, taking hold of her arm.

“Who are you, Liza?”

“It doesn't matter,” she said, shaking him off. “I'm just here to make you waste time.”

“Let's waste some time, then,” said Ashley. “Come on. Come outside, and we'll sit in the sun.”

He moved to leave, but Liza remained where she was, and he turned to look back at her.

“What is it?”

“What are you up to?” she asked suspiciously.

“You intrigue me,” he told her truthfully. “I'd like to talk to you.”

“I'm not going to tell you anything.”

Ashley smiled.

“You can believe that, if you like,” he said. “Come on.”

Liza hesitated, then followed.

“You planted the note on Schultze?” asked Ashley conversationally, as they walked back to the door.

“Yes. When we kidnapped him.”

“Hm. I – oh!” While they were inside, the gathering clouds appeared to have burst, and now the rain was battering the world outside as if it were trying its best to kill it. “Ah. Well, we can sit here, I suppose.”

Ashley looked around the lobby, found the upper half of an office chair and set it upright on a crate for Liza to sit on; for himself, he dragged part of a broken desk over and dropped onto it with a satisfied noise.

“Please,” he said. “Sit.” Liza sat. “Good. Now, you want to waste my time. That's fine by me; we both know that I am going to solve this mystery and disarm the bomb before it goes off. I also happen to want to have a nice talk with you, because I want to find some things out about you. So you see how everyone's objectives coincide here – wonderfully convenient, I think.”

“I said I wouldn't tell you anything,” repeated Liza, though she sounded less certain now. She was already confused; she was an easy target. A little longer, and Ashley would have her.

“We are alike, you and I,” he said. “Out of place. Adrift.” He smiled. “I think there's more, too.”

“What? Where are you going with this?”

“How much do you know about me?” asked Ashley, changing the subject. Liza was highly intelligent, but he could tell she wasn't herself right now; keep attacking from different angles, keep wearing her down, and he would have her mind in his hand. All the while, keep up the stare, keep up the smile, and grind her willpower down. There had only ever been a few people Ashley could not break, and Liza, he knew, would not be one of them.

“Everything,” she replied. “We know everything.”

He nodded.

“My origins?”

“Yes.”

“You know how I became this way?”

“Yes.”

“Is that what you seek?”

“No—”

“Are you single?”

Liza started.

“What? What kind of question is that?”

Ashley gave her an innocent look.

“I'm finding out about you.”

“Why do you need to know?”

“Because I'm curious.” Ashley smiled again, more gently. “I take it you are single, then.”

Liza stared at him, confused. Her hands were twisted into a fidgety ball in her lap, and she had one foot pressed down atop the other; if she would just raise her hands to her mouth, Ashley thought, she would look like Carpeaux's vision of Ugolino. That was a sure sign he was getting to her.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, composing herself with a visible effort, forcing both feet flat on the floor. “Look, I'm going to stay here to detain you, but whatever weird tricks you use, I'm not going to—”

“You already have,” said Ashley matter-of-factly. “There's a fracture at the heart of your consciousness, isn't there? A hole in your head – a door, is it? A door at the back of your mind, where the memories hammer on the wood and howl to be let out.”

It might have just been the Goth make-up, but Liza seemed to have gone very white.

“How do you know about the door?” she asked.

“I am a detective now,” Ashley replied. “But I was once more. If we go back to the earliest days – well, you know what I was.”

“A God,” whispered Liza. “Jesus Christ. He was right. You really are...”

Ashley grinned broadly.

“Oh yes,” he said. “There's more of us, you know – there always were. You know the rule of three? Three Nornir, three heads of Cerberus, nine rivers of Hades, twelve labours of Hercules – and three Old Gods of Sinnoh. Mythology must always work in threes, Liza.”

Liza swallowed hard, and Ashley could see her knuckles standing out white through the skin of her hands.

“What do you want?” she asked shakily.

“Exactly what I said a moment ago. I want to know everything about you, Liza, and if you don't tell me I shall have to make you.” Ashley paused. “And I don't think you would particularly enjoy that. So, whenever you're ready...” He spread his arms in a welcoming gesture, and Liza licked dry lips.

“OK,” she said softly, voice cracking. “OK, I'll tell you everything. Just don't – please don't – you know...”

Ashley nodded calmingly. His yellow irises were growing, spreading out to drown the whites of his eyes in pools of incandescence.

“It's all right,” he said consolingly. “I shan't hurt you. Now, go on, Liza. Tell me everything...”

sheep261
May 13th, 2012, 12:16 PM
Oh my god, I love this story so much!

This is my first review for you and your stories, but I've been a secret lurker since The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World, and now this story.

Anyways, I think I've clicked on to everything now, and it all comes down to the eyes.

Ashley is Giratina; they both have yellow eyes, Giratina is based on ghosts and deaths which Ashley revolves around, and that they have existed for agesssssssssssss. Liza on the other hand might be either Palkia or Dialga, but I'm not sure as of yet.

But anyway, love the story and keep it up! (And please get Puck back in the story somehow; I miss him and his witty comments)

~sheep261

Silent Memento
May 16th, 2012, 01:58 AM
I'm seriously starting to hate Ashley for what he's done in the past. This chapter has shown me a whole lot about who he is as a person - and the shift from competent-but-immature detective to ruthless monster (or is it the other way around? I can't tell with him anymore) really surprised me. In my eyes, he's proven that he is a manipulative liar who has little-to-no qualms about destroying the lives of people who have done nothing to him. People like that almost never change their stripes, and he's been this way for hundreds of years. If I were Liza, I wouldn't trust anything he says. Unfortunately, she can't walk away from him at this point. Pearl can't either, but I'll get to her in a moment.

I'm definitely going back to my Dialga theory; he mentioned having "a thousand lifetimes to ruin". It seems to correlate more with time than space and antimatter. I wonder why he's taking such an interest in Pearl, though; on the outside, she doesn't display any extraordinary qualities other than being a rich girl who likes to party too much. I don't know what he sees in her...unless my previous theory about her unknowingly housing the spirit of Palkia is right. Which I seriously doubt at this point. She's obviously in way over her head, and I have no faith in her abilities at the moment. Kester, of all people, has been more competent than she has been - but then again, it's a part of who she is as a character.

Oh, yeah, and I'm still wondering what the hell she's going to do with that cave Drapion that was given to her by Cyrus. She totally forgot about selling it to Iago, didn't she? I can see that decision - or lack thereof - really biting her in the arse.

Liza, on the other hand...I'm definitely thinking that Ashley killed her in her previous life as a normal girl in Darkling Town. She knows how deadly he is, and I can see her fear taking over her killer instincts. Giratina has to have played a role in this; as lord of antimatter, he likely has all power over ghosts and souls and the like. Liza, in every sense of the word, is a ghost. And since there have been hints about Cyrus wanting to obtain god-like power similar to Ashley's...well, I'm thinking that that's how Cyrus managed to bring her into the fold (yes, I think that the Desk Sitter is an extension of Giratina). He has complete and total leverage over Liza, and that is what makes her story - like you said earlier - extremely sad. She got tangled up in a mess that she never wanted to be in, trapped by two men who take advantage of people for their own gain. I absolutely feel sorry for her.

Iago does seem like the perfect traitor, but I'm going to let that play out as it will. In my opinion, it could go one way or the other.

As it is, I really don't know where you're taking this. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but with your track record, I'm most certainly inclined to trust your vision. I'll be keeping tabs whenever I can.

Sincerely,

Mem.

c1234321
May 16th, 2012, 04:52 PM
That was a fantastic chapter. Well done. You are by far one of my favorite authors, in both web and print. However, I have a question. After reading a decent portion of your other stories, I have noticed you have a certain...affinity for arrogant protagonist Pokemon. Like Puck, Tercier, even Goishi I found really arrogant. Also, Iago is probably the most arrogant of all. Now, I'm not complaining because I loved their arrogance and found it extremely relatable, but I still want to ask why do you put the arrogance in the Pokemon?

Also, I would like to reinforce, or perhaps improve, my earlier theory about Stephanie. I have had time to think about it and have decided that Stephanie has a very important role in this story. Also, if earlier theories about Pearl having similar powers to Ashley is correct, than this lends more evidence to my theory. I have decided that Stephanie is Pearl's Keeper, like Iago is Ashley's Keeper. I sincerely hope I am correct, but would be equally happy to be proven wrong, which is rare from me. Anyway, I am immensely looking forward to the next chapter, as your writing is brilliant. Ummm.....oh yeah I looked but I couldn't find any grammatical errors, so keep up the good work! :)

Cutlerine
May 18th, 2012, 05:13 AM
Oh my god, I love this story so much!

This is my first review for you and your stories, but I've been a secret lurker since The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World, and now this story.

Anyways, I think I've clicked on to everything now, and it all comes down to the eyes.

Ashley is Giratina; they both have yellow eyes, Giratina is based on ghosts and deaths which Ashley revolves around, and that they have existed for agesssssssssssss. Liza on the other hand might be either Palkia or Dialga, but I'm not sure as of yet.

But anyway, love the story and keep it up! (And please get Puck back in the story somehow; I miss him and his witty comments)

~sheep261


Don't worry; Puck will always return - I mean, he's left Kester, Sapphire and Felicity halfway through their plotline. He just doesn't have any appearances for a while, that's all.

As for this whole Creation Trio business... Well. Obviously I can't give anything away, but people are coming up with a whole series of interesting suggestions.

I'm seriously starting to hate Ashley for what he's done in the past. This chapter has shown me a whole lot about who he is as a person - and the shift from competent-but-immature detective to ruthless monster (or is it the other way around? I can't tell with him anymore) really surprised me. In my eyes, he's proven that he is a manipulative liar who has little-to-no qualms about destroying the lives of people who have done nothing to him. People like that almost never change their stripes, and he's been this way for hundreds of years. If I were Liza, I wouldn't trust anything he says. Unfortunately, she can't walk away from him at this point. Pearl can't either, but I'll get to her in a moment.

Good. I wanted Ashley to confuse people, to make some people like him and others hate him, and it seems from the collected evidence I'm getting that it's working. The only thing I'm not sure that you're quite right about is your assertion that he's been this way for hundreds of years. I think that time's his curse: the longer he lives, the less important everyone else seems, and the biggest thing in his life is avoiding the existential ennui of immortality and all emotional attachments, since all friends perish. I suppose he tries not to be a monster. I know I would. I'm also fairly certain I would fail after four hundred and fifty years. Read into that what you will.

I'm definitely going back to my Dialga theory; he mentioned having "a thousand lifetimes to ruin". It seems to correlate more with time than space and antimatter. I wonder why he's taking such an interest in Pearl, though; on the outside, she doesn't display any extraordinary qualities other than being a rich girl who likes to party too much. I don't know what he sees in her...unless my previous theory about her unknowingly housing the spirit of Palkia is right. Which I seriously doubt at this point. She's obviously in way over her head, and I have no faith in her abilities at the moment. Kester, of all people, has been more competent than she has been - but then again, it's a part of who she is as a character.

I will say that Pearl does have a certain gift that she is not aware of yet. I won't confirm any suspicions as to what it might be, but she is not quite what she seems to be.

Oh, yeah, and I'm still wondering what the hell she's going to do with that cave Drapion that was given to her by Cyrus. She totally forgot about selling it to Iago, didn't she? I can see that decision - or lack thereof - really biting her in the arse.

The Cave Drapion thing is what is known in the trade as really, really, really obvious foreshadowing. There can't be anyone reading this story who isn't wondering when it's going to pop up again.

Liza, on the other hand...I'm definitely thinking that Ashley killed her in her previous life as a normal girl in Darkling Town. She knows how deadly he is, and I can see her fear taking over her killer instincts. Giratina has to have played a role in this; as lord of antimatter, he likely has all power over ghosts and souls and the like. Liza, in every sense of the word, is a ghost. And since there have been hints about Cyrus wanting to obtain god-like power similar to Ashley's...well, I'm thinking that that's how Cyrus managed to bring her into the fold (yes, I think that the Desk Sitter is an extension of Giratina). He has complete and total leverage over Liza, and that is what makes her story - like you said earlier - extremely sad. She got tangled up in a mess that she never wanted to be in, trapped by two men who take advantage of people for their own gain. I absolutely feel sorry for her.

Liza is... not to be underestimated. Pity her if you like, but never underestimate her. She might not be entirely sane, but she's not stupid, and she's not weak. She's definitely someone to keep an eye on, let's put it that way.

Iago does seem like the perfect traitor, but I'm going to let that play out as it will. In my opinion, it could go one way or the other.

As it is, I really don't know where you're taking this. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but with your track record, I'm most certainly inclined to trust your vision. I'll be keeping tabs whenever I can.

Sincerely,

Mem.

Thanks. I've only just worked out where we're going as it is, and it's pretty weird. I'm looking forward to it.

That was a fantastic chapter. Well done. You are by far one of my favorite authors, in both web and print. However, I have a question. After reading a decent portion of your other stories, I have noticed you have a certain...affinity for arrogant protagonist Pokemon. Like Puck, Tercier, even Goishi I found really arrogant. Also, Iago is probably the most arrogant of all. Now, I'm not complaining because I loved their arrogance and found it extremely relatable, but I still want to ask why do you put the arrogance in the Pokemon?

Well, it's more of a coincidence than anything else. Tercier's a Smeargle, and the first thing I thought of when pondering how to write about Smeargle was the Pretentious Artist from the Kingdom of Loathing, so I made him a pretentious artist. Puck is arrogant because he has to be to sustain his character, and Iago is arrogant because he doesn't see humans as being of any real worth. He can map their minds and actions so well that I assume they're like sheep to him, or toys.

As for Goishi, he was more exasperated and frustrated than arrogant. I expect he used to be quite nice; spending a lot of time with Fabien probably does bad things to a person.

Also, I would like to reinforce, or perhaps improve, my earlier theory about Stephanie. I have had time to think about it and have decided that Stephanie has a very important role in this story. Also, if earlier theories about Pearl having similar powers to Ashley is correct, than this lends more evidence to my theory. I have decided that Stephanie is Pearl's Keeper, like Iago is Ashley's Keeper. I sincerely hope I am correct, but would be equally happy to be proven wrong, which is rare from me. Anyway, I am immensely looking forward to the next chapter, as your writing is brilliant. Ummm.....oh yeah I looked but I couldn't find any grammatical errors, so keep up the good work! :)

Well, I've confirmed that Pearl has some form of power already, so feel free to build your towering theory right up into the sky. With regard to whether or not it's correct, though, I will, as ever say nothing. However, the more theories that are put forward, the more I think about them and turn them into ideas that make their way into the story, so don't feel discouraged. With this theory about Stephanie, you've already given me a good idea to include in, like, Chapter Forty.

Oh, so many ideas, so little time! My exams start on the 31st, so I'm pretty busy, but I'll update as and when I can.

F.A.B.

Cutlerine
May 20th, 2012, 01:51 PM
Chapter Twenty-Eight: In Which Liza Surprises Us

'The hunch is the single most important part of being a detective. If you have unreliable hunches, or infrequent hunches, a career in private investigation is pretty much closed to you.'
—Canola Grimes, The Art of Detectivery

It will not have escaped the notice of the perceptive reader that Stephanie, Pearl's more dedicated and rather less wild friend, was in a situation of no small peril when last we saw her – and indeed now, as she sat in the back of a car with darkened windows, heading to some unknown destination, it did not seem like things had improved in any substantial manner. When one factored in the man in black sitting next to her with his gun on his lap, one might even have concluded that things were slightly worse. After all, at least she knew where she was back in her apartment.

“Well,” said the man in black, after they had been driving for some time. “I s'pose you're pretty worried, ain't you?”

Stephanie nodded. She might have spoken – she wasn't quite scared into silence yet – but she was still gagged, which made it difficult.

“A'righ'. Well, you don' 'ave to be. I ain't gonna kill you.”

Under the circumstances, this came as something of a relief – but a relief that was immediately checked by a sense of dread about what exactly would be happening to her instead.

“No, you just 'ave to disappear for a bi', tha's all,” continued the man in black. “It won' matter after the nex' few days, anyway.” He grinned. “I mean, no one's gonna care wha' you say when the world's ended, are they?”

Stephanie's eyes widened, and she made a startled mmph noise through her gag.

“Oh yeah, the world's gonna end,” said her captor, offhand. “Didn' I mention tha' already? No? Well, it don' matter. It's no' like you're gonna be aroun' to miss it. Only the chosen go through to the new universe, an' I doub' you're gonna be one o' them.”

Stephanie's heart, already beating fast, broke into a full-on gallop. What the hell was this? The end of the world? It had almost happened that summer with the whole Groudon/Kyogre incident in Hoenn, but... the end of the world? It was still so hard to believe... And what about this new universe? What did the man in black mean?

“Now, I s'pect you're pretty curious abou' wha' all tha' means,” he said, “bu' I wouldn' worry if I was you. It don' really concern you, anyway.”

The car stopped, abruptly and without warning, and the man in black looked up.

“I think we're 'ere,” he said cheerfully, and wound down the window. “Yep. We are.”

Stephanie looked out, and saw, ominously enough, the hospital.

“Now, I know you prob'ly don' think you need to go to 'ospital,” said the man in black, “bu' don' worry, darlin', because you will.” His hand came up and all at once Stephanie felt it pressing down on her forehead, unnaturally heavy and bringing with it a deep dark wind of oblivion—

The man in black looked at her, slumped against the car door, and nodded in satisfaction.

“Job well done,” he said to himself. “Righ'. Let's drop 'er off and ge' ou' of 'ere.”

Half a minute later, he and the car were gone, and Stephanie was alone.

---

As ever, Ashley's appearance was wholly unexpected. I'd just ordered a blueberry muffin, and when I turned back from the waiter he was sitting in the chair across from me, giving me one of those intense looks he does.

“Jesus―!” I started so violently I almost threw my coffee in his face; however, his hand darted out at lightning speed and placed the cup firmly on the table without spilling a drop.

“Careful, Pearl,” he said. “You almost lost some."

“Don't – don't pop up like that!” I cried. “You almost killed me.”

“That's an exaggeration.”

“It's for effect!”

“I know. Well, how do you like the coffee here?”

“When I'm not throwing it in people's faces because they startle me? It's good, thanks.” I rubbed my brow in exasperation and leaned forwards, elbows on the table. “So what did you find out?” I asked, calming myself.

“Ah. My meeting.” Ashley was quiet for a minute. “Well, it turned out to be a ruse devised by Team Galactic to make us waste time; rather than some mysterious stranger, I met Liza there.” He smiled. “It was quite funny. We were both disguised as Goths.”

Actually, he was still disguised as a Goth, only he'd removed the make-up. The whole conversation – in a Pinter-themed café, talking to an immortal detective dressed as a Goth – was getting quite surreal.

“Yeah, sounds hilarious. You mean this was a wasted forty minutes?”

“Not at all. We had a lovely long conversation.”

“I presume your definition of 'lovely' is different to mine,” said Iago, materialising in the seat to my left. “Christ. I hate listening to you persuade people. It makes me worried that you could do it to me.”

“Where the hell did you come from?” I asked, almost spilling the coffee again.

“I arrived with Ashley,” he explained disinterestedly. “It's just that you notice him more when he's dressed in black with spikes. That, and you're mildly sexually attracted to him.”

“What?”

He shrugged.

“I have both a good understanding of human nature and an excellent sense of smell,” he said. “Those two things combined mean I can basically read minds.”

“I am not – you know what? I'm not having this conversation with you. Ashley, you were talking about Liza.”

“Yes, I was.” He would have said more, but at that moment the waiter returned with my muffin, and he paused until he left. “I found out quite a bit. I terrified her into telling me everything she knew about me and Cyrus' plan – which, as it turns out, isn't all that much.” He sighed. “I'm not sure whether it's because she's not particularly high-ranking in the Team or whether it's due to that strange psychological condition she suffers from, but she didn't have nearly as much to say as I'd hoped.”

“Psychological condition...?”

“Yes. She's not wholly sane, as it happens.” He shrugged. “I don't know what the problem is. May I have some of that muffin?”

“I'll get you your own.”

“Vanilla buttercream and toffee, please.”

“What if they don't have that flavour?”

“They'll have it,” said Ashley, in tones that indicated that there would be serious consequences if they did not. With some trepidation, I ordered it, and found to my surprise that they did have them. “Anyway,” continued Ashley, “Liza told me that the Team know my entire past in some detail, which explains why they're so easily able to push us around on wild bomb chases in Pastoria, and that I was right with my first hypothesis – Cyrus aims to draw on the same source of power that fuels me.” Ashley sighed. “My strength has been decreasing for the last hundred years, a process that has been greatly accelerated by the... uncouth... treatment I have received at the hands of the League. If another like me was to awaken, there would be no hope of my stopping him – and by extension, no real hope of him being stopped at all, for I can assure you that no one else will be able to, not when he is in the first wild flush of his strength.” He took a bite of his muffin. “Mm. I like toffee.”

I stared.

“How the hell can you talk about toffee at a time like this?”

“Whatever happens, I still like toffee,” Ashley told me. “Cyrus becoming a minor deity does not change that.”

“Ashley, you're being weird again,” said Iago. “Stop it.”

“Ah. Right. Sorry.” He took another bite of the muffin. “Sorry, but it is very nice. I'd forgotten food was like that. I really must start eating again one of these days.” Noticing me still staring, he set down the muffin and sighed. “All right, Pearl, what is it?”

“Why are we just sitting here?” I asked, trying very hard not to scream at him. “Why aren't we trying to solve the bomb mystery so that we can go and stop Cyrus from becoming a sodding god and taking over the world?”

“I never said anything about taking over the world.”

“That's not the point!”

“Very well,” said Ashley. “There's no need to worry really – we will solve this mystery in time, come what may – but I take your point. Shall we return to the police station and see what Siobhan has found?”

“Yes! We should go, like, five minutes ago!”

“Calm down,” said Iago infuriatingly. “You're not helping anyone like this.”

Struggling to resist punching him, I composed myself and called the waiter over to pay. As we left, he made a strange remark in reference to The Homecoming, and I gave him a look as I went through the door, which seemed to shut him up.

By ten to three, we had arrived back at the station; it was raining hard now, and the brief trips from café to taxi and taxi to doorway had left Iago and I soaked through, so it came as something of a relief to get inside. Needless to say, Ashley somehow contrived to remain perfectly dry. We went up to D.C.I. Rennet's office, where Ashley's presence guaranteed us an honoured greeting, and asked what she had come up with.

“To be honest, nothing much,” she sighed. “There aren't any links between them. These are just three randomly-chosen criminals, as far as I can see. We've been over their houses, relations, actions over the last few days – as far as we know them – but there's nothing.”

“That can't be right,” said Ashley, frowning. “No, there must be something we're missing... Where can I find all the information you have?”

Rennet opened a back door and indicated a larger room beyond, where four or five police officers were poring over stacks of paper and computer screens spread out over three intimidatingly large desks.

“Ah!” said Ashley. “This looks encouraging. Vast quantities of data are always welcome.” He turned to Rennet. “Siobhan, if you don't mind, I should like to spend a couple of hours among these papers with Iago here. We'll see if we can find anything your people might have missed."

“OK,” she said. “But – don't you want to interview Shultze? We've got the psychiatrist coming in to see him in an hour, and I think he's probably going to be taken to a mental institution or something. I mean, he's definitely not sane.”

“The law is incapable of acting that fast,” Ashley told her. “There will be time enough to talk to him later. For now, we must search for links. It is the path most likely to yield results.”

So he and Iago had got to work there, and once again I was left as the third wheel. I was getting used to this by now, so I decided to spend my time in a little investigation of my own, and called Stephanie again. However, I just got through to her voicemail, which was disappointing but not entirely unexpected; it was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, and she was probably working.

Sighing, I returned to Ashley and Iago to see if I could help; needless to say, I couldn't, and went out to find something to do for the afternoon. Saving Pastoria was a hell of a lot more boring than I'd thought it would be.

---

At eight, I went back to the Hrafn Hotel, exhausted; Ashley and Iago still hadn't found anything, and showed no signs of coming back any time soon. I fell asleep almost immediately, slept for twelve solid hours and woke up on Friday morning without feeling like I was about to die of fatigue, which was a definite improvement.

I took my time getting up, and it wasn't until nine that I worked my way over to Ashley's room; he was sitting cross-legged on his bed, staring vacantly at the wall and chewing pensively on the knuckle of his right index finger.

“Good morning, Pearl,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah – best I have done for a while, actually.”

“I did not.” Was it me, or was there a slight tremble in his voice? “I had nightmares.”

“Nightmares?”

“Apologies. My mistake. Memories, not nightmares.” He blinked, shivered and turned to look at me. “I remembered why I don't sleep any more.”

There was a pause. I had no idea what to say; I'd kind of forgotten that Ashley even had feelings, and didn't have the first clue about how to help him with them. I doubted I could conceive of them; they were probably strange, and old, and too alien to comprehend.

“Anyway,” he said, all emotion suddenly disappearing from his face, “that is enough of that. There is a mystery to solve and thousands of lives to save.” He slid off the bed and onto his feet, and I noticed he was still in his Goth disguise. Had he even taken those clothes off since yesterday? “We didn't find anything yesterday,” he informed me. “I have to say, I am starting to get a little concerned. There has to be something we missed – but what that might be, I have no idea. There doesn't seem to be any link between the three people except the fact that they are all criminals.”

“Nothing at all? Not even one of those really tenuous things that turns out to be incredibly important later on in the movie?”

“No. Not even one of those.” Ashley sighed. “You do realise that those don't actually exist, don't you?”

“Um... yes. Definitely. So what are we doing today?” I asked, changing the subject swiftly.

“I am not quite sure,” he admitted. “The usual avenues of investigation appear to have failed, and the teams of policemen who have been sweeping the city haven't managed to find it either.” He made a small noise of frustration. “If they had more time, they might find it, but that is precisely what we don't have!”

“So what happened to 'we will solve this mystery in time, come what may'?” I asked triumphantly, and Ashley glared at me.

“That is singularly unhelpful,” he said. “If you don't have any useful advice, then I suggest you leave and find something to do while I think.”

“Sorry, but you did set yourself up for that one,” I replied. “I mean, I expect it of Iago, but this sort of arrogance from you—?”

“I'm only human!” snapped Ashley, with a sudden violent movement. “Whatever else I may be, Pearl, I'm human and I make mistakes. I get things wrong. I feel foolish and guilty.” He broke off, stepping back from me, and then just as abruptly turned to face me again. “I can't do everything,” he said, quietly now. “I am just as worthless, in my own way, as any mortal creature on this planet.”

I stared at him for a moment.

“What brought that on?” I asked at length. “You're not worthless – you're the Diamond.”

“And by the same token, nothing on earth is worthless either,” he replied. “Both your assertion and mine are true. It is all a matter of perspective.” He was silent for a while – so long, in fact, that I almost thought he'd finished talking. “Think nothing of it, Pearl. It was just a bad dream. Now, we have more important things to focus on.”

“Uh – OK,” I said. “Shall we, I don't know, collect together all the information we have on one of those evidence boards with pins and string on?”

Ashley gave me a withering look.

“Are you actually capable of referring to the detective profession in anything other than a series of clichés?”

“I'm not sure,” I admitted. “No, but seriously, shouldn't we collate everything? Title, name, profession, place of residence – isn't that how it works? You line everything up and see if you can spot any patterns?”

“Pearl, I—” He broke off sharply, eyes widening. “Pearl!”

He practically flew over to the desk, grabbed a pen and paper, and started scrawling feverishly.

“It was so simple!” he cried. “All it was – title, name, profession – ah, we looked too hard!”

“What? What is it?”

I was getting that feeling that I often got with Ashley – that I was somehow being a massive idiot.

“You've just solved the case,” he told me, straightening up and flourishing the paper. “It was so very simple – too simple for me to even notice. But you! You, with your lesser intellect, were just perfect – and that's me being insensitive again,” he concluded, deflating. “Ah. Sorry.”

“I solved the case?”

I hadn't actually caught up with his words, and didn't pick up on the accidental insult for another half an hour. All I'd heard was that I'd solved the case – though how I'd done it I had no idea.

“Yes, you did. Keep up.”

“I... solved the case?”

“Are you a Chatot? You solved the case!”

My brain came unstuck then, and I cried out in joy, before suddenly stopping to ask:

“Er, how did I solve it, exactly?”

“Simple. Title, name, profession.” Ashley held the paper up for me to see; he'd written out the words 'The Great Magyor', 'Anne Richards' and 'Soldier/Hatter' on it. “Nestor Schultze calls himself 'The Great Magyor' – that's a title. Anne Richards – well, you know her name. And Ernest Sargasso has worked as a soldier and as a hatter. Take 'The Great M', the first letters of Anne Richard's name, and the first letters of 'soldier' and 'hatter', and what do you get?”

“Isn't an acrostic a bit of a tenuous—”

“What do you get, Pearl?” interrupted Ashley.

I sighed and thought for a moment.

“The Great Marsh,” I said, surprised. “Wow. It actually spells something.”

“Yes,” he replied. “Do you see now?”

“Well, yeah, but you could pick any random details from their life and use the letters on them to spell out anything you want! It's not like it's just their names or something – that'd be more conclusive.”

Ashley nodded.

“Good, you're learning. I agree with you – this was probably not how we were meant to discover this. I imagine this is a private joke on Cyrus' part, something he included to amuse himself.”

“How were we meant to find it out, then? Assuming it is right?”

“Because now that I think about it, all of these people have connections to the Great Marsh,” Ashley said, shutting his eyes and thinking hard. “Richards took her children there last week. Sargasso spends a week every summer camping there, to remind himself of his army days. And Nestor Schultze had a book of horrendously bad Goth poetry on him when he arrived in Pastoria. It's by someone called Gloomrainia Shadowdespair, and it's called The Rainy Miasma of the Great Marsh.”

“OK, so there's some evidence,” I admitted. “But that's still pretty tenuous, isn't it? Are you sure you're not just clutching at straws because you want an answer so badly?”

“Pearl, you were the one advocating tenuous links of the sort found in detective films a moment ago. I hardly think you're in any position to criticise my decision—”

“Shut up. You know what I mean.”

“Very well.” Ashley sighed. “You must remember that this is the only link between the three people,” he continued. “Cyrus chose them carefully: other than the Great Marsh factor, there is no commonality at all between them. I would love to know how he managed to find three such people,” he added. “It must have been incredibly difficult.”

“Well, if you put it like that...” It was starting to make sense now, but I still couldn't quite believe it. It was even more stupid than a line of clues based around cult movies.

“There is one more thing that tells me we'll find the bomb in the Great Marsh,” said Ashley, sensing that I wasn't yet satisfied. “Something that I think Cyrus was counting on to make me close in on the truth.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“A hunch,” he replied, and I stared in awe. Here it was in action: the mighty, unerringly accurate detective's hunch, pointer to a thousand truths, unearther of a million clues – the only reason that the movie detectives ever got anywhere at all.

“Oh,” I managed to say, after I'd swallowed most of my surprise. “That's all right, then.”

He laughed quietly.

“I thought you might say that. Come on, then – we still have to go and check to see if—”

At that moment, the door burst open and Iago bounded in, gasping for breath.

“Ashley!” he cried, brandishing a piece of paper. “I know where the bomb is!”

“Yes, so do we,” I replied. “The Great Marsh, yeah?”

“What?” Quickly, Iago crumpled up the paper and threw it away over his shoulder. “Uh, yeah. That's exactly what I thought.”

“Pearl solved it,” Ashley explained. “We just need to go and see if we're right.

“Pearl?” Iago stared at me, his triangular eyes opened so wide they were almost circular. “Whoa. I thought if that ever happened, reality would fracture and the universe would be destroyed.”

“Very funny,” I said. “Why don't you—”

“Let's not do this,” said Ashley swiftly. “Come on. We need to go!”

“All right, all right,” grumbled Iago. “Christ. Calm down.”

“You do realise that if this bomb is in the Marsh, and it does go off, it will probably kill you, too?”

“Right!” cried Iago, clapping his hands. “Time to go, people, and hurry! There's the life of a genius at stake.”

As we followed him downstairs, I caught Ashley's eye, and he gave me a secret smile.

“Easy,” he whispered. “Sometimes I wonder why they think he of all people can control me.”

I chuckled, and walked with him across the lobby, where Wednesday was telling someone about how a friend of his – Luke or something – had caught a fish. He nodded courteously to us as we went past, and seconds later we were getting into a waiting taxi. I had just enough time to wonder how Ashley seemed to be able to summon them at will before he gave the driver a three thousand dollar note, and the car lurched into the fastest cab ride I'd ever had in my life.

---

“How did it go?”

Liza laughed quietly.

“Well, you convinced me. I really didn't think it would work.”

“He believed it?” asked Cyrus, voice crackly down the phone line.

“Every word,” Liza said, shaking her head and smiling. “Hook, line and sinker.”

And if you had been there with her in the dim airport, watching her making the call, you would have seen, for the briefest instant, her eyes flash like emeralds in the sun.

Cutlerine
June 3rd, 2012, 11:20 AM
Chapter Twenty-Nine: In Which We Behold Tristan's Handiwork

'I'm telling you, you really have to get into the evil Team business. I've just started with the Magmas over here in Hoenn and I've already earned more in a week than I would have in a month of muggings. And I've been given this fantastic Pokémon, too – a real Golbat!'
—From a letter to Tristan Shandy from Fabien Latch, dated March 2009

“Sir? We have her.”

Mars sounded tired, thought Cyrus; doubtless, her target had proved harder to catch than she'd anticipated.

“Did you need the Golbat?”

“Yes, actually,” she admitted. “It turns out she's an excellent flier. If she hadn't spent the day tiring out her Pokémon, we'd never have caught her.”

Cyrus made a satisfied noise. Lately, his plans had been going very well indeed.

“Excellent. We're ready to make a move on the lakes,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “This has to be a secret operation, you understand – I don't want to rush things and get caught while we do so. I'll have our forces moved to each location quietly, between now and Saturday afternoon, and we can get to work then. You know which lakes you and Saturn are going to, right?”

“Yes, sir!” Mars sounded excited. “This is – well, we're nearly there. All this time, and now all at once so much progress...”

“Yes, it's quite something,” Cyrus agreed, with a smile. “As for your captive, drop her at Iron Island. I think that's about as far away as possible from any of the lakes, isn't it? The Diamond won't get to us from there in time to stop us.”

“Just... leave her there? Will there be someone there to take her?”

“Yes. I shall be sending a couple of grunts up there to make sure she doesn't leave. They'll meet you at the dock, if you can just fly there with Saturn on those Golbat.”

“Understood. Is there anything else, sir?”

“Not right now,” said Cyrus, after pausing to think. “Just hand her over and get to your positions as soon as possible. But you must be stealthy. Don't fly to the lakes; we don't want any attention at all. Just take the train or something. Am I clear?”

“Yes, sir. I'll tell Saturn right away.”

“Good. I'll see you back here, just before the end of days.”

Cyrus put down the phone and turned to the Desk Sitter – who was, true to their name, sitting on the desk.

“Well,” he said, “soon we will have our freedom. You and I, in other sides of reality.”

The Desk Sitter grinned so broadly its face looked like it would crack in two, which was, to be perfectly honest, terrifying.

“Yes,” they said. “We will be free. It will be... glorious.”

“For you, maybe,” said Cyrus. “Glory will be meaningless where I'm going. No one will value it, so no one will notice it, and eventually the word will cease to exist. Imagine that,” he went on, half to himself. “Such a huge and ancient concept, reduced to nothing because no one can remember what it's like. Astounding.”

“Indeed,” agreed the Desk Sitter. “So many astounding things will be unleashed upon the world when we are done.”

Cyrus nodded, and they lapsed into silence for a while before he got up and headed for the door. He had to start giving orders; after all, spreading a couple of hundred idiots out across Sinnoh in secret would be a logistical nightmare.

---

“I think we found it,” I said, staring through the doorway.

In the middle of the room was a peculiar contraption that looked like it had been built out of junk that even the scrapheap had rejected. It must have measured three feet across, and at least five foot from top to bottom; in between, it was studded with bolts, mechanical arms, cogwheels, bellows and the occasional miniature keyboard.

“Yeah, I'm inclined to agree with you,” said Iago. “That definitely doesn't look like it belongs here. Also, that little digital display that keeps ticking down with an ominous clicking noise? That's sort of a hint as well.”

We'd descended upon the entrance to the Marsh with a small battalion of police officers and Gym Trainers, had it closed to the public and immediately set about searching through the rooms in its main building; there were a surprising number of them, since it incorporated a Pokémon Centre, regular hotel and restaurant, and it had taken us nearly an hour to find it here, in a tiny concrete cell at the back of a boiler room.

“Go get Ashley,” instructed Iago, approaching the machine with some caution – understandable, since it was quite intimidating. “Bring him here.”

“Already here,” said Ashley, just as I was turning to leave. “I heard voices.”

“What? Weren't you just in the basement?”

“Yes. Let me through.” He slipped past me and joined Iago in inspecting the bomb. “Hmm. Peculiar. I don't see what it – oh!”

“What was that 'oh' about?” I asked nervously. “It wasn't a very encouraging one.”

“Pearl,” said Ashley grimly, without looking up, “I need you to get Wake.”

“Don't avoid the question—”

“I'm not. I'll answer as soon as you get Wake. It's just that I need to show him something. Immediately.”

I sighed, rolled my eyes and trudged off down the hall to find Crasher; I found him in the process of accidentally breaking something in an upstairs room while Rennet stared helplessly, and brought them both back down swiftly by the simple expedient of telling them that I knew where the bomb was.

“I brought him,” I said. “And D.C.I. Rennet, too. Now what is it you've found?”

“That's it?” asked Rennet, staring at the strange machine. “That's the deadly bomb? It looks like someone stuffed a load of accordion parts inside an exploded shopping trolley.”

“Wake, come here and do not touch the bomb,” said Ashley, and I stepped aside to let Crasher past. He advanced very slowly, being very careful not to break anything, and joined him by the machine's side. “What do you make of this?”

“That's... Christ!” cried Crasher, straightening up and almost taking out the ceiling. “There are Poké Balls in there!”

“About thirty, if I'm not mistaken,” said Ashley.

“Thirty-two,” corrected Iago.

“Yes, all right. Thirty-two.” Ashley looked at Crasher. “Do you have one of those devices that can detect the contents of a Poké Ball?”

“Er... not on me.” He squirmed a little under Ashley's stare. “Well, I was expecting a proper bomb, not this – this – thing.”

“So was I,” said Rennet, stepping forwards. “I've never even heard of anything like this.”

“It's been done before, but not as well as it is here,” said Iago, staring hard at it. “Ashley and I have seen some of these, but this... this is sodding sophisticated. I'm not even sure we can touch this thing without it going off. See all these wire threads? It's covered in tiny little tripwires. Like a cat's cradle of fiery doom.” He shook his head in astonishment, and I detected more than a little admiration in his voice.

“What do you want to do then, Ashley?” asked Rennet. “I don't think the bomb squad are equipped to deal with this.”

“No, it's designed so that only I can do it, I think,” said Ashley, sighing. “Siobhan, Wake, get your people to guard this building and have it and the Marsh evacuated. No one must get in. Once that's done, I want you to get that machine, Wake, and bring it here. We need to know what we're up against if this bomb does go off.” He glanced at the timer, and I followed his gaze; it said 13:09:22 in red numerals, and the number was going down every second. “Well, what are you waiting for?” he asked, noticing Wake and Rennet were still there. “Do you want to destroy Pastoria? Get on with it!”

They left hurriedly, and I asked:

“So... what do I do?”

“A very good question,” replied Ashley.

“Which means 'nothing',” explained Iago.

“Shut up.” I looked at Ashley expectantly; there had to be something I could do, right?

“In some ways, Pearl, the job I am about to entrust you with is the most important of all,” he said, and my heart soared—

“I would like you to go and find the food with the highest calorific value you can possibly locate and bring lots of it here,” he said, and it fell again. Damn. I had no idea why he'd even want such a thing.

“What? Is that it?”

“It's very important,” Ashley said. “I will need to perform minute controlled shifts of shape to guide my fingers past the tripwires and defuse this. In order to perform this with optimum efficacy, I shall require a ready supply of energy. Hence, I must eat. So unless you do this, I shall in all likelihood fail to defuse the bomb.” He gave me a frank look. “Is that important enough for you?”

“Uh... yeah, I guess.” I wasn't entirely convinced, but he seemed serious, so I assumed he meant it. “Do you want me to go now or later?”

“Would you like me to defuse the bomb now or later?”

“All right, all right,” I said, turning to leave. “Jesus, calm down.”

“I'm perfectly calm. I'm merely being withering.”

“Well... shut up,” I told him lamely, and left sulking.

---

It was Friday morning, and the sun shone down upon Oreburgh with the kind of benevolent warmth more usually found emanating from religious leaders and the benignly arrogant; everything seemed to glow with the hyper-bright colours of a summer afternoon, from the cars in the streets to the coal in the heaps, and, as Bond opened his eyes from sleep, he obtained a certain satisfaction that this would be a day of truly glorious weather.

This sentence, of course, raises three questions. One, why was Bond in Oreburgh? Two, what had happened to Thursday? Three, why on earth was Bond waking up, when it was patently clear to all and sundry that the man never slept?

The answers are simple. Bond was in Oreburgh because the train had taken him and his two companions there. They were still there on Friday because weather conditions had once again rendered the motorways, airways and railways across Mount Celestic impassable, and they had nothing to do but wait. And Bond was waking up today because the events of the past few days had tired him to the extent that, though he of course could have continued (as a butler should) he had decided it would be expedient for him to sleep through the night, thus ensuring an increased level of service to Ellen. After all, one had standards to maintain, even if one's employer ranked among the most irksome he had ever encountered.

The day before, since they had not been able to leave the city, they had taken the tour of its most significant locations, and visited the natural history and mining museums – one of which had been significantly more interesting than the other. When night fell, it was agreed that a period of rest might be beneficial to all of them, and so they settled down to sleep in a hotel on West Bickerd Street. They were disturbed once during the night when a guest arrived at eleven and was given their room, but after a brief moment of terror (for it seemed he could see them) he left the hotel in a hurry, and they were left undisturbed by the now-alarmed hotel staff.

Now, at six, Bond arose and went to the window to draw back the curtains; a golden shaft of autumn sunlight flowed through the gap. So bright and so strong was it that Bond felt as if a palpable force was pressing on his chest, and he took a step back, shading his eyes to try and see through the window.

“A fine day,” he said to himself, which was the second-biggest understatement he had ever uttered, after the one about driving to the train station on Wednesday night. “The young mistress will be pleased.”

Could one, Bond pondered, as he continued to survey the glittering city, inherit a title if one was dead? He thought not, but the fact that Ellen was a ghost made things a little more complicated; while not strictly speaking alive, he was not sure if she was categorically dead, either. After all, the rest of the family were wholly removed from the mortal plane, and she was not.

This was a question that occurred to Bond fairly regularly, and it had to do with forms of address; as her employee, he really ought to know whether Ellen was the last Lady Dennel or not. As ever, though, working out the peerages of the deceased lay outside his capabilities, and he set the problem aside for a later hour, when perhaps boredom might threaten.

Ah, you're up, said Pigzie Doodle, suddenly drifting in through the door. He had not slept, of course; he was a Ghost, and Ghosts do not have the same needs as humans. I've been out all night – you know, wandering the streets of the city, rambling through the avenues of time. The usual stuff. He stopped himself. Wait. Why am I talking to you again? I suppose I like the sound of my own voice. That's usually a criticism, but I don't take it that way; it's a way of entertaining myself as I float along through time. That and committing to memory everything humans discover about swans – everyone needs a hobby, I say, and my distinct lack of hands and general lack of telekinetic prowess mean that mine has to be a bit abstract. Pigzie Doodle sighed. I'd never admit I was so bad at it, but I know for a fact that you can't hear me.

He floated over to Ellen and peered down at her face.

Quite unattractive, isn't she? he said dispassionately. I mean, I'm not much of a judge of humans, but still. When I was a kid people would've considered her a grown woman, and she wouldn't be getting many marriage offers looking like that, I can tell you. Then again, she died of Dustox poisoning, so she probably looked less... ravaged... while she was alive. After all, you've got a sword wound through your heart – though I have to say the tailsuit hides it well.

Pigzie Doodle flew over to the window and looked out.

Ugh, I'm so bloody bored, he moaned. How long is that child going to sleep for? I want to get going and make some progress – at this rate we're never going to claim my – I mean our – place in the history books!

It is a matter of some conjecture as to whether Bond would have cared about Pigzie Doodle's boredom; as he had no way of knowing of it, it is also something of a moot point, and will be glossed over without further ado.

At half past seven, Ellen awoke; Bond didn't quite know how she slept so much, since she did so much less than he did, but it did at least keep her quiet and well-rested.

“Ah, madam,” he said. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, Bond,” replied Ellen, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. “Where – oh yes, that nice hotel.”

“It is indeed nice,” agreed Bond. It certainly surpassed anything Sinnoh had had in the thirties: all this modern hydraulic wizardry in the bathroom, and five elevating chambers – which was as many as there had been in the entire country at his time of death. Remarkable. “Are you ready to leave, madam? I fear with all these delays, our mission may well be rendered unnecessary in a most unpleasant manner.”

“We certainly wouldn't want that woman doing anything,” said Ellen, nodding. “That would be... well. You know.”

Bond inclined his head. He most certainly did. After all, Liza Radley had stabbed him in the chest with a fragment of his own shadow; it wasn't the sort of thing you forgot in a hurry.

“Yes.” He indicated the door. “Well, madam? Shall we?”

“Of course.”

Ellen took his arm and they left together, closing the door quietly behind them so as not to wake any late sleepers. A few minutes later, they emerged from the hotel's grand glass doors with the silent footsteps of the dead, and were soon back at the train station. Happily, the storms in the mountains had calmed and the lines were once again open, and within the hour they were back on the rails, this time definitely headed in the direction of Veilstone.

---

“I have no idea what these are,” I said, shouldering open the door and stepping back into the bomb room, “but they've got about six thousand calories a bar. Is that good enough?”

“Perfect,” replied Ashley, looking up from where he was crouched next to the machine. “Did you pass Wake on the way here?”

“Yeah, I think I saw him in the car park—”

“My ring is the roiling seeaaaa...!” came a booming voice from down the corridor, and Ashley, Iago and I all winced simultaneously.

“Yeah, he's here,” said Iago. “I wonder why life put me in this situation instead of outright killing me. Perhaps someone up there doesn't like me.”

Crasher strode in cheerfully, humming his theme song and looking nothing at all like a man whose home city was twelve hours away from violent, bloody destruction. Under his arm was a large black box, and on his face was a merry smile.

“Why are you so happy?” asked Ashley suspiciously. “What's happened?”

“Nothing,” replied Crasher. “I just feel good.”

“You've forgotten, then, about the imminent destruction of a large part of Pastoria?”

The grin disappeared from Crasher's face in an instant.

“Oh,” he said. “Ah. Would you believe me if I said no?”

“Not at all. Give me the machine.”

“Oh.”

Crasher set the box down in front of Ashley, and I crouched next to him to watch.

“How does this work?” I asked.

“It's very simple,” replied Ashley, unfastening twin hasps and sliding back the lid. “The Poké Ball operates on the principle that energy is equal to mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. It converts a Pokémon to pure energy, reduces the energy and then converts it back to mass – thereby reducing its size. The beauty of the system is that this temporary suspension of the usual nature of the Pokémon only works within the confines of the ball's area, meaning that as soon as it is opened, the Pokémon expands back to normal size.” He pulled a series of wires from within the mechanical nightmare beneath the box's lid and began to wrap them around his fingers. “But of course, this leaves the engineer with a problem – how is the ball to encode every aspect of the Pokémon's atomic make-up so that it can reconstitute the shrunken version?”

“Of course,” I replied, feeling faintly dizzy.

“The answer is surprisingly simple,” Ashley continued, moving his hands into position close to the minute tripwires over the bomb. “This is where the Apricorn part comes in. You know that the fruit of Apricorn trees can be used as Poké Balls?”

“Yeah,” I lied.

“Well, they can function like this because the hard skin is actually a complex layer of silicon atoms, something like quartz in its molecular structure. This layer configures itself to encode, on an atomic level, the entire tree from which it came. When separated from the tree, it temporarily becomes reconfigurable – hence why it can be used as a Ball.” Ashley's fingers began to grow and extend, thinning out like stretching toffee and winding their way cautiously beneath the tripwires on the bomb's surface, taking the wires with them. I had to look away; it was really quite creepy. “The Poké Ball,” Ashley went on blithely, as if he wasn't currently engaged in a potentially lethal activity, “utilises technology drawn from the Apricorn. It encodes the material in a silicon matrix.”

“Uh huh...”

“This machine” – Ashley indicated the box with his head – “is capable of reading the silicon matrix and decoding it. It will find out what has been contained within the Balls.”
I was silent for a while, and then glanced up at Crasher.

“Um...?”

“Don't look at me,” he said. “All I know is that it works.”

“Iago?”

He sighed.

“So it isn't bad enough that I have to spend my life watching Ashley – I now have to consort with morons as well? Look, the balls store the information about the Pokémon within themselves, so that they can reconstitute them after they turn them into energy. This machine can read that information. Got it?”

“Oh, right,” I said, nodding in the manner of one who knows. “Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Wouldn't you need a larger crystal than anything that you could contain in a Poké Ball to encode that much information?” asked Crasher unexpectedly.

“A very good point,” said Ashley, “and one that I am not currently at liberty to discuss, since my fingers are less than a millimetre away from certain death for us all.” He paused. “Or you all, at least. I shall probably be horribly injured, and take months to heal fully, but I expect to survive.”

I glanced down at his horribly extended fingers, and saw that they'd snaked all the way up the side of the bomb, coiling in weird, convoluted loops around the wires; their tips, and the cables of the machine, were almost at the Poké Balls now, heading for the single small hole in their plastic case.

“Ashley, that's really, really freaky,” I said.

“It's also very tiring,” he told me. “Get one of those Icelandic energy bars over there for me, please. My hands are occupied at present.”

“Is that what they are?” I asked, trying to take my mind off his distorted hands by looking at the labels. “I couldn't really work it out.”

“Yes. They're labelled as 'Dr. Einarsson's Medically-Engineered Energy Capsules'.”

“You speak Icelandic?”

“Yes. Now give me the bar before I pass out from fatigue and accidentally set the bomb off.”

I unwrapped it (revealing that it appeared to be made predominantly of gravel) and held it next to his mouth; somehow, he wrapped his tongue around it and sort of inhaled the whole thing in one go.

“Wow,” I said, staring. “That's... impressive. Don't you need to chew?”

“Only people who can choke need to chew – aha!”

My eyes flicked back down to the bomb, and saw that he'd finally managed to connect the cables to the Poké Balls; little suction cups that I hadn't previously noticed held them firmly in place as his fingers shrank and withdrew.

“Right!” cried Ashley, rubbing his hands together and inhaling another one of Dr. Einarsson's marvellous bars. “Now we find out what horrors this peculiar engine contains.” He flicked a switch and turned a dial, and a little screen lit up in the side of the box. For a moment, it displayed a little loading screen, and then said that it had detected attached Poké Balls, and would we like to analyse their contents? Ashley pressed a button that apparently meant yes, and it started loading again.

And loading.

And loading.

“How long does this take?” I asked Ashley.

“A little over two minutes per Ball,” he said, “so—”

“About sixty-four minutes,” finished Iago. “It's going to be a while.”

“Can we spare the time?” asked Crasher, looking concerned.

“We have to know what's inside,” Ashley replied. “It's more important than anything. If it's something I could contain on my own, we might as well trigger it and destroy it now, to spare the energy. It'll probably take me a couple of hours to disarm it, and I'd rather avoid that; single large shifts of shape are much easier than continual small ones.”

Crasher didn't look like he fully understood, but nodded anyway.

“OK.”

Ashley straightened up and stepped back to lean against the wall, running his hands through his hair; it was only then that I saw how tired he looked. There was sweat on his brow and his eyes seemed to have sunk an extra inch into their sockets; he looked like he'd just run ten consecutive marathons without a break – and come first in all of them.

“Ah,” he said, sliding down the wall into a seated position. “I think I need a rest.”

“You look like it,” I said.

“Yeah,” agreed Iago. “You look like something ate you, found out what a venomous bratchny you are and spat you out again in disgust.”

“Why the insults?”

“No reason – I'm just nasty. Remember?”

“Oh yes.”

Ashley closed his eyes and let his head fall back into the wall with an audible thunk.

“Ugh,” he sighed. “Why couldn't there just be a monster to slay for once? I miss monsters. Sadly, their days appear to be long since past.”

No one quite knew how to respond to that, so we stood around uselessly for a while until Crasher asked:

“Ashley? What do you want us to do now?”

“Nothing,” he replied. “I'm taking a break, and without intending any offence to any of you, I am the only important person in this scenario.”

“What about me?” asked Iago. “I'm important.”

“How?”

The Kadabra thought for a moment, and stroked his moustache in a thoughtful sort of way.

“Um,” he said. “Er... I'm the only one who's solved a mathematical problem correctly since we entered the room?”

“You're not important,” said Ashley witheringly, and Iago lapsed into dark and sulky mutterings.

I raised my eyebrows and sighed. It looked like nothing much would be happening for the next hour.

---

While Pearl was out buying up every one of Dr. Einarsson's Medically-Engineered Energy Capsules she could find, Liza and Tristan were landing at Veilstone; as Pearl transferred the fourth batch of energy bars to the taxi, the two Galactics arrived at their Team's headquarters, and were almost immediately caught up in a swirl of activity. Grunts of various ranks were rushing to and fro across the lobby, shouting orders and attempting to carry them out with varying degrees of success: a group of people were trying to wheel a massive, heavy-looking crate through the hall, but had picked a trolley with a wonky wheel, with the result that they kept losing control and running over fellow Galactics; another bunch were running around giving out mission briefs, trailing papers behind them and generally transferring more information to thin air than to their Team-mates; a stout man whose skintight uniform was singularly unflattering to his figure was doing his best to carry a whole rack of Poké Balls on his own, and dropping so many on the floor that it was a wonder none of the Pokémon broke out.

“Wow,” said Liza dryly, staring at the chaos from the relative safety of the main doorway. “This is sodding ridiculous. Did we really hire all these morons?”

Tristan made no reply; he and his Croagunk had been almost immediately whisked away by a contingent of high-ranking Team officials and assigned to some barely-comprehensible task. No one bothered Liza – perhaps because her hair was still black from her Gothic stint at the ice-cream factory, or perhaps because something green in her eyes told them to stay away – and she walked at her leisure through the corridors of the building, people instinctively getting out of her way. The time for secrecy was coming to an end, she thought to herself; at this point, it didn't matter much who knew that she was not just any Galactic grunt. By the time anyone could even think of coming to arrest her, Cyrus' plans would have come to fruition and any chance they had of catching her would be blown to smithereens.

She took the lift up to Cyrus' office on the thirty-eighth floor, and walked straight in without knocking.

“Done,” she said, dropping into an empty seat. “The Diamond's too used to people being afraid of him; he saw in me just what he expected to see.”

“Good to see you back,” replied Cyrus from the other side of the desk. “How was the flight?”

“Tedious. I had to sit next to that grunt I've been partnered with.”

“You should have said he was annoying before; I'd have changed your pairing.”

“It wouldn't have mattered. They're all idiots.”

“I suppose you have to be, to take their job,” mused Cyrus. “We caught her, by the way.”

“Who? Oh – her? Walker?”

“Yes. It was quite hard, but we've got her.”

“Where are you holding her?”

“Mars and Saturn are dropping her off at Iron Island. I was just about to send a couple of grunts up that way to take her off their hands.”

A spark behind her eyelids; Liza saw, across the water, the craggy hills of Iron Island through the flames; she turned and beheld the beast bearing down upon her—

“Send me,” she said abruptly, before the memory could dissolve on the surface of her mind again. “I'll take her off their hands.”

“What?” Cyrus started in surprise. “You? But... aren't you staying here? In readiness for the journey up the mountain?”

“He'll get her back before then – we both know that. It's just a question of delaying him.” Liza paused to lick suddenly-dry lips. “Send me there. I've – I need to speak to Lacrimére again.”

Cyrus gave her a long, level look – she hated those empty eyes of his, Liza thought; there was less behind them than hers, and that alarmed her – and finally nodded.

“All right,” he said. “I don't understand what it is you're doing, but...” He shrugged. “I don't think you're about to betray me.”

“I don't understand either,” Liza told him. “If I did, I would tell you.”

Cyrus nodded deeply.

“Ah,” he said. “One of those things.” He sighed. “I know a little too much about those.” He cast an odd look at an apparently empty spot on his desktop. “Well, carry on, then. Do you have any preference as to who I send with you, or shall I pick whoever's free?”

“I don't mind.”

“All right. You'll need to leave soon, then. Speak to my secretary; I think she's arranged the plane tickets.”

“OK.” Liza got up again. “Back to the airport then, I guess.”

“Yes.” She felt Cyrus' cold eyes following her to the door, and wondered what he thought of her right now. “Well – goodbye,” said Cyrus, when her hand was on the door. “You are coming back in time for the summons, aren't you?”

She looked back.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Don't worry, I'll be here. I just – need to do this first.”

Liza pushed through the door and left without saying goodbye. She didn't know why, but something told her not to. It might have been the ghost of a memory, flickering faintly behind the door in the back of her mind; it might have been the embryo of a new identity, kicking in the womb of her imagination.

Or it might have been the shadow behind her eyes, rising like some dread phoenix from the ashes of Darkling Town.

Zayphora
June 3rd, 2012, 03:47 PM
Okay, I've been reading this story for a while but haven't gotten around to reviewing it. All I can say is that it is amazing. Even with all the shifts of character you're able to hold on to all aspects of the story, and I can tell everything's going to fall into place at the end. This is really well written. I haven't completely read any of your other stories,(I'm towards the beginning of TTMGTDTW now) but I think you captured the story and turned it into something with a real plot to it. I also love all the references to things that you stick in here(I almost burst out laughing at the little note you put at the end of that one chapter regarding why the number 42 is unlucky in Sinnoh).

I'm too lazy to check the eye colors of the Creation Trio to see which one is green, so I really have no idea which one Liza may be.

Just wondering, but where was Darkling Town anyway? I keep picturing it as being on an island on the west coast around Canalave (isn't that what the port city on the west coast is called? The one with the library?) I apologize if you've already covered this and I just forgot, or if this is just me asking for a spoiler.

From what you've said in this chapter I'm pretty sure the Desk Sitter is Giratina in some form. I find it interesting that you have Giratina being on Cyrus's side because in the game, wasn't it one of the main reasons that Cyrus's plan failed? I know you aren't following the storyline of Platinum exactly, but I was just being curious.

This story, like I said before, is amazing. The D/P/Pt storyline is my favorite, and you have definitely done it justice. Keep it up!

Cutlerine
June 4th, 2012, 02:35 AM
Okay, I've been reading this story for a while but haven't gotten around to reviewing it. All I can say is that it is amazing. Even with all the shifts of character you're able to hold on to all aspects of the story, and I can tell everything's going to fall into place at the end. This is really well written. I haven't completely read any of your other stories,(I'm towards the beginning of TTMGTDTW now) but I think you captured the story and turned it into something with a real plot to it. I also love all the references to things that you stick in here(I almost burst out laughing at the little note you put at the end of that one chapter regarding why the number 42 is unlucky in Sinnoh).

Aw, thanks so much! It means a lot when people take the time to comment, especially when they're as nice about the story as you are. I mean, the point of being a writer (as I see it) is to entertain and amuse others, so I'm really pleased that I'm succeeding.

I'm too lazy to check the eye colors of the Creation Trio to see which one is green, so I really have no idea which one Liza may be.

I don't think any of them have green eyes, actually. They all have red-orange eyes. Make of that what you will.

Just wondering, but where was Darkling Town anyway? I keep picturing it as being on an island on the west coast around Canalave (isn't that what the port city on the west coast is called? The one with the library?) I apologize if you've already covered this and I just forgot, or if this is just me asking for a spoiler.

Pretty much. You know Fullmoon and Newmoon Islands? Darkling Town was on one of them - Newmoon, I think, though I have to confess that even I can't remember exactly. I'll have to check.

From what you've said in this chapter I'm pretty sure the Desk Sitter is Giratina in some form. I find it interesting that you have Giratina being on Cyrus's side because in the game, wasn't it one of the main reasons that Cyrus's plan failed? I know you aren't following the storyline of Platinum exactly, but I was just being curious.

This story, like I said before, is amazing. The D/P/Pt storyline is my favorite, and you have definitely done it justice. Keep it up!

Giratina was actually the only reason Cyrus failed in the games. The player character arrives late, and watches helplessly as he summons and binds Dialga and Palkia to his will. There's nothing the player can do except calm Giratina afterwards; you have no bearing on the main plot itself. Cyrus is my favourite villain of the series: the only one who defeats you, whose plan can only be stopped by something amounting to a god. D/P/Pt have an extremely dark story if you look at it the way I do, and I've been trying to capture something of that here, with Ashley and Liza in particular. The heroes might seem stronger, with Ashley on their side - but they aren't. Cyrus is winning, and to be honest there doesn't seem to be a whole lot anyone can do about it.

Anyway, I'm on the verge of revealing too much, so I'm going to shut up now. Thanks for reading, and I hope you continue to enjoy the story.

F.A.B.

Zayphora
June 5th, 2012, 03:30 AM
Totally agree with you about Cyrus. He came pretty close to destroying the universe. Another reason he's my favorite villain is the fact that none of the other villains really tried to do something on that scale.

Just remembered something- that part at the beginning where Cyrus gets annoyed because he got annoyed? That was great. I can totally see him doing that.

Anxiously awaiting the next chapter!

Cutlerine
June 7th, 2012, 12:58 AM
Chapter Thirty: In Which Things Come to a Head

'There is very little to be said about defusing bombs other than that which everyone knows: one must always cut the red wire, and if there is no red wire, then one must cut both wires. If there are no wires whatsoever, the bomb is impossible to defuse and one must immediately resign oneself to death.'
—Neverre Bonaparte, The Gentleman's Guide to Bombsmithery

Puck was worried.

This wasn't something that happened all that often. In fact, it was a downright rare occurrence. Usually, he waltzed through life without caring for the consequences of his actions or indeed whether they were the wisest things to do – but since a certain experience earlier that year, he had been suffering from a strange and unwelcome affliction: a conscience.

Granted, it was pretty weak, and he could tune it out without too much difficulty. But it was also damn persistent, and he couldn't hold it at bay forever. It might be three days, or it might be three years – but it always came back in the end.

Puck vehemently denied it was his, of course; he was firmly convinced that his mind and Kester Ruby's, after being entangled for so long, had come away with little pieces of each other stuck in them, and that he had thus inherited a few fragments of Kester's human concern for others. (The bright side of this, as he liked to tell himself, was that this meant there must be a bit of his recklessness left in Kester as well.)

Wherever it came from, it wasn't shutting up – and now Puck was worried, because it wouldn't stop telling him that he had to go back and see if he could rescue Kester, Sapphire and Felicity from the Galactic base. Even though this was directly contrary to his sense of self-preservation.

Arceus damn it, he muttered to himself, as his car tore through the night towards Veilstone. Kester, you'd better be really freakin' grateful for this, or I am going to put you right back in that bloody prison.

---

Ping!

As one, we all jerked back into life; every one of us had dozed off into our thoughts after the first fifteen minutes or so of waiting, once the conversation had dried up. Which admittedly hadn't taken long, since none of us particularly wanted to talk to each other: Iago was vicious, Ashley was uncommunicative, Crasher was annoying and everyone thought I was an idiot. Maybe if Rennet had been there instead of supervising the guards, we could have had a better go at it, but she wasn't, and we didn't.

Anyway, the ping brought us back to reality, and immediately Ashley's eyes flew to the screen of the machine.

“Ah,” he said. “Now, this is... impressive, in a way. It cannot have been easy to set up.”

“What? What is it?” I asked.

“A considerable threat indeed,” replied Ashley.

“That tells us nothing—” began Iago.

“Now I see how one quarter of Pastoria could be destroyed.”

“For God's sake, Ashley, tell us what's in there!”

“Each Poké Ball contains a Gyarados,” he said at last. “Thirty-two Gyarados, all to be released in one explosive burst.”

“Jesus Christ,” breathed Crasher. “How – cal!”

Even I knew that was bad. The smallest adult Gyarados on record was thirty feet long, and the largest had never been measured, as no one could catch it, but was estimated at one hundred and fifty. Almost impossible to contain within a Poké Ball, they were the only creatures in the world that required a second brain to help them process the vast quantity of anger flowing through their system; leaving aside the question of how Cyrus had managed to catch thirty-two of them, the damage they would do to Pastoria if they got out was unimaginable.

“Cal,” I said. “That's – OK, that's really bad.”

Iago clapped slowly, three times.

“Well done, Pearl,” he said. “Give the girl a sticker. Thirty-two Gyarados escaping into Pastoria, a bad thing? Never would've worked that one out on my own.”

“Shut up, Iago,” said Ashley. “Thousands of lives depend on this.”

“Don't give me that,” snorted Iago. “You don't care abou—”

“I thought I told you to shut up?”

“You did,” Iago confirmed. “But I just spent an hour doing absolutely nothing and I need to vent some spleen.”

“And are you quite done now?”

“I think so.”

“Then shut up.” Ashley looked at the timer on the bomb, which currently read 10:54:33, and took a deep breath. “Pearl, would you stand by with the good doctor's energy bars? I have a feeling I am going to need quite a few of them by the time we are done here.”

“You're going to disarm it?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Not even I can stop thirty-two Gyarados from escaping. Perhaps if there were no one else around to be injured, I might be able to try, but in a city... There's no chance of it.” He cracked his knuckles, and I saw the bones of his hands shifting out of place beneath the skin. “So. I suppose we ought to begin.”

I sat down and unwrapped one of the energy bars.

“How is this going to work?” asked Crasher. “How do you know how to disarm it?”

“I don't,” replied Ashley shortly. “But I shall take a look inside the bomb and find out.”

He held up one finger, and suddenly the tip peeled open to reveal a small eye staring out from within; I could say that this surprised me, but that would be an understatement. What I actually did was throw the energy bar in the air, let out an incomprehensible shriek and almost fall over backwards.

“Jesus!” I cried, staring at Ashley's finger – while it stared back. “That is sodding nasty!”

“You don't have to look,” he told me, blinking his new eye. “But it is necessary. I need it to see inside the bomb.”

“In all fairness, though, it is pretty horrible,” said Iago, carefully stepping away from Ashley. “Eyes do not belong there. On anything.”

Ashley clicked his tongue in frustration.

“Oh, stop complaining,” he said. “We need this bomb destroyed, don't we?”

With that, he grabbed the energy bar from me, stuffed it into his mouth and started growing his eye-finger into the works of the bomb. As one, Iago, Crasher and I turned away in disgust; now that it was moving, it looked like a snake born from a bad acid trip.

“I... I don't think I need to watch you while you do this,” Iago said, hurrying from the room. “I'll just listen from outside.”

“And I have... er... things... that need doing,” Crasher said, following him.

I glared at the slamming door.

“OK,” I said, trying hard not to look at Ashley's hand, “is there any chance you'll be able to unwrap these bars one-handed?”

“No,” he replied cheerfully. “You're not going anywhere.”

“I think I might be sick.”

“That's all right. I understand that most people find this extremely disturbing.”

“Telling me this doesn't actually make it any better.”

“My apologies.”

“Sometimes I really hate you.”

“I know. People tend to do that to me.”

“Please stop talking, because I think if I open my mouth any more I really will be sick.”

Ashley sighed.

“Do you want to hear what I think? I think that everyone should be forced to spend three weeks watching sausages being mass-produced in a factory or something similar. Then all this silly squeamishness could be stamped out of the population.”

“Knowing you, I am actually afraid that you could get the government to make that a law.”

Ashley laughed, which startled me; it was always surprising when he showed any signs of happiness.

“I probably could, if I tried.” As quickly as it had appeared, his smile faded. “Now, give me that energy bar and be quiet. I can see something that looks like a trigger here and I need to concentrate.”

He inhaled the bar and, closing his eyes to better concentrate on the images from their new sibling on his finger, plunged his other hand into the innards of the bomb. I winced and looked away. This was getting far too weird for me.

---

At around the time that Ashley was (quite literally) getting to the heart of the bomb case, our three ghosts were finally arriving in Veilstone. No unexpected wreckage had stopped them, no snowstorms delayed them; no hungry Ghosts had attempted to devour them and they had, in all, enjoyed a thoroughly peaceful journey, wholly devoid of interest.

Naturally, it couldn't last.

The moment the doors slid open and they stepped out onto the platform, they were struck with an almost palpable sense of dread, barrelling into them like a runaway train and very nearly knocking Ellen back into the carriage; the air seemed dim and the sun cold and distant, and the shadows seemed to crowd together by the walls, as if discussing with each other the best moment to strike.

“What... Bond, what's happening?” asked Ellen, shrinking back against his side.

“I must apologetically confess my ignorance, madam,” replied the estimable butler, eyes scanning the area for danger and not quite finding any. “I'm afraid I don't know what this is.”

It's bad, that's what it is, said Pigzie Doodle, contracting into a tight ball. Something wicked this way comes.

“That's Macbeth,” said Ellen, a distant memory of her long-dead tutor popping into her head.

Indeed it is, agreed Pigzie Doodle. But that really isn't our concern now. We need to get to the Galactic building – that's where we'll find our information about the weak spot in reality.

“Galactic...?”

The gang to which Liza Radley currently belongs, he replied. Look, right now we need to move. Whatever... thing... is causing this disturbance, we need to get away from it.

Ellen relayed this information to Bond, who was wholly in agreement, and the three of them quit the station for the dusty streets of Veilstone.

Here, the shadows seemed less thick, but they lurked between the buildings and crouched beneath the motor-cars; the sense of fear and anxiety still lay thick upon them, and Bond could not help but keep checking for pursuers as they followed Pigzie Doodle down the street.

It's quite close, he explained. Just a few blocks away from this main station... I think they're doing the whole 'hiding in plain sight' thing – ah! What was that?

Bond had seen it too: the dark blot on his vision that flitted from ground to sky somewhere to his left. He turned to face it directly, but there was nothing there but pedestrians.

“Something is definitely here,” he murmured. “Madam, stay close. I think we may need to make a swift escape in the near future.”

“From what?” asked Ellen fearfully, clinging tightly to his arm.

“I don't know,” he replied. “But be aware that it is there.”

It's getting darker, observed Pigzie Doodle ominously. Whatever this is, it's getting closer.

They crossed the road and rounded the corner; they were coming to the heart of the central business district now, and the streets were packed with motor-cars and pedestrians alike. Yet between the hurrying figures and the rushing vehicles, the shadows were rising, thickening and darkening the air like ink spreading across paper.

“How much further is it?” asked Ellen.

Not far. Two blocks, maybe? Pigzie Doodle's voice was not a reassuring one; he sounded perhaps as frightened as Ellen felt. Not far, not far... oh, cal!

They had turned another corner now, and could see the huge white Galactic building at the end of the street; furthermore, they could see the vast, shifting cloud of darkness that hung all around it, alien and inscrutable as the mind of God.

“What on earth...?”

Oh my God, breathed Pigzie Doodle. Oh my God. Of course that would happen.

“What?” asked Ellen breathlessly, clutching Bond's arm so tightly he felt it would be pinched clean off.

Dusknoir, replied Pigzie Doodle shortly. My big brothers and sisters.

“Madam? What is it?” asked Bond. “What does he say we should do?”

We leave. Now.

“He says we should leave.”

Immediately, Bond turned around and started walking; the past few days had told him that when Pigzie Doodle said they ought to leave, that was exactly what they ought to do.

That's it, said Pigzie Doodle, flying along beside him. Just walk away, before they notice—

Who is this?

Bond's limbs stopped abruptly, held in place by some external force; at his side, Ellen stumbled and almost fell, only to be supported at the last moment in an impossible position. Pigzie Doodle froze in midair, every molecule of his body stilled at once.

Behind them, the Dusknoir began to move.

The world around them slowed and stilled; colours drained away to grey and the cars ceased to move. The roar of the traffic, locked into a single moment, became a low, discordant hum, and the murmur of footsteps and voices merged into one rough note.

Dimensional separation, whispered Pigzie Doodle. More commonly known as Trick Room. Time frames peel away, and the only things left moving are those who can move outside the bounds of natural reality. In layman's terms, they froze us in time, while the rest of the world carries on, completely oblivious.

Bond heard none of this. He knew only that he could not move, and that something dark was coming towards him from behind.

I should have known they'd be here, said Pigzie Doodle, and he was practically gabbling now in his haste to get the words out. They're attuned to the vibrations of the membranes. That... thing the Galactics are building must be shaking the hell out of the spacetime continuum, so they're all drawn to Veilstone, unable to resist—

Now Bond could see the first of their pursuers, slowly circling around to the front of them; like Pigzie Doodle, it was a shapeless cloud of gas – but if you looked at it out of the corner of your eye, you saw something much worse, something in black and gold that looked like it had come straight from the gaping maw of Hell itself—

A motor-car crashed straight through the Dusknoir and swung to one side, drawing to a halt inches away from Bond's face; the Ghost, surprised, burst into a storm of black droplets and scattered wildly through the air. The door popped open, and an unfamiliar voice snapped:

“In. Now.”

And all at once the paralysis was gone, and Ellen finished her fall, and Bond's foot landed on the floor; a horrific wail went up from the Ghostly darkness all around them, and Bond needed no further encouragement to drag Ellen into the motor-car and slam the door shut behind them. Pigzie Doodle flew through the window, and abruptly they were slammed back into their seats as the car leaped impossibly from nought to sixty in less than a quarter of a second. For one terrifying moment, red eyes flashed in the black smoke around them like hellish stars in a demonic sky—

—and then they were free, tearing down the street away from the Galactic building and weaving through oncoming traffic with a complete and utter disregard for human life.

---

“Blast,” said Ashley, falling back against the wall. “I have to stop.” His fingers trailed in threadlike lines across the floor, stretched almost to nothingness, and he didn't look much better: I swear he'd lost about ten kilograms in the last couple of hours.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Do I look it?” With an immense effort, he wrenched open his eyes and gave me a baleful stare.

“I have to admit that you don't,” I replied. “Aren't the energy bars enough? You've got through half of them already.”

“Marvellous though his Energy Capsules may be, Dr. Einarsson does not seem capable of providing me with quite enough energy to fulfil the task at hand.” Ashley sighed. “I am shifting the position, number and type of cells in my body near-continually,” he went on. “Is it any wonder that bars designed to aid athletics are insufficient?”

“I suppose not.” I glanced at the timer, which read 08:23:09. “Have you got anywhere with that?”

Ashley was silent for a moment.

“Whoever built this,” he said at last, “was a genius. Or a lunatic, I'm not quite sure.”

“You can't do it?”

“I can,” he said indignantly. “It is just very difficult. This bombsmith is like a watchmaker and an accordion-maker, all rolled into one. The thing is half clockwork and half something else entirely, and full of hidden triggers. I think I have disabled many of them, but I still have not quite found out how to turn it off.”

He looked down at his hands, shook them out and watched his fingers retract back into place.

“Pearl, I think I might need you to get me some more energy bars,” he said. “I feel quite faint.”

I nodded, and a thought struck me.

“Do you want some toffee as well?”

Ashley looked surprised.

“Oh! Yes, actually. I think that might go a considerable way to reviving me.” He smiled a tired smile. “You're very kind to remember.”

For a moment I said nothing, for I'd suddenly realised just how fake his previous smiles and laughter had been, and how much more this real one was worth; the rest were mechanical, scripted reactions designated as appropriate to the circumstances, but this – this chance smile, born of fatigue and pleasurable surprise – was perfectly genuine, and it showed. It transformed his face in a whole different way to those concentrated blasts of charm he sometimes used; it made him look human, as if buried somewhere beneath that flawless skin and alien flesh there was the ghost of a real man.

Then, as quickly as it had begun, the moment passed, and I said:

“Uh, it's nothing.”

I got up – probably a bit too quickly – and left without saying goodbye. I felt as if I'd just wandered out of a dream; the world didn't seem quite real, and it wasn't until I stepped out into the fresh air that I was quite sure that I was awake again.

---

For a very long time, no one said anything at all.

Something dripped. Motor-cars drove by. People walked along the pavement.

The silence continued.

Clouds drifted across the sun. A bird landed on a road sign.

“What,” said Bond at last, “was that?”

“Glad you asked,” replied their mysterious saviour – who, as it turned out, appeared to be invisible, for there was no one in the motor-car with them. “Because that silence was kind of getting to me. I was like, oh, should I speak? No one else is speaking. Does anyone need to speak? Maybe I should speak. But then you spoke, and all the tension went.”

Jesus Christ, said Pigzie Doodle, sinking down onto the dashboard in relief. I thought we were done for there, I really did.

“What? Who's this geezer?” A single electric-blue eye opened in the centre of the steering wheel. “Oi! Get off my dashboard!”

Pigzie Doodle leaped into the air as if stung, and rolled his red eye around to stare.

A Rotom! he cried. Oh, God! How crass!

“A Duskull,” growled the eye, expanding into a globular orange head. “How outdated.”

Nouveau fantôme!

“Antiquated aristocrat!”

Scurrilous y—!

“What is this?” cried Ellen. “Why are you arguing?”

The orange head turned to look at her, trailing blue electricity.

“I just saved all of your lives – or what passes for life for you, I guess,” it said, and Bond realised for the first time that its voice was coming through the motor-car's speakers. “I think that gives me the right to argue with this old moron if I want to.”

“What?” Ellen looked at Bond helplessly, and then, since he seemed equally clueless, looked at Pigzie Doodle. “Will someone please explain what's going on?”

“Yeah, why don't you explain?” the head asked Pigzie Doodle. “Am I the only one with any manners around here?” It cleared its throat and extracted itself fully from the steering wheel, revealing itself to be something like a light-bulb and something like a marlin-spike, connected to the dashboard by electrical threads. “My name,” announced this strange apparition, “is Robin Goodfellow, known to all and sundry as Puck. Those things chasing you were Dusknoir, attracted by the minor dimensional rifts created by the Galactic experimentation. They've been there for about three weeks now, so they're all pretty hungry – hence why they came after you. They froze you in time so you couldn't escape, and I broke you out of it using nothing more than my innate charm and poise.”

I thought you used a red Volvo, said Pigzie Doodle snidely.

“Shut up,” replied Puck. “Oh. Wait. Let me rephrase that so someone of your advanced years can understand: hold thy tongue, venerable knave!”

I do understand modern Sinnish—!

“No you don't.”

Yes I do!

“Prove it.”

I'm talking to you right – gah! You're being facetious!

“And you're an antiquated old bratchny who can't see he's become obsolete,” replied Puck. “But hey! No one's perfect.”

Why, you—!

“Please, calm down!” cried Ellen. “I still don't understand.”

“Yes, I think an explanation would be appreciated,” added Bond, to whom the conversation sounded very one-sided and extraordinarily strange.

Puck sighed.

“Mew preserve us,” he said. “Is it me, or do I spend half my time explaining things to idiotic meatfaces these days? Honestly, the lack of perspicacity among organic lifeforms beggars belief...”

Tell me about it, said Pigzie Doodle. Finally, something we agree on.

“What are the odds, huh? Anyway, where was I?” Puck's eyes roved around the interior of the motor-car, as if searching for the missing topic of conversation. “Oh yeah, explanations. Right. So, first up, who I am – and that's Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck, international art thief and Rotom to the masses.”

“Rotom?”

The latest species of Ghost, said Pigzie Doodle with undisguised disgust. Very nouveau fantôme. Abominable manners and deplorably dependent on human technology.

“On my way to the Galactic building to – for my own reasons,” Puck continued, as if he hadn't spoken, “I noticed you were falling prey to the cloud of Dusknoir that had gathered there. And – um – I rescued you. Also for my own reasons. Which were not at all altruistic,” he added firmly. “In case you suspect me of such nonsensical kindness, I draw your attention to the fact that I parked this car on top of a stray Glameow. Its spine is currently more twisted than Josef Mengele.”

“What?” Ellen looked confused. “Bond, what is he saying?”

“He is a Ghost, madam,” replied Bond. “And he too is trying to get into the Galactic building. I surmise he saved us in order that we may join forces, since we are going there too, and an attempt at entry may well be easier with more participants.”

“Yes,” said Puck. “That is exactly why I saved your lives. We need to, er, join forces.”

Is that so? asked Pigzie Doodle, his eye lighting up, or at least glowing more brightly than usual. Is that really all there is to it?

“Yes. That is all. There could not be more to it if it tried. So little more is there to it that if you removed what I've told you, there would be less than nothing left.”

That makes no sense.

“I know you are, but what am I?”

If anything, that makes less sense.

“I know. I do that. In fact, it's kind of my thing.”

That's something of a flaw, wouldn't you say?

“I wouldn't say, actually. I don't really have flaws. I'm like when Michael Caine and Demi Moore stole from the London Diamond Corporation.”

Pigzie Doodle turned to Ellen and Bond.

Are you hearing this? he asked. There's no way we can work with this guy. Even if you can get past the fact that he's a Rotom – and I'm not saying I can – he's stealing my part!

“I don't quite understand what you mean,” replied Ellen. “Surely he's right? If we work together, don't we stand a better chance of getting in?”

“You sure do,” affirmed Puck, grinning broadly. “In fact, it just so happens that I have a plan to get us all inside.” He looked around, and was satisfied to see he had even Pigzie Doodle's attention now. “You see, I need to get inside. And I'm also a professional thief. This, combined with years of experience and a pretty damn considerable quantity of raw talent, means that I have had a scheme ready for months for just this eventuality...”

---

At eight fifteen Ashley cracked it.

His whole body tensed, and he looked as if he'd just stumbled across the reason for human existence: face frozen, eyes slightly widened, eyebrows fixed a little too high to be normal.

“I think I've got it,” he whispered, whisking me out of my thoughts and back to reality. “Finally. I think I've got it!”

“At last!” cried Iago, who had got bored and come back an hour ago. “This has taken a long sodding time. Pearl could've done it quicker.”

Ashley didn't reply; his face was set, his brow furrowed and his eyes hard. His was the face of a man who was in the middle of some intense concentration. My heart suddenly leaped up three gears, pounding like it expected a dragon to come through the roof at any moment; in my mind's eye, I saw Ashley's fingers inching their way through the innards of the bomb, avoiding tripwires, hidden triggers and tiny rolling boulders...

“Done,” he said abruptly, sinking back against the wall. “It's done.”

I stared. Was that it? Surely there was something more impressive – the lights in the timer going out, or the Poké Balls being released with a pneumatic hiss?

“It's really done?” I asked. “Are you sure?”

“Positive,” he replied, eyelids fluttering shut. “Will someone call Cynthia, please? She needs to know.” He hesitated. “And I want to see her.”

I raised my eyebrows. Wow – another display of genuine emotion. Ashley really must be exhausted.

“I'm on it,” said Iago, producing a mobile phone from within his tail; for the first time, I wondered how he actually managed to store things in it. “Cynthia... Cynthia... Cynthia! There it is.” He put the phone to his ear and waited.

“I'll tell Crasher, shall I?” I asked; Ashley didn't reply, so I decided to do it without his permission and went off to find him. He wasn't anywhere in the boiler room or the corridor outside, so I told the policeman out there to find him and Rennet and tell them the bomb was defused and went back.

“...yes, I thought so too,” Iago was saying. “Yes. Yes. Now, that's probably overstating it a bit.” He glanced at Ashley. “No, he looks like cal. He has just expended something like your total body weight in energy trying to defuse a bomb.” He sighed. “All right. We'll either be at the Gym, the police station or the Hrafn Hotel. See you in a minute.” He looked up at me. “Honestly. I don't want to fall into one of your petty human stereotypes, but there is something about blonde humans, isn't there? I mean, there's natural human stupidity, and then there's that.”

“You do know that I'm—?”

“That you're blonde under the dye? Yes. Perfect memory, remember?” Iago tapped his temple. “I'm just being mean.”

“Saying that doesn't justify...”

I trailed off.

“Justify?” prompted Iago. “Justify what, Pearl? Come on, surely even you can finish your own sentences?”

I pointed at the bomb.

“Look at the timer,” I said.

And Iago looked.

And Iago swore violently.

And Iago kicked Ashley back into wakefulness.

“Get up,” he hissed. “You haven't disarmed the bomb!”

“What? I think you'll find I have,” said Ashley. “Please stop poking me.”

“This is a kick, damn it!”

“My apologies. It doesn't feel like one.”

“Open your eyes!”

With extreme reluctance, Ashley did so – and caught sight of the timer. When he had last seen it, it was frozen at 03:45:17.

It now read 03:39:56.

“Ah,” he said. “My mistake. You would appear to be correct about the bomb.”

“Defuse it,” ordered Iago. “Now.”

“I don't really need you to tell me,” said Ashley, leaning forwards again and rubbing his fingers. “I have considerable motivation already.”

“Just do it.”

Ashley sighed, scooped a handful of lard into his mouth (the shop had run out of energy products, so I'd had to get a little more creative) and plunged his hands back into the works.

“What happened?” I asked. “I thought you'd done it.”

“So did I,” he said dryly. “It seems we were both wrong. I have, however, managed to speed up the timer. Observe.”

I looked, and saw that it now read 03:31:12; the seconds were moving by so fast that I couldn't make them out, and the minutes seemed to be changing once every second.

“You'll notice that rather than three hours, we now have three minutes,” continued Ashley, without the slightest hint of worry, or indeed anything other than fatigue. “It would seem we have, at least, ruined Cyrus' dreams of a midnight dénouement.”

“Three minutes?” Iago stared at him, pointed ears pressed back flat against his skull. He looked like an angry wolf – or, perhaps more aptly, a scared fox. “Three minutes – cal!”

He was past me before I could so much as blink; the door slammed and I heard rapid footsteps in the hall.

“A strong sense of self-preservation,” noted Ashley. “I expected him to run.”

I ignored that; I couldn't even begin to respond to it. There was only room for one thought in my head right now: in three minutes and four seconds, we were all going to be buried under several tons of terminally angry sea serpent.

I was literally minutes away from death.

“Ashley,” I asked, as quietly and calmly as I could, “are we going to die?”

“Not me,” he said sadly. “I shall stand here in the ruins and look at the bodies of people I was foolish enough to choose as friends.”

The timer read 02:57:12.

“However,” he continued, visibly cheering himself, “that is only if I fail to disarm this bomb in the next two and a half minutes. And I think I can do it – I almost had it last time – it requires only a minor adjustment—”

Something crunched deep inside the machine, and a spring popped loose from the top with what was probably the only instance of an ominous boing in the history of mankind.

“Perhaps a slightly greater adjustment,” amended Ashley.

02:42:21.

“Ashley...”

I couldn't think straight – in fact, I couldn't think at all. My whole existence was my eyes, and the blinking red digits they were currently focused on. I was dimly aware of someone else in the room, and of the rapid approach of the Grim Reaper, but nothing more; those red lights, those burning dots and lines, were my universe right then, and anything beyond was unthinkable.

02:36:44.

“Calm down, Pearl,” said Ashley, though his voice sounded strained. “No one is dying tonight!”

02:15:32.

Now the machine began to move, huge wheels turning just beneath its surface; the accordion bellows started to pump, and tiny, intricate arms clicked in and out of place within its scrapheap skeleton.

01:40:58.

“Almost there!” cried Ashley, eyes casting an unearthly yellow glow over the bomb, picking out glinting cogs and gleaming bars, black buttons and white keys...

01:23:30.

I wanted to turn and run, but there was nowhere to go. There was no running from thirty-two Gyarados.

01.01.40.

It didn't matter anyway. My legs were frozen in place; I couldn't separate my feet from the floor.

00.45.32.

I could almost hear the Reaper now, pacing down the hall with bony feet. They were unhurried footsteps – quiet, calm, implacable.

00.22.19.

The whirring and clicking of the bomb had reached fever pitch, but I could still hear the footsteps; they were almost at the door.

00.10.57.

“I can feel it!” yelled Ashley above the whine of the machine, but it was too late. I knew it with the certainty of fate, and a curious sense of lightness settled over me as the timer rushed towards its inevitable conclusion.

00.03.06.

The Reaper was through the door now, and I heard him draw back his arm for the blow—

00.00.02.

Ashley was shouting something and drawing back from the bomb now, throwing up one arm to shield his face.

00.00.00

I closed my eyes—

dracoflare
June 7th, 2012, 05:29 AM
Gah!I hate you :x Why do you have to stop the story at that point!!

Well since this is the first time I have reviewed to your story, I think I should say the usual

"You have done an amazing job." And I mean it.
I have read all the Thirty Chapters in two days, you managed to hook me into the story and I couldn't just resist coming out of the world you have created.

Keep those chapters coming.

My favorite character till now is Bond. He is ****ing cool, I must say.

Oh and my predictions: Cyrus seemed to be planning everything perfectly, but the factor that might cause him to lose could be the meeting of Lisa and Ellen.

Zayphora
June 7th, 2012, 04:05 PM
Ehehe....Cliffhangers, you will kill me.

Love the way that you portrayed Puck and Pigzie Doodle meeting. For some reason I had the strange feeling that they were having a rap battle...The only thing I didn't like is the fact that Puck killed that poor kitty :_( So mean...Oh well he has no regard for the life of anything but himself usually so yeah...

But still. What a chapter! That was amazing. AMAZING>.>

I will blow up if you don't post another chapter soon(lamest joke ever....)

Cutlerine
June 9th, 2012, 02:15 PM
Gah!I hate you :x Why do you have to stop the story at that point!!

That wasn't originally where it was going to end, but I couldn't resist. It was just so... so tempting.

Well since this is the fir