Chapter Thirty-Four: Someone Holds a Candle to Sapphire
Sure is jagged here, Puck remarked, as I tripped for the fortieth time.
“That so? I hadn’t noticed,” I replied sarcastically, from between clenched teeth. I climbed back to my feet wearily; I had long since stopped checking to see if I’d cut or bruised my legs after each fall, because I invariably had – and now my knees were very unpleasant to look at. My jeans were also even more ruined than they had been already.
Jagged Pass was bordered by pine forest to the east and west; at least, it was until you got to the higher parts, where the red rock rose stark and bare, bereft of all covering. Precisely why no trees grew on the Pass itself was beyond my understanding. I also didn’t know why it was even called a pass – it wasn’t a gap through the mountains at all, but a long slope that formed one side of Mount Chimney. I was, however, certain that I knew why it was called ‘jagged’: it was covered in ledges, uneven terrain and boulders, and the ground was almost completely obscured by scree and talus that seemed to have been carved by the elements into natural knives.
Mount Chimney isn’t very high, is it? said Puck. I mean, I know Lavaridge Town is really high up, but it looks like you’re going to get to the peak by five at the latest.
“Best not to question these things,” I said wisely, clambering up another rocky ledge and wishing someone had thought to bulldoze a path up the mountain. My hands and forearms were scratched, bruised and filthy; my clothes were as ripped and battered as they had been after my previous misadventures. I sighed. I was going to need a new outfit again.
I staggered onwards, slipped and gave myself a bruised forehead with a cut in the centre. Hauling myself up onto a boulder, I sat down heavily and cupped my bleeding head with one hand, staring down at the distant town below.
“This isn’t going well,” I stated. “I’m halfway and I’m not sure I can go any further.”
It’ll be at least as bad going back as it is going up, Puck pointed out. Greater chance of slipping, too.
“I suppose.” I glared sullenly up at the sky, and the distant shape of a larger-than-average Altaria, circling eternally. “I hate to say it, but I think Sapphire could really have helped here. She’s better than me at this stuff, anyway.”
Ah, don’t say that. We’re like a drifter – born to walk alone. We’ll make it.
“I suppose it might have been worse if we’d gone through Fiery Path,” I said. “We’d probably have got lost, and made a positively Shandian digression.”
I don’t believe you’ve read that, so I’m going to assume you’ve just heard someone say ‘Shandian digression’ and thought it sounded clever.
Blast. Caught out.
“Damn. How did you know?”
Kester, you’re the last person in the world who would read Laurence Sterne.
I decided that that was enough, and it was time to start climbing again. Tucking my palms inside the lacerated sleeves of my hoodie, I grabbed onto some larger, more stable rocks, and began to guide myself carefully up the sea of stones.
Shortly afterwards, I passed a walled compound that I assumed was the vihara; the walls were made of pleasantly cool grey stone, mined from somewhere distant, and I could see the roofs rising above them like hills of slate. As I hiked past, I wondered what it was like to be a bhikku, and spend your days in meditation and learning.
Happy, if you’ve the mind for it, Puck answered. He sounded almost wistful. I’m too attached to things, though. I’d be the world’s worst Buddhist, let alone bhikku.
It took me the better part of an hour to reach a point at which the ground levelled out a little; by that time, it must have been around half past four, and though the sun was still high in the sky, I was beginning to feel cold. We had to be close now.
Come on, urged Puck. There’s about twenty feet more, and we’ve reached the top.
With a tremendous effort, I forced myself up onto the flattened top of Mount Chimney, and saw, laid out before me as if by some divine hand—
“Absolutely nothing,” I said, crestfallen. “What the hell?”
There was the peak, an expanse of rough red stone, and the crater at the other end of the space, spewing its dark smoke to the north. All in all, it looked rather like a suitable place to destroy a ring, but of the supposed volcanologists or their strange machine, there was no sign at all.
“What happened?” I wondered. “Where are they?”
Coffee break? suggested Puck.
“Funny,” I said, in tones that I hoped suggested it wasn’t. “Let’s have a look around. I didn’t climb this mountain for nothing.”
I wandered over the mountaintop, searching for any signs of life; however, I came across nothing save the occasional scraggly bush and, once, a small and rather weedy Slugma, who chased me very slowly twice around a boulder before I decided I’d had enough and walked away, leaving him making furious bubbling noises at my back.
“This is stupid,” I said angrily, leaning against a rock near the heaving smoke of the crater. “Where – huh?”
The rock did not feel like rock. There was a sharp edge digging into my back, and something that felt like cloth dragging over it. I turned around, but there was only a boulder there; I reached out cautiously and touched it.
I don’t believe it, said Puck. It’s a shroud.
Dyed the rough red colour of the surrounding stone, the cloth was a perfect disguise as long as no one touched it; I hauled the sheet of fabric away and the boulder stood revealed as something very different indeed.
“What,” I wondered, staring, “is that?”
I don’t know, Puck said slowly. But it looks vaguely octopus-y to me.
It was the strange machine the ‘volcanologists’ had been setting up earlier, a great metallic box with a vast number of pipes rooting it to the stone as if it were some artificial mangrove tree. They actually seemed to go into the rock, and I wondered if they extended all the way down to the magma beneath. Atop the gleaming chrome body was a glass structure that put me in mind of a bell jar, and inside this was a set of clamps that were currently notable for not actually clamping anything.
“Putting that awful joke aside,” I said, “can you possess this and find out what it is?”
I can try, said Puck, but I warn you, it doesn’t look like it’s going to do anything without someone putting something in that jar.
I laid a hand on one pipe, and blue sparks danced around my fingertips. A light flickered on the side of the machine, and it began to hum – then it cut out abruptly and the light died.
OK, bad news, said Puck. It doesn’t seem to do anything. I tried everything I know – and let me tell you, the things I don’t know about machinery aren’t worth knowing – but it seems that it won’t do anything until that jar has something put in it.
“All right.” I sighed and withdrew my hand, then looked around. Even if this had been a wasted trip, the view was spectacular: the Madeiras raised their rust-coloured hears all around me, like a great crown of thorns perched on Hoenn’s head. Up here, I was level with the Altaria; the flocks wheeled and cawed above the valleys in their endless search for food. The only things above me were the clouds and the Lone Altaria, which flew at such heights that it probably had problems breathing.
I dragged the camouflage sheet back over the machine and wandered over to the crater, going as close as I dared to the edge and trying to catch a glimpse of lava or something behind the veil of black smoke.
You’re lucky the wind’s blowing northwards, observed Puck, or you’d be covered in ash. Also, it probably isn’t very safe to be doing this. The volcano’s obviously not very stable right now, and it might erupt. Which would kill you as surely as a bullet. Fired from Scaramanga’s golden gun.
“Er, yeah, you’re probably right,” I agreed, taking several hurried steps back. “I should probably leave.”
I walked back over to the end of Jagged Pass and was about to make my way down when I saw a group of figures coming up the slope, slipping and sliding on the scree.
Figures in red.
“Magmas,” I breathed. “Puck, Team Magma’s coming!”
Thanks for that. It’s not like I can see them or anything.
“Shut up.” I looked around wildly. “See any hiding places?”
In the crater?
“Correction: any hiding places I can survive in?”
I don’t know, just go behind some boulders or something. They’re going to go to the machine, so just make sure they can’t see you from there.
I ran back to the disguised machine, checked its camouflaging sheet was more or less how it had been left, then darted behind the nearest pile of rocks. I wanted to be able to hear what they said. I crouched down and flattened myself against the warm red stone, heart pounding like a drum, and I waited for them to reach the peak.
That pass really is jagged, isn’t it? remarked Puck, as the sound of distant cursing reached my ears. It’s at times like this that I’m glad I don’t have feet.
I sighed and relaxed a little, leaning back against the boulder. It looked like I was going to have a long wait on my hands.
Sapphire stood outside Spike’s Gym and wondered how she’d been elected so quickly. It usually took at least a week for Leaders to be decided on; the League had to approve them, and the townspeople needed to all cast their vote. She frowned. She knew something about this – something that was odd about the election – but she couldn’t remember it.
“It’ll come back to me,” she decided, and went over to read the Gym sign. She was surprised to discover that Spike had chosen her real name to use, despite her hatred for it. Shrugging, she walked up the steps, ignoring the caretaker’s efforts to inveigle her into small talk, and pushed open the door.
Inside, the Gym was long, low and ankle-deep in warm, powdery sand. Sapphire looked at it with distaste, then sighed and waded in, feeling it rush into her trainers and fill them with grittiness.
“Sandy,” she said, shutting the door behind her and beginning to walk. “I hate sand.”
Sapphire could take mud, water or leaves; she’d been covered in ash and soot before, and slime, and even banana pulp – but sand was the one thing she couldn’t stand to get in her clothes. It hung around for days and turned up in her hair, in her shoes and under her nails; it got everywhere, and she hated it for it.
The room Sapphire was in was only a small part of the Gym, that much she could tell; the place was divided up by walls formed of wooden palings driven into the ground, and through a small gap in the fence she could see further rooms – and, in the distance, the flash of Spike’s dyed-crimson hair.
Sapphire took one more step, and found to her alarm that there was no more floor beneath her feet: she plummeted face-first into the sand, fell through it and landed hard on another layer of sand below.
“Whuh...?” She picked herself up slowly, and a thin stream of sand fell down on her head with a soft pitter-patter sound. Sapphire got to her feet, brushing sand from her clothes, and gave a groan of frustration. “Dear. God. So. Much. Sand.”
She shook her head vigorously, and sand flew out of her hair; she took off her hat and emptied about a pint of the fine granules onto the floor. The Swellow feather, she decided regretfully, was ruined, and she pulled it out, resolving to get a replacement at the first opportunity.
Then, reasonably clean, Sapphire began to explore this lower room, figuring out the Gym’s puzzle as she went. She always refused to read up on Gyms before challenging them; the traps installed by the Leader were supposed to be a test of the Trainer, just as the battles were a test of the Pokémon. Here, it was fairly easy to see what she had to do: drop through the right concealed holes, avoiding the others, and climb the stairs to come out in different rooms. The difficulty lay in actually managing to do any of it.
Sapphire tried one set of stairs and almost immediately fell down another hole; she picked herself up and tried to think. She got a notebook and a pencil from her bag, and started trying to map the Gym, drawing in two levels and trying to figure out how the rooms and holes linked up. For a full forty minutes, she just wandered, working on her map – and after that time, she had a pretty good diagram of the building’s interior. The only thing that eluded her was the method of reaching the Leader’s podium itself, which, if her map was correct, was at the heart of the maze.
Since her map showed every sand-pit and staircase that she had found so far, Sapphire was pretty sure she must have missed a hole somewhere, and spent a further twenty minutes pacing over the surface of every room in the Gym, trying to find another concealed hole. She found two, but they led into rooms she’d been in before, and didn’t help.
Sapphire stopped on the lower floor, the one with the stairs, and rubbed her head, doing her best to ignore the gritty crunch of the sand against her skin. She was missing something. There had to be something obvious that she wasn’t seeing. She sat down to think – and the floor gave way beneath her, the soft sand swallowing her up like the gelatinous flank of a Muk. She experienced a brief second of flight and then – whumph! She landed flat on her back, on an even lower floor that she had never even suspected the existence of.
“This is worse than that Corsola hunt Dad dragged me along to,” Sapphire murmured to herself, watching sand drift down in loose coils from the ceiling to her chest. She staggered upright, made a futile attack on her new, grainy outer shell and set off to see where this floor led, adding it to her map as she went.
Five minutes later, Sapphire emerged from the subterranean depths of the Gym’s lower floors and stepped up onto the Leader’s podium. At her approach, a girl with bright crimson hair stood up and turned to face her, whereupon Sapphire noted with some surprise that it wasn’t Spike at all.
This girl wore her hair in a similar style to Spike’s, and she was the same age, but she had no piercings, and was dressed in a plain, faded red T-shirt and normal, undamaged jeans. That, Sapphire thought, would be why the sign said ‘Flannery’ – Spike hadn’t made Leader, and someone else had been elected in her place.
“Oh!” said Sapphire. “Er – sorry. I was expecting someone else.”
The girl raised an eyebrow.
“Who else would you be expecting?” she asked. She was well-spoken, unlike Spike – but the voice was undeniably the same. “It’s me, Sapphire.”
“What?” she asked. “That... you’ve had a major style change.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Spike opened a large chest behind her; Sapphire could see it was filled with a multitude of Poké Balls, in all colours and sizes. “How strong are you?”
“Um... mid to late twenties,” Sapphire told her, thrown by the curt response. “Two Pokémon.”
She wasn’t going to use Stacey or the Sableye; both were far too mentally disturbed to be of any real help in battle.
“Fine.” Spike withdrew two balls from the chest and shut the lid. Sapphire noted that her knuckles were white against her skin; it was obvious now that something was up with her. “You’re my first challenger,” she admitted. “I shall make this a victory to remember.”
With that, she tossed down her first ball, and a small, round creature in shades of pastel yellow appeared, blinking confused eyes and smoking gently from an aperture in its back. This was a Numel – and one day, if trained enough, it would become a Camerupt such as the one Tabitha had used at Meteor Falls.
Sapphire responded with Toro; the Combusken seemed fully recovered from her fright at the helicopter, bouncing from foot to foot like a professional boxer.
“Cheee,” she chirruped pugnaciously, making fists of her clawed hands. “Cheee.”
“Double Kick,” Sapphire ordered, and Toro lunged forwards, legs whipping forwards into a blur of feathers—
—but she missed completely, the Numel dissolving in a flash of light beneath her feet. She landed heavily on her side, but sprang back up nevertheless, looking around alertly for her opponent.
Spike threw down another ball, and, of all things, a large, fat candle burst forth from it, sitting completely motionless in the middle of the podium. The only sign that it wasn’t anything but an ordinary candle was the large purple flame that burned at the end of its wick.
Toro looked at the candle. Sapphire looked at the candle. Then they both looked at each other.
“I’ll let you make the first move here,” Spike said. “Go on.”
“Double Kick,” Sapphire said, and obediently Toro tried again; however, she passed straight through the candle as if it weren’t there, and crashed into the wall beyond. There was a crack, and for a heart-stopping moment Sapphire thought Toro had broken her leg – but it was just the wood splintering beneath the attack.
Sapphire started and cried out; the candle was a Ghost? Almost as soon as she thought it, she wanted to kick herself: the purple flame was the giveaway. Only Ghosts could make fire like that. And most Ghosts could also learn—
“Pallas, Psychic,” ordered Spike, and, though the candle didn’t move, Toro emitted a piercing cry before toppling over, blood pouring from her ears. Her whole body went limp at once, and she crumpled to the floor like a paper bag.
Sapphire swore under her breath and recalled Toro, sending out Rono in her place. The Lairon roared, happy to be of use, looked around for an opponent, and dropped a small boulder on the spectral candle. Where the stone for the Rock Tomb came from was unknown, but Sapphire never questioned it.
The attack had the desired effect: made of wax and evil, the candle stood no chance, and was squashed flat. Rono bellowed happily, but Sapphire was still tense: she already knew that Spike’s other Pokémon was a Numel, and if it managed to get Rono with a Ground-type move, the battle would basically be over – especially if that move was Earth Power, and it would make perfect sense if it was.
The Numel appeared, and Sapphire’s voice rang out concurrently with Spike’s:
The boulder crashed down, but the floor was sandy and soft, ideal for digging in, and the rocks simply made shallow craters in the dirt. All at once, the action stopped; Rono froze, trying to work out where his foe was, and Sapphire cautioned him:
“Stay still! Listen for it.”
Spike said nothing, just kept her eyes fixed on the ground.
The time stretched out; it might have been seconds, or it might have been minutes. Still, the Numel did not reappear.
Sweat trickled down Sapphire’s brow; she’d never fought anyone who had been in such total command of the battle. From the switching in of the candle-Ghost to the fear tactics induced by the Numel’s long absence, Spike’s stratagems had been perfect. What was more, she was formulating these on the spot – there was no way she could have known what Pokémon Sapphire would use against her in advance. This was what real battles were like, Sapphire thought: these were the kind of tricks the Trainers in the League Tournament used, or the Elite Four. You could tell that Spike was at their level: her skill was nothing short of masterful—
With a rush of earth, the Numel surfaced – behind Sapphire.
“Earth Power!” snapped Spike, and Rono, unable to see where the attack came from, was tossed a foot into the air by the force of the exploding ground beneath him. From nowhere, plumes of lava and dirt blasted out of the floor as if it had been laced with mines; a pained roar echoed through the room, and when Rono crashed back into the sand, his rocky underbelly had holes punched in it the size of Sapphire’s fist. He struggled once to rise – twice – and fell back against the ground, eyes glazed and breath ragged.
“Return,” said Spike, recalling her Numel. “It seems you weren’t good enough. Come back another day.”
With that, she swept away through a concealed door at the back of her room, slamming it shut behind her. Sapphire was left standing there, looking at her defeated Lairon and wondering why, throughout the whole of her time in the Gym, Spike had never once met her eye.
“... and all I said was, ‘I don’t tip.’”
“You don’t tip?”
The voice sounded incredulous. There were eight of them, and they had just made their way over the crest of Jagged Pass. Their conversation, though inane, was somehow compelling, and I found myself listening harder.
“No, I don’t believe in it,” said Magma No. 1.
“You don’t believe in tippin’?” asked Magma No. 2, as if trying to straighten the matter out in his head.
A third voice broke in:
“You know what those chicks make? They make nothing.”
“Don’t gimme that,” Magma No. 1 said. “If she don’t make enough money she can quit.”
Someone chuckled, and over him Magma No. 2 spoke:
“I don’t even know a damn blue who’d have the guts to say that.” He paused for a moment, presumably to wrap his brain around the concept of not tipping. “Let me just get this straight. You never tip, huh?”
“I don’t tip because society says I have to,” argued Magma No. 1. “All right, I’ll tip if someone really deserves it – if they really put forth the effort I’ll give ’em somethin’ extra – but just tipping automatically... that’s for the birds.”
Magma No. 2 laughed incredulously.
“As far as I’m concerned,” went on Magma No. 1, “they’re just doin’ their job.”
My God, Puck said, in hushed tones, they’ve learned the entire opening scene, haven’t they?
“What?” I whispered back.
Nothing. Just – oh, Kester, you’ve got so many films to see.
“Here’s the machine,” said Magma No. 1.
Oh, said Puck, disappointed, they stopped.
“Just where we left it,” said Magma No. 2.
“I don’t even see why we need to keep checkin’ on this thing anyway,” complained Magma No. 3.
“It’s the boss,” replied Magma No. 1. “You know, he’s determined this goes off without a hitch or anythin’. So we make sure nothin’ goes wrong, that this thing’s not been tampered with.”
There was the sound of shifting cloth, and a beep and a hum from the machine. I had an unpleasant thought – what if they could tell we’d messed with it?
What do you think I am, a common footpad? asked Puck haughtily. I’m a professional art thief. I cover my freakin’ tracks, man.
All right! I thought at him. Sorry, sorry.
You damn well better be.
“Looks fine to me,” said Magma No. 3. “No one even comes up here, do they? Not with the volcano like it is.”
“I really hope it don’t erupt on Sunday,” Magma No. 2 put in. “I mean, we’ll be up here.”
“Nah, the boss has it all figured out,” Magma No. 1 said. “It’ll be fine.” There was a pause, and I guessed they were all staring worriedly at the smoking crater. “Mind you...”
“We should get outta here,” suggested Magma No. 3.
“I second that,” said Magma No. 2.
“Me too,” Magma No. 1 said. “All right, let’s get back. It’s definitely not safe here.”
The sheet was replaced with a whoosh, and I heard their footsteps retreat; peeping out from my hiding place, I saw them crunch their way down onto Jagged Pass, and I stood up with a sigh, massaging my legs – I’d been crouching for quite a long time now.
“What do you make of that?” I asked quietly.
They’ve all got great taste in films, Puck replied. Oh, you mean about the whole Magma plot thing? Yeah, I didn’t get anything about that. Except that Maxie’s pretty anxious that it goes off well, which means it’s important – which we already knew, because Zero told us.
“You’re right,” I said despondently. “We didn’t learn anything, did we?”
We sort of did, Puck said thoughtfully. I mean, think about it. Where did those Magmas come from? They sort of appeared halfway up Jagged Pass. Which would seem to suggest to me—
“A secret passageway, leading into an evil volcano lair!” I cried “Like in the movies!”
Actually, I was going to say it suggested that Team Magma use the Fiery Path to get around, Puck admitted, but your idea’s cool too. Hey, he added, shall we follow them?
“Puck, that’s... really stupid. They’ll see me coming from a mile off on Jagged Path, and they’ll know I must have been on the peak at the same time as them, and even then, walking into the secret Magma lair would be really, really stupid...”
All these are valid points, Puck conceded, but I think we should follow them.
Ah, you’re no fun.
“Whereas you seem to think life is one great big casino royale, where the stakes are death and sanity, and you gamble life and limb in the hope of winning entertainment.”
Well done, that boy! Puck cried admiringly. Casino Royale’s got to be one of the hardest ones! It’s also the last one, he added thoughtfully. Which means we need to decide a winner.
“Have you been keeping track of who got more?” I asked, hoping I would beat him.
Er... Damn it. No.
And so our Bond film referencing contest came to a singularly disappointing end, much like this chapter.