Chapter Thirty-Five: Blood, Sweat and Swablu
Sapphire was standing outside the Pokémon Centre, leaning against the wall and waiting for Kester. It had gone seven o’clock now, and the first hint of sunset was stealing across the evening sky.
She wasn’t at all worried about Kester’s long absence.
The lamppost across the street flickered briefly into life, decided it wasn’t necessary and turned off again. A car containing an elderly couple drove slowly past, at the pace of those who have come to the realisation that nothing in life is so important it can’t be done later, or not at all. A few Murkrow flew over the town, drawn from their lairs in the mountain forest north of the town by the prospect of the encroaching dusk. They weren’t native to this region, but Murkrow got everywhere: wherever humans went, they would follow, secure in the knowledge that there would always be something they could steal from them.
Sapphire watched all of this with half-lidded eyes; she wasn’t worried about Kester at all.
A bell struck the quarter hour in the distance. Something rustled, and a far-off car rumbled. A rolling breeze danced a playful fandango down the road, tossing a few leaves on its heels, and a large grey rat slunk out of a broken drainage grill and into a hole in someone’s garden wall.
Sapphire unfolded her arms and trailed a finger along the wall, the tip bouncing over the worn-mortar gulf between the bricks. She wasn’t concerned about where Kester might be in the slightest.
Suburbia trundled quietly into evening, its elderly inhabitants ensconcing themselves on sofas in front of televisions, or behind bingo tables in the hallowed halls of the community centres; one man walked past Sapphire on the other side of the street, a tame Ovame from Turkey trotting before him on a leash. It wasn’t common to see Pokémon from as far afield as Europe in Hoenn – but Sapphire had already seen one that came from even further today; the candle Pokémon, she had found out from Wikipedia, came from Unova.
Sapphire listened to the clopping of the Ovame’s hooves, and told herself that she wasn’t anxious about what might have happened to Kester.
A few lines of black smoke scrawled lazy loops across the sky; they had evaded the southerly wind, and somehow floated south to decorate Lavaridge’s evening. Between them and the ground, a hundred darting insects darted back and forth in a frenzy, searching for something that only they could name. Two Taillow flitted through the swarm, circled around and flew back again, scooping up bugs in their beaks and devouring them on the wing. It was the very model of a Hoennian summer’s evening.
Sapphire kicked at a stone, and it rolled across the road. Kester’s absence was not troubling her in the slightest.
The street was almost entirely deserted, and a layer of silence sat atop it like a toad crowning a lily-pad. Old people do not make much noise, and are not keen to venture abroad after dark. The only people in sight were the man with the Ovame, and the ragged, stiff-legged figure walking down Sapphire’s side of the road.
Sapphire frowned, then smiled.
“Kester!” she cried, and took three steps towards him before she caught herself and stopped. “Where have you been?” she snapped.
He did not answer, but drew closer, and she saw that his clothes, his skin and, presumably, his dignity were in tatters. His arms and face were covered in cuts, and a spectacular series of bruises covered virtually his entire body. As he moved, his lacerated skin released small quantities of blood; all in all, he looked something like a beaten-up goblin.
“I’ve been on a walk,” Kester said sourly. “You know, up a mountain covered in knives. As you do.”
Sapphire fixed him with a steady look.
“I told you I was going,” he went on, seeming not to care. “By the way, nice of you to take so much notice of the marks of my brush with death.”
“Are you OK?” asked Sapphire, somewhat alarmed. Kester was definitely out of sorts.
“Just peachy, Sapphire,” Kester replied. “The world is my oyster. Except for the fact that I just fell down the side of a mountain.” He paused thoughtfully. “You know, I’m starting to see why they call it Jagged Pass now.”
“You took the Jagged Pass... up the mountain?”
“Yep,” agreed Kester, with false cheer. “It was just great. Fantastic view.”
Sapphire stared, and then she gaped. After that, she did both at once.
“Do you have an answer?” Kester pressed her.
“Oh... My... God...” Sapphire’s voice was barely a whisper. “How are you still alive?”
“I’m not entirely certain that I am. In fact, I think this might be hell. You’re here, he’s here” – he pointed to his head – “and I’m in a town inhabited only by old people and mobsters. Next to an active volcano. Yeah, must’ve died and been reborn in the hell realm.”
“Er... I think you need to sit down,” suggested Sapphire. “You seem... tense.”
“Tense. Yeah, I’m tense. I’m very tense,” Kester muttered angrily.
“Let’s go inside, shall we?”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not welcome in there,” he said. “Give me some money and let me go to a hotel. I’ll see you in the morning, if I manage to wake up again.”
Abandoning Kester in his current state didn’t seem like the wisest course of action, but Sapphire gave him twenty thousand dollars for something to eat and let him limp away, trailing a large chunk of shoe from one heel. She was all too aware that he was perfectly capable of killing her if he chose, and he was definitely angry enough that he might just have done it.
“And he’s going to need new clothes again,” she murmured, shaking her head and turning back to the Pokémon Centre. “Damn, Kester. Why does nothing last with you?”
Sapphire sighed, and went back inside. She was feeling hungry, and there’d be something to eat in the canteen.
“How are you feeling?”
Felicity didn’t look up. She didn’t want to meet Zero’s eye. She hunched her back and curled further into a ball, arms clasped firmly around her shins.
“Are you traumatised, Felicity?”
She told herself not to answer. There was nothing she could do here except lose, or refuse to play.
“Felicity. I’ve asked you two questions. I’m afraid that if you don’t answer me, I shall have to move house.”
What sort of a threat was that, Felicity wondered. That gave her a location, though – she was in Zero’s home, probably in a basement or something.
“Naturally, I would do so after bricking up the cellar door.”
Involuntarily, Felicity’s eyes flicked upwards and alighted on Zero’s, shining out from behind his mask. He smiled.
“That’s better,” he said. “Now talk to me.”
Felicity’s mouth hurt; it felt so dry it might crack. Her tongue was fat and stiff between her teeth.
Her lips were bleeding, but it wasn’t any sort of blood she was familiar with. It was pinkish rather than red, diluted with more water than was good for it.
“I’m scared,” Felicity managed, frankly. “What did you do to me, Zero?”
“She’s growing,” he replied, his smile unwavering. “You’ll have to hurry up. She gets stronger every day. The more you rely on her powers, the more she will consume you; the more you actively resist her, the more she is encouraged to attack. Only one of you can possess that body in the end, Felicity, and unless you help me swiftly, it will not be you.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Felicity asked in a hoarse whisper. “Why would you...?”
“Quite frankly, you are of absolutely no concern to me,” Zero replied. “In case you hadn’t yet noticed, I’m more or less entirely amoral.” His smile broadened, and he gave a soft laugh. “Ah, rest up, Felicity. I’ll be back tomorrow and you can leave again for Team Aqua.” He stood up and strode towards the door.
“I’m not going back,” she said defiantly, and Zero turned suddenly, grabbing her by the throat and pressing her back against the wall. Stars exploded before her eyes as her head cracked against the stone.
“You’ll do what you’re told,” he said simply, “or you’ll die.”
Then he was gone, and Felicity was alone once more. Except that she was never alone, because there was someone with her; someone who had been with her for a while now, who was slowly changing her into something beyond her comprehension and who was, day by day, eroding her will to live.
Felicity shivered, and curled up again, pressing her hands over her ears and trying to block out the voices in her head.
Mirror in the bathroom, please don’t freak
The door is locked, just you and me...
I seriously considered the merits of putting my head through the windowpane, but decided in the end that since that would actually free Puck, it wasn’t the most desirable option.
Don’t you like that song? asked Puck. I like it.
“I don’t understand it,” I replied, rubbing my head. “You’re singing in English.”
I can do more than that.
“I don’t want to know.”
Listen to me: Is this a dagger that I see before me?
The handle toward my hand—
I’m afraid I can’t do that right now, Dave.
“If there’s anything worse than you talking in my head, it’s you talking in English in my head,” I growled. “Now shut up or get out.”
Fine, Puck said sniffily. I know when I’m not wanted.
Thankfully, it seemed he actually did for once, so I finished drying my hair and started to shave; I hadn’t done that since my weird journey with Sapphire began, and since there was a razor in the room I thought I’d better make the most of it. I was halfway done when he suddenly said:
I jumped and opened up one of those incredibly tiny, incredibly sore cuts you get if you make a mistake while shaving. Considering all my other cuts and bruises, it was disproportionately painful.
“Puck!” I yelled, punching the wall as a substitute for his face. “Don’t do that!”
Sorry, he said sheepishly. I didn’t know that would happen.
“I’m holding a razor next to my face, what did you think would happen?”
All right, all right, Puck said. I admit it, I made a mistake. Lighten up a little.
You were bleeding already. The cleaner’s going to think someone died in here.
This was true. I hadn’t moved much in my sleep since I was so tired, but I had done so enough to open up all the half-closed wounds that covered my body. Consequently, my hotel room was rather bloody at present, and the bed – well, it looked like I’d committed a violent murder there. Jagged Pass had a lot to answer for.
I pressed a finger to my cheek to try and staunch the blood flow, finished shaving and tried to get dressed one-handed. It didn’t work, and I was forced to use both hands and also bleed quite a lot.
“I have to say,” I muttered, trying to button jeans that resolutely remained unbuttoned, “I’m going to be glad to see a Full Restore.”
Yeah, agreed Puck. You really took a beating when you tripped like that.
“Don’t remind me.”
That was the cause of all my injuries. Partway through my descent of Jagged Pass, I had stepped on a rock that ought not to have been stepped on: it had slid to one side, twisting my ankle and causing me to fall an alarming distance down the side of the mountain, rolling over the sharp stones so that nothing broke but everything bruised. It was up there with that business that occurred last year as one of my least favourite experiences of all time.
That’s it! snapped Puck. You keep referring to this ‘business that occurred last year’, in all sorts of situations, and I’m getting sick of it. What happened?
“I can’t say,” I said with a shiver, pulling the remnants of my hoodie over my head. “I swore I’d never speak of it again.”
I can look it up in your memories, warned Puck.
“Fine. Do that. But on your own head be it.”
Well, that’s ominous, said Puck cheerfully. I picked up my room key, slid it into my pocket and left to the sound of pages rustling in the distance.
Halfway down the corridor, the Rotom spoke again.
Whoa, he said. Seriously? How did that.... how could such a thing happen?
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
But seriously, Kester! Was that girl even human?
“I said I don’t want—”
And those children... I swear humans can’t do that. It doesn’t obey the laws of thermodynamics, for Terrakion’s sake!
“It was technically legal,” I said quickly.
You have laws about that kind of thing?
I decided to quit before I revealed too much, and stopped talking as I left the lobby for the bright outdoors. I looked at my watch, but it hadn’t worked since the car crash, and after being electrocuted, soaked in water and battered by razor-edged stones it was almost unrecognisable as a timepiece. I peeled the plastic strap thoughtfully from my wrist, and dropped it into the nearest bin.
You don’t need that anyway, Puck said. I mean, it looks like it’s late morning, maybe noon-ish, right?
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Do you think Sapphire will be at the Pokémon Centre?”
Puck chuckled; it was one of those chuckles that indicates that someone knows more than they are letting on.
I bet she is, he said. I bet she is.
“What’re you talking about?” I asked, turning left and heading for the Centre.
I’m sure you’ll find out. Plot-wise, it seems the logical thing to happen.
“Whatever.” I gave up on it. “Do you think she won her Gym Battle?”
I doubt it. Wattson was crazy, and Spike’s about three million light years above him, I know it. There aren’t very many Trainers who can last more than a minute against even one of the Elite Four, from any country.
I remembered that Spike had beaten both Sidney and Phoebe – an impressive achievement, to be sure. It was very, very infrequently that anyone managed to defeat all four of them; in the last three years, only two people had managed it. From the sounds of things, Spike would probably join their ranks soon.
The Pokémon Centre was not far off, and soon hove into view, the orange-red roof vivid against the backdrop of pine trees that cloaked the lower slopes of the mountains. I walked in, doing my best to avoid being noticed by the receptionist, and glanced around the lobby in search of Sapphire. She wasn’t there, and I had to ask the woman who’d thrown me out yesterday where she was.
“She’s in the lounge,” she replied curtly, dyed-pink hair bobbing. “What happened to you?” she added, looking at my tortured body and tattered clothes.
I decided to go with the easiest explanation.
“Cut myself shaving,” I replied, and walked off to the living-room.
Sapphire was the only person there, which wasn’t surprising. She was watching the news, and I hovered in the doorway a moment, eyes on the TV.
“...in other news, the Venetian law courts have finally given their ruling on the case that has whipped the city into a frenzy,” Gabby van Horne was saying. “It was ruled that the contract was legal and binding, and the court ordered Antonio Pugliese, speculative merchant, to pay the debt owed. However, an unusual appeal was launched just this morning: the contract fails to mention blood, and the lawyer for the defence, Balthazar, has claimed that only if Shylock is capable of removing the flesh without spilling blood is he within his rights to do so...”
“Wow,” I said aloud, “international news.”
The TV clicked off; Sapphire turned around and sat up. She looked at me for a long moment, as if looking for words to use.
“You look awful,” she said at last.
I spread my arms and gave myself a once-over with my eyes.
“Yep,” I agreed. “Feel awful, too. In fact, I’m pretty generally awful right now.”
“Wait here,” said Sapphire, and left the room. I sat down on the arm of the sofa to wait, and she was back within a few minutes. “Full Restore?” she said, holding out a bottle like a waiter offering a drink.
I almost snatched it from her in my eagerness.
I emptied it into my face and instantly felt so much better that I leaped upright and punched the air.
“Man, that’s good!”
“If you’re quite done?” Sapphire asked. I coughed, stopped dancing and turned to face her.
“Uh. Yeah. So, did you beat Spike?”
She gave me a sour look and shook her head.
What did I tell you? Puck asked smugly.
All right, I thought back, no need to gloat.
I told you she’d lose, that’s what I told you.
“She’s ridiculously good,” Sapphire said. “She surprised me with a Pokémon I’d never seen before, and even with just that and a Numel, her tactics were too good.”
Ask her what the new Pokémon was.
“Puck wants to know what the other Pokémon was.”
“A little candle thing... it was called Litwick.”
Ghost/Fire. I know those things – we have them in England. They only really live in cooler, northern climates, hence why there are a grand total of zero Litwicks in Hoenn.
“Puck says he knows all about Litwicks.”
“Really,” said Sapphire, narrowing her eyes thoughtfully, “now that might be useful. But,” she went on, “that can wait. What happened to you yesterday? When you got back you were... uncommunicative.”
“Yeah...” I recalled that exchange with a small amount of shame. “Sorry about that.” I wasn’t sure if I was actually sorry – this was Sapphire, after all – but it seemed the right thing to say.
I told her about my misadventure on Mount Chimney, and how it had been a failure. Sapphire expressed a desire to infiltrate the Magma lair, if indeed there was one; however, I dissuaded her, with more success than I’d had with Puck. She conceded that it was, upon reflection, a bad idea, and agreed with me that the only thing we could do was wait until tomorrow to see what was going on.
“So that gives me today for training,” she said. “Do you want to come with me? You can train too, if you like.”
“There’s nothing else to do in this town,” I said despondently. “Fine. Let’s do that.”
And we left the Pokémon Centre, heading for the tourist office. We needed to know how to get to the Fiery Path.
The time: Saturday evening, six o’clock.
The place: Genessoum Street, Fallarbor Town.
The characters: Fabien Latch, Blake Henderson, and Goishi the Golbat.
Fabien looked at Blake, and nodded. Blake looked at Fabien, and nodded. Goishi looked at both, and sighed.
They had free time, and where better to spend it than in the heart of Fallarbor itself, in a heady mix of roulette and alcohol, spinning around towards financial oblivion for one night only before waking up in a gutter smelling of rum, and staggering off back to their hotel? Fabien certainly couldn’t think of anything finer to do, and so it was that they headed straight for the casinos, Goishi in tow in case the two of them got so drunk that they had difficulty telling when they were losing.
All was set for as grand a night out as any on the moon. The only question was what would happen tomorrow, and if they’d known the answer to this question, the Magmas might well have had a quiet night in.
For by half past eight on Sunday, things would have gone wrong, and in the most hilarious of ways.
“Jagged Pass was jagged. Fiery Path is heated. What is it with the unimaginative names around here?”
We had gone from the tourist office to a cave in the mountainside, cloaked by the forest, making two stops on the way for my breakfast and some new clothes. I think Sapphire must have felt sorry for me, because I couldn’t imagine her ever usually doing that.
Now, here’s the thing, Puck had said as we climbed up the hill. Assuming Spike keeps her team the same, the way to beat her is with – get this – Stacey.
I’d relayed his words to Sapphire and she had grimaced.
“I thought it might come to this,” she’d said, resigned. “I need to evolve her, yes?”
Right on, She-Trainer, was Puck’s slightly odd reply. She’ll become a Dragon, so she’ll resist Fire; as a Flying-type, she’s also immune to Ground. You win all round.
So, with Stacey fluttering along beside us, doing her best to convince us that she was a human by cheeping loudly whenever anyone said anything, we came to the Fiery Path.
It certainly lived up to its name: we had scarcely been in five minutes when Sapphire had shed her coat and I my hoodie. We were close to the boiling heart of the volcano, and from what I could see I believed it was still beating. The rocky walls were completely dry, and occasional puffs of steam rose from cracks in the floor. At one point on our way in, we’d passed a place where the tunnel wall was gone on the left, and a river of lava flowed in its place. I had never seen anything so awe-inspiringly dangerous, nor felt anything as hot; we moved past quickly, for fear of boiling.
“There are more Pokémon the further in you go,” Sapphire said. “Or at least, that’s what that Hinzelmann guy said.” She shivered despite the heat. “He was strange, wasn’t he?”
“Very,” I said.
Inordinately, added Puck.
You’re one to talk, I thought back, but he didn’t deign to reply.
“Stop,” said Sapphire, putting a hand on my stomach and pushing me back a step. Stacey fluttered on forwards, so Sapphire grabbed her tail and yanked her back again. “When I say stop,” she muttered at the little bird dangling from her fist, “I mean stop. Understand?”
Stacey gave a faint-hearted chirrup, and Sapphire put her on her shoulder. This was un-humanlike, so Stacey flew down to the floor and stood next to us on the warm rock.
“What is it?” I asked Sapphire. She nodded ahead.
“Take a look.”
I did, and saw nothing; then I looked again, and saw a short blue creature, roughly the size and shape of a small child, hiding behind a boulder and watching us warily.
“Machop, yes.” Sapphire nudged Stacey forwards with one foot. “Go on. Kill it.”
I looked at her.
“Don’t you need to give more specific commands than that?”
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” Sapphire replied, “Stacey doesn’t respond to specific commands. Unless you promise her magic potions that’ll turn her into a human.”
There was a brief swish, and we glanced forwards again to see Stacey standing over the broken, bleeding body of the Machop. Following this was the most stunned silence I’d ever taken part in.
At last, I dared to speak:
“Is – is it really dead?”
Sapphire walked up to the Machop, and poked it with one foot. It did not move. Stacey lifted her bloodstained beak and chirruped happily.
“I didn’t think she’d do that,” Sapphire said slowly. “My God.”
“So... it is dead, then?”
“No, just horribly injured,” Sapphire replied, picking up Stacey and turning around. “She’s just a Swablu. They can’t actually kill things.”
Looking at Stacey’s blood-spattered face, I had my own thoughts on the matter, but kept them to myself.
Swablu do evolve to Altaria, said Puck darkly. They kill things. They kill and kill and kill until there’s nothing left. And then they kill each other. And when they’ve killed each other, they kill themselves. And after that... they don’t do anything. They’re dead. All of them.
Slowly but firmly, I whacked my head against the wall.
“Please,” I said, “never, ever speak to me again.”
OK! Oh wait, too late. Never mind. Next time, hey?
It looked set to be a long, long day.