I must be crazy to try and post this today, but it's a special chapter and can't wait.
Also, I'm going out of the country to the wilderness when there is no Internet for five days, so there'll be no more updates until next Thursday.
I hope this word-substitution thing doesn't cause any lasting damage to the syntactical integrity of this story...
EDIT: My hopes were unfounded. Now I have to go through all the posts I edited/made on April Fool's Day and fix them manually. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm not laughing.
Chapter Thirty-Seven: Pulp Friction
“Two adults,” Fabien said to the man in the ticket office, “and one Crobat.”
“You have to put it in its ball,” the man replied. “Pokémon aren’t allowed in here.”
Since Fabien’s ego had been inflated quite considerably this morning, he did not take this well.
“Not allowed!” he cried incredulously. “Not allowed!” He turned to face the people in the queue behind them, and repeated it once more for their benefit: “He says that Pokémon aren’t allowed!”
His comment was met with well-feigned disinterest, and so he turned back to the ticket man in order to pursue justice.
“Er – you could jus’ recall Goishi, Fabien,” Blake pointed out. “We don’ wan’ ter attrac’ attention.”
“No,” said Fabien, raising one finger to eye level. “No, I’m defending my rights as a citizen of Hoenn! I have the right to carry a weapon and defend myself at all times—”
“You do spend qui’e a lot of time infringin’ other people’s righ’s as citizens of ’Oenn,” Blake pointed out.
“Whose side are you on?” asked Fabien furiously. “No, this is unaccept—”
“Sir, the animals don’t like it,” interrupted the man. “Now, there are other people waiting. Either you can put your Crobat away or leave.”
Glowering, Fabien obeyed, paid and the two Magmas moved on into the zoo itself.
There was a small square near the entrance, where one could purchase food, drink and souvenirs; at its centre was a rather nice fountain in the shape of a lion.
“Wha’s up with tha’ Luxray?” asked Blake, pointing at it. “’Is mane’s all weird.”
“It’s not a Luxray, Blake,” answered Fabien, his good humour returning in an instant now that an opportunity to prove himself knowledgeable had presented itself. “It’s a lion.”
“A lion. They’re like Luxray, only – look, let’s go and see them. The map says this way...”
On the way to see the lions, they passed penguins, crocodiles and kangaroos, all of which Blake marvelled at. One thing he didn’t understand was why animals were often so similar to Pokémon – why, for those three species alone, he could think of Empoleon, Krookodile and Breloom as analogues.
Fabien wasn’t entirely certain of the facts, but he was damned if he was going to admit it, and answered Blake with as much certainty as he could muster.
“No one knows,” Fabien had answered, with a wise shrug of his shoulders. “It’s one of life’s great mysteries; the fossil record shows that Pokémon have always existed alongside animals, and they’ve always resembled a few of them – lots of ancient Pokémon looked like dinosaurs, for example.”
Blake had been very impressed at this, and had remained silent for quite some time afterwards, presumably turning the thought over in his head.
At last, they came to the lions, and they were indeed something like Luxray, but also completely different. Blake was especially impressed by this, and waxed eloquent – or as eloquent as he could – on their beauty and probable multiplicity of virtues.
“Heh,” said a passing zookeeper of tender years, hearing his little speech and deciding to stop and enlighten him, “that’s not so true. There’s nothing noble about a lion.”
“I beg your pardon?” replied Fabien, drunk on the success of his morning’s lies and forgetting who he was talking to. “I assure you, lions are very noble. Probably the most noble of all beasts. That’s why they’re called the Kings of Leon.”
The zookeeper gave him a long look, and tried hard not to laugh.
“You mean the Kings of the Beasts?”
“No,” said Fabien, doggedly sticking to his guns, “I meant the Kings of Leon.”
“’E’s a zookeeper, Fabien,” Blake said cautiously, “I think ’e knows wha’ ’e’s talkin’ abou’.”
“Blake, have I ever let you down before?”
“All right, I have, but have I let you down today?”
“Well then. Let me argue my corner.” Fabien cracked his knuckles, in the manner of one who is about to do mighty things, and turned his attention back to the zookeeper. “They are called the Kings of Leon because they come from Leon, and they’re the most noble things there.”
“It’s really funny,” the zookeeper said, deducing correctly that he was dealing with a moron of the first water, “how someone can confuse two completely unrelated concepts like that. You must be the kind of person who knows a little bit about the West and pretends to know a lot.”
“I didn’t come here to be insulted!” cried Fabien. “We’re the customers here. That means we’re always right!”
“It would if I were being paid,” agreed the zookeeper, “but I’m on work experience and I’ve decided I’m never, ever going to become a zookeeper, so I don’t care if they kick me out.”
Fabien’s face fell.
“This is an outrage!” he proclaimed.
“I’m more used to hearing those words from the mouth of a weird pink octopus-head thing,” the zookeeper said, “but you’re still wrong. About the lions, I mean. They’re not noble at all. If a new male joins the pride and gets rid of the old one, he kills all the cubs so they don’t compete with his own cubs.”
“Tha’s nasty,” Blake commented.
“Don’t agree with him!” Fabien said. “Oh yes, I’ve got your game, sir,” he told the zookeeper, narrowing his eyes at him. “You think you can get us with your mind games? Turn my friend against me? Well, it isn’t happening. Lions are very noble beasts, that’s the truth of it. They fight against the evil hyenas who steal other animal’s kills, or they did until the hyenas got marshalled into an army by a lion who turned to the dark side.”
The zookeeper let out a loud guffaw.
“You do realise that’s a Disney film, right?” he gasped through his laughter. “It’s not real!”
“Oh, it’s not real, is it?”
“No, it isn’t,” the zookeeper said, wiping a tear from his eye. “It’s true, hyenas are scavengers – but they also hunt for themselves, and often lions steal their kills because they’re too lazy to hunt.”
“Well that’s clearly just not true,” Fabien said. “I should know. I’ve been to England, you know!”
“I was born there,” the zookeeper said, “and I lived there up until last year.”
Too late, Fabien recognised the accent; too late, he realised that here was someone he couldn’t bluff his way past. For one moment, he was frozen, a like a rabbit caught in headlights; then his mind flickered over possibilities and he took the only course of action he perceived as available to him: he turned on his heel, vaulted the fence and dropped into the enclosed pit that contained the lions.
As they so famously did on the towering heights of the Hills of the Chankly Bore, storm-clouds were brooding above the Madeira Mountains; the sky was black and bruised as if the Altaria flocks had turned their bloodthirsty tendencies heavenwards, and it felt overall like the perfect day for an evil plot to go ahead.
We had once again ascended to the peak of Mount Chimney, this time by the more sensible route of the Fiery Path, and had concealed ourselves, as I had done yesterday, behind a large boulder. The Magmas had been coming up the Jagged Pass from their lair since long before we had arrived, and were busy doing something with the octopus-y machine that Puck and I had discovered on Friday.
“Do you have a plan?” I asked Sapphire in a low voice.
“I thought we’d try and work out what the machine will do,” she whispered back, “and then, once they’ve powered it up, have Puck destroy it.”
Now, I find it morally repugnant to destroy any piece of machinery, began Puck, but I interrupted:
“That’s a good idea. We’ll do that.”
“Ssh!” hissed Sapphire. “Listen!”
I listened, and heard two Magmas talking.
“... so important about this rock anyway?”
“Not sure. Only Maxie knows.” The second one stopped and sniffed; it sounded like he had a cold. “Apparently, he’s going to tell us all when he gets here. A big speech or something.”
“So that’s why we had to get our uniforms cleaned yesterday.” This issue seemed to have been preying on the guy’s mind for a while.
“Yeah.” He coughed. “Damn. Can you believe it? The height of summer, and I’ve got a damn cold.”
“Maybe it’s hay fever.”
“Maybe you should shut up.”
“How old are these guys?” Sapphire asked incredulously. “Twelve?”
I suppressed a chuckle, and marvelled. Whether consciously or not, Sapphire had made a joke.
Big surprise, Puck said sarcastically. She is human, you know.
I keep forgetting.
Time wore on; the machine was successfully set up, and the Magmas – what must have numbered around fifty or so by now – were wandering around, looking bored. If I hadn’t been so afraid that one of them might find us, I would have been complaining about how long it was taking Maxie to get here. As it was, I sat rigidly in a state somewhere between abject terror and extreme boredom – certainly one of the stranger feelings I’ve had.
These things happen, Puck said. I mean, I was buried in lard once. Never been the same since. About anything.
I was at a complete loss as to how this remark ought to be answered, and so I made no reply. I wasn’t even sure if it counted as a legitimate piece of conversation. Thankfully, I was saved from too deep a contemplation of the comment by the arrival of Maxie.
He rose up over the lip of the mountaintop like a sun-god, the arched wings of a Golbat spreading out behind him and his feet a full yard from the ground; no cut legs and bruised limbs for him, then. Behind him limped the tall, hooded man from Meteor Falls, and a very pretty young woman with coal-black hair and dead-fish eyes.
The woman’s Courtney, one of the Magma Administrators, Puck informed me. We saw her outside Spectroscopic Fancy. Briefly, I admit – we went through some unpleasantness with a Mightyena – but we did see her. I presume the man’s the other Admin.
“Friends, Magmas, countrymen,” Maxie cried out theatrically, descending to earth and letting his Golbat fall from his back with a thin, exhausted cry, “lend me your ears!”
The Magmas hurriedly arranged themselves in rows, lining up to hear whatever speech their leader had ready for them.
“Listen carefully,” whispered Sapphire. “This is when he tells us what’s going on!”
“I know,” I replied. “I was listening earlier.”
“Many of you will know why we are here today,” Maxie said loudly, “but those of you what do not...” He paused, grinning broadly. “We are here today to bring our Team into a new era.”
A murmur ran through the assembled grunts.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard the rumours,” Maxie went on. “The ones about the blues and their attempt to take control of a superweapon that could annihilate us once and for all. This is our pre-emptive strike. Mount Chimney is close to eruption, and the machine we have set up here will utilise and redirect the power of the magma flow – to awaken the beast in the belly of the mountain itself!”
A cry went up from the Magmas: I had no idea what Maxie was talking about, but it was obviously something very surprising, and very welcome.
“We shall then bind it to our will, using advice given to us by our kind Benefactor,” Maxie continued. “After that... well, Archie had better find his superweapon quick, because ours will be marching on Lilycove within the week.”
The Magmas were cheering now, and my head had started to spin. Superweapons, beasts in the mountain – what was going on here? And what was all this about finally managing to destroy Team Aqua? A glance at Sapphire told me she was as confused as I was.
The beast in the belly of the mountain... Puck sounded pensive. Maxie’s an idiot. That thing moved on ages ago; what’s left now is just a shell. It’s gone when all good souls come to rest – the mountain called Monkey.
“What? Puck, do you know what he’s talking about?” I asked. Sapphire looked at me inquiringly.
Something old went to sleep in this mountain, long before you humans ever came to Hoenn, he said. But it died in its sleep, and all that’s left is the husk of its body. I suppose that could be quite dangerous, if Maxie gains control of it.
I relayed his words to Sapphire, but they confused her just as much as they had me. There was no time to consider them, though, because the action was beginning again.
“Now, let me pass!” Maxie cried, holding up a large, pitted chunk of rock. The Magmas parted before him, and he strode down the aisle thus formed to get to his machine.
Beside me, Sapphire gasped.
“That’s the Meteorite,” she said. “The one they forced Professor Cozmo to find for them!”
“By the power contained in this Meteorite,” Maxie went on, pressing a button and causing the dome atop the machine to slide open, “let our plan begin!”
He placed the Meteorite in the clamps, and the dome slid shut again; he pressed a button, and something deep within the mountain began to shake. With my hand against the rock, I could feel it quivering ever so slightly, and I caught Sapphire’s eye.
Something was happening, and I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be good.
In the heart of Mount Chimney, in the chamber when the stony shell of a once-great being reposed, the magma was flowing. It powered up towards the surface, drawn by the inexorable pull of the eruption; it forced its way through narrow cracks, up vents and shafts and mines, sweeping confused Slugma along in its wake.
It was headed for the crater.
The plug of petrified lava that held the volcano shut quivered under the onslaught, the pressure beneath it rising to levels more commonly found at the bottom of the ocean. The caged fire raged and lashed tentacles of heat against its prison, and it seemed as if the plug must surely give way – and then the pipes opened.
Now a strange celestial force, conveniently inexplicable, coursed downwards through the snaking tendrils of the Magmas’ machine; the magma hissed at its touch, curled in on itself, rolled and swayed in an attempt to get away – and started to flow downwards.
Down it went, down and down and down some more, back down the vents, down the shafts, down the mines; it flowed and rippled and bounded like a great fiery tiger, until it poured in through the roof of the central chamber again—
There was a distant boom, and the Magmas started to cheer again, even as the ground gave a violent lurch; Sapphire and Kester were tipped over by the quake, and came to a rest sprawled out in the open on the peak.
Immediately, they were on their feet, but no one seemed to have noticed in the revels; Sapphire grabbed Kester’s hand and dragged him back behind the boulder, then on past it towards the quivering machine.
“You’ve got to stop it!” she cried. “Puck, stop the machine!”
Kester nodded, took a deep breath and grabbed hold of the machine with one hand; it was then that Maxie noticed him.
“Who the devil are you?” he roared. “Get out of here!”
This had the unfortunate effect of drawing the attention of all the Magmas, and suddenly Sapphire and Kester found themselves surrounded on all sides. Poké Balls and guns appeared with frightening speed, and Sapphire uttered a brief prayer to whatever higher power might conceivably come to the aid of a committed young atheist such as herself—
Everyone looked up, and Sapphire with them. The sound had shattered the air, blown away the smoke from the crater; it was the noise of the earth moving, of a mountain dragging itself out of its own long slumber – the sound of the plug that held in the lava giving way.
Only what was rising out of the mountaintop wasn’t lava.
It was a colossal hand.
Unimaginably vast, it blotted out the sun with its ponderous wavings; it was the shape of a massive shovel, a series of sequoia-sized claws forming a great spade on the end of an expanse of rocky red skin.
Sapphire stared. Kester stared. The Magmas stared. Maxie stared.
The pilot of the helicopter did not.
Twin missiles shot from beneath its blue-painted belly and struck the hand amidships; it shattered like a dropped pot, bursting into a thousand house-sized chunks of rock and revealing itself to have been hollow. As the deadly boulders rained down, everyone dived for cover; Sapphire wrenched Kester away from the machine just as one car-sized piece of reddish skin landed on it, reducing it to a heap of twisted metal.
They flung themselves to the floor and slid painfully across the stones, ending up in a hollow between two wedged rocks; all around them were the sounds of destruction. Screams, crashes, explosions; with the giant monster and the rain of death, it was like a horrible, nightmarish mixture of Cloverfield and Reign of Fire – neither of which, Sapphire thought detachedly, she had particularly enjoyed.
In the tiny hole, in the midst of the apocalypse, Sapphire shut her eyes, and waited for death, or for the noise to stop. She no longer particularly cared which came first.
It felt like she’d waited forever, but in actual fact it was only fifteen minutes. The noise ceased abruptly, and slowly, cautiously, she crawled out of the hollow. Kester followed in silence.
The scene was one of utter devastation: the crater had doubled in size, and the peak was covered in chunks of the red rock that had once been the giant hand. The Magmas were scattered over the area, but were regrouping, weapons in hands, in order to combat the Aquas what were getting out of their helicopter. In the centre of it all, Maxie and Archie were standing barely a foot apart, foreheads inches from each crazy and roaring so loudly that their words were lost in the general noise.
A cacophony of animal cries rang out through the air as Numel, Carvanha and Golbat were summoned; the Teams looked like they were about to have a full-scale battle amidst the ruins of the Magmas’ great plan.
But at the last moment, Archie backed down. He let out a long, loud laugh, which surprised Maxie and his Magmas so much that they forgot to kill his crew, and walked off back to the helicopter. In a moment, they were no more than a buzzing dot on the horizon.
“What the hell is going on here?” Maxie demanded to know of someone. He grabbed Tabitha by the front of his jacket and hauled him off the floor. “Tabitha! Answer me!”
“I – um – we should contact the Benefactor...”
Maxie dropped him abruptly.
“That’s right,” he growled. “The Benefactor. The old bratchny’s double-crossed us!”
A roar of rage went up from the assembled Magmas, and they began to storm down the Jagged Pass, presumably heading back to their lair. Sapphire wondered if it had been flooded with lava or not, but it seemed a moot point: they were leaving, and that was that.
At the sound of Maxie’s voice, they stopped and turned to follow Maxie’s eyes. They were locked on Sapphire and Kester, and both were full of fire.
“You two,” he said, raising a quivering finger. “You interfered with my machine!” His hair seemed possessed of its own motive tendencies; it waved in the air like the arms of an octopus. “Kill them!”
That was a cliché in the movies. In real life it was terrifying. A shot was loosed, and just as Sapphire started to run, Kester tumbled over backwards beside her.
It took just four minutes for the lions to realise that an unexpected toy had been dropped into their enclosure; unfortunately for them, it didn’t last long before it fell apart, and they left it alone, bored.
Somewhere, a long, long way away, the old man was still dreaming about the lions.
Sapphire froze, and time stopped. It didn’t even slow, it just stopped.
Kester was lying behind her, a neat round hole in his chest, above the heart.
If this had been a movie, he would still be alive; he would pull through despite overwhelming odds, or live long enough to say a pithy goodbye—
This was real life, and he was dead.
The next bullet was headed straight for her head, but it bounced away at the last moment: a blue sphere of energy had formed around her. Sapphire turned listlessly to see when it had come from, and saw a small orange light floating over Kester’s body, blue lines of lightning connecting it to the sphere. It had large blue eyes, and the look in them pleaded with her to run before the Protect failed.
Sapphire couldn’t run. Kester was dead.
Another bullet ricocheted off the Protect, and it flickered a little before regaining full solidity. The Magmas were running towards her, very slowly and very distantly, as if at the end of a long, long tunnel. Knives were out; a Carvanha bounced off the Protect and brained itself on a rock.
The Rotom’s eyes told her to run, but Sapphire couldn’t run. Kester was dead.
The world was soundless right now, but Sapphire saw the next shot coming. The Protect dissolved as it hit it, and it blurred towards her face—
—only to be destroyed in midair with a flickering line of energy.
“Shock Wave,” murmured Sapphire mechanically. “It never misses.”
Perhaps it was the sound of her voice. Perhaps it was the way sound came back to the world, and she could suddenly hear curses and gunshots directed at her. Perhaps it was just the selfish desire to keep living kicking in at last.
Whatever it was, she ran.
She ran faster than she knew was possible, Puck following close behind; every few steps, he’d pause to fry another couple of bullets, or kill a Golbat that flew too close; when it seemed sure to work, he started setting up Protects behind them at regular intervals.
Sapphire stumbled onto Jagged Pass, and she ran, and she fell, and she rolled and got back up, ignoring her cuts and bruises and the swelling pain in her arm; she lost her hat and one of her trainers, but she ran on and fell again, and got up and ran some more...
When did she stop? When did she get away? She could never afterwards point the moment out. Things had gone horribly, horribly wrong, that was all she could tell, and Kester was dead.
Sapphire came back to herself in the pine forest north of Lavaridge. She was lying on the ground, and her mobile phone was ringing.
Habit forced her to answer it, and when she did she heard an unfamiliar voice – but it was one she recognised at once.
“Yo, Sapphire,” said Puck. “You’ve broken your arm.”
Sapphire lifted up her left arm. He was right.
“He’s dead,” she said.
“I know.” The Rotom was nowhere to be seen; Sapphire guessed he was in the phone. “Kester’s dead, baby. Like Zed.”
Sapphire made no reply.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t mind, but that was too soon for a human, wasn’t it?” He sighed. “Get up, Sapphire. You need medical attention.”
“He’s dead, Puck.”
“That doesn’t mean you give up. when’s your willpower, girl? You’re the strongest-willed human I’ve ever come across.”
“Puck, he’s dead.”
“I know! So’s my father, and one day I will be too, and you and Maxie and Archie and all the rest of them! It doesn’t matter, Sapphire – just get up and go!”
Sapphire climbed slowly to her feet, but made no attempt to move.
“Move it,” Puck ordered. “Because we like to move it move it. I mean, because you need to go. Get to Lavaridge.”
Her mind was magnetised by the concept; it orbited it in slow, lazy rings, looping around the image of Kester on his back with a hole in his chest.
“I’m going to live in your phone,” Puck said. “I need to hide out for a while, and your quest seems pretty cool. Definitely exciting – did you see what went down up there?”
Sapphire took the phone away from her ear and threw it into a pond, then she walked away. Whatever was going to happen, it wasn’t going to involve Puck; whatever she did now, it wasn’t going to involve either of the Teams.
She walked away, and left her heart behind.