I hate this chapter so much it's not even believable. Unfortunately, it's a necessary one, so all I can do is hope the next one's better.
Chapter Forty-One: The Cow and the Cauliflower
Lodovic recalled his Mawile glumly, despondence settling across his face like a wet blanket.
“Damn,” he said. “You’re good. I wasn’t expecting that. Especially not the rolling thing with that Lairon.”
“You weren’t so bad yourself,” Sapphire said. “Now, I think I need to get Stacey and Rono to the Nurse Joy.”
“I’ll come too,” said Lodovic. “Stanislaus, Bassiano and Kuchi need healing as well.”
After they had had their Pokémon healed, Lodovic retired to the computer room – he needed to reorganise his PC storage and also retrieve the Pokémon he was currently training – and Sapphire, Stacey fluttering along by her side, headed for Spike’s Gym. The time was quarter past three; the afternoon was young yet, and she had plenty of time to get to the station to meet Darren Goodwin.
Stacey was swelling visibly, like a slow-inflating balloon, or a time-lapse film of an apple growing; she was gradually acquiring a neck, and her stubby tail-stump was lengthening into a series of long feathers. The ribbon-like plumes atop her head were growing longer and longer, and her beak was deepening to the great hatchet-blade of the adult Altaria.
Sapphire watched her progress with satisfaction. Hopefully, once the Swablu had evolved, her weird obsession with being human would be swamped beneath the mindless bloodlust that characterised her adult form. Those who had never seen one assumed Altaria were birds; what you had to remember was that they were dragons beneath all the feathers and song – and dragons were the strongest-willed and wildest of all Pokémon. Training history was littered with men and women who had underestimated the power of the Dragon-type, and perished under their fire and talons; the only man who had ever truly mastered them was the Dragon Master Lance, Champion of the Indigo Elite Four. He had tamed the untameable Gyarados and Dragonite – the latter three times over; he had obtained the first Aerodactyl, and tamed the first wild Charizard for sixty-three years. Right now, he was seeking to train a Tyranitar, and if he succeeded he would increase the number of ‘untameable’ species he had tamed to three. He himself owned an Altaria, Sapphire thought, as well as a Garchomp...
Sapphire reached the Gym, and shook herself from her thoughts. Right now, she had to face Spike.
She glanced at Stacey. Her evolution had progressed much faster than Toro’s – Swablu and Altaria needed less time and training than Combusken – and she was now pretty much fully-evolved. She stalked alongside her Trainer on hooked talons as long and sharp as bread knives; from her powerful legs, her body was held in a graceful S-shape, so that the head was perpetually raised and ready to strike out at an enemy. Her wings were fully-feathered now, though a thin coating of down still clung to them in places, and she bore them folded at her sides, the tips of her broad feathers crossing over her tail. Her eyes were small and narrow, and Sapphire thought she could discern the faint fire of berserker blood deep within their inky depths.
Sapphire nodded approvingly. Now this she could work with.
“Stacey,” she said, “I think I’m warming to you.”
“Yes.” Sapphire paused. “Spike—”
“—Flannery, can I ask you a question?”
Spike’s face was blank; Sapphire, never the best at considering the feelings of others, couldn’t tell if she was hiding something or not.
“I reserve the right not to answer,” she replied guardedly.
“Why did you change?” Sapphire asked simply. “What’s going on here?”
Spike said nothing.
“Are you exercising your right not to answer?”
“OK,” Sapphire said, and for once wished Kester were there; he’d probably get the story out of her somehow. He might be a moron, but he was a lucky moron; he stumbled across the most unusual Pokémon, and he overheard crucial snippets of information, and he got things right by accident. “Whatever. Let’s battle.”
“Two on two?”
“Yes,” confirmed Sapphire. She wanted Spike to think she had the same team as last time; that way, she’d have a better shot at predicting what was going to happen. She waited for Spike to pick up a ball from the chest, then threw down her own and sent out Stacey.
Spike’s eyes widened as she saw the Altaria, but only slightly; something shifted in her features, and the ghost of a smile passed over her face.
“Can’t escape it, huh,” she said, so quietly that Sapphire almost missed it. “All right. Pallas!”
The candle-ghost from before, the Litwick, materialised and floated up to Stacey’s eye-height; the Altaria peered at it curiously. Sapphire watched the flame for a moment, mesmerised, then suddenly realised what was about to happen—
“Shut your eyes!” she shouted.
Whether Stacey had come to accept Sapphire as her Trainer or whether she simply picked up on the urgency in her voice, she obeyed, and Sapphire shut her own eyes just as Spike snapped:
Sapphire could see the light through her eyelids; the darkness flared red for a moment, then it passed. She opened her eyes and, without waiting to see where the Litwick was, ordered:
Stacey’s long neck snapped forwards like that of a striking cobra; her head tore through the candle, snapping the soft wax clean in two. The candle gave out a disconcerting shriek and hurriedly flew backwards, mending itself with hot wax, but Stacey had tasted blood now, and she wasn’t holding back.
They say an Altaria can reach speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour when diving. Rarely, if ever, has one attained this in level flight, and certainly not within a metre and a half of a standing start.
This would explain why Stacey didn’t achieve that speed when she threw herself forwards at the Litwick. However, she certainly went fast; neither Spike nor Sapphire were entirely sure of what happened. It was something Dragon-related, of that we can be certain: blue flames were gathering in her beak, and streaming back around her head. The end result was that the little candle ended up as a splattered mess on the floor, and Spike recalled her with a grin.
“All right!” she cried, and her voice seemed more normal again, strident and rough-cut. “Now this is fun!”
She tossed the Litwick’s ball aside and picked up another, seemingly at random, then threw it down so hard it bounced before it opened; the Magcargo within was released in midair, and landed on Stacey’s back.
The Altaria immediately collapsed on the floor, screaming and thrashing, but the great weight of the lava snail held it pressed to her back. Stacey was strong, but she was built like a bird and couldn’t shift the stony monster; this placed her in the category known as distressed, and when Altaria are distressed, they scream.
Now, it is a well-known fact that the scream of the adult Altaria is rivalled only by that of the Exploud in terms of the damage it can cause to the human eardrum. In the well-known experiment carried out by Professor Birch in the late nineties, a microphone placed in an Altaria nest exploded a mere half-second after the birds began to sing. Imagine that scream, if you will, let loose in a small area, with nowhere to go but into the two pairs of human ears around it; then double it and triple it, and quadruple it for good measure, because you cannot possibly conceive of what it felt like to be in that room with Stacey screaming.
A distant window shattered and a trickle of blood escaped Sapphire’s ears as Stacey emptied her impressive lungs. The awful smell of burning feathers rose into the air, and Sapphire gagged; somewhere in the middle of the nausea and the pain, some tiny part of her brain had the presence of mind to raise her right arm and recall Stacey before the Magcargo burnt right through her. Most dragons were fireproof, but Altaria were the exception, being altogether too feathery.
The noise disappeared, and both Spike and Sapphire gasped with relief as the pain faded from their ears. Spike, though, soon started grinning even more broadly.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” she said. “Racing with death.”
Sapphire fumbled for another ball, confused; she pulled out Rono’s, and threw it down.
“Iron Head,” she said, and Rono lurched forwards obligingly.
“Invert yourself!” commanded Spike, and the Magcargo proceeded to wrap its liquid body around its vulnerable rocky shell, defending its stone internal organs from the Steel move; Rono’s head sank into a cubic foot of lava, and he staggered back, the metal on his forehead blistered and plastic. He bellowed in pain, and swung around to look accusingly at Sapphire.
Her only response was four letters long and unprintable. She had just realised that she should have sent out Toro: being a Fire-type, she was the only one of Sapphire’s Pokémon who could have touched the Magcargo without burning. But since it was a two-on-two battle, and she’d already sent out two Pokémon, there was no way to get Toro onto the field. She was stuck with Rono and Stacey.
“Earth Power, while it’s disoriented!” cried Spike.
The floor began to tremble a little, and, thinking fast, Sapphire shouted out a command:
“Rono! Roll around!”
Despite his softened face, Rono wasn’t injured seriously enough to be out of the running yet. He curled up obediently and started rolling erratically around the podium; behind him, jets of liquid fire and soil spurted up through rifts that opened spontaneously in the floorboards. One clipped his tail as he uncurled, and blew a circular hole straight through it; he roared in pain, and Sapphire frantically wracked her brains for a move he knew that might actually be useful.
Dirt flew up from nowhere, kicked up by Rono’s forefeet; the Magcargo, far too slow to dodge, vanished into a swirl of airborne mud. It gave out a slow bubble of pain, but Sapphire knew that it wouldn’t be seriously injured. Even with the snail’s Ground weakness, Mud-Slap was just too weak.
“Again! Before it clears its eyes!”
“Get in your shell!”
The Magcargo withdrew into its shell as more mud spattered over it; Spike didn’t want it blinded. Sapphire grinned wolfishly.
“Now! Iron Head!”
Spike’s eyes widened, and she started. Without the Magcargo’s fiery coating, the rocky part of it was exposed and vulnerable—
Rono’s steel cranium slammed into the snail’s shell and cracked it from top to bottom; lava trickled from the split and Spike recalled it reluctantly. She knew when she was beaten – and this was one of those times.
“All right,” Sapphire said, taking a step forwards and looking Spike in the eye. “Now I want you to tell me what’s going on here.”
And Spike looked at her for a long moment, and then Spike made her reply.
Let’s play I-Spay, Puck said.
“There’s nothing to spy in here,” I said. “I mean, it would be like, I spy something beginning with ‘W’. Is it ‘wall’? Yeah, how’d you guess?”
No, I said I-Spay. It’s where we take it in turns to spay stray cats.
“The hell kind of game is that? And what’s a cat?”
Kester, Kester, Kester, I just don’t know what to do with you, Puck said sorrowfully. If he’d had a corporeal body, he’d have been shaking his head. My God, if you were a puppy – sorry, Poochyena – you’d have been drowned at birth.
“No, you just keep talking about foreign things that no one’s ever heard of.”
I think a lot of people have heard of cats. Just putting that one out there.
“I think you’ll find they haven’t.”
Don’t make me take a global survey. Seriously, Kester, drop it.
“Whatever.” I sniffed, secure in my superiority; whatever a cat was, it was something that had never entered my life before and would probably never enter it again.
We sat in silence for a while. Then:
“What is it now?”
Can I ask you a question?
“That is a question.”
I’ll take that as a yes, Mr. There’s-No-Such-Thing-As-Cats. Well, it isn’t really a question. It’s more of an open request.
“Get on with it.”
Now, we’ve been together a long time now—
—a long time, nearly three hundred and fifty pages, and I’ve been flicking through these memories of yours – but only the interesting bits. So, tell me about yourself.
“You want to know about me?” I couldn’t keep the incredulous tone out of my voice. “What the hell do you want to know about me for?”
Because we’re friends. You know, we make graphs together and all that. Dum dum dum dum. Ping.
Just tell me, would you? I’m on tenterhooks.
“What do you want to know? My name’s Kester Ruby, I’m seventeen years old, my birthday’s in January, I live in Rustboro, my favourite colour is—”
Oh, please. Not that stuff. I want to know you. Tell me your life story.
“Is this one of those weird TV shows where they trace someone’s family tree?”
Yeah, yeah, and I’m Piers Morgan. Ouch, he added, aside. That was a bad reference. Now get on with it, meatface.
“OK, so... I’ve lived in Rustboro all my life. Centrazine District. Er... I’m learning to ride a Vespa—”
You call that riding? snorted Puck.
“Do you want me to talk or not?”
“Do you want me to talk or not?”
You know that thing where you think you didn’t hear someone, but then you realise you actually did, and they’re already halfway through saying what they were going to say next, and you’re, like, oh, shall I interrupt them and set it right, or not, because I know that it’s just going to get more complicated if I do... Puck trailed off. Yeah, that was one of those things. Please, continue.
“I really don’t know what you want me to talk about.” I sat up a little. “Wait, do you have some kind of hidden agenda here? Is there something you’re trying to find out about me?”
No, I’m just making conversatio—
“You are, aren’t you!”
Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute! Puck protested, affecting a brash, accented voice. I say, I’ve got no, I say, I got no hidden agenda boy – keep your thoughts together, you’re trippin’ over them – I say, this is ’bout as rummy as a pirate in a wenchin’ house—
“Enough of the jokes!” I cried, getting up. “Take this seriously for once, please!”
Serious? I’m so serious I’m delirious! His accent had changed again; this one I recognised. It was Australian.
New Zealand, actually – a Kiwi pretending to be a Yank, if you want to get even more precise, not to mention more colloquial.
Ah, let’s not fall out. We can be friends. Look!
I felt a stabbing pain in my head and a large blue cauliflower materialised in front of me.
This arrested my rage immediately. I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, and reached tentatively to touch it.
Damn it. Wrong neurons.
I stopped, fingers a few inches away from the cauliflower.
“This is a hallucination?”
I was trying to make a picture of a TV appear. I was going to show you some movies that I’ve been referencing. But... yeah, I’m a Rotom, not a Gengar. I can’t work with this organic stuff.
“Make it go away!”
I’m trying, I’m trying...
The cauliflower acquired a mouth-like split down the middle, and a pair of eyes appeared on it.
“Puck,” I said in a low, warning voice, “it’s looking at me.”
Sorry! I’m trying—
“Stop trying, it’s making it worse!”
I stared at the cauliflower, and the cauliflower stared back.
“Puck,” I said, “you’ve screwed up my life. Again.”
“So, any plans for this summer?” asked Tchaikovsky, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Going to sail the seven seas, or fly the whole blue sky?”
He was hoping that this tactic would disarm his passengers into revealing something about their plans. The downside was that you had to be an idiot to fall for it; the upside was that he was riding with Blake and Fabien.
“Jus eradicatin’ Team Aqua,” replied Blake. “I mean – nothin’. Not going nowhere. Or doing nothin’.”
The car was bouncing along the dirt track that wound through the valleys of ash east of Fallarbor; they were to meet with Courtney, Maxie and a group of other grunts at the northern end of the Bone Desert. They had been selected to travel with them in the assault on Mount Pyre, for they were the only ones who had real experience of Kester Ruby’s powers.
Tabitha had given them a lot to mull over in a very loud and angry voice, and Blake was desperately trying to avoid doing so; if he did, he was sure, he was going to end up feeling rather queasy. After the protracted lecture, their instructions had been given – almost as an afterthought. Blake had called up a Magma ‘fixer’, though he’d had to try and prise the number out of the inebriated Fabien first, and got him to arrange a car to pick them up. Fabien had progressed past the coherent stages of drunkenness, and had repeatedly informed Blake that he was ‘the best person ever, no really you are’; in the end, Blake had managed to get him to sleep, and finally got some respite from the endless drunken banalities.
But Blake was not Fabien. Fabien was the intellect, he was abundantly aware of that; with him out of the picture, Blake was feeling more and more insecure about his ability to cope with situations like these. Hence his rather inadvisable slip-up a moment ago.
“What was that you said?” asked Tchaikovsky, forgetting to reference anything in his excitement.
“Nothin’. Nothin’ doin’ at all. Ain’t tha’ righ’?” Blake turned to Fabien, but he was, like Florence, drunk in the grip of a hurricane; however, he was more in the eye of the storm, and consequently very, very still and silent. “A’righ’, well, we’re not doin’ anythin’.”
“Oh. I see.”
Inside, Tchaikovsky was leaping for joy; this was it! He knew there was something going down; when he’d driven that Aqua girl with the headphone to Plain Rooke, he’d got the idea that the blues were up to something that meant trouble for the reds. They were working against each other, and if his hunch about there being someone pulling all the strings was right, then that someone was setting things up for some kind of war.
The only question now was: who?
There is one member of our little cast whom we have not visited since Thursday; a boy who was currently spending rather a lot of his time wandering around an artificial island south of Sootopolis in a desultory kind of way.
The boy with jade eyes was right now walking down a path in the ornamental gardens, and the lumbering monster he’d named Coast was plodding along behind him.
He had been in almost constant training for the last few days. On Wednesday, the tournament would begin; not counting the few hours left in the current day, that meant he had just two days to finish bringing Coast up to speed with the rest of his Pokémon, and teach him the difference between Aqua Tail and Aqua Jet. He was beginning to suspect that the monster might be partially deaf.
The boy with the jade eyes came to a gate, and stopped. There was an aged, aged man a-sitting on it. His look was mild, and his hair whiter than snow; his face was positively corvid in aspect, and his eyes glowed like cinders.
“Who are you?” he asked suspiciously. The old man gave a secretive smile.
“I look for sleeping butterflies in wheat fields,” he replied in English. His speech was mumbling and low, and slow with it. “I make them into mutton-pies, and sell them to sailors.”
The boy with the jade eyes stared at him. When he replied, he too used English.
“I burn mountain-rills, and they make something called Rowlands’ Macassar-Oil from it.”
“This sounds familiar,” the boy said, scratching his head. The old man looked startled.
“Eh? But... no one gets these things! This is Hoenn!”
“I’m not from around here,” the boy said. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers. “That’s it! You’re the aged man who spoke with the White Knight!”
At this, the old man snapped something unprintable, vaulted his gate and wandered off. The boy stared after him, half-relieved to be away from the insanity incumbent upon travellers in Hoenn, and half-sorry that he’d lost the company of someone who originated – sort of – from the West, as he did.
“What is wrong with this country?” he wondered.
“Currrrr,” Coast offered.
“You are the stupidest creature it has ever been my displeasure to train,” the boy with the jade eyes said, voice drenched in malice.
The boy nodded, and pushed open the gate.
“I suppose you’re right. In all fairness, Mantyke was dumber.” He stopped. “God. I’m talking to a Pokémon.” He shook his head. “It’s not even an intelligent one. It’s Coast.”
With a sigh, he held open the gate for Coast and walked off, heading for the beach. There was training to be done.
Here, cauli-cauli-cauliflower, said Puck. Here, cauli-cauli-cauliflower.
“I’ve already told you, that doesn’t help!”
No harm in trying, he said, wounded. At least I’m trying to help.
The ball shook, and blue light gathered at the edges; the next thing I knew, I was standing next to Darren Goodwin in a twilit car park, and there was a knife against my throat.
There was also a cauliflower floating three yards to the south and smiling down at the proceedings, but I was trying to ignore that.
“OK,” Sapphire said – she was standing a few metres away from me, and had a Premier Ball held in one hand. The other arm, I noticed with a pang of guilt, was tightly bandaged. “I guess that is his ball, then.”
I wonder if I can Charge Beam him, I thought.
Don’t even think about it. With your sort of power, you might incapacitate him, and you might not; after all, it doesn’t take much current to disrupt the heart and kill a human. You might hit him, and you might not. The only certainty is that he’d manage to knife you before he went.
On second thoughts, I decided against struggling.
“Put his ball on the ground,” Sapphire said. She laid the Premier Ball on the tarmac, and took a step back; Darren dropped the Master Ball I’d been incarcerated in, and did the same. I stepped back hurriedly, and tried to ignore the cauliflower.
There was a pause so pregnant with tension I thought it must surely give birth to an explosion, or something similarly noisy – but as it stretched on, I was forced to reconsider.
“Vanda,” said Darren Goodwin at last. I would have jumped, but I was afraid of cutting my throat. “Go and get that ball.”
“Kester,” Sapphire said straight afterwards. “Get your ball and come over here.”
Slowly, cautiously, I edged forwards; I scooped up the Master Ball and went over to Sapphire. At the same time, a five-foot cow lumbered over from Darren’s other side, somehow grasped the Premier Ball in its hooves and went back to him. That was, if I remembered my farm animals correctly, a Miltank. I remembered reading something once that said that wild Miltank were surprisingly dangerous – they were, after all, sisters of Tauros.
“What’s going on?” I whispered to Sapphire; all the response I got was:
“All right,” began Darren Goodwin, and Sapphire grabbed my arm.
“Now, run!” she yelled, and yanked me away just as the Miltank lunged forwards.
I swore violently and broke into a run; hooves the size of my face slammed into the tarmac where we’d been just a moment before. Sapphire was tearing across the tarmac already, ducking and weaving between a few parked cars; I saw what she was doing and followed. Behind me, I heard the sound of screeching metal as the great beast forced its way through the gaps after us.
Doesn’t look like she’s going to be stopped by any mere physical obstacles, Puck observed, as if it were irrelevant. She’s seen a fair few battles. Probably at least six, seven years old.
“That’s so not helpful!” I gasped as harshly as I could. “And get rid of that cauliflower!”
It was floating just ahead of me, its round eyes mocking me with every step I took. I was beginning to think it was more scary than incongruous.
Sapphire burst free of the cars and I followed; a fence rose up in front of us, separating us from some sort of covered area, and she vaulted it effortlessly. I tried, banged my shins and scrambled over with all the grace of a lobotomised Silcoon. Apparently this amused my cauliflower-hallucination, because it giggled. That, if anything, was more frightening than the Miltank. It was certainly more disturbing.
“Hurry up!” hissed Sapphire, running along a darkened platform – it seemed we were in a train station. “It’s coming!”
Something broke, and bits of wood skittered over the ground around my feet. The Miltank was not slowing down.
“Are we – getting on – a train?” I gasped, clutching at my pounding heart.
“Just follow!” Sapphire snapped, and flung herself into the ticket office. I ran in after her, ignoring the surprised cry of the lone clerk within, and heard glass shatter behind us as the Miltank discovered that doors are not the only way to enter a room.
OK, now I’m a little concerned, he said. She’s gaining on us.
Sapphire reached the other door, kicked it open and burst out. I followed, and felt something hard touch my back. A moment later, I was flying through the air and fervently wishing I was somewhere – anywhere – else.
Even back at that party from the business last year?
Even back there.
Sapphire heard the bellow of the Miltank before it hit Kester, and was already holding the ball out behind her when he started to fly.
“Return,” she panted, and felt the ball shake with the impact; she’d got him before he hit the ground. At least, she hoped he hadn’t hit the ground. It might well have killed him.
Alone and unencumbered, Sapphire was more than a match for the great cow in terms of speed; it was strong, but it was slow, and its quarry had long years of experience in the ancient art of fleeing. She darted down alleys and back roads, using the Miltank’s size to its disadvantage, and soon she was away.
Sapphire stopped to catch her breath, leaning against a lamppost and bathing in its pond of cold light. She swore softly, and rubbed her face; her arm burned, but she didn’t care.
“This is getting serious,” she said. “I wish I could hear Puck. I could so use a facetious comment right now.”
Then she heard a low snuffling, and she turned to see twin lights burning out from the darkness.
Sapphire uttered an oath so mighty that it would probably have condemned her mortal soul to the very blackest depths of perdition if she had believed in it, and started to run again.