The Fall to Redemption [PG-13]
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February 15th, 2012 (6:25 PM). Edited February 15th, 2012 by Cypher DS.
Chapter 2 - A New Hope
"Get a move on, boy! It's the Quick and the Eaten out here and I for one am not contributing any more flesh to the local carnivores!"
Not that you couldn't stand to lose a few pounds, Prof
. Believe me, I wanted nothing more than to tear my way back into Littleroot as fast as possible, but circumstances required that I run at a measured pace: at my rear, a forest ready to spring out hundreds of horrid little pokemon like a murderous jack-in-the-box; leading my way, the Professor's rear, emitting body odour on par with the deadliest poisonous pokemon. Seriously, the man reeked so fiercely he must have rubbed a koffing under his armpits every morning. I sure as hell didn't want to be eaten alive, but I was not going to park myself at ground zero when Birch's butt reached critical mass!
I was doing my best to be subtle, of course, but Birch (that was the Professor's name, by the way;
thank you, selective memory,
) must have caught me pinching my nose and gagging. "Mothballs," he panted over his shoulder, scooping a fistful of the white pellets from his pocket and waving them for me to see. "I always keep them on me. Perfect for warding off wild pokemon; most species can't stand the smell!"
Emphasis on 'most'.
"What about the onions? What're those for?"
"That," the professor declared, waggling one of the red veggies in his other pocket, "is to keep humans from coming up to me and trapping me in some long-winded conversation about their boring and tedious lives."
Our jog back to Littleroot was spared further attack and conversation; I had that much to be grateful for. Patch pried open the gate at Birch's hammering and I was about to escape to Linda's house, throw myself in bed and write off this morning as a 'false start', but professor Stinks-a-lot had other plans.
"Hold on, there," he said, clamping a hairy palm over my shoulder and inspecting at my wrecked face. "Aha. Just as I thought - you're Linda's boy. So you're the fantastic newcomer that everyone insists on gossiping about - the boy who 'remembers things'. Things from beyond Hoenn."
"I guess. And you're Birch, the village veterinarian?"
Birch," he hissed, "resident expert of all matters pertaining to botany, zoology, and physiology. So don't you stick your nose up at me because I work with pokemon, kid. 'People' is just a fancy word for 'animal', and I'd be suturing and medicating the whole lot of you if humans actually needed doctors here." He paused to take a very aggressive bite of his onion. "Pwoffesoh!" he spat.
Yeah, I was more than skeptical about those credentials. On close inspection, his lab coat was just a white bathrobe - the kind you could skim off even two-star hotels - and between the sweat stains on his clothes, the wailmer-sized beer belly playing peak-a-boo from underneath his shirt, and the hippie-dippie sandals-'n-shorts on his hairy legs, he looked more like a geek on shore leave from his mother's basement than a 'master of the whatever-ologies'.
"Okay there," I said, shrugging off his sweaty palm. "So whatcha been you studying today, Prof? Local zigzagoon diets?"
Birch snorted, shooting a piece of onion at my nose. "Boy, your sun-crisped little noggin could scarcely fathom what I've been trying to accomplish outside the village. But if I had to phrase it in terms you'd understand, I was looking for pokemon to tame and capture."
"Well that turned out well."
"Exceedingly: first I'm robbed of a leg; next, I'm saved by the boy who's trying to rob my goods. Now give me that satchel!"
Truth be told, I'd forgotten all about the bag, still looped around my shoulder. Birch yanked over his property, muttering something about "kids these days" while he rifled through the contents. He didn't seem to mind the missing items, only showing a small tic when he noted an absence; it was his torchic's pokeball that he was after: cradling the sphere as though it were a fragile egg, cooing and whispering reassurances to the youngling inside while he inspected its capsule for damage.
"Boy, are you a Wurmple or Zigzagoon?"
"Me? Both, I guess, but technically they're Linda's pokemon."
"You've no pokemon?" The way Birch recoiled you'd think I had confessed myself a virgin. He hemmed, returning his gaze to the pokeball while his mind digested this information. "I want you to come with me to my laboratory. Please," he added, and with some effort. "I want to hear about this 'home' you remember."
Birch's "laboratory" was a retrofitted cattle bar on the far end of the village. The main floor was still lined with old, wooden animal stalls and metal cages for more unruly guests. "Cozy place," I lied. I guess this barn doubled as his home and veterinary ward. We climbed a ladder into the hay loft, now a personal office littered with books, stray paper and vials of unnaturally-coloured liquids. "Sit here," Birch ordered, flipping over a bucket and setting it underneath the only window.
"Now," he sighed, "I suppose human etiquette requires me to provide you, a houseguest, with some small confectioneries as a display of greeting and goodwill. Tea and cookies, is it?"
"I'll eat the cookies. I don't know about the tea."
Birch scowled; probably irritated about having to share his big belly's junk food with a fellow animal. "Well you're getting tea anyhow. I'll be back. Don't touch anything."
Of course, as soon as he waddled down the ladder to his pantry, I was up and about - flipping through his books and examining the posters on his wall, particularly the map with a bizarre continent and an accompanying chain of islands.
A yawn from the far corner.
Tucked behind piles of books and boxes, I could just make out a glass aquarium. Following the same stupid, nosey instinct that had lead me to Birch this morning, I inched my way through the protective clutter and knelt down for a look.
The habitat wasn't very big - just a mossy bed of rocks around a tub of water - but the occupant wasn't the type of pokemon to fuss over space: a wrinkled and withered slowpoke, its tail submerged in the empty pool, fishing for non-existent shellders; its body shuddering with every inhale and exhale it forced itself to complete. Had it the strength to lift its eyelids, I doubted the old thing had enough vision or brain-power left to recognize its cramped accommodations.
Still, I gave an appreciative whistle. First a torchic, and now a slowpoke! Okay, neither species was anything impressive, but Birch's pet collection left me in awe - a breath of fresh air in Littleroot's stale animal population. The village was nothing but zigzagoons and wurmples! Each household kept either a little racoon to help with weeding or an overgrown worm for spinning silk and mending clothes. Linda had the good fortune to own one of each critter, (Megumi and Beatrice, in case you weren't paying attention,) and in Littleroot that qualified her as living in opulence. It was weird, though: despite her extra helpers, Linda seemed to work herself twice as hard as the other villagers - she was always up with the sun, starting her chores extra early and then helping her neighbours when she was finished - like some bizarre, self-imposed penance for her house of plenty.
But back to my main point - Birch's exotic animals! This derpy slowpoke was calling out to be, well, poked! I was reaching a hand into the aquarium to tease the water-sloth's tail, but Birch chose that moment to return and loom over me.
The man whipped out a stick and split open my knuckles. Then he yanked me up by the collar. "If you so much as
on Chance, I swear to Arceus that the next blow comes with an axe. Got it?"
I barely heard the psycho over the pain in my hands. "I'm bleeding!" My fingers! I couldn't feel my fingers! That crazy man had broken my fingers!
"Oh grow up. Your hands will reset in a moment. See?"
I didn't want to look, so Birch forced my hands up to my face. Sure enough, the torn skin puckered together and my wounds zipped themselves shut at super-speed. My pores even slurped the spilt blood back into my system. Not a drop wasted.
"Better?" Birch asked with a sardonic smile.
Physically, yes, but my mood had yet to improve. "It still stings," I pouted. "Thanks, Doc. I'd love to see how you heal your patients."
Birch snorted at my ignorance. "You don't
in Littleroot, Virgil. If you've hurt yourself, your body doesn't
after an accident. You reset. Return to default." Birch handed me my tea and dropped his generous backside on the box nearest his slowpoke's aquarium. As he sat, his shirt rode up over his beer belly and I could just make out the three parallel scars raked across his gut.
Reset? Back to default?
What was I, a character in a video game ready to spring back, good as new, after a 'game over'? Contemplating the idea brought that nightmarish itch to my face again - so I shifted gears and started explaining to the Prof everything I could remember about Goldenrod and Johto. Birch wasn't like my ordinary audience, though. His eyes didn't go wide with amazement, and he didn't laugh or "ooh" over the details. He just sat there, hands at his chin, leaning forward and drinking in the details.
" he hemmed once my stories were spent. "That's what people come to this land with -
. Oh, we retain our skills and talents: a carpenter grasps a hammer and understands how to wield it; a baker innately realizes how to prepare seeds and berries for her recipes. And our personalities seem intact as well. We know what we love, what we enjoy, who we hate.
"But our histories - the memories that shape ourselves; I've never met anyone able to retain that crucial information. Except for you." Birch hemmed, scanning me as though I were a puzzle to be unlocked. "Why is that, I wonder?"
I was spared my non-existent answer; saved by the bell, or rather, the bugle. A loud and regal trumpeting rang through the village and a loud voice boomed,
"make way for the Imperial legions!"
Birch grimaced, and the disgust on his face told me this was an unpleasant nuisance, but a tolerated one. I turned to the window. Littleroot's gates were flung open wide; thrown back to admit a double column of soldiers in gold armor.
The procession was another blast from the past - plate armor, feathered helmets, and a herald lifting a banner emblazoned with a triangle of blue raindrops. Each soldier carried a long pike as a sidearm but those pointed sticks seemed mostly for show. Their true weapons were their pokemon.
The monsters brought up the rear: snarling, hulking beasts made of spikes, horns and armored muscle. Some I recognized - a nidoking, a rhydon - but the rest were just claws, jaws and feral animal paws, roaring and straining at the ends of their chain leashes.
I'd seen outsiders before, but never a show of force like this! Littleroot was in a panic - doors flinging open and villagers rushing out with baskets of bread and vegetables; bowing and groveling before the armored guards and depositing food in a ponyta-drawn wagon. "What's going on?"
"It happens every season," Birch grumbled. "The Emperor sends his troops to collect tribute from each village and city; a generosity tax for the privilege of living under his grace and protection."
I had to shake my head to make sure I'd heard him right. "An Emperor? You people have an Emperor out here?" I knew Littleroot was old fashioned, but
? At least have the dignity to call your dictator 'President' or 'Prime Minister' or 'Pokemon League Champion'! "You're talking about the Leader, right?"
"No," Birch corrected, "Leader White is the Emperor's crony, charged with administering the Petalburg region. The Emperor, meanwhile, holds supreme authority over the entire continent and the surrounding archipelago."
This was too much - I was just barely wrapping my head around the idea of shadowy racoons or self-repairing limbs, but now these people lived in an Empire? An Empire that spanned an entire continent? "I'm not in Johto anymore, am I?"
?" The professor wrinkled his nose. "Oh right, that's what you call your homeland. Well I'd say you're a long ways off and then some."
It was hard to imagine a bleaker moment in my life, and not just because of the memory business. A Lost Village in the woods, I could deal with; just a hop, skip and a jump to the nearest highway and I could hitch-hike back to civilization. But an entire landmass? I looked back to Birch's wall map and the continent so foreign. Had my kidnappers gone so far as to ship me across the sea?
"This is crazy!"
"It's not that bad, all things considered," Birch sighed. "In the other regions, tribute doesn't stop at food - they take workers, too. Here, Norman keeps the pillaging in line."
True enough, I could spy my hero by the town gates, monitoring the forced harvest with fists clenched and mouth scowling. I could see how badly he wanted to sic his vigoroths on the soldiers and cease the extortion of goods, but these thugs of the raindrop banner were beyond his authority. Still, his presence ensured the robbery was civil - if the soldiers ever raised their voices at the peasants, or drew a pike to beat a slower harvester, Norman had only to glare and the assault was cut short. Even the feral pokemon shrunk from the ranger's cold stare.
The harvest continued for some half an hour until the soldiers' cart sunk heavy with food and the villagers' baskets came back empty. Another trumpet blast and the procession marched away, a furious Norman as their escort. I could almost hear the collective gurgle of bellies when that cart passed through the gates. Could you die of hunger, I wondered? Run out of fuel for that wonderful healing process and collapse in the blood from your half-healed wounds?
I was suddenly very eager to see Linda and scarf down every breadcrumb she had left. "How did you guys end up like this?"
"The Emperor rose to power some five years ago. He gathered an army of men and pokemon and marched westward across the continent, crushing all resistance. He parceled the land into regions and left his thugs to administer the law. He takes our food to keep us weak, and he takes the elderly so we'll forget a life before his reign. Five years, and it's off to the mines on Mossdeep."
Ouch, how did you follow up a grim statement like that? "So, uh ... when are you due?"
Birch laughed. "Me? Like I said, Norman keeps the pillaging in line. He has no love for the Emperor, and Leader White prefers to keep his peasants close. I've been around twelve years; how do you think I know all this?"
"Okay, so you remember the good ol' days?"
"And what good ol' days they were!" Birch clapped me on the back and laughed. Great - now I'd done it: I'd set the old geezer into 'rambling' mode!
"You know," Birch began (that's how all adults start their "back in my day" speeches), "people didn't always stay in Littleroot. Nowadays you have to - the patrols pick up any strays they find - but anyhow, people used to go on journeys. Spiritual quests, you might say; wandering the land until you found a place that felt right.
"Me, I had that wanderlust; that 'what's my purpose' sickness. I travelled all over the continent just to figure it out. I sailed out to Dewford, I hiked through the tall grass to Fortree; why, I even dragged my way up Mount Chimney just to get a look at that bubbling lava. I needed to know what this place was and why I was here."
I was awed by the change overtaking the Professor. Recounting his days of travel and adventure lent him a profound appearance, like a wise old sage. So of course he spoiled the mood by leaning back and scratching the brown fuzz on his belly. "But you know," he concluded, "the one who really sorted me out was Steven."
"Steven? Who's that?"
Birch only smirked. "Steven would say he's '
whoever you need him to be'
. He's a wanderer; travels all over the land looking for people who happen to be stuck. Then he gives them a push forward. A shoulder to cry on, a set of hands to help with a project; Steven makes it his mission to help others."
Birch rambled on, describing all the times he'd encountered Steven - the jokes they had shared, the adventures they had blazed. This Steven guy sounded like a double plus-good version of Norman: the ultimate do-gooder and according to Birch, Steven travelled with the most exotic and incredible pokemon known to man. A Metagross? Heck, I'd get myself stuck in a mountain of despair if it meant I could meet this guy and his ginormous spider-tank companion! "Wish I could meet him," I confessed.
"Wouldn't we all," Birch snorted, back to his cankerous norm. "This whole island could use one good push out of its Empire-sized rut." He didn't dismiss my comment though; because he folded his hands to his chin, 'hmm-ed', and put his PhD-powered brain to some mighty internal processing.
"If anyone knew how to find Steven, I suppose it'd be the Oracle."
"The Oracle?" I was only just allowing myself to swallow the existence of an Emperor; now these people worshiped some all-knowing gypsy fortune teller? Give me a break!
"The Oracle," he nodded. "She's a wise woman who (if she's still around) lived in Rustboro. It's a sort of sacred city, out to the west. Beyond the Emperor's control. People say she knew everything there is to know about this land."
"Everything?" I murmured, the gears of my own brain churning. "So she would know how to get me home to Johto?"
Birch made an uncomfortable grunt. "Theoretically ..."
I was up on my feet and pacing with excitement. "Why didn't anyone tell me about this Oracle lady sooner? How do I get to that city? Rustboro, right? Is it -"and then it clicked. Birch, of course, felt obliged to spell out all the obstacles in my path:
"Rabid, monstrous pokemon; soldiers recruiting for the labour camps in Mossdeep, and, for the especially unlucky, roaming crazies from Cult of Aqua, hunting for new converts. My wistful Virgil, you wouldn't survive half a day out there -" and then he gave a little pause.
Oh please say it. Please, please, please say it.
"Unless you happened to have a companion who could keep you safe."
"Tor!" We both turned to the fiery chick, perched on Birch's work desk and flapping its wings as if to agree with the professor. Wait, how had she exited her pokeball?
Birch seemed similarly perturbed by the pokemon's appearance. He rose slowly from his seat and offered his forearm to the torchic as a perch. She accepted unquestioningly, hopping onto his sleeve with a trusting, "pic, pic!" The professor gave his bird a final, fond scratch under the chin and then turned to me.
"I believe this little lady belongs to you."
"Seriously?" But the little hen had already sprung to the air; I just barely cupped my hands in time to offer her a landing pad.
My own personal attack animal! I'm king of the world!
Still, I suppose protocol required me to offer a token resistance. "No, really," I hemmed, "I couldn't!"
Birch snorted. "Of course you could! You were going to steal my bag, after all. Take the bloody bird before I have to chase you out with that axe! And take these too."
A wooden box was dumped onto my lap. The torchic repositioned to my shoulder so I could unclip the lid and open the chest of red and white orbs.
"More or less," the professor shrugged, and on closer inspection I noticed that the spheres were actually the hard, lumpy shells of local fruit - hollowed out, fitted with a reflective, metal interior and painted the traditional capture ball colours. "Steven helped me with the design, ages ago, but now they're just taking up space."
Could my luck get any better?
A daughter! I'll bet he's got a hot, blind daughter who's yearning to experience life beyond Littleroot!
"Are you waiting for a goodbye hug, kid? Scram already!"
Well, two for three wasn't bad.
"Um, this torchic - does she have a name?"
"Up to you," Birch shrugged. No name? What, did he wait until his pokemon were old and decrepit before bestowing personal titles?
"All right, return to your ball for now, Robin."
? Wow, real inventive, kid. Not
. Or Birch," I added, bee-lining for the ladder.
He shouted after me. "Follow the roads to Petalburg and head west through the old forest! Find the Oracle! Find Steven!"
Ten-four to all but that last bit, old man. The only thing I was going to find was my ticket back to Johto.
My plan had been to sneak into the house, grab my spare clothes and a bit of food and vamoose, but my absence during the 'harvest' had put Linda on high alert. The minute I crept through the front door, Megumi started barking and I was caught in a flurry of hugs and "I was so worried" speeches.
Linda took the news better than expected. I figured she'd break down, cry and beg me not to go, but she just seemed stunned. She sat me down, of course; made me tell her the whole story about Birch, the shadow pokemon, and my plan to consult the Oracle two times so she could wrap her head around the crazy scheme.
"-and it's not like I'll be alone. Birch gave me one of his pokemon! Robin can take down anything that gets in our way!"
Linda regarded the little torchic, engaged in a mutual sniff-and-greet with Megumi, while Beatrice quivered at a distance. "It's going to be dangerous, Virgil."
"If there's a chance I can get home, I've got to take it. And it's not like I need your permission."
She finally nodded. "You're right. You have to live your own life."
Finally! Open road, here I come!
"BUT," she interjected, "I am not letting you or your pokemon out of this house until you've had a proper lunch."
There wasn't much left in the kitchen, but Linda put together sandwich for me and some vegetable scraps for Robin. And while we ate, she paced through the house like a mad-woman, packaging food and folding clothes. It wasn't until she reappeared with a giant knapsack that I clued in. "Whoa, whoa! I can't take all this stuff!"
"It's a long road to Rustburo, never mind Petalburg town," Linda smiled. "You'll need more than the clothes on your back for this journey."
Candles, blankets, a length of rope - everything she had went into the bag. As soon as we were finished eating she whipped off the tablecloth and folded that up too! Linda's house had been modest to begin with, but now it had been picked to the bones. I didn't want her charity, but the knapsack was forced over my shoulders anyhow. "Not too heavy?"
"No," I mumbled. It wasn't my back, but my stomach that felt heavy.
Finally, Linda handed me a strange sort of animal pelt. "Something I've been working on. For your head," she explained.
It was a wig. Soft to touch and made from white slakoth hair, it fit my blistered scalp perfectly. Linda steered me to a mirror and I had to fight to keep my eyes dry. I had hair again. I looked well, not normal - not with a face like mine - but normal-er.
"Not bad," I shrugged. "And it fits. What did you do, measure my head while I was asleep?"
Linda just winked at me. "Mother's intuition."
That soured the moment. "You're not my mom," I growled. "I mean, we're not related or anything. You don't have to do all of this."
She only smiled. "You are welcome here anytime, Virgil." Then Linda did something absolutely unexpected. She called for her pokemon, scooped up her zigzagoon and wurmple for one final embrace and transferred them to my arms.
"Keep him safe," she whispered to her companions. Megumi barked affirmative, and Beatrice - quivering, cowardly Beatrice - looked to her owner, gave her best insect approximation of a nervous gulp and nodded.
I couldn't speak. I was just grateful that Linda had left the bangs of my wig long, so if I tilted my head I could avoid her eye. "When this is done I'll ... I'll bring them back for you."
I whistled for Robin and ran out the door, grateful that red was the normal hue of my face.
What is wrong with her?
Why would you give so much of yourself to a stranger?
"Argh, this will take twice as long carrying this dead weight on my back! And now I've got to look after you two useless lumps, don't I?"
Megumi and Beatrice had time to register a puzzled look apiece before I conked them with capture balls and stuffed them in my pocket. "Thanks a lot, Linda."
Never mind her.
It was time to get out of this worthless, backwards Littleroot Village; time to track down this crazy Oracle lady and get me some answers. It was time to go home!
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