The Fall to Redemption [PG-13]
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March 26th, 2012 (4:22 PM). Edited March 26th, 2012 by Cypher DS.
Join Date: Aug 2010
Chapter 3 - The Ranger of Petalburg
It took an entire freakin' day to reach Oldale, and when I finally dragged myself through the fortified gates I had gleaned one more clue about my past: I was not the outdoors type.
"Mental note," I panted to my pokeballs, "force you to guys to evolve and make you carry my stuff."
I'd been bracing for a continual onslaught of black zigzagoons - relishing it, really; I had a fire-spewing hell-bird under my command and it was my turn to be the big bad bully - but my deadliest opponent that day was the hot sun beaming down on my head. Linda's hairpiece didn't have much ventilation and I stowed it pretty quickly, preferring to douse my scalp with water from a leather skin. My back was aching, my muscles were burning, and when my wurmple-silk shirt got wet with perspiration, it got itchy!
But I soldiered on. All these little irritations spurred me forward, invigorated my march. "Air conditioning. Showers. Refrigerated water. Gotta get this over with and get back home..."
Oldale wasn't much different from Littleroot: another pious little farming community hiding behind massive walls and watchtowers. The guards let me in unquestioningly - they wouldn't condemn a stranger to the zigzagoon-infested wilderness at night - and I used a letter of introduction written by my "mother" to earn a bed from one of her trading partners. The old woman was puzzled by my journey to Rustburo, but the late hour kept her from pestering me with many questions. I crashed the minute she showed me to my cot, barely remembering to release my encapsulated trio and order them to wake me at sunrise. I wanted to leave before my host could bother me with more talk.
Interesting enough, I was barely sore the next morning. I guess my weary muscles had 'reset', to use Birch's words.
Day two turned out to be another draining and uneventful trek through the Petalburg grasslands. I was starting to wonder if Robin had previously beaten up the alpha zigzagoon, and whether that black puff of smog had warned its pack to avoid the ugly kid with the tiny phoenix. I didn't see a single pokemon all day.
Walking all alone through the middle of nowhere got boring as hell, so I released my team for the company. Beatrice was a killjoy - she and I shared a mutual dislike of the sun, and she wormed her way into the crevices of my backpack to keep cool.
Her stubby legs couldn't match pace with a human anyway. Now, Megumi could keep up, but she insisted on zigzagging through the grass and darting after whatever sparkly stone or smelly mushroom caught her attention. It was cute the first couple of time she brought me a rock, but as the game climbed into the double and triple digits I had to knock her back into her pokeball or risk losing my sanity.
As for Robin, well, at least she kept quiet. I let her perch on top of my humongous backpack - a crow's nest lookout on the S.S. Virgil. The chick was oddly calm considering her circumstances. "You know," I said to her, "if you're holding down a panic attack and need to freak out, now's a good time to get it over with."
"Nothing to be ashamed of. Abandoned by your owner, kicked out of your safe and comfy home; trapped on a vagabond journey in some bizarro world with a total stranger. Perfectly natural to go nuts and panic." I glanced over my shoulder. Robin stared back, so I took that as a sign to continue.
"You know, I had it pretty bad when I first got here. Thought the villagers had kidnapped me and done something to my face. I went nuts - like, "shut me in a closet and call me 'claustrophobic' nuts". First chance I got, I bolted into the forest.
"Of course, that was when I still thought this was the back woods of Johto. I figured I'd find a highway on the other side of the trees and a truck driver who could take me back to civilization, television and tauros-burgers."
All I found was more forest. The brush grew thick, dark and repetitive until I felt like a cartoon character looping over recycled background frames. I was lost, dehydrated and - lucky me - a wild zigzagoon appeared! One of those black, crazy suckers with a taste for human flesh. It chased me, nipping and clawing at my legs until I toppled into the mud. I thought I was going to die; in fact, the zig was gearing up for the final blow when a new shadow stepped onto the scene.
"End of the line my fine, furry friend."
Norman. Planted between me and my doom: broad chest, square jaw, fists on his hips like a hero out of a Supermon comic. You know that story? The baby Cleffa, only survivor rocketed off a dying planet, adopted by Earth folk and gains superpowers? Fights for truth, justice and the Unovan way?
Bah, Google it, you Philistine!
Well the zig must have been feeling lucky because it pounced. Norman didn't even flinch; he just threw up an elbow and let the beast clamp down on his forearm. Supermon. He even had a cheesy one-liner prepared -
"Sorry, stripy, but my friend is not on the menu tonight!"
- before he grabbed the 'goon's tail, spun around like a shot-put thrower and launched the black cloud over the tree line.
Norman dusted off his hands - just another day on the job.
"You must be Virgil,"
he said, flashing that honest, farm-boy smile Cleff Kent used in the comics.
"Ready to go home, son?"
"When we got back to Littleroot, there was a whole search party looking for me. Linda'd panicked and gotten Norman and the Petalburg Rangers involved. After that, things got bearable. Kinda resigned myself to being stuck in Littleroot, but meeting Norman helped a lot too. When his patrols took him near the village he'd stop by and we'd talk. He's not stuck like the rest of these farm hicks - Norman sees something he doesn't like, he does something about it!
"Anyhow, the point is, if you're scared, well, it gets better." I looked back for a reaction and got a face-full of Robin's tail feathers. Her mind was absorbed by the horizon.
"Fine, then," I growled.
But don't think that makes you better than me.
My wurmple was wimpy, my zigzagoon was zippy but my torchic - she had the most unfathomable penchant for trust and curiosity. All day long she kept swiveling her head like a security camera, squinting her black button eyes to get a good look at her new world. If I pulled out a package from my knapsack, Robin insisted on inspecting it first, trotting up to the fascinating trinket and poking her beak into the contents. She was determined to see everything up close.
And she had to stay close. If I let her walk on her own or if I stepped into the bushes for a pee break, Robin would flap her wings and break into little cheeps of distress. "I'm over here, stupid. Relax!" But she would continue to shriek and flail as though the sky were falling until I strode over and knelt before her, offering my palm to nuzzle her head against.
"So that's your weak spot - terrified of being alone?"
I thought I'd get a moment more to gloat, but Robin had already fallen asleep in my palm.
As the capital of the Leader's kingdom, Petalburg town was a proper metropolis. It was no Goldenrod - not by a long shot - but its tightly-packed houses and market roads bustling with foot traffic felt as comforting as a hot slice of home-made pie. Okay, the streets were cobblestone and the vehicles were just carts and rickshaws, but my city-slicker heart went gooey as a grimer now that I could disappear among the great crowds of civilization.
Just a little further. Just a little further and I will be home.
Oldale, I had cleared as quickly as possible, but here I lingered. The streets were lined with colourful banners and I could hear music originating from the center of town.
What perfect timing! Linda had given me enough dried fruits to last a week, but here I could smell fresh bread and pastries! I recalled my team, adjusted my wig and let my nose guide the way to the celebratory freebies.
Petalburg's central plaza had been converted into a colourful mess hall, with long tables piled high with fruits, dainties and beer kegs. The party, however, was exclusive - reserved for the Emperor's gold-plated soldiers, laughing and joking as they ate and drank everything in sight.
"Disgusting, isn't it?" That came from the fellow on my right. I was one of a large gathering of hungry onlookers, spying on the feasting soldiers and their pokemon from the alleyways. "Those savages march through to our lands, rob us blind, and our Leader makes them his guests of honour. Animals!"
"Save your breath for the local animal," another growled. "The one
our walls. There's a great, gluttonous ape ruining everything in this town. Just look at what he's done to poor Wally."
"Who's Wally?" I asked. An angry man with a scar through his forehead glared at my ignorance. "Wally White? The Leader's son? The boy caught himself a pokemon and now his father's forcing him to become a ranger!"
"Poor thing," a woman to my left chimed in. "That boy can barely run, let alone fend off an attack from those black devils. I heard Norman tried to talk the Leader out of it and got a hundred lashes for disobedience."
"I heard it was the 'Twenty Breaks'," said another. "Didn't you see how he was limping last week? Whatever he got, it wasn't something to shrug off easily."
Now that got my attention. "Norman? Is he here?"
"Stuck on guard duty at the stables, I think." The crowd gave me directions and I was off and running. I had zero interest in the politics of this backwards island, but if this Oracle really could send me home then this would be my last chance to see Norman, and I owed him above all people the courtesy of a proper goodbye.
"Norman!" I found my Supermon at the town stables, looking tired and frustrated as he hauled pails of water for the thirsty ponytas. The drudgery was probably a punishment handed down by this almighty Leader. As captain of the local law enforcement, Norman had higher callings than watering work horses, and it shocked me to see the anger crackling through the ranger's kind eyes.
How long has Norman lived here?
ow long has he put up with this garbage?
I hesitated, but then called again. "Norman!" This time he turned, and it made me proud that I could replace his grimness with an excited smile. "Well I'll be a mankey's uncle! Look who's come on up to the big city, Ling-Ling, it's Virgil!"
"Really?!" gasped a child's voice, then, "Hurray, it really is Virgil!" and a fuzzy cannonball tackled me to the ground for a round of bear hugs. Ling-Ling, Norman's spinda, was anything but restrained. "I missed you super-super much, Virgil! Didja come ta see Wally's celery moaning?"
"You mean 'Ceremony'," Norman corrected.
"Yeah, yeah - that thing! Wally found a super-special pokemon, so Papa's makin' him a pokemon ranger! Isn't that awesome?"
"That sure is something, Ling-Ling." I had to wheeze out that line, what with the little teddy bear bouncing on my rib cage. I'd forgotten how affectionate the little kid was.
"Didja bring me any presents, Virgil? Didja, didja??"
"I did bring a little something. Or better yet, 'someone'." There must have been one goofy grin all over my face as I retrieved my capsules. I'd been wondering how best to show off my pokemon to Norman, and this seemed the perfect introduction. Ling-Ling's jaw dropped as Megumi, Beatrice and then Robin materialized from beams of red light
"Wow, Papa, didja see that? It's magic! And Virgil made some new friends too! Papa, can we go play? Can we, pretty-please?"
Norman glanced my way, and I deferred to him with a shrug - didn't matter to me. "I think that's a great idea, Ling-Ling. Say, why don't you show Virgil's friends the south well? I bet Wally would enjoy the company." The dizzy little spinda wasted no time dragging off my pokemon in a 'follow-the-leader' race, while I stayed to help Norman carry his pails. I didn't ask, but I noticed an obvious limp in his walk.
"A torchic," he exclaimed. "I gotta say, Virgil, you're full of more surprises than a Clefairy's finger. Where'd you find that little lady? And what're those coloured shells you've got?"
"Pokeballs," I explained, letting him examine one of my stock. "Or, at least pretty close to the concept. Where I'm from, we use them to transport pokemon. Professor Birch from Littleroot gave these ones to me. The torchic too."
The capture ball left Norman completely baffled. As he peered and tapped at the storage device I couldn't help but think of primitive Man's first cautious interaction with fire. He handed it back carefully, a little wary of the device, I think. "Birch, huh? You must have tickled that man's funny bone just right. He's patched up my boys a few times, but he's a right prickly pear about lending anyone a hand. Ain't that right, Brutus? Victor?"
Norman's vigoroths grunted in agreement from the back of the stable. (Seemed the brothers needed another round of evolution for the brains to master human language.) Now, I assumed that Norman had brought them along to guard the soldiers' cart, but why did guard duty require the twin apes to haul huge wheelbarrows full of rocks? "Hey, what're you guys doing here?"
Norman flashed an honest grin. "Us? Oh, just a little landscaping project. See, there were all these boulders on the far side of town - taking up some mighty prime farmland, and I figured the Emperor's finest might lend a hand haulin' em away for us."
The vigoroths shared a cheeky laugh, and motioned for me to come close while they opened the soldier's canvassed cart and began swapping loaves of bread for lumps of rock. "You're taking the food back!"
"Well, everything but the top layer," Norman shrugged. "Gotta make it convincing in case one of 'em looks back or takes a snack."
Relief, sweet relief! I'd thought Norman's do-gooder spirit had finally been crushed, but all that anger and exhaustion I'd seen outside were merely the tricks of a clever actor, a mask of humility hiding a hero's drive for justice. "But won't you get in trouble if you're caught?"
"Trouble? Bah, I've sat through this sad spectacle enough times to know how it'll work - the platoon's gonna leave town tonight, every one of them drunk as skuntank in a batch of bad sitrus. They'll head east, over the river, and by the time any of 'em bothers to check under the tarp they'll be too far gone to do anything about it. If they're smart, they'll blame it on a raid by the Cult of Aqua and
stay out of trouble for drinking on duty.
"Besides," Norman continued, "taxes aughta be collected for the people's sake, not for some con-man on a far-off island who calls himself the messenger of God."
Clearly this Emperor guy was anything but respected. "But you still follow Leader White?"
Norman exhaled. "Virgil, when you're between a sawk and a hard place, you've got to pick your battles wisely. Don't get me wrong - Walter White is as kindly as a cacturne, and I'd like nothing better than to knock that puppet off his perch, but if we got rid of him the Emperor would only send someone worse. I tolerate him, Virgil. We all have to."
His voice lowered to a whisper. "White's sent me travelling on all sorts of diplomatic missions. I've met the people in charge of the other territories and let me tell you, the way they rule their lands, they make liepards look civilized. These leaders, they look human, but they ain't natural."
The itch creeping into my face told me it was time to change subjects. "So, I heard you've got a new recruit?"
Norman sighed. "Something like that. Wally - that's the Leader's kid - snuck out of the palace about a week back and came home with a pokemon. Well, you should've seen White, the man was happier than a chansey in a cubone's nest. Started ranting about his boy 'finally becoming a man', dragged me off duty and told me I was gonna train his Wally into a great warrior."
"I hear this Wally's a pretty lame ducklett. That it'll take a miracle to make him a ranger."
A laugh. "Well then, they'll just have to call me Norman the Miracle-Maker. Hey, why don't I introduce you him. C'mon!"
We walked over to the south courtyard, where Ling-Ling had appropriated the central fountain into a water park for my pokemon. The spinda's energy was infectious - he'd even convinced Beatrice to join in the splashing and swimming. A human boy was also dancing around in his bare feet, and one look told me that he must have been Wally. Put simply, the boy was a total loser. Twiggy limbs, a pale mop of green hair; heck, his white shirt had more colour than his skin! Not to mention the complete lack of stamina - he put in a good effort splashing around with the pokemon, but he constantly paused to catch his breath, and even the simple act of laughing aloud would be cut short and converted into a hacking cough. I know that taming anything stronger than a zig or wurmple qualified you for the rangers, but I couldn't see any future defender of Petalburg in this genetic reject.
Naturally, I had zero interest in mincing niceness with the kid, but Norman had already called him over. "Wally, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. This is Virgil from Littleroot."
Wally flinched when we shook hands. I didn't grab hard or anything, but when he withdrew his fingers they were black with bruises. "Hullo," he croaked. Literally. The kid looked ten but spoke like a lifelong chain-smoker.
"Um, hi." And then we just stared at each other.
"What happened to your face?"
If I'd been faster, things could have gotten ugly, but Norman put his hand on my shoulder before I could make a move. "Wally," he coughed, "I was just telling Virgil about your new pokemon. Do you think we could meet him?" The boy nodded and toddled off to find his monster, while Norman kept my temper cool.
"He's just a boy, Virgil. He didn't mean anything by it."
I nodded, but didn't reply.
"We're all the same," he continued. "We all have our marks."
But why was mine so obvious?
A scar, a missing limb, an ugly wound on your chest - all of those were so easy to conceal, and here in Petalburg, as in Littleroot, fashion dictated long, draping sleeves, scarves and cloaks in which to wrap your body. I ran a hand across my face, feeling the rough, blistered remains of flesh. It never hurt outright, just a phantom pain whenever I thought about it too much, and I could see perfectly fine despite the milky film covering my right orb. No, I think what really pissed me off was the obviousness of my deformity. Linda's wig helped conceal my scalp, bald and lumpy with burnt flesh, but short of donning a full-head veil and sweating through the heat, I had to bare my shame to the world.
Look kids, it's Virgil the human marshmallow - somebody stuck him in the fire a bit too long, though. Whoo-wee, look at that sucker burn!"
"Where's your mark?" I asked. Norman deflected my question, though. "Look, here comes Wally. Be cool."
The kid had returned carrying his identical baby brother. Same green hair, same white skin, same uselessly frail body. "This is Delphi," he explained proudly, lifting his trophy to my face. "He's my partner. We're gonna be the best rangers ever! If anyone messes with my dad, Delphi and me are gonna make 'em pay!"
Son of a Steelix, some people got all the luck!
I had no illusions about Wally - he was doomed to a lifetime as a pathetic worm, but if he and Norman trained Delphi hard enough, that little nerd would have unlimited psychic potential at his command!
Norman nudged me, so I did my best to smile. "Well gee golly, aren't you lucky, Wally. Finding such a -" fantastic, unstoppable, omnipotent "... neat pokemon."
"It's more like Delphi found Wally," Norman explained. "Ralts are highly empathetic - they can sense strong emotions in other creatures. Grief and rage, they stay clear from that stuff, but gentleness and kindness draw them in like combees towards wild flowers. You can tell a lot about a person by how a Ralts reacts to him."
I was going to interject and clarify how that story was just an old wives tale when Delphi, whose quiet cooing had aggravated into rabid snarling, jumped from Wally's arms and sank his teeth into my hand.
Now, the next part I don't remember quite so well - everything happened all so suddenly and I may have gotten a little carried away in the heat of the moment. Having a wild animal clamp its jaws over your fingers would exasperate the best of us. So I may have reacted a little poorly - screaming and flailing around like a gyrados washed up on the seashore - and I may have acted with a less than healthy concern for Delphi's well-being, swinging my arm wildly and looking for some solid object against which to bash the little beastie's brain. And maybe - emphasis on
- while I was blinded to all but my desire to quell the pain, someone with green hair happened to step into the path of my out-of-control Ralts-hand.
So, when you ask me, "Virgil, how did Wally end up flying across the courtyard and hitting his head on the cobblestones?" I can say with absolute honesty that I truly have no idea.
But all of that was inconsequential. What really mattered is that for no good reason I was suddenly dog-piled by a secret service unit of Wigglytuffs and Loudreds, backpack confiscated, hands bound and then dragged across town like I was public enemy number one.
My captors yanked me through the gates of Petalburg's tallest building and tossed me onto the cold marble of a fancy throne room. That was my introduction to Walter White, the much-reviled Leader of Petalburg province.
Everyone had said the man was an animal, but I hadn't realized they'd been speaking literally. The Leader looked like an ape-pokemon, a proto-human with an upturned snout, bald head and all-too beady eyes tucked under a heavy brow. He was fat too, and proud of it, keeping his gold-embroidered robe open to show off his lazy paunch and huge man-boobs.
Seemed I had interrupted during meal time, judging by the trays of food surrounding his throne. White was gorging himself on whole melons, crushing the tough rinds with his bare hands and stuffing the wet flesh into his mouth. Anything too tough to swallow he spat into a golden spittoon strapped to the head of a rather unhappy-looking whismur. Let's just say White wasn't the most accurate shot.
The rangers guarding me didn't like it when I tried to look away - disrespectful, I guess - so I had to lie there on the ground, watching the spectacle until White had eaten his fill. When he spoke, it was in simple grunts. "You making trouble for my boy?"
"He started it." Okay, in retrospect, that did sound pretty lame, but in the heat of the moment it was the best I had.
White flared his nostrils. "Littleroot," he snarled. "I can smell the country stink all over you. There's two rules for your kind. One, keep the food coming." He paused to smash open another melon. "And two, keep the peace. Trouble enough here with wild animals. I don't need trouble from wild men."
White grabbed a golden goblet and drained the wine in one gulp. "My Petalburg town is a civilized place," he warned, while red liquid dribbled down his chin.
"Look, I didn't do anything - it was that stupid Wally and his stupid ralts! Go tie him up, why don't you!?"
That was a mistake. Lesson of the day, kids - you can be an ugly, stupid brute but that does not mean you don't love your children with every fibre of your being. The gloves were off. "We keep no prisons in Petalburg," White warned me. "No need. When men break my law, I make them wear the chain." His little whismur attendant was pulling at some metal links behind the throne. White picked up the little guy, tossing it and its payload at me.
A monstrous iron ball smashed into the floor tiles, followed by a set of heavy chains ending in four spiked manacles. The spikes, fyi, were on the interior of each cuff.
"The chain," White reiterated. "And my rangers toss you into the woods to cool your head. To respect the law, you have to live in a world without it. Nothing builds respect more than a night outdoors."
This was insane; I hadn't meant to hit Wally, even if I did think he was a sniveling waste of flesh! I tried explaining, as calmly and reasonably as I could, what a great misunderstanding this all was, and maybe the threat of torture made my words come out a little panicky.
"Look at you," White snorted, "On your knees and begging for mercy! An animal - biting at the weak, whimpering when you find a foe too strong! Guards, ready the chain!"
White only smiled as his rangers seized me. "To tame the animal within, it has to be taken out. The zigzagoons will take your animal - take it piece by piece!"
I wasn't the one to scream this time. It was Norman. Supermon had come to my rescue again! I didn't expect this new brand of rescuing, though.
Norman threw himself to the floor, a penitent man. "Mercy, my Leader! I beg of you! This is all my fault. In a moment of weakness I grew angry, and Delphi tried to attack me! I'm to blame for what happened to your son! Please, dear Leader, this boy was just a bystander. Wally's pain was my fault!"
"Your fault?" White bellowed. "And just what had you to be angry about, my Captain Norman? Do you find my kingdom unpleasant?
Norman averted his eyes.
White put his monkey brain to hard work, snorting and snuffing over this new testimony. He wanted someone tortured; it was clear as daylight that this monster was starving for screams of misery, but who to choose - a helpless boy framed for an act of violence, or a seditious captain of his troops? The leader chewed his lips and ground his teeth and finally gestured that I be released to the floor.
"We will talk later, Captain Norman. You and I, we will talk of many things."
Norman had been faking his emotions before, but there was no lie in his trembling body or his wide eyes. "Yes, my leader."
"You'll return to the stables immediately," White continued. "But first, you will take this ugly child and remove him from my Petalburg."
"Yes, my leader."
"Boy," White called to me, "Never let me see your face again. The chain is but my first tool of law. Am I right, Captain Norman?"
A spasm wracked my hero's body, and he had to force out his words. "Y-yes, my leader."
Norman escorted me back to the stables, where Ling-Ling and the vigoroths had been left to guard my backpack and my pokemon. I capsuled my team and we left without a word. Even Ling-Ling knew this was no time for banter.
Despite its size, Petalburg could still spread gossip as quickly as a small town. By the time we left the palace, everyone knew what had happened to Wally, and the price Norman would pay for my acquittal. A thousand hateful eyes burned into the back of my neck as Norman lead me through the streets. He wasn't just my hero, I realized. All of Petalburg loved the ranger captain, admired his dedication in raising a team of defenders and respected the pain he endured to keep the citizens safe. Even if the Leader hadn't threatened my exile I knew I'd never be permitted to show my face in the capital again. Not after what I had done to Norman. Wally and his Ralts were among the onlookers shaming me, and the hate twisting through their faces told what would happen if we ever met again.
The town outskirts approached. This was not at all how I had envisioned our goodbye. I couldn't leave with such a silence hanging between us. "So, um, the cart - are you still -"
"Virgil, it's time for you to go home."
I'd been bitten by animals, bullied around and beaten with a stick, but those words cut me with a new and deeper pain. "I'm sorry," I whispered. "I made a real mess of things." Norman just kept walking. "The Leader, he was bluffing, right? I mean, it's not like he really chains people up and throws them into the woods at night, right?"
"Virgil, as a pokemon ranger it is my duty to keep the peace in Petalburg province. So if my Leader ordered it, yes, I would prepare the chain and leave you to the wilds."
We resumed our walk in silence.
"It's strange, though," he continued. "On nights when the Leader orders a chaining, my vigoroths and I get this funny itch to go outdoor camping. We stay up all night and boy howdy, if any wilds come near our camp you can bet we give 'em hell."
Norman looked back at me, flashing that care-free farm boy smile. I didn't know if my tear ducts still worked, or if they were clogged behind charred skin, but I sure felt ready to give them a try. "How can you say that?" I blurted. "How can you be so good all the time? I screwed up - I
to hit that little brat - and now you're letting yourself be tortured so I can walk free? How can you act like everything is okay?"
"Everything is okay," Norman smiled. "Because I know you'll be safe."
. They worked. They really did work. "Thank you, Norman."
"A 'thank you' from grumpy ol' Virgil? I guess Wally's training will have to settle for miracle number two."
I managed a laugh. "You're impossible, you know that?"
"And you're a good kid, Virgil. Don't get so hung up on letting your outside define your inside. There's more to you than that."
"And I know. Now come on, it's past noon but if we hurry we can make it to Oldale before nightfall."
"Actually, can we leave by the west gate? I'm not going back to Littleroot."
"Well you sure can't stay here. You heard the Leader."
"I know, it's cool. I'm going to Rustburo."
Well that stopped everything. "Rustburo?" Norman looked at me as though I had just declared myself a member of Team Rocket. "Virgil, you didn't just stop by to show off that torchic, did you?"
I sighed. "This is going to be a long story."
And it was. And when I was finished, Norman wasn't excited for me in the least bit. "Virgil, you've been lucky to make it this far with two house-pets and an untrained torchic, but it's dangerous going any further. As bad as things get here with White, I guarantee you the world past our borders is one hell of a mess worse."
"I know, I know - I've seen the zigzagoons."
Norman snorted. "Zigzagoons! You think zigzagoons are the worst you've got to deal with? I'm talking about people. The folk beyond Petalburg are nastier than a newborn deino. Virgil, why don't you stay here? You're a tough kid, and that bird of yours sounds like she can pack a wallop. The rangers need all the help we can get."
"Are you saying -?"
"Virgil, I can't change anything about the Empire, and we're stuck here with White selling us out to the big boss. It's a messed-up world, but this is my home and I want to do everything in my power to keep the people here safe. What d'ya say? Will you help me, Virgil?"
Not "Just Virgil" anymore but
Virgil the Pokemon Ranger; Virgil, Defender of Petalburg. Virgil, Norman's Friend.
It was such an effort to speak, but in the end, I had to be
Virgil of Johto
"Thanks, Norman, but I've got to see this oracle and find my way home."
Norman chuckled. "Home isn't a place, Virgil; it's the people you share your life with." He managed a smile, and I think that however much my refusal disappointed him, my conviction pleased him even more. I wasn't stuck anymore - I was taking action to change my world.
"Now, I'm not gonna say anymore," he continued. "You've gotta leave town and you gotta choose your own path, but I do want you to take something. Think of it as a bit of 'home away from home'." From his red ranger jacket, Norman produced a yellow, handheld communicator. "We call these Pokenavs. Standard issue for all rangers. This one is loaded with my personal frequency. Go to Rustburo, Virgil, but keep in touch. It doesn't even have to be if you're in trouble - just keep me updated. I'll even pass on your news to Linda whenever I'm in Littleroot."
Now it was my turn to look like a dumbfounded caveman. A walkie-talkie. An honest-to-god real piece of electronics! "You're kidding me! How does this work?"
"White orders them from some mechanic out in Mauville. As for the 'how', these things leave me as stumped as a snover in a scyther's den. I'm just grateful that they do work."
I brought the pokenav to my lips. "Thanks Norman," my voice echoed from a receiving unit in his jacket. "I'll call every day."
Norman tussled my hair and gave a final smile for good-luck. "Get going, Johto boy. You've got to clear the Petalburg Woods before sundown."
I nodded and started running. I wasn't sure whether I'd ever get my memories back, but I would fight tooth and nail if anyone tried to take my memories of Norman.
I ran west and left civilization behind me. Petalburg's buildings shrunk beneath the horizon, the cobblestone road decayed into dirt, and an angry ocean of trees rose up like an approaching storm. The road suddenly ended - fully consumed by weeds and claimed once more by the wilderness. All that stood between me and the dark forest was an endless field of wild grass and a wind-weathered signpost that read "Caution! Petalburg Woods ahead!"
The last obstacle between me and the Oracle's sacred city.
Moment of truth
I shook out my nerves, sucked in a last breath of air, and stepped into the tall grass.
A black snout popped out of the thicket, snarling. "Well, well," I grinned. "Look who finally decided to show up."
Maybe the zig understood human speech, because its jaws curled a little wider, as though to smirk, and it gave a single bark - the deployment command. Suddenly I wasn't up against just one measly puff of smoke, but a whole thundercloud of black, lightning-branded zigzagoons.
Piece of cake.
I tossed out all three of my pokemon even though I knew I would only make use of one. Beatrice took one look at the horde, shrieked and crawled up my leg and underneath my shirt. Megumi made a good effort of growling at her vaporous compatriots, but I could tell she wanted to flee just as badly. Only Robin maintained her cool, tilting her head and squinting as though she couldn't tell what all the fuss was about.
She was about to find out. "Robin, burn 'em up!"
A quick nod, then she was in attack-mode, flapping above the tall grass and firing a hot ember at the lead zig.
A clear miss. The tiny meteorite skipped through the grass.
"What was that? Robin - again!"
She gave me an odd blink but then fired off round two. This volley flew wide and to the right. "Robin, what the hell?"
She turned to my voice, clearly as confused as I. Only she didn't look directly at me, more like off to the side. "Pic?" she called to the empty air. Beatrice started screaming, and Robin repositioned to stare at the new sound. Then the lead zig gave a nasty bark and Robin swiveled again, allowing a second racoon to headbutt her blindside.
Tumbling through the grass left Robin completely disoriented - she resorted to her distress shrieks, flapping and cheeping for her trainer's help, and I could have been a million miles away for all she knew, because although she stared directly at me she was completely alone in her world of sound.
Birch, you two-faced son of a mawile! You didn't give me Robin for help; you gave her away because she's blind!
All this while, the zigs were scampering forward, black lightning crackling through the grass until we were surrounded by an electric fence.
Not like this,
I am not letting myself be dragged into the woods to become the self-refilling meat locker for a bunch of mutated raccoons!
"Back off!" I yelled. "I'm the alpha dog, got that?
Yes, I actually snarled at them, don't judge me!
"I said, 'Back off'!!"
Louder! I've got to be bigger than them!
I threw my arms back, sucked in enough oxygen to fill a hot-air balloon, and prepared to scream out my lungs!
The cold, chilling howl of a wolf washed over the field.
Which was odd, seeing as I had yet to exhale.
The zigs found it odd as well. They froze, snouts darting about, trying to pinpoint the hunter's cry. The howls were growing louder. Whatever it was, it was coming closer.
These black zigzagoons did not seem to like surprises. One by one they vanished - literally vanished - bursting into little puffs of smoke that sunk into the ground like a toxic mist. Just what the hell were those things? And just what the hell was this new creature rustling through the bushes? Beatrice squealed, Megumi clung to my leg (I scooped her up and clung back), and Robin -
Robin squinted and stepped towards the sound. She tripped on a rock and fell flat on her face. A shadow stretched out of the bushes.
And then a little black puppy trotted onto the field. No, not a dog - that implied tameness. This was a wolf cub with angry yellow eyes and fangs too long to fit in its jaw. It didn't spare a glance at Linda's pokemon or me, quivering in our little puddles of urine. It smelled chicken. Dumb, easy poultry wriggling helplessly in the grass - Robin may as well have jumped into a greasy bucket with a side order of fries; she was that easy to catch!
The wolf trotted over to Robin, clamped its jaws over the scruff of her neck and pulled the little hen onto her feet.
I blinked. That was a funny way to eat your dinner.
Robin, ever-trusting Robin, could hear the newcomer breathing and hopped over to the wolf cub to chirp a sort of greeting. The pup only snorted in her face and turned away, snout held high and aloof. His body language seemed to be a warning:
Don't mess up again, rookie. You might not be so lucky next time.
Then the pup - the poochyena - glared my way, barking once and tossing his snout in the direction of the far-off woods.
his posture growled,
we going or what?
"Uh ... sure. I guess ... Amon?"
The name had popped into my head. I think I had read it in a history textbook or something. An ancient protector of the poor, or whatever. The name seemed to fit, or at least Amon gave no objection to his new namesake. He took the lead, trotting far enough ahead to avoid socializing, but close enough to cast angry glares back at Robin, checking to see if she was keeping up.
It looked like someone had just found herself a watchdog.
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