Chapter 6 - Shadows in the Granite Cave
I spent three days in Rustburo before I found my answer. Three day sleeping on a hard cot, three days lining up for soup rations and three days reciting the same useless memory fragments to the information-starved monks. Those green-robed guys loved me; I was like a visiting scholar and they scribbled down every detail of this fascinating "other world" I called Johto.
As for Roxanne, I became more of a pest to be tolerated. Barclay was her mouthpiece, and he informed me that the resources of the library were at my disposal. That sounded like a sign of trust, except that every time I left my study table to fetch a new book the heavy thunk of geodude security escorts trailed my footsteps. Yeah, I was not endearing myself to the book-lovers who began to repopulate the facility.
The Oracle's books were either blank or contained gibberish. Opening their covers revealed nonsensical geometric patterns that seemed to shift and gain depth like 3D puzzle images. "Those books contain the Word of God," Barclay explained one night during supper. "Even such indirect contact with the Creator is beyond man's comprehension."
"But Roxanne can read them."
Barclay frowned at my informal address of his Lady. "The Oracle's body bears no scars," he said, and apparently that statement was supposed to reveal some dark and shocking truth about ol' Roxy. What was it with these Rustburo people and their riddle-talk?
The next day Barclay showed me to what I called the 'kiddie section' - a wing of the library housing books written in plain and simple English. From science to philosophy, I could find whatever subject I needed. Apparently this Steven guy everyone kept fawning over had commissioned the wing in order to 'advance the knowledge and understanding of humanity'. I just wish he had thrown in a computer terminal. I may have been in Purgatory but Hell was a library organized under a pen-and-paper catalogue system.
While I spent my days hunting down books about sin, Amon took the other pokemon outside the city for training. It was better for us to keep separate - Megumi and Beatrice kept looking at me with big, anxious eyes that asked Where's Trisha?
I winced. Just thinking about Trisha encouraged those braviary talons to tighten their grip around my skull. The pain had never quite left - there was always this tightness around my chest or a migraine coursing through my brain. Was my body suffering some sort of guilt or post-traumatic stress? But then I had to remind myself that I had no body, and that these things I called hands and feet - even the burnt face that glared at me in the mirror - were just illusions my soul projected to keep itself from going insane. I could sink my 'teeth' into the skin of my 'forearm' - hard enough to leave indents - and watch the bite marks re-inflate to a healthy peach colour. I hadn't the nerve to put a knife to my skin or to chop off a toe, but the results would be the same. I was - no, everyone here was - the amazing Rubber Boy. We could pull or press or 'distort' our bodies all we wanted and this phantom flesh would simply snap back with elastic reliability.
But it would hurt. Oh, it would hurt.
According to the books, a sin was nothing more than a "morally bad act", a corruption. Every time you did something rotten, a black stain grew on the white fabric of your soul like it was a score card to be tallied when you died. Too many black check-marks? Uh oh, you're not getting into Club Paradise. There were also seven deadly sins - actions or attitudes thus labelled because they were catalysts for evil. Indulge in them even a little and they would encourage an exponential growth of wickedness. Lust, Gluttony, Envy, Greed, Sloth, Wrath and Pride. Those were the sins I had to conquer.
None of the books made any sense, though. How was I supposed to 'conquer' a bad deed like Lust? Stand up tall, place my hand over my heart and solemnly swear to never again ogle the ladies? Or Gluttony - "I, Virgil, pinkie-swear promise never to take a second helping of dessert after supper?" What bunk! There had to be some catch, some greater meaning to Roxanne's riddle.
I was not a fan of puzzles, or I lacked the patience to solve an impossible one. Whenever I grew too frustrated to carry on, I started fiddling with Norman's pokenav. Winry had twisted the dial off of the ranger's frequency, but I kept rotating the knobs, sending out a random "hello?" and hoping that I'd hit the right channel at the right time to catch Norman's attention.
Well today I got lucky. "Virgil?" That was Ling-Ling's voice over the comm. "Papa, papa," the little bear shouted. "I think I hear Virgil!" Papa bear took over. "Virgil, is that you? Thank Arceus - I've been trying to reach you for days!"
"Norman, am I ever glad I found you," and I meant every word. Just hearing the ranger's voice filled my spirits; I felt strong enough to shrug off the buzzards pecking at my head. "What about you? Are you ... you know ..." reeling from the agony of torture?
"Let's not talk about that, Virgil." That bad, huh? "You're safe and that's enough to keep me going. Where've you been, what happened?"
I told him everything - about meeting Amon and Winry and Trisha, saving Barclay from the Cult and losing my wingull to the foul mood of a cruel prophetess. I omitted Roxanne's revelation about our collective mortality, of course. The notion of death and damnation in limbo was tough enough for me to deal with; I didn't want to burden Norman with that existential quandary.
"You've been through the fire and back again," the ranger summarized, "but I'm proud of you for sticking up for yourself, Virgil. 'No, I'm not getting out'." He chuckled. "I can just imagine the look on that stuck-up Sybil when you told her that."
"Yeah, but now she won't even give me a straight answer," I moped. "First she says 'you can't go home'; then she tells me 'oh, you can go, just as soon as you conquer the seven sins.' I mean, how am I supposed to do that? Promise to never get angry or be proud again? Nothing here makes any sense!"
There's a literary theory stating that no mystery, puzzle or death-trap is fool-proof until it has frustrated an eight year-old child. Ling-Ling needed only two minutes and he came up with the answer I'd been struggling for days to find. "Papa!" the little bear gasped. "Six plus one is seven! Seven! Virgil's gotta beat up the -"
"Ling-Ling!" Norman's voice was furious. "Not another word. Virgil, just ignore him, he's only fooling around."
Was Norman trying to protect me from something? "Norman, if you or Ling-Ling know anything -"
"It's nothing, Virgil."
"Even nothing's better than what I got! Norman, please. Help me out here."
Norman didn't speak for a long time, and I imagine that back in Petalburg he was fighting with his better judgement. "Arceus have mercy on me," he finally whispered. "Virgil, are you anywhere near a map? It has to be one that shows the divisions of the Empire." Thankfully there was a monk nearby who could show me the intelligence reports his team had compiled for the Oracle. I unrolled a brown parchment displaying the continent and its surrounding island chains. "Look at the provincial boundaries," Norman told me. "Do the math."
The mainland was politically quartered: Petalburg, Lavaridge, Mauville, Fortree. Each territory held two or three major cities under its fold, while the archipelago smiling along the south-eastern shore was divided into a further two territories, Dewford and Mossdeep, with the largest of the islands distinguished and set aside by the stamp of a royal crown. Sootopolis, the Imperial Capital, plus six territories overseen by personal representatives of the Emperor. Seven leaders altogether. "Conquer the seven sins... Roxanne, she wants me to overthrow the Empire?"
"It's just one interpretation," Norman added. "She could be referring to the seven major sea routes, or the seven known cave systems -"
Yeah, but this theory was the only one big enough to fit the bill. I mean, you didn't just hand out resurrections like restaurant coupons, right? A person had to do something grand, something world-changing to rise from the dead, and what quest could be nobler or more heroic than overthrowing an evil dictator and his cronies? "I'm gonna do it, Norman. I'm gonna take down this Emperor guy."
The ranger sounded ready to slap me. "Virgil, don't be pig-headed! You're a tough boy but you're just a boy. These Leaders suppress entire cities with their bare hands. They don't hesitate to torture anyone who so much as whispers dissent."
"You keep saying that, but if this is my ticket home then I've got to try!" Now that I had a quest I wanted to visit these other territories; see for myself just how horrible their rulers were and if they had some weak spot. The people of Petalburg seemed pretty upset with Leader White - maybe I could do something to spark off a revolt. "Besides," I added, "it's not like they can kill me."
Norman's voice was dark and foreboding. "You might end up wishing they could."
He had to concede to my enthusiasm, though. "All right," he sighed. "I dragged you into this trapinch nest; I'd better guide you through it as best I can. I've made diplomatic travels to the other territories. I can give you information about the leaders and how they run their lands. Maybe, if you know what you're up against, Linda and I might get to see you again someday."
"I'm leading a mareep to the liepard's den," he whispered before disconnecting.
I told Barclay I wanted to speak with the Oracle. I had a whole speech prepared about how I wasn't going to take no for an answer but the timid monk just nodded and showed me the way. Apparently Roxanne had assigned me to her VIP list.
"I solved your little riddle," I told her. We were back in the study area where this whole mess began, and my address was directed to the infinity-eight hair loops on the back of the Oracle's head. Special privileges or not, Roxanne was still too absorbed in her meaningless books to look directly at a 'measly human'. "I'm gonna do it. I'll take down the Emperor and his Leaders."
"Oh?" She couldn't care less. To this magical 'thing' dressed up in human skin my war cry held all the threat of a little boy brandishing a toy pistol. That's nice, dear, "and where will your crusade begin?"
I licked my lips. "Dewford," I decided. According to Norman, Petalburg City was still hot with gossip about the trouble I'd rained down on Wally and their beloved ranger captain. Best to start on a clean slate - some place where the name 'Virgil' didn't rhyme with 'mud' and where the local ruler lacked a street-army of citizens eager to knock out my teeth.
Roxanne flipped another page. "You'll need transportation. Barclay, take one of the sailboats and escort this boy to Dewford Island." The monk started and stammered, still traumatized by his last sea voyage and the losses he had endured. "Is there a problem, Barclay?"
Barclay folded up like a Cherrim under rain. "N-no," he peeped. I wonder how Roxanne had first reacted to the news of the monks captured by the Cult. Had she been upset over their loss, or just frustrated that only the most incompetent of her minions had survived? "No problem whatsoever," he whimpered.
"Splendid," Roxanne replied. "Stay with the boy during his travels and provide whatever support he requests. I expect regular reports. You have a bird, yes?"
"Ah, my spearow was, ah ... eaten."
"Then get another. That is all." Our cue to leave. Barclay bowed and scuttled away. "Reports?" I asked.
Roxanne shut her book and moved to the next. "An indulgence. I'm curious to see how long a fool will persist on his errand."
I scowled. "Just be ready to beam me back to Johto when I'm finished."
We shall see, human.
The next morning Barclay and I were loaded with fresh supplies and portaging a small boat through the Petalburg Woods. Amon and Robin guarded the rear. A freshly-tamed pidgey roosted on Barclay's cloak, mirroring the twitchy nervousness of its new master. Plenty to be afraid of, I suppose - the sky heavy with storm clouds, our sea route claimed as pirate waters, and something was following us through the woods. We reached the coast all right, but as we cast off I noticed a black zigzagoon slither out of the grass. The two of us stared at one another across the neutral zone of water, and as the distance between us grew so did the mad grin on the monster's face.
Good riddance, I thought.
The waves grew choppy as we sailed onward but Barclay's had plenty practice as a sailor; he knew how to angles the mast so that we skimmed the water like a motorboat. All I had to do was sit back and try not to throw up. Robin squeaked like a baby every time a wave splashed over the bulkhead. I offered her a pokeball but the fire chick was determined to tough out the storm. She had something to prove, I suppose, but I don't think you get points for bravery if every time you're sprinkled with water you wail and bury your face in poochyena fur.
At last an island of gray rock rose up from the horizon. Dewford. "The waves are too rough," Barclay shouted over the spray. "If I try and take her ashore we'll be smashed!" Is it really that bad, I wondered, or is the scaredy-cat just stalling? Whatever the case, Amon knew what needed to be done. The poochyena took a flying leap into the tempest and started doggy-paddling to shore. Emboldened, Robin fluttered her wings and fell into the drink too, shrieking whenever her head popped above water.
Great, now I've got to rescue her. "I'll circle around and try to find a safe dock," Barclay shouted while I tied my backpack to a floating barrel. "Remember the packages!"
The cold hit me like an electric shock. I don't remember much of my swim, only that the waves did most of my work, tossing me face-first into a beach of rough pebbles. "Everyone still here?" I coughed. The pokeballs on my belt were accounted for, and Amon gave an affirmative bark. Robin fared the worst of us, bent over on hands and knees and coughing up swallowed sea water. Plus she'd lost her glasses. Her talons pat at her face, and then the sand, and then she stopped and felt her face again, realizing her angular, humanoid body with its golden plumage and wings grown into long arms with three razor talons each.
"Combusken," I coughed. "Guess that swim toughened you up." This explained the first of Barclay's packages - a larger pair of glasses to fit her post-evolution face. Robin placed the half-moon spectacles over her pointed beak and turned to Amon for approval. "Corr?" The wolf looked at her for a second longer than necessary, yawned, then trotted down the shore. That poochyena was only half her size now, but no more impressed with this rookie. Robin clenched her new fists, determined to prove her worth and promptly wobbled to her knees.
Seemed that new body would take some getting used to.
A light drizzle had started over the beach, but the thunder up above promised worse to come. We need to find shelter, I thought, but so far Dewford Island was nothing but tall cliffs and pebble beaches. A zubat flapped past our heads, just as eager to escape the oncoming rain. "Hey, those things live in caves, right?" Sure enough, Amon tracked the flying bug to a dark gap in the rock face.
I held out a torch to Robin. During our run she'd been working hard to figure out these new 'hand' things, and discovered she could generate sparks by scraping her talons together. It took her a few tries but we finally had a nice fireball-on-a-stick to illuminate our way. "Maybe this is that place Barclay mentioned. The Granite Cave?" Apparently the tunnel had been a favourite hang-out for this Steven guy, and if I happened to pass it I should leave my second package in the shrine at the back of the cave.
I peeled back the wrapping from a stout, white candle. "Seems Birch isn't the only guy pining for this Steven to show up." The monks and many of the people of Rustburo had carved their names into the wax. Most had simply scratched down a repeated, meaningless phrase: SALVA NOS.
The cave entrance was deceptively small. Inside, the ceiling stretched too high for our meager torch to reveal. I could hear that zubat from earlier flitting above our heads, monitoring the intruders to its home, and I could see an orange glow coming from around the bend. Was someone else taking shelter from the storm? "Blue bandanas," I warned Robin. "Burn 'em if you see 'em."
Steven's Shrine was a large alcove off the main path, every outcropping and ledge covered by the stumpy remains of melted candles. The only light currently shining belonged to the other pilgrim's lantern, and the man carrying it was anything but a dirty sea-hobo; quite the contrary, he was a model for the worst kinds of posh and hoity-toity fashion. His shoulders were draped in a white cloak sporting a pretentious popped collar, while a snooty beret capped his head. Plus his seafoam-coloured shirt was pressed far too tight and unbuttoned far too low for my comfort. All he needed was a stuck-up glameow in a handbag to complete his prissy and pompous ensemble. What an ego trip! Still, it wouldn't hurt to check.
"Are you Steven?" I asked.
The man whipped his head my way, rippling the blue bangs that fell over his face like an ocean wave. "Who, Moi?" Apparently I'd made the most hilarious joke ever because the pretty-boy put his fingers to his lips and started tittering like a patrat. "Am I Steven? Oh you flatterer, you're obviously new to these parts." His smile went ugly. "Yes, you're clearly a greenhorn - I would remember a face like that. Tell me, how do you manage to live with yourself? I mean, short of putting a paper bag over that mess?"
Oh we were going to be the best of friends, I could tell. "Maybe I'm no chiselled bimbo," I growled back, "but at least I wasn't murdered." The guy was close enough that I could see his own disfigurement - his throat had been slit open from left to right, and an ugly scar ringed his neck like a ghoulish grin.
Neck-boy took a step back. "My, my," he hummed, "aren't you clever. Seems you've figured out the entrance requirements to this little playground. Well, I was going to pin you down as one of those Petalburg country bumpkins - I mean, wurmple silk? How gauche! - but now I'm guessing you made a trip to Rustburo, no? Running errands for your little angel? Well, aren't we a pair!"
"Hang on, you know we're dead?" Even Roxanne's monks seemed ignorant of that truth; who was this guy?
Neck-boy tittered again. "Let's just say I'm on the 'need to know' list." He snatched the package from my hand. "What's this, another candle for Saint Steven? Another beacon to light the darkness? Puh-lease!"
I couldn't care less about honouring some dumb shrine, but having something yanked from my hand just pissed me off. I tried grabbing back the candle but Neck-boy kept side-stepping artfully. "Keep-away~" he sing-songed. Seemed his poncey attitude was irritating the pokemon as well. The zubat following me dived into neck-boy's face. "Ugh, you hideous little thing!" He swiped his arm, and the knife hidden up his sleeve sent the zubat tumbling to the ground. Robin ran to the bat's side. The blue fur of its face was smeared red.
Neck-boy mock-gasped. "Oh, I'm sorry, that belonged to you, didn't it? Well, at least now you'll match," he laughed!
Amon growled and the mocker realized how thoroughly he was outnumbered. "Hmph, this hole is getting a little stuffy for my liking. Here, take your stupid candle, it's only dirtying up my nails anyway." He made sure to kick dirt onto my pants as he pushed past.
"Who are you, anyway?"
"Moi? Just an artist and lover of water. I'd say it's been nice meeting you, but we both know you're not as stupid as you look. Ugh, I'm going to have to take an extra long bath to scrub your icky, icky face from my memory. Ta~!"
He even managed to sweep his cape at just the right speed to snuff out my torch. Great, just great.
The heat from a few shrine candles was the largest fire we could afford in an enclosed cave. I stripped off my wet clothes and huddled against the stone wall, cold and miserable from my encounter with that puffed-up bully. Well, most murders occur between friends or family, right? Bet they couldn't stand him back on Earth either.
Robin was plenty distressed too. Neck-boy had managed to slash the tiny zubat exactly where its left eye would grow. If it survived to evolution there'd be nothing but a scarred-up hollow on that half of its face. Robin did her best to hold the little bat to her chest and press a cloth over its wound, but the little bug was too panicked and hyped-up on adrenaline to sit still for her. It broke out of Robin's clumsy grasp and flew drunkenly into the cave tunnels.
"Just leave her," I told Robin. "You did your best."
Evidently, Robin disagreed. With a scowl on her face she jumped to her feet, lit a fresh fireball in her palm and stomped after the wayward bat. "Oh, come on!" Amon was watching the cave entrance so I popped Megumi out of her capsule and sent her after the combusken.
We quickly caught up. I couldn't tell how far Robin had run, but the path she'd taken definitely had a downward slant to it. How deep underground had we ventured? Up ahead, Robin stood still as a sentinel, and at the edge of our combined torch light we could see the wounded zubat, now flopping on the ground, and at the end of its strength. Was Robin enjoying the creature's misery? "Fine," I conceded. "I'll go get it," but Robin threw up her arm to block my path.
She wasn't watching the zubat - she was engaged in a stare-down with the beast just beyond our light. Now I saw it too - a pair of fluorescent eyes that glimmered like diamonds. The creature stood about a foot off the ground but otherwise melted seamlessly into the shadows, its eyes its only tell. Well, that and the hoarse, labored breathing issuing from its maw.
The creature grew bold, reaching an appendage - something odd hybrid of feather and claw - to seize its zubat prey. "Corr!" The fire in Robin's palm blossomed into a miniature sun; the shadow creature hissed and flinched from the light. It was some hideous, hunchbacked gremlin covered in purple slime. A sableye monster? But those diamond-eyed goblins were just urban legends, hoaxes! Sneasels photographed with the camera flash illuminating their eyes. There was no such thing as ghosts!
Then again, this was the homeland for "No Such Things". The fire stung the sableye but it wouldn't back down without a fight, cradling the zubat to its chest and hissing its pointed beak at the fire chick.
"Aou?" Megumi pushed ahead of us, keeping her body low and non-threatening. "Aou?" she yipped at the gremlin. What, was she trying to make friends with the monster? "Robin, burn it before it gets any closer." My combusken only raised her eyes in shock, and pointed a talon towards the slimy cave-beast, demanding that I look closer. Well, so long as it isn't coming near us...
I inched my torch closer, revealing the gremlin's avian features - its beak, pointed for snatching fish; its tail feathers and webbed flipper-feet. Even ribbony bird wings were present, though twisted into something more like human arms, with elbows and wrists and long primary feathers moving as individual fingers. It stood like an old, crippled meinshao with wrists folded up against its chest but it was clearly a seabird. A wingull dunked into a black tar bath.
It couldn't be. "Trisha?"
Linda's zigzagoon yapped at the sable-gull as though they were old friends. Remember? Megumi yipped, and pantomimed scratching burs from her neck. Petalburg Woods? The tarred wingull eased her fighting stance and turned to the spectacled combusken. A single 'caw' gurgled out of her throat, and she raised a wing above her head. You've grown. Robin nodded back.
Megumi knew, Robin knew, and what more proof did I need than the zubat cradled against the gremlin's chest, quiet and trusting as a babe in its mother's arms. The sable-gull drew a claw over the bat's face, smearing down a purple slime that hardened over the wounded eye. She offered the zubat back to Robin, bandaged and sedate. Then she turned to me.
"You died," I whispered. Hooked in like a fish and gobbled down whole. Yet here she stood, a little slimy and with funny glowing eyes but it was motherly Trisha all the same!
"Trisha, you're alive!" I grabbed her by the shoulders, intending to pick her up and joyfully spin her around. What a mistake. Her new body stretched like taffy - everything from the shoulders up lifted with me, while the rest kept rooted to the ground. I yelped and lost my grip. Trisha splattered against the ground as a bird-shaped smear of ooze. By the Light of Arceus, "I - I didn't mean to!" I had to help her up. Help her up before the eagle talons came for me twice as hard. I grabbed her wrist, but her arm only stretched like melted cheese.
That purple slime didn't just cover her body, it was her body. My wingull was a wax mannequin with a toothpick skeleton; if I breathed on her the wrong way she'd collapse into mush! I couldn't help, only wait as this freakish sable-gull tightened the cords holding together her ectoplasmic body and forced herself to resume a three-dimensional shape. The amazing rubber-bird. Appearing randomly in the wilderness after a mortal blow. This wasn't the legendary sableye, this was my reflection.
"You're dead. Dead like me," and whatever soul this pokemon possessed had assembled itself into this freakish imitation of life. A ghost.
Robin and Megumi stared at me, awaiting orders. "She's alive," I panted at them. "Don't just stand there - we're going back up! It's too damp down here, maybe she'll hold up better where it's dry. Go on!" I had to save her. If I made everything all right I'd make the pain go away.
Robin led the way. I hung behind, going side by side with Trisha like a good trainer would. "Come on, just a little further. That's it." Her every step was a Herculean labor. The tar of her flippers stuck to the ground; to walk, Trisha had to peel herself off the granite and quickly lunge forward before her leg could drip back to the floor. Now I understood why she kept her wing-arms tucked against her torso - if they weren't fastened to the slime of her chest they'd flop to the ground like runny ice cream and she'd have to scrape another set of appendages off the rocks.
I knelt and showed her pokeball. "Maybe this would be easier," I suggested.
Trisha dropped her head against my leg - her cheek flattening against my pants - and gave a weak nod. Thank you, she seemed to wheeze. Tired. So tired...
Those invisible eagle talons had eased off my head. Not that it mattered. Trisha's pokeball hung from my belt like an iron weight, my new burden to bear.