There is a certain Trainer in Pokémon Black and White who is named Jared, and who has an Archen. I didn't realise this until after I created Jared, but feel free to imagine they're the same person if you like.
Chapter Two: Magpies
“...And so, sir, in conclusion, we haven't found him or it yet,” finished the underling.
There was a pause, and it was not a pause in which nothing needed to be said; nor was it a pause in which he and the man he was talking to shared a companionable moment of peace. This was the kind of pause that happens the second before the clouds burst and the volcano explodes. This was the kind of pause that actively hunted down and killed noises that tried to break it.
In short, this was a very, very bad pause.
The underling waited. All sounds seemed to have ceased, strangled by the silence; he could no longer hear the cars outside, or the movement of feet in the halls. He couldn't even hear the sound of his own breath – though that might have been because he was holding it.
Then at last, at long, long last, his boss spoke.
“It's been forty-eight hours,” he said. “Don't you agree that in that amount of time he could have taken it anywhere at all?”
“He hasn't left the country,” said the underling in a voice that had more than a little of the mouse about it. “We are a trace—”
“In that case, you must find yourself asking yourself something,” the boss said softly, rising from behind his desk. His gaze remained on the window; he had not looked at the underling since he had entered the room. “That question being, of course, why have you not found him already if he is still in the country?”
His voice was quiet – calm, even – and yet it pierced the underling to the core, sliding deep into his breast and sinking icy claws into his heart.
“Zuh,” he replied, his larynx having apparently been replaced with a mango.
“You don't have long,” the boss continued, looking out of the window as if nothing much was happening. “You must find him and get that artefact back at once. Do you understand?”
The underling nodded furiously.
“Good. Now go on and get looking.”
The underling turned to go, legs turning to water in his relief – only to freeze as that calm voice called out:
“Oh, and Smythe?”
The underling turned, and saw that the boss was now looking right at him, his synthetic eye gleaming like blood in the sunlight.
“Failure will of course count as treachery to the Party,” he said lightly. “With all the attendant issues that implies.” He smiled warmly. “Now, hurry along. We'd all sleep easier with that artefact back in our hands, don't you think?”
The underling's voice was thin and weak; he sounded on the verge of collapse. He wasted no time in hurrying out of the room and away down the corridor, the memory of that voice, that eye, that horrible smile, resounding in his head like the echo of a thunderclap.
“Right,” he muttered to himself, watching his fingers shake. “I think I need a drink.”
The doorbell. Immediately, I sprang into action: Harlow was at his piano lesson, Mum was out at Granny's, and Dad was observing his Eostre's Eve ritual of getting hammered with his best friend Steve, but Cordelia was still here and I didn't want her answering the door. The talking cat was my problem and I was going to deal with it before anyone else found out and complicated matters.
“I've got it!” called Cordelia from the hall. Damn, I thought, I probably should have been answering the door instead of thinking back then.
“No!” I cried, lunging for the door – but it was too late. I burst into the hall to see her pull open the door and stare out at the apparently empty space beyond.
“Down here,” said the wildcat, and Cordelia's gaze travelled downwards.
There was a long, long pause.
“So, uh, is Jared in?” asked the cat.
Cordelia nodded mutely, and turned to look at me. I could see a fear that the laws of reality had suddenly collapsed burning in her eyes, and shrugged helplessly. It wasn't as if I had any answers.
“Hi,” said the cat, slipping past Cordelia. “It's me!”
“Yeah, I know. You're... hard to mistake.” I hesitated. “I, uh... I guess you learned my name from my phone?”
It wasn't the right question. I hadn't meant to say something so pointless; I'd meant to say something like, “Give me the phone and get the hell out of here.”
“Yeah,” replied the wildcat. “I also learned that Anastasia's going to kill you if you don't reply to her texts soon, but hey! Can't have everything. Oh, and that reminds me – my name's Halley.”
I didn't ask how that reminded her.
“Where's my phone?” I asked, not acknowledging the introduction.
“Somewhere safe,” said Halley elusively.
“You didn't bring it?”
“I thought you'd throw me out as soon as you got it back,” she explained. “So I thought I'd keep—”
Halley and I jumped and turned to look at Cordelia, who had just slammed the door. Hard.
“OK,” she said, “will someone please tell me what's going on here?”
“Easy,” said Halley. “I woke up today in the woods to find I had amnesia and had turned into a cat. I came into the city looking for help, found Jared here and stole his phone so he'd let me into the house and give me a place to stay for the night. As well as,” she added, turning back to me, “a base of operations while I try and discover exactly what happened to me.”
“Wait, I didn't—”
“A talking cat?” asked Cordelia faintly.
“Yeah, Jared went through that stage earlier,” Halley told her. “You get over it pretty quickly. Anyway, Jared, you have no choice if you want your phone back.”
I grimaced, but she was right: I had no choice. My phone had cost not much less than £300, and I couldn't afford to lose it.
“Oh, fine,” I grumbled. “But stay out of sight, yeah? My mum hates cats, and I really don't want to have to explain to everyone why there's a talking cat in the house.”
“Sure, I get it,” she said. “Stealthy as a f*cking ninja, that's me. I'm like – like Adam Jenson, that's how sneaky I am.”
“A talking swearing cat,” muttered Cordelia, and I could tell she was going down the same path of thought as I had earlier.
“Hang in there, Cords,” I said sympathetically. “You'll get there, just give it a moment.”
“Hey!” cried Halley. “You're ignoring me!”
“Shut up,” I replied. “My sister takes priority.”
“Is that who she is?” asked Halley. “That makes sense.” She paused. “Any other brothers or sisters I need to know about?”
“One. Harlow. He's eight, likes dinosaurs and isn't in right now.”
With a sudden burst of mental exertion, I drew together the disparate threads of the current situation in my head and tried to make some coherent sense out of them.
“OK,” I said, frowning. “Cords, she's not leaving until we help her. Any ideas?”
“Uh... yeah,” she answered, pulling herself together with a visible effort. “She's English.”
“That explains a lot,” I muttered, realising that Halley had indeed been speaking with a marked English accent all this time. “She's already taken over my life.”
In 1702, the English had conquered Unova, sparking a chain of progression that had led to our humble nation rising to become a global superpower after the Second World War; unaffected by the battles raging in Europe, and full of formerly British money, Unova had quietly asked to leave the Empire in 1945, and Britain hadn't been in any position to refuse. Now we were up there with America on the world stage – and unlike them, our power still wasn't waning. Judging by the ease with which Halley had conquered my home, she could've been a pretty effective vanguard for some kind of revenge attack.
Not that we had any problem with the English these days – in fact, we kind of liked them. We used their language, after all, and our pound was based on theirs; if we hadn't been annexed for the Empire, we'd still be a backwater island nation worshipping trees in the middle of nowhere.
“Oh,” said Halley, sitting down and scratching her head with a rear paw. “Wow. Really should've realised that one myself.”
“So... why were you in Unova?” asked Cordelia, beginning to get into the swing of things.
“I don't f*cking know, do I?” replied Halley irritably. “That's why I'm here – so you can help me find out.”
“You swear a lot—”
“You don't swear enough,” countered Halley pettily.
“Uh – shall we go in and sit down?” I suggested, both to avert the imminent cat fight and because I was acutely aware that if Mum, Dad or Harlow were to turn up now, I'd face the unenviable task of explaining why I was talking to a wildcat in the hallway.
“OK,” said Halley. “Lead the way.”
I did, and a moment later we were arranged on the sofas in the living-room – Halley, with the unerring instinct of a cat, had claimed the comfiest seat, and Cordelia and I sat opposite her, feeling like something had gone wrong with the seating process but uncertain what exactly it was.
“So,” I began, but was interrupted by a mournful cheep; I looked over the arm of the sofa and saw Candy stalking in, looking vaguely indignant at being left behind in the kitchen.
“Not now,” I told her. “Go and find something to bite.”
She wasn't having it: she'd seen Halley now, and I could tell by the gleam in her eyes that she was wondering if she might be edible. I wasn't going to distract her; it'd probably deflate Halley's ego a bit to have her tail bitten.
“That's not a normal bird,” she stated, catching sight of Candy. “Is that... is that a dinosaur?”
“Sort of,” I replied. “She's an Archen. Like an Archaeopteryx, but a Pokémon.”
“In that case, isn't she quite lively for something that's been dead a hundred and fifty million years?”
“My uncle works at the fossil research lab in Nacrene. They re-sequenced her from fossils, but they didn't have all the DNA so some of the gaps are filled in with eagle. It made her a bit... feisty, so they were going to destroy her – but my uncle kind of liked her, so he stole her and gave her to us to look after last year.” I sighed. “It seemed cool at the time, but she's actually quite annoying.”
Candy climbed up the side of the sofa, leaving a trail of ragged holes in the fabric, and hopped down to examine Halley more closely; sensing that something was up, the wildcat backed away, arching her back and fluffing her tail – but Candy was undeterred, and lunged clumsily for her nose.
“Sh*t!” squealed Halley, and swatted her on the side of the head with one paw; immediately, Candy flung herself flat on her belly and hid her wings under her head. “Huh? I thought you said she was feisty?”
“She is,” I answered. “Until something hits her. Then she gives up and hides.”
“Right. I'm going to ignore that.” Halley turned back to me and Cordelia, and, taking advantage of her diverted attention, Candy scrambled over to me, climbed up my leg and sat in my lap. “So. Can either of you think of anything else that might help me?”
“Uh... no,” admitted Cordelia. “You really haven't given us much to go on.”
I heard the front door swing open, and without even pausing to think I stood up, sending Candy flying, grabbed Halley and sprinted for the stairs.
“Wow,” she muttered, dazed. “You have some serious reflexes there.”
“I shop the day before Eostre,” I replied, launching myself into my bedroom and dropping her on the desk chair. “I need them.”
“Yeah, I've been meaning to ask – what is this Eostre ****?”
“Jared?” called Mum's voice from the hall. “Cordelia?”
“Hello!” I called back. “I'm just – just finishing wrapping the presents!”
A moment later, I heard Cordelia say something, and I breathed a sigh of relief. She was safely distracted.
“What was that?” I asked Halley.
“Er – Easter,” I explained. “That's what you call it in England.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “You're pagan here in Unova, aren't you?”
“Yeah. Our high priests are terrifying. They've been scaring people away from Christian missionaries for hundreds of years.”
A combination of geographical isolation and rabid druids had kept Unova pagan for longer than the historical record had existed; our ancestors had been Anglo-Saxons, and we'd been worshipping the ése ever since our country had been founded. We didn't really believe in faeries or dragons any more, true, but Woden, Thunor, Frige and the rest certainly resonated more with us than any One God ever had. Why have a single god for everything when you could have a whole pantheon of them? If nothing else, it allowed for more festivals – like Eostre, the feast-day of the goddess of the dawn.
By this point, you're probably wondering why I know so much about Unovan history and religion. The short answer is that I'm Unovan, and the long answer is that this stuff is drilled into our heads pretty comprehensively in school. I don't know whether there's some guilt about our former status as a British conquest, but people in Unova place a lot of importance on their heritage. I'm not that crazy about it myself – I mean, I live in Black City, where things that happened five minutes ago are generally considered ancient history – but I still know it. Everyone does.
“Look,” I continued, “just stay here until later, OK? I'll – I'll come back and talk when I can.”
“All right,” replied Halley, taking the command surprisingly well. “I could use a sleep anyway. Do you have anything to eat?”
I seriously considered throwing her out of the window for a moment, then remembered that cats can survive that and also that she was my only hope of getting my phone back.
“I'll see what I can do,” I told her through gritted teeth, and stalked out.
Eostre's Eve was never quite as good as Eostre itself, and this one in particular wasn't great: I spent the whole evening in a state of heightened tension, waiting and wondering if anyone was going to walk in and ask why I had a wildcat in my room. I could tell Cordelia was feeling the same way; like me, she started whenever anyone said anything that sounded even remotely like 'cat', and slipped away with me after dinner to get back to Halley and make sure she hadn't got up to anything disastrous.
Thankfully, she hadn't, and was asleep under my bed in a nest of spare wrapping paper.
“Stop it,” she mumbled when I poked her. “You can't hurt me, I'm dead...”
She blinked and opened her eyes.
“What the – oh yeah, I'm in your house.” She cast an eye over herself. “Also still a cat. Huh. So that wasn't a dream, then.”
“I wish it was,” I muttered. “We're just here to make sure you're all right.”
“Yeah, I'm fine,” replied Halley lazily. “Just... y'know, whenever you have an idea, come tell me.”
“That's why I came,” said Cordelia. “I was thinking – perhaps you should retrace your steps from yesterday. See if it triggers any memories.”
“It's worth a try,” agreed Halley. “OK. We'll go tomorrow.”
“Uh, tomorrow is Eostre,” I reminded her. “We're not going to be able to get away from the family. If you go tomorrow, you go on your own.”
Immediately, I wished I hadn't mentioned it. Nothing would have given me greater pleasure than sending her off on her own and out of my life – whereas now, she'd probably hang around all day tomorrow.
“Right. Well, I guess I can do that,” she said. “It's not like I need you to come or anything.”
“Yeah. Right,” I replied, relieved. “If you find something—”
“I'll let you know.”
“I was actually going to say that if you find something, you could bring my phone back,” I said, “but OK.”
“Whatever,” responded Halley, rolling over and curling up again. “See you tomorrow, then.”
A moment later her breathing slowed, and I realised she'd fallen asleep – just like that, as if there was some switch in her skull she could flick to change between consciousness and unconsciousness at will. It was probably a cat thing.
I looked at Cordelia.
“It's not just me, is it? She is really weird?”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “She is.”
“I suppose I should be grateful that she's asleep and not terrorising everyone in the house,” I said. “Still... I wish she'd be slightly more helpful.”
“Maybe she can't be,” suggested Cordelia. “If she doesn't remember anything.”
“And what, she's covering it up by being a b*tch? Yeah, that really makes sense.”
“It does, actually,” Cordelia said, raising a disapproving eyebrow as I swore. “It fits her personality.”
I gave her a hard look.
“Stop being clever,” I told her, and went back downstairs before anyone realised Cordelia and I were getting along unnaturally well.
Eostre dawned, as ever, in a blaze of glory; it was as if Eostre herself had descended to Middangeard and set the skies afire to usher in her festival. Gone were the rain and wind of the last few months; Eostre stood for the dawn, and on her feast-day it was more spectacular than ever, a burning hole in a freezing sheet of azure.
I stretched luxuriantly and lay in bed for a moment, feeling the sunlight on my closed eyelids, and smelled the scent of wet leaves and fresh air that wafted in through the window.
“OK,” said Halley, sounding very scared indeed, “what the f*ck is going on?”
I opened my eyes and looked down at her, sitting bolt upright at the end of the bed and staring around in agitation.
“What?” I asked. “What is it?”
“This,” she said. “Where am I? What happened? Who're you?”
“What?” I sat up. “Halley, it's me. Lauren. We met yesterday, remember? I found you in the bushes.”
“No, no, no,” snapped Halley, leaping onto the windowsill and pulling the curtain aside as best she could. “Yesterday, this” – she indicated the waving treetops of White Forest – “was a city. F*cking skyscrapers and everything. Yesterday, you were a boy named Jared, who found me on his way to a department store. At some point in the night, the world went batsh*t crazy, and I have to know what happened. Now.”
“Wait,” I said, frowning. “A boy named Jared? Who found you on the way to a department store?”
“I dreamed that,” I told her. “I dreamed I was in a city, walking through rainy streets, and you were there...”
Halley stared at me. Her eyes had gone so wide they looked like they might fall out.
“You dreamed that?”
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “It's normal. Everyone in Unova dreams like that.”
“So if I ask your... uh... your equivalent of Jared's sister, they'll have had dreams of being a girl named Cordelia who let me into the house yesterday?”
“Yeah, that's right.” I paused. “Although that's less weird than mine, because she is a girl named Cordelia.”
“Just when I thought we were straightening this out! So she's the same in both... realities, whatever?”
“Well – they're just dreams—”
“No! Not just dreams! A hell of a lot f*cking more than dreams!” Halley jumped down from the windowsill onto the duvet, and stalked up to my lap to glare directly in my eyes. “Listen, whatever your name is. Yesterday I woke up in a forest, then walked into a city. I found a boy named Jared Black, and tricked him into letting me into the house by stealing his phone. That was not a dream. That happened.”
“OK!” I cried, trying to shuffle back and failing owing to the wildcat on my legs. “I get it!”
“What? You give in so easily?”
“Yes, just – stop staring like that.” I shivered. “It's creepy.”
“I told you to stop!” I protested, but she didn't.
“You're pathetic,” she told me. “You can't seriously believe me, can you? I wouldn't f*cking believe me.”
“Can you not... not swear so much?” I asked tentatively, but she wasn't listening.
“Go on, tell me,” she said. “Do you believe I can be telling the truth?”
I paused. To be honest.... no. I didn't. It was weird that Halley knew the part of the dream where she stole the phone – but then, she'd probably dreamed that. Everyone's dream fitted together in Unova; scientists said that there was some kind of psychic field, some 'Dream World' as they called it, that lay over the country and synchronised our dreams so that they formed a coherent reality.
Then again, shouldn't it be impossible for non-Unovans to participate in the Dream World? Only Unovans had the dreams, as far as I knew, and they stopped when we left Unova to resume when we returned. When you thought about it, the whole thing was a bit strange, but it was just the way things were; we'd all lived with the dreams since birth, so they'd never felt unusual at all.
“I don't know,” I said helplessly. “I don't think so. Unless you can get into the Dream World.”
I told her about it.
“How come I've never heard of any of this?” she asked. “I'm English. Our countries have a history. Surely someone English noticed this weird sh*t at one point?”
“I don't know,” I repeated. “Look, it's probably nothing—”
“No, it isn't!” snapped Halley. “Do I have to say it all again? Yesterday, I wo—”
“Lauren? What's all that noise?”
Damn – Mum had overheard Halley's shouting.
“Nothing!” I called back. “Just – um – accidentally put the radio up too loud.”
“Well, turn it back down,” she replied. “It's Eostre.”
Silence; we were in the clear.
“Look,” hissed Halley, “I can't give you any proof except that I know your dream as well as you do. But I'm telling you, girl who isn't Jared, things happened yesterday exactly as I said, at least to me. Maybe in this insane parallel world of yours, things happened like you said – but for me, things were different. They were modern and electric, not old and wooden. Got it?”
She thrust her face close to mine, black lips pulled back over sharp, pearly teeth, and the moon's pale fire flickered in her eyes.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding vigorously and praying to Frige she wouldn't bite my throat out. “Yeah, I get it.”
“Good.” Halley returned to the windowsill, sat down and sighed. “I don't understand this... OK. Time to do some detective work. You don't seem like the kind of person who buys their presents late – so why were you out when you found me?”
“Well, I'd forgotten something,” I admitted. “So I was just going to the forest to get some flowers.”
“Oh my God,” said Halley. “Tell me you aren't the sort of person who buys flowers for people.”
“What's wrong with that?”
“Everything,” she replied forcefully. “God damn it, you are nothing like Jared. At least he wasn't afraid to beat people up if he needed to. But anyway. Go on.”
“That's it. I was going to get flowers for Annie and I found you lying in a bush, wailing at the sky.”
“That sounds like me. OK. I bet I didn't have to trick you to get you to take me home, right?”
“No!” I cried. “I felt sorry for you, and—”
“Of course you did.” Halley nodded grimly. “This is bad. I want to get back to the other world. Jared was cool.”
“I'm cool,” I protested weakly, but didn't even succeed in convincing myself.
“No, you're not,” she told me. “You're some kind of peace-loving hippy. Your idea of solving my problem is probably chanting and group therapy.” I crossed off 'talking about her problems' from the list of ideas in my head. “What I need is action. I need help from the kind of guy who's willing to hit people with a metal stick.”
“Why?” I asked, which I felt was a perfectly reasonable question.
“Because... because it's more exciting and probably more useful if I run into danger,” Halley told me, glancing out of the window.
“Are you going to run into danger?”
“Judging by the ominous black van pulling up outside, I might already be there.”
I slid out of bed and scrambled to the window; peering out over the sill, I saw that there really was a black van pulling up outside, and that it really did look very, very ominous.
“Motor vehicles aren't allowed in White Forest,” I said, a sick knot of anxiety rising within me. “This is a nature reserve...”
“I suggest you get dressed and get ready to run,” said Halley quietly. “Sh*t's about to go down, Lauren, and I really don't want to end up in the middle of it.”
The door of the van opened and a man in a dark suit climbed out.
“All right,” I agreed, staring down at him fearfully. “I think you might be right.”
I threw on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans and left the room; Halley suggested I speak to Cordelia, so I tapped on her bedroom door and crept in.
“Dilly!” I hissed. “Are you awake?”
“The man outside, yeah?” she asked. She was at the window, looking out under the edge of the curtain. “I don't like the look of this.”
“She's exactly the same as yesterday,” muttered Halley, evidently confused. “So is it just you that's different or what?”
Since she didn't mean to be talking to me, I didn't answer, and spoke to Cordelia instead:
“Dilly, Halley thinks he might be after her.”
“I guessed,” she replied. “He came in a van, as well – there are probably people waiting in the back to help him. Whoever Halley is, they really want her.”
“F*cking fantastic,” sighed Halley. “Look, we can discuss this later – right now, I just think we should get out of here.”
“But shouldn't we tell—”
“You want to explain this to your parents? Good luck with that. You can do it after we get out of this mess, because I'm willing to bet that guy isn't going to stand around and let you talk.”
“He's coming up to the door,” said Cordelia urgently. “Lauren, I think you and Halley ought to get out of here. Like, now.”
“What about you?”
“Plausible deniability,” she said, being irritatingly clever. “I could deny I ever saw her if I needed to; no one except you has seen me with her. You, on the other hand...”
“All right, I get it,” I said. My hands were shaking, and I stuffed them into my pockets to try and hold them still. I didn't want to be chased out of the house by mysterious men in black. I didn't want to have to run away. I didn't want any of this; all I'd ever wanted to do was help a wildcat get her memory back and now—
Then again, this was helping her. I had said I would help, and I meant to stand by that. Whatever had really happened yesterday, whatever this Jared guy was like, I was going to fulfil my promise. And if there were sinister forces after Halley – well, that just meant she needed my help even more. If we left the house, we'd also lure the men in the black van away from my family, and that could only be a good thing. Everyone would win, the bad guys would be thwarted, and all I had to do was go with Halley and make sure she got away safely.
I took a deep breath.
“OK,” I said. “I guess we should go.”
The doorbell rang.
“Definitely time to leave,” agreed Halley. “Now come on, let's get out of here!”
There was an aggrieved muttering from Mum and Dad's room; they didn't want to be up early on Eostre – no one really did, unless they were very traditional and went to the dawn services in the temples – and I knew we had to hurry. In a moment, they'd be up to answer the door.
“This house is completely different to yesterday,” murmured Halley as we crept down the stairs, Cordelia close behind. “I mean, it's the same shape, but the decoration's completely different.”
It made sense; like all the buildings in White Forest, our house was mostly made of timber and glass – it made them blend into the background, fade into the forest. They fitted around the trees rather than displace them; they felt natura—
“All right, all right, we're coming!” yelled Mum from upstairs, and Halley swore softly under her breath.
“Hurry up,” she whispered. “Where's the back door?”
“This way,” I replied quietly, and led her through the kitchen.
“Wait!” hissed Cordelia. “You need these!”
She tossed me the keys from the hall table, and naturally I failed to catch them; they sailed past my head and bounced off the door.
“Sorry,” I said, abashed. “I'm not very good at—”
“I don't care right now,” snapped Halley. “Just get the door open!”
Clumsily, I snatched up the keys and unlocked the door, then gave them back to Cordelia as she caught up. Overhead, I heard the stairs creaking.
“Open up!” called an officious voice from the front, and followed that up with a series of equally officious raps on the door. “Government-sanctioned search!”
“That does not sound good,” murmured Halley. “All right, let's go!”
She bounded out into the broad square of forest that formed our garden; I was about to follow, but hesitated, struck by one last paroxysm of indecision.
“Go, Lauren,” urged Cordelia. “For Woden's sake, you really are pathetic sometimes!”
I smiled weakly, trying to quell the slimy knot of nerves in my stomach.
“Bye,” I said, hugging her. “I – um – I don't know when I'll be back.”
“Yeah, I'd noticed that,” she said. Mum's footsteps were heading across the hall. “Now go!”
I turned and ran, and I just had time to hear an explosion of shouting voices from inside—
—then Cordelia had thrust the door shut, and all I could hear were the birds in the trees and the wind in the grass.