The old Unovan alphabet has 29 glyphs, runic devices borrowed half from the north and half from the south. Fourteen stand for the heroes of old (Hrafnín, Thuri, Sachen the Boar, the Twin Heroes, and so on) and fourteen for the villains (Garendel, Mowain, Apnudd). Household names in this nation, where everyone marches backwards into their future, always facing into the past, reciting the legends and paying the druids.
There is one rune that stands alone. ᚾ. Naudri. It stands for nothing. It falls in the centre of the alphabet, to keep apart the forces of good and evil and prevent the letters from falling to war.
In Roman script, it is written N.
My name, and my destiny.
Chapter Twelve: Of Monsters and Men
Smythe's estimate that it took forty-five minutes to drive to the Gym from the Mandelmort Temple had been based on the assumption, I think, that the driver obeyed the usual rules of driving – stopping for red lights, staying reasonably near the speed limits, and not driving through buildings.
Niamh, however, seemed to have no such scruples.
“Shiiiiiiiit!” shrieked Smythe, as the car shattered a set of glass doors and sped through the lobby of an office block. “You still drive like a f*cking lunatic!”
“You drive like my grandmother,” she snorted, expertly weaving between two stunned cubicle workers and racing out of the other entrance. “It's all relative.”
“Did I mention I love this woman?” asked Halley, bouncing all over my lap. “This is so much f— fire-eater's birthday fun!”
I tried to mumble some kind of thanks for not swearing, but didn't manage to get more than a word or two out before I had to close my mouth against the rising vomit.
“Blublergh,” I ended up saying.
Halley gave me a look.
“You don't do rollercoasters, do you?”
I shook my head mutely and hung on tight as the car careened around a corner and shot into a multi-storey car park. To a fanfare of horns, we zoomed up a ramp, round a bend and out the exit, splintering the wooden barrier arm and erupting into a busy street in a burst of panic and screeching brakes.
Candy screeched into my ear so loudly it hurt, and I quickly wrapped her in my jacket. It had the desired effect, and within thirty seconds she was sound asleep. I only wished I could escape the nightmarish ride so easily.
“I feel like Steve McQueen in Bullitt,” sang out Halley with glee. “Christ, Lauren, how're you not loving this?”
“Yulp,” I said, trying not to bite my tongue.
“Concise, but hardly erudite,” she mused. “Might want to work on your debating skills, I think.”
She seemed to be in an unusually good mood; I put it down to either the high speed or my discomfort. At least she was happy, I thought.
Niamh took us over the central island of a roundabout and between two lorries with less than an inch to spare on either side; one of them shifted slightly and we lost a wing mirror.
“Well, we didn't need that anyway,” muttered Niamh in answer to Smythe's glare. “Look, Port, if you want to drive...”
“No no,” he said, “you keep going. You're – um – the expert, after all.”
Niamh grinned wolfishly, and I saw her teeth flash in the rear-view mirror.
“That's right,” she said. “Leave the music to the musician and the driving to the driver.”
A thin, wailing siren came to our ears, and Niamh sighed.
“Really? They want to try this?”
“Cops spoil everything,” sighed Halley.
“Couldn't agree more,” she replied. “I mean, their hearts are in the right place but they just get in the way.”
“Shouldn't we stop for them?” I suggested diffidently, as we mounted the pavement to avoid a red light. I received three incredulous stares in response.
“If we stop, Teiresias kills your friends,” replied Smythe. “We don't stop for anything.”
“But – but – OK,” I said, shutting up fast before I let any vomit out.
“That's right,” replied Halley. “Out of interest, how do you learn to drive like this?”
“There's a course,” replied Niamh thoughtfully. “'Stunt Driving for the Modern Mobile Criminal'.”
“Where do they teach it?”
“Munich.” She paused. “How can you even drive a car?”
“Good question,” admitted Halley. “Let's just say I'm working on it.”
Niamh dodged a pedestrian with preternatural ease and drove through a wooden fence between two houses; after a blurry ride through someone's garden, we re-emerged through a chain-link one in a car park, narrowly avoiding a Mini.
The police sirens seemed very, very distant.
“I think we've lost them,” said Niamh calmly. “Now hold on.”
“What?” I asked, suddenly even more afraid. “Why—?”
She slammed her foot down on the brakes, and the headrest in front of me rose up to meet my face with awful speed; dazed, I slumped back into my seat and saw that we had stopped exactly one inch short of a solid brick wall.
“OK,” said Niamh, unfazed. “Here we are. The Gym.”
I blinked and looked over her shoulder at the clock on the dashboard.
We had made the journey in just seventeen minutes.
There was a long and terrible silence.
“Chili...?” said someone uncertainly – Cress or Cilan, Cheren thought. “Chili, is that...?”
“He is not dead,” replied Teiresias in its stolen voice. “He merely sleeps.” It paused ominously. “For now.”
Footsteps. The thing that had been Chili was coming closer, and then all at once ice-cold fingers were cupping Cheren's chin, forcing his head up so that unseen eyes could stare into his.
“I can almost see with this one,” murmured Teiresias. “Ah... the living.” It sounded almost wistful. “There will come a time when all my hosts have a pulse.”
“Did you come over here to talk to yourself or to me?” asked Cheren, as coolly as he could. As much to his surprise as that of anyone else, his voice came out hard and calm, without a trace of concern.
“I will not be drawn into conversation,” replied Teiresias. “Let my reasons remain my own, if you wish this man to retain his soul when I leave his flesh.”
“You should probably stop asking questions, Cheren,” called Bianca, voice trembling. “I think he's going to need his soul later.”
“You're probably right,” agreed Cheren. “Only I doubt you will kill him, or damage him in any way. That would be too high-profile.”
“I do not fear the scrutiny of men—”
“No, but I expect the Party does.”
Teiresias was silent, and Cheren was certain that he'd hit home with that one.
“I am outside their command,” it replied eventually, voice like frostbite. “I do as I please. If it pleased me to kill this man, then I would.”
“All right, then,” said Cheren, a sudden bold plan leaping into his head. “What if I kill him? What then?”
Teiresias made a strange coughing noise, like the last breaths of a plague victim. It took Cheren a moment to realise that it was laughing.
“You? Kill him? I sincerely doubt you could kill anyone.”
“Lelouch,” said Cheren, heart pounding so hard it felt like it might burst. “To his throat.”
Presumably Teiresias had only blotted out visible light, not infrared, and so the Snivy slithered briskly up to Chili's neck without giving any sign of getting lost on the way; he settled on his shoulders like a scarf, ready to contract his fibrous body as soon as the word was given.
“You would not,” it repeated. “This is a bluff. You mean to make me waste time, so that you can figure out a means of escape before I kill you – as I will now,” it added hungrily, “given that the command to spare you has not been given.”
“I'll take that body down with me,” replied Cheren coolly.
Either Cress or Cilan made some move to protest, but their voices were cut off abruptly; Cheren imagined more of Teiresias' invisible hands clamping across their mouths, or choking their throats, and shivered inwardly.
“I can see your mind, you know,” crooned the fiend. “I can see your thoughts, your dreams, your plans... You cannot kill him.”
Is that so?
Cheren filled his mind with thoughts of tightening coils, of Chili pulling at Lelouch and then going limp, gently falling to the floor; of Teiresias' ash-grey dust pouring from his body as the life ebbed from it.
“You want to trick me,” said Teiresias insistently. “You will not kill this man.”
“I will do anything to succeed,” Cheren told it, and a strange detached horror rose in him at the the conviction in his voice: it genuinely sounded like it stemmed from truth.
“You will not...” Teiresias seemed less sure of itself now. “You would not!”
“I would,” replied Cheren, and his words seemed to fall like lead in the thick air. There was a decisive weight to them; no one could as sensitive to emotion as the demon could doubt their veracity.
To Cheren's surprise, it laughed again.
“In my youth, I left men like you alive,” Teiresias said – and now there was a strangely dreamy note in its voice. “You grew to become the leaders and the generals, the scholars and the high priests... Where you went, you brought death and battle, or discovered secrets that should have remained hidden, or sought powers beyond your ability to command. You birthed many of my kind with your ways.” Its voice licked the air, tasting it, drifting lazily on a rich stream of reverie. Despite its sinister timbre, it was almost hypnotic; Cheren found himself hanging on the monster's every word. “But in this time... we are born no more, save by our own hands.” Teiresias sighed, and everyone present felt as if a door to some unknown paradise had abruptly slammed shut. “You have done well to distract me so long,” it admitted. “But I have a task to fulfil.”
And all at once there was a great rushing of air, and something unseen began to howl beneath the floorboards, hammering on the wood with massive fists, and Teiresias' voice rose to a strange, high whistle that seemed only to enrage the unseen beast, and now the boards were breaking and Cheren knew that it had all been for nothing, that in a minute the thing Teiresias had called would be upon them and sweeping them into the darkest nights of Córmi's wings—
—and the doors to the Gym burst open, admitting a radiant burst of light, and someone was shouting:
“Stop! I got them, I got them! Stop!”
The howling ceased, and the hammering with it. The darkness shrank in on itself and collapsed into nothing, and all at once everything was as it had been before Teiresias had attacked – save for the clutching of those hideous hands, the thought of which made Cheren studiously avoid looking down.
Chili was staring at the doors, and he looked far more normal than Cheren had expected; evidently demonic possession had fewer symptoms than he had thought. The only hint that Teiresias was still within him was the curious way that the colours of his eyes seemed to bleed out into the surrounding air.
“Why did you not call?” it asked, in that dread voice, and Cheren shivered to see that though Chili's mouth opened to speak, it did not move until a full second after the words had left it.
“White's phone ran out of battery,” replied Smythe, making his way further into the Gym. Now Cheren could see Lauren and Halley behind him, as well as a woman in her late thirties with the pale green hair of a true Unovan. “We came as quick as we could.”
“Who is she?” asked Teiresias. A wave of force accompanied its pointing finger, and ruffled the hair of the group by the doors. It struck the strange woman hardest of all, and forced her back a step. “I noticed her at the hotel. She watches at keyholes and listens down chimneys,” it said threateningly. “Is she one of us?”
Smythe stared idiotically, and made a few gulping motions like a fish out of water; evidently, he had absolutely no idea how to respond to that.
“No,” replied the woman in his stead. “She isn't.” She stepped forwards and glared at the demon with a vitriol that Cheren wasn't sure he'd ever seen before – in anyone. “I'm here to kill you.” She paused. “Well, and that,” she said, pointing at Candy, “but mostly you.”
“What?” asked Lauren, looking confused. “What was that?”
Teiresias did not give the stranger a chance to reply.
“Kill me?” it hissed, with another peal of that hideous laughter. “I think not.”
“Would you like to put it to the test?” asked the woman, unimpressed. “Honestly, I've killed more monsters than you've ever dreamed existed.”
“What I dream would shatter your skull,” replied Teiresias. “Smythe, why have you brought this creature here? Is this a declaration of war?”
Smythe shook his head so vigorously it looked dangerously close to coming off.
“No,” he said. “No no no no no no no—”
“It would seem the circumstances have changed,” Teiresias interrupted, apparently talking to itself. “The Kings and the Regent must be informed at once. And as for you, treacherous Smythe...”
With unnatural speed, Chili's body coiled like a cat and sprang across the Gym in a parabolic arc, dislodging Lelouch and landing next to Smythe; before anyone could react to that, his hand clamped across Smythe's face and black smoke oozed from the latter's eyes and mouth. A moment later, Chili slumped to the floor and Smythe, eyes aglow, was gone.
There was silence.
And then there was a lot of explaining to do.
“So let me get this straight,” said Cilan, holding his head in his hands as if it were about to fall apart. “Harmonia's made some pact with a party of demons and is chasing you and your amnesiac talking cat with the aim of getting information about someone who stole something from his Party?”
“That's pretty much it, yeah,” I said, smiling encouragingly. “I know it's really complicated, but—”
“It's not that,” he replied, sitting up again and sighing, “it's just bloody insane.”
“That too,” I agreed, nodding. “But still... you saw what happened.”
The Gym had been closed and Chili taken to the hospital by Cress and Max; Cilan and Niamh had just had the salient points of all that had occurred to us so far explained to them, and were digesting them with differing degrees of success. Niamh appeared to be able to believe anything as long as she saw some proof, but Cilian was having more trouble getting his head around it all.
“I did, yes, but... ah, OK,” he sighed. “OK. I need to get a message to the League, that much is clear. We haven't been particularly fond of the Green Party's campaign so far – as you've probably guessed – and this finally gives us a reason and a means to do something about it...”
“But you can't really just go and accuse Harmonia of using black magic,” pointed out Bianca. “I don't think most people will believe that unless they see it.”
“There are more ways than one to scupper a campaign,” Niamh said quietly. “I don't imagine the League will be taking the legal one.”
“Exactly,” replied Cilan. “Wait. Who are you again?”
“My name is Niamh Harper. I'm a professional monster-slayer.”
Cilan stared at her for a moment, then uttered a low moan.
“Woden hang 'em,” he groaned. “You're serious, aren't you?”
“Absolutely. Here's my card.”
Cilan looked at the little rectangle in his hand, blinked, and moaned theatrically again.
“This is too much,” he said forlornly. “Too much for one day...”
Candy, noticing his distress, hopped off my wrist onto his shoulder and poked his ear in misplaced affection.
“Ark,” she squawked, which might have been comforting to another Archen but which was nowhere near comforting to a human. Especially when screeched into their ear.
“Sorry,” I said hurriedly, pulling her away from Cilan before he hit her. “Sorry, she's not used to strangers.”
“'Sraven,” said Cilan, shaking his head. “I swear everything's just gone completely insane today.”
“It actually seems fairly normal to me,” said Niamh mildly. “Except for the demon part, but that's a small enough stretch of the imagination.”
Something in her voice didn't seem quite right; I studied her face for a few seconds, and saw it almost immediately: beneath the mask of professionalism, she was very, very worried – about Smythe, presumably. I couldn't imagine how she had managed to stop herself running after him the moment Teiresias had taken him from the building; I supposed she forced herself to stay to learn more about her enemy before pursuing it. She must have, I thought, incredible willpower – but then, by her own admission, she killed monsters for a living. She was the kind of heroine I'd never thought actually existed in reality.
“It's not that far-fetched,” added Cheren. “Considering the Zero affair and whatever it was that happened in Sinnoh last year, this business actually seems fairly tame.”
He was right. Last year, a criminal mastermind styling himself Zero had raised two titanic, hostile Pokémon from millennia of slumber in Hoenn and almost destroyed the world; shortly afterwards, a certain unknown something had occurred in Sinnoh that had made all the clocks in the world run backwards for two days. The Sinnish authorities were particularly close-lipped, even by League standards, and hadn't said much about it apart from mentioning that there had been 'some minor disturbances' atop Mount Coronet – but it was clear that something pretty major had occurred, if only because an ancient temple the size of a small airstrip had been entirely erased from existence.
“Well, yes, but this is Unova, not one of those lunatic Pacific countries,” grumbled Cilan. “We don't have buried evils here, or secret monsters, or any of that—”
“Actually, we do,” interrupted Niamh. “I've killed quite a few of them.”
“And let me tell you, this country definitely qualifies as lunatic in my book,” added Halley.
“All right!” cried Cilan desperately. “Enough already!” He slumped back in his seat, took a deep breath, and sat up again. “OK. OK. I'll... I'll send a message to the League, and organise a guard for you three at the Centre tonight in case that thing comes back.”
“I'm really not sure that'll stop it,” pointed out Cheren.
“It might at least discourage it,” Cilan replied, standing up. “And... I guess you've earned this, too.”
He held out a little piece of enamel – a Gym Badge, I realised with some surprise.
“You out-thought Chili and a f*cking demon,” he said frankly. “You drove it out of its body, convinced it you were about to commit murder and kept us all alive long enough for help to arrive. That's a hell of a lot more than any of our other challengers have ever done.”
“Thank you,” said Cheren, “but I'll have to refuse that, I'm afraid.”
We all stared. This was not what we'd been expecting.
“I didn't beat Chili,” he said. “I'm not going to accept this as a reward for anything other than skill at Pokémon battling. That's not what it's for.”
“You...” Cilan stared for a moment, then threw up his hands in anguish. “What is with all these people today? We've got demons, monster-slayers, kids with stricter codes of honour than a bloody samurai...”
“Don't forget the talking cat,” added Halley slyly.
“I'd rather do exactly the opposite,” he replied, evidently in some distress. “Thunor, Frige and Woden...” He shook his head again. “I'll just go call the League,” he said disconsolately, and trudged off to find his phone.
“If that's all you have to tell, then I think I'll leave,” said Niamh, getting to her feet. “I only stayed for information.” She handed me one of her business cards. “It has my number. If you find out anything else, please let me know.”
She hurried out without saying goodbye; I assumed she was eager to pick up Smythe's trail.
In the ensuing silence, Bianca's eyes slid over to Cheren, and I sensed an unspoken question hanging in the air between them.
“What is it?” he asked, evidently picking up on it too. He sounded a little irritated.
“Well, it's just... um...”
“Spit it out,” he said tiredly.
“Er... you weren't really going to kill Chili, were you?” asked Bianca timidly.
“Of course not,” he said, eyes widening. “Thunor, Bianca, did you even need to ask?”
“You were – uh – really convincing,” she said. “I got worried...”
The last dregs of hostility flowed away from him, and to my surprise he actually hugged her.
“I'm an excellent liar,” he said softly. “You know that.”
“I know,” she replied, pressing her face into his neck. “But still...”
Looking at them, I felt a pang of loneliness; quiet days spent with Anastasia came to mind, sitting in the trees at the northern end of White Forest. I could feel the buttons of her jacket pressing against my head, and hear her heartbeat beneath my ear...
I blinked back a tear and resolved to charge my phone as soon as we got back to the Centre. I had to call her soon, or I'd end up crying tonight, and I didn't think Halley would be particularly sympathetic company.
“OK!” said Cilan, reappearing, and Bianca flinched out of Cheren's arms. “I've called the League, and I got through to Shauntal. Alder's out – as ever – and the rest are renewing the binding at—” He checked himself. “Actually, I probably shouldn't mention that. Anyway, Shauntal heads the PR department, so she should be good enough for now – although Grimsley's really the one we want, since he's in charge of intelligence and espionage.” He waved a hand. “Doesn't matter. The point is, she said she'll be here in a couple of hours. The others have taken the jet, but she'll take the helicopter. She wants to talk to you three personally before taking any action.”
We exchanged looks. Shauntal, of the Unovan Elite Four? Celebrity author, major politician, and one of the most skilled Pokémon Trainers in the country? That was unexpected – and definitely the kind of help we could use.
“We'll wait here, then,” said Cheren on our behalf. “If that's OK with you three...?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “I wasn't planning on going anywhere.”
“Guess I wasn't, either,” said Bianca.
“OK.” Cilan thought for a moment. “I have to make sure Chili's OK,” he said at length. “I'll call Tia and Sammy and have them come in first. They can stand guard for now, although it didn't seem like that thing was coming back any time soon. Tia's also an excellent chef,” he added. “If you won't accept the Badge, Cheren, you can at least accept a free lunch.”
Cheren nodded graciously.
“All right.” He looked at Bianca and me. “I think we'd like that.”
“Are you kidding?” Halley leaped up onto a table. “We'd love that. Didn't you see the sign outside?” she asked him. “This place has two Michelin stars. It's going to be awesome!”
Cilan smiled for the first time since I'd met him.
“Yes, it should be,” he replied. “We pride ourselves on our service. Now,” he said, extracting his phone from his pocket, “if you'll just give me a moment to call them, we'll have your meal shortly...”
Niamh was angry and terrified and sad, and she was beating the sh*t out of an unfortunate dustbin which had happened to be in her way.
“F*cking – demon – possessing – Port – f*cking – f*cking – f*ck!” she howled, heedless of the attention she was attracting. “Gallows and hammer! 'Sraven, how can – f*cking – agh!”
She kicked the bin aside, leaving the knives jammed into its side, and turned into an alley, fleeing into the bowels of the city; she didn't want to be in the open, not now, not when everyone was around and OK and Portland wasn't and – and—
In the middle of nowhere, she stopped and set her back to a wall, curling up and clutching her head so hard she felt her nails break skin and blood run in her hair. She wanted to scream, but something choked her voice. She wanted to beat herself up, but she couldn't uncurl her hands from her skull. She wanted Portland right now, unharmed and free of demons, and she wanted to hold him tight and know that everything was going to be OK—
The name rose unbidden in her mind like a spot of spreading blood, and with it came terror, blotting out rage and sorrow in an instant with its great tidal flow. Teiresias. How could she kill something like that? How? She had bullets and knives and that longsword she kept in reserve for those certain beasts who would not die unless killed with silver-lined blades, but all of them seemed so useless against a foe like that – an enemy that hopped between bodies as if the ether between them was nothing, whose real form was likely some gnawing, chaotic abyss that to merely see would be a one-way ticket to madness? Niamh had killed many strange creatures before, things that, in all likelihood, had their origins in worlds not our own, but this... Despite her words in the Gym, she knew that she was at the limit of her ability here.
For the first time in many years, Niamh Harper needed help.
She wrenched her hands free, wiped her eyes and got to her feet. So. There it was. It was simple, really, when you laid it out like that. Portland needed her. She needed help to save him. The logical next step? Find the druids. They knew more about demons than anyone else she knew.
And there was another step she could take, one that lingered in the back of her mind and left her still more uneasy – but she wouldn't think of that. Not yet. Not unless there was no other option left to her.
Niamh stood there for a moment, unsteady on her feet, then collected herself. She pressed her emotions firmly back down with the heretical mind-control trick, until they were at a level she could use to fuel her determination without destroying her peace of mind, and took a deep, shaky breath.
She was OK, she thought. She was OK, and now she had to help Portland Smythe get his body back.
She had to kill a demon.
Far away, in the back room of the Mandelmort Temple, Lorcan Peabody flicked from Facebook to Outlook and choked on his coffee.
He had, a few hours ago, sent an email to the presiding druidic librarian at Nacrene's Travison Memorial Library – a little thing about that cute girl who had been in earlier, searching for methods of ridding herself of a demon – and he would have been lying if he'd claimed he was expecting any sort of immediate response.
He had one, however, and it was not the noncommittal reply he thought it would be.
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Subject: Re: Possible case of demonic activity
Don't let that girl out of your sight. Keep her within the boundaries of the temple and perform the Nine Herbs on her in case any taint has begun. I'm sending a demonologist over to you right away to escort her here to Nacrene, where we can assess the problem and send her along to Castelia. The abomination she mentions has an entire chapter to itself in the Glasya-Labolas, and if it is has returned to Unova now, at the apex of Jormal's Cycle, then the High Druid must be informed at once.
These creatures may grow weaker or stronger with age – it is variable – and whichever way age has affected Teiresias, it is undoubtedly the most potent threat that has stalked Unova for over two hundred years. Do not take any chances. If it approaches, invoke every circle you can and do not look into its eyes.
Lorcan stared at the screen for a moment, then scratched his head.
“Well, sh*t,” he muttered. “I have totally f*cked this one up.”