Chapter Fourteen: Natural
“Hello, Jared,” said N tightly, avoiding my eye.
We stared at each other for a moment.
“What are you doing here?” I asked at length.
“I went to do some research,” he replied stiffly. “What about you?”
The air tasted electric; something was wrong between us, as if the universe itself were shivering at our contact. I suddenly felt uncertain about who I was; for one long moment, I could have sworn I was a girl – and then I was back in my own body again, facing N and sweating with unease.
“You were in Accumula, weren't you?” asked Cheren, presumably to break the ensuing silence rather than out of any desire to confirm this.
“Yes,” replied N. “We spoke at f— Harmonia's speech.” He scratched his chin uncomfortably. “I came here straight afterwards. I've been spending a few days researching the First Kingdom.”
The First Kingdom was one of Unova's foremost mysteries. There existed in the Jannsermond Desert a set of ruins that dated back forty-five thousand years: older than any Homo sapiens remains in the country, and in fact more than thirty thousand years before the invention of agriculture. No one knew who or what had created them, but theories abounded and the more plausible ones were taught to all of us in school: that they had been the work of an earlier species of human that was later outcompeted by Cro-Magnons; that they had been the home of an extinct race of intelligent Psychic-type Pokémon; that they were the last physical trace of the ése left on Middangeard.
For years, archaeologists had swarmed over the ruins, but to no avail: there was simply nothing at all left inside them that gave any clue as to their origins. Whatever the First Kingdom had been, it had vanished without trace long before the dawn of recorded history.
“I see,” said Cheren, evidently uncertain about why exactly N had decided to mention this. “Uh... why?”
“It's connected to Harmonia's work,” N said distantly, looking over my shoulder. “I think it is, anyway... The Twin Heroes, Reshiram, Zekrom – I think it all comes from the time of the Kingdom. And if I'm right, the Kingdom could happen again – harmony, unity, separation—”
He had grown quite animated during the course of this strange speech, but now cut himself off abruptly.
“Well, anyway,” he said, looking embarrassed. “Never mind all that. I tend to get quite carried away with my research.”
“O-K,” said Bianca. “Um—”
I didn't hear what she said: at that moment, an image flared up in my mind and blazed with such intensity I could hardly believe it wasn't one of my own memories. I saw a vast, saurian monster, halfway between a pterodactyl and a sun, burning through the world around me; its jaws dripped with flames and its flanks were wet with golden blood, and as it saw me it screamed three unintelligible words that snapped the sky asunder—
“The White Dragon!” I cried. “It – she—”
“It's you!” cut in N, his icy eyes glowing with unnatural fervour. “You! I – 'sraven!”
“What?” asked Bianca helplessly. “What?”
“I have no idea,” replied Cheren, looking from N to me with bewildered curiosity. “Perhaps they're having some kind of fit?”
“She chose you,” N said wildly. “No, she didn't... she had no choice – you were born to it...” He shook his head. “I should have guessed! The signs were all there...”
“You have his mark,” I told him without knowing what I was saying. “He's waiting—”
“Do you think I don't know that?” he interrupted. “I'm searching! Gods know I'm searching...”
“Where are they?” I asked. “Who are they?”
N shook his head.
“I don't know yet. Give me your phone number. I'll tell you more as I find it out.”
“Aren't we enemies, though?”
“I don't know,” he repeated. “Not yet, anyway.” He gave me a crooked smile. “We'll find out.”
We exchanged numbers and he left without another word, melting into the crowd and disappearing as if he'd never been.
I stood there for a long moment, staring at the place where he'd been, and then Candy's screech from my shoulder snapped me back to reality.
“What?” I said, patting her. “What? Where – what?”
“That's pretty much what we're all thinking, I think,” replied Halley. “Care to explain?”
“I – uh – don't know,” I admitted. “I – we saw a dragon – two dragons – or dinosaurs – and there was fire, or lightning, and—” A wave of dizziness broke over me, and I put out my hand to steady myself against a column. “Uh... Um... Guys, I don't think – I – I'm not sure I can explain that right now,” I said eventually. “Give me a moment.”
“All right,” said Cheren. “Er... do you want to sit down? You look like you need to.”
“Yes,” I said fervently. “Yes, I would bloody love to sit down.”
I half-sat, half-fell onto the stone steps, and put my head in my hands for a minute, trying to contain and slow the whirlwind in my skull. What the hell had happened just then? I had remembered something, I thought – something from before I was born, from the last time N and I had met...
“F*ck!” I yelled, far too loudly, and bit my lip. “This is so f*cking annoying!”
“Jared, are you OK?” asked Bianca, sitting down next to me. “You're... kinda...”
“Crazy?” supplied Halley. “Mental? Take your pick, there're plenty of synonyms.”
“I'm about three f*cking nanoseconds from kicking you across the street,” I spat at her. “Either you shut up or we find out how many of your nine lives you have left.”
“Awesome,” she said happily, scampering out of kicking range. “You've got the badass banter down to a fine art.”
“Halley!” cried Bianca. “Shut up!”
“Collar,” said Cheren firmly, and Halley immediately fell silent.
“Thanks,” I said quietly, closing my eyes. The sunlight felt too bright; it swelled and stung my retinas. “Ah... OK. OK. I think – I got it.” I sat up and took a deep breath. “There's... some kind of a connection between me and N. We're opposites, somehow. There are two dragons, opposites who love and loathe each other more than you can understand, and they – we – I'm not sure of the difference between them and us,” I confessed. “But they're dreaming, and restless, and their youth is coming around again...” I shook my head. “Does that make any sense? Because that's all I know.”
“It makes no sense whatsoever,” replied Cheren. “But it does remind me of something.”
“The Twin Heroes,” he replied. “They loved each other as brothers and loathed each other as men. One had a white dragon banner and the other a black one, remember?”
“No... I didn't remember that part,” I said distantly. “Just the twin part...”
There was silence for a while.
“I guess,” said Bianca at last, “we have another mystery to solve.”
“So it would seem,” replied Cheren. “I wish we hadn't let that N guy get away... I'd have liked to question him further.” He ground his teeth. “Well, no matter. We're at the biggest library in Europe. There's no better place to begin our investigations.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I... yes.” I shook my head. “Ah. Sorry. I feel... dizzy. Still.”
“Take your time,” said Bianca, patting my arm. “You looked like you were having a heart attack.”
“More like I'd seen a ghost, I think,” I muttered. “A ghost from Sandjr.”
“What?” Bianca looked confused. “Sondyeer?”
“Sandjr,” I said. “Wait. What? What's Sandjr?”
“I have no idea,” replied Cheren. “Let's add it to the pile of mysteries, shall we?”
“Permission to speak?” asked Halley.
“If it's relevant.”
“It's about Sandjr.”
I looked at her sharply.
“What about it?”
“Well, uh... Look up,” she said, pointing with one paw.
As one, our heads turned skywards.
Inscribed across the front of the Library's great portico was a single line of old Unovan runes – a dedication, I thought, or a memorial to the building's completion – and with a sense of increasing disbelief, I read the five words they spelled out:
“No way,” breathed Bianca. “No way...”
“Yes way,” replied Halley. “Sandjr.”
Niamh Harper had a meeting to attend.
From what she'd learned at the Gym, the only place to find information on destroying Teiresias was Nacrene, and so she had headed there immediately after recovering her senses; however, owing to a previous incident involving a clerk, a dinosaur and her longsword, she was persona non grata in the Travison Memorial Library, and was summarily shown the exit as soon as she entered.
This had not deterred her; after all, she was used to gaining entry through alternative means. Monsters often didn't bother with the law, or even with doors, and the same went for those who hunted them. Consequently, Niamh had waited until nightfall, then slipped in through an unguarded skylight in the west wing, and made her way through darkened corridors to the restricted section where the Treatises were kept.
Here, unfortunately, she could get no further. The one entrance was sealed and guards posted; Niamh could have killed them both, had she so desired, but she really didn't think murder would be a good idea, and besides, she knew that neither of the guards would have the key. That would be kept with the druidic librarian, and getting it from him would be out of the question.
Disconsolate and angry at her failure, Niamh had returned to the rooftops – where one of the gargoyles on the roof had turned to her with a tremendous grinding of stone on stone, and said:
“So, you're a monster-slayer, then?”
Niamh did not start; too many monsters had stalked her for that. Instead, she levelled a pistol at the gargoyle's face.
“What the f*ck are you?”
The gargoyle looked at itself.
“A gargoyle, by the look of it,” it said – or rather he, for its voice was almost certainly masculine. “You find yourself in unusual places at night, it seems.” He cocked his head at her, apparently unworried by the gun. “Anyway. I'm looking for someone with your particular set of skills, and was wondering if perhaps you'd consider entering into a partnership with me?”
Niamh didn't quite know how to reply. She'd seen a great many impossible things, but a creature made of living stone was entirely beyond her experience; doubly so when you considered the offer it was making.
The gargoyle sighed.
“Look, this isn't as complicated as you're making it out to be,” he said. “Each night, I've been dream-searching for people who might make good allies, and I came across a man who had one of your business cards earlier tonight. It took me a little time to find you, but now I have, and I'm making a proposition..”
“Who are you?” asked Niamh cautiously. Her pistol did not waver.
“I'm...” The gargoyle sighed. “Look, never mind that – I'm not a good dream-searcher and I don't want to damage your subconscious. If you're interested, come to Dunsanay Square at noon tomorrow and meet me there. I'll tell you much more then.”
“How do I know this isn't a trap?”
“There's no reason for it to be,” pointed out the gargoyle. “Look, if you don't want to come, don't come. I'm not you.” He shook his head and settled back into his normal position with a sigh. “Bloody humans,” he muttered. “Anything supernatural and their common sense flies out the window...”
Niamh opened her eyes and sat up abruptly. She was lying on the roof of the Travison Memorial Library, a pistol in her hand, and the first faint light of dawn was shining in the east.
She looked around for gargoyles, and found three of them, all frozen in place by the guttering – exactly as one would expect.
She blinked, and put the gun away in a daze.
“What the hell was that?”
There was no reply. Whatever force had animated the gargoyle, it was gone, and as Niamh climbed back down to the ground, she wondered whether or not the whole thing had been a dream. By the time she reached the pavement, she was certain it was – but why had it struck so suddenly? She couldn't have just fallen asleep on the rooftop; that was just not possible. Besides, she had no recollection of doing so.
The issue of the gargoyle had burned in her mind throughout her morning ramblings through the city – ramblings that, she was disconcerted to find, had led her straight to Dunsanay Square, despite the fact that she had no idea where it was.
“Well, f*ck it,” she said, checking her watch and finding herself unsurprised by the fact that it read five to twelve. “Let's see if it was a dream or not, then.”
She wandered out to the statue in the centre – a four-metre-tall depiction of a bearded god wrestling with an ettin – and sat down on a bench by its plinth.
“So you decided to come,” said the man who had definitely not been sitting next to her a moment ago. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“F*ck!” she cried. “What – where did you come from?”
“I was here all along. You just didn't notice me.” The man cleared his throat and offered her hand. “My name is Ezra Schwarz,” he said. “I'm planning on assassinating the king of the demons. Are you interested in helping?”
“Do either of you remember any old Unovan?” I asked.
“Nope,” said Bianca.
“No,” said Cheren. “I didn't think it would be useful.”
“Figures. No one does.”
I was pretty sure old Unovan was the least popular component of the compulsory 'Unovan history and culture' subjects; no one I'd ever spoken to ever remembered anything about it – not even the people who taught it.
“We can ask when we meet the librarian,” decided Cheren. “Right now, I think we should go in. Any potential leads are definitely in there.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “OK. In we go.”
I got to my feet, found I was steady again and followed him through the vast doors into the belly of the Library.
The entrance hall was every bit as grand as could be expected from the façade: so huge was it that it housed half a museum's worth of historical ephemera, from ancient stone tablets and orbs at the back to the titanic skeleton of some ancient Dragon at the front. I might not like the architecture, but I could definitely appreciate the remnants of a colossal monster, and stared awestruck for a short while.
“Whoa,” breathed Bianca. “It's amazing... Have you ever been here before?”
I shook my head mutely.
“Impressive indeed,” agreed Cheren. “That's a Dragonite skeleton, I believe. Not the modern species, though – it's far too big. It must be the extinct subspecies...” He launched into a short explanation, but I wasn't listening. There was too much to take in for me to bother with one of his lectures right now.
“Hello!” said an unexpected voice from the right. “Welcome to the Travison Memorial Library!”
I looked, and saw a short, balding man with Coke-bottle glasses beaming at us.
“I see you're admiring our exhibition,” he said jovially. “It's on loan from the Nacrene Musuem – all except the skeleton, that is. That's ours.”
“Isn't the Museum part of the library?” asked Cheren. “I thought it was.”
“Well, sort of,” replied the man. “It's on the south side of the building. The two places are connected, you know. The library has the more impressive entrance hall, so we tend to borrow exhibits every now and then to showcase them here. Makes an impact, if you know what I mean.” He clapped a hand to his forehead. “Oh, but I'm running away with myself! My name is Hawes. I'm the director of the museum.”
“Shouldn't you be working, then?” I asked. “I mean, isn't that a fairly major job?”
“It is and it isn't. Today is one of the days when it isn't – and besides, I'm here in my directorial capacity, to meet some esteemed guests who are supposed to be arriving today. My wife is the head librarian – and the Gym Leader – and she asked me if I would guide them through to the restricted section to meet her and Charlie. That's the Gorsedd representative here,” he added. “Lovely chap. Very knowledgeable about cheese, but then I'm told druids go in for that sort of thing.”
It was clear that if one of us didn't interrupt him Hawes would continue to jabber on for the foreseeable future, so I said:
“Um... these guests. They wouldn't be enquiring about reading the Glasya-Labolas, would they?”
“Good grief,” he said. “Now, how the devil would you know that?”
“I think we might be them,” I told him. “I'm Jared Black, and—”
“Ah!” cried Hawes exuberantly. “Wonderful, wonderful!” He shook my hand so vigorously I feared for the integrity of my elbow. “So you must be Cheren Perng, then, and Bianca Aaronson?”
“Other way round,” said Bianca carefully. “I'm Bianca, he's Cheren.”
“Of course, of course,” replied Hawes. “Silly of me.” He bent down. “And you... you must be Halley.”
“The one and only,” she replied.
“Marvellous,” he breathed, quietly for once. “You really can talk... Quite extraordinary.” He stared at her, rapt, for so long that Halley became visibly uneasy; Bianca took pity on her, and drew Hawes' attention by saying:
“Um... so... you were going to show us to the Treatises?”
“Ah! Of course, of course,” replied Hawes, straightening up. “I do apologise – I tend to get rather carried away, you know. Right this way, please!”
He spun on his heel – something I'd never seen done before in real life – and headed off down the hall at such speed that it was an effort to keep up.
“Perng?” I asked Cheren quizzically as we hurried after him. “Really?”
He gave me a strange look.
“My dad is Taiwanese,” he said. “Can't you see it?”
It was true. I hadn't noticed it before, but there was something vaguely exotic about his features; I couldn't have placed it, though. I supposed he must have taken after his mother.
“By the way,” asked Bianca, “we were wondering what the inscription on the front of the library meant. Do you know?”
Hawes stopped abruptly.
“Do I know?” he asked. “Do I know? I'm the director of the museum! Of course I know. Du beorwán ydlfyrd Sandjr wöen: for the minds of the Unovan people. It's a quote from a philosophical tract by the scholar Volun in the twelfth century—”
“I see, but what does the word Sandjr mean, exactly?” I asked. “It, uh, seems familiar.”
“It's an archaic term for Unova,” replied Hawes. “You may have come across it in school – the great poets of the nineteenth century were fond of using it to give an ancient ring to their work. Originally, it comes from the old legend of the Twin Heroes. In the earliest transcriptions of the story, Unova is referred to as Sandjr before the Heroes conquer and unite its peoples. It's given a new name as a mark of a new beginning. Why do you ask?”
“Just... uh, curious,” I said. “Anyway... carry on. We were going to see the Treatises?”
“Ah, of course,” replied Hawes. “Come on, come on!”
He hurried through a little door marked 'Staff Only' to one side of the hall, and beckoned us through after him; beyond was a nondescript little corridor that, it soon transpired, was the entrance to a vast network of identical nondescript little corridors. Had we not had Hawes to help us, I'm sure we would have become lost forever in there, and eventually starved to death; however, with his help, we negotiated a dizzying array of twists and turns in record time, and eventually ended up outside a reinforced steel door marked 'RESTRICTED'.
“Here we are!” he announced happily. “It's just through here.”
He pushed open the door, and ushered us through into a small circular room that was practically wallpapered with bookshelves, each bursting with fat, ancient books under sheets of toughened glass. In the centre of the room was a little round table with a green-shaded reading lamp, and sitting at this table was a plump man in white robes with half a salad on his head. This, I presumed, was the druidic librarian, and he got to his feet as we entered.
“Jared Black, I presume,” he said. “Charles Lewis. I look after the library here.” He looked at the others. “And you must be Cheren Perng and Bianca Aaronson.”
“Don't forget me,” said Halley, jumping onto the table. “Halley, um... just Halley.”
“And Halley, of course.” He stared in fascination for a moment. “'Sraven. A talking cat.”
“I know. Ninth wonder of the world, that's me.”
“Eighth is Kong. Obviously.” Halley yawned. “Anyway. Show us your books.”
“Er, no, it's not quite as simple as that,” said Charles, slightly frantically; it seemed to me that Halley often had that effect on people. “First, I need to make sure that everything is as it's been claimed—”
“A mind-reading, yeah?” I said.
“Yes,” he replied. “That is, if that's acceptable.”
I considered. Given all that was riding on this, it seemed ridiculous to refuse, even if the thought was discomfiting.
“All right,” I said cautiously. “I suppose that's OK.”
Charles nodded, and motioned towards a door on the opposite side of the room; a moment later, it opened to admit a short and curiously ugly woman in a long black dress who moved as if on oiled castors.
Wait, no. Not a woman, a Pokémon – this must be a Gothitelle, then; I'd never seen one in real life before, but I had a vague idea of what they looked like. Her face was incredible; it was at once human and bizarrely alien, as if it were the product of a sculptor who'd had a reasonably accurate description of a human given to him but no picture to work from. She looked at me from under heavily-lidded eyes with an utterly inscrutable expression, then made a series of swift signs with her shapeless hands.
“What?” Charles frowned at her. “There's—”
The bookcases rattled, and a low wind sprung up; a spot of darkness began to coalesce in the middle of the room – and all at once, I remembered the Ghost Shauntal had left to watch us.
“Uh, I guess that's Shauntal's,” I said. “I don't think the Gothitelle likes her.”
The half-formed blob growled, and the Gothitelle hissed in return, making a series of gestures that I surmised must mean something incredibly rude in whatever sign language she used.
“Calm down, please,” cried Charles. “Anita! This belongs to Shauntal. It's on our side—”
The Gothitelle flung her hands up in the air in inexpressible rage and stormed out.
Shauntal's Ghost, for her part, gave a satisfied humph and faded away again.
We looked at each other.
“Well, that didn't quite go as planned,” said Bianca brightly. “Shall we try again?”
“So let me get this straight,” said Niamh, frowning. “You're a demon?”
“Yes, I suppose that's what you'd call me,” replied Ezra. “Not like Teiresias or that bastard Weland, though. I'm much less keen for humanity to be subjugated by the Shrouded Court.”
“Sorry. It's been a long time since I last tried to explain this to anyone. I'm getting everything all mixed up.” He leaned back in his seat. “Do you smoke?”
“Do you mind if I do?”
Thin plumes of tobacco smoke began to trail from Ezra's mouth, though there was no evidence of a cigarette to produce them.
“All right,” he said. “First of all, you have to understand that I can't tell you everything. The king I want to kill has certain abnormal powers, as you might expect of a demon, and he'll know if I mention certain things. But I'll tell you everything I can.” He paused and exhaled a large smoke-ring. “Demons are real. You've worked that much out already. What you don't know, however, is that we have a society of sorts. There's a king – Weland the Undying – and his court. They've been underneath Unova for thousands of years, watching humans developing above them, and they don't much like it.”
“Why not?” asked Niamh.
“You know how some people believe radio is better than TV, and books are better than radio, and so on?”
“Weland's that sort of person. He comes from a time before people, and he firmly believes that no people is better than people. And since Weland thinks like that, all of our kind in Unova have to think that too or face execution.”
“You don't,” observed Niamh. “Unless this is a trap, and you're working with Teiresias.”
“You've seen what we can do,” replied Ezra levelly. “You saw Teiresias, and you must have realised by now that I put the location of this place into your head. If I wanted to kill you, you would have had an unfortunate heart attack in the small hours of the morning and never woken again.”
Niamh looked at him. If demons were anything like humans – and so far, Ezra at least seemed to be somewhat similar – then her senses told her he wasn't lying. For whatever reason, he had chosen not to harm her.
“All right,” she said. “But you don't side with this King Weland.”
“No,” replied Ezra. “I don't. I think Weland is insane and vengeful, and his regime is hideously oppressive. We have the right to think what we want, don't you agree? He's a cancer in the heart of Unova, and his continued rule is bad for demons and humans alike.”
So far, thought Niamh, he was being reasonable enough. She couldn't fault his argument.
“OK,” she said guardedly. “Go on.”
“Thanks. Anyway, between the Gorsedd and the Pokémon League, Unova has always been too well-defended for Weland to do much about the so-called human scum crawling about on the roof of his kingdom. But somehow this man Harmonia found out how to contact him, and between them they've come to a little agreement. Weland is lending his power and knowledge to Harmonia's campaign, and in return, Harmonia's Liberation policy will force the dissolution of the League, clearing the way for Weland's forces to attack.”
“What does Harmonia stand to gain from that? He'd be Prime Minister of a dead country.”
“Actually, he wouldn't,” replied Ezra. “He would gain absolute power over what remains of the Unovan people, more or less. I'm afraid I can't go into the details of that, or Weland will overhear, but I promise you that it's true.”
“Right.” Niamh wasn't sure whether she totally believed him or not, but there were more pressing issues at hand. “What does any of this have to do with my friend Portland?”
“Smythe, right? The Party man.” Ezra sighed and blew another smoke-ring. “It's my guess that at the moment he's a prisoner of either Weland or Harmonia. You won't get him back without my help – but equally, I can't even enter either of their lairs without your assistance; alone, all I've been able to do is harass Harmonia – rather ineffectively, I have to say. So I'd like to make a deal.”
“I get Smythe and you get close to Weland, is that it?”
“In a nutshell. Although I was going to add that I'll pay you one tonne of gold as well. No hidden catches.”
“A tonne of gold?”
“That is, if I manage to kill Weland. If I don't, I won't be able to get the gold out of his treasury and you'll have to settle for just having your friend back.”
“That's enough for me,” said Niamh immediately. “I—”
“Before you answer,” interrupted Ezra, “I need to give you a little more information. This is an extremely hazardous enterprise. You'll be risking, life, limb, soul and sanity – not to mention your ability to dream and to see the colour red. I will have to possess you at least once, as well, although I'll try not to do so unless there's no other option.”
Niamh wasn't stupid; she didn't rush into things, even when Smythe's safety was concerned. Ezra seemed truthful, but she knew better than to take it for granted; he was a demon, after all.
And yet he was peculiarly human, too – far more so than the ancient, cosmic thing that called itself Teiresias. It might be an act, but if it was, it was the best Niamh had ever seen; the alien and the human were balanced with incredible expertise in Ezra, and she was certain that fine edge could not be falsified. Whatever he was, she was surprised to find, she trusted him.
“Did you make me trust you?” she asked suspiciously.
“You're learning,” he said. “Rule Number One: question everything where demons are concerned. And no, I didn't. I don't have that much power over human minds. I was always bottom of the class when it came to mental command.”
“Demons have schools?”
“Not as you understand them,” replied Ezra. “But yes, we do.” He paused. “Well, then. It's been a pleasure talking to you, Ms. Harper.”
He stood up and shook her hand.
“What? But you haven't heard my answer yet,” she said, puzzled.
“You need to think about this carefully,” Ezra replied. “You don't want to make a mistake. I'll find you at dawn tomorrow and you can give me your final answer then.”
“But—” Niamh blinked. Somewhere between him finishing and her starting to speak, he had disappeared, though she had no recollection of him vanishing; he was just, inexplicably, gone, and Niamh was left staring out at the bustle of pedestrians, not quite certain of anything except a sense of thorough confusion.