Thread: [Pokémon] The Fall to Redemption [PG-13]
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Old April 9th, 2013 (02:10 PM).
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Cypher DS Cypher DS is offline
 
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Chapter 9 - The Lost Leader

If I were a man with the power of god, where would I live?

Not in Mauville City, I decided. The place was a lawless dump: garbage filled the streets, the local economy revolved around brewing moonshine and half-demolished buildings drooped over the streets like rows of threadbare beggars; people ripped off their own wall panels when they needed to feed their fire pits. The city's garrison of gold-plated soldiers couldn't care less about maintaining order; they were too busy patronizing the local gambling dens and taverns. Being assigned to Mauville was like a paid vacation.

Where's the leader? I wondered. Crazy cultists had already gobbled up Slateport City; didn't he care about preserving the fraction of territory he had left? I tried paging Norman for intel but the ranger wouldn't return my calls. What was keeping him so busy all of a sudden? Well, staying in Mauville was an invitation to get mugged so I ventured north beyond the city until I came across a beautiful, gated mansion. Three stories tall, Windstrate Hills was surrounded by watchtowers and patrolled by disciplined soldiers. Now this was a palace fit for a leader!

At the same time, I didn't like the look of the guards' Nidoqueens and Explouds so I made camp in the surrounding forest, sending out my flyers for aerial reconnaissance. Winry and Dolce couldn't tell me just how many soldiers or pokemon were behind the walls but, judging by the way they shivered upon return, I figured that I did not want to risk a head-on assault. So I waited. I sat down in my little camp and watched from behind the trees, trying to spy a weak spot in the defenses. My pokemon used this huge delay for their own purposes.

You probably guessed as much, but Michael had fallen hard for the sweet fire chick who had tended his wounded paw and he was determined to impress Robin at all costs. He couldn't communicate directly - Amon planted himself between hen and mutt at all times - but he could send covert signals. Michael would walk around on his hind legs or do flips to show off his strength. He kept foraging for berries and mushrooms and, through a series of nips and growls, ensuring that I gave the biggest to Robin. At night, the electrike would put on a miniature fireworks display by firing static bursts from his coat.

Robin, at first, just blushed and hid her face, overwhelmed and embarrassed by all this flattery. It was a strange reversal to have someone else working so tirelessly to impress her, but I think she grew to like the attention. Whenever she wanted to express her appreciation she'd snap a flame between her talons and blow the ember towards Michael like a kiss. It was their secret game, like school kids seeing how many notes they could pass unnoticed, and on the rare occasion that paw and talon were able to touch the two would sigh in contentment.

Then Amon would start snarling and Robin would shrivel up like a battered housewife and Michael would slink away like a good beta male.

"Pipe down," I hissed. We'd spent three days staking out the Windstrate mansion but it felt like three decades of sappy, romantic mush. "We're on a mission here!"

Michael and Robin seemed to giggle. I think they scored extra points in their lovers' game whenever Amon and I - the crusty chaperones - lost our cool. I zapped the pair into their pokeballs. Lousy kids...

My mightyena heaved a sigh and sat down. Amon's eyes were bloodshot. I don't think he'd slept much these last days, eaten by the fear of lowering his guard before a rival. The wolf was so tired he didn't even protest when I sat at his side and started scratching behind his ears. "Women," I muttered. The wolf growled in agreement.

"I wonder if I had a girlfriend when I was alive." I couldn't remember any family and I didn't care to remember my so-called friend Roderigo; what really piqued my curious was whether I had left behind a special someone. Had somebody loved me? "Whaddya think, Amon? I bet I was a serious lady-killer."

At first I thought the mightyena was wheezing; I finally realized the wolf was laughing himself hoarse. "Some bro you are," I muttered. I didn't dwell on that long. Winry was chirping for me to look back at the mansion. Seemed an opportunity had arisen.

An unfamiliar troop of soldiers had gathered at the mansion gates. It looked like they had marched down from the mountains, dragging not just pokemon but carts of cannons and explosives. Now some heated discussion was taking place between the troop commander and the officer assigned to the mansion garrison. I couldn't hear what they said but actions spoke louder than words. The gates to Windstrate Hills rumbled open and the garrison joined rank with the mountain troop, marching southward. Zebedee, you sly old huckster! The soldiers were mobilizing to confront the Dewford uprising! Only a token two guards remained to guard the front gates.

It was Go Time. I called out Robin and Michael, sprinted to the back fence and had my pokemon boost me over into the spacious backyard. Ready or not, Leader, it's your turn to fall!

We were immediately spotted by a wrinkly old lady watering the flowers. Her watering can hit the ground and her voice hit altissimo. "Thieves! Help, help! Somebody save me!" A rescuer teleported in immediately: a meditite monkey hissing and crawling on all fours. Michael and Robin dashed at the bodyguard.

Something's not right, I realized. The shimmering aura surrounding the monkey - this wasn't any ordinary pokemon! Amon realized it as well. Swift with worry he galloped after the others and tackled Robin to the ground. Oblivious, Michael charged onward at the glowing monkey, pouncing straight through the psychic illusion and face-planting in the lawn.

The real meditite lunged at Michael from the bushes, foot first. A swift crack burst from Michael's neck as the electrike sailed through the air and into my chest. We both crashed in the dirt like wreckage.

"Cor!" Columns of flame exploded over the lawn, forcing the meditite and his old lady to retreat inside the house. Robin pushed herself free of her watchdog and raced over to my side, snatching Michael and cradling his body to her chest just as I'd held Megumi's corpse. Robin cawed, shook him and snapped fire in her fingers to rouse the dog's attention but Michael would not answer.

Robin raised her beak to the sky and wailed.

The rest went quickly. The gold-plated guards seized me, their pokemon dragged Amon and a shell-shocked Robin into the mansion. The combusken only resisted when they tried to take away Michael's corpse. She hugged the dog to her chest and refused to surrender him. We were brought before the master of the house, a super-sized cheeseburger of a man who redefined the term 'living large'. Huge leather boots down below, a huge cowboy hat perched up above, and a cigar the size of a submarine sandwich pursed between his lips. Even his bushy sideburns were obscenely oversized!

"Boy howdy, lookie what the delcatty dragged in," he drawled. "Boy, ah do declare y'all have given Grandmammy Windstrate a right an' wicked scare. Y'feelin' all right, Granny?"

The old lady was happy as could be, snuggling with her newfound meditite. "I'm naming him Jethro," she declared.

The rancher took a reflective puff of his cigar. "Well, seems y'all are the luckiest varmin t'shuffle through mah backyard. 'Cause if you'd hurt ol' Granny ... well, let's just say ah ain't all that forgivin' t'those who cross mah family."

I said nothing, just hung my head, stared at the floor and goaded the fat man to keep monologuing.

"Now, the fact that y'all decided t'barge onta mah property tells me y'all ain't got no idea who yer crosin', so ah reckon we gots some introductions t'git through." He tapped the star-shaped badge pinned to his leather vest. "Son, yer lookin' at the one 'n only Ray Windstrate. Folks 'round these parts call me the Underground King on account ah run the minin' operations on Mosdeep Island. Now, ahm many things - family man, huntsman - but first 'n foremost ahm a businessman. World's all about give 'n take. Fer example, ah give the Emperor all mah know-how about digin' 'n excavation; he gives me this beautiful home out here in the mountains. Ah give folks the honour of bein' part of mah family; they cook, clean 'n look after me. Ain't that right, ladies?"

A female chorus shouted affirmative from the kitchen. Satisfied, Windstrate strolled up close, lifting my chin with his cigar so our eyes would meet.

"So son, if you've got the brass t'barge inta mah house 'n take mah peace of mind, you better have somethin' mighty precious y'all 're willin' t'give. ... Well? Speak up, son! No time t'be shy!"

I lunged, ripping the badge off his vest. Victory! Leader Windstrate was powerless! My flyers would take out the guards and I'd be off with another prize! I waited for the rush of memories to overpower my vision but nothing happened. I just stood before the surprised guards, a stupid kid clutching a cold lump of metal. Windstrate had stepped back, alarmed by my sudden motion, but now he took stock and he laughed.

"Hoo-ee, izzat why y'all broke in? Robbin' mah gold?"

I shook and hammered at the badge as if a few good bangs could kick-start its magic. "Why isn't this working? You're the leader of Mauville! I just took your power! Work, you stupid thing!"

"Leader? Son, ah ain't no leader - at least, ah ain't got no dang-fangled magic powers like the rest o' those freaks. We ain't had no leader in Mauville fer ages."

My head was spinning. I didn't resist as the soldiers grabbed me again; I welcomed the cold grip that kept me from fainting in disbelief. He's not the leader ... Windstrate continued his lecture.

"Now son, lemmie explain yer situation: y'just tried t'rob the commander of a labour camp. Y'see, when the Emperor finds somebody he don't like, they're sent t'me and ah throw em in a pit t'dig fer elemental stones. An when y'all can't dig no more, it's playtime with the twins. Lizzie 'n Tate, those two'll show y'all a whole new meanin' of pain." Windstrate's gold star was back in his possession and he studied the badge carefully while he deliberated my fate. "Y'all broke in just fer this? Y'let yer mutt die fer a bit of shiny metal?" His oversized eyebrows burrowed in a frown.

"Word of advice, son - there's plenty of diamonds 'n gold in this world but there ain't nothin' more precious than a pokemon's life."

And with that I was shoved out the front gates without as much as a threat to stay away. I was beneath Windstrate's concern. Amon yapped at the guards, trying to salvage his pride with a show of force. Robin just clutched Michael's dead body and shut out the world. As for me, I stumbled all the way back into Mauville City, dazed and confused. He wasn't the leader... I stared at the gold star in my palm - Windstrate had tossed it to me before showing me the door. He probably had a drawer full of these worthless pins. Had I wasted all these days for a piece of junk? My electrike was dead - what was I supposed to do now if the Cult of Aqua showed up?

The more I thought about Michael, the more my nose began to twitch. The air in Mauville stank but this was something new from the usual garbage and ash. It was a whiff of something pungent and metallic, like ...

I noticed a dark red stain on my shirt, right about where Michael's snout would have hit. Ugh! Was it coming from my shirt? I ducked down the nearest alley and pulled out a spare from my backpack, tossing the dirty one. No help. It was like the smell had soaked into my skin. The smell of blood.

"This is sick!" I gasped, pinching my nose and hyperventilating through my mouth. "Robin, get rid of that thing, it's rotting!"

The hen didn't respond. She just kept clutching the lost mutt as though, if she only showed enough affection, Michael would spring back to life. Amon saw that it was up to him to force the issue; uttering a disgusted snort he took Michael's paw in his mouth and tugged. Robin sprang to life and belted out an ugly caw on par with Amon's most terrible roars. The mightyena took a step back, confused and frightened by this new aggression from the fire chick. Then he barred his fangs and growled to remind her who was in charge!

Robin's claws ripped through the wolf's face. Amon yipped and whinnied like a frightened puppy, and when Robin raised her hand for another round he turned tail and scampered into the city, leaving a trail of paw-prints and blood in his wake.

My firebird shot me an ugly, 'don't follow me' look and stormed off in the opposite direction, maybe looking for some fit place to bury Michael. I just slumped down against a random shop and did my best to cover my nose. It's still here, I realized. Even with the corpse gone that stench of blood still surrounded me. I groaned and banged my head against the wall, trying to short out my sense of smell. Was this blood another punishment for getting a pokemon killed, just like Trisha's clawing pain? It wasn't my fault! It wasn't my fault!

"Hey, mister, are you okay?" The voice belonged to a young girl. "How come you're crying?"

"I'm not crying," I hissed back. My eyes are just watering from the stench! "Whoever you are, go away!"

"No!" the voice cried back. "I can't leave you when you're all sad! Does this make it better?" The sweet scent of perfume wafted through my nostrils. Oh merciful release! The fragrance of flowering trees and ripe, juicy fruits wrapped around me like a comforting embrace. I turned to hug the girl and bury myself in her aroma but the street was deserted.

"I'm down here, mister!" The bipedal weed with chocolaty eyes and a ponytail of green leaves barely stood a foot off the ground. I did a double-take.

"You're an oddish?"

"Yup, yup, yup!" Her leafy hair bobbed affirmative. I furrowed my eyebrows.

"Oddish can't talk." Base level pokemon didn't have the brain capacity for human language. The weed's eyes went wide with alarm.

"W-we can't?" Her eyes darted around as though checking for cops. "I'm so sorry! Please don't tell on me! I won't say another word. I mean, I won't say any words at all, not just 'another word'." She gasped. "Oh no, I keep saying words! Okay, this one is definitely the last one! I mean, not the words 'this one', but all the words I'm saying now." The oddish moaned. "Oh dear, I'm not very good at not talking, am I?"

Wow, she was naive. "Hey, I don't care. Natter all you want, just keep doing that smell thing." I knelt over the oddish like she was a campfire and wafted her aroma into my face. "Oh yeah, that's the stuff!"

The oddish giggled. "You're weird, mister. Oh - I'm sorry, I never introduced myself! My name is Elucia De l'Âme Cassé, but my friends call me Elsie!"

"Friends?" I was already scrambling through my sack for a pokeball; I did not need to hear about a current trainer. Elsie, however, looked away and shuffled her feet awkwardly.

"Um... that's the thing. I kinda don't really have a lot of friends. None, actually." An epiphany struck her bubbly brain. "Oh, hey - maybe we could be friends!"

"Sure, smells good to me."

Elsie giggled again. "You're funny, master. Oh, is it okay if I call you master? That's what pokemon call their human buddies, right?"

Aromatic and subservient - I could get used to this. Kind of a shame that she had to chatter so much but I tagged her with a pokeball and then released Elsie and her lifesaving aroma. "Oh, this is so exciting!" the weed squealed. "I've always wanted a human buddy! Now I have someone I can ask about human stuff, like 'why don't you guys have leaves', and 'how come you're so tall'? Oh, we should get something to eat! You're supposed to eat sweet things to celebrate, right, and I wanna celebrate my new master!" Before I could stop her, Elsie danced up the front stoop of a shop and banged her head against the door to knock. "Hello? Anybody home? Can you tell us where to find a restaurant?"

This door, I should mention, opened outward. When the owner threw open his entrance Elsie went flying across the street and into the opposite wall with a thwack, sliding down into a pile of trash. "Elsie?" I cried. I think she was okay, though. She staggered out with eyes like a drunken spinda and she lisped something about "Thplinters..." but she was alive.

"You the help I was promised?" An old man in welding goggles posed in the doorway, hands on hips and eyebrows arched angrily. His beard was white and bushy as a delibird's mane and his hands were black and greasy with machine oil. He pulled his goggles up to his forehead and flipped out a golden pocketwatch.

"Late!" he declared. "You're late! If I had a magikarp for every minute you were late do you know how many I'd have?" Elsie and I shook our heads. "I'd have five! And what am I supposed to do with five magikarp, huh? Do I look like I own an aquarium? Don't answer that! You kids today - you all think the world runs on your time and your rules. And who told you to come to the front door?"

This was spiralling out of control. "Whoa, I think you've got the wrong guy."

"Of course I do! I asked for a hard working assistant and I get you, ya lazy little slakoth." He jabbed a finger at my pokenav. "What frequency are you on? I've only been calling you for the last hour! And you - why didn't you tell me the kid was here?"

For the first time I realized we had company: a scraggly old manetric had been napping next to the shop's front steps. The mutt glared back at its owner, irritated over the rude awakening, and repositioned so its patchy blue rear mooned the front door. The bearded man snorted back.

"Lazy bones! Bah, never mind. You're here anyway. You ready to work, kid?" I couldn't see what lurked within the shop depths, but whiff I got through the front door smelled foul - a cocktail of rust, oil and ozone strong enough to knock the blood out of my scent receptors. The smell didn't faze Elsie at all, though. All she saw was a crabby senior in need of a girl scout.

"Ooh, we can help, mister!" she chirped. "I'm good at helping! C'mon, master, let's help!" The weed and her precious aroma bounded into the dark shop without a second thought. The old man seemed impressed.

"I like the spark in your oddish, kid. You got a name? Bah, doesn't really matter. Not like there's any other kids here, right? Kid is fine. As for you, no more of this 'mister' garbage. I got a name, so you use it!"

How did my pokemon keep dragging me into these charity cases? Well, whatever. This geezer seemed to recognize my pokenav; I wonder if he knew Norman? "Fine, all right, let's get this over with, mister uh -?"

The man held open his door and motioned for me to enter the black maw. "Wattson."

-----------------------------------------------------

Wattson, it turned out, was the proprietor of Mauville's local fix-it shop. When your wagon busted its wheel or your plowshare went dull as a brick you took your tools to Wattson and he'd patch them up good as new. Provided you could sell him on the project. Wattson only took on jobs that sparked his interest.

"I'm an old man and I won't stand being bored," he told the farmer waiting in his shop. "Give me a challenge and I'm all over it, but I won't waste my time on cookie-cutter projects!"

I glanced around the shop, littered with half-assembled wagons and bicycles; "boring" fixer-uppers Wattson had discarded like old toys in a kid's playpen. "I just need a new scythe for harvest," the farmer pleaded.

"And I need stimulation!" Wattson snapped. "If I had a trubbish for every time you people came and bored me I'd be running a garbage dump! Get out and don't come back till you've got a real problem!"

I'd only been paying minimal attention to the conversation. My interest had been hijacked by Wattson's ceiling. The light inside his shop didn't come courtesy of windows or candles or torches, but by rows of glowing lightbulbs. "How'd you make those?" I asked once the farmer slammed the door.

"With filament and glass," Wattson huffed. "I'll spare you the details, kid; you'd just get a headache." Must have been an electrical engineer, I decided. Hadn't Birch said you kept your skills and working knowledge when you crossed over to this world? Wattson must have been some specialist - not only had he crafted electrical lighting for his home, he'd even developed a motion-tracking system that adjusted the light as he walked across the shop. The bulbs burned brighter wherever Wattson stood underneath them.

"Time to get you working, kid." The old coot herded me to a work bench covered with piles of electronics. "Pokenav assembly station," he announced. "Speakers, circuit boards, casings. Put ‘em together pronto. Gotta get this order to Lavaridge ASAP."

"I thought you didn't take ‘cookie-cutter' cases."

"I don't, but my assistants do. Get a move on, kid. They promised me a box of lava cookies and a new sweater if they're shipped out tomorrow."

So Wattson was the genius "mechanic from Mauville" who had designed Petalburg's pokenavs. I put together a sample communicator while Wattson observed but the device wouldn't even work! "Where's the battery?" I grumbled while spinning the dials. "It's broken!"

Wattson smirked, took the communicator and gently twisted its knobs until the radio crackled to life. "Gotta have the magic touch," he winked, twirling his pocket watch for show. "Well, now you know how it's done. If you finish early, here's a list of things to do."

I scanned the parchment checklist. Re-align broken bike wheel (new sweater); 4x horseshoes for adult ponyta (tepig roast). Unbelievable, I wasn't an assistant, I was scab labour! "Hey, Wattson - !" but the old fart had already retreated to a back room.

"Don't bother me till you're done!" The instant he slammed the door all the lights dropped to a faint glow. Great, just great.

"Let's get to work, Master!" Elsie chirped. "We can't leave until we finish all our chores!"

I could have walked out of the shop that instant - I didn't owe Wattson anything and I think he was expecting me to work for free! - but I wanted to learn more about how this cranky old coot could generate electricity in this backwater realm. Plus, there was something cool about Wattson and his attitude. He worked on his own terms, never letting anyone boss him around. I liked that.

As for the manual labour, I had my secret weapon. Elsie's lack of arms left her pretty useless but once I popped Winry out of her capsule the machine-loving taillow needed only glance at the electronics and she instinctively knew how to snap together the puzzle pieces. Piece of cake!

"Miss Winry, you're really good with gadgets," Elsie chimed. "But Master, isn't it cheating if she does all your work for you? Won't Mister Wattson get angry?"

"I don't think he cares how it gets done," I said. And by that logic, genius ‘Mister Wattson' would be the biggest cheater of us all. Actually, I was growing skeptical about the ‘genius' part as I scanned the inventions lining the shop walls. I mean, rubber boots nailed onto small stepladders? Reading glasses with microscopes strapped to the lenses? I got the feeling grandpa Wattson was like that story about a thousand aipoms with a thousand typewriters: give them enough time and they'll eventually bang out something intelligible.

Brilliant flashes of light flickered through the door to Wattson's back room. Just what was that old codger up to anyway? The pokenavs were finished so the three of us crept towards the door to sneak a peek. Thank the boundless wisdom of Arceus I had the sense not to barge in because a lightning bolt blasted the door off its hinges. One step inside and I would've been roasted!

Wattson turned from a metal flagpole crackling with static. "Whoa, how about knocking, kid? Live experiment in progress!"

He'd nearly turned me into Virgil the Pile of Ash and that was the best apology had to offer? "What the heck is that thing?" I blurted.

"Tesla coil," Wattson answered, casual as though we were chatting over tea. "The pole stores an electric charge and discharges it from the sphere on top."

"You built a lightning gun," I deadpanned. "Why would you build a lightning gun?"

Wattson scrunched his face into a seriously puzzled look. "I dunno. Not my job to worry about how people use tools. I just figure out how to build them. If I had a braviary for every time I stopped and worried about what I was designing, those buzzards'd still be endangered. Ha!" He slapped the pole and a second accidental discharge shot between my legs. I fell on my backside hugging Elsie for dear life, snorting up soothing nose-fulls of pollen to calm my racing heart. Wattson frowned, shut off his machine and approached me sternly. "Kid, are you a jar-skull?"

"A what?"

"You know - oh, what do you kids call it these days - a jar-skull? A dish-brain?"

"A pot-head?" Elsie offered.

Wattson snapped his fingers. "That's the one! Level with me, kid, cause I've seen you sucking on that weed ever since you came in. You're working with precision electronics so if you're chasing the dragonite you do it on your own time."

"I'm not a druggie," I bristled. "I just -"

"Master smells me to make himself feel better!" Elsie explained.

"Because I can't get this smell out of my brain!" I blurted. I took a deep breath and tried to explain calmly. "Look, my electrike was killed today and since then I smell like I'm covered in blood! And it's not just Michael - there was a wingull, Trisha; she died too and now I get these clawing pains all over my body!" Yeah, I was seriously not calm now. "I can't explain it - it's like there's some invisible monster following me round, tormenting me every time I screw up and get someone killed! It's like -"

"- Guilt," Wattson summarized. I nodded in agreement. "Yeah ... I dunno, maybe?" Winry and Elsie laid their heads against me in sympathy. Wattson checked his watch and smiled. "You're lucky you came here, kid, cause I know just the solution to your problem." I leaned in close to hear the words of salvation.

"Get over it!" Wattson screamed. "Yeesh, ‘I can smell my dead dog!' Kid, I've met a lot of bleeding hearts but you take the cake! You're gonna get nowhere fast if you keep getting hung up on others."

"Mister Wattson!" Elsie gasped.

"Look, kid, do you remember what you were doing before you came to this land? Don't answer that - nobody remembers, not even me. But look at this." Wattson lifted his sweater and shirt to his chin. Underneath, a huge surgical scar scraped through his breastbone, and a dark, red bruise stained his left pec. "You know what this is, kid? I'll tell ya: internal bleeding. I had a heart attack. I mean, I can't remember it but look at the size of that smear - my arteries must have burst clean off! I don't know how the docs sewed me back up but they saved me!"

They didn't, I thought.

"Point is I was at death's door. I could've been a goner but I survived. This scar? It's a message: life is precious. Now, I don't know who knocked me out and shipped me off to this Nowhere-Land but they gave me a second chance. I can't waste my time sobbing over what other people want, or whining about how I might hurt people! I'm here to seize life by the throat and, by Arceus, I'm gonna throttle the juices out of it!

"You wanna know how you stop the hurting, kid? You live for your dreams! Me, I've got a bucket list of things I wanna invent. My brain's jumbled full of these blueprints and sketches and I've got to get them out and into the real world. It's what I live for!"

He started pulling gadgets off the shelves to show me. "Haven't you ever wanted to mow the lawn while riding your bicycle?" Well he'd made bicycle with circular saw wheels. "I call it the bi-mower! Or how about when you're sitting down but you want to grab a book off the shelf?" A fishing rod with a metal claw snapped in my face. "The extendo-grabo! Isn't this neat? What we need is to find you a project; keep your mind so busy there's no room for pain."

A world without pain. That would make my eternity in limbo pretty appealing. Wattson had transformed the muck of Mauville into his own private paradise. Could I do the same? "If you had a second one of those poles, and you shot lightning from one to the other -"

Wattson's eyes sparkled. "An electric fence! Hey, you're getting the hang of it! We can start it right now! Gonna need more copper wiring, though. Grab some from the back storage room, would ya?"

I gladly raced off for supplies. Keep busy, I thought. Shut everything else out. No pain, no stench, no risking my safety on some Oracle's stupid fetch-quest. Just stay here and build something fun. Wattson needed wiring from the storage room. I found a number of back doors; which was the right one? I opened one at random and found a staircase sinking into darkness. "I don't think this is the right door," Elsie shivered, but my nosey curiosity urged me down. Nuts to her - I wanna know what's down here!

I had to move carefully - there were no railings to grip, and shortly there were no walls on either side. The stairwell opened into an underground cavern. I followed the path down into the darkness until I heard the current of an underground river, and along the riverbank I found a towering city of metal.

Skyscrapers, streetlamps and neon-light palm trees - at my approach everything blazed to life. This wasn't any rustic farming town; this was a glamorous, modern metropolis! The streets were deserted but idle magnetons hovered in the air, asleep or on screen saver, I guess.

"I see you found New Mauville." I spun and found Wattson standing behind me! The old man brushed past me and gave a wistful look at the city. "She's something, ain't she? I drew up the blueprints and my magnetons did all the heavy lifting. Electric lighting, indoor plumbing, climate controlled apartments. Everything's built on hydraulic plates too. I was gonna dynamite the old town and raise this baby up to the surface! It was gonna be the ultimate city!"

Wattson took me on a tour of his masterpiece, pointing out the movie theatre, the toy store and the waterslide park. Whatever we approached lit up with a cheery glow - more hidden motion-sensors, I assumed. New Mauville was incredible, a paradise of modern technology hidden under the muck of purgatory - but I quickly understood why Wattson spoke of it in the past tense. With the added lighting I could see all the half-completed buildings at the outskirts. "What happened to it?" I asked.

"Nothing much. I got bored."

"You got bored?"

Wattson shrugged. "Building a city's hard work, kid. If I kept focusing on New Mauville I'd have no time for my other inventions. No, I've given up on my plans to convert the city, I have. I'd rather put my time into making lots of gadgets in my shop."

I could understand his reasoning but Elsie was horrified. "What about all the people?" Wattson stared at her, confused. "Weren't you building new homes for everyone up above?"

The mechanic had to digest her logic slowly. "The people …? Wait, you thought …? Ha! Why would I let those Mauville rubes into my perfect city? They'd just wreck everything!"

"It's a puzzle," I added. "You build it to challenge yourself. Besides, all the people I saw up above looked plenty happy with their mud pit city. Why waste energy on them if they're already satisfied?" My answer pleased Wattson and he gave me a congratulatory pat on the back. Still, I hesitated, building an entire city and just letting it rust in a cave …

Elsie's counterattack was interrupted by an electric buzzer. Wattson jogged over to the riverbank, and the electric lighting left with him. "Looks like we have guests. Ahoy there, boys!" Wattson was shouting at the two-man crew of a rowboat; I guess the underground river eventually flowed out the cave network and into the ocean. The two rowers lashed their boat to a metal dock and hopped onto land to greet Wattson. I gulped and scooped up Elsie so her leaves would mask my face. Both boaters were grizzly pirate-hobos from the Cult of Aqua.

"Wattson, sorry we're late! Took us a while getting through the underground." The cultists did their best to keep up phony smiles but Wattson was genuinely pleased to see the pair.

"Boys, you tell old Archie he's outdone himself this time! This latest assistant he sent, this kid is something else! I'd put you two to work too but he's wrapped up the pokenavs already, ha!"

The pirates glanced at each other, confused, but willing to roll with the punches. "So what you're saying is that you've finished all your side projects. So that means you can aid us with the submersible's power supply?"

Wattson's jolly grin deflated. "Ugh, that again? You people and your tunnel-vision; don't you ever want to try something new?"

"We're grateful for all you've done but we cannot complete our sacred journey without -"

"- An adequate power source for the electrical engine; I know, I know - I designed the blasted ship, didn't I?"

The smaller pirate had heard enough and flicked out his knife. "Old man, you will complete the Kaien or else -" a bolt of lightning blasted the pirate-hobo into the river. When he surfaced, gasping for air, Wattson fired a second jolt of electricity from his fingers, turning the entire river into a sizzling short-circuit.

"Or else what?" Wattson snarled, twirling his pocket watch. "You're gonna send your fishies after me? Need I remind you people why I work with you instead of for you?" Blue static still crackled over the mechanic's free hand and the big pirate raised his hands in a surrender pose. "Tell Archie I'm bored to death with submarines and engines. If he wants a favour, it'd better be for something fresh, got that?"

"We'll be back," the pirate growled, "but if you insist we leave then your assistant goes as well. You there, recruit, get over -" The pirate jumped and grabbed at his bandana once he recognized my face. "You again! Wretched spy - your master's sent you to steal away Wattson for Magma, hasn't he? Well just wait until Father Archibald hears of your poisonous works; this time there'll be no mercy for you filthy heathens!"

Who the heck are these Magma guys? That's what I wanted to yell at the hobo but he'd already hopped into his boat, fished his electrocuted cohort out of the water and paddled up the river with all his strength, shouting "Death to the terraphiles!" and other cultish gibberish. Well forget him - I had more pressing concerns.

Wattson.

"That lightning ..."

The old man chuckled. "Oh, that? Just a little trick I picked up from the Emperor. Back in the day I was head engineer for the Imperial Legions. The Emperor would come to me with his problems and I'd throw together a solution. Wattson, I need a machine to smash these city walls. Wattson, I need a weapon that can blast through solid rock. Ah, good times..."

"You worked with the Emperor?"

"Sure! That man stretched my brain to its limit, trying to come up with all the weapons he wanted. The old fart liked me so much he even asked me to serve as Leader of the Mauville region!" Wattson laughed. "Can you imagine - me, a Leader?"

Oh, I could. And I knew what I'd soon have to do. "So what happened?" I asked, stepping away and pretending to admire New Mauville.

"I said yes, of course!" Wattson waggled his electrified fingers at me. "It got me these magic babies, didn't it? I mean, I don't give a bidoof's backside about the governing part but look at me now!" Wattson charged a sphere of electricity in his palm and blasted it at the nearest magneton. The inert pokemon immediately powered into overdrive, spinning its appendages in a frenzy while hunting for work. "I'm a living power plant," Wattson declared. "Communicators, lightbulbs, pokemon - I can juice them all up!"

You can juice up my memories too. While Wattson belly-laughed and watched his super-charged Magneton fly around I pantomimed battle plans to Winry. Circle wide around the cave; then come at him from behind. It fell to me and Elsie to keep up a distraction.

"But now you're helping the Cult of Aqua?"

"Sure, they came at me with some pretty neat ideas. Wanted a ship that could travel underwater; hoo-boy, I busted my brain trying to figure out how to deal with the pressure gradients but I whipped up some designs real quick! See, kid, if you wanna live your dreams you can't get caught up taking sides. I'll work with whoever inspires me. The Emperor, the Aquas; even you, kid. That electric fence idea … you've got some imagination."

I chuckled loudly, hoping to cover up any sound of flapping wings. "Well, let's just say you're not the only one who remembers lightbulbs and electric circuits."

Wattson nodded, then spun and bombarded the sky with lightning. Winry crash-landed at my feet - charred and crackling with blue static but breathing.

"Of course, the flipside is I don't get hung up on making friends. Who are you, kid? You're not with the Cult, but you're not flying Magma's colours either. Did the Emperor send you to straighten me out?"

I picked up Elsie and Winry and started backpedalling. "I'm here for myself."

"Well that makes two of us. Shame we couldn't work together but Coulomb said it best: like charges repel." Wattson's supercharged magneton started spinning towards me, blindingly fast. Elsie hid her face in my chest. "I'm honestly curious, kid - what was your plan? Tickle me to death with that oddish? Or have you got another bird you wanna send into the power lines?"

It turned out I did. The cavern trembled and rocks crumbled from the cave ceiling as a drill of fire burst into the underground and slammed down between me and the magneton. Robin shook off her flame cloak, cocked a fist and smashed her claws into the magneton's central eye. The robot squealed and short-circuited, and while Wattson gaped at his downed worker I picked up a hunk of rock and raised it over my head...

-----------------------------------------------------

A punch to my face sends my vision spinning. I recognize the high school setting but not my attackers, two dumb jocks who have cornered me and are taking turns booting my curled up body. Once they've had their fill they spit on me and walk off. My past self decides it's smart to be mouthy. "What'd I ever do to you?"

The taller one puts his boot on my head, grinding me down into the linoleum. His explanation is typical bullying trash. "What'd you do? You exist, that's what."

They saunter off, while the sound of clicking high-heels rushes towards me. "Ohmygosh, are you okay? Here, let me help you up!"

My vision is righted and now I'm facing an impossible beauty. Long, raven hair, and lips open with concern. "I can't believe someone would do something like that at this school. Can you walk? Here, let's get you to the nurse's office. I'm Adelina, by the way. What's your name?"

"Virgil…" Adelina fills my vision; I can't take my eyes away from her. I do catch one other detail - a stocky boy spying on our first meeting from behind a corner. He scampers off, horrified of being caught.

Roderigo...


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With a blink I returned to the darkness of New Mauville. I was still standing. My latest blackout didn't send me tumbling over, and cold metal rested in my hands. In the right was Wattson's cannibalized pocket watch; in the left was the ripped-out core of the machine - a golden broche in the shape of an egg yolk, shielded and shut off from the world by an impenetrable outer shell. The second of the Emperor's enchanted badges. I clenched my fist around it, wondering if I could coax out another memory. Adelina...

"NO!" Wattson screamed and struggled but Robin had the old fart pinned down good. "Give it back you little brat! I need it! I need it to finish my projects!" The old man's whining disgusted me. I motioned for my bird to step aside so I could belt Wattson in his fat, ugly stomach.

"Newsflash, grandpa: I don't care." It felt good to see him gasping for air. That old thing had caused me a lot of trouble by hiding in plain sight. I was finished here. "Robin, Winry, we're leaving! Elsie, you coming or not?" The oddish had run to the old man's side and looked torn at the prospect of leaving him hurt and alone.

"B-but master ..."

"Elsie, your master asked you a question! Are you in or out?"

The weedling hesitated, then doused Wattson's bleeding face with spores - "Feel better when you wake up..." - before running after me.

We took the stairs back to the empty machine shop and let Wattson's masterpiece slip into darkness. The lights of New Mauville would never shine again.

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It was invigorating to climb the slopes of Mount Chimney and to gaze down upon the continent. Two badges hung around my neck, and once I surmounted this volcanic beast I'd snatch another from Lavaridge. My sides still ached and the air still stank of blood but this was my moment of triumph. So of course Elsie had to spoil the moment with her chirping.

"He was an old man. You didn't have to kick him, Master."

"He was a puppet of the Emperor. He deserved to be humbled."

"He's still a person!"

"He was my enemy!" I spun around to give the weed a piece of my mind. "Let me explain how this works: everybody in this world is out to get me! Everybody looks at me and decides I'm some sort of freak that has to be chased away and beaten down! Heck, I couldn't get any respect even when I was alive, and that was back when I didn't have this face! It's kick or be kicked, Elsie! That's how the world works!"

"No it isn't! Mr. Windstrate could have kicked you but he let you go!"

Behind us, the setting sun heated the sky into an orange glow. I was scrambling to come up with a retort when a whimper broke our argument. A lowly mightyena with scars through its muzzle crept around the bend. "Amon, about time you caught up! Back me up here - we can't show any mercy, right?"

I barely finished that sentence. Amon was changed. His tail hid between his legs and his head hung limp and lowly off his shoulders. The once proud wolf couldn't look us in the eye. He inched his way towards Robin and dropped something at her feet. Berries, I realized; the same type Michael had foraged for his crush.

Robin had changed too. She still wore her spectacles but now silvery dog tags hung around her neck. Eyes once full of wonder now glared at the world, hard and bitter. The torchic who had wailed over the fear of being alone was gone. This hen didn't spare a glance at the mightyena or his apology offering. She huffed out a snort and Amon flinched as though physically struck. That was the killing blow. The mightyena shuffled to my side and nudged my belt with his wounded snout.

No, not my belt, but the attached pokeballs. "Amon ..." The dog just whimpered. Do it, his eyes pleaded. I've nothing left.

A moment later I had a newly filled capsule in my hand and a lump in my throat. Robin stared out at the sun, clutching her necklace; Winry coughed and sputtered, still stinging from Wattson's electric attack. I thought of Dolce, who'd lost an eye for me; Trisha, who'd lost her body for me; Megumi, who'd lost her life. Every time I fight, these pokemon carry the scars. I could kick at the world all I wanted but it wasn't my body they'd strike back at. Slowly and reluctantly I turned to face my companions.

"I'm sorry," I muttered to Robin. "I knew something was wrong at the mansion and I could have stopped Michael but I didn't. It's my fault and I'm sorry." If she heard me, the combusken made no response. "Winry, I never thanked you for saving me way back in Petalburg Woods, so thanks. Way to take one for the team back there." The taillow just winked at me. All part of the job, hon.

Finally, I looked to Elsie. "You're weird, and I don't mean the talking part. You're way too nice, way too optimistic about people, and it drives me nuts how you're right about some things. I mean … I guess I shouldn't have done that to Wattson. … Sorry."

The oddish smiled and nuzzled against my ankle. "I'm glad to hear it. You do bad things, master but you're not a bad person."

Then why am I in purgatory? That thought had to be set aside as a voice crackled over my pokenav. "Virgil? This is Norman! Come in, Virgil!"

I brought the communicator to my lips. "Where've you been, Norman? Been trying to reach you for days! Hey, I got another -"

"Don't talk! We have a situation, Virgil."

I was all ears.

"I should have called you sooner and I'm sorry, but there's been trouble back in Petalburg. Three days ago we had a visitor drop into Littleroot. A flying dinosaur landed in the village and its rider started interrogating the farmers. Demanded to know everything about the local boy who had left to stir up trouble on Dewford Island."

Three days ago ... that was when I hit shore in Slateport. "This rider, did he have a huge scar across his neck?"

"It wasn't a 'he', Virgil. No, this was someone worse. Winona."

"Winona?"

"She's the leader of Fortree territory and the Emperor's former intelligence officer. Makes it her business to know everybody's secrets. Word's gotten out about your crusade."

Zebedee you worthless barnacle! Winona must have read the news reporter's story! "What did she do, Norman?"

"Well, at first no one was keen on talking with an outsider. We Petalburgers stick together, and everyone kept their mouths clammed tighter than a shellder in an ice bath. So Winona ordered her bird pokemon to start knocking over houses. Virgil ... they told her you'd lived with Linda."

My blood went cold. "Norman, is she -"

"She's safe," he emphasized. "Linda's safe. Birch is looking after her." Then he hesitated. "Virgil ... when we got to her, Linda was in bad shape. Kept mumbling about pain all over her body and now she's burning up with a fever. She can barely walk; it's like she had the life sucked out of her."

That didn't make any sense. "People don't get sick here! If you hurt, you heal up, right? Norman?" My asking was only a formality - we both knew the truth. "It was Winona! She did something to Linda, didn't she?"

"Virgil, this whole thing's got me baffled as a beartic in the summer sun. But you've seen what these leaders can do. Poison, a magic curse - it's not impossible. Winona's figured out what you're after and she's not gonna sit around and wait for you to hit Fortree. She's coming for you, Virgil."

"Bring it," I spat. "If she wants to pick a fight, I'm ready!" Saying I was mad would've been an understatement - I was downright furious. Linda was the kindest, most selfless person I knew; Winona had no business dragging her into this muck. But once I take her badge the spell ought to break, right? "I'll call you back, Norman. I've got reinforcements coming in."

I cupped a hand over my eyes and waved at the horizon. Elsie bounced to my side. "What do you see, Master?"

"There's a pokemon flying towards us. Looks like a tropius..." More importantly, it looked like my easy ticket over Mount Chimney. I waved my arms at the flying dinosaur. "Hey, over here!"

"M-master, are you sure we should call to it?" Winry and Robin looked apprehensive as well.

"Of course I'm sure! Look, you're new to this team but wild pokemon have been popping up to help me ever since I left Petalburg. We need a ride out to Fortree and that fossil is coming straight at us."

"M-master ... there's someone riding on its back..."

I looked again. Now the beast was close enough that I could see its saddle and harness, and the outline of a woman on the dinosaur's back, a woman with purple tresses that whipped through the wind like wings. I also saw the leafy green of the tropius glow with a brilliant, hot light. "Oh shiii-"

The solarbeam hit low, chewing up the rock beneath our ledge but it wasn't a missed shot. The mountain side shook and quaked and crumbled into pieces. Robin and Winry tumbled from the ledge. Elsie shrieked "Master!" and I zapped her into her pokeball as the ground beneath our feet disappeared. Time seemed to slow into nothing, and for a sickening eternity I was weightless, suspended between heaven and earth, listening to a horrified voice scream over the mountain. The voice, I realized, was my own.

Then I plunged into the abyss.
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