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Old May 13th, 2013, 01:26 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Twenty-One: Our Man in Johannesburg

“Anything yet?” asked Harmonia frantically.

He and Caitlin sat in a large, comfortable drawing-room on the lowest floor of Hawthorne House; above their heads, the battle between Sairse's curses and the implacable Teiresias was raging, but it did so silently, and no one had yet noticed it. Sounds found it hard to penetrate the drawing-room – the governor who had built it had enjoyed peace and quiet, and had had rudimentary soundproofing installed under the wooden panelling; he had also populated the room with a series of overstuffed armchairs that absorbed noise and deadened the air, and it was actually rather hard to make yourself heard there. Harmonia would have had the whole room redecorated ages ago, but Hawthorne House was a listed building, and this room in particular, a marvel of nineteenth-century soundproofing engineering, had Grade I status under the Historic Architecture Law.

“No,” Caitlin replied patiently, leaning back in her chair. “I told you, you'll know when they reply; I've got my phone right here.” She held it up again. She would have preferred to go home, but Harmonia claimed to be in the process of hatching a plan, and had demanded she stay until he was ready to put it into action.

“All right,” he said at length, sounding a little calmer. “This Ezra that Weland's man told me about. If he's with this woman, it stands to reason that through her he's connected to Halley and her group – they both came to secure the dragonstone, didn't they? And they were both at the Gym in Striaton.”

Caitlin frowned.

“You want to smoke out Ezra by threatening the kids? I thought you'd promised N you wouldn't?”

Harmonia shook his head.

“I promised him that if his methods yielded results, I would relax my efforts to find the kids unless they started interfering,” he said. “Well, if they're connected to Ezra, they definitely are interfering – so I'm justified in trying to get to them, aren't I?”

Caitlin saw the logic of this. It was sneaky, devious and thoroughly underhanded; she wholeheartedly approved. The only point of caution she raised was that Halley's gang had hospitalised two of their agents before in the Dreamyard, had systematically evaded Smythe and Teiresias, and had almost succeeded in getting the dragonstone back in the woods – would have done, had they known they were meant to be looking for the stone. They were young, but she was living proof that that meant nothing; with enough forethought and data to work with, raw intelligence could defeat experience.

“True,” conceded Harmonia. “So, subtlety is in order.” He looked at her. “Time for one of our old friends, I think,” he said. “Bronius, maybe – or Rood?”

“Oh, Rood, I think,” replied Caitlin with a wicked grin. “If you're thinking what I think you are, then this is exactly his sort of thing...”

---

“Harmonia has some kind of tracking device implanted in N,” said Halley.

“What?”

“That's... well, that's pretty much all I managed to find out,” she admitted. “Before Teiresias went apesh*t and I decided to get out of there.”

We were still in the lounge of the Pokémon Centre, where we'd spent the last few hours watching awful late-night TV and fretting; we'd gone quiet around midnight, when we knew to expect the switch between universes – but hadn't felt anything change, even though I knew that just a second ago I had been Lauren White. I remembered sitting up in the night waiting for Halley as me, even though I wasn't sure whether that history was real or simply imagined to cover up the fact that it was Lauren who'd done it; was there even a difference between Lauren doing it and me doing it? I wasn't so sure there was.

At any rate, Halley had returned shortly after midnight, with a haunted look in her eyes and unusual information.

“Teiresias was there?”

“Yes,” said Halley. “And it doesn't seem to be working for Harmonia anymore. It wanted some information from me – information that I've forgotten, apparently – and I managed to talk it into helping me through the building in exchange for telling it. Thankfully, a pack of demons answering to someone called 'His Undying Majesty' showed up, and the fifteen seconds it took him to destroy them gave me time to get away.” She yawned. “F*cking hectic night, man.”

“Wait,” I said, clutching at my head to try and stop it falling apart at the seams, “Teiresias has abandoned Harmonia and is coming after you personally?”

“Looks like it.”

“Doesn't that mean it'll be coming after us again?” I asked.

There was silence.

“I rather think it does,” said Cheren. “And I also don't think it's wise for us to stay in one place for too long. I'm not sure how it finds us, but it's getting good at it.”

And,” put in Halley, “its powers are coming back. Something to do with a King – I presume this 'Undying Majesty' guy – and Jormal's Cycle. Whatever that is. Anyway, the point is: it's getting stronger. A lot stronger.”

“It was strong to begin with,” said Bianca. “How much worse can it get?”

Halley fixed her with serious green eyes – eyes that had self-evidently seen things that didn't bear the retelling.

“A lot,” she replied insistently. “Trust me.”

“Jormal's Cycle is a druidic thing,” said Cheren. “There are supposed to be cycles of rising and falling power in the land that recur over periods of time – Jormal's Cycle is a big one. Discovered by a man named Jormal, presumably. It's a two-hundred-year cycle that's just on its way to reaching its peak now.”

“'Rising and falling power in the land'?” asked Halley. “What the f*ck does that even mean?”

Cheren shrugged.

“I'm not an expert,” he said. “I just know the definition.”

“Really? Huh. I assumed you knew everything.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that to me?”

“Because you seem like you do,” Bianca told him, perfectly ingenuously, which seemed to calm his irritation a little.

“Ugh. Fine,” he said, “but let's not wander off the point. What was this about Harmonia and a tracking device, Halley?”

“Well, he has one implanted in N, I think,” she replied. “Or on him somewhere. There's a map of Unova with a dot on it where N is. I zoomed in and watched it for a little while, and saw it move, so I'm pretty sure there actually is a tracker on him somewhere. It said he was moving around the eastern half of the big city north of here at the moment.”

“Nimbasa?”

“I don't know – I don't know sh*t about Unovan geography. If you say it's Nimbasa, it's Nimbasa.” Halley yawned. “Now. I don't know about you, but I could use some sleep. I'll be in Lauren's room if you want me.”

I frowned. Somehow the fact that she had confused us troubled me; some indefinable worry hovered at the edge of my mind, but I couldn't articulate it. Perhaps Lauren would be able to, I thought; perhaps she already had, and I didn't know.

“Jared,” I corrected. “I'm Jared.”

Halley blinked at me tiredly from the doorway.

“Right,” she said. “Jared, right.” She yawned again. “I'm guessing Teiresias will have to lie low or run for a while after tonight, because this demon King is probably going to send stronger people to kill it when he realises it ate his last squad. I think we're safe for tonight at least.”

She padded off towards the stairs, tail waving slowly behind her.

“I guess that's something,” sighed Cheren. “Right. I'm going to bed. Bianca, set Munny on guard; it'll sense Teiresias approaching before anyone else can see it.”

“OK,” she replied. “Night!”

“Goodnight.”

We dispersed and went our separate ways, each heading back to their own room; after the tension of the night's long wait, I was tired, and fell asleep easily. As predicted, Teiresias didn't show, and morning came without incident; I woke myself up at about ten with a loud sneeze, and stumbled down to the canteen – where I made the unwelcome discovery that Cheren was already up, and that he looked as neat and alert as if he'd had a full twelve hours of sleep.

“Lelouch has finished evolving,” he announced with more enthusiasm than I was comfortable with first thing in the morning, and something that looked a lot like a Snivy but definitely wasn't slithered up onto the table, propelling itself with little kicks of its stumpy legs. Lelouch seemed to have become more serpentine overnight; he was certainly a lot longer, and a series of stiff, leafy plates projected from his spine where before there had been none. I had a look in his eyes, but there was nothing in them to indicate he'd become any more intelligent; I supposed that snakes didn't need a whole lot of brainpower.

Candy couldn't quite believe that this was the same creature as before, and poked him experimentally with a taloned hand; Lelouch hissed crossly and made a half-hearted lunge for her that startled her into falling over backwards. Assuming that this was some kind of telekinetic projection on the snake's part, she decided the best course of action was retreat, and promptly hid inside my jacket.

“Nice,” I said, patting her absently. “What do you call that?”

“He's a Servine,” Cheren informed me. “You'll notice he uses his legs less and less – by the time he's a full-grown Serperior, he won't need legs at all, and they'll have atrophied so completely that they'll remain only as bone clusters within the main body.”

“Yeah, great,” I mumbled. “Uh... Cheren, it's too early for a biology lecture.”

He raised his eyebrows and speared a sausage delicately with his fork.

“Suit yourself,” he said.

I turned my attention to eating, but something was bothering me; I couldn't put my finger on what it was – then I looked up, and saw that there were a pair of decidedly Gothic-looking Trainers sitting at a table beyond Cheren. Nothing odd about that, I thought – what was it about them that was odd? I stared for a moment, but if there was anything, it was beyond me in my current sleep-fuddled state, and I returned my gaze to my plate, towards which Candy was creeping very, very slowly, as if she thought that I might not notice if she moved only in increments of less than a centimetre. I fed her a sausage and she squealed in delight.

“Cheren! Jared!”

Bianca's voice cut through the low chatter like a knife; she burst through the doors and scuttled over to us like an anguished crab.

“Cheren!” she gasped, eyes wild and hat askew. “Munny's gone!”

He started.

“What do you mean, 'gone'?” he asked.

“I mean gone!” she cried. “Gone gone! As in – not here!”

“OK, calm down,” he said, sitting her down. Lelouch took advantage of his distraction to haul a long strip of bacon into his mouth from his plate, but Cheren didn't seem to notice. “What happened, exactly?”

“Munny was floating just outside my window last night,” Bianca said, swallowing hard, “watching for Teiresias, like you said. But now... now it's not...”

“OK.” Cheren thought for a moment. “We can find it,” he said decisively. “Lelouch!”

The Servine's head snapped around and he swiftly sucked down the remaining bacon. Cheren patted his arm, and he slithered up and coiled around it, settling into position like an unusual hawk on a falconer's gauntlet.

“All right,” he said, getting to his feet. “Follow me.”

I grabbed a sausage for the road and hurried off with Candy after Bianca and Cheren; as I passed the Goth Trainers, I realised what it was that had struck me about them: they had broken handcuffs around their wrists, like I did. Abruptly, I recalled the girl with too much eyeshadow from Striaton, saying that she had to get some for herself; I hadn't been serious when I'd thought she would go and tell her friends about it, but perhaps she had.

“Snakes have exceptional senses of smell,” Cheren explained as we passed down the hall. “It's a bit hit and miss, since they're not exactly smart, but Lelouch knows Munny's scent well and should be able to track it.”

The air outside was cold and hit like a southbound freight train; I shuddered and tugged my jacket closer around me.

“Ugh. Freezing.”

“Ss,” agreed Lelouch; neither reptiles nor plants are cold-weather enthusiasts, and his leaf-plates were flattening themselves against his back at the touch of the chill air.

“Why're they doing that?” I asked.

“Thermoregulation,” said Cheren, setting off at a brisk pace to the spot beneath Bianca's bedroom window. “The leaves are full of blood vessels. When it's warm, they spread out to prevent overheating. When it's cold, they collapse to preserve energy. Here,” he announced, halting. “Bianca, Munny's ball, please.”

She held it out and Lelouch flicked his forked tongue over it; Cheren held him up, and in one fluid movement he wriggled free of his arm and started slithering away across the pavement.

I looked at Cheren.

“That it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Don't just stand there, follow him!”

We made swift progress down the street; the Centre was not in a fashionable part of town, and there weren't too many people about. I could hear the roar from the shoppers' Mecca of the Eastmarch Arcade to the north; I half-hoped the trail would lead us there – it was good to be back in a big city, and a wander through some horrendously overcrowded shopping streets would have put me in an excellent mood for Munna-hunting.

However, it was not to be: Lelouch brought us west via the back streets, avoiding the main roads; I supposed that meant someone had stolen Munny deliberately, and had taken the struggling Munna away via side roads where they stood less of a chance of being seen or questioned. That made things more serious: I stopped thinking about shopping opportunities, and focused on following Lelouch. The focus was necessary, I found; Lelouch did not apparently care to wait for the traffic to stop before attempting to cross the road, and on more than one occasion we had to be fast to grab him before he vanished under the wheels of a bus.

“Munny's gone a really long way,” said Bianca anxiously. “What do you think happened?”

“Someone took it,” Cheren replied. “I think, anyway.” Then, noticing her worry: “But don't worry. We'll find Munny, I'm certain – it's more why it was taken that bothers me.”

“I'd been thinking about that, too,” I said. “Why would anyone want Munny?”

“I don't know,” he replied honestly. “Perhaps someone is trying to stop us sensing Teiresias before it comes? Although I'm not sure what we could do against Teiresias even if we did know it was coming, given what Halley says it's become...” He paused for a moment, and I almost bumped into him. “Speaking of which, where is Halley?”

“Uh... well, she was still asleep when I got up,” I said. “She must still be at the Pokémon Centre.”

“She's going to be angry,” remarked Cheren, with just a hint of satisfaction in his voice. “Anyway. Lelouch, which way here?”

We were close to the seafront now, a little north of the Hodder Docks; casting my mind back to previous trips to Castelia, I thought that we must be somewhere just south of Central Plaza. This would put us just east of the Gym, I thought – and I experienced no small satisfaction when Lelouch slipped around a corner, startling a small child, and onto Gym Street.

The child shrieked and ran for her mother; Lelouch, interpreting this for some unknown reptilian reason as hostility, gave chase with a violent hiss. For a moment, we were too surprised to follow – and then, as Lelouch reared onto his stumpy legs in front of the cowering girl and her startled mother, our minds caught up to the situation and we ran to stop him. Cheren called for him to stop – but at the same time, I yelled at him to get back and Bianca cried to the girl to get away, with the result that Lelouch never heard his master's voice, and shot towards the girl—
—only to be scooped up gently by a massive claw, and held carefully in the air out of harm's way.

We stared, faltering in our sprint towards Lelouch; next to the mother and child was a towering creature in dull blue armour that looked like nothing so much as part of the Nacrene Museum torn loose, painted and brought to life: every square inch of its skin was covered in stony protrusions and knobbles, and the two lumpish limbs that arched above its head were so heavy with spines and crags that I couldn't imagine they were ever any use as actual wings. Even I knew what this thing was called; it was widely regarded as one of Unova's most impressive predators, and indeed one of the most impressive in Europe: the creature that out-gargoyled gargoyles, Druddigon.

The sight of a Druddigon next to them was actually less reassuring than that of the Servine, and the mother and child fled squealing down the street; the Druddigon watched them go with a look of placid evil on its rough-hewn face. They were extremely cold-blooded and took half a day or more to warm up to a fit state to attack anything; most of the time, Druddigon simply sat there, like the statues they resembled, and waited. If roused to anger, however, they were capable of a kind of berserker bloodlust – a state in which they felt neither pain nor fatigue, and to which it was not generally advisable to provoke them if you valued your life, or those of the people in a mile radius around you.

“Oh, bugger,” exclaimed someone petulantly from across the street. “I didn't think he'd scare them that much.”

I looked for the speaker, and found her crossing the street; she looked a year or so younger than me, and had a tremendous mane of black hair that would probably, had it not been bound up into a ponytail, have reached her ankles. She was definitely weird enough to be a Trainer, and so I assumed she was the owner of the dread beast before us.

“Ah,” she said, looking at us. “Is this yours?”

“Yes,” replied Cheren, recovering his wits first and taking command of the situation. “He was startled by the girl screaming, I think. Still, no harm done—”

“You should be more careful!” the girl admonished him. “What, are you trying to prove Harmonia right? Another second and he'd have bitten her – what are you even doing letting a Servine run loose in a city, anyway? You should know they're unpredictable around children!”

Cheren gaped and staggered back as if physically struck; I don't think anyone had spoken to him like that for a long time. It must come as a shock, I thought with a small smile, to meet someone who didn't immediately recognise his superiority.

“I—”

“Frige preserve us from idiots like you,” sighed the girl. “Honestly...” She shook her head and gestured to the Druddigon as if to ask it what the world was coming to; the Druddigon gazed at her unblinkingly with its jaundiced eyes and grinned evilly. Not that it could help it, of course – that was just the way its mouth was shaped – but it did look incredibly evil. You could see why generations of Unovan sculptors had used Druddigon as the basis for depictions of demons.

“I am tracking a stolen Pokémon,” replied Cheren stiffly, as if the words were being forced out of him. “I needed my Servine loose so he could keep track of the scent.”

The girl's whole demeanour changed in an instant; she froze, cocked her head on one side and regarded Cheren with eyes from which all the indignation had drained in an instant.

“A stolen Pokémon?”

“Yes,” said Bianca, stepping forward shyly. “Mine... My Munna.”

“Ah!” cried the girl. “You poor thing!” She slapped her Druddigon harder than I would have dared to; we all flinched as we heard it, wondering if she had catapulted the big dragon into one of its famous frenzies – but it just turned its head to look down at her, its scales rubbing together with a noise like grinding stone. “Put that Servine down,” she snapped. “Right now! We have to find this girl's Munna.”

The Druddigon exhaled mightily and began lowering its claw to the ground; in its grip, Lelouch had been writhing furiously for some time, but the dragon hadn't even noticed.

“Faster!” cried the girl, smiting it furiously on the shoulder. “There's no time to waste – didn't you hear me? Her Munna's been stolen!”

The Druddigon continued moving at a steady pace, completely heedless of its mistress' efforts to speed it up, and at length released Lelouch onto the pavement; that done, it straightened up with a rumbling sigh, and settled into comfortable immobility. For his part, Lelouch, leaves flattened nervously against his back, retreated towards Cheren with all possible haste.

“Come on!” cried the girl. “There's no time for this – get your Servine on the trail again!”

“Your overgrown lizard has startled him,” snapped Cheren. “Recall it, and give me a minute to get my Servine moving again.”

The girl tutted.

“This is careless of you,” she said. “If you hadn't let him rush ahead, then you could have avoided all this and got your friend's Munna back by now—”

“Stop blaming me for everything and let me solve the problem,” he replied coldly. “Unless you have some way to trace a Munna?”

The girl glowered, but backed down; Cheren had won this one. She recalled her Druddigon in a flash of red light – for which we were all grateful; its presence was not exactly reassuring – and took a step back.

“Fine,” she said. “Have it your way.”

Lelouch, emboldened by the disappearance of his gigantic foe, slithered out into the open again; he tasted the air, and then the ground, and crossed the street. Mercifully, there were no cars at the moment – almost no people at all, in fact; Gym Street was quiet today – and the four of us followed him, a curiously motley procession in our assorted outfits.

He slid up onto the pavement, proceeded a few dozen metres down – and stopped, almost dead opposite the Gym.

As one, we all looked up at the building above.

It was tall and dark, and only a few rows of the windows were lit; I guessed that it must be rented out by the floor, and not all the floors were currently occupied. It wasn't a nasty place – not particularly; more battered than truly decrepit – but there was an indefinable aura of menace about it. Or, to be more specific, I thought, I saw it as menacing: I had a bad feeling about this place. If there was anywhere that a criminal mastermind might secrete a stolen Pokémon, this would, I thought, be it.

I looked at Cheren.

“Here?”

Lelouh had coiled himself neatly on the doorstep; his job, as far as he was concerned, was done.

“I guess so,” said Cheren, recalling him. “Are you coming?”

This was directed at the strange girl with the hair, who stuck her chin out defiantly in response.

“I'm protecting the injured party here,” she said, grabbing Bianca's shoulders so firmly that she sank a little beneath her hands. “Of course I'm coming.”

Cheren sighed.

“Have it your way,” he said, sending out Justine. “Right. I'll just check the lobby – one moment.”

He rubbed the filthy glass of the door with a sleeve, and cleared a space large enough to peer through; a moment later, he took his eye away and shrugged.

“Looks clear,” he said. “I suppose they must be upstairs or something.” He had one hand on the handle when the girl interrupted.

“Not so fast,” she said, eager to get back at him. “Let me see through there.”

Cheren stared.

“You really think I'm going to lead us all into a trap out of spite?”

The girl ignored him and scrutinised the little patch of clear glass carefully.

“Hm,” she said at length. “OK. Let's go, then.”

She pushed the heavy doors apart and led us into a dingy lobby with cracked tiles on the floor. There was a receptionist's desk at the other end, but it was unmanned.

“This thief,” I said. “They're not exactly high-class, are they?”

Cheren shot me a look.

“All right, all right,” I said, raising my hands pacifically. “Just a thought.”

“Uh... guys?”

The three of us turned to Bianca, who was tugging ineffectually at the doors.

“I thought I'd wait outside,” she said unhappily. “But, um...”

I sighed.

“Great,” I muttered. “A trap.”

---

In the depths of International Genetics' innermost chambers, something was stirring.

A heart began to beat.

Slow, reptilian eyelids peeled open.

An unquenchable desire to kill Archen flickered into being.

“The retriever's ready,” said the man who'd created it into the telephone. It flung itself at the glass separating them with a snarl, but bounced off; he didn't even flinch. A great many creatures had tried to break that glass, including some tougher than the retriever – but none had ever managed it. Well, none had managed it when he was on duty, anyway; if they had, he'd be dead, as were those of his colleagues who had been on duty on those occasions when the glass had failed. “Activation as and when you want it, sir.”

Snarl. Leap. Bounce.

“Good,” said the voice on the other end of the line – the chairman, as it happened, who we last saw forcing an agreement in the Ingen boardroom. “We called our agent again; she said that the Archen tore the museum apart here in Nacrene and helped start the riots, too. Whatever powers that thing has, it's getting out of hand.”

“So immediate release?”

Snarl. Leap. Bounce.

“Nothing less,” replied the chairman. “Take it out into the woods and set it free.”

“All right,” said the geneticist. “We'll prepare it for shipping right away, sir.”

Snarl. Leap. Bounce.

A dart hissed out of some hidden recess in the chamber and slipped neatly into the retriever's flesh; it had precisely zero effect, and more darts joined it until its flank bristled like a pincushion – at which point the beast finally succumbed, and toppled over with a disgruntled hiss.

The geneticist whistled cheerfully.

“I don't envy the kids who picked that bird up,” he said to himself, directing a couple of underlings with a crate over towards the sleeping abomination. “Not one little bit.”
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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