Chapter Twenty-four: Dinosaurs and Dragons
People make a lot of assumptions about dinosaurs.
And while we could go on and list them all here – for there are many we make, and not all are right – we really want to focus on one specific group of dinosaurs: the dromaeosaurids.
People assume they hunted in packs. That they were smart. That they could, if given the chance, learn.
Ingen had not been able to prove much of this, even after they had cloned some. Some dromaeosaurids were relatively smart, it seemed – but nowhere near as smart as the smartest birds, the crows. They didn't show much inclination to hunt in packs, either – it was all more disorganised than that, with them mobbing their prey like juvenile Komodo dragons. Whether this was because they had no one to teach them to cooperate or because they simply didn't have the intellect to form organised groups was uncertain; at least, it was until it was fairly conclusively determined that the dromaeosaurids showed very little interest in learning.
This was bothersome. They had a roomful of resequenced velociraptors and nothing to do with them. They weren't even really big enough to use as guard dogs.
It was then that it was decided that they ought to carry on where evolution had left off, and start making improvements.
The beasts would have to be smarter, of course. And larger – but that was easy, there were other dromaeosaurids that were bigger, like utahraptor. They would have to be able to figure things out for themselves, should they need to be left to their own devices for a while.
So they got to work, and it could be said that they got a little carried away – but really, who could blame them: after all, when one can put subdermal armour plating on your pet monster, then why not? And if you can gift it with the superstrong bones of a Machamp, then why not do that? And if you can combine the regenerative powers of the axolotl and the Blissey, then why not that as well?
And in the end, Ingen were left with something very illegal, and very, very dangerous.
Something that they discovered they could hard-wire with a pathological fixation for one particular thing.
Something that they took to using to kill things that should never have been, and which should never have escaped.
Something that was making its furious way towards Nimbasa, following the burning trail in its mind that would lead it to an Archen.
Cheren and Halley hadn't waited in the rain, of course; they'd left a message on Bianca's phone and gone to the Pokémon Centre in the Clatter, Nimbasa's innermost district. The rain had, if anything, increased in ferocity since we'd left Olga and Benito's World of Adventure, and by the time we were back the umbrella N had given me was looking a little ragged around the edges. So was I, but that was only because a soaking-wet Bianca had been bouncing around splashing me by accident and telling me how amazing the rides had been. Apparently, she didn't particularly mind that the rain had turned her hat into a large green pancake and her hair into a limp imitation of straw; I suppose she was to be commended for her fortitude, but really all I wanted to do was get away from her before she got me any wetter.
Once she and I were (mostly) dry again, we joined Cheren and Halley in the lounge, which was much busier than in other cities we'd been to – Nimbasa seemed to be a popular destination for Trainers. I pondered this for a moment, and then realised the connection between the city's famously attractive Gym Leader and the large number of teenage boys here.
“Ah,” said Cheren, looking up as we entered. “How was it?”
“It was amazing!” cried Bianca. “It was so cool – I went on the Gate to Hell coaster, and met Señor Grool, and—”
“I was thinking more about the meeting with N,” said Cheren carefully. “You know. The reason we went to the park in the first place.”
I sat down next to him and held out my arm for Candy; she hopped off his head and rushed up my sleeve to bite my ear.
“Ouch,” I said, pushing her beak away. “It went OK, Cheren, as it happens. I mean... he told me quite a lot.” I paused to think it over and assemble the information he'd given me into something comprehensible. “I... guess he dropped a lot of hints, but didn't give many specifics,” I said at last. “He mentioned that Harmonia is working with the king of the demons, someone called Weland the Undying. He mentioned that Teiresias has betrayed both of them. He mentioned that a demon called Ezra is trying to kill Weland – I think he's connected to Niamh Harper somehow.
“He went on to suggest we look up something about a cat and a spider, and, uh...” I tried hard to recall; my mind seemed to execute a half-twist when I entered and left the area around N, and memories formed while with him came back to me with difficulty. “Uh... oh yeah. He said he's inherited the right to be King from King Naudri, whatever that means, and he says that Harmonia's his father.”
“What?” asked Halley, then clamped her mouth shut before anyone who shouldn't started noticing she was talking.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Weird, isn't it?”
“Harmonia N's father,” said Cheren slowly. “How strange... there's no family resemblance at all, except the hair.”
“He did say he wasn't his biological father,” I clarified. “Or actually his legal father. Just... they mutually consider Harmonia to be his father.”
“Weird,” said Bianca, frowning. “So where did N come from?”
“I don't know,” I replied. “But he didn't – when I saw him in the rain. He didn't – just didn't look human.”
We fell silent for a while, and over the murmur of conversation in the room I heard a voice coming from the TV:
“...Jared Black, who went missing in Black City over a week ago...”
I sat up very straight, eyes flicking over to the TV screen – and then, seeing my own face looking back, hunched down again and tried hard to be inconspicuous.
“He disappeared early on Eostre morning,” the newsreader was saying, looking seriously out at the world in a manner that she probably thought befitting of such a worrisome story. “He took with him his pet, an—”
Please don't say 'Archen', I begged silently. Please, Mum, Dad, realise that having this Archen is illegal—
“—exotic fanged parrot from Norway,” finished the newsreader.
“Huh,” I said.
“Attempts to contact him have failed, but he did leave an elaborate story involving persecution by Green Party leader Ghetsis Harmonia behind for his younger sister Cordelia to pass on,” she said. “Police are interviewing her to see if she knows about Jared's ultimate destination.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Good luck with that,” I muttered.
“His family declined to be interviewed, but asked the message to be put out that if Jared is watching this, would he please come home.”
The newsreader was silent for a moment. Presumably she thought she looked composedly sorrowful, but in fact she looked vaguely constipated.
“In other news, the Gym Leaders of Striaton Gym have announced their retirement from Training. Max Duveaux has the story.”
I turned away from the TV and looked at the others.
“I think,” I said, “I'm going to need to keep a close eye on the news. And get the f*ck out of this room.”
“Yes,” replied Cheren, standing up. “Come on, let's move before someone notices you...”
I followed him out closely in the hope that it might obscure my face; Bianca walked behind me in case my back was particularly memorable. She wasn't tall enough to block the back of my head from sight, but if anyone knew me well enough to recognise me from that, there probably wouldn't be any fooling them at all.
A minute later, we had reconvened in Cheren's room (Bianca's and mine were full of wet clothes) and were wondering what exactly we ought to do.
“We need to disguise you,” said Cheren decisively. “No one must know who you are—”
“Can't we just call the League and ask them to talk to the police?” I asked. “They know who I am and what we're dealing with here—”
“What makes you think the League have any clout with the police force?” asked Halley. “I know you suggested this before, but... come on. They barely have control of their own f*cking people, let alone the cops.”
“True,” he said. “That doesn't stop us trying. But even if you do stop the police actively looking for you, there's been a TV broadcast now. The nation will notice your face, Jared, no matter what – they'll see you, and when they do they'll stop you and call the police. It's going to cost time and effort to get it sorted out, and you might end up being sent back home anyway.”
“I see,” I said. “Well... f*ck.” I rubbed my eyes with the thumb and forefinger of one hand. It was too late for this; I'd spent a long time with N today, and battled through the rain, and I just felt exhausted. “All right. OK. What sort of thing are you thinking of?”
“I wasn't. I haven't got a plan yet. I thought Munny might be able to make people who noticed you forget you were there, but I don't really think its skills are up to the task.”
“Yeah,” agreed Bianca. “Munny's not so good at all that – no subtleties. Knock someone out, yeah, but probably not wipe a memory.”
“Turn yourself into a cat,” suggested Halley. “It worked for me. Hell, even I don't know who I am any more.”
I stared at her.
“I would've thought you of all people wouldn't find that funny.”
She shrugged – which, since she was a cat, amounted to a long, sinuous ripple of her spine.
“I veer wildly between moments of self-deprecating humour and aggressively egotistical witticisms. Occasionally I stop in the middle and just vomit f*cking acid for a while.”
“I'm not sure that makes sense.”
“I'm not sure you make sense,” she said, and curled up on the bed.
“Right,” said Cheren, ignoring her steadfastly, “let's think about what needs to change. The jacket you have is actually pretty good – it's distinctive, with all those studs, but half of Unova's teenagers are wearing ones just like it these days.”
“OK,” I said. “So that helps me blend in. But it doesn't change my face.”
“And that's something that's got to happen,” said Halley sleepily. “Remember when I was listing the ways in which you and Lauren were opposites? This is another. Jared's f*ck ugly, and Lauren's... OK, not pretty, exactly. Less unattractive, maybe. Hell, you both look like something Swamp Thing shat out after a particularly violent curry.”
“That is an unspeakably foul imagination you have,” Cheren told her conversationally. “Your talents must be in demand among all your friends, if you have any.”
Halley grinned, unfazed, and went back to sleep.
“I'm not sure what we can do,” said Cheren. “Your hair could change, I guess.”
Black hair was the least common hair colour in Unova by far; our ancestors had been red- and blonde-haired northern barbarians and green-haired God-knew-who. (There had been a theory that the green hair genes came from sloth people, but it was later pointed out that sloths don't actually have green fur, and that in any case there was no such thing as sloth people.) When you saw a black-haired person, you knew that their ancestors had come to Unova in the last couple of hundred years. Or, if they were me, that they were born inexplicably dark-haired to blonde parents, which had caused some small friction between my mum and dad.
I scratched my head.
“I guess,” I said, unenthusiastically. “Dunno. Might be enou—”
Bianca's phone rang, and she went outside into the hallway to take the call.
“Might be enough,” I repeated. “We could go and buy hair dye or something tomorrow, I guess.”
“Not 'we'. 'I'.” Cheren tapped his breast. “You want to go out on the busy streets the morning after they broadcast your status as a missing person? I'll deal with the dye for you.”
“Good point,” I admitted. “Anyway, we'll call the League first, and see what they can do.”
“Maybe I switched bodies with a cat,” said Halley thoughtfully. “In which case, I'm willing to heroically take this bullet for Jared and let him hide out in this pathetic cat body.”
“Are you going to suggest anything serious at all?”
“I could claw odd marks all over your face and disfigure you,” she said. “There. If that ain't serious, boys, I don't know what is.”
“A serious wound, yeah. Not exactly a serious suggestion.”
Halley sat up and placed one paw over her heart.
“Jared,” she said. “Cheren. Since when have I been anything less than the f*cking model of gravity?”
There was a lot I could have said in response to that, but she was saved from it by the ringing of my phone.
“Jared?” It was Iris. “You're on the news.”
“Yeah, I noticed. I was going to ask if the League could do anything about that, actually.”
“I don't know,” she replied doubtfully. “I mean, we could say you've been deputised into the League for the purposes of a secret investigation, but I honestly don't know if we can make that wash.”
“Why don't you just tell them I'm one of the two focal points of reality and the only one who can stop whatever horrendous evil N is lending his support to?”
“Yeah, I don't think anyone will believe that,” she said.
“Could you try? Because if I end up stuck back home, I don't think Harmonia can be stopped. N has to challenge me, at the end of all this – he has to, and it has to be me. The universe is always in balance, two weights on either side of a pivot, and one has to defeat the other before it can tip either way.” I didn't know where the words were coming from, but they rang in the air with the commanding authority of truth. “If I get stuck at home, they'll just have to bring him to me, or me to him. That puts people in Black City in danger – my family, in danger, and it also means that when I challenge him I won't know enough to win. To let the police investigation continue,” I said, “is to hand Harmonia and the demons their victory on a silver platter.”
There was a silence.
“Bloody hell,” said Iris, with a grudging admiration. “That was... that was a good speech.”
“I've been learning from the best,” I told her, thinking of N. “So. Will you try?”
“I'll see what I can do,” she said. “If we could only find Alder, then he'd be able to authorise the whole thing easily, but...” She sighed. “The whole League system is in a mess. I'll tell Grimsley and see what he can do.”
“Thanks. I think it's going to be important.”
“I can see that.”
“Anyway. Was that all you wanted to call about?”
“Yeah. I haven't had a chance to speak to Drayden yet – his mayoral duties have got him for the next couple of days. I'll call you when I find something out.”
She said goodbye and hung up.
“Right,” I said. “That was Iris. She's going to speak to Grimsley about overturning the police investigation.”
The door opened, and Bianca came back in. Her face, usually flushed with excitement, was pale and bloodless; she seemed not so much to walk as float over the carpet, as if she had retreated several steps from reality.
“Bianca?” Cheren had a hand on her arm immediately. “What's wrong?”
She didn't say anything, just sat down on the bed. Candy cheeped uneasily.
“Dad called,” she said. Her voice lacked substance; like the rest of her, it had somehow removed itself from the real world. “The three weeks are up.”
“What?” Cheren's eyes widened. “Thunor, I'd forgotten completely...”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Three weeks,” Cheren said, sitting down next to Bianca. “That's how long she had to do this. Her family is... not keen on Training. Her dad gave her three weeks to see what it was like, and it took a lot of arguing just to get that. We spent about half of it just getting to Striaton.”
“Oh.” I wasn't sure what else to say.
“He's coming tomorrow morning,” said Bianca. “Here. I can't just run away. Can I? I can't.”
“You can convince him,” Cheren replied. “I'll help you.”
“I don't know,” said Bianca, and she started to cry silently; at that point, very, very conscious that I was hanging around awkwardly, I retreated and went back to my room.
A moment later, there was a scratching at the door, and I opened it for Halley.
“They threw me out,” she said, as if surprised about it. “Apparently my suggestions were insensitive.”
“They were,” I told her, putting Candy on the table and throwing myself onto the bed.
“You didn't even hear them,” she replied, jumping up and settling like furry lead on my stomach.
“I don't need to. I know they were insensitive.” I brooded for a moment. “What do you think Lauren's doing right now?” I asked.
Halley looked at me.
“Fixing the situation, I guess,” she said. “She's probably making Bianca feel better, while simultaneously trying to think of a way to let her continue on this journey.”
“Huh.” I couldn't think of anything more eloquent.
“Funny, isn't it? Bianca's about the sh*ttiest Trainer ever, but still she wants to go on...” Halley shook her head. “Cheren's going places. He's the sort of kid who gets in the news for beating all eight regional Gyms in under a year – I guarantee that in less than two years he'll be at least halfway through the Elite Four.”
Beating the Elite Four wasn't something that normally happened. They were good – and merciless: you challenged all four in a row without respite, followed by the Champion. This was a challenge that most Gym Leaders couldn't complete; to beat one was amazing, to beat two was utterly fantastic, and to beat three was front-page news across half of Europe.
“But Bianca,” Halley went on. “Bianca... she can't get better. It's not that she won't – not that she isn't truly applying herself, although she isn't. It's more that she's just... not capable. Some people are good at Training. Some people are good at writing. Some people are just f*cking failures.”
“Bianca isn't a failure,” I said. It was the first thought to penetrate the cloud of general gloom that had settled over me.
“No,” agreed Halley, apparently willing to take things seriously for once. “But she doesn't have a talent. She can't manipulate situations and people like Cheren. She can't fight or survive like you. She can't help others like Lauren. She has absolutely f*cking nothing, and it's like staring into a terrifying, bottomless abyss. Where does she go? What does she do? Who knows?” Halley stared inscrutably at Candy, who was challenging a lamp to a duel. “I doubt if she even knows it herself, but she's on this journey so she can figure out what it is that she wants to do,” she said.
“What's got into you?” I asked, puzzled.
“I'm not always serious,” said Halley, curling up, “but when I am, I delve pretty f*cking deep.”
And then I knew, of course, that she had gone back to normal, and that I wasn't going to get any more sense out of her.
I lay on my back and listened to the rain, rattling and hissing in the dark outside like a thousand threatened adders. What would Lauren do, I wondered. How would she help Bianca? I must know, somewhere – we were the same person, after all, even if we were opposites.
What would you do, I asked, only I was too tired to say it aloud, so it echoed in my mind instead, blending with the sound of the rain. The clock on the table clicked over to 8.00; Halley rolled over in her sleep, landing on my chest and becoming heavier than ever, a huge presence that seemed to flow out through my limbs and leave me stuck there, immobile, a single thought pinned to a bed in a dry spot in the midst of the rain.
What would you do, Lauren?
There was nothing else, just the question and the rain and the huge weight that held me down – not in a threatening way; in fact, I could barely perceive it, because instead of a rational mind I had only the question, resounding like thunder in an empty head.
I was dreaming, I realised suddenly. The thought came to me like an unobtrusive bassline underneath the guitar of the question. I was dreaming, because there was no longer any bed. I was lying inside the ribcage of a dragon, and the weight that was holding me still was the crushing meat of her muscles surrounding me. Her nerves had pierced my skin, and were intertwined with my own; we were one creature, one huge weapon ready for a colossal fight.
My eyes were sealed beneath layers of mucous, protecting them from the dragon's vitriolic blood, but I saw through her eyes more clearly than I had ever seen through my own. Armies marched beneath me, a thousand armoured men and women with white and black plumes streaming from their helms. I saw the standard-bearers, ragged boys and girls who served as marching drummers too, with the great beams supporting the flag strapped to their backs; I saw the black dragon on the white field, and the white dragon on the black.
The dragon and I flew on together, over the endless armies and the plains they marched across; we glanced to our right, and saw our brother-sister flying beside us. Lauren, I thought, as I saw the black creature riding the storm-cloud. Lauren, what would you do?
Beyond the vanguard was a long plain and a wall of black granite; on the walls were more men and women, staring at us and at the armies we led from beneath the visors of pied armour. They glanced up at the Braviary and Mandibuzz that traced circles above them, and wondered if they should send them away rather than involve them in a fight they could not win.
The army was close now, and huge creatures were stepping out of niches in the defenders' wall: great artificial men, built solidly of granite and river clay. They were as old as the city of granite and porphyry itself, and owed their fealty to the stone of its heart. They would be dangerous, but only until we took the throne; they defended the city, not the people. Stone looks after its own. Mortar never knows what it is to be blood.
There he was, the King himself! He stood at the very centre of the defenders on the wall, a gigantic black Zoroark at his side. King Naudri, the man that we were all here to kill. Everything froze – the army halted its march, four hundred yards from the walls; the defenders stood to attention; the Braviary and Mandibuzz seemed to hang motionless in midair. Even we, the dragons and the master, hovered in place.
And perhaps it was the sudden stillness and silence, but she finally seemed to hear me, and as quickly and easily as a fish slipping through water I was looking back at the white dragon from the black, and felt his huge muscles gripping a smaller, slimmer body, and knew that Jared had asked me a question.
It isn't a question of transforming from one to the other. There is no conflict. You are simply two things at once.
I started awake with a gasp. For a moment, I couldn't breathe – and then I remembered that there was no dragon crushing the air from my lungs. It had been a dream, or something without a name that I could only think of as a dream.
I pushed Halley gently off my chest without waking her and walked over to the window. The rain had abated a little, but it was still lashing down violently. The clock was reflected in the glass; the green digits were illegible, but I didn't need it to know that it was sometime in the early morning. I could feel it, in that strange way you can if you wake up far too early.
Drawing the curtains, I turned back towards the room. Something had changed, I was sure of it. I had come very close to something there – something that N had shown me, somehow. I was being shown the way – shown what I had to do. I didn't think about it too much; I knew it would come in time. But the important thing was that battle, I knew: the young king, defending his doomed people with every last stratagem they had to offer, and the Heroes, the dragons and the army.
I closed my eyes and sat on the bed. I wasn't tired at all, despite the vividness of the dream. In fact, I felt quietly alert, and more so than I ever had before. I was learning, I thought. N had always been united with his ability: there was no mystery in it. I had to start out divided from mine, but I was, bit by bit, clawing it closer.
At that moment, I became aware that I was holding something. I opened my palm and looked, but I couldn't make out what it was in the gloom; I switched on the bedside lamp, careful not to wake the sleeping Candy next to it, and held the object close to the light.
In the middle of my tea-coloured palm was a small cone of metal. I stared at it for a moment, unable to work out what it was, and then my eyes widened.
It was a stud from Jared's jacket.
Three masked men broke into an office in Castelia and shot a clerk dead before flinging themselves from a window. No bodies were found in the street or in the building.
A truck carrying copper pipes crashed on the way to the water treatment plant on Route 3.
A garden shed in Striaton burned to the ground, harming no one.
This was all that humans saw of the ferocious battle being fought between Weland's guards and Teiresias. The latter was heading east, away from the Green Party building and the Court; the former pursued it, engaging it and occasionally surviving.
Teiresias was not stupid. It knew it was not immortal, and that it could not keep relying on its proleptic abilities to maintain this winning streak. It had to reach a place of safety, somewhere it could build up its powers further before pursuing further answers.
After all, it knew Halley had them.
She just needed to be reminded.