Cracked, or How the Love of Seafood Saved Unova
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July 1st, 2013 (1:42 PM).
Gone. May or may not return.
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Into the Dark
“Alder,” repeated Cheren. “Pleased to meet you. I'm Cheren.”
“Lauren,” I said, timidly; Alder was an overwhelming kind of man, and without my distrust of him my shyness had free reign over me.
“And who's this?” he asked, bending down and stroking Halley, who hissed and retreated hurriedly.
“That's – um – my cat,” I said awkwardly. “Halley.”
Alder gave me an ingenuous grin.
“A Trainer who takes her cat around with her? I like that idea,” he said. “There's a movie in that, I think.” He laughed quietly to himself. “Anyway, how old are you all?”
“Sixteen,” Bianca told him.
“Same age as my niece,” he observed. “More or less, anyway. She'll be seventeen today. He looked off into the woods. “Well, then. Shall we?”
“Yes,” replied Cheren. “By all means, let's get going. We'd like to get to Driftveil as soon as we can.”
Alder set off between the trees at a brisk pace, swinging his arms with the vigorous pleasure of one who enjoys a good long walk in the woods, and we hurried to catch up.
“If we keep going north,” he said cheerily, “we should run into the path. It runs parallel to the tracks and the motorway, for the most part. Until it gets closer to the coast, anyway.”
“If you say so,” said Cheren. “It connects to that park just off Route 5, right?”
“Bombast Acre, yeah,” he confirmed. “That's it.” He paused, casting about for a new topic. “Have you been Training long? I'm a bit out of touch – what age do you kids start these days?”
“A little later than they used to,” answered Cheren. “We've been at it for three weeks – we're part of Professor Juniper's early test for the summer scheme.”
“I see,” he said. “You're on your way to challenge Clay, then?”
“Yes,” lied Cheren. “That's exactly what we're going to do.”
“He's a good tactician,” mused Alder. “Business strategy and battle strategy – it's all the same to him. He has a sense for what his opponents will do next. You'll keep glancing ten steps ahead when you fight him, if you're sensible.”
“I thought you weren't a Trainer?”
“Not now I'm not,” he replied genially. “But I was once, and I knew Clay then. In fact,” he went on, “I knew them all – everyone who's a League member now, and half the major Trainers of Unova too.” He smiled meditatively.
“You know Chili and his brothers are quitting now?” said Bianca.
“I know, I heard.” Alder shook his heavy head. “Terrible, that. I feel so bad for them – such nice kids!” He sighed. “I heard Hugo Vance wants the slot, and he wants to have the new Gym in Virbank – but so does Roxie, and God knows where she'll want to put it.”
“Roxie?” I asked, curiosity overcoming shyness. “Poison Jam Roxie?”
“That's her. Didn't you know? She's not just a musician, she's an excellent Trainer.”
“She was on the Unovan Olympic team last year, wasn't she?” asked Cheren.
“I think she was,” agreed Alder. “Yes, actually! She got to the quarter-final before she had to retire after that mess with that Valbiluze.”
Even I remembered that, albeit vaguely; some American Pokémon had suffered an allergic reaction to something and burst its lightning sac. The resultant electrical storm had almost brought a halt to the Olympics and had badly burned a number of competing athletes; it had made news worldwide. I hadn't realised that our Roxie was there though – Roxie, of all people! Annie liked her music, I thought, and wished I hadn't remembered that.
“Anyway,” Alder continued, “there isn't a single League outpost in the whole southwest, but I don't know where it's going to go. They'll be fighting over it tooth and claw. I don't know that Lenora will be staying on much longer either; she's been on leave since her husband got shot, and the rumour is that she might not be coming back.”
“You're pretty well informed for someone who isn't a Trainer,” noted Cheren.
“I keep abreast of the news. I could just as easily tell you about the train crash outside Anville last week, or the new nuclear reactor they're opening near Striaton. But Hugo Vance!” he cried, returning to the Gym Leadership question. “I hope he doesn't get it.”
“Why not?” asked Bianca.
“He's not a particularly nice man,” Cheren informed her. “He's been arrested three times on suspicion of rape but it's never come to anything.”
“Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” growled Alder. “Honestly! The state of Unova today... I like my country as much as the next man, but really, there are a hell of a lot of people who need to see the gallows. I'd say they should be cut open on the menhirs but they're too profane for the sun... Sorry,” he said, almost immediately. “I feel pretty strongly about all that... Anyway. You certainly seem to know your stuff, Cheren.”
“It's only natural,” Cheren replied. “I'm aiming to be Champion, after all.”
So there it was: his ambition, unveiled with such perfect casualness that it just had to be counterfeit. As I heard it, I knew at once that I should have known, of course; what else could drive Cheren on like that? There was no other ambition for such a talented Trainer; he would strive to become the strongest there was, and wouldn't rest until he'd achieved it all.
“You are, are you? Well, you've got stiff competition there.”
“I'll beat them,” said Cheren coolly. “I'm confident I'll get there.”
Alder appraised him for a moment, then nodded slowly.
“You're not lying,” he said. “So you're either monumentally arrogant or the real deal.” He laughed. “Here's hoping it's the latter. The League is about due for a change of leadership!”
“Yes,” agreed Cheren. “You don't seem to be doing a good job as Champion.”
Silence fell over us. As one, we stopped walking; Cheren's words fell into the space between us like stones into the dark.
Alder, I thought. Alder, Alder... of course! I had never seen a picture of reigning Champion Alder Fenn, but this man shared his name, and knew everything about the League; he was obviously a wanderer, and Alder had been gone from his office for some time, apparently choosing to walk Unova rather than perform his duties.
“Well now,” said Alder at last. “I can see where you're coming from there.”
Cheren said nothing.
“It's a hard path to walk, the Championship,” he went on. “You want to be the Champion, don't you? Well, so did I. And then I became Champion, and I had to wonder what happened next. I was the toughest: so what? What did it get me?
“The Championship is an old role,” he said. “Traditionally, the most powerful warrior of the tribe became the leader of its forces. That's the origin of the thing. But now, it's changed. Being Champion is an administrative role that requires foresight, strategy, technical acumen – and yet the way to apply is still to beat the old Champion in single combat. To prove yourself the strongest warrior in the tribe.” He shook his head. “But the strongest warrior doesn't make the best Champion. And I was a good Trainer, but a bad Champion. I made mistakes, very fast – mistakes that cost lives, because when you're Champion mistakes are often counted in terms of lives. And I... I knew it couldn't go on. So I left.” Alder seemed old, all of a sudden; he sagged before us as if the weight of his years and his mistakes had come up on him all at once. My heart went out to him; no one, I thought, should have to bear as heavy a load as that alone. Was there no way I could shoulder a little of it for him? “The Elite Four do a better job without me than they did with me,” he admitted. “And until someone defeats them all – until someone appears who will be able to defeat me – I won't return. I just won't.”
Cheren looked at him inscrutably.
“Alder,” he said quietly. “Do you have any idea what's going on in Unova at the moment?”
He looked puzzled.
“What do you mean?”
I took off Bianca's hat and let Candy out of my jacket; she'd gone to sleep in there, which spoiled the effect a little, but after a moment or two she woke up and climbed happily back onto my shoulder.
“Me,” I said. “Do you recognise me?”
“Lauren White,” he breathed. “From the news...”
“Ghetsis Harmonia,” Cheren persisted. “The League. Weland, King of the demons. N, whoever in Córmi's hall he might be. Does any of that mean anything to you?”
Alder looked from me to him in confusion and back again.
“No,” he said. “Why? What do you mean?”
“Shauntal and the others have been trying to contact you, you know,” replied Cheren. “They need your help. The League is in a bad way, and with the war it's fighting it needs every man it can get.”
“War? What war—?”
“I think we need to have a talk,” said Cheren. “But there's no time to stand still – we'll talk while moving.”
Once again, I had to admire how he'd assumed control of the situation; it was all him, I thought, every time. Even when Rood had a gun to Bianca's head, or when Teiresias held the entire room in its iron grip, Cheren was still in control; I didn't think anything would ever take a situation out of his command. Not Alder, not Harmonia, not even really N – at the end of the day, when things started to get out of hand, I could always count on seeing Cheren there, calmly reducing the impossibilities into plausible theories, and arranging them into a pattern of his own design.
We began to walk, and Cheren nodded encouragingly.
“That's it,” he said. “Now. We may as well get the biggest shock over with, so Halley, if you'd like to demonstrate your sparkling wit for Alder...”
you're all right?” Niamh asked again.
She did not have much experience of being hit by speeding ice-cream van going at eighty miles per hour, but assumed that people did not generally survive such incidents, let alone get up moments later and announce that it was good to be back in the real world.
“Yes, I'm certain,” replied Ezra wearily. “The van came off far worse, I assure you.”
It had; it now resembled a cross between a badly-made accordion and a ball of crumpled wastepaper. Ezra was, it seemed, rather more solid than he appeared; the impact had knocked him over, yes, but it had also caused the truck to bounce off him like a pinball off a bumper, colliding heavily with a nearby building. Mercifully – not to mention miraculously – the driver had survived, and Niamh had dragged him from the cab and laid him out on the street before calling an ambulance. For nearly killing him, she reasoned, they owed him that much.
They could stay no longer, however, on account of it being somewhat suspicious that they had been seen to appear from nowhere in the middle of the street and then hit without apparent ill effect by a speeding van, and had consequently had to make themselves scarce, leaving behind forever the mystery of why (and indeed
) an ice-cream man was driving so fast in a built-up area.
Now they were heading steadily southwards through the knotty streets of the Wharf District; here, despite centuries of effort to minimise traffic congestion, the roads were so packed with trucks and pedestrians that it required extreme effort to get anywhere at all, let alone where you wanted to go. The industrial docks to the south occupied the entire southern half of the Driftveil coastline, and a substantial chunk of the coast of Welkan Island, too; the vast quantities of traffic they generated simply could not be contained by the ancient city, but the buildings were of such historic value that they could not all be bought up and flattened to make way for bigger roads.
“If you're sure, then,” said Niamh, unable to shake the conviction that Ezra
have been more badly hurt; he looked like a man, after all, and she knew from experience just how easy to break most men were.
“Don't let my appearance deceive you,” he replied, catching his wounded arm on a lamppost and rubbing it. “This is an illusion, remember? I can fool your sight and touch into believing I am human, or indeed anything else, but – well, you saw something close to my true self a little earlier. Not quite like it – the dark paths distort all vision, to an extent – but close.”
“Right,” said Niamh, casually grinding an elbow into the throat of someone who had thought he could push past her. “Christ! These streets are awful.”
“I know,” replied Ezra. “It's only two streets to the bridge at South Point, though; we're through the worst of it.”
And indeed they were; pedestrian traffic dwindled as they approached South Point, the point where the mainland was closest to the shores of Welkan Island (or, as it was informally known, the Cold Storage, owing to the all-pervasive and wholly inexplicable chill that had lain over the island since time immemorial). There was simply little reason to be walking here; the bridge was, though it had pavements, mostly the preserve of the transport lorries that rumbled back and forth from the warehouses to the city and back again, carting loads of ore and lumber to the waiting ships and bringing consumer electronics back with them.
“At last,” sighed Niamh, looking out over the channel to Welkan. “That was worse than the ghuls.”
Ezra looked at her askance.
“For you, perhaps,” he said. “I suppose it's all a matter of perspective.” He sighed. “That particular situation looked worse the more you knew about ghuls and the dark paths, I expect. I don't think I've told you about the Sleer, have I?”
“Conjoined twins,” he went on, as they walked out over the bridge. “Born in, oh, it must have been the first century. Celts, they were. They ended up falling from the dark paths, and didn't resurface for another three hundred years. When they did, it was in Rome; you might remember that as the Sack of Rome.”
“I thought that was the Visigoths,” said Niamh, puzzled.
“Well, old Alaric was keen to take the credit, of course,” replied Ezra. “And no one's really ever questioned it, because to most historians, the idea of a cosmic morass of evil destroying Rome seems a lot less plausible than the Visigoths.”
They walked on. The clouds were clearing, and the journey was almost pleasant; if it hadn't been for the stink and roar of the ever-present lorries, it might have been quite an enjoyable walk.
At the other end of the bridge, they were stopped by a man who wore, of all things, a top hat and a cloak. Both Ezra and Niamh paused at this startling apparition; he looked so out of place before the backdrop of warehouses and labourers that they couldn't be entirely sure that he was really there at all.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I have a message for you.”
“Your disguise is out of date,” replied Ezra. “When was the last time you came topside?”
The man harrumphed, and Niamh suddenly realised that he must be a demon. Her hand went for a weapon, but Ezra touched her arm;
, he seemed to be saying,
this creature poses no threat.
“We confess that we might have made a strategic error in sending the ghuls to capture you,” the man went on. “The Guard have – er – underestimated your capacities.”
Ezra inclined his head solemnly.
“Most gracious of you to say so. Would you kindly get to the point?”
“The message was to have been delivered from a position of overwhelming advantage,” the man said. “From which you would have had no alternative but to accept our proposal. However, it has since been decided that it would be more acceptable all round to send an emissary to meet you and pass on the message on equal terms.”
“Yeah,” said Niamh. “Fine. Now do as Ezra asked, and get to the point.”
Anger burnt across his face for a moment – evidently, he had never dreamed a mere human would talk to him like that – but soon enough the messenger had composed himself again.
“Ahem. The message is as follows: we know who you are, Niamh Harper.”
Niamh felt her pulse begin to quicken; if they knew who she was, they knew who was important to her, and if they knew who was important to her—
“And we have, as a result of that, become aware that we have a strong position to bargain from.” The man looked at her frankly. “From the recent success of Ezra's efforts to retard Harmonia's activities, it has become clear that you are in some way important to his plans. Therefore, we offer you Portland Smythe in exchange for you ceasing your interference in the politics of the Shrouded Court. If you accept this offer, I am authorised to take you at once to Court, where you may pick up your Smythe and leave. Should you
accept the offer, we will take it as admission that you would not mind very much if we were to have him killed. ”
For a long moment, there was no sound but the rumble of lorries and the swish of waves.
Niamh looked at Ezra.
“We made a deal,” she said, but her voice was thick and had none of her usual confidence.
Ezra looked back at her. His eyes glowed faintly red.
“The terms have changed,” he replied. “You must do what you think best.”
“I believe in your cause, though...” Niamh looked away; she couldn't hold his gaze any longer. “Weland needs to die. Just like you said.”
The messenger raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
“Don't worry,” said Ezra. “We demons are tricky creatures. I shall work this out somehow.”
Niamh did not say anything. She wasn't sure what she
“Take your chances while you can,” said Ezra. “Even if we can no longer work together, I'm certain we will meet again – perhaps in the moth-eaten chantry of an ancient temple, or in the bowels of a skyscraper beset by monsters. Or give me a call sometime; we could always just drink coffee and talk.” He smiled, just a little. “Go on, Niamh. You have done enough to help me. The seeds of a marvellous victory have been sewn, and I will labour to make them full of growing.”
Niamh closed her eyes. She had never felt this sort of conflict before, and hoped to Woden she never would again. It wrenched at her heart as if trying to tug it clean out of her breast, she felt sick too, violently sick; her whole body seemed to be rebelling against the decision she had to make.
“Are you sure?” she whispered.
“Absolutely,” replied Ezra. “Weland's fall is closer than you think. You have acquitted yourself nobly and I wish you all the best for the future.”
Niamh opened her eyes again, and held Ezra's hand.
“I owe you... a lot,” she said seriously. “Everything. For this. If you ever need anything – anything – you know where to find me.”
“Thank you. But now, Niamh – go and get Portland Smythe back. And this time,” he added, with mock severity, “marry him while you have the chance.”
And all at once Niamh Harper realised that
was what it had been, all this time; there was a reason the word 'friends' hadn't seemed quite enough to describe them and that was what it was. They were in love, she told herself in wonderment, and neither of them, terminally dysfunctional as they were, had ever noticed.
“'Sraven,” she breathed. And then, more loudly: “Yeah. Thank you. And... Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” agreed Ezra. “For now.”
Niamh Harper turned to the messenger, and looked him dead in his awful eyes.
“Well then,” she said. “What the f*ck are you waiting for?”
Alder received our story in stoic silence.
“...to investigate the warehouse,” Cheren concluded.
“I'm sure I did more for you all than that,” said Halley huffily, brooding over the small role she had been relegated to in Cheren's version of events. “But well, that's just Cheren, I guess. Little sh*t.”
“Ark,” added Candy, who seemed to realise she had been excluded from everything for half a day now, and was determined to have her say in whatever matter came under discussion.
“Anyway,” said Cheren. “The main importance of it all for you, Alder, is that without you to authorise things, the Elite Four have their hands tied. They can only do so much without you, and if they overstep their boundaries questions start getting asked.”
questions,” put in Bianca, with a significant look.
“Er... yes,” agreed Cheren. “Probably. And in addition to that, Alder, there aren't many of them. A fifth pair of hands would be tremendously helpful. Not to mention the fact that the list of qualities you made a minute ago – foresight, strategy, acumen – are qualities that the best Trainers, and by extension
, have, and they're what the League needs now. Why do you think the old way of choosing a Champion is still abided by? To steer the League, you have to be a Trainer, and a brilliant Trainer at that. Natasha Brent in America, Steven Stone in Hoenn, Lars Öberg in Sweden – all Trainers first, not bureaucrats. And they've done better than any regular official.”
“You made a mistake,” I said softly. “And people died. But that doesn't mean you're not good at what you do.”
Alder looked at me. I'm not sure what he saw in my eyes, but he seemed to lose all his resolve when he saw it.
“I think it means exactly that,” he replied. It was the first thing he had said since we began to tell the story. “I'm not good at it. My skills never translated across properly – I'm no Stone, no Buckley. I'm just a Trainer. But,” he went on, before we could protest, “I do see your point. And I believe your story. It's crazy as f*ck, but I believe it. And so when I get to my sister's house and give my niece her present, I'll call the League and ask them what they want me to do.”
“Spoken like a man,” said Halley. “Or, well, like a... a manly person.” She frowned. “F*cking patriarchy. I can't find a decent expression. Anyway, the point is that I approve of people who say things like 'crazy as f*ck'. And your decision is a worthy one, too,” she added as an afterthought.
Alder said nothing. I guess that was kind of hard to respond to.
“Ark,” said Candy, seeing an opportunity to have her say.
“It's the right thing to do,” Bianca told Alder.
“Yeah, I know,” he sighed. “I know. I just don't feel it should be me to do it.”
“No one else is going to do it,” said Cheren. “If you didn't want to be Champion, why didn't you abdicate?”
“I guess I thought I might be good enough one day to come back again,” he said.
“Maybe you are now,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” he said. Then, a little more confidently: “Maybe.”
Just then, I spotted a bundle of fallen palings in the grass.
“Look,” I said. “We must be at the path.”
“What are we looking at?” asked Bianca.
“That,” I said, pointing. “Look. Part of a fence.”
In the end, I had to go over and poke it before anyone else noticed it; there followed a flurry of activity during which we all tried to work out where the path had been before the undergrowth had reclaimed it, and eventually we set off in a (more or less) westerly direction, which would hopefully take us to the old route across the channel.
The whole business of trying to remember how the old path seemed to have made Alder feel a little better, and he even whistled a little as he walked.
“So,” said Bianca, to make conversation, “what have you got your niece?”
“The complete works of H. P. Lovecraft,” he replied. “With illustrations by Jan Guntridge.”
“I don't know who either of those people are,” I apologised.
“Neither do I,” admitted Bianca, and we both looked inquiringly at Cheren.
“Lovecraft was one of the greatest horror writers of the twentieth century,” he said. “Guntridge is a famous Nacrene horror painter. He did that installation at the Nova last month.”
I had seen a photograph of that installation. It had given me nightmares.
Bianca and I looked at Alder.
“I have an odd niece,” he confided. “Last year it was Poe; I got her a tame raven.”
“Oh,” said Bianca, “Hilbert has one of those, doesn't he, Cheren?”
“Yes,” he agreed. “He does. It's the greediest bird I've ever met.”
“She called him Edgar,” Alder went on, “and taught him to say 'Nevermore', but he isn't as Gothic as she would have liked; he watches too much TV and keeps repeating bits of news from months ago.”
Ravens were not uncommon pets in Unova; the same went for pygmy hogs and Allfather's hounds, the big Unovan dogs that weren't really much more than (mostly) tame wolves. Ravens and wolves were Woden's beasts, after all, and keeping them was an act of devotion. As for hogs, boars had been a battle symbol in ancient Unova just as they had been across much of Northern Europe, and so pigs were an important part of our heritage. The army still maintained a cadre of Emboar, in the fortress at Lacunosa.
“Your niece sounds... interesting,” I said.
“She sounds like great company,” said Halley. “I don't remember the last time I had a long discussion with someone about the
.” She frowned. “Actually, on account of the amnesia, I'm having trouble remembering what the
“Ark,” said Candy, not to be left out.
We walked on, talking first about that, and then about this; occasionally the conversation wandered back to the topic of the Harmonia affair and Alder's return to the League, and then it became more solemn – but it always veered away again, and brightened up.
At about half past three, the distant pounding of the surf grew stronger and the forest abruptly gave way to a tortured-looking strip of stony beach. To our left, the drawbridge rose up like the horns of a gigantic goat, sticking straight up into the sky on either side of the channel, and an oily black tugboat was puttering contentedly along up the channel towards the northern Driftveil docks.
“Ah,” said Alder. “Well. Here we are, then.”
“How do we get across?” I asked.
“We look for the tunnel mouth,” he said, glancing around the beach. “It should be around here somewhere... There's a cave network that goes beneath the channel, though it's flooded during the mornings, at high tide, and the people who made the Trail cut stairs to lead down into it.”
We searched, and after a little while found them – a set of slimy, weed-strewn steps hewn from the living rock, descending into the dark beneath a barren crag projecting from the surf.
“Hey, that looks inviting,” said Bianca.
“Yep,” agreed Halley. “Just as inviting as a wet bed on a November evening.”
“It's the only way across right now,” said Alder, glancing up at the raised bridge. “And it seems like you don't have much time, either.”
“He's right,” said Cheren. “We have to get to the warehouse as soon as possible. And,” he added, “that means that we need to start thinking about how we're going to get in.”
He started on his way down the steps.
“Bianca, do you have the torch?” he asked, after he had gone halfway down the stairs and had completely vanished into the dark.
Bianca shuffled her feet.
have left it in the Striaton Centre,” she said. “I was really hoping I could get another one before you noticed, but, um, I haven't had a chance.”
we should have brought a spare,” he said gloomily. “Lauren? Alder? I don't suppose either of you have a torch.”
We shook our heads.
“Right.” He thought for a moment. “Halley,” he said. “You're a cat.”
“Why, yes I am, Cheren.” She grinned wickedly.
“You have excellent low-level vision.”
“That I do. I can also navigate using shifts in air currents that I detect with my whiskers, which is a damn sight more than any human can do, even with the biggest moustache in the world.”
“You'll lead us through the tunnel, right?”
“Why,” she said. “I don't know, Cheren. That sounds like a lot of work to me. Don't you have a Purrloin? She can see in the dark.”
“She's unreliable at the moment,” he replied. “She's close to evolution – look, Halley, don't argue. You have to get across the channel too.”
“Ark,” agreed Candy, who wasn't certain what was being discussed but didn't trust Halley at all.
“Come on,” I said, crouching before her. “Please, Halley.”
She gave me a long look.
“Since you ask so nicely,” she answered, turning away and stalking down the steps. “All right, Alder, what am I looking for?”
“There are – er – arrows carved into the walls,” he said. “They used to glow in the dark, but after the Trail was disused they stopped repainting them.”
“OK,” replied Halley, looking over her shoulder so that we could see the shiny green circles of her eyes in the dark. “Come on then, boys and girls. The tour bus is ready to depart.”
Cheren glanced at me as I passed him.
“Why does she do it when you ask?” he said quietly.
I thought of that time in the forest, when Halley had told me I was doing great, and of earlier that day in the computer room, when she had rubbed her head against me.
“I don't know,” I answered honestly, and we filed after her, down the slimy steps and into the dark.
The prisoner heard something scraping on stone.
He smelled something like old, old ink.
He saw two great white eyes open in the dark.
“Smythe,” said a voice like the slow crackle of skin on a desiccating corpse. “We need to talk.”
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For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click
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