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Old September 21st, 2013 (08:22 AM).
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 21
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Thirty-One: The Magic Number

In the dark, the retriever woke. Twitched. Felt the weight of new organs swelling within it.

It had learned.

It had changed.

And it was hungry.

---

“You may already know who I am,” said the stranger, as we threaded our way back through the passageways towards the bridge. “Ezra Schwarz – investigative journalist.”

“Demon,” corrected Cheren.

“Ah. You know slightly more than I thought.” Ezra shrugged. “No matter.”

Of course. N had mentioned him before, hadn't he? The demon who had made it his mission to kill Weland. And now, somehow, he was here, and he had saved us.

“Thanks,” I said. “For – uh – for that.”

“Not at all,” he said. “Thank you for providing me with a way in. Weland has guards on the dark paths, and there are curses on that back door: I would have struggled to get in if you hadn't already broken the seal by defeating the guardian.” He smiled. “It never ceases to amaze me how useful someone totally without magical aptitude can be.”

“What?”

“Oh, never mind. I'm rambling, I think.”

“Mister Schwarz,” said Cheren, “I—”

“Ezra.” He frowned. “I don't really have a surname; I use that one mostly to sound more human.”

“Ezra. How did you know we were there?”

“I didn't,” he replied simply. “I've been waiting here for a while, thinking about what I ought to do next, and happened to notice that the door was open and the seal broken. You were very lucky.”

Bianca and I shared identical looks of incomprehension.

“Right,” I said. “So it would seem.”

Ezra pushed open the gate and led us back out to the root of the bridge. The traffic did not seem to have moved an inch. “Now,” he began, “I'd like to give you some advice about the photos you just took—”

There were three men standing in front of us.

I blinked. They hadn't been there a moment ago, and the more I looked at them, the less certain I was that they were men after all; they had the right number of arms and legs, but something in their eyes told me otherwise. They were dressed in black, with black wrappings wound around their faces, and they stood as if they were ready to run at a moment's notice.

“Jared Black,” said one. His voice sounded like the susurrus of wind-blown ash, as quiet and unobtrusive as its owner. “Come with us.”

“Who in Neorxnawang are you?” I asked, not unreasonably.

“Good question,” said Ezra, stepping forwards. “Who are—?”

One of the men touched his arm, and then they were gone.

I blinked again. There had been no theatrics – no darkness or smoke or flashes of light; none of the showiness of Teiresias. They were just gone.

“What – where did—?”

The man returned.

Ezra did not.

“What did you do to him?” asked Cheren, narrowing his eyes. “And what are you?”

“We are the Shadow Triad,” said the lead man. “We can do certain things.”

“No sh*t,” said Halley. “What exactly is it that you did?”

“I took him somewhere,” said the man on the left – the one who'd grabbed Ezra. “Forget that. He will be back eventually.”

“We have been sent here for you, Jared Black,” said the leader. “We were to take you from Zinzolin.”

“Who sent you, then?” asked Cheren, but I already knew the answer to that.

“N,” I said. “What does he want? He said we weren't going to meet—”

“The situation has changed,” said the leader. “You found his birthplace.”

That shut me up. That did change things – quite a lot, actually.

“How did he know?” asked Cheren. “That doesn't make any sense, unless he's watching somehow.”

“Cheren, it's N,” said Bianca, as if it were obvious – and it was, to anyone less logical than Cheren. “He felt it.”

“I don't see how—”

Bianca shook her head.

“Never mind,” she sighed.

“I can't help but think we're wandering a little far from the f*cking point,” said Halley. “Magical teleporting ninjas, anyone?”

“So why did you get rid of Ezra?” I asked the Triad. “If you were just sent to fetch me away from Zinzolin.”

“He would have been an obstruction,” replied the leader impassively. “Nothing permanent has happened to him. He is simply elsewhere.”

“You are wasting time,” said the man on the right. “Jared Black, you will come with us, willingly or not.”

I hesitated. Each of them looked tough enough on their own, and I had seen for myself how fast they were: there didn't seem to be any way I could resist this particular invitation. Besides, I told myself, it was from N, and he wouldn't do me any harm – I was pretty sure of that. Not until the time came for us to actually get down to the fighting would either of us lay a finger on the other.

“What about the others?” I said at length. “Are they coming?”

“No,” said the man on the left.

“Just you,” said the one on the right.

“Where are we going?” I asked. “And am I coming back afterwards?”

“Chargestone Cave,” replied the leader. “Where you go from there is up to our lord N.”

I sighed.

“'Sraven,” I said. “He couldn't have just called me, could he?”

The Triad said nothing. I was starting to wonder if I'd even seen them blink throughout all this; I suspected I hadn't.

I looked back at Cheren and Bianca.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I don't think you have a choice,” said Bianca.

“Neither do I,” I said. “Cheren? Any, uh, tactical opinion?”

“On teleportation into Chargestone Cave? No, oddly enough, I don't.” He sighed. “I don't know. We'll wait in Driftveil—”

“Shouldn't we go to the cave?” asked Bianca. “We could catch up. And it would give us something to do.”

“Are you coming willingly or not?” asked the leader of the Triad, and I turned back to face him.

“Uh – sure, I guess. I mean, there's not really any other option, is there?”

“No,” he said brusquely. “There is not.”

He didn't say anything more – just reached out and took my arm.

And all at once I was somewhere else entirely.

---

Cheren and Bianca exchanged a look.

“Chargestone Cave,” said Cheren. “That's north of here.”

“Cheren,” said Bianca, “Jared was just abducted by ninjas.”

“To be fair,” pointed out Halley, “they weren't really ninjas. They were sort of a Viking equivalent. Although I'm not sure what that would be, exactly. Maybe a less shouty Viking?”

“Shut up,” said Cheren. “We need – we need to go north.”

“What about Ezra?” asked Bianca. “Should we wait for him? He had something to tell us.”

Cheren chewed his lip.

“I'm not actually sure,” he admitted. “But I don't know how long it will take him to come back.”

“That's assuming those Triad people were telling the truth, anyway,” said Halley. “If they work for N, God knows what kind of twisted bastards they might be.”

“Could you stop being so irritating for a moment?”

“Could you stop being such a suspicious dick for a moment?”

“Stop it!”

Cheren and Halley paused, the one glaring down and the other returning the favour with equal force; their anger hung in the air for a second or two longer, then they turned away and it vanished back inside them.

“Frige,” said Bianca. “Jared's gone for like two minutes and you've already started on this.”

Cheren frowned.

“What do you mean, 'on this'?” he asked.

Bianca rolled her eyes.

“You don't exactly keep it secret,” she said. “I hear you at night. Arguing about stuff.”

Cheren and Halley shared another glance. It was rather more anxious than the last.

“You know,” said Halley abruptly, “Ezra's gone, and Zinzolin and Roy are still around...”

“And it's a long way to Chargestone Cave,” added Cheren. “We should probably get going.”

They started on hurriedly, and Bianca stared after them for a moment.

“What? Did I hit a nerve there, or...?”

She glanced at Munny, which booped blankly, and ran to catch up.

“You're being weird,” she told Cheren. “Weirder, anyway.”

“What about me?” asked Halley. “I turned into a f*cking cat. That's pretty weird.”

“I think you were probably this weird before you transformed. Anyway, aren't we forgetting something here?”

“What's that?” Cheren looked alarmed; he never forgot things. The possibility that he might have forgotten something was quite disturbing.

“Jared's been abducted by ninjas,” Bianca said. “Doesn't that strike you as... I don't know... kind of important?”

“Of course it is,” replied Cheren. “That's why we're going to Chargestone Cave. But we don't know any more, so there isn't much to discuss.”

The traffic moved suddenly, and a cluster of lorries roared past them out onto the bridge; petrol fumes billowed out low across the footpath, and Halley jumped up onto the railing to avoid them.

“Bleagh,” she said. “Disgusting.”

“Aren't you afraid you'll fall?” asked Bianca. “That's, like... a sixty-metre drop to the sea there.”

“I'm a cat,” said Halley. “I've got perfect balance.”

“Right,” said Bianca, though she did not by any means sound certain. “Anyway – look, have I gone crazy, or did no one else see Jared get abducted by ninjas?”

“We all saw it, Bianca,” said Cheren. “And I am processing the information and will get back to you when I've made some sense of it.”

Bianca sighed.

“Of course,” she said. “Should've known.”

She fell silent, and on the railing Halley clicked her tongue in despair.

They reached the mainland in silence and caught a bus back to the Centre where they'd been staying, where Cheren packed while Bianca looked at Google Maps. (They had once tried this the other way around, but Cheren had not been able to bear seeing clothes stuffed unfolded into the bags and had forcibly taken over the packing.)

“Hey,” said Halley, curled on the bed. “What're you doing about those photos? There's free WiFi here; you can send them anywhere you like.”

“I thought we should wait for Ezra,” replied Bianca. “I mean, he had something to say about it.”

“I agree,” said Cheren. “He's obviously been playing this particular game much longer than we have; we should take advantage of his experience. I've already sent the pictures back to my computer at home via Dropbox, so we have them backed up. As long as the Party doesn't interfere, it can wait for a couple of days – and if Ezra doesn't turn up then, we can send them to the League so Shauntal can send them to her media contacts.”

“You think of everything, don't you?” said Halley.

“Yes,” said Cheren. “Including things that people are hiding from me.”

Halley stiffened slightly for a moment, then yawned and relaxed, every inch the unconcerned cat.

“Whatever,” she said. “You speculate away, Cherry.”

“What did you just—?”

“There's a hiking trail that goes around and through the Chargestone Cave area,” interrupted Bianca, half to forestall the argument and half because she'd been waiting to say it for a while. “It's got a train station – trains arrive and depart three times a day. I'm right in thinking we aren't walking there, right? It'd take like most of a week to get there.”

“Right,” agreed Cheren. “We need to get there as soon as possible. I expect the Shadow Triad move around instantaneously.”

“Shadow Triad,” mused Halley. “Hell of a crappy name, isn't it? Comic book villain stuff.”

“When's the next train?” asked Cheren pointedly.

“Three twelve.” Bianca checked the time. “That's four and a half hours.”

“Enough time for lunch,” said Halley. “Maybe a visit to the park, chase some birds. Catch one of your little lizards.”

“Do you really not care at all?” asked Bianca. “That Jared's been – that he's gone Frige-knows-where?”

Halley considered the matter for a moment.

“Nope,” she replied. “Frankly, it seems like we're out of danger right now, which is my main concern.”

“She is an utterly self-serving creature,” said Cheren. “Reprehensible in every respect.”

“Yeah, I kind of suck,” purred Halley. “But what're you going to do, eh? Some people are just pretty sh*tty.”

Bianca stared.

“F*ck you, then,” she said, and turned back to the computer.

Halley sat up a little.

“Rare praise indeed from you,” she said dryly. “F*ck you too, Bianca. No one's any different to me; I'm just more honest.”

Bianca didn't answer.

Cheren looked from one to the other, puzzled, and for once in his life found that he had absolutely no idea what he ought to say.

“I'm going to get Jared's phone charger from his room,” he said at last, and walked out.

---

Portland Smythe materialised in a municipal park, cried out in elation, was blinded by the sudden sunlight and fell over backwards into a duck pond.

It was not the noblest of jailbreaks.

“Aagh!” he cried, and “Ooh!” he cried, and other variations on the same theme; these outbursts were accompanied by various thrashings and writhings in the water, and to cut a long story short, he was fairly quickly thrown out of the park by a concerned warden.

That was ignominious, said Teiresias. I suppose it will suffice for purposes of camouflage.

“Oh, sh*t on a stick,” said Smythe. “I'd almost forgotten about you.”

He flicked a skein of weed off his sleeve and took a few squelchy steps – then stopped, as he realised he had no idea where he was.

“Where are we?” he asked.

I am not sure, said Teiresias. I caught the nearest way, and did not stop to see where it led. It was difficult enough to drag your meat through the passage.

“Oh, thanks Portland for letting me hide from Weland's guards inside your head,” said Smythe. “No problem, Teiresias. Anything to get out of here.”

You are upset.

“Because you're being a prick,” said Smythe shortly. “And I don't have to take it any more, because you can't hurt me.”

There was a slow rumble in the back of his head, as if a distant storm was coming.

Smythe snorted.

“Don't give me that,” he said. “Please. Compared to that Yaghda thing, you're an amateur. Besides, you swore on your blood that you wouldn't damage my mind in any way, and I know for a fact that if you suppress my will while I'm resisting you, that damages my mind. So there.”

You forget that you only have the advantage of me temporarily, said Teiresias. I will leave your head when I am strong enough to take on the wretches who seek me, and then there will be nothing to stop me eating your mind and grinding your body into bloody mulch.

That made Smythe pause for a moment.

“O-K,” he said. “So, er, we're equals in this. That's OK. You don't f*ck with me, and I won't f*ck with you.”

That seems sensible.

What was irritating, Smythe thought, was how calm Teiresias was being; it didn't seem to be offended at all. It wasn't even trying to project its usual atmosphere of horror; it was acting almost like a normal human being, albeit one with the emotional range of a coffee-pot, and Smythe didn't like it. It was outside his experience of Teiresias, and it felt like a trap.

“Right.” Smythe returned his attention to the world outside his head, and noticed he was attracting rather more attention than he would have liked. “Ah. Er... excuse me,” he said, addressing one of those bystanders who was staring at him openly. “Excuse me, but where exactly am I?”

She probably would have looked at him as if he were mad at that point, but she was already doing so, and so settled for adding a certain gape of the mouth to her current expression.

Smythe wilted a little.

“Any idea at all?” he asked. “No? What about you?”

“Icirrus City,” said the man, and hurried off.

“Icirrus,” said Smythe slowly. “Wow. We came quite some way.”

We did, agreed Teiresias. Now go and acquire fresh clothing, cleansing and sustenance. You are damaged, and the pond water is not helping matters.

“I'm not a car,” said Smythe, squelching unhappily down the street.

Your flesh is formed of interacting elements. You are a machine of meat, as a car is of metal, and similarly you require maintenance. See to your repairs; it would be inconvenient for both of us if you died.

“Inconvenient,” Smythe repeated. “That's it? Inconvenient?”

Teiresias did not reply. Perhaps it had had enough of him, thought Smythe. Well, that suited him just fine; without the nagging voice of the demon in his ears, he could get down to the serious business of enjoying the air, light and other luxuries he now had access to.

He took a deep breath, and smelled the flowers from the park.

Smythe smiled, and set off in search of a cash machine. He had a demon in his head – but he was free, returned from the underworld to a land of light and space, and for today at least, nothing else mattered.

---

The silence still hung between the trio when they took their seats in an empty carriage on the train. Halley stayed curled in her seat, occasionally twitching her tail; Cheren and Bianca sat opposite each other, neither quite meeting the other's eyes.

Jared's absence was proving more troublesome than expected.

Beyond the window, trees and mountains flashed past; western Unova was famously hilly, and from Driftveil to Icirrus it was hard to go five miles without having to go around a mountain. The railway wound through the hills like a drunken snake, ducking under the shadows of cliffs and on occasion straight through tunnels bored into mountains; it was reckoned one of the most scenic routes in Unova, but no one was really in the mood to appreciate it.

“We can't go on like this,” said Bianca at last. “Someone has to say something.”

Cheren looked at her.

“I don't really know what happened,” he said. “I don't know what you want me to say.”

“Well,” said Halley, “you might want to finish 'processing the information' about Jared being kidnapped and get back to her about it.”

Bianca glared at her.

“You can shut up too,” she said. “You don't care about that at all.”

“Guilty,” said Halley, and closed her eyes as if sleeping.

Cheren caught Bianca's eye and put a finger to his lips. She frowned, puzzled, then smiled as she saw him take the collar he'd threatened Halley with before from his pocket. Quickly and quietly, he reached over and slipped it around her neck, and had his hands back in his lap before she'd managed to even get to her feet.

Cheren!” yowled Halley, scratching furiously at her neck. “Get that f*cking thing off me—”

“Look,” he said, infuriatingly calm, “we did say that if you kept being so horrible—”

“I can be a hell of a lot f*cking more horrible if you don't—”

“Maybe we'd take it off if you were a nicer person,” suggested Bianca.

Halley turned her blazing eyes on her.

“Don't you start,” she said. “I have enough trouble with this bastard—”

“Calm down,” said Cheren. “Let's all calm down a little— ah, Thunor!”

He whipped his hand away, blood welling up in the scratches, and glared at her.

“Carry on like that and I staple the clasp shut,” he snapped.

Halley glowered.

“I – I – f*ck you both with a rusty chainsaw,” she said, and went back to scratching at her neck.

“Are you OK?” asked Bianca.

“Yes,” said Cheren, fumbling in his bag for the first aid kit. “I've had worse scratches from Justine.”

“Let me get that,” said Bianca, and took it from him. She cleaned the cuts and wrapped a bandage inexpertly around his hand, which Cheren then proceeded to straighten until each band was perfectly aligned.

She gave him a look.

“Sorry,” said Cheren. “It bugs me.”

“Not that,” she said. “Have you processed the information yet?”

Cheren winced.

“OK,” he said. “That was bad phrasing, even by my standards.”

“I know you like to have a plan,” said Bianca. “But it wouldn't kill you to be... I dunno. Not to act like a robot 24/7.”

“I don't—”

“You have done,” she said. “You've been in robot strategic genius mode since we started this – this – whatever this is.” She sighed. “Quest, I guess. Whatever.”

Cheren blinked.

“I haven't really had much choice,” he said.

“You can plan and still act like a human being,” pointed out Bianca. “Like in Olga and Benito's Dread Adventures – the one where Raoul the Clockwork Ghoul gets a heart.”

Cheren smiled.

“You're about to tell me the episode number, aren't you?” he asked.

“Series three episode twenty-five,” she said. “Season finale.” She grinned. “You remember that one, right? You don't forget anything.”

“I think you might have mentioned it, yes.”

Bianca chuckled.

“Admit it, you watched it.”

Cheren sighed.

“OK, I was twelve—”

“Knew it,” she said happily.

Cheren laughed.

“Frige,” said Bianca. “That's like the first time you've laughed since Accumula.”

He gave her an odd look.

“You know,” he said, “I think it might be.” He frowned, then shook his head and smiled. “Well, so be it,” he said. “Why not?”

“I look like a bloody stuffed animal,” said Halley mournfully, staring at her reflection in the window.

They glanced at her.

“Someone's calmed down,” said Bianca.

“After the anger comes depression. Oh God, it's too bright. The red clashes with my eyes.”

“Don't be such a drama queen,” said Cheren. “It makes you look more domestic, anyway.”

“Kill me now so my family never hear of the shame I've brought upon them.”

“OK, now you're overreacting in a whole different way—”

“I will cut off my feet,” she said. “And then throw myself off a cliff.”

“Why cut off your feet?” asked Bianca.

“So she can't land on them,” replied Cheren. “Cats, remember?”

“Oh yeah.” Bianca bit her lip to smother a laugh. “Halley, are you even being serious any more?”

She turned and fixed her with a piercing glare.

“There was a time when you thought I was cute,” she pouted. “You picked me up when I was tired of walking.”

“That was before you started being a b*tch,” said Bianca.

“I'm not a b*tch,” said Halley. “I'm a queen.”

“What? Why?”

“It's the term for a female cat,” sighed Halley. “I was making a joke about the fact that a female dog is a b*tch, and – ah, whatever, doesn't f*cking matter.”

She turned back to her reflection and started pawing forlornly at her collar.

Cheren looked at Bianca and smiled.

“You know,” he said, “I think we might have finally tamed her.”

Bianca smiled back.

“I think we might,” she agreed. She held up a hand, and Cheren stared at it uncomprehendingly for a moment – and then grinned, and high-fived her. “There we go,” she said with satisfaction. “That's back to normal, that is.”

Halley let out a little groan.

“If anyone wants me,” she said, “I'll be under my seat, hiding my shame.”

“OK,” said Bianca. “Have a nice time!”

Halley dropped down to the floor and paused, casting one last lingering look over her shoulder – and then, when she was ignored, slunk away beneath the seat.

Bianca and Cheren shared another smile, and the train rattled on north, a pale, clanking line in a silent ocean of green and brown.

---

It was dark in Chargestone Cave.

Almost completely dark, in fact; the only source of illumination was a great claw of bluish rock in the distance, which gave off a faint blue light. Other than that, there was nothing but darkness, and silence.

“Hello?” I called. There was no answer. The Shadow Triad did not seem to be around.

I could feel the presence of stone all around me. It was oppressive, in the dark; I sensed the whole weight of the hill pressing down on this little pocket of air, as if it would have loved nothing better than to sink down to earth and rest.

“Hello?”

A flash of light – something skittered across the path ahead, gleaming in the light of the distant rock. It must have been exceptionally shiny to catch that faint glow, I thought; I couldn't even see my own hands in front of my face here.

“Where'd you guys go?”

I felt a little flicker of fear – what if they didn't come from N at all? what if it's a trap? – and squashed it firmly.

“Not going down that road,” I said to myself. “Now. What do I need? Light. Yeah. So... ah!”

I got my phone out and thumbed the torch app, turning the screen into a rectangle of bright, solid white. It wasn't much light, but it was enough to avoid the loose rocks and holes in the floor while I made my way towards the blue stone.

Suddenly, hands took hold of my arms, and I almost dropped my phone in surprise – but it was just the Shadows, back from wherever they had been.

“We were delayed,” said one of them. “Something happened.”

I noticed with a certain amount of unease that their eyes reflected the light, like those of wildcats or wolves; I was no expert on biology, but I was fairly sure that no humans had eyes like that.

“This way,” said another. Other than their eyes, they were virtually invisible in the dark; I could just about make out their white hair, but no more than that. “Turn off your light.”

I clicked off my phone and let myself be led away from the rock and down what felt like a slope covered in loose scree; I kept slipping, but the Shadows never missed a step, and held me upright with firm hands.

Eventually, the ground levelled out beneath us, and we came to an area where several of the phosphorescent stones were clustered together; their combined light cast a wide blue glow around them, and for the first time I could see the cave walls, close by on either side. The light didn't reach the roof, though, and I would have wondered exactly how high the ceiling was – except that between the glowing stones was N, and he, of course, stole my entire attention as soon as I noticed him.

“Thank you,” he said, as we approached. “You've done well. You may leave now.”

There was no lessening of pressure on my arms, but I suddenly felt that the Triad was gone, and took a cautious step forward; when I felt no one move with me, I relaxed a little. Not too much – I was still in the middle of nowhere – but a little.

“I'm sorry for bringing you out here,” said N. “But I was on my way through the cave to Mistralton, and I wanted to talk to you.”

“You could've called,” I said. “Generally, that's considered politer than kidnapping.”

“We currently stand beneath more than seventeen million tons of soil and stone,” he told me. “There's no signal here. Besides, electrical equipment doesn't like the adamant.”

“The what?”

“These.” He patted one of the glowing stones. “Adamant. It's an old word for lodestone, although these aren't the same sort of lodestone you find elsewhere. We doctored these a long time ago, at the request of the spiders.” He sighed, and let his hand fall limply back to his side. “I suppose you must know why you're here?”

“Because I found where they cloned you?”

“Correct.” N smiled an exhausted smile. “I didn't expect this to happen. Sometimes even a spider can be tricked.” He paused. “I don't know why I feel the need to justify my existence to you,” he said. “I just feel... I feel as if you might disapprove of it.”

“No,” I said. “I don't. Well – maybe.”

I didn't know what I felt any more. Everything had come far too fast for me to really take any of it in; a moment ago we had been facing certain death, then we'd been saved, and now I was in the bowels of the earth talking to a man cloned from a prehistoric, prehuman king. I would have been surprised, but I honestly didn't have the energy for it; I had fallen into this strange world a while ago now, and while new oddities kept on surprising me, I found I'd become surprisingly accepting of the twisted bones of magic and myth that ran through its core.

“Don't,” he said earnestly. “Really. It was all foretold.” He ran his tongue nervously over his lips. “I – I can't tell you exactly what's happening,” he said. “You know I can't. But I can tell you a story.” He cleared his throat. “The Heroes killed Naudri,” he began, “when they came to conquer his city. They stole his dragons and destroyed his city so completely that they turned the country for miles around it into a desert – a desert that still hasn't recovered now, thousands of years later, despite the fact that it exists in a temperate European climate. But that,” he went on, checking himself, “is something for another time. The point is that Naudri was killed, and the fight had to end. But wyrd wasn't finished yet; the war between the two peoples was put on hold, but it wasn't finished. So his surviving servants fled with his body to the royal tombs, where they prepared it so that it would last until the power existed to resurrect him so that the fight could begin anew.”

N looked away for a moment, as if he had heard something in the distance.

“Of course, that never happened,” he continued, returning his gaze to me. “You can't bring the dead back to life. But you can make them engender new life, nowadays.”

There was a silence.

“So that's you,” I said. “It's not... not a sacrilege?”

N shook his head.

“No. Just destiny. Harmonia never knew that raising me would raise you,” he added. “He didn't know that if I exist, so too must you. Until the end.” He shook his head again, slower this time. “He had... other reasons for making me.”

“Which you can't tell me about.”

“No.”

Neither of us said anything for a while.

“Is this what you brought me here to say?” I asked. “Couldn't it have waited until you got out the cave and could call?”

“It's not good for me to use phones, really,” said N quietly. “I suppose Lisbeth told you about that.”

I froze.

“Ah,” I said. “Right. Er... sorry,” I said, feeling inadequate.

“It's all right,” he said. “I, ah... I also have some other things to tell you.”

“Important things?”

“Immeasurably.” He gestured out into the darkness. “Come on,” he said. “Let's walk.”

“Walk where?”


“To the exit,” he said patiently. “Unless you want to find your own way out.”

“Oh. Right, OK.”

He stepped into the dark and made an odd noise in the back of his throat; immediately, three silvery elvers swooped down from nowhere and began to circle his head.
“Are those Tynamo?” I asked, staring. “I've never seen them before.”

“Yes, they are,” he said, reaching up and stroking one. It rubbed itself against his fingers, leaving sparkling slime where it touched. “They've kindly agreed to light our way while we go. Come.”

He started walking, and I hurried to catch up, not wanting to be left behind in the dark.

“What did you have to say that's so important?” I asked, ducking to let one of the Tynamo slither overhead.

“I meant to start with it,” he said. “Really, it's more important than the rest of the story, but you discovering that... that place unnerved me.”

“And what is it?”

N sighed.

“That's the annoying thing,” he said. “I can't tell you. I just can't. I am physically incapable – maybe I was wrong about us having free will after all.” He clicked his tongue. “I... I will remind you,” he said at length. “Er, how shall I do this... You remember that something was stolen from the Green Party, yes?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I imagine it must be something critical to their success in the election.”

“Mm,” he said noncommittally. “The election is not far off, you know.”

“I know. It's, er, next week or something. Actually, I've kind of lost track of time over the past few days.”

“Understandable. So. You remember the theft. You remember that Harmonia wanted to find the thief.”

“That's why he was looking for Halley,” I said. “She's connected to them.”

N looked at me expectantly.

“And,” he said, as if he were about to explain – but went no further. I realised that this must be the thing he couldn't tell me; I had to work it out for myself.

“And...” What could it be? What could N mean? “And... 'sraven, he's found them?”

N let out a sigh of relief and nodded.

“Yes,” he agreed. “He's found the thief. Or rather, I have. I'm going to tell him as soon as I get to Mistralton.”

I paused.

“But you're telling me first,” I said slowly. “So it's important that I know, right?”

N nodded.

“I... You need to be there,” he said. “Three days from now, at dusk. That's when we'll arrive. That's where the first battle will be fought.”

“Three days...? What? How am I supposed to know where it is?”

He shrugged.

“I would tell you if I could,” he said. “I don't know what will happen if you miss it, but it won't be good. Destiny isn't kind to those who thwart it.”

I sighed.

“OK, OK,” I said. “I know that.” (In fact, I had just that second realised that I did, and that did not seem strange at all. I seemed to be getting the hang of N's world – my world now, I thought.) “Forget how, then. What about the why? You said that that's where the first battle will be fought – what does that even mean?”

He looked at me for a long time without words.

“I told you that the war wasn't over,” he said. “That it was on hold. Well, when we come to the castle of that thief, it will start again. Your army and mine will meet – and Sandjr will ride to war against Unova.”
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For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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