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Old October 8th, 2013, 05:31 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Thirty-Three: Waiting For the Bus in the Rain

Candy broke the silence – and the mood – with a cheerful squawk. Familiar faces were once again around her and the Tynamo had gone; all right, so everything was still a bit dark for her taste, but things were definitely looking up.

“What was that?” asked Cheren, climbing down from the ledge. “That three days thing?”

“Oh,” I said vaguely, head full of muddled thoughts. “I'll – er, I'll tell you later.”

“Hm.” Juniper glanced in the direction that N had taken. “That didn't quite go as I thought.” She sighed and thrust her free hand into her pocket. “I guess I didn't expect him to come around that easily, but maybe at least he'll consider my point of view...” She shook her head. “I don't know. Anyway – sorry, we haven't been properly introduced. Professor Aurea Juniper,” she said, reaching out to shake hands.

“Jared Black,” I said. “But you know that. I guess Cheren and Bianca told you everything?”

“They did.” Juniper looked intently at Candy, who stared back with frank idiocy. “Is that an Archen?”

I sighed.

“I wish for once someone would believe me when I said she was a rare parrot.”

“That's what it said on the news, wasn't it?” asked Juniper. “When you were reported as a runaway.”

“Yeah.” I scratched Candy's throat and she chirped happily. “Not that that seemed to fool anyone at all.”

Bianca cleared her throat.

“Er... can we move on?” she asked. “It's dark and, well, pretty nasty in here.”

I looked around.

“Seconded,” I said. “I've spent more than enough time in here now.”

“The nearest exit is just up that way,” Juniper said, pointing to where N had vanished. “It's a couple of hundred yards north, sort of hidden between two rocks. I'm sure Halley can lead you to it.”

“Sure,” said Halley sourly, dropping down from the ledge like a brindled ribbon. “I suppose I might be able to see my way towards doing that.”

“Mm.” Cheren turned to Juniper. “Professor?”

“It's been lovely to catch up with you two,” she said, “and to be a, uh, a brief part of your weird cosmic mission, but I haven't caught a Klink yet.” She smiled. “I don't think it'll be too hard to find one now; there's loads of Pokémon hanging around just outside the lights. N helped me out after all, it seems.”

I wondered why he hadn't sent them away before he left – he must have known that if he didn't, they would stay to be caught by Juniper. Perhaps he'd forgotten in his anger, but I didn't think so; N wasn't the sort of person to lose control very easily. His will was more unshakeable even than Cheren's, if not so openly displayed.

Bianca smiled.

“OK,” she said. “Well – see you then, Professor.”

“Bye,” she replied cheerfully. “Good luck with, uh, whatever it actually is that you're trying to do. And if you need anything, you have my number.”

“Yes.” Cheren cleared his throat. “And, um – you wouldn't happen to have a spare torch, would you?”

“Don't worry about that one,” I said, clicking my phone into torch mode. “I've got it covered.”

“Oh, OK. Good, because I actually don't have a spare one.” Juniper chuckled. “Anyway. It's been good to see you both. Now, I'd really better get going before the Pokémon disperse too much...”

“Right, right,” agreed Cheren, and in a flurry of goodbyes we parted ways – Juniper heading back into the dark, and Cheren, Halley and Bianca coming on with me towards the distant light.

---

Smythe stared.

“So she's...?”

Ezra nodded.

“It seems very likely, I'm afraid.”

They were sitting in a small, sunlit bar in the Old Town; it was a bit early in the day to be drinking spirits, but Ezra had felt Smythe might need a slug of something strongly alcoholic to handle the shock, and he'd been right.

Smythe took a deep breath.

“She went to rescue me? They were going to let me out?”

“Yes.”

He closed his eyes and groaned.

“You knew about this, didn't you?” he asked Teiresias. His voice was hollow. “You came to get me because you knew that if I were freed before you did you wouldn't have anything to bargain with.”

It was the most effective way to go into hiding, it answered. I had to have your mind and no other; I took it by whatever means I could.

“What do you mean?” asked Ezra, puzzled. “I didn't know this would—”

“Not you,” said Smythe, sighing. “I have... Teiresias is in my head.”

Ezra blinked.

“What? I can't—”

“I know you can't sense it. That's why he wanted my mind – something about me being from Hoenn.”

Ezra nodded slowly.

“Almost directly opposite Unova on the globe,” he said. “As far away as one could get... Yes, no Unovan demon would be able to see past the different mental structures to detect the demon within. Clever. But what is that monster doing in there?”

“Hiding from Weland. It was happy to work for him until he granted it its powers back, and as soon as they started returning it began to think maybe it didn't need to take orders any more. So it's in hiding for a while.” Smythe took a too-large mouthful of Laphroaig and half choked. “But Niamh...”

“This is, at least in part, my fault,” said Ezra, chewing his lip. “I... Well, you know, I'm still bent on killing Weland. That means I still want to get back into the tomb-city – and so, I presume, do you.”

Wait, said Teiresias. Before you trade any more words with the rebel, I would remind you that you and I have sworn oaths. You must help me first – or have you forgotten that I want to enter the Last Bastion?

Smythe paused.

“What is it?” asked Ezra, eyes narrowing. “What does Teiresias say?”

“Part of the contract I made with it to get out of that crypt,” said Smythe, brows knitted. “It wants to get into some fortress somewhere – calls it the bastion or something. I have to take it there along the tunnel we used to escape.”

“The Last Bastion?” Ezra looked suspicious. “And what exactly do you propose to do there, Teiresias?”

It is none of his concern, said Teiresias contemptuously. Oh, he is old, yes, but never was he strong. He lives on his wits; he hasn't the might to rule by force.

“It doesn't want to say,” said Smythe. “Look, I – what exactly is it that they're doing to Niamh?”

“I don't know,” answered Ezra. “Perhaps they have taken her for Harmonia to question. I just don't know.”

“Is that all?” Smythe almost looked relieved – almost. “That's... that'll be OK, then. I survived that and didn't say anything. She could do that with her eyes closed.”

Ezra smiled, but it was strained.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Assuming that's what they've done. Anything could happen to her – but she will be alive, I'm certain: if he'd wanted her dead, Weland would have simply had his messenger kill her when she wasn't ready.”

“She's alive. Alive. That's a good start.” Smythe latched onto the information and held it tight in case it fled him. “Alive...”

Immaterial, said Teiresias. Finish your drink, change your wardrobe and find food. Then we go to the Bastion.

“Shut up,” muttered Smythe. “Just shut up a minute, damn you!”

“Mr Smythe,” said Ezra carefully. “Portland. I am here to help. I have been banished from the tomb-city and the exile sealed with a curse: I cannot enter it by conventional means. But I had a plan to get in that involved Niamh Harper. If you want, I can help you get in to find her, and show you how to let me in to help further.” He hesitated. “You and Niamh love each other very much,” he said. “I don't pretend to understand you very much – I have been in the darkness too long – but I do know love. I would rather Weland didn't destroy another pair of lovers. So I'll help you – I'll even help you take Teiresias to the Last Bastion, if that's what it takes to get rid of it.” He ran a thin tongue over his lips. “I... I have lost everyone, over the centuries,” he said. “And everything, as well. My home, my lover, my freedom, my very species... All I have left now is the desire for justice and a part-time job as a freelance journalist. And, until very recently, I had a new friend, and I will not leave her in that monster's hands.”

Smythe stared. A little kernel of hope warmed in his heart.

“You'll help?” he asked. “You know how to get in?”

“There are many ways in,” said Ezra. “All of them are sealed to me. But I can help you get Niamh back.”

If he will help me, then I have no objection, said Teiresias, in response to the unasked question. What you do after I am gone from you is of no consequence.

Smythe held out his hand without hesitation.

“You have a deal,” he said.

Ezra shook it.

“Now, Portland,” he said. “The passage to the Bastion isn't easy to navigate. You need more food than that sandwich, a new set of clothes and some medical attention before you're ready to go – not to mention some sleep. You'll be no use to Niamh in your current state.”

He drained his glass and jumped to his feet.

“Come,” he said. “You have a quest, Portland, and no hero ever slew their dragon looking like that...”

---

“Three days,” said Cheren. “Three days to find this place.”

“That's it,” I confirmed. “Three days, or I think N might win by default. I'm not sure.”

“Well – hey, look!”

There was light up ahead – a little sliver of a glow in the dark; just as well, really, since my phone battery was almost dead. We redoubled our pace and came within a minute or two to a thin crevice, barely wide enough to squeeze through, in the rock – and, on the other side, the relentless dripping of rainwater.

“Oh, at last,” I sighed, as Candy wriggled into the breast of my jacket. “Fresh air!”

“And rain,” muttered Halley darkly. “Ugh. The ground's all wet, and I don't have shoes.”

Before us, a path snaked off through the trees; it looked like it was normally dirt, but the rain had churned its topmost layer into a thin but clingy coating of mud. I glanced from it to Halley's uncovered paws, and then got distracted.

“You're wearing the collar,” I said.

“No sh*t, Sherlock,” she replied.

“Halley,” said Cherne warningly.

“Look, we both know you aren't going to take this thing off,” she snapped. “So I don't see any obligation for me to be nice—”

“I could always tighten it a couple of notches,” said Cheren. “Depends how much you enjoy breathing, I guess.”

Her reply was given in the form of a glower, but it didn't seem to have any effect and she gave up with a sigh.

“OK, whatever,” she said. “Can we go? Before this road turns into such a horrible glutinous mess that I have to – ugh – lick this sh*t out of my fur?”

“I think it's already at that stage,” Bianca said happily. “Come on, then. Jared, you were saying?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah. Uh, so, like I said, we've got three days to find out where the hell this place is.”

We walked on for a moment in thoughtful silence.

“What did you say N said, exactly?” asked Cheren. “About the battle at this place.”

“He said we'd meet where the thief was in—”

“No, his exact words,” he said. “What did he say to you?”

I thought for a moment.

“I think,” I said, “he said, 'The war isn't over. It was only on hold. When we meet at the hiding place of that thief, it will start again. Your army and mine will meet, and Sandjr will ride to war against Unova.'” I frowned. “No. Wait. He didn't say 'hiding place', he said something else... something really specific...” I racked my brains, and as we rounded the bend it came to me: “Castle! He said that when we met at the castle of that thief, it all starts again.”

“I thought you mentioned something,” said Cheren. “Yes, so castle. There aren't many of those left in Unova, actually.”

“There's the Celestial Tower,” said Bianca. “Lacunosa Castle. Gannat Court.”

“Is the Celestial Tower a castle?” I asked.

“Yes,” answered Cheren. “The remains of one, anyway. It was one of the forts of King Ethlraed, I think, but it was destroyed in a siege during the Viking raids. Only the tower was left.”

“They mention that in Estebán's Unovan Grand Tour,” added Bianca. “That's, er, why I know.”

I gave her a puzzled look.

“I don't remember that one,” I said. “What was it about?”

“A Spanish kid going on an adventure around Unova with a talking Seismitoad,” she told me. “I think it was meant to be superficially educational, but if you read into it, it was really an examination of how Estebán dealt with the untimely death of his mother.”

“Jesus!” put in Halley. “No wonder you're all so bloody weird. Aren't there any normal TV shows in Unova? Or at least, any shows that don't deal with dead Spaniards?”

“Technically, Olga and Benito featured a dead Mexican rather than a dead Spaniard,” pointed out Bianca.

“OK, OK,” sighed Cheren. “Enough quibbling about cartoons. Back to castles, perhaps?”

“Oh yeah. Uh, what did I have... Celestial Tower, Lacunosa Castle, Gannat Court. Any more?”

“Dragonspiral,” said Cheren. “That's like Celestial, the remains of a bigger castle. So technically it could be there as well.”

We came to the point where the track ended and merged with the main road; here, the motorway foundations meant the ground was harder underfoot, and less unpleasant to walk on. Across the road from us were the railway tracks, cutting north through the forest towards Mistralton by the most direct route.

“OK,” I said. “Four castles, one reasonably nearby, one in the north, one in the east and one in Castelia. It's going to be a pretty tall order to figure out which one he means before the time's up.”

“Not really,” said Cheren. “We can rule out Dragonspiral right away.”

“We can?”

He sighed.

“Yes, Jared, we can. No one can get inside it, remember? The entrance is underwater, flooded and collapsed. The last lot of archaeologists who tried to get in said they couldn't find a way of breaking in without potentially causing the tower to collapse, and since it's the oldest building in Unova short of the desert ruins no one's risked it.”

“Oh,” I said. “Right. Uh, I guess that makes sense. So I suppose the thief hasn't gone to ground there.”

“I should think not,” agreed Cheren. “There's nowhere to hide.”

Two cars roared north and drowned out Bianca's next words.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I said that maybe the thief's in Castelia, in the middle of Gaunton. Harmonia might not expect them to stay that close to his base.”

“I think the demons would have found him there,” said Halley. “I've been in Hawthorne House. There's serious magical sh*t going on in Gaunton. If the thief was savvy enough to penetrate the Party defences, they definitely knew better than to stick around.” She sounded almost admiring, I thought.

“OK, so not there either,” I said, hiding a smile. “Which just leaves Lacunosa Castle and the Celestial Tower.”

“Both are major tourist attractions, though,” said Bianca. “We've been there, haven't we, Cheren?”

“Have we?”

“Oh. No, wait, just me.” She smiled apologetically. “I remember that they're both really busy, especially around Eostre-time – everyone wants to get away during the holidays, but they want to visit indoor attractions because of, well, because of this.” She held a hand out and caught a palmful of raindrops.

“You're telling me,” said Halley, who was looking distinctly bedraggled. “You guys all have coats, you know. It isn't fair.”

“Candy doesn't have a coat,” I pointed out.

“Ark?”

“Candy's in your coat,” she retorted. “It's the same thing.”

“Ark,” agreed Candy, snuggling deeper into its lining and nearly giving me an accidental and very much unwanted nipple piercing with one talon.

“Ouch!” I tapped her beak. “Stop wriggling.”

“Chee,” she said sheepishly, and settled down on my sternum.

“Anyway,” said Cheren. “We seem to have hit a kind of dead end as far as castles go. Do you think maybe the thief could be a demon and concealed invisibly in one of the tourist castles?”

“If they were a demon,” said Bianca, “they could probably get into Dragonspiral Tower, too.”

I shook my head.

“There's only one rebel demon in all this, and that's Ezra,” I said. “N would have mentioned it in his list of betrayals if there were more. Whoever stole that thing must be human.”

“Which means they're using conventional hiding methods,” concluded Cheren. “OK. So, probably not in Gannat Court, Lacunosa or Celestial. Which leaves...”

“The impossible one,” Bianca said, sighing. “Dragonspiral. Are you sure we haven't missed out a castle somewhere here?”

“Maybe we have,” agreed Cheren. “We'll check when we get into Mistralton and can find a Pokémon Centre.”

Mistralton was about a mile and a half further down the road, and it took a further forty minutes of walking through the outer suburbs before we found anything even remotely resembling a link to the city proper. Our salvation, when it turned up, was a bus stop, and we joined two other exceptionally weary-looking young people who were altogether too charred to be anything but Trainers.

“Did you come through the cave?” Bianca asked one.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head. Flakes of ash came out of her hair as it moved. “Went through the hills. There's a frickin' enormous Heatmor there, sittin' on a Durant nest.”

“We got maybe a little too close to the barbecue,” said her friend unnecessarily. Like her, he had a strong southwest accent; I guessed they were from Aspertia or Virbank. “Grace of Thunir.”

“Huh?”

“Oh. Uh, it's a Floccesy thing. Saved by the rain.”

“Ah, OK.”

“You're Trainers too, I guess?” asked the girl, looking at Munny, drifting as ever just above Bianca's head.

“Yeah,” she replied. “That's us.”

“Here to challenge Skyla? Or just for Trainin'?”

“Maybe,” said Cheren. “Right now, I think we just want to get to the Pokémon Centre.”

The girl nodded. It looked heartfelt.

“I hear that,” she said, scratching her head. I didn't think her hair was meant to be as short as it was; it looked like a substantial part of it had been burnt off. Was this the kind of mess Trainers got themselves into? Why on earth had Cheren and Bianca ever wanted to go off with Pokémon when there were so many ways to get yourself killed?

“We're goin' to the Celestial Tower,” said the boy. “Ghost population's risen lately – all those bodies, all that sorrow, gives 'em so much to eat. The League's ordered a cull.”

“How exactly do you cull Ghosts?” I asked.

“You call Ghostbusters,” said the girl, perfectly seriously. “Which is us, more or less: we specialise in Ghost- and Dark-types. I do Ghosts, Owain does Dark.”

I knew that the Gym Leaders specialised in specific types, but I'd never given much thought about where those Leaders came from – there must, I realised, be quite a few Trainers who worked solely with one type, or all the Leaders would be woefully unskilled. And of course, even if they weren't Leaders, there was nothing to stop certain Trainers being employed by the League to do tasks that the Elite Four were too busy to deal with themselves.

“Can they die?” asked Cheren with interest.

“Yeah,” answered the girl. “They're alive, they're just not made of meat. Gotta use intangible ways to kill 'em.”

“Such as?”

“Feed 'em to other Ghosts, mainly,” she admitted. “Or hit 'em with the right set of Dark attacks. Get it right and you shake their spirit apart. Quick and painless.”

“Depends on the Ghost, though,” added Owain thoughtfully. “'Member that Chandelure back in Humilau, Sadie?”

“Oh yeah.” She nodded, and shed a few more ashy hairs. “Hit it with a standard set of vibrations and somehow triggered an uncontrollable growth spurt. It grew to the size of a rhino, burned down a pub and nearly killed six people before we managed to drive it into the sea and weaken it enough to put it down.”

“I see,” said Cheren politely. “How, er, interesting.”

“Yeah, it was really somethin',” said Sadie.

The bus came then, and thanks to the pattern of unoccupied seats, we were separated from the Ghostbusters and squeezed into the back row. Half an hour later, an automated voice told us that we were at Tannhauser Gate, and we crawled exhaustedly off the bus and into the Centre. Cheren put on his ultra-serious deadpan face and did the business of convincing the receptionist I was a visiting Swedish Trainer, which Candy helped to prove by crawling out of my jacket into the warmth of the lobby and throwing up a handful of pebbles to show she wanted attention; that done, we got upstairs to our rooms, dried off as best we could, and gathered in the deserted cafeteria to eat. Of Sadie and Owain there was no sign; they were probably still scrubbing ash out of their hair, I thought.

“Hm,” said Halley, stealing a mussel from my plate. “Would you lot mind investing in some f*cking umbrellas next time you go out in that kind of weather? I feel like a drowned rat.” She fumbled for a moment, and then added hopefully, “Er – any of you lovely people feel like opening this for me?”

I sighed and snapped the shell open for her, then turned back to my plate to realise Candy had seized a beakful of mussels and was cheerily smashing them on the side of the plate to make sure they were dead.

“Oh, no! No, Candy, stop that!”

She looked at me unapologetically, as if to ask what else I expected such a magnificent predator to do in this situation, and retreated to upset the salt shaker instead.

“She's in, uh, high spirits,” observed Cheren.

“That's one way to put it,” I muttered, picking shards of shell out of my chips. “She's happy to be out of that cave, I think. I don't think she liked those rocks.”

“Anyway,” said Bianca. “What's the plan after this? Go to the computer room and see if we've missed any castles?”

“That's the idea,” agreed Cheren. “And if we haven't, well, er...” He shrugged. “Actually, I don't know what we do then.”

Halley stared.

“Whoa,” she said. “An admission of ignorance from the Man Who Knows Too Much.”

He gave her a withering look.

“If you have any ideas, then, Halley...?”

“Hm? Oh, no,” she replied breezily. “I'm untrustworthy anyway, aren't I? Better leave the planning to you.”

“Halley, you're not ever going to get shot of that collar if you don't change your attitude,” said Bianca. That seemed to shut her up, and she went back to moodily batting mussel shells between her paws.

“Right,” said Cheren. “So. I guess that's it.”

“Mm,” I agreed. “What happened with you guys while I was in the cave with N?”

“Oh, not much,” he said. “We went back to the Centre and caught a train to the cave. Then we ran into Juniper outside, and volunteered to help her find a Klink.”

“Why'd she want a Klink?”

“Something to do with her father's research.”

“Her father?”


“Professor Cedric Juniper,” said Bianca knowledgeably. “He has a TV show.”

“He does?”

“Yeah. Or at least, he did about eight years ago.” She popped a cherry tomato into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “At least, I remember him having one. He's pretty weird. Does a lot more fieldwork than Juniper.”

“I know him,” said Halley unexpectedly. “Well, not personally, but he worked with David Attenborough on a series about Bug-types a while back.”

“With who?”

She made a face that indicated either displeasure or indigestion. I wasn't sure which.

“Sir David Attenborough? British national treasure? Possibly the finest wildlife documentary narrator in the history of time and space?”

This was met with blank stares, which Halley did not apparently find reassuring.

“Seriously, is his fame just confined to the UK?” she asked, shocked. “Really? Don't you get his programmes on TV in the Commonwealth or anything?”

“We don't get much foreign TV here,” said Bianca. “Like I said to Jared the other day, I think it's too sensible.”

Halley rolled her eyes.

“Give me strength,” she said. “Never mind then. Get on with your miserable Attenborough-free lives.”

We did, and, finishing our meal, went over to the computer room. Unfortunately, there was a member of staff sitting there trying to repair a recalcitrant PC, and in order to maintain the Swedish façade I had to sit next to Cheren and pretend I didn't understand anything that was being said. This got boring very, very quickly, and I went back up to my room after about thirty seconds. There wasn't anything more interesting to do here, but by that time it was getting pretty late, and after another day of weirdness, death threats and interminable walking, I was exhausted – and so almost before I knew it, and long before I'd managed even a token attempt at undressing, I was asleep.

Unfortunately, it didn't last long. Soon afterwards, Bianca came in and shook me awake.

“Hey,” she said. “We might have a problem.”

“What? What is it?”

“Well, there are a few more castles in Unova than we thought,” she said. “Quite a few more, actually.”

“How many?” I asked, suddenly awake.

“About one hundred,” she said, nipping the corner of her lip between her teeth. “Of which about thirty have anything really left of them. Six are in the same sort of shape they were when they were first built.”

“Sh*t,” I groaned. “Why did we have so many wars?

“Blame the Patzkovans,” said Bianca. “If they'd left us alone, we wouldn't have needed to fortify the border so much.”

“So most of these are along the border?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “But there's no way we can visit them all in three days. So we need your help now, Jared.”

I blinked.

“OK, but what exactly do you expect me to be able to do?”

Bianca shrugged helplessly.

“I don't know. Cheren asked if maybe you could remember anything else about what N said? Anything else that might have been a clue?”

I shook my head. There had been nothing, I was certain; just that the thief had hidden in a castle. No more, no less.

“That's all he said,” I told her. “I'm sure of it.”

She sighed and flopped down on the bed next to me.

“Great,” she said. “That's just great.”

There was a silence, punctuated by little avian snores from Candy on the nightstand.

“Where's Cheren?”

“Downstairs, putting every castle in Unova individually into Google, just in case they've appeared in any recent news stories. He says that maybe someone noticed the thief's presence and reported it as a ghost or something.” Bianca made a pfft noise. “I don't think either of us thought that was likely, but without any other leads to go on...”

I nodded.

“I get it. We're stuck.”

“Yeah.”

We sat there for a while, listening to Candy's feathers shifting in her sleep.

“Oh,” I said.

“'Oh' what?”

“I just remembered something N said. He said the conversation was different with Lauren... Which means she might have heard another clue!”

Bianca looked confused.

“So... wait... tomorrow you'll be able to tell us?”

“Remember to ask her. Me. Whatever. Just ask tomorrow about what N said. And maybe we'll get an answer worth having.”

“O-K,” said Bianca. “But in the White world, wouldn't we have already asked Lauren today? I mean, how does that work? Does that mean tomorrow we'll already know what N said to her?”

“I don't know,” I replied, holding my head in a futile attempt to stop it falling apart at the seams. “'Sraven, this is confusing... I mean – I guess – the people around me seem to stay in the same world as me. I think. So I think in Lauren's world, you asked her the same questions today that you asked me, but perhaps she forgot to mention something? Something that she'll mention tomorrow? I think the result at the end of each day has to be the same, or things get out of sync. Like... like when we fought that monster in the dark,” I said suddenly. “Lauren must have been hit on the head during the fight, because when I woke up I had a headache. Things got out of sync, and I ended up with too many injuries... Oh, I don't know! I have no f*cking clue how this works.”

Bianca patted my arm.

“That's OK,” she said. “I think I understand even less than you. I mean, I only got about one word in three there.”

I smiled, but I had to force it; I wasn't in the mood. Thinking about how all this might work, and how little I knew compared to N – what was I even fighting for, anyway? – was just depressing.

“I don't know,” I said. “I get the feeling I don't know anything at all.” I dropped my head into my hands with a sigh. “I hope Lauren knows a little more, I really do. If I'm the strong one, does that make her the smart one?”

“I don't know,” said Bianca seriously. “I'll let you know tomorrow.”

Then I really did laugh, and the moment passed, and I set aside my worries and talked.

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