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The Fall to Redemption
an Emerald Odyssey
Prologue - Virgil's Dream
The world has gone black.
When you think about it, there is no true "black": shut off your house lights and you can still see the city glow (or maybe the star-shine if you're a country boy). Shut your eyes and you can still see the after-image of light tingling through your nerves.
But all I can see is black - bottom of the ocean black; heart of the devil black; shut in a funeral casket black. Not a god-damn pinprick of light.
Now, I'm not the type that scares easily, but do you know what really scares me?
I can feel my eyelids blinking. Twitch all they want, all I can see is black.
Yeah, I'll let that sink in for a minute.
I can feel, but not well. It's like I've been bundled in a puffy snowsuit, dulling my touch. I think I'm lying on my back; my face is hot and itchy all over.
I can hear, but everything is muffled like I'm holding my breath underwater - the vibrations sluggish and echoing. Are those the rumbling wheels of a truck or a gurney across linoleum floor? Footsteps crash into my water-logged head like cannonball divers. It's a chore just to make out the voices:
The first speaker is a mixture of revolt and pity. "Is that a boy or a girl?"
The second manages a quick smirk. "Hard to say, huh?"
Hard to say? Are they talking about me? It's not like I have huge muscles or facial stubble, but I like to think that I'm obviously masculine! I try to turn my neck and look around but my head is in some sort of clamp, and just that little twist sends a spike of pain through my nerves. I almost faint.
The voices carry on. "Poor thing have a name?"
"Virgil, I think."
Now I know they're talking about me, but "poor thing"? What's going on? I can't see, I can't move and all this talk is driving me insane! I can feel my panicky breath, hot and humid, forced back against my skin. Is there something over my mouth? And what is that beeping noise?
The voices also notice the pulse. "Rate's going up. Going into shock."
Shock? Shocked? That's putting it mildly - I'm shifting into all-out "fight or flight" mode, you've got me so panicked! I have to see, I have to claw at this itch creeping over my face; I have to get up and rip this, this mask they've clamped over my mouth! I'm suffocating! I struggle but even the tiniest effort makes the pain spike.
"He's waking. Give him another dose."
What are you people doing to me? Let me go! I fight again, and this time an arm presses down on my chest. I think the voice is trying to comfort me, but the reassuring "ssh" is amplified through the water into an Arbok's hiss.
"Relax, kid," it says, just before a sharp point jabs my arm. "There's a whole world of adventure waiting for you. All you gotta do is sleep."
And then I'm shrinking - falling away from the voices, from the pain, from everything. And the world goes black.
I. Ten Things I Hate About Littleroot
II. A New Hope
III. The Ranger of Petalburg
IV. Through Forest and Water
V. The Oracle of Rustburo
VI. Shadows in the Granite Cave
VII. Dude, Where's My Capitalism?
VIII. The Pirates of Slateport City
IX. The Lost Leader
X. The Dragon Master of Mount Chimney
I. The Foundations of Sin
II. Wrath of the Waves
III. A Spark of Sloth
IV. Flames of Envy
Hellfire (Dark Zigzagoon battle) by Wasserbienchen
Virgil and Robin by Spiritoom
Virgil by WhiteLilySong
The Nosepass Creature by AndrewMartinD
Robin and Michael - "That First Touch" by Leptocyon
Megumi, Wake Up! by Kuro the Kitten
Robin - Victorian Gijinka by CritexMind
Trisha - Victorian Gijinka by CritexMind
Trisha - Ghost of a Wingull by EeveeLoliopo
Grab My Wingull! by Cypher DS
Nyoro-n Bwaly-san! by Cypher DS
Not Sure If ... by Cypher DS
Wow. Can I just say I love your story and be done with my review? No? That's a shame!
I really like your concepts, especially with how you mixed in the facts of the simple protagonists from RSE, coming from Johto, saving Professor Birch, etc. It's well done.
I'm going to ask a few questions though. Does this have something to do with Dante's Divine Comedy? It all kind of fits in place, the main character having the name Virgil and venturing out to save his soul (completely basing this off the forward), oh and there's Beatrice in here! Beatrice the wurmple. Not much of an angel guardian is she?
I couldn't see many spelling/grammar mistakes though. I will, however, suggest that you not put your story parts into spoiler tags. It's fine if it's all just spaced out into a massive page. That could just be me, since I'm so used to it that way, and reading it from a spoiler's tag feels so wrong for me.
This is seriously a good-looking story. It's so enticing, so good work. I'm definitely following this story around. The way you mix in the facts of the game is so well in-place that I almost didn't recognize it until I finished reading the whole chapter. Keep it up!
Yay, a fic based on Hoenn! Hoenn is my favorite region out of all the other Pokemon regions, so it’s nice to see more fic taking place there.
First thing I want to point out is I totally love the narrator there. I really enjoyed his musings over the LIttleroot and the people there very much. Indeed he should be a writer.
I also like your own spin over some of the things that happened in the games, like Virgil coming out from the moving truck. It bothered me a little as to why a kid is stuck inside there, LOL. The part where Professor Birch gets attacked by Zigzagoon is pretty funny too, although I went “ewwww” when it’s mentioned his leg was amputated. @_@
Couple favorite parts:
So yeah in short already enjoying this story a lot. I haven't read Dant'e Divine Comedy (if what psynaic said this story is loosely based on is true), but that shouldn't stop me from reading your story. Only thing is I too will say next time post the chapter without the spoilers as sometimes the readers might not be able to open the spoilers box if they want to read the story. Looking forward to see what other stuff Virgil has to say about Hoenn!
Wow, I really did like this. Mostly for its originality, I have to say. I am extraordinarily used to seeing fics that parody the game's storyline, but this level of sheer . . . well, cynicism is rarely seen. This fic could potentially go many different ways, ranging from non-stop hilarity to all-out mind****. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing a bit of both.
Story-wise, I'm happy to see shades of the plot elements from RSE without them being used as a crutch. My own Emerald retelling was basically a straight transcription of the game's events and dialogue with the addition of a very sarcastic protagonist. Here, we've actually got some development and mystery going on with touches of familiarity here and there. Like, Birch was attacked by a Zigzagoon. Fine. But HOLY HELL WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THAT ZIGZAGOON!? I'm sorry, but that scared the crap out of me, which was probably your intention, in hindsight.
This fic so far has a pleasing lack of spelling and grammar errors. It read smoothly, which is always good to see. There was a pleasingly abstract division between the Author's Forward and the story itself. I'm keen to see whether Steven has a significant role in this fic beyond being the Champion at the end, but then again I'm always keen for more Steven Stone. Errm . . . I really liked that scene at the beginning, actually. In the garden, that is. It really felt like a natural dialogue, and I was getting a sense of an interesting relationship between the two. I'd like to see a bit more of them as well as Virgil, actually, which is always a good sign when it comes to a fanfic.
So yes, a good and interesting start that I think is very promising. I'll be keeping an eye on this to find out what happens next. I love the sense of mystery that you created throughout the chapter. It's not often that I read mystery fics, but this - with the amnesiac protagonist (slightly cliche, but forgivable in context) and the conspiracy of Littleroot - seems to have caught my attention more than I thought it would. Also, two people appear to have reviewed while I was writing this. Curse my slowness. They've probably said everything I did between them.
EDIT: Ooh, Dante. Hmm, interesting. I see . . .
Ah, I like this. Hoenn and I have a very strange relationship - it would perhaps be most accurate to say we've been through a lot together, not all of it good - and whenever it turns up, I always greet it like an old friend. Then again, I greet many inanimate/imaginary objects like old friends, so I wouldn't read too much into this.
Before I get to the meat of this review, I have to cordially disagree with psyanic on two points. Firstly, his assertion that in this bit:
Anyway, that's just my opinion on that; make of it what you will. On to the story.
I really, really liked it. The Hoenn story has tremendous potential as fodder for adaptation, because it isn't as detailed as the Sinnoh or Unovan stories, and it isn't as vague as the Kanto or Johto ones: in short, it gives you just enough freedom to subvert it a lot without it departing too far from the original. So, as a fellow Emerald-storyline-based-fic author, I commend you on your choice of starting point. It was a sound one.
Furthermore, as has been pointed out, the cynicism is fantastic here: it's not the frankly cloying angst of most dark stories out there; it's not the bland happiness of the more traditional sort; and it's not the mild (or in some cases extreme) lunacy typical of some of the comedies. It's novel and refreshing, and in a canon flooded with generic stories, that's probably one of the most welcome things that I can think of.
Actually, I remember experimenting with a cynical story last year or something, but that was actually a comedy disguised as a noir detective tale, so it doesn't really compare to this.
Where was I? Oh yeah, the cynicism. Yes, that's all good. Moving on, let's discuss the people.
Virgil's a funny kid, I think. I'm very curious to see what's up with his face - that's good narrative technique by the way, hinting at something wrong with it like that - and his mysterious past only sweetens the deal. (Oh my God, referencing things seems to have become pathological with me. I'm so sorry.) The other people of Littleroot intrigue me, too: their limbs swathed in bandages despite the fact that their wounds all heal immediately, their curious apathy, their strange predilection for forming random families... yes, there is a great sense of menace built up there in the details. It's the classic subverted idyll scenario: we are presented with what seems like Arcadia, but it's pockmarked with tiny defects and flaws that, because everything else is so perfect, are deeply, deeply disturbing.
I do have one minor complaint: I would agree with psyanic that you should remove the spoiler tags; they're not necessary and are prone to malfunctioning so that they won't open.
Briefly touching on the whole Divine Comedy thing, I'm not certain I particularly see any parallels between this Virgil and that one, other than the fact that both are surrounded by trees at the beginning. I'd be more inclined to believe that Virgil's just named after the real Virgil, a fictionalised version of whom is Dante's guide through the afterlife in the Comedy. Alternatively, there might be no link at all and you just like the name 'Virgil' - and why not? It's a good, hearty Roman name, and you can't say fairer than that.
To conclude: I enjoyed this very much. It's well-written and a pleasure to read; though I say this at the end of almost every review I write, you can be sure that I really do mean it when I say I eagerly await future chapters.
The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World * The Rocket Case * The Rocket Revival
Neither Here Nor There * The Beastman * Coriolanus Rowland's Guide to Pokémon Husbandry
Robin Goodfellow's Christmas Carol * Snow * Stranger Than Fiction
My Trip to the End of Time, by Pearl Gideon * A Smell of Petroleum Pervades Throughout
For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
First of all, I want to thank you for your generous reviews. I was not at all expecting to receive such detailed analysis and I'm thrilled to have readers like you guys.
Thank you for pointing out the preferences about spoiler tags, I will be sure to upload future chapters without those.
Moving on, there are some outstanding questions that deserve replies!
Regarding Virgil's Name
I should point out that I've only read halfway through The Inferno, so anyone looking for a point-for-point retelling of Dante's epic may be disappointed.
Each pokemon that Virgil befriends has borrowed the name (and sometimes personality) from a specific fictional character. Consider it a bit of a scavenger hunt to discover the significance.
With Beatrice, you could say she's named after Dante's love, but she might also call out to another fictional character with insect associations. Just sayin'.
Regarding our Protagonist
In terms of future post, I'm first going to shuffle around the first few chapters - removing spoiler tags and establishing a 'table of contents'. After that, I have a second chapter ready to deliver. It should be up by tomorrow.
Thanks to everyone who's read so far!
Chapter 1 - Ten Things I Hate About Littleroot
The nightmares are getting worse. This time, the sun has barely dawned when I bolt upright in my bed. I'm surrounded by an unfamiliar room - wooden panels and a pile of discarded clothes; the Spartan accommodations of a tiny cottage - and I slump back onto my pillow with a long exhale.
I'm still in Littleroot. I'm still lost and living on the kindness of strangers, and I still can't remember who I am. One nightmare is over but I've woken from "darkness to Darkrai", as Norman would say. Sure, you're no longer being devoured alive in your sleep but, shucks man, now there's a shadowy monster looming over your bed and it's going to rip you apart for interrupting the meal!
My name is Virgil. I'm still fuzzy about my last name, so it's "just Virgil".
I know that I'm sixteen years old and from Goldenrod City. I think I lived in an apartment because I remember looking down on the never-ending city from an impossibly high balcony. I know I'm a student because I remember nodding off at school one morning and immediately waking up because I dropped my head on the desk. I remember the juice of a fresh Tauros burger running down my lips while someone (a girl?) giggled behind me, and I remember the excitement of visiting the Pokeathlon dome to cheer my favourite team - the Electabuzzers.
Oh, I'm sorry - you want to skip the trivial junk and get on with the story? Well screw you! When a meal or a Monday morning is all you can remember about yourself maybe you'll understand why I'm hoarding these memories like pearls! I have to remember everything I can. Everything.
Even the nightmare. It came infrequently during the first two weeks - that dream of being tied down in the darkness, drugged and loaded into the back of a truck - but now I've been reliving it nightly, like a subconscious playlist looping over a single track. I'm frightened to think that it's less of a nightmare and more of a memory. Which raises a lot of disturbing questions, namely, who tied me up? Why did they drive me out to the middle of nowhere, and why can't I remember anything?
Just listing my troubles gives me a headache. The sun is raising itself over the village and that's excuse enough to get up. I stumble to the bathroom, then downstairs. Linda is already awake and fully dressed, of course; wrapping fresh bandages around her left arm before she goes out for her morning chores.
"Good morning, Virgil," she smiles. "You're up early. Can I fix you anything? Coffee?"
I grumble out a 'negative' and drop myself into the remaining kitchen chair. When the villagers first found me there was some debate as to where I would stay. Linda volunteered immediately. She's nice enough, I guess - in her forties but with a bit of gray creeping into her brown hair. Her eyes have this weathered look, like she's constantly sick or tired, but she's helpful, pleasant and with energy to spare. Some of the neighbours have even taken to referring to her as my "mother".
She's certainly fits the role - giving me her bed to sleep in, sewing me new clothes and enduring all of my panic attacks - but I'm not sure I like what that relationship implies. Being part of the family suggests you're staying permanently.
"Couldn't sleep?" I waggle my head 'no'. "That's a shame," she sighs. "Are you hungry? A full stomach might perk you up."
Another grunt. She tries again. "I could use a hand outside. You could run the wheelbarrow for me, and maybe the work will clear your mind." She's at her motherly best, trying everything to cheer me up. Even Megumi, her zigzagoon, is working on me - standing on her hind legs and pawing at my knee for a response. I push the raccoon away.
"Look," I tell them, "I appreciate everything you've done - letting me stay with you and all - but I'm just not in the mood. I need to take a walk."
Linda's eyes betray a hint of shock. "It's terribly early, Virgil. If you're going beyond the village gates, I'd feel safer if you took Beatrice with you." The little wurmple nesting atop the kitchen cupboards gave a frightened squeak at the suggestion.
"Thanks, but I won't go far," I lie. At the door, I add, "and I will come back." My last attempt at escape taught me just how futile it was to leave the safety of Littleroot. Beatrice would serve as a fine diversion from the outside horrors, but only once. After you've been eaten it's hard to stay helpful.
Outside, I scan for the glow of lights and find only the lanterns of the night watchmen. Littleroot village is asleep and at peace. Must be nice. If you looked up "small, backwater farming collective" on the Internet, I'm sure you'd find Littleroot as your first hit. If I had Internet out here maybe I could pinpoint this place on a map and find my way back to Goldenrod.
Patch is manning the village gate this morning. (It's a nickname he's earned thanks to the black covering over his right eye.) Patch has gotten better, but he still flinches a bit whenever he sees me. "Mornin', Virgil," he smiles - a forced smile. "You headin' out for a walk too?"
I force myself to grin back. "You betcha!" I've seen Patch without his eye covering and it infuriates me that someone as ugly as he has the nerve to startle at my face. A little sympathy among freaks, maybe? "Think you can open 'er up?"
"Sure! Ain't no problem, Virgil." I'm in the mood for as little human contact as possible, but a tinge of scientific curiosity prompts me to chat up the guard.
"Hey, Patch," I ask, "how long have you been in Littleroot?"
"Me? Three years, give or take."
"And before that?"
Patch stops. His eyes squint and his brow knits in a deep thought. "Well, shucks, Virgil, I can't really remember." Just as expected. Patch laughs it off, though. "Who knows - maybe I came from that fancy Golden city of yours, too."
Not likely, Hillbilly. "Don't matter much to me, though," Patch continues. "Littleroot is my home now, and I'm grateful to be here with Norman and the Leader watchin' out for me."
I nod my thanks and exit the village gates, adding to my mental tally of amnesia victims. There is something seriously disturbing about Littleroot.
When Linda first took me around the village I pegged it as one of these religious farming communities that shun modern technology and the outside world. Candles and outdoor pumps assume the roles of lightbulbs and indoor plumbing, while telephones, TVs and even pokeballs are foreign concepts. The villagers are simple people - they grow vegetables in their gardens, visit their neighbours during the evening and preserve food for the winter months.
The "lost world" story seemed to explain why no one recognized Goldenrod or the cities of Johto: everyone simply grew up and died within the village walls, and after generations they had lost all recollection of civilization. To the villagers, the outside world is Hoenn - an ancient term for Nothing.
Then I started talking to people like Patch and discovered just how thinly the roots of this little town run. No one has lived in Littleroot longer than five years, and while groups will introduce each other as "brothers", "sisters" or "parents and children", just looking at the spectrum of flesh tones informed me that the happy families of Littleroot were all informal adoptions.
As to how they arrived in Littleroot, the phrasing differed but everyone had the same story: "I just sort of woke up in the grass outside of town." The residents greeted them, got them a hot meal and a change of clothes and welcomed them unconditionally into the community.
I'd ask, "Didn't you panic? Weren't you worried about contacting your family and friends?" And the person will just shrug, avert his eyes and pick at his bandage wrappings, muttering something about being "happy with things as they are."
No one can remember who they were or where they came from. It's like there's some poison in the air here that fogs up memory! Maybe I have some slight immunity - that would explain my ragged bits of memory - but my knowledge has only made me the village oddity (well, that and my face); restless and panicky where everyone else embraces the bliss of ignorance. I describe Johto or Goldenrod to these people, trying to spark a recollection, but they just smile, tell me I've got an amazing imagination and that I should become a writer.
I really wish that Norman would make another visit to the village; I'd gladly endure another wild animal attack if it would bring him to our rescue. I really need to talk to someone who understands...
A solid 'clunk' against my foot wakes me from my ponderings. I've traveled a surprising distance from the village, somewhere among the grassy meadows separating Littleroot and neighbouring Oldale. My ruminating has caused me to wander off the main road but has lead me to a nice discovery: an over-the shoulder satchel clinking with goodies. I try it on (finders keepers, duh!), proclaim it a good fit and proceed to rifle through my new treasures when a man's scream cuts through the air.
It's coming from the trees bordering the meadow, and now I see that this satchel is the first in a breadcrumb trail of discarded items: a chewed-up sandal, and then a shredded strip of white cloth direct me into the forest. The ongoing screams urge me through the trees.
You might be wondering why I ran so quickly towards such obvious danger. Well I'd like to know too! Linda had cautioned me about leaving the village beyond the safety of daylight, and I'd seen first-hand what sort of nasty creatures lived outside the walls of Littleroot. I dunno - maybe it was some primal instinct to protect a member of the herd; maybe it was morbid curiosity and the hope to see something exciting after weeks of repetitive chores. Maybe I just took my stupid pills that morning. Arceus knows I would have spared myself a whole mess of trouble if I had just walked away.
Instead, I trampled through the trees towards the snarls of a wild animal and the screams of human misery, pushing into a clearing where I found a fat, bearded man in a lab coat, ("oh," I thought at the moment, "it's that ... Guy. That guy who checks up on everyone's pokemon and smells really bad. That ... Pokemon Professor Guy,") writhing around on his back, begging Arceus to, "GET IT OFF! OH PLEASE, GOD, GET IT OFF!!", and a bloody zigzagoon working its fangs through his left kneecap.
Now, I refer to the animal as a zigzagoon out of pragmatism: I have to give you a working reference, and a zig is the closest living thing it resembles. But please bear in mind that this was not the sort of urban zigzagoon that sleeps under your porch and pries through your refuse bins on garbage day. It wasn't even the sort of wild zigzagoon that nests in tree hollows and competes with taillows for berries.
Because zigzagoons are - on the whole - cuddly, furry and good-natured creatures. They are certainly not black shadows branded with lightning bolt streaks and glowing hellfire eyes. Zigs are also solid matter. This thing moved fluidly like a storm cloud. On my approach it didn't so much as turn to face me as it rotated: head and tail sliding across the body to exchange spots, and legs twisting one hundred and eighty degrees in their sockets. It roared, spraying spittle and human blood over the field.
Fantastic! Never come between a wild animal and its meal; you might just become dessert. I started back-pedaling but the zig matched my every step. It was a homing missile, target-locked and ready to launch at the moment I moved faster than a jog. What was the proper behaviour for this situation? Play dead? Yeah, right. ... Wave my arms and make loud noises? I think the Prof had been plenty loud already. Blast, why hadn't I taken Beatrice? Better that slimy bug sausage than me!
Then I remembered - the satchel! I rifled through it, tossing whatever I could grab at the black monster: a journal, a sandwich, some old binoculars. The Zig didn't care; in fact, whenever my projectiles connected they phased through its vaporous body, ruffling its fur without causing so much as a flinch!
My hand seized a solid sphere - the item that would mark the beginning of my adventure and my misery. Back at that moment it was just another object to toss, but I remember thinking to myself - praying, really - please let this thing hit. Please let it work! Please, just put something between me and that monster!
And then I threw it.
And then I thought, "grenade!", because the sphere burst open in mid-flight and a fiery ball of energy launched out at the black 'goon, hammering the monster off its feet and face-first into a tree. A wet smack would have been satisfying, but the impact only made the zig burst into black smoke.
The sphere flew back into my hand - it ... it was a pokeball! - and the fire missile fluttered to the ground, shaking off its protective flames and raising its curious, coal-black eyes my way. "Tor," it chirped.
A growl. The black cloud had reassembled itself into zigzagoon form and was snarling with freshly stoked rage. The torchic spread her wings and clawed at the ground, daring the zig to "come at me, bro!"
It charged, and the torchic held her ground, storing up energy. The grass under her talons singed and smoked, and I swore I saw flames flicker along her scaly legs. The zig lunged, jaws wide, and at the last moment the torchic sprang into the sky so, while the astonished zig flew through empty air, the fire chick dove downward, raking her super-heated claws through the raccoon's back. The zig shrieked and crash-landed into the dirt. Knock-out!
The torchic was bracing herself for round two but the zig had taken enough punishment, limbs and head scrambled out of their proper sockets like a poorly-assembled Mr. Potato Head doll. It lay moaning in the dirt and then went limp - dissolving into formless smoke that slithered into the earth.
That was when I remembered to start breathing. Crisis resolved, the torchic looked me over, offering another inquisitive "tor?" I zapped her back into the pokeball before she could realize I wasn't her trainer.
"Is it gone?" That was the Pokemon Prof, still on his back and wheezing for air. Too freaked to form proper words, I responded with a vigorous shake of my head. My hands were shaking too. "Good boy. Good work," he panted. "Now lend me a hand, would you, and pass me my leg."
Ah yes, his left leg. Currently it was a bloody stump terminating at the knee cap, little jets of blood squirting out wherever the Prof was unable to clamp down on the wound. Everything from the tibia downward had been tossed into the bushes after the zig had turned its attention to me. "Hurry up, boy, before more of them come!"
That set me racing to the amputated limb - covered in blood and old man hair and still warm to touch. I stripped off my shirt, wrapped it around my hand as a makeshift glove, and even then I only dared grab it with a thumb and forefinger, holding it at arm's length while I ran back, muttering, "ew, ew, ew, oh god," with every step. I tossed it at the Prof, and it fell short. I could tell he was thoroughly impressed by my little girl antics.
"Wow, real brave, kid. Real brave." I tossed it far enough, I suppose, because the magic of Littleroot kicked in at that point and the leg dragged itself through the grass towards the Professor like iron filings towards a magneton. The bone fragments clicked into place (the Prof hissed and flinched), and muscle fibres grew towards each other at super-speed, followed swiftly by a weave of skin. It sounded and looked like the crawling of a thousand slimy maggots but when the ordeal was finished the prof's leg looked fresh and undamaged.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention this last little factoid about Littleroot. You see, whenever anyone gets hurt, be it a paper cut or a scraped knee or - as I've just shown - an amputated leg, the injury heals itself. It hurts like a hot poker, but your injuries always heal.
No one gets hurt in Littleroot. No one grows old, and nobody dies. Happy and ignorant, you have to stay here in Hoenn.
Chapter 2 - A New Hope
"Get a move on, boy! It's the Quick and the Eaten out here and I for one am not contributing any more flesh to the local carnivores!"
Not that you couldn't stand to lose a few pounds, Prof. Believe me, I wanted nothing more than to tear my way back into Littleroot as fast as possible, but circumstances required that I run at a measured pace: at my rear, a forest ready to spring out hundreds of horrid little pokemon like a murderous jack-in-the-box; leading my way, the Professor's rear, emitting body odour on par with the deadliest poisonous pokemon. Seriously, the man reeked so fiercely he must have rubbed a koffing under his armpits every morning. I sure as hell didn't want to be eaten alive, but I was not going to park myself at ground zero when Birch's butt reached critical mass!
I was doing my best to be subtle, of course, but Birch (that was the Professor's name, by the way; thank you, selective memory,) must have caught me pinching my nose and gagging. "Mothballs," he panted over his shoulder, scooping a fistful of the white pellets from his pocket and waving them for me to see. "I always keep them on me. Perfect for warding off wild pokemon; most species can't stand the smell!"
Emphasis on 'most'. "What about the onions? What're those for?"
"That," the professor declared, waggling one of the red veggies in his other pocket, "is to keep humans from coming up to me and trapping me in some long-winded conversation about their boring and tedious lives."
"Ah." Misanthrope much?
Our jog back to Littleroot was spared further attack and conversation; I had that much to be grateful for. Patch pried open the gate at Birch's hammering and I was about to escape to Linda's house, throw myself in bed and write off this morning as a 'false start', but professor Stinks-a-lot had other plans.
"Hold on, there," he said, clamping a hairy palm over my shoulder and inspecting at my wrecked face. "Aha. Just as I thought - you're Linda's boy. So you're the fantastic newcomer that everyone insists on gossiping about - the boy who 'remembers things'. Things from beyond Hoenn."
"I guess. And you're Birch, the village veterinarian?"
"Professor Birch," he hissed, "resident expert of all matters pertaining to botany, zoology, and physiology. So don't you stick your nose up at me because I work with pokemon, kid. 'People' is just a fancy word for 'animal', and I'd be suturing and medicating the whole lot of you if humans actually needed doctors here." He paused to take a very aggressive bite of his onion. "Pwoffesoh!" he spat.
Yeah, I was more than skeptical about those credentials. On close inspection, his lab coat was just a white bathrobe - the kind you could skim off even two-star hotels - and between the sweat stains on his clothes, the wailmer-sized beer belly playing peak-a-boo from underneath his shirt, and the hippie-dippie sandals-'n-shorts on his hairy legs, he looked more like a geek on shore leave from his mother's basement than a 'master of the whatever-ologies'.
"Okay there," I said, shrugging off his sweaty palm. "So whatcha been you studying today, Prof? Local zigzagoon diets?"
Birch snorted, shooting a piece of onion at my nose. "Boy, your sun-crisped little noggin could scarcely fathom what I've been trying to accomplish outside the village. But if I had to phrase it in terms you'd understand, I was looking for pokemon to tame and capture."
"Well that turned out well."
"Exceedingly: first I'm robbed of a leg; next, I'm saved by the boy who's trying to rob my goods. Now give me that satchel!"
Truth be told, I'd forgotten all about the bag, still looped around my shoulder. Birch yanked over his property, muttering something about "kids these days" while he rifled through the contents. He didn't seem to mind the missing items, only showing a small tic when he noted an absence; it was his torchic's pokeball that he was after: cradling the sphere as though it were a fragile egg, cooing and whispering reassurances to the youngling inside while he inspected its capsule for damage.
"Boy, are you a Wurmple or Zigzagoon?"
"Me? Both, I guess, but technically they're Linda's pokemon."
"You've no pokemon?" The way Birch recoiled you'd think I had confessed myself a virgin. He hemmed, returning his gaze to the pokeball while his mind digested this information. "I want you to come with me to my laboratory. Please," he added, and with some effort. "I want to hear about this 'home' you remember."
Birch's "laboratory" was a retrofitted cattle bar on the far end of the village. The main floor was still lined with old, wooden animal stalls and metal cages for more unruly guests. "Cozy place," I lied. I guess this barn doubled as his home and veterinary ward. We climbed a ladder into the hay loft, now a personal office littered with books, stray paper and vials of unnaturally-coloured liquids. "Sit here," Birch ordered, flipping over a bucket and setting it underneath the only window.
"Now," he sighed, "I suppose human etiquette requires me to provide you, a houseguest, with some small confectioneries as a display of greeting and goodwill. Tea and cookies, is it?"
"I'll eat the cookies. I don't know about the tea."
Birch scowled; probably irritated about having to share his big belly's junk food with a fellow animal. "Well you're getting tea anyhow. I'll be back. Don't touch anything."
Of course, as soon as he waddled down the ladder to his pantry, I was up and about - flipping through his books and examining the posters on his wall, particularly the map with a bizarre continent and an accompanying chain of islands.
A yawn from the far corner.
Tucked behind piles of books and boxes, I could just make out a glass aquarium. Following the same stupid, nosey instinct that had lead me to Birch this morning, I inched my way through the protective clutter and knelt down for a look.
The habitat wasn't very big - just a mossy bed of rocks around a tub of water - but the occupant wasn't the type of pokemon to fuss over space: a wrinkled and withered slowpoke, its tail submerged in the empty pool, fishing for non-existent shellders; its body shuddering with every inhale and exhale it forced itself to complete. Had it the strength to lift its eyelids, I doubted the old thing had enough vision or brain-power left to recognize its cramped accommodations.
Still, I gave an appreciative whistle. First a torchic, and now a slowpoke! Okay, neither species was anything impressive, but Birch's pet collection left me in awe - a breath of fresh air in Littleroot's stale animal population. The village was nothing but zigzagoons and wurmples! Each household kept either a little racoon to help with weeding or an overgrown worm for spinning silk and mending clothes. Linda had the good fortune to own one of each critter, (Megumi and Beatrice, in case you weren't paying attention,) and in Littleroot that qualified her as living in opulence. It was weird, though: despite her extra helpers, Linda seemed to work herself twice as hard as the other villagers - she was always up with the sun, starting her chores extra early and then helping her neighbours when she was finished - like some bizarre, self-imposed penance for her house of plenty.
But back to my main point - Birch's exotic animals! This derpy slowpoke was calling out to be, well, poked! I was reaching a hand into the aquarium to tease the water-sloth's tail, but Birch chose that moment to return and loom over me.
The man whipped out a stick and split open my knuckles. Then he yanked me up by the collar. "If you so much as breathe on Chance, I swear to Arceus that the next blow comes with an axe. Got it?"
I barely heard the psycho over the pain in my hands. "I'm bleeding!" My fingers! I couldn't feel my fingers! That crazy man had broken my fingers!
"Oh grow up. Your hands will reset in a moment. See?"
I didn't want to look, so Birch forced my hands up to my face. Sure enough, the torn skin puckered together and my wounds zipped themselves shut at super-speed. My pores even slurped the spilt blood back into my system. Not a drop wasted.
"Better?" Birch asked with a sardonic smile.
Physically, yes, but my mood had yet to improve. "It still stings," I pouted. "Thanks, Doc. I'd love to see how you heal your patients."
Birch snorted at my ignorance. "You don't heal in Littleroot, Virgil. If you've hurt yourself, your body doesn't get better after an accident. You reset. Return to default." Birch handed me my tea and dropped his generous backside on the box nearest his slowpoke's aquarium. As he sat, his shirt rode up over his beer belly and I could just make out the three parallel scars raked across his gut.
I quivered. Reset? Back to default? What was I, a character in a video game ready to spring back, good as new, after a 'game over'? Contemplating the idea brought that nightmarish itch to my face again - so I shifted gears and started explaining to the Prof everything I could remember about Goldenrod and Johto. Birch wasn't like my ordinary audience, though. His eyes didn't go wide with amazement, and he didn't laugh or "ooh" over the details. He just sat there, hands at his chin, leaning forward and drinking in the details.
"Hoenn," he hemmed once my stories were spent. "That's what people come to this land with - Nothing. Oh, we retain our skills and talents: a carpenter grasps a hammer and understands how to wield it; a baker innately realizes how to prepare seeds and berries for her recipes. And our personalities seem intact as well. We know what we love, what we enjoy, who we hate.
"But our histories - the memories that shape ourselves; I've never met anyone able to retain that crucial information. Except for you." Birch hemmed, scanning me as though I were a puzzle to be unlocked. "Why is that, I wonder?"
I was spared my non-existent answer; saved by the bell, or rather, the bugle. A loud and regal trumpeting rang through the village and a loud voice boomed, "make way for the Imperial legions!"
Birch grimaced, and the disgust on his face told me this was an unpleasant nuisance, but a tolerated one. I turned to the window. Littleroot's gates were flung open wide; thrown back to admit a double column of soldiers in gold armor.
The procession was another blast from the past - plate armor, feathered helmets, and a herald lifting a banner emblazoned with a triangle of blue raindrops. Each soldier carried a long pike as a sidearm but those pointed sticks seemed mostly for show. Their true weapons were their pokemon.
The monsters brought up the rear: snarling, hulking beasts made of spikes, horns and armored muscle. Some I recognized - a nidoking, a rhydon - but the rest were just claws, jaws and feral animal paws, roaring and straining at the ends of their chain leashes.
I'd seen outsiders before, but never a show of force like this! Littleroot was in a panic - doors flinging open and villagers rushing out with baskets of bread and vegetables; bowing and groveling before the armored guards and depositing food in a ponyta-drawn wagon. "What's going on?"
"It happens every season," Birch grumbled. "The Emperor sends his troops to collect tribute from each village and city; a generosity tax for the privilege of living under his grace and protection."
I had to shake my head to make sure I'd heard him right. "An Emperor? You people have an Emperor out here?" I knew Littleroot was old fashioned, but Emperor? At least have the dignity to call your dictator 'President' or 'Prime Minister' or 'Pokemon League Champion'! "You're talking about the Leader, right?"
"No," Birch corrected, "Leader White is the Emperor's crony, charged with administering the Petalburg region. The Emperor, meanwhile, holds supreme authority over the entire continent and the surrounding archipelago."
This was too much - I was just barely wrapping my head around the idea of shadowy racoons or self-repairing limbs, but now these people lived in an Empire? An Empire that spanned an entire continent? "I'm not in Johto anymore, am I?"
"Johto?" The professor wrinkled his nose. "Oh right, that's what you call your homeland. Well I'd say you're a long ways off and then some."
It was hard to imagine a bleaker moment in my life, and not just because of the memory business. A Lost Village in the woods, I could deal with; just a hop, skip and a jump to the nearest highway and I could hitch-hike back to civilization. But an entire landmass? I looked back to Birch's wall map and the continent so foreign. Had my kidnappers gone so far as to ship me across the sea?
"This is crazy!"
"It's not that bad, all things considered," Birch sighed. "In the other regions, tribute doesn't stop at food - they take workers, too. Here, Norman keeps the pillaging in line."
True enough, I could spy my hero by the town gates, monitoring the forced harvest with fists clenched and mouth scowling. I could see how badly he wanted to sic his vigoroths on the soldiers and cease the extortion of goods, but these thugs of the raindrop banner were beyond his authority. Still, his presence ensured the robbery was civil - if the soldiers ever raised their voices at the peasants, or drew a pike to beat a slower harvester, Norman had only to glare and the assault was cut short. Even the feral pokemon shrunk from the ranger's cold stare.
The harvest continued for some half an hour until the soldiers' cart sunk heavy with food and the villagers' baskets came back empty. Another trumpet blast and the procession marched away, a furious Norman as their escort. I could almost hear the collective gurgle of bellies when that cart passed through the gates. Could you die of hunger, I wondered? Run out of fuel for that wonderful healing process and collapse in the blood from your half-healed wounds?
I was suddenly very eager to see Linda and scarf down every breadcrumb she had left. "How did you guys end up like this?"
"The Emperor rose to power some five years ago. He gathered an army of men and pokemon and marched westward across the continent, crushing all resistance. He parceled the land into regions and left his thugs to administer the law. He takes our food to keep us weak, and he takes the elderly so we'll forget a life before his reign. Five years, and it's off to the mines on Mossdeep."
Ouch, how did you follow up a grim statement like that? "So, uh ... when are you due?"
Birch laughed. "Me? Like I said, Norman keeps the pillaging in line. He has no love for the Emperor, and Leader White prefers to keep his peasants close. I've been around twelve years; how do you think I know all this?"
"Okay, so you remember the good ol' days?"
"And what good ol' days they were!" Birch clapped me on the back and laughed. Great - now I'd done it: I'd set the old geezer into 'rambling' mode!
"You know," Birch began (that's how all adults start their "back in my day" speeches), "people didn't always stay in Littleroot. Nowadays you have to - the patrols pick up any strays they find - but anyhow, people used to go on journeys. Spiritual quests, you might say; wandering the land until you found a place that felt right.
"Me, I had that wanderlust; that 'what's my purpose' sickness. I travelled all over the continent just to figure it out. I sailed out to Dewford, I hiked through the tall grass to Fortree; why, I even dragged my way up Mount Chimney just to get a look at that bubbling lava. I needed to know what this place was and why I was here."
I was awed by the change overtaking the Professor. Recounting his days of travel and adventure lent him a profound appearance, like a wise old sage. So of course he spoiled the mood by leaning back and scratching the brown fuzz on his belly. "But you know," he concluded, "the one who really sorted me out was Steven."
"Steven? Who's that?"
Birch only smirked. "Steven would say he's 'whoever you need him to be'. He's a wanderer; travels all over the land looking for people who happen to be stuck. Then he gives them a push forward. A shoulder to cry on, a set of hands to help with a project; Steven makes it his mission to help others."
Birch rambled on, describing all the times he'd encountered Steven - the jokes they had shared, the adventures they had blazed. This Steven guy sounded like a double plus-good version of Norman: the ultimate do-gooder and according to Birch, Steven travelled with the most exotic and incredible pokemon known to man. A Metagross? Heck, I'd get myself stuck in a mountain of despair if it meant I could meet this guy and his ginormous spider-tank companion! "Wish I could meet him," I confessed.
"Wouldn't we all," Birch snorted, back to his cankerous norm. "This whole island could use one good push out of its Empire-sized rut." He didn't dismiss my comment though; because he folded his hands to his chin, 'hmm-ed', and put his PhD-powered brain to some mighty internal processing.
"If anyone knew how to find Steven, I suppose it'd be the Oracle."
"The Oracle?" I was only just allowing myself to swallow the existence of an Emperor; now these people worshiped some all-knowing gypsy fortune teller? Give me a break!
"The Oracle," he nodded. "She's a wise woman who (if she's still around) lived in Rustboro. It's a sort of sacred city, out to the west. Beyond the Emperor's control. People say she knew everything there is to know about this land."
"Everything?" I murmured, the gears of my own brain churning. "So she would know how to get me home to Johto?"
Birch made an uncomfortable grunt. "Theoretically ..."
I was up on my feet and pacing with excitement. "Why didn't anyone tell me about this Oracle lady sooner? How do I get to that city? Rustboro, right? Is it -"and then it clicked. Birch, of course, felt obliged to spell out all the obstacles in my path:
"Rabid, monstrous pokemon; soldiers recruiting for the labour camps in Mossdeep, and, for the especially unlucky, roaming crazies from Cult of Aqua, hunting for new converts. My wistful Virgil, you wouldn't survive half a day out there -" and then he gave a little pause. Oh please say it. Please, please, please say it. "Unless ..." YES!
"Unless you happened to have a companion who could keep you safe."
"Tor!" We both turned to the fiery chick, perched on Birch's work desk and flapping its wings as if to agree with the professor. Wait, how had she exited her pokeball?
Birch seemed similarly perturbed by the pokemon's appearance. He rose slowly from his seat and offered his forearm to the torchic as a perch. She accepted unquestioningly, hopping onto his sleeve with a trusting, "pic, pic!" The professor gave his bird a final, fond scratch under the chin and then turned to me.
"I believe this little lady belongs to you."
"Seriously?" But the little hen had already sprung to the air; I just barely cupped my hands in time to offer her a landing pad. My own personal attack animal! I'm king of the world! Still, I suppose protocol required me to offer a token resistance. "No, really," I hemmed, "I couldn't!"
Birch snorted. "Of course you could! You were going to steal my bag, after all. Take the bloody bird before I have to chase you out with that axe! And take these too."
A wooden box was dumped onto my lap. The torchic repositioned to my shoulder so I could unclip the lid and open the chest of red and white orbs.
"More or less," the professor shrugged, and on closer inspection I noticed that the spheres were actually the hard, lumpy shells of local fruit - hollowed out, fitted with a reflective, metal interior and painted the traditional capture ball colours. "Steven helped me with the design, ages ago, but now they're just taking up space."
Could my luck get any better? A daughter! I'll bet he's got a hot, blind daughter who's yearning to experience life beyond Littleroot!
"Are you waiting for a goodbye hug, kid? Scram already!"
"Oh ..." Well, two for three wasn't bad. "Um, this torchic - does she have a name?"
"Up to you," Birch shrugged. No name? What, did he wait until his pokemon were old and decrepit before bestowing personal titles?
"All right, return to your ball for now, Robin."
"Robin? Wow, real inventive, kid. Not Jay or Pidgey?"
"Better than Chance. Or Birch," I added, bee-lining for the ladder.
He shouted after me. "Follow the roads to Petalburg and head west through the old forest! Find the Oracle! Find Steven!"
Ten-four to all but that last bit, old man. The only thing I was going to find was my ticket back to Johto.
My plan had been to sneak into the house, grab my spare clothes and a bit of food and vamoose, but my absence during the 'harvest' had put Linda on high alert. The minute I crept through the front door, Megumi started barking and I was caught in a flurry of hugs and "I was so worried" speeches.
Linda took the news better than expected. I figured she'd break down, cry and beg me not to go, but she just seemed stunned. She sat me down, of course; made me tell her the whole story about Birch, the shadow pokemon, and my plan to consult the Oracle two times so she could wrap her head around the crazy scheme.
"-and it's not like I'll be alone. Birch gave me one of his pokemon! Robin can take down anything that gets in our way!"
Linda regarded the little torchic, engaged in a mutual sniff-and-greet with Megumi, while Beatrice quivered at a distance. "It's going to be dangerous, Virgil."
"If there's a chance I can get home, I've got to take it. And it's not like I need your permission."
She finally nodded. "You're right. You have to live your own life." Finally! Open road, here I come! "BUT," she interjected, "I am not letting you or your pokemon out of this house until you've had a proper lunch."
There wasn't much left in the kitchen, but Linda put together sandwich for me and some vegetable scraps for Robin. And while we ate, she paced through the house like a mad-woman, packaging food and folding clothes. It wasn't until she reappeared with a giant knapsack that I clued in. "Whoa, whoa! I can't take all this stuff!"
"It's a long road to Rustburo, never mind Petalburg town," Linda smiled. "You'll need more than the clothes on your back for this journey."
Candles, blankets, a length of rope - everything she had went into the bag. As soon as we were finished eating she whipped off the tablecloth and folded that up too! Linda's house had been modest to begin with, but now it had been picked to the bones. I didn't want her charity, but the knapsack was forced over my shoulders anyhow. "Not too heavy?"
"No," I mumbled. It wasn't my back, but my stomach that felt heavy.
Finally, Linda handed me a strange sort of animal pelt. "Something I've been working on. For your head," she explained.
It was a wig. Soft to touch and made from white slakoth hair, it fit my blistered scalp perfectly. Linda steered me to a mirror and I had to fight to keep my eyes dry. I had hair again. I looked well, not normal - not with a face like mine - but normal-er.
"Not bad," I shrugged. "And it fits. What did you do, measure my head while I was asleep?"
Linda just winked at me. "Mother's intuition."
That soured the moment. "You're not my mom," I growled. "I mean, we're not related or anything. You don't have to do all of this."
She only smiled. "You are welcome here anytime, Virgil." Then Linda did something absolutely unexpected. She called for her pokemon, scooped up her zigzagoon and wurmple for one final embrace and transferred them to my arms.
"Keep him safe," she whispered to her companions. Megumi barked affirmative, and Beatrice - quivering, cowardly Beatrice - looked to her owner, gave her best insect approximation of a nervous gulp and nodded.
I couldn't speak. I was just grateful that Linda had left the bangs of my wig long, so if I tilted my head I could avoid her eye. "When this is done I'll ... I'll bring them back for you."
I whistled for Robin and ran out the door, grateful that red was the normal hue of my face. What is wrong with her? I wondered. Why would you give so much of yourself to a stranger?
"Argh, this will take twice as long carrying this dead weight on my back! And now I've got to look after you two useless lumps, don't I?"
Megumi and Beatrice had time to register a puzzled look apiece before I conked them with capture balls and stuffed them in my pocket. "Thanks a lot, Linda."
Never mind her. It was time to get out of this worthless, backwards Littleroot Village; time to track down this crazy Oracle lady and get me some answers. It was time to go home!
Omigod, there's more of this? I'd given up hope - no, I'd completely forgotten and moved on. This is possibly the most exciting thing to happen since it snowed here last week.
It was in this state of mind that I approached the chapter, and I wasn't disappointed: you fully live up to the expectations raised by chapter one, further building up the wonderful world of Hoenn (if I could call it such) and the fantastic characters of Virgil and Birch.
Actually, a quick point regarding the whole Virgil/Dante thing: I for one would have immediately associated the name Dante with the Commedia, though I'm probably not representative of wider opinions, being as I am terminally weird.
It's a real pleasure when I can write a review and genuinely just heap praise on someone without having to point out more than a few flaws, and that's what I get to do now. Seriously, I'm having to rein myself in so that I don't just start screaming praise at the computer screen; I can't quite describe how much I like this story. It's just too awesome.
Anyway, moving on to the few minor things - and believe me, they really are minor - that I noticed. Here's number one (and also number two, conveniently packaged together):
Problem number two: that semicolon. It can't be there, by the laws that govern its limited existence. You see, if you're not using it in a list, a semicolon can only link two whole sentences that could function separately, rather than one sentence and a subordinate clause, as is done here. You could use a dash instead, which wouldn't involve changing any text at all; alternatively, if for whatever reason you're hell-bent on having a semicolon, I suppose you could reword it so that you could fit one in.
But that's about all I can point out that you might want to address. The rest is great: I can't fault the plot, the characters or the consistency of logic, all common pitfalls for the unwary writer. I love the writing style, which probably accounts for why I love this story so much, since I'm obsessed with style and technique.
I could wax very lyrical indeed here, but I'm going to wrap this up now, or I'll be here all day. All I'll say for the time being is that I very much look forward to the next instalment.
The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World * The Rocket Case * The Rocket Revival
Neither Here Nor There * The Beastman * Coriolanus Rowland's Guide to Pokémon Husbandry
Robin Goodfellow's Christmas Carol * Snow * Stranger Than Fiction
My Trip to the End of Time, by Pearl Gideon * A Smell of Petroleum Pervades Throughout
For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
Thank you once again for your constructive comments, Cutlerine. I've looked over your points regarding bold text and comma use and do I agree with your changes. I'm absolutely stunned, though, that I didn't catch my use of the adjective 'loud' twice in the same sentence! Ack!
This has certainly encouraged me to edit using a printed copy of chapter three. It seems like you miss so many little when reviewing on a computer screen.
Chapter three will be up tomorrow!
Chapter 3 - The Ranger of Petalburg
It took an entire freakin' day to reach Oldale, and when I finally dragged myself through the fortified gates I had gleaned one more clue about my past: I was not the outdoors type.
"Mental note," I panted to my pokeballs, "force you to guys to evolve and make you carry my stuff."
I'd been bracing for a continual onslaught of black zigzagoons - relishing it, really; I had a fire-spewing hell-bird under my command and it was my turn to be the big bad bully - but my deadliest opponent that day was the hot sun beaming down on my head. Linda's hairpiece didn't have much ventilation and I stowed it pretty quickly, preferring to douse my scalp with water from a leather skin. My back was aching, my muscles were burning, and when my wurmple-silk shirt got wet with perspiration, it got itchy!
But I soldiered on. All these little irritations spurred me forward, invigorated my march. "Air conditioning. Showers. Refrigerated water. Gotta get this over with and get back home..."
Oldale wasn't much different from Littleroot: another pious little farming community hiding behind massive walls and watchtowers. The guards let me in unquestioningly - they wouldn't condemn a stranger to the zigzagoon-infested wilderness at night - and I used a letter of introduction written by my "mother" to earn a bed from one of her trading partners. The old woman was puzzled by my journey to Rustburo, but the late hour kept her from pestering me with many questions. I crashed the minute she showed me to my cot, barely remembering to release my encapsulated trio and order them to wake me at sunrise. I wanted to leave before my host could bother me with more talk.
Interesting enough, I was barely sore the next morning. I guess my weary muscles had 'reset', to use Birch's words.
Day two turned out to be another draining and uneventful trek through the Petalburg grasslands. I was starting to wonder if Robin had previously beaten up the alpha zigzagoon, and whether that black puff of smog had warned its pack to avoid the ugly kid with the tiny phoenix. I didn't see a single pokemon all day.
Walking all alone through the middle of nowhere got boring as hell, so I released my team for the company. Beatrice was a killjoy - she and I shared a mutual dislike of the sun, and she wormed her way into the crevices of my backpack to keep cool. Whatever.Her stubby legs couldn't match pace with a human anyway. Now, Megumi could keep up, but she insisted on zigzagging through the grass and darting after whatever sparkly stone or smelly mushroom caught her attention. It was cute the first couple of time she brought me a rock, but as the game climbed into the double and triple digits I had to knock her back into her pokeball or risk losing my sanity.
As for Robin, well, at least she kept quiet. I let her perch on top of my humongous backpack - a crow's nest lookout on the S.S. Virgil. The chick was oddly calm considering her circumstances. "You know," I said to her, "if you're holding down a panic attack and need to freak out, now's a good time to get it over with."
"Nothing to be ashamed of. Abandoned by your owner, kicked out of your safe and comfy home; trapped on a vagabond journey in some bizarro world with a total stranger. Perfectly natural to go nuts and panic." I glanced over my shoulder. Robin stared back, so I took that as a sign to continue.
"You know, I had it pretty bad when I first got here. Thought the villagers had kidnapped me and done something to my face. I went nuts - like, "shut me in a closet and call me 'claustrophobic' nuts". First chance I got, I bolted into the forest.
"Of course, that was when I still thought this was the back woods of Johto. I figured I'd find a highway on the other side of the trees and a truck driver who could take me back to civilization, television and tauros-burgers."
All I found was more forest. The brush grew thick, dark and repetitive until I felt like a cartoon character looping over recycled background frames. I was lost, dehydrated and - lucky me - a wild zigzagoon appeared! One of those black, crazy suckers with a taste for human flesh. It chased me, nipping and clawing at my legs until I toppled into the mud. I thought I was going to die; in fact, the zig was gearing up for the final blow when a new shadow stepped onto the scene.
"End of the line my fine, furry friend."
Norman. Planted between me and my doom: broad chest, square jaw, fists on his hips like a hero out of a Supermon comic. You know that story? The baby Cleffa, only survivor rocketed off a dying planet, adopted by Earth folk and gains superpowers? Fights for truth, justice and the Unovan way?
Bah, Google it, you Philistine!
Well the zig must have been feeling lucky because it pounced. Norman didn't even flinch; he just threw up an elbow and let the beast clamp down on his forearm. Supermon. He even had a cheesy one-liner prepared - "Sorry, stripy, but my friend is not on the menu tonight!" - before he grabbed the 'goon's tail, spun around like a shot-put thrower and launched the black cloud over the tree line.
Norman dusted off his hands - just another day on the job. "You must be Virgil," he said, flashing that honest, farm-boy smile Cleff Kent used in the comics. "Ready to go home, son?"
"When we got back to Littleroot, there was a whole search party looking for me. Linda'd panicked and gotten Norman and the Petalburg Rangers involved. After that, things got bearable. Kinda resigned myself to being stuck in Littleroot, but meeting Norman helped a lot too. When his patrols took him near the village he'd stop by and we'd talk. He's not stuck like the rest of these farm hicks - Norman sees something he doesn't like, he does something about it!
"Anyhow, the point is, if you're scared, well, it gets better." I looked back for a reaction and got a face-full of Robin's tail feathers. Her mind was absorbed by the horizon.
"Fine, then," I growled. But don't think that makes you better than me.
My wurmple was wimpy, my zigzagoon was zippy but my torchic - she had the most unfathomable penchant for trust and curiosity. All day long she kept swiveling her head like a security camera, squinting her black button eyes to get a good look at her new world. If I pulled out a package from my knapsack, Robin insisted on inspecting it first, trotting up to the fascinating trinket and poking her beak into the contents. She was determined to see everything up close.
And she had to stay close. If I let her walk on her own or if I stepped into the bushes for a pee break, Robin would flap her wings and break into little cheeps of distress. "I'm over here, stupid. Relax!" But she would continue to shriek and flail as though the sky were falling until I strode over and knelt before her, offering my palm to nuzzle her head against.
"So that's your weak spot - terrified of being alone?"
I thought I'd get a moment more to gloat, but Robin had already fallen asleep in my palm.
As the capital of the Leader's kingdom, Petalburg town was a proper metropolis. It was no Goldenrod - not by a long shot - but its tightly-packed houses and market roads bustling with foot traffic felt as comforting as a hot slice of home-made pie. Okay, the streets were cobblestone and the vehicles were just carts and rickshaws, but my city-slicker heart went gooey as a grimer now that I could disappear among the great crowds of civilization. Just a little further. Just a little further and I will be home.
Oldale, I had cleared as quickly as possible, but here I lingered. The streets were lined with colourful banners and I could hear music originating from the center of town. A party? What perfect timing! Linda had given me enough dried fruits to last a week, but here I could smell fresh bread and pastries! I recalled my team, adjusted my wig and let my nose guide the way to the celebratory freebies.
Petalburg's central plaza had been converted into a colourful mess hall, with long tables piled high with fruits, dainties and beer kegs. The party, however, was exclusive - reserved for the Emperor's gold-plated soldiers, laughing and joking as they ate and drank everything in sight.
"Disgusting, isn't it?" That came from the fellow on my right. I was one of a large gathering of hungry onlookers, spying on the feasting soldiers and their pokemon from the alleyways. "Those savages march through to our lands, rob us blind, and our Leader makes them his guests of honour. Animals!"
"Save your breath for the local animal," another growled. "The one inside our walls. There's a great, gluttonous ape ruining everything in this town. Just look at what he's done to poor Wally."
"Who's Wally?" I asked. An angry man with a scar through his forehead glared at my ignorance. "Wally White? The Leader's son? The boy caught himself a pokemon and now his father's forcing him to become a ranger!"
"Poor thing," a woman to my left chimed in. "That boy can barely run, let alone fend off an attack from those black devils. I heard Norman tried to talk the Leader out of it and got a hundred lashes for disobedience."
"I heard it was the 'Twenty Breaks'," said another. "Didn't you see how he was limping last week? Whatever he got, it wasn't something to shrug off easily."
Now that got my attention. "Norman? Is he here?"
"Stuck on guard duty at the stables, I think." The crowd gave me directions and I was off and running. I had zero interest in the politics of this backwards island, but if this Oracle really could send me home then this would be my last chance to see Norman, and I owed him above all people the courtesy of a proper goodbye.
"Norman!" I found my Supermon at the town stables, looking tired and frustrated as he hauled pails of water for the thirsty ponytas. The drudgery was probably a punishment handed down by this almighty Leader. As captain of the local law enforcement, Norman had higher callings than watering work horses, and it shocked me to see the anger crackling through the ranger's kind eyes. How long has Norman lived here? I wondered. How long has he put up with this garbage?
I hesitated, but then called again. "Norman!" This time he turned, and it made me proud that I could replace his grimness with an excited smile. "Well I'll be a mankey's uncle! Look who's come on up to the big city, Ling-Ling, it's Virgil!"
"Really?!" gasped a child's voice, then, "Hurray, it really is Virgil!" and a fuzzy cannonball tackled me to the ground for a round of bear hugs. Ling-Ling, Norman's spinda, was anything but restrained. "I missed you super-super much, Virgil! Didja come ta see Wally's celery moaning?"
"You mean 'Ceremony'," Norman corrected.
"Yeah, yeah - that thing! Wally found a super-special pokemon, so Papa's makin' him a pokemon ranger! Isn't that awesome?"
"That sure is something, Ling-Ling." I had to wheeze out that line, what with the little teddy bear bouncing on my rib cage. I'd forgotten how affectionate the little kid was.
"Didja bring me any presents, Virgil? Didja, didja??"
"I did bring a little something. Or better yet, 'someone'." There must have been one goofy grin all over my face as I retrieved my capsules. I'd been wondering how best to show off my pokemon to Norman, and this seemed the perfect introduction. Ling-Ling's jaw dropped as Megumi, Beatrice and then Robin materialized from beams of red light
"Wow, Papa, didja see that? It's magic! And Virgil made some new friends too! Papa, can we go play? Can we, pretty-please?"
Norman glanced my way, and I deferred to him with a shrug - didn't matter to me. "I think that's a great idea, Ling-Ling. Say, why don't you show Virgil's friends the south well? I bet Wally would enjoy the company." The dizzy little spinda wasted no time dragging off my pokemon in a 'follow-the-leader' race, while I stayed to help Norman carry his pails. I didn't ask, but I noticed an obvious limp in his walk.
"A torchic," he exclaimed. "I gotta say, Virgil, you're full of more surprises than a Clefairy's finger. Where'd you find that little lady? And what're those coloured shells you've got?"
"Pokeballs," I explained, letting him examine one of my stock. "Or, at least pretty close to the concept. Where I'm from, we use them to transport pokemon. Professor Birch from Littleroot gave these ones to me. The torchic too."
The capture ball left Norman completely baffled. As he peered and tapped at the storage device I couldn't help but think of primitive Man's first cautious interaction with fire. He handed it back carefully, a little wary of the device, I think. "Birch, huh? You must have tickled that man's funny bone just right. He's patched up my boys a few times, but he's a right prickly pear about lending anyone a hand. Ain't that right, Brutus? Victor?"
Norman's vigoroths grunted in agreement from the back of the stable. (Seemed the brothers needed another round of evolution for the brains to master human language.) Now, I assumed that Norman had brought them along to guard the soldiers' cart, but why did guard duty require the twin apes to haul huge wheelbarrows full of rocks? "Hey, what're you guys doing here?"
Norman flashed an honest grin. "Us? Oh, just a little landscaping project. See, there were all these boulders on the far side of town - taking up some mighty prime farmland, and I figured the Emperor's finest might lend a hand haulin' em away for us."
The vigoroths shared a cheeky laugh, and motioned for me to come close while they opened the soldier's canvassed cart and began swapping loaves of bread for lumps of rock. "You're taking the food back!"
"Well, everything but the top layer," Norman shrugged. "Gotta make it convincing in case one of 'em looks back or takes a snack."
Relief, sweet relief! I'd thought Norman's do-gooder spirit had finally been crushed, but all that anger and exhaustion I'd seen outside were merely the tricks of a clever actor, a mask of humility hiding a hero's drive for justice. "But won't you get in trouble if you're caught?"
"Trouble? Bah, I've sat through this sad spectacle enough times to know how it'll work - the platoon's gonna leave town tonight, every one of them drunk as skuntank in a batch of bad sitrus. They'll head east, over the river, and by the time any of 'em bothers to check under the tarp they'll be too far gone to do anything about it. If they're smart, they'll blame it on a raid by the Cult of Aqua and they'll stay out of trouble for drinking on duty.
"Besides," Norman continued, "taxes aughta be collected for the people's sake, not for some con-man on a far-off island who calls himself the messenger of God."
Clearly this Emperor guy was anything but respected. "But you still follow Leader White?"
Norman exhaled. "Virgil, when you're between a sawk and a hard place, you've got to pick your battles wisely. Don't get me wrong - Walter White is as kindly as a cacturne, and I'd like nothing better than to knock that puppet off his perch, but if we got rid of him the Emperor would only send someone worse. I tolerate him, Virgil. We all have to."
His voice lowered to a whisper. "White's sent me travelling on all sorts of diplomatic missions. I've met the people in charge of the other territories and let me tell you, the way they rule their lands, they make liepards look civilized. These leaders, they look human, but they ain't natural."
The itch creeping into my face told me it was time to change subjects. "So, I heard you've got a new recruit?"
Norman sighed. "Something like that. Wally - that's the Leader's kid - snuck out of the palace about a week back and came home with a pokemon. Well, you should've seen White, the man was happier than a chansey in a cubone's nest. Started ranting about his boy 'finally becoming a man', dragged me off duty and told me I was gonna train his Wally into a great warrior."
"I hear this Wally's a pretty lame ducklett. That it'll take a miracle to make him a ranger."
A laugh. "Well then, they'll just have to call me Norman the Miracle-Maker. Hey, why don't I introduce you him. C'mon!"
We walked over to the south courtyard, where Ling-Ling had appropriated the central fountain into a water park for my pokemon. The spinda's energy was infectious - he'd even convinced Beatrice to join in the splashing and swimming. A human boy was also dancing around in his bare feet, and one look told me that he must have been Wally. Put simply, the boy was a total loser. Twiggy limbs, a pale mop of green hair; heck, his white shirt had more colour than his skin! Not to mention the complete lack of stamina - he put in a good effort splashing around with the pokemon, but he constantly paused to catch his breath, and even the simple act of laughing aloud would be cut short and converted into a hacking cough. I know that taming anything stronger than a zig or wurmple qualified you for the rangers, but I couldn't see any future defender of Petalburg in this genetic reject.
Naturally, I had zero interest in mincing niceness with the kid, but Norman had already called him over. "Wally, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. This is Virgil from Littleroot."
Wally flinched when we shook hands. I didn't grab hard or anything, but when he withdrew his fingers they were black with bruises. "Hullo," he croaked. Literally. The kid looked ten but spoke like a lifelong chain-smoker.
"Um, hi." And then we just stared at each other.
"What happened to your face?"
If I'd been faster, things could have gotten ugly, but Norman put his hand on my shoulder before I could make a move. "Wally," he coughed, "I was just telling Virgil about your new pokemon. Do you think we could meet him?" The boy nodded and toddled off to find his monster, while Norman kept my temper cool.
"He's just a boy, Virgil. He didn't mean anything by it."
I nodded, but didn't reply.
"We're all the same," he continued. "We all have our marks." But why was mine so obvious? A scar, a missing limb, an ugly wound on your chest - all of those were so easy to conceal, and here in Petalburg, as in Littleroot, fashion dictated long, draping sleeves, scarves and cloaks in which to wrap your body. I ran a hand across my face, feeling the rough, blistered remains of flesh. It never hurt outright, just a phantom pain whenever I thought about it too much, and I could see perfectly fine despite the milky film covering my right orb. No, I think what really pissed me off was the obviousness of my deformity. Linda's wig helped conceal my scalp, bald and lumpy with burnt flesh, but short of donning a full-head veil and sweating through the heat, I had to bare my shame to the world. "Look kids, it's Virgil the human marshmallow - somebody stuck him in the fire a bit too long, though. Whoo-wee, look at that sucker burn!"
"Where's your mark?" I asked. Norman deflected my question, though. "Look, here comes Wally. Be cool."
The kid had returned carrying his identical baby brother. Same green hair, same white skin, same uselessly frail body. "This is Delphi," he explained proudly, lifting his trophy to my face. "He's my partner. We're gonna be the best rangers ever! If anyone messes with my dad, Delphi and me are gonna make 'em pay!"
A Ralts. Son of a Steelix, some people got all the luck! I had no illusions about Wally - he was doomed to a lifetime as a pathetic worm, but if he and Norman trained Delphi hard enough, that little nerd would have unlimited psychic potential at his command!
Norman nudged me, so I did my best to smile. "Well gee golly, aren't you lucky, Wally. Finding such a -" fantastic, unstoppable, omnipotent "... neat pokemon."
"It's more like Delphi found Wally," Norman explained. "Ralts are highly empathetic - they can sense strong emotions in other creatures. Grief and rage, they stay clear from that stuff, but gentleness and kindness draw them in like combees towards wild flowers. You can tell a lot about a person by how a Ralts reacts to him."
I was going to interject and clarify how that story was just an old wives tale when Delphi, whose quiet cooing had aggravated into rabid snarling, jumped from Wally's arms and sank his teeth into my hand.
Now, the next part I don't remember quite so well - everything happened all so suddenly and I may have gotten a little carried away in the heat of the moment. Having a wild animal clamp its jaws over your fingers would exasperate the best of us. So I may have reacted a little poorly - screaming and flailing around like a gyrados washed up on the seashore - and I may have acted with a less than healthy concern for Delphi's well-being, swinging my arm wildly and looking for some solid object against which to bash the little beastie's brain. And maybe - emphasis on maybe - while I was blinded to all but my desire to quell the pain, someone with green hair happened to step into the path of my out-of-control Ralts-hand.
So, when you ask me, "Virgil, how did Wally end up flying across the courtyard and hitting his head on the cobblestones?" I can say with absolute honesty that I truly have no idea.
But all of that was inconsequential. What really mattered is that for no good reason I was suddenly dog-piled by a secret service unit of Wigglytuffs and Loudreds, backpack confiscated, hands bound and then dragged across town like I was public enemy number one.
My captors yanked me through the gates of Petalburg's tallest building and tossed me onto the cold marble of a fancy throne room. That was my introduction to Walter White, the much-reviled Leader of Petalburg province.
Everyone had said the man was an animal, but I hadn't realized they'd been speaking literally. The Leader looked like an ape-pokemon, a proto-human with an upturned snout, bald head and all-too beady eyes tucked under a heavy brow. He was fat too, and proud of it, keeping his gold-embroidered robe open to show off his lazy paunch and huge man-boobs.
Seemed I had interrupted during meal time, judging by the trays of food surrounding his throne. White was gorging himself on whole melons, crushing the tough rinds with his bare hands and stuffing the wet flesh into his mouth. Anything too tough to swallow he spat into a golden spittoon strapped to the head of a rather unhappy-looking whismur. Let's just say White wasn't the most accurate shot.
The rangers guarding me didn't like it when I tried to look away - disrespectful, I guess - so I had to lie there on the ground, watching the spectacle until White had eaten his fill. When he spoke, it was in simple grunts. "You making trouble for my boy?"
"He started it." Okay, in retrospect, that did sound pretty lame, but in the heat of the moment it was the best I had.
White flared his nostrils. "Littleroot," he snarled. "I can smell the country stink all over you. There's two rules for your kind. One, keep the food coming." He paused to smash open another melon. "And two, keep the peace. Trouble enough here with wild animals. I don't need trouble from wild men."
White grabbed a golden goblet and drained the wine in one gulp. "My Petalburg town is a civilized place," he warned, while red liquid dribbled down his chin.
"Look, I didn't do anything - it was that stupid Wally and his stupid ralts! Go tie him up, why don't you!?"
That was a mistake. Lesson of the day, kids - you can be an ugly, stupid brute but that does not mean you don't love your children with every fibre of your being. The gloves were off. "We keep no prisons in Petalburg," White warned me. "No need. When men break my law, I make them wear the chain." His little whismur attendant was pulling at some metal links behind the throne. White picked up the little guy, tossing it and its payload at me.
A monstrous iron ball smashed into the floor tiles, followed by a set of heavy chains ending in four spiked manacles. The spikes, fyi, were on the interior of each cuff.
"The chain," White reiterated. "And my rangers toss you into the woods to cool your head. To respect the law, you have to live in a world without it. Nothing builds respect more than a night outdoors."
This was insane; I hadn't meant to hit Wally, even if I did think he was a sniveling waste of flesh! I tried explaining, as calmly and reasonably as I could, what a great misunderstanding this all was, and maybe the threat of torture made my words come out a little panicky.
"Look at you," White snorted, "On your knees and begging for mercy! An animal - biting at the weak, whimpering when you find a foe too strong! Guards, ready the chain!"
White only smiled as his rangers seized me. "To tame the animal within, it has to be taken out. The zigzagoons will take your animal - take it piece by piece!"
I wasn't the one to scream this time. It was Norman. Supermon had come to my rescue again! I didn't expect this new brand of rescuing, though.
Norman threw himself to the floor, a penitent man. "Mercy, my Leader! I beg of you! This is all my fault. In a moment of weakness I grew angry, and Delphi tried to attack me! I'm to blame for what happened to your son! Please, dear Leader, this boy was just a bystander. Wally's pain was my fault!"
"Your fault?" White bellowed. "And just what had you to be angry about, my Captain Norman? Do you find my kingdom unpleasant?
Norman averted his eyes.
White put his monkey brain to hard work, snorting and snuffing over this new testimony. He wanted someone tortured; it was clear as daylight that this monster was starving for screams of misery, but who to choose - a helpless boy framed for an act of violence, or a seditious captain of his troops? The leader chewed his lips and ground his teeth and finally gestured that I be released to the floor.
"We will talk later, Captain Norman. You and I, we will talk of many things."
Norman had been faking his emotions before, but there was no lie in his trembling body or his wide eyes. "Yes, my leader."
"You'll return to the stables immediately," White continued. "But first, you will take this ugly child and remove him from my Petalburg."
"Yes, my leader."
"Boy," White called to me, "Never let me see your face again. The chain is but my first tool of law. Am I right, Captain Norman?"
A spasm wracked my hero's body, and he had to force out his words. "Y-yes, my leader."
Norman escorted me back to the stables, where Ling-Ling and the vigoroths had been left to guard my backpack and my pokemon. I capsuled my team and we left without a word. Even Ling-Ling knew this was no time for banter.
Despite its size, Petalburg could still spread gossip as quickly as a small town. By the time we left the palace, everyone knew what had happened to Wally, and the price Norman would pay for my acquittal. A thousand hateful eyes burned into the back of my neck as Norman lead me through the streets. He wasn't just my hero, I realized. All of Petalburg loved the ranger captain, admired his dedication in raising a team of defenders and respected the pain he endured to keep the citizens safe. Even if the Leader hadn't threatened my exile I knew I'd never be permitted to show my face in the capital again. Not after what I had done to Norman. Wally and his Ralts were among the onlookers shaming me, and the hate twisting through their faces told what would happen if we ever met again.
The town outskirts approached. This was not at all how I had envisioned our goodbye. I couldn't leave with such a silence hanging between us. "So, um, the cart - are you still -"
"Virgil, it's time for you to go home."
I'd been bitten by animals, bullied around and beaten with a stick, but those words cut me with a new and deeper pain. "I'm sorry," I whispered. "I made a real mess of things." Norman just kept walking. "The Leader, he was bluffing, right? I mean, it's not like he really chains people up and throws them into the woods at night, right?"
"Virgil, as a pokemon ranger it is my duty to keep the peace in Petalburg province. So if my Leader ordered it, yes, I would prepare the chain and leave you to the wilds."
We resumed our walk in silence.
"It's strange, though," he continued. "On nights when the Leader orders a chaining, my vigoroths and I get this funny itch to go outdoor camping. We stay up all night and boy howdy, if any wilds come near our camp you can bet we give 'em hell."
Norman looked back at me, flashing that care-free farm boy smile. I didn't know if my tear ducts still worked, or if they were clogged behind charred skin, but I sure felt ready to give them a try. "How can you say that?" I blurted. "How can you be so good all the time? I screwed up - I wanted to hit that little brat - and now you're letting yourself be tortured so I can walk free? How can you act like everything is okay?"
"Everything is okay," Norman smiled. "Because I know you'll be safe."
Wet . They worked. They really did work. "Thank you, Norman."
"A 'thank you' from grumpy ol' Virgil? I guess Wally's training will have to settle for miracle number two."
I managed a laugh. "You're impossible, you know that?"
"And you're a good kid, Virgil. Don't get so hung up on letting your outside define your inside. There's more to you than that."
"And I know. Now come on, it's past noon but if we hurry we can make it to Oldale before nightfall."
"Actually, can we leave by the west gate? I'm not going back to Littleroot."
"Well you sure can't stay here. You heard the Leader."
"I know, it's cool. I'm going to Rustburo."
Well that stopped everything. "Rustburo?" Norman looked at me as though I had just declared myself a member of Team Rocket. "Virgil, you didn't just stop by to show off that torchic, did you?"
I sighed. "This is going to be a long story."
And it was. And when I was finished, Norman wasn't excited for me in the least bit. "Virgil, you've been lucky to make it this far with two house-pets and an untrained torchic, but it's dangerous going any further. As bad as things get here with White, I guarantee you the world past our borders is one hell of a mess worse."
"I know, I know - I've seen the zigzagoons."
Norman snorted. "Zigzagoons! You think zigzagoons are the worst you've got to deal with? I'm talking about people. The folk beyond Petalburg are nastier than a newborn deino. Virgil, why don't you stay here? You're a tough kid, and that bird of yours sounds like she can pack a wallop. The rangers need all the help we can get."
"Are you saying -?"
"Virgil, I can't change anything about the Empire, and we're stuck here with White selling us out to the big boss. It's a messed-up world, but this is my home and I want to do everything in my power to keep the people here safe. What d'ya say? Will you help me, Virgil?"
Virgil. Not "Just Virgil" anymore but Virgil the Pokemon Ranger; Virgil, Defender of Petalburg. Virgil, Norman's Friend. It was such an effort to speak, but in the end, I had to be Virgil of Johto. "Thanks, Norman, but I've got to see this oracle and find my way home."
Norman chuckled. "Home isn't a place, Virgil; it's the people you share your life with." He managed a smile, and I think that however much my refusal disappointed him, my conviction pleased him even more. I wasn't stuck anymore - I was taking action to change my world.
"Now, I'm not gonna say anymore," he continued. "You've gotta leave town and you gotta choose your own path, but I do want you to take something. Think of it as a bit of 'home away from home'." From his red ranger jacket, Norman produced a yellow, handheld communicator. "We call these Pokenavs. Standard issue for all rangers. This one is loaded with my personal frequency. Go to Rustburo, Virgil, but keep in touch. It doesn't even have to be if you're in trouble - just keep me updated. I'll even pass on your news to Linda whenever I'm in Littleroot."
Now it was my turn to look like a dumbfounded caveman. A walkie-talkie. An honest-to-god real piece of electronics! "You're kidding me! How does this work?"
"White orders them from some mechanic out in Mauville. As for the 'how', these things leave me as stumped as a snover in a scyther's den. I'm just grateful that they do work."
I brought the pokenav to my lips. "Thanks Norman," my voice echoed from a receiving unit in his jacket. "I'll call every day."
Norman tussled my hair and gave a final smile for good-luck. "Get going, Johto boy. You've got to clear the Petalburg Woods before sundown."
I nodded and started running. I wasn't sure whether I'd ever get my memories back, but I would fight tooth and nail if anyone tried to take my memories of Norman.
I ran west and left civilization behind me. Petalburg's buildings shrunk beneath the horizon, the cobblestone road decayed into dirt, and an angry ocean of trees rose up like an approaching storm. The road suddenly ended - fully consumed by weeds and claimed once more by the wilderness. All that stood between me and the dark forest was an endless field of wild grass and a wind-weathered signpost that read "Caution! Petalburg Woods ahead!"
The last obstacle between me and the Oracle's sacred city. Moment of truth. I shook out my nerves, sucked in a last breath of air, and stepped into the tall grass.
A black snout popped out of the thicket, snarling. "Well, well," I grinned. "Look who finally decided to show up."
Maybe the zig understood human speech, because its jaws curled a little wider, as though to smirk, and it gave a single bark - the deployment command. Suddenly I wasn't up against just one measly puff of smoke, but a whole thundercloud of black, lightning-branded zigzagoons.
Piece of cake. I tossed out all three of my pokemon even though I knew I would only make use of one. Beatrice took one look at the horde, shrieked and crawled up my leg and underneath my shirt. Megumi made a good effort of growling at her vaporous compatriots, but I could tell she wanted to flee just as badly. Only Robin maintained her cool, tilting her head and squinting as though she couldn't tell what all the fuss was about.
She was about to find out. "Robin, burn 'em up!"
A quick nod, then she was in attack-mode, flapping above the tall grass and firing a hot ember at the lead zig.
A clear miss. The tiny meteorite skipped through the grass.
"What was that? Robin - again!"
She gave me an odd blink but then fired off round two. This volley flew wide and to the right. "Robin, what the hell?"
She turned to my voice, clearly as confused as I. Only she didn't look directly at me, more like off to the side. "Pic?" she called to the empty air. Beatrice started screaming, and Robin repositioned to stare at the new sound. Then the lead zig gave a nasty bark and Robin swiveled again, allowing a second racoon to headbutt her blindside.
Tumbling through the grass left Robin completely disoriented - she resorted to her distress shrieks, flapping and cheeping for her trainer's help, and I could have been a million miles away for all she knew, because although she stared directly at me she was completely alone in her world of sound.
Birch, you two-faced son of a mawile! You didn't give me Robin for help; you gave her away because she's blind!
All this while, the zigs were scampering forward, black lightning crackling through the grass until we were surrounded by an electric fence. Not like this, I thought. I am not letting myself be dragged into the woods to become the self-refilling meat locker for a bunch of mutated raccoons!
"Back off!" I yelled. "I'm the alpha dog, got that? Rawr! Rawr!!" Yes, I actually snarled at them, don't judge me!
"I said, 'Back off'!!" Louder! I've got to be bigger than them! I threw my arms back, sucked in enough oxygen to fill a hot-air balloon, and prepared to scream out my lungs!
The cold, chilling howl of a wolf washed over the field.
Which was odd, seeing as I had yet to exhale.
The zigs found it odd as well. They froze, snouts darting about, trying to pinpoint the hunter's cry. The howls were growing louder. Whatever it was, it was coming closer.
These black zigzagoons did not seem to like surprises. One by one they vanished - literally vanished - bursting into little puffs of smoke that sunk into the ground like a toxic mist. Just what the hell were those things? And just what the hell was this new creature rustling through the bushes? Beatrice squealed, Megumi clung to my leg (I scooped her up and clung back), and Robin -
Robin squinted and stepped towards the sound. She tripped on a rock and fell flat on her face. A shadow stretched out of the bushes.
And then a little black puppy trotted onto the field. No, not a dog - that implied tameness. This was a wolf cub with angry yellow eyes and fangs too long to fit in its jaw. It didn't spare a glance at Linda's pokemon or me, quivering in our little puddles of urine. It smelled chicken. Dumb, easy poultry wriggling helplessly in the grass - Robin may as well have jumped into a greasy bucket with a side order of fries; she was that easy to catch!
The wolf trotted over to Robin, clamped its jaws over the scruff of her neck and pulled the little hen onto her feet.
I blinked. That was a funny way to eat your dinner.
Robin, ever-trusting Robin, could hear the newcomer breathing and hopped over to the wolf cub to chirp a sort of greeting. The pup only snorted in her face and turned away, snout held high and aloof. His body language seemed to be a warning: Don't mess up again, rookie. You might not be so lucky next time.
Then the pup - the poochyena - glared my way, barking once and tossing his snout in the direction of the far-off woods. Well,his posture growled, we going or what?
"Uh ... sure. I guess ... Amon?"
The name had popped into my head. I think I had read it in a history textbook or something. An ancient protector of the poor, or whatever. The name seemed to fit, or at least Amon gave no objection to his new namesake. He took the lead, trotting far enough ahead to avoid socializing, but close enough to cast angry glares back at Robin, checking to see if she was keeping up.
It looked like someone had just found herself a watchdog.
I'm not dead quite yet! I've got a two-for-one update ready.
Chapter 4 - Through Forest and Water
I gladly conceded leadership of the Rustburo Expedition to Amon. The decision was a no-brainer: among the troop his nose and ears were clearly the sharpest, and so were his teeth. Arguing against his credentials would be painful, to say the least. So the little wolf took point, Beatrice hopped onto my backpack, and Megumi and I scampered after our black guide dog. Robin went straight back into her pokeball. I had no further use for her.
"You sure this is safe?" I asked as we entered the forest canopy, greeted by the angry stares of a thousand mummified corpses. Silkoons, Cascoons - I couldn't tell one from the other but they were everywhere, tucked among the tree branches like silk-wrapped security cameras, and their single eyes all looked plenty irritated over our intrusion.
Stepping into that forest made me realize the stupidity of my position. What was I doing? Placing my trust in a random, wild pokemon (a carnivore, to boot) just because he didn't immediately try to eat me? Maybe this mutt was just transferring us to his personal territory so he could avoid the zigzagoon competition. I planted my feet and ordered Megumi to heel. "It's a trap." Sure, pupae-pokemon were immobile, but I knew they kept their spinnerets exposed through evolution. One step further and we'd walk into a firing range lined by needle-spewing turrets. Virgil was paralyzed! He may be unable to move!
Amon noted the widening gap in our party and turned around with a look of annoyance. That's right - I'm on to you, buddy. No easy meals today. "I'm going around the forest," I told him. The wolf snorted, and traced my eyes up to the treetop snipers. "I'll admit your trap was pretty clever. But I'm clever-er!" Or was that 'more clever'? Clever-erest? Ah, whatever.
Clearly, my silver tongue failed to impress Amon. The wolf cub trotted over to a nearby tree and bucked his hind legs into the trunk, rattling its cocoon occupant from the branches. The pokemon crumpled against the ground like an egg shell, and that was all it was - a hollow shell.
"Wait, they're dead?" I reassessed my surroundings - those unblinking eyes were nothing but hardened lenses. I shook down another cocoon and caught it in mid-fall. An entry wound the diameter of a large carpentry nail had been punched through the whatever-coon's dorsal surface, continuing all the way through to its underside. Someone, or something, had deliberately killed each of these pokemon and left the corpses to rot in the trees.
I cast a wary glance at Amon, and the wolf pup just raised a padded paw. I got short claws, moron.
"Right," I nodded. "My bad." Whatever had killed these creatures needed opposable digits to grasp a spiked tool, or an index finger with a long dagger of a nail to puncture the helpless carapaces. And wouldn't it be lovely to meet that murderous chap while strolling through the woods all by myself? "Shall we carry on?" I asked Amon.
The wolf just trotted further into the woods. He was either extremely forgiving or extremely indifferent to my opinions. "Whoa, wait for me!"
We continued on into the forest crypt, Amon's nose picking out a trail where my eyes saw only randomly scattered trees. I kept my ears perked for the sound of hunting animals and, when the foliage ahead shook with movement, I was ready to react.
A chubby little man in a forest-green robe crashed through the bushes. His face was hooded but he couldn't hide the panic in his movement. Amon and I ducked behind a thick tree and watched as a feral, crazy-eyed poochyena caught up with the fleeing monk. There was a brief stand-off - the monk started swinging a broken tree branch, the poochyena's jaws snapped the weapon in half - and then the hooded man kept running.
I glanced at Amon. "Friend of yours?"
Evidently not, considering the angry growl overtaking Amon. The dumb mutt pushed past me and chased after the pair. Blast! This could have worked so perfectly - the green monk distracting the wild dog while we snuck through the forest, but clearly Amon had yet to appreciate the wisdom of helping others help themselves. And he never let me tag him with a pokeball. So against my better judgement I joined the chase, blundering into my first encounter with the Cult of Aqua.
Norman had told me stories about the Cult - a group of lunatics who worshipped the ocean as a living god - and warned me to stay clear of any men or women wearing blue bandanas. "They're animals, Virgil. They won't rest until the whole continent is groveling before their altars, and they don't take 'no' for an answer." When I caught up to Amon, we found the little monk on the receiving end of this aggressive evangelism, cornered by the rabid poochyena and its master, a homeless man with a knife.
No, I take that back - a street person retains his basic human dignity and insists on wearing whole articles of clothing. This wild man with the long hair and bare feet wore pieces of cloth - a shirt and pants stitched together from random scraps of black, white and blue - and the thick, wobbly suture lines declared his total incompetence in the craft of needlework. The Cult, I presumed, kept its wardrobe department severely underfunded.
His head was pretty good looking - once you got past the crazy eyes and the hobo stubble and the seaweed hair, that is. His saving grace was the fancy bandana sewn from sparkling blue silk and emblazed with a nasty skull-and-crossbones emblem. Without it he'd be just a hobo, but that sash bumped up his cred to 'pirate hobo'. Yarr, I guess.
"Defiler," he hissed at the monk. "You dare sully the Ocean with your heretic vessel? Emissary of a false idol, repent your wickedness!"
The monk squealed and hid his face. "Please don't hurt me!"
Well it must have been Opposite Day because the pirate threw a punch that tossed the poor monk off his feet! Then he straddled his prey, flipped out his knife and started with the stabbing. "Heretic! Defiler! Sinner!" The guy had a different name prepared for every thrust!
Now, as thrilling as it would have been to stay and expand my vocabulary, I did have to get to Rustburo. A stealthy retreat seemed in order, but Amon had confused "got away safely" with "angry, audible growling".
The pirate and his dog turned our way. Great! I grabbed Amon and clamped my hand over his snout. "Don't mind us. Just, uh, passing through!" Amon shook free and started barking outright. I didn't speak wolf-speak, but it sounded like there were a few choice words in that mouthful, considering how the pirate pooch snarled in return.
And the hobo? He just smiled and dropped to his knees to pray. "I thank thee, almighty Ocean, for this bounty I am about to receive. Let my blade strike true and deliver unto salvation this second heretic! Barnacle, seize the land-lover!"
Our poochyenas exploded at one another, tackling and biting each other in a tangle of black fur, and the pirate, obviously forgetting proper battle etiquette, licked his rusty blade and charged me!
I turned and ran, and god bless Linda for cramming my backpack with all sorts of useless junk because the first blow would have gone straight through my spine if not for her protective padding. Defense, check. Now it was time for her pokemon to deliver on the offense. "Do something!" I screamed at my zig and wurm duo. Megumi ran up a tree and Beatrice dived into the bushes. "I mean, do something to help me, you twits!" Didn't matter much, seeing as I tripped over a root and fell down face-first.
The pirate yelped. Amon had untangled from his dog fight and clamped his jaws around the cultist's hamstrings. "Vile cur," he growled, swinging his remaining foot into Amon's gut. The wolf cub went flying, out cold.
"Finish the others, Barnacle! The boy is mine!" His poochyena roared affirmative and dove after Beatrice. I heard her signature shriek and little else because now the pirate stood directly overtop me, grinning like a jack-o-lantern, his dagger ready for the plunge. Somebody, help me!
An avian shriek accompanied the blow to my head, but it wasn't a piercing blow; not even a painful blow. Overall, being stabbed with a knife felt a lot like getting slapped by a smelly fish. I opened my eyes and looked up at the underbelly of the white seabird who had claimed my head as her nest.
My attacker gasped with reverence. "A wingull! A daughter of the ocean!"
He collapsed to his knees and I picked myself up, flinching as the wingull dug at my scalp to keep her balance. The pirate and I stood there for a bizarre eternity, both of our faces freaked out beyond reason. We might have remained as statues, but then the gull spread her white, ribbony wings to their awesome length and the sun hit the forest canopy at just the right angle to cast an ominous shadow over the pirate.
He snapped. I'm not kidding; I seriously heard the little cracking noise that accompanies a human brain bursting into confetti. All that crazy, evangelical stabby-stabby business flew out with a scream and he melted into terrified mush "Mercy!" he wailed. "Mercy, oh daughter of the waves! I knew not this child was chosen. I - I must be punished! Punish me!" and when the two of us just continued staring, he took it upon himself to thrust his knife into his belly - once, twice, three times!
A second bird shrieked from the treetops and a navy bullet nicked past the pirate's head, ripping off his bandana. Mortified, he clutched at his nakedness. "My robe!" he screamed, and we both looked to the flighty little taillow dancing through the air with the blue sash in her talons.
The hobo didn't know what to do - he certainly couldn't call himself "pirate-hobo" anymore, not without his sea-scarf. I could see his mind in action: he had to grab the bird, but if he stretched a hand after it, he left his head naked and exposed! He certainly couldn't use his other hand; how else would he be able to stab himself for his transgressions? Maybe if he got up and tried hopping on one leg he could use his foot to swipe at the low-flying bird!
The taillow just chirp-giggled started flying higher. The hobo howled and started hopping after the little bird. "Barnacle, seize that beast! Retrieve my robe!"
Oh crud. I remembered about his mutt just as the enemy poochyena dragged itself out of the bushes. His eyes were unfocused, his legs struggled to keep from flopping over and his chest sported a bloody gash dripping with purple ooze. Barnacle gave a wimpy 'yip' to his master and staggered like an alcoholic after the retreating pirate.
"Return, you demon crow! Give it back!"
I glanced up at the wingull, still perched on my head and quite possibly preparing a 'sky drop' attack if you get my drift. "Um, thanks?" She gave my head a swift peck and flapped over to the bushes. Oh shoot, Beatrice! I jogged after the bird and pushed back the thicket to retrieve the corpse.
We found Beatrice's cowardly body stiff as a railroad spike, and I laughed out loud. A ring of black dog hair was caught around her horn like a crown of laurels. "No way, he jumped right onto your stinger?" Beatrice peaked open an eye, seeming every bit as surprised to be alive. Megumi joined us and started yipping at her long-time companion. I'm not sure what Beatrice squealed in return but it was probably something like, "Are you dead too?"
Megumi barked back. "Girl, you beat his sorry butt."
Beatrice cocked her head, clearly disbelieving. The wingull landed by the wurmple's side and nuzzled the bug in a very maternal way. A woof from behind, and Amon - still smarting from his kick to the gut - gave the little worm a nod of approval. Not bad, kid. Not bad.
Well, you wouldn't believe how proud that little larva looked - puffing up her chest and standing on her hind-most legs as though she was queen of the world! Linda's cowardly little worm was gone, and in her place stood Beatrice the Mighty, Destroyer of the Darkness.
The four of us returned to the forest trail where we found the little taillow standing guard over the green-robed monk. "Um, you okay?"
"W-water," he panted. I looked to the wingull, wondering what part of her belly to squeeze in order to turn her into a seltzer bottle. The glare on her face kyboshed that plan. So I knelt by the man's side and begrudgingly handed over my water canteen. The monk drank it up greedily, tipping back his head until his hood fell. Underneath his cowl, he was a middle-aged man with brown hair styled into a bizarre antenna. His was also bleeding badly, with one eye swollen and black. I only had to endure his ugliness a short while, as the magic of the land shut off his leaky faucet nose and pressed his stab wounds shut, good as knew.
"Many thanks, traveller," he sighed, returning my much lighter canteen. "Resetting -" he stopped, as all people did when they took their first good look at my face. To his credit he recovered remarkably fast. "Well, resetting always leaves a terrible thirst in my throat. I am all right, though. I'll be fine so long as my Mish-Mush is safe."
"You're what now?"
"Woom-woom! " came a little voice from the trees. A slimy, brown mushroom with beady eyes and tiny feet dropped into its master's arms, and the monk squealed in delight like a little girl who'd just been gifted a ponyta.
"Oh, your Shroomish." Now I knew why the monk looked so familiar to me - two pudgy faces, two sets of beady eyes and two odd tufts of hair sprouting off the tops of their heads. He was a mirror match to his pokemon.
"My one and only," the monk beamed. "I dread to think of what might happen if I lost my little Mish-Mush." The mushroom pokemon woom-woomed in agreement. "Mish-Mush and I are in your debt, kind stranger. How can we ever thank you for your timely intervention?"
"Uh, no thanks needed." The monk's face was fresh with mushroom slime from nuzzling his pokemon, and I didn't dare accept as little as a handshake. "I really need to keep moving. I'm trying to find my way to Rustburo."
"Then fortune smiles upon you, dear rescuer! Mish-Mush and I travel to the sacred city as well! Let us be your guiding light through this place of darkness. Barclay, envoy to the Lady Roxanne, is yours to command!"
No, no, no. No more tagger-ons, no more mouths to feed, no more creepy pokemaniacs with uncomfortably close relationships with their grass-type monsters. That's what I wanted to say, but somehow my brain slipped out a question first. "Um, who's Roxanne?"
Barclay was all grins. "Ah, perhaps you know my Lady by her formal title, the Oracle of Rustburo?"
And suddenly I was all grins myself.
Barclay shared his life story as we trekked through the woods. He'd awoken on the continent in a much more precarious situation than I. Instead of a kindly band of villagers, his welcoming party had been the darkness of the Petalburg Woods, and he'd stumbled blind and hungry through the forest maze for days.
"It was the Lady Roxanne who found me, parting the trees from my path and leading me to the sacred city. Words cannot describe the kindly face that cast aside the forest - a countenance robed with such radiance that I knew her to be an emissary of light!"
Barclary worshipped his rescuer and quickly joined the religious order that served the Oracle. From there it was years of sweeping floors, preparing tea and thanklessly slaving after a beautiful lady like a grade-A nerd. Since the Emperor's rise to power, though, Barclay and his brethren had been assigned greater responsibilities.
"The Lady Roxanne is forbidden from passing beyond the walls of the sacred city. As such, my brethren and I travel the land in her stead, reporting on what has become of her beloved realm. I am sorry to say that, more often than not, I am a bearer of bad news."
Barclay and his brothers had been returning from the island of Dewford when their ship had been ambushed by the Cult of Aqua. The other monks had been captured; only Barclay and his shroomish managed to escape to land, and even then it had seemed a futile effort until a wonderful boy had appeared, summoning his magnificent winged pokemon to cast the horrible demons back to the darkness.
Barclay, you may notice, had a penchant for poetic exaggeration.
We stopped to make camp once the sun dimmed. Barclay showed me how to clear the ground of flammable moss to construct a fire pit. While he rummaged through his pockets for matches, I summoned Robin and stood her atop our collection of twigs until her body heat forced combustion.
"Most magnificent," Barclay beamed. "Fire without the need for flint or matches! What a wonderful companion!"
It was the first time I'd released Robin since entering the woods and I capsuled her as soon as her job was done, tossing the pokeball over to the monk. "She's a useless piece of junk and you can take her if you like. She's blind."
I shared my own fanciful story, explaining how a monstrous snorelax of a man had conned me into taking a cross-country hike through zigzagoon country with the promise of protection from a noble warrior of fire. "Oh, Birch must be wetting himself with laughter right now. A dumb kid in the middle of the forest hedging all his bets on a bird with dead eye sockets."
Barclay listened cautiously, and when I'd ended my rant he sat Robin on the ground and ran some weird tests on the bird, panning his index finger across her face, left to right, up and down. "Her sight is weak," he concluded, "and the world must appear to her as a frightful haze. But surely you jest when you say -"
"I meant it. You can keep the lousy bird."
The idea horrified Barclay. "Good Virgil, my duties would place her in the line of danger! I could never abide risking the life of an innocent. No, this pokemon must remain by your side."
I grabbed my pokeball and aimed it at the bird. "Keep her or I toss her. Your choice."
"Virgil, be reasonable. The pain of losing a pokemon is ... unbearable."
Sure, for a bleeding-heart pokemaniac like you. Barclay tried arguing some more but I was firm. Robin ended up in Barclay's lap, and though she couldn't see, the way she hung her head showed she had some appreciation that I no longer wanted her. What did it matter, anyway? I could afford to ditch one dud chicken after assembling my sizable menagerie of battle beasts.
There was the newly-courageous (or arrogant) Beatrice, regaling Megumi and Mish-Mush with the story of how she'd slain the pirate hellhound, complete with pantomime actions and battle cries. The wingull stood at the back of the audience, using her beak to groom Megumi's coat free of leaves and burrs. As soon as she heard Robin's mournful cheeps, Trisha - that's what I was calling her - hopped over to the chick's side, nuzzling and cooing to the little bird with motherly affection. Trisha eventually calmed Robin enough to eat, and guided the blind bird to the food I'd laid out, chirping at Robin if she ate too fast, or in bites to big.
The taillow, Winry, kept half an eye on Beatrice's showmanship, but the flames of our campfire drew her true attention. Human tools fascinated her. The minute she'd spied Norman's shiny pokenav, she'd snatched it up in her talons and started fiddling with the dials, chirping in delight when it released a beep or static crackle. She'd totally messed up the radio settings, but even after I'd shooed her away and yelled at her for ruining my link to Norman she was still eyeing the shiny gadget in my lap, probably waiting for me to fall asleep so she could tinker with the machine some more.
Amon sat at the edge of the edge of the fire's light, glancing at us only to confirm that no invaders had breached his perimeter. I had my hunting dog, I had my aerial bombers; I didn't need a third meat-shield.
"You have a most envious ability," Barclay sniffled, his sudden tears glistening in the fire. "To be able to live for yourself, to walk away from a companion without regrets. If only I had that strength." Then he started sobbing outright. "My brothers are gone - prisoners of the Cult. I could have saved them but I fled! I don't deserve to live! I'm a coward!"
While Barclay blubbered into the sleeves of his robe, Trisha and Megumi, and then the whole pack gathered at his side, nuzzling and pawing at the monk to calm him down. Back at the edge of camp, Amon glared at me. Shut him up before he brings the whole forest over here.
"Um, hey," I coughed. "It's okay. I mean, no one expects you to fight a band of pirates with just a dumb old shroomish. It's his fault for not evolving into something strong!"
Mish-Mush's beady eyes warbled before my accusing finger. Oh no. The mushroom sniffled, its lips trembled, and then it joined its master in bawling its eyes out. Then Robin started crying, and Beatrice started panicking, and Megumi had to work double-time, comforting all the trauma victims. Winry took advantage of the chaos to snatch my pokenav, and Trisha started pecking at my head for causing such a row.
Amon just snorted and wandered off into the darkness.
Merciful nightfall saw an end to our little sob party. Barclay pulled himself together, stamped out our fire and ordered us into the trees. Any zigzagoons out on the hunt would have to work for their meal tonight. Barclay's green robe left him perfectly camouflaged but I felt plenty awkward and exposed. It was impossible to get comfortable, and every shift of my body made the leaves shake noisily. I couldn't be more obvious if I'd hung a neon sign from my neck.
Beatrice growled out assurances to me, puffing up her body and declaring she'd watch all night for danger. Yeah, good luck with that.
When I awoke next morning the trees held one more dead cocoon, and the sky held a golden butterfly reveling in the joy of flight.
Rustburo was unlike any city I'd seen. I could remember reading a book about the Ancient Civilization of Alph and looking at artist renderings of the once-mighty nation. Painters would analyze the skeletons of half-crumbled pillars and temples and imagine how the ancient but advanced metropolis might appear when whole and alive with people. Well imagine no further - I was in the thick of it!
The sacred city was surrounded by a wall of polished rock that curved outward like a bowl or a dish, and inside laid a paradise of green grass and trees. Every dwelling was a temple of smooth, black stone shaped into perfect cylinders or flawless prisms. I brushed my hands over the walls, looking for the edges of bricks, but every building seemed carved from a single, continuous boulder. The roads were paved from a shining, copper-like metal; it was like walking on bronze glass. Winry was looping through the air, overloaded by the architectural wonders.
But the grandest structure was a white tower that rose from the center of the city. "The Oracle's Library," Barclay beamed. "The seat of all knowledge."
A strange, alien monument hovered above the tower: a golden orb braced by four metal poles. The 'legs' connected into the dish-shaped wall so that the central 'body' floated just above the Oracle's library. It looked like a giant, metal surskit had claimed the city as its nest.
The curved walls, the library, the hovering monument - something about their design felt familiar, and behind the fog of amnesia I knew I'd seen this object so often as to make it trivial.
Barclay gave me an hour to roam the city. He had to report to the Oracle, debrief his disastrous expedition to Dewford, and explain about the wondrous champion of justice who had saved his life. Apparently the Oracle was rather selective about the people she met but my heroic deeds would guarantee me an audience.
We had a minor setback as Barclay left - Robin started wailing, a last-ditch effort to stay with me. "No," I snapped as the monk carried her away. "You're with him now."
The incident left my pokemon confused. Clearly, they expected Robin to continue with us. "She's gone," I snapped. "And if you guys don't pull your weight, I'll get rid of you too, got that?"
Megumi, Beatrice and Winry flinched and whimpered. Trisha snapped and dove at my face. Amon had to pin her down until I could find her pokeball, and the bird kept shrieking until the very last. You selfish brat! How dare you abandon her, after all she's done, or something like that. I didn't care.
"Any objections?" Racoon, bird and beautifly hid their heads. I zapped them all back to their capsules, satisfied with the chain of command. "What about you?" Something about the look Amon cast drove me nuts. Always judging; never angry or upset, just calmly observing what a complete and utter wreck I was. "If you've got a problem then you can just leave!"
Amon did just so, turning for the city gates.
I stomped through the city, pleased for once of my hideous face and how it kept people at a distance. Not that the people of Rustburo paid me much attention. Everyone looked so weary and tired, and while their city stood proud and beautiful, even the best-dressed had little more than rags to wear. When I poked my head into a random temple I found rows of sleeping cots, and green-robed monks serving soup to a line of hungry vagrants. These people, were they refugees from the Emperor's war, or something?
A familiar voice interrupted my thoughts. "Virgil!" It was Barclay, clearly exhausted and having run all this way to find me. I grinned. "About time, my man. So, when can I see the Oracle?"
The way Barclay wrung his hands and squirmed like a nervous wurmple should have tipped me off. "I fear the news of my expedition upset the Lady Roxanne far more than I anticipated. The Oracle will not be seeing outsiders today, or in the foreseeable future. Virgil, I am so terribly sorry -"
I didn't stay to listen. This is what happens when you help others - you get saddled with their baggage, clumped together with their failures and tossed aside like garbage. Well I didn't need Barclay's help. I could see the massive doors of the library. There were no guards to stop me, no locks to keep me out. If this Oracle couldn't schedule an appointment then I would book one by myself!
What was the worst that could happen?
Chapter 5 - The Oracle of Rustburo
Running through the Oracle's library made me a sick with vertigo. Each floor was a massive cathedral with stained-glass windows and a tall, vaulted ceiling held up by columns. Bookshelves took the place of pews - towering wooden beasts whose upper contents could only be accessed by rolling stepladders. It was a shrine to the glory of written knowledge, but I couldn't find any faithful monks or devout worshippers with their heads bowed in a good book. My footsteps echoed across ten stories of empty stone. I will find you, Little Miss Oracle, I thought, and you will show me how to get back to Johto!
I could only take so much of the hot and stuffy air though, so I detoured to the nearest window to clear my head. My nausea only doubled when I pushed open the coloured glass.
I was only one story off the ground.
I pulled my head in. Ran back to the last stairwell I had climbed. Confirmed the fifty stone steps I had just mounted, identical in size and spacing to the last nine sets. "It's bigger on the inside."
I ran to the center of the room, to a plaza of reading tables set out for the absent scholars. I needed to sit down and catch my breath. Wild pokemon made from smoke; murderous pirate-hobos, and now buildings that defied all laws of spatial construction. How many more curve-balls did this continent have to offer? And why, from a bird's-eye view, did the temples of black stone with their copper roadways look like computer chips on a green circuit board? Just what made this city so 'sacred' anyway?
My confusion was observed by a giant statue residing in the middle of the study area. Like the Minotauros at the center of the maze, I thought. On previous floors I had seen sculptures of humans or legendary pokemon but this floor featured something more abstract: a giant polygonal block resembling a man's head. Its eyes were shut and two stumpy arms covered its ears. It could see no evil and hear no evil, but it sure could smell evil. The monolith was dominated by a gargantuan arrowhead nose painted bright red. The thing was massive - each nostril big enough to stuff with a human-sized booger. Portrait of a man with a bad cold.
That was when I noticed the stacks of books around me, and heard the footsteps of a librarian approaching. A twenty-something girl in a white dress dropped a fresh stack of manuscripts on the table. Finally, someone who could take me to the Oracle! "Excuse me -"
"The records on the far end are ready for re-shelving." Excuse me? She didn't even bother looking at me, just assumed I was a servant or something. Her nose was already wedged into the first book of her latest stack. "When you are finished, bring volumes 9832 A through J. That is all."
The girl took her seat and proceeded to ignore me. Who on Regigigas' Green Earth do you think you are? She may have been older than me but she was nowhere near the age of Barclay or the other monks I'd seen. Some stuck-up, preppy nun-in-training? No, if that were the case she'd have her brown hair tied up and hidden, not dangling in two funny, looping twin-tails. Figure-Eights, I realized. Infinite loops.
Well, whoever she was, she certainly had a knack for speed-reading. In less than a minute she had absorbed all the data from her first book, stacked it on a 'finished' pile and proceeding to the second text. One hand held the spine of the book, the other swept across page after page. Like a scanner lightbulb, I thought. She's a reading machine!
And she kept reading faster with every book. No, not just reading - searching. She wanted to find something in these tomes, something important but each book only frustrated her more. With every futile scan her forehead scrunched a little further, her fingers flipped a little faster and soon she wasn't just stacking her finished books but slamming them angrily.
Finally she snapped - sweeping the books off the table in a fit and dropping her head on the desk. Defeated. Being the knowledge-hungry scholar that I was, I stepped over to inspect the fallen books.
Empty. Every page of every book was a blank sheet.
"Just put them back," the girl whispered, too tired to even look up. "It's the same every day: the silence of a thousand voices, the blindness of a million eyes. We are trapped in a net winding ever tighter."
Was I supposed to say something? Pat her on the back or tell her to keep a stiff upper lip? Yeah, that had worked wonders with Barclay. I figured the best option was to slowly inch away from this awkward mess. Too bad my shoes scuffed so obviously against the floor. "Did you hear me?" the girl asked. "I said put them -" Now she looked up and realized I was not one of the green-robed monks. Her moment of despair had been witnessed by a stranger. "You are not authorized to access this area."
"Look, I don't want any trouble; I just need to see the Oracle."
"Oracle," she sneered back. "That title smacks of idolatry. I am Roxanne, and I am the System Administrator of the 724+ Entralink Network."
I knew that name. "Wait, you're the Oracle?"
The girl glared at me but, like a movie star spotted on a street corner, she knew the game was up. "According to some ... overzealous admirers, yes, I am the so-called Oracle of Rustburo."
I was expecting someone prettier. You know, an exotic beauty adorned in silk and jewels. That or some hideous old crone who'd amassed the wisdom of ages. The Oracle was a college girl. Fancy that. "Well, now that that's settled, I have a super-quick question for you."
"You all do," Roxanne snorted. "And you all expect me to wait at your beck and call, dispensing divine guidance like some automated service machine."
"Well it's not like you've got anything better to do, sitting in a building full of empty books."
"Empty? I am monitoring vital -" she stopped herself, irritated by how easily she had lost composure. "Treat them as equals," she reminded herself. "Treat them as equals." She started over: deep breath, stand up straight, force a perky smile. "How may I be of assistance, good sir?"
I would make this quick. Her eye was already beginning to twitch and go bloodshot. "Well, it's like this - I'm not supposed to be here."
"Yes. Human self-righteousness."
Whatever that meant. "Look, I was kidnapped. Someone drugged me, wrecked my face and gave me amnesia before dumping me out in Petalburg Province. I want to know how I can get back home. I'm from Goldenrod City, in Johto."
"Johto," Roxanne repeated. "Querying. Please wait." She stomped over to a random shelf, yanked out a book and thumbed through the pages. "Johto. One entry found. Category: human settlements. Region-class. Location ..." She stopped. Raised her incredulous eyes at mine. "You retain memory from 724-Prime."
Well suddenly I was the most fascinating little specimen to ever bother the Oracle for knowledge. Roxanne walked right up to me, grabbing my chin so she could twist and look at my face from all angles. "Ow," I winced. Static electricity from her fingers made me flinch, and a hundred little images from my nightmare flashed through my mind. Had she ... made those images appear?
"This is highly irregular," Roxanne surmised, stepping away as though I was riddled with strange diseases. Maybe I was - that irritating itch was returning to my face, ignited by the sudden flush of memories.
"How about my question? How do I get back to Johto?"
Roxanne's reply was simple. "You do not."
"You were brought here with purpose, and you will remain here accordingly."
"Who brought me here? Why?"
"That information is classified under the Lethe Protocol. I've given your answer, now go away."
She was right; she had given me one important answer. "You did this to me! You brought me here!" It was all so obvious - my 'irregular' memories, her knowledge of Johto. She knew. Maybe she hadn't kidnapped me directly but she was in on the conspiracy. "You take me back this instant!" Roxanne merely turned away to pick up her books, calling, "Security." Two armored geodudes seized my wrists, pulling me towards the stairs - away from the Oracle, away from my answers.
"You can't do this to me!" The pokeballs at my belt - if I could just stretch my hand... "You took my face, you took my life; I'm not playing your sick game anymore!" My thumb just barely brushed the access button, and my white wingull materialized into the library. "Trisha, take her down!"
The mother seabird only flapped in mid-air and looked down on me with stormy eyes. Blast, of all the capsules, why her? "Come on, you're my pokemon - help me!" Instead, Trisha landed on a table and watched me struggle. Was she trying to make a point? Show me how Robin felt when she'd been dragged off by a stranger? Well we'd see whose heart could harden the longest.
I tried kicking at one of the geodudes - a useless gesture, but my struggling made the guards ramp up their tactics. They hit me across the back, forcing me to my knees. "Agh!" Trisha flinched. Play through the pain, I thought. She can't stand to see children hurt. Every punch I took made Trisha wince in sympathy. My bones ached, but I screamed as though they broke. "Augh! Tri-Trisha... H-help ... me..." All the while Roxanne proceeded among her books, oblivious to the conflict welling up inside my wingull.
Trisha sprang at the geodudes, scrabbling her talons across their rocky hides while I fought to suppress my smile. Gotcha! Trisha clawed until her flippers came away bloody but the boulders found her no more irritating than a fly. They couldn't even be bothered to brush her away. The seabird moved to a new tactic. She launched herself to the library's roof, fighting against gravity like a missile pushing back an elastic sling, and when her catapult went taught Trisha fired herself at the ground, at the master of the rock-men. Roxanne made it all the sweeter when she heard Trisha's shriek - "What now?" - and turned to meet the oncoming blade.
It was over before the first book hit the floor: Trisha cutting like a knife, Roxanne clutching her face, the geodudes gasping and crumbling to dust. That last part was unexpected, but followed a sort of logic: take out the Big Boss, the little guys fall too.
Trisha landed on my shoulder, panting heavily while she rested against the side of my head. The fight had winded her, and though it hurt her just to breathe she still forced herself to squawk, to coo out some sort of reassuring words to me. My baby... Oh my baby you're all right.
I pushed away her smelly fish beak. "Lay off, mom. I'm fine," which was more than I could say for the great and powerful Oracle of Rustburo, huddled on the floor and covering her face with her hands. "Ready to talk, lady?"
I don't know how else to describe it. You know how your television picture, when the reception's lousy, will jump and twitch while it tries to update its signal? Or when your Internet video is buffering slowly and suddenly skips ahead a few seconds? Well that's what happened to her body. It flickered. One second she was sprawled on the floor, then flicker - she was standing up.
And she was pissed.
Roxanne touched her cheek, traced the wound Trisha had sliced from lip to ear, then flicker. The blood vanished.
That... that was cheating! When Birch and Barclay had healed their wounds it had taken time for the tissues to sew up. This Oracle - her body was like a computer image. All she had to do was hit 'refresh' and she was good as new!
It was time to run.
But I couldn't leave the study area. Flicker. There were no more exits, just a solid ring of bookshelves. I pawed over the leather covers, trying to find a lever for a secret passage. Flicker. My hands hissed and blistered from the sudden heat radiating off the leather covers. The shelves glowed like beds of hot coal, and an echoing voice rang through my skull:
It's time your learned your place, human. Roxanne stood atop a balcony overlooking the floor, an Empress surveying the gladiatorial field. On her chest, a rune like a blue triangle burned with a hot, blue light while she worked her magic over the building. The floor rattled from a quick earthquake and I turned to the blocky statue at the center of the arena. Its jaw had dropped open, shattering the floor tiles, and now black tar gushed from the statue's mouth like blood. I gagged at the stench of iron. Trisha tensed and spread her wings.
The tar didn't move naturally. Instead of pooling over the floor it grew thick, gained height; started shaping itself, and as it assumed a humanoid form I realized it's not a statue, it's a shell. The snail-creature pushed its snaky torso off the ground with two long, skeletal arms; a head bubbled up from the mass, blinked at me with two lantern-yellow eyes and bared its teeth.
Tentacles fired off the monster like harpoons, too fast to react. Too fast for a human, anyway. While I screamed, Trisha threw herself at the oncoming horde. The black tar snared her wings, legs, throat and slammed her into the ground.
Then they started reeling in.
Trisha struggled but the tendrils were too strong, too numerous to fight, and she'd been weakened already. With the last of her strength she flapped and flailed enough to flip her body around and she looked at me, cawing through her strangled throat. Help me! Baby, help me!
I was too busy pulling a table towards the bookshelves. Maybe, with a little height, I could climb over. A spare tentacle put that plan to rest, hacking through the wood and sending me on my backside.
Our eyes met in the last moment. The abomination had her close enough to grab in its skeletal arms and it hugged Trisha into the black tar of its body, forcing her under. Trisha had her wing outstretched, forcing her feathers to push towards me even though I was across the room and sitting dumbfounded while the black monster slithered back into its shell. She didn't give up though, fighting and flailing and holding on to some hope that I would save her. Shrieking to the end.
The maw snapped shut and the library fell silent.
My heart beat double-time through my chest while I waited for the monster to return and lasso me. Waited, and found myself disappointed. Was ... that it? My breathing slowed, I wiped the sweat from my face and looked to Roxanne, expecting to see a grin of sick delight. The Oracle just looked down on me as though waiting. "Are we done here?" I asked. She wanted to scare me, right? Put me in my place? Pretty lame monster, if you ask me, eating a bird but not finishing off the trainer.
Roxanne's lip curled with disgust. She motioned for one of the bookshelves to slide open. My exit. "You horrid little thing," she whispered. "Get out."
Gladly! I started backpedaling for the exit, keeping one eye on the statue, just in case. That, of course meant that I couldn't scan the floor for debris. I slipped magnificently on something round and whacked my butt a second time. What was that?
Wait a sec, when she'd reached out to me had she meant for me to -
Sharp talons dug into my head. "Ahh!" What was this? I'd never felt pain so hot, so intense, not from the worst of my nightmares. My skin burned, my bones buckled; my eyes were ... leaking? Why was I crying? Over Trisha? Hey, I didn't force her to fight; it was her own damn choice to jump at that thing!
To protect me.
She wanted to protect me.
And I could have saved her.
The talons ripped into my chest now. I couldn't stop it. I clawed at my skin, begged the magic of the land to work but the invisible claws wouldn't stop their rampage. Was this what Trisha felt? Had these same talons raked through her chest when she'd seen me hurt?
My baby... Oh my baby...
I let her die, and what for? So I could run away? Get out safely and crawl back to Littleroot? Back to square one? Up on her balcony, Roxanne was growing impatient. "I gave you a command, human, now get out!"
And I snarled back, "No."
The statue's maw dropped and the creature slithered out again, grabbing me by the throat with its sticky hands. "No," I coughed. Not while I still have questions. The gooey fingers kept squeezing but I forced myself to roar, "No, I'm not getting out!" and a black wolf cub matched my roar with its own.
Amon, what was he doing here?
The tar monster dropped me, repositioned its tendrils to strike the snarling pup at the open bookshelf. Amon crouched low, peeled back his lips and bellowed out a roar that shook every bookcase in the library. The monster howled back in its shrill voice but it was impossible to match Amon's ferocity. We had a standoff, and while the tentacles outnumbered the dumb mutt a dozen to one, Amon's every bark sent the monster flinching and inching back to its shell.
That was enough. Roxanne flickered down to the battleground and pulled me up by the neck with inhuman strength. "Another pawn to throw away?" she hissed. "I can eradicate you from existence, piece by piece, and yet this arrogance persists. Why?"
I couldn't speak for Amon; couldn't fathom what brought him to save me. I only knew myself. "I just want to go home," I wheezed.
"Pic, pic!" Amon hadn't come alone. A fiery torchic trotted into the fight, now sporting a cool pair of half-moon spectacles. "Robin?"
"I'm sorry!" Barclay wailed, his footsteps banging through the room. "I tried to stop them, my Lady, but after I put on the glasses, she -" He stopped, spotted the giant tar monster and gave a little squeak before turning tail.
The Oracle looked over my pokemon. I don't think she even once registered them as credible threats but she seemed intrigued by their ferocity, and by how many capsules lined my belt. "You have strength," she murmured, scanning me like a book to be deciphered, searching for some elusive data in my features. "Ah." She'd found it. "You have something to fight for."
Roxanne said no more, but that smug and otherworldly voice resounded inside my head. You could prove useful.
At the Oracle's signal, her abomination retreated into its shell. "Provoke me again, human, and I will labour with great pleasure to recreate the horrors of the Inferno. I'll say it again: you cannot go home. Now put your talents to some greater purpose besides irritating me."
The bookshelves flickered to their original positions and Roxanne dropped me. I'm sure she did something to alter the angle of my impact because I fell on my arm and twisted it to a most unnatural angle. "Augh!"
Roxanne found my mewling quite disgusting. "Why do you humans insist on making those awful noises? That distortion won't terminate a soul, and there is no pain but what you imagine."
I'd had enough with her clinical detachment. "I can feel my bones shifting, lady! That's a lot of pain to imagine!"
Counterpoint: "Any sensation of physical distress on your part is merely a by-product of your time spent interfacing with a flesh and blood container. You react to nerves that no longer exist. Steven referred to it as 'Phantom Pain'."
The Oracle knelt by my side, speaking slowly so she wouldn't have to repeat herself. "Human souls respond ... poorly to the loss of their physical sensory array. To negate this stress, Realm 724+ adjusts human consciousness to assume the last recorded form of your physical body."
"The 'form' of my body?"
"Yes. The body you left behind -"
I could finish the rest. "- when I died."
She didn't contradict me.
"When I died." I said it again, felt the revelation roll over my tongue. "I died. ... I'm dead." The words came out so naturally, they made so much sense. My face, Birch's stomach, Linda's arm. Killing blows. The ability to reset any wound - the dead couldn't get any deader. "And this continent - no, this world is ... the Afterlife?" No, something wasn't right - if this was paradise, why did people know pain and suffering? Why was there an Emperor robbing villages of food and treating his subjects like slaves? "Am ... am I in the Good Place?"
"You are where you deserve to be. The righteous rejoice in the Enlightenment; the wicked perish in the Inferno. As for your kind, those without dedication, without decision; you who waver between allegiance - for your kind there is Hoenn."
"I'm dead," I repeated for the millionth time. "And I've been judged. I'm not good enough to keep, but not worth the bother to burn. So I'm stuck here in this ... purgatory? I have to stay here forever?" Roxanne only walked away to her books, tired of our conversation. I thought of it: forever in Littleroot Village. Never aging, never dying; never progressing. An endless limbo.
"I can't be dead. I ... I shouldn't be dead! I'm only sixteen! What about my family, my friends? What about all the things I wanted to do?" I couldn't remember any of them, but I'm sure I dared to dream great dreams! I crawled after Roxanne, tugging at the hem of her dress. "Please, you have to send me back!" If the Afterlife was real, then surely second chances existed too? "I'm begging you!"
"I noticed. Perhaps you'll notice how little I care. Transfers are not my department."
Ah ha! "So there is a way. A way to go back? Please, I'll do anything!"
A sigh. Had I finally worn her down? "The only way to move beyond this realm," Roxanne explained, "is to conquer the seven sins."
Her dress flickered from my grasp. "Now leave, human. I have work to do." Maybe the stress of a dislocated shoulder caused me to hallucinate, but as she turned away I swore I saw a pair of red wings unfurl from her back and glisten under the window's light like a cloak of rubies.
The image buzzed through my eyes long after her the Oracle left my sight. Left me to face the undeniable truth.
I was dead.
No. My hand curled around Trisha's empty pokeball. I'm just somewhere in-between. Obviously some species didn't have that luxury.
"Glad you made it," I mumbled to the poochyena at my side. Amon just gave his trademark snort and scratched behind his ear. Seems we both had trouble dealing with gratitude.
"And you're back too," I said to Robin. She cheeped happily as I picked her up to inspect the spectacles wrapped around her head. What had Barclay said the other night when he ran his weird tests? Her sight is weak? But not completely gone, I guess. "Maybe you can stick around," I conceded.
I glanced back at Amon. "So, did you bring her here, or did she have to convince you?" The wolf's ears went stiff and he quickly turned away, pretending not to hear. Robin started to cheep a reply but Amon's growl shut her up. Hmm, touchy subject.
"Well, we can't stay here," I said, picking myself off the ground and motioning for the duo to follow. "The Oracle said there's a way back, and I'm going to find it."
There was just one thing to figure out.
"What's a sin?"
Chapter 6 - Shadows in the Granite Cave
I spent three days in Rustburo before I found my answer. Three day sleeping on a hard cot, three days lining up for soup rations and three days reciting the same useless memory fragments to the information-starved monks. Those green-robed guys loved me; I was like a visiting scholar and they scribbled down every detail of this fascinating "other world" I called Johto.
As for Roxanne, I became more of a pest to be tolerated. Barclay was her mouthpiece, and he informed me that the resources of the library were at my disposal. That sounded like a sign of trust, except that every time I left my study table to fetch a new book the heavy thunk of geodude security escorts trailed my footsteps. Yeah, I was not endearing myself to the book-lovers who began to repopulate the facility.
The Oracle's books were either blank or contained gibberish. Opening their covers revealed nonsensical geometric patterns that seemed to shift and gain depth like 3D puzzle images. "Those books contain the Word of God," Barclay explained one night during supper. "Even such indirect contact with the Creator is beyond man's comprehension."
"But Roxanne can read them."
Barclay frowned at my informal address of his Lady. "The Oracle's body bears no scars," he said, and apparently that statement was supposed to reveal some dark and shocking truth about ol' Roxy. What was it with these Rustburo people and their riddle-talk?
The next day Barclay showed me to what I called the 'kiddie section' - a wing of the library housing books written in plain and simple English. From science to philosophy, I could find whatever subject I needed. Apparently this Steven guy everyone kept fawning over had commissioned the wing in order to 'advance the knowledge and understanding of humanity'. I just wish he had thrown in a computer terminal. I may have been in Purgatory but Hell was a library organized under a pen-and-paper catalogue system.
While I spent my days hunting down books about sin, Amon took the other pokemon outside the city for training. It was better for us to keep separate - Megumi and Beatrice kept looking at me with big, anxious eyes that asked Where's Trisha?
I winced. Just thinking about Trisha encouraged those braviary talons to tighten their grip around my skull. The pain had never quite left - there was always this tightness around my chest or a migraine coursing through my brain. Was my body suffering some sort of guilt or post-traumatic stress? But then I had to remind myself that I had no body, and that these things I called hands and feet - even the burnt face that glared at me in the mirror - were just illusions my soul projected to keep itself from going insane. I could sink my 'teeth' into the skin of my 'forearm' - hard enough to leave indents - and watch the bite marks re-inflate to a healthy peach colour. I hadn't the nerve to put a knife to my skin or to chop off a toe, but the results would be the same. I was - no, everyone here was - the amazing Rubber Boy. We could pull or press or 'distort' our bodies all we wanted and this phantom flesh would simply snap back with elastic reliability.
But it would hurt. Oh, it would hurt.
According to the books, a sin was nothing more than a "morally bad act", a corruption. Every time you did something rotten, a black stain grew on the white fabric of your soul like it was a score card to be tallied when you died. Too many black check-marks? Uh oh, you're not getting into Club Paradise. There were also seven deadly sins - actions or attitudes thus labelled because they were catalysts for evil. Indulge in them even a little and they would encourage an exponential growth of wickedness. Lust, Gluttony, Envy, Greed, Sloth, Wrath and Pride. Those were the sins I had to conquer.
None of the books made any sense, though. How was I supposed to 'conquer' a bad deed like Lust? Stand up tall, place my hand over my heart and solemnly swear to never again ogle the ladies? Or Gluttony - "I, Virgil, pinkie-swear promise never to take a second helping of dessert after supper?" What bunk! There had to be some catch, some greater meaning to Roxanne's riddle.
I was not a fan of puzzles, or I lacked the patience to solve an impossible one. Whenever I grew too frustrated to carry on, I started fiddling with Norman's pokenav. Winry had twisted the dial off of the ranger's frequency, but I kept rotating the knobs, sending out a random "hello?" and hoping that I'd hit the right channel at the right time to catch Norman's attention.
Well today I got lucky. "Virgil?" That was Ling-Ling's voice over the comm. "Papa, papa," the little bear shouted. "I think I hear Virgil!" Papa bear took over. "Virgil, is that you? Thank Arceus - I've been trying to reach you for days!"
"Norman, am I ever glad I found you," and I meant every word. Just hearing the ranger's voice filled my spirits; I felt strong enough to shrug off the buzzards pecking at my head. "What about you? Are you ... you know ..." reeling from the agony of torture?
"Let's not talk about that, Virgil." That bad, huh? "You're safe and that's enough to keep me going. Where've you been, what happened?"
I told him everything - about meeting Amon and Winry and Trisha, saving Barclay from the Cult and losing my wingull to the foul mood of a cruel prophetess. I omitted Roxanne's revelation about our collective mortality, of course. The notion of death and damnation in limbo was tough enough for me to deal with; I didn't want to burden Norman with that existential quandary.
"You've been through the fire and back again," the ranger summarized, "but I'm proud of you for sticking up for yourself, Virgil. 'No, I'm not getting out'." He chuckled. "I can just imagine the look on that stuck-up Sybil when you told her that."
"Yeah, but now she won't even give me a straight answer," I moped. "First she says 'you can't go home'; then she tells me 'oh, you can go, just as soon as you conquer the seven sins.' I mean, how am I supposed to do that? Promise to never get angry or be proud again? Nothing here makes any sense!"
There's a literary theory stating that no mystery, puzzle or death-trap is fool-proof until it has frustrated an eight year-old child. Ling-Ling needed only two minutes and he came up with the answer I'd been struggling for days to find. "Papa!" the little bear gasped. "Six plus one is seven! Seven! Virgil's gotta beat up the -"
"Ling-Ling!" Norman's voice was furious. "Not another word. Virgil, just ignore him, he's only fooling around."
Was Norman trying to protect me from something? "Norman, if you or Ling-Ling know anything -"
"It's nothing, Virgil."
"Even nothing's better than what I got! Norman, please. Help me out here."
Norman didn't speak for a long time, and I imagine that back in Petalburg he was fighting with his better judgement. "Arceus have mercy on me," he finally whispered. "Virgil, are you anywhere near a map? It has to be one that shows the divisions of the Empire." Thankfully there was a monk nearby who could show me the intelligence reports his team had compiled for the Oracle. I unrolled a brown parchment displaying the continent and its surrounding island chains. "Look at the provincial boundaries," Norman told me. "Do the math."
The mainland was politically quartered: Petalburg, Lavaridge, Mauville, Fortree. Each territory held two or three major cities under its fold, while the archipelago smiling along the south-eastern shore was divided into a further two territories, Dewford and Mossdeep, with the largest of the islands distinguished and set aside by the stamp of a royal crown. Sootopolis, the Imperial Capital, plus six territories overseen by personal representatives of the Emperor. Seven leaders altogether. "Conquer the seven sins... Roxanne, she wants me to overthrow the Empire?"
"It's just one interpretation," Norman added. "She could be referring to the seven major sea routes, or the seven known cave systems -"
Yeah, but this theory was the only one big enough to fit the bill. I mean, you didn't just hand out resurrections like restaurant coupons, right? A person had to do something grand, something world-changing to rise from the dead, and what quest could be nobler or more heroic than overthrowing an evil dictator and his cronies? "I'm gonna do it, Norman. I'm gonna take down this Emperor guy."
The ranger sounded ready to slap me. "Virgil, don't be pig-headed! You're a tough boy but you're just a boy. These Leaders suppress entire cities with their bare hands. They don't hesitate to torture anyone who so much as whispers dissent."
"You keep saying that, but if this is my ticket home then I've got to try!" Now that I had a quest I wanted to visit these other territories; see for myself just how horrible their rulers were and if they had some weak spot. The people of Petalburg seemed pretty upset with Leader White - maybe I could do something to spark off a revolt. "Besides," I added, "it's not like they can kill me."
Norman's voice was dark and foreboding. "You might end up wishing they could."
He had to concede to my enthusiasm, though. "All right," he sighed. "I dragged you into this trapinch nest; I'd better guide you through it as best I can. I've made diplomatic travels to the other territories. I can give you information about the leaders and how they run their lands. Maybe, if you know what you're up against, Linda and I might get to see you again someday."
"I'm leading a mareep to the liepard's den," he whispered before disconnecting.
I told Barclay I wanted to speak with the Oracle. I had a whole speech prepared about how I wasn't going to take no for an answer but the timid monk just nodded and showed me the way. Apparently Roxanne had assigned me to her VIP list.
"I solved your little riddle," I told her. We were back in the study area where this whole mess began, and my address was directed to the infinity-eight hair loops on the back of the Oracle's head. Special privileges or not, Roxanne was still too absorbed in her meaningless books to look directly at a 'measly human'. "I'm gonna do it. I'll take down the Emperor and his Leaders."
"Oh?" She couldn't care less. To this magical 'thing' dressed up in human skin my war cry held all the threat of a little boy brandishing a toy pistol. That's nice, dear, "and where will your crusade begin?"
I licked my lips. "Dewford," I decided. According to Norman, Petalburg City was still hot with gossip about the trouble I'd rained down on Wally and their beloved ranger captain. Best to start on a clean slate - some place where the name 'Virgil' didn't rhyme with 'mud' and where the local ruler lacked a street-army of citizens eager to knock out my teeth.
Roxanne flipped another page. "You'll need transportation. Barclay, take one of the sailboats and escort this boy to Dewford Island." The monk started and stammered, still traumatized by his last sea voyage and the losses he had endured. "Is there a problem, Barclay?"
Barclay folded up like a Cherrim under rain. "N-no," he peeped. I wonder how Roxanne had first reacted to the news of the monks captured by the Cult. Had she been upset over their loss, or just frustrated that only the most incompetent of her minions had survived? "No problem whatsoever," he whimpered.
"Splendid," Roxanne replied. "Stay with the boy during his travels and provide whatever support he requests. I expect regular reports. You have a bird, yes?"
"Ah, my spearow was, ah ... eaten."
"Then get another. That is all." Our cue to leave. Barclay bowed and scuttled away. "Reports?" I asked.
Roxanne shut her book and moved to the next. "An indulgence. I'm curious to see how long a fool will persist on his errand."
I scowled. "Just be ready to beam me back to Johto when I'm finished."
We shall see, human.
The next morning Barclay and I were loaded with fresh supplies and portaging a small boat through the Petalburg Woods. Amon and Robin guarded the rear. A freshly-tamed pidgey roosted on Barclay's cloak, mirroring the twitchy nervousness of its new master. Plenty to be afraid of, I suppose - the sky heavy with storm clouds, our sea route claimed as pirate waters, and something was following us through the woods. We reached the coast all right, but as we cast off I noticed a black zigzagoon slither out of the grass. The two of us stared at one another across the neutral zone of water, and as the distance between us grew so did the mad grin on the monster's face.
Good riddance, I thought.
The waves grew choppy as we sailed onward but Barclay's had plenty practice as a sailor; he knew how to angles the mast so that we skimmed the water like a motorboat. All I had to do was sit back and try not to throw up. Robin squeaked like a baby every time a wave splashed over the bulkhead. I offered her a pokeball but the fire chick was determined to tough out the storm. She had something to prove, I suppose, but I don't think you get points for bravery if every time you're sprinkled with water you wail and bury your face in poochyena fur.
At last an island of gray rock rose up from the horizon. Dewford. "The waves are too rough," Barclay shouted over the spray. "If I try and take her ashore we'll be smashed!" Is it really that bad, I wondered, or is the scaredy-cat just stalling? Whatever the case, Amon knew what needed to be done. The poochyena took a flying leap into the tempest and started doggy-paddling to shore. Emboldened, Robin fluttered her wings and fell into the drink too, shrieking whenever her head popped above water.
Great, now I've got to rescue her. "I'll circle around and try to find a safe dock," Barclay shouted while I tied my backpack to a floating barrel. "Remember the packages!"
The cold hit me like an electric shock. I don't remember much of my swim, only that the waves did most of my work, tossing me face-first into a beach of rough pebbles. "Everyone still here?" I coughed. The pokeballs on my belt were accounted for, and Amon gave an affirmative bark. Robin fared the worst of us, bent over on hands and knees and coughing up swallowed sea water. Plus she'd lost her glasses. Her talons pat at her face, and then the sand, and then she stopped and felt her face again, realizing her angular, humanoid body with its golden plumage and wings grown into long arms with three razor talons each.
"Combusken," I coughed. "Guess that swim toughened you up." This explained the first of Barclay's packages - a larger pair of glasses to fit her post-evolution face. Robin placed the half-moon spectacles over her pointed beak and turned to Amon for approval. "Corr?" The wolf looked at her for a second longer than necessary, yawned, then trotted down the shore. That poochyena was only half her size now, but no more impressed with this rookie. Robin clenched her new fists, determined to prove her worth and promptly wobbled to her knees.
Seemed that new body would take some getting used to.
A light drizzle had started over the beach, but the thunder up above promised worse to come. We need to find shelter, I thought, but so far Dewford Island was nothing but tall cliffs and pebble beaches. A zubat flapped past our heads, just as eager to escape the oncoming rain. "Hey, those things live in caves, right?" Sure enough, Amon tracked the flying bug to a dark gap in the rock face.
I held out a torch to Robin. During our run she'd been working hard to figure out these new 'hand' things, and discovered she could generate sparks by scraping her talons together. It took her a few tries but we finally had a nice fireball-on-a-stick to illuminate our way. "Maybe this is that place Barclay mentioned. The Granite Cave?" Apparently the tunnel had been a favourite hang-out for this Steven guy, and if I happened to pass it I should leave my second package in the shrine at the back of the cave.
I peeled back the wrapping from a stout, white candle. "Seems Birch isn't the only guy pining for this Steven to show up." The monks and many of the people of Rustburo had carved their names into the wax. Most had simply scratched down a repeated, meaningless phrase: SALVA NOS.
The cave entrance was deceptively small. Inside, the ceiling stretched too high for our meager torch to reveal. I could hear that zubat from earlier flitting above our heads, monitoring the intruders to its home, and I could see an orange glow coming from around the bend. Was someone else taking shelter from the storm? "Blue bandanas," I warned Robin. "Burn 'em if you see 'em."
Steven's Shrine was a large alcove off the main path, every outcropping and ledge covered by the stumpy remains of melted candles. The only light currently shining belonged to the other pilgrim's lantern, and the man carrying it was anything but a dirty sea-hobo; quite the contrary, he was a model for the worst kinds of posh and hoity-toity fashion. His shoulders were draped in a white cloak sporting a pretentious popped collar, while a snooty beret capped his head. Plus his seafoam-coloured shirt was pressed far too tight and unbuttoned far too low for my comfort. All he needed was a stuck-up glameow in a handbag to complete his prissy and pompous ensemble. What an ego trip! Still, it wouldn't hurt to check.
"Are you Steven?" I asked.
The man whipped his head my way, rippling the blue bangs that fell over his face like an ocean wave. "Who, Moi?" Apparently I'd made the most hilarious joke ever because the pretty-boy put his fingers to his lips and started tittering like a patrat. "Am I Steven? Oh you flatterer, you're obviously new to these parts." His smile went ugly. "Yes, you're clearly a greenhorn - I would remember a face like that. Tell me, how do you manage to live with yourself? I mean, short of putting a paper bag over that mess?"
Oh we were going to be the best of friends, I could tell. "Maybe I'm no chiselled bimbo," I growled back, "but at least I wasn't murdered." The guy was close enough that I could see his own disfigurement - his throat had been slit open from left to right, and an ugly scar ringed his neck like a ghoulish grin.
Neck-boy took a step back. "My, my," he hummed, "aren't you clever. Seems you've figured out the entrance requirements to this little playground. Well, I was going to pin you down as one of those Petalburg country bumpkins - I mean, wurmple silk? How gauche! - but now I'm guessing you made a trip to Rustburo, no? Running errands for your little angel? Well, aren't we a pair!"
"Hang on, you know we're dead?" Even Roxanne's monks seemed ignorant of that truth; who was this guy?
Neck-boy tittered again. "Let's just say I'm on the 'need to know' list." He snatched the package from my hand. "What's this, another candle for Saint Steven? Another beacon to light the darkness? Puh-lease!"
I couldn't care less about honouring some dumb shrine, but having something yanked from my hand just pissed me off. I tried grabbing back the candle but Neck-boy kept side-stepping artfully. "Keep-away~" he sing-songed. Seemed his poncey attitude was irritating the pokemon as well. The zubat following me dived into neck-boy's face. "Ugh, you hideous little thing!" He swiped his arm, and the knife hidden up his sleeve sent the zubat tumbling to the ground. Robin ran to the bat's side. The blue fur of its face was smeared red.
Neck-boy mock-gasped. "Oh, I'm sorry, that belonged to you, didn't it? Well, at least now you'll match," he laughed!
Amon growled and the mocker realized how thoroughly he was outnumbered. "Hmph, this hole is getting a little stuffy for my liking. Here, take your stupid candle, it's only dirtying up my nails anyway." He made sure to kick dirt onto my pants as he pushed past.
"Who are you, anyway?"
"Moi? Just an artist and lover of water. I'd say it's been nice meeting you, but we both know you're not as stupid as you look. Ugh, I'm going to have to take an extra long bath to scrub your icky, icky face from my memory. Ta~!"
He even managed to sweep his cape at just the right speed to snuff out my torch. Great, just great.
The heat from a few shrine candles was the largest fire we could afford in an enclosed cave. I stripped off my wet clothes and huddled against the stone wall, cold and miserable from my encounter with that puffed-up bully. Well, most murders occur between friends or family, right? Bet they couldn't stand him back on Earth either.
Robin was plenty distressed too. Neck-boy had managed to slash the tiny zubat exactly where its left eye would grow. If it survived to evolution there'd be nothing but a scarred-up hollow on that half of its face. Robin did her best to hold the little bat to her chest and press a cloth over its wound, but the little bug was too panicked and hyped-up on adrenaline to sit still for her. It broke out of Robin's clumsy grasp and flew drunkenly into the cave tunnels.
"Just leave her," I told Robin. "You did your best."
Evidently, Robin disagreed. With a scowl on her face she jumped to her feet, lit a fresh fireball in her palm and stomped after the wayward bat. "Oh, come on!" Amon was watching the cave entrance so I popped Megumi out of her capsule and sent her after the combusken.
We quickly caught up. I couldn't tell how far Robin had run, but the path she'd taken definitely had a downward slant to it. How deep underground had we ventured? Up ahead, Robin stood still as a sentinel, and at the edge of our combined torch light we could see the wounded zubat, now flopping on the ground, and at the end of its strength. Was Robin enjoying the creature's misery? "Fine," I conceded. "I'll go get it," but Robin threw up her arm to block my path.
She wasn't watching the zubat - she was engaged in a stare-down with the beast just beyond our light. Now I saw it too - a pair of fluorescent eyes that glimmered like diamonds. The creature stood about a foot off the ground but otherwise melted seamlessly into the shadows, its eyes its only tell. Well, that and the hoarse, labored breathing issuing from its maw.
The creature grew bold, reaching an appendage - something odd hybrid of feather and claw - to seize its zubat prey. "Corr!" The fire in Robin's palm blossomed into a miniature sun; the shadow creature hissed and flinched from the light. It was some hideous, hunchbacked gremlin covered in purple slime. A sableye monster? But those diamond-eyed goblins were just urban legends, hoaxes! Sneasels photographed with the camera flash illuminating their eyes. There was no such thing as ghosts!
Then again, this was the homeland for "No Such Things". The fire stung the sableye but it wouldn't back down without a fight, cradling the zubat to its chest and hissing its pointed beak at the fire chick.
"Aou?" Megumi pushed ahead of us, keeping her body low and non-threatening. "Aou?" she yipped at the gremlin. What, was she trying to make friends with the monster? "Robin, burn it before it gets any closer." My combusken only raised her eyes in shock, and pointed a talon towards the slimy cave-beast, demanding that I look closer. Well, so long as it isn't coming near us...
I inched my torch closer, revealing the gremlin's avian features - its beak, pointed for snatching fish; its tail feathers and webbed flipper-feet. Even ribbony bird wings were present, though twisted into something more like human arms, with elbows and wrists and long primary feathers moving as individual fingers. It stood like an old, crippled meinshao with wrists folded up against its chest but it was clearly a seabird. A wingull dunked into a black tar bath.
It couldn't be. "Trisha?"
Linda's zigzagoon yapped at the sable-gull as though they were old friends. Remember? Megumi yipped, and pantomimed scratching burs from her neck. Petalburg Woods? The tarred wingull eased her fighting stance and turned to the spectacled combusken. A single 'caw' gurgled out of her throat, and she raised a wing above her head. You've grown. Robin nodded back.
Megumi knew, Robin knew, and what more proof did I need than the zubat cradled against the gremlin's chest, quiet and trusting as a babe in its mother's arms. The sable-gull drew a claw over the bat's face, smearing down a purple slime that hardened over the wounded eye. She offered the zubat back to Robin, bandaged and sedate. Then she turned to me.
"You died," I whispered. Hooked in like a fish and gobbled down whole. Yet here she stood, a little slimy and with funny glowing eyes but it was motherly Trisha all the same!
"Trisha, you're alive!" I grabbed her by the shoulders, intending to pick her up and joyfully spin her around. What a mistake. Her new body stretched like taffy - everything from the shoulders up lifted with me, while the rest kept rooted to the ground. I yelped and lost my grip. Trisha splattered against the ground as a bird-shaped smear of ooze. By the Light of Arceus, "I - I didn't mean to!" I had to help her up. Help her up before the eagle talons came for me twice as hard. I grabbed her wrist, but her arm only stretched like melted cheese.
That purple slime didn't just cover her body, it was her body. My wingull was a wax mannequin with a toothpick skeleton; if I breathed on her the wrong way she'd collapse into mush! I couldn't help, only wait as this freakish sable-gull tightened the cords holding together her ectoplasmic body and forced herself to resume a three-dimensional shape. The amazing rubber-bird. Appearing randomly in the wilderness after a mortal blow. This wasn't the legendary sableye, this was my reflection.
"You're dead. Dead like me," and whatever soul this pokemon possessed had assembled itself into this freakish imitation of life. A ghost.
Robin and Megumi stared at me, awaiting orders. "She's alive," I panted at them. "Don't just stand there - we're going back up! It's too damp down here, maybe she'll hold up better where it's dry. Go on!" I had to save her. If I made everything all right I'd make the pain go away.
Robin led the way. I hung behind, going side by side with Trisha like a good trainer would. "Come on, just a little further. That's it." Her every step was a Herculean labor. The tar of her flippers stuck to the ground; to walk, Trisha had to peel herself off the granite and quickly lunge forward before her leg could drip back to the floor. Now I understood why she kept her wing-arms tucked against her torso - if they weren't fastened to the slime of her chest they'd flop to the ground like runny ice cream and she'd have to scrape another set of appendages off the rocks.
I knelt and showed her pokeball. "Maybe this would be easier," I suggested.
Trisha dropped her head against my leg - her cheek flattening against my pants - and gave a weak nod. Thank you, she seemed to wheeze. Tired. So tired...
Those invisible eagle talons had eased off my head. Not that it mattered. Trisha's pokeball hung from my belt like an iron weight, my new burden to bear.
Chapter 7 - Dude, Where's My Capitalism?
I'd been psyching myself for all of the oddities awaiting me on Dewford Island, but a marijuana grow-op?
The rain had let up and while the clouds still threatened to burst with a second volley, for now it was dry enough to scrabble up the rocky shoreline in search of settlements. I'd been wondering if the island was nothing but miserable gray rocks when I found myself up to my shoulders in a crop of skunky-smelling plants waving their thin and finger-like leaves in the breeze. Welcome to cannabis country! The fact that I could tell that the plants were pot probably said something about my past life. I was probably really, really into botany.
Robin, Amon and I had to run for our lives at that point. The plantation was patrolled by very angry little meditite monkeys, but they backed off once they saw we were scared and running. Business, nothing personal. For all of Norman's doom and gloom, I figured these Dewford islanders were pretty chill if they bothered to grow so many recreational crops. Their town was probably some tropical resort along a palm-shaded beach. Sure, they were being controlled by a despotic leader but one bad apple couldn't spoil the whole bunch.
Beyond the plantation stood a tall, roadside billboard. The mural depicted a blue-haired surfer dude balancing at the head of a family-sized surfboard. Lined up behind him were a doctor, a teacher, a farmer and three school kids of various skin colours. Everyone was dressed in their occupational uniforms and mimicking their leader's cheesy smile and spread-armed surfing pose. The caption read, "Dewford: Riding a Wave of Prosperity!"
So I was rather stunned to discover the real-life Dewford Town was kind of a dump.
Buildings? Well, there were little huts slapped together from molding, white clay. Infrastructure? I think the more accurate term for the driftwood shacks was 'hovels'. The whole town looked as though a titan had scooped it out of the ocean, dumped it into his jumbo-sized kitchen blender and hit 'puree'. There was nothing here but ruins. As for the residents, I did find plenty of islanders relaxing in the sand but that was because they were too weak to pick themselves up off the street corners. Remember when I pondered the effects of starvation on your self-regenerating body? Well one look at Dewford's citizens told me that hunger wouldn't end you, but your imagined body would suffer from food depravation all the same. The people here were nothing but famished ribs and hollowed eyes.
I opened my radio channel back to Petalburg. "Norman, help me out here. I'm in Dewford Town but this place is completely run down! What happened here?"
"The handiwork of Leader Brawly," crackled my answer. "Dewford's Leader has an interesting way of running things. He doesn't believe in private property. On Dewford Island everything belongs to the state, which gives everyone gets an equal share of everything. The man's like a druddigon sitting on a mountain of treasure. Food, fuel, tools - he hoards it all in his warehouses and rations it out in scraps to those who have meal cards. No one is allowed to have more than anyone else."
"I'm beginning to see why you 'tolerate' Leader White," I muttered.
"Listen Virgil, this is important: if you pick a fight with Brawly -" but I had to switch off my pokenav. One of the stronger residents, a wispy-haired old man who hung off a gnarled walking staff, was making a bee-line for me, staring hungrily with eyes lit up like coals.
"An outsider," he rasped. I tried to back away but the old prune had latched a hand over my shoulder, and hunger and desperation gave him a grip like an iron vice. Amon and Robin growled at his advance. "Nice doggy," he fussed. "No need to growl; I won't hurt your master. But you will get hurt if the Leader's spies find you carrying so many personal possessions," he added. Right, my backpack. The people here had been eyeing me like I was an ice-cream vendor outside the gates of a fat camp. Not only was I loaded with goodies from Linda, but the Rustburo monks had generously topped off my supplies. I had a long journey ahead of me and don't think I was too keen on sharing.
"The name's Zebedee," prattled the old man. "You've come from across the waters, yes? Here, let me show you to Dewford Hall. You can rest there, yes." I didn't have much choice in the matter. The geezer dragged me across town to a larger, semi-decent looking warehouse, which I guess was their community center. Inside, several adults were chatting around a table while their children played with rag-doll surfer dudes. When we entered everyone froze but the silence was only a momentary hiccup - the grown-ups resumed their chat and the children scooted away to the far corner. A bald muscle-man sitting on a storage crate glared daggers at me.
"We don't get many newcomers," Zebedee offered. "They're really all quite nice." I had my doubts, though. I think everyone was calculating how much of their collective food would be diverted to the newcomer's stomach. The only nice-looking parts of this town were the inspirational posters glued over the walls: Dewford: Less is More! Dewford: We Have Nothing to Envy! and Dewford: Real Men Eat Only Two Meals a Day!
Zebedee started asking me questions. "Do you work a skilled trade? It's fine if you don't - we'll find a role for you, newcomer. Here in Dewford, everyone works for the good of the community. Famers send their crops to the Leader, weavers send their clothes, and bakers their bread. Then our Dear Leader, Arceus bless him, decides how these spoils will be distributed amongst the people. This week he's given us butter with our bread!"
In what messed-up world was a slice of lard a cause for celebration? "Well what if I want jam with my bread? Don't you have stores where you can buy extra food, or clothes?" I didn't realize it but my mouth had just soiled the air with blasphemy. The children all gasped; a mother ran to cover her girl's ears. Zebedee pulled me close.
"Everything we have is given to us by our Dear Leader. Trading goods for personal profit is a crime against the state!"
"Well that sucks."
The fire in Zebedee's eyes smouldered. "We have a place for heretics such as yourself," he snarled, and dragged me towards the muscle-man and his crate.
"Good day to you, Brother Zebedee," the bodybuilder growled. "Have you been keeping up with the latest trends?"
"Indeed I have, Brother Samson, and these days there's nothing trendier than Adamant Emerald."
The muscle-man nodded solemnly and rose to his feet, lifting the hollow crate from over a secret staircase. "Perhaps you should acquaint the outsider with our latest trend."
Indeed he would. Zebedee used his walking stick to prod me and my pokemon down the stairs. Yeesh, ten minutes in town and I was already a pariah. How did I keep doing this? I was bracing myself for a cavern of spiky torture equipment or underground prison cells but a hall of shopping kiosks?
Okay, seriously, what was with the unexpected reversals on this island?
"Welcome to the lifeblood of Dewford," Zebedee grinned, now amiable and ready for business. We were in an underground marketplace; no, more like an auction house or a stock exchange with dozens of sellers hollering prices for old vegetables or hand-stitched tunics hidden from the Leader's warehouses. Buyers swapped goods and stuffed them into their robes or anonymous burlap sacks. Once they all spotted Linda's fine tailoring and the mountain of a backpack I carried I was the star of the show!
"Friend, I have oddish leaves for sale! Super-effective against any ailment!"
"Friend, trade me your shirt for these magikarp livers - they're small but a delicacy!"
"Friend, that combusken will only be a burden on your travels! Trade me her for this marvelous bidoof!"
The people here were mad for goods; even Amon's barking did little to keep them at bay. "I thought you guys didn't believe in private property," I shouted.
"A curse on Leader Brawly!"
"Yeah, he's run this town into the ground!"
"What the Surf Boy doesn't know won't hurt him, eh? Besides, he'll never find this place!"
Then the ceiling rattled from an above-ground impact and the muscle-man Samson came rolling down the stairs in a heap. The merchants and hagglers went silent as the assailant plodded into their secret market. It was the spiky-haired surfer dude from the town billboard, looking noticeably less friendly in person. Angry veins throbbed over his forehead like barely-contained monsters, and his teeth ground together so tightly they threatened to snap through his jaw. Like the cigarette butt dangling from his lips, Leader Brawly smoldered with an internal fire.
A second man scampered down after the Leader. "There they are, Dear Leader, just like I told you! They've even brought an outside salesman!" The merchants swore at the turncoat but Brawly silenced the mob with a glare. He dismissed his informant with a loaf of bread, took a final puff of his cannabis cigarette and addressed the crowd.
"So what've we got here, huh? A bunch of money-hungry swinubs rolling in the filth of private enterprise? Stockpiling the wealth we've worked so hard to distribute? Taking advantage of your brother's hunger to cheat him of his day's bread?" Leader Brawly took a long and soothing drag from his joint. "Dude, that is so not cool."
The beach bum started pontificating. "You guys, like, need to mellow out! Embrace the richness that is simplicity! How many times have I got to say it - these 'possessions' you guys love so much? Well they're possessing you! All you people think about is 'stuff, stuff 'n more stuff'! They're spiritual ball-n-chains, man, and they are holding you all back from soaring free like the braviaries!"
Brawly stopped in front of a trembling young woman loaded with bread. "M-my children ..." Brawly shushed her and laid his hand on her head. "Relax," he smirked, soothing as a cool breeze. "I came to this island with a simple message: love your bro, and break bread evenly. That's not hard, is it?" The woman shook her head 'no'.
Brawly smiled, then sucker-punched her face. "So how come you people keep screwin' up, huh? What's it gonna take to ram my gospel down your money-hungry throats?" That cool breeze had whipped into an angry tempest. Brawly's gaze raked over the merchants, daring them to fight back and stoke his rage. The crowd only trembled and averted their eyes. It fell to Zebedee to speak for the people.
"Leader Brawly, you ask us to put our trust in the state, but we can't live on so little!"
"Whoa, whoa - chillax, bro. I explained it all before: we're on a five year plan. Y'see, we spend five years growin' and stockin' up on goods; then we spend five years sellin' the surplus t'the other provinces. We grow the green, we rake in the green."
Another voice grew bold. "But what have we got to sell? You've burned down all our crops and made us farm your worthless smoke weed!"
Brawly snorted and took another toke. "Dude, Mary Jane is a lady of many talents. We can make like, cooking oil, rope, fabric..."
"Those are made from hemp, you ignorant bottom-feeder, hemp! Marijuana is an inferior strain that's only good for sending up in flame!"
Brawly was silent a long while, probably scrambling through his mental filing cabinets to hunt down a non-existent counter-argument. "Yeah, well, y'know that's just like, your opinion, man."
"It's a scientific fact!"
"Yeah, well so's your mom."
Zebedee was at his breaking point. "That doesn't even make any sense!"
"Enough!" The irritation in Brawly's bloodshot eyes had come to a full boil. "Don't think you can distract me with your capitalist mumbo-jumbo, man, 'casue the Brawlster is not for sale. Now, I've asked you dudes nicely to shut down these corporate money farms but you keep going soft. So maybe it's time I gave you all another lesson."
Brawly shut his eyes and closed a fist over his heart. A prayer? That was his trump card? Well it sure unnerved the islanders - everyone was suddenly screaming and trampling over each other to reach the stairs. Maybe these people truly did deserve to starve if they couldn't realize this was the perfect opportunity to dog-pile the stoner! I had half a mind to sic Amon on him when I noticed the blue halo emanating beneath Brawly's fist. No it's not possible. I'd seen that glow before when a certain Oracle had powered up her world-shifting magic. This angry beach bum was another omnipotent, human-shaped 'thing' like Roxanne!
Leader Brawly could sense he still had an audience. "Anyone who doesn't wanna hang ten better get out of the pool, cause it's about to get wet."
I sprinted up the stairs. Zebedee was clanging an emergency bell and evacuating people to the outskirts of town, where the islanders fought each other to claim a perch on rooftops or tall boulders. The sea had boiled into a tempest and a supernaturally-tall tidal wave was surging towards the shore, more than enough to wipe Dewford out of existence. Is he really that crazy? But as the sheet of water neared the island the torrent concentrated itself into a single spout that powered forward like an angry gyrados. The water snake crashed into the shoreline and threw itself at Dewford Hall, annihilating the underground market in a watery explosion.
Droplets from the blast sprinkled the crowd, waking us from our collective stupor. People started wailing - merchants yelled at Brawly's loyalists; bystanders cursed the marketplace resistance and children howled in confusion. If not for his crooked staff, old Zebedee would have collapsed in despair. "This is the way of life in Dewford, outsider. Whatever we build up for ourselves is swallowed by the wrath of the waves." I looked upon the driftwood hovels of Dewford, homes constructed from the flotsam of Brawly's destructive lessons, and Norman's age-old warning surfaced in my mind. These leaders, they look human, but they ain't natural...
A commotion rose over the crowd. Leader Brawly was marching towards us, soaking wet but unscathed. If anything, he seemed re-invigorated by his little shower. "Let this serve as a reminder to you dudes: greed is not good!"
This was the end. My laughable little quest to 'conquer the seven sins' was finished. How could I possibly stand against a demigod who commanded the elements? It was time to sneak away and throw in the towel; settle into a quiet eternity of farming dirt back in Littleroot. While I deliberated on how to spend the rest of my afterlife, Robin was tracking Brawly with her raptor eyes, and when the beach messiah turned his back to address another part of the crowd, my combusken launched a flying kick at the leader's spine.
But Brawly's surfer-senses were tingling. He caught Robin's ankle at the last second and threw her into the ground. "I guess someone here didn't get the memo. You don't mess with the Brawlster!" Amon pounced in for a revenge shot but Brawly just booted the wolf away. "Whose pokemon are these?" The islanders pushed me forward like a sacrificial offering. Now that they couldn't buy my goods, what use was I? Brawly lit a fresh joint and grinned. It had probably been ages since anyone had challenged him directly; I think he was looking forward to this. "You lookin' fer a fight, new kid?"
"No sir! I never saw those pokemon before, sir! I'm not here for any trouble; in fact I was just about to leave!"
"Nobody leaves Dewford," Brawly snarled. "You think you're better than us, huh? Am I gonna have t'knock some humility inta ya? With my fists?" When the crowd failed to chuckle, Brawly sucked his joint dry, whistled and called for his pokemon. "Boxer!"
"Mah!" Somewhere inside the town a door was kicked down. Something terrible had been summoned and its every footstep rattled the pebbly ground beneath our feet. The islanders backed far away from our impromptu fighting arena. I was bracing myself for a mutated abomination to rival Roxanne's tar-statue when a doughy, yellow pokemon with chubby red cheeks and rabbit ears thudded over to Brawly's side. "Dude," I exclaimed, "your Pikachu got fat."
Brawly twisted his face sideways. "Are you high, bro? He's a Makuhita! Oh whatever. Here's how it works, new kid: you wanna fight? That's cool. Boxer flattens your pokemon into the ground, while I use your guts to wax my board. A'ight?"
Let it be known that I was not a stickler for rules. "Winry, Beatrice, Dolce!" Three pokeballs exploded in mid-air and three winged pokemon took to the skies. My beautifly, taillow and newly-claimed zubat all knew their roles, flying over the short-stack makuhita and dive-bombing Brawly's head. The stoner swatted at my flyers but they were all too fast and too agile, spinning around him like a super-sized swarm of gnats.
"Git outta my face! Aw, you are so dead now! Boxer, get that kid!" But with Amon and Robin moving to intercept I could afford a quick time-out to consult my pokenav. "Norman, I kinda got into a fight with Brawly. What were you trying to say before? How do I beat his pokemon?"
The ranger spat out an outraged "What? Virgil, I was saying 'if you pick a fight with Brawly, you're going to lose!' I've seen his makuhita tear a gyrados in half with its bare hands! There's no pokemon alive that can beat Brawly's Boxer!"
Amon and Robin tried double-teaming the doughy sumo wrestler anyway. It looked simple enough to take down - two trained fighters against the fat kid - until the makuhita took a deep breath and flexed. Pecs, abs, biceps, triceps - his body grew hard with muscles to rival a seasoned machamp and his frame puffed up to an incredible bulk! Boxer let their tackles and kicks slam into his rock-solid frame, and then Boxer smashed. Amon and Robin went down in one shot and Boxer started marching towards his next opponent. Me.
By the glowing halos of Arceus, I need a meat shield! I tossed out what I thought was Megumi's pokeball but instead the red sphere puked Trisha over the ground.
Boxer stopped. A mumble rippled over the crowd. Even Brawly's three-on-one fight with my flight crew paused as they all digested this hideous purple slime pulling itself into a humanoid shape. "Who cares what it is," Brawly shouted. "Just smash it!"
Boxer flexed a muscle-bound fist and did just so, bursting Trisha like a water balloon. Not again. I guess the afterlife was a fickle thing for pokemon. Oh, I could feel those eagle talons resuming their grip around my head! The makuhita dusted off his paws and continued his march.
Then he stopped. Did a double take at the purple gum stuck to his foot. The elastic tendril lead back to Trisha's liquefied corpse, even now forcing an arm and snarling head to resurface. Fingers formed around Boxer's ankle and yanked. You don't touch my baby.
Her survival surprised the pudgy wrestler, but ah well - everyone had their 'off' punches. Boxer smashed her again, splattering Trisha's brains over the rocks. Except now he had goo stuck to his fist, and the sable-gull was pulling herself together twice as fast. Boxer delivered a karate chop, splitting her head in half, but that just got his remaining hand wedged into the honey pot of Trisha's chest. He was stuck!
Brawly had picked up a stick and gained the upper hand by swinging it at my flyers. "Work harder, Boxer!" he yelled. "Bulk it up!"
Of course - if an enemy couldn't be defeated by regular smashing, then it just had to be smashed harder! Boxer pumped up his muscles and started pounding at Trisha's core. "Mah!" he roared, pulverizing the helpless sable-gull until she was flatter than a slab of ground meat. The makuhita paused to inspect his work and to catch his breath. A feathery hand bubbled up and slapped his belly.
Oh no you didn't! The makuhita dialed his muscles up to turbo mode, swinging his fists like a concert timpanist delivering his big drum solo. And whenever he grew tired and needed another breather, Trisha formed a cheeky little hand and slapped him across the face, or pulled his ears, or pinched his nipples. Brawly's pokemon kept ratcheting up his anger and his violence - flexing, gritting and straining his muscles until I was sure he'd gone constipated - but this puny little slime thing kept coming back for more!
Enough! The makuhita brought out his last resort, charging Trisha with locomotive speed to deliver a full-force skull bash! And just when he was about to make contact Trisha went limp. A very surprised makuhita flew over the puddle of ooze and into an equally surprised Brawly, and they didn't stop flying until they smashed through one, two and three driftwood houses.
My pokemon gathered around me and we watched the smoldering wreckage. Nothing, not a sign of life. I turned to the assembled crowd to receive their applause. "I did it," I panted. "I beat Brawly!" So why did the islanders look at me like was the scum of the earth?
"The wrath of the waves," Zebedee scowled. "You've damned us all, outsider."
Oh, right, that whole 'psychic mastery over water' thing. Right on cue Brawly burst from his rubble tomb, scarred, shirtless and seriously harshed out of his mellow mood. He thundered towards us with murder on his mind, and just as horrifying as his expression was the killing blow on chest - the flesh below his rib cage had been compacted into his spine, black from internal bleeding and glittering with fragments of aluminum. Wait, I thought Roxanne's people didn't carry scars...
The Dear Leader's sanity had snapped. "Okay bro - No more Mister Nice Brawly. You've just earned yourself a tsunami's worth of whoop-ass! And 'cause this is Dewford," he grinned, "everybody gets an equal share."
Now the crowd was in a true panic. This was the end - the Leader was going to drag them all into the ocean! Loved ones gripped each other and shut their eyes as Brawly clenched the flesh over his heart...
And looked completely lost. He patted his chest, rifled into his pant pockets and searched his neck for a non-existent necklace. "The badge," he panicked. "Where'd it go? Where'd it -" The crash site. Brawly sprinted for the makuhita-containing mound of rubble but Winry got there first, diving at the mess of wood planks and winging back to my shoulder with a necklace pendant in her talons.
"My badge!" Brawly roared. "You give that back you stupid bird or I'll ... I'll..."
"Or you'll do what?" Zebedee snapped. Brawly turned and found himself surrounded by his islanders. They were cold and bruised and starved down to their bones but they all rose with a new strength. This monster had promised their destruction and failed to kill them all. No one understood the mechanics of the change but they all stood united by a powerful truth: the jig was up. Their omnipotent Leader had no more power.
Brawly raised his trembling fists. "Stay back," he warned, but the islanders had thrown off their fear. The mob tackled him and forced Brawly to his knees, holding him down until reinforcements could arrive with strong rope. Brawly roared and raged to the bitter end. "You can't do this! I fed you people, I protected you!"
"And now we'll feed and protect ourselves," Zebedee snapped. "People of Dewford, we are free!"
Their triumphant cheer was intercepted by a lone Clap. Clap. Clap. All eyes turned to the one-man audience lounging on a rooftop, a smarmy little prima-donna with a fancy cape, snooty beret and a slashed throat. Neck-boy.
"Bra-vo~" he sang, pausing to munch from a bag of peanuts. "No, really - that was magnificent. I loved the part where you were all about to celebrate your pitiful little uprising like it actually meant something. Hooray and all. I can't wait until Act Two where the Emperor's soldiers come to grind your faces back down into the mud."
The way the people gasped and screamed, you'd think a platoon of golden-plated soldiers had already arrived. "What, you're all afraid of this poofball?"
"Shut your mouth," Zebedee hissed. "Don't you realize who you're talking to? That's Wallace, the Emperor's Right-Hand Man!"
"And the handsomest corpse in this yard of bones," Neck-boy added, fluffing his hair. "Now then..." Wallace pounced off his rooftop, frightening away those closest as he stalked through the crowds.
"You ought to know I had to depart the capital on account of you wretches! You're late with your tribute, again! Give them some incentive to stay on schedule, the Emperor says. So I sail here to your damp and drafty and miserable little chunk of rock, and every minute I'm away from my manicurist my mind stews up all sorts of lovely little 'games' we can play that will make your existences as wretched as you've made mine!" Wallace had caught up with a group of children, and he pulled the youngest boy up by his hair, forcing their eyes to meet. "And then I find you all celebrating open rebellion against our glorious Emperor..."
And Wallace broke out into his patrat titter, giving the little ragamuffin a playful tug of the cheek. "And I must say this delightful little display of fisticuffs has brightened my disposition considerably. I mean, the audacity of you little mud-hut dwellers - it makes me laugh!" He threw his head back to cackle and the scar around his neck bobbed along in a smile.
Brawly sensed this was his final chance. "Wallace, be a bro an' help me out here!"
"Sorry, Brawly-boy, but the people have spoken and they've found you lacking. Viva la revolution~!"
Wallace shooed away the children and plodded over to me, eyeing the necklace Winry still held. "My, my, you're a hungry young go-getter. Only just arrived and you're already climbing the food chain hmm? I'm marginally impressed; I mean we haven't had a Leader deposed since ... well, ever!" He grabbed me by the collar and put his knife to my eye. "One week. You get one week to settle in, whip these miscreants into shape and then I come back for our Emperor's tribute. Don't disappoint me, Leader Virgil."
Wallace whipped his cape around him and pranced out of town with his nose high in the air. "One week!"
Once they were certain he was gone, the islanders turned their gaze on me. They were terrified, staring with the same hopelessness as when Brawly had raided their underground market. They'd just traded a familiar tyrant for a new evil, and this one came armed with six hideous pokemon instead of one. But how could I be the new leader, I wasn't a ... 'whatever' like Roxanne or Brawly. Did succession have something to do with the necklace Winry had plucked? I took the gold chain from her talons, staring at the dangling medallion. The badge, Brawly had called it. A blue fist clenched in an unspeakable wrath.
I cupped the badge in my hand and the world went black.
When I woke it was evening and Dewford burned with celebratory bonfires. The islanders had decided to make the most of their fleeting freedom, putting torches to Brawly's cannabis plants and rounding up the meditite guards into cages. They'd left me alone in the gravel, unwilling to challenge my pokemon sentinels or the Oracle's green-robed monk. "Barclay?" I muttered.
"I came as soon as I could," he protested. "Of course, between the storm up above and the mountainous waves, my swiftness was somewhat abated. When I saw the fires I thought you'd been lost!" Mish-Mush woom-woomed in tearful agreement.
"Brawly lost," I coughed. Ooh, all that smoke from the fields was making me light-headed. I showed Barclay my badge. "I'm the new Leader of Dewford."
I looked over my assembled pokemon. "For a girl with no eyes you fly pretty well," I told Dolce. The wounded zubat hugged my chest and started licking at my shirt. Okay, a little over-affectionate there. "And Trisha, wow that was nice! Hey, where is she, anyway?"
Robin gestured to the puddle of sludge at the periphery of our group. I tried giving her a congratulatory pat on the ... 'head'. The purple slime only flinched at my touch and spread itself thinner. She felt every blow, I realized, but she kept going no matter how many times that thing ripped her apart. "I uh ... guess you'd better get some rest," I muttered sheepishly. I had something important to do anyway.
The Dewford supply warehouses stood dark and empty, looted by the islander revolutionaries moments after my fainting spell. Now the metal buildings had been converted into garbage receptacles for unwanted trash. Brawly was tethered to a pillar by thick ropes, while metal chains pinned down Boxer. The makuhita had long since given up but I found Brawly struggling and straining against his straps like a wild beast. No one had offered him a replacement shirt and the fibreglass embedded in his crushed abdomen glittered against Barclay's torch.
I took a seat across from the ex-Leader and held up my new trinket. "You wanna tell me how this badge works, bro?"
The stoner spat in my face. "I'm not your bro, you capitalist pignite! Just you wait, I'm gonna bust outta here and mess your face up so bad you'll wish you never had a face!" He rambled on with his meaningless threats but I wasn't afraid of him, and I knew how to work a hungry dog. Brawly shut up the instant I brought out a pilfered tin of hash and some tobacco paper. My fingers knew exactly how to roll the joints and I placed all six of them between us. "Compliments of the state," I smiled.
Brawly made a face. "Ugh, this is that irony thing Winona's always talking about, isn't it?"
I placed the first joint closer to Brawly. "How'd you get this job?"
"By bein' a believer in the revolution, man. I was there when the Emperor started grabbin' power. I fought with him; I was on the frontlines when he knocked down Slateport and Petalburg. The man promised me we'd be the change this world needed, and that he'd give me the power to strip down this money-hungry world 'n create a true brotherhood of man."
I translated. "You were the Emperor's goon. When he took over he gave you a plum position on a quiet island and that shiny badge to enforce your will." Good boy. I gave Brawly a second cigarette. "How does the badge work? How do I get it to make giant tidal waves?"
"The badge doesn't do anything, bro; it just lets you do everything." I'm sure that sounded pretty clever in his head. "It's like a ... a battery, man. You put it on and you can feel the power runnin' through ya. The ocean? It's like I'm wading through a kiddie pool and I can just kick up all the water I want."
"Yeah, well I think it's broken." I gave him a third joint for a good half-answer.
"Honest truth? I couldn't do nothin' with it for a long time. It's like surfin' the waves, man. First few times you're gonna do a major wipe out - you can't even stand up on your board. You gotta get into the rhythm, get used to the water and then it's natural as breathin'."
"And the other Leaders, they all have these badges too?"
"Pretty sure," he shrugged. "I kinda do my own thing here in Dewford. I can tell you I'm the only one who knows how to rock the surf. That 'wrath of the waves' thing? That's a patented Brawlster move."
So they each had their own special 'talent'. One last question. "What memories did it bring back for you?" Brawly squinted as through a fog, so I elaborated. "When I touched the badge, I blacked out. Then I saw things. A scene from my past life."
That got him sjirachiing. "Dude, what have you been smokin'? There's nothin' 'before' or 'after' this world. Life is here 'n now; everythin' else is just Hoenn."
He doesn't know we're dead. Brawly's badge felt cold and lifeless in my palm but it had done something to restore a piece my mind. That flashback, it felt just as real as my nightmare of being tied down in the darkness, and if one badge could restore a single memory...
Satisfied, I gathered up all the joints and left Brawly to scream in the empty warehouse. I was done here. I knew their dirty little secret. Take away the badge and they're just ordinary men.
These Leaders were going to crumble before me.
I love this story - and I never read stories about OCs. Keep on keeping on.
Thanks, Idolizingly. No worries, I'm far from done with this story.
Today's update is the first of the side chapters, wherein the leaders of Hoenn get to tell a portion of their story. I'll be releasing one of these after each of Virgil's encounters against the leaders; hopefully, they'll add some colour and background to these antagonists.
Side Chapter I - The Foundations of Sin
The green-robed monk pours my tea and sets the tray of sandwiches by my elbow. I don't need their human food but it is simpler to accept these tokens in silence than to attempt an explanation of our fundamental physiological differences. I despise their servitude - their bowing and grovelling and idolatrous worship - but at least the humans in this realm refrain from spilling their blood over stone altars or burning animal meat to appease their "Oracle". Weighed against the fanatical stories I've heard, I can tolerate an offering of cucumber sandwiches.
His work is done but the human lingers. I'm practiced at blocking out distractions but this one breathes through his mouth in the most annoying manner. It's him, I think, and when I turn around the antenna hair confirms my hunch. Barky, or some similar name - the human I personally escorted from that maze of a forest; the worshipper who clings to me like mud on my boot. "That is all," I tell him. Your goddess is satisfied with your work, now leave her alone. The round man beams like a star and toddles off, content that I am content.
My human face snorts. Damn the relocation teams for dropping him outside the perimeters, and damn my bleeding heart for taking pity on that mewling soul. I'll never understand what blasphemous pleasure Steven derives from mingling with the humans. There are boundaries that must be maintained between our species and I am no nursemaid to be coddling wounded livestock; my responsibility is system maintenance. I plunge myself into the data records: sea alkalinity stable, atmospheric gases stable; tectonic movement is within reasonable parameters so that nuisance of a volcano will remain dormant. The realm continues its well-ordered operations. Excepting that one blasted tic. Grid Omega-26 - the sensors continue to pour in a stream of null data.
I've endured this incompetence longer than necessary. With the recorder in hand I transmit myself through the realm to grid Beta-30 where the realm's unusual governor has seated himself upon a rocky beach with his latest pupil. Steven's projection is stripped to the waist and folded into a meditative pose to optimize concentration. A blue-haired human mimics Steven's stance but lacks the celestial's calm. His face is trembling with anger, threatening to break apart in a scream. Two standard minutes and twenty seconds later the human storms to his feet, hurls an insult at his mentor and kicks pebbles in Steven's face. The boy storms away, radiating fury.
Wretch, I hiss, and record the human's statistics for a future Purge recommendation. Steven, meanwhile, continues his meditation. His position is unchanged but his aura has taken a sombre tone. This pupil will not speak with him again. How is he moved so profoundly by these specks of dirt? Steven smiles as I approach; perhaps pleased that I am leaving the Entralink facilities of my own violation. "The sunrise is magnificent, isn't it, Roxanne?"
The time is 0745 hours. From these coordinates the system's star has been visible for a half-hour and the atmospheric gases hum in bands of orange and red. I've detected no solar flares or radiation bursts so I suppose one could define this stability as 'beautiful'. My commentary is irrelevant, of course. There is work to be done. "The sensors in the south-eastern archipelago continue to malfunction."
"A blind spot," Steven summarizes, rising to his feet and updating his projection with human garments - a fanciful collared shirt, neckpiece and jacket. He flips through the blank pages that indicate a week's worth of inactivity. "Any reports from the field?"
"Anthony was dispatched one star cycle prior." An inaccuracy - it was 23 hours and 45 minutes - but Steven has no appreciation for precision.
"Of course," he nods. "And since you're emerging from your cocoon that means you've already tried calling him and sent a second party to recon." Steven awaits response but as there are no statements to correct I maintain my silence. "Right then," he sighs. "I'll go have a look. Anything else to discuss, Roxanne?"
There is. Why have you structured this realm so abnormally? Why do you insist on housing all equipment in the human construct? Why do you, the Power of this realm, insist we interact directly with individual humans? But I maintain my silence. I have to be better than the humans, better than those animals whose anger breaks and bursts so readily. Steven, however, is intent on ending my passive-aggression by any necessary provocation. "I received your latest request for transfer. It's been denied."
"What!?" The cry slips through my defenses - he'll kill me for speaking out - but Steven's eyes invite me to continue. There is no going back. "Forgive me. What I meant to say is that my skills and personality are ill-suited to the needs of this particular realm. I am unable to comprehend why I must remain."
"Because our kind needs to change, Roxanne. Because I want you to see the humans in a new light. What is the purpose of this realm?"
"Redemption," he corrects. "We are on a mission of mercy and guidance. The souls that enter this realm, they are not numbers to be recorded or inventory to be itemized; they are lives. They are lost children to be redirected towards the Creator."
I gesture to the footprints of his departed pupil. "By allowing them to exhibit such gross disrespect?"
"If it kept them from lashing out at one another, yes, I would gladly accept the hatred of all these humans. Or celestials," he adds. "You are a capable administrator, Roxanne, but you lack compassion. The true worth of a celestial is in how she treats her lesser."
"I can't abide them running through my library." Nesting in the Rustburo facility like vermin, dressing them up in green costumes like house pets. "Then you demand I modify the lower levels to allow human access. I thank the Creator they haven't broken anything yet!"
"These humans have so much to teach us, Roxanne, if we only treat them as equals."
Again with these delusions of brotherhood and harmony. I don't need to learn from the humans; I can't even stand to be in the same space with them. "I just want to monitor my system in peace," I say, at my limit.
I should be punished for my insubordination but Steven only looks at me with a profound sadness. "Right," he sighs, "off to Ever Grande, then." Like a stubborn stone I refuse to budge and Steven is made of too much kindness to force me further. He summons his familiar - the biomechanical arachnid - and mounts his steed in order to inspect the system anomaly.
"Self-transmission would be more efficient," I say.
"Physical travel will allow me to assess the situation from a distance," he counters. "And it is such a magnificent sunrise."
It will be the last sunrise Steven is able to enjoy. I return to my Library and find it in flames. Someone has remote accessed the communications wing and shut down the coolant systems. The equipment is beyond repair. We are cut off from the Entralink and war has begun.
Star cycles pass. Steven has not responded to communications since our meeting in grid Beta. Sensor arrays are disabled in quick succession, radiating outward from the root damage in the archipelago. I dispatch archangels to assess the damage. None return.
While I struggle to contain system failures the humans take advantage of my blindness and begin fighting each other. Refugees stream into Rustburo: human females and their adopted brood who cry of war and invasion. A man from the east has declared himself Emperor and is swallowing whole cities into his new dominion. I care little for their political squabbles - more coal for the Fire - what I need is intelligence as to the source of the data loss; field reports from the teams I have dispatched. I delegate the immigrants to the monks and retreat to the library, scanning the records for some root cause of this chaos.
After four lunar revolutions my solitude is broken when Steven transmits himself into the Library. Wherever he's come from he had to leave quickly - his human body materializes two feet off the ground and collapses in a mess of blood. His clothes are torn, hair askew and his upper-left appendage has been removed. 'Hacked off' as humans would say. "Taken Petalburg ..." he mutters feverishly. "On their way..." Then he cries and surrenders to the pain.
For once my silence is a genuine loss for words. Steven is a Power, least of the Second-Borne but nigh-omnipotent nonetheless. His fire and fury could consume a dozen trained archangels but now he can barely lift himself off the floor. It's not simply his human guise that has been damaged. Our enemy has dug wounds down into Steven's very core. To be reminded that even one such as Steven is mortal - the sight shakes me.
Noticing the terror in my eyes, Steven makes an effort to sit up and laugh. "Sorry for intruding," he coughs, and glances at his empty shoulder socket. "I'm really falling to pieces today."
I have to do my best to play along, to maintain my professionalism. I begin the debriefing, selecting a record of my most recent dispatch orders. "Steven, I've been unable to contact the following operatives. I need you to confirm the status of-"
"I haven't finished."
"You don't have to. The answer is 'gone'. Anthony and Julia, Nathaniel; everyone. Roxanne, they're all dead." Steven's eyes grow teary over the losses and I am stunned by my own indifference. I'm shocked, of course, and confused, but the names of the departed are a list of strangers. I never knew them. Never spoke to them beyond dispatch orders; never bothered to learn more than their names.
"Steven, the humans have been reporting a war within this realm." How simple I have been, pegging their squabble as a mere riot - the idiot masses taking advantage of a blackout to indulge in their vulgar pleasures. No, this has been a cold and calculated insurrection. "Steven, you have to tell me, has this Emperor been targeting celestials?" I am not worthy to proceed on my own, but only say the word and the Creator's will shall be done. "Has this Emperor murdered my kin?"
Skin white as death, Steven's eyes meet my own. "Roxanne, he's using the humans. Filling their hearts with hate and sending them to massacre both Man and Host."
Yes. I've recorded our conversation. I have my evidence and I can proceed, faultless. I leave Steven to his misery, speaking my assessment aloud. "The humans have taken celestial life. They have fallen beyond redemption." I can feel my soul burning and I let its light blaze blue from my chest. "There is no forgiveness; there is only Fire." I burn away my human skin; let my wings and talons rejoice in their freedom.
Oh, but even a Power cannot stop me now. I smash through the Library walls and shriek over the city like a bird of prey. Self-transmission would be more efficient but now I want to take Steven's advice and admire the scenery - to drink in the human's terror as I swoop over the rooftops in all of my horrible splendor. An army has trampled through the forest and is approaching our walls. Beautiful, I think. They can all be purged in a single blow.
I soar up to the golden shrine held above my Library, ripple through the selectively permeable walls to call forth our greatest weapons. I can feel the black box calling for me. "This is the Day of Judgment," I breathe, "and we who stand upon the Throne of God shall cleanse the damned in hellfire!" I don't just open the casket, I rip it apart - unleash the maelstrom!
But the decoy crumbles in my grip like black sand and the air is silent. "Were you looking for this?" Steven asks, fully regenerated and holding the obsidian box in his hands.
"Give it to me, Steven! They are lost!" I spread my wings over the room and raise my serpentine neck, bathing the room in red and white plumage. I'm ready to strike, a tiny part of me realizes. I'm ready to kill him. Steven, in his puny human form, is unfazed, ignoring my battle posture in favor of the box and its glowing symbols.
"You were prepared to unleash this horror?" he asks. "On guilty and innocent alike?"
"I'm prepared to do what you cannot," I hiss, "and cull a diseased livestock!"
"You've learned so little," he whispers. Wrapping his hands around either end of the box, Steven presses his palms together and compresses our last hope out of existence. My roar coincides with a battle trumpet from the army, and we both look through the shrine walls at the field of soldiers assembled to take Rustburo.
"We are lost," I snarl. "This realm is lost!" The Emperor stands at the head of the invading army, and I can smell the aura of a celestial cloaking him like a dead animal's pelt. I don't know what ancient artifacts he unearthed or by what means but they have granted him power beyond human worth, and when he learns to use them beyond petty slaughter no soul will be safe.
"Nothing is lost," Steven insists. "Without the library - the control center - they can do nothing."
Oh you deluded fool. "Why do you think I haven't called for reinforcements? We've been severed from the Entralink! They've hacked the system once; even I won't be able to stop them again!"
Steven looks out on the assembled army, the swarm of hatred. "Then you need a better firewall," he says, and with a blink he teleports us both. I am cast down into the Library, wrapped again in human flesh. My legs wobble and topple to the floor. He's cast a binding protocol. I can't move! I can sense Steven's aura from outside the city, crackling against the Emperor's stolen energy. My arms still function and I drag myself to the nearest shelf, clawing out a random book so I can access the sensors outside the city. I may be lame but I won't be blind. Steven, what are you up to?
The governor of Ream 724+ stands between the city and the army of black and gold. A sea of spears, shields, horns and claws thrashes before Steven, waiting for the signal to drown him in blood. It would be a fair fight, I think, licking my lips and waiting for Steven to obliterate the infidels. But the Power only wipes his nervous brow, straightens his tie and drops to his knees, palms open and outstretched. I scream. The Emperor and his personal guard ride up to meet this humbled negotiator. "I surrender," Steven cries. "On the condition that you spare this city. Set no foot in Rustburo and there will be no further opposition. I am all that remains."
The leader of this uprising is no fool. "What about your flying beast," the Emperor snaps. "The woman you call the Oracle?"
"Who, Roxanne?" Steven laughs. "Please - she's a Principality; little better than a human. She's no harm to you. I'm the one you want and here I am, on my knees and waiting to be chained. Spare the city; there's no profit in further slaughter."
Steven offers his hand to shake and the Emperor weighs his options. Can he sense the aura emanating from Steven, I wonder? Does he understand what opposition Steven could raise if he chose to fight? The conquering king apparently holds some ounce of wisdom because the man finally dismounts his fire horse and accepts Steven's terms, shaking hands and offering a serpent's cunning smile.
Then Steven clasps his remaining hand over the Emperor's, and a network of glowing sigils lights up over the Power's skin. The man is on his knees and howling with pain. "Naturally," Steven grins, "I've no faith in your word."
The guards surround Steven, strike him to the ground but they are too late. Already I can sense the blood oath activating; the barrier of invisible energy rising over Rustburo City. The Emperor calls on his servants to attack, and as the first foolhardy waves reach they explode back in heaps of burning flesh. None shall enter the sacred city - not the Emperor, nor his soldiers. We are a sanctuary.
Once the Emperor comprehends the rules of our new order a withdrawal is called. The horde retreats into the forest, carrying off Steven's unconscious form. Not that he could struggle if awake. Unconditional surrender for absolute safety. Those were his terms.
The humans of Rustburo murmur to each other, confused. First the threat of invasion; then a strange, winged dragon erupting from my library, and now the sounds of retreat. I'm the only one who saw the sacrifice, I realize. Once the binding over my legs dissolves I march for the city gates and raise my hand to touch the outside world. Smoke hisses from my fingers the instant they cross the invisible barrier. Steven's blade strikes with two sides, I realize, and none may exit.
A group of monks has shadowed me to the gates and the littlest one cries out at my injury. "My Lady, are you hurt?" he asks, and in rushing to attend to my wound, the antenna-headed monk steps outside the city boundaries. He is unharmed. Blubbering in fear over my hand but unconsumed by flame.
Steven. Even at our darkest hour you insist that I love and learn from these humans.
The library systems are mangled - I can read only scattered fragments of the outside world. The realm could undergo an ecological meltdown and I would be powerless to avert disaster. The celestials I would have dispatched to perform my grunt work are dead. I have nothing left.
My penance is set.
I turn to the assembled monks. "You - the round one. Barky?"
"B-Barlcay, my Lady."
"Barclay," I repeat, committing the name to memory. "I need your help."
Chapter 8 - The Pirates of Slateport City
While the Dewford islanders feasted around bonfires, Zebedee and his gang of merchants huddled in a dark alley to discuss matters of survival. "We're traitors to the Empire," one declared. "There'll be no mercy."
"Hang on, this new Leader looks young," another chimed. "If we keep him happy he should leave us be."
"Did you see how quickly he took out Brawly?" a third snapped. "That boy is an animal! Let's send word to the Cult while we still can. Better to be protected by those fanatics than suffer another day under the Emperor's boot!"
I coughed to make myself known. The conspirators immediately put on their most pleasing faces, bowing and scraping before me even though my presence clearly revolted them. "I got what I came for," I explained. "So I'm leaving. You guys do whatever you want."
"Leaving? Where will you go, Dear Leader?"
"Mauville. That's where the next leader is stationed, right?"
It was like I'd flipped on a light switch - the merchants' faces suddenly brightened with realization. "You've come to free us all," Zebedee gasped. Then he laughed and launched into planning. "Brilliant strategy, my Lord! We'll lure the Emperor's armies to our island; they'll leave only a token guard within the cities. The leaders will be easy prey for you, the assassin of Dewford!"
"Umm, okay." I'd been serious when I told them 'go do whatever', but if they wanted to wrap a noose around their necks, be my guest. Zebedee carried on.
"Samson, gather every bird on the island! We've got a story for that news reporter out in Fortree: Dewford is going to war!"
"A badge?" Norman's puzzled voice crackled over the pokenav. "That's what makes Leader White so strong - some sort of magic pendant?"
It was morning and Barclay and I had set sail for the harbour city of Slateport - the closest dock between us and Mauville City. Steering the boat was a one person affair, so that left me with time on my hands to catch up with Norman. The ranger had been shocked to hear from me after I'd challenged Brawly's unstoppable makuhita, and dumbfounded to learn I had completed the first of the Oracle's seven trials. It was a day to be amazed, especially after I explained the secret to my victory.
"A badge - that's all there is to it. Yank it off and Leader White will be harmless as a skitty."
Norman's sad laugh told me that would be easier said than done. "Have you seen all the jewellery that man wears? Even if you managed to pin him down, how'd we figure out which was the magic one?"
"I'll be able to tell. When I grabbed Brawly's badge it gave me this weird flashback and I remembered something from Johto."
"No kidding. What'd you see?"
It was like watching a movie from my point of view. At first, there were only rapid cuts. Another teenage boy - chubby, greasy hair and glasses. Our voices laugh together. We whisper in class together. My hand high-fives his own. We are inseparable.
Then a longer scene. The empty halls of a high school bob through my vision. I zero in on the chunky boy at his locker. My voice calls out. "Rodgerigo, how's it going?"
He's fast for such a husky fellow. His hands grab my collar and he throws me into the lockers. "How could you do this to me?" he hisses. "I thought you had my back!"
My past self understands the situation as poorly as I do. "Whoa, what's gotten into you?" Roderigo's face is red and sweaty. The guy is off his rocker! He's trying to decide how best to lash out at me when a set of footsteps interrupts. He lets me go, pretends to act natural, but he whispers a warning.
"I swear to God, Virgil, I'm going to kill you!"
"I didn't see much," I told Norman. "Just an old friend."
"Well for now you just concentrate on getting to Mauville City. I'll keep an eye on things here in Petalburg - see if I can't figure out any more about these magic badges. Oh, and before I go, I've got someone here that'll leave you surprised as a sucker-punched sigilyph." There was some shuffling on the other end, and then a woman's gentle "hello?" whispered through the line.
"Linda?" So Norman was broadcasting from Littleroot. "Um, hey! How's it going?"
"Oh, things are quiet back here, but you probably don't want to hear about my days."
"No, it's cool. I mean, it's not like I've got much to do right now except sit around and wait for dry land to show up." And to be honest it was kind of nice to speak with Linda. Between all the islanders shoving their fake smiles in my face and the thinly-veiled disgust of Zebedee and his gang it was refreshing to hear from a voice that genuinely liked me.
What a weird thing to say. Linda liked me.
"So, Norman tells me you're on some sort of journey around the continent."
He probably left out the more violent details of my odyssey. "Something like that. If I can collect these seven special jewels, the Oracle will send me home. I've already got one!"
"Well I'm not surprised," Linda smiled. "You're very stubborn about doing things your own way. Are Megumi and Beatrice behaving themselves?"
"Oh, they're doing great." I popped out her zigzagoon and let the stripy girl bark 'hello' across the pokenav. "And listen to this: Beatrice evolved! She's a beautifly."
Linda didn't respond right away. "I was expecting a dustox," she remarked. "Well that must be your doing, Virgil. She's had a strong role model to guide her."
We went on trading small talk - Linda chatting about her garden, and how Professor Birch's roof had started leaking - but I couldn't get her comment about Beatrice out of my mind. Wurmple are finicky pokemon when it comes to evolution. Biologists all agree that personality is a big influence on each bug's metamorphosis; so much so that the emotions and vibes given off by a trainer can affect the outcome. Beautiflies are the exclusive pets of bright and peppy teenage girls while dustox are the poster pokemon for miserable emo kids. Did Linda really think so little of herself as to expect a dustox? She's always so cheery, though. It made me wonder what sort of scar Linda kept hidden under her bandaged arm. It made me wonder how she died.
Eventually Norman had to get back to the capital and Linda had to sign off. "Take care of yourself," I mumbled. Then Norman returned to the line.
"One last piece of advice: when you get to Slateport, move through as quickly as you can. That city was taken by the Cult of Aqua years back and no amount of pressure from the Emperor's army has been able to reclaim it."
"Yeah, I got the feeling we were headed into pirate territory," and it wasn't just because of the half-sunken ships we kept passing. Barclay was a nervous wreck - hands trembling as he worked the ropes, and legs wobbling as though he'd never set foot on a ship. I guess he still wasn't over his deadly brush with the Cult or his survivor's guilt over losing his friends. I only hoped he wouldn't have a complete nervous breakdown once we got to Slateport. "What's with these cultists, anyway? I get that they're against the Emperor but they beat up on regular people just as much as the Leaders. What're they after?"
"Virgil, in their sick and sad little minds they're just trying to save us all."
We disconnected, and I took a good hard look over my pokemon, wondering if they were ready for another clash with pirates. Beatrice and Winry might hold their own. The taillow lead my flying team up in the air, coaching Linda's beautifly and newcomer Dolce on how to keep aloft over the ocean currents. Winry paused frequently to admire the ropes and pulleys of our magical floating machine, but the others knocked her back into focus. Megumi was racing up and down the boat looking for little bits of rope or wood to add to her shiny object collection. Yeah, big help there. I tried releasing Trisha but the sable-gull still couldn't shape herself beyond a puddle. The pirates wouldn't recognize her as wingull, anyway. I wouldn't get any more free passes on account of being 'chosen' by the ocean.
Robin had planted herself at the ship's prow, nervously clenching her talons and trying to keep brave before the rolling water. Still, every time we hit a big crest she would wail and run back to seek comfort from Amon. The wolf wasn't any help - he just barked in her face and forced her to shamble back and confront the waves. Okay, that mutt was getting ridiculous.
"Dude, she's practically throwing herself at you. Lighten up and quit ragging on her to be tough; you might just get somewhere with her."
Amon actually snapped his jaws at me. I guess wolves didn't take kindly to relationship advice. Well, I hope he enjoyed being alone because right now he was my best bet against any pirate attacks. I should have been fishing all this time, I realized. I need a water type, or something that can hold its own against a whole bunch of fish...
It didn't matter much anyway. Barclay stuttered out a "Land Ho," and I had to help paddle though the shallow waters until we slid onto a sandy beach. "This reef is too shallow for the Cult galleons to approach," Barclay explained. "We should be able to disembark unnoticed."
Actually, our landing was greeted by a loud barking. Barclay and Mish-Mush squealed and hid themselves while I ran to the prow to check out the welcoming committee. From a distance the pokemon had the shape of a green sandile, but as it trotted close I could make out its short fur, bobbing tail and happily panting tongue. An electrike. I jumped down to the sand.
"Well hey there, fella!" He seemed friendly enough, sniffing my hand and then pouncing on my chest to cover me in sloppy kisses. "Aww, yuck! What's this you got around your neck?" A necklace with dog tags? "Says here you name's Michael, huh?" I scanned the beach for possible owners then very discreetly tagged the pup with a pokeball and let him out again. Michael didn't seem to object; if anything, he seemed pleased to be recognized by a master. "I guess you're with me, then." It was weird how all of these random wild pokemon were running up to befriend me but I wasn't too phased by it anymore. Maybe the animals of the land were all fed up with the Emperor's rule of terror and looking to join the resistance movement. Well, I wouldn't say 'no' to an electric type! I found a stick and tested Michael with a game of fetch. "Go get it, boy!"
An electric bolt fried the stick in mid-air. Only when the smoking husk imbedded in the sand did Michael deem it worthy of 'fetching'. "Very good boy!"
Megumi and my flyers landed on the beach and exchanged greetings with the newcomer. The thunder-pup shied away from the huge crowd but eventually he gave everyone a careful sniff. Then Robin hopped off the boat. Michael took one look at the fire chick and his legs fell out from beneath him. Well, all of sudden he was bounding with energy, racing around the combusken with his tail wagging up a storm! Robin seemed flattered by the sudden attention and gave Michael a careful scratch behind the ears. The pup's eyes rolled back and his foot kicked as though he'd entered paradise.
Then Amon leapt onto the beach. The wolf cub had grown big during our trip - his legs had lengthened, his coat had grown shaggy and black and he was standing a lot taller and a lot meaner than little Michael. The electrike's tail dropped between his legs as the mightyena prowled up and started sniffing. Robin chirped out what I assumed was an introduction. Amon barked at her, and didn't stop snapping in her face until she'd stepped far away from the green dog. Michael yapped in her defense. Don't talk to her like that!
Amon zeroed in on the new pack member, crushing the electrike under a paw and leaning close to demonstrate just how sharp his teeth were. Michael whimpered and averted his gaze. Amon snorted. You're not even worth it, kid. I was wondering whether to intervene when something behind us caught both dogs' attention. Barclay had plunged an oar into the water and was pushing our boat out to sea! I splashed into the water and grabbed the ship. "Hey, what's going on?"
"My apologies, good Virgil, but I can assist you no further. I've reached the limits of my endurance." The monk was trembling all over, and when he saw me holding back the ship he actually tried to smack off my fingers!
"Ow! Come on, Barclay - stop beating yourself up! You're just a monk! No one expected you to save your friends from a bunch of armed pirates!"
"Well of course not!" he roared. "My brothers never asked the unreasonable. Stay on the ship, Barclay. Keep watch while we go ashore. Well I kept watch and I saw the Cult galleon approaching the island. I saw that it would intercept us before my brothers could return, and I saw my choice. I could stay with my brothers and fight, or I could leave and save my shroomish." Barclay paused to wipe his eyes. "Well... here I am."
Our struggle froze. "Wait, you left them? As in, on purpose?" I thought the monks had all run their separate ways! "You left them so you could save a stupid mushroom!?" I ducked a rather nasty swing at my head.
"Shut up! You're one to talk, you spoiled brat - throwing away pokemon because they're sick or disabled! You don't know what it's like, having only one or two companions! I go out into a world where every man is my enemy and the only thing keeping me safe is my poor Mish-Mush! I can't lose him!" The pokemaniac swung down his oar like an axe. This time I caught it and used my leverage to shove him off his feet. I grabbed the boat and continued pulling.
"Man up, Barclay! Somebody's gotta show me through this land, and Roxanne said you're staying with me until I'm finished."
Barclay glared as he wiped the blood from his nose. "Don't think my Lady will be too heartbroken when she hears you've failed." Mish-Mush bounded atop the railing and sprayed a jet of yellow spores in my face. I suddenly felt weak, and just gripping the boat felt horribly tiring. I plunged into the water and let sleep overtake me.
Once more I woke up in the sand, surrounded by pokemon. "Let me guess, he got away?" Amon shrugged. "Yeah, thanks for the help, you lot." Although I guess they had pulled me ashore...
I looked around - nothing but sand and surf; I couldn't even see the pinprick of our ship on the horizon. Marooned on Pirate Island. Thanks a lot, Barclay. Well, I could either build an impromptu fishing rod to catch a whole school of magikarp, tie myself to the flopping fishies and use them to drag me back to Dewford, or I could take my chances in Slateport.
Not much of a choice. Magikarp are lousy swimmers.
Slateport was a town of two minds. To my left I found a meadow of simple homes and a huge, open-air market. Very colourful, very inviting. On my right I discovered a harbor of smoke-belching factories and cranes loading weaponry onto pirate ships. Very nasty, very disturbing. The city's main street was lined with suspended cages holding prisoners of the Cult. Four of the fresher bodies wore green robes.
Gulping, I zapped up my team and ordered lone-wolf Amon to circle around town. If that hobo from the forest had found his headband and made his way home I did not want to be noticed. Only Megumi stayed in my arms; hopefully people would focus on her goofball face instead of my own.
Like their city, the people of Slateport were neatly divided: pirates and civilians. If you wore the blue bandana of Aqua you were king. You could grab food from any market stall, harass anyone who looked at you funny and generally make a pig of yourself. Otherwise, you kept your head down and your mouth shut. You could go about your business so long as you kept out of Aqua's way. I vaguely remembered a similar occupation taking place in Goldenrod ...
Clothing seemed to indicate your status within the cult. Don't get me wrong, they all dressed like filthy hobos: some pirates wore only pants, others managed a shirt, and one brave weirdo strutted about in a toga, but they all featured the same sloppy patchwork I'd seen in Petalburg Forest. I passed two pirates locked in a fistfight; the winner tore a strip of black cloth from the loser's pants. He high-fived his buddies and modeled the new sleeve for his t-shirt. I made a mental note to stay far away from any pirates in three-piece suits.
A church bell rang. Civilians dropped their business and shuffled off to the piers. One pirate saw my startled face and shoved me along. "Sermon's starting," he growled.
Mass was conducted in the middle of the harbor. One of the boating docks had been built up into an elevated stage complete with a blue skull-and-crossbones banner and a crane looming over the water. Maybe they'll try fishing for their god. Pirate guards took position around the perimeter so no one could sneak off. A woman with fiery red hair and a predator's eye took the stage. She must have been one of the higher-ups: besides the rag wrapped around her chest she also wore a vest made from the same sparkling blue cloth as her bandana. I pushed forward to get a better look and ended up bumping a kid in a pink dress. The skitty in her arms hissed.
"Watch it," the girl snapped. "I wanna see deacon Shelly talk!" On stage the red-headed woman raised a metal cone to project her voice.
"People of Slateport! We, the sons and daughters of the Ocean, give thanks for your generosity. We prayed for a home at which to rest our bodies and you welcomed us unquestioningly. We prayed for bread and honey to nourish our souls and you gave selflessly. We prayed for a vessel to embark on our sacred journey -" she gestured past the cult battleships to a factory churning out black smoke, "and now the Kaien is all but complete."
The speech confused me. "When she says 'prayed' she means 'demanded with violence', right?" The little girl shushed me again.
"The Ocean sees your good deeds and takes pity on you tainted masses. It bids us, the children of Aqua, to baptize another of you unbelievers into our fold! Today, the Ocean has called a man steeped in the sins of blasphemy!" Two pirate guards shoved a young man with a goatee on stage. His hands were bound and his face looked incredibly weary, as though he hadn't slept in a week. He immediately fell to his knees. Deacon Shelly came to the prisoner's side and offered her megaphone. "Tell them your name."
The boy's voice was thin and scratchy from dehydration. "J-Jacob..." he whispered. The deacon kicked his gut. "J-JACOB!" he shouted for those at the very back. Shelly turned to the crowd.
"Like you, Jacob was an unbeliever! Like you, Jacob refused homage to the Ocean! Tell them, Jacob, of the dark paths your life of sin led you down!"
Jacob struggled to find his words. "I d-d-don't unders-s-tand. My pokemon was sick so I went d-d-diving for shoal shells -" Shelly slapped him across the face.
"You went diving! You violated the Ocean with your sinful body! You pillaged the sea floor of its bountiful treasures!" The pirates in the audience booed and cursed.
"N-no," Jacob sputtered. "I mean, I didn't mean to -"
"So you acted in ignorance! You admit to a life of sin and stupidity!" Every defense Jacob raised, the deacon tore down with her water-worshipping logic. "I feel your pain, Jacob. When the Father found me, I was like you. I was a farmer - living off the land in woeful ignorance of the bounties given unto us by the Ocean. I suckled on the lies of the Emperor, gorging myself on empty promises of salvation! But today I stand before you, cleansed and reborn by the waters of the Ocean! Jacob, the day of your resurrection is at hand!"
It was a beautiful sermon but wasted on the prisoner, who'd regressed to sobbing and blubbering up snot and making an embarrassment of himself. "P-please, I just wanna go home..." The crowd was growing restless with the delays. "Get on with it!" the pink-dress girl roared. Shelly rolled her eyes and knelt at Jacob's side. I think she was trying to whisper out a heart-to-heart but her megaphone remained close enough to accidentally project her voice.
"Look kid, the boss needs more muscle and I gotta baptize somebody today. Now I can take you, or I can take that sweet little peach you went shell diving with. So who's it gonna be?" Jacob's body went stiff. Satisfied, the deacon stood up and resumed her preaching.
"Do you, Jacob, reject the land and all its empty promises?"
"Yes," Jacob mumbled. "I mean, I do." Shelly motioned for his restraints to be cut and a chalice was brought forth.
"Do you reject the Emperor, prince of lies, and all his works?"
"And what do you ask of the Ocean, Jacob?"
Jacob tipped his head back and in a loud, plaintive voice, cried, "Salvation!" The Aquas of the crowd whooped. Even the civilians started a slow clap. Jacob had chosen wisely.
"We're getting to the good part," a man behind me grinned.
Shelly handed over the chalice and Jacob slurped down the clear liquid. "Accept the Ocean, Jacob! Let it purge the sins of the land from your body!" As if on command, the ex-diver started retching. That's salt water! Deacon Shelly waited until Jacob's bowels were emptied, then she turned once more to the crowd. Jacob turned to face them too, marveling at how the squall of enemies had suddenly become a sea of applauding friends.
"Th-that wasn't so bad," he laughed. The deacon just looked at him with a maniac's grin.
"Your spirit is found willing, Jacob, but your body is weak. To enter among the true believers you must be cleansed; stripped of your tainted and sinful flesh." To the crowd she asked, "And how shall we cleanse him? What instrument has the Ocean delivered unto this purpose?"
The crowd roared as one. "Carvanhas!!"
My jaw dropped along with Jacob's. He didn't even have time to try and run. Two guards grabbed him and pinned his body to a huge log - lashing down arms, chest and neck and then hooking up the log to the giant crane behind the stage. "You can't do this!" Jacob screeched. "Help me! Somebody get me outta here!"
The crowd couldn't hear him over its maddening cheers. Pirate and civilian alike, they lived for these horror shows. Everyone was fighting for a front row seat and I was pushed along to the water's edge, now bubbling like a boiling pot as a school of savage pokemon snapped their hungry jaws at the descending meal. Megumi and I shut our eyes, but we couldn't keep out the screaming. Jacob screaming as the dark fish swarmed his body; the mob roaring and clapping at the show. "Rip him good!" yelled the pink-dress girl.
When I finally peaked, the pirates were winching up the leftover hunk of meat and picking off the fish still persistent enough for one more bite. The ropes were cut and the torso fell to the stage. One guard quickly covered the mess with a white blanket - the cloth that would become Jacob's patchwork uniform - and a second carefully secured a blue bandana over Jacob's untouched head. I could hear the squish and crackle of re-growing bones and I looked away.
Deacon Shelly, for all her rabble-rousing, had lost all interest in the aftermath, kneeling at the pier's edge and scanning the red liquid like a fortune teller scrying tea leaves. Suddenly, her face lit up and she plunged her arms into the water, pulling up a squealing azurill. Shelly carried the pokemon to Jacob's side, where it immediately jumped and clung to the half-eaten man. "The Ocean has bestowed unto you a protector, Brother Jacob. May you both grow strong in the service of Aqua."
No response. Jacob's mind was broken with pain. Shelly closed his eyes and tousled his hair.
"Who else?" the deacon bellowed. "Who else among you unwashed masses has the courage to seek salvation?"
The crowd shuffled and backed away, coughing and averting their eyes as Shelly's gaze swooped over them. The pink-dress girl flashed me a devil's grin before shouting, "This guy! Hey, over here! Do him next!" I ducked my head but the damage was done: a few people started glancing our way. I backpedaled but the girl grabbed my shirt and dug down her heels. "He's getting away!"
I shoved her to the ground. Pure self-defense, okay? Well the brat started bawling, and nothing gets a mob's attention like a little girl's tears. Her skitty hissed and bristled its fur, preparing to attack. Megumi growled back and wriggled out of my arms to intercept. The hellcat swiped at Megumi's neck and Linda's zigzagoon froze.
Megumi went limp as a rag doll. Her eyes were wide with shock and her chin dribbled out a river of blood. "Megumi?" I dropped to my knees, shook the stupid, rock-chasing zigzagoon to get a response. Nothing.
The pink-dress girl blew a raspberry. "Nya-nya, stupid zigzagoon!"
My punch sent her flying in one direction and her teeth in another. I would have taken another swing except two pirate guards yanked me off my feet. "I see one among us in dire need of reformation," Shelly crowed. "Child, let's see if the Ocean can't temper your wrath!"
I ignored her. All I wanted was to get that girl. "You little monster! Lemmie at her!"
Shelly gave her audience a side glance. "What say you, brothers? I think we'd better dunk this one face-first!" She just might have, if her guards hadn't grabbed me under the shoulders. I plucked two pokeballs from my belt and pointed them skyward. Robin and Michael materialized in mid-air and each slammed down on a guard. "Go for the headgear!" I yelled. Hen and dog ripped off their targets' bandanas; the pirates withered like vampires under sunlight.
"AAH, my robe!"
"Don't look at me!"
On stage, Shelly grimaced at her idiot underlings. "Seize him! A cloth ration to the one who brings me the boy!"
Robin and Michael planted themselves between me and the oncoming mob. Not to be outdone, Amon made his signature last-minute entrance and joined my defensive line. We'd been forced to the water's edge; nowhere to run except through the pirates. "They killed Megumi. Give 'em hell," I ordered. Lightning, fire and fangs drew ready.
Then a man bellowed out, "Enough!"
We all stopped, petrified by the commanding voice. The pirates stepped back and parted to admit an imposing mountain of a man dressed in black. Maybe seven feet tall, this preacher was something primal and fierce: skin like brown leather, a beard of black thorns and a glare as merciless as the desert sun. This must have been the Father that Shelly had mentioned in her sermon. The grand master of the Cult of Aqua.
The priest planted himself before me - just a tap and he could knock me into the carvanha-infested pool. Instead, he took his time to size up my pokemon. "Combusken, Mightyena - typical Magma trash. But an electrike? Your master grows craftier by the day."
I didn't know what a Magma was, but I got the hint that Michael was the only thing keeping me from sleeping with the fishies. I scooped the thunder-dog into my arms and tried to look tough. "One more step and I'll drop him in your precious Ocean! Say goodbye to all your carvanhas!" Shelly and the other pirates gasped. The Father just used some blindingly fast ninja reflexes to sweep out my feet, nab me by the ankle and dangle me and Michael face-first over the snapping fish! Robin cawed. "Don't move!" I ordered. I'd just barely nabbed my wig and now my fingers were inches from the bubbling water. "This is a big misunderstanding. No one needs to get hurt, right?" The priest chuckled at my feeble negotiations.
"Pain is the key to salvation. The Ocean is vast, and the actions of men must be grand if we wish for it to hear our pleas. Only a mighty scream will rouse the Ocean from its slumber." My captor pulled a golden dagger from his belt and held it to my throat. "I could make you a monument to pain..."
Instead, he dropped me on dry land. "But I won't defile the Ocean with the blood of a terraphile! Know this, boy: we of Aqua extend the hand of salvation to all, but as for you Magmas who persist in your heresy our justice will rain upon you like a storm from the heavens. Go back to you mountain, spy, and tell your master that Archibald's patience grows thin."
Robin and Amon huddled close, awaiting my command. I gave a final glance at Megumi's bloody corpse, and then I ran.
When this is done I'll ... I'll bring them back for you.
I didn't need a mystic badge to dredge up the promise I'd made Linda. It pounded through my head with every heartbeat.
In the wilderness beyond Slateport, I collapsed. My pokemon were in bad shape. A carvanha had slashed Michael's paw and he whimpered in Robin's arms as she cooed and tried to stem the bleeding. Amon paced restlessly, shooting angry glances at the hen.
"Norman was right," I told them. "They're all crazy - everybody outside of Petalburg!" This world was a den of madness. "Everybody's out for themselves; it's all about keeping safe or being entertained! Let your guard down just a second and they'll abandon you!" Amon woofed in agreement. "Heck, that's the whole reason I'm here! I'm dead because I trusted somebody to be my friend!"
I swear to God, Virgil, I'm going to kill you!
"But we gotta keep going, because there's a way out of this place. I know it's only going to get crazier, but I need you guys to trust me. This is all happening for a reason."
Dog, hen and wolf all nodded their support. I picked out Megumi's pokeball and chucked it into the woods. "No turning back," I affirmed.
I had a leader to hunt down in Mauville.
Side Chapter II - Wrath of the Waves
I thumb open my cigarette lighter and three rolled joints lean close to suck up the fire's warmth. Y'know, even before I started smoking I always carried a lighter. It made me feel good, whenever some passerby on the street asked me for a light, that I could do something nice for another somebody. Plus, it's all poetic and stuff - y'know, one bro sharing his light with another, sending out a warm glow for all mankind. It feels right, man.
Once we're all lit up my students lean close to soak up my personal light. Exhaling smoke, I keep going with my lesson. "So then, this Karl guy was all like 'dude, it's the workers who control the means of production; they're the ones who really run everything'!" My students gasp. "Whoa..." I love it, the way they're all mesmerized. Takes me back to philosophy class with Profesor Duester and how he'd have me hanging on every word. College was killer-lame but the Duester was all right.
Natie's hand shoots up. "Big Kahuna, I get what you're saying, but I don't 'get-get' it. Think you can spell it out all clear-like?"
"Well bro, it's like surfing. When you're on top of a big wave you feel you're king of the world. 'Cept you gotta remember you didn't get there on your own steam. You're there 'cause of the water - it's all those zillions of drops holdin' t'gether and workin' as a team that picked you up so you can do some wickedly awesome ridin'. What I'm sayin' is, if we all just learned to be like the wave and worked together as one, think of how awesome we could make society." The boys awe again.
"But waves move blindly," a voice interrupts. "You need people with vision to guide the mob. Maybe the wave is like a community but there's always going to be inequality - water nearer the top and water trapped at the bottom. If you tried to level everything you'd be left with a limp and lifeless puddle."
My students turn to this new voice from the bedroom. Hayley walks out, multi-tasking like usual: holding hairpins in her mouth, texting with one hand and buttoning up her blouse with the other. "Morning, surfer boys. How's Brawly treating you this morning?"
"So hot ... I mean, good, Ma'am!"
Hayley shoots me a wink and I just shake my head. She always gets a kick out of teasing the boys - popping out in just a towel, or waiting till she's in the kitchen to pull on her nylons. Hey, not that I'm complaining; we all need our egos scratched some time. Like, I know I'm boss at surfing but there's nothin' like that extra kick you get when there's a crowd cheerin' you on.
Her lipstick's fresh so I peck Hayley on the cheek. "How'd you sleep?"
"A lot longer than you," she smirks. "It's beyond me how you manage to get yourself up at five-thirty for these early morning practices."
"I do what I gotta for my elite class." Yoga at sunrise, surfing at first light, and then back to my shack to soak up some RnP - that's Rest 'n Philosophy. I make some decent scratch teaching Cianwood's tourists how to balance on the waves, but it's the dedicated surfers that I live to teach. "You stayin' for breakfast?"
Hayley grabs a quick drag of my joint and shakes her head. "Can't hon - the ferry leaves in fifteen minutes and I'm meeting a client back in Olivine. I'll call you next time I'm on the island." Before she can get out the door I wrap my arms around her.
"I love you."
Hayley doesn't say anything - she doesn't have to. She tousles my hair and plants a kiss on my forehead. "Later, Hon." I've barely started my weed but at that moment I am flyin' high. Natie looks up at me like I just won the radio lottery.
"Big Kahuna, you are the luckiest dude on Lugia's blue sea!" Presley seconds the motion.
"On the sea? Dude, more like the whole planet!" Flounder scratches his head, though.
"I don't get it, Big-K. Isn't your lady some big-shot lawyer from Olivine? I mean, we know how awesome you are, but those corporate suits won't give nobody the time of day unless you got, like, three college degrees. Why's she like you so much?" The question earns the kid noogies from his bros.
"We'll explain it when you're older, Tubby." The two high-five. I just shrug my shoulders.
"What can I say - Hayley 'n me, we're soulmates. We met, an somethin' just clicked."
It all goes back two years ago. Hayley's office had sent her to Cianwood to defend a case against our gym leader - I heard ol' Chuck got over-excited again and started fighting pokemon matches himself. She was at the gym until late and all the paperwork left her tired like a boss. She'd worked through supper, missed the last ferry home, and the hotels were gonna squeeze her like a lemon if she walked through their doors. Not a cool day. So Hayley was walking along the boardwalk and tryin' t'clear her head when Khaki Jones and his boys drove down the strip in their Thunder Buggy. There were puddles all over the road from last night's storm and Jonsey sent a huge wave flying all over Hayley. When I saw her she looked ready to cry.
So I tossed my towel over her shoulders and, when Jonsey spun around for round two, I tossed my beer can right at his head. "Party's over, losers!" Justice served, I turned to help the out-of-town chick.
"Hey, you need a place to get cleaned up? 'Cause, um, there's a coin laundry just down the street from my shack and the owner, she's, uh, super good about carryin' spare clothes ..." I kinda choked and started mumbling halfway through. Couldn't help it - once I got a good look at this babe in the dripping wet clothes it was like my tongue stopped working. Dude, she was hot!
As for Hayley, she looked me over, stepped so close I could smell the perfume over her body and flashed me a crooked little smile. "This outfit's hand-wash only."
"It's not all perfect," I admit to the boys. "I mean, she works in Olivine so it's not like she can get out here every day - more often it's just a few hours - but man, when she does get here it's just the best day ever. But y'know, I am thinkin' of proposin' a more permanent situation for us."
I go to my pantry and show the boys the velvet box I've been hiding behind the coffee tin. The pearl ring leaves them speechless. "Big Kahuna, that's huge! Is that a clampearl's?"
"Fraid not, little dude. I snatched this bad boy from the belly of a cloyster." Again, they gasp.
"So that's how you got your hand all messed up last month!" I just smile sheepishly. What can I say? I couldn't surf for a week with all those stitches but Hayley was worth it. That girl, she's greater than any wave in this world.
The cabana door bursts open. It's Coolridge, the snack shop owner, and he's in a panic. "Big Kahuna, Big Kahuna - bad news!"
"Whoa, slow down, dude. Here." I offer him my joint and let him puff up the skunky sweetness until his breathing steadies. "Okay, so what's got your mellow all harshed up, bro?"
"It's Khaki Jones! You know how he was shooting his mouth off about riding the Whirl Run? Well he just came in and he says he circled three pools!"
Natie chokes on his joint. "Three? But that means he beat the Big-K's record!" Presley slams his fist.
"That snake - there's only two days of summer tides left! After that, the water's too rough to ride the Run for a whole year!" Flounder goes into panic mode and has to pull out his inhaler.
"Big-K, this is bad! When everybody hears this, Khaki's surfing school is gonna nab all the new riders! He's trying to shut you down again!"
"Big Kahuna, what're we gonna do?"
My hands make the T sign for 'Time Out'. "First," I explain, "I'm gonna make breakfast." The boys' jaws drop again.
"Aren't you mad, Big Kahuna? You taught Jones everything about surfing and then he sold out to those corporate moneybags!"
Am I mad? Right now I want to crack Khaki's skull like an eggshell! Instead, I fiddle around with some pots and pans in the kitchen, counting to twenty-one-thousand until I'm cool enough to fake a smile. "Whatever, man. Look, I'm pumped that you guys are worryin' about me, but I get by fine with the students I got. I'm not teachin' for the money, I teach 'cause it's what I love." I try not to think about the stack of letters in my dresser drawer, each stamped with an angry, red overdue.
"Still," I add, "stealing a bro's personal record sounds like a challenge. Looks like I gotta remind everyone how a real Cianwood surfer rides." I'm waiting on a big cheer from my boys but they all go into shock.
"Big Kahuna, no! The sharpedo migration's already started!"
"And the waves'll be even rougher!"
"You don't wanna piss off Lugia," Flounder yells. My mind's made up, though. I declare the class finished, grab some cash from my money tin and head for the door. "Where ya goin', Big Kahuna?"
"Olivine City. Next ferry leaves in half an hour, right? If I'm gonna ride the Whirl Run, there's somebody I wanna make sure is waitin' for me at shore."
Olivine rides up on the horizon like a wave of pointy, metal teeth. I can't remember the last time I hit the big city. College, I guess, and 'cept for philosophy class that place killed my buzz so bad I didn't ever wanna come back. City life messes you up, man; makes you all about the money. I don't really wanna think about those days - back when the cops knew me as the Brawlster - but the ferry between Cianwood and Olivine is killer long and there's nothin' to do but think. It's not like you can just plow through the sea; you've gotta circle around it and the rocky islands at the center. I scope out the Whirl Islands from the observation deck; check out the four sinkholes where water swirls down in corkscrews. The Mouths of Lugia. Three years ago I made the impossible possible - I wind-surfed around two of those whirlpools in a single run, dancing around their hungry lips like a finger just begging to be bitten off. Everyone said I was nuts when I went out, but when I came back they cheered me like a hero.
Now everybody's cheering for that lame-wad Khaki Jones, when yesterday they were all laughin' behind his back and talkin' about what a sell-out he was. Now the burger joint is selling 'Khakiburgers'; the mayor's talkin' about a celebration parade - yeah, thanks for offering me one, Derrick! - and all the ice cream vendors are lickin' their chops and thinkin' of all the tourists Jonesy's big story will rake in.
I hate money and what it does to people. Money turns people into dirty, rotten liars; it makes students stab their teachers in the back; it keeps lovers apart at their separate jobs, and when you don't have enough money it makes people look down on you like you're scum. The world would be so much better if we just got rid of this rotten capitalist system; stopped helping ourselves and learned to help each other!
I'm gonna lose Dad's shack... I can kick anybody's ass in a fair fight, so how is it I'm getting sucker-punched by piles of paper? Dad ... Every beam in that house we cut, sanded and nailed with our own bare hands and now some pencil-necked geek from the bank thinks he can take it away? My knuckles are going white from wringing the railing like a neck. Whoa, good vibes, Brawly! Think good vibes! I've still got the most beautiful babe in all of Johto by my side, and I've still got my fame as the guy who made the Whirl Run. Or, at least, I had that fame. Jonesy, you mandibuzz - it wasn't enough that you picked my bones clean, now you gotta crack open the leftovers and suck up the marrow.
I have to do this run. I have to get my title back. It's all I've got left.
My fists are still trembling. Good vibes, good vibes! This is my chance to show everybody just what I'm made of and how little all those corporate sponsorships or lab-tested surfboards really matter. Plus, it's gonna give me the best scenario for a proposal ever. I've got it all figured out: I'll invite Hayley to watch my run tomorrow, and after I surf in I'm gonna walk right up to her. "That was for you, babe," I'll say. "I don't want no one sayin' you're stuck with the second-best surfer in all Cianwood. I wanna be your number one." Then, I'll get down on one knee...
The ferry whistle knocks me out of that fantasy. We're in Olivine. Quick as a yanma I boogie off the ship and to the finance district. Hayley never did tell me where she lives but I've looked up the name of her law firm. The streets are crowded and the cars zip by, reckless as bullets. What's the rush, buddy? If I can't spot Hayley, she'll definitely see me. Blue hair, shorts and sandals - I stick out like a sore thumb, and the suits all glare at me to make sure I know I'm not welcome. Whatever, man.
Then, out of nowhere, I spot Hayley across the street. I'm about to call out her name when some pervert, this bald-headed suit with thick glasses, grabs Hayley from behind, bends her over and forces her lips against his own. My vision goes red. You pig! I've gotta storm over there and knock his clock into Kanto, but I'm trapped by the rush of cars! I might as well be on the other side of a river! I watch as Hayley pushes away the jerk - yeah, you show him, girl! - but then she gives the guy a crooked little smile, stands up on her toes and plants a peck on his cheek.
She smiles at the suit; laughs at some corny joke he tells her and lets him carry her overnight bag. Then she spots somebody behind the guy and her eyes beam. Hayley kneels down, throws open her arms to scoop up a four year-old girl in a flowery dress and she smothers the kid with kisses.
My gut goes cold. I race across the street even though the light's still green; even through there's a car marked 'student driver' coming full speed...
When I come to it's a few seconds in the future. My brain must have switched off from the stress. It hurts to move but I crane my neck around. The busted-up car is pressed against my chest, there's a brick wall digging into my back and there's no room for a person in between. I can't see anything below my ribs.
My hands crumple the car fender. I shove the car across the street; I stand, smash my fist through the concrete wall and I roar. Then I stamp across the street, knocking over everything and everybody in my way until I'm face to face with Hayley. I grab her, I shake her, I scream at her. "You like messing with me, *****? You think you can make a joke out of Brawly?"
In my head, that's how it goes down. In the real world I'm pinned behind a busted car and my blood's pouring out so fast I can't even whimper. I'm supposed to ride all four Whirl Islands! I'm supposed to get eaten by a sharpedo or smashed against a rock or taken down by the undertow! I'm supposed to save my home and show Khaki Jones just how little all his corporate sponsorships got him! I'm supposed to train my boys into the next-gen of great Cianwood surfers! I'm supposed to marry Hayley, grow old with her and watch my boy learn to ride his first surfboard...
I want to scream until the city crumbles but I'm choking on my own blood...
Hayley glances at the noisy traffic accident and speed-walks away, covering her girl's eyes so she doesn't see the mess. I can't tell if she saw me or not, but it wouldn't make any difference. She's one of them. Just another greedy swinub snorting up money like a vacuum, eyes shut to everything but herself. I want to slap her face so bad but I'm too weak to move, too weak to do anything with this rage.
When breathing gets too hard and everything starts going dark I don't close my eyes - I clench them shut.
Chapter 9 - The Lost Leader
If I were a man with the power of god, where would I live?
Not in Mauville City, I decided. The place was a lawless dump: garbage filled the streets, the local economy revolved around brewing moonshine and half-demolished buildings drooped over the streets like rows of threadbare beggars; people ripped off their own wall panels when they needed to feed their fire pits. The city's garrison of gold-plated soldiers couldn't care less about maintaining order; they were too busy patronizing the local gambling dens and taverns. Being assigned to Mauville was like a paid vacation.
Where's the leader? I wondered. Crazy cultists had already gobbled up Slateport City; didn't he care about preserving the fraction of territory he had left? I tried paging Norman for intel but the ranger wouldn't return my calls. What was keeping him so busy all of a sudden? Well, staying in Mauville was an invitation to get mugged so I ventured north beyond the city until I came across a beautiful, gated mansion. Three stories tall, Windstrate Hills was surrounded by watchtowers and patrolled by disciplined soldiers. Now this was a palace fit for a leader!
At the same time, I didn't like the look of the guards' Nidoqueens and Explouds so I made camp in the surrounding forest, sending out my flyers for aerial reconnaissance. Winry and Dolce couldn't tell me just how many soldiers or pokemon were behind the walls but, judging by the way they shivered upon return, I figured that I did not want to risk a head-on assault. So I waited. I sat down in my little camp and watched from behind the trees, trying to spy a weak spot in the defenses. My pokemon used this huge delay for their own purposes.
You probably guessed as much, but Michael had fallen hard for the sweet fire chick who had tended his wounded paw and he was determined to impress Robin at all costs. He couldn't communicate directly - Amon planted himself between hen and mutt at all times - but he could send covert signals. Michael would walk around on his hind legs or do flips to show off his strength. He kept foraging for berries and mushrooms and, through a series of nips and growls, ensuring that I gave the biggest to Robin. At night, the electrike would put on a miniature fireworks display by firing static bursts from his coat.
Robin, at first, just blushed and hid her face, overwhelmed and embarrassed by all this flattery. It was a strange reversal to have someone else working so tirelessly to impress her, but I think she grew to like the attention. Whenever she wanted to express her appreciation she'd snap a flame between her talons and blow the ember towards Michael like a kiss. It was their secret game, like school kids seeing how many notes they could pass unnoticed, and on the rare occasion that paw and talon were able to touch the two would sigh in contentment.
Then Amon would start snarling and Robin would shrivel up like a battered housewife and Michael would slink away like a good beta male.
"Pipe down," I hissed. We'd spent three days staking out the Windstrate mansion but it felt like three decades of sappy, romantic mush. "We're on a mission here!"
Michael and Robin seemed to giggle. I think they scored extra points in their lovers' game whenever Amon and I - the crusty chaperones - lost our cool. I zapped the pair into their pokeballs. Lousy kids...
My mightyena heaved a sigh and sat down. Amon's eyes were bloodshot. I don't think he'd slept much these last days, eaten by the fear of lowering his guard before a rival. The wolf was so tired he didn't even protest when I sat at his side and started scratching behind his ears. "Women," I muttered. The wolf growled in agreement.
"I wonder if I had a girlfriend when I was alive." I couldn't remember any family and I didn't care to remember my so-called friend Roderigo; what really piqued my curious was whether I had left behind a special someone. Had somebody loved me? "Whaddya think, Amon? I bet I was a serious lady-killer."
At first I thought the mightyena was wheezing; I finally realized the wolf was laughing himself hoarse. "Some bro you are," I muttered. I didn't dwell on that long. Winry was chirping for me to look back at the mansion. Seemed an opportunity had arisen.
An unfamiliar troop of soldiers had gathered at the mansion gates. It looked like they had marched down from the mountains, dragging not just pokemon but carts of cannons and explosives. Now some heated discussion was taking place between the troop commander and the officer assigned to the mansion garrison. I couldn't hear what they said but actions spoke louder than words. The gates to Windstrate Hills rumbled open and the garrison joined rank with the mountain troop, marching southward. Zebedee, you sly old huckster! The soldiers were mobilizing to confront the Dewford uprising! Only a token two guards remained to guard the front gates.
It was Go Time. I called out Robin and Michael, sprinted to the back fence and had my pokemon boost me over into the spacious backyard. Ready or not, Leader, it's your turn to fall!
We were immediately spotted by a wrinkly old lady watering the flowers. Her watering can hit the ground and her voice hit altissimo. "Thieves! Help, help! Somebody save me!" A rescuer teleported in immediately: a meditite monkey hissing and crawling on all fours. Michael and Robin dashed at the bodyguard.
Something's not right, I realized. The shimmering aura surrounding the monkey - this wasn't any ordinary pokemon! Amon realized it as well. Swift with worry he galloped after the others and tackled Robin to the ground. Oblivious, Michael charged onward at the glowing monkey, pouncing straight through the psychic illusion and face-planting in the lawn.
The real meditite lunged at Michael from the bushes, foot first. A swift crack burst from Michael's neck as the electrike sailed through the air and into my chest. We both crashed in the dirt like wreckage.
"Cor!" Columns of flame exploded over the lawn, forcing the meditite and his old lady to retreat inside the house. Robin pushed herself free of her watchdog and raced over to my side, snatching Michael and cradling his body to her chest just as I'd held Megumi's corpse. Robin cawed, shook him and snapped fire in her fingers to rouse the dog's attention but Michael would not answer.
Robin raised her beak to the sky and wailed.
The rest went quickly. The gold-plated guards seized me, their pokemon dragged Amon and a shell-shocked Robin into the mansion. The combusken only resisted when they tried to take away Michael's corpse. She hugged the dog to her chest and refused to surrender him. We were brought before the master of the house, a super-sized cheeseburger of a man who redefined the term 'living large'. Huge leather boots down below, a huge cowboy hat perched up above, and a cigar the size of a submarine sandwich pursed between his lips. Even his bushy sideburns were obscenely oversized!
"Boy howdy, lookie what the delcatty dragged in," he drawled. "Boy, ah do declare y'all have given Grandmammy Windstrate a right an' wicked scare. Y'feelin' all right, Granny?"
The old lady was happy as could be, snuggling with her newfound meditite. "I'm naming him Jethro," she declared.
The rancher took a reflective puff of his cigar. "Well, seems y'all are the luckiest varmin t'shuffle through mah backyard. 'Cause if you'd hurt ol' Granny ... well, let's just say ah ain't all that forgivin' t'those who cross mah family."
I said nothing, just hung my head, stared at the floor and goaded the fat man to keep monologuing.
"Now, the fact that y'all decided t'barge onta mah property tells me y'all ain't got no idea who yer crosin', so ah reckon we gots some introductions t'git through." He tapped the star-shaped badge pinned to his leather vest. "Son, yer lookin' at the one 'n only Ray Windstrate. Folks 'round these parts call me the Underground King on account ah run the minin' operations on Mosdeep Island. Now, ahm many things - family man, huntsman - but first 'n foremost ahm a businessman. World's all about give 'n take. Fer example, ah give the Emperor all mah know-how about digin' 'n excavation; he gives me this beautiful home out here in the mountains. Ah give folks the honour of bein' part of mah family; they cook, clean 'n look after me. Ain't that right, ladies?"
A female chorus shouted affirmative from the kitchen. Satisfied, Windstrate strolled up close, lifting my chin with his cigar so our eyes would meet.
"So son, if you've got the brass t'barge inta mah house 'n take mah peace of mind, you better have somethin' mighty precious y'all 're willin' t'give. ... Well? Speak up, son! No time t'be shy!"
I lunged, ripping the badge off his vest. Victory! Leader Windstrate was powerless! My flyers would take out the guards and I'd be off with another prize! I waited for the rush of memories to overpower my vision but nothing happened. I just stood before the surprised guards, a stupid kid clutching a cold lump of metal. Windstrate had stepped back, alarmed by my sudden motion, but now he took stock and he laughed.
"Hoo-ee, izzat why y'all broke in? Robbin' mah gold?"
I shook and hammered at the badge as if a few good bangs could kick-start its magic. "Why isn't this working? You're the leader of Mauville! I just took your power! Work, you stupid thing!"
"Leader? Son, ah ain't no leader - at least, ah ain't got no dang-fangled magic powers like the rest o' those freaks. We ain't had no leader in Mauville fer ages."
My head was spinning. I didn't resist as the soldiers grabbed me again; I welcomed the cold grip that kept me from fainting in disbelief. He's not the leader ... Windstrate continued his lecture.
"Now son, lemmie explain yer situation: y'just tried t'rob the commander of a labour camp. Y'see, when the Emperor finds somebody he don't like, they're sent t'me and ah throw em in a pit t'dig fer elemental stones. An when y'all can't dig no more, it's playtime with the twins. Lizzie 'n Tate, those two'll show y'all a whole new meanin' of pain." Windstrate's gold star was back in his possession and he studied the badge carefully while he deliberated my fate. "Y'all broke in just fer this? Y'let yer mutt die fer a bit of shiny metal?" His oversized eyebrows burrowed in a frown.
"Word of advice, son - there's plenty of diamonds 'n gold in this world but there ain't nothin' more precious than a pokemon's life."
And with that I was shoved out the front gates without as much as a threat to stay away. I was beneath Windstrate's concern. Amon yapped at the guards, trying to salvage his pride with a show of force. Robin just clutched Michael's dead body and shut out the world. As for me, I stumbled all the way back into Mauville City, dazed and confused. He wasn't the leader... I stared at the gold star in my palm - Windstrate had tossed it to me before showing me the door. He probably had a drawer full of these worthless pins. Had I wasted all these days for a piece of junk? My electrike was dead - what was I supposed to do now if the Cult of Aqua showed up?
The more I thought about Michael, the more my nose began to twitch. The air in Mauville stank but this was something new from the usual garbage and ash. It was a whiff of something pungent and metallic, like ...
I noticed a dark red stain on my shirt, right about where Michael's snout would have hit. Ugh! Was it coming from my shirt? I ducked down the nearest alley and pulled out a spare from my backpack, tossing the dirty one. No help. It was like the smell had soaked into my skin. The smell of blood.
"This is sick!" I gasped, pinching my nose and hyperventilating through my mouth. "Robin, get rid of that thing, it's rotting!"
The hen didn't respond. She just kept clutching the lost mutt as though, if she only showed enough affection, Michael would spring back to life. Amon saw that it was up to him to force the issue; uttering a disgusted snort he took Michael's paw in his mouth and tugged. Robin sprang to life and belted out an ugly caw on par with Amon's most terrible roars. The mightyena took a step back, confused and frightened by this new aggression from the fire chick. Then he barred his fangs and growled to remind her who was in charge!
Robin's claws ripped through the wolf's face. Amon yipped and whinnied like a frightened puppy, and when Robin raised her hand for another round he turned tail and scampered into the city, leaving a trail of paw-prints and blood in his wake.
My firebird shot me an ugly, 'don't follow me' look and stormed off in the opposite direction, maybe looking for some fit place to bury Michael. I just slumped down against a random shop and did my best to cover my nose. It's still here, I realized. Even with the corpse gone that stench of blood still surrounded me. I groaned and banged my head against the wall, trying to short out my sense of smell. Was this blood another punishment for getting a pokemon killed, just like Trisha's clawing pain? It wasn't my fault! It wasn't my fault!
"Hey, mister, are you okay?" The voice belonged to a young girl. "How come you're crying?"
"I'm not crying," I hissed back. My eyes are just watering from the stench! "Whoever you are, go away!"
"No!" the voice cried back. "I can't leave you when you're all sad! Does this make it better?" The sweet scent of perfume wafted through my nostrils. Oh merciful release! The fragrance of flowering trees and ripe, juicy fruits wrapped around me like a comforting embrace. I turned to hug the girl and bury myself in her aroma but the street was deserted.
"I'm down here, mister!" The bipedal weed with chocolaty eyes and a ponytail of green leaves barely stood a foot off the ground. I did a double-take.
"You're an oddish?"
"Yup, yup, yup!" Her leafy hair bobbed affirmative. I furrowed my eyebrows.
"Oddish can't talk." Base level pokemon didn't have the brain capacity for human language. The weed's eyes went wide with alarm.
"W-we can't?" Her eyes darted around as though checking for cops. "I'm so sorry! Please don't tell on me! I won't say another word. I mean, I won't say any words at all, not just 'another word'." She gasped. "Oh no, I keep saying words! Okay, this one is definitely the last one! I mean, not the words 'this one', but all the words I'm saying now." The oddish moaned. "Oh dear, I'm not very good at not talking, am I?"
Wow, she was naive. "Hey, I don't care. Natter all you want, just keep doing that smell thing." I knelt over the oddish like she was a campfire and wafted her aroma into my face. "Oh yeah, that's the stuff!"
The oddish giggled. "You're weird, mister. Oh - I'm sorry, I never introduced myself! My name is Elucia De l'Âme Cassé, but my friends call me Elsie!"
"Friends?" I was already scrambling through my sack for a pokeball; I did not need to hear about a current trainer. Elsie, however, looked away and shuffled her feet awkwardly.
"Um... that's the thing. I kinda don't really have a lot of friends. None, actually." An epiphany struck her bubbly brain. "Oh, hey - maybe we could be friends!"
"Sure, smells good to me."
Elsie giggled again. "You're funny, master. Oh, is it okay if I call you master? That's what pokemon call their human buddies, right?"
Aromatic and subservient - I could get used to this. Kind of a shame that she had to chatter so much but I tagged her with a pokeball and then released Elsie and her lifesaving aroma. "Oh, this is so exciting!" the weed squealed. "I've always wanted a human buddy! Now I have someone I can ask about human stuff, like 'why don't you guys have leaves', and 'how come you're so tall'? Oh, we should get something to eat! You're supposed to eat sweet things to celebrate, right, and I wanna celebrate my new master!" Before I could stop her, Elsie danced up the front stoop of a shop and banged her head against the door to knock. "Hello? Anybody home? Can you tell us where to find a restaurant?"
This door, I should mention, opened outward. When the owner threw open his entrance Elsie went flying across the street and into the opposite wall with a thwack, sliding down into a pile of trash. "Elsie?" I cried. I think she was okay, though. She staggered out with eyes like a drunken spinda and she lisped something about "Thplinters..." but she was alive.
"You the help I was promised?" An old man in welding goggles posed in the doorway, hands on hips and eyebrows arched angrily. His beard was white and bushy as a delibird's mane and his hands were black and greasy with machine oil. He pulled his goggles up to his forehead and flipped out a golden pocketwatch.
"Late!" he declared. "You're late! If I had a magikarp for every minute you were late do you know how many I'd have?" Elsie and I shook our heads. "I'd have five! And what am I supposed to do with five magikarp, huh? Do I look like I own an aquarium? Don't answer that! You kids today - you all think the world runs on your time and your rules. And who told you to come to the front door?"
This was spiralling out of control. "Whoa, I think you've got the wrong guy."
"Of course I do! I asked for a hard working assistant and I get you, ya lazy little slakoth." He jabbed a finger at my pokenav. "What frequency are you on? I've only been calling you for the last hour! And you - why didn't you tell me the kid was here?"
For the first time I realized we had company: a scraggly old manetric had been napping next to the shop's front steps. The mutt glared back at its owner, irritated over the rude awakening, and repositioned so its patchy blue rear mooned the front door. The bearded man snorted back.
"Lazy bones! Bah, never mind. You're here anyway. You ready to work, kid?" I couldn't see what lurked within the shop depths, but whiff I got through the front door smelled foul - a cocktail of rust, oil and ozone strong enough to knock the blood out of my scent receptors. The smell didn't faze Elsie at all, though. All she saw was a crabby senior in need of a girl scout.
"Ooh, we can help, mister!" she chirped. "I'm good at helping! C'mon, master, let's help!" The weed and her precious aroma bounded into the dark shop without a second thought. The old man seemed impressed.
"I like the spark in your oddish, kid. You got a name? Bah, doesn't really matter. Not like there's any other kids here, right? Kid is fine. As for you, no more of this 'mister' garbage. I got a name, so you use it!"
How did my pokemon keep dragging me into these charity cases? Well, whatever. This geezer seemed to recognize my pokenav; I wonder if he knew Norman? "Fine, all right, let's get this over with, mister uh -?"
The man held open his door and motioned for me to enter the black maw. "Wattson."
Wattson, it turned out, was the proprietor of Mauville's local fix-it shop. When your wagon busted its wheel or your plowshare went dull as a brick you took your tools to Wattson and he'd patch them up good as new. Provided you could sell him on the project. Wattson only took on jobs that sparked his interest.
"I'm an old man and I won't stand being bored," he told the farmer waiting in his shop. "Give me a challenge and I'm all over it, but I won't waste my time on cookie-cutter projects!"
I glanced around the shop, littered with half-assembled wagons and bicycles; "boring" fixer-uppers Wattson had discarded like old toys in a kid's playpen. "I just need a new scythe for harvest," the farmer pleaded.
"And I need stimulation!" Wattson snapped. "If I had a trubbish for every time you people came and bored me I'd be running a garbage dump! Get out and don't come back till you've got a real problem!"
I'd only been paying minimal attention to the conversation. My interest had been hijacked by Wattson's ceiling. The light inside his shop didn't come courtesy of windows or candles or torches, but by rows of glowing lightbulbs. "How'd you make those?" I asked once the farmer slammed the door.
"With filament and glass," Wattson huffed. "I'll spare you the details, kid; you'd just get a headache." Must have been an electrical engineer, I decided. Hadn't Birch said you kept your skills and working knowledge when you crossed over to this world? Wattson must have been some specialist - not only had he crafted electrical lighting for his home, he'd even developed a motion-tracking system that adjusted the light as he walked across the shop. The bulbs burned brighter wherever Wattson stood underneath them.
"Time to get you working, kid." The old coot herded me to a work bench covered with piles of electronics. "Pokenav assembly station," he announced. "Speakers, circuit boards, casings. Put ‘em together pronto. Gotta get this order to Lavaridge ASAP."
"I thought you didn't take ‘cookie-cutter' cases."
"I don't, but my assistants do. Get a move on, kid. They promised me a box of lava cookies and a new sweater if they're shipped out tomorrow."
So Wattson was the genius "mechanic from Mauville" who had designed Petalburg's pokenavs. I put together a sample communicator while Wattson observed but the device wouldn't even work! "Where's the battery?" I grumbled while spinning the dials. "It's broken!"
Wattson smirked, took the communicator and gently twisted its knobs until the radio crackled to life. "Gotta have the magic touch," he winked, twirling his pocket watch for show. "Well, now you know how it's done. If you finish early, here's a list of things to do."
I scanned the parchment checklist. Re-align broken bike wheel (new sweater); 4x horseshoes for adult ponyta (tepig roast). Unbelievable, I wasn't an assistant, I was scab labour! "Hey, Wattson - !" but the old fart had already retreated to a back room.
"Don't bother me till you're done!" The instant he slammed the door all the lights dropped to a faint glow. Great, just great.
"Let's get to work, Master!" Elsie chirped. "We can't leave until we finish all our chores!"
I could have walked out of the shop that instant - I didn't owe Wattson anything and I think he was expecting me to work for free! - but I wanted to learn more about how this cranky old coot could generate electricity in this backwater realm. Plus, there was something cool about Wattson and his attitude. He worked on his own terms, never letting anyone boss him around. I liked that.
As for the manual labour, I had my secret weapon. Elsie's lack of arms left her pretty useless but once I popped Winry out of her capsule the machine-loving taillow needed only glance at the electronics and she instinctively knew how to snap together the puzzle pieces. Piece of cake!
"Miss Winry, you're really good with gadgets," Elsie chimed. "But Master, isn't it cheating if she does all your work for you? Won't Mister Wattson get angry?"
"I don't think he cares how it gets done," I said. And by that logic, genius ‘Mister Wattson' would be the biggest cheater of us all. Actually, I was growing skeptical about the ‘genius' part as I scanned the inventions lining the shop walls. I mean, rubber boots nailed onto small stepladders? Reading glasses with microscopes strapped to the lenses? I got the feeling grandpa Wattson was like that story about a thousand aipoms with a thousand typewriters: give them enough time and they'll eventually bang out something intelligible.
Brilliant flashes of light flickered through the door to Wattson's back room. Just what was that old codger up to anyway? The pokenavs were finished so the three of us crept towards the door to sneak a peek. Thank the boundless wisdom of Arceus I had the sense not to barge in because a lightning bolt blasted the door off its hinges. One step inside and I would've been roasted!
Wattson turned from a metal flagpole crackling with static. "Whoa, how about knocking, kid? Live experiment in progress!"
He'd nearly turned me into Virgil the Pile of Ash and that was the best apology had to offer? "What the heck is that thing?" I blurted.
"Tesla coil," Wattson answered, casual as though we were chatting over tea. "The pole stores an electric charge and discharges it from the sphere on top."
"You built a lightning gun," I deadpanned. "Why would you build a lightning gun?"
Wattson scrunched his face into a seriously puzzled look. "I dunno. Not my job to worry about how people use tools. I just figure out how to build them. If I had a braviary for every time I stopped and worried about what I was designing, those buzzards'd still be endangered. Ha!" He slapped the pole and a second accidental discharge shot between my legs. I fell on my backside hugging Elsie for dear life, snorting up soothing nose-fulls of pollen to calm my racing heart. Wattson frowned, shut off his machine and approached me sternly. "Kid, are you a jar-skull?"
"You know - oh, what do you kids call it these days - a jar-skull? A dish-brain?"
"A pot-head?" Elsie offered.
Wattson snapped his fingers. "That's the one! Level with me, kid, cause I've seen you sucking on that weed ever since you came in. You're working with precision electronics so if you're chasing the dragonite you do it on your own time."
"I'm not a druggie," I bristled. "I just -"
"Master smells me to make himself feel better!" Elsie explained.
"Because I can't get this smell out of my brain!" I blurted. I took a deep breath and tried to explain calmly. "Look, my electrike was killed today and since then I smell like I'm covered in blood! And it's not just Michael - there was a wingull, Trisha; she died too and now I get these clawing pains all over my body!" Yeah, I was seriously not calm now. "I can't explain it - it's like there's some invisible monster following me round, tormenting me every time I screw up and get someone killed! It's like -"
"- Guilt," Wattson summarized. I nodded in agreement. "Yeah ... I dunno, maybe?" Winry and Elsie laid their heads against me in sympathy. Wattson checked his watch and smiled. "You're lucky you came here, kid, cause I know just the solution to your problem." I leaned in close to hear the words of salvation.
"Get over it!" Wattson screamed. "Yeesh, ‘I can smell my dead dog!' Kid, I've met a lot of bleeding hearts but you take the cake! You're gonna get nowhere fast if you keep getting hung up on others."
"Mister Wattson!" Elsie gasped.
"Look, kid, do you remember what you were doing before you came to this land? Don't answer that - nobody remembers, not even me. But look at this." Wattson lifted his sweater and shirt to his chin. Underneath, a huge surgical scar scraped through his breastbone, and a dark, red bruise stained his left pec. "You know what this is, kid? I'll tell ya: internal bleeding. I had a heart attack. I mean, I can't remember it but look at the size of that smear - my arteries must have burst clean off! I don't know how the docs sewed me back up but they saved me!"
They didn't, I thought.
"Point is I was at death's door. I could've been a goner but I survived. This scar? It's a message: life is precious. Now, I don't know who knocked me out and shipped me off to this Nowhere-Land but they gave me a second chance. I can't waste my time sobbing over what other people want, or whining about how I might hurt people! I'm here to seize life by the throat and, by Arceus, I'm gonna throttle the juices out of it!
"You wanna know how you stop the hurting, kid? You live for your dreams! Me, I've got a bucket list of things I wanna invent. My brain's jumbled full of these blueprints and sketches and I've got to get them out and into the real world. It's what I live for!"
He started pulling gadgets off the shelves to show me. "Haven't you ever wanted to mow the lawn while riding your bicycle?" Well he'd made bicycle with circular saw wheels. "I call it the bi-mower! Or how about when you're sitting down but you want to grab a book off the shelf?" A fishing rod with a metal claw snapped in my face. "The extendo-grabo! Isn't this neat? What we need is to find you a project; keep your mind so busy there's no room for pain."
A world without pain. That would make my eternity in limbo pretty appealing. Wattson had transformed the muck of Mauville into his own private paradise. Could I do the same? "If you had a second one of those poles, and you shot lightning from one to the other -"
Wattson's eyes sparkled. "An electric fence! Hey, you're getting the hang of it! We can start it right now! Gonna need more copper wiring, though. Grab some from the back storage room, would ya?"
I gladly raced off for supplies. Keep busy, I thought. Shut everything else out. No pain, no stench, no risking my safety on some Oracle's stupid fetch-quest. Just stay here and build something fun. Wattson needed wiring from the storage room. I found a number of back doors; which was the right one? I opened one at random and found a staircase sinking into darkness. "I don't think this is the right door," Elsie shivered, but my nosey curiosity urged me down. Nuts to her - I wanna know what's down here!
I had to move carefully - there were no railings to grip, and shortly there were no walls on either side. The stairwell opened into an underground cavern. I followed the path down into the darkness until I heard the current of an underground river, and along the riverbank I found a towering city of metal.
Skyscrapers, streetlamps and neon-light palm trees - at my approach everything blazed to life. This wasn't any rustic farming town; this was a glamorous, modern metropolis! The streets were deserted but idle magnetons hovered in the air, asleep or on screen saver, I guess.
"I see you found New Mauville." I spun and found Wattson standing behind me! The old man brushed past me and gave a wistful look at the city. "She's something, ain't she? I drew up the blueprints and my magnetons did all the heavy lifting. Electric lighting, indoor plumbing, climate controlled apartments. Everything's built on hydraulic plates too. I was gonna dynamite the old town and raise this baby up to the surface! It was gonna be the ultimate city!"
Wattson took me on a tour of his masterpiece, pointing out the movie theatre, the toy store and the waterslide park. Whatever we approached lit up with a cheery glow - more hidden motion-sensors, I assumed. New Mauville was incredible, a paradise of modern technology hidden under the muck of purgatory - but I quickly understood why Wattson spoke of it in the past tense. With the added lighting I could see all the half-completed buildings at the outskirts. "What happened to it?" I asked.
"Nothing much. I got bored."
"You got bored?"
Wattson shrugged. "Building a city's hard work, kid. If I kept focusing on New Mauville I'd have no time for my other inventions. No, I've given up on my plans to convert the city, I have. I'd rather put my time into making lots of gadgets in my shop."
I could understand his reasoning but Elsie was horrified. "What about all the people?" Wattson stared at her, confused. "Weren't you building new homes for everyone up above?"
The mechanic had to digest her logic slowly. "The people …? Wait, you thought …? Ha! Why would I let those Mauville rubes into my perfect city? They'd just wreck everything!"
"It's a puzzle," I added. "You build it to challenge yourself. Besides, all the people I saw up above looked plenty happy with their mud pit city. Why waste energy on them if they're already satisfied?" My answer pleased Wattson and he gave me a congratulatory pat on the back. Still, I hesitated, building an entire city and just letting it rust in a cave …
Elsie's counterattack was interrupted by an electric buzzer. Wattson jogged over to the riverbank, and the electric lighting left with him. "Looks like we have guests. Ahoy there, boys!" Wattson was shouting at the two-man crew of a rowboat; I guess the underground river eventually flowed out the cave network and into the ocean. The two rowers lashed their boat to a metal dock and hopped onto land to greet Wattson. I gulped and scooped up Elsie so her leaves would mask my face. Both boaters were grizzly pirate-hobos from the Cult of Aqua.
"Wattson, sorry we're late! Took us a while getting through the underground." The cultists did their best to keep up phony smiles but Wattson was genuinely pleased to see the pair.
"Boys, you tell old Archie he's outdone himself this time! This latest assistant he sent, this kid is something else! I'd put you two to work too but he's wrapped up the pokenavs already, ha!"
The pirates glanced at each other, confused, but willing to roll with the punches. "So what you're saying is that you've finished all your side projects. So that means you can aid us with the submersible's power supply?"
Wattson's jolly grin deflated. "Ugh, that again? You people and your tunnel-vision; don't you ever want to try something new?"
"We're grateful for all you've done but we cannot complete our sacred journey without -"
"- An adequate power source for the electrical engine; I know, I know - I designed the blasted ship, didn't I?"
The smaller pirate had heard enough and flicked out his knife. "Old man, you will complete the Kaien or else -" a bolt of lightning blasted the pirate-hobo into the river. When he surfaced, gasping for air, Wattson fired a second jolt of electricity from his fingers, turning the entire river into a sizzling short-circuit.
"Or else what?" Wattson snarled, twirling his pocket watch. "You're gonna send your fishies after me? Need I remind you people why I work with you instead of for you?" Blue static still crackled over the mechanic's free hand and the big pirate raised his hands in a surrender pose. "Tell Archie I'm bored to death with submarines and engines. If he wants a favour, it'd better be for something fresh, got that?"
"We'll be back," the pirate growled, "but if you insist we leave then your assistant goes as well. You there, recruit, get over -" The pirate jumped and grabbed at his bandana once he recognized my face. "You again! Wretched spy - your master's sent you to steal away Wattson for Magma, hasn't he? Well just wait until Father Archibald hears of your poisonous works; this time there'll be no mercy for you filthy heathens!"
Who the heck are these Magma guys? That's what I wanted to yell at the hobo but he'd already hopped into his boat, fished his electrocuted cohort out of the water and paddled up the river with all his strength, shouting "Death to the terraphiles!" and other cultish gibberish. Well forget him - I had more pressing concerns.
"That lightning ..."
The old man chuckled. "Oh, that? Just a little trick I picked up from the Emperor. Back in the day I was head engineer for the Imperial Legions. The Emperor would come to me with his problems and I'd throw together a solution. Wattson, I need a machine to smash these city walls. Wattson, I need a weapon that can blast through solid rock. Ah, good times..."
"You worked with the Emperor?"
"Sure! That man stretched my brain to its limit, trying to come up with all the weapons he wanted. The old fart liked me so much he even asked me to serve as Leader of the Mauville region!" Wattson laughed. "Can you imagine - me, a Leader?"
Oh, I could. And I knew what I'd soon have to do. "So what happened?" I asked, stepping away and pretending to admire New Mauville.
"I said yes, of course!" Wattson waggled his electrified fingers at me. "It got me these magic babies, didn't it? I mean, I don't give a bidoof's backside about the governing part but look at me now!" Wattson charged a sphere of electricity in his palm and blasted it at the nearest magneton. The inert pokemon immediately powered into overdrive, spinning its appendages in a frenzy while hunting for work. "I'm a living power plant," Wattson declared. "Communicators, lightbulbs, pokemon - I can juice them all up!"
You can juice up my memories too. While Wattson belly-laughed and watched his super-charged Magneton fly around I pantomimed battle plans to Winry. Circle wide around the cave; then come at him from behind. It fell to me and Elsie to keep up a distraction.
"But now you're helping the Cult of Aqua?"
"Sure, they came at me with some pretty neat ideas. Wanted a ship that could travel underwater; hoo-boy, I busted my brain trying to figure out how to deal with the pressure gradients but I whipped up some designs real quick! See, kid, if you wanna live your dreams you can't get caught up taking sides. I'll work with whoever inspires me. The Emperor, the Aquas; even you, kid. That electric fence idea … you've got some imagination."
I chuckled loudly, hoping to cover up any sound of flapping wings. "Well, let's just say you're not the only one who remembers lightbulbs and electric circuits."
Wattson nodded, then spun and bombarded the sky with lightning. Winry crash-landed at my feet - charred and crackling with blue static but breathing.
"Of course, the flipside is I don't get hung up on making friends. Who are you, kid? You're not with the Cult, but you're not flying Magma's colours either. Did the Emperor send you to straighten me out?"
I picked up Elsie and Winry and started backpedalling. "I'm here for myself."
"Well that makes two of us. Shame we couldn't work together but Coulomb said it best: like charges repel." Wattson's supercharged magneton started spinning towards me, blindingly fast. Elsie hid her face in my chest. "I'm honestly curious, kid - what was your plan? Tickle me to death with that oddish? Or have you got another bird you wanna send into the power lines?"
It turned out I did. The cavern trembled and rocks crumbled from the cave ceiling as a drill of fire burst into the underground and slammed down between me and the magneton. Robin shook off her flame cloak, cocked a fist and smashed her claws into the magneton's central eye. The robot squealed and short-circuited, and while Wattson gaped at his downed worker I picked up a hunk of rock and raised it over my head...
A punch to my face sends my vision spinning. I recognize the high school setting but not my attackers, two dumb jocks who have cornered me and are taking turns booting my curled up body. Once they've had their fill they spit on me and walk off. My past self decides it's smart to be mouthy. "What'd I ever do to you?"
The taller one puts his boot on my head, grinding me down into the linoleum. His explanation is typical bullying trash. "What'd you do? You exist, that's what."
They saunter off, while the sound of clicking high-heels rushes towards me. "Ohmygosh, are you okay? Here, let me help you up!"
My vision is righted and now I'm facing an impossible beauty. Long, raven hair, and lips open with concern. "I can't believe someone would do something like that at this school. Can you walk? Here, let's get you to the nurse's office. I'm Adelina, by the way. What's your name?"
"Virgil…" Adelina fills my vision; I can't take my eyes away from her. I do catch one other detail - a stocky boy spying on our first meeting from behind a corner. He scampers off, horrified of being caught.
With a blink I returned to the darkness of New Mauville. I was still standing. My latest blackout didn't send me tumbling over, and cold metal rested in my hands. In the right was Wattson's cannibalized pocket watch; in the left was the ripped-out core of the machine - a golden broche in the shape of an egg yolk, shielded and shut off from the world by an impenetrable outer shell. The second of the Emperor's enchanted badges. I clenched my fist around it, wondering if I could coax out another memory. Adelina...
"NO!" Wattson screamed and struggled but Robin had the old fart pinned down good. "Give it back you little brat! I need it! I need it to finish my projects!" The old man's whining disgusted me. I motioned for my bird to step aside so I could belt Wattson in his fat, ugly stomach.
"Newsflash, grandpa: I don't care." It felt good to see him gasping for air. That old thing had caused me a lot of trouble by hiding in plain sight. I was finished here. "Robin, Winry, we're leaving! Elsie, you coming or not?" The oddish had run to the old man's side and looked torn at the prospect of leaving him hurt and alone.
"B-but master ..."
"Elsie, your master asked you a question! Are you in or out?"
The weedling hesitated, then doused Wattson's bleeding face with spores - "Feel better when you wake up..." - before running after me.
We took the stairs back to the empty machine shop and let Wattson's masterpiece slip into darkness. The lights of New Mauville would never shine again.
It was invigorating to climb the slopes of Mount Chimney and to gaze down upon the continent. Two badges hung around my neck, and once I surmounted this volcanic beast I'd snatch another from Lavaridge. My sides still ached and the air still stank of blood but this was my moment of triumph. So of course Elsie had to spoil the moment with her chirping.
"He was an old man. You didn't have to kick him, Master."
"He was a puppet of the Emperor. He deserved to be humbled."
"He's still a person!"
"He was my enemy!" I spun around to give the weed a piece of my mind. "Let me explain how this works: everybody in this world is out to get me! Everybody looks at me and decides I'm some sort of freak that has to be chased away and beaten down! Heck, I couldn't get any respect even when I was alive, and that was back when I didn't have this face! It's kick or be kicked, Elsie! That's how the world works!"
"No it isn't! Mr. Windstrate could have kicked you but he let you go!"
Behind us, the setting sun heated the sky into an orange glow. I was scrambling to come up with a retort when a whimper broke our argument. A lowly mightyena with scars through its muzzle crept around the bend. "Amon, about time you caught up! Back me up here - we can't show any mercy, right?"
I barely finished that sentence. Amon was changed. His tail hid between his legs and his head hung limp and lowly off his shoulders. The once proud wolf couldn't look us in the eye. He inched his way towards Robin and dropped something at her feet. Berries, I realized; the same type Michael had foraged for his crush.
Robin had changed too. She still wore her spectacles but now silvery dog tags hung around her neck. Eyes once full of wonder now glared at the world, hard and bitter. The torchic who had wailed over the fear of being alone was gone. This hen didn't spare a glance at the mightyena or his apology offering. She huffed out a snort and Amon flinched as though physically struck. That was the killing blow. The mightyena shuffled to my side and nudged my belt with his wounded snout.
No, not my belt, but the attached pokeballs. "Amon ..." The dog just whimpered. Do it, his eyes pleaded. I've nothing left.
A moment later I had a newly filled capsule in my hand and a lump in my throat. Robin stared out at the sun, clutching her necklace; Winry coughed and sputtered, still stinging from Wattson's electric attack. I thought of Dolce, who'd lost an eye for me; Trisha, who'd lost her body for me; Megumi, who'd lost her life. Every time I fight, these pokemon carry the scars. I could kick at the world all I wanted but it wasn't my body they'd strike back at. Slowly and reluctantly I turned to face my companions.
"I'm sorry," I muttered to Robin. "I knew something was wrong at the mansion and I could have stopped Michael but I didn't. It's my fault and I'm sorry." If she heard me, the combusken made no response. "Winry, I never thanked you for saving me way back in Petalburg Woods, so thanks. Way to take one for the team back there." The taillow just winked at me. All part of the job, hon.
Finally, I looked to Elsie. "You're weird, and I don't mean the talking part. You're way too nice, way too optimistic about people, and it drives me nuts how you're right about some things. I mean … I guess I shouldn't have done that to Wattson. … Sorry."
The oddish smiled and nuzzled against my ankle. "I'm glad to hear it. You do bad things, master but you're not a bad person."
Then why am I in purgatory? That thought had to be set aside as a voice crackled over my pokenav. "Virgil? This is Norman! Come in, Virgil!"
I brought the communicator to my lips. "Where've you been, Norman? Been trying to reach you for days! Hey, I got another -"
"Don't talk! We have a situation, Virgil."
I was all ears.
"I should have called you sooner and I'm sorry, but there's been trouble back in Petalburg. Three days ago we had a visitor drop into Littleroot. A flying dinosaur landed in the village and its rider started interrogating the farmers. Demanded to know everything about the local boy who had left to stir up trouble on Dewford Island."
Three days ago ... that was when I hit shore in Slateport. "This rider, did he have a huge scar across his neck?"
"It wasn't a 'he', Virgil. No, this was someone worse. Winona."
"She's the leader of Fortree territory and the Emperor's former intelligence officer. Makes it her business to know everybody's secrets. Word's gotten out about your crusade."
Zebedee you worthless barnacle! Winona must have read the news reporter's story! "What did she do, Norman?"
"Well, at first no one was keen on talking with an outsider. We Petalburgers stick together, and everyone kept their mouths clammed tighter than a shellder in an ice bath. So Winona ordered her bird pokemon to start knocking over houses. Virgil ... they told her you'd lived with Linda."
My blood went cold. "Norman, is she -"
"She's safe," he emphasized. "Linda's safe. Birch is looking after her." Then he hesitated. "Virgil ... when we got to her, Linda was in bad shape. Kept mumbling about pain all over her body and now she's burning up with a fever. She can barely walk; it's like she had the life sucked out of her."
That didn't make any sense. "People don't get sick here! If you hurt, you heal up, right? Norman?" My asking was only a formality - we both knew the truth. "It was Winona! She did something to Linda, didn't she?"
"Virgil, this whole thing's got me baffled as a beartic in the summer sun. But you've seen what these leaders can do. Poison, a magic curse - it's not impossible. Winona's figured out what you're after and she's not gonna sit around and wait for you to hit Fortree. She's coming for you, Virgil."
"Bring it," I spat. "If she wants to pick a fight, I'm ready!" Saying I was mad would've been an understatement - I was downright furious. Linda was the kindest, most selfless person I knew; Winona had no business dragging her into this muck. But once I take her badge the spell ought to break, right? "I'll call you back, Norman. I've got reinforcements coming in."
I cupped a hand over my eyes and waved at the horizon. Elsie bounced to my side. "What do you see, Master?"
"There's a pokemon flying towards us. Looks like a tropius..." More importantly, it looked like my easy ticket over Mount Chimney. I waved my arms at the flying dinosaur. "Hey, over here!"
"M-master, are you sure we should call to it?" Winry and Robin looked apprehensive as well.
"Of course I'm sure! Look, you're new to this team but wild pokemon have been popping up to help me ever since I left Petalburg. We need a ride out to Fortree and that fossil is coming straight at us."
"M-master ... there's someone riding on its back..."
I looked again. Now the beast was close enough that I could see its saddle and harness, and the outline of a woman on the dinosaur's back, a woman with purple tresses that whipped through the wind like wings. I also saw the leafy green of the tropius glow with a brilliant, hot light. "Oh shiii-"
The solarbeam hit low, chewing up the rock beneath our ledge but it wasn't a missed shot. The mountain side shook and quaked and crumbled into pieces. Robin and Winry tumbled from the ledge. Elsie shrieked "Master!" and I zapped her into her pokeball as the ground beneath our feet disappeared. Time seemed to slow into nothing, and for a sickening eternity I was weightless, suspended between heaven and earth, listening to a horrified voice scream over the mountain. The voice, I realized, was my own.
Then I plunged into the abyss.
Side Chapter III - A Spark of Sloth
My wife, Clara, was a visionary. She took the old and reshaped it into something new and beautiful. That's how she made her living when I met her: "recycled art", she called it. She'd accept donations of old clothes and stitch them into designer dresses; people would send old junk to her shop and she'd craft them into art sculptures for sale.
We met because mechanical repairs were never her specialty. It was her car; I'd always notice the old clunker in the back lane - how could anyone miss the dented bumper held on by duct tape? - and it bothered me to see such a straightforward repair go unchecked. Money must have been tight, but still... When I finally introduced myself and approached her about it, Clara shrugged. "I know it's not right, but I can keep going. You understand, I'm sure?"
I didn't. Building and maintaining machines has always been second nature to me. At four I made my first toy car out of a cereal box and jar lids, and from there on I could always see the potential in my world. A tree was just an unshaped table; steel an unrealized machine, and copper wiring was a snake waiting to thread itself through a house and bring light. The next morning I returned to Clara's shop with my welder and tools. "Free of charge," I assured her. I wanted to know more about this woman who could breathe new life into the old. I wanted to make sure she'd never have to "keep going" when things weren't right.
Forty-five years later I think I finally understand what you meant, Clara. It isn't right when a man wakes in the morning, turns to kiss his wife and remembers he's alone in his bed. It isn't right when all that's left of your lover's smile is framed photograph on the nightstand. It isn't right being so alone but you man up, you plug up that hole, and you keep going.
The hoots of twelve coo-coo clocks greet me every morning. My bedroom shelves are lined with delicate music boxes, wind-up figurines and toy robots with light-up eyes and action sounds. I've decided I like clockwork mechanics. Lots of little pieces. Lots to keep you busy when the going gets slow.
These days, all my goings are slow. I'm slow to rise, slow to get dressed; my fingers fumble over the buttons on my shirt. The surgical scar dug into my chest can't hide fast enough. Those doctors act like such big-shots but I'd never leave such an obvious seal on my repair work. I don't care much for mirrors anymore. I can't stand to see that scar, that show of weakness, or the stranger with gray hair and withered skin who looks back on me.
That man isn't Wattson Voltaire. That man couldn't assemble the precision electronics on a circuit board, his hands couldn't carve, hammer and raise up a house for his wife. He can't even maintain himself.
When I shuffle into the kitchen Abigail is bowed in prayer - scrunched over her poketch and texting orders to the underlings at her office. "Breakfast's getting cold," she says, forgoing 'good morning', or even 'how are you feeling, dad?' I think back over my years of parenting; try to remember what I might have done to make her turn out so cold, so distant. I've built automobiles and computers that have lasted for years. Surely I could raise a decent human being.
Breakfast is a bowl of sludgy oatmeal served in a styrofoam bowl, one of those 'instant meal' concoctions Abigail swears by. I try a spoonful and, sure enough, the slop clings to my throat like sawdust. This isn't what you need to start the day. Breakfast means protein - eggs and bacon with a healthy squirt of hot sauce to jumpstart your taste buds; then coffee, black and steaming, to slurp it all down and fire up your body for the day. My daughter may be a grown woman, but she's not too old for a lesson on a proper meal. I march to the fridge to gather my ingredients and do a double take. The fridge - my fridge - has been ransacked; emptied out and filled with nothing but flavorless yogurt and protein shakes.
"You're on a diet, dad. Doctor Markenson told us you've got to watch your cholesterol." Abigail doesn't even look up from her wristwatch, and her indifference makes me bristle. I don't care if she's four or forty; you never speak to your father so flippantly!
"I don't need you to buy my groceries." I slam the door, grateful to shut out the refrigerated cold. I've dressed in long pants and a sweater but my teeth still chatter. Abigail's bought a quilt that I'm supposed to wrap around my shoulders but it's heavy and cumbersome; might as well stuff me into a burlap sack. No, what I need is a jacket. A jacket with interior pockets that you can slide a hot water pack into. I've already figured out the design in my mind's eye; all that's left is to craft my invention.
"Dad, what're you cutting up those washcloths for?"
"It's cold. I'm making a jacket."
Abigail yanks the scissors from my hand and sits me back at the table. "Honestly, dad, you don't have to make things so complicated. I'll turn up the heat."
You'll crank up my heating bill, you mean. I've saved away, but I'm not made of money. Not after the surgery. I'm too tired to argue. If I had a joltik for every time we fought, I'd have enough energy to power an entire city. Abigail goes back to her texting while I stir up my oatmeal, trying to make it more appealing. How long has it been since we actually talked to one another?
"How are things at the office?"
What do you care? She doesn't say it, but I can read the irritation in her face. "Fine. We're evaluating a new formula for battle potions. Animal testing starts tomorrow."
"Uh huh? And what about that boy you're seeing? Rory or something?"
"I'm not seeing anyone, dad."
"Why not? A pretty girl like you ought to have -"
"Dad, we've had this conversation before. I'm happy with my life and I don't need to share it with anyone."
"Well who's going to look after you? You never let me teach you how to cook or how to change a tire or how to use a hammer! What're you going to do when things start falling apart around your place?"
"When I'm hungry I order take-out. I call the tow-truck when my car breaks down and I hire repairmen to fix my appliances. People don't need to worry about building or fixing things, dad. I make enough money that I can let other people handle that for me."
Where's your pride? Where's that spark to shape your world? I glance at the trees in my backyard. "The sitrus berries look plenty ripe. I'd better get a ladder and start picking them."
"Outside?" Abigail shoots up and blocks my path. "Dad, it's the middle of summer; you shouldn't be out in this heat."
"I can do whatever I damn please!"
"Dad, you had a double bypass surgery; the doctors warned you about exerting yourself and now you want to go outside, climb up ladders and lift heavy pails? You need to rest and take things easy!"
"Rest up for what? You won't let me work in my shop; you won't let me cook my own meals! I'm like one of your damn pokemon - trapped inside a little cage and only let out to do whatever you say!"
"Dad, that's not - "
"I built this house and everything in it! I don't need you telling me how to live my life! Your mother and I, we made everything ourselves and we didn't rely on anyone!"
"And is it any wonder you're in such bad shape? Look at yourself - your clothes are nothing but patches, the roof is falling apart, and if your license wasn't already revoked you'd still be driving that god-awful wreck you call a car. By Arceus, do you realize how badly you embarrassed me every time you showed up at school in that junk pile? Or how the girls made fun of me for wearing nothing but home-spun hand-me-downs? I guess you never did; you were always too busy building some new 'invention' that blasted workshop!"
"You... you ungrateful little girl! After everything your mother and I did for you -"
"You know dad, you're right. I should be thanking you for inspiring me. Do you know why I always worked so hard? At school, at my part-time jobs, at university? I worked so I could get a real job and I wouldn't have to grow up a worthless miser like you and mom!"
Ticking clocks and humming appliances fill the silence. I'm furious but I can't scream anymore. I've got no breath in my lungs; my heart is aching like a swollen fruit, ready to fall off. My heart...
Abigail catches me, keeps me from falling. She sits me down in my chair and gets me a glass of water. I guzzle it down as I pant like a dog. "We looked after you. Your mother and I - we tried teaching you to be resourceful."
"Wake up, dad. You're not a young man anymore. All this heavy lifting, this climbing; all this tinkering - it's not safe, dad."
"Living isn't safe," I growl.
My daughter takes my hand and kneels so she can look me in the eye. "Dad, I don't want to lose you. You always say there's nothing you can't fix; well, I want to fix us. I don't want us to be cold and angry anymore. But you have to help me, dad. Please? For me?"
Abby always did have her mother's eyes. "I'll try," I mumble, and my daughter hugs me tight. It's the first real warmth I've felt since Clara passed.
Then the beep of her poketch brings us back to reality. "I've got to run, dad - there's a big meeting at the office this morning. I've set out meals for lunch and dinner; you just need to re-heat them in the microwave, okay? Oh, and remember: two tablets after every meal. Got it?"
She slides over the pill box with my blood thinners. "Right..." Pleased with my compliance, Abigail kisses my forehead and marches out the door.
And I survey my accomplishments. She's right; the house really is falling apart. The kitchen sink is leaking, the paint is peeling, and the cracks running through the plaster are too many to count. I look over the toys and trinkets on my shelves; arrange them from oldest to newest and realize just how cheap my latest creations look. Like a child pieced them together. These problems should energize me, motivate me - there's something that needs to be fixed and improved, but...
You're not a young man anymore, dad.
I look at my trembling, withered hands, scarred and callused from years of labour. My mind is brimming with inventions and ideas but how could hands like these ever keep up?
What's left for me now? Sit and think about my wife and how empty the world seems without her? This isn't living, this is marking time. Stuck in a glass jar and kept under observation. Frozen alive and left on display.
Two tablets after every meal.
I carry the pillbox to the kitchen sink, pop out my morning ration and flush the pills down the drain.
Chapter 10 - The Dragon Master of Mount Chimney
They say your life flashes before your eyes when you fall to your death. Well, I was already dead and saddled with amnesia so I didn't expect to be shown any fancy movies when Winona sent me tumbling off Mount Chimney.
But I remembered watmel berries. I remembered that one summer Roderigo treated us to a pair of those green melons with shells as tough as sandshrew scales and flesh that would chip your teeth if eaten raw. The shopkeeper offered to blend the fruit into smoothies but we shook our heads and ran off to the nearest flight of stairs. Watmel is plenty sweet but we knew the real treat is preparing it yourself. You lift the fruit over your head and you chuck it at the ground. Then you kick it. You boot it. You smash it against solid rock over and over until the meat inside is rattled into jelly. Stab with a straw, high-five your buddy and enjoy.
When my corpse finally smacked into the mountain's base I decided Winona had an especial fondness for watmel.
My eyes were among the first organs to regenerate. I was lying face up in the ashlands of Mount Chimney; a pile of rocks had me pinned below the waist. Volcanic gases spewed from geysers and flakes of sulfur fluttered from the sky like snowflakes. At another time I might have enjoyed the haunting scenery; now, I was just pleading for my lungs to stitch together so I could scream. I was swimming in pain and struggling to keep my head above water. "Ro-bin?"
No reply. I wondered just how durable Birch's apricot balls were, and what happened to the animal inside if the machinery broke. "El-ssssie?"
"SHAAA!" A metal beak thrust into my face; feral yellow eyes blinked in my features. My muscles froze. A skarmory. Nature's slaughterhouse - a living battalion of blades designed for the sole purpose of snatching, slicing and swallowing up meat in a vortex of steel. Winona must have sent this minion to extract my corpse. My body writhed - I had to get free of these rocks; fight, flee; anything!
The yellow-eyed demon watched me struggle and it wasn't impressed, but neither was it interested. The skarmory turned to the rocks at my feet and began picking through the rubble. It cawed triumphantly, pulled out a nice flat stone and set about whetting its beak against the grain.
It didn't care about me. You're not Winona's, you're a wild.
I looked again at the volcanic smog congesting the air. I laughed, and my laughter turned to coughing the more I breathed in the gas. I could see the shadow of Winona's tropius through the sulfur clouds, circling overhead like a hungry scavenger but never daring to drop into the poisonous smog. The steel-plated skarmory was fine, but no ordinary pokemon could survive in fumes this thick. Stalemate. As soon as my muscles re-grew I could crawl out and run away.
Winona must have figured as much. Flashes of light burst around her brachiosaur and mechanized magnemites dove into the smog, sweeping the ground with their radar eyes. Clever girl...
I assessed my body. My ribs were still sticking out, and there was no way I was pulling myself out of those rocks. "Hey ... help ... me!"
The skarmory turned and I immediately regretted my choice. The bird was a mess. Its meat-hook beak was twisted on an angle and the plating above its left eye was dented inward, probably forcing quite a bit of pressure down on its brain. It bobbed its head from side to side like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, counting time in some compulsive habit. Pokemon have some degree of sentience, but this bird didn't strike me as having an ounce of sanity in its dented skull. And I'd just called its attention to the helpless pile of meat pinned to the ground. Brilliant.
But with the levitating magnemites buzzing closer I had no options. "Help me," I pleaded. I could lift my hand a little and the skarmory followed my gesture to the incoming drones. Recognizing the hated electric type, the bird made an ugly hiss and decided we had a mutual enemy. It crouched overtop my chest and fanned out its wings so that, when the magnet pokemon scanned the ground, it picked up the skarmory's empty metal instead of human flesh. The drone continued on its path, and the skarmory flashed me an ugly grin. Mine. All mine.
It went for my shoulder first, clamping down hard with its beak and dragging me free of the rocks. Play through the pain, I hissed. Every spare second gave my body time to regenerate; once I was strong enough I could fight off the bird and run. That was my plan, but the skarmory was prepared. An explosion of heat sent my body into spasms. Fire! My blood was gasoline and someone had dropped a match in my veins; I was burning alive! That was when I noticed the purple sap oozing from between the bird's metal plating. Poison! This skarmory had adapted so thoroughly to the toxic wasteland that its body secreted poison! I dug my fingers through the dirt, grasping for a rock, a root - anything to toss in this monster's face! All the while the skarmory snapped its wings like scissors, delighted to have found prey so fresh and feisty. No more picking at rocks for sandshrew or choking down hot slugma; there'd be fat, juicy flesh in the belly tonight, carved by a master swordsman. The fire was too much; I was blacking out!
A stone whizzed through the fog and clanged against the buzzard's metal skull. Who dared? The skarmory spread its wings and shrieked, but its rabble only helped the next shot hone in on its throat. The bird coughed and sputtered, and the stone mortars kept pelting and denting its armoured hide. No meal was worth this abuse. My captor tucked in its wings and raced into the toxic fog faster than a dodrio on carbos.
Two strong arms seized me under the armpits and dragged me away...
I awoke in a traditional Johtonese home - tatami mats on the floor, incense wafting on a shelf and a low-set table clustered with medicine vials. "I must be dreaming," I muttered.
"Why not?" chirped a child's voice. Good point - maybe this quest was all a bad dream I'd conjured from the fog of sleep. Then I caught sight of my scarred face in a mirror. My mind flashed back to my fall down a skyscraper-sized mountain and a wave of nausea forced me to lie down.
"You're awake! Splendid, most splendid!" An old man in a lounging robe had entered the room. Thick glasses obscured his eyeballs, while hair as fluffy as mareep's wool puffed from his head and chin. "Naturally, some rest and my herbal remedies were exactly what you needed to get the poison out of your system." Was this eccentric grandpa the one who had dragged me from the wreckage? My host urged me to join him at the table for refreshments. "My name is Cozmo and you, young land, are in Fallarbor Town, a most thriving site of geological wonders! Let me introduce you to my friends - over there is Desmond, that's Gloria, and to your right is Raymond."
Desmond, Gloria and Raymond were all large boulders seated around the table for an imaginary tea party. "Um, hi?" I ventured.
Cozmo rubbed his hands with delight. "Oh it's been so long since we've entertained guests! I insist you join us for tea, Mr. Virgil." Turning to the kitchen, he bellowed, "Matsuda! Some tea for our party! Matsuda, you useless lump, where are you?"
A squishy blue pokemon prodded my side. "WHYYYY-NAUT!" Matsuda squawked, saluting me with its floppy ear. A tray with fresh tea balanced on the bright pokemon's head and I reflexively grabbed my cup before the wobbly poke-servant could spill it in my lap. Cozmo slurped down his cup with relish and immediately spat it over the wynaut.
"You imbecile, are you trying to kill me? I asked for hot tea, not scalding! Take it back!"
"Wyy..." Matsuda whimpered. Cozmo's face dialed to a furious red.
"Why?? You ungrateful little wretch, you'll do as you're told!"
"Oh I'll tell you what's 'not' happening - your supper! Out of my sight!"
"Wyyy...." Matsuda sniffled, trailing his dangling ears across the floor.
Cozmo turned to me for sympathy. "Do you see the insolence I have to put up with? Miss Gloria, you're so right - good help is so hard to come by these days. Oh, my good Virgil, if only I were blessed with obedient and conversational pokemon like you. Isn't that right, Hermes?"
I try my best, sir. A stone face hovered up beside me, making me jump. Sorry if the telepathy's a little loud. The Maker was kinda cheap about handing out vocal cords to us rock types. The solrock's eyes flashed a bright red every time its scratchy voice echoed in my head. Name's Hermes. Take it easy, boss; I'm on your team.
"Hermes brought you to my house, unconscious from the poison," Cozmo explained. "Once I saw what marvelous company you keep, Mr. Virgil, I knew I had to assist, no matter the consequences."
So a solrock had joined my team? The psychic rock wasn't much to look at, but I admired his initiative. Now it was time to get out of the geology club. "Hermes, was it? Well, thanks for the assist. Cozmo, it's been great but I've got to split. Hermes, tell the other pokemon we're leaving."
That was hardly comforting. "You know, Robin, Winry, Elsie. Where is everybody, anyway?" I scanned the room and Hermes glanced around with me, still confused. A cold, clammy feeling rose from my stomach. "The pokemon that fell along with me. You saved them too, right?"
Hermes' rock body couldn't show any emotion, but the way he tilted his face to avoid my eyes told me he was debating; hesitating over something. Finally making up his mind, the solrock hovered to a corner shelf and levitated the remains of an apricot ball into my hands. Magma combed over your crash site pretty thoroughly. This was all that was left. Boss, I ... I wouldn't get my hopes up.
It was suddenly very hard to stand. "How long have I been out?" I whispered.
Four days. We had to keep you sedated while we washed out your insides. Tracked a lot of grit into your guts, Boss.
"And there was nothing else when you found me? No pokemon, no capsules?" My hand lunged to my neck. The string I'd tied on since Dewford was gone. "The badges! Hermes, tell me you took the badges!"
You barely had any clothes ... or skin left. I didn't see any badges, Boss.
There was nothing left to say, so I drank my tea and took stock of all the pains running through my body. My nose reeked of blood, my ribs screamed under the crush of talons but now I'd found a torture to top it all - despair. All the pokemon I'd befriended, all the victories I'd earned; the magic badges - they were gone. Crushed to dust or buried in the rubble along Mount Chimney. "All this suffering ... for nothing."
I was clearly unnerving Cozmo with my bitterness. "Don't give up, my friend! Look on the bright side - you're a local celebrity!" The geo-maniac slid a paper across the table; it was an old-fashioned 'Wanted' poster featuring an artist's sketch of my burned face and a hefty reward for my capture. "That woman with the tropius has been showering the town with these portraits! Clearly you've made quite an impression on that lass!"
Winona! I crumpled the poster in my fist - a sorry substitute for her neck, but it did the trick for now. Winona, Winona, Winona. I could scream her name for a thousand years and my rage still wouldn't be satisfied. Had I really wasted precious time feeling sorry for myself when Linda was wasting away from a Leader's curse? Well I may have lost my teammates but I wasn't losing Linda! "Cozmo - that tropius! Where's the last place you spotted it?"
My determination made the old man sweat in his seat. "Well, that is, I believe she's been made a guest of our Leader. She and her birds have been patrolling the skies for days now, but at sunset she always returns to Fort Lavaridge on the far side of the mountain."
"Hermes, you know the way?"
Yeah, boss. Leave it to me.
I got up, and hesitated. Could I really defeat a Leader with nothing but a solrock? "Hermes, I'm counting on you to handle whatever pokemon she's got. You up for that?"
Hermes' crystalline eyes twinkled as though to smile. No worries, boss, I brought some backup.
Cozmo's shack stood on the outskirts of Fallarbor Town, as though the whole community had uprooted its foundations and taken a generous side-step away from the squirrely old man and his rock collection. I could see why Winona had missed this place: desert weeds had overtaken the yard and ash from the volcanic geysers coated the roof, melding the house into the dusty red landscape. The perfect camouflage. Standing guard outside the front door was a humanoid pokemon with leathery skin and a short lizard snout. Boss, meet Armstrong. He's the one who chased off the skarmory and carried you out here.
I nodded my hello to the machop. The fighting type looked me over and struck a bodybuilding pose that made his muscles bulge and sparkle. Armstrong likes to let his muscles do the talking. He says "hello".
"Oh." I wondered whether I should strip of my shirt and flex my abs in reply. I settled for a handshake. Armstrong probably didn't speak Ninety-Pound Weakling. "Good to have you on board, Armstrong. I'm out of pokeballs so I hope you don't mind walking." No problem there. Armstrong gave me an eye-full of his calves and glutes to prove that his lower half was ready and eager to conquer a long hike. So with Hermes as our guide, we began our march across the mountain wasteland.
Fallarbor Town looked like a ghost town. Worn, wooden shacks plunked down in a red dustbowl and not a soul in sight. I saw the occasional flicker of movement behind a window curtain but whoever they were, no one seemed keen on going outside while I was around. Winona's wanted posters were plastered everywhere; maybe they'd given me a terrifying reputation.
We should be able to move pretty easily, Hermes assured me. Lavaridge's Leader has been supervising a of construction project on top of the mountain. All the Magma conscripts from this town left days ago to help out.
Again, that name everyone seemed to recognize except me. "Magma... fill me in Hermes - just who or what is a Magma?"
Hermes twirled his body like a pinwheel. Hmm, that's a tricky one. The rock-type enjoyed tossing gestures into his speech; spinning like a wheel meant he was thinking hard about a subject. The Brotherhood of Magma; they're supposed to be Lavaridge's personal army. Cozmo told me that after the Cult of Aqua started rallying against the Emperor, Lavaridge's leader conscripted all the young folk from the region to fight back against Aqua. But if you ask me ... Hermes zipped close to my face and froze, dead serious. Magma's more like a religious order made to worship the Lavaridge Leader.
We paused at Fallarbor's town square where an angry charizard statue roared at the citizens. The dragon pokemon clutched a stone tablet in its claws and I recognized it as a tome used by ancient cultures used to record a list of laws. Fallarbor's leader had prescribed only one:
I am the Master of Fire and Earth, the Lord of the Mountain. You shall have no other gods before me.
I'd met some pretty self-righteous jerks in my travels but this new Leader was something else. I mean, who invents a religion for the sole purpose of glorifying themselves? "Sounds like this leader's a jealous god."
Hermes rotated a quarter-turn to show he didn't understand things any better. Lavaridge is a weird place, Boss. There are quotas on the number of pokemon you can own, on what types you can keep. Lance may call himself the Dragon Master, but -
"Lance?" I'd stopped in my tracks, overcome by a new rush of memory. Newspaper headlines, television reports...
Hermes and Armstrong flocked to my side. You know this Leader, boss?
"No, I mean, I never met him, but ... where I'm from, the most powerful trainer in all of Kanto and Johto was this guy they called the Dragon Master. Lance." I explained everything I remembered - how Lance and his family trained rare and powerful dragon pokemon; how he'd defended our cities from criminal organizations like Team Rocket; how he'd ruled over the Elite Four and finally ascended to the champion's throne. But ... had he died? Had Johto's mightiest been cast into purgatory?
Boss, your skin's going pale. Is that normal for humans? Hermes was doing his confused quarter-turn again, but with an added tremor. I was frightening him.
"Let's keep moving," I said, forcing a brave face. "You said the Dragon Master was supervising the construction, right? So he'll be far away from Fort Lavaridge? Look, let's just find Winona and get out of here." I'd beaten Brawly and Wattson - a stoner and an old man - through sheer luck. How could I dare challenge a dragon tamer so amped up on the power of a magical artifact that he declared himself a god?
I was about to find out. The ambush came at the crossroads; a trio of red-robed monks who dressed like holy men but moved like bandits, tossing a net over me and Armstrong while the third sicced his poochyena on Hermes. "Tell the machop to stand down, Petalburg boy, or my baltoy fries your brains!" The lead monk pointed his little clay pokemon at my head like a gun. A volcano symbol was printed over their robes and little devil horns were sewn on top of their hoods. The Brotherhood of Magma, I presumed.
Hermes' screams wailed through my skull. Boss, I can't see it, get it off me! Get it off, it's so cold!
The net wouldn't stop Armstrong, but that poochyena had its jaws over Hermes like he was a chew toy; I had no choice, not unless I wanted Hermes smashed into pebbles. "Just do what they say, Armstrong. We'll figure something out." Cackling to themselves, the monks lashed our wrists with rope and tied us together as a chain gang. Hermes, they stuffed in a sack to drag through the air like a burlap balloon. Then the strangest thing happened: each monk pulled an apricot ball from his cloak and recalled their pokemon. They had pokeballs in Lavaridge?
Before I could process this anomaly the monks jabbed my back and ordered me to march. "Start walking, boy! It's a long road to the top of Mount Chimney!"
Just looking at the mountain's smog-covered peak made my legs buckle. "You're seriously making me walk up that?" Again? I thought privately.
That comment sent the monks into stitches. "See, lads? Swallows every word he hears, like the good little Petalburg boy he is. Don't be daft, son! There's a cable car up the road from here. Now get moving! You're due for a chat with the Pokemon Professor."
Sure enough we found a cable car past the next turn in the road. A stationary bicycle mounted inside moved the car along the line and the monks made Armstrong pedal us upward. The machop seethed every minute of the ride, insulted that he'd been pressed into such menial labour. Hermes said nothing; he was still shivering from the traumatic attack of the dark-type.
On the way up I got a good eyeful of the monument Magma had been constructing atop the mountain. The entire southern rim of the volcano had been plated over with metal and a giant metal charizard head thrust from the wall like an ugly gargoyle. Were they building some kind of cathedral up here? Once the monks pushed us out I could see towering columns and what looked like a raised altar leaning over the crater of lava. Was this supposed to be a temple to house Magma's deity-Leader, and if so, what was with all the giant gears and machinery sticking out of the floor?
I got no answers. My captors pushed past the construction area to a large tent of purple canvas on the far side of the crater. Hanging drapes portioned the interior into separate areas, and we stepped into what looked like a foreman's office. Mobile peg boards with construction blueprints surrounded a mahogany table stacked with books and parchment. At our intrusion, the monk seated behind the desk uttered a sigh of disgust.
"Professor! Professor Maxwell, we got him! He was at the crossroads, just like you said!"
"As I anticipated," the professor smirked, ignoring eye contact with his underlings. "Fallarbor was the closest refuge from the impact site, and a stranger to these lands would travel by established routes. Predicting the boy's movement was elementary." Maxwell finally looked up at us, throwing off his hood to reveal a head of slicked red hair and eyes permanently narrowed into contempt for the idiots surrounding him. "Remove your hoods, you oafs. I can't bloody well see who I'm talking to with these ridiculous cloaks." Maxwell jotted down the monks' squad number and issued new orders. "Rendezvous with Squad 11 and reinforce the southern pass. We've received reports of Aqua activity around Mauville City and I will not have our boarders violated by those rebel scum!"
"That ain't fair, professor! You said there'd be time off for whoever caught the boy!"
The disobedience didn't faze Maxwell. Instead of sullying his calm intellect by yelling he simply placed a pokeball on his desk and tapped the release button. The mightyena that popped out took care of the yelling. The squad of monks raced outside, leaving Armstrong, myself and a bagged Hermes with this pokemon professor. Maxwell spared us a glance.
"Do forgive the lack of chairs; I had expected your would lie in hiding for another twenty-four hours. Clearly something quelled your cowardice and roused that foolhardy nature of yours." We'd only just met but the way Maxwell summed up my actions made me feel like a lab specimen he had spent years analyzing. The professor went back to scribbling his notes and didn't address me until he was finished his current page. "So, how is Birch? Still wasting away in Petalburg, clinging to hope like a remoraid on a dying Mantine?"
Now there was a surprise. "You know Professor Birch?"
"We were travelling companions," Maxwell confirmed. "We journeyed around the continent together, we explored its mysteries; we bonded over our shared disgust of the masses." He smirked - a fond memory - then went hard as granite. "Regrettably, when the war broke out Birch chose to uphold an illogical loyalty to Steven and opposed the Emperor. I, on the other hand, maintained the intellect to appreciate the inevitability of this new power's rise."
Birch, a rebel warrior? I tried to imagine the plus-sized professor, or this gaunt scarecrow, commanding pokemon on the battlefield. Maxwell seemed to guess at my thoughts. "Of course, I didn't sully my hands in battle like Brawly and those meat-puppet soldiers. No, my talents lied in analysis. I shared my knowledge of the land - of Steven's pokeball technology - with a promising field commander specializing in draconian pokemon and assured his flawless takeover of the Lavaridge mountain range. As you can see," Maxwell gestured to the lavish tent, "we've come to a most mutually beneficial partnership. The unchallenged strength and charisma of a dragon tamer supported in his daily operations by my genius."
"Pretty stupid costume you're wearing."
Maxwell forced a thin smile. "A little aesthetic mismanagement is a small price to pay for power. Which brings us to our next subject - the badges you liberated from Brawly and Wattson. The Dragon Master would very much like them, if you please."
"Go suck an exeggcute."
"A pity," Maxwell sighed, standing and removing a knife from a drawer. He moved quickly, slashing the ropes at my wrists and then Armstrong's. "Let's get rid of those primitive restraints, shall we? I have simpler methods of keeping animals in check." He tossed a pokeball into Armstrong's hands. "Listen well, fighting type: you're holding a pressure ball, my custom design. The entire shell is wired to a hair-trigger. Adjust your grip in the slightest and you'll release the voltorb inside." Maxwell turned to me. "The badges, please."
Armstrong's eyes were glued to the pokeball. I tried to play cool. "I'll order him to drop it. We'll take you with us."
"You won't," Maxwell countered. "You and I will survive - somewhat frazzled - but your pokemon will die. I've profiled you, boy, and your impulsiveness is matched only by your selfishness. You act only for your own profit, and there's no profit in killing the last pokemon in your troop." He glanced back at Armstrong. "Your machop is beginning to perspire. The badges, please."
I scowled. "You don't know me."
"Oh but I do, most intimately. From Winona's reports I've learned about your exploits in Dewford and Mauville; now that I've seen you first-hand I've completed my assessment." He reached for a measuring stick on his desk and began pointing at me.
"Let's start with your palms - smooth and without callus. You're a city boy, unused to labour or difficulty. You pay no attention to your studies and you can't be bothered with a part-time job. Next I look at your posture; the way you lean on one hip indicates your defiance of authority, but you always keep your back arched. Clear signs you have an ego to uphold. Selfish through and through." To Armstrong. "Good sir machop, your arms are trembling quite thoroughly. The badges, please."
"And your face. My, my, your face. There's so much living to be discovered in our dying. Oh, don't look at me with that pathetic shock; did you presume I hadn't deduced the true nature of this world? You and I and the rest of the trash here are dead; disembodied spirits moved on to a new world. Your pokemon will not be so fortunate. The badges, please."
I shut my eyes and grit my teeth but Maxwell pushed on. "Now, your burn scars are the mark of an explosion, but what kind? The fact that they're localized on your head eliminates a house fire or a large-scale combustion; no, this was deliberate. You were targeted. An incendiary device aimed at your face? A vial of acid thrown at your features? Yes, whoever did this to you - and it was done deliberately - wanted you to suffer."
"I swear to God, Virgil, I'm going to kill you!"
"I lost them," I blurted. "They're gone. Please don't kill my pokemon. They're all I've got."
Maxwell snorted and hit a kill switch on the pressure ball. Armstrong collapsed. "Did Birch share with you his Personality Transference Theory? That we continue to live out the passions and flaws that first killed us? I wonder if this is how you died - gambling a friend's trust just to maintain your ego."
"My best friend killed me," I confessed. "Why'd he do it?"
"Oh, that's elementary. You're a teenager - awash with hormones and incapable of rational thought. It was a crime of passion."
"I'm Adelina, by the way. What's your name?"
"I'm convinced of your ignorance regarding the Emperor's relics," Maxwell concluded. He rang a bell, summoning two guards to drag away Armstrong and Hermes. "Dropped in the rubble, most likely. I'll have to organize a more thorough investigation of the badlands."
"Are we done here?"
"Ah, again he postures! A kitten shinx with delusions of luxray. Spare me the bravado, boy. I would have fed you to my mightyena except the Dragon Master has requested to see you for himself."
Lance! I tried to run but that mightyena materialized at the tent doorway, growling and forcing me back. Maxwell lifted me to my feet. "Try to appreciate the honour: the greatest and most powerful leader in all this existence has deemed your worthy of an audience. Step quickly, boy. The Dragon Master awaits."
Maxwell prodded me beyond a curtain to the back of the tent. Everything was black, the only illumination a pair of torches. The Dragon Master preferred the darkness for his meditations.
The Dragon Master, the scourge of Team Rocket; the champion of the Johto-Kanto Alliance... at least, I was pretty sure it was him. Lavaridge's leader had that same blaze of red hair, only longer than I remembered, and bundled into a whip-thin ponytail. He had those same intense eyes and hardened cheekbones, but everything below his nose was hidden - a scarf encircled his mouth and a black cape hugged his body. Are you like me, I wondered? Disfigured by death?
"My lord, this is the boy Winona spoke of."
Lance stood and took his own turn to appraise me. I just kept my eyes on the floor and tried not to flinch when his cloak brushed my leg. "This is the boy?" The Dragon Master's voice thundered low and sonorous and ... forced? Wait, was he deliberately speaking in a lower pitch? "This is the maggot that sent Winona shivering? The insect that cast Brawly into the sea?" He laughed, and it was one of those overdone 'bwa-ha-ha-ha' villain bits you hear in the movies. Then he started monologuing!
"And yet you fell so readily into the dragon's claws! As expected, for I, Lance the Dragon Master, am peerless among the leaders of this land!"
Something was ... off. "You're Lance? The Dragon Champion of Johto?"
My words pleased the leader. "Ah, humility. You are wise to address me as 'champion', lowly mortal, for I am great and powerful beyond all comprehension."
No, this didn't make sense. "Birch said we keep our personalities even after we die. Lance was a jerk, but he wasn't power hungry. What's with this evil overlord routine? And why are you hiding your face?" I took a bold step forward. "Are you really Lance?"
"Be silent, boy or I will-"
"Are you a girl?"
"SHUT UP!" The torches flared into pillars of rage. "I am the Master of Fire and Earth, the Lord -"
"Lord of the Mountain, yeah, I read the signs." To Maxwell, "This is a joke, right? A body double or something, righ-WHOA!" Fiery serpents spun from the torches and twisted around my body.
"I AM the Master of Dragons and you will bow before me, boy!" I quickly crouched on the ground. Imposter or not, this person was clearly unstable.
Maxwell forced his way through the awkwardness. "My lord, the boy has no badges. He's useless to us. We should dispose of him and his pokemon before he can create any undue mischief." But I'd prodded the dragon master beyond the point of reasoning.
"No," s/he snarled. "The machinery's finally ready; I want him to watch. I want him to see me in my moment of triumph. I've bested Winona - I've caught this pitiful assassin; now I'm going to achieve what the Emperor never could and obliterate the Cult of Aqua in a single blow!"
The Dragon Master pulled me close, a smile forming through the scarf. "You saw those torches, boy? You saw the power I command?" I had. Brawly manipulated water, Wattson electricity; the Dragon Master was a living flamethrower able to command and fuel fire. "You haven't seen anything yet. Maxwell, gather the troops at the altar. When I sit upon the Throne of God, boy, you'll be the first to grovel at my feet!"
Something was wrong with Mount Chimney. When Maxwell shoved me out of the tent I found black smoke rising from the crater and a rumble like thunder trembling through the ground. None of the Magma monks paid it any attention but as Lance stomped toward her altar, teeth grit and fists clenched, the mountain seemed shake in rage alongside her.
We all took our places for the ceremony - Lance at the center of the altar, raised where all the assembled monks could see and glorify her. Maxwell and a spare grunt stood back and to the side, guarding me and my pokemon. Armstrong looked weary and defeated; Hermes was still stuck inside that bag. I tried whispering to them but Maxwell shushed me. The show was about to begin.
The Dragon Master stretched her arms and a shower of fire exploded from the volcano. "My loyal subjects, the day of ascension has come! For too long our splendour has been confined to this wretched mountain; today, our might will spread over this land with such fire and such furor that even the boundless ocean will shrink before us!"
Maxwell gestured at the crowd and the hooded monks raised their fists to cheer. "Hail Magma! Glory to the Dragon Master!" It was a well-rehearsed line but they sounded like kids cheering over birthday socks - totally forced. A group huddled around an especially tall monk refused to cheer altogether, crossing their arms in defiance of this mandated religion. These monks didn't care about Lance or her crazy ideas; they just followed along to avoid getting burned!
Lance didn't seem to mind; she was far too obsessed with her theatrical master plan to pay her underlings any attention. "Fires of the inferno - your master summons you! Go forth and cleanse the land of all who oppose me!"
That's when the ground really began to shake and I realized I wasn't standing on a mountain any more, but on the back of a giant stirring from its rest. The lava pooled inside the crater - it was bubbling up, rising! Lance's face was screwed up in fierce concentration and her arms stretched over the molten liquid like a conductor demanding her orchestra for more: more volume, more thunder, more power! She was using her power to pull the lava up from the earth!
Maxwell relayed orders into a pokenav and a metal clang shook the altar. Magma monks rushed to peer over the safety railings, shouting, "It's opened, it's opened!" They were all pointing to the giant charizard head, it's jaw unhinged like a snake and glowing red with liquid fire.
Obliterate the Cult of Aqua in a single blow. The charizard gargoyle, it wasn't a statue, it was a spout! Magma had transformed the volcano into a continent-sized tea kettle and they were going to direct the lava straight towards Slateport City, a knife driven into the heart of the Aqua rebellion! But the Cult's home base was so far away! I thought of all the land I had trekked through - Windstrate's mansion, Mauville's houses and farms.
I turned to Maxwell. "That lunatic's gonna bury everyone alive!"
"And those who survive will bow in terror before the Dragon Master." Maxwell's eyes blazed with admiration. "Can you not admire the audacity, the brilliance of it all?"
Brilliance, or insanity? The Dragon Master cackled before a backdrop of bursting hellfire while gallons of lava spewed down the mountain slope. "I am the Master of Fire and Earth! Look upon my works and tremble!"
Someone among the monks had had enough of looking. A stone whizzed through the air and clipped Lance's ear, bursting her bubble. Maxwell's jaw dropped; the Dragon Master boiled over in rage. "Who dares?"
"I dare!" That especially tall monk had stepped forward from the crowd, followed by a group of like-minded heretics. "Your words are bold, Dragon Master, but they are no more than the mewling of a child! Your tyranny ends today!"
Lance grit her teeth, the Magma monks muttered to each other, confused. Only Maxwell had the puzzle solved, and he gave a dry chuckle. "Wolves in sheep's clothing. Knew I should have pushed for the uniform redesign."
Father Archibald shucked his disguise, and Deacon Shelly and ten other Aqua pirates followed suit. "I sensed your dark ambitions when we uncovered your spy in Slateport, and then again Mauville, but had I realized the true depths of your depravity I would have ended your terraphilic slander years ago! This land-making machine must be destroyed! Children of Aqua, wash these sinners from the face of the earth!"
Rusty knives thrust into the air with a roar. Maxwell rolled his eyes at the bravado and called orders through is pokenav. "Squads 3 through 6, form perimeter Delta. Remaining squads, attack positions Bravo."
"Make them suffer, Maxwell!" Lance was paralyzed on the spot; her face screamed to join in the battle but she had to focus all her energy on the volcano to keep the lava flowing. Archibald and his men were surrounded, an island of blue in a sea of red, but what they lacked in numbers the Aqua strike force made up for in iron will. The pirates swept through the Magma monks like a tempest of gyrados, blood in their wake and smiles on their faces. I'd been wondering how warfare worked in this world - how could you win if your opponents automatically reattached missing limbs or regenerated stab wounds? Maxwell's strategy was containment. Apricot balls cracked open and a ring of numel encircled the pirates with flamethrower breath. Shielded behind their pokemon, the monks started tossing chains and nets over the char-broiled pirates. You couldn't kill a soul but you could immobilize it.
Archibald had a far more gruesome strategy - marching through the fire, seizing a hapless monk by the neck and swinging him into his allies like a club. You terrified the enemy into submission.
The pirates had hidden pokemon under their robes - portable shellder and clampearls that they now turned into high-pressure water cannons. Archibald wasn't satisfied with slicing up the monks or hacking off limbs; they blasted Lance's minions off their feet and off the mountain! The lucky ones fell off the slopes; others got a one-way trip into Mount Chimney's fiery pool. I shut my eyes; I didn't dare see what happened when a regenerating body sunk into a bath of liquid fire. The Magma monks felt much the same; one by one the survivors scattered and fled.
Maxwell took the battle in stride. He could plan and out-think his opponents by five steps but tactical brilliance wouldn't help when his chess pieces panicked and ran off the board. "Human error," he hissed, mentally tallying a list of tortures for his cowardly subordinates. "My Lord, our objectives are compromised. We must retreat."
"No! Not when I'm so close! Hold them back, Maxwell!"
"With what? Your minions have left us!" Archibald and his pirates were charging the walkway, ready to skewer us all. They would have done it too, if Armstrong hadn't slammed his fists into the stage, blasting off a shockwave that bowled the Aquas off their feet. Lance scowled at me. "I don't need your help!"
"Never look a gift horsea up the snout," Maxwell retorted, snatching his master by the wrist and dragging her for the cable car. "Tabitha, throw the boy in the pit and get moving!"
That order was for my guard, who clubbed Armstrong, picked me up over his head and started marching for the lava pool. "Hermes, zap his brain with a psychic blast or something!"
Boss, I'm not a kadabra! I don't have those kind of powers!
"I thought you were a psychic!"
I'm a rock!
Too late anyway. My guard tossed me through the air, but instead of plunging into a molten bath I rammed against an invisible wall and crumpled on the ground. The monk had a second to puzzle over my survival before his face went blank, like an invisible rake had smacked him across the head. I ran to untie Hermes.
"What was that back there?"
I'm a rock, Boss! I float, and I can put up psychic barriers. He demonstrated again, and this time I saw the rainbow shimmer of the invisible barrier that had spared my fall. Not exactly great offense.
"Unless you use your barriers as an invisible two-by-four," I gestured to the unconscious guard.
Huh, never thought of that till now.
Next thing I knew I was racing alongside Deacon Shelly and some Aquas for the cable car, our grudge match on hold as we both aimed for a bigger fish to fry. Maxwell shoved the Dragon Master into the car and made his stand, rolling a six-pack of pokeballs towards us.
"Stand back!" he ordered, brandishing an electronic trigger with a big red button. "One more step and I detonate these pressure balls. I'll blow this ledge apart and send us all into the fire!"
Shelly held back her grunts but Armstrong wasn't deterred. My machop whipped a rock at the cable car's support beams, smashing its rope line. "So much for your escape," I laughed.
"Don't insult my intelligence, boy. I always have a contingency prepared."
With a push of a button the cable car transformed. The rail pulleys detached, a propeller unfolded from its backside, and the roof popped open to release a red, cigar-shaped balloon. Maxwell waved adieu and stepped into his miniature zeppelin as it lifted off the mountain.
"Coward!" the deacon roared. "Neither earth nor air will spare you from the ocean's wrath!"
In reply, Maxwell stuck his trigger hand out the window and punched the red button. We all flinched as six capsule balls exploded with six handfuls of confetti and streamers. A colourful paper fluttered into my face. It read, Moron.
Describing Armstrong as stunned was an understatement.
"Well that bites," Shelly muttered, dropping her holy woman act and aiming her knife at my heart. "But at least I get the satisfaction of gutting you!"
Father Archibald seized her wrist in mid strike. "Stay your hand, Shelly. This boy is no brother of ours, but neither is he kin to the Dragon Master. Go help the others dismantle that wretched land-making monstrosity."
Shelly protested but a cool glare from her leader shut her up. Archibald focused his stare at me. "Once more I spare your life, boy. Consider it thanks for prompting us to investigate the Brotherhood's operations here." He had one last warning before turning away. "Choose your friends carefully. When Aqua sweeps away the refuse of the Emperor there will be no mercy for the undecided."
Hermes, Armstrong and I stayed and watched the zeppelin retreat. At our backs the temple pillars fell to the Cult of Aqua and the great charizard's gush of lava slowed to a trickle. Looks like they're headed to Fort Lavaridge, Hermes observed. Boss, that place is a stronghold; once they get their defenses set we'll never get that badge!
Badges? Was he still squawking about badges? I didn't care about the disappearing blimp but what did catch my attention was the flock of birds that came to escort the ship, and the massive tropius leading the pack. The rider with purple hair ...
"We're after Winona," I reminded him. "And if the Dragon Master gets in my way then I'll take her down as well."
Side Chapter IV - Flames of Envy
I'm glad Flannery is gone.
When you see a diseased or disfigured animal, do you prolong its suffering? No - you put it out of its misery, and I'm glad I did the same for Flannery. It's better for her, and it's better for the family that she's no longer among us.
They say every family has its black mareep - a deviant who brings shame to the bloodline. That was our Flannery: the one nobody wanted, the one who couldn't do anything right. Since the day of the ritual she marked herself for a life of shame and ridicule.
I should explain: when children of the Dragonmoore clan come of training age we are never given starter pokemon. We are not helpless commoners and we need no such charity. My kin and I, it is our duty to find and tame our own pokemon, deep in the darkness of Blackthorn's dragon den. It is a rite of passage to prove that we are worthy of the royal blood within our veins; worthy of continuing the dynasty that drove the Fae from Kanto and brought order to this Arceus-forsaken region; worthy of the glamour that binds dragons to our will and maintains our family's authority.
Lance, of course, was the first to emerge from the trial, head held high and obediently followed by his new dratini. Clair exited some hours after, grimy with mud and lashed with cuts but walking tall and proud like a proper Dragonmoore. A newfound horsea was cradled in her arms.
The family waited with bated breath for the final cousin to emerge. What magnificent beast would Flannery tame, they wondered? A hot-headed bagon, young and impatient to become lord of the skies? A ravenous gible, hungry for the taste of battle? Oh, how they deluded themselves - convinced that blood alone could make a champion. If only they could have seen the real Flannery at that moment. The girl I had spied in that cave was a sobbing, sniveling embarrassment to the family - howling like a coward about how she "w-w-wanted to go home" as though being thrown into the black pit were some punishment rather than an opportunity for glory.
It was near midnight when a cry went out from Grandmama: a light was shining from the cavern mouth! The grown-ups rushed to the entrance and there was Flannery - shivering and exhausted, her clothes torn to rags, and yet beaming with pride over the dragon she tamed. Flannery squeezed her partner's paw and introduced "Ignius" to the family - a lizard with fiery scales matching the orange of her hair, and a column of flame crackling from its tail.
The family's reaction was like a great engine catching on its gears - applauding hands froze in midair; grinning jaws dropped stupidly - all their excitement screeching to a halt. Flannery looked to the horrified faces and her smile faltered. She'd been expecting jubilant cheers for her return; not these ghastly statues. Clair gasped, aunt Nora blanched; grandfather shook his head and turned away. It was up to Lance to clue in the stupid girl, and he was more than pleased to serve as interpreter.
"You big dummy, that's not a dragon pokemon! A charmander's a fire type!"
No one was quite sure what to do with Flannery. Oh, there were plenty of ideas - Grandmama raved and ranted about expelling the girl from the family; Aunt Nora, who'd adopted the child from her late sister, pleaded for compassion; Lance tugged at the grown-ups' pant legs and told anyone who'd listen that he and his fists could "fix" Flannery. In the end, they had to consult the elders and the runt passed on a technicality: the ancient scrolls never said anything about partnering with a dragon type specifically; (the monks from ages ago must have assumed that bit too obvious to put in writing). Flannery's glamor had activated, bonding her to the beast and its fiery ilk; she was a full-fledged Dragonmoore.
One by one the family turned away, shaking their heads or snorting with disgust. Only grandfather made his opinion known, starring down at the girl with the same icy glare he gave challengers who'd beaten his Elite Four and come for his throne.
"You are my granddaughter," he told the girl, "but you are not my heir."
The train ride home into the mountains was a long and confusing silence for Flannery. She had finished grandfather's horrible game, she had endured that miserable cave and found her own pokemon; why was everyone so mad at her?
"Is there something wrong with Ignius?" she asked her aunt.
"Of course not, sweetheart." Her guardian's reply was automatic; she couldn't crush her sister's child over a well-intentioned mistake. "But sweetheart, your grandfather really wanted you to bond with a dragon pokemon, that's all."
At that age, Flannery's conception of a dragon had been limited to 'it looks like a lizard'. "Ignius is a dragon," she insisted. In her mind the charmander was no simple partner, it was her savior. The little lizard was a guardian come to her rescue, summoned by her gentle sobs and sheltering her with the light and warmth of its tail. She didn't fully comprehend yet but she had also saved the charmander - an orphaned egg, most likely pilfered by a sneasel and misplaced in the cave. Both of them would have died in the darkness of the cavern, but together they emerged.
"Iggy is a good pokemon," Flannery insisted. I'm a good girl, is what she secretly thought. "And I'm gonna prove it to grandpa!"
Back home in the Silver Mountains, Flannery began her training. She and her charmander cut their teeth on the wildlife of the badlands, grew to trust and work as a team. When the time came to return to Blackthorn for grandfather's birthday, the girl and her charmeleon arrived ready to prove their mettle in battle.
"Seadra, water gun!"
While her cousins ate and laughed at the barbeque Flannery waited bedside at the pokemon center, squeezing Ignius' claw to sooth his wounded pride. She poured over her memories of the battles; how could she have lost so easily? Had she not trained with all her might? Had she not poured her soul into becoming the very best?
Her defeat that day planted a cruel discovery in Flannery's mind - a hideous thought she fought long and hard to uproot, but which always returned with its infestation: not all pokemon are great. Yes, all were unique, but not all were powerful. It could be a flaw of their body or of their typing, but something would always hold them back from the greatness of a dragon pokemon. Throughout the Kanto-Johto Alliance, none were stronger than the almighty dragons.
When she shuffled back to the celebration and found that cake had been served without her, it dawned just how low she had fallen from her family's esteem.
Not all Dragonmoores are great...
The three cousins had brought gifts and home-made cards for grandfather. Lance, who hadn't a creative bone in his entire body, was the apple of the old man's eye thanks to a crude stick figure card. Behind her bangs, Flannery considered her own gift - a canvas painting of grandfather and her soaring through the skies on their respective dragons. Lance couldn't even scribble within the lines and yet he'd been invited up on grandfather's lap to show off his amateur creation.
This wasn't fair. This had to be corrected.
"Grandpa, didja look at my painting?"
"Don't interrupt, child. Lance is telling us about his fencing lessons. Quite skilled with a rapier, aren't you, boy?"
Flannery had been painting since she'd been a year old and had scrawled a smiling sun over the living room wall. Aunt Nora always praised her sketches, her neighbours commissioned pictures; a gallery in Pewter city stocked her canvases for sale. Worthless, she realized. At that moment she decided that if she couldn't win by her natural talents she would have to borrow another's.
"I know fencing too, Grandpa!"
"Do you, now?" Flannery was too young to recognize the disdain in grandfather's voice and took his reply as encouragement.
"Uh huh! I'm the best there is at that dumb sport. I could totally beat up Lance, 'cept I didn't bring my sword 'n stuff here."
Grandfather hushed Lance's snickering. "I look forward to seeing your skills next year."
"Yeah, bring it on," Lance snorted.
She hated the sport; hated the smothering masks that tangled her hair, hated the way her instructor jabbed her with his rubber-tipped epee like a bully digging his finger into her skin; hated how he insisted she always slow down and practice the basics. Flannery had no time for basics. Lance had a year's start on her; if she didn't master the advanced techniques how would she ever beat him?
She would not find out next year. On the train ride home she locked herself in the bathroom compartment, sniffling over the scar slashed across her abdomen. Lance had claimed his tip had come off accidentally - the same way her fist had 'accidentally' lodged into his smug face - and, in truth, she didn't care about the scar. What truly stung was the memory of grandfather's palm across her cheek.
"Shameful beast. A Dragonmoore accepts defeat with honour."
Ignius nudged her with its snout. She nuzzled his head, grateful for its warmth. "It's not your fault, Iggy. I have to try harder next year."
Fencing, archery, swimming. Each year Flannery accepted a new challenge, cutting off another piece of herself and replacing it with Lance. Each year Flannery remained a counterfeit, a shadow incapable of matching the original's greatness. Each year she became more of a nuisance to her family, more of a blemish to be hidden up and ignored. Clair and Lance were being groomed for gym leaderships; there was even talk they might one day serve as grandfather's elites! All Flannery received were notices that the rangers were recruiting for a post on the Seafoam islands. Clair and Lance were mailed individual invitations to the annual family gatherings; Flannery's envelope was addressed to "Ms. Nora Dragonmoore and Guest."
A guest. A lowly, fire-training commoner allowed to attend out of the boundless pity of grandfather.
Flannery had to prove her greatness, had to show that she was deserving of her royal blood, but there was only one talent that would redeem her in grandfather's eyes.
"I need a dragon pokemon."
The ninetales that had won her a top seat in breeding pageants, the flock of magby she'd hand-raised, repopulating the species after the Cinnabar eruption; Ignius, now a flying inferno who'd saved Lance's dragonairs from a wild weavile - none of them were good enough for grandfather. She had to raise a dragon.
Flannery had tried catching her own. Dratini were common enough in the rivers of Blackthorn, and swablu migrated through the region every winter but the same rotten glamor that let her pet slugma without suffering burns served as a warning to wild dragons. They hissed at Flannery, nipped and pecked at her fingers, jerking away as though she smelled of sour milk. Flannery's very presence disgusted the dragons of the land. But surely a bred pokemon would have no such reservations? Surely an egg from a special nursery, a faraway region at that, a baby she could hatch, imprint upon, and nurture from birth would love her?
After so much pleading and bargaining, Aunt Nora relented. They contacted a professor from the Kalos region and arranged the transfer of a special goomy egg. The species wasn't much in the way of ferocity but their gentle nature would make the bonding process that much easier; foolproof, in fact.
Flannery covered all of the expenses herself, as agreed. She sold off the last of her magby to breeders, auctioned off her ninetales so the food money could go towards shipping costs. Even Ignius had to go; it broke her heart to send him away but Viridian's gym leader was a kind and caring man who would treat him well. She had no regrets.
Flannery took odd jobs to fill out the expenses. It was all she could do. She had tried painting again, to sell off her artwork, but found that all of her drawings came out clumsy and ugly. At first the change left Flannery stunned; this talent flowing like magic from her fingers had rotten from disuse. Then she smiled. By failing at painting she had peeled away one more wretched layer of her skin; torn off another trait grandfather ignored to make way for a true dragon master.
The joy she felt when the incubation pod arrived was unimaginable. She was giddy, light as an altaria among the clouds. Life was beginning anew! Flannery kept the egg warm in the hot springs, soaking her body until the temperatures left her dizzy. She hung red-tinted heat lamps over her bed and slept with the egg hugged to her chest. Dehydration? No matter; not so long as her energy and love could soak through the speckled shell, imprinting on the little life inside.
After five long days of fitful sleep the eggshell finally cracked and splintered, and a gelatinous purple pokemon squeezed itself out from its crèche. Flannery loved it immediately. "My baby!" Flannery held it up to her face, making sure that it would recognize her as its mother. The goomy blinked and took in its trainer for the first time.
The slug pokemon shrieked and sprayed its poison over Flannery's face.
The doctor finishes scribbling her notes. "So the reaction of the goomy hatchling - that was what prompted Flannery to take her life?"
"The rejection was too much for Flannery to accept. She threw away the newborn and ran to the kitchen to find something sharp. I was more than happy to assist her." I finish my story without flinching, without ever losing my smile. A commoner might have felt grief but I am a Dragonmoore and I feel no such weakness. Not for an aberration like Flannery.
The doctor chooses her words carefully, concerned I might become upset. "Losing Flannery must have affected you profoundly."
"Not really," I snort. "She was a weak, watery girl who couldn't do anything right. The family is better off without her. I am better off without her." Perhaps that sounds sociopathic, so I add, "We are grateful that your asylum has taken in Flannery. She finds it very comforting here."
"Is that so?"
"No," I confess. "Flannery spent her whole life trying to earn her family's love; she'd accept no substitute. Maybe one day she'll realize that some people just aren't good enough to be loved."
A tap at the door - the doctor's secretary informs her of an urgent phone call, and she excuses herself. I wave her off; the office is spacious enough and I don't need a babysitter. I do grow restless rather quickly, and find myself exploring the room and thumbing through the many shelves of books. One shelf contains a set of souvenirs: snow globes, small statues and a decorative hand mirror. I look in the mirror and my body is flooded with the same terror that baby goomy felt. That red hair, those miserable eyes, that detestable body! I jerk myself away, hand over my heart to keep it from bursting out my chest. Flannery was in that mirror! I steal another glance, and Flannery's shocked expression backs away from me.
What's wrong with me? I look exactly like Flannery! I check the jagged bolts screaming from my wrists. Hadn't I done enough to expel her? I have to fix this at once. Grandfather doesn't love Flannery; he loves ...
Lance! I tear through the doctor's drawers for scissors; there's only a letter opener but that will do. Flannery's hair falls around me like cinders from a fire, revealing my natural spiky cut. It's hacked to pieces and hideous but it's not Flannery. It's not Flannery.
But when I check the reflective glass I see her still: in these eyes, these breasts, this skin coating my body like a loathsome tar.
It has to go.
I angle the blade towards Flannery's chest; steel myself for the blow, holding comfort in this small truth:
I'm not Flannery.