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  #26    
Old November 5th, 2012, 04:57 PM
Zayphora's Avatar
Zayphora
Don't mess with the lights...
 
Join Date: Apr 2012
Location: Somewhere beyond the Veil
Gender: Female
Nature: Sassy
That was great. I liked your description of N, and of Ghetsis's eye. I always thought he was totally blind in that eye, but that's a much cooler idea.

I like Jared more than Lauren, he's just more...relatable. Also, I play Black and B2 so his universe is the one I'm used to.

Also--
Quote:
“I could go on. The Raichu storm in Malaysia. The uprising of the Ghosts in Dresden. The Decoyote attacks in Texas. This is nothing new, people. Every year – every month – some new tragedy occurs. The losses on both sides, human and Pokémon, are incalculable.
What the heck is a Decoyote? That sounds like an epic new Pokemon. :D

Anxiously awaiting the next chapter~

(Also, rereading some of my old comments on this made me LOL my face off xD To think I thought Kcalb would be involved in this...wow I was stupid.)
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  #27    
Old November 6th, 2012, 05:14 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Quote:
Originally Posted by Zayphora View Post
That was great. I liked your description of N, and of Ghetsis's eye. I always thought he was totally blind in that eye, but that's a much cooler idea.
Well, when you have a chance to throw in a cybernetic eye, always take it. The number of situations that justify it are fairly few, and you have to seize your chances as they come.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Zayphora View Post
I like Jared more than Lauren, he's just more...relatable. Also, I play Black and B2 so his universe is the one I'm used to.
Yeah? I'm more of a Lauren fan myself, though I know I'm in a minority here. Eh. We'll see how opinion changes when her actual strengths are revealed; we've seen Jared in action so far, but not her.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Zayphora View Post
Also--


What the heck is a Decoyote? That sounds like an epic new Pokemon. :D
In every story that features Puck, there's a hidden running joke about him being chased by Decoyote near Dallas. I envision them as being one of those canine Dark-type species, because those are awesome (I'm looking at you, Umbreon and Absol), and being indigenous to America. I mean, given the difference in species even between Johto and Kanto, there's got to be more Pokémon in the world than we see in the games, especially in different continents. I included them here because all of Harmonia's examples were from 'Pokémon' countries, and I wanted to cement their world and ours together a little more firmly.

Thanks for reading!

F.A.B.
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  #28    
Old November 26th, 2012, 11:21 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Six: If You Go Down to the Woods Today

Nacrene was most famous for its artistic quarter, on the east side – for the studios, the cheap bars and the alternative music that seemed to pervade the entire district like a dense fog – but that wasn't the whole story; Cantonbury, the northernmost borough, was as much a haven for the sciences as Dotten was for the arts. Here, one could wander through the rambling halls of the Museum of Unovan Antiquity; peruse a book in the Travison Memorial Library, the largest of its kind in Europe; or, if one had the appropriate security clearance, could walk into International Genetics' research and development facility, and observe the fleshy and repellent Dr. Herman Spitelle approaching Dr. Gregory Black.

Dr. Spitelle, it will be noted, had the charm and verve of the average horned lizard – that curious creature that sprays blood from its eyes to deter predators – and the fat content of the average manatee; like the beasts he created, he was best described by the various animals that had lent him each facet of his appearance.

From this description, it may also be deduced that Dr. Spitelle was neither a popular man nor an ethical scientist.

“Gregory!” he said, and at the sound of his stentorian voice Gregory Black visibly shuddered.

“What is it?” he asked, busying himself with some papers on his desk and trying to look as if he hadn't the time to talk to him.

“An unexpected signal has appeared on our radar,” Spitelle said, which Black thought was somewhat cryptic.

“What?”

“Did you watch Harmonia's speech earlier?”

Black gave him the most severe look he was capable of, which, given that he was a man of forty-three who still harboured a secret love of soft toys, was not all that effective.

“I,” he said coldly, “was working.”

“I was on my break,” continued Spitelle without listening, “and, following the election as I am, I naturally was watching. Harmonia made a great many interesting points, but it was not the speech that held my attention.”

“Will you get to the point, Herman?” snapped Black.

“It was rather the brightly-coloured – and somewhat toothy – bird I perceived clinging to the shoulder of a young woman in the crowd.”

Black froze.

“Of course, this intrigued me,” Spitelle went on mildly, a cruel grin spreading across the broad flabby slab of his face. “I paused – the Internet, Gregory, is a marvellous thing – and had a closer look. And it seemed to me that this brightly-coloured, somewhat toothy bird was beginning to look a little familiar.”

Black's eyes flicked left and right, searching for some heavy object with which he might bludgeon Spitelle into bloody unconsciousness before making good his escape, but none came to hand.

“Out of curiosity, I looked at the GPS tracker,” said Spitelle. “And lo and behold” (Black loathed people who used the phrase 'lo and behold' without irony) “I saw a little blip in Nacrene City that I hadn't seen for two years. A blip that should have stopped when a certain dangerous re-engineered bird was destroyed two years ago. By you.”

“Miraculous,” said Black, wholly unconvincingly. “Evidently Archen have an unparalleled resistance to lethal injection—”

“Or perhaps the Archen was never given the lethal injection,” suggested Spitelle. “Perhaps someone, rather than killing it, released it into the wild.”

It wasn't quite the truth, but it was near enough to drain the remaining colour from Black's face.

“Perhaps,” he said hesitantly. “Perhaps... not.”

Spitelle raised one pudgy eyebrow. Black had never figured out how one ate enough fat to bulk up one's brow of all places, but he refused to let this question distract him at this time.

“Is that the best you can come up with?” he asked.

Black considered.

“Yes,” he admitted.

“I think that, given the circumstances, someone ought to contact Harper,” said Spitelle thoughtfully. “Unless, of course, someone else could provide that someone with a certain something...?”

Black stared at him, trepidation overridden by puzzlement.

“What?”

“I'm blackmailing you,” said Spitelle, dropping all pretence. “I would like five hundred pounds by the end of the week or I let everyone know that you released AR-0834 into the wild.”

“Five hundred pounds?” cried Black. “That's – that's – I won't pay it!”

“Very well, then,” replied Spitelle, with a faint sigh of disappointment. “Enjoy the inquiry.”

With that, he turned on his heel and rolled out of the office like a solid boulder of flesh, leaving Black to think sadly to himself that he might have just reacted a mite too fast back then.

---

The young man looked at me, completely unsurprised.

“Yes, that's right,” he said. “And you're... Jared, is it?”

I nodded. I didn't need to ask how he knew.

“So do you two know each other, or...?”

Trust Bianca to break the spell. I wasn't angry, though. I didn't know what had just happened, and I wasn't sure I wanted to: it was something strange and frightening, and not an experience I particularly wanted to repeat.

“No,” replied N. “At least, I don't think so. We've never met, anyway.”

His eyes darted to mine, looking for help explaining it; I shook my head.

“I have no idea,” I told him.

“I see,” he replied. “All right.”

By now, it was becoming very obvious to the others that something had passed between us that they didn't know about, and the situation was beginning to be uncomfortable; as if to break it up, and return to normal, N looked pointedly away from me and towards Cheren.

“Where was I?” he said. “Ah yes. Pokémon liberation. There's an example right here of interference causing suffering, for instance.”

I sighed with relief. It was over – whatever strange friction had occurred when our minds met, it was over, and we could move on.

“Is there now?” asked Cheren, unconvinced. “Go on, then.”

“Your Archen,” said N, turning to Bianca. “I'm sorry, I don't know your name...?”

“Bianca,” she replied. “But it's not my Archen, it's Jared's, and—”

“Jared. Of course.” He glanced at me with some unease. “Well... listen to her. Her species comes from a time when there was around 130% more oxygen in the air than today, and when the global temperature was three degrees higher. Here, in cold Unova, she's freezing – and wheezing terribly. Her body can't cope.”

I stared at him.

“How on earth do you—?”

N said something too fast and too quietly for me to hear, and Candy hopped from Bianca's shoulder to his hand; he held her close to his ear, and listened.

“As I suspected,” he said. “Her diet is no good for her, either. She has an abnormally high heart rate, even for a bird. Thanks to the changing atmosphere, she's also asthmatic – verging on bronchitic, in fact. I would keep her out of cities if I were you.”

“Candy, come here. Now.”

I held out my arm, and Candy looked up at N.

“Go on,” he said. “Go back to him.”

She refused to move, and N repeated what he'd said earlier – or something similar to it – and finally, with great reluctance, she climbed up my arm to my shoulder.

“OK, apart from the fact that everyone knows that she's an Archen,” I said with annoyance, “what the hell is going on here? Who are you? How did you... control her like that?”

N raised his eyebrows.

“Control? No. Never.” He sounded hurt – physically, as if I'd punched him. “I don't control anything, especially not Pokémon. I'm not a Trainer.” He pronounced the word with unusual venom; I was beginning to get the idea that he was probably a pretty damn fervent supporter of Harmonia for Prime Minister. “Excuse me,” he said politely, recovering himself. “I... suppose I'm a friend to Pokémon, rather than a master. We have a mutual understanding.”

He coughed, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Ah, anyway, I'd better go. It was... enlightening... to talk to you.”

Abruptly, he turned and began to walk away, without even waiting for anyone else to say goodbye.

“Can you talk to them?” asked Bianca suddenly, and N stopped.

“And what if I can?” he asked, without turning around.

“Um... nothing, I guess,” she replied, looking helplessly at Cheren and I for direction. “I, um – I was just wondering, since you looked like you were talking to Candy...”

N looked back at us.

“I think we'll meet again,” he said, eyes on me. “Things may have become clearer then... at the moment, I have a few concerns that I need to work through.”

He was talking about me – I just knew it.

“Yeah, me too,” I replied. “I'll see you sometime... N.”

“Jared.”

We maintained eye contact for longer than could reasonably be considered normal, each searching the other for something – anything – that might explain this; then, as if by mutual agreement, we broke our stares at the same moment, and N walked briskly away across the plaza and down the street.

Cheren, Bianca and Halley stared at me.

“It always seems to fall to me to be the one to say this,” said Halley, “but what the f*ck was all that about, man?”

---

Twenty minutes and one hopelessly inadequate explanation later, we were walking through the maze of tiny lanes that formed Accumula's outskirts, following the signs for the Trainer Trail north towards Striaton. I'd tried my best to articulate the strange connection between N and me – but given that I didn't understand it myself, there wasn't much I could do to explain it, and what I'd come up with hadn't even been clear enough to satisfy me, let alone any of the others.

We were about ten minutes into a bewildered silence when my phone rang again. It seemed I was popular this morning.
“Hello?”

“Jared, status report,” said the voice at the other end without preamble. “I've managed to stop Mum and Dad from calling you so far, but I'm not sure how much longer I can hold them off. I'm finding it difficult to tell whether they're angry or worried at the moment; either way, you can expect to have to explain yourself to them sometime soon.”

“Uh... OK,” I said, slightly taken aback, as people so often are, by Cordelia's manner. “What – what exactly am I meant to say to them?”

“That's kind of your problem, not mine,” she said. “I'm doing all I can to keep things going here. Where are you, by the way?”
“Accumula, but—”

“Accumula? What on earth for? Actually, never mind. Have you found out any more about why these people are after you and who they are?”

“No, not really, but I did—”

“Good thing I have, then. From his I.D. card, the man who came to question us earlier today belonged to the Green Party, which means that for whatever reason, they're the ones who want Halley.”

“The Green Party? With... with Harmonia?”

“There isn't any other Green Party,” Cordelia said patiently. “I also went through his briefcase when he wasn't looking—”

“You what?”

“It's called being proactive, Jared. So, I went through his briefcase and found out that apparently they want you because you're connected to Halley and they want Halley because she's connected to someone who stole something from them.”

“A thief... sounds like the sort of friend Halley would have,” I murmured. “OK, Cords, thanks for that. I'll look into it.”

“All right. I haven't uncovered anything else, and I'm not sure I'm going to. I don't think the people are coming back here again.” Cordelia paused. “Stay safe,” she said at length, and hung up.

I stared at the phone for a moment.

“You are the weirdest kid on the planet,” I muttered, putting it back in my pocket. “OK, Halley? Do you know any thieves?”

“Probably,” she replied cheerfully. “Don't remember them, though.”

“OK. Well, Cordelia's found out that it's the Green Party that are after you, and they're doing it because you've got some kind of connection to someone who stole something important from them.”

Cheren raised an eyebrow.

“Why am I not surprised?” he murmured, to no one in particular.

“The Green Party? Oh, I bet it's Harmonia,” said Bianca, frowning deeply. “He seemed like a bad guy.”

“He seemed very reasonable, if misguided,” corrected Cheren.

“He said humans and Pokémon needed to be separated—!”

“He made valid points,” interrupted Halley. “Aw, man! I hope it isn't him after me... If I were Unovan, he'd have my vote. There are only, like, five people in the whole world I agree with; I don't want to end up mortal enemies with one of them.”

“I don't know. It might not go all the way up to Harmonia, I guess... but we can't be certain. Turn right here,” he added, stepping off the pavement and onto a footpath without hesitation.

I blinked, startled by the abrupt change in direction, and followed. The path disappeared between two little cottages, and within a few metres seemed to end up a million miles away from civilisation; trees rose either side of the trail and bent over them in a kind of leafy arch, and the distant sound of traffic faded seamlessly into the twitter of birdsong.

Halley and I shivered, and exchanged a look.

“You too?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, knowing exactly what she meant. “Me too.”

Bianca looked at us quizzically.

“What?”

“We're city kids,” I explained. “This... is kind of unsettling.”

“Aren't there Liepard in these woods?” asked Halley, keeping close to my legs.

“I believe so,” answered Cheren without concern. “I hope we meet some – they'll be good training, and I think I might like to catch one.”

“Jesus. You Trainers are f*cking crazy,” muttered Halley, and for once I had to agree with her. The only Liepard I'd ever seen was a corpse possessed by some kind of fear-oozing demon; I couldn't for the life of me understand the mindset that would make anyone want to go out and find any more of them.

“I don't like Liepard,” said Bianca. “Or Purrloin. They're vicious. My cousin had a Purrloin that killed rats and hung the bodies on the rose bushes in the garden. It looked like it was snowing corpses.” She shivered.

“Oh, Christ. I disgust myself, but that sounds delicious,” muttered Halley. “This cat body is getting in my head.”

“I really didn't need to know that,” I told her.

“Yes, I think we can all agree on that,” said Cheren with such an air of finality that the conversation withered and died upon the spot, and we walked on in silence, the only noise the occasional squawk from Candy.

Half an hour later, Halley spoke again – and predictably enough, it was in a whine.

“I don't like this,” she complained. “My legs are shorter than yours and I'm tired. Carry me.”

“Not if you ask like that,” I told her.

“I don't want you to carry me, anyway,” she replied. “You've got that psycho dinosaur hawk on your shoulder. But...” A sly grin spread across her face, and she wound herself between Bianca's legs, mewing piteously. Naturally, she reacted by burbling something about cuteness and snatching Halley from the ground to hug to her chest.

“Mission accomplished,” purred Halley quietly, her self-satisfied grin visible over Bianca's shoulder. I ignored her, despite wishing that there was some way someone could carry me, and followed Cheren on down the trail.

---

In the dark, somewhere near the crossroads of then and now, Teiresias dragged its body through the void. The battles aboard the train and in the street had not been kind to it; the bird and the wildcat had between them damaged it to the point where Teiresias was considering abandoning it for another. It was, after all, mere ballast, there only to keep it anchored to the mortal realm – and it was difficult to drag it through the dark paths, where spirit flowed freely and flesh dragged like stone.

The journey was easier than it had been earlier, though; when Teiresias had taken the dark path from White Forest to Nacrene, it had had to take Smythe with it, and hauling that quantity of physical matter through the spirit realms was no mean feat. Now, with just a light, half-destroyed Liepard corpse weighing it down, Teiresias almost flew down the path, its lifeless paws barely touching what passed for the ground.

“She will be hiding now,” it mused, voice almost as dead as the air in which it hung. “They are making allies... I must not let that Munna interfere again.”

Ahead of it, a flickering white presence appeared, and Teiresias slowed for a moment, wary – but it moved away again and vanished into the distance in a few seconds, leaving Teiresias alone once more.

“Few of us are abroad today,” it observed, casting its psychic eye about the area and detecting no other travellers. “I wonder... I suspect most of us are with Plasma now.”

Those of Teiresias' kind in Unova that had not sided with Plasma were either weakling irrelevancies, or crazed creatures with whom there was no reasoning; neither warranted investigation. The weak ones were prey for the desperate, and the crazed ones... Well. No one crossed their paths if they could avoid it. They were dangerous, even to those of Teiresias' rank – and that was saying something. Teiresias had been in existence (it did not call it life) for eleven thousand years, and though it was no longer the shadowy god that had ravaged Jericho and scourged Uruk, it was still a force to be reckoned with. But those mad beings that wandered the dark paths, flitting over the surface of the earth with only hunger and pain on their minds... They were something else altogether.

Teiresias pulled its thoughts back to the task at hand, aware that to let one's mind wander in this place was to run the risk of drifting permanently into limbo, and ran on down the path, searching for the crack in reality that would show it the way back into reality. The tail fell off its body, and with a twitch of annoyance it shed the entire corpse, letting it stream away behind it in a long line of dust and fur; now free to expand to full size, Teiresias flexed its vast body and sprung forward with renewed vigour, racing on towards the crack – and towards its prey, skulking in the forested trails around Route 2.

---

“So let me get this straight,” said Harmonia, frowning lopsidedly. “You captured them both, got them secured – and they both escaped?”

“In my defence, that boy is a lot younger and stronger than I am,” replied Smythe faintly desperately.

They were sitting in the parlour of the Bertram Hotel, before a lively fire that effectively banished the spring chill from the room; Harmonia had ordered a half-hour break in the barrage of journalists who had come to ask him about his new Liberation policy in order to make time for Smythe's appointment, and now the two of them were alone together. This, quite frankly, terrified Smythe, partly because Harmonia was his boss and partly because he was drumming his fingers on a large book on ancient torture techniques of the Fertile Crescent.

“Now, Smythe,” said Harmonia, removing his hand from the book and leaning forwards, “I understand that this isn't your usual work. But I don't for a moment believe that he could have overpowered you while handcuffed if you didn't want him to. Don't you remember why I picked you for this?”

Smythe did. He might be a minor civil servant at the moment, but that was only the latest chapter in what had been something of a chequered past. It wasn't something he liked to advertise, but for various reasons – mostly bad luck and paranormal mishap – he was persona non grata in thirteen countries, despite his best efforts to convince authorities that 'this isn't what it looks like'. Smythe understood better than most the bitter truth of the aphorism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

He had thought that, with his quiet government job in Unova, things might have settled down; unfortunately for him, Harmonia had somehow learned of his past activities, with the result that he of all people was deemed most suitable for this illegal hunt for Halley and Black.

“Well, yes,” Smythe replied. “But sir... I don't really think this is something I'm particularly good at.”

Harmonia raised his one remaining eyebrow.

“You'll excuse me if I don't believe that, given your past exploits.” He sighed. “No, Smythe, this won't do. You'll have to try harder – more so now that they have people helping them. You said they were Trainers?” Smythe nodded. “Trainers have an irritating habit of visiting Gyms,” Harmonia went on. “Gyms contain Gym Leaders, and Gym Leaders are part of the Pokémon League. Do you see where I'm going with this?”

Smythe nodded. The League had today become the Party's greatest opponent, with the revelation of the Liberation policy. It was the oldest part of the government that still had power, and its age leant it authority; if its members got wind of any of the Party's more questionable activities, they would gleefully take the chance to cripple Harmonia's election chances.

“Of course, if we can recover the artefact, we can overcome any opposition,” Harmonia continued, “but as we haven't yet done so, I think we need to be cautious. Find them, Smythe. They're becoming a larger and larger problem with every hour they remain out of our control.” His HawkEye narrowed to a threatening red pinprick, a steel iris closing down on the lens. “I don't think I need to remind you what happens to those who fail the Party. You've faced that penalty many times before, but this time you won't be wriggling free. You can trust me on that.”

Smythe believed him. He'd received more than his fair share of death threats in his time – so many that he was a little blasé about them – but they packed a serious punch when they came from Harmonia. Anyone who allied themselves so readily with such horrific forces was definitely someone to fear.

“I'll – I'll get right on it, sir,” he said, getting to his feet too quickly and accidentally kicking over a footstool. “Oh! Uh, sorry, sir—”
“If you need backup, take one of our noble friends along with you,” Harmonia added, ignoring him. “Perhaps that charming Teiresias fellow. It seemed interested in Halley at the meeting.”

“All – all right, sir,” stuttered Smythe, wondering distantly what sort of man could call Teiresias charming. “I'll – I'll be on my way, then – you probably have things to do—”

“Just get on with it,” said Harmonia, evidently amused by his discomfort. “Go on. And tell Rood to let the reporters back in on your way out.”

Smythe left without another word. Once again, life had left him up the creek without a paddle – and this time, the water seemed too rough for him to swim for it.

---

I'll freely admit that I'm not used to extended periods of walking, or indeed any physical activity; shopping has made me pretty useful in a fistfight, but that's about the extent of my ability. I'll also admit that I'm not used to staying out in the cold all day; if it isn't a nice day and I don't have to leave the house, then I won't.

But I challenge any reasonable person to walk all day like I did then and not feel pretty miserable by the end of it. At around four o'clock, Cheren decided (apparently he was in charge; it wasn't an official appointment, but he seemed the appropriate person to ask for guidance) we would stop for a short rest, and by then I was seriously envious of Halley, who was not only still being carried by Bianca but had fluffed out her fur and looked suspiciously warm.

“This forest life isn't so bad,” she said, jumping from Bianca's arms to land among the leaves. “Maybe I could get used to this.”

I shot her a dirty look, and she responded with the most evil grin ever to grace a feline snout; defeated, I shook my head and sat down with the others on a log bench placed thoughtfully at the roadside by the Trail's constructors.

“Is this what it's like being a Trainer?” I asked. “Endless walking and nothing to do?”

“Only when you're near towns,” replied Cheren. “That's why we're resting now. We're about far enough from Accumula that we'll probably start to see the occasional wild Pokémon; I've selected the road less travelled, as it were, in order to maximise our chances of finding something.”

“Ooh! Maybe I can find a friend for Munny and Smokey!” cried Bianca excitedly. “Like, a cute little—”

“I think two Pokémon is probably enough for you to train right now,” Cheren informed her. “I have enough to handle with just Lelouch, although I'm tempted by a Purrloin... We'll see. I don't really want to catch anything unless it's a new species. If we find one of them, I'll catch it for the Pokémon Index Project.”

“The what?” I asked.

“The Pokémon Index Project,” repeated Cheren. “Or Pokédex, for short. It's a global database of Pokémon information, started by Professor Oak in Kanto in 1992 and adopted by almost every developed nation since. Formerly, there was only access to it in Pokémon Centres and suchlike – but last year, Lanette Burstein released a smartphone app that lets you take a photograph of a Pokémon with your phone and automatically find its Pokédex entry.”

“OK, I didn't really need that much detail, but thanks anyway.”

Cheren blinked.

“It always pays to learn your subjects to a certain degree of depth,” he said with dignity, and fell silent.

“I'm going to let out Smoky,” Bianca informed us, totally oblivious to the tension, and released her Tepig in a burst of red light; he looked around at the forest, caught sight of his own tail, stared at it as if it had suddenly turned into the Mona Lisa and promptly fell asleep.

“Uh... I don't think he wants to come out,” I said.

Oh,” sighed Bianca crossly. “He always does that.”

“He didn't last night.”

“Well, not always. But, like, most of the time.” She stared at the sleeping pig and stuck out her lower lip like a petulant child. “I think he's just lazy.”

Candy crept down my arm, eyes fixed on Smoky and saliva dripping from her beak; I sighed, pinched her jaws together and turned her head to look at me.

“No,” I said firmly. “I get the feeling that at some point soon you're going to get a chance to attack stuff, but these Pokémon are out of bounds, OK?”

She looked at me innocently, but I wasn't fooled.

“Don't give me that,” I warned her. “No biting. Got it?”

Reluctantly, she climbed back up to my shoulder, and I knew I'd got through to her at last.

“Right,” said Bianca. “Smoky! Up!”

The Tepig opened one eye, regarded her with porcine placidity for a moment, and went back to sleep. Pouting, Bianca recalled him and sent out the floating pink thing that had attacked Teiresias last night instead.

“Munny will follow us, won't you?” she asked it; in response, it drifted over to her head and nuzzled her cheek.

“Are its eyes painted on?” I asked with a kind of horrified fascination.

“No, Munna are just strange,” Cheren informed me. “Bianca's is no exception.”

“Oh, of course. I should've guessed.” I shook my head. “This is all normal for you two, isn't it?”

“Yes, it is,” admitted Cheren. “This situation is very much the norm for me. Well, except for the talking cat.”

“People keep calling me 'the talking cat',” complained Halley. “Can't you call me 'the girl who turned into a cat' or something? I feel so dehumanised.”

“You have been dehumanised. Literally.”

“Shut up, pedant.”

“Are we going now?” asked Bianca, bouncing to her feet. “Come on! Munny and I are ready!”

Munny rotated slowly in midair, blinking and gaping, and I had to wonder how she knew it was ever ready for anything.

“All right, all right,” replied Cheren, getting to his feet. “I suppose I'll let out Lelouch, too.”

His Snivy appeared before him, swiftly checked the area for hostiles, decided we were safe and settled into a watchful, faintly supercilious position at his heels. The difference between him and Smoky couldn't have been more marked.

I sighed, and gingerly lowered myself back onto my aching feet, hoping that we wouldn't be walking much longer today. Unfortunately for me and my blistered right heel, that hope was horribly misguided, and I was to end up suffering for quite a few hours more. It wasn't until eight that we finally stopped for the night, and so exhausted was I by this time that I barely registered we weren't moving before I was asleep.

---

Halley sat by the fire – the only useful thing Smoky had done for them since breaking Jared's cuffs – and waited. The others were asleep, the boys in Cheren's tent and Bianca in hers; the little campsite was Halley's alone. So deep in the forest were they that the trail was almost nonexistent, and sitting upright in her fluffed fur, forepaws lined up neatly against her belly, she felt like she was the only person in the world.

Time passed. The fire burned lower; Halley added what wood she could manage to it and poked it with a stick, bringing it back to the blazing prime of its life. Idly, she wondered if perhaps there was a way for her to do that, to cancel out her age when it got too high and set it back to some more pleasing number – and then she realised that she had no idea how old she was, and decided she must be pretty young anyway.

All at once, the breeze stopped dead. The trees around them froze, branches caught mid-wave by sudden paralysis; before Halley's eyes, each individual flame of the fire stood still, locked into a single moment.

Tick.

Then, within a second, everything started again. Halley pressed one paw against Jared's iPhone (carefully purloined from his pocket earlier), and saw that its clock read 00:00.

“I thought so,” she murmured. “Midnight, huh?”

“What are you doing?”

Halley started, and turned to see Cheren sitting behind her. He didn't look like he'd just woken up, either; he had been waiting for this, she could tell.

“Conducting an experiment,” she replied. “About this Dream World thing.”

Cheren's expression didn't change.

“You don't fool me,” he said, and Halley knew he wasn't talking about the experiment.

“I'm impressed,” she replied, stretching lazily and curling up. “Then again, I guess not much gets past you.”

“It pays to watch people.” Cheren's finger played over the button of Lelouch's Poké Ball. “And I don't like what I see.”

“And what is it exactly that you see?”

Cheren paused.

“I don't know,” he answered at length. “But I don't trust you.”

“Good,” said Halley, with sudden force. “I'm not trustworthy. Never have been, never will be.”

“What do you want?”

“What do you think? Protection, f*ckwit.” Halley snorted. “I'm hiding from the Green Party or whoever else it is that's after me.”

Cheren's gaze didn't waver; Halley had to wonder whether he even needed to blink.

“Who are you, really?”

“Yeah, ask the amnesiac who she is.” Halley laughed. “I don't know, Cheren. The only thing I'm sure of is that I'm not a very nice person.”

“You didn't need to tell me that.”

“I'm sure I didn't.” Halley yawned, and the firelight danced on her pale fangs. “Go to sleep, Cheren. I expect tomorrow's going to be a long day.”

“This conversation isn't over,” Cheren warned her, and retreated to his tent. Halley watched him for a minute – watched the tent flap fall shut and the zip fasten; watched until there were no more sounds but the breathing of the teenagers and the crackle of the flames – and turned back to the fire.

“It isn't over, is it?” she muttered, hunching into a tight ball and tasting thunderstorms on her tongue. “We'll see, Cheren. We'll see.”
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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  #29    
Old December 30th, 2012, 12:22 PM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Sorry for the delay, everybody - it was unavoidable - and sorry that this isn't my best work, either. It will have to do, though. Owing to circumstances not wholly within my control, I can't bring myself to revisit this chapter ever.

Chapter Seven: Happy Trails

There are myriad pleasant ways to wake up, and Portland Smythe had experienced a great many of them during the course of his life. From the extravagance waking in a vine-wrapped bower in the beating heart of a verdant rainforest to the simple joy of opening one's eyes to the sight of one's lover, he had lived through the lot and, in fact, had ranked his top three favourites during one dull night spent hiding from Czech mercenaries in the Balkans.

This method of waking, however, was not to be found among the top three. It did not even make his top ten. In fact, had Smythe ever thought to compile a list of his least favourite ways to wake up, this one would have gone straight to the top without a second's consideration.

And that was because he was woken from a peaceful dream about cucumbers by a voice that ground upon his consciousness like skeletal feet across the floor of a crypt.

“Wake up.”

To say Smythe was alarmed would be an understatement. With a sudden involuntary contraction of his legs, he bent his body into a perfect arc and flung himself clear off the mattress, coming to rest a moment later in an undignified heap on the floor.

“Sumvahwassit!” he yelled, which could have been either an incoherent cry of panic or a florid curse in Hoennian, and looked around wildly for the source of the voice. At first, he saw nothing – and then his eyes came to rest on the Purrloin on the bedside cabinet.

“I found them,” it said, in the unmistakeable voice of Teiresias. “Ready yourself. I will take you there.”

Smythe stared at it. Within his mind, a brief battle raged between fear and confusion; neither won a clear victory, and in the end they settled for a coalition.

“What?” he said at length, which was, if anything, more coherent than could be expected of a man in his position.

“Has the change of shape confused you? I could not find another Liepard,” Teiresias said impatiently. “Now get ready. We must return to the dark paths at once.”

Smythe closed his eyes, counted to three and opened them again. The Purrloin had not disappeared.

Sh*t, he thought dismally, and got slowly to his feet.

“All right,” he sighed, trudging listlessly to the bathroom. “I'm going.”

Never, thought the hotel receptionist as Smythe paid her, had anyone ever looked so dismayed to be checking out.

---

“You're quiet this morning,” noted Cheren.

I blinked.

“What?”

“Something's bothering you.”

It took a moment for my mind to wrap itself around his words; it had been drifting pretty far away.

“Oh. Yeah.” I poked the dying fire with a stick, and watched as a flame streaked out of the cinders and vanished in the crisp dawn air. “I guess... I guess it's that N guy.”

“I see. That was quite odd.” He speared a sausage – neither he nor Bianca were any good at cooking, especially not over an open fire, and my skills had been much appreciated this morning and last night – and chewed it thoughtfully. “What exactly is it that's bothering you?”

“What he said about Candy.” The little Archen looked up at the sound of her name, and I reached out to press my palm against her breast. Her heart hummed with the rapid pulse of a bird – and her chest rose and fell almost as fast. Alarmingly fast. “I never noticed before... She does have trouble breathing. It's just that you can't hear it.”

“She's survived this long,” Cheren said pragmatically. “I suspect she's tougher than N thinks.” He frowned. “What kind of name is N, anyway? I'd like to have seen the look on the midwife's face when his parents came out with that.”

“Uh... yeah, I guess.” My mind was still on Candy; I'd always taken her quick breaths and feverishly hot skin to be something typical of all Archen, but what N said made sense. I had looked it up last night on Cheren's phone: there'd been thirty percent more oxygen in the atmosphere back then, and it had been warmer right across the world. I knew from the disaster three years ago at Castelia Zoo that animals from Africa had a hard time surviving Unova's winters as it was; how could I expect a creature dislocated not only in space but time as well to fare any better? “I should have realised,” I mumbled.

Cheren looked at me.

“I really wouldn't worry,” he said, more gently than before. “By the number of lizards she's rounded up and slain already this morning, I'm fairly certain there's plenty of life left in her.”

I looked at Candy's little heap of corpses, piled neatly on the other side of the fire, and sighed.

“I guess so,” I said, not wholly convinced.

Cheren sighed.

“Sorry,” he said, and though there was no hint of emotion in his voice I could tell he meant it. “I can't help you other than with logic.”

“I know. Don't worry. I'll be fine.” I looked back at Bianca's tent, which remained as silent now as it had been when the sun first rose. “Does she always sleep late?”

He gave me a look.

“What do you think?”

“OK, OK... Why do you get up early, then?”

“Because Cheren likes to watch the world go by, don't you?”

Halley seemed to slink from nowhere, appearing from between the edges of a gap in the air; she was really getting into the business of being a cat, I thought. The next thing I knew she'd be playing with string and chasing butterflies.

“Oh. Hi, Halley,” I said. “Where have you been?”

“I've been to London to visit the Queen,” she replied sardonically.

“What?”

“It's a joke, 'cause – never mind. You must have different nursery rhymes in Unova.” She grimaced. “I actually went hunting. Can you imagine that? I pounced on a jay and suffocated it by biting down on its throat. I almost felt bad when it screamed, but by that point I could already taste its lymphatic fluid so I kind of forgot about how brutal the whole thing was.” She sat down next to Candy and yawned. “Seriously, I don't know why I haven't done that before. Think of how much bigger prey I could tackle if I were still human.”

“Oh.” A sick feeling rose in my throat, and I found myself wondering how human Halley actually was; had she always been like this? Surely she couldn't have been so... bestial before her transformation?

“I seem to have lost my appetite,” murmured Cheren, and flicked his sausage over to Lelouch, who regarded it quietly for a second before picking it up delicately between its tiny claws and nibbling at it like a squirrel with a nut.

“Don't Snivy get their energy from sunlight?” I asked.

“They get as much as they can,” Cheren replied. “Unfortunately, that isn't enough to sustain extended periods of activity, so they supplement it with berries, fruit and small quantities of meat.”

“Plants playing at an animal's game,” said Halley scornfully. “Photosynthesis ain't shi— shining snail eggs compared to heterotrophic nutrition.” She blinked. “Shining snail eggs? I hope you're pleased with yourself, Lauren. Look what you've reduced me to.”

“I'm just happy you aren't swearing,” I told her truthfully; I could have added that I didn't understand half the words she'd just used, but didn't want to complicate things and attract more needling criticism. I got it anyway.

“Huh. Of course you are. You would be.”

Candy cawed at her, apparently aware that her owner was being harangued by this wildcat; Halley, unlike last time, reacted with no more than a withering glare that shocked the little Archen into submission.

“Yeah, you shut up, you little b*tch,” she muttered moodily, and fell to staring at the flames in silence.
I looked at Cheren, and Cheren looked at me.

“What,” I began, but got no further before Cheren held up a hand for silence.

“I think it's best we don't ask,” he replied. “Something has evidently happened to Halley to make her sourer than normal, and frankly that is a prospect I'd rather avoid.”

“OK,” I said, relieved to have avoided a line of questioning that, while rooted in compassion, would probably have resulted in a scratch from Halley. “Um... should we wake Bianca? It's nearly seven.”

“She'll wake up soon enough,” Cheren told me. “Well... Perhaps not. Give her another half hour; she's not used to this much walking, and it really tires her out.”

As a White Forest resident, I'd been out on extended hiking trips more than most in Unova, and was pretty good at it – better than Cheren and Bianca anyway, it seemed, although Cheren's self-discipline and encyclopedic general knowledge meant he was catching up fast. He only needed a bit more experience and a couple of cookery lessons and he'd have overtaken me; I hoped I could teach him a little, to go some way to showing my gratitude for letting me come with them.

“Are you, then?” I asked.

“No,” he answered. “But it's a case of mind over matter. My goal is to become the Champion eventually, and it won't happen if I don't value the objective over my immediate comfort.”

I stared at him, amazed. I didn't think that kind of resolve really existed; it was like something out of the old stories, the kind that dated from the days of the first Treatise. Cheren seemed different to me now, like a lordless knight wandering the hills of mediaeval Europe, determined to seek out glory at whatever cost...

Silly, I thought to myself. He's just like you.

And yet... There was a spectacular steel in his mind. He laid out the facts so calmly and clearly that I had no doubt that nothing whatsoever would cause him to waver from his path.

“I... I see,” I said. “OK. That makes sense.”

Thankfully, I was saved from having to come up with anything else to say by the sudden and noisy emergence of Bianca from her tent.

“Oh, so early,” she groaned, blinking in the sunlight. “Frige, it's so cold.”

“Not that cold,” said Cheren patiently. “Good morning, Bianca.”

“Morning!” She disappeared for a moment, then reappeared with Smoky in her arms. The little Tepig was, as ever, asleep, and I wondered if maybe that was why she had the Munna as well. Smoky didn't seem to me to be the battling type. “Is that breakfast? It smells good.”

“Courtesy of Lauren,” Cheren informed her. “She has cooking over an open fire down to a fine art.”

I smiled.

“Thanks. Here you go, Bianca.”

“Thanks.”

Smoky opened one eye as the sausages passed above his head, shifted just enough to snag one with his lips and draw it into his mouth, and fell asleep again before he'd even swallowed it.

“Isn't that kind of cannibalism?” I asked dubiously.

“I don't think he cares,” replied Cheren. “It's mainly humans that find cannibalism revolting. Many other animals will cheerfully eat their own if it seems like a good idea.”

“Oh. I see. That's... um... unpleasant.”

Cheren raised his eyebrows.

“I told you. Human.”

“Ignore Cheren,” said Bianca confidingly, as if he couldn't hear her. “He's just being silly again.”

I couldn't be sure, but I thought the ghost of a smile crossed Cheren's face then, and suddenly it seemed a lot clearer to me why he and Bianca remained friends. I smiled, and pulled the last of the sausages off the fire.

“I think these are done now,” I said. “Bianca, they're mostly for you, unless your Pokémon want any.”

“I think he might, but I don't really want to give him any,” she said, taking them from me. “I don't really want Smoky to be a cannibal.”

“I told you, I don't think he minds—”

“Oh, Cheren,” sighed Bianca in exasperation. “Shut up!”

“Fine, fine,” he said. “I'll be quiet.”

“What about Munny?” I asked. “Does he... she... it want anything?”

“No, it lives off... um, Cheren, what was it called?” Bianca asked. “Background...?”

“I thought I had to be quiet?”

“Cher-eee—!”

“OK, OK,” he said, holding up a hand to forestall further outbursts. “Background imaginative radiation. Munna and its evolved form, Musharna, absorb daydreams, fantasies and waking nightmares, and convert them into regular dreams that can be experienced at night. As a by-product of this, they occasionally emit a pinkish mist known to cause disturbing hallucinations.”

“I see,” I said slowly, though I didn't really. I wasn't entirely sure how anything could derive energy from dreams – in fact, I had no idea how anything psychic worked. All I knew was that Psychic- and Ghost-types were weird.

“Yeah,” said Bianca. “So Munny doesn't need any regular food.”

“Then why does it have a mouth?” I asked, curiously.

“It's vestigial,” explained Cheren. “Their ancestors were organoheterotrophic feeders; in modern Munna, the entire digestive tract is atrophied, while the skull and ribcage have fused to create a protective case for the massively developed brain.”

I stared at him.

“How do you know all this?”

He shrugged.

“When either of us catch something, I like to do my research,” he said. “Or if we face one in battle. The more you know, the more effectively you can use a Pokémon's strengths or aim for its weaknesses.”

“Oh, OK.”

“By the way,” said Halley abruptly, “I thought you should probably know that the forces of evil are closing in on us.”

All conversation stopped immediately.

“What?”

“Mm. Something wicked this way comes.” She stretched and stood up. “I can feel it coming. Must be some animal instinct or something.”

“What exactly do you feel coming?” asked Cheren, frowning.

“Dunno. Teiresias, maybe? Seems pretty lethal, at any rate.”

Teiresias. So it had found us, then – as I'd known it would. Hiding in the woods might fool a human, but against that black and midnight being it seemed a pretty paltry stratagem. I was certain it could have found us even if we'd hidden on the moon.

I bit my lip.

“We should go, then,” I decided. “I don't want to be here when it arrives...”

“Hold on,” said Cheren. “We have no concrete evidence that anything is actually coming for us—”

“I guess you don't trust me,” said Halley slyly. “Well, maybe you'd better think about the fact that if Teiresias and Smythe get to us, the main casualty will be me. I'm not going to screw around with you on that topic.”

“I wouldn't put it past you,” replied Cheren darkly.

“I believe her,” I said. “Please, can we go? I mean, shouldn't we be going anyway? And if Teiresias is coming, we don't want to be here when it does.”

“I agree with Lauren,” put in Bianca, shuddering. “That thing – that thing is nasty.”

“Understatement of the century,” muttered Halley to herself.

“All right, all right, I see I'm outvoted here,” sighed Cheren. “Fine. Let's pack everything up. If you really think that monster is coming, we'd better move fast...”

---

“Good God,” moaned Smythe in his native Hoennian, and collapsed face-first into the leaf litter.
Teiresias regarded him with such distaste that one could have been forgiven for thinking it could actually see.

“Get up,” it said. “We are half a mile from where I saw their encampment.”

“Why so far away?” wheezed Smythe, spitting out decaying vegetation.

A shadow crossed Teiresias' broken face.

“I...” It trailed off uncertainly. “I... Why?”

Smythe stared. This was very far from normal behaviour for Teiresias. In fact, it was about as far from normal as it could get short of actually shedding tears.

“Because Halley is perceptive,” it said suddenly, its usual manner returning abruptly. “It is perhaps a result of the feline senses she has been gifted with. If we had emerged from the dark paths any closer to her than this, we could well have been detected.” It leaped down from the stump it had been sitting on and stalked over to Smythe. “Now get up. We have ground to cover and little time to do it in.”

Smythe struggled to his feet, brushed dirt from his suit and sighed.

“I haven't even had breakfast,” he murmured sadly to himself.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly, and trudged off after Teiresias as it began to make its way through the forest. How it knew where it was going was a mystery to him; perhaps the strange psychic eye through which it viewed the world was currently locked onto Halley or White, and acted like a beacon to guide it; perhaps it had simply memorised the layout of all the forest between them and their destination beforehand. Frankly, either option seemed equally plausible where Teiresias was concerned; the vile creature seemed to positively delight in flouting the laws of reality.

Smythe heaved the sigh of the oppressed, and put the matter from his mind. There were no alternate options available to him. Abandoning Teiresias would incur the demon's wrath, and that was almost as frightening as incurring that of Harmonia. He turned the mess over once more in his head, winced at the thought, and trudged on with a heavy heart.

---

It was a bright clear day, the kind that looks far, far warmer than it is, and as the sun rose higher into the sky the forest should have brightened.

It did not.

Instead, the shadows deepened, darkening to the colour of pitch, and the spring green of the leaves seemed to turn a dull viridian. The birds fell silent. The wind died down.

None of us dared look back.

“Is it me, or does this seem worse than last time?” asked Halley quietly.

I nodded. I could barely speak; the air felt thick with tangible menace.

“Much worse,” I managed.

“Indeed,” agreed Cheren, only the faintest hint of discomfort in his voice. “It's interesting... Perhaps Teiresias' powers take time to charge to their full potential. Previously, it has attacked abruptly, but this time, it has time on its side...” He trailed off, thinking hard. “You know, it might be that it's a slow hunter in its wild state, slowly stalking its prey and weakening it with this psychological barrage of menace before moving in to paralyse and finish it off.”

“Che-Cheren,” said Bianca weakly, reaching up and clutching Munny tight to her chest, “could you maybe not theorise for a bit, please?”

He blinked.

“Ah. Right. Um, sorry about that.” He coughed and adjusted his glasses hurriedly, falling silent abruptly; I wouldn't have thought it possible, but he actually seemed flustered. It seemed he wasn't totally mechanical after all.

“I hate this,” growled Halley, her voice suddenly twisting into a cat's snarl. “F*cking Teiresias... I wish it would just attack. I hate waiting like this.”

“That's probably why it's doing it,” Cheren pointed out, and she hissed at him for his pains.

“I don't – do you think we can beat it this time?” I asked fearfully, jags of memory suddenly stabbing into my mind: a rotting floor, a pounding heart, white eyes that saw nothing but one's soul...

Cheren considered.

“Munny's Psychic attacks seem to confuse whatever it uses to sense us,” he said. “Perhaps we can make good our escape that way. But I'm not sure – its power does seem to be building this time, although maybe it only seems that way so that we are more afraid of it and thus easier for it to subdue.” He shook his head. “I just don't have enough information, I'm afraid, and until we can look up Teiresias in one of the Treatises, it's going to stay that way.”

So even Cheren believed it was a demon, then – which didn't bode well, I thought, another claw of fear curling around my brain. If any of us could have thought of a more mundane explanation for the creature and its powers, it would have been him; now that he seemed to think it was something from another realm as well, any hope we might have of stopping it seemed to evaporate into thin air.

No. Calm down, Lauren, I thought desperately. It's not real, it's a psychological trick, it's just a demon's joke, meant to make you weak; Munny will protect you, blind Teiresias, shut down its eye while you all get away...

A raven screamed and flapped away overhead. I didn't convince myself.

The shadows grew longer.

Distant footsteps sounded behind us.

“It's eight o'clock in the morning in the middle of spring,” muttered Cheren. “And yet... to create this kind of atmosphere even on such a bright, cheery day... fascinating.”

It might be an interesting opportunity to study our mysterious opponent. It might be an unparalleled insight into demonic hunting tactics.

But that was for Cheren, and for my part, I felt like I was only half a step ahead of Córmi himself, the dark ése's great black wings reaching out to snatch me into death. I had been afraid before, walking in the woods alone – of aelfe, of ettins, of rogue Liepard and black Grimveldt wolves – but this was something else. This was fear for fear's sake, welling up from nowhere and everywhere at once, climbing up the walls of my skull in dark waves and crashing down again into tides of paralytic fear. It was an effort to put one foot in front of the other, and when I looked at Bianca and Cheren I wondered how they kept going, how they were resisting the urge to lie down, curl up and wait for Teiresias' long shadow to fall over them.

It knows you're weak, I thought to myself. It knows you're afraid. It knows Cheren is too cold and Bianca too careless; this performance is all for you, to slow you down and shut you off and make you give yourself up.

“I promised Halley,” I murmured, so quietly no one else heard. “I promised...”

I felt, as if from a great distance, tears gather in my eyes.

“I promised I would help,” I said again, more forcefully, and the voice in my head retreated.

I blinked and looked up. The shadows were still dark, the birds still silent. The footsteps sounded, if anything, closer.

I was still afraid, I realised, but I could carry on. I could – just barely – resist.

Halley brushed against my leg, and I started.

“You're doing great,” she said, voice low and gruff. “Uh... keep going.”

With that, she stalked away from me again, and for a moment I stared after her. That had been – that had been concern, right?

“Halley,” I muttered, a small smile crossing my face despite the rounding menace, and walked on.

Half an hour later, the aura of menace was still with us, despite our efforts to speed up, and it was then that Cheren hit upon an idea.

“All right,” he said, “going faster isn't doing anything. We may have to try and use Munny to scramble Teiresias' trace.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “That... why didn't you say that before?”

“Because there's a small chance that Teiresias doesn't actually know where we are exactly, and is spreading this aura around the entire area to try and startle us into showing ourselves,” he replied. “If that's what it's doing, then it will be watching for Psychic-type attacks – if we use Munny, it will know what direction to go in, and then it can send in Smythe to deal with Munny before moving in itself.”

I stared at him.

“How did you think of that?”

“It's what I would do,” he replied. “It's the most efficient course of action. But given how alien Teiresias' mind is, I'm not sure that it would think of doing it.” He chewed his lip. “Do we risk it?”

“Don't ask me,” I said firmly, shaking my head. “I don't know anything about tactics or anything like that.”

Cheren sighed.

“Fair enough,” he muttered. “Bianca?”

If I can interrupt?” asked Halley, before she could reply. “Cheers. For your information, Cheren, Teiresias knows exactly where we are. It's waiting because it's making Lauren afraid, and the more afraid people are of it, the stronger it gets.”

Cheren frowned.

“How do you know that?” he asked. “Do you know what Teiresias is?”

“No,” she replied. “Yes. I'm... I'm not sure.” She frowned. “I can – I can half remember something. Like a long-forgotten...” She shook her head. “I used to know!” she growled furiously, slapping herself in the face. “F*ck!”

“All right, leave it for now,” Cheren said tersely. “You'll have time for this later.” He glanced at Bianca. “Are you ready?”

“What do I do?” she asked helplessly. “I mean... there's nothing for Munny to attack.”

“I don't know, aim at the sky or something. Just don't hit any of us.”

Bianca nodded.

“OK,” she said. “Psywave, Munny. Just, uh, up.”

The Munna didn't move, but the same strange silky ripples in space that I had seen it generate the night before poured out of its body in sinuous waves. Despite its efforts to keep the move away from us, part of it must have hit me, because for a moment I had a headache and a strange understanding of the shape and taste of the colour blue – but a moment later, both pain and synaesthesia had gone, and the rippling aura was spreading out through the air above us.

“Well?” I asked, blinking hard. “Did... did it work?”

“I'm not sure,” said Cheren. “The shadows don't seem any lighter.” He looked around. “And – and aren't those footsteps faster now?”

I froze.

“Yeah,” I said softly. “Yeah, they are.”

In fact, they were very fast, and very near.

I looked at Cheren, and Cheren looked at Bianca.

“Well, don't just stand there, morons,” hissed Halley. “Run.”

---

I could describe the chase. I could describe how we raced down the trail; how on my shoulder Candy shrieked in delight at the wind rushing through her feathers; how Munny trailed a vaporous stream of psionic strings behind it in its agitation; how Halley's breath came in wheezy spurts of curses, even after I picked her up.

But I won't.

I could describe how the tree in front of us, rotted through with Teiresias' corrosive magic, collapsed to block the trail ahead. I could describe Smythe, bearing down on us like Córmi in the legend.

But I won't.

Because none of it mattered except that Teiresias was here, its long black shadow cutting the path in half as it stalked towards us at Smythe's side.

It had changed. It was no longer a Liepard; it was smaller now, a little under Halley's size – a Purrloin. But its eyes were still white, and its voice still dead, and when it spoke my name my feet froze in place on the dirt.

“White,” said Teiresias, drawing to a halt a little way off. “And Halley. That is all we desire. You others may leave.”

“You've made that rather difficult,” observed Cheren, patting the fallen log. “In fact, I don't think you've left us much choice but to stay and help.”

“Yeah, um... what he said.” Bianca nodded vigorously. She might not have Cheren's way with words, but she definitely shared his spirit; it was about the only thing they seemed to have in common, and distantly I wondered if that was what bound them together—

“Lauren. Snap the f*ck out of it,” hissed Halley. “Come on, girl, don't go all panic trance on me here. We need to focus.”

I blinked. Yes. Halley was right. I'd made a promise, and I had to honour that.

“Look,” said Smythe, raising his hands as innocently as he could when Teiresias was at his side, “I really, really don't want any trouble. I had that damn Munna invade my skull last time, and I'm not really keen to repeat that. I just want Halley and White. That's all.”

“Then why aren't you taking them?” asked Cheren. “You're standing here talking when you could be taking action.”

“Smythe insists you can be reasoned with,” hissed Teiresias. “I am here to ensure that is so, and to safeguard against the possibility that you cannot.”

“I'm a very reasonable person,” said Cheren, “but I don't think it would be reasonable of me to let you spirit people away without due explanation. How about you tell us why you want Halley and Lauren, and then we'll decide what to do?”

Smythe glanced at Teiresias.

“I have no time for this,” it rasped. “Take them.”

The ground went black.

No slow spread this time: the entire trail, for as far as I could see, turned black with rot, little curls of it twisting away in coils of decay. I jumped back, but there was nowhere safe to flee to. Cheren snapped out an order and Lelouch dived for Teiresias' throat; dissolving into a green ribbon of light as he snaked across the ground—

The Purrloin swung a paw lightly in his direction, and with a momentary dark flash the Snivy arced away into the forest. It did not come back.

“Do not attempt to use the Munna,” said Teiresias. “It will end badly for you.”

No one said anything. I don't even know if they could. The smell was back, the smell from the train – the smell of a dead man's hand bloated in the wreckage of the flood – and the fear returned with it. This time, though, I could see the demon, and that made it a thousand times worse. Everything vanished: self, memory, all rational thought was swept away in a tide of unrelenting terror—

—except one tiny little thought that refused to go away.

Why doesn't it move?

I held onto it tight. It was all that was left of me; all I had that wasn't fear.

Why doesn't Teiresias move?

On the train, it had sat down to spread its aura of terror; in the street, it had only moved once Munny had scrambled its psychic 'sight'.

Is it that it can't move?

Now, as then, Teiresias was stationary, and it was Smythe who was walking towards us, Smythe who was doing the actual capturing. Teiresias itself hung back, impervious to harm, motionless as ever. Why?

And then an idea came into my head, and, fighting through the paralysis, I turned my head to Candy and whispered:

“Get it, but stay back.”

For a heart-stopping moment I thought she wasn't able to, or she hadn't understood, or she didn't know how—

—and then there was a small whumph by my ear and Candy's head whipped forwards like a striking snake, at almost the same moment as a large stone slammed into Teiresias' rotting body and sent it flying backwards.

Immediately, the spell broke. Shadows faded, darkness dissolved; the rot on the trail withered and vanished and the sun came out from behind a cloud. Suddenly released from the supernatural force that had gripped us, Cheren, Bianca and I staggered forward a step; Halley, lighter on her feet, simply bobbed a little.

Smythe stared, dumbfounded.

“How—?”

“Again, Candy!” I said, as Teiresias climbed back to its feet, a crater of snapped ribs and blood-matted fur in its chest where the rock had impacted. She squawked gleefully and another stone popped into existence between her jaws, swelling to full size as she snapped her head forwards and shooting towards the demon—

—who stuck out a paw and shattered the boulder with another of those flashes of black light.

“You are percep—” it began to say, but Candy was getting excited now, and sent another boulder whistling towards it – and another, and another, and now Teiresias was flickering and twisting in a loop of purple fur, desperate to save its borrowed body from destruction.

“All right, time to run,” murmured Halley. “Into the woods. Now.”

No one argued. Cheren, Bianca and Munny went first, heading off the trail in the direction Lelouch had vanished in; Halley followed a moment later, streaking across the dirt as only a startled animal can. I went last, Candy maintaining the bombardment from my shoulder. Teiresias was getting better, I noticed; it was moving less now, settling back into position and destroying the rocks without so much effort, and I knew that in a moment it would have adjusted to the new threat and begun to weave its spell again—

I turned, Candy hurling one last boulder over my shoulder, and fled into the woods.
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Last edited by Cutlerine; December 30th, 2012 at 12:32 PM.
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  #30    
Old January 2nd, 2013, 03:06 AM
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teamVASIMR
 
Join Date: May 2011
Cutlerine!
I was checking regularly and was about to give up. And then Yay a new chapter!

- Personally I don't see anything poor about this chapter.
- The Shakespeare references never get old.
- Aww, no helicopters yet.
- Regarding Decoyote: whoa major hint drop! Are we gonna see Pearl too?

That is all.
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  #31    
Old January 3rd, 2013, 03:34 AM
Cutlerine
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Quote:
Originally Posted by teamVASIMR View Post
Cutlerine!
I was checking regularly and was about to give up. And then Yay a new chapter!

- Personally I don't see anything poor about this chapter.
- The Shakespeare references never get old.
- Aww, no helicopters yet.
- Regarding Decoyote: whoa major hint drop! Are we gonna see Pearl too?

That is all.
Ah, OK. Thanks for that. I guess I thought it would be worse because it would reflect everything happening while I wrote it... I suppose I can separate fiction and reality better than I thought. Huzzah!

As for helicopters, there was one... but it was in the prologue, which I took out before I posted it.

Regarding Decoyote... I just like the idea of them, I'm afraid. I won't rule out appearances from characters from previous stories, but I only have one of them planned out right now, and it isn't Pearl.

Thanks for your feedback!

F.A.B.
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Old January 9th, 2013, 03:35 AM
Cutlerine
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Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
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Chapter Eight: The Young Miss Moritz

Niamh Harper (Neeve, she would say with a sigh, it's pronounced Neeve) was one of those people who are, in the movies, invariably referred to as 'the specialists', or 'the cleaners', or some other variant on the same cloak-and-dagger theme. Like her fictional counterparts, she possessed uncanny efficiency, tremendous intellect and more concealed weapons than anyone might safely shake a stick at. Unlike them, however, she was one sixty-fourth faerie.

So family tradition went, anyway, and Niamh had always maintained that the source of her preternatural luck was the blood she had inherited from her aelfen great-great-great-great-grandmother; all the really successful criminals, she reasoned, had a gimmick – Moriarty had the whole 'Napoleon of crime' thing, and the Zodiac Killer had had his bizarre messages, for instance – and it would be a damn shame to miss out on capitalising on hers. It paid, she thought, to think of a decent advertising scheme.

Thus it was that Niamh (the name was supposed to be redolent of the mysterious aelfe from which she claimed ancestry, but all it really did was confuse people) had been contracted by Ingen several years previously as their 'clean-up expert'. (Apparently those in charge of hiring her had seen a few too many conspiracy films.) In that time, she had successfully prevented, among other things, a juvenile Megalosaurus from eating its way through an orphanage, an abortive attempt at creating a shoggoth from absorbing half the Ingen staff (Dr. Spitelle's fault), and a pair of snooping journalists from uncovering Ingen's secret facility on Volundr's Anvil off the east coast. Rather less successfully, she had attempted to stop the escape of a small group of Andrewsarchus into the depths of the Grimveldt Forest, from the security of which strange rumours were now drifting out across Unova of monsters raiding outlying settlements in the night – but then again, one couldn't be perfect all the time. Everyone made mistakes, after all, even people like Niamh.

This, however, ought not to have been a mission on which Niamh would make mistakes. She simply had to travel to Accumula Town, relieve the unknown girl with the green hat of the escaped Archen, destroy it before it fell into the hands of any of Ingen's many competitors, and return home. Simple. She was going up against kids; while it was stupid to ever claim that nothing could go wrong, Niamh was fairly certain that, well, nothing could go wrong.

As the astute reader will have guessed, this was not the case.

And Niamh Harper was about to find that out in spectacular fashion.

---

Smythe looked at Teiresias.

“Should... should I chase them?” he asked tentatively.

The Purrloin was silent.

“Teiresias?”

“No,” it said. “No.” It got to its feet and began to walk back down the Trail, towards Accumula.

“What? Where are you going?” asked Smythe.

“To Accumula,” replied Teiresias coldly. “There is nothing to be gained from chasing them.”

“What? But we have to catch—”

“Yes.” Teiresias paused, and looked back. “But we cannot chase them. I underestimated White's intelligence. We will have to alter our tactics; brute force is not the way to go.”

“Oh,” said Smythe, his brain finally catching up with his mouth. “I see... you want to get to Striaton ahead of them and lay an ambush?”

“They are Trainers. They will go to the Gym there,” Teiresias went on, as if he hadn't spoken – and now Smythe saw that its eyes were burning blue, seeing deep into something other than the forest around them. “White will not. She will go to – to...” It trailed off. “I cannot see where she will go,” it said. “Not yet. But we will have an opportunity to catch her and Halley, when they are separated from the Trainers.”

Smythe blinked. He might not quite have Teiresias' intellect, but he wasn't stupid, and he recognised the blue eyes and cryptic proclamation.

“You have prolepsia?” he asked, incredulous. It wasn't common. Fewer than one in five hundred thousand humans were born with the genetic abnormality that let them catch glimpses of future events, and while Smythe didn't know how common it was among Teiresias' kind, he definitely hadn't been expecting it.

“Yes,” replied his partner, eyes fading to white again. “It is certain. Our opportunity for ambuscade lies in Striaton.”

“I see. It—”

“Whatever you have to say, say it as we move,” Teiresias interrupted. “I refuse to drag your swinish flesh through the dark paths again today. We must return to Accumula and use your human methods of transport.”

“Oh... right.” Smythe thought of the nightmare realm through which Teiresias chose to travel, and heaved a silent sigh of relief. “I guess we'd better go, then,” he said, surprising himself by sounding almost cheery.

“Yes,” agreed Teiresias. “We had.”

It stalked on, and, almost whistling with restrained happiness, Smythe followed.

---

“I see,” said Cheren, nodding. “You notice the important details, Lauren, and formulate effective strategic responses... you'd be a good Trainer.”

“Oh, I don't know about that,” I replied, looking away. “I'm just... I just noticed that it didn't move, that's all.”

It was an hour since we had left Teiresias and Smythe on the trail, and an hour since we'd seen any sign of them; they didn't seem to be following us, or at least they weren't being obvious about it, and we'd continued on our way north to Striaton slightly more at ease than before. Lelouch had wandered up to us a few minutes into our search for him, holding his head in his stubby arms and hissing groggily, and he was now back in his Ball; Cheren had given him a Potion and the Snivy was now fairly healthy again, but he'd decided that he deserved a rest after his treatment at Teiresias' hands.

Of course, Halley, Cheren and Bianca had all wanted to know what I'd done to Teiresias and how I'd done it, and I'd just come to the end of my explanation: I had noticed that Teiresias could only concentrate enough to raise its fear aura if it was stationary, and also that it was almost impossible to get close enough to it to move it. That left only one option: try and hit it with some force without getting near. I knew most Rock-type Pokémon knew Rock Throw, and I was pretty sure that Candy was at least part Rock-type; to my relief, she'd been able to work out what I wanted her to do, and had in fact got quite into the whole Rock Throwing business.

“No, I mean it,” said Cheren. “You have a knack for it.”

“Yeah,” agreed Halley. “Looks like you got the brain and Jared got the brawn. If I put the two of you together I might actually get a decent bodyguard.”

I ignored her; I had no idea what to say in response to that.

Bianca beamed at me.

“You don't need to be so modest,” she said. “You can accept praise, you know.”

“Uh... OK,” I replied. “Thank you.”

“That's better,” she said with satisfaction, and was about to say something else when Munny made a loud blooping noise and started bobbing up and down in what was either excitement or acute indigestion.

Cheren stared up at it with interest.

“Oh? What is it?”

“It senses something,” said Bianca, a look of concentration on her face, and with a small jolt of excitement I realised that Munny must be trying to communicate with her telepathically.

“That's so cool,” I murmured.

“It says... there are a lot of wild Pokémon around,” she said, frowning. “Much more than normal... oh, they were running away from Teiresias, and there's lots of them hiding a little further up the trail.”

Cheren clapped his hands.

“Excellent!” he cried. “I've had enough spectral persecution for one day. Time to actually do some Training.”

I started. It had almost slipped my mind that that was what Cheren and Bianca actually did: catch wild Pokémon, and fight others with them. I'd been so focused on Teiresias and the problem of Halley that I'd forgotten this trip was anything more than a way of evading the Green Party's supernatural hitman.

“Yeah,” agreed Bianca. “Put that demon stuff behind us for a while...”

“If it gets us off the radar, it's fine by me,” Halley said. “What isn't fine by me, though, is standing around not moving in the woods when we could be moving in the opposite direction to the evil monster hunting us.” She leaped up onto a low branch overhanging the trail, and pointed ahead. “So let's move.”

“I don't think it's actually following us right now,” said Cheren mildly, but Halley was having none of it. Obviously Teiresias had spooked her more than I'd thought.

“Don't care. Don't trust it. Move.”

So we did, moving quietly so as not to frighten off any Pokémon ahead. I had my doubts about how effective this would be – after all, I'd spent a lot of time in the woods before, and I knew that Pokémon and animals alike were far more adept at noticing approaching humans, especially when scared, than any of us – but I was willing to play along. After all, Cheren and Bianca were Trainers. They had to have some level of skill at this.

A few minutes later, I held out my hand for them to stop. The broken cuffs jingled, and I hastily clamped my fingers over them to keep them still.

“What is it?” asked Bianca.

Sssh,” I hissed. “There. Right there.”

I pointed at the Purrloin crouching ahead of us, half-concealed by the undergrowth.

“What?”

I looked at her.

“Can't you see it?” I asked incredulously. “It's right there.”

Cheren's eyes were darting around so fast they looked like they might spring free of their sockets and go on a brief aerial reconnaissance mission; I guess not noticing something must have been pretty galling for someone who usually sees everything.

“I see her,” hissed Halley. “I have a bizarre urge to challenge her for her territory, but I'm holding it in.”

“I still don't,” began Cheren testily, and then his eyes widened. “Ah.” He frowned. “Why isn't it running away?”

“Because you three smell of fear,” Halley said. “You've been bathing in it all morning, thanks to Teiresias. Any animal with a decent sense of smell is going to be confused by you, since you look bold but smell terrified.”

“I don't see it,” said Bianca petulantly.

“Look, it's right there,” I said, pointing. The Purrloin shrank back from my finger, and I hurriedly withdrew it.

“I still can't see it.”

“No matter,” whispered Cheren. “You will in a moment.” He reached into his pocket and took out Lelouch's ball. “This should be simple enough.”

He threw the ball in a high arc, up among the branches and leaves of the canopy; I didn't see where it fell, but it must have been somewhere beyond the Purrloin.

The little Pokémon didn't move. It was thoroughly confused; it probably suspected a trick, given that its nature was to hunt by deceit – in contrast to the wildcats, which were physically stronger and tended to drop on their prey from the trees and wrestle it into submission – but it couldn't work out what it was.

You sound like Cheren, part of my mind told me, but it wasn't true; Cheren was smarter than I was. He researched these things – I'd just seen it happen a few times back in White Forest.

“Now,” said Cheren quietly, and Lelouch appeared behind the Purrloin, rearing out of the bushes with the total predatory silence only reptiles and birds can achieve. For a moment, he hung there motionless, and I could see his jaw widening in response to his serpentine instincts, about to unhinge and swallow the Purrloin whole—

—and then his training asserted itself, and he shut his mouth, looking faintly displeased. Almost as an afterthought, he swatted the Purrloin hard on the leg with his viny tail, and the little cat started so hard it looked like it was on the verge of cardiac arrest.

It whirled, instinctively sweeping its sharp tail across its attacker and following it up with its claws – but Lelouch didn't seem to even notice the thin scratches opening up across its chest; nothing bled from them, and I realised what the advantages of being made of plant matter must be – no pain, difficult to incapacitate... I wondered if Lelouch even had organs.

The Snivy blinked slowly, and swallowed the Purrloin's head.

I stared. Had I just seen that happen? Had Lelouch actually just...?

Yes. Yes, he had.

The Purrloin twitched and writhed furiously, scratching at his face and throat, but half-inch claws aren't much good at slicing through plant stems, and Lelouch didn't falter. A moment later, the Purrloin slowed – and a few seconds after that, it slumped, unconscious.

Lelouch made a peculiarly human coughing sound, and spat the Purrloin out onto the leaf litter.

“Well, that was the most disturbing way I've ever seen anyone win a Pokémon battle,” said Halley lightly. “Seriously? You get him to suffocate his enemies with his mouth?”

“I'm making use of his strengths,” said Cheren stiffly. “The combination of reptile and plant is fascinating – it opens up a variety of tactics—”

“I honestly could not give a single fu— fun-size Mars bar,” finished Halley glumly, looking up at me. “Damn you, Lauren.”

I smiled at her.

“Thank you.”

“I seriously can't tell if that's irony or not,” she muttered. “That infuriates me.”

“I bet it does.”

Cheren fished around in his pockets and pulled out a Poké Ball; a moment later, he was the proud owner of a new Purrloin, and had, for reasons known only to himself, christened it Justine.

“Well,” he said, “that was successful. Now, if only I could get a signal out here I could look it up in the Pokédex...” Here, he spared a moment to stare balefully at his phone. Unova's mobile communications networks were unreliable at best and explosive at worst; anywhere outside of the major cities had only patchy network coverage, and the phone masts, manufactured mainly by companies who didn't meet the quality control requirements of other countries, had a tendency to burst into flame when too much data ran through them. “Ah, well,” said Cheren, more jovially. “I have a Purrloin now, at least, and that's something.”

“So, um, this is kind of embarrassing,” said Bianca, “but I still didn't actually see the Purrloin.”

I stared at her.

“Um... you are joking, right Bianca?”

“Nope,” she said sadly. “I'm... not really very good at being a Trainer, I think.”

“Oh, don't worry,” I said brightly. “Cheren didn't see it for ages, either. It's just experience, that's all.”

“You think?”

“Well, I wasn't born able to see hiding animals like that,” I said thoughtfully, “so I guess it must be practice. I've lived in the woods all my life, remember.”

“I guess...”

Bianca didn't sound entirely convinced, and I wanted to do more for her – but I wasn't certain what else I could say without knowing her better, and now wasn't the time to start questioning her about her history and lack of self-confidence. I sighed, and pushed Candy away from my ear, which she was trying hard to stuff her beak into.

“Yeah. Just practice.” I made myself smile; smiling is infectious, and hopefully Bianca would smile too. “Come on, then. I'm guessing the other Pokémon around here were scared off by that fight, but we might be able to find more. At the very least, we'll end up closer to Striaton.”

“Yes, good idea,” said Cheren, obviously pleased to have been presented with a way out of a situation he clearly found awkward. “Come on, Bianca.”

He recalled Lelouch and started walking; it was a good thing, I thought as I followed, that I was here, or poor Bianca wouldn't have had any comfort at all except from Munny – and the Munna's comforting consisted mostly of bumping into her head over and over again, as it was doing now.

I sighed, and let Candy hop down onto my wrist.

“What're we going to do about that, Candy?” I whispered, falling to the back of the group. “What're we going to do...?”

---

Picture, if you will, the villain's lair. Let the image fill your mind: a castle, a thunderstorm, a fearsome crack of lightning that illuminates for one brief and violent instant unspeakable horrors; picture the guttering candles, wax oozing from their tips like pale snakes with questing, transparent faces; picture the ancient paintings whose eyes have long since been cut out to provide spy-holes for unseen watchers; the dungeons, the long-forgotten skeleton still in his manacles, the attic where the mad wife gibbers in her chains; the lopsided tower, lit fitfully by a cluster of dying lanterns – and finally, the villain himself, committing black and ancient deeds from before the time of man, bringing unto himself creatures that the ése never meant to see the light of day.

This was what would have sprung to the mind of Lauren White if asked to envision the place from which Teiresias had begun its mission. Needless to say, it was not correct.

No, Unova's Green Party had its headquarters in a large and unnecessarily magnificent building in Gaunton, Castelia; it had begun life as the residence of the penultimate British High Commissioner for Unova, and retained almost all of its original splendour. Owing to its erstwhile owner's peculiar architectural fancies, and his patent disregard for the more classical trends of his day, it was a vast and colourful Gothic pile after the manner of Pugin, beginning at the ground in a tangle of white limestone and ending in the sky in a multiplicity of blue-green Undella slate roofs. No two architects would ever be able to agree on whether or not it was beautiful, but anyone at all would concede that it was certainly among the most impressive buildings in the city. It bore its eccentricities with the brash swagger of a cartoon pirate, and had revelled in its own majesty since the year of its completion in 1944.

It was down the twisting halls of this overweening edifice that Caitlin Molloy bent her steps, down to what had once been the Commissioner's office and was now that of Ghetsis Harmonia. She knocked on the door, and at the sound of a cheery 'Come in!' entered to find him seated behind his desk, flicking through a weighty-looking book of immense proportions; as she drew near, Harmonia looked up, grinned, and laid the book down in front of him.

“Ah!” he said, smiling mischievously. “If it isn't my friend from Johannesburg.”

Caitlin Molloy was not in fact from Johannesburg. She could, however, do a fine South African accent, although this was not something she did as a general rule.

“Afternoon, Ghetsis,” she said, returning his smile at the shared joke. “I brought you the report from Striaton.”

She tossed a manila folder down on the desk, and Harmonia's eyebrow rose.

“Ah me,” he said, stroking his chin meditatively. “That looks thick.” His HawkEye clicked upward to lock onto Caitlin. “Any chance of a synopsis? I will read it, just... not right now.”

“It's difficult to know what to do,” replied Caitlin, dropping into the seat opposite him. “There's two possibilities here. Either the powder actually converts dreamed objects into real ones, which would allow us to synthesise the lost artefact easily, given access to Dr. Fennel's lab – or it stimulates dreams of another life. Given the way the prevailing winds blow over Unova, Fennel theorises that this could be the cause of the whole Dream World – the mist is generated by the Munna and Musharna near Striaton, desiccates and gets spread across the country. Hence the dreams.”

Harmonia nodded thoughtfully. Like everyone in Unova, he had spent at least some time wondering about the cause of the so-called Dream World; it had never, to anyone's knowledge, been satisfactorily explained, although various theories had been put forward to explain it. In fact, it was Dr. Fennel's potential explanation for the existence of the strangely unified dreams of Unova that had first caught his eye as he scanned the scientific literature of the week before.

“I see,” he said slowly. “What're the chances that the powder really does turn dreams to reality?”

“I don't know,” replied Caitlin frankly. “It doesn't even sound possible, to be honest, but stranger things have happened... it's just one step up from Zoroark venom. It's... well, if it's true, it changes everything.” She shrugged. “Fennel was eager to help – you know what these researchers are like, always after funding. We waved a vague offer under her nose in exchange for this report on the Dreamyard.”

“The Dreamyard?” queried Harmonia. “What's that?”

“Ah. It's what the people around Striaton call the old Sytec manufacturing plant. There was a lot of waste around there that was never properly disposed of, and the Musharna flocked there to nest. People in Striaton have more regular and Dream World dreams than anyone else in the nation, and they remember them better too – and it's all from the abandoned lot. So they ended up calling it the Dreamyard.”

“I see.” Harmonia opened the folder and began to leaf through its contents. “Woden's patch,” he muttered. “Psychochemical disturbances in the dream matrix? Hyperbombastic ritual dream exchanges? Thunor, this is hard going... she's really trying to impress.”

Caitlin shrugged.

“Like I said, she wants funding.” She watched Harmonia for a moment. “What do you want to do?”

The red lens moved up to look at her, though the head attached to it remained inclined towards the folder.

“Let's do it,” he said decisively. “We've got nothing to lose after all; we have plenty of funds at our disposal, with our new allies. Throw some gold at her and see what we can do – if it works, we could potentially finish this thing tomorrow.”

Caitlin nodded.

“I'll get right on it, Ghetsis,” she said. “See you later.”

“Goodbye,” he replied distractedly, returning to the report.

Caitlin left, and twelve minutes later a message was winging its way towards Striaton.

---

By the end of the day, Munny and Lelouch had put paid to about six assorted Patrat, Purrloin and Lillipup between them; Smoky, whom Bianca had all but kicked into action, had dealt with just one, and then only because it had been a particularly pugnacious Lillipup and had tried to bite his tail. He had sat up, torched it and gone back to sleep without ever opening his eyes.

There had been no further sign of activity on Teiresias' part, but when we pitched camp that night we agreed we'd keep watch in case it and Smythe returned while we slept; Halley offered to watch all night, citing her animal instincts, ability to see in the dark and heightened sense of smell as reasons. I refused to let her, though; she needed sleep as much as the rest of us, I argued, so we set up a rota. Cheren seemed to think she had some ulterior motive in offering to take the entire watch, but I couldn't see what it would be – she was nervous, that was all, and who could blame her? Teiresias was a nasty foe.

After we'd eaten, Cheren gathered a few meaty scraps into a little heap, and let out his new Purrloin, which looked around wildly at us for a while before bolting for the undergrowth.

“Well, that was successful,” said Halley snidely. “Champion material right here.”

“I know what I'm doing,” replied Cheren calmly. “She'll come back. Wait.”

A few moments later, the Purrloin – Justine – did in fact return, slinking quietly out of the bushes and doing her best to remain in the shadows, out of sight.

“Cheren,” began Bianca, delighted to have finally spotted something, but he held up a hand.

“Ignore her,” he said. “We're not supposed to have noticed her.”

Candy's large eyes flicked over to the Purrloin in the shadows, and she looked up at me inquisitively.

“No,” I said, shaking my head as vigorously as possible. “No no no. Don't even think about it.”

She made a small noise of avian disappointment, which was something like a squawk, something like a sigh and a lot more discordant than either, and went back to digging a shallow bowl in the dirt near the fire. She had done that last night too; I wasn't sure why. I'd never taken Candy out on extended trips in the woods before, and it seemed to be bringing out a variety of responses in her that I expected Uncle Gregory would have been interested in; he was always going on about how there was no way to accurately work out the behaviour of extinct animals from their fossils alone, and about that being the reason why he'd gone into the re-engineering business, and if they'd just give him ten more years and a million more pounds of funding he'd have solved the Gleinhauser Proposition, whatever that was.

A moment later, Justine materialised next to Cheren's leg, and quietly began to steal the leftovers he'd piled up.

“What's she doing?” I asked softly.

“Purrloin are thieves,” replied Cheren, just as quietly. Justine did not look up at the sound of his voice. “They take the kills of others, or steal from campsites. If you give them food, they tend to believe that they're tricking you into feeding them, which makes them quite happy and therefore easier to tame... watch.”

He picked up a meaty bone he had kept in reserve and held it under Justine's nose.

The Purrloin froze. Her sharp green eyes focused on the end of the bone, travelled along its length, passed up Cheren's arm and came to rest on his face.

A sly grin passed over her muzzle, and she ran a thin tongue over her fangs. Then, very delicately, she took the bone in between her jaws and climbed onto Cheren's lap to gnaw on it.

He looked up at me.

“See?” he said. “Easy.”

I grinned and shook my head.

“That's adorable,” I said.

“I know!” squealed Bianca in agreement, so loudly that Justine jumped in surprise and inhaled half her bone.

“Thunor—!” cried Cheren, staring wild-eyed as the Purrloin began to asphyxiate. “How the hell—?”

One hand on the bone and one on her back, he started pulling and patting at the same time; a moment later, the offending article shot out, and Justine collapsed, gasping for air, on his lap. Bianca stared speechlessly.

“I... um... sorry, Cheren,” she said at last. She sounded like a toddler who knows they've done something so bad there is no alternative but to pretend it didn't happen.

“That's... all right, Bianca,” Cheren said, voice strained. “Just – ah – try not to kill my Pokémon in future, all right?”

“Yeah...” Bianca's head drooped. “Sorry...”

Halley snickered.

“See, that's comedy,” she said. “Good old slapstick. There's nothing funnier than serious injury.”

“Yes there is,” I said. “Justine could've been hurt.”

“You're missing the point,” she sighed. “That's exactly why it was funny.” She waved a paw dismissively. “Whatever. I'm not going go be able to convince you about this one.”

“On the plus side,” continued Cheren as if neither of us had spoken, “the experience does seem to have endeared me to Justine somewhat.”

It was true: while Purrloin weren't really known for their loyalty, I was pretty sure the star-struck look in Justine's eyes indicated that the saviour of her life had now earned her undying respect. It was a pretty big bone for such a small cat; I supposed I'd feel the same way if Cheren had removed something the size of my forearm from my throat.

“Hmm. A little training, and she might even be up to helping Lelouch with the Striaton Gym,” Cheren said to himself. “Strange as it may sound, I guess I should be thanking you, Bianca.”

Immediately, she perked up again.

“OK!” she cried happily. “That's all right, then. Do we have any pudding?”

“No, you ate it all the night after we left home,” he sighed. “I didn't buy any more in Accumula because it didn't seem worth it.”

“Oh yeah.” Bianca seemed vaguely disappointed, but she couldn't stay that way for long, and by the time we retired to our tents that night, she seemed to be back to normal. Halley, on the other hand, seemed quieter than ever; even when Candy hurled a rock at her, her curses seemed to lack their usual colour and flavour. I asked her what was wrong, but naturally she said nothing – or rather, she did say something, but that something was a torrid stream of invective, which shut me up pretty quickly.

At least, I thought as I lay there in the dark, watching the glow of the fire through the thin fabric, she's still up to doing that. I was still thinking about it when I fell into uneasy dreams, a little before midnight.

---

There a certain moments in life that defy conventional explanation – moments when a chance collocation of events coheres and gives rise to a result infinitely greater than the sum of its parts; moments when disparate strands of destiny cross over, briefly form an accidental Gordian knot, and pass on unchanged. These moments are taken by some to be evidence of wyrd, or fate; others, to be evidence of God.

Niamh Harper was abhorrent of suspicion and possessed of a good vocabulary, so she saw them as serendipity.

If any particular event that afternoon had occurred differently – a minute later, a minute later, a few feet to the left – nothing would have come of it. But as it happened, a man refused the offer of a second drink before leaving for work that morning, citing lack of time; and a woman's alarm clock in Nacrene ran out of power during the night; and a child dropped his toy car on a walk through the park in Accumula; and a busker's bicycle had a flat tyre, and he was forced to go to his usual spot on Neurine Plaza on foot.

And the woman was late for work, and the decrepit Anville Rail Service train was even later than advertised; and Portland Smythe tripped over the car and twisted his ankle so badly he could not muster the speed to make it to the station in time to catch his train; and he repaired to a nearby park bench to recover and wait for the next one.

And Niamh Harper, worn out and stressed from the long train journey, was not looking where she was going as she left the carriage; and the man, who handed out flyers at Accumula Station, was overcome by a small wave of dizziness owing to dehydration; and the two of them collided, sending leaflets fluttering everywhere.

And as she helped him gather the leaflets, she noticed they advertised a coffee-house two streets away near Neurine Plaza, and decided that she was in need of refreshment and rest before continuing her search; and as she made her way to the coffee-house, the busker finally arrived at work and began to play.

And on the street next to the Plaza, Niamh subconsciously heard the unmistakeable strains of jazz flute, and without knowing why looked around for the only jazz flautist she had ever known—

And over the iron railings of the park she saw Portland Smythe, and at the same moment he looked up at the sound of the flute and saw her too.

Their jaws dropped.

Serendipity.
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  #33    
Old January 27th, 2013, 10:40 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Nine: The Bane of Gregor Samsa

Striaton, unlike Accumula, let you know it was coming. It didn't suddenly rear up out of the woods like a spooked horse; it built up slowly, the forests giving way to fields that, in turn, gave way to suburbs. It was a city, not a little backwater village, and as I breathed in the familiar scent of petrochemical fumes, I sighed with relief. I felt like I was coming home.

Candy coughed on my shoulder. I barely noticed; here were the trappings of civilisation again, the tarmac and concrete and cars, and what could possibly be finer than that?

It had taken us the better part of the day to reach this blessed metropolis, and it was four o'clock by the time we'd got into the city proper and were somewhere near a Pokémon Centre. I was exhausted, and looking forward to sitting down – but Cheren, it seemed, had other ideas, and headed off immediately in search of the Trainer's School in the north quarter. Bianca chose not to follow him; like me, she was tired, and still a little dispirited from her failures the day before, and so she came with Halley and me to the nearest Pokémon Centre.

“Well,” I said, when we'd arrived. “It looks like someone's, uh, kind of desperate.”

The broad windows of the Centre were covered almost entirely by plastered notices, screaming out the same message over and over, the wording more and more despairing from poster to poster.

ASSISTANCE WANTED

the first few read,

WITH A GLORIOUS UNDERTAKING
FOR THE CAUSE OF SCIENCE
VOLUNTEERS TO BE HANDSOMELY REWARDED
ENQUIRE AT PSYCHOSOMA LABORATORIES, 12C BEETWAX STREET,
FOR DETAILS

By the end, though, the flyers were somewhat less grandiose:

FOR GOD'S SAKE, WILL SOMEONE PLEASE HELP?
THIS IS NOT ALL THAT DANGEROUS REALLY,
I PROMISE. AND COMPENSATION FOR ANY MENTAL TRAUMA
WILL BE MADE AVAILABLE. COME ON. ANYONE?
ANYONE AT ALL?

“What school of graphic design did this moron graduate from?” said Halley acidly. “Big and bold is all very well, but this guy's crossed a line – and then pissed on it.”

“I wonder what it is,” mused Bianca, staring. “It must be important...”

“I guess so,” I agreed. “Maybe the receptionist will know.”

“How're you going to talk to them?” asked Halley. “You're a cardless Trainer from Sweden, remember?”

I scratched my head. Damn. We didn't have Cheren to convince them.

“Uh... We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“We're standing on the f*cking riverbank, Jared, we're not going to get much closer—”

“Shut up and pretend to be a normal cat,” I snapped, pushing open the doors and walking into the Centre.

On my shoulder, Candy perked up suddenly, extending her neck to feel the warmth of the central heating on her scaly head; fleetingly, N's words flickered through my mind, but like most people, I'm pretty good at not thinking about uncomfortable truths and let the thought slip from my mind like an eel through a noose.

“Hi,” said the receptionist as we approached. “Welcome to the southern Striaton Pokémon Centre.”

I frowned. Was it a uniform requirement for all Centre workers, or was it just a coincidence that both she and the one from Accumula had the same dyed-pink hair?

“Hi!” said Bianca bouncily – so much so, in fact, that her voice seemed to rebound off the walls with its sheer perkiness. Halley and I winced in unison. “What're those posters in the window about?”

Her directness caught the receptionist off-guard for a moment.

“Eh? Oh, those,” she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Some scientist from Sotwell—”

“Sotwell?” I asked.

She made a clicking noise of annoyance at herself; she'd forgotten we weren't Striaton natives.

“East of the city centre,” she explained swiftly. “She's looking for Trainers to go and get something from the ruined Sytec factory – something to do with Musharna. No one wants to go deep enough into the factory to find a Musharna, though – it's really not a safe place.”

Sytec. Everyone in Unova – and probably the world – was familiar with that particular disaster. The only reason Striaton wasn't totally uninhabitable now was because the army had jettisoned most of the waste north into Patzkova (where, conspiracy theorists claimed, it had given rise to a brutal mutant variant of Druddigon) - and what was left had, according to the books, turned the old factory into a twisted maze of semi-sentient psychic fields. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded like something any sensible person would want to avoid.

“What about a Munna?” asked Bianca, pointing to the pink ball floating above her head. “Would a Munna be able to help?”

The receptionist shrugged.

“No idea. If you want to know, I'd ask the scientist herself.”

Bianca's eyes lit up, and I sighed.

“Do we have to?” I asked her.

“But I might be able to help!” she said eagerly. “And that might make up for – for yesterday...” She trailed off quietly, and I knew I didn't have the heart to resist her. She wanted to make amends, was that it? To prove that she could still be a decent Trainer, even after not spotting the Purrloin and then almost killing it? Fair enough, I thought; I wasn't going to take that away from her.

“I don't know,” I muttered, stalling for time – trying to delay having to accept her proposal.

“And I don't think Teiresias will be able to follow us there, either,” Bianca went on. “It won't be able to see us, right?”

I paused, and glanced down at Halley, who looked back up at me. Teiresias' psychic eye was blinded by Munny's mental radiation; if we entered the Sytec plant, it might well do the same.

“It won't be able to see us,” Halley whispered, so quietly I almost didn't hear.

“Is that a wildcat?” asked the receptionist, confused. “Who has a pet wildcat?”

“Uh... me,” I replied. “I also have a parrot.” I scratched Candy's neck and she crowed with pleasure. The receptionist stared.

“Is that an Arch—?”

“All right then!” I said swiftly. “Come on, Bianca. Let's go find this scientist.”

Esé damn it, I thought sourly as we walked out. How the f*ck does everyone know?

---

12C Beetwax Street was a good half an hour away by subway, as it turned out, and when we arrived I wasn't entirely sure it was worth the trip. The whole area looked like it had been spat out by a dog that had decided it wasn't worth the effort of chewing, and number 12 looked like it had been right between the molars. Its upper floor, where the landlady informed us 12C was to be found, was more the sort of place I expected to find a yolk kitchen than a laboratory. I supposed that pure science didn't pay too well.

“This... doesn't exactly look like what I thought it might,” Bianca said cautiously, looking at the scratched wooden door. The '2' was missing from its sign, and had been for so long that there wasn't even a patch of lighter wood to show where it had been. “It's... um...”

“A sh*thole,” said Halley concisely. “A bloody sh*thole. Huh. Gone are the days of the gentleman-scientist, I guess.”

I said nothing, but knocked at the door; it swung open at my touch, revealing a cramped tangle of machinery and desks, and a young, haggard-looking woman leaning against the wall and smoking furiously.

“...Woden hang them all,” she was muttering. “Theirs is the generation that grew up with Portal, for Frige's sake! How can they not want to help test for science...?”

She did not seem to notice us, wrapped up as she was in her ranting monologue and cigarette smoke, so I said hesitantly:

“Hello? We're, uh, here about the adverts?”

I could've sworn an electric shock ran through her. She shot bolt upright, almost inhaling her cigarette, and hastily tossed it into an ashtray, eyes locking onto us with a fervour that made me doubt her sanity.

“Really?” she beamed, regarding us hungrily. “You're here to – ah, a Munna!” One of her hands curled reflexively into a fist and started wiggling in excitement, and she paused for a moment to calm herself. After a deep breath, she stepped forwards. “Good afternoon,” she said brightly, holding out her hand. “My name is Dr. Regan Fennel, and I'm very glad to see you two. My research is almost at a standstill, and without a decent quantity of the dust, I'm not altogether sure the psychoanalytic engines will— but I'm getting ahead of myself,” she said, shaking her head. “Please, come in.”

Somewhat cautiously, Bianca and I followed her through a maze of abstruse mechanisms, stacked high to the ceiling; they wound about the room in a tangle of wires, of cables, of electrodes and pistons, sprouting monitors and keyboards like curiously geometric fungal growths, clicking and whirring and flashing the occasional light like the eyes of phosphorescent fish in the benthic depths. All the while, Fennel kept up a steady stream of scientific technobabble.

“I'm investigating dream potentiality,” she told us. “The hidden energy and possibilities within dream states. Musharna – I know this must seem unrelated, but bear with me, it'll become clear – communicate using psychochemical mists, composed of psychically-charged esters – chemicals that carry a scent and a tagged emotion. In the minds of other Musharna, this triggers a sympathetic psychic response that conveys the original Musharna's meaning. It's a unique system: no other Pokémon uses that combination of smell and psionics. It's why they're so bad at pure psychic communication, why they can only vaguely hint at what they mean when they attempt to 'talk' to humans.

“But that's beside the point. Psychochemicals have so much more potential than simple communication, if there are enough of them – and in the Dreamyard, the Sytec plant, where there are an estimated five hundred Musharna all emitting the sprays at once, and where the roving psychic fields left by the explosion keep warping them...” Fennel paused in excitement. “The sprays dry out,” she said, as if this was meant to mean something to us. “They dry out and become powder – and without the water saturating them, their chemical structure alters just slightly: they become able to cross the pulmonary alveoli. Humans can breathe them in, and they affect us.

“Winds blow them all over Unova from Striaton,” she went on, as I started to wonder how this long, long labyrinth of machines could fit into the tiny upper floor of 21C Beetwax Street. “We breathe them in, and we feel them unconsciously, and we dream dreams like no one else in the world.” Fennel grinned. “We dream the Dream World.”

It seemed she wanted a response to that, and she got one. I had been doing more than my fair share of wondering about the Dream World recently, what with Halley's claims about the switching over of reality and Lauren White, and I actually gasped as she said it.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “That's what causes it? Dried-out Musharna spit, or whatever that is?”

Fennel looked pained.

“I see the subtleties of the science elude you,” she said, “but essentially, yes. I do believe that.” We had stopped, and she gestured for us to go on. “Come on. There's more.”

“More?” I asked. “What more can there be?”

I was actually kind of excited now, despite myself. I wasn't usually interested in the abstruse science of psionics – or any science, really – but when the Dream World and Unova's strange dual reality was involved... I was pretty sure this was relevant to me. (Bianca looked lost rather than interested, but then, she had done ever since Fennel had uttered her first polysyllabic word.)

“Much, much more,” Fennel said, pressing a button on a nearby panel and waiting for a series of massive gears to grind slowly out of our way. (How much longer could we walk for? It felt like we had gone miles already.) “You see, there's another possibility. Even if the mist doesn't generate the Dream World specifically, it may be able to do something else.”

Fennel led us around a corner, and waved her arm at the space beyond – space that, I was truly and utterly certain, was about thirty feet too long to fit into 12C Beetwax Street.

“You see, that's the thing about Dream Mist,” Fennel told us. “It makes dreams into reality.”

---

“... and left a kidney there on the way,” finished Smythe gloomily. “So yes. Same old, same old.”

Niamh smiled. Eight years had passed since the incident on the Borealis had driven each to give the other up for dead, but nothing had changed. Portland Smythe – adventurer, flautist, demigod – was still among the unluckiest men on the planet. His wyrd danced over the shears with every stitch of the tapestry, but was never quite severed.

“Your flute?”

Smythe sighed.

“Gone,” he said hollowly. “You know what Dragons are like. They love shiny objects. I had to get away somehow, and that was the only shiny thing I had to distract it with.” He shook his head and drunk deeply of his coffee. “I hope that bastard Haxorus enjoys it.”

It was not a normal Haxorus he spoke of, Niamh knew. It was the Patzkovan variant – bigger, meaner and with an inexplicable fondness for alliterative verse, three traits it shared with much of the northern country's wildlife. It had to be, for though he made little of it, the route he described would have dropped him much too far north for him to have arrived in Opelucid without a lengthy trek south-east through the untamed Hallowveldt.

“I'm sorry,” she said at length. “Did you ever... replace it?”

Smythe shook his head.

“No,” he replied. “It can't be replaced. No one could make another.”

Niamh had thought as much. She had never seen a flute like Smythe's before, and she was pretty sure she never would again.

“Anyway,” he said, brightening. “How have you been? Still in the monster-slaying business?”

Niamh smiled, grateful for the lifeline – as anyone was who got drawn into the depths of Smythe's life story would have been.

“Yeah,” she replied. “I landed a contract with International Genetics – cleaning up some of their mess. Dinosaurs, monsters – sh*t like that.”

Smythe nodded.

“I see,” he said. “They're based in Nacrene, right?I guess you're on a job right now?”

“Yes. I'm after an escaped Archen – a little half-bird, half-dinosaur thing. It was meant to be destroyed but someone let it out, and some kid picked it up.” Niamh shrugged. “Should be fairly easy to deal with.” She frowned. “What's up?”

Smythe was staring, and his heart was racing. Half bird, half dinosaur... he knew that damn bird.

With a strange giddy feeling, he realised that he and Niamh were after the same target.

And with a horrible chill feeling, he realised that he could not possibly tell her.

Teiresias was not visible – it had flickered out of conventional space as soon as Niamh had greeted him in the park, and had remained out of sight throughout their trip to the coffee-house – but Smythe knew it was watching him, and that revealing any Party business, even to as old and trusted a friend as Niamh, would result in it taking swift and deadly action.

And so, though he would dearly have liked to share his burden, and though Niamh was probably the most qualified person he could think of to deal with the fiend, Smythe kept silent.

“I saw it,” he said, desperately trying to think of a way to help Niamh out without compromising the Party. “I saw that thing... it's with a group of Trainers, isn't it? Heading north to Striaton.”

Niamh's eyes widened. This was an unexpected windfall of information.

“You're sure?”

“Yeah. They were at Harmonia's speech the other day; I was there on Party business, and got bitten by the damn bird.”

Niamh nodded.

“Trainers... They'll take the Trail rather than the roads. I guess I could try and head them off in Striaton; I could get there before them.” She looked up at Smythe as if just realising he was there. “Sorry. Got distracted.” She waved a hand. “Doesn't matter. I'll find them easily enough. Thanks for the information, though.”

“It's nothing,” said Smythe, pleased to have been helpful. “You'd do the same for me, I know.”

Niamh smiled.

“What is it that you're doing, anyway? I can see that that 'quiet job' you have with the Green Party obviously isn't as quiet as you'd like.”

Smythe sighed and rubbed his forehead.

“It isn't,” he said. “It was when I started – I thought maybe I'd finally managed to leave all those misunderstandings, those hurried escapes, the lies – all of that behind me. But Harmonia found out, assumed I was a master criminal, and sent me on a quest.” He paused, calculating how much he could say without calling down Teiresias' wrath on his head. “I'm tracking some thieves who stole something of value from the Party,” he said at length. “There's an eldritch abomination mixed up in this, too. Christ,” he said, voice suddenly passionate, “I wish I'd never left Mossdeep...”

---

“Whoa.”
It was Halley who'd gasped, but thankfully Fennel didn't seem to notice – she probably thought it was Bianca or me, and who could blame her? We certainly had reason to gasp: The room bulged out in a great swelling oval, the walls that looked square from outside round in here; I could even see the window with the red curtains that I'd seen from the street, and I knew that this room was completely, totally impossible...

“Dream logic,” said Fennel proudly. “This was my first successful experiment. Using the powder from dried Musharna chemicals and a few little scientific tricks, I partially actualised my dream of a better laboratory.” She waved a hand at the space before us. “The room works in the way only dreams can work: bigger on the inside than the outside.”

I was still staring. There was nothing too special in there – more machines, computers, a bed connected to a web of electrodes – but still, it was so wrong, so different to the reality I knew that I couldn't tear my eyes away.

“How... If you can do this,” I asked, “how come you're still here? How come you're not rich and famous already?”

Fennel shifted uncomfortably.

“Well... there's the thing,” she admitted. “You don't need all this machinery to bend space like this. You can manipulate reality by blending certain Pokémon moves – Trick Room, Magic Room, Wonder Room – which, when combined, can do any of a great number of things to space as we know it.” She sighed. “This research isn't fundable. It doesn't prove anything – doesn't prove I can use Musharna chemicals to turn dreams into real, solid things. Of course, there's a chance I might not be able to do that – the chemicals might have more to do with the Dream World, or maybe something else entirely that I haven't thought of and which could also give these results – but I've built prototypes of the machines that can do it. If I got some more Musharna chemicals, I could conduct the first experiments to find out if I can do it. And then, with a little more funding, I could probably build machines to bring dreams to life, or even record and share dreams between people without the need for Psychic-type Pokémon.” She spread her arms. “All it takes is the chemical dust, and money.”

“Speaking of which,” came an unfamiliar voice, “we've just got a £750,000 grant.”

I thought Fennel might explode. She spun around to face the speaker so fast her long black hair swatted me in the face, and cried out:

“What?”

The speaker – a younger, less cigarette-haggard version of Fennel, who appeared to have come from somewhere in the dream-space – held out a letter.

“From Mr. Harmonia of the Green Party,” she said, voice hollow with amazement. “He thought our work was very interesting.”

A chill ran through me, and my eyes involuntarily slipped over to Bianca's. I could tell she was every bit as shocked as I was.

Harmonia.

Could it be a coincidence? The political party that was pursuing us wanted to fund Fennel's extraordinary research... I couldn't see a connection, but then, there was still a lot I didn't understand. I remembered I'd forgotten to take the opportunity earlier to research the Green party and Teiresias, and resolved to do it as soon as I could. We couldn't run away forever, I was sure of that; sooner or later, we had to stand and fight, and while I knew I was capable of it – Regenschein's was an eminently suitable training ground for battle – I had to know my enemy better if I wanted to win. Teiresias was a foe I couldn't beat just by hitting with a metal pipe – and while Harmonia probably was, I needed to know whether he really was at the top of this conspiracy before I went around beating him up.

“This is— give me that!” Fennel snatched the letter from her colleague and read it voraciously, devouring it with her eyes at a speed that would have done credit to Cordelia (who read with the speed of lightning and the implacable inertia of a runaway freight train). It wasn't even a minute later that she lowered it. “Incredible,” she said, voice trembling. “Incredible...” Abruptly, she swept her assistant into a bone-crushing hug. “Ammie! This is it! With this, we can finish – can prove it – can – can—”

“OK, calm down Regan,” said the assistant – Ammie? – disentangling herself with some difficulty and leading Fennel over to a chair. “Sit down for a minute.” She flashed a shy smile at us, and with a start I realised she couldn't be more than a year older than I was – if she was older at all. “Sorry,” she said. “We kind of didn't expect this to happen. Like... ever, really.” She left Fennel breathing into a paper bag and came back over to us. “I'm Amanita,” she said. “Regan's sister. I help with her research.”

Bianca cocked her head on one side.

“You're... pretty young,” she pointed out uncertainly. “Are you a genius or something?”

Amanita took the question better than I expected.

“Depends,” she replied with a shrug. “According to Terman's definition, yes – I have an IQ of 146, based on the Stanford-Binet test, which places me within the top 0.5% of the Unovan population. However, if you use Hollingworth's definition, which requires an IQ of 180, then no, I'm not a genius. Other than that, 'genius' is a pretty vague label, with many different philosophical definitions, and I'm not sure it can ever be applied to someone other than retrospectively.”

“That's enough of a 'yes' for me,” said Bianca frankly, which made Amanita smile.

“Anyway,” she said, “you two are here about the Dream Mist, right?”

“Dream Mist?” I asked. “Is that the Musharna chemical stuff?”

“Yep,” she said brightly. “If you could get some from the Munna or Musharna that live in the Dreamyard, that'd be great. It's all we want you to do.”

“I thought maybe my Munna could help?” asked Bianca, pointing it out.

Amanita shook her head.

“Sorry, no. The Mist only desiccates in the Dreamyard; your Munna will stop any wild Munna or Musharna attacking you for invading their territory, but unless it's in the Dreamyard, its chemical sprays dissipate in the air. The psychic fields kind of bake it, in a weird sort of way.”

“Cark,” squawked Candy, looking at me. I knew what she wanted and shook my head.

“Not baking cakes or biscuits,” I told her. “Baking mist.”

Candy tried to make sense of that, failed, and decided to go to sleep before her brain melted. Amanita watched with interest.

“Hey, is that an Archen?”

I bit off a curse.

“Yes, she is,” I sighed. “Just... don't ask. Please.”

“All right,” said Amanita, “but it is pretty weird for something so dead to be riding around on someone's shoulder. People will ask questions. Just so you know.”

“Yeah, I got that much,” I said sourly. “Everyone seems to realise.”

“Right,” interrupted Fennel, who had glided back over to us without me noticing. “Munna and Musharna are less active in the dark, so you'll probably want to head over to the Dreamyard pretty soon, to get there around dusk. Hopefully, that'll be before the Purrloin and the wildcats wake up – they hunt at night, you see. You want to avoid dealing with them.”

“Dealing with them?” Bianca asked. “They usually run away, don't they?”

Fennel hesitated.

“There aren't very many of them, you understand,” she said. “Really, there aren't. They die pretty soon after they enter the factory – no food, you see—”

“What are you hinting at?” I asked, unease mounting in my stomach.

“Well... the Purrloin and the wildcats in the Dreamyard...” Fennel looked helplessly at Amanita, who shrugged; Fennel was on her own here, she seemed to say. “They're... they're kind of mutant.”

---

There were no houses for a mile around the Sytec plant; it was a long walk from the nearest bus stop. As the city retreated from the scar of the disaster, nature had marched forwards again, trees and grass springing up around the shell of the factory and swallowing it up as if it had never been. Once, long ago, the whole of Unova had been a colossal forest. Long after civilisation collapsed, I thought with a shiver, it would be one again; the trees would stalk in, one by silent one, and devour the cities in a low rustle of leaves and roots.

“Are you feeling OK?” Bianca asked me. There was a strange edge to her voice.

“Uh... yeah,” I replied. “Just had a weird thought.” I stared at the forest, pressing up against the edge of the suburbs as if it was waiting for us to look away before striking. “It feels weird, even here.”

Bianca nodded.

“Yeah.”

“I'm impressed,” said Halley. “Out of the five of us, you two are the least sensitive, and you managed to feel it even from here. That's pretty good going, guys.”

I would've tried to think of some kind of scathing reply, but I didn't think I could come up with one right now. I felt... weird.

“Should we put on the helmets?” I asked.

“Fennel said not til we get there,” Bianca replied. “I don't think they'll do anything except look stupid if we put them on before.”

I sighed.

“All right,” I said, resigned, and stepped cautiously off the road and into the forest.

There were signs along the way – not many, but enough that we didn't lose the trail. They said things like 'Sytec factory ½ mile', 'Sytec factory this way', and, more ominously, 'Turn back – Danger of death'.

“They sure know how to cheer a girl up, don't they?” remarked Halley, when we stumbled across the last one. “It's actually almost funny, if you think about it. To escape Teiresias, we need to flee to one of the few places in Unova that's probably more dangerous than wherever Teiresias is.”

“That's not funny,” I told her.

“I know. I'm trying to lighten the mood.”

“It's not working,” Bianca said.

“I know. But at least I'm f*cking trying.”

No one answered her. We walked on in silence after that.

It didn't take long. A tall chain-link fence, topped with rusting razor wire and collapsing in as many places as it still stood; warning signs in red and yellow and bold black drooped as if dying from the steel and partially obscured the crumbling network of concrete buildings beyond. Trees punctuated the asphalt of the car park beyond, punching through tarmac as if it were nothing. I saw creepers and bushes, flowers and brambles, much less dense than outside the fence but still present, and definitely in the process of taking over.

And rising above them all, just visible through the crushing vegetation – the spire, the lonely tower that was the root of all the trouble.

Sytec's last project.

The towering, broken mind-flayer.
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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  #34    
Old January 29th, 2013, 08:25 AM
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Adin Terim
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So will reality implode or something if Jared or Lauren comes in contact with the mist, assuming that they are living each others not(?) dream?
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Last edited by Adin Terim; January 29th, 2013 at 08:39 AM.
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  #35    
Old February 1st, 2013, 11:39 AM
Cutlerine
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Adin Terim View Post
So will reality implode or something if Jared or Lauren comes in contact with the mist, assuming that they are living each others not(?) dream?
Depends whether Fennel was right or not, I guess. We'll have to see what happens.

Thanks for reading!

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  #36    
Old February 3rd, 2013, 03:09 PM
Cutlerine
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Chapter Ten: Felidae

1983. The year Sytec went bankrupt.

The year the nightmares came.

Speculative weapons research was big business in the years of the Cold War, and Unovan labour at the time came cheap; glutinous chemical artillery, egg-bullets that hatched into flesh-eating larvae, arachnid mind control – the aims of the companies that opened factories in the country were as varied and bizarre as the abstruse machinery they imported.

Sytec was in the psychic missile business.

The idea was simple enough. Plenty of technology was available to track and destroy a conventional missile before it hit its target – but the only way to detect a psychic blast at long range was to ask a Kadabra if there was a disturbance in the hive mind, and the chances of the Kadabra choosing to cooperate were so slim as to be virtually nonexistent. The technology to guard against such a blast simply didn't yet exist.

It seemed a prime research opportunity, and Sytec was not willing to let the competition get there ahead of it. The company rushed an experiment into new and devastating forms of psychic 'mind-flaying' into production, eager to secure lucrative US contracts.

Unfortunately, 'devastating', 'experiment' and 'rush' are three words that should never be found in the same sentence.

No one could reasonably claim that they hadn't seen the disaster coming, but they did so anyway; the government didn't buy it, and Sytec was forced to dissolve and sell its assets to repay Unova for the horrors it had unleashed.

Now, thirty years later, the wounds had faded but the scar was still there, a ragged concrete nightmare embedded in Unova's verdant flank. The Dreamyard.

The home of the Musharna, and the monsters.

---

“I think it's time to put the gimp masks on.”

“They're not gimp masks, Halley, they're psy radiation helmets.”

“Jared, you can argue with me or you can put your gimp mask on. It's your choice.”

I glowered and got them out of the bag. I hated to admit it, but Halley had a point. They did look unnervingly like—

Stop thinking about it, Jared.

Formed of soft black neoprene with dark-tinted bands of reinforced glass across the eyes and at apparently random points on the cranium, they were capable of soaking up 98% of any psychic fields we might encounter, Fennel had assured us. I'd asked about the remaining 2%, and she told me that if we came across any of that we'd be dead anyway, so it wouldn't matter.

This, and the matter of the mutant cats, was weighing fairly heavily on my mind as I fastened the helmet with the zip at the back.

Definitely a gi—”

“Shut the f*ck up, Halley,” I snapped, voice faintly muffled. The world was slightly grey through the glass, but I could see surprisingly well.

“I'm just saying,” she said. “They're tight, black, cover the whole head...” She shrugged – a manoeuvre that looked very peculiar indeed when executed by a cat. “What is it that Zed says in Pulp Fiction? 'Bring out the—'”

“Halley, you do know that you've got to wear one too, right?” asked Bianca.

“Yeah, but mocking myself is no fun,” sighed Halley. “Self-deprecation is so not my style.”

“If you don't shut up,” I told her, “I won't put your mask on you and you'll turn into a mutant monster like the other wildcats that come here.”

Halley clamped her jaws shut, and I smiled a secret victorious smile.

Her mask had caused Fennel some difficulty. She'd suggested we leave her outside, and we'd had to explain that due to very important but unmentionable reasons she had to come with us. Apparently that sort of cloak-and-dagger business wasn't that uncommon in the scientific world, and with the aid of a pair of scissors she'd sliced up one of her other helmets to create a makeshift one for Halley.

“Doesn't matter,” she said when I asked if that was all right. “I just got £750,000. I could cut up hundreds of these and still be in the black.”

At the thought of her new funding, her hands started shaking and she almost chopped her thumb off, and Amanita took over so she could breathe into the paper bag again. Twelve badly-punched holes and one makeshift lace later, she'd made a makeshift cat-sized helmet. Evidently she was as practically gifted as she was smart.

Now, I knelt down and laced the helmet onto Halley's head. It fitted as well as could be expected of something made in fifteen minutes, and by that I mean it didn't, but it would have to do; I didn't know if the tightness was important for keeping out the psychic radiation, but I guessed we'd find out once we got into the factory: if Halley keeled over or mutated, the helmet was obviously too loose.

Candy's head, of course, was nowhere near round enough to accommodate the curved glass panels of even a modified helmet, and she'd have quickly chewed her way out of it anyway – so Bianca had given me a Poké Ball, and reluctantly I'd enclosed her in it, where no radiation could get to her.

I was surprised at how strongly I was opposed to the idea of 'capturing' Candy; she was my pet, not my slave, and she belonged on my shoulder, not in stasis in some fist-sized metal prison. I could see the advantages of the Poké Ball – she'd be much easier to hide when I needed to hide her, for instance – but still, I promised myself I wouldn't leave her in there any more than I had to.

Munny, naturally, had no such problems: in fact, when Bianca had released it, it started bouncing with excitement when it saw the wreck of the Sytec plant. While the rest of us shivered at the sight of it, the Munna displayed every sign of actually wanting to live there.

“Ick,” said Halley with distaste once I'd finished with her helmet. “This thing is horrible. I didn't realise how much I valued the sensory input from my whiskers til you squished them like this. And my ears are all squashed,” she added petulantly.

“Tough,” I replied, straightening up. “You can't get it off without me, anyway.”

“Bastard opposable thumbs—!”

“Come on, guys, stop arguing,” pleaded Bianca. “Can we go now?”

As one, Halley and I looked through the fence at the Sytec plant – at the crumbling concrete, the twisted vegetation, and the awful shadow of the mind-flayer hanging over everything – and blanched.

“OK,” I said hesitantly. “Let's – let's go.”

None of us moved.

“You first,” said Bianca. “You're the fighter.”

You're the Trainer.”

We paused.

“Go together?” she suggested tentatively.

“All right,” I agreed, and simultaneously we stepped over a section of collapsed fence, and into the heart of the Unovan Chernobyl.

---

Beyond the fence were the remnants of the car park, its surface rucked and twisted by invading roots; the asphalt had held back all but the strongest of the plants, and it was much less dense than in the surrounding forest. It might even have made a pleasant walk, if not for the vague sense of mental discomfort that I felt, even through the helmet. The roving psychic fields were evidently out in force.

“Munny,” said Bianca, “can you sense any other Munna or Musharna around?”

It seemed to have some difficulty with this question, which surprised me; from everything Fennel had said, I'd almost assumed Munna were as intelligent as I was. In actual fact, as I later found out, they were closer to monkeys in terms of intellect, and had difficulty with spoken language owing to their poor hearing (a result of over-reliance on their psychic senses). Wikipedia is a fantastic thing.

“Anything else like you?” she asked, rephrasing it to see if it made any more sense. Munny seemed to get the idea now, and drifted off towards the large square building ahead of us.

“We're going to the Musharna to find where the dust is, right?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied Bianca. “I don't know... Do you have any other ideas?”

I shook my head.

“No, sounds good.”

“How utterly banal,” said Halley acidly, but no one acknowledged her.

We followed Munny through the sparse woods and through a doorway that lacked a door; beyond was a vast, shadowy space that bore signs of the walls that had once divided into rooms and corridors in the lines of crumbling rubble on the floor. Shafts of light streamed from holes in the walls and roof, but made no real impact on the gloom and were swiftly swallowed up amid the tangles of brambles and creepers that grew towards them hungrily.

All in all, it was pretty damn ominous, and that was before the monsters lunged out of the shadows.

They came at us in a pair: twisted things that could have started life as either Purrloin or wildcats but which were now unrecognisable, eyes shrivelled, legs stretched, backs distorted with soft fleshy jags of meat—

I kicked one in the face reflexively, and it backed away, letting loose an baleful shriek; Munny dived towards the other, blue waves streaming from its forehead, but the cat-thing was unaffected, rearing up and swatting the Munna out of the air with one distended paw. Munny hit the ground, bounced and swung away dizzily, whirling on its axis like a top.

The first monster rejoined the second and both jumped at me at once; the world tipped crazily around me and my head hit the concrete floor with a sharp crack of pain. Almost automatically, I rolled onto my side, trying to dislodge them, but their claws were long and sinuous, and wound through my shirt like corkscrews as they fought to get their jaws to my throat—

A gout of fire shot past my ear and set one cat-thing's fur ablaze; it let go of me with a shriek, slashing the other's leg in its haste to escape, and shot off towards the shadows in a trail of sparks. I seized the opportunity and grabbed two of the beast's three ears, pulling its head back and slamming it into the floor.

It let go of me then, and I scrambled to my feet, looking around frantically for something to hit it with; by the time I'd found a rock, it was up too, and had shot between my legs in search of some other target. I turned, saw Smoky spouting cinders from his nostrils, and almost relaxed; he was about to nail the monster with another blast of fire, I could see.

His nose flexed and flames spewed forth – but suddenly the beast's grotesque outlines blurred, and somehow it swept around and behind him in a dark flicker of light before sinking its claws deep into his back.

Smoky squealed in agony and bucked hard; Bianca cried out; Munny heard her distress and started emitting bluish waves that distorted the air like heat haze; I hurled my rock and missed, narrowly missing Bianca—

—and something knocked the monster off its feet with a bang.

It flew off Smoky's back, rolled over on the ground and tried to crawl away, one of its legs apparently no longer working; there was another report, and it lay still with a despairing gurgle.

A sudden calm seemed to fall over the old building then. Smoky's screams died down to a whimper, and then ceased as Bianca recalled him with trembling fingers; the only sound that was left was that of footsteps – two pairs – coming towards us from across the room.

“Are you two OK?” I heard someone shouting. “Hey, you! You OK?”

I looked up from where Smoky had been to Bianca. I couldn't see her face, but she was gripping Smoky's ball so hard her knuckles almost glowed white in the dark. Uncertain of what to do, I patted her arm tentatively, and was surprised (and slightly alarmed) when she pressed her head against my shoulder.

“I changed my mind,” she said, voice shaking. “Let's go. I don't like it here—”

“I said, are you two OK?”

I looked up, saw the two people approaching us and nodded.

“Yeah, I think so.”

They both wore dark clothes – I thought maybe they were suits, but I couldn't be sure in the gloom, and suits would be ridiculously inappropriate for this place anyway – and had psy rad helmets of their own on; they also carried what looked alarmingly like handguns – alarming since possession of a gun was entirely illegal in Unova with the exception of police officers, soldiers and druids. I couldn't exactly say I wasn't grateful for them right now, though, given that they’d just saved us.

“Good,” said the one on the left – a man by his voice. “Those things are lethal... we ran into five on the way here. Every one different but just as f*cked-up.”

“What are you doing here, anyway?” asked the other, a woman. “'Sraven, are you Training? This place is too dangerous for that, you know—”

“We were looking for Musharna dust,” I told them. “But I think...” I looked at Bianca. “I think we might leave now,” I said quietly.

“Good idea,” said the woman. They were now close enough for me to see that yes, they were wearing suits – which had clearly suffered during their trip through the Sytec plant. “You were following Fennel's advert?”

“Yeah.”

“So're we,” the man said. “F*ck me if we can find a single Musharna nest, though.”

“I see,” I said slowly. These two seemed infinitely better-qualified to search this place than we did – for a start, they had guns, and I wasn't sure how much use Bianca would be now either, after the shock she'd had. “I guess we'll leave you two to it, then.”

Abruptly, Bianca peeled herself away from me.

“No, we'll come too,” she said, voice surprisingly strong. “I said I'd do this and I will.”

I looked at her in astonishment.

Guess she was just startled, then, I thought. Well, she is a Trainer, after all... I suppose I shouldn't be that surprised.

“Hey, look,” said the man, “this is serious business, and we don't have the time or ammunition to worry about looking after two kids—”

“We've got Pokémon,” Bianca said. “One of which is a Munna.” She indicated Munny, now recovered and in a more or less stable hover. “Munny can sense the Musharna and other Munna. It'll lead us right to them.”

The woman glanced at the man.

“What do you say, Steve?” she asked. “I mean, we've been poking around this dump for two hours now – and I really don't want to be here when night falls and the rest of the monsters come out.”

Steve stroked his neoprene-coated chin.

“All right, fine,” he said reluctantly. “You can come with us. Just don't get in our way, all right?”

“Fair enough,” I replied. “Deal.”

“Enough talking,” said the woman. “Get that Munna moving. We don't have all day.”

“Actually, Donna, that's all we do have,” pointed out Steve. Perhaps he thought he was being witty, but no one laughed.

We followed Munny through the eternal twilight of the ruin, keeping silent and watching out for any sign of attacking Purrloin or wildcats. Perhaps the fire and gunshots had driven them away for now, but I didn't expect it would last long; if Donna and Steve had been attacked multiple times already, I guessed the monsters didn't learn from the fate of their fellows.

Halley followed at a short distance, slinking along behind us and keeping to the shadows; I couldn't ask her why, but I supposed she thought Donna or Steve might shoot her if they saw her.

Munny wound its way slowly across the room, occasionally pausing to check whatever internal force was guiding it, and headed hesitantly for a small aperture in one wall that led into what looked like an unending void of darkness.

“Through here?” asked Bianca, pointing.

Munny bobbed as though nodding.

“We can't fit through that,” she told it. “Is there another way?”

“Don't need it,” said Steve. “Stand aside.”

She did, with some trepidation, and Steve tossed a Poké Ball through the gap. A flash of light illuminated part of a corridor beyond for a brief second, and then the darkness descended once more, leaving a bright after-image dancing on my eyes.

“Take down the wall,” he instructed, and took a few hurried steps back. Bianca and I copied him, and a moment later the little gap expanded into a very large gap by the simple means of exploding.

In the distance, something roared in response.

We froze for a moment – that something had sounded big – but nothing happened; Steve recalled his Pokémon, whatever it had been, and we hurried through the gap, eager to get away from whatever had heard the blast.

“Where the f*ck is this?” wondered Steve, as we made our way down a pitch-black corridor.

“If that last building was the main office, this is probably an access passage to the assembly line,” replied Donna. Evidently they'd bothered to check a map or two before coming – further evidence of how abominably badly-prepared we'd been. “Where they put together the components for the mind-flayer. The psychic fields will be strongest there; it figures that that's where the Musharna will be.” She paused. “We can't stay there long, though. The radiation will eat through the helmets in about thirty minutes.”

“I don't plan on being there any longer than it takes to fill those damn vials with dust,” replied Steve. (I found myself wondering what we'd been planning to put the dust in. Damn. We really hadn't thought this through, had we?) “We'll get in there, get the dust, and get out.”

“All right, all right,” said Donna. “I'm just saying.”

We continued onwards through the dark – no longer as total as it had first seemed; there was just enough sunlight filtering down the passage that we could see our way – and, a few minutes later, came to a doorway leading into a small room full of shrivelled, dry things that crunched unpleasantly underfoot and which I really didn't want to think about.

“The cats have been trying hard to get in here, haven't they?” observed Steve mildly. “Something's stopped 'em pretty f*cking conclusively, though.”

I swallowed, and Bianca's fingers suddenly dug into my arm like the teeth of a man-trap.

“It's the Musharna,” replied Donna, poking a mummified monstrosity with her gun. “This close to the source, they're a bit tougher than usual. Doesn't matter if you're Dark-type or not, they'll tear your mind out and leave you for the psy fields to desiccate.”

Bianca's grip tightened – something that I thought would have pushed her finger bones beyond the limits of their tensile strength. I winced and patted her hand.

“Bianca? That... really hurts.”

“Sorry,” she whispered, but didn't let go. I sighed, and tried to ignore the pain.

Donna and Steve straightened up and looked towards the door.

“I guess that's it, then,” said Steve unenthusiastically. “The factory floor.”

“Yes.” Donna turned to Bianca. “You've got the Munna, you go through first. They won't attack you, and hopefully not us either.”

Bianca was silent for a moment, then half a minute, and I could tell she was wavering, about to say she couldn't do it—

“OK,” she said eventually, voice surprisingly steely. “Let's go.”

She took a deep breath, and pushed open the door to the factory floor.

“Woden hang 'em,” I breathed, staring up and out at the vast space beyond. “It's huge.”

The factory level stretched away for the length of a football pitch, the other end shrouded in darkness; the concrete walls soared upwards to an invisible ceiling, apparently interminable pipes running up their colossal flanks. Giant girders crisscrossed the shadowy heights, disappearing and reappearing in the gloom as if playing with each other.

Half-constructed pylons lay toppled amid pyramids of barrels; tools lay abandoned on benches and huge wheels reclined on beds of cracked stone where they had fallen from the conveyor belts that hung in tatters everywhere you looked, like grimy industrial tinsel. Once, catwalks had serviced the uppermost belts; now only a few remained, the rest hanging at drunken angles from snapped moorings or lying like fallen trees on the floor.

Then there were the Musharna.

They hung in the air like pink clouds, drifting slowly from pylon to barrel to catwalk in an aimless sort of way; rolls of fat drooped from their bellies, and I realised that most of them were hugely overweight – the psychic-radiation-rich atmosphere there must have been a continual feast for them. One suckled three tiny Munna, pouring bluish waves from its flank into their staring eyes; other Munna darted around in the air, livelier than their bloated elders, chasing each other and playing amid the wreckage.

I stared, spellbound, until I heard crackling and realised with horror that the helmet was beginning to dissolve, the surface coming apart like smouldering paper.

“Let me revise my estimate,” said Donna quietly. “We've got ten minutes in here before the helmets burn out – five if we want to have enough protection left to make it back to the fence.”

“Let's move,” said Steve decisively, pulling the vials from his pockets and handing them out. “Start scooping, kids.”

I looked down, and realised for the first time that part of the darkness in the room was due to the thick layer of dark purple dust that lay over everything; experimentally, I scooped a handful into the vial and watched as gravity effortlessly erased the gap I'd made. The stuff was deep; it would have taken years to harvest it all, even if the Musharna had stopped making more.

At the thought of the Musharna, I looked up at them, just to make sure they weren't looking aggressive; they seemed almost oblivious to our presence, carrying on with their sluggish, incurious lives. The only clue they were alive at all was the spicy flavour of the air, testament to their chemical language. I wondered if they would have been so placid without Munny here. Given the carpet of corpses next door, I thought probably not.

Munny itself had drifted a little way from us, twirling with two of its wild brethren in what looked like a game of tag; I hoped it wasn't having too much fun – we didn't want it staying here.

“Forty-five seconds,” said Donna urgently. “Time to go. Now.”

Bianca and I handed our vials to Steve, and that should have been the end of it. The danger was over; we should have walked out and gone back to Fennel's lab.

Unfortunately, things didn't quite work out like that.

You see, in the dark, Steve trod on Halley's tail, and Halley swore at the top of her lungs – and Donna noticed, and uttered four very ominous words:

“It's her! It's Halley!”

“Oh, sh*t,” I breathed. “You're Green Party.”

---

My first instinct was to whack one of them over the head, but they had guns, and that changed things; uttering a brief prayer to Córmi for our continued existence, I snatched up Halley with one hand and Bianca's wrist with the other and ran for it.

“Sh*t, that must be Black!” I heard Steve cry out, slow on the uptake, and then a moment later, as we burst into the corridor, I heard their footsteps crunching on the dead things behind us.

“What the hell?” yelled Bianca helplessly. “Why would they— the funding!”

I saw it now as well: the suits, the guns, the fact that they just happened to be here the same day that Harmonia sent the grant to Fennel's lab... The clues had all been there, if only I'd been smart enough to spot them—

F*ck,” I growled to myself. “I'm such an idiot!”

“You can say that again,” said Halley. “Also: wheeeeee! Despite the goons with guns, being carried along this fast is actually pretty fun.”

“Shut up,” I snapped, and for once she actually did.

I could see the main building ahead of us now, the aperture in the ruined wall looming grey against the black – but there were footsteps close behind us, and Steve was shouting:

“Stop running! You'll make it worse for yourself – if you stop, we won't have to shoot!”

“Frige save us,” cried Bianca. “Munny! Do something!”

All at once I became aware of the pink ball zooming along beside us; it wheeled around abruptly and blasted a rippling circle of blue light in the direction of our pursuers. The lack of screams seemed a decent indicator of its ineffectiveness, and I remembered too late the damn helmets—

“The helmets would have to be more badly damaged than this for that to get through them,” Donna called disdainfully. “Give up. There's nothing you can— 'sraven!”

I heard a blood-chilling yowl from behind us and a flurry of gunshots, deafening in the narrow space; it seemed one of the cats had inadvertently bought us some time, and a moment later we were bursting out into the shell of the first building and sprinting across to the exit—

Suddenly, there was a huge flash of light, and a terrible hulking something materialised in the doorway.

It looked like it had been hewn from stone by the most ham-fisted sculptor imaginable; its body bulged out in crazed lumps between deep cracks and rifts in its skin, and its lopsided eyes squinted balefully out from under a brow broad enough to be used as an anvil. Squat and solid, it might have been a malformed, hairless chimpanzee – but I knew better. I'd seen one before, on TV; there, it had been tamer, dressed in a martial artist's outfit, but it had the same indolent savagery in its eyes, the same knuckle-dragging gait.

It was a Throh, and as we stopped dead in our tracks I suddenly realised exactly how it was that Steve had broken the wall down so easily.

“Nice to see you have some sense,” said Steve from behind us, drawing closer. I didn't turn around and look; I didn't dare to take my eyes off the Throh. “Rush at him and you'd all be dead right now.”

“You can't keep him out long,” Bianca said. “The psychic fields...”

“He'll be fine for long enough to bring you two under control,” Donna replied. “Now, you two – or three, I guess – come over here. We'll take you back to Castelia, Harmonia will do whatever it is he needs you for, your memories will be wiped, and all this will be over. Nice and easy.”

So it did go all the way up to Harmonia, then, I thought. But why? What was he after? I pushed the thought away and tried to concentrate on finding a way out of the situation, which seemed to be getting worse by the second.

“I don't think so,” I said, working up the courage to look away from the Throh and face the two Party members. “We're not going anywhere.”

“You have two guns and a Throh pointed at you,” observed Donna. “What more persuasion do you actually need? 'Sraven, are you really that stupid?”

“You won't shoot us if you need us—”

“Technically, we only want you and Halley,” she said. “We could shoot her” – she indicated Bianca – “and leave her to be eaten by the cats. No one would question it.”

“Nice ploy,” said Steve admiringly.

“Thank you. I thought of it while we were running.”

I looked at Bianca.

“Any ideas?”

She shook her head silently.

I looked back at Donna and Steve, who were still watching us expectantly. Behind me, I heard the Throth cough, an explosive rattle like a backfiring car, and punch the wall out of boredom. From the sound of it, that brought down rather more masonry than I was entirely comfortable with.

“Halley?” I asked desperately. “Ideas?”

“Please hurry up with this little charade,” called Steve. “My Throh is losing IQ points by the second, and he didn't have many to start with.”

“Yeah, just the one,” said Halley. “Munny! Zap the Throh!”

Everyone looked up abruptly: we'd completely forgotten the little Munna, still floating loyally above Bianca's head – and now, as the light began to bend and flex around it, I felt myself begin to smile. I wasn't a Trainer, but even I knew what happened when Psychic moves hit a Fighting-type.

“No—!” cried Steve, but it was too late: the air rippled and distorted in a shimmering wave, the latent psychic radiation in the air feeding the Psywave and magnifying it once, twice, fifty times, a maelstrom of energy funnelling directly into the Throh—

—which promptly lobbed a brick at Munny.

If there's one thing a Throh can do, it's throw: the brick flew straight and true, and smashed Munny out of the air with the sound of cracking bone. It hit the ground, painted eyes closed, and did not move.

At the same time, the Psywave reached the Throh, and twin fountains of grey fluid spouted from its ears as its tiny brain was shaken from its moorings; a moment later, it keeled over as if poleaxed.

“Munny!” screamed Bianca, running to her Pokémon's side. “Munny, Munny—!”

“Sh*t,” muttered Halley. “That definitely didn't go as planned.”

“Any more bright ideas?” asked Donna, ignoring Bianca and walking over to Halley and me. “You want to get anyone else killed today?”

I felt my nails digging into my palms, and realised my fists were clenched so tightly they were almost drawing blood. Those damn guns, I thought bitterly. Take them away and I could do this, I knew I could...

“Come on, then,” said Steve, stepping forwards to join Donna. “It's over. You lost. Give me—”

A long, bass note like the song of a church organ resounded through the room.

We all froze.

“What was that?” asked Donna cautiously.

“I don't,” began Steve, but he never finished – for then he saw the things gathering in the corners of the room, and his voice died in his throat.

I never saw them clearly, and it's probably a blessing that I did. But I could catch glimpses as they passed: of transparent limbs and bulging eyes, of jagged prongs and ragged fins, claws and twisted toes and the horrid wet slap of webbed feet on stone—

—and the terrible, awful knowledge, creeping over me like cold water seeping through fabric, that all of these things, these eldritch abominations whose horrendous shapes I could only catch the merest glimpse of – that all these things had once been human...

It didn't take long. The things swarmed in close, and Donna and Steve broke and fled, their eyes rolling with fright, and a horde of half-seen terrors close at their heels—

Then the bass note rang out again, and all was calm.

I blinked and looked around. No Donna. No Steve. No Throh. Just Bianca and Munny, Halley and myself, all alone here.

No, wait. Not alone.

From the corridor came the Musharna, one by one, filing out and into the huge space like some curious ceremonial guard. They swept forwards to Bianca, nudging her gently away from Munny and moving down towards the little Pokémon, uttering strange spiced sighs that were all I could perceive of their psychochemical language.

All at once, I understood. They'd sensed Munny was in trouble – in their eyes, one of their own, a baby. And they had come to defend it.

“They made dreams real,” I said softly. “They made their nightmares into reality.”

“Childhood nightmares,” corrected Halley. “The fear of the monster under the bed and in the wardrobe. The fear of what the dark might conceal. The strongest fears we have.” She shifted and slithered out of my arms, still staring at the Musharna. “Munny screamed very loudly, and they heard.”

“I didn't hear anything—”

“Because of the psy rad helmet,” she said, stalking over to where the Musharna were gathered around Bianca and Munny. “But they heard, and they reacted as you would if you heard a toddler having his fingernails pulled out.”

I winced.

“Thanks for that image.”

“My pleasure.”

The air was so thick with chemicals now that I could almost see them, a kind of heat haze centred on Munny.

“Painkillers,” Halley said to Bianca, sitting down by her side. “They think it'll die, so they're numbing the pain for it.”

Bianca looked at her sharply.

“Munny's alive?”

“Of course,” said Halley, tasting the air with her tongue and grimacing. “It's pretty much one big skull. It'll take more than a brick to break through that. Bring it along to the Pokémon Centre and it'll be— what the f*ck are you doing?”

Bianca had swept her up into a crushing hug, and I had to smile at Halley's wild and ineffectual attempts to get free; she'd gone, as only cats can, from elegant and collected to ridiculous and pathetic in less than a second.

“Oh, thank you thank you—”

“Thank the f*cking Musharna, not me!” yowled Halley. “And put me down while you're at it!”

Bianca dropped her, and was on the verge of hugging the nearest Musharna when she realised that its fur was crawling with centimetre-long ticks; shuddering, she settled instead for thanking them as loudly as she could.

“Thank you thank you thank you!” she cried. “Thank you so much!”

One Musharna blew a large bubble of spit, which she seemed to interpret as understanding, and Bianca nodded happily.

“I don't want to interrupt,” I called, “but we should really be getting the hell out of this place. Like, now.” I pointed to my helmet. “These things are falling apart,” I said. “I can see your hair through the back of yours.

“Oh!” Bianca got to her feet hurriedly and fumbled for Munny's ball. “Yeah, of course.” She recalled Munny and the Musharna stared at the spot where it had been in stunned silence; then they turned to look at her, blew out a few clouds of scented gas, and began to make their slow way back to the factory floor. “Thanks again!” she called out after them, and was answered by a strong smell of cinnamon.

She turned, and actually skipped over to join me in her joy.

“Christ,” murmured Halley. “Skipping? The girl's mad.”

“OK,” said Bianca. “Let's go.”

“About bloody time,” I muttered under my breath. Then, aloud: “Come on, then. Time to move.”

So saying, we took our leave of the Sytec plant, relieved, exhausted and not a little disturbed.
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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  #37    
Old February 13th, 2013, 10:07 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Eleven: Warp and Weft

Tock.

---

“Today.”

Teiresias' voice broke the silence like sand pouring into forgotten tombs, and Smythe shivered. Did it really have to do that every single time it spoke?

“What – they're going?”

“Yes.”

Teiresias flowed down from the table to the floor as if its essence wasn't entombed in flesh; since the damage its physical form had sustained in the forest, it moved less like a living Purrloin and more like the fluid spirit that composed its true shape. It was not a change Smythe welcomed. In fact, he hated it; it was creepy and wrong and altogether disturbing.

Shortly after parting ways with Niamh in Accumula – a goodbye that neither had wanted to say, but which was unavoidable for as long as Teiresias lingered with him – Smythe had made his way north to Accumula by taxi, incurring considerable expense but ensuring he stood zero chance of meeting Niamh again on a train or in the vicinity of any train stations. He had set up camp in a hotel here, and had hardly dared leave for fear of running into Niamh and having to explain why he was here; for its part, Teiresias had only returned early this morning, when he'd awoken to the unsettling sight of it sitting on the table in a purple-black haze of smoke. He hadn't quite had the courage to ask what it was doing, and in fact it had said nothing at all until that moment.

“Last night they divided,” Teiresias went on. “White and Halley went somewhere I could not see, but they have returned. Today, they will divide again.”

Smythe didn't question how it knew this. He just nodded.

“White and Halley will be alone,” it said. “However...” It bared its teeth, a curiously feline action, and Smythe wondered if perhaps its last few bodies had left more of an impression on it than he had thought. “They will be somewhere I cannot follow,” it said at last. “Somewhere I cannot even go near for fear of detection.”

Fear?
What the hell was this? Smythe stared. How could there be anything in the world that Teiresias feared? And, if there was such a thing, what manner of terrifying entity could it be?

“You will have to catch them yourself,” Teiresias told him. “For my part, I shall snare one of the two Trainers. If White proves... recalcitrant, a hostage may persuade her to acquiesce.”

Smythe swallowed. All right, so this mission hadn't really been that legal to start with, but now... Christ. This was getting messier and messier by the moment.

“Right,” he said carefully. “Where do you want me to go?”

---

Cheren hadn't been happy about what we'd been up to last night, and since this was Cheren we were dealing with, he had had a nearly impregnable argument to back up his opinion. We'd gone out without contacting him, and had been unreachable by phone within the disruptive psychic fields of the Dreamyard; we'd alerted the Party to our whereabouts; we'd given them, if they took the effort to work it out, the address of the Pokémon Centre we'd first visited in the city; and we could no longer visit Fennel's lab and so he could not learn more about her fascinating psychochemical experiments first-hand.

I think it was that more than anything else that annoyed him. Out of all of us, he would have understood and appreciated the knowledge Fennel had to impart the most, and I felt kind of bad for cutting him out of it. But I couldn't have done otherwise; Bianca had had to go to the Dreamyard alone. There was no alternative; if she'd gone with Cheren, it wouldn't have been the same. He would have taken over and she would have proved nothing. As it was, she'd managed to call down an entire herd of Musharna to her aid – which, while maybe not intentional, was definitely quite good going.

You could tell it had made a difference, too: when she'd finally got up and joined Cheren and me in the Centre's lounge, she was visibly cheerier than she had been before the Dreamyard escapade. She bounced in, Munny following as if the brick had never hit it, and threw herself onto the sofa so hard she knocked Cheren half off it.

“Uh,” he said, sounding faintly aggrieved. “Good morning to you too, Bianca.”

“Morning!” she sang out. “Look! Munny's all better.”

“Yes, so it would seem. I was just telling Lauren what I found out last night while you two were wasting time and bringing the wrath of the Party down on our heads.”

Bianca's smile didn't waver.

“Yeah?”

Cheren sat back and pushed his glasses further up his nose.

“I went to the Trainer's School, as you know, and fairly quickly realised it's not a particularly valuable institution; I think it's more aimed at preparing people who want to become Trainers rather than adding anything valuable to the store of knowledge of a more experienced person. So I went across to a library instead and did a little research on the Green Party online.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. I found out that in the last six months they've ballooned massively in size, power and financial weight – despite not apparently being backed by any investors at all that I could figure out. They were always a middling sort of party, but now they're unquestionably a serious contender for the general election.”

“How did they do that?” asked Bianca, frowning.

“Gold,” replied Cheren simply. “I don't know how, but for the last few months they've been selling vast quantities of gold bullion. No mines, no suppliers. They own a warehouse in Driftveil and once a week they send out shipments of gold across the world. No one delivers it: it's just dispatched.”

“But then where does it come from?”

“No idea,” he said, shrugging. “It just comes out of the warehouse, as if by magic.”

“How did you find all this out?” I asked. “Surely all this isn't just available on their website, right?”

“No, it isn't,” answered Cheren. “But it's there, if you're dedicated enough. I'm not the first one to ask questions about it, which made finding the information easier. The Party hasn't issued anything in response to these questions; I don't think they've been picked up by the mainstream media yet. Or if they have,” he added disquietingly, “something has silenced them.”

That silenced us for a while, mostly because I think we were all pretty sure it was true. If the Green Party's finances were that transparently suspicious, then someone in the press had to have figured it out already – and the lack of news coverage meant that the Party was significantly more powerful (and more sinister) than we'd thought.

“So,” I said slowly, “what do we do about it? Go to Driftveil?”

“Not directly,” Cheren replied. “I still want to challenge the Gym here before we leave, and we need to look up Teiresias as well, so we may have to go via Nacrene to visit the library. And if that is insufficient, we may have to visit the High Gorsedd in Castelia.”

Reproduction of the Treatises beyond the copies held in the temples was strictly forbidden by decree of Orthalmo the Mad, High Druid in the time of King Ulfric. The legitimacy of the decree was disputed – Orthalmo had ordered, among other things, the eradication of all badgers within the country, the dissolution of the mercantile class and the construction of an four-hundred-foot marble phallus at the temple at Lacunosa – but it had stood until now, and the Treatises were not to be found online or in conventional libraries. If you wanted to read them, you either had to get a druid to lend you a copy or visit a temple – or go to the Travison Memorial Library in Nacrene, which was licensed specially by the High Druid to keep around half the Treatises in its collection.

“Right,” I said. “So are you two off to the Gym today, then? I could visit the temple and research Teiresias when you do that.”

“Just what I was about to suggest,” Cheren told me. “Now, Bianca—”

“I'm hungry. What've I missed?”

Halley leaped up between us from nowhere, somehow contriving to poke all three of us uncomfortably in the side at the same time, and kneaded a cushion into a nest to lie in.

“Where have you been?” asked Cheren.

“Been to London to— nah, I made that joke already and no one got it,” she sighed. “I've been sleeping, what do you think? I am a cat. We spend like half our lives asleep if you let us.”

“We were just deciding what we're doing today,” Cheren said. “Do I have to repeat it for you?”

“Can't be bothered to listen,” yawned Halley. “I'll just follow this little b*tch.” She jerked her head at me; I wondered if I was meant to be insulted, but decided it didn't matter.

“Right. If you're quite done spewing random vitriol...?”

Halley thought for a moment.

“Yeah, I guess I'm done,” she said.

“Then I suggest we get going,” said Cheren.

“What about breakfast?” asked Bianca.

“Yeah, what about it?” added Halley.

“Lauren and I have already—”

“What you and Lauren have done doesn't mean shi— shingle to me,” said Halley, casting a dirty look at me as she bit off the curse. “I'm hungry.”

“It's not really fair if they don't have anything to eat,” I put in hesitantly.

Cheren sighed.

“Very well,” he said. “You two go and have breakfast, then, and I'll wait here – but please, be quick. It's already nearly half past nine.”

“Oh, Christ!” cried Halley in horror. “Half past nine? Why didn't you say so before? What a criminal waste of daylight hours we're currently perpetrating!”

“There's no need to be sarcastic.”

“If there was no need, I wouldn't have done it. Lighten up, Che.”

“What did you just call me?”

He was trying very hard to sound like he didn't care, but I was almost certain that Cheren found that annoying. Extremely annoying.

“Che. Like Guevara. Short for Cheren.” Halley paused. “What sort of name is Cheren, anyway?”

“It's derived from Bulgarian,” he replied with such extreme dignity that he had to be seething inside. “It means 'black'.”

Halley froze.

“Seriously?” she said, staring at him. “Black?”

“Yes, black,” he repeated. “What of it?”

“Bianca's name means 'white',” she said, giving me a significant look. “Lauren...”

“I know,” I replied softly, wondering what exactly this new piece of information meant. “I see it too...”

Black and white, boy and girl, city and forest... The thread of opposites kept running through everything, kept turning up everywhere I went. Had Halley started something by revealing the existence of the two worlds to me? Or had it always been this way, this dualism, and it was only now that I knew that I could perceive it?

Cheren frowned.

“I don't get it,” he said. “What are you trying to say...?”

“Yes, what?” asked Bianca.

“Nothing,” I said hurriedly, wishing I was smart enough to know how to explain it to them. I wanted their help with it – whatever Jared Black might have done, I wasn't confident about tackling such a huge idea on my own – but I just didn't know how to say it yet. “Never mind.”

I stood up.

“Come on,” I said brightly. “Bianca, Halley, I bet you're hungry, and they're only serving breakfast for another half hour.”

“Oh... yeah, OK,” said Bianca, looking faintly confused.

“Huh,” muttered Cheren, but he said no more, and followed us out into the corridor and across to the canteen.

---

Niamh Harper was a troubled soul.

As the observant reader will have noticed, she had not, in fact, arrived in Striaton before Lauren et al and intercepted them; no, she had renounced the plan of tracking them down immediately in favour of another, more devious plan that lay closer to her heart.

She had, of course, noticed Smythe's discomfort and perceived that there was more to his case than met the eye. One does not deal with mad scientists, plutocrats and criminals for nine and a half years without gaining some aptitude at reading a man – and Smythe didn't exactly make it hard. He wasn't a natural liar, and though life had taught him to lie, he was an exceptionally bad student; Niamh had seen that there was some dilemma wrenching him asunder as soon as the issue had crossed his mind, and now she was determined to find out what it was that oppressed her friend so, and made him terminate their meeting abruptly and with obvious unease.

At least... 'friend' seemed the most apt word. She wasn't exactly sure what the right word for their relationship was, exactly; it hadn't exactly been anything she'd encountered, before or since, and it had surged back into life with a power that had physically stunned both of them when they'd first spotted each other in Accumula.

Niamh had still felt strange, her heart pumping and hands tingling, as she shadowed Smythe after that meeting. He had hung around in the park for an hour or two, watching passersby sadly and occasionally whistling snatches of old songs; after that, he had hired a taxi and headed north – to Striaton, she heard him say to the driver.

This had deepened her suspicions: if Smythe had to go to Striaton, he would have wanted to go with her, without a doubt; what was going on that meant he couldn't speak to her? Confused and wary, Niamh had taken a room in the same hotel as him and waited – and soon enough, she had her answer, in the form of the liquid dark abomination that twisted through the air like some foul fish from the frozen lakes of hellish Córmheim.

She stared and stared through the keyhole, but no matter how long she watched the gentle smoking of the hell-beast's eye-pits did not cease, and despite her atheism Niamh could not but come to one conclusion.

Portland Smythe was in grave danger – worse than during his trek through Patzkova, worse than during that long and terrible night in Prague, worse even than during that unnatural storm that had sunk the Borealis all those years ago.

He was in the thrall of a demon from below the very roots of the Ash itself, and there was no one to save him but her.

---

An hour and a half later, the sun had risen above the clouds and was doing its best to make a windy spring day warm; it wasn't much, but it made the walk to the temple a little less freezing.

“Christ, it's cold,” moaned Halley, wriggling deeper into my coat. “Why don't you have a thicker jacket?”

“I don't really think it's that cold,” I replied. “So I never bought a thicker one... sorry.”

“There you go with the apologising again,” she sighed. “Stop apologising for things you never done, 'cause time is short and life is cruel.”

“I've heard that before somewhere,” I said, frowning.

“Give me strength,” muttered Halley, rolling her eyes. “Is it even possible to be a full human being without knowing the Jam?”

On my shoulder, Candy chattered noisily. She enjoyed this kind of weather; with a decent wind behind her, she could glide for perhaps a hundred metres, and probably would have been trying to had I not made it obvious to her that we had a job to do today. I had released her and destroyed the Poké Ball immediately after the Dreamyard adventure; it didn't feel right to keep her locked up like that. Trainers said it wasn't inhumane, but I wasn't a Trainer, and having my pet being reduced to energy and locked in stasis sounded pretty inhumane to me.

The streets of Striaton were quiet enough, but to me, used to the seclusion of White Forest, it felt like I was in the centre of a huge storm of activity; I kept to the edge of the pavement, trying to avoid being crushed by the relentless onslaught of pedestrians, and clutched Halley tightly to me within my coat for fear I would bump into something and squash her.

“You know, I'm not actually made of glass,” she told me. “You could loosen your grip a little without me shattering.”

“Oh.. sorry,” I said hurriedly, and let go, stuffing my hands back into my pockets to guard them from the cold.

“Jesus, more apologising? Mister Weller would not approve.”

“Who?”

“Forget it. You didn't get it the first time; I have no idea why I thought you might the second time.”

“Aaakk,” said Candy, pulling my hair out of pure joy and forestalling any response on my part.

“Ouch! Stop that.”

“Aakk,” she cawed unrepentantly, and let go.

I sighed and hurried on through frigid streets towards the temple. According to the directions I'd got online at the Centre, I ought to be close now... there! It was unmistakeable: set back a good fifty feet from the street, the building lay behind a large menhir in the middle of a trampled lawn. It wasn't quite the match of my local in White Forest – we had a full henge there, and the temple itself was easily the biggest artificial structure in the forest – but it was a temple, and that meant it would have copies of the Treatises.

“Is that... is that blood on that rock?” asked Halley hesitantly as we crossed the street towards it.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Of course. The ése demand sacrifice.”

She was silent for a long time, long enough for me to reach the gates in the wrought-iron fence. Here, the menhir towered over us, its presence at once menacing and comforting, reminding me, as it always did, of how insignificant we were before the ése's gaze.

“And, ah... what kind of sacrifice is it that they demand?” she asked, sounding uncertain. It was the first time I had heard her express any real unease, and it didn't suit her.

“Well... human, obviously,” I said gently. “We have to give of our most valuable, and there's nothing more valuable than people.”

Halley said nothing, just stared up at the menhir. Presumably its bloody granite flanks were taking on some new significance in her mind; I knew that people from outside Unova often had problems with this part of our religion. I would be lying if I said it didn't trouble me too, sometimes, but there was no getting around it. From the earliest times, the ése had demanded sacrifice from their worshippers, and they accepted nothing less than human life. It was so ingrained into the Treatises that to excise it from the faith would have destroyed the whole thing entirely.

“It's how we deal the death penalty,” I explained, as I walked around the menhir. “The druids are reasonable. They don't just take people. We're not savages any more.”

“That,” said Halley quietly, “has the ring of something learned by rote.”

That stung, but I wasn't sure why; it was true – it had been comprehensively drummed into my head at an early age – but that wasn't why it irritated me. Perhaps it was the fact that it seemed to so easily deflect my argument, or perhaps it was the fact that Halley of all people was condemning my views; I didn't know. I refused to show it, though; Halley was British, and she didn't understand how things worked here. I had to make allowances for that.

“Well... I know it's hard to understand if you're not Unovan,” I replied.

“Sometimes,” said Halley as if I hadn't said anything, “I can almost think this is just a slightly crazier version of England. And then sh*t like this happens.” She was still looking at the menhir. “Jesus...”

I didn't reply. I wasn't sure anything I could say could salvage the situation.

“Then again,” she said, sounding a little more normal, “at least you guys are honest about it. I mean, half the world's religions are derived from f*cking sun-worship, and there they are b*tching about original sin and sh*t. Besides, what do I care if you guys go around killing each other?”

“What?”

I hadn't been expecting that.

“Nah, all I care about is getting inside and out of the cold,” continued Halley. “Take me in, Lauren.”

“Uh... OK.”

I was genuinely uncertain whether or not she was disturbed by our human sacrifices or not, and as I walked up the short flight of steps to the door, I wondered if she was lying to smooth over her awkwardness and maintain her jaded demeanour; in the end, I gave up thinking about it. I just couldn't tell with her.

On the outside, the temple had been an unassuming stone box; on the inside, it wasn't much different. Broad, cool and dimly-lit, it had the feel of a natural cave about it; it was only slightly warmer in there than outside, and there was little furniture except for some plastic chairs stacked against one wall (used mostly when bad weather stopped services from taking place outside, I supposed) and a series of small idols arranged in shrines at far end of the room, dedicated to the four main ése and whichever of the minor ones was considered of importance in this area.

“Is it colder in here than outside?” asked Halley. “Is that even possible?”

“Ssh,” I said. “Please? You need to stay inconspicuous.”

She sighed.

Fine,” she hissed.

I walked further into the temple, looking around for anyone who looked like they might work here, but could see no one – or even any doors other than the main one. Was no one in?

“Hello?” I called uncertainly.

“Hello!” replied a voice, and I turned to see a man in white robes gliding noiselessly over the stone floor towards me. Where he'd come from I wasn't exactly sure, but given that his feet were bare I doubt I would have heard him coming anyway. He had sprigs of nine different herbs woven into his hair and a gold-bladed sickle in his belt, along with a revolver and smartphone – all the accoutrements of the modern druid. “I'm Lorcan,” he said, smiling at me. “Did you need something?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I came to read the Treatises, if that's OK. I think...” I paused, hesitant, and a shadow crossed Lorcan's face. He had seen something in my eyes, I knew.

“What is it?” he asked, suddenly concerned. “What's wrong?”

“I think I'm being chased by a demon.”

---

“...so you're not just here for lunch? Fantastic!” cried the waiter. “Oh, man, this is great. We haven't actually had a challenger for more than two weeks now.”

Striaton's Gym, owing in part to lack of custom and in part to the peculiar predilection of its leaders, operated as a restaurant as well as a battling facility; there was but one diner at that moment, but at lunchtime and during the evening the place was, Cheren and Bianca were assured, extremely difficult to get a seat at.

Cheren raised an eyebrow.

“Two weeks? Is it that bad?”

“Well, it's the off-season, sir,” the waiter said, shrugging. “And there aren't as many Trainers as there used to be. Gym staff get restless at this time of year. But... to business.” He composed himself hurriedly. “Right. The rules: challengers get a free lunch if they win; challengers can have up to three practice battles with other Gym Trainers before the challenge the Leader; these can be taken over a period of up to two days, special circumstances notwithstanding. The lunch offer is valid only for a week. No items may be used in the battle against the Leader, and no switches may take place until the current Pokémon in battle has been defeated. All challengers must choose one type as the primary focus for the team they use against the Leader. The Leader will then counter with a type advantage. The Leader will select their Pokémon so that they are always slightly stronger than the challenger's.” He paused. “Is that clear, sir?”

“Perfectly,” replied Cheren. “I'd like to take the challenge right away.”

“No practice battles?”

“No, thank you.”

“It's highly advised, sir, especially if this is your first Gym battle,” the waiter went on. “Most Trainers never manage to collect more than two or three Badges, if that. Gym Leaders are selected because they are the very best, and it's rare to win a Badge on the first try—”

“I understand,” said Cheren calmly. “But I've done my research. I have confidence.”

“Well... all right.” The waiter shook his head. “What about you, madam?”

“Eh? Me?” Bianca seemed slightly surprised at being called 'madam'. “Uh... I'd like a few practice battles first,” she confided shyly.

“How many?”

“Um... three, please,” she said.

“OK, that's fine.” The waiter stepped briskly over to the bar and consulted a little chart hung up among the bottles. “Let's see... yes, Tia, Sammy and I will be your opponents. We can start right away, or you can watch your friend against the Leader first.”

“Oh! I want to see Cheren battle first,” cried Bianca. “That's going to be so cool.”

The waiter smiled.

“As you wish, madam,” he said. “Right. If you could both come this way...?”

He led them through the main dining-room, past the curious gaze of the lone diner, and stopped before a great pair of red curtains at the back of the restaurant; there, he coughed pointedly, and there was a sound of footsteps hurrying around on wooden boards beyond.

“OK, everyone in place?” Cheren heard someone whisper. “All right. Ready!”

The curtains parted with a dramatic fwoosh, and a multiplicity of dazzling lights lit up the stage beyond as if this were a Poison Jam concert; through the plumes of dry ice smoke and the glare of spotlights, Cheren could just about make out three tall, shadowy figures striking noble (and faintly ridiculous) poses onstage.

“Welcome!” boomed a magnified voice.

“To the Striaton City Gym!” finished another.

“Challenger, what type underpins your team?” added a third.

Cheren thought for a moment. Justine was by far the weaker of the pair, which meant most of his team's strength came from Lelouch.

“Grass,” he replied.

“In that case...”

“I shall be your opponent!”

The smoke cleared abruptly, sweeping two of the figures away with it and leaving a striking young man standing in the centre of the stage, arms akimbo and hair apparently aflame. He strode forwards, looked directly into Cheren's eyes and said:

“My name is Chili—”

That's implausible, thought Cheren, but said nothing.

“—and I specialise in Fire-types,” he finished. “Step up here, then! I'm ready if you are.”

Cheren smiled. This was it. He was actually walking up the steps into a Leader's arena, ready to fight for his first Badge. It was actually happening.

Thunor's ire, it was actually happening.

His smile broadened, and he crested the stairway, walking out onto the stage. Chili – whose dyed-red hair seemed to flicker as if it actually were on fire – shook his hand and grinned.

“This your first time?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Always one to remember.” He nodded. “OK, how many and how strong?”

“Pokémon?”

“Yes.

“Two. On the General Scale... somewhere just above Grade One and just below it. 1.34 and 0.92 to be precise, if I remember correctly.”

The General Scale was a ten-rank system designed to enable (more or less) precise cross-species rankings of power for just this kind of situation; Pokémon were marked as being at, above or below any one of ten levels of power for easy comparison. The calculations necessary to work out a General Scale ranking were a little tricky, but the Pokédex app came with a function that worked out the algorithms automatically, and Cheren had made sure to check it beforehand.

“All right, then,” said Chili, reaching into his pockets. “1.5s it is. Max?”

“Yeah?” replied the waiter, who was lingering with Bianca down on the main floor.

“Do the honours.”

“Take up your positions!”

Cheren and Chili walked away from each other, almost to opposite ends of the stage, then turned to face one another.

“Ready...!”

Chili and his brothers were known to have a fondness for the elemental monkeys, Cheren knew; he could expect a Pansear. But would he send it out first or second?

“Three...!”

“Good luck!” cried Bianca, but Cheren barely heard her. His mind was racing, wheels turning and pistons moving smooth as ice on ice within his head. Lead with Justine? He hadn't tested her strength too extensively yet, but her speed, devotion and intellect were considerable. She might prove more adaptable than Lelouch, who, being a mixture of reptile and plant, was not exactly overendowed with brains.

“Two...!”

Chili's grin widened further still. What was he thinking, Cheren wondered, staring into his eyes. What was his battle plan...?

“One...!”

Definitely lead with Justine. From what he'd read, Chili was hot-tempered and unpredictable, just like the element he wielded, and might surprise him with an unconventional lead. Growl if a powerhouse, Scratch if a wall...

“Go!”

Cheren hadn't expected himself to move that fast. His arm was up and out almost before Max had finished speaking, and in a moment there were twin bursts of light in front of him—

—and there she was, Justine, tail lashing and ears laid flat against her skull, hissing wildly at the unsettling creature before her. It rocked back and forth, apparently without limbs, face frozen as if carved in wood.

Oh yes, Cheren thought. Definitely unconventional.

Darumaka. Inactive right now, but give it a chance to stoke its internal flames and it would turn from placid wobbly toy to rabid monkey in less time than it took to blink.

“Interesting,” he said aloud, and Chili grinned at him.

“Only someone who really knows their stuff would say that faced with this little guy,” he replied. “Come on! Let's do this!”

“Of course,” agreed Cheren, and raised a hand to bark out an order, wholly unaware of the dark, nebulous presence crouched in the rafters above, flexing its essence, waiting for its moment.

Teiresias was ready.

And this time it would not fail.
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  #38    
Old February 16th, 2013, 03:34 PM
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Daydream
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Join Date: Aug 2009
Location: That thar Kingdom. The United one.
Age: 20
Gender: Male
Nature: Quirky
...But I want more, where is it?

I'm really enjoying this so far. I like your original characters (especially the way you highlight the marked differences between Lauren/Jared) and the way you put your own twist on existing ones (I'm already intrigued at what we've seen of Ghetsis so far). Not only that, you have a wicked sense of humour and I think you handle well the balance between action and more stilled moments.

I can't wait for more (and am in fact, avidly awaiting it).
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  #39    
Old February 17th, 2013, 04:40 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Quote:
Originally Posted by Daydream View Post
...But I want more, where is it?
It's coming soon, I promise. I hope.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Daydream View Post
I'm really enjoying this so far. I like your original characters (especially the way you highlight the marked differences between Lauren/Jared) and the way you put your own twist on existing ones (I'm already intrigued at what we've seen of Ghetsis so far). Not only that, you have a wicked sense of humour and I think you handle well the balance between action and more stilled moments.
Thanks! It's nice of you to stop by and say so. There's plenty more of our green-haired friend coming up in the next chapter, as it happens; you can't make a proclamation like: 'I stand for the release of all Pokémon' and not attract a certain amount of media attention.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Daydream View Post
I can't wait for more (and am in fact, avidly awaiting it).
It should be along soon. I have a semi-weekly schedule - meaning that I update roughly each weekend - but I've been thrown out of the rhythm a bit by being ill the week before last and posting late. Nevertheless, I'll do my best to get back on track and get the next chapter up soon.

I hope you continue to enjoy the story!

F.A.B.
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  #40    
Old February 24th, 2013, 11:41 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Eleven: Goodnight Demonslayer

Most people would be somewhat discouraged by the revelation that their best friend was under the command of a powerful demon.

Then again, most people don't kill monsters for a living.

Niamh Harper immediately set upon a course of action. The fiend was probably impervious to bullets, her preferred method of removing monstrosities from the realm of the living, but she'd always been open to alternatives – like the time she had destroyed a sentient blob of alloyed titanium by kicking it into the furnace of a steelworks. (She hadn't questioned how the company had managed to bring the damn thing to life. Birthing monsters was more or less exactly the opposite of her job description.) In this case, the alternative was probably druidic magic. After all, if demons were apparently real and roaming the streets of Striaton, she was willing to believe that at least some of the forces the druids claimed existed were real.

Niamh stroked her chin. She needed information, that was the most important thing. She had to be sure this thing was what it seemed to be, and if it was, she needed to know how to kill it. The problem was, she had no idea what its name was, or even if it had one. She also had certain reservations about spying on it too much; she had no doubt that it had ways of perceiving hidden watchers, and that if it detected her nearby more than once it would undoubtedly take action against her before she was ready for it.

She'd had to retreat before she heard all the details of what was going on and where – the thing had come too close for comfort – but she still had two little bits of information to go on: a pair of names, and a place.

White and Halley, and the Mandelmort Temple.

All she had to do was connect the dots.

--

“Stay calm, Justine, and Stratch. Aim for the left flank.”

The Purrloin darted forwards, far faster than the chunky Darumaka, and laid open its side with a deft swipe of her claws; as Cheren had expected, the force of the blow set the little Fire-type spinning on its axis, and it whirled helplessly for a good thirty seconds before it managed to free its stubby limbs from its trammelling fur and plant them on the floor. Even then, it seemed a bit the worse for wear, dropping to all fours and staggering dizzily off to one side.

Justine looked, if such a word could be applied to a Purrloin, gleeful. Chili just looked disconcerted.

“Well, now,” he began, but Cheren wasn't about to let him buy time for his Darumaka to recover. If it regained its senses, it would have its fires up in a minute or two – and at full strength, neither Lelouch nor Justine would stand a chance against it.

“Keep it up,” he called. “Knock it down.”

Justine needed no encouragement; to her mind, unaware of the little monkey's potential power, this bizarre creature was the best toy she'd encountered in ages. A key selling point, she felt, was the obvious discomfort it felt at being hit. Perhaps the Glasses Man would buy her one, she mused as she lashed out at the Darumaka with the viciously recurved hook on her tail, catching it under the chin and drawing blood; the force was too much for it to take, and it lost its balance. Fur hit floorboards and a little dribble of blood trickled across the stage.

“Yeaaaahh!” shrieked Bianca happily. “Go Cheren!”

“One!” Max began counting. “Two!”

Justine, her foe floored, went into a kind of ecstatic frenzy; she loosed a volley of Scratches at the downed Darumaka so fast they might almost have been Fury Swipes.

“Three! Four!”

“You're gonna win!”

It was nice of Bianca to say so, Cheren thought, but the Darumaka was a hardened fighter and Justine didn't know how to pace herself in pitched battle. While the former was a little groggy, he could sense that his advantage was close to slipping away—

The Darumaka's eyes lit up, suddenly clear of all dizziness.

“Justine, get—”

Its broad skull smashed hard into Justine's jaw and knocked her a foot off the floor; as a cat, she twisted in midair and landed on her feet, but the blow had taken its toll. Her paws didn't seem to be able to get any purchase on the boards, and her ears were flat against her skull; she glanced back at Cheren desperately, and he winced as he saw the blood on her teeth, and the broken fang.

“—back,” he finished, too late.

Another crushing blow, and the Darumaka's jaws were aflame as it snapped them shut on her leg; Justine yowled wildly, tearing herself free and scrabbling backwards, covering her retreat with a lash of her tail-hook. The monkey gave no quarter: its internal fires blazing, it was incapable of reason, incapable of listening to Chili, incapable of doing anything but rampaging wildly until either it burned down or everything around it was a smoking ruin. The Gym Leader had brought out the Pokémon equivalent of a Viking berserker – and, Cheren realised, he had no way of countering it.

“Get out of the way!” he cried, a note of desperation in his voice. “Just stay back!”

Justine hissed crossly; was the Glasses Man blind? What exactly did he think she was doing, if not trying to avoid the insane beast currently trying to turn her face into pulpy mush? Holding one foreleg close to her chest, she limped as hard as she could back three steps as the Darumaka bodily flung itself onto the floor where she had been a moment ago. It would take a moment to get up, she thought, she could get away – but no, the damn thing kept coming, rolling at her over and over like a beast possessed. Every step she took wrenched at her wounds with iron tongues, and the Darumaka was getting closer—

Cheren stared, thinking furiously. There had to be something he could do other than just try to weather the storm. There had to be. The Darumaka was using its moves blindly, without reason; surely he could outthink it?

Chili was grinning broadly.

“Harder than you thought, isn't it?” he called. “Come on! The way you set him spinning, you're a smart guy. Prove to me I'm right!”

That was a clue, thought Cheren, watching Justine try and fail to dodge another Fire Fang and getting her tail burnt. There was a way...

It clicked.

“To the left,” he said. “Get over to the left!”

Justine might not see where the Glasses Man was going with this, but his Staggering Presence of Mind had saved her from a Situation of Certain Death, and so she obeyed without hesitation, flinging herself to the left, hitting the ground and rolling back to her feet. The Darumaka flung itself after her, the fires streaming from its eyes and mouth leaving a bright after-image on her eyes.

Chili blinked.

“Hey, are you doing what I think you're doing?”

“Yes,” replied Cheren. “Absolutely.”

The Darumaka attempted another Headbutt and clipped Justine's wounded tail; she hissed and moved further to the left, closer to Bianca and Max – who were beginning to look a little concerned at the proximity of the flaming ape.

“Hey,” said Chili. “Hey. No, don't— Weeble! Get back here!”

It was too late: in the grip of its berserker fury, the Darumaka could neither hear nor think. Eyes locked on Justine, it leaped for her again in another crushing full-body Headbutt—

—and she darted lithely aside as it flew clean off the edge of the stage, arcing gracefully down to impact face-first on the carpeted floor.

There was silence for a moment.

“One,” counted Max hesitantly. “Two—”

“Forget it, Max,” sighed Chili. “He's not getting up from that one. Weeble, return!”

The Darumaka's body vanished in a pulse of light, and Chili grinned.

“You're good,” he told Cheren. “Best we've had in... well, in a long time. But don't get cocky. This one listens to my orders.”

“Yeaaaahhh!” cried Bianca happily. “Chereeeen!”

This would be the Pansear, Cheren thought, tuning her out for clarity of thought. Justine had done enough; she wouldn't last much longer, and she deserved a rest now. It would have to be down to Lelouch.

“We'll see,” he said. “Can I concede my Purrloin? I want to switch.”

“Sure,” replied Chili. “No sending her back out, though. If you recall her, she's counted as KO'ed. Official League battle rules.”

“Fine by me.”

Justine vanished and the Snivy took her place. Chili threw down his ball, there was a bright, bright light—

—and the restaurant plunged into absolute, unbroken darkness.

---

“I see.” Lorcan nodded slowly. “I see.” He sighed. “I'd love to help. I really would. But something like that sounds beyond my capabilities. You can try the archives here if you like, but I know them pretty well and I don't think that this... Teiresias is anywhere in there. From what you describe, that would be in the Glasya-Labolas.”

I cocked my head on one side.

“What's that?” I asked.

“One of the classified Treatises,” he replied. “It's a comprehensive list of all known demons – and the methods for summoning them. Access is restricted, as you can imagine. Most of us aren't allowed to read it.”

I shivered. Did that mean Harmonia had people inside the Gorsedd? High-ranking people, as well, to be able to deliver the means to summon Teiresias to him. How far did his operation extend?

“I know,” said Lorcan sympathetically, seeing my discomfort and misinterpreting it. “It's a nasty piece of work. Real, you know. I've seen...” He paused. “They summon a weak one as part of our training,” he added confidingly. “I wouldn't say, ordinarily, but since you've seen... something worse... I don't think it'll do any harm. But they call up a thing named Ath, to teach us how to banish it.”

“Could you banish Teiresias, then?” I asked eagerly. “If you know how—?”

He held up a hand for silence.

“Sorry, no,” he replied, shaking his head. “Yours is definitely one of the stronger ones, and those that are too strong for the basic banishing usually require specific methods – methods I'm far too low-ranking to know anything about.”

“I see,” I said slowly. “Oh... OK, then.”

I must have looked particularly sad just then, because a look of quite staggering guilt crossed his face.

“Sorry to disappoint,” he said, brow creasing with concern. “Um... Look, I could send a message across to Nacrene to expect you. They have a copy of the Glasya-Labolas there.”

“Oh, could you? Thank you!” I said fervently. “I'd really appreciate it.”

He smiled.

“It's OK, it's the least I can do. But...” His smile faded. “You know, there's still no guarantee they'll let you read it just because you claim to have been attacked by a demon. They'll probably ask you to supply proof.”

“Oh.” Damn, I didn't have anything I could reasonably describe as proof. “What... what kind of proof could I give?”

Lorcan considered this.

“They'll accept a mind-reading,” he said. “That is, if you're OK with that.”

I hesitated. I'd never had a mind-reading before, and I wasn't sure I wanted to start now. It was the most invasive procedure possible, but it did ascertain the truth – or what the subject believed to be the truth – with perfect accuracy, provided the Psychic-type involved was competent.

“They have professional standards,” Lorcan said quickly. “I mean, they won't poke around where they don't have to. They'll just look for the demon there and leave.”

“I guess I have no choice,” I replied slowly. “Hmm...”

He bit his lip.

“Look,” he said, “you don't have to decide anything right now. If you really think this thing is after you, go to Nacrene and prove it to them.” He shrugged. “Maybe they won't even ask for a mind-reading. You never know.”

It wasn't true and we both knew it. He was lying to make me feel better, I could tell – though I wasn't sure why.

“OK,” I said. “I think I'll be heading over there, then.” I smiled. “Thank you for your time,” I said. “You've been really helpful.”

He smiled.

“Not at all,” he said. “It's my job.”

I said goodbye and left, thinking hard. It seemed like this wasn't going to be easy – but then, I hadn't thought it would be.

“Well, Lauren,” cackled Halley quietly as I reached the door. “I didn't know you had it in you.”

“What?”

“That guy. Wasn't it obvious? He was drooling over you pretty much the whole time.”

I paused, halfway through the doorway.

What?”

Halley snorted.

“Oh, come on. You must have noticed. Holy man or not, he hungered for your tits—”

“That's enough,” I said sharply, feeling my cheeks turn red. “Stop it. Now.”

She giggled.

“Christ, this is hilarious.”

“Halley!”

“White.”

“Smythe?”

I froze, halfway round the menhir, and looked up.

And Portland Smythe looked back.

---

“What the f*ck was that?”

“Cheren!”

“The hell?”

“Teiresias,” breathed Cheren, whirling on the spot and staring hard into the surrounding blackness, trying hard to see anything. “It has to be...”

It had been here a while, he could tell. All morning, it must have been waiting, charging its sinister power; it hadn't been able to do anything like this before. How had it known they were here? While it was obvious that Trainers would visit the Gym eventually, it could not have known what time... Had it been following them? Or had it just waited here since its arrival in Striaton?

“Cease moving,” sighed an ancient voice, like wind issuing from an open crypt. “It tires me so.”

There was a sound of splintering wood, and iron-hard hands gripped Cheren's ankles.

He almost cried out, but he held it back. This was not a time to panic. Panic was exactly what Teiresias wanted; its dark powers seemed to wax with the fear in its prey's mind.

Bianca screamed, and Cheren winced. That wasn't helping anything.

“What is this? Who are you?” yelled Chili.

“I have no interest in you,” said Teiresias. Its voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere; where was it, wondered Cheren. If he could see where it was, perhaps he could hit it – force it to move and break its concentration. “You may choose between silence and death.”

Chili made no reply.

“Wise man,” whispered Teiresias. It sounded bigger than before, thought Cheren uneasily; bigger and more ethereal. Had it taken a new form again? And if so, what form could produce a sound like that?

“Chereeen! It's Teiresias!”

“I know,” called Cheren. “It's kind of obvious.”

“You two,” said Teiresias. “You are the ones who travel with White. You are my hostages.”

It made sense. Smythe must have somehow located Lauren, Cheren thought; he would probably tell her to call them, and that would confirm that they were in trouble – and knowing Lauren, there was absolutely no way she would abandon them to save herself.

Which meant that Harmonia got what he wanted.

And Cheren had a feeling that that could only be a very, very bad thing indeed.

“I see,” he said aloud, playing for time as he thought. “What do you want us to do?”

“Wait,” replied Teiresias. “I want you to wait. Soon enough we will know whether you are to live, or to die. Until then, you wait.”

Something growled near the back of the stage, and the darkness seemed to quiver before Cheren's eyes.

“You two,” said Teiresias “The green- and blue-haired humans. Recall your apes, or I will unmake them.”

That must be Cress and Cilan, thought Cheren.

“What are you?” asked one – he didn't know which – in a low voice.

“Recall your apes, or I will unmake them,” repeated Teiresias, and this time its voice contained a hint of eldritch realms beyond all mortal ken; of secrets unknown and unknowable; of whispers of strange beings that stalked the world just outside the sphere of possible imagination.

“Get back,” the two men hissed, and with a soft thumping the unseen Pokémon retreated. There could have been no other outcome. Teiresias' voice reached into your chest and jarred your heart from its perch amidst your ribs.

“Good. Now, wait.”

And they stood in the dark, in the silence, and waited for ése-knew-what.

---

“Your friends are being held captive by Teiresias,” Smythe told me without preamble. “Come with me, or it will...” He trailed off, evidently uncomfortable with what he was about to say. “Well,” he finished lamely. “You can guess.”

I could. And the very thought sent a chill shivering through my body.

“OK,” I said immediately, stepping forward, “I'll—”

“Wait,” interrupted Halley perceptively. “You'll appreciate, Smythe, that I trust you about as far as I can f*cking throw you. So. Mind if you tell me why I should believe you instead of trying to bite your throat out?”

I paused. I hadn't thought of that. Could Smythe be lying? I wasn't sure. I thought he was a good man, but he obviously had no choice in this matter. I didn't know what he was capable of under threat from his superiors.

“Caaark,” cawed Candy, lowering her head and eyeing Smythe suspiciously. Could she sense he was lying? Or did she just not like him? I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case; her experience of him hadn't exactly been calculated to please.

“Call them,” he replied. “Call them and find out for yourself.” He hesitated. “And control that bird, please.”

That settled it, in my mind. If he was going to let me phone them, it must be true.

“Go on, then,” said Halley. “Test his word.”

I took my phone out and pressed the unlock button – but the screen stayed dark.

With a sudden sinking feeling, I remembered Cordelia's warning that my parents were going to call soon. That had been several days ago, and with the fear of Teiresias on me I'd forgotten all about it; this was why they hadn't contacted me. My phone had been dead for some time.

“Uh... no battery,” I said weakly. “Sorry.”

Smythe stared, and a faint look of horror entered his eyes.

What? You're kidding. You're f*cking kidding me—”

“No, I'm not!” I protested, holding out my mobile. “Look! Blank screen.”

Smythe bit his lip with such violence that a thin trickle of blood ran down his chin.

Sh*t and hellfire,” he spat, staring at the ground. “Teiresias is going to kill them.”

“What?”

“The phone call!” he cried, looking up at me. “The f*cking phone call! That was the signal to Teiresias that you were giving in! If we can't contact them, it'll assume you're resisting and it'll kill them!”

“What? No – no, it can't—”

“Oh yes, it can,” replied Smythe grimly. “Where are your friends?”

“At the Gym,” I answered frantically. “I'm not sure where that is—”

“Forty-five minutes from here,” he said. “Christ. I don't know if we can make it in time—”

“Portland!” called an unfamiliar voice. “We need to talk!”

He turned and I glanced past him; a woman was crossing the road beyond, approaching us with a steely sort of determination in her eyes.

Niamh?” asked Smythe in astonishment.

“OK, this situation is rapidly getting way too complicated for me to follow properly,” said Halley. “Who's this b*tch?”

“There's no time right now,” Smythe told the newcomer – Niamh – urgently. “There's terrible danger—”

“I know, that's the point,” replied Niamh. “We have to talk about it.”

She gave him a serious look with piercing green eyes.

“We have to talk about the demon.”

---

It had been easier than she thought.

All Niamh had had to do was look up where the Temple was, go there and wait in the café across the street, watching the gates; soon enough, a short, slim girl with the white-blonde hair usually only found on very young children passed through them and entered the building beyond. Perhaps it was her hair, but Niamh had a feeling that this was the 'White' the demon had mentioned earlier in the hotel room – and shortly afterwards, her suspicions were confirmed when Portland Smythe turned up to confront her. She had rushed across the street, and there they were: Smythe and White, and – she now saw – a large brindled cat with curiously intelligent eyes.

“How do you know?” asked Smythe, eyes wide. He had gone very pale, Niamh noted; he looked like he might faint at any moment. “How do you know?”

“I followed you,” she answered. “I followed you, and—” She blinked. Was that the Archen on White's shoulder? Was all of this tangled up together? Forget it, she thought – there'll be time to deal with that later. Portland comes first.

“Christ,” sighed Smythe. “I tried to ward you off, Niamh. I tried...” He shook his head violently. “They'll come after me now. You too. F*ck!” He kicked the fence angrily and looked like he regretted it.

“What's this?” asked White, looking concerned.

“Nothing,” growled Smythe without looking at her. “I – we – sh*t, I have no idea what to do.”

All the fight went out of him in an instant; he sagged visibly, a puppet with slashed strings, and Niamh stepped forwards to grab him before he fell.

“Whatever it is, I can help,” she said earnestly. “Demons. Politics. Whatever. We've dealt with worse before.”

Smythe looked at her hopelessly.

“No, we haven't,” he replied, and something in his voice told Niamh that he was right.

“Well,” she said, faltering slightly, “there's a first time for everything, right?”

He almost smiled.

“I guess so,” he answered, straightening slowly. “I guess so... But right now, we have a more urgent problem. Teiresias – the demon – is going to kill at least two people and possibly more if we don't get a message to the Gym in the next few minutes.”

“Can we call the Gym?” asked Niamh. She didn't need an explanation; Smythe had told her this needed to happen, and that was enough to convince her. “Would that work?”

He shook his head.

“No one will be able to answer the landline,” he said ominously. “And individual Gym Trainers are ex-directory.”

“OK,” said Niamh slowly, thinking hard, “what next?”

“We have to get there in person,” replied Smythe simply. “We have to get there and tell it that I've apprehended these two and there's no need for anyone to die.”

“Hey, I haven't exactly agreed to be apprehended yet,” snapped the cat. “I—”

“Halley!” cried White. “Now isn't the time!”

Niamh stared.

“Did that cat just—”

The cat chuckled.

“I love the look on people's faces when I do that.”

“Yes, she did,” said Smythe. “Forget it for now. We have to get to the Gym!”

Niamh nodded, and blanked out her confusion with practised ease; it was a little trick of mental self-control she'd picked up from a heretical monk in a cave in Brittany.

“Right,” she said, turning on the spot. “Transport.”

She scanned the street with expert eyes and determined which of the five parked cars was the fastest; this she then rejected, on the grounds that certain signs of damage around the left rear wheel probably indicated an internal issue that would slow them down after the first ten minutes, and chose the second car instead.

“That one,” she said, pointing. “Follow me.”

There were people watching, but Niamh couldn't very well afford to take her time right now; she extracted a pair of suspicious-looking tools from her pocket and in about thirty seconds had the car hotwired and ready to run.

“This is illegal,” said White hesitantly, “and this car belongs to someone—”

“Excuse her,” interrupted the cat. “What Lauren means is that that was really f*cking cool. Drive on, glorious criminal.”

Everyone piled in, and Niamh did.

At tremendous speed.

---

“What are we waiting for?” asked Cheren of the darkness.

“Deliverance,” it replied. Then, after some reflection: “Or treachery.”

“Do you really have to be that ominous all the time?”

Teiresias made no reply, and Cheren wondered if he'd actually managed to insult it. If so, that was quite an achievement; it displayed little sign of actually having feelings.

“Cheren, are you sure you should be insulting Teiresias?” asked Bianca warily.

“I have a plan,” he announced.

“No, you don't,” Teiresias told him. “I can see it. You are lost, and confused, and afraid.”

Half right, thought Cheren. He was all of those things, but he was still thinking. Something Teiresias had said had struck him oddly – something about recalling the monkeys – something about that was useful in some way—

Aha!

“Lelouch, return,” said Cheren, and there was a sudden bright flash of light as the Snivy was sucked back into his ball; for the briefest instant, Cheren saw a series of coiling forms silhouetted against the rafters, and then it was gone, nothing but an after-image burning on his retina.

“What was that?” hissed Teiresias. “What did you do?”

“I just recalled my Snivy,” Cheren replied. “Nothing wrong with that, is there?”

“Put it back,” the fiend ordered. “You are a trickster, and I do not trust you.”

Cheren smiled inwardly. He hadn't yet figured out a way to get Lelouch back out, but Teiresias had done the work for him.

“All right,” he said. “Whatever you say.”

Another flash of light, and Cheren briefly glimpsed the coiling shapes again, trailing from a dark blot on the ceiling; Teiresias hadn't moved, it seemed.

Excellent, he thought. Now he knew where it was:

Cheren reached into his pocket and pulled out the first thing he found – a Potion, from the feel of it.

Let's see how good your aim is, he thought to himself, and raised his arm. He had been careful not to move his head since the dark closed in again, and the after-image that still lingered was, he was reasonably certain, close enough to reality for him to aim by.

One... two... three... Throw.

“What are you—?” began Teiresias, but it never finished. There was a sound of breaking glass and a curiously feline yowl; then several unseen things hit the floor in a quick succession of dry thumps, followed by the tinkle of falling glass.

Silence.

“What was that?” asked Bianca timidly.

“A fool's attempt to dislodge me,” replied Teiresias, a note of dark exultation in its terrible voice. “You do yourself a disservice, boy. This body may be shredded, but you must have noticed that bodies are plentiful here.”

A chill ran down Cheren's spine.

The voice had not come from the rafters.

It was different, too – more human than before, as if the monster had shed some of its more otherworldly qualities. Not just that, but it sounded familiar, like something he had heard before – something that belonged in the regular waking world, not whatever nightmare realm Teiresias had sprung from.

Cheren froze.

“You didn't...?”

“A body does not necessarily have to be dead to be possessed,” Teiresias told him. “I trust there will be no killing this one.”

As it spoke, the echo and hiss of its voice dwindled and grew faint, and it sounded more and more familiar, until by the time it concluded there could be no mistake.

It was the voice of Gym Leader Chili.
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  #41    
Old March 3rd, 2013, 03:03 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Interlude: 15

The old Unovan alphabet has 29 glyphs, runic devices borrowed half from the north and half from the south. Fourteen stand for the heroes of old (Hrafnín, Thuri, Sachen the Boar, the Twin Heroes, and so on) and fourteen for the villains (Garendel, Mowain, Apnudd). Household names in this nation, where everyone marches backwards into their future, always facing into the past, reciting the legends and paying the druids.

There is one rune that stands alone. ᚾ. Naudri. It stands for nothing. It falls in the centre of the alphabet, to keep apart the forces of good and evil and prevent the letters from falling to war.

In Roman script, it is written N.

My name, and my destiny.



Chapter Twelve: Of Monsters and Men

Smythe's estimate that it took forty-five minutes to drive to the Gym from the Mandelmort Temple had been based on the assumption, I think, that the driver obeyed the usual rules of driving – stopping for red lights, staying reasonably near the speed limits, and not driving through buildings.

Niamh, however, seemed to have no such scruples.

Shiiiiiiiit!” shrieked Smythe, as the car shattered a set of glass doors and sped through the lobby of an office block. “You still drive like a f*cking lunatic!”

“You drive like my grandmother,” she snorted, expertly weaving between two stunned cubicle workers and racing out of the other entrance. “It's all relative.”

“Did I mention I love this woman?” asked Halley, bouncing all over my lap. “This is so much f— fire-eater's birthday fun!”

I tried to mumble some kind of thanks for not swearing, but didn't manage to get more than a word or two out before I had to close my mouth against the rising vomit.

“Blublergh,” I ended up saying.

Halley gave me a look.

“You don't do rollercoasters, do you?”

I shook my head mutely and hung on tight as the car careened around a corner and shot into a multi-storey car park. To a fanfare of horns, we zoomed up a ramp, round a bend and out the exit, splintering the wooden barrier arm and erupting into a busy street in a burst of panic and screeching brakes.

Candy screeched into my ear so loudly it hurt, and I quickly wrapped her in my jacket. It had the desired effect, and within thirty seconds she was sound asleep. I only wished I could escape the nightmarish ride so easily.

“I feel like Steve McQueen in Bullitt,” sang out Halley with glee. “Christ, Lauren, how're you not loving this?”

“Yulp,” I said, trying not to bite my tongue.

“Concise, but hardly erudite,” she mused. “Might want to work on your debating skills, I think.”

She seemed to be in an unusually good mood; I put it down to either the high speed or my discomfort. At least she was happy, I thought.

Niamh took us over the central island of a roundabout and between two lorries with less than an inch to spare on either side; one of them shifted slightly and we lost a wing mirror.

“Well, we didn't need that anyway,” muttered Niamh in answer to Smythe's glare. “Look, Port, if you want to drive...”

“No no,” he said, “you keep going. You're – um – the expert, after all.”

Niamh grinned wolfishly, and I saw her teeth flash in the rear-view mirror.

“That's right,” she said. “Leave the music to the musician and the driving to the driver.”

A thin, wailing siren came to our ears, and Niamh sighed.

“Really? They want to try this?”

“Cops spoil everything,” sighed Halley.

“Couldn't agree more,” she replied. “I mean, their hearts are in the right place but they just get in the way.”

“Shouldn't we stop for them?” I suggested diffidently, as we mounted the pavement to avoid a red light. I received three incredulous stares in response.

“If we stop, Teiresias kills your friends,” replied Smythe. “We don't stop for anything.”

“But – but – OK,” I said, shutting up fast before I let any vomit out.

“That's right,” replied Halley. “Out of interest, how do you learn to drive like this?”

“There's a course,” replied Niamh thoughtfully. “'Stunt Driving for the Modern Mobile Criminal'.”

“Where do they teach it?”

“Munich.” She paused. “How can you even drive a car?”

“Good question,” admitted Halley. “Let's just say I'm working on it.”

Niamh dodged a pedestrian with preternatural ease and drove through a wooden fence between two houses; after a blurry ride through someone's garden, we re-emerged through a chain-link one in a car park, narrowly avoiding a Mini.

The police sirens seemed very, very distant.

“I think we've lost them,” said Niamh calmly. “Now hold on.”

“What?” I asked, suddenly even more afraid. “Why—?”

She slammed her foot down on the brakes, and the headrest in front of me rose up to meet my face with awful speed; dazed, I slumped back into my seat and saw that we had stopped exactly one inch short of a solid brick wall.

“OK,” said Niamh, unfazed. “Here we are. The Gym.”

I blinked and looked over her shoulder at the clock on the dashboard.

We had made the journey in just seventeen minutes.

---

There was a long and terrible silence.

“Chili...?” said someone uncertainly – Cress or Cilan, Cheren thought. “Chili, is that...?”

“He is not dead,” replied Teiresias in its stolen voice. “He merely sleeps.” It paused ominously. “For now.”

Footsteps. The thing that had been Chili was coming closer, and then all at once ice-cold fingers were cupping Cheren's chin, forcing his head up so that unseen eyes could stare into his.

“I can almost see with this one,” murmured Teiresias. “Ah... the living.” It sounded almost wistful. “There will come a time when all my hosts have a pulse.”

“Did you come over here to talk to yourself or to me?” asked Cheren, as coolly as he could. As much to his surprise as that of anyone else, his voice came out hard and calm, without a trace of concern.

“I will not be drawn into conversation,” replied Teiresias. “Let my reasons remain my own, if you wish this man to retain his soul when I leave his flesh.”

“You should probably stop asking questions, Cheren,” called Bianca, voice trembling. “I think he's going to need his soul later.”

“You're probably right,” agreed Cheren. “Only I doubt you will kill him, or damage him in any way. That would be too high-profile.”

“I do not fear the scrutiny of men—”

“No, but I expect the Party does.”

Teiresias was silent, and Cheren was certain that he'd hit home with that one.

“I am outside their command,” it replied eventually, voice like frostbite. “I do as I please. If it pleased me to kill this man, then I would.”

“All right, then,” said Cheren, a sudden bold plan leaping into his head. “What if I kill him? What then?”

Teiresias made a strange coughing noise, like the last breaths of a plague victim. It took Cheren a moment to realise that it was laughing.

“You? Kill him? I sincerely doubt you could kill anyone.”

“Lelouch,” said Cheren, heart pounding so hard it felt like it might burst. “To his throat.”

Presumably Teiresias had only blotted out visible light, not infrared, and so the Snivy slithered briskly up to Chili's neck without giving any sign of getting lost on the way; he settled on his shoulders like a scarf, ready to contract his fibrous body as soon as the word was given.

Teiresias paused.

“You would not,” it repeated. “This is a bluff. You mean to make me waste time, so that you can figure out a means of escape before I kill you – as I will now,” it added hungrily, “given that the command to spare you has not been given.”

“I'll take that body down with me,” replied Cheren coolly.

Either Cress or Cilan made some move to protest, but their voices were cut off abruptly; Cheren imagined more of Teiresias' invisible hands clamping across their mouths, or choking their throats, and shivered inwardly.

“I can see your mind, you know,” crooned the fiend. “I can see your thoughts, your dreams, your plans... You cannot kill him.”

Is that so?

Cheren filled his mind with thoughts of tightening coils, of Chili pulling at Lelouch and then going limp, gently falling to the floor; of Teiresias' ash-grey dust pouring from his body as the life ebbed from it.

“You want to trick me,” said Teiresias insistently. “You will not kill this man.”

“I will do anything to succeed,” Cheren told it, and a strange detached horror rose in him at the the conviction in his voice: it genuinely sounded like it stemmed from truth.

“You will not...” Teiresias seemed less sure of itself now. “You would not!”

“I would,” replied Cheren, and his words seemed to fall like lead in the thick air. There was a decisive weight to them; no one could as sensitive to emotion as the demon could doubt their veracity.

To Cheren's surprise, it laughed again.

“In my youth, I left men like you alive,” Teiresias said – and now there was a strangely dreamy note in its voice. “You grew to become the leaders and the generals, the scholars and the high priests... Where you went, you brought death and battle, or discovered secrets that should have remained hidden, or sought powers beyond your ability to command. You birthed many of my kind with your ways.” Its voice licked the air, tasting it, drifting lazily on a rich stream of reverie. Despite its sinister timbre, it was almost hypnotic; Cheren found himself hanging on the monster's every word. “But in this time... we are born no more, save by our own hands.” Teiresias sighed, and everyone present felt as if a door to some unknown paradise had abruptly slammed shut. “You have done well to distract me so long,” it admitted. “But I have a task to fulfil.”

And all at once there was a great rushing of air, and something unseen began to howl beneath the floorboards, hammering on the wood with massive fists, and Teiresias' voice rose to a strange, high whistle that seemed only to enrage the unseen beast, and now the boards were breaking and Cheren knew that it had all been for nothing, that in a minute the thing Teiresias had called would be upon them and sweeping them into the darkest nights of Córmi's wings—

—and the doors to the Gym burst open, admitting a radiant burst of light, and someone was shouting:

“Stop! I got them, I got them! Stop!

The howling ceased, and the hammering with it. The darkness shrank in on itself and collapsed into nothing, and all at once everything was as it had been before Teiresias had attacked – save for the clutching of those hideous hands, the thought of which made Cheren studiously avoid looking down.

Chili was staring at the doors, and he looked far more normal than Cheren had expected; evidently demonic possession had fewer symptoms than he had thought. The only hint that Teiresias was still within him was the curious way that the colours of his eyes seemed to bleed out into the surrounding air.

“Why did you not call?” it asked, in that dread voice, and Cheren shivered to see that though Chili's mouth opened to speak, it did not move until a full second after the words had left it.

“White's phone ran out of battery,” replied Smythe, making his way further into the Gym. Now Cheren could see Lauren and Halley behind him, as well as a woman in her late thirties with the pale green hair of a true Unovan. “We came as quick as we could.”

“Who is she?” asked Teiresias. A wave of force accompanied its pointing finger, and ruffled the hair of the group by the doors. It struck the strange woman hardest of all, and forced her back a step. “I noticed her at the hotel. She watches at keyholes and listens down chimneys,” it said threateningly. “Is she one of us?”

Smythe stared idiotically, and made a few gulping motions like a fish out of water; evidently, he had absolutely no idea how to respond to that.

“No,” replied the woman in his stead. “She isn't.” She stepped forwards and glared at the demon with a vitriol that Cheren wasn't sure he'd ever seen before – in anyone. “I'm here to kill you.” She paused. “Well, and that,” she said, pointing at Candy, “but mostly you.”

“What?” asked Lauren, looking confused. “What was that?”

Teiresias did not give the stranger a chance to reply.

“Kill me?” it hissed, with another peal of that hideous laughter. “I think not.”

“Would you like to put it to the test?” asked the woman, unimpressed. “Honestly, I've killed more monsters than you've ever dreamed existed.”

“What I dream would shatter your skull,” replied Teiresias. “Smythe, why have you brought this creature here? Is this a declaration of war?”

Smythe shook his head so vigorously it looked dangerously close to coming off.

“No,” he said. “No no no no no no no—”

“It would seem the circumstances have changed,” Teiresias interrupted, apparently talking to itself. “The Kings and the Regent must be informed at once. And as for you, treacherous Smythe...”

With unnatural speed, Chili's body coiled like a cat and sprang across the Gym in a parabolic arc, dislodging Lelouch and landing next to Smythe; before anyone could react to that, his hand clamped across Smythe's face and black smoke oozed from the latter's eyes and mouth. A moment later, Chili slumped to the floor and Smythe, eyes aglow, was gone.

There was silence.

And then there was a lot of explaining to do.

---

“So let me get this straight,” said Cilan, holding his head in his hands as if it were about to fall apart. “Harmonia's made some pact with a party of demons and is chasing you and your amnesiac talking cat with the aim of getting information about someone who stole something from his Party?”

“That's pretty much it, yeah,” I said, smiling encouragingly. “I know it's really complicated, but—”

“It's not that,” he replied, sitting up again and sighing, “it's just bloody insane.”

“That too,” I agreed, nodding. “But still... you saw what happened.”

The Gym had been closed and Chili taken to the hospital by Cress and Max; Cilan and Niamh had just had the salient points of all that had occurred to us so far explained to them, and were digesting them with differing degrees of success. Niamh appeared to be able to believe anything as long as she saw some proof, but Cilian was having more trouble getting his head around it all.

“I did, yes, but... ah, OK,” he sighed. “OK. I need to get a message to the League, that much is clear. We haven't been particularly fond of the Green Party's campaign so far – as you've probably guessed – and this finally gives us a reason and a means to do something about it...”

“But you can't really just go and accuse Harmonia of using black magic,” pointed out Bianca. “I don't think most people will believe that unless they see it.”

“There are more ways than one to scupper a campaign,” Niamh said quietly. “I don't imagine the League will be taking the legal one.”

“Exactly,” replied Cilan. “Wait. Who are you again?”

“My name is Niamh Harper. I'm a professional monster-slayer.”

Cilan stared at her for a moment, then uttered a low moan.

Woden hang 'em,” he groaned. “You're serious, aren't you?”

“Absolutely. Here's my card.”

Cilan looked at the little rectangle in his hand, blinked, and moaned theatrically again.

“This is too much,” he said forlornly. “Too much for one day...”

Candy, noticing his distress, hopped off my wrist onto his shoulder and poked his ear in misplaced affection.

“Ark,” she squawked, which might have been comforting to another Archen but which was nowhere near comforting to a human. Especially when screeched into their ear.

“Sorry,” I said hurriedly, pulling her away from Cilan before he hit her. “Sorry, she's not used to strangers.”

“'Sraven,” said Cilan, shaking his head. “I swear everything's just gone completely insane today.”

“It actually seems fairly normal to me,” said Niamh mildly. “Except for the demon part, but that's a small enough stretch of the imagination.”

Something in her voice didn't seem quite right; I studied her face for a few seconds, and saw it almost immediately: beneath the mask of professionalism, she was very, very worried – about Smythe, presumably. I couldn't imagine how she had managed to stop herself running after him the moment Teiresias had taken him from the building; I supposed she forced herself to stay to learn more about her enemy before pursuing it. She must have, I thought, incredible willpower – but then, by her own admission, she killed monsters for a living. She was the kind of heroine I'd never thought actually existed in reality.

“It's not that far-fetched,” added Cheren. “Considering the Zero affair and whatever it was that happened in Sinnoh last year, this business actually seems fairly tame.”

He was right. Last year, a criminal mastermind styling himself Zero had raised two titanic, hostile Pokémon from millennia of slumber in Hoenn and almost destroyed the world; shortly afterwards, a certain unknown something had occurred in Sinnoh that had made all the clocks in the world run backwards for two days. The Sinnish authorities were particularly close-lipped, even by League standards, and hadn't said much about it apart from mentioning that there had been 'some minor disturbances' atop Mount Coronet – but it was clear that something pretty major had occurred, if only because an ancient temple the size of a small airstrip had been entirely erased from existence.

“Well, yes, but this is Unova, not one of those lunatic Pacific countries,” grumbled Cilan. “We don't have buried evils here, or secret monsters, or any of that—”

“Actually, we do,” interrupted Niamh. “I've killed quite a few of them.”

“And let me tell you, this country definitely qualifies as lunatic in my book,” added Halley.

“All right!” cried Cilan desperately. “Enough already!” He slumped back in his seat, took a deep breath, and sat up again. “OK. OK. I'll... I'll send a message to the League, and organise a guard for you three at the Centre tonight in case that thing comes back.”

“I'm really not sure that'll stop it,” pointed out Cheren.

“It might at least discourage it,” Cilan replied, standing up. “And... I guess you've earned this, too.”

He held out a little piece of enamel – a Gym Badge, I realised with some surprise.

“You out-thought Chili and a f*cking demon,” he said frankly. “You drove it out of its body, convinced it you were about to commit murder and kept us all alive long enough for help to arrive. That's a hell of a lot more than any of our other challengers have ever done.”

“Thank you,” said Cheren, “but I'll have to refuse that, I'm afraid.”

“What?”

We all stared. This was not what we'd been expecting.

“I didn't beat Chili,” he said. “I'm not going to accept this as a reward for anything other than skill at Pokémon battling. That's not what it's for.”

“You...” Cilan stared for a moment, then threw up his hands in anguish. “What is with all these people today? We've got demons, monster-slayers, kids with stricter codes of honour than a bloody samurai...”

“Don't forget the talking cat,” added Halley slyly.

“I'd rather do exactly the opposite,” he replied, evidently in some distress. “Thunor, Frige and Woden...” He shook his head again. “I'll just go call the League,” he said disconsolately, and trudged off to find his phone.

“If that's all you have to tell, then I think I'll leave,” said Niamh, getting to her feet. “I only stayed for information.” She handed me one of her business cards. “It has my number. If you find out anything else, please let me know.”

She hurried out without saying goodbye; I assumed she was eager to pick up Smythe's trail.

In the ensuing silence, Bianca's eyes slid over to Cheren, and I sensed an unspoken question hanging in the air between them.

“What is it?” he asked, evidently picking up on it too. He sounded a little irritated.

“Well, it's just... um...”

“Spit it out,” he said tiredly.

“Er... you weren't really going to kill Chili, were you?” asked Bianca timidly.

“Of course not,” he said, eyes widening. “Thunor, Bianca, did you even need to ask?”

“You were – uh – really convincing,” she said. “I got worried...”

The last dregs of hostility flowed away from him, and to my surprise he actually hugged her.

“I'm an excellent liar,” he said softly. “You know that.”

“I know,” she replied, pressing her face into his neck. “But still...”

Looking at them, I felt a pang of loneliness; quiet days spent with Anastasia came to mind, sitting in the trees at the northern end of White Forest. I could feel the buttons of her jacket pressing against my head, and hear her heartbeat beneath my ear...

I blinked back a tear and resolved to charge my phone as soon as we got back to the Centre. I had to call her soon, or I'd end up crying tonight, and I didn't think Halley would be particularly sympathetic company.

“OK!” said Cilan, reappearing, and Bianca flinched out of Cheren's arms. “I've called the League, and I got through to Shauntal. Alder's out – as ever – and the rest are renewing the binding at—” He checked himself. “Actually, I probably shouldn't mention that. Anyway, Shauntal heads the PR department, so she should be good enough for now – although Grimsley's really the one we want, since he's in charge of intelligence and espionage.” He waved a hand. “Doesn't matter. The point is, she said she'll be here in a couple of hours. The others have taken the jet, but she'll take the helicopter. She wants to talk to you three personally before taking any action.”

We exchanged looks. Shauntal, of the Unovan Elite Four? Celebrity author, major politician, and one of the most skilled Pokémon Trainers in the country? That was unexpected – and definitely the kind of help we could use.

“We'll wait here, then,” said Cheren on our behalf. “If that's OK with you three...?”

“Yeah.” I nodded. “I wasn't planning on going anywhere.”

“Guess I wasn't, either,” said Bianca.

“OK.” Cilan thought for a moment. “I have to make sure Chili's OK,” he said at length. “I'll call Tia and Sammy and have them come in first. They can stand guard for now, although it didn't seem like that thing was coming back any time soon. Tia's also an excellent chef,” he added. “If you won't accept the Badge, Cheren, you can at least accept a free lunch.”

Cheren nodded graciously.

“All right.” He looked at Bianca and me. “I think we'd like that.”

“Are you kidding?” Halley leaped up onto a table. “We'd love that. Didn't you see the sign outside?” she asked him. “This place has two Michelin stars. It's going to be awesome!”

Cilan smiled for the first time since I'd met him.

“Yes, it should be,” he replied. “We pride ourselves on our service. Now,” he said, extracting his phone from his pocket, “if you'll just give me a moment to call them, we'll have your meal shortly...”

---

Niamh was angry and terrified and sad, and she was beating the sh*t out of an unfortunate dustbin which had happened to be in her way.

“F*cking – demon – possessing – Port – f*cking – f*cking – f*ck!” she howled, heedless of the attention she was attracting. “Gallows and hammer! 'Sraven, how can – f*cking – agh!”

She kicked the bin aside, leaving the knives jammed into its side, and turned into an alley, fleeing into the bowels of the city; she didn't want to be in the open, not now, not when everyone was around and OK and Portland wasn't and – and—

In the middle of nowhere, she stopped and set her back to a wall, curling up and clutching her head so hard she felt her nails break skin and blood run in her hair. She wanted to scream, but something choked her voice. She wanted to beat herself up, but she couldn't uncurl her hands from her skull. She wanted Portland right now, unharmed and free of demons, and she wanted to hold him tight and know that everything was going to be OK—

Teiresias.

The name rose unbidden in her mind like a spot of spreading blood, and with it came terror, blotting out rage and sorrow in an instant with its great tidal flow. Teiresias. How could she kill something like that? How? She had bullets and knives and that longsword she kept in reserve for those certain beasts who would not die unless killed with silver-lined blades, but all of them seemed so useless against a foe like that – an enemy that hopped between bodies as if the ether between them was nothing, whose real form was likely some gnawing, chaotic abyss that to merely see would be a one-way ticket to madness? Niamh had killed many strange creatures before, things that, in all likelihood, had their origins in worlds not our own, but this... Despite her words in the Gym, she knew that she was at the limit of her ability here.

For the first time in many years, Niamh Harper needed help.

She wrenched her hands free, wiped her eyes and got to her feet. So. There it was. It was simple, really, when you laid it out like that. Portland needed her. She needed help to save him. The logical next step? Find the druids. They knew more about demons than anyone else she knew.

And there was another step she could take, one that lingered in the back of her mind and left her still more uneasy – but she wouldn't think of that. Not yet. Not unless there was no other option left to her.

Niamh stood there for a moment, unsteady on her feet, then collected herself. She pressed her emotions firmly back down with the heretical mind-control trick, until they were at a level she could use to fuel her determination without destroying her peace of mind, and took a deep, shaky breath.

She was OK, she thought. She was OK, and now she had to help Portland Smythe get his body back.

She had to kill a demon.

---

Far away, in the back room of the Mandelmort Temple, Lorcan Peabody flicked from Facebook to Outlook and choked on his coffee.

He had, a few hours ago, sent an email to the presiding druidic librarian at Nacrene's Travison Memorial Library – a little thing about that cute girl who had been in earlier, searching for methods of ridding herself of a demon – and he would have been lying if he'd claimed he was expecting any sort of immediate response.

He had one, however, and it was not the noncommittal reply he thought it would be.

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Subject: Re: Possible case of demonic activity

Lorcan,

Don't let that girl out of your sight. Keep her within the boundaries of the temple and perform the Nine Herbs on her in case any taint has begun. I'm sending a demonologist over to you right away to escort her here to Nacrene, where we can assess the problem and send her along to Castelia. The abomination she mentions has an entire chapter to itself in the Glasya-Labolas, and if it is has returned to Unova now, at the apex of Jormal's Cycle, then the High Druid must be informed at once.

These creatures may grow weaker or stronger with age – it is variable – and whichever way age has affected Teiresias, it is undoubtedly the most potent threat that has stalked Unova for over two hundred years. Do not take any chances. If it approaches, invoke every circle you can and do not look into its eyes.

Charles

Lorcan stared at the screen for a moment, then scratched his head.

“Well, sh*t,” he muttered. “I have totally f*cked this one up.”
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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  #42    
Old March 10th, 2013, 02:32 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Thirteen: God Rest Ye

Shauntal Wentworth was everything I'd thought she would be except tall.

She was a lot shorter than TV had led me to expect – only a little taller than me, and I'm not tall by any stretch of the imagination. She did, however, have a kind of cool energy about her that lent her an impression of grandeur, so that you almost found yourself looking up at her despite the fact that she wasn't tall enough to warrant it.

She also seemed to have a weakness for theatrics, because she chose to materialise in a puff of smoke in the exact centre of the room, something that impressed me immensely but which Cheren informed me was nothing but a cheap trick easily perpetrated with the aid of a Ghost-type Pokémon.

“Good afternoon,” she said to me, while we were all still in a state of mild shock. “Shauntal Wentworth, Elite Four. You must be Lauren.”

“Um – ah – yes,” I replied lamely, staring. “That's me...”

“More to the point, I'm Halley,” said Halley, unimpressed. “I'm the focal point of this chaos – which is either testament to my popularity or to my infamy.”

Shauntal smiled, apparently wholly unfazed by a talking cat.

“A pleasure to meet you,” she said. “Aren't you fascinating?”

“Yes,” agreed Halley dryly. “Inordinately so.”

Shauntal laughed, and turned away.

“And you two are Cheren and Bianca, correct?”

Cheren nodded.

“That's right.”

He must have been practically bursting with excitement at meeting one of the Elite Four – to someone with his ambition, they must have seemed like heroes – but his face betrayed no trace of emotion. Bianca, for her part, just stared, eyes wide as saucers.

“All right,” said Shauntal, pulling up a chair and joining us at the table. “We've got the introductions out of the way. Now, tell me everything.”

There was a silence, during which Cheren, Bianca and I exchanged uneasy look. The abruptness of the request seemed a little odd.

“Well?” asked Halley, staring around at us. “Are you going to talk, or am I going to tell the story?”

Shauntal smiled and shook her head.

“I know, this must seem a little daunting,” she said. “But I – oh, hello, Tia. How's the baby? Could I get a black coffee, please? Thanks. Where was I? Oh yes. I know it's daunting, but I really do need to know quickly. There's a saying in Gaunton – the only thing that moves faster than light is Unovan politics. Harmonia will probably know about this by now, and will be taking counter-measures against us; if the League is to capitalise on this knowledge, I have to put the PR department on the offensive within half an hour.” She leaned forwards. “So. You understand the rush.”

Cheren cleared his throat.

“All right,” he said. “Lauren, you'd best begin. We weren't there for the start, after all.”

I started.

Right, I thought. OK. Just leave out the part about the world switching around, and you'll be fine.

“Um... OK,” I replied. “It was the day before Eostre, and I went to buy some flowers...”

---

Living flesh was even less welcome in the dark paths than dead, and especially so when it was bound to one's essence. Teiresias almost choked upon entering, and came close to falling clean out of Smythe's skull: it had been a long time since it had taken a body that still breathed, and even longer since it had dragged that body onto the dark paths. One might have thought that Teiresias would find its waning ability vexing, given its reputation and species, but Teiresias' alien psychology could not comprehend the idea of being dissatisfied with its own senescence. Time was unstoppable and ageing inevitable. There was no point in railing against it.

Teiresias could, however, feel a little irritated at having to haul this cumbersome burden through such a long and troubling path; however, Smythe had proved himself a traitor to both King and Regent, and while Teiresias cared not for the Regent, King Weland commanded its utmost respect and loyalty. He might have long since been confined to the history books in the eyes of Unova's people, but that was only because he preferred to remain unseen. The Regent's son was the first mortal in fifteen hundred years to set eyes upon him, and only then because of the exceptional blood in his veins.

Teiresias bared Smythe's teeth unconsciously. The Regent's son! There was another King to whom it owed its fealty. He was a higher creature, one of those who in days ancient beyond imagination had been eradicated by the bastard half-breeds. That was before even Teiresias' time, but it had heard the stories, still whispered around the soul-wells to this day; it was a golden age, where his people and those of earth lived in harmony, in Unova at least, and neither ever had to die.

It blinked. There was something about the dark paths that led one's mind to wander, and Teiresias knew that if one's mind wandered here it tended to pull the thinker away with it, dragging them into the endless limbo on either side of the narrow road. It must concentrate, keep its mind on the task at hand. There was important news to deliver, treachery to be uncovered, the League's intervention to be reported.

Teiresias swelled within Smythe's brain like a tumour, and flew onwards into the abyss.

---

“...ran away,” Cheren finished. “To inform its masters, I presume.”

Throughout the story, Shauntal had sat there silently, listening intently and making copious notes in a black-bound notebook; now, she nodded, drained her cup at a gulp and stood up.

“I see,” she said. “I need to start things going at once... You keep going, you three. Talk to the druids at Nacrene tomorrow, and see if you can find out more about this Teiresias creature. It may give us a way into whatever strange pact Harmonia's made. In the meantime, I'll begin an assault on the Green Party and send word to Lenora to expect you and clear the way with the druids.”

“I thought the druids didn't like the League?” asked Cheren.

“They don't,” replied Shauntal. “I'm hoping they dislike demons even more, though, or we won't get anywhere at all. The Gorsedd is perfectly capable of tying our investigations up in knots if it wants to, especially if there's anything supernatural involved.” She frowned. “I'm not certain about it, though... I don't know what Teiresias is, but I think I may have encountered something similar before.”

“Really? Do you remember anything about it?”

“No, I'm afraid not. I think I fended it off before it did too much damage, but it did eat part of my memory before it left,” she said thoughtfully. “The whole episode is a little hazy.” She clapped her hands together decisively. “Anyway! I really can't afford to stay any longer. I'll leave one of my Pokémon to watch over you in case Teiresias returns – she'll be more of a match for it, I think – but that's as much in the way of concrete help as I can offer right now. Hopefully, the political attack will be more effective. Harmonia is large in the public eye at the moment; a bit of leaked information here and there should cause a media storm that will keep him distracted while I get Grimsley to find out more.”

“Grimsley himself?” queried Cheren. “Doesn't he have people to find things out for him—?”

“Oh, no, quite the reverse,” Shauntal answered. “The League is... um... not really as large as it seems.” She grinned uncomfortably. “It's just the five of us – well, four, since Alder hasn't shown up for a while... and the Leaders aren't really much help, either,” she added confidingly. “This isn't widely-known, but...” She sighed. “You deserve to know what kind of support you're getting.”

“Hold on,” said Halley, narrowing her eyes. “I don't like the sound of this.”

“Well, I'm afraid it's true,” Shauntal told her apologetically. “The Unovan League, to be honest, isn't really as substantial as we like to make out. We don't have the manpower or funding that we used to, and the Gym Leaders are increasingly turning away from our central authority. Clay, Elesa, Drayden, Burgh, Skyla, even Lenora – they don't, um, listen to us so much any more. What used to be hobbies for them have become main careers, and the League has suffered as a result. Even here, Chili, Cress and Cilan get more business from the restaurant than the Gym, and they're the most devoted of the Leaders.”

She sighed again; the buzzing energy seemed to have faded from her, and for the first time I detected the dark circles around her eyes. How much had the decline of Training affected the League, I wondered. It was common knowledge that virtually all Gym Leaders had secondary jobs these days, but I hadn't thought that this would be so much to the detriment of their main business. It seemed like perhaps we might expect less assistance from the League than I had thought.

“So there it is,” Shauntal said, after a pause. “That's it. That's also kind of why we haven't done anything about Harmonia before; we simply haven't had the strength to muster any resistance. To be honest, I don't know how we're going to do it now. We'll do our best – but I'm afraid you're mostly going to be on your own.”

“I see,” I said quietly. “Thank you anyway. Very much.”

I was disappointed, but I understood. The League was doing what it could; I could ask no more.

“Is there anyone else we can go to?” asked Bianca. “For assistance, I mean... the police, maybe?”

Shauntal shrugged.

“I doubt it,” she replied baldly. “Harmonia isn't going to be halted legally. He's too well-prepared, and too smart. That weird gold-selling of his is proof of that – it's been investigated, but no one can prove anything. Other than the police, the only other option is the druids, but if he's summoning things like Teiresias, he must have contacts high up in the Gorsedd – meaning it could be dangerous to tell them too much about what's happening.”

“Is it me, or is literally everything against us here?” asked Halley peevishly. “Honestly. Talk about a f*cking downer.”

“I know, I know,” said Shauntal, shaking her head. “It feels that way. But really,” she went on, checking her watch, “I do have to go. I have to set some journalists on Harmonia and then get over to— well. That much is confidential, I'm afraid.”

“Of course.” Cheren nodded. “We understand.”

“Thank you for everything,” said Bianca. “You've been very helpful.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Thank you.”

“Where's this guardian Pokémon you mentioned?” asked Halley.

“She's here,” Shauntal replied evasively. “She prefers not to be seen during daylight hours, I'm afraid. She'll probably introduce herself after night falls.”

“Right,” said Halley. “I'm totally f*cking filled with confidence.”

“What Halley means,” I said hurriedly, “is thank you very much, to you and your Pokémon.” I looked at Halley. “Right?”

She muttered something inaudible.

“It's fine,” said Shauntal. “Really. She's not on my main battling team anyway; I can spare her.” She gave a wan grin. “Now, I really must go this time.”

We said our goodbyes and she stole out swiftly, her footsteps as silent as the Ghosts she trained. A few minutes later, I heard a helicopter passing distantly overhead – and then that was it. Shauntal was gone.

I suddenly felt very alone.

---

“Mr. Harmonia, is it true your Party has links with undesirables formerly part of the Gorsedd—”

“—onia, how do you respond to the allegations laid against you by the an—”

“—what exactly is it that you expect us to gain by your Liberation policy—“

“Mr. Harmonia, what about the—”

“—relationship to Caitlin Molloy, the notorious—”

“—Harmonia, how—”

“Mr. Harmonia—”

“Mr. Harmonia—”

“Mr. Harmonia—”

“Now, if you could please just calm down!” bellowed Harmonia, his artificial eye flitting anxiously back and forth across the seething sea of reporters. “I can't very well answer more than one question at a—”

“Mr. Harmonia!” shouted a reporter, jumping up and down to reach over his compatriots' heads. “What do you have to say about the rumours that your Party is funded by stolen gold?”

“Preposterous!” he replied. “Our bookkeeping is transparent, and we've already passed one audit and investigation by—”

What about the demons?” howled a new voice, louder by far than any other, and the crowd fell silent for a moment, heads turning to look at the man with the haunted eyes near the back. “Ezra Weiss, investigative journalist,” he said, patting himself on the chest. “And Mr. Harmonia, how do you explain the rumours that your Party has had dealings with creatures that do not belong on this earth?”

This is the sort of accusation I have to defend myself against?” Harmonia uttered a short, barking laugh. “Be serious, man!”

For once, the crowd sided with him, and the hubbub resumed.

“Mr. Harmonia, what about Molloy? And Goodfellow, and Thraice?”

“Mr. Harmonia—”

“I will release a statement in one hour!” thundered Harmonia, eye spinning in its socket. “All will be explained, that much I promise you!”

With that, he vanished into the Party headquarters, and the great black door slammed shut behind him. For a moment, the crowd of journalists seethed at the gates; then, seeing that there was nothing to be gained, it began to disperse. Some of its members left; some lingered a short distance away, waiting for the action to resume. More than a few went in search of coffee and bagels.

Ezra Weiss watched the façade for a while through narrowed eyes, and then turned away abruptly, shivering; he had seen them again – the white eyes at the darkened third-floor windows. The eyes that he knew no one else could see.

“I'm going to find them, Harmonia,” he muttered to himself. “I'll prove they're there, all right.”

He stalked off past the television crew, and spared a glance for the TV reporter as he passed.

“...stated that a press release would be given later today,” she was telling the camera in a serious voice. “It's not yet clear who leaked the information, but it comes at a crucial point in Harmonia's campaign. With the countdown to the general election now measured in days rather than weeks, and his controversial new Liberation policy already unsettling many voters, Harmonia's election chances are shrinking by the minute. What seemed like an unstoppable force has now come almost to a standstill...”

Ezra shook his head, and walked on. Harmonia would win all right – he would win anything he wanted, with those fiends at his back. He should know.

After all, he was one.

---

“...come almost to a standstill. Back to you in the studio.”

Cheren clicked off the TV and turned to us.

“Well,” he said, “it looks like Shauntal was as good as her word.”

“Yeah,” agreed Bianca. “I thought she wasn't going to mention the demons, though?”

“It looks like she spread the information quite widely,” Cheren replied. “Everyone had a different thing to question him about, didn't they?”

“So she must have found one person who would actually believe he had demons backing his Party,” concluded Bianca. “Namely, that Weiss guy. OK, I get it.”

“Yes.” Cheren grinned. “Spectacular, wasn't it? She must have been wrong about him having heard about events in the Gym just yet; he wasn't prepared at all!”

“I know. He wasn't nearly as smooth when he wasn't in control, was he?”

“Bloopgork,” chimed in Munny, whatever that meant, and went back to making slow circuits of the Centre's lounge.

I was silent; I didn't much feel like talking. Once we'd got back from the Gym, I'd charged my phone and had a long, heartfelt conversation with Anastasia that left me feeling hollow inside with homesickness; I'd also found 136 missed calls from my parents, but I hadn't dared to answer them yet. Hopefully Cordelia would have explained to them by now; I wasn't looking forward to telling them what had happened, and any preparation on her part would be welcome.

But it was the call to Annie that really got me. I had forgotten that your heart really does hurt when you're sad enough, and I didn't like being reminded of it. She had been well – fully recovered from the fear Teiresias had projected into her brain – but she'd been worried about me; I hadn't called for days. I'd told her about everything that had happened, and she'd compared the Dreamyard to some game she'd played a year ago; everything had, for one short moment, felt exactly as it had before I'd left – and then I had had to go, and as the line went dead I suddenly realised that I missed her more than I knew how to deal with.

I hadn't felt like eating dinner after all that.

“You know,” I said slowly, speaking for the first time since I'd said goodbye to Annie, “I'm feeling kind of tired. I think I might go to bed now.”

Both Cheren and Bianca looked at me sharply; even Halley glanced up drowsily from where she was curled next to Candy on the floor.

“I see,” said Cheren, and I was unsure exactly how much he saw, as he put it.

“Are you OK?” asked Bianca, more concerned.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Yeah. I'll... be fine.” I attempted a smile, and almost managed. “Night!”

“Goodnight,” said Cheren.

“Night night,” said Bianca, brow furrowing.

“Candy. Bedtime,” I said, and she climbed lazily onto my shoulder. We left, and an hour and a half later I'd finally cried myself to sleep, Candy's little heart beating fast against my cheek.

---

Tock.

---

Past midnight, and still working. It wasn't unusual for Harmonia nowadays, but tonight it carried with it a special horror; this wasn't just the usual Party business, but a desperate attempt to repair the damage done by whoever it was that had leaked those rumours to the press. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble and considerable expense to put a hole in his campaign, and he simply couldn't think of who might have the resources to do so; luckily for him, he was about to find out – and unluckily, it was not to be good news.

A sheet of dark fire flared on the other side of his desk, and a pale man appeared in the chair laid out there. He was plump and smiling, and wore a neat suit with a bowler hat; he was, however, the colour of chalk, and his teeth distinctly grey.

“A message from His Undying Majesty, Mr. Harmonia.”

His voice was every bit as merry as his smile, but carried with it a sickly scent that did not smell like any living creature Harmonia knew of.

Harmonia shut his eyes. Usually his fiendish ally sent one of his more intangible subjects as a messenger; a corporeal one was not only unsettling, but meant something serious had happened. Why the King felt this distinction was necessary was beyond him, but then again, the King had been living in a tomb for the last few millennia, and that sort of thing was bound to colour one's thinking after a while.

“'Sraven,” he whispered, feeling sick at the thought of any more bad news. “What is it now?”

“Teiresias has returned,” said the Merry Gentleman (for such, according to certain unpleasant parts of a particularly nasty Treatise, Harmonia had taken to calling him). “It brought with it your agent.”

“Smythe?” Harmonia tensed. What had the dumb bastard done now? “What do you mean, it brought him with it?”

“It appears Mr. Smythe was a traitor,” the Merry Gentleman informed him, his grin broadening. His tongue, Harmonia saw, was blue-black and swollen; he did not know how he spoke, but he was sure that organ wasn't up to the task. “He had informed a friend of his of Teiresias' existence, and very possibly part of His Majesty's plan.”

Our plan,” corrected Harmonia. The King might be in the habit of sending rather grisly messengers, but that didn't mean he was going to let himself be pushed around, damn it. If you wanted to dine with the devil, you had to stand up for yourself. That, and purchase a very long fork.

The Merry Gentleman inclined his head.

“Of course. Our plan, therefore, may well be threatened with exposure – particularly as this friend seemed unaccountably unafraid of Teiresias, even when it possessed Smythe to flee and report back. She threatened to kill it, apparently. From what it saw, she appears to be a woman of singular determination.”

“Do we know who she is?” asked Harmonia. Woden hang 'em! It was one thing after another today...

“I regret to inform you that we do not,” replied the Merry Gentleman. “Teiresias considered it more important to deliver its report than to attempt to follow her, particularly as it had to take with it your man's living body.”

Harmonia gritted his teeth. It sounded like the King was blaming this on him – and the really galling thing was that he was right to do so. He should have seen this coming; Smythe had lived the kind of life wherein one makes dangerous enemies, and spectacularly dangerous friends.

“I see,” he said, trying to maintain his outward cool. “She'll likely be heading for Nacrene, then, where the nearest copy of the Glasya-Labolas is – she can't know what Teiresias is, surely. We have people there already; I should be able to prepare something to throw her off the trail while we work on her identity.”

The Merry Gentleman's smile broadened a second time. It was now almost too wide for Harmonia to bear; it stretched so far across his cheeks that he almost felt the flesh of the Gentleman's face might give way and tear under the strain.

“Very well, Mr. Harmonia,” he said. “Teiresias will return here as soon as it is rested, to await direction. It is so very eager to find this Halley,” he added, with a small and horrible chuckle.

Harmonia clenched his pen with such force his knuckles looked like they would burst through the skin of his hand.

“Is there anything else?” he asked.

“Yes, just one more thing,” the Gentleman replied. “His Majesty suggests the League is behind the recent attack on your campaign.”

Harmonia started. What in Middangeard...? The League? With so few people, and with all they had to do right now? How had they been able to afford it? And how had they found out?

“You can't be serious!”

“An understandable reaction,” said the Merry Gentleman, “but I must draw your attention to the fact that the altercation between Teiresias and this woman took place in a Gym, in full view of two Gym Leaders and within another's body. Halley and her group were also present – and we doubt that they did not seize this opportunity to seek aid.”

Who was this 'we'? Better, Harmonia thought, not to ask – not where the King's Gentlemen were concerned.

“I see,” he said faintly. “Is there... anything else?”

“No,” replied the Gentleman. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Harmonia. His Undying Majesty sends his regards.”

And then he was gone – just like that. None of the theatrics this time; no dark fire or flashing lights. Just gone.

Harmonia waited for a full thirty seconds before he dared breathe again.

“Thunir's hammer,” he sighed weakly, resting his head on his desk. “The f*ck is with those things?”

He didn't comfort himself. He knew exactly what was with them, and that was what frightened him.

---

Morning brought another depressingly dreary day – yesterday was apparently an aberration – and the end of our time in Striaton. The druid and Shauntal had both recommended we head to Nacrene, and the four of us agreed that we should be doing it as soon as possible; if we were lucky, we might get there and get a head start on how to defeat Teiresias before it returned from informing the mysterious 'Kings' it had mentioned, whoever they were. Consequently, we'd agreed the night before to be ready to catch the ten o'clock train to Nacrene Central – which of course meant that we didn't leave the Pokémon Centre until about eleven. This put Cheren in a bad mood (he'd been hoping we might be early and get the nine twenty-six, I think) but really, he should have expected it; he was dealing with two teenagers and a cat – neither of which are exactly renowned for their early waking hours.

Eventually, we ended up on the eleven seventeen, and after an hour of boredom – punctuated only by Shauntal's Ghost (who still hadn't introduced herself yet) rattling the windows every so often – I found myself once more in a city centre. That, I thought, was how to travel: cut out all that tedious walking through the forest; just get on a train and go straight from urban heart to urban heart. No need for dirt or sleeping in tents: you stayed in the midst of the comforts of civilisation, every step of the way.

Bliss.

Nacrene itself was very different from Black City. It wasn't quite as new, for the most part, though I knew from visiting Uncle Gregory that parts of it were almost indistinguishable from my hometown, with the same looming skyscrapers and cloud-tickling towers. In the heart of it, though, around the station, I kept looking up and seeing windows that still had shutters, or little baroque swirls of decoration, that would have been thoroughly out of place back home.

Our destination, the Travison Memorial Library, was even more old-fashioned. It was the kind of gigantic neoclassical monstrosity the British had thrown up everywhere when they first arrived, with columns and arches in abundance and a multiplicity of pedimented windows. I wouldn't say it was attractive, but it was definitely impressive. It put me in mind of a vast, many-legged beast forever wrapped up in a smug sense of its own stateliness.

“That is an ugly building,” I said, staring up at it.

Cheren looked at me sharply.

“Um... no,” he said frankly. “It isn't. It's quite beautiful.”

“Yeah,” agreed Bianca. “Look at it! It's like a castle.”

“I'm on their side,” drawled Halley. “It's a damn fine piece of architecture. If it weren't the size of the British Museum I'd probably nick it.”

“Ark,” put in Candy, uncertain what everyone was talking about but determined not to be left out.

“Huh,” I said, feeling vaguely betrayed. “Er... huh.”

Eloquent,” said Halley sarcastically.

“You know, we should get you a collar,” I replied savagely. “You'd actually look like a tame cat that way.”

She bristled, as I'd known she would.

“No one's putting a f*cking collar on me—”

“It's actually quite a good idea,” said Cheren. “I should have thought of that before. We'll see what we can do about it after we visit the library.”

“Hey.” Halley sounded worried. “Hey, you are joking, right?”

“Come on,” said Bianca. “We've done enough standing and staring. Let's go in already.”

We began to move towards the entrance, Halley circling our heels.

“No, seriously,” she said, “you're joking, right? Tell me you're joking.”

“It's a shame about the weather today,” Cheren said to me.

“I know,” I replied “At least it was sunny yesterday, even if it was cold as well.”

“Are you listening? You hate me, don't you? I'm sorry for all the mean things I said. But you are joking, right?”

“I don't know... I think it's a bit warmer today,” Bianca said. “It feels like it, anyway.”

At that point, I noticed the person leaning against a column in the entrance portico and stopped dead. Halley's concern no longer seemed funny to me; I felt the blood roar inexplicably in my veins and my heart pound rhythmically like a cannibal drumbeat.

It was him.

It was the guy whose name I knew without knowing.

It was N, and he was looking back at me with the same fear in his eyes as was crawling in my stomach.
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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  #43    
Old March 17th, 2013, 06:39 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Fourteen: Natural

“Hello, Jared,” said N tightly, avoiding my eye.

“N.”

We stared at each other for a moment.

“What are you doing here?” I asked at length.

“I went to do some research,” he replied stiffly. “What about you?”

“Same.”

The air tasted electric; something was wrong between us, as if the universe itself were shivering at our contact. I suddenly felt uncertain about who I was; for one long moment, I could have sworn I was a girl – and then I was back in my own body again, facing N and sweating with unease.

“You were in Accumula, weren't you?” asked Cheren, presumably to break the ensuing silence rather than out of any desire to confirm this.

“Yes,” replied N. “We spoke at f— Harmonia's speech.” He scratched his chin uncomfortably. “I came here straight afterwards. I've been spending a few days researching the First Kingdom.”

The First Kingdom was one of Unova's foremost mysteries. There existed in the Jannsermond Desert a set of ruins that dated back forty-five thousand years: older than any Homo sapiens remains in the country, and in fact more than thirty thousand years before the invention of agriculture. No one knew who or what had created them, but theories abounded and the more plausible ones were taught to all of us in school: that they had been the work of an earlier species of human that was later outcompeted by Cro-Magnons; that they had been the home of an extinct race of intelligent Psychic-type Pokémon; that they were the last physical trace of the ése left on Middangeard.

For years, archaeologists had swarmed over the ruins, but to no avail: there was simply nothing at all left inside them that gave any clue as to their origins. Whatever the First Kingdom had been, it had vanished without trace long before the dawn of recorded history.

“I see,” said Cheren, evidently uncertain about why exactly N had decided to mention this. “Uh... why?”

“It's connected to Harmonia's work,” N said distantly, looking over my shoulder. “I think it is, anyway... The Twin Heroes, Reshiram, Zekrom – I think it all comes from the time of the Kingdom. And if I'm right, the Kingdom could happen again – harmony, unity, separation—”

He had grown quite animated during the course of this strange speech, but now cut himself off abruptly.

“Well, anyway,” he said, looking embarrassed. “Never mind all that. I tend to get quite carried away with my research.”

“O-K,” said Bianca. “Um—”

I didn't hear what she said: at that moment, an image flared up in my mind and blazed with such intensity I could hardly believe it wasn't one of my own memories. I saw a vast, saurian monster, halfway between a pterodactyl and a sun, burning through the world around me; its jaws dripped with flames and its flanks were wet with golden blood, and as it saw me it screamed three unintelligible words that snapped the sky asunder—

“The White Dragon!” I cried. “It – she—”

“It's you!” cut in N, his icy eyes glowing with unnatural fervour. “You! I – 'sraven!”

“What?” asked Bianca helplessly. “What?”

“I have no idea,” replied Cheren, looking from N to me with bewildered curiosity. “Perhaps they're having some kind of fit?”

“She chose you,” N said wildly. “No, she didn't... she had no choice – you were born to it...” He shook his head. “I should have guessed! The signs were all there...”

“You have his mark,” I told him without knowing what I was saying. “He's waiting—”

“Do you think I don't know that?” he interrupted. “I'm searching! Gods know I'm searching...”

“Where are they?” I asked. “Who are they?”

N shook his head.

“I don't know yet. Give me your phone number. I'll tell you more as I find it out.”

“Aren't we enemies, though?”

“I don't know,” he repeated. “Not yet, anyway.” He gave me a crooked smile. “We'll find out.”

We exchanged numbers and he left without another word, melting into the crowd and disappearing as if he'd never been.

I stood there for a long moment, staring at the place where he'd been, and then Candy's screech from my shoulder snapped me back to reality.

“What?” I said, patting her. “What? Where – what?”

“That's pretty much what we're all thinking, I think,” replied Halley. “Care to explain?”

“I – uh – don't know,” I admitted. “I – we saw a dragon – two dragons – or dinosaurs – and there was fire, or lightning, and—” A wave of dizziness broke over me, and I put out my hand to steady myself against a column. “Uh... Um... Guys, I don't think – I – I'm not sure I can explain that right now,” I said eventually. “Give me a moment.”

“All right,” said Cheren. “Er... do you want to sit down? You look like you need to.”

“Yes,” I said fervently. “Yes, I would bloody love to sit down.”

I half-sat, half-fell onto the stone steps, and put my head in my hands for a minute, trying to contain and slow the whirlwind in my skull. What the hell had happened just then? I had remembered something, I thought – something from before I was born, from the last time N and I had met...

“F*ck!” I yelled, far too loudly, and bit my lip. “This is so f*cking annoying!”

“Jared, are you OK?” asked Bianca, sitting down next to me. “You're... kinda...”

“Crazy?” supplied Halley. “Mental? Take your pick, there're plenty of synonyms.”

“I'm about three f*cking nanoseconds from kicking you across the street,” I spat at her. “Either you shut up or we find out how many of your nine lives you have left.”

Halley stared.

“Awesome,” she said happily, scampering out of kicking range. “You've got the badass banter down to a fine art.”

“Halley!” cried Bianca. “Shut up!”

“Make me—”

“Collar,” said Cheren firmly, and Halley immediately fell silent.

“Thanks,” I said quietly, closing my eyes. The sunlight felt too bright; it swelled and stung my retinas. “Ah... OK. OK. I think – I got it.” I sat up and took a deep breath. “There's... some kind of a connection between me and N. We're opposites, somehow. There are two dragons, opposites who love and loathe each other more than you can understand, and they – we – I'm not sure of the difference between them and us,” I confessed. “But they're dreaming, and restless, and their youth is coming around again...” I shook my head. “Does that make any sense? Because that's all I know.”

“It makes no sense whatsoever,” replied Cheren. “But it does remind me of something.”

“What?”

“The Twin Heroes,” he replied. “They loved each other as brothers and loathed each other as men. One had a white dragon banner and the other a black one, remember?”

“No... I didn't remember that part,” I said distantly. “Just the twin part...”

There was silence for a while.

“I guess,” said Bianca at last, “we have another mystery to solve.”

“So it would seem,” replied Cheren. “I wish we hadn't let that N guy get away... I'd have liked to question him further.” He ground his teeth. “Well, no matter. We're at the biggest library in Europe. There's no better place to begin our investigations.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I... yes.” I shook my head. “Ah. Sorry. I feel... dizzy. Still.”

“Take your time,” said Bianca, patting my arm. “You looked like you were having a heart attack.”

“More like I'd seen a ghost, I think,” I muttered. “A ghost from Sandjr.”

“What?” Bianca looked confused. “Sondyeer?”

“Sandjr,” I said. “Wait. What? What's Sandjr?”

“I have no idea,” replied Cheren. “Let's add it to the pile of mysteries, shall we?”

“Permission to speak?” asked Halley.

“If it's relevant.”

“It's about Sandjr.”

I looked at her sharply.

“What about it?”

“Well, uh... Look up,” she said, pointing with one paw.

As one, our heads turned skywards.

Inscribed across the front of the Library's great portico was a single line of old Unovan runes – a dedication, I thought, or a memorial to the building's completion – and with a sense of increasing disbelief, I read the five words they spelled out:

DU BEORWÁN YLDFYRD SANDJR WÖEN

“No way,” breathed Bianca. “No way...”

“Yes way,” replied Halley. “Sandjr.”

---

Niamh Harper had a meeting to attend.

From what she'd learned at the Gym, the only place to find information on destroying Teiresias was Nacrene, and so she had headed there immediately after recovering her senses; however, owing to a previous incident involving a clerk, a dinosaur and her longsword, she was persona non grata in the Travison Memorial Library, and was summarily shown the exit as soon as she entered.

This had not deterred her; after all, she was used to gaining entry through alternative means. Monsters often didn't bother with the law, or even with doors, and the same went for those who hunted them. Consequently, Niamh had waited until nightfall, then slipped in through an unguarded skylight in the west wing, and made her way through darkened corridors to the restricted section where the Treatises were kept.

Here, unfortunately, she could get no further. The one entrance was sealed and guards posted; Niamh could have killed them both, had she so desired, but she really didn't think murder would be a good idea, and besides, she knew that neither of the guards would have the key. That would be kept with the druidic librarian, and getting it from him would be out of the question.

Disconsolate and angry at her failure, Niamh had returned to the rooftops – where one of the gargoyles on the roof had turned to her with a tremendous grinding of stone on stone, and said:

“So, you're a monster-slayer, then?”

Niamh did not start; too many monsters had stalked her for that. Instead, she levelled a pistol at the gargoyle's face.

“What the f*ck are you?”

The gargoyle looked at itself.

“A gargoyle, by the look of it,” it said – or rather he, for its voice was almost certainly masculine. “You find yourself in unusual places at night, it seems.” He cocked his head at her, apparently unworried by the gun. “Anyway. I'm looking for someone with your particular set of skills, and was wondering if perhaps you'd consider entering into a partnership with me?”

Niamh didn't quite know how to reply. She'd seen a great many impossible things, but a creature made of living stone was entirely beyond her experience; doubly so when you considered the offer it was making.

“What?”

The gargoyle sighed.

“Look, this isn't as complicated as you're making it out to be,” he said. “Each night, I've been dream-searching for people who might make good allies, and I came across a man who had one of your business cards earlier tonight. It took me a little time to find you, but now I have, and I'm making a proposition..”

“Who are you?” asked Niamh cautiously. Her pistol did not waver.

“I'm...” The gargoyle sighed. “Look, never mind that – I'm not a good dream-searcher and I don't want to damage your subconscious. If you're interested, come to Dunsanay Square at noon tomorrow and meet me there. I'll tell you much more then.”

“How do I know this isn't a trap?”

“There's no reason for it to be,” pointed out the gargoyle. “Look, if you don't want to come, don't come. I'm not you.” He shook his head and settled back into his normal position with a sigh. “Bloody humans,” he muttered. “Anything supernatural and their common sense flies out the window...”

Niamh opened her eyes and sat up abruptly. She was lying on the roof of the Travison Memorial Library, a pistol in her hand, and the first faint light of dawn was shining in the east.

She looked around for gargoyles, and found three of them, all frozen in place by the guttering – exactly as one would expect.

She blinked, and put the gun away in a daze.

“What the hell was that?”

There was no reply. Whatever force had animated the gargoyle, it was gone, and as Niamh climbed back down to the ground, she wondered whether or not the whole thing had been a dream. By the time she reached the pavement, she was certain it was – but why had it struck so suddenly? She couldn't have just fallen asleep on the rooftop; that was just not possible. Besides, she had no recollection of doing so.

The issue of the gargoyle had burned in her mind throughout her morning ramblings through the city – ramblings that, she was disconcerted to find, had led her straight to Dunsanay Square, despite the fact that she had no idea where it was.

“Well, f*ck it,” she said, checking her watch and finding herself unsurprised by the fact that it read five to twelve. “Let's see if it was a dream or not, then.”

She wandered out to the statue in the centre – a four-metre-tall depiction of a bearded god wrestling with an ettin – and sat down on a bench by its plinth.

“So you decided to come,” said the man who had definitely not been sitting next to her a moment ago. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

Niamh jumped.

“F*ck!” she cried. “What – where did you come from?”

“I was here all along. You just didn't notice me.” The man cleared his throat and offered her hand. “My name is Ezra Schwarz,” he said. “I'm planning on assassinating the king of the demons. Are you interested in helping?”

---

“Do either of you remember any old Unovan?” I asked.

“Nope,” said Bianca.

“No,” said Cheren. “I didn't think it would be useful.”

“Figures. No one does.”

I was pretty sure old Unovan was the least popular component of the compulsory 'Unovan history and culture' subjects; no one I'd ever spoken to ever remembered anything about it – not even the people who taught it.

“We can ask when we meet the librarian,” decided Cheren. “Right now, I think we should go in. Any potential leads are definitely in there.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “OK. In we go.”

I got to my feet, found I was steady again and followed him through the vast doors into the belly of the Library.

The entrance hall was every bit as grand as could be expected from the façade: so huge was it that it housed half a museum's worth of historical ephemera, from ancient stone tablets and orbs at the back to the titanic skeleton of some ancient Dragon at the front. I might not like the architecture, but I could definitely appreciate the remnants of a colossal monster, and stared awestruck for a short while.

“Whoa,” breathed Bianca. “It's amazing... Have you ever been here before?”

I shook my head mutely.

“Impressive indeed,” agreed Cheren. “That's a Dragonite skeleton, I believe. Not the modern species, though – it's far too big. It must be the extinct subspecies...” He launched into a short explanation, but I wasn't listening. There was too much to take in for me to bother with one of his lectures right now.

“Hello!” said an unexpected voice from the right. “Welcome to the Travison Memorial Library!”

I looked, and saw a short, balding man with Coke-bottle glasses beaming at us.

“I see you're admiring our exhibition,” he said jovially. “It's on loan from the Nacrene Musuem – all except the skeleton, that is. That's ours.”

“Isn't the Museum part of the library?” asked Cheren. “I thought it was.”

“Well, sort of,” replied the man. “It's on the south side of the building. The two places are connected, you know. The library has the more impressive entrance hall, so we tend to borrow exhibits every now and then to showcase them here. Makes an impact, if you know what I mean.” He clapped a hand to his forehead. “Oh, but I'm running away with myself! My name is Hawes. I'm the director of the museum.”

“Shouldn't you be working, then?” I asked. “I mean, isn't that a fairly major job?”

Hawes shrugged.

“It is and it isn't. Today is one of the days when it isn't – and besides, I'm here in my directorial capacity, to meet some esteemed guests who are supposed to be arriving today. My wife is the head librarian – and the Gym Leader – and she asked me if I would guide them through to the restricted section to meet her and Charlie. That's the Gorsedd representative here,” he added. “Lovely chap. Very knowledgeable about cheese, but then I'm told druids go in for that sort of thing.”

It was clear that if one of us didn't interrupt him Hawes would continue to jabber on for the foreseeable future, so I said:

“Um... these guests. They wouldn't be enquiring about reading the Glasya-Labolas, would they?”

Hawes paused.

“Good grief,” he said. “Now, how the devil would you know that?”

“I think we might be them,” I told him. “I'm Jared Black, and—”

“Ah!” cried Hawes exuberantly. “Wonderful, wonderful!” He shook my hand so vigorously I feared for the integrity of my elbow. “So you must be Cheren Perng, then, and Bianca Aaronson?”

“Other way round,” said Bianca carefully. “I'm Bianca, he's Cheren.”

“Of course, of course,” replied Hawes. “Silly of me.” He bent down. “And you... you must be Halley.”

“The one and only,” she replied.

“Marvellous,” he breathed, quietly for once. “You really can talk... Quite extraordinary.” He stared at her, rapt, for so long that Halley became visibly uneasy; Bianca took pity on her, and drew Hawes' attention by saying:

“Um... so... you were going to show us to the Treatises?”

“Ah! Of course, of course,” replied Hawes, straightening up. “I do apologise – I tend to get rather carried away, you know. Right this way, please!”

He spun on his heel – something I'd never seen done before in real life – and headed off down the hall at such speed that it was an effort to keep up.

“Perng?” I asked Cheren quizzically as we hurried after him. “Really?”

He gave me a strange look.

“My dad is Taiwanese,” he said. “Can't you see it?”

It was true. I hadn't noticed it before, but there was something vaguely exotic about his features; I couldn't have placed it, though. I supposed he must have taken after his mother.

“By the way,” asked Bianca, “we were wondering what the inscription on the front of the library meant. Do you know?”

Hawes stopped abruptly.

“Do I know?” he asked. “Do I know? I'm the director of the museum! Of course I know. Du beorwán ydlfyrd Sandjr wöen: for the minds of the Unovan people. It's a quote from a philosophical tract by the scholar Volun in the twelfth century—”

“I see, but what does the word Sandjr mean, exactly?” I asked. “It, uh, seems familiar.”

“It's an archaic term for Unova,” replied Hawes. “You may have come across it in school – the great poets of the nineteenth century were fond of using it to give an ancient ring to their work. Originally, it comes from the old legend of the Twin Heroes. In the earliest transcriptions of the story, Unova is referred to as Sandjr before the Heroes conquer and unite its peoples. It's given a new name as a mark of a new beginning. Why do you ask?”

“Just... uh, curious,” I said. “Anyway... carry on. We were going to see the Treatises?”

“Ah, of course,” replied Hawes. “Come on, come on!”

He hurried through a little door marked 'Staff Only' to one side of the hall, and beckoned us through after him; beyond was a nondescript little corridor that, it soon transpired, was the entrance to a vast network of identical nondescript little corridors. Had we not had Hawes to help us, I'm sure we would have become lost forever in there, and eventually starved to death; however, with his help, we negotiated a dizzying array of twists and turns in record time, and eventually ended up outside a reinforced steel door marked 'RESTRICTED'.

“Here we are!” he announced happily. “It's just through here.”

He pushed open the door, and ushered us through into a small circular room that was practically wallpapered with bookshelves, each bursting with fat, ancient books under sheets of toughened glass. In the centre of the room was a little round table with a green-shaded reading lamp, and sitting at this table was a plump man in white robes with half a salad on his head. This, I presumed, was the druidic librarian, and he got to his feet as we entered.

“Jared Black, I presume,” he said. “Charles Lewis. I look after the library here.” He looked at the others. “And you must be Cheren Perng and Bianca Aaronson.”

“Don't forget me,” said Halley, jumping onto the table. “Halley, um... just Halley.”

“And Halley, of course.” He stared in fascination for a moment. “'Sraven. A talking cat.”

“I know. Ninth wonder of the world, that's me.”

“Ninth?”

“Eighth is Kong. Obviously.” Halley yawned. “Anyway. Show us your books.”

“Er, no, it's not quite as simple as that,” said Charles, slightly frantically; it seemed to me that Halley often had that effect on people. “First, I need to make sure that everything is as it's been claimed—”

“A mind-reading, yeah?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied. “That is, if that's acceptable.”

I considered. Given all that was riding on this, it seemed ridiculous to refuse, even if the thought was discomfiting.

“All right,” I said cautiously. “I suppose that's OK.”

Charles nodded, and motioned towards a door on the opposite side of the room; a moment later, it opened to admit a short and curiously ugly woman in a long black dress who moved as if on oiled castors.

Wait, no. Not a woman, a Pokémon – this must be a Gothitelle, then; I'd never seen one in real life before, but I had a vague idea of what they looked like. Her face was incredible; it was at once human and bizarrely alien, as if it were the product of a sculptor who'd had a reasonably accurate description of a human given to him but no picture to work from. She looked at me from under heavily-lidded eyes with an utterly inscrutable expression, then made a series of swift signs with her shapeless hands.

“What?” Charles frowned at her. “There's—”

The bookcases rattled, and a low wind sprung up; a spot of darkness began to coalesce in the middle of the room – and all at once, I remembered the Ghost Shauntal had left to watch us.

“Uh, I guess that's Shauntal's,” I said. “I don't think the Gothitelle likes her.”

The half-formed blob growled, and the Gothitelle hissed in return, making a series of gestures that I surmised must mean something incredibly rude in whatever sign language she used.

“Calm down, please,” cried Charles. “Anita! This belongs to Shauntal. It's on our side—”

The Gothitelle flung her hands up in the air in inexpressible rage and stormed out.

Shauntal's Ghost, for her part, gave a satisfied humph and faded away again.

We looked at each other.

“Well, that didn't quite go as planned,” said Bianca brightly. “Shall we try again?”

---

“So let me get this straight,” said Niamh, frowning. “You're a demon?”

“Yes, I suppose that's what you'd call me,” replied Ezra. “Not like Teiresias or that bastard Weland, though. I'm much less keen for humanity to be subjugated by the Shrouded Court.”

“What?”

Ezra sighed.

“Sorry. It's been a long time since I last tried to explain this to anyone. I'm getting everything all mixed up.” He leaned back in his seat. “Do you smoke?”

“No.”

“Do you mind if I do?”

“No.

Thin plumes of tobacco smoke began to trail from Ezra's mouth, though there was no evidence of a cigarette to produce them.

“All right,” he said. “First of all, you have to understand that I can't tell you everything. The king I want to kill has certain abnormal powers, as you might expect of a demon, and he'll know if I mention certain things. But I'll tell you everything I can.” He paused and exhaled a large smoke-ring. “Demons are real. You've worked that much out already. What you don't know, however, is that we have a society of sorts. There's a king – Weland the Undying – and his court. They've been underneath Unova for thousands of years, watching humans developing above them, and they don't much like it.”

“Why not?” asked Niamh.

“You know how some people believe radio is better than TV, and books are better than radio, and so on?”

“Yes...?”

“Weland's that sort of person. He comes from a time before people, and he firmly believes that no people is better than people. And since Weland thinks like that, all of our kind in Unova have to think that too or face execution.”

“You don't,” observed Niamh. “Unless this is a trap, and you're working with Teiresias.”

“You've seen what we can do,” replied Ezra levelly. “You saw Teiresias, and you must have realised by now that I put the location of this place into your head. If I wanted to kill you, you would have had an unfortunate heart attack in the small hours of the morning and never woken again.”

Niamh looked at him. If demons were anything like humans – and so far, Ezra at least seemed to be somewhat similar – then her senses told her he wasn't lying. For whatever reason, he had chosen not to harm her.

“All right,” she said. “But you don't side with this King Weland.”

“No,” replied Ezra. “I don't. I think Weland is insane and vengeful, and his regime is hideously oppressive. We have the right to think what we want, don't you agree? He's a cancer in the heart of Unova, and his continued rule is bad for demons and humans alike.”

So far, thought Niamh, he was being reasonable enough. She couldn't fault his argument.

“OK,” she said guardedly. “Go on.”

“Thanks. Anyway, between the Gorsedd and the Pokémon League, Unova has always been too well-defended for Weland to do much about the so-called human scum crawling about on the roof of his kingdom. But somehow this man Harmonia found out how to contact him, and between them they've come to a little agreement. Weland is lending his power and knowledge to Harmonia's campaign, and in return, Harmonia's Liberation policy will force the dissolution of the League, clearing the way for Weland's forces to attack.”

Niamh frowned.

“What does Harmonia stand to gain from that? He'd be Prime Minister of a dead country.”

“Actually, he wouldn't,” replied Ezra. “He would gain absolute power over what remains of the Unovan people, more or less. I'm afraid I can't go into the details of that, or Weland will overhear, but I promise you that it's true.”

“Right.” Niamh wasn't sure whether she totally believed him or not, but there were more pressing issues at hand. “What does any of this have to do with my friend Portland?”

“Smythe, right? The Party man.” Ezra sighed and blew another smoke-ring. “It's my guess that at the moment he's a prisoner of either Weland or Harmonia. You won't get him back without my help – but equally, I can't even enter either of their lairs without your assistance; alone, all I've been able to do is harass Harmonia – rather ineffectively, I have to say. So I'd like to make a deal.”

“I get Smythe and you get close to Weland, is that it?”

Ezra nodded.

“In a nutshell. Although I was going to add that I'll pay you one tonne of gold as well. No hidden catches.”

“A tonne of gold?”

Ezra shrugged.

“That is, if I manage to kill Weland. If I don't, I won't be able to get the gold out of his treasury and you'll have to settle for just having your friend back.”

“That's enough for me,” said Niamh immediately. “I—”

“Before you answer,” interrupted Ezra, “I need to give you a little more information. This is an extremely hazardous enterprise. You'll be risking, life, limb, soul and sanity – not to mention your ability to dream and to see the colour red. I will have to possess you at least once, as well, although I'll try not to do so unless there's no other option.”

Niamh wasn't stupid; she didn't rush into things, even when Smythe's safety was concerned. Ezra seemed truthful, but she knew better than to take it for granted; he was a demon, after all.

And yet he was peculiarly human, too – far more so than the ancient, cosmic thing that called itself Teiresias. It might be an act, but if it was, it was the best Niamh had ever seen; the alien and the human were balanced with incredible expertise in Ezra, and she was certain that fine edge could not be falsified. Whatever he was, she was surprised to find, she trusted him.

“Did you make me trust you?” she asked suspiciously.

Ezra smiled.

“You're learning,” he said. “Rule Number One: question everything where demons are concerned. And no, I didn't. I don't have that much power over human minds. I was always bottom of the class when it came to mental command.”

“Demons have schools?”

“Not as you understand them,” replied Ezra. “But yes, we do.” He paused. “Well, then. It's been a pleasure talking to you, Ms. Harper.”

He stood up and shook her hand.

“What? But you haven't heard my answer yet,” she said, puzzled.

“You need to think about this carefully,” Ezra replied. “You don't want to make a mistake. I'll find you at dawn tomorrow and you can give me your final answer then.”

“But—” Niamh blinked. Somewhere between him finishing and her starting to speak, he had disappeared, though she had no recollection of him vanishing; he was just, inexplicably, gone, and Niamh was left staring out at the bustle of pedestrians, not quite certain of anything except a sense of thorough confusion.
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  #44    
Old March 17th, 2013, 12:13 PM
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Daydream
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So I had a hop, skip and a jump to Google translate and it turns out Weiss and Schwarz mean White and Black in German, respectively. You are a wily one.

I'm rather enjoying the way you're weaving in the different perspectives to tell the story, it definitely adds intricacy to your plot. I've also noticed that Lauren seems more introspective in her narrative than Jared does. A clever way of showing the differences in their characters, I think.
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Old March 17th, 2013, 01:05 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Daydream View Post
So I had a hop, skip and a jump to Google translate and it turns out Weiss and Schwarz mean White and Black in German, respectively. You are a wily one.
I thought everyone knew that? Perhaps it's just me. The real question is why Ezra's name changes with the shifting world, when the only other person that does is Jared/Lauren.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Daydream View Post
I'm rather enjoying the way you're weaving in the different perspectives to tell the story, it definitely adds intricacy to your plot. I've also noticed that Lauren seems more introspective in her narrative than Jared does. A clever way of showing the differences in their characters, I think.
Well, I usually end up thinking of most of my characters as the main ones, so it's no surprise that I've ended up spreading the story across their eyes again. As for Lauren and Jared... well, I didn't actually notice that until you pointed it out, but yeah. That seems to be the case. It makes sense, really, given that I'm operating with a fairly strict set of parameters with the way I write each of them.

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Old March 25th, 2013, 02:23 AM
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Chapter Fifteen: Plasma

Imprisonment was nothing new to Portland Smythe.

Entombment, however, was.

He had awoken from uneasy dreams to find himself lying at length upon something hard and cold, and in an absolute darkness; there was no room to move his hands or indeed anything at all, and his attempt to sit up ended prematurely when his nose thumped fleshily into solid stone.

A lesser man would have panicked. Smythe, used to inconveniences of the most fearsome kind, did not – although he was far from calm. He had been possessed by Teiresias, he recalled, and returned to the care of Harmonia – or, potentially, to that of Weland; while doubtless despicable, Harmonia didn't strike him as the type to bury people alive.

Christchristchristchristhewasburiedalive

No. Smythe had been down that road before, long ago. Panic was a one-way ticket from a Bad Situation to a Very Much Worse one. There was no sense in boarding that particular train.

“Deep breaths,” Smythe said aloud, trying to calm himself. His voice had a peculiar muffled echoing sound to his mind – or was that just his knowledge of the severity of his situation getting in the way of his senses? No, it was – it wasn't – it was— wait! “Not deep breaths!” Smythe cried. “Definitely not deep breaths. Conserve air. Shut up!”

He clamped his mouth tightly shut and took a series of tiny breaths through his nose; a minute later, dizzy with lack of oxygen, his will broke and he gasped convulsively.

Calm down, he told himself silently. Calm down, Portland, calm down... They don't want to kill you! They'll want information – they'll... oh, sh*t.

They'll want to know about Niamh.

Smythe bit his lip.

Christ. Niamh.

He had personally seen her escape the clutches of the Czech Pokémon Champion while decapitating a surgically-created minotaur sewn together from bits of bull and gorilla, and heard tales from her that required no embellishment to astound – but still... This time she was up against more than mere monsters. The creatures to whose attention she had come weren't really flesh and blood – weren't even really mortal, not in the conventional sense of the word.

Niamh had killed everything life threw at her before, but Smythe had a horrible feeling that she wasn't going to be able to kill this one. Not without help, anyway.

“Right, then,” he muttered, an icy determination suddenly coming over him. “That makes it simple, then.”

Niamh couldn't possibly kill a demon without help. Smythe was in the very heart of the demons' lair.

From here, quite conceivably, he could find a way to destroy a demon, and thus save Niamh.

All he had to do was escape.

---

It took a long time for Anita and Shauntal's Ghost to become reconciled to each other's presence; Charles spoke volubly to the former, and Cheren attempted to argue with the latter, although she didn't actually deign to become visible again. Threats, bribery, reason – every possible avenue of attack was tried; at length Anita agreed, in aggressively choppy sign language, to perform the mind reading – but only if the Ghost was banished from the room while she did it.

At that, the Ghost shrieked so loudly she set the bookcases rattling, which seemed to be indicative of disagreement, and it wasn't until much further argument had passed between her and Cheren that she consented to leave the room – but only for sixty seconds, she said, because she didn't trust 'that f*cking Goth b*tch' any further than she could spit her.

I hadn't realised before quite how much Psychic- and Ghost-types hated each other – something to do with a long-standing argument over which was the true master of the mental world, Cheren told me later – so I suppose you could say it was quite informative; mostly, though, it seemed the most pointless waste of time I'd ever encountered.

Finally, though, the Ghost was outside and Anita was (moderately) happy, and the Gothitelle pressed her hands to my temples.

“Now, if you could just relax,” said Charles, but his voice already seemed to come from immeasurably far away; I had lost sight of anything but Anita's eyes, which I was plunging towards like a stone into a tropical lagoon, and which now I crashed into with a mind-fracturing splash—

“Would you like to put it to the test?” asked the woman, unimpressed. “Honestly, I've killed more monsters than you've ever dreamed existed.”

“What
I dream would shatter your skull,” replied Teiresias. “Smythe, why have you brought this creature here? Is this a declaration of war?”

Smythe shook his head so vigorously it looked dangerously close to coming off.

“No,” he said. “No no no no no no no—”

“It would seem the circumstances have changed,” Teiresias interrupted, apparently talking to itself. “The Kings and the Regent must be informed at once. And as for you, treacherous Smythe...”

With unnatural speed, Chili's body coiled like a cat and sprang across the Gym in a parabolic arc, dislodging Lelouch and landing next to Smythe; before anyone could react to that, his hand clamped across Smythe's face and black smoke oozed from the latter's eyes and mouth. A moment later, Chili slumped to the floor and Smythe, eyes aglow, was gone.


—I burst out of the other side and crashed back into my body with what felt like enough force to snap a rib; I stumbled back a few steps and would have fallen onto Hawes had Bianca and Cheren not grabbed my arms.

Anita turned to Charles and made a few sulky-looking signs, then swept out with an air of aggrieved majesty.

“All right,” he sighed, evidently much relieved to have the whole thing over with. “There's sufficient evidence there to suggest that yes, you are being stalked by a demon.”

The door rattled, and though the world was still somewhat hazy, I thought I detected a barely-perceptible blur cross the ceiling as Shauntal's Ghost slithered back in.

“Yeah, thanks,” I murmured sarcastically. “Glad we cleared that one up.”

I blinked and struggled back to my feet.

“So,” I went on, the room slowly ceasing to rock back and forth beneath me. “Can we have a look at the Glasya-Labolas now?”

---

Two hours later, we were sitting around the table, the Glasya-Labolas beneath the reading lamp, and an unpleasant chill creeping through our souls.

Teiresias had some considerable space devoted to it in the grimoire, much of which dealt with, in a tone that seemed almost gleeful, its long and atrocity-strewn past. From Jericho to Uruk, Athens to Rome, London to New York – it had slipped on shaded wings from one metropolis to another, staying always in the most advanced cities it could find, feasting on fear, hatred and the occasional entire soul. Its diet, however, wasn't really the main issue; we'd guessed that much already.

No, it was what it did in its free time that concerned us.

There were things described in the Glasya-Labolas that simply did not seem possible; things that the human mind could not withstand unless sustained by some supernatural force – and Teiresias, with spirited curiosity and careless spite, was perfectly capable of providing that force even as it peeled layer after layer from the psyche, examining each shred of consciousness minutely before ingesting and categorising it.

It had been a scientist, of sorts, the book said casually.

Not only that, but it was proleptic – could occasionally see the future. This wasn't that unusual – I knew a girl at school who had prolepsia – but it was unsettling news. Proleptics' visions were most usually concerned with avoiding danger; it was a kind of psychic self-defence mechanism, often preparing the seer for some calamity that would occur in the future – and so far, Teiresias' visions had kept it one step ahead of the countless people who had attempted to destroy it. In 1760, its last recorded appearance in Unova, it had driven an entire Council of the Gorsedd murderously insane a week before a concerted effort was to have been made to banish it; the eighty-one druids affected had gone on a killing spree that nearly wiped out an entire village, and was only stopped by the fact that they ended up killing each other.

That was where the trail ended. One year after that, there were hints that Teiresias had been badly injured in some titanic fight, and it had disappeared from the face of the earth. The author of its entry, writing sixty-five years later, even suggested hopefully that it had died from its wounds. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, as we could attest.

The silence deepened. We could have used Hawes to break it, but he had left earlier to see to some directorial taks.

“Well, it does seem to have weakened a bit since then,” said Charles at length.

“It's killed over two hundred druids,” I replied hollowly. “It doesn't matter if it's weakened a bit, it's still lethal.”

“That's not to say it can't be beaten,” said Cheren. “And it doesn't want to kill you or Halley, anyway.”

“No, it wants us alive,” replied Halley. “Which is, if anything, an even more horrifying thought. Look.” She stalked across the tabletop and flipped to the relevant page in the Glasya-Labolas. “One year towards the end of the fifteenth century,” she read, “it is believed that the fiend held in a state of the most fearsome captivity a family of nine from Naples, the sole survivor of which, upon escaping by the most fortunate of circumstances, was imprisoned for life when it became apparent that, in the course of his prior experience, his state of mind had become singularly deranged, best characterised by a taste for cannibalism...” She looked up. “I could go on. There's plenty of similar stuff here.”

“Yeah, don't,” Bianca said hurriedly. “I think we've heard enough.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “We definitely have.”

“Teiresias doesn't want you two insane either,” pointed out Cheren. “Well, perhaps you, Jared, but definitely not Halley – since it's from her that Harmonia's going to get this information.”

“How monumentally f*cking reassuring,” I muttered under my breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” I replied, and swiftly changed the subject. “Look, we can talk about Teiresias' atrocities til the cows come home, but what are we going to do now?”

“Well, it says here that Teiresias' weaknesses were never fully uncovered, so the only method that might have any effect on it would be a full-scale attack by a massed group of druids,” said Cheren thoughtfully. “So. I'm not really sure there's anything we can do.” He turned towards a corner of the room that was slightly darker than the rest – the one containing the Ghost. “You might wish to return to Shauntal,” he told her. “I think if it actually comes to a fight, you might well be destroyed by this thing.”

Evidently she then spoke in his head, because a moment later, Cheren said:

“Well, if that's what you want I can't really force you... No, I understand. Fine.” He turned back to us. “She says she'll check with Shauntal before she goes. She's uncomfortable about just leaving. It smacks of unprofessionalism.”

“How would she check with Shauntal without leaving?” I asked.

“I don't think you're meant to ask that sort of question,” he replied. “It's a Ghost thing.”

“Oh,” I said, mystified. “OK.”

“That's not the point,” snapped Halley. “Have you forgotten the whole lethal f*cking demon aspect? There's still that to deal with.”

“I don't see what we can do about it,” said Cheren. “Except what we've kept on doing this entire time. If we try and organise any kind of attack on Teiresias, it'll foresee it and avoid it or kill everyone beforehand. The only way it could conceivably be fought is completely randomly.”

“So we just carry on and ignore it?” asked Bianca incredulously. “Is that all we can do?”

“I don't like it any more than you do,” he replied. “But... Charles. You're a druid. Anything we can do?”

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“Well, we haven't really done much in the way of laying demons to rest for quite some time now,” he said evasively. “Nothing as strong as Teiresias has come to Unova for... well, 1867, I think, when something called Ammit swept up out of Egypt and stole the hearts of everyone in Anville Town straight out of their chests. It left straight afterwards. No one noticed for about a month.”

“Don't change the subject,” said Halley forcefully. “What can we do?”

“Er, well, not a lot,” admitted Charles. “Not with something like this. We can offer charms of protection, but—”

“Hang on,” said Cheren suddenly. “Is the Gorsedd really that complacent? Didn't you ever think that perhaps demons might start popping up again?”

“It rather seemed to us that their time was past,” answered Charles unhappily.

“Well, f*ck,” snapped Halley. “What's the use of druids if they don't have any power?”

“We can cure athlete's foot,” offered Charles hopefully.

“So can my doctor,” she growled, and turned to face me. “This was a waste of time,” she said. “Let's leave. This guy, this book – less use than a chocolate f*cking teapot.”

“Hey!” cried Charles, something of his crushed dignity reasserting itself. “I won't be spoken to li—”

“And why not?” asked Halley crushingly. “Have you achieved anything at all of worth today – in your entire life? Oh, you recategorised an errant book! You stopped people reading a Treatise for no reason whatsoever! Whoop-de-f*cking-doo.”

She jumped off the table and stalked over to the door, where she paused.

“This would have been a lot more effective if I could open the door and stalk out,” she mused. “Jared...?”

“We're not leaving yet,” I said firmly. “We need to figure out what—”

Something that sounded like the storming of the Bastille came to our ears.

“What in Neorxnawang...?” cried Charles. “Did that come from the entrance hall...?”

“It sounded like it,” said Bianca, looking worried. “Was—”

A gunshot. Someone screamed.

It sounded like Hawes.

“That's it,” said Cheren, getting to his feet. “Bianca! Jared!”

“Coming,” I replied, following suit.

“Is this a good plan?” asked Bianca doubtfully.

More gunshots now, and a horrible wrenching sound, like tearing metal.

“No,” said Cheren, “but it's the right one.”

Damn, I thought. I wish I'd thought to say that.

It was of no importance now anyway; Cheren opened the door and Bianca and I followed. It sounded like the Library was being subjected to a full-scale invasion, and even this place didn't have the security to handle that: the guards would need all the help they could get.

“Wait!” cried Charles, but none of us listened; the commotion was even louder now, and I heard breaking glass and frenzied voices. It reminded me of Regenschein's, and instinctively I grabbed a fire extinguisher from a bracket on the wall; it wasn't the best weapon I could think of, but it was heavy enough to hit people with, though its potential for exploding if shot was slightly worrying.

Cheren picked his way through the corridors with unerring accuracy; I had no idea how he knew the way back to the hall, but we traversed it, if anything, even faster than we had on the previous journey. Despite this, however, the noise seemed to be fading as we approached – and by the time we burst out into the hall, Lelouch and Munny fanning out ahead of us, the place was empty and the great doors were slamming shut.

“Sh*t,” snapped Cheren, which startled me; I hadn't heard him swear before. “Look!”

The place was a wreck: the Dragonite skeleton had been torn from its metal moorings and scattered liberally around the room, and several display cases had been smashed; a couple of ancient stone tablets had been shattered and strewn across the tiles – and near the front desk, shirt red and slick with blood, was Hawes.

“F*ck,” breathed Bianca, wide-eyed. This, if anything, was even more startling than Cheren swearing, but the circumstances more than justified it. “Hawes!”

We ran across to him, Cheren calling for an ambulance as we went, and found him in a seriously bad way: his breath was ragged and there was so much blood matting his clothes it was hard to find the wound.

“Lelouch, tourniquet,” said Cheren curtly, and the Snivy coiled tightly around Hawes' thigh, just above the bullet hole. “Bianca—”

“Already doing it,” she said. “Munny, calm him.”

It drifted down to land on Hawes' head, and blue light began to pulse steadily from its flanks into his cranium.

“He's still losing too much blood,” muttered Cheren. “Tighter, Lelouch!”

He obediently tightened his grip, and the gush slowed to a trickle. Seeing that there was nothing I could do, I crossed to the doors and flung them open, hoping to catch a glimpse of the people who had been here—

“Woden hang 'em,” I gasped, staring. “What the hell is going on?”

The square outside was full of smoke and flames; two cars had been overturned and set ablaze, and I could hear the roar of a mob coming from somewhere down the street, out of sight. I listened, and thought I could distinguish something in the hubbub – a chant of some kind – but the words eluded me.

“Plasma,” said Halley, materialising by my side. “They're yelling 'Plasma'. What's with that?”

“I don't know,” I said, grabbing Candy from my shoulder and setting her down on the front desk. “But I'm going to find out.”

“Hey, I'd appreciate it if my bodyguard didn't go on suicide missions,” began Halley, but I wasn't listening; I was hurtling down the steps, taking them three at a time, heading down towards the street and the roaring crowd. I saw a cricket bat lying on the ground near the flaming cars and snatched it up as I passed in case of danger; it felt wet to the touch, and I realised with a jolt that there was blood running down it.

I reached the road and stopped dead; there was no traffic, but what I could see further down the street left me frozen.

There must have been two or three hundred people there, coursing down the road in a huge crushing wave of shouts and yells and gunshots, and they looked like they were in the process of doing as much damage to the city as was humanly possible. Shop windows were kicked in and cars torched; the sound of breaking glass mingled with screams and strange, savage war-cries – and over everything rose that endless, manic chant:

“Plas-ma! Plas-ma! Plas-ma!”

“Thunor,” I said shakily. “There's...”

“A riot, yeah.”

I started, and turned to see a tall man with wild brown hair and oddly protuberant eyes standing next to me. He scratched his head, staring at the chaos, and continued:

“Did you see an old man going past here? Robes, big white moustache, funny hat?”

“Uh... no,” I replied. I felt like reality was rapidly flying away from beneath my feet; a riot, unlikely as it was, I could handle – but random questions about old men in funny hats? Right now, it seemed so incongruous that it made me want to hit him.

“He's the ringleader,” explained the man. “I was just about to visit the Museum when I saw him lead a crowd into the Library. They smashed up the place pretty good, and then they scattered. Looks like the— duck!”

He pushed me aside, and a hubcap sailed through the air where we'd been standing a moment before.

“So yeah, looks like the riot's a cover for whatever the old dude's up to,” he continued, apparently unfazed – although his weird eyes made his expression hard to read.

“Did you see which way he went?” I asked. It couldn't be a coincidence – this unprecedented riot, culminating in an attack on the Library, on the very day we were visiting? This had to have some kind of link to the Green Party, I was sure of it – and that meant the old man might have answers. Answers that, hopefully, could be beaten out of him with a cricket bat – although my experiences at Regenschein's had always left me wary of the elderly. They were tougher than most people thought, and if this old man was leading an army through Nacrene, he'd definitely be one of the tough ones.

“I'm not sure,” said the man, “but I think he went—”

He was cut off by the sound of hooves; we both looked around at the same time, and simultaneously stepped back into the square fronting the Library to let a wave of mounted police pass. I had never seen them before – had never even seen a horse before – and stared open-mouthed as they surged forwards, truncheons and shields at the ready. They sounded like an army as they passed – and judging by their numbers, they were an army. Padding with a muted click of claws at the head of each column of officers was a gigantic hound; each had dark blue flanks and a great mass of beige fur on their backs and heads, with shaggy moustaches that trailed on the ground. I had never seen them before, either, but I knew what they were: Stoutland, the Pokémon you resorted to when attack dogs just didn't cut it.

“Right on time,” commented the man. “Come on. They'll deal with the riots soon enough – we'll go after the old man.”

“We?” I asked. I wasn't thinking properly; the riot, and the weird guy, and the mounted police with their burnished shields and Stoutland, had all combined to stupefy me and leave my brain feeling somewhat like jelly.

The man looked at me in the same way as a teacher when they know you haven't been listening.

“You're after him too, right?” he asked. “It seems obvious enough.”

“Oh. Uh, yeah. Yeah, I am.” I had let the bat drop to my side; I hefted it now and swung it back into a ready position. “Right. Where did you say he went?”

“I think he went this way,” said the man, crossing the road. I started to follow, then heard a ferocious cry go up from the right and stopped to stare down the street at the pitched battle that was now raging. I couldn't see much past the cavalry and the smoke, but I saw the white flowering of tear gas, and heard the thunderous baying of the Stoutland amid the shouts and screams—

“Hey!” cried the stranger. “Are you coming or not?”

“Yeah,” I said, voice trembling slightly. This was worse than Regenschein's – bigger, bloodier and so horribly, unexpectedly sudden – but I could handle it. As long as I didn't go into the heart of the mob itself, I could handle it. “Yeah, I'm... I'm coming.”

I turned and ran across the street after him. There was no time to waste standing around. I had an old man to catch.

---

“Hello. Ms. Harper?”

“Speaking.”

Niamh could never fathom why Mr. Boares – for such was the name of her employer at Ingen – seemed incapable of remembering her voice. He had heard it often enough, after all; she'd been taking their contracts for years. But for whatever reason, whenever he called her, he began the conversation with the same question. It had started to annoy her after a while, but, having decided that Mr. Boares was a moron of the first water, it had long since ceased to seem anything other than a symptom of his inescapable idiocy.

She sipped her coffee and waited for him to speak.

“We were wondering,” he said, “how your mission was going? That Archen is an obsolete version – and, more to the point, a wholly unlicensed genetic product, with our markers in its DNA. If it were to fall into the hands of the GLA...”

Doubtless Mr. Boares thought trailing off like that was ominous. In actual fact, it just made him sound like he'd forgotten what he was talking about.

“If it were to fall into the hands of the GLA what?” asked Niamh peevishly. Ingen and their petty demands irritated her at the best of times – and now, with Smythe in danger and a would-be regicidal demon courting her interest, they were more of an annoyance than ever.

“Oh.” Mr. Boares had not been expecting this, it seemed. “Um, well, you know. It would be traced back to us and we would face an inquiry into why we are producing unlicensed creatures, not to mention a fine – and the inquiry might uncover other, more – um – secret secrets.”

“More secret secrets?” Niamh tried very hard not to laugh at him, and just about succeeded.

“Yes. More, um, secret secrets than the Archen.” Mr. Boares paused. “Well. How is, ah, that matter of the Archen proceeding? You assured us it would be dealt with within a few days.”

“Ah,” said Niamh, thinking hard. “Um... do you remember that business at the Striaton Gym yesterday? It was in today's papers. One of the Leaders was hospitalised.”

“Oh yes?”

“That was the Archen,” said Niamh, as seriously as she could. “It's, er, more dangerous than you told me it would be. Seems to have some fairly unearthly abilities.”

“Oh dear,” said Mr. Boares. “The Archen... did that?”

“Yep,” said Niamh. “Spat these weird lumps of darkness at him. I tried to hush it up – kept the details out of the papers.”

“Lumps of darkness...?” Mr. Boares sounded close to tears. Niamh imagined him, plump and distressed in his office, picturing a full-scale government inquiry into why International Genetics had released a Gym-Leader-eating monster bird into Unova, and suppressed another chuckle.

“Yeah. You sure it only had eagle and Archen DNA in it? I should think there was something else in there, you know.”

“Oh my,” said Mr. Boares faintly. “Oh my... Well, ah, please do your best, Ms. Harper... if you'll excuse me, I think I need to speak to my manager now.”

“Sure,” she said, with a wicked grin. “I'll get right on it.”

She hung up and leaned back in her chair, taking a victory draught of her coffee.

“Fan-tastic,” she said to herself. “That'll keep the bastards off my back for a while. In fact, let's celebrate it.” She glanced across the café at the waiter. “Hey, can I get a blueberry muffin?”

Whether or not she could proved something of a moot point, since at that moment the sound of chanting and and car alarms came to her ears, and a rubbish bin was hurled through the window.

Immediately, Niamh kicked over her table and ducked behind it, glass flying overhead; a moment later, she heard twin thumps by the window and slammed her shoulder into the underside of the table, sending it sliding towards the men who'd just entered and knocking their legs out from under them.

It wouldn't hold them for long, but Niamh was loath to end lives that didn't belong to abominations, and seized the moment to vault the counter and head back through the kitchen to the back door; a moment later, she burst out into a small courtyard between the backs of three shops, and slipped through an archway out onto Burgher Street.

Here, she saw for the first time the scale of the problem: there was, for whatever reason, a riot in progress, and the street was a seething mass of shouting men and women, brandishing guns and less sophisticated weapons, all yelling out at the top of their voices:

“Plas-ma! Plas-ma! Plas-ma!”

“Bloody anarchists,” muttered Niamh, whacking one who'd come a bit too close over the head with a brick. “I really wanted that muffin.”

A couple of other rioters had seen her flooring their companion, and rushed at her with a cricket bat and a broken bottle; Niamh lobbed the brick at the bottle-wielder and, ducking under the sweep of the bat, broke the nose of his companion with a well-placed punch. He recoiled, swearing and whining, and Niamh took the opportunity to slip back through the archway and take cover in the courtyard before any more of the rioters came after her. She had no doubt that in a one-to-one fight with any of them she could emerge the victor – but there were over two hundred of them and only one of her, which did not make for reassuring odds.

Unfortunately, it seemed that this was not going to be enough; the man with the broken nose staggered through the archway and pointed at her, yelling something inaudible over the roar of the mob. Niamh didn't wait for his companions to follow; she jumped up onto a bin, grabbed hold of a drainpipe and made for the roof. As she crested the gutter and hauled herself up onto the slates, a bullet zipped past overhead, and Niamh flung herself flat on her belly, worming her way behind a chimney-stack before getting to her feet and running.

“Sh*t!” she yelled, half in anger at the morons chasing her and half at herself for provoking them. “Not a good move!”

From here, she could see smoke rising from multiple points around the city, and hear shouts and screams spiralling out of the chaos that weltered in the street below. Car alarms – flames – breaking glass – cries of pain – deep, coughing barks and the swish-thump of truncheons...

“'Sraven,” she muttered, leaping carefully over a yawning alleyway and landing on the flat roof of a kebab shop. “What brought this on?”

No one seemed to have followed her up here, so Niamh took the opportunity to look around; she appeared to be above quieter streets now, and she dropped lightly onto a fire escape and hurried back to ground level.

A few streets away, she stopped to catch her breath in the shadow of a statue, and a fire engine tore past, siren screaming – followed, seconds later, by another. The whole city seemed to be collapsing around her, reflected Niamh, and hurried on; she did not want to be caught out by the oncoming mob.

The streets were eerily deserted, which she supposed made sense, given how dangerous it was to be out right now – but wasn't there anywhere safe in the city? The riots couldn't have spread right across Nacrene, could they? They must be confined to a few districts at least, even allowing for opportunistic looters to have taken advantage of the situation and started more of them.

Niamh kept going, heading in any direction where the smoke was thinnest and the hubbub quietest, but soon found that wherever she went, the roar of the crowd swelled again. It seemed, she thought, that she was surrounded – which meant she would have to make a break for it around one of the mobs. She saw no reason why it wouldn't work: she was fast and agile, and they weren't out to get her in particular. With the minimum of effort, she ought to be able to effect a quick getaway around one or other of the groups.

“All right,” she said, gritting her teeth and rounding a corner onto Memorial Street, “let's go.”

Immediately, she was struck by a wave of heat, pouring from a pair of wrecked cars; ducking around them, Niamh saw that she'd stumbled across a battle between the police and the rioters. As she watched, a constable was dragged from his horse and vanished amid a thrashing of limbs; another was shot in the arm and fell – only to be saved by a Stoutland, the great dog brutally headbutting the aggressor out of the way and catching the policeman gently in its jaws. A short distance away, white plumes of tear gas rose up amid the chaos, and a panicked rush began as the rioters pushed away from them.

Niamh shook her head.

“So f*cked up,” she said to herself, creeping along the street in the shadow of the buildings. “What the hell do they think they're achieving?”

No one answered, but she hadn't expected them to.

The tear gas had moved the battle closer to her, but had not ended it; some rioters, she now saw, had gas masks similar to those of the police. Not for the first time, Niamh wondered who these people were: several things about them, from their weaponry to their preparedness, struck her as more indicative of a pillaging army than a simple angry mob.

“Strange,” she murmured, though she could not hear her voice over the cacophony of the fight and the chant.

Now the battle was upon her, and Niamh wound her way around its side, thrusting one or two rioters – and an overzealous policeman – out of her way with a swift series of punches; for the most part, however, it was easy to overlook one thirty-something woman in the heat of battle, and Niamh emerged unscathed from the other side. She ducked into an alley and headed down it, not knowing where it led and not caring, either; she did not look back, and in a couple of minutes the hideous sounds of battle had faded in her ears. There were people in the streets here, and they were going about their lives as normal, as yet unaware of the chaos reigning in the northern district; with a sigh of relief, Niamh let herself fall into their midst, and vanished into the crowds.

---

Far away, on a train speeding through the forest, a boy with green hair and grey eyes was dreaming of dragons.

And twice as far away again, in a tower under the watchful eye of the one who stole it, a dragon was dreaming of him.
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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  #47    
Old April 3rd, 2013, 09:33 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
A thousand apologies for the lateness of this chapter. It was finished on time, but I've been entertaining a guest for the past few days and didn't have a chance to post it.


Chapter Sixteen: Gormless

A boardroom – drawn blinds, sun in cracks across the table, polished mahogany and black velour.

Middle-aged white men. Worried.

It was not every day that an emergency board meeting was called. The last time had been a response to the accidental escape of an ancient and terrifying evil cloned at Volundr's Anvil, and had ended when said evil crashed through the window, intent on eating their brains. They had every reason to be worried.

“Gentlemen,” said the chairman, rising to his feet at the head of the table. “We appear to have a problem.”

“Is it the raptors?” asked one. “It's the raptors, isn't it? I told you. They're too bloody dangerous. They should all be destroyed.”

“No, Robert,” sighed the chairman. “It's not the raptors. They've never caused one iota of trouble, as you well know.” He leaned on the table, shoulders stretching the cloth of his suit. “It's the Archen.”

“The Archen?”

“Yes, the Archen.” The chairman indicated the pile of documents in front of each board member. “SN407, I think the number is. It was an experimental model that was apparently destroyed two years ago. Except it wasn't, and it just hospitalised a Gym Leader in Striaton.”

Silence. No one was quite sure how to respond to that.

“Woden hang 'em,” said someone at last. “What's it made of?”

“Archen, mostly – as much as we could use, anyway,” replied the chairman. “Patched with golden eagle where the DNA was missing or unusable.”

No revived 'fossil' Pokémon were the real thing, of course. Aerodactyl, Cradily, Anorith, Kabuto – there existed no complete genome from which to clone them. They were patchwork facsimiles – very good facsimiles, and ones physically almost indistinguishable from the real thing, but facsimiles all the same. Subject SN407 was no different; Archen were a dead species, gone from the earth forever. Ingen had made something very similar to them, but it was patched with bits of other creatures' DNA, and modified for saleability: disease resistance was added, and accelerated growth, and specially-engineered white cells programmed to rove about the body and swallow up the tumours that were the inevitable result of Ingen's low-cost 'rough and ready' sequencing techniques.

“Anything else? Anything that might have given it... unusual abilities?”

The chairman shrugged.

“There's a touch of dodo in there, but that's all.” He sighed. “It seems that this ability to throw people into comas is an innate ability of Archen themselves. Which is no doubt fascinating news for palaeontologists, but rather bad for us.”

“Have we sanctioned a clean-up operation?”

“Of course. We did that even before the Striaton incident – as soon as we became aware that the Archen was still at large.” A look of irritation crossed the chairman's face. “Look, have any of you even looked at the papers in front of you? They're not decoration, you know – they do actually contain all this information.”

Everyone abruptly started busying themselves with their documents, a sudden wash of collective guilt suffusing the room. The chairman pinched the bridge of his nose and silently asked Thunir to give him mental fortitude, or, failing that, the upper-body strength necessary to pound these cretins into meatloaf. (The saying is an old Unovan one, and it's said it loses a lot in the translation.)

“Gentlemen!” he cried, trying to recapture their attention. “That's not the point. Read the documents at your leisure. The point is, we still have samples of the genome on record, and we're thinking of putting together a retriever.”

The rustle of paper ceased. Twelve pairs of anxious eyes turned to him.

“I realise this is an extreme step to take,” he said, “and that is why it requires a unanimous vote of approval from the board.”

“The last time we built a retriever Doctor Wu wired its brain wrong,” said Robert in a low voice. “It ate every lollipop man in Nacrene before our agent shut it down.”

“It also ate Doctor Wu,” pointed out the chairman. “So it seems unlikely he'll be making that mistake again.” He sighed. “Just agree on it, damn it. Our agent is on it, but given the magnitude of the problem, I think we should have the retriever ready, just in case. If she gets the Archen, it doesn't matter and the retriever can be deprogrammed and sold on to Mister Bones. If she doesn't, then we activate it and send it out there. Easy.”

“Yeah, you make it sound that way,” muttered Robert.

“All those in favour?” asked the chairman, pointedly ignoring him.

Eleven hands rose. Twenty-one eyes came to rest on Robert.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “But against my better judgement, OK?”

“Sure. Fine. Got it.” The chairman nodded. “Excellent, gentlemen. If you'll excuse me, this meeting is now over. We've work to do.”

The men rose from their seats and filed out without a word. Ingen lay under serious threat of the one thing that could possibly shut its operation down, a GLA investigation, and that weighed heavier in their minds than any of the monsters they had spawned.

---

Nacrene was ablaze.

Through burning streets we ran – past overturned cars, past shattered windows and broken lampposts. Around us rose blank-faced buildings, staring down at the carnage in the streets with eye-like windows; once, a group of rioters flitted past, shouting and swearing, and a moment later a Stoutland came bounding after them with a deep coughing bark.

All order seemed to have vanished. There was nothing left except hellish chaos.

We rounded a corner and came head to head with a gang of looters; they charged us, whooping and yelling like madmen, and I readied the bat – but before they'd even crossed the space between us, something green flashed across my vision and the men all hit the ground at once, as if their legs had been cut from under them. A second later a lithe green figure materialised at the stranger's side; I started and stared, and only realised a moment later that it was actually a bug-faced Pokémon rather than an abnormally short ninja.

“I should turn them in, but we don't have time,” said the stranger, scratching his head and looking at the struggling figures on the ground. “Come on! We have to find that old man.”

As we ran past, the strange insectoid Pokémon keeping pace with us, I saw the reason for their fall: the looters' legs had been enmeshed in a tangle of gluey-looking cords. I shot it a sidelong glance, and saw its arms tapered to fine blades at the tips; I suspected it could have done a whole lot more to them than immobilise them if it had wanted to.

“You're a Trainer?” I asked the stranger.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Name's Burgh. I lead Castelia Gym.”

“You're a Gym Leader?” I asked incredulously, so surprised that I almost forgot to keep running. “Why didn't you say anything?”

“Didn't think it was particularly relevant,” he said. “Why? Is it?”

I shook my head. He was clearly either an idiot or a lunatic, but I'd had extensive experience with both recently and so I knew better than to contest the point.

“Thunir,” I muttered. “You—”

“Look!” he interrupted, pointing eagerly. “There!”

I looked ahead, and saw an old man in a tall hat and bulky robes at the end of the street; he had a large bag on his back and an impressive beard on his face, and was currently engaged in hotwiring a motorbike.

“That's him?” I asked.

“That's him,” confirmed Burgh, speeding up. “Leif! Stop him!”

The old man looked up at the sound of Burgh's voice, swore violently and jumped on his bike; a moment later, the Pokémon caught up, but it barely brushed the rear wheel before its quarry zoomed off in a cloud of smoke, making it recoil in peculiarly refined horror.

“Leif!”

But it wasn't beaten yet: leaping forwards, it got one claw in the old man's cloak and hauled itself up onto the back of the bike; before I could see any more, however, the motorbike rounded a corner and roared out of sight.

I looked at Burgh.

“Do we keep running?”

“Nah,” he said. “There isn't much either of them can do to get each other off the bike without killing themselves. We'll get ourselves a car and follow.”

“Get ourselves a car? How?”

“Well,” said Burgh thoughtfully, pushing a brick through a car window. “I say 'get'. I mean steal.”

I stared.

“Twice in as many days,” I muttered. “Everyone's a bloody car thief...”

“It's this or lose him,” he pointed out. “I'm commandeering it in the name of the League. You coming?”

I sighed, and swung the bat up onto my shoulder.

“Fine,” I replied, walking around to the passenger door. “I'm coming...”

---

“At last! It took me forever to find you – it's so much harder when you're awake.”

Niamh turned around, and was unsurprised to find Ezra standing there, looking vaguely impatient.

“You again? I thought you weren't coming back until tomorrow morning?”

“The situation has changed,” he said tersely. “Look. You've thought about this and you want to work with me. Am I correct?”

“Yes, but you said—”

“Forget what I said,” he interrupted with a curt gesture. “There's very little time. Harmonia's making his move early – right now. This riot is a cover-up, initiated by him, in order to steal something he needs from the Nacrene Museum—”

“What? What the hell kind of cover-up is that?”

“I know. None of it makes any sense, but that's the only explanation I can put together right now,” he replied. “The fact that he's behind it, though, is certain: I passed Molloy earlier, though until the riots started I thought nothing of it...” He gave her a steady look. “You've heard of Caitlin Molloy?”

“Of course,” answered Niamh. “Everyone has. Is she – she's with the Party?”

“Undoubtedly,” said Ezra. “I've seen her going to and from their headquarters. Disguised, naturally, but nevertheless there. The point is, we need to stop the thief – who, by the way, is fleeing the city as we speak – and prevent this artefact from getting into Harmonia's hands. I could do it alone, but I thought that as you're here...”

“I get it,” said Niamh. “OK. Where are we going?”

Ezra smiled and extended a hand.

“Hold on tight,” he said. “We're going to take a very direct sort of route...”

Niamh would have asked what this meant, but she'd already taken his hand, and the sudden absence of air as the world vanished around them made it rather difficult to speak.

“Don't breathe,” said Ezra, voice somehow travelling through the vacuum to her ears. “Your body will panic if you breathe. Just hold your breath; you'll find you don't run out of air.”

After a moment of mind-numbing terror, Niamh had control of her lungs, and was able to look around – not that there was anything to see, given that they were currently in the middle of a featureless abyss, travelling along a path that only appeared to be visible for a few centimetres around the points where Ezra's feet touched it. What little she could see of it looked like flat bluish light, scarcely visible against the blackness; it was, all told, a distinctly unnerving roadway.

“Where are we?” mouthed Niamh silently, unable to make a sound.

“'All the world's a stage',” quoted Ezra. “We've gone behind the set. Humans can't come here normally, but a few creatures can: demons, obviously, and cats – it's why they say they have nine lives; they step out of reality before aggressors harm them, and step back again a little later. A few Pokémon come this way, too – Gothitelle, mostly, and Unown.”

“What? Behind the set...?”

In the distance, Niamh saw a few faint shapes making their blurry way through the void; she supposed they were traversing dark paths of their own.
“If the world is a play, this is backstage,” Ezra clarified. “Or, to put it another way, these are the rat-tunnels in the wainscot of reality.”

“I see,” said Niamh, which was mostly not a lie.

“We are outside space and time,” Ezra went on. “Or at least, almost all the way outside. You, a material being defined wholly in spacial and temporal terms, wouldn't survive if I took you all the way outside the universe – the prerequisites for your existence simply don't exist there. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that time and space are flexible here, rather than rigid as they are in what you so quaintly term reality.” He smiled to himself. “It really is quite cute how you guys keep calling it that,” he added. “As if anything you saw there equated to the deeper reality of things at all...” He shook his head. “Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yeah – space and time. Here,” he continued, “journeys can be compressed into shorter periods of time, and shorter distances too – with the result that in only a few minutes, we can—”

---

I've never left a city so quickly by car before.

The rioters had coordinated their movements so as to clear the streets for the old man without getting in his way, it seemed; there was nothing to slow the motorbike – and consequently, nothing to slow us. Burgh, while not quite as insane a driver as that Niamh woman, was fairly erratic (to say the least), and more than once came close to reducing the pair of us to red smears on the inside of the windscreen, despite the lack of obstacles.

“I didn't even see what it was that time!” I cried, after he almost crashed into something for the fourth time. “What is it that you keep nearly hitting?”

“Not sure,” he replied thoughtfully. “I do this a lot, I think. I'm not actually a qualified driver.”

“'Sraven,” I muttered. “Not even...”

“I don't suppose you can drive?” he asked diffidently. “I'm really not that confident behind the wheel of a car.”

“How can you be able to hotwire a car but not drive one?” I cried.

“Standard League training,” he replied. “We have to be able to deal with situations, and sometimes those situations involve commandeering other people's vehicles. Would you believe that I also know how to put a nuclear sub into meltdown?”

“Yes,” I said firmly, shuddering at the thought. “Yes, I would. Sh*t – left!”

Burgh turned right, almost hit a hospital, pulled of an incredibly tight U-turn and shot off down the road after the motorbike.

“What the hell was that?” I shouted. “I said left—”

“Well, do you want to drive?”

“Yes!” I cried. I didn't actually know how, but I was damned if I was any worse than Burgh. “But we don't have time to stop. Just keep going!”

“All right, all right,” he muttered moodily. “Some people...”

The buildings fell behind on either side of us, disappearing as we zoomed out on an overpass and swooped down towards the woods, bypassing the suburbs; here at last there were other cars, and the motorbike was forced to slow a little. Unfortunately, it forced us to slow quite a lot more – especially since Burgh seemed to be having a mild panic attack at the sight of so many over vehicles and the bike began to gain ground, inching ahead with the slow implacability of a Terminator.

“We're losing him,” I said. “Faster!”

“If I go faster, we end up smeared over the back of that Transit van,” he pointed out, irritation in his bulging eyes. “I don't know about you, but I'm pretty keen to stay in one piece.”

“Then we – wait, what's he doing?”

Maybe the old man had decided the motorway was slowing him down; maybe he was simply trying to shake us with something unexpected; maybe he was just crazy – whatever it was, he abruptly turned left, cut across a line of traffic to a fanfare of blaring horns, and drove down the embankment at the side of the road, where he jumped off his bike and took off into the woods.

“Did you see that?” I asked. “He's in the woods!”

Burgh paled.

“But how do I stop and go down after him—?”

“Turn left and pray!”

“Seriously? That's your best idea?”

“Do you have any others?” I asked, with considerably more confidence than I felt, and closing his eyes tightly, Burgh spun the wheel.

Something did hit us, that much I'm sure of – the back half of the car lurched violently halfway through the turn. But the traffic to our left had mostly come to a standstill when the motorbike cut through it, and we slid between a lorry and a Volvo to shoot over the lip of the embankment—

—and come crashing down onto the grassy sward two feet below. The force spiked straight through me and made me bite my tongue so hard it bled; Burgh's head smacked into the roof, but his ridiculous hair protected it from any serious harm.

The engine suddenly dead, the car rolled forwards silently for a metre and a half, and stopped gently against a log.

“Thit,” I moaned, trying to pat my tongue and failing. “Michael Thumacher you definitely are not.”

“Urrgh...” groaned Burgh, rubbing blood off his head. “What was that?”

“Nothing.”

I felt like in the last few minutes I'd become a human version of Halley; did it happen to everyone who got dragged along with someone else as a sidekick, perhaps? Maybe I should be a little more understanding towards her, I mused – then shook my head clear of thoughts. Now was not the time.

“The old man!” I cried. “We have to follow him and get back what he thtole!”

“What's with the lisp?”

“I bit my tongue,” I said frostily. “Look, jutht get out and let'th find him already!”

We staggered free of the battered car and towards the abandoned motorbike, from underneath which Leif was struggling to get out; I pulled it away from the ground enough for the Pokémon to slide free, and it straightened up, brushing down its flanks fastidiously as it did so. It didn't seem any the worse for wear for its experience, although it had a few small insects splattered across its face, and immediately set off into the forest, following some trail that neither Burgh nor I could detect.

“Who flees into the forest like this?” murmured Burgh. “I mean, it's easy to lose pursuers in here, but really... You could do that in a city, too, if you got to the populated part. And it's not exactly safe here. There are Sawk and Throh here, and you know what they're like.”

I shivered. Yes, I knew exactly what they were like, I thought, recalling Steve's Throh back at the old Sytec plant.

“Yeah,” I said. “Nathty.”

Leif forged on ahead, slicing branches from our path in almost total silence; Burgh and I, in contrast, blundered on like concussed elephants. In Burgh's case, I guess he might actually have been able to plead concussion, but I was genuinely clumsy. I thought I'd got free of the forest when we arrived in Striaton; I should have known it wouldn't be so easy. Unova was mostly woodland outside the major settlements, after all.

“How much further?” asked Burgh; Leif clicked its mandibles and waved one gauzy wing. I wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but presumably it had some significance, because it seemed to satisfy Burgh.

“What did it thay?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” he replied. “Probably nothing. He is an insect, after all.”

Just then, Leif stopped abruptly, and held its scything claws wide apart, ready to snap together; its legs bent and its wings hummed, and it vanished upwards.
“Where'd—?”

“Ah, sh*t!”

Burgh and I exchanged looks.

“There,” I said, and we ran, blundering through the undergrowth, pushing past branches, heedless of the thorns and burrs, to see—

—Leif crouched over an old man in the leaf litter, one blade at his throat. A tall and stupendously ugly hat lay on the ground nearby.

“Got you!” I cried, keeping the bat ready to swing. “Who are you?”

“Get your f*cken bug out my face and I might just tell you,” he spat. His voice was accented – Irish, I thought.

“I don't really think you're in any position to make demands,” Burgh pointed out.

“You're not going to kill me,” he said. “You're not murderers.”

“No, but I might whack you over the head with a cricket bat,” I replied. “You can call Leif off. I've got him covered.”

The Leavanny's head rotated on its shoulders to face Burgh; below the neck, it remained motionless.

“Yeah, OK,” he said. “Back off. I'll trust, uh, this guy's word.”

“Jared,” I said. “My name'th Jared.”

Leif took a step back, but kept its multifaceted eyes firmly on the old man as he struggled to his feet.

“Better,” he said. “Always easier to talk without a f*cken knife at your throat.”

“Less of that, now. Who are you?”

“Gorm,” replied the old man. “Gorm, of the Seven Sages of Plasma.” He chuckled drily, a smoker's rasping laugh. “There's a riddle for you.”

“Plasma? Sages?”

“Didn'tcha hear them in the street?” he asked. “Plas-ma! Plas-ma!” He shook his head. “Crazy, but they serve their purpose.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Let me,” I said, stepping forwards. “Thtop talking in f*cken riddleth, or I'll start breaking boneth.”

“Threats aren't so effective when you lisp 'em,” Gorm said. “But whatever. I can see this particular jig is up.” He reached into his bag and pulled out, of all things, the skull from the Dragonite skeleton in the Library hall. “Guess I'll have to give this back,” he said.

“What did you want with that?” I asked, puzzled.

“D'ya want it or not?”

“Yes,” said Burgh. “Hand it over!”

Gorm grinned evilly.

“Here,” he said, tossing it into the air. “Take it.”

Burgh and I, conscious of its value and fragility, leaped to catch it at the same time, crashed together in midair and went down in a tangle of limbs; Gorm laughed, spun on one heel and vanished into the undergrowth, throwing his cloak over Leif and immobilising it in its folds.

“Thit!” I cried, struggling free of Burgh only to have a gigantic, panicking bug collapse on top of me. “Where ith he?”

“I think he got away,” muttered Burgh, clutching the skull tightly. “But at least we got back what he stole.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, pushing Leif off and staggering to my feet. “But thtill... Why would he go to all the bother of organising those riotth jutht for thith thkull?”

“I have no idea,” replied Burgh, untangling Leif. “Leif, keep up the search, and String Shot him if you see him; I'll be back later.” It nodded and flitted off into the forest. Burgh turned to me. “As for us, I think we'd better get this to Lenora, and see if we can find out why someone would want to steal it.”

I nodded.

“Cool,” I said. “Jutht one quethtion.”

“Yeah?”

“How are we getting back to the thity?”

His face fell.

“Ah...”

---

Niamh fell over and landed face-first in a heap of mulchy leaves.

“—cross entire cities,” finished Ezra, helping her to her feet. “Sorry about that. I'm not used to taking passengers with me.”

“Where – where are we?” she asked, looking around. They were obviously in a forest, but that didn't really help much. Most of Unova was covered in the stuff.

“Pinwheel Forest,” replied the demon. “This is where I sensed the thief... quick! There!”

Niamh turned to see an elderly man moving through the woods with surprising agility given his advanced years and heavy robe, and with commendable presence of mind she tackled him to the ground and put a pistol to his skull.

“What the f*ck?” he yelped. His voice, she noticed, sounded oddly strained – not quite natural.

“Give back what you took,” she said.

The old man grinned. His teeth were awful, she noted.

“Too late,” he said. “Already did that.”

“He's lying,” said Ezra. “I know what you have in your bag.”

The grin slipped a notch.

“What?”

Ezra crouched by his head.

“It's perfectly simple,” he said. “You picked a bad time to steal her, my friend. She's more conscious than she has been for years; I can feel the glow of her dreams, like the warmth of a radiator.”

The old man's face fell.

“Sh*t,” he said. “You're not human, are you?”

Ezra shook his head sadly.

“No,” he replied. “I'm afraid I'm not. There's no lying to me.” He turned to Niamh. “Would you pull him forwards, please? I'd like to get at his bag.”

She did, and Ezra withdrew from the old man's rucksack a perfect white sphere, the size of a basketball.

“Ah,” he sighed, staring at it. “I feel her...” He looked at the old man sharply. “What does Harmonia want with this?” he asked.

“I don't know, do I? I'm just the f*cken thief.”

“Why go to the trouble of causing a riot?” asked Niamh. “What was the point of all that?”

“To draw attention.” The old man grimaced. “We wanted to be followed – there're people who we wanted to delay while we worked on stuff.”

“Could you be more specific?” asked Ezra. “Please remember that my associate here has a gun pressed against your head, and would have zero qualms about ending your miserable little life.”

This was not the case, and Niamh was pretty sure Ezra knew it, but she didn't let her face give anything away. She wanted this information as badly as he did; anything they could glean about Harmonia's plans would be useful, given how little they knew.

The old man looked into Niamh's eyes, judged that there really was a killer behind them, and swallowed nervously.

“Uh, OK,” he said. “Uh... Look, I don't know much. All I know is that the boss got a message from someone he has in the field. Told him something that made him decide he'd better secure that orb there. And he also wanted to distract some people who'd buggered up an operation we'd run in Striaton – some woman – while he worked on her identity—”

Niamh's eyes widened imperceptibly; that was her, she realised. In part, she had been the cause of the riots.

“—and there were some other people as well that we wanted to lead off the scent. So we set up some riots to make it look like we were trying to cover our tracks, but I actually made it easy to follow me – you know, make them think they're winning when they're just doing what we want.”

“Huh. Looks like you succeeded there,” muttered Niamh under her breath. “Fine. Anything else?”

“That's it,” he said. “That's it, I swear.” He looked very old, suddenly; old and frail. “Please don't kill me.”

“I'm not going to.” Niamh looked at Ezra. “Do we turn him over to the police?”

He shook his head.

“He'll never make it to court. Harmonia has hands everywhere. Just let him go.”

“Shouldn't we do something?” she asked.

“What do you suggest?” replied Ezra. “Send him to the police, he'll walk free in a few hours. Short of killing him, there's no way to stop him getting back to Harmonia – and I will not kill humans. You may, if you wish. But I won't.”

“No, I don't want to either,” she said, wondering what reason a demon could have for not wanting to kill humans when he was perfectly willing to kill his own kind. “Fine.” She got up, but kept the gun trained on the old man's face. “I guess you're free to go.”

He got to his feet quickly, shakily, as if unable to believe his luck; Niamh had seen that look before. He took a few steps away, looked at her and Ezra – and then, realising that he really wasn't about to get shot in the back, he fled into the forest.

“OK,” said Niamh, turning to Ezra. “I have quite a lot of questions, and you're going to answer them.”

He nodded.

“Of course. But first, this.” He held out the sphere. “This must be returned. And then I will buy you dinner, and I will answer any questions you have left.”

Niamh looked at her watch.

“It's nowhere near time for dinner,” she said, puzzled.

“It will be by the time we get back to Nacrene,” he replied cheerfully. “I can't take this artefact through the dark paths.”

Niamh's heart sank.

“You mean...?”

“Yes,” confirmed Ezra. “We're walking.”

---

A few miles away, Gorm shrugged off his robes and packed them away into his bag. Beneath them, he wore blue jeans and a green shirt, and the body that filled them was not that of an old man.

“It's me,” he said into a mobile phone – and his voice was no longer accented, or indeed deep. “Good news and bad, I'm afraid. I lost the Orb to the woman, but both groups bought the story completely, and I have some information to pass on when I get back. And as for our little army... Well.” He grinned, the make-up on his face cracking. “That was absolutely spectacular. I think we can safely say that that experiment was an unqualified success...”
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  #48    
Old April 3rd, 2013, 12:48 PM
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c1234321
 
Join Date: Apr 2011
Gender: Male
First, allow me to apologize for my rather unexpected reprieve from being present in commenting on these. I had things going on that prevented me from checking in on this. And, let me say, it was a delight to catch up again. So much has happened since last I read.

I still have to say Lauren is my favorite character. I dont really have much else to say about that except that I am loving how she is developing as a character.

On the other hand, we have Halley. She worries me. Apart from being a talking cat, something is off about her. She knows far more than she lets on. Im going to guess that she is intimately involved with the plans of regicide, and I also claim that she remembers everything but chooses to say she is amnesiatic (which I have decided is definitely a word) to claim innocence. Her over-interest in the changing of the worlds seems to further this theory. Everybody else exists in both, yet Halley alone, so far, remains cognizant of the distinction between the two. Also, her incredible hostility to the Gorsedd, druids, and her innate reaction to side with Ghetsis are all factors that cast her in a negative light. I definitely dont trust her.

Then there's N. I love N. Everything about him. Especially here. I just.....love it. He rivals Lauren as my favorite character.

I have no idea what to say about the Sages and Ghetsis's plan at this point. I see parts of this staying true to the game, yet others veering way into the speculation I love about your stories. But still, the difference between game Ghetsis's plan and this Ghetsis's plan worries me.

One thing left to say: I love Cheren and Bianca. And all the other minor major characters. They are all characterized brilliantly and eloquently. Great job with this. I am so glad I took the time to come back and read it.

Last edited by c1234321; April 3rd, 2013 at 01:03 PM.
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  #49    
Old April 4th, 2013, 10:51 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
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Nature: Impish
Quote:
Originally Posted by c1234321 View Post
First, allow me to apologize for my rather unexpected reprieve from being present in commenting on these. I had things going on that prevented me from checking in on this. And, let me say, it was a delight to catch up again. So much has happened since last I read.
Hello again. It's been a while, hasn't it? I'm glad you returned to find everything to your liking.

Quote:
Originally Posted by c1234321 View Post
I still have to say Lauren is my favorite character. I dont really have much else to say about that except that I am loving how she is developing as a character.
She's nice, isn't she? I know someone who's actually like that in real life, which helps.

Quote:
Originally Posted by c1234321 View Post
On the other hand, we have Halley. She worries me. Apart from being a talking cat, something is off about her. She knows far more than she lets on. Im going to guess that she is intimately involved with the plans of regicide, and I also claim that she remembers everything but chooses to say she is amnesiatic (which I have decided is definitely a word) to claim innocence. Her over-interest in the changing of the worlds seems to further this theory. Everybody else exists in both, yet Halley alone, so far, remains cognizant of the distinction between the two. Also, her incredible hostility to the Gorsedd, druids, and her innate reaction to side with Ghetsis are all factors that cast her in a negative light. I definitely dont trust her.
I think you mean 'amnesiac', which in this case can act as an adjective. And, well, I won't be inveigled into talking about Halley. I've worked fairly hard to make the clues about her as invisible as possible and I'm determined not to spoil it. For once.

Quote:
Originally Posted by c1234321 View Post
Then there's N. I love N. Everything about him. Especially here. I just.....love it. He rivals Lauren as my favorite character.
We haven't seen much of him yet, but he'll crop up more and more often as time goes by. He's a singular young man.

Quote:
Originally Posted by c1234321 View Post
I have no idea what to say about the Sages and Ghetsis's plan at this point. I see parts of this staying true to the game, yet others veering way into the speculation I love about your stories. But still, the difference between game Ghetsis's plan and this Ghetsis's plan worries me.
Mm. Harmonia's plan is actually pretty much the same as it is in-game. It's not the actor on the stage you need to watch out for; it's the man waiting in the wings with the glass dagger and ragged teeth.

Quote:
Originally Posted by c1234321 View Post
One thing left to say: I love Cheren and Bianca. And all the other minor major characters. They are all characterized brilliantly and eloquently. Great job with this. I am so glad I took the time to come back and read it.
I'm glad you enjoyed it; it's always heartening to hear that someone liked something you made. More should be on the way soon enough - I usually post a chapter a week, which is going nicely so far.

F.A.B.
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  #50    
Old April 7th, 2013, 09:01 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
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Chapter Seventeen: Here Be Dragons

“Woden hang 'em,” I sighed, leaning back and closing my eyes. “This whole thing is getting more and more confusing.”

We had gone back to the Library to find Hawes gone and a stern woman with an attendant Herdier hanging around in the hall with Cheren, Bianca and Halley. This, it transpired, was librarian, archaeologist and Gym Leader Lenora Hawes, wife of the talkative director with the bullet problem; she'd taken the skull almost without noticing and proceeded to tell us that her husband was in the hospital. After she'd said this eight or nine times without variation, Burgh decided he'd better take her home, and told us that he was sorry but there was no way any of this was going to get sorted out until tomorrow at the very earliest, and asked us if we wouldn't mind going home and coming back another time.

Halley hadn't liked that, but Cheren had cut in with his impeccable ice-cold politeness, and now we were at the Pokémon Centre, where we had taken over one corner of the lounge. Behind us, two girls with brightly-dyed hair were watching Skómst on TV and arguing over whether Max Vackers or Sebastian Bounding was more attractive. Despite their viciously penetrating voices, I was doing a fairly good job of tuning them out; I had to, really, or they'd have long since driven me insane.

“Hey,” said Halley, with a sidelong glance at the two girls to make sure they didn't hear. “By the way. What's with this 'hang 'em' thing? As far as I can work out so far, you stab people on a big rock here, not hang them.”

“Hanging is special,” Bianca replied. “That's for Woden.”

“God of the gallows,” said Cheren. “Hang a man and stab him with a spear. When the ravens come, you know Woden's accepted it.”

“So what's with the rocks?”

“The sun,” explained Cheren. “Our religion is somewhere between Celtic Druidism and Old English paganism. Sacrifices on the menhirs are mostly for the sun, and none of the other gods require blood. Córmi takes his tithes at death. Frige is happy to see our lives settled and ordered. Eostre draws her strength from feasting and new life. Thunor takes power from the storm-festivals. But Woden is the Allfather. He needs lives, twitched out on the gallows.”

Halley tipped her head on one side, a curiously avian gesture for a cat.

“Huh,” she said, and curled up on Bianca's lap. From my head, Candy eyed her soft flanks and scratched her neck thoughtfully.

“If that's all, then I suggest it's time to review the day,” said Cheren.

“Review the day?” I asked. “We've never done that before—”

“We haven't had a day like this one before,” he pointed out.

With her stubby claws, Candy marked out an estimate the distance between herself and Halley, and cawed pensively.

“He's right,” agreed Bianca. “Uh... today we met N again, you had a weird vision thing, found out Teiresias is basically unkillable, saved Hawes' life, ran through riots in the streets, caught an old man who stole a skull apparently for no reason and met two Gym Leaders. That seems to be a day worth reviewing.”

“Point taken,” I said. “OK. Let's summarise.”

Candy leaped from my head, stretched out her wings and glided inelegantly down onto Halley with the grace and speed of a falling stepladder. She crowed exultantly, Halley yowled angrily, and the resulting explosion of feline fury flung Candy to the floor. Before she could get up again, Halley leaped down from Bianca's lap, landing paws-first on the Archen's chest.

“Don't shout,” Cheren said quietly, as she opened her mouth to deliver what would doubtless have been an tongue-lashing of rare vitriol indeed. “There are two people behind me.”

Halley glared at him, then turned her burning gaze on me, claws still on Candy's neck.

“Later, I am going to wring her neck and eat her like a sparrow,” she mouthed at me.

“That's enough,” I said, pushing her away with one foot and picking up Candy protectively. “Leave her alone.”

“Ark,” squawked Candy smugly.

“That goes for you too,” I told her quellingly. “You jump on sociopathic wildcats, you get what's coming to you.”

“Damn f*cking straight,” murmured Halley ferociously, stalking back to her seat on Bianca's lap. “If she...!”

“Sh,” said Cheren. “Now. Review time...”

---

“So,” said Ezra, which made Niamh jump. Despite her attempts to inveigle him into conversation, he had remained resolutely silent throughout their journey. “You said you had questions.”

“Yeah,” she replied, and was about to ask them when she was forestalled by the arrival of the waiter.

“Are you ready to order?” he asked brightly.

“Yes,” answered Ezra. “Two of the stuffed crab platters, please.”

“OK,” he said, noting it down. “I'll be back in a mom—”

“Ah, you misunderstand,” Ezra cut in. “Those two dishes are both for me; I have a singularly voracious appetite. I have no idea what my companion wants.”

“Oh. Er, OK.” The waiter turned to Niamh. “Madam?”

“Uh... the wild boar terrine, please.”

“OK. Shouldn't take too long. I'll be back soon.”

He disappeared, and Niamh returned her gaze to Ezra.

“All right,” she said. “What's so special about the ball that the old man took?”

“It's more than a ball,” he replied. “Do you know the legend of the Twin Heroes?”

“Yes, of course. The warlords who united Unova.”

“Very good.” Ezra leaned forwards slightly. “The end of Sandjr, they say – although Sandjr, of course, ended a long time ago, when the First Kingdom fell. But I digress. Do you know the next part of the story?”

“Yeah. The brothers fall out, fight each other. Unova's almost destroyed again, and it isn't until the sky falls and kills them both on the battlefield that the country picks itself up and gets on with it.”

Ezra nodded.

“That's right. Legends that were once histories – except that as the actors were forgotten, the truth began to seem too fanciful, and the stories were toned down to stay believable.”

Niamh frowned.

“You're saying those legends represent something even weirder? Most historians believe they represent something less obviously fictional.”

Ezra grinned.

“The Twin Heroes,” he said. “When they fought as one, they flew the banner of black and white dragons entwined. When they separated, their armies marched beneath the mark of each individual dragon. That's what the legend says – but the truth is that the armies moved in the shadow not of banners, but of an actual dragon.”

“What? Like... a Dragon-type?”

Most Pokémon were an unusual species of a family of more conventional animals – Raichu were exceptionally large and voltaic rodents for instance. Dragon-types were the exception. No one was entirely certain what they'd evolved from; most people inclined to the belief that it was probably dinosaurs, but there was still a lot of mystery surrounding them, and Niamh could well imagine that there were strange and exotic Dragon-types roaming the skies in ancient times.

“It's entirely possible,” Ezra said. “I usually tried to stay out of its way, so I never got a good look. But based on what people were saying at the time, I would say it was actual dragon. Unova's last real dragon, and possibly the world's.

“Anyway, when the Heroes fought, the great dragon split in half, each one of the resultant pair of dragons following one of them. They fought, which must have been a bit odd. Some First Kingdom thing, I expect. The legends mention something about sons at that point, but the sons are irrelevant. The sons never had the dragons; they fought, it's true, but with conventional armies. The Heroes fought, the dragons clashed – and they tore the land apart, until the sky fell and killed the Heroes.

“At least, that's what the legend says. In actuality, it was something else, some monster that crawled out of the earth near the Patzkovan border. It flung the clouds themselves down on the Heroes, tonnes and tonnes of ice and water, and killed them both. The dragons, their powers spent, went into stasis, waiting for... Well.” He shrugged. “I'm not sure what. The point is, this is what the ball, as you so eloquently put it, is. It's the white dragon of fire.”

Niamh stared.

“That thing was a dragon?”

Ezra nodded.

“Yes. Still is, albeit in diminished form. And one day it will be a proper dragon again. Perhaps sooner than anticipated, if Harmonia is after them.” He sipped his wine thoughtfully. “Presumably he's after the black dragon too, although I'm not sure where that one is. It's something to think about; I have no idea how they might be awakened, but the dragons aren't something to take lightly. They seem to be inimical to, well, everything; they may not have come from this world.” He shook his head. “Anyway. I've answered your question about the stone. What next?”

Niamh tried to remember. Ezra had said a lot of very strange things just then, and her brain was still trying to sort them all out; thankfully, the waiter returned with their food at that moment and she got a reprieve.

“Mm,” said Ezra, delicately crunching through a crab leg without bothering to remove the shell. “Lovely.”

“I got it,” said Niamh suddenly, ignoring her terrine. “The next question. Teiresias was intangible – it possessed things to get around. Does that mean that you...?”

She let it hang in the air. It seemed almost rude to ask whether Ezra was the name of the demon, or of the body it was currently in possession of.

He sighed.

“Niamh, Teiresias is not one of my kind – it hails from Greece, from the nightmares of the Mycenaean priests. It isn't an Unovan demon. With his sort, their power waxes with age, but as it does the universe starts to reject them – they become detached from the physical world. More and more, they find themselves having to possess bodies in order to stay on Earth and out of the dark paths.

“I, on the other hand, am an Unovan – mostly. Like all Unovan demons, I have a real and substantial body, although I'm hiding it at present due to the fact that it really is rather terrifying. The man you see before me is the shape I prefer to adopt when I go out among humans, because otherwise I attract a lot of very unwelcome attention, and cause an alarming number of heart attacks.”

“How can you be mostly Unovan?” asked Niamh, feeling much more at ease; if Ezra wasn't stealing bodies, she was fine with whatever face he wanted to present to the world. “Surely you're either Unovan or you're not.”

Ezra swallowed a chunk of carapace and scratched his head.

“How do I explain it...? I'm really not sure how it all fits together. I suppose you could say I'm an immigrant, of sorts. I was born in Germany – or what would later be called Germany. At the time, it was more a seething mass of angry people with pointy sticks. Though that would describe most of the populated world at that point fairly well, as it happens,” he added. “I came to Unova aboard a slave-ship, as part of an army meant to invade. Once we'd been fairly comprehensively defeated, I made the point to my captors that I hadn't wanted to invade Unova, and had, in fact, been very much against the idea of invading Unova, and would gladly serve the Unovans if they would kindly not execute me. Thus, I was reborn as an Unovan demon.”

Niamh swallowed a mouthful of meat, tried to digest what Ezra had just said, and failed.

“What?” she asked. “I don't follow you. You were... reborn?”

Ezra sighed.

“It's tricky to explain,” he said. “I don't remember it very well – the rebirth has that effect on you. Think of the Unovan demons as a bit like very, very evangelical missionaries. They convert you – totally. Scarcely a shred of the original Germanic me remains in here.” He indicated himself.

“Right,” said Niamh, wondering if she could afford to discard this information and decided that she could, if only to spare herself a headache. “Uh... OK. Next question.” She thought for a moment. “Damn it! You keep making me lose my train of thought.”

“Sorry.” Ezra finished his first crab and began on the second. “I realise that a lot of this demon stuff is hard to get your mortal head around. It's very alien. We operate on levels of reality that most of you don't even suspect exist.”

“Mm. So I see.” Niamh took a deep breath and a gulp of wine. “OK. Next question. Are the gods real?”

Ezra raised his eyebrows.

“I wasn't expecting that one.”

“Well, the demons are, so... how about the gods?”

“It depends what you mean by 'real'.” Ezra laid down his knife and fork carefully. “Have you ever been to Australia?”

“No.”

“Does it exist?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“How do you know, if you've never been there?”

“Well... I know it exists,” said Niamh, suddenly feeling very young and frustrated next to him. How old was he, anyway? He'd spoken as if he'd been around when the Twin Heroes were fighting.

“A great many people 'know' that the ése exist,” replied Ezra. “In that sense, they're as real as Australia.”

“Bullsh*t. I don't buy that,” retorted Niamh. “I could go to Australia and prove it exists, if I wanted. Can't do that with the gods.”

Ezra raised an eyebrow.

“Can't you?”

“No. There's nowhere I can go and prove to myself that they're real.” She looked at him, suddenly uncertain. “Is there?”

“I don't know,” he replied. “But if you went to Australia, what would you expect to find there?”

“Uh... sun. Kangaroos. The seasons are backwards, and there are crocodiles and wombats and the people talk lahk this—”

“That's an idea of Australia, not the actual place,” he observed. “You could no more prove that that exists than you could the gods.”

Niamh glared.

“Could you just tell me straight, please? I'm not really into philosophy.”

Ezra shook his head.

“But asking whether or not the gods are real is a matter of philosophy,” he pointed out. “And we're only scratching the surface here. There's a great deal more under that.”

“Whether demons are real or not doesn't seem to be a matter of philosophy.”

“We're not a sophisticated theological concept,” he replied. “We're just a primitive superstition: easy to prove or disprove. Simple. Ése, on the other hand... They're a bit more complicated than that.”

“So I see,” said Niamh dryly. “I think I'll stick to monsters, thanks. At least those bleed.”

“And if they bleed, you can kill them,” agreed Ezra with a smile. “I'll drink to that.”

So he did, and Niamh drank with him, and ate her cooling terrine without asking any more questions. She didn't feel up to handling his answers.

---

Tick.

---

“... cause is as yet unknown, but arrests continued to be made throughout the night and are still being made as I speak,” the newscaster said. “The Nacrene Police Commissioner released a statement earlier this...”

I stopped paying attention as soon as it became clear that nothing meaningful had happened since the last news broadcast an hour ago; I'd woken early today, and come down to the lounge a little before six to wait for the others. I wanted to see if anything had been discovered about the riots, but so far it seemed like nothing had. They were as much a mystery as ever – in fact, I think Burgh and I knew more about them than anyone else. The police had made no mention of Gorm, for example, and had even gone so far as to say that they had had no success in identifying potential ringleaders.

“Nothing, right?” asked Cheren, joining me. There were grass stains on his hands; I guessed he'd been up early, training Lelouch and Justine.

“Nope,” I replied. “Nothing at all.”

I was about to click the TV off when Cheren's hand held me back.

“Wait,” he said. “Look.”

“...Harmonia is growing in some cities,” the newscaster said. “A concerted effort was launched yesterday by several organisations against the Pokémon League, pointing to figures concerning Pokémon and human welfare and calling for its immediate disbanding.”

“Harmonia's counter-attacking,” remarked Cheren, raising his eyebrows as the newscaster reeled off a list of supporting organisations. “Look at this! There must be fifty-odd groups there – some of them big ones. That's quite an attack force.”

I recognised some of the names myself, which was, if anything, a testament to how influential they were. Not much news penetrated the leafy walls of White Forest.

“Do you think the League will fall?” I asked tentatively.

“Not unless Harmonia comes into power,” he replied. “They're too old – too much a part of the country. But based on what Shauntal said, they've got less than twenty employees, not counting Gym Trainers – an attack this size is going to keep them occupied for a while.”

“Lenora's probably out of action, too,” I said, thinking of Hawes and feeling sad. “Poor woman... I hope Burgh managed to calm her down a bit.”

Cheren nodded.

“Yes.” He sighed. “This just keeps getting better. We know nothing, Harmonia knows everything, and the world is getting steadily crazier. I—”

The window shattered and ragged skeins of black and blue flew past us, keening miserably. They hit the far wall, coalesced into a sorry-looking puddle and dripped onto the floor.

I was still staring, but Cheren was already on his feet, Lelouch and Justine before him; something looked a bit odd about Lelouch, but I was far from ready to waste time staring at him. I panicked for a moment, looked around wildly, and fell off the sofa.

“Pax,” said a horrible, familiar voice, and a silhouette appeared at the window: two triangles atop a series of circles, the unmistakeable outline of a cat. “I am not here to fight, but your watchdog is a little overzealous.”

I scrambled to my feet and looked at the puddle of shadow on the floor; I saw now that it was struggling weakly to rise into the air, and pockmarked with shreds of blue fire. Not an attack, then – it must have been Shauntal's Ghost.

A noise from the window drew my attention back over there again, and I turned to see a large, very obviously dead wildcat slinking through the gap, apparently unconcerned by the fact that it was missing its jaw. I saw little white things writhing in its fur, dripping from the hole in its face like odious, wriggling saliva, and tried very hard not to be sick.

Don't be scared, Lauren, I told myself, clamouring to be heard over the pounding of my heart. It's not here to hurt you. It said so just now. Just stay calm and listen for a moment.

I transferred my gaze to Cheren's Pokémon instead, focusing hard on them to avoid looking at the necrotic thing by the window. Lelouch was staring at it with the glassy-eyed implacability of a snake, and – was he longer than before? Actually, he seemed to be physically growing as I watched, getting longer by the moment. There seemed to be buds on his back, too – buds that I hadn't previously noticed.

Justine looked more lively; she shifted from foot to foot constantly, eyes flicking from Teiresias to Cheren and back again. Come on, she seemed to be saying. Come on, let me at him. I remembered that Purrloin didn't really like wildcats at the best of times; I imagined she must have felt even more animosity towards undead ones.

“What do you want?” asked Cheren. His voice was expressionless. If he was scared, he didn't show it; instinctively, I stepped behind him.

Teiresias tipped its sickening head on one side with an audible crack. As if from a great distance, I noticed that the TV was still on, the newscaster twittering about the recession.

“I am here to deliver a message,” it said. “From the King of all humans.”

“There's no such person.”

“There is,” replied Teiresias without emotion. “He is merely waiting for his birthright to be recognised.”

Cheren snorted.

“Fine. Get on with your message and leave.”

“It is not for your ears,” said Teiresias, and I knew with a sudden horrible jolt what it was about to say, and I willed and willed it not to be so but still it said: “It is for White alone.”

Cheren looked at me.

“I'm not leaving her alone in here with you,” he said. “I'm not stupid.”

“I know,” replied Teiresias. “Your little stratagem in Striaton proved that much.” It twitched its tail, and the tip of it fell off. “But nevertheless, I must ask you to leave. The King's word is law.”

“I'll – I'll tell Cheren and Bianca what you say anyway,” I said, clutching desperately at straws. “There's no point in hiding it from them!”

“I know. But I have my instructions, and unless you wish to follow the example of that unfortunate creature, Cheren Perng” – here, Teiresias jerked its head in the direction of Shauntal's Ghost – “you will vacate this room. Now.”

There wasn't much you could say to that. Cheren squeezed my arm awkwardly and retreated to the door, which sprung open at his approach and slammed shut after he and his Pokémon had passed through. Before it closed, I caught a brief glimpse of worried faces on the other side; other people must have heard the crash of the window breaking, I realised. I hoped the audience would encourage Teiresias to keep its word and not attack – though even as I thought it I realised how futile a hope it was. It would do as it wanted; no human onlookers would ever make it change its mind.

“Now we can talk,” it said. “The King wants you to know that your challenge has been accepted. You will not be actively pursued by Harmonia's forces any longer – though if you interfere with the operations of those forces, the King cannot guarantee that they will not take steps to stop you.” It levelled blank white eyes at me. “Is that clear, White?”

I didn't know. Fear of Teiresias competed with a strange echo of the weird half-memories that had bubbled up within me yesterday, when I had spoken to N; part of me wanted to tell it that I had never made any challenge, and another part wanted to say that the challenge stood and I was glad the King had accepted it. In the end, I settled for a feeble sort of nod.

“Good.” Teiresias turned and stalked back towards the window. “Then we are done here. I'll see you again, I'm sure. But,” it added, pausing on the windowsill, “not as a messenger.”

With that, it was gone, and the door burst open and Cheren and some other people I didn't know rushed in, and I sat down on the sofa amid a buzzing storm of commotion and put my head in my hands, lost to the alien emotions swirling in my mind.

---

Neither Lenora nor Hawes met us at the Library – in fact, no one did: the place was closed. We knocked for a while, then waited, and then knocked some more – and finally, nearly twenty minutes later, one of the great doors inched open.

“What do you want?” asked the half-face visible through the gap. “Please, we're not open today—”

“Yeah, we kinda noticed that,” said Bianca. “Can you let us in, please? We really need to do some research.”

“Well, we need to clear up our ruined hall, restore a priceless fossilised skeleton and somehow sort out the mess that our director has left us in. Now, go away and leave us alone.”

“Really, we can't afford the delay,” Cheren said. “This is vitally important—”

“Yes, I'm sure it is,” replied the librarian. “And so is this. We're closed, kids.”

The door clunked shut, and we looked at each other. Candy huddled close to my neck, sensing the tension in the air; she seemed to be feeling timid today – probably as a result of Halley's attack on her the night before.

“Unbelievable,” muttered Cheren. “Didn't anyone leave any instructions behind about us?”

“Evidently not,” said Halley. “What, you thought you were someone special just because you saved the director's life? Nah. You're still an annoying customer.”

Cheren glared at her.

“Do you remember the walk I took yesterday evening? About seven o'clock?”

“Yeah...?”

“I stopped at a pet shop,” he said vindictively, and took out a red leather collar from his pocket.

“You know, that statue over there looks fascinating,” said Halley, sauntering away with exaggerated nonchalance. “Think I might take a closer look.”

“Yeah, I thought so.”

I watched with a small smile. It was nice to see Halley deflated every once in a while; it was good for her ego, kept it from swelling too much. Better she had a more modest sense of self-worth than that she got herself into trouble over it one day.

Cheren put the collar away and returned his gaze to us.

“Well,” he said. “Shall we try again?”

“Sure,” replied Bianca. “We don't really have a choice, right?”

“Fair enough.”

He knocked again; the door slid open a crack; the face reappeared.

“Look,” he said peevishly. “We really are very busy here. We don't have time for you lot – even if we were open, we can't spare any staff whatsoever.”

“We don't need your staff,” replied Cheren patiently. “We just need books.”

The man on the other side of the door sighed.

“No,” he said. “Not my decision, anyway. We're closed.”

“Will you open up for this?” asked a familiar voice behind us. I turned to see Niamh there, the green-haired monster-slayer from Striaton – and in her hands a basketball-sized sphere of pure black stone.

Someone said something. I saw Niamh's lips move, but no sound came out; the world had turned to treacle around me, trickling slowly away from my perception, thick and pale, centred on a dark circle right before my eyes: the black orb, gleaming like an eye staring back at me—

I was the lightning.

I flung myself across the sky, half gliding, half surfing the lightning bolts that converged on my tail, powering my endless onwards flight; the storm raged above and below, clouds of rain in the sky and of fire on the ground.

She was here, my sister, my brother, my twin, and she was waiting.

I hovered, claps of thunder buoying up my wings; in the hollow in my back, I felt myself shifting, tugging, and my head snapped from right to left, my gaze taking in a great swathe of the horizon. The ground boiled and burned with the touch of my sight; the I who was I now lacked the skill of my former selves, did not know how to contain my strength – and the fission had damaged the restraints, too.

She came.

Flying up out of the flames beneath me, wings back and tail blazing, she met me in a whirl of feathers and fangs; I bit deep into her neck, lightning cracking out across her body from mine, searing her feathers as her fires scorched my scales, and now we were both falling, flying, up and down at once, the storm howling around us like a living thing, like the body we both once were, and miles away cities fell and towns were pounded to dust...

“Lauren?”

I blinked.

“Lauren?”

“What is it?” I mumbled. “Where is she – he?”

“Who?”

“Her,” I replied. “Him.”

“Enough of that sh*t.” The voice seemed to be rapidly losing its sympathetic tones. “I know how to deal with this...”

I felt four small sharp somethings dig into my cheek, and started fully awake with a jolt.

“Ouch!”

Halley grinned at me from atop my chest.

“You can thank me later,” she said. “F*cking professional, that's me.”

“What – where are we?” I asked, trying to sit up and failing; Halley seemed like far too great a weight right now. I felt like I'd shrunk, like I was tiny; I could barely lift my own arms like this, let alone a large cat.

“Hospital,” she replied. “You've been unconscious for seven hours.”

“What?”

With a huge effort born of shock and desperation, I sat upright, knocking her from her perch – to find myself lying on a sofa, surrounded by bookshelves.

“This... isn't the hospital,” I said, puzzled.

“I know. I lied.”

“Why?”

Halley stared.

“You honestly don't know?”

I shook my head.

“No...”

She sighed.

“In which case, never mind. The point is, Niamh brought back some stolen exhibit, and then you fainted, and as a combination of all that they said we could come in and do some research. That's the grossly simplified version, of course – but hey. History's complicated, and there ain't space in the books to write it all.”

I frowned.

“Is Niamh still here?”

“No, she left. She had something important to do.”

“Did she say what that... thing... was?”

“The big stone ball? Nope. The librarian seemed to know, though; he took it and scuttled off like a scarab beetle with a ball of sh*t.”

“Halley...”

“Sorry,” she said, wholly unapologetically. “Anyway. I said I'd watch you; Cheren and Bianca are doing some research across the room.”

I looked up, and realised that we were in some kind of small reading room, detached from the main body of the building; it was strewn with desks, comfortable chairs and green-shaded reading lamps, and seemed in all a pretty nice place. I couldn't see the others, but I assumed they were on the other side of one of the bookcases.

“They weren't worried enough about me to watch themselves?”

“No sense wasting more than one set of eyes,” Halley pointed out. “Candy's watching you too. Uh... Somewhere.” She looked around. “OK, I guess she got bored and wandered off. Huh. There's glory for you.”

“What?”

“It's a quote. Anyway, what was all that about him and her? You were muttering stuff when you woke up.”

I frowned again.

“I... don't remember,” I said, suddenly feeling very lost. Something had deserted me, I thought; something I needed to remember if I was going to get anywhere with this mystery...

I shook my head in frustration. This was getting silly. Yesterday, with N, and earlier today, after Teiresias left, and now, with this orb – these strange feelings were coming more and more frequently, and they were starting to scare me. In fact, they'd been scaring me since they started – but now, as they became more common, they were a source of increasing concern. Something was wrong – something only N and I could sense. Something was happening, something connected with me and my other self, the enigmatic Jared Black – and it seemed that, despite my centrality to the whole issue, no one would or could tell me what it was.

“Lauren! You're awake!”

I turned to see Bianca coming around a bookcase, Candy on her shoulder. At the sight of me, the Archen squawked loudly and leaped into my arms; I stroked her head and told her to be quiet.

“Yes, I am,” I replied.

“And before you ask, she doesn't know how or why or anything about her fainting fit,” added Halley, stalking away across the parquet flooring. “Useless.”

“Are you OK?” asked Bianca, ignoring her.

“Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine.”

I swivelled around so I was sitting upright, then stood and stretched, Candy hopping out of my hands onto the arm of the sofa.

“Ah... a bit stiff,” I admitted. “Mostly fine.”

“Good,” replied Bianca, smiling warmly. “Just at the right moment.”

“Why?” I asked, suddenly excited. “Have you found something?”

She grinned happily.

“We think so,” she said. “Look!”

And she led me around the case to Cheren, who looked up from the notes he was making and pointed to a huge leather-bound book, yellowed with centuries of storage – and on the open pages of that book I saw the illustration he was pointing to, hand-drawn in browning ink by some long-dead scribe. It was a picture of a young man's face, looking out of the book as if he could somehow see me through the long years that separated us.

It was the face of the boy with the icy grey eyes.

It was, impossibly, the face of N.
__________________

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