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  #76    
Old July 20th, 2013, 11:44 PM
RandomShred's Avatar
RandomShred
 
Join Date: Apr 2013
Location: The West
Age: 19
Gender: Male
Nature: Impish
Very sad to hear that, but you are right of course, a story like this deserves a certain amount of attention, and shouldn't be continued if you can't give it that. Best wishes on your novel; in fact, I would very much like to find out where I could get a hold of a copy, once it is out.
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  #77    
Old July 21st, 2013, 03:00 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 RandomShred View Post
Very sad to hear that, but you are right of course, a story like this deserves a certain amount of attention, and shouldn't be continued if you can't give it that. Best wishes on your novel; in fact, I would very much like to find out where I could get a hold of a copy, once it is out.
Quote:
Originally Posted by teamVASIMR
Farewell, fair winds, and following seas.
Thanks, both of you. I'll still be around here, hopefully reviewing more than I have done in the past - just not writing.

F.A.B.
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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  #78    
Old September 5th, 2013, 07:42 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Previously, on Crack'd...

Lauren/Jared and the gang unexpectedly run across Alder on a train stuck on the wrong side of the Driftveil drawbridge, and convinced him to retake his position at the head of the League. After a brief and terrible battle with something that can only be described as 'f*cking nasty' in the caves that run under the Valroy Channel, they had reached Driftveil, where they received word from Iris that the League was going to try and quash the search for Jared/Lauren.

Meanwhile, the rebel demon Ezra and the monster-slayer Niamh had parted ways at the Cold Storage, as a messenger delivered an ultimatum: Niamh was to cease helping Ezra, and in return she would win Smythe's freedom. She had no choice but to accept, and was last seen entering the throne room of King Weland himself – not far from where Teiresias and Smythe were holding a mysterious discussion in the tomb-city's prison about matters unknown.

Ingen's retriever is closing in. Harmonia's strange press-ganged riot still closes off the Cold Storage, and the mysterious Caitlin Molloy is doubtless behind it all. What will happen next? Only time will tell. And your ability to read.

Look, just move your eyes slightly downwards. No, down, you dullard. OK, that's the ticket. Now, read on!



Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Quick and the Dead

“OK,” said Cheren. “The Cold Storage.”

It was, amazingly, a pleasantly warm spring morning, and we were crossing the bridge that led south to Welkan Island, more popularly known as the Cold Storage. The little island was almost entirely covered in a thick outgrowth of warehouses, clustered like enormous square barnacles across its breadth; lorries rumbled back and forth from them to the docks and back again, none of which looked small enough to be able to negotiate the narrow byways of southern Driftveil. I supposed that was probably what all the backed-up traffic we'd passed earlier was about.

“What about it?” I asked.

“There's a list of holdings online,” said Cheren, “which includes all the warehouses that don't belong to secret government departments, cults or other organisations that don't want their property made public. Surprisingly enough, the Green Party's warehouse is listed, which means I was able to print this map off from the website and make some annotations based on the photographs of the riots on the New Unovan website.”

He unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket as he spoke, and Halley shook her head in wonderment.

“Bloody hell,” she said. “Do you even sleep?”

“A little. You'll see here,” Cheren went on, “that the Party own this set of buildings here – an office, attached to this large warehouse in the southwest corner.”

“OK,” I said. “Halley, can you see from down there?”

“Oh, someone notices. No, I can't see the map that you're holding at chest height, you selfish bastards.”

I resisted the urge to kick her between the railings and into the sea and picked her up. Candy hurriedly climbed around the back of my neck to my other shoulder.

“How does this help?” asked Bianca, blinking at the map. “I mean, isn't the building surrounded?”

“It is,” agreed Cheren. “All around this fence – sorry, it's not completely accurate, but it wasn't on the original map and I had to draw it on myself based on Google Street View – there are hordes of apparent Liberation Policy protesters. Only, of course, these protesters haven't spoken to anyone, and they keep mentioning 'plasma' over and over.”

“So they're definitely Harmonia's doing somehow,” I said.

“Almost certainly. Now, the fence itself is chain-link with razor wire at the top, and I think there's a few Watchog as well.”

Watchdogs had never caught on in Unova; Watchog were alert to the point of clinical paranoia, and virtually never missed an intruder.

“I expect they've been removed, though,” he said. “They're very highly-strung; the protesters would probably give them heart attacks.”

“OK.” I looked along the bridge; I couldn't see any sign of discontent at the other end, but then, the Green Party's warehouse was on the other side of the island. “So how do we get in, short of beating our way through the protesters?”

“Here.” Cheren tapped a point on the map where the warehouse met the coastline. “There are no protesters standing here, so this is where we'll get in.”

We stared at the map.

“Er... Cheren,” said Bianca, “correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the reason no people are standing there because it's the sea?”

“Yes, actually. But I noticed on an aerial photo that there's a path that winds around the edge of the island – part of which passes between the cliff edge and the warehouse fence. It's not broad enough for any protesters to stand on, so there aren't any there.”

“I don't get it,” said Halley. “If this weak spot exists, why hasn't Harmonia guarded it somehow?”

Cheren shrugged.

“I expect he has,” he said frankly. “We'll find out when we get there.”

“Christ. What a f*cking plan.”

“Do you have a better one?”

“That's really not the point.”

Cheren sighed.

“Anyway.” He folded up his map and pointed south down the bridge with it. “Shall we?”

We did, and soon enough came to the unrelentingly grey and miserable expanse of cold concrete that was Welkan Island; it was drearier and more fume-stained up close, and the people here looked at us as if they would probably batter us over the head with metal pipes and throw us into the sea if we couldn't give them a very good reason why we were here.

I guess we did seem a little out of place.

We crossed the road, which, given that congestion meant that ninety per cent of the lorries were stationary, was pretty easy; on the other side, next to an enormous grey dinosaur of a building, we found a narrow asphalted pathway, bordered on one side by a fence of steel palings and on the other by a sandy slope that rolled down to the sea at a deceptively steep inclination.

It was also sealed off behind a padlocked gate.

“Well done, O master planner,” said Halley. “Behold our path to glory!”

“We're not done yet,” said Cheren irritably. “Bianca. Smoky?”

She let out the Tepig, and he immediately lay down to sleep.

Oh,” she said, puffing out her cheeks. “Smoky! Up!”

She nudged him with her toe, but to no avail; he twitched an ear, and farted loudly, but showed no desire to move.

“Classy,” said Halley. “Shouldn't we have checked that no one was looking before we started melting through locks?”

“We haven't started yet,” pointed out Cheren. “In fact, we've barely even got the tools ready.”

“Smoky!” Bianca picked him up and tugged experimentally on his tail; he opened his eyes then and grunted the grunt of a pig who does not wish to receive visitors today.

I looked around.

“Doesn't look like anyone's watching,” I said. “Mostly because the traffic's blocking us and hasn't moved for five minutes. So, uh, now would be a good time.

“I'm trying!” said Bianca, brandishing Smoky like a shotgun. “Ember, Smoky. Ember!”

He yawned, deliberated, and eventually burped a jet of flame at the lock – to absolutely no effect.

“Hm,” said Cheren. “Bianca – er – when exactly did you last have any kind of training session with Smoky?”

She looked guilty.

“If I said... yesterday, would you believe me?”

“No.” He sighed. “All right, recall him, then. Let's have a go with—”

There was a click, and the padlock opened.

We stared.

“What the—?”

“Boop,” said Munny, floating above Bianca's head. The last traces of blue light were fading from its sides.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “Telekinetic, right?”

“Yeah,” said Bianca. “I forgot about that.” She recalled Smoky and patted Munny on its side. “Good Munna! Well done.”

“Boop.”

“No time for that,” said Cheren, unhooking the padlock from the bolt. “Come on – we need to get through before someone sees us. Or had you forgotten that we're technically trespassing?”

We didn't need any more encouragement. He pushed open the gate, and we went.

---

Niamh stared into the abyss, and the abyss stared back.

“What do you want, then?” she asked.

“A CESSATION OF HOSTILITIES,” replied Weland. It hurt to hear him; his voice shook Niamh's consciousness in her body, like the seeds in a metaphysical maraca. “WE ARE NOT FOOLISH. THIS WAR WILL GO WELL IF OUR ENEMIES ARE FEWER, AND THIS IS AN EXPEDIENT WAY OF THINNING THEIR RANKS.”

Niamh closed her eyes, took a deep breath, tried to quell the soulsickness rising within her.

“Why aren't I dead?” she asked.

“THIS IS DIPLOMACY,” Weland said. “DIPLOMACY ONLY ENDS IN AN AMBASSADOR'S DEATH WHEN IT FAILS.”

The hint was quite clear, thought Niamh; she'd do what he wanted, take Smythe, and go, or she'd be killed. And it was obvious that there was no way around it. No one had even bothered to relieve her of her weapons on the way in, and the only reason they would have done that was if they weren't threatened by them at all. Niamh wasn't used to negotiating from a position of weakness.

She wasn't taking to it.

“Let Portland go, then,” she said. “Just let him go, and I'll leave and you'll never see me again.”

“THAT WAS THE AGREEMENT, YES.” Weland paused. It could only have been a second or so, but it felt like an infinity. Niamh looked steadfastly at the dim and distant throne, and knew with terrible certainty that something had gone horribly, unimaginably wrong. “BUT YOU ARE SUCH AN EXCELLENT SPECIMEN OF YOUR SPECIES.”

“What?”

Niamh hadn't been expecting that, certainly. Death threats, yes, but not compliments.

“YOU HAVE SOME OF THE BLOOD, FOR A START. THAT PLACES YOU AMONG THE GREATS. YOU ARE INTELLIGENT AND RESOURCEFUL, FOR SOMEONE WHO CONTAINS THEIR THOUGHTS WITHIN A BRAIN. AND YOU ARE ONE OF THE FINEST HUMAN COMBATANTS WE HAVE SEEN IN A LONG TIME.”

Was it her, or was it getting darker? The gloom was thickening, filling up with those strange half-glimpsed shapes; they came like the ghosts of rooks, settling on invisible perches, windows for some malign eye.

“Look, I just came here to get Portland,” she said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

“AND SMYTHE WILL WALK FREE,” said Weland. “THIS WILL BE DONE. BUT YOU, NIAMH HARPER, ARE A SPECIMEN WE CANNOT LOSE.”

Sh*t. She had no idea what that meant, but it almost certainly wasn't good.

“I never—”

“IT DOES NOT MATTER, NIAMH HARPER. YOU ARE, AFTER ALL, ONLY HUMAN.”

And before Niamh could so much as blink, the dark came screaming down—

And then there was nothing.

---

We threaded our way down the back of a long row of warehouses, the roar of an unseen crowd growing slowly louder and drowning out the rumble of lorries; in fact, down at this end of the island, it seemed like all traffic had been suspended, because all I could hear was people chanting and shouting, and occasionally stamping.

However, with the sea on one side and blank concrete walls on the other, I couldn't actually see them, and it made me a little nervous. I liked to have any potential threats in view; if you knew where the enemy was, you could punch him.

“Ah,” said Cheren, stopping suddenly. “Er... That's the Party building.”

He pointed at a medium-sized warehouse just ahead of us – and just ahead of where the path turned sharply to the left and terminated in a locked shed.

There was about fifteen centimetres of dirt between the rear fence and the cliff edge.

“Cheren,” said Bianca. “I am not going down that way.”

“We can hold onto the fence,” he suggested. “And climb along the side—”

“Cheren,” repeated Bianca, “I am not going down that way.”

“Once we get a few metres along, we can get Justine to cut through the fence—”

“Cheren. Are you listening to me at all? I am not going down that way.”

“Hey Cheren, I don't think Bianca wants to go that way,” said Halley dryly. “Got another plan?”

“How else do you suppose we get in?” asked Cheren. “Look. Concrete wall – concrete wall – barrier fence. We can't break through a wall, but we can probably cut through enough links of the fence to get through that way.”

Bianca made a face.

“Yeah, but Cheren... there's like six inches of space between the fence and, uh, death.”

“OK,” said Cheren, trying and failing to sound calming and understanding, “why don't... um... I'll climb out there with Justine, and get her to cut the fence, and then open the door there that the path ends at.”

“That's not connected to the same building,” I pointed out.

“Ah. Right.” Cheren twisted his lip. “Bianca, it, uh, doesn't look like there's any alternative.” He glanced at the fence. “It's not so bad. One foot in front of the other and hold onto the fence with your hands. Unless you make some kind of enormous mistake, it's statistically very unlikely that you'll fall to your death.”

“Cheren, it's me,” Bianca said earnestly. “'Enormous mistake' is my middle name.”

“Don't put yourself down—”

“She isn't,” said Halley. “You know it's true, Cheren. She's like the proverbial f*cking bull in a china shop. Give her a goldfish to look after and she'll manage to drown it.”

Cheren sighed.

“You won't fall,” he said. “Not even you are that unlucky.”

“How about you go between me and Cheren?” I suggested. “We'll keep hold of you. Or I will, anyway,” I added, remembering how much bigger than Cheren I was. (Not that he was particularly weedy, but he looked like he had all the upper-body strength of a paralytic sloth.)

Bianca hesitated.

“OK,” she said eventually. “I'll do it. But you go first, Cheren, and cut the fence – I don't want to hang there and wait for you.”

“All right,” said Cheren. “I can do that.”

He sent out Justine and nudged her out along the gap with a foot.

“Go on,” he said. “Out there. I'm following.”

Justine did not seem to need the encouragement: she had, apparently, a cast-iron belief in her own balance, and cheerfully trotted out along the gap as if it were nothing. Cheren edged out after her, clinging to the fence and moving sideways.

“See?” he said. “Simple.”

A particularly loud burst of chanting from the other side of the warehouse startled him then, and he reflexively jerked a little closer to the fence.

I smiled.

“Simple?”

“Yes,” he maintained. “Simple.” He turned to Justine. “On a bit more.”

They moved further out, to where the concrete bottom of the fence gave way to dirt; here, he had Justine first sharpen her claws on the fence post, and then Fury Swipe her way through the links. A little more slashing and tugging, and a reasonably large chunk of fence had been unravelled.

Cheren looked back at us.

“You see?” he said. “Not so hard.”

He lowered himself carefully through the gap – leaning perilously far out over the sea in doing so, I noticed, which made Bianca grab my arm way too hard to be comfortable – and Justine bounced through after him.

“All right!” he called. “Your turn.”

I looked at Bianca.

“You go on first,” I said. “Then I can help you through the hole.”

She bit her lip.

“OK,” she said, and edged out over the void.

I followed, and was immediately struck by how high it seemed we were now; how the wind seemed much stronger when there was less ground beneath our feet. I glanced to my right, at Bianca, and saw she had her eyes shut.

She wasn't moving.

“Go on,” I said, taking one hand off the fence and gripping her wrist firmly. “I've got you.”

She took a deep breath, opened her eyes and went on again.

The fence seemed to vibrate beneath our hands with every shout and stomp of the invisible crowd; it felt like it wanted to fling us off. I pushed the thought away and concentrated on moving along one-handed, walking my hand along the fence like a crab. (I didn't quite dare to let go completely; I wasn't sure I would be able to grab hold of the fence again quick enough to stop me falling and dragging Bianca to our deaths.)

On, and on. I'm sure it wouldn't have been so bad on my own – and probably, I thought, almost nothing for Lauren. But with Bianca in tow, it seemed to take forever; it was as if time was stretching out, like a cat taking its ease – until at last, aeons later, we were at the gap Justine had cut, and I was lowering Bianca through it. Moments later, I was through myself, and about three seconds after that, Halley had jumped through with the same ease as Justine.

“Man, you guys are slow,” she complained. “And Bianca, you stink of fear.”

“You did very well,” said Cheren, ignoring her. “Sorry. I didn't think it would be this... this hard.”

Bianca nodded. Her face was pale and slick with sweat; it reminded me of what Halley had said of her – that she had no talent, that she wasn't a hero. And yet, I thought, she was still here. She hadn't gone back home – she had fought her dad to make him let her stay. I was still unclear about how exactly that had happened; I vaguely remembered Lauren coming to help me convince him, or something.

She had stayed, despite everything, and that was probably more heroic than anything I'd done so far.

“Yeah,” I said. “Well done.”

Bianca smiled, though it was slightly strained.

“Thanks,” she said. “I – I'm OK now. Really.”

I nodded and looked around. We were in a small enclosed space at the back of the warehouse; the warehouse formed the front wall, and the two sides were concrete. There were a couple of industrial bins at one end, but other than that, and the occasional crisp packet on the floor, there wasn't much around. Behind us, the sea and the ships swashed and splashed; before us, still hidden from sight, the protesters chanted. I could make out their words from here: Plas-ma, plas-ma, plas-ma...

“Right,” I said. “How are we getting in? I'm betting that door's locked.”

There was a single unmarked door in the warehouse wall; it didn't look like it had been opened for a while.

“Why don't we knock?” asked Cheren. “And when they answer, you hit them over the head and we go in.”

“Won't they see us?” I asked. “On CCTV or something?”

“If they had CCTV, they'd have seen us break in already,” pointed out Halley.

“I have seen you break in already,” said the security guard.

We looked at the door. It was now open, and contained a man with a gun.

Naturally, this put us all slightly on edge.

“You went to quite a lot of trouble to get in,” he said mildly. “I take it you're those kids that've been interfering with everything?”

“That sounds like us,” Halley said.

“And the cat, too,” noted the guard, looking down at her – quite some way, as it happened; he was the approximate height and weight of a walk-in freezer. “Definitely you people.” He sighed. “Now, if I had my way, you'd be shot on sight. Burn up the bodies in hellfire, job done, no more interference. But orders from above are that we can't just kill you – not without provocation, anyway. That would, apparently, have bad consequences. Can't take you captive without cause, either.” The guard rolled his eyes. “I don't know anything about it, but you know, not paid to do anything but follow orders, and all bosses have their foibles. I worked for a guy once insisted all of us wore red feathers in our hats. Anyway,” he said, flexing the fingers of his free hand, “the point is, as long as you stand there, you're safe. You could back away now and all I'd be able to do is tell my superiors that you were here.”

He sighed.

“But if you came inside, I'd be completely justified in whacking you over the head, taking you prisoner and giving you over to the tender mercies of our resident demon. That,” he added, “is if you weren't too pugnacious. If you resisted, I might have no option but to use deadly force.”

He looked at his gun as if he'd just remembered he was holding it.

“So,” he said, with the sort of smile that you never, ever want to see. “I cordially f*cking await your response.”

---

“I'm not sure about this,” said Smythe.

“Do you want to stay here?” asked Teiresias.

Smythe looked around at the dark. He could not see the walls, but he knew they were approximately two feet away in each direction.

“Well, no,” he said. “But I'm not sure I like your way of getting me out.”

“I can find other places.”

Smythe hesitated.

“Ah, f*ck it,” he said. “Fine. But only until you're back up to strength, and you don't kill or harm me. Do we have a deal?”

“By blood,” replied Teiresias, its smoke coalescing and dripping darkly onto Smythe's palm. It stung, and he realised that there was a cut beneath it – that the foulness that constituted Teiresias' blood was mingling with his own. “And so even I cannot break it.”

“OK.” Smythe had seen a lot of things that he'd previously thought impossible over the last few days. This last did not bother him at all. “Whatever.”

He stood up, stooping so as not to hit his head on the ceiling.

“Are we ready, then?”

Teiresias' smouldering eyes stared blindly at him for a moment, and Smythe realised for the first time that Teiresias was standing much further away from him than the closeness of the walls ought to have allowed; then they lurched forwards, like the headlights of a truck, and Smythe staggered back as something smashed intangibly into his face. There was no impact, but his body couldn't help reacting as if there was; he stumbled backwards and fell heavily against the rear wall.

Then he rose back to his feet, the purple of his eyes staining the air around them.

“Now then,” he said, and whose voice it was that came from his mouth was difficult to tell. “For freedom.”

---

There was a pause, during which we considered our options.

“Well,” said Cheren, “you certainly make a persuasive case.”

“He does,” I agreed. “Bianca. How's Munny's telekinesis?”

The guard shook his head.

“You must be joking,” he said. “A Munna stop bullets? It doesn't have the strength. And it can't tug the gun out of my hand, either.” He held up his free hand; the fingers were each the size and approximate colour of a raw Lacunosa sausage. “I've got quite the grip, if I do say so myself.”

I sighed.

“Woden hang 'em,” I said. “This isn't going to be easy, is it?”

“No,” agreed the guard. “It isn't.”

“We aren't giving up, are we?” asked Bianca anxiously. “I did not climb along that horrible ledge for nothing.”

“Don't worry, we aren't giving up,” said Cheren. “We'll get in. Somehow.”

The guard raised his eyebrows.

“Oh. I anticipate your next plan with pleasure.”

“So do we,” I said. “Cheren? What's the plan?”

“Bianca,” he said. “How hard could Munny move a large object? Weighing – oh, let's say... forty kilos?”

“I don't know,” replied Bianca. “Probably not that hard.”

Cheren sighed.

“Ah, well. There goes that plan.”

“What plan was that?” asked the guard. “I'm interested.”

“We were going to get the Munna to slam the door on your head,” said Cheren. “But that doesn't seem to be a viable possibility any more.”

The man shook his head ruefully.

“No, it doesn't.”

“Jared.”

“Yeah?”

“Why don't you go over there and punch him in the face?”

I did a double take.

“What?”

“Why don't you go over there,” he said patiently, “and punch him in the face?”

There were about fifty-eight reasons I could think of why I didn't, actually, but I settled for the most obvious.

“Because he's about six foot six with the pecs of a grizzly bear,” I replied. “Sure, I'm bigger than you, but there's no way I'm going up against a guy his size – especially since he has a gun.”

“Six ten, actually,” said the guard cheerfully. “And I will beat you into little balls of sh*t if you so much as breathe on me aggressively.”

“Whatever. You get the point.”

Cheren gave me a look, and suddenly I realised that he had a plan.

“Jared...”

“Oh, fine,” I said, feigning reluctance. “But look, when I get my head kicked in, you'll be the one explaining my sudden death to my family and girlfriend.”

Bianca looked worried.

“Er – Cheren, maybe Jared shouldn't—”

“Let him go,” said Halley. “I'd like to see this.”

As I walked up to the door, I passed Cheren, and he muttered, “Slam it.”

And then I saw it, and I felt like an idiot.

I stopped about a foot ahead of the guard, who gave me a pleasant smile.

“Go on, then,” he said, leaning forwards like a tiger over its kill. “I dare you.”

“OK,” I said, and slammed the door on his face.

To his credit, it wasn't enough to knock him out, but it did knock him over – and make him drop his gun, which I hurriedly kicked away over the asphalt.

“Ettinf*cker,” he gasped, clutching his face and struggling to get back onto his feet. “You little—!”

“Candy,” I said, “you remember how to Rock Throw, right?”

“Ark,” she replied, and threw a small boulder at his face.

It wasn't the hardest blow ever, but on top of everything else it did the job; the guard groaned and slumped back onto the floor.

I looked back at Cheren.

“Nice plan,” I said.

“Nice slamming,” he replied. “I didn't think you'd hit him that hard.”

“I did,” said Halley.

“Roy? Roy, everything all right back there?”

We froze. The voice had come from down the passage beyond the door.

“Er... yeah,” I called back, trying to deepen my voice a bit. “Yeah, it's nothing.”

“I heard the door slam,” said the voice.

“Thought I saw someone,” I replied. “Just the seagulls fighting over a plastic bag.”

“F*cking vermin,” said the voice, and fell silent.

I let out a long breath.

“I think they bought it,” I said.

“If they did, they're a moron,” said Halley. “You sound nothing like him.”

“Thanks. Look, shall we move him out the way?”

“OK, OK.”

Between the three of us, Cheren, Bianca and I managed to drag Roy across the way and dump him in one of the bins, from which we hoped he would take at least a little while to escape. Cheren picked up his gun, and gave it to Bianca.

“Here,” he said. “If we meet someone, threaten them with it.”

Bianca stared at it.

“But what if it goes off?”

“Then someone will die,” answered Halley. “Or at least get seriously injured. Don't you watch movies? Those things are basically magic murder sticks.”

“That's the point,” Bianca cried. “I want to avoid that!”

“Then just follow this one handy tip: don't pull the f*cking trigger.”

“Isn't there a safety catch?” she asked. “That stops it firing?”

“Look, I don't know anything about guns,” said Cheren. “Just, er, be careful with it.”

She handed it back to him.

“You take it,” she said. “You're good at being careful.”

Cheren eyed it with distrust.

“Fine,” he sighed. “I'll take it.”

“Can we go inside now?” I asked. “Someone's going to come looking for Roy if we leave it too long.”

Cheren nodded.

“OK.” He motioned to the door. “You're intimidating. You first.”

I thought about pointing out that he had a gun, but decided against it; I knew he wouldn't actually use it.

“OK.”

The corridor was short and turned at a sharp right angle; beyond it was a small office, where a woman was typing at a computer.

“Roy,” she said, without looking around. “What was all that about? You were gone ages.”

I looked at Cheren.

“Threaten her,” I mouthed.

“Roy?”

The woman turned in her chair and froze.

“Ah,” she said. “Is Roy in one of the bins out at the back?”

“Yeah,” I said, almost apologetic. “Sorry about this.”

She licked her lips nervously, smudged her lipstick.

“OK,” she said. “There's no one else in the building. The workers who shift the gold aren't here because of the protests, and then apart from then there's usually only Roy and Geoff guarding the place, but Geoff's been at home with the flu for the last week and today is an inspection day, so I'm here.”

“Inspection?” asked Cheren. His hands did not shake – not even a little. He looked like he was used to the weight of the machine in his hand.

“Yeah.” The woman blinked in surprise. “What, you don't – oh, you've broken in to find out what's in here, haven't you?”

“Yeah.” Halley jumped up onto the desk. “So start talking.”

The woman stared.

“You're Halley,” she said.

Halley started.

“That isn't the response I usually get,” she said. “It's more usually something like 'Aah! A talking cat!'”

“Harmonia was after you,” the woman continued. “You're connected to the theft...”

“OK,” said Cheren, taking a step closer. “You seem to know an awful lot about all this.”

“Things we've been trying to find out for ages,” added Bianca, which slightly ruined the sense of menace.

“Look, I'll tell you, OK?” The woman scooted backwards on her chair, wheels squeaking on the carpet. “Just – you don't have to point a gun at me. God. You three are Trainers, I'm a scientist whose only exercise is walking to the vending machine for more coffee. It doesn't take a genius to work out that I'm going to have to talk to you if I want to come out of this all right.”

I looked at Cheren.

“I don't think we need the gun,” I said. “Keep it for now, in case Roy comes back and we need to threaten him, but I don't think we need it for – what's your name?”

“Lisbeth,” she answered. “Dr. Lisbeth Patel.”

“Yeah, for Dr. Patel,” I said.

“I agree,” said Bianca.

“All right,” said Cheren. “I don't like it either. It's got oil on my hands.”

He lowered it and took his finger off the trigger, holding it outside the trigger guard.

“Can we get on with the questioning?” asked Halley. “I don't know about you, but I'm pretty keen to hear about my past. You know, since I don't f*cking remember any of it.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Cheren looked at Bianca. “Bianca, you're a people person. Do you want to question Dr. Patel?”

“Just Lisbeth is fine,” said Dr. Patel helpfully. “I'm not a medical doctor or anything. I'm a genetic engineer.”

“Hi, Lisbeth,” said Bianca. “I'm Bianca, and this is Cheren and Jared. And Halley. And that's Candy, Justine, Munny—”

“Oh, get on with it,” snapped Halley. “What do you know about me?”

“Not much,” said Lisbeth. “I mean – only what I've overheard. No one's actually told me, as such. But people seemed to think you might know the person who stole the Dark Stone. Whatever that might mean.”

Cheren looked at me.

“Has N ever mentioned anything about that?”

I shook my head.

“No, but it sounds... I don't know. No, I don't think I know it.”

“What else do you know?” asked Halley. “About me, that is.”

Lisbeth shrugged.

“Nothing. Really, I'm sorry.” She glanced at me. “What, did you have a question?”

“Er – no. Nothing.”

I'd been staring, I realised. It was difficult not to; Unova's population was more than ninety-five per cent white. It was not a popular destination for immigrants. I supposed it explained her name, too – decidedly Unovan forename, obviously foreign surname.

“OK,” said Bianca. “If there's nothing more you know about Halley, then what is it that you're doing here, with all your genetic engineering?”

“Harmonia approached us – that's Ingen – a long time ago with—”

“Ingen?” I asked, surprised. “Do you know Gregory Black?”

Lisbeth looked startled.

“Er – yeah, you could say I know him. Why?”

“He's my uncle,” I said. “How is he? I mean, with the Archen thing...”

“He's facing an inquiry,” she said. “It's not looking great...” She trailed off. “Oh, God. You're Jared Black, aren't you? And that's...”

“Yeah,” I said, scratching Candy's neck. “Yeah, this is the Archen.”

Lisbeth closed her eyes and sighed.

“This is such a clusterf*ck,” she said. “I'm going to pretend I didn't notice that that was anything but a parrot.”

“I think we're losing control of the situation here,” said Cheren authoritatively. “You were talking about your work here?”

“Oh. Yeah. Well, it was an ambitious project, but Ingen like ambitious projects, so they sent a team out to see how it would go, and—” She paused. “Can I get up and show you?” she asked. “I thought I'd better ask, in case you shot me or something for making sudden movements.”

“I'm not shooting anybody,” said Cheren tiredly. “This conversation stopped being a hostage situation at about the time when we all inexplicably started making friends with each other.”

“But isn't it nice that it's worked out like this?” asked Bianca.

“I don't know. I've never seen anyone get shot before,” said Halley. “Might've been an interesting experience.”

“You are a vile creature,” said Cheren. “Lisbeth. Please, lead on.”

“Wait,” she said. “If you're not going to shoot me, I don't really need to do anything you ask. Do I?”

“No,” said Cheren, “you don't. Although if you choose not to help us Jared could always beat you up a little.”

Lisbeth looked at me, and I did my best to look threatening. Perhaps it worked; perhaps she was just humouring us. Either way, she gave in.

“All right,” she sighed. “This way.”

She took us to a door beyond her desk and through into what must have been the main body of the warehouse – a huge, echoing space, filled with gigantic crates stacked up to the ceiling.

“This is the gold,” she said. “But if we go this way, through here is the cryonics suite.”

“Cryonics?” asked Bianca.

“Low-temperature preservation,” said Cheren. “Frozen, essentially.”

“Oh, like Fry in Futurama. I get it.”

Both Cheren and Lisbeth winced.

“Yes. To put it simply.”

“Anyway,” said Lisbeth. “Here.”

She led us between two last columns of crates, and the space opened up; instead of boxes, here were long lines of freezers, upright like soldiers standing to attention. I looked at them for a minute, puzzled—

And then I saw them.

I saw the faces staring blankly through every single frosted window.

The ice-coloured eyes.

The green hair.

The unmistakeable face of N.



Note: Hey, everybody! The book's done bar the editing, and I'm back to working on Crack'd. Thanks for being so patient!
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Old September 11th, 2013, 12:59 PM
Cutlerine
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Chapter Thirty: Spare Parts

“What the actual f*ck.”

Halley, of course, prowling inquisitively between the lines of standing pods; I couldn't even muster that much. There was N, and there were... well, what were these? Clones? Spare copies?

“Thunor strike us,” breathed Cheren. “It's—”

Explain,” I snapped, turning to Lisbeth. “Now. What are these, and why are they N?”

“Jared,” began Bianca, but I held up a hand to interrupt her.

“No. Lisbeth. What is going on here?”

She looked afraid, as if she thought I might attack her – and for all I knew, I might have done; there was a horrible wrongness about all these Ns, these rows and rows of deathless clones, and it swelled inside me like ice in pipes, threatening to burst me at the seams. I wanted— I don't know what I wanted. But I wanted to do it fiercely.

“He had a mummified body,” said Lisbeth, speaking far too fast. “A – a king, he said, an old king, and he wanted us to extract the DNA and grow a clone – several, he said, in case of trouble—”

F*ck,” said Halley. “Do you remember? The first of the royal blood for thousands of years, N said. Didn't make sense at the time, did it? How could the monarchy be passed down? But if you found the body of the King...”

“That's why he's named N,” I said, an icy cold stealing through my skin. “It's the name he had before, just modernised a little.” I took a deep breath. “He isn't descended from Naudri at all. He is Naudri.”

“That's not quite how cloning works,” Cheren pointed out. “N is technically Naudri's son, but they're genetically identical.”

“Why?” I asked abruptly, not listening to him. “Why did he want this – why did he want the body cloned? And where did he get it?”

Lisbeth backed away slightly, raising her hands in a pacifying gesture.

“Look, I only know so much—”

“Then tell me whatever you do know,” I snapped. “Sun's sake, just talk already!”

“OK!” She swallowed. “I don't know where the body came from,” she said. “The desert, I think. It came in a sarcophagus like they've found over in the First Kingdom ruins, so I'm guessing it was there.”

“And why?” I asked.

“I don't know!” Lisbeth closed her eyes. “I don't know.” She opened them again. “Look,” she said, more calmly, “I'm just a scientist. I work for Ingen, not Harmonia. I just patched together the genetic information from the body and grew it. After that, Harmonia's men took the baby away – I just made forty more bodies as back-ups, like he'd asked. He took them too, for a few years, and then gave them back for me to put into slow growth stasis in here. I've come here once a week to check on them ever since.”

Something in my throat seemed to close up.

“How long?” I asked, dreading the answer. “How long have they been stuck in there?”

Lisbeth counted on her fingers.

“Er... five years?” she hazarded. “Since they were toddlers.”

“Wait,” said Cheren. “Five years?” He glanced at the clones. “They're as old as N, though.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Same age – about eight or nine.”

“What do you mean, eight or nine? They're clearly at least sixteen.”

“They look sixteen,” agreed Lisbeth. “But they matured much faster. So did N.” She paused. “Wait. You didn't know, did you?”

“Know what?” asked Halley. “I'm getting tired of this bullsh*t, so if you'd like to get to the f*cking point some time soon...?”

“They look human,” said Lisbeth, an earnest look on her face. “And they act human, too – or at least N does; these don't do anything at all. But if you look at their bones, and their brains, and their DNA... Well. They just aren't human.”

---

Niamh opened her eyes.

This did not change a thing.

She blinked. No. Still as dark as ever – unnaturally dark; darker than she'd ever known it to be before.

She took a deep breath, and felt a weight on her chest.

“Try not to breathe,” said a soft voice in her ear. “Moving only makes this trickier, and we do want you to survive the process.”

Niamh started and hit her head on stone.

“We asked you not to move,” said the voice. It had something of the buzz of flies about it, and Niamh knew, all at once and without being told, that it was an aspect of Weland. Not all of him, but some at least.

Niamh lay very still, and concentrated.

Where was she? In some very small, narrow space – possibly entombed, she thought. That was alarming, but not insurmountable. The voice said they wanted her alive, after all, so she wouldn't die.

OK, thought Niamh, I can deal with that.

Unfortunately, that wasn't all there was to it.

Her clothes were gone, and in their place it felt like some kind of shroud or bandage was being wrapped around her. They began at her feet, and wound up tightly about her body to the chest, where she could feel them winding further, somehow slipping between her back and the stone beneath her with each revolution.

Niamh thought of sarcophagi and mummies.

Niamh thought of Ezra's choking bands of grey light.

Niamh thought of curses that were sculpted flesh.

“What are you doing to me?” she whispered faintly, clinging resolutely to the remnants of her iron will.

“We are making you anew,” the voice whispered back, like a lover in her ear. “Such a prize specimen is not to be passed up, Niamh Harper. You will be a choice gem in our diadem indeed.”

I am not afraid, Niamh told herself. I am Niamh Harper and I am not afraid of anything, so I'm definitely not f*cking afraid now—

But she was, and with the Hellerune in her ear there was no way she could deny it – no way anyone could; no Beowulf or Hercules, no Atalanta or Osiris or even Baldr, could have found a way to shut the fear out of their mind with the soul of decay itself upon their chest.

Something snapped inside her, and Niamh began to cry.

---

“Not human,” I repeated. “What do you mean, not human?”

“I mean exactly that,” replied Lisbeth. “Not human. Not a member of the species Homo sapiens.”

“Well, what are they then?” asked Bianca.

Lisbeth shrugged.

“Something different. I don't know enough to work out the specifics. I just grow clones.” Perhaps she noticed the look on my face, because she carried on hurriedly, “These grow fast – as in, they grow at a constant rate and get larger faster. Their muscles mature rapidly, too, and their brains – or at least, N's did. These clones don't have brains; if N were to suffer a fatal injury, Harmonia would have his transplanted into them.”

“This is some seriously f*cked-up sh*t,” said Halley. “You grew forty-odd people without brains in case N died?”

Lisbeth looked nervous.

“We did need them,” she said defensively. “N's body isn't strong, and he's allergic to pretty much everything you find in a modern city, from plastics and asphalt to petrol fumes and virtually every artificial additive in any food, ever. He's gone into major anaphylactic shock hundreds of times and died eight times over the last nine years.”

“I can't believe this,” I said, shaking my head and stepping back. “No, I can't – these are all—”

“It's a little disturbing if you're not used to it, I agree,” said Lisbeth. “But N is a very fragile person, and these aren't humans. They aren't anything – just shells that look like people.”

“Let's leave the ethics aside for one moment,” said Cheren, in a tone of voice that convinced me that he hadn't considered them even for a second, “and let Lisbeth finish telling us about N's... species.”

“How can you leave the ethics aside?” I asked, gesturing wildly at the cryo-chambers. “She made forty zombies and keeps them in chest freezers!”

“In the name of keeping a very ill boy alive,” protested Lisbeth. “It's not like these bodies have minds. They're literally just meat until they need them.”

“I – I guess she does have a point,” said Bianca doubtfully. “It's not so bad, Jared...”

I could see that, I really could. I knew there was no suffering involved, and that the bodies only looked human (or almost-human, or whatever N was). But that wasn't the problem; it was more that whatever N was, whatever Naudri was, it was something more than this – something that was profaned by this, something that shared its essence with the dragons and with the city of granite and porphyry. It was something that Lisbeth had no business cutting up and resurrecting – something that should have been handled only by a Sun-Priest, not by a scientist.

(What was a Sun-Priest, I wondered distractedly. I had no idea.)

“Fine,” I said, suddenly exhausted. “Fine, fine. Go on then, Lisbeth.”

“About N's species?”

“Yeah. About that.”

“Well, like I said, they grow fast – but they don't reach sexual maturity when you'd expect,” she said. “None of the specimens has developed any recognisable secondary sexual characteristics as yet; they're all still prepubescent. Which is normal for a nine-year-old, but not normal for someone the size and shape of a sixteen-year-old.”

“Man,” said Halley. “You would not know it from his voice. You'd think it'd be all high and squeaky, but nope. Bari sax all the way.”

“The vocal range is deeper from birth,” said Lisbeth. “There was no breaking of the voice.”

I eyed her with distaste. I didn't like the dispassionate approach she was taking.

“All right,” said Cheren. “Do you know any more?” Lisbeth shook her head. “Then start taking photos,” he said to Bianca and me. “Harmonia must have suspected we, or perhaps that Ezra guy, were on our way here, and thought to use the protests as a way of stopping us. Why? Because this is all very, very illegal, and if information about this gets out, it's going to destroy his career.”

“We could stop his whole campaign,” Bianca cried. “There'd be an inquiry—”

“Send it all to the League,” I said. “If Shauntal had this information and photos to back it up, she could get it all over the country in half an hour.”

Lisbeth looked alarmed.

“Look,” she said, “I know the legality of this is kinda questionable, but so was resurrecting that Archen—”

“Where's the body?” I asked suddenly.

“What?”

“Naudri's body,” I clarified, as Cheren started taking photos with his phone. “What did you do with it?”

“Nothing. I mean, Harmonia took it away afterwards. I mean, hey, please don't take pictures—”

“Don't worry, we won't implicate you,” said Bianca kindly. “You've been really helpful.”

“I suppose so,” said Cheren, taking a close-up of one of the frozen clones. “Though I don't suppose Ingen looks after its own, does it?”

“No,” said Lisbeth sourly. “It doesn't. Seriously, could we talk—?”

Cheren twitched his fingers and Justine was on her shoulders in an instant, claws ready to curl into the flesh of her throat. Lisbeth looked surprised – hell, I probably looked surprised; what with everything else, I'd forgotten Justine entirely.

“All right,” said Lisbeth, swallowing. “I'll take that as a 'no'.”

“I'd rather be reasonable than violent,” said Cheren, without looking at her, “but to be honest, you rather threw reason out the window when you began human experimentation.”

“They aren't human—”

“But they are a species of human, aren't they?” asked Cheren. “They must be. They couldn't be so similar to us and not be at least in the hominin group, if not in the genus Homo.”

Lisbeth was silent.

“I thought so,” he said. “The men and women of the First Kingdom – they weren't our humans, were they? They must have been something else – a species of human that developed civilisation slightly earlier. That built the nameless city of granite and porphyry when we were still stabbing wild cattle with pointed sticks. They're not Homo sapiens. But they are human, and you brought them back to life in a world that they can no longer live in.”

“N,” I said. “He said the same thing about Candy...”

“Ark?” said Candy, hearing her name, but she didn't get a response.

“Jesus Christ,” said Halley. “He wasn't being insightful. He was being empathetic. He's as dislocated in time as she is.”

I stared at Lisbeth.

“You started this,” I said, not quite able to believe what I said. “That's what it was then – two types of human, two dragons. Two heroes versus one King. It's the same now, and why now? Because you brought him back. That's why the war is starting all over again.” I shook my head slowly. “One thing. One resurrection, and all this...”

“Damn,” said Cheren, breaking into my reverie. “No signal. Bianca?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, signal's terrible all over the Cold Storage,” said Lisbeth, eager to be helpful and get back into our good books. “Lots of the older warehouses date back to the British occupation. The roofs are thick and packed with lead – you won't get a signal until you get back over the bridge.”

“Guess we'll have to wait til then to send the pictures.” Bianca slipped her phone back into her bag. “So, I guess we'd better get moving? I mean, we need to get those pictures out there as soon as possible.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let's get the f*ck out of here.”

Justine mewed from Lisbeth's shoulder, as if to ask what we were going to do with her.

“Ah,” said Cheren. “Yes. I have to say, I wouldn't really feel comfortable beating Lisbeth into unconsciousness.”

“Neither would I,” said Lisbeth. “How about you just leave me here? I'll sit tight and – and pretend this never happened.”

Cheren looked at me.

“What do you think?”

“Fine. Whatever. Can we just get out of here?”

“OK, OK.” He gestured to Justine and she leaped back down to the floor. “Come on, then,” he said. “Let's go.”

“Go? Oh, come on. You only just got here – won't you stay a while?”

I froze.

“You can turn around,” said the voice. “I'm not going to kill you.”

We did.

“Woden hang 'em,” I groaned, seeing who it was. “Another of you f*cking Sages.”

---

The Sage shrugged, which made his ridiculous hat bob and nearly fall off his head.

“What can I say,” he said. “We get around.”

“What accent is that?” asked Bianca. “Are you all from different parts of the world?”

“We are the wisest and the most powerful!” said the Sage theatrically, throwing his arms wide. “Gathered from all around the world by Ghetsis Harmonia, who serves as our head.” He withdrew his arms quickly. “Agh. It's cold in here, isn't it? I hate that. Don't move,” he added, as I began to run at him, and I saw something enormous rise silently up from behind him – a great face of jagged ice, trailing chains of snowy lights from its upper lip. It did not have eyes; in their place, it had two soft orbs of cold, cold blue light, and though they did not move I was certain they were fixed on me.

“Drop the gun and kick it over here,” ordered the Sage. “You could shoot, and maybe you'd get me. But you wouldn't get both me and my Cryogonal before my Cryogonal got you, and once my Cryogonal got you, you wouldn't be getting anything. You'd be a bit too dead.”

Cheren dropped the gun and kicked it over to him; the Sage scooped it up and tossed it across to Roy, who had just emerged from the gold storage area.

“Hello,” he said, with a certain savage humour.

“Hey, Roy,” I replied. “How's your head?”

“F*cked.”

“Good to know.”

“Roy contacted me when he woke up in the bin,” said the Sage.

“Speaking of which – who are you, exactly?” asked Cheren.

“Ah! But of course. My name is Zinzolin—”

“Zanzolah?” asked Bianca.

“—and you are Cheren, Bianca and Jared.” Zinzolin frowned. “No, Zinzolin.”

“He's French, Bianca,” said Cheren quietly. “It's his accent.”

“F*ck you,” said Zinzolin. “I'm Belgian.”

“So make a f*cking waffle,” retorted Halley. “Now there's a reference I never thought I'd get to make.”

Zinzolin snapped something in French and the Cryogonal roared – at least, I think it roared; there was a sound like the wind howling in midwinter when it's heavy with snow, and I was reasonably sure that it came from between the Cryogonal's parted lips.

There was silence.

“Thank you,” said Zinzolin. “Now. Let us get to the point, shall we? You” – he jabbed his finger in our direction, and the Cryogonal bobbed fiercely – “have been taking photos. And this we cannot allow.”

“Did you think me and the protest were the only things standing in your way?” asked Roy. “Sage Zinzolin's been waiting in the middle of the protesters.”

“Like Gorm,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “You Sages seem to like going around with hypnotised crowds.”

Zinzolin wagged a finger.

“This isn't about me,” he said. “This is about you, and your snooping.” He made as if to pat his Cryogonal, then noticed the frosty mist rising from its skull and thought better of it. “We were told not to kill you,” said Zinzolin. “It is N's will. But there was nothing about freezing you in blocks of ice and gifting you to King Weland. He is very keen to meet you,” he added, looking directly at me. “He would love to add you to his collection.”

I felt sick – sick and angry; angry that we had lost, angry that there was nothing I could do, angry that we were going to Weland of all people. I wanted something solid between my hands with which to smash the Cryogonal into pieces – but what good would it do? It was almost certainly faster than me, and tougher than it looked, and there was Roy with the gun...

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bianca's hand wind nervously into Cheren's, and I thought of Annie, alone and wondering why I wasn't returning calls; I wondered what would happen to Cordelia, to Harlow, to Mum and Dad – what would everyone say when I was dead or something even worse in the halls of the demon king.

“How about you don't freeze us in blocks of ice?” asked Halley nervously. “Really. I mean, Han Solo is cool and all, but I don't want to emulate his untimely demise.”

Zinzolin pretended to consider it.

“No,” he said. “No, I think we'll go with the freezing.”

Lisbeth put up her hand timidly.

“What about me?” she asked.

“You? Oh, the scientist. Don't worry, you're safe, despite your betrayal – you're the only one who can look after these.”

He waved a hand at the clones.

“Actually,” Lisbeth began, “anyone with the right— You know what? Yes, I am the only one in the whole world who can look after them.”

“Return your Purrloin,” said Zinzolin. “One less thing to freeze.”

Cheren did. He didn't say anything, but his lips were taut, and he kept the light glinting off his glasses so that his eyes could not be seen.

Bianca didn't say anything either. She didn't need to; her face said it all.

I took Candy from my shoulder and held her close, in front of me. Halley paced indecisively before us.

“F*ckf*ckf*ckf*ck,” she said. “No, this isn't – we can't lose, not now, not when we've found this—”

“You think so?” asked Zinzolin, regarding her disinterestedly. “Ah, well. Not so. Hexagel,” he said, suddenly switching to French. “Glaciation!

The Cryogonal's mouth gaped, and I shut my eyes as the air around me burst into horrendous, blood-freezing cold—

---

When the work was done, Weland lifted his Hand from the body of Niamh Harper, and left the sarcophagus to let the new flesh cool.

The Hand crossed the Gaol hall, and climbed back up the stairs to the Great Western Transept, where the Gaoler had her office. It did not knock, nor did it open the door, but the Gaoler knew that the Hand was there, as everyone always knew when the Hand was there, and opened the door for it.

“My lord,” she said, lowering herself. (It would be incorrect to say she bowed, or that she curtseyed. She lacked the proper limbs for such a manoeuvre.)

“Thejne Yaghda,” replied the Hand. “Release Harmonia's man.”

“The human?”

The Hand made a gesture of affirmation. (It would be incorrect to say it nodded, for much the same reason that it would be incorrect to say that Yaghda bowed.)

“Portland Smythe,” said the Hand of Weland.

“Where shall we leave him, my lord?”

“Anywhere,” replied the Hand. “We keep our word. We promised the warrior that he would be released, and so he shall.”

Yaghda smiled.

“Does that mean we might release him very far above the ground?”

“Of course. You might watch him, too, to see how he bounces.”

Yaghda's substance flexed with pleasure.

“It shall be done, my lord.”

The Hand left, and began to stalk back towards the throne room. Yaghda, for her part, made her way downstairs, back into the Tomb-Gaol. She crossed the hall, opened up the wall—

“Ah,” said Yaghda, staring. A few of her eyes migrated to the front of her body, just to make sure she wasn't missing anything – but there could be no mistake.

The little chamber was empty.

Portland Smythe had escaped.

---

—and then gradually warmed again.

“Ouch,” said an unfamiliar voice. “That hurt.”

I opened my eyes. There was a man standing in front of us – no, not a man; he had wings, or something dark and nebulous that looked a little like wings, arching out from his back, shielding us from the Cryogonal's breath. Frost hung heavily on his hair and the shadow-stuff of his wings, and it cracked and fell to the floor in showers as he moved.

“But it all serves a purpose,” he went on, his wings folding away into nothingness. “It is only the attacked who can use the Riposte.”

He stepped forwards and laid his hands on the Cryogonal, and an unearthly sheen flared across its surface; its mouth flopped open, and then its lower jaw detached completely and smashed on the floor. A moment later, the rest of its body followed – and there was nothing more than a heap of glassy shards to show that there had ever been anything there at all.

Zinzolin stared.

“Roy,” he said. “Shoot him.”

Roy did, and the man's hand jumped forwards so fast it made my eyes water. He opened his fingers, and a little flattened disc of metal fell out.

“Would you care to try again?” asked the man. “Only it seems rather a waste of ammunition.”

Sh*t,” said Zinzolin, and I thought in that moment he sounded much more Unovan than French. (Or Belgian, or whatever.) “It's you, isn't it? The rebel.”

The man bowed.

“At your service. Or rather, at your service.”

He turned and nodded to us, and I saw his face for the first time – soft-edged, long, with large, haunted eyes.

“Now,” said the rebel. “Hero, accomplices – let's leave. We can safely leave these three here; should they somehow muster the courage to mount some form of assault, I have no doubts at all that we can repulse it.”

I would have asked what he meant by 'Hero', but I wasn't up to it; I couldn't even think straight. N was the clone of Naudri, who wasn't human, and there was another Sage, and an impossible man had taken the frozen breath of a Cryogonal and caught bullets. If there's anyone on Earth who could still react to anything after experiencing all that in less than five minutes, I'd like to meet them.

So we trailed out, following the rebel in his battered suit and dark coat; felt Zinzolin's eyes on us, smouldering with rage; felt Roy and Lisbeth watching in confusion and fear.

We had escaped death and the King, I thought, but where were we going now?

---

Niamh opened her eyes, and pushed the lid of the sarcophagus aside with one hand. She climbed up and out, rubbing her neck with greying fingers, and regarded the two smiling men standing before her with interest.

“Good morning, boss,” said one. “We brought you your weeds.”

Niamh took the suit from him and the bowler hat from his comrade, and stared at them for a moment.

Then, all at once, and quite without reason, she began to grin, and she did not stop.
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  #80    
Old September 17th, 2013, 08:44 AM
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Éclair
that's my girl
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Totally amazing work you have here! The way you phrase, your pronunciation and the way you can capture the reader's attention is truly inspiring! It makes me realize how much my own work needs brushing up. ^-^"

Quote:
A moment later, he was just a face between the clawing hands of the old people, screaming wildly; a few seconds later, he had vanished entirely in a swell of cardigans and wrinkled skin.
This sentence is a humorous work of art!
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  #81    
Old September 18th, 2013, 01:31 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 Mokoko View Post
Totally amazing work you have here! The way you phrase, your pronunciation and the way you can capture the reader's attention is truly inspiring! It makes me realize how much my own work needs brushing up. ^-^"
Thank you very much! I'm glad you're enjoying the story.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mokoko View Post
This sentence is a humorous work of art!
Thank you. I hope the rest of the story meets with your approval, too, should you choose to read it!
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For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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  #82    
Old September 21st, 2013, 08:22 AM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Chapter Thirty-One: The Magic Number

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

It had learned.

It had changed.

And it was hungry.

---

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

“Demon,” corrected Cheren.

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“Mister Schwarz,” said Cheren, “I—”

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

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

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

Bianca and I shared identical looks of incomprehension.

“Right,” I said. “So it would seem.”

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

There were three men standing in front of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What – where did—?”

The man returned.

Ezra did not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don't see how—”

Bianca shook her head.

“Never mind,” she sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said the man on the left.

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

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

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

I sighed.

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

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

I looked back at Cheren and Bianca.

“What do you think?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And all at once I was somewhere else entirely.

---

Cheren and Bianca exchanged a look.

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

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

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

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

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

Cheren chewed his lip.

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

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

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

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

“Stop it!”

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

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

Cheren frowned.

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

Bianca rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bleagh,” she said. “Disgusting.”

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

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

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

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

Bianca sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you just—?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halley considered the matter for a moment.

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

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

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

Bianca stared.

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

Halley sat up a little.

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

Bianca didn't answer.

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

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

---

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

It was not the noblest of jailbreaks.

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

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

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

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

“Where are we?” he asked.

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

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

You are upset.

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

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

Smythe snorted.

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

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

That made Smythe pause for a moment.

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

That seems sensible.

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

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

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

Smythe wilted a little.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

Jared's absence was proving more troublesome than expected.

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

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

Cheren looked at her.

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

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

Bianca glared at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halley turned her blazing eyes on her.

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

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

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

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

Halley glowered.

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

“Are you OK?” asked Bianca.

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

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

She gave him a look.

“Sorry,” said Cheren. “It bugs me.”

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

Cheren winced.

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

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

“I don't—”

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

Cheren blinked.

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

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

Cheren smiled.

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

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

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

Bianca chuckled.

“Admit it, you watched it.”

Cheren sighed.

“OK, I was twelve—”

“Knew it,” she said happily.

Cheren laughed.

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

He gave her an odd look.

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

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

They glanced at her.

“Someone's calmed down,” said Bianca.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why cut off your feet?” asked Bianca.

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

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

She turned and fixed her with a piercing glare.

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

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

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

“What? Why?”

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

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

Cheren looked at Bianca and smiled.

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

Bianca smiled back.

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

Halley let out a little groan.

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

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

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

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

---

It was dark in Chargestone Cave.

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

“Where'd you guys go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The what?”

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

“Because I found where they cloned you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a silence.

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

N shook his head.

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

“Which you can't tell me about.”

“No.”

Neither of us said anything for a while.

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

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

I froze.

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

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

“Important things?”

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

“Walk where?”


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

“Oh. Right, OK.”

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is it?”

N sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

N looked at me expectantly.

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

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

N let out a sigh of relief and nodded.

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

I paused.

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

N nodded.

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

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

He shrugged.

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

I sighed.

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

He looked at me for a long time without words.

“I told you that the war wasn't over,” he said. “That it was on hold. Well, when we come to the castle of that thief, it will start again. Your army and mine will meet – and Sandjr will ride to war against Unova.”
__________________

For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.
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  #83    
Old September 28th, 2013, 01:43 PM
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 20
Gender:
Nature: Impish
Interlude: The Prophet

In the old days, they knew how to treat a proleptic.

Now, they get a letter from their doctor and an autoinjector to stave off their more disturbing visions. Back then, ah! Back then, they got a shrine, and an altar, and a title.

Such a shrine it was that the king came to at the beginning of winter, when the grass was beginning to pale and the trees had resolutely ceased to give out olives. He was planning to make war on someone and wanted advice; who he was, and who his enemy was, are long since lost beneath the tide of history. (Not so the oracle, however. No one would forget them – indeed, no one could, even if they had wanted to. Immortality and creative cruelty are exceptionally fine preservatives for one's legacy.)

So came the king to the cave where the oracle resided. He left his retinue behind him at the door and his companion in the antechamber, and at the bidding of the attendant (a haunted fellow whose face had been replaced with a dirty piece of leather, sewn with crude stitches to his skull) proceeded into the sanctum.

The sanctum was dark.

The attendant left the room and closed the door behind him.

The sanctum was very dark.

A king is only a king in the company of other men. Alone, he is a man. And when he is alone in the dark, he is just as afraid as anyone else.

He tried to speak; he failed. He stammered out a weak charge to the oracle to speak.

Two blind white eyes opened in the dark – young eyes, the eyes of a creature weak and unformed, and yet still more puissant than any man in Greece.

“I speak,” said a voice that issued like smoke from cracks in the floor. “What would you learn?”

And in the king's whiteness of countenance, in his trembling voice and hesitant request – in all that, you would have seen the unmistakeable mark of one who has gone too far into the night to ever truly return to the light.

Oh yes, they knew how to treat a proleptic in the old days.

Chapter Thirty-Two: Twain

“—you?”

Ezra blinked.

“What did you just do?” he asked, but the man in black had already vanished again, faster than even Ezra's eye could follow.

Ezra stared.

“This,” he said at last, “is very strange.”

He looked around, and saw nothing so very out of the ordinary: a quiet street that would have been at home in any town in the country. Not at all odd – not, that is, unless a moment ago you had been somewhere else entirely.

“Hm,” said Ezra. “And where is this, exactly?”

He felt tentatively for an entrance to the dark paths, but there was none nearby – not even a gap in reality that might lead to an entrance, such as he normally took. However the man in black had brought him here, neither of them had left the everyday mortal world.

“Hum,” said Ezra, and frowned.

He walked down the pavement, looking for street signs; he found one on the corner, which informed him that he was on Lombard Place.

“Not helpful,” he concluded, and turned the corner in search of answers.

None were forthcoming. The street beyond was busier and had more shops, but that was all that set it aside from that which he'd just come from.

He roamed aimlessly for a while, looking for clues, but there were few indications; a lot of the older lampposts had ornate wrought-iron crowns set into the crooks of their arms, but all that meant was that this was a royal district – and the Unovan Royal Family had had residences in a good six parts of the country before their forced abdication at the hands of the British.

In fact, Ezra was on the verge of becoming invisible and taking flight to see if he could spot a landmark from higher up when he saw a familiar figure trudging down the street.

He frowned. The man was not one he had any memory of meeting, or of corresponding with – or anything at all of that nature. And yet he had the distinct impression that he had seen his face before.

“Now who...?” Ezra's eyes widened. He knew where he had seen him before – flickering like a ghost through the back of Niamh's head. He wasn't quite as handsome as in her memory, but there could be no mistaking it: this was Portland Smythe.

But if there was Smythe, thought Ezra, where was Niamh? Surely they wouldn't have parted so soon? And why did Smythe look so wet? No, there was something wrong here, and Ezra was determined to find out what it was.

“Excuse me,” he said, sidling past a knot of pedestrians. “Excuse me... Excuse me!”

This last was directed at Smythe, and accompanied by a tap on the shoulder. He turned around sharply, a hunted look in his eye – and the sight of Ezra did not apparently comfort him.

“Who are you?” he asked guardedly.

“Mister Smythe, am I right?” asked Ezra. “Portland Smythe?”

“Yes,” he replied, narrowing his eyes. “Who are you?”

“My name is Ezra. I'm a friend of Niamh's.”

Smythe's eyes lit up, and the cares fell away from it in an instant. It was rather like watching a shaft of sunlight breaking through storm-clouds.

“You are?” he asked. “Where – is she nearby? Can you take me to her?”

“I rather fear I cannot,” said Ezra, a sudden dread taking hold of him. “Er – Mister Smythe—”

“Portland.”

“—Portland, if Niamh didn't come for you, how did you get out?”

Smythe stared.

“What? What do you— how do you know where I was? And what's this about Niamh coming for me?”

Ezra was hardly listening. He should have foreseen this, he thought; Weland never broke his word, of course, but that was with demons and men of the old sort – with humans? No, he wouldn't have regarded a promise made to Niamh as anything at all, and he could have broken it without a second thought...

“I'm so sorry,” he said at last. “Portland – Mister Smythe – I'm afraid we need to have a talk.”

---

Of all the people they might have met on the trail that wound up through the hills to Chargestone Cave, Professor Juniper was the last one either Cheren or Bianca would have expected.

They'd been walking up the path for a while before they realised who she was; the path was full of twists and turns and lined with a thick growth of trees, and she kept vanishing behind corners before they got a good look at her. It was only when, on a particularly straight length of track, Bianca remarked that she'd only seen that hairstyle once before that Cheren noticed anything familiar about her.

“I'll tell you why,” he said. “It's because that's Professor Juniper.”

“No way – no, wait, it is.” Bianca's eyes widened. “What's she doing here?”

“I have no idea. Shall we ask?”

Bianca agreed, and they hurried on to catch up with her near a cairn that stood by the roadside.

“Professor!” called Bianca. “Professor Juniper?”

She stopped and turned.

“Bianca? Cheren?”

“Good afternoon, Professor,” said Cheren, coming to a halt before her. “We didn't expect to see you here.”

“And I didn't expect to see you, either,” replied Juniper, brows knitted in puzzlement. “What exactly are you doing out here? I thought the plan was for you to build up the strength to take on the Gyms nearer Nuvema?”

“Plans change,” said Cheren. “In this case, quite spectacularly.”

Juniper's eyebrows rose.

“Is that so?”

“I think we can safely say yes,” said Bianca. “I mean, we met two heroes out of legend and got dragged into a plot to take over Unova.”

Juniper's eyebrows rose further.

“We solved the mystery of the Dream World,” added Cheren.

“And got tangled up with some demons,” put in Bianca.

“You're forgetting the talking cat, but whatever,” said Halley. She lacked her usual acerbic energy; she'd been sulking since they got off the train.

Juniper's eyebrows rose still further – so much so, in fact, that they appeared to recede into her hairline.

“I see,” she said, in the tone of one who absolutely does not. “Er... To be quite honest with you, I'm not sure what I'm meant to say in response to that.”

Bianca and Cheren looked at each other.

“You do it,” said Bianca. “You won't forget anything and you'll get it all in order.”

“Right,” said Cheren, and launched into a thirty-minute explanation of all that had occurred since they had left Nuvema. At the end of it, Juniper looked a little like she'd been hit over the head with a hammer, but all things considered she seemed to bear it rather well.

“This,” she said at length, “is going to change quite a lot of current scientific thought.”

“I know,” replied Cheren. “At least half of everything that's happened to us seems to have broken the laws of physics.”

Juniper pinched the bridge of her nose.

“And so... I'm sorry, demons? And magic?

“Professor Juniper,” said Bianca, “Cheren doesn't have the imagination to make all that up.”

“Hey—”

“She's right,” said Halley. “And anyway, I'm proof, ain't I?”

“Well,” said Juniper doubtfully, “I suppose...” She crouched down and poked Halley hesitantly.

“You satisfied?”

“You certainly feel real...”

“That's because I am real,” said Halley. “No hallucination could be this annoying.”

Juniper straightened up.

“OK,” she said. “I just poked a woman who turned into a cat.” She took a deep breath. “This is all quite strange.”

“That's one way of putting it,” muttered Halley.

“Yes, it is,” said Cheren. “And anyway, that's why we're here. To find Jared in this cave.”

“Why are you here, Professor?” asked Bianca.

“What?” Juniper looked like she'd forgotten where she was entirely. “Oh. Er, I was here to catch a few Klink. I wanted to take some metal samples and find out how old they are – my father has a theory about them that I thought was interesting.... no, wait! Forget that. You're here to find your friend who was abducted by magical teleporting ninjas! What does it matter what I'm here for?”

“Oh. Um, yeah, it is kinda weird,” said Bianca. “But I was just making conversation.”

“Anyone feel like moving any time soon?” asked Halley. “We're not even at the cave yet, and we need to get in there soon.”

“Ah. Of course,” said Cheren, inwardly marvelling at how much less disagreeable Halley was being. (That collar had been the best three pounds he'd ever spent, he thought.) “Professor – we're going in the same direction. Shall we walk together?”

“OK,” agreed Juniper. She still looked somewhat dazed; whether she was actually making a conscious decision to go with them or simply saying whatever came into her head was open to debate. “Sure, we should go...”

They started on down the path again, and kept up the conversation. After a few minutes, Juniper seemed to recover her senses a little, and by the time they reached the enormous hill that rose over Chargestone Cave she was theorising about whether or not any of the demons might consent to undergoing a few tests for the cause of Science.

“Somehow, I don't think so,” said Bianca, thinking of Teiresias. “I'm not even sure they have any blood for you to take.”

“Ah well,” said Juniper wistfully. “There are other tests, you know. Professor Linden in England has come up with some interesting ways to sample the spirit-stuff of Ghost-types, so maybe I could adapt that... of course, I'd be working with the Gorsedd, of course, so we could work out exactly how much of the Treatises is true—”

“Professor,” said Cheren gently. “Do you have a torch?”

“Hm?” Juniper looked around, and realised that they were currently standing in the cave mouth. “Oh. Right.”

She took a dynamo-powered torch from her pocket, unfolded the handle and gave it a few brisk winds; the light stuttered and flared into life. In the darkness before them, a distant blue glow winked in sympathy, and a few distant flecks of brightness darted away from the sudden glare.

They looked into the mouth of the cave for a moment, all conversation forgotten. Juniper's light flicked upwards; they saw no roof, only more darkness, rising in silence right up to the crown of the hill.

“It's... it's bigger than I thought,” murmured Bianca.

“Gets me every time,” said Juniper.

Halley stalked a little way into the dark and turned, eyes shining bright with reflected torchlight.

“Are we going or what?” she said. “If it's this big, we're going to have a hell of a time finding Jared. Or any Klink, whatever those are.”

“Right,” said Juniper. “Of course.” She looked at Cheren and Bianca. “Shall we, then?”

“OK,” they agreed, and they walked in. In just a few moments, the dark had swallowed them up entirely; soon enough, when the torchlight was faint and distant, there was nothing at the entrance to show that anyone had ever been there at all.

---

“War,” I repeated. “War? What do you mean, war?”

“I mean what I say,” said N. The Tynamo whirled around his head, a luminescent crown of slime and suckers. “I'm going to take back what is my rightful property as King of Sandjr – of all humans – and I'm going to reclaim this land.”

“You're not – you aren't going to kill everyone or anything, are you?” I asked, worried. If his war was going to be anything like the one the Twin Heroes had waged against Naudri in the past, it would be unspeakably brutal.

“Not quite.” He kept his gaze straight ahead, never meeting mine. “I can't say more.”

I sighed.

“How convenient,” I said.

“I've given you what I can,” he said. He sounded tired. “I... I would give you more, but for me to do what I must, Harmonia must succeed.”

“But you know what's going to happen if he does,” I said. “You know about his deal with Weland – it's going to be a disaster...”

He fixed me with those ice-coloured eyes, and my voice died in my throat.

“Please trust me,” he said. “Everything will be all right.” He paused. “As long as I win,” he added.

I frowned.

“I don't buy that.”

“Of course you don't. You're my opposite: you believe in your own cause, and I believe in mine.” His head drooped. “Unfortunately, we can never agree here.”

No, I realised, we never could. N and I had reached the end of our collaboration, it seemed: things were coming to a head, and we had to finally face the fact that we were diametrically opposed, devoted to contradictory causes.

We walked on in silence for a while. The Tynamo darted ahead and back again; one of them hovered over a pothole, anxious for us not to fall.

“I have a question,” I said at last, trying to salvage the conversation.

“Is it one I can answer?”

“I think so.”

“Then ask it.”

“I'm – we – er, Lauren and me,” I said. “I'm male, she's female. I get how that's division. But I was thinking, how does it work with you? I mean, you're a guy, right? That's not united, that's just choosing one over the other.”

N smiled. On anyone else, it would have looked patronising; on him, it was beatific.

“Lauren knows the answer to that one,” he told me. “I imagine Halley does too, although perhaps she might not give the kindest answer.”

“OK,” I said, concealing my impatience, “but I'm not Lauren right now, I'm me, so perhaps you could tell me?”

“I'm neither of them,” said N. “Or both. I've never quite pinned it down. I never saw the need to; my people don't use the same categories as yours.” He shrugged. “Just a difference in the way we look at the world, I suppose. You tend to put things into categories so that you can sort and divide them; we – or I, I guess, since I'm the last one – tend not to sort at all. We like randomness.”

I sucked my teeth thoughtfully. I'd understood maybe one word in six there; I wasn't all that certain what N meant by 'neither or both', or indeed what he was getting at with that talk of categories. Perhaps, I decided, it would be best to leave that for Lauren to think about. Maybe I could try to contact her again, as I had done a couple of nights ago.

“I see,” I said.

“No, you don't,” he replied. “But it's OK. Lauren does. This conversation is a little different with her.”

I think that was the first time that I realised N lived both my world and Lauren's simultaneously, without even the benefit of the midnight switchover that Halley perceived; he was at the same time talking to me and to Lauren, and exploring two different avenues of conversation at once. How did you do it without going insane, I wondered. And what made me so sure that N had done it without going insane? If he hadn't, then it explained an awful lot about him.

“Huh,” I murmured.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” I said, pushing the thought away before it got too overwhelming. “What were we saying?”

“Not a lot,” he replied. “We'd just finished with the topic at hand, actually.”

“Oh. OK.”

What else could I say? It didn't really seem right to just make small talk. No talk with N could be small; everything had meaning.

“There's nothing else to say, is there?” said N, as if reading my mind. “It's all right. We're meant to be enemies now, anyway, and I suppose enemies don't really talk much.”

I didn't say anything. I couldn't have if I'd wanted to. The connection between us was mutating into a cold gulf; it was as if fate had used the link to draw us into itself, and, now that it had us, no longer cared about maintaining it.

The Tynamo flickered. Candy whimpered. We walked on in silence.

---

“Professor,” said Cheren. “Correct me if I'm wrong, but Klink are usually quite fearless, aren't they?”

“Yes,” replied Juniper. “They have very few predators, and don't perceive humans as a threat.” She sighed. “Which is exactly why it's so weird that we aren't seeing any.”

They had been wandering the cave for a while now, searching for either Jared or Klink, whichever came first; neither, however, appeared to have any desire to reveal themselves.

“There aren't any Pokémon,” said Halley. “I mean, I can smell their trails, but they aren't here.”

“Well, where are they?” asked Juniper.

“I don't know,” replied Halley irritably. “Ask a dog.”

“There!” cried Bianca, and they looked up just in time to see something small whizz past a foot above the ground, flashing in the torchlight. “Is that a—?”

“A Klink!” Juniper waved the torch around frantically, trying to find it again. “Where did it go? Where...?”

“There,” said Halley, eyes flashing. “No, wait, it's further away...” She leaped forwards and sniffed at the floor. “I think I can just about track its scent,” she announced. “Which makes me a person of some importance, don't you think?”

Cheren sighed.

“Please,” he said. “Halley, now isn't the time for your bile—”

“Oh, but I think it is,” she said, grinning. “Maybe you could take this collar off, and then I could see my way towards tracking—”

Or,” said Cheren, “if you don't help track down the Klink, I wire the buckle permanently shut.”

“That way,” said Halley meekly, pointing with a paw. “Follow me.”

Juniper, who had been watching the proceedings with interest and no small amount of confusion, turned to Cheren.

“What was that about?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing,” he said airily. “Right, Bianca?”

“Yeah,” she agreed with a smile. “Nothing.”

Juniper frowned, but the matter of the escaped Klink was too pressing for her to dwell on anything else for long, and she followed Halley without further comment.

They passed between two of the enormous blue stones and on down a path that grew increasingly narrow until the three human members of the group were forced to move sideways; Juniper voiced a quiet concern about possibly getting stuck, which Halley countered with the assurance that she could see a way out at the other end. Juniper said that she didn't doubt there was a way out, but that that didn't really preclude the possibility that the passage might narrow so much that she couldn't get out again. To which Halley had no reply, though Bianca promised to pull really hard on her arms should Juniper actually get stuck.

All in all, tensions were rather high, and everyone was glad when the path began to widen again, and eventually gave out onto what the torch revealed was a cavernous space divided up by walls of fused stalactites and stalagmites.

“There are more Klink here,” said Halley suddenly. “And other things – something like fish? And more.”

“Tynamo, perhaps,” said Juniper.

“They're all – they're all going in the same direction,” Halley went on, sniffing back and forth along the stone. “It's weird. Like they're all going to a meeting or something.”

“Sounds like N,” said Bianca.

“Yes,” agreed Cheren. “I wonder if he said something to them.”

“What's this?” asked Juniper.

“Oh, didn't we say before? We're fairly certain that N can talk to Pokémon.”

Juniper looked like someone had battered her over the head with a brick.

“You didn't think that might be good to mention?” she asked. “To someone who's dedicated their life to understanding Pokémon?”

“I'm not sure it actually benefits you,” said Cheren. “Something tells me N isn't the sort of person who would be willing to do translation work for you.”

“Yeah,” said Bianca. “He's a pretty big Liberation Policy fan.”

Juniper groaned.

“Oh Frige,” she said. “The only person in the world who can communicate reliably with Pokémon, and he's a Green Party supporter.”

“Probably more than a supporter,” said Cheren. “Probably a member.”

She shook her head sadly.

“What a waste,” she said. “What a waste...”

Halley coughed.

“Didn't you want to catch that Klink?”

“Ah!” Juniper nodded. “Yes, of course. The Klink. Lead the way.”

They walked on, threading their way through the maze of rocky jags; occasionally, they would pass one of the great crystals and the torchlight would be lost in their brighter glow. After a while, they began to catch glimpses of things moving in their peripheral vision – furry yellow spiderlings the size of fists; gleaming elvers, some as long as Halley's tail; sentient geodes, dragging themselves along with small, stony claws.

“Joltik, Tynamo, Roggenrola,” listed Cheren in a whisper. “Dozens of them, all going the same way...”

“They don't seem to mind us,” said Juniper. “I wonder why?”

“There's something more important happening,” said Halley. “I smell Jared.”

“Which means N,” said Bianca.

“It means we're close,” said Cheren. “I don't think you'll have any problem finding a Klink now, Professor. We'll go on and meet up with Jared.”

“I'll come too,” said Juniper. “I'd like to at least see this N guy. Like you say, I won't have any problems finding a Klink, so I can afford the delay.”

Cheren shrugged.

“All right,” he said. “Lead on, Halley.”

“Barely need to,” she replied. “Listen!”

There were voices nearby, they realised – quiet, but not far away.

“Jared,” said Bianca.

“N,” said Cheren.

The four of them hurried around a corner and out onto a ledge overlooking a much larger pathway – and saw below them a pair of figures, one in black and the other crowned with brilliant, phosphorescent white.

---

N blinked.

“Who's there?” he asked suddenly, tensing beside me. Above his head, the ring of Tynamo started crackling nervously with electricity, and I noticed that some of the rocks around us were uncurling to reveal geodesic ears; we had bodyguards, it seemed.

“It's only us,” said a familiar voice. There was a flash of light from patch of darkness a few metres up and I looked over to see Cheren, Bianca and Halley up on a ledge above the path, along with a woman I didn't recognise. Candy chirped a relieved greeting at them; she hadn't liked the darkness of the cave, and seemed to be slightly afraid of the unearthly light of the Tynamo.

“Hi,” called Bianca, waving. “Oh – uh, this is Professor Juniper.”

“Hello,” said Juniper, lowering herself off the ledge and dropping down with practised ease. “You must be Jared – and you must be N. I've heard a lot about you.”

N didn't relax.

“And I about you,” he said. “Professor, you are in a position of some importance with the Unova League. You are at the forefront of the drive to increase Trainer activity. I have to wonder that you had the audacity to come here, after Cheren and Bianca have told you what I am capable of.”

“What?” Juniper looked disconcerted. I doubt she'd been expecting this; I certainly hadn't.

“I strongly disagree with what you do,” said N flatly. “You perpetuate a master-slave relationship between humans and Pokémon – encourage people to view Pokémon as a means to an end. Certainly, some people come to see their Pokémon as friends – but how many more see them as tools? I fear you overestimate humanity's... well, its humanity.

“And what does that mindset lead to? The potentially world-ending crisis in Hoenn a few years ago, the Black TMs affair in the 1980s, the monster birthed in the Rocket labs in Kanto. The destruction of three thousand years of accumulated wisdom and knowledge – and the subsequent creation of perhaps as many as eight hundred thousand Gengar – with the end of the Kadabra Wars in 1906. The repercussions of that one are still being felt to this day.” N's lip curled slightly. “That is what you stand for, Professor. A world beneath the heel of your species and suffering for it.”

“I... I can see why you would say that,” said Juniper, recovering valiantly, “but honestly, it's just not that simple. We can't just cease to interact with Pokémon – quite apart from what would happen to the world's energy supplies if electricity farms were shut down, rather a lot of Pokémon interact with us anyway. It's how Training started: without it, we're all just prey. You can't order anyone to take apart the system without laying down a clear praxis for what comes next – it'd be chaos.”

N smiled then – smiled. It wasn't a mocking smile, either; it was a warm, happy smile – a smile that looked like it was born of real joy, and which was totally incongruous under the circumstances.

“You're quite right,” he agreed. “If I take apart the system, there will be chaos – but it will be my chaos, and my chaos is not at all the chaos you're familiar with.”

We like randomness, I remembered him saying. What did he mean by all this?

“You people see everything in shades of grey,” sighed N, shaking his head. “But it only looks blurry to you because you try to categorise it and realise you can't. If you approach the world as I do... well, ironically enough, everything is resolved into simple strokes of black and white.”

“That doesn't even make sense as an argument,” said Juniper, frowning. “Do you not consider anyone else's view?”

N sighed.

“Jared. Tell her.”

“Tell her what?”

“That she's wrong.”

I opened my mouth to tell him he was wrong – and then realised what he meant. It was not that Juniper was objectively incorrect in her opinions; it was more that she was approaching this the wrong way. This was not a matter for debate or rational argument: you couldn't bridge the gap between N's chaotic and our rational minds with an argument based only on our rules of engagement. In such a situation, I realised, there was only one way to argue a point that both parties could understand: let slip the reins of legend, and choose your champions to fight their corners.

“I...” I shook my head. Explain it to a third party? No, I couldn't. Lauren might be able to, perhaps – but not me. I could never put the magic into words. “I'm sorry,” I said at length. “I can't explain it.”

N sighed deeply, and nodded.

“We can't agree,” he said to the cave in general. “The fault is mine, and for that I apologise. I can't make myself clear to you. I would like to be able to, but I can't.” He smiled a crooked, rueful smile. “But I suppose that doesn't really matter. Matters aren't going to be decided here and now, in a debate with a scientist in the middle of a cave.”

There was a silence.

“I'm sorry,” said Juniper, and she really did sound apologetic. “But I honestly don't understand what you mean by any of that.”

“I know.” N sighed. “I don't want to be your enemy – I would rather not be anyone's enemy – but quests take dedication, and if I have to be opposed to you then I'd rather do that than not reach my goals.” He took Juniper's hand and shook it. “I can divorce my feelings about what you stand for from my feelings about you as an individual,” he said. “You aren't a bad person – none of you are – but put a lot of not-bad people together and you don't end up with a good world. You end up with one that is, at best, not too bad.”

He let her hand go and stepped backwards, out of the circle of white torchlight; the Tynamo moved with him, circling restlessly.

“Three days, Jared,” said N. “No more talking. No more diplomacy.” He smiled, but his heart wasn't in it. “Goodbye.”

He turned away into the blackness and disappeared, the Tynamo dispersing in the gloom. I heard no footsteps, but I knew he was gone – just as something else was gone, something that had kept us together until now but which had started to decay as we talked earlier; something that had at last withered away to nothing during his strange, nonsensical argument with Juniper.

I was on my own now, I thought. We all were.


Note: Updates will be a bit less frequent from now on, I'm afraid! I go off to university this week, so my free time's going to disappear pretty quick. I hope that doesn't cause too much of a problem for anybody.
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Last edited by Cutlerine; September 28th, 2013 at 01:53 PM.
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  #84    
Old October 5th, 2013, 04:13 PM
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teamVASIMR
 
Join Date: May 2011
Cutlerine!

Once in a while I come back to check on a small list of fics.

Only 3 months hiatus is quite good.


Congratulations on university!



Edit: onto the fic itself

- Noooo Niamh's been assimilated!
- Maybe somebody else on some other site noticed something wrong somewhere, but I didn't. Listen to that somebody and not to me.

Editedit:
So I went and googled the phrase, “No hallucination could be this annoying.” (thought it was a quote)

The only result was a short story involving a girl named Hayley.

Written by some Malaysian blogger in 2009.

What gives.
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Last edited by teamVASIMR; October 5th, 2013 at 11:00 PM.
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  #85    
Old October 7th, 2013, 11:36 AM
Cutlerine
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Join Date: Mar 2010
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Quote:
Originally Posted by teamVASIMR View Post
Cutlerine!

Once in a while I come back to check on a small list of fics.

Only 3 months hiatus is quite good.

[
Congratulations on university!
Thank you! I suppose three months is quite short, yeah - though my return to fanfiction is somewhat marred by the fact that my updates are going to be incredibly few and far between, at least for the next ten weeks.

Quote:
Originally Posted by teamVASIMR View Post
Edit: onto the fic itself

- Noooo Niamh's been assimilated!
- Maybe somebody else on some other site noticed something wrong somewhere, but I didn't. Listen to that somebody and not to me.
I know. It's a terrible shame, isn't it? Niamh will make quite the opponent. And someone will need to change her back - but what could possibly undo the metamorphosis Weland inflicted? Find out... later.

Quote:
Originally Posted by teamVASIMR View Post
Editedit:
So I went and googled the phrase, “No hallucination could be this annoying.” (thought it was a quote)

The only result was a short story involving a girl named Hayley.

Written by some Malaysian blogger in 2009.

What gives.
Weird. I'm going to have to look that one up myself. (For the record, it isn't a quote, but now you mention it, it does sound like one. I think I might have had a similar-sounding line in mind when I wrote it.)
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  #86    
Old October 8th, 2013, 05:31 AM
Cutlerine
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Join Date: Mar 2010
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Chapter Thirty-Three: Waiting For the Bus in the Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed.

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

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

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

Bianca cleared her throat.

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

I looked around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bianca smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

Smythe stared.

“So she's...?”

Ezra nodded.

“It seems very likely, I'm afraid.”

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

Smythe took a deep breath.

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

“Yes.”

He closed his eyes and groaned.

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

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

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

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

Ezra blinked.

“What? I can't—”

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

Ezra nodded slowly.

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

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

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

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

Smythe paused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ezra smiled, but it was strained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smythe held out his hand without hesitation.

“You have a deal,” he said.

Ezra shook it.

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

He drained his glass and jumped to his feet.

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

---

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

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

“Well – hey, look!”

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

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

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

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

“You're wearing the collar,” I said.

“No sh*t, Sherlock,” she replied.

“Halley,” said Cherne warningly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We walked on for a moment in thoughtful silence.

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

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

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

I thought for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave her a puzzled look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can?”

He sighed.

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“Have we?”

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

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

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

“Ark?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

“Ah, OK.”

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

“Yeah,” she replied. “That's us.”

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

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

The girl nodded. It looked heartfelt.

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

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

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

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

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

“Can they die?” asked Cheren with interest.

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

“Such as?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no! No, Candy, stop that!”

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

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

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

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

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

Halley stared.

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

He gave her a withering look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why'd she want a Klink?”

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

“Her father?”


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

“He does?”

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

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

“With who?”

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

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

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

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

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

Halley rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

“What? What is it?”

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

“How many?” I asked, suddenly awake.

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked.

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

Bianca shrugged helplessly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where's Cheren?”

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

I nodded.

“I get it. We're stuck.”

“Yeah.”

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

“Oh,” I said.

“'Oh' what?”

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

Bianca looked confused.

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

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

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

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

Bianca patted my arm.

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

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

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

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

Then I really did laugh, and the moment passed, and I set aside my worries and talked.
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Old November 9th, 2013, 02:32 AM
Cutlerine
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I've been thinking about this for some time now, and I'm afraid to say that I can't continue writing this story. It's not that I'm bored with it, or that I don't know where to take it, but for a variety of reasons, ideological, artistic and personal, I simply can't in good conscience keep going. I may post something else soon. I may not. It may be a long time before I do; there are still things that need to be sorted out.

To those who were reading and enjoying the story: I apologise, but there's nothing to be done. Whatever corner of my imagination housed Crack'd has been gutted by fire and now stands derelict.
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Old November 9th, 2013, 08:46 PM
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Eh, stuff happens.
Going (perhaps a bit too far) with the garden analogy, sometimes really nice plants turn out to be invasive species. :O

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Old November 10th, 2013, 02:22 AM
Cutlerine
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Quote:
Originally Posted by teamVASIMR View Post
Eh, stuff happens.
Going (perhaps a bit too far) with the garden analogy, sometimes really nice plants turn out to be invasive species. :O

;)
More of the garden analogy: this story is poison ivy: lush and inviting, but treacherous. It and I disagree about certain things on fundamental levels, and with various other things that are going on right now I'm not really feeling up to rehabilitating it. It's easier for me to just kill it now and start something else that I have more control over and that won't come back to haunt me.
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Old November 12th, 2013, 07:10 AM
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Join Date: Jul 2011
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Ah 'tis a shame, but this sort of thing does sometimes happen with creative endeavours.

Best of luck with your future writings.
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Old November 15th, 2013, 01:25 AM
Cutlerine
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Originally Posted by goldengyarados View Post
Ah 'tis a shame, but this sort of thing does sometimes happen with creative endeavours.

Best of luck with your future writings.
Thank you very much, to you and to everyone else. You're all very kind, and I really appreciate the support you've given this story, whether by posting or just by reading.

Unfortunately, as I've been uncomfortably aware for a long time now, Crack'd is moving towards an ending that supports a series of propositions about the world that I fundamentally disagree with, and I've sort of come to hate working towards those ends. If there was a way for me to to change that ending so that I'd feel comfortable writing it, then I would, but - as I have been forced to admit to myself over the past few weeks - there isn't: at this point in the story, the ending is set in stone and its philosophy is immutable.

So yeah. That's the main reason why I'm having to cut it short. I do have another project in mind - something quite different from the series of fics that I've posted so far - but that may not materialise for some time. I hate to be unreliable, since it feels like I'm short-changing readers if I cease to be a reliable producer of diversions and entertainments, but I'm afraid I can't avoid it. My apologies for that.

Anyway. That's it from me for now. See you later.
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