Cracked, or How the Love of Seafood Saved Unova
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October 12th, 2012 (2:07 PM).
Gone. May or may not return.
The Misspelled Cyrpt
Chapter Four: Greek Prophets with a Dash of Satan
Trees, endless trees, blurring into one another in an eternal parade of leaf and bark; the railway route south to Nacrene City was scenic, but it did get a little dull after a while. Add to that the fact that the ancient steam train was slow and prone to sudden inexplicable stops – and that it was a four-hour journey to Nacrene even without delays – and you'll understand why I couldn't help but feel that we weren't fleeing fast enough.
Because the thing in the shape of a Liepard was hunting for us in White Forest, and it was infinitely more terrifying than anything I had ever encountered before. It wasn't an animal, I was sure of that – it was a demon, something from outside the normal world, some foul changeling beast or an ettin in Liepard form. I didn't know why it hadn't noticed us and I had to admit that I didn't care all that much; I was just glad that the government man had trusted its word.
Halley, on the other hand, sitting on the seat opposite me in the compartment, seemed less affected – as did Candy, who was attempting daring acrobatic manoeuvres on the luggage rack.
“It was blind,” muttered the wildcat. “I'm sure of it – and obviously didn't have a sense of smell, either, because it should've detected our scents.”
“Uh huh,” I said, not really listening; in response, she poked me with a claw.
“Listen to me,” she insisted. “This is
. That thing was not a Liepard. I felt it – I don't know – with some animal sense or some sh*t like that. It wore the body of a Liepard, but it was only a shape: the eyes didn't work, the nose, the ears – if they did it would have found us like that.” She tried to snap her fingers, remembered she no longer had any and settled for making an airy gesture instead. “The point is, it didn't have access to any senses. It had some other way of detecting us and it failed. Why?”
“I don't know,” I replied. “Candy, careful.”
She squawked at me as if to say that
didn't need to be careful; the train went over a bump and she fell from the luggage rail into my lap.
“I warned you.”
Candy got to her feet with a philosophical air and began to climb the curtains. I sighed, picked her up and put my jacket over her; immediately, thinking it was night time, she curled up on my lap and began to sleep.
“What were you saying?” I asked Halley.
“This Liepard. I can't believe you're not wondering about it. That thing is clearly the most dangerous f*cking thing in White Forest and we escaped it by about this f*cking much.” She held up two claws close together, to show exactly how much we'd escaped it by.
“That's another thing,” I said. “Could you please not swear so much? It's kind of annoying, and I
Halley rolled her eyes.
“Give me a f*cking break,” she muttered. “The girl's serious. We were just chased by government agents and a monster beyond mortal f*cking comprehension and she's telling me to stop—”
“Halley!” I snapped. “I'm serious.”
She stopped mid-sentence, evidently stunned; I don't think she thought I had it in me to actually be forceful.
“I'm worried too,” I told her earnestly. “And I want to help, especially as it looks like we're both in trouble now. But... I just think it would be easier for me to work with you if you weren't so... sweary.”
Halley looked at me for a long moment, her pale green eyes expressionless.
“All right,” she said at length, looking away. “OK. Sorry. We'll do things your way.”
“And – what? Really?” I broke out into a smile. “Oh, that's great! Thanks so much.”
Halley's head whipped around and settled into a glare. A
“Yeah, OK,” she growled. “Don't start thanking me for this shi— shipbuilder's manual.” She blinked. “Wait, what? Is that what comes out when I don't swear? Random words? Jesus, this is going to be weird.” She looked up at me. “Blasphemy's OK, right?”
“I guess. Just keep my gods out of it.”
“I can live with that.” Halley kneaded the seat with her paws and lay down, curling up. “All right. Let's move on: the Liepard.”
“That was scary.”
“Well done. Ten points for perspicacity. Now, can you think of anything that could masquerade as a Liepard like that?”
“An ettin,” I said immediately. “An evil fairy. A—”
“Something that actually exists would be nice.”
“I believe they exist,” I replied simply, trying to hide my irritation. I'm fairly easy-going, or so people tell me, but this was something that was actually important to me. I studied the Treatise twice a week after school; I might not have a perfect record of attendance at all festivals and religious events, but I did believe, and I didn't particularly like Halley attacking that belief without cause.
“Right.” Halley hesitated, the memory of our recent altercation visible on her face; eventually, she let it slide. “Fine. We'll, uh, agree to disagree there.” She sighed. “But I don't get this. What that thing was... and, for that matter, what the fu— fudgemaker's reunion ball was it doing working for the government?”
“I don't know.” I thought for a moment. “It doesn't seem like something the government would have anything to do with.”
“What? Listen, I don't know much about governments, but I'd say shady stuff like this is right up their street.”
“Not ours. The Free Unova Party is in power.”
“The nationalists. They helped free Unova in the Eighties. They're big on Unovan culture and stuff – which means they're strictly religious. Whatever that monster was, they wouldn't even dream of consorting with it. It's... definitely unholy.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. This is Lauren White's world, where everything is backwards.” Halley twitched her nose. “Hey, your name's White – and Jared's is Black. That's can't be a coincidence. Anyway, that's not relevant. If the Liepard isn't with the government, then who are these people that are after us?”
“I don't know.” I thought of the other people who might reasonably claim to be part of the government – mainly the other political parties – but I couldn't really see any reason why any of them would be hunting Halley down with a leopard cat from hell. “But I don't think that man is who he says he is.”
“He's pretty evasive about who he says he is in the first place,” observed Halley. “I don't like this. We need information – but where the hell are we going to get it?”
“I don't know!” I cried. “Can we just get to Nacrene and take it from there?”
“All right, all right,” she sighed. “Fine.”
We lapsed into silence, and the trees rushed by to nothing but the clacking and hissing of the train for a time.
“Hey,” said Halley after a while. “Lauren.”
“What is it?”
“Do you have an iPod or something I can play with? I'm bored.”
“I'm not sure we have the same taste in music,” I said hesitantly. My phone held as many songs as its tiny memory could hold – it was old even by Unovan standards, which meant that people outside the country could hardly even recognise it as a phone – and none of them were likely to be to Halley's taste.
“Why? What do you listen to?”
“The kind of music that you'd probably call sappy and sickening.”
“Oh. Folky poppy crap about lovers meeting, or how wonderful life is, or about the lengths to which one nonexistent lover is willing to go for the other?”
“I guess so,” I admitted. “Is that a bad thing?”
“Just keep your music to yourself,” Halley advised me.
The train rattled on, and far behind us, something in the shape of a Liepard turned granite thoughts in our direction.
Impossibly, they were waiting for us.
The first thing I saw when the train cruised to a halt in Nacrene's sleepy station was a man in a dark suit, the sole figure on the platform; the second thing was the lithe purple shadow stalking over to him from the ticket office.
“They're here,” I hissed, not taking my eyes off them. “Halley! They're here!”
“How the f*ck did they do that?” she cried. “They were at White Fo—”
“What? Oh, the swearing. OK, sorry. But how did they do that?”
“I don't know. What do we do?”
“How about hide?” Halley vanished beneath her seat in a swirl of tail. “I mean,” she continued from out of sight, “that seemed to work pretty well last time.”
“Should we get off and make a break for it?” I asked. “Nacrene's quite big – we could lose them—”
“Not once that thing's noticed us,” she replied grimly. “I have a horrible feeling that once it finds you, you stay found. Until it chooses otherwise.”
“But my ticket only takes me this far – I can't stay on the train!”
Halley's face reappeared, an isolated image of astonishment.
“I can't believe you just said that,” she said. “Lauren. There are monsters chasing us.
She had a point, and I crouched beneath the window, carefully arranging myself so I was out of sight from the window; as an afterthought, I grabbed my jacket with the still-sleeping Candy and put it under the seat.
“Glad you've seen sense,” whispered Halley. “Now shut up and hope they don't actually come on board.”
As if on cue, the train doors opened with a rattling
“Ah, sh— shooting the Duchess of Malfi,” she said gloomily.
Footsteps down the deserted carriage aisles. Shivers down my spine. Now a voice:
“The whole damn train is empty.” It was the agent. “It's going to take some searching to find them, if they're here.”
“They are here,” came the reply, and it as I had feared: the words definitely issued from the dry, desiccated mouth of the Liepard. “No one else will have embarked at White Forest other than they.”
“It's still a big search... I mean, I don't know how long I can get them to hold the train here, Teiresias.”
Teiresias. The demon had a name; now I could label my fear, look it up in books of legend. Perhaps someone had encountered it before; I knew that fiends like that rarely died unless killed, and it might just have been recorded in one of the lesser Treatises.
“Let it continue. We can leave when we are done.”
There was a horrible disquieting undertone to that – some implication, some hidden threat – that I couldn't work out – and instinctively I retreated underneath the seat, curling up as tightly as I could to try and fit in the tiny space usually reserved for luggage. Unovans tend to be tall, but I'm way shorter than average, and I just about managed to fit.
“Stay silent,” mouthed Halley at me, completely unnecessarily. Of course I had to be silent; my heart was already beating against my ribs so hard I could feel it in my knees pressed tight against my chest; if I added any more noise to that I was sure I'd be heard miles away.
The footsteps were coming closer – both the heavy, measured tread of the man and the soft, near-silent tread of Teiresias, undetectable to anyone except a forest native.
“Actually, this is stupid. You check that way, I'll check this way.”
“As you wish,” murmured Teiresias, and its soft footsteps faded into the distance.
“All right,” said the agent to himself. He sounded close to our compartment. “Just check in each of these, yeah?”
I heard a door sliding open – a whirr terminating with a clunk as the door slid home – and then another, and then another, each one closer than the last. I shot a terrified look at Halley – what would we do? Whatever it was that had fooled Teiresias, I was sure it wouldn't work on a normal man with normal senses. However, she made no reply, huddling deeper into her recess and shading the glow of her luminous eyes.
. Just a few feet away.
“This is going to be a long day,” the agent muttered.
That had to be the next door down, it was so close—
OK, it wasn't, but that one had to be—
“Is there anyone in any of the— huh?”
I froze, lungs and heart suddenly immobilised as if in death; what had got his attention? Had he seen the edge of my jacket, too close to the edge of the seat? Had I left something – my phone, my wallet, my sense – out in plain view on the seat cushion?
“Cool,” said the agent, bending down to pick up a pound coin on the floor. “That's one bit of luck, at least.”
With that, he turned his back and retreated, and I heard the sound of sliding doors retreating down the passage.
Halley looked at me, and I looked at Halley.
“Is this guy for real?” she whispered. “He's an idiot!”
The door was still open, and I didn't want any sound that might betray our presence reaching the ears of either of our pursuers. For a long minute, the footsteps continued – and then, abruptly, I heard the sound of a door slamming shut, and realised the man had passed into the next carriage.
“OK,” I hissed, “what did you want?”
“The man's a moron!” replied Halley. “He didn't even think to check under the seats.”
“Maybe this isn't his normal job,” I said charitably. “Maybe he usually works in an office, as a – a clerk or something, and today they ordered him to—”
“Stop being kind to the enemy,” hissed Halley. “Listen to yoursel—”
She broke off abruptly as a violet shadow passed the door, swift and silent as a ghost, and continued down the corridor. Evidently Teiresias had finished checking its half of the train, and was hastening to meet its comrade. A moment later, the train started moving again, and I looked at Halley in mild panic: now we were trapped on board – along with those hunting us.
“What do we do now?” I mouthed.
“Stay hidden,” was the reply.
I tried. I really did. And I'm flexible, yeah, but I'm not a cat – and so, just a few minutes later, I felt the first sharp stabbing needles of cramp bite into my leg. For a second, I managed to hold on – but I'm no good with pain, and at last I thrust my leg out into open with an agonised yelp.
“What are you doing?” cried Halley, but it was too late: the heel of my shoe caught the wall with a resounding thump, and footsteps came running down the train—
“Get up and run!” howled Halley, shooting out from under the seat. I struggled out after her, still clutching my leg and trying to drag Candy out after me, and got to my feet just in time to see Teiresias and the agent materialise in the doorway.
“Ah, there you are,” said the man. “Right. Lauren White and Halley... um, Halley, my name is Portland Smythe and I am here to take you into custody on behalf of the Unovan government.”
“I still cannot detect them,” breathed Teiresias, taking absolutely no notice of him. “I know they are here – I have followed your footsteps – but I see nothing before me...”
“What?” Smythe looked surprised for a moment, then recovered his cool with a visible effort. “No point worrying about that now. Let's just—”
I felt Candy stirring in my jacket and without thinking threw her at Teiresias.
The sudden flash of colour and movement startled Smythe, and he took an instinctive step back; Teiresias, still apparently unable to locate us, stood stock-still, staring blankly ahead as Candy awoke fully in midair and realised that there was something new and threatening in front of her. Predictably enough, she spread her wings, flapped vaguely and managed to guide herself into landing on the fiend's snout, from where she sank her teeth into its throat—
—and fell away to the floor, a mouthful of yellow fur coming with her and releasing a thin trickle of ashy grey dust.
“Ah,” said Teiresias slowly, apparently not noticing. “
I see you.”
“Oh sh*t,” muttered Halley in frantic fear. “Oh sh*t oh sh*t oh sh*t oh—”
“You were clever, but I have found a way around your trick now.” Teiresias sat back on its haunches as Candy rallied for another attack, and the floor around its feet started to blacken and give off a rank smell I'd only encountered once before, when I was eight and the river had burst its banks, and we had found a single bloated white hand among the debris.
My knees went weak, and I reached for the seat back for support – but I missed, and stumbled against the wall instead. Snakes uncurled from nowhere in my belly, and climbed through my abdomen, pushing their sleek bodies through veins and guts and arteries, to loop themselves around my heart and choke it out of shape...
Halley's claws stabbed into my calf, and reality returned with a palpable
like a released bowstring.
,” she whispered hoarsely, and vanished between Smythe's legs.
I looked around, and in one moment of stilled time I saw Teiresias rising to its feet, slow, unhurried, and Smythe staring at the mouldering floor with horror in his eyes, and Candy burying her head in drifts of purple and yellow without any perceptible effect – and screaming a prayer to Eostre for help on this her feast-day, I flung myself bodily at Smythe, knocking him off-balance, and fled down the aisle.
As soon as Teiresias was out of sight, my mind returned halfway to normal. I was scared, yes, but nowhere near as scared as I had been; something told me that that demon's power lay in fear, that if I could see it I would never be able to resist it—
Halley was waiting for me at the end of the carriage, pawing desperately at the door that connected it to the next.
“Get this door open!” she shrieked. “I have no bloody thumbs!”
A wild laugh burst from my lips – apparently some part of my mind wasn't consumed by the idea of escape and the fear of pursuit – and I unlatched the door without thinking, leaping the short gap into the next carriage as soon as I could squeeze through.
Something hit my back, squawking defiantly; Candy had caught up with us. I didn't think about how she could have done so until a breath of wind hit the back of my neck and almost knocked me down; I stumbled, tripped and fell into an instinctive forward roll to save momentum, jumping up a moment later to keep on rushing down the aisle.
“Run, run, run,” came the soft dry voice of Teiresias. “You have nowhere to go, and I have more forces than you can name at my disposal.”
“Jesus f*ck!” wailed Smythe from the distance, somewhat spoiling the moment. “What is this?”
Teiresias grunted in displeasure; it probably hadn't meant to include Smythe in the awful aura of decay and despair it had cast over the carriage – but I didn't care, it made things easier, Smythe was distracted and where were we running to—?
Another gale, this one tinged with blood and fungus, and the world around me caved in like a rotten tree, leaving oblivion in its wake.
I don't drink, and while I know that that kind of things happen in the cities, I'd never experienced that terrible feeling of waking up and not knowing anything abut why you are where you are before. But when my eyes opened to a red-tinged world, I could think of no reason why I would be in a train carriage, or why my hands were in cuffs, or why my head felt like someone had buried it in a heap of mouldering meat for a week.
Until, that is, I saw the white-coal eyes of Teiresias, sitting on the seat opposite, and memory returned like the fall of Tiw's sceptre on the heads of the guilty.
“Frige preserve me,” I mumbled through faintly numb lips.
“Oh, thank Christ,” said Smythe, suddenly swooping into view. “I thought you two were dead.”
“No, I think you just beat the sh*t out of us,” rejoined Halley in a dull groan. “Ah. Wait. Sorry, Lauren.”
I didn't reply. I was having trouble keeping my eyes open for longer than a couple of seconds; the red glow was receding, but there was still a nasty lethargy around my eyelids.
“Jesus.” Smythe dropped into one of the seats opposite and sighed. “That went so horribly wrong. Teiresias...”
It was not a 'what' you could reply to: ice-cold and razor-sharp, and tinged with that arid darkness that characterised the hell-beast's voice. Consequently, Smythe chose to say no more about his partner's methods.
“I'm sorry,” he said at length, taking off his glasses and looking me squarely in the eyes. His irises were violet, I noticed, which struck me as strange; in stories, it was always the beautiful heroine who had violet eyes, not the villain. “I'm not a mercenary. I'm a civil servant, and I'm not used to this.”
“Don't reveal too much,” Teiresias reminded him quietly.
“F*ck you,” he mumbled. “I'm not a monster and I don't want people to think I am.”
Despite everything, a flower of compassion bloomed within me; I had been right – this guy wasn't a bad person or anything, he was just out of his depth. If I hadn't just been knocked out and handcuffed, I probably would have given him a hug.
The thought cleared my head a little, and I felt up to looking around; Halley, it seemed, was on the seat to my left, in an oversized cat carrier that seemed to have come from nowhere, and Candy was wrapped in my jacket, sleeping soundly. I sighed. I wished I could do that; sleep seemed like it would be a nice, easy way out of this situation.
“Anyone going to tell me where we are?” asked Halley, breaking the silence. “I get that we're on the train, but what time is it? Where are we going?”
“And what do you want with Halley?” I added quietly. For some reason, I wasn't scared any more. Teiresias might have sprung from the blackest depths of hell, but Smythe was a good man, I was sure. He wouldn't hurt us.
“Oh. Yeah.” Halley blinked. “Probably ought to have asked that one first.”
“Don't play dumb. You know something about the theft.”
“I told you not to play dumb.” Smythe put his sunglasses on again and leaned back in his seat. “Doesn't matter. I'm sure you'll be more accommodating when we get you back to Party HQ.” He paused. “Anyway, we're still on the train. Waiting for the next stop.”
“Which is?” I asked.
Accumula. That was a long way from home, I thought dismally – a long way from the verdant trees of White Forest in spring; a long way from my family; a long way from Anastasia.
“Annie,” I said aloud, suddenly thinking of something. “Did you speak to my girlfriend? Anastasia?”
“Hm? Yes, we did,” replied Smythe. “She lied about where you went, if that's what you want to know.”
“Then how'd you know we were—?” began Halley, only for Teiresias' voice to cut through hers like a mortician's scalpel.
“I'm... resistant to lies,” it said softly. I noticed with a chill that it seemed completely unaffected by the little wounds around its neck and breast, each pouring streams of dust down its legs each time it moved its head. “And very persuasive.”
A little star of panic swelled and burst in my breast; had the fiend done something to—?
“He scared her,” explained Smythe quickly, obviously realising what was going through my head. “Nothing more.”
“O-OK,” I said, unsure if I was relieved or worried.
“I don't want to hurt anyone,” Smythe continued earnestly. “I'm just doing what has to be done. For the best.”
“For whose best?” queried Halley.
“The world,” replied Smythe quietly, and would say no more.
The journey continued with nothing notable occurring except that I grew steadily hungrier and thirstier with the waning sun; I'd eaten and drunk nothing since Eostre's Eve and, since it was approaching five o'clock, when the ancient train finally pulled into Accumula's station, I was pretty desperate for food by then. In addition, the cuffs were biting deep into my wrists, and all in all, I was really looking forward to getting off the train, even if I would be exchanging it for the comfort of a prison cell.
“All right,” said Smythe, rising from his seat, “time to get off. White, grab that... bitey bird thing.”
“She's a rare parrot from South America.”
“Whatever. Just keep it away from me, OK?”
With some difficulty, I picked up the wrapped and sleeping Candy, and held her close against my chest as Smythe picked up the cat carrier with Halley in and motioned for me to leave the compartment. What would happen now, I wondered? Where would we be taken, and what would happen to us when we get there?
My thoughts continued in this vein for a while – mingled with regret at not being more useful to Halley – and the next thing I knew we were passing through the arch that led out of the station, with people staring at us and murmuring. For the first time, I realised what I must look like today: wild-haired, unkempt and handcuffed, clearly under the guard of an important-looking government agent and a massive, dust-bleeding Liepard. I hate being looked at – I'm almost terminally shy – and right now I wanted nothing more than to vanish into the bowels of the earth.
Accumula looked pretty, I told myself, trying to take my mind off my mounting embarrassment. Much larger than White Forest and with far fewer trees, it stretched away in a curve of aged stone across the three hills it was built on – and there, to the south, it swooped down into the hollow between them, a dark pocket in the town's heart.
And the people! So many more than I was familiar with, and I knew Accumula was one of Unova's smallest settlements, with Anville and White Forest beating it to the title by just a few hundred inhabitants. And all – all of those citizens seemed to be staring at me. That young woman with the baby in the pushchair – that boy with the glasses – that blonde girl with the green hat...
, I thought as we crossed the car park and emerged onto the street.
Those last two really
staring. And they're coming over here.
“What's going on?” asked the boy, drawing level with us. He looked about my age and very serious, his cold blue eyes unsmiling beneath neat black hair.
“Nothing that need concern you,” replied Smythe coolly. “I work for the government, I'm making an arrest – that's all you need to know.”
“Really,” said the boy, his eyes roving slowly up and down, slowly devouring every last detail of Smythe's appearance. He saw something, I knew; no one could look at our group with those eyes and not see that something was wrong. “So you have some proof of that, then?”
Smythe hesitated. Right on the edge of my vision, I saw Teiresias close its hideous eyes, and the street began to empty, people propelled away from us by some dark compulsion. In the cat carrier, Halley stiffened, catching the edge of the feeling.
“We are alone,” said Teiresias softly, as the last pedestrian cleared the corner. For one moment, the boy and his friend stared in shock – and then the air around the hell-beast's skull began to darken and thicken, like burning sugar, and with a cry of alarm red light flashed before my eyes—
Then all at once something lithe and green was winding itself around Teiresias' limbs, a streamer of emerald flame in the weak light – a pinkish blot seemed to have replaced the sun and swooped towards Smythe with a bubbling shriek – and the green-hatted girl grabbed my arm, the contact a brief gust of reality in the chaos of the moment.
“Run,” she said, and I almost did, but I was thinking of Halley, and I cried out:
“The cat! The cat!”
The girl understood, and snatched the carrier from Smythe as the pink blot circled his head, emitting strange gossamer circles of sound that forced him to his knees.
“Silence it!” roared Teiresias, its voice a gaping tomb, its head flicking this way and that. “It blinds me!”
But I was no longer listening – no longer even present. I was flying, running down the street with the green hat girl, Halley in her arms and Candy in mine, and before I knew it the conflict was a distant bell-chime and I was being dragged to a halt by the girl in an alley somewhere.
“Stop!” she panted, hanging onto my arm; why was she out of breath, I wondered; I could keep up this pace for hours— “We got away!”
I took a deep breath, willed my heart rate to slow and let sense return in giddy waves. The first thing I registered was the girl's appearance: blonde, pale, prettier than me – but not, I reminded myself sharply, prettier than Anastasia. No one had that honour, in my eyes at least...
“She's no good with fights,” said Halley, watching me struggle to regain my wits. “She scares easily and gets distracted by random thoughts.”
The girl dropped the cat carrier as if it were a red-hot coal.
“You can talk!” she cried.
“I can also hurt,” replied Halley acidly. “As in fact I'm doing right now. Because you
“Oh! Sorry.” The girl scrambled to pick up the carrier and turned it so she was facing Halley.
“So you should be,” muttered the wildcat. “I'm Halley. The stupefied one's Lauren.”
“Er... hi,” said the girl, unable to decide whether to stare helplessly at me or at Halley, and wavering between us both. “I'm – my name is Bianca, and that guy is Cheren.”
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