Thread: [Pokémon] The Fall to Redemption [PG-13]
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Old July 3rd, 2014 (7:11 PM).
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Cypher DS Cypher DS is offline
     
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    Chapter 10 - The Dragon Master of Mount Chimney

    They say your life flashes before your eyes when you fall to your death. Well, I was already dead and saddled with amnesia so I didn't expect to be shown any fancy movies when Winona sent me tumbling off Mount Chimney.

    But I remembered watmel berries. I remembered that one summer Roderigo treated us to a pair of those green melons with shells as tough as sandshrew scales and flesh that would chip your teeth if eaten raw. The shopkeeper offered to blend the fruit into smoothies but we shook our heads and ran off to the nearest flight of stairs. Watmel is plenty sweet but we knew the real treat is preparing it yourself. You lift the fruit over your head and you chuck it at the ground. Then you kick it. You boot it. You smash it against solid rock over and over until the meat inside is rattled into jelly. Stab with a straw, high-five your buddy and enjoy.

    When my corpse finally smacked into the mountain's base I decided Winona had an especial fondness for watmel.

    My eyes were among the first organs to regenerate. I was lying face up in the ashlands of Mount Chimney; a pile of rocks had me pinned below the waist. Volcanic gases spewed from geysers and flakes of sulfur fluttered from the sky like snowflakes. At another time I might have enjoyed the haunting scenery; now, I was just pleading for my lungs to stitch together so I could scream. I was swimming in pain and struggling to keep my head above water. "Ro-bin?"

    No reply. I wondered just how durable Birch's apricot balls were, and what happened to the animal inside if the machinery broke. "El-ssssie?"

    "SHAAA!" A metal beak thrust into my face; feral yellow eyes blinked in my features. My muscles froze. A skarmory. Nature's slaughterhouse - a living battalion of blades designed for the sole purpose of snatching, slicing and swallowing up meat in a vortex of steel. Winona must have sent this minion to extract my corpse. My body writhed - I had to get free of these rocks; fight, flee; anything!

    The yellow-eyed demon watched me struggle and it wasn't impressed, but neither was it interested. The skarmory turned to the rocks at my feet and began picking through the rubble. It cawed triumphantly, pulled out a nice flat stone and set about whetting its beak against the grain.

    It didn't care about me. You're not Winona's, you're a wild.

    I looked again at the volcanic smog congesting the air. I laughed, and my laughter turned to coughing the more I breathed in the gas. I could see the shadow of Winona's tropius through the sulfur clouds, circling overhead like a hungry scavenger but never daring to drop into the poisonous smog. The steel-plated skarmory was fine, but no ordinary pokemon could survive in fumes this thick. Stalemate. As soon as my muscles re-grew I could crawl out and run away.

    Winona must have figured as much. Flashes of light burst around her brachiosaur and mechanized magnemites dove into the smog, sweeping the ground with their radar eyes. Clever girl...

    I assessed my body. My ribs were still sticking out, and there was no way I was pulling myself out of those rocks. "Hey ... help ... me!"

    The skarmory turned and I immediately regretted my choice. The bird was a mess. Its meat-hook beak was twisted on an angle and the plating above its left eye was dented inward, probably forcing quite a bit of pressure down on its brain. It bobbed its head from side to side like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, counting time in some compulsive habit. Pokemon have some degree of sentience, but this bird didn't strike me as having an ounce of sanity in its dented skull. And I'd just called its attention to the helpless pile of meat pinned to the ground. Brilliant.

    But with the levitating magnemites buzzing closer I had no options. "Help me," I pleaded. I could lift my hand a little and the skarmory followed my gesture to the incoming drones. Recognizing the hated electric type, the bird made an ugly hiss and decided we had a mutual enemy. It crouched overtop my chest and fanned out its wings so that, when the magnet pokemon scanned the ground, it picked up the skarmory's empty metal instead of human flesh. The drone continued on its path, and the skarmory flashed me an ugly grin. Mine. All mine.

    It went for my shoulder first, clamping down hard with its beak and dragging me free of the rocks. Play through the pain, I hissed. Every spare second gave my body time to regenerate; once I was strong enough I could fight off the bird and run. That was my plan, but the skarmory was prepared. An explosion of heat sent my body into spasms. Fire! My blood was gasoline and someone had dropped a match in my veins; I was burning alive! That was when I noticed the purple sap oozing from between the bird's metal plating. Poison! This skarmory had adapted so thoroughly to the toxic wasteland that its body secreted poison! I dug my fingers through the dirt, grasping for a rock, a root - anything to toss in this monster's face! All the while the skarmory snapped its wings like scissors, delighted to have found prey so fresh and feisty. No more picking at rocks for sandshrew or choking down hot slugma; there'd be fat, juicy flesh in the belly tonight, carved by a master swordsman. The fire was too much; I was blacking out!

    A stone whizzed through the fog and clanged against the buzzard's metal skull. Who dared? The skarmory spread its wings and shrieked, but its rabble only helped the next shot hone in on its throat. The bird coughed and sputtered, and the stone mortars kept pelting and denting its armoured hide. No meal was worth this abuse. My captor tucked in its wings and raced into the toxic fog faster than a dodrio on carbos.

    Two strong arms seized me under the armpits and dragged me away...

    -----------------------------------------------------

    I awoke in a traditional Johtonese home - tatami mats on the floor, incense wafting on a shelf and a low-set table clustered with medicine vials. "I must be dreaming," I muttered.

    "Why not?" chirped a child's voice. Good point - maybe this quest was all a bad dream I'd conjured from the fog of sleep. Then I caught sight of my scarred face in a mirror. My mind flashed back to my fall down a skyscraper-sized mountain and a wave of nausea forced me to lie down.

    "You're awake! Splendid, most splendid!" An old man in a lounging robe had entered the room. Thick glasses obscured his eyeballs, while hair as fluffy as mareep's wool puffed from his head and chin. "Naturally, some rest and my herbal remedies were exactly what you needed to get the poison out of your system." Was this eccentric grandpa the one who had dragged me from the wreckage? My host urged me to join him at the table for refreshments. "My name is Cozmo and you, young land, are in Fallarbor Town, a most thriving site of geological wonders! Let me introduce you to my friends - over there is Desmond, that's Gloria, and to your right is Raymond."

    Desmond, Gloria and Raymond were all large boulders seated around the table for an imaginary tea party. "Um, hi?" I ventured.

    Cozmo rubbed his hands with delight. "Oh it's been so long since we've entertained guests! I insist you join us for tea, Mr. Virgil." Turning to the kitchen, he bellowed, "Matsuda! Some tea for our party! Matsuda, you useless lump, where are you?"

    A squishy blue pokemon prodded my side. "WHYYYY-NAUT!" Matsuda squawked, saluting me with its floppy ear. A tray with fresh tea balanced on the bright pokemon's head and I reflexively grabbed my cup before the wobbly poke-servant could spill it in my lap. Cozmo slurped down his cup with relish and immediately spat it over the wynaut.

    "You imbecile, are you trying to kill me? I asked for hot tea, not scalding! Take it back!"

    "Wyy..." Matsuda whimpered. Cozmo's face dialed to a furious red.

    "Why?? You ungrateful little wretch, you'll do as you're told!"

    "Naut!"

    "Oh I'll tell you what's 'not' happening - your supper! Out of my sight!"

    "Wyyy...." Matsuda sniffled, trailing his dangling ears across the floor.

    Cozmo turned to me for sympathy. "Do you see the insolence I have to put up with? Miss Gloria, you're so right - good help is so hard to come by these days. Oh, my good Virgil, if only I were blessed with obedient and conversational pokemon like you. Isn't that right, Hermes?"

    I try my best, sir. A stone face hovered up beside me, making me jump. Sorry if the telepathy's a little loud. The Maker was kinda cheap about handing out vocal cords to us rock types. The solrock's eyes flashed a bright red every time its scratchy voice echoed in my head. Name's Hermes. Take it easy, boss; I'm on your team.

    "Hermes brought you to my house, unconscious from the poison," Cozmo explained. "Once I saw what marvelous company you keep, Mr. Virgil, I knew I had to assist, no matter the consequences."

    So a solrock had joined my team? The psychic rock wasn't much to look at, but I admired his initiative. Now it was time to get out of the geology club. "Hermes, was it? Well, thanks for the assist. Cozmo, it's been great but I've got to split. Hermes, tell the other pokemon we're leaving."

    Others?

    That was hardly comforting. "You know, Robin, Winry, Elsie. Where is everybody, anyway?" I scanned the room and Hermes glanced around with me, still confused. A cold, clammy feeling rose from my stomach. "The pokemon that fell along with me. You saved them too, right?"

    Hermes' rock body couldn't show any emotion, but the way he tilted his face to avoid my eyes told me he was debating; hesitating over something. Finally making up his mind, the solrock hovered to a corner shelf and levitated the remains of an apricot ball into my hands. Magma combed over your crash site pretty thoroughly. This was all that was left. Boss, I ... I wouldn't get my hopes up.

    It was suddenly very hard to stand. "How long have I been out?" I whispered.

    Four days. We had to keep you sedated while we washed out your insides. Tracked a lot of grit into your guts, Boss.

    "And there was nothing else when you found me? No pokemon, no capsules?" My hand lunged to my neck. The string I'd tied on since Dewford was gone. "The badges! Hermes, tell me you took the badges!"

    You barely had any clothes ... or skin left. I didn't see any badges, Boss.

    There was nothing left to say, so I drank my tea and took stock of all the pains running through my body. My nose reeked of blood, my ribs screamed under the crush of talons but now I'd found a torture to top it all - despair. All the pokemon I'd befriended, all the victories I'd earned; the magic badges - they were gone. Crushed to dust or buried in the rubble along Mount Chimney. "All this suffering ... for nothing."

    I was clearly unnerving Cozmo with my bitterness. "Don't give up, my friend! Look on the bright side - you're a local celebrity!" The geo-maniac slid a paper across the table; it was an old-fashioned 'Wanted' poster featuring an artist's sketch of my burned face and a hefty reward for my capture. "That woman with the tropius has been showering the town with these portraits! Clearly you've made quite an impression on that lass!"

    Winona! I crumpled the poster in my fist - a sorry substitute for her neck, but it did the trick for now. Winona, Winona, Winona. I could scream her name for a thousand years and my rage still wouldn't be satisfied. Had I really wasted precious time feeling sorry for myself when Linda was wasting away from a Leader's curse? Well I may have lost my teammates but I wasn't losing Linda! "Cozmo - that tropius! Where's the last place you spotted it?"

    My determination made the old man sweat in his seat. "Well, that is, I believe she's been made a guest of our Leader. She and her birds have been patrolling the skies for days now, but at sunset she always returns to Fort Lavaridge on the far side of the mountain."

    "Hermes, you know the way?"

    Yeah, boss. Leave it to me.

    I got up, and hesitated. Could I really defeat a Leader with nothing but a solrock? "Hermes, I'm counting on you to handle whatever pokemon she's got. You up for that?"

    Hermes' crystalline eyes twinkled as though to smile. No worries, boss, I brought some backup.

    -----------------------------------------------------

    Cozmo's shack stood on the outskirts of Fallarbor Town, as though the whole community had uprooted its foundations and taken a generous side-step away from the squirrely old man and his rock collection. I could see why Winona had missed this place: desert weeds had overtaken the yard and ash from the volcanic geysers coated the roof, melding the house into the dusty red landscape. The perfect camouflage. Standing guard outside the front door was a humanoid pokemon with leathery skin and a short lizard snout. Boss, meet Armstrong. He's the one who chased off the skarmory and carried you out here.

    I nodded my hello to the machop. The fighting type looked me over and struck a bodybuilding pose that made his muscles bulge and sparkle. Armstrong likes to let his muscles do the talking. He says "hello".

    "Oh." I wondered whether I should strip of my shirt and flex my abs in reply. I settled for a handshake. Armstrong probably didn't speak Ninety-Pound Weakling. "Good to have you on board, Armstrong. I'm out of pokeballs so I hope you don't mind walking." No problem there. Armstrong gave me an eye-full of his calves and glutes to prove that his lower half was ready and eager to conquer a long hike. So with Hermes as our guide, we began our march across the mountain wasteland.

    Fallarbor Town looked like a ghost town. Worn, wooden shacks plunked down in a red dustbowl and not a soul in sight. I saw the occasional flicker of movement behind a window curtain but whoever they were, no one seemed keen on going outside while I was around. Winona's wanted posters were plastered everywhere; maybe they'd given me a terrifying reputation.

    We should be able to move pretty easily, Hermes assured me. Lavaridge's Leader has been supervising a of construction project on top of the mountain. All the Magma conscripts from this town left days ago to help out.

    Again, that name everyone seemed to recognize except me. "Magma... fill me in Hermes - just who or what is a Magma?"

    Hermes twirled his body like a pinwheel. Hmm, that's a tricky one. The rock-type enjoyed tossing gestures into his speech; spinning like a wheel meant he was thinking hard about a subject. The Brotherhood of Magma; they're supposed to be Lavaridge's personal army. Cozmo told me that after the Cult of Aqua started rallying against the Emperor, Lavaridge's leader conscripted all the young folk from the region to fight back against Aqua. But if you ask me ... Hermes zipped close to my face and froze, dead serious. Magma's more like a religious order made to worship the Lavaridge Leader.

    We paused at Fallarbor's town square where an angry charizard statue roared at the citizens. The dragon pokemon clutched a stone tablet in its claws and I recognized it as a tome used by ancient cultures used to record a list of laws. Fallarbor's leader had prescribed only one:

    I am the Master of Fire and Earth, the Lord of the Mountain. You shall have no other gods before me.

    I'd met some pretty self-righteous jerks in my travels but this new Leader was something else. I mean, who invents a religion for the sole purpose of glorifying themselves? "Sounds like this leader's a jealous god."

    Hermes rotated a quarter-turn to show he didn't understand things any better. Lavaridge is a weird place, Boss. There are quotas on the number of pokemon you can own, on what types you can keep. Lance may call himself the Dragon Master, but -

    "Lance?" I'd stopped in my tracks, overcome by a new rush of memory. Newspaper headlines, television reports...

    Hermes and Armstrong flocked to my side. You know this Leader, boss?

    "No, I mean, I never met him, but ... where I'm from, the most powerful trainer in all of Kanto and Johto was this guy they called the Dragon Master. Lance." I explained everything I remembered - how Lance and his family trained rare and powerful dragon pokemon; how he'd defended our cities from criminal organizations like Team Rocket; how he'd ruled over the Elite Four and finally ascended to the champion's throne. But ... had he died? Had Johto's mightiest been cast into purgatory?

    Boss, your skin's going pale. Is that normal for humans? Hermes was doing his confused quarter-turn again, but with an added tremor. I was frightening him.

    "Let's keep moving," I said, forcing a brave face. "You said the Dragon Master was supervising the construction, right? So he'll be far away from Fort Lavaridge? Look, let's just find Winona and get out of here." I'd beaten Brawly and Wattson - a stoner and an old man - through sheer luck. How could I dare challenge a dragon tamer so amped up on the power of a magical artifact that he declared himself a god?

    I was about to find out. The ambush came at the crossroads; a trio of red-robed monks who dressed like holy men but moved like bandits, tossing a net over me and Armstrong while the third sicced his poochyena on Hermes. "Tell the machop to stand down, Petalburg boy, or my baltoy fries your brains!" The lead monk pointed his little clay pokemon at my head like a gun. A volcano symbol was printed over their robes and little devil horns were sewn on top of their hoods. The Brotherhood of Magma, I presumed.

    Hermes' screams wailed through my skull. Boss, I can't see it, get it off me! Get it off, it's so cold!

    The net wouldn't stop Armstrong, but that poochyena had its jaws over Hermes like he was a chew toy; I had no choice, not unless I wanted Hermes smashed into pebbles. "Just do what they say, Armstrong. We'll figure something out." Cackling to themselves, the monks lashed our wrists with rope and tied us together as a chain gang. Hermes, they stuffed in a sack to drag through the air like a burlap balloon. Then the strangest thing happened: each monk pulled an apricot ball from his cloak and recalled their pokemon. They had pokeballs in Lavaridge?

    Before I could process this anomaly the monks jabbed my back and ordered me to march. "Start walking, boy! It's a long road to the top of Mount Chimney!"

    Just looking at the mountain's smog-covered peak made my legs buckle. "You're seriously making me walk up that?" Again? I thought privately.

    That comment sent the monks into stitches. "See, lads? Swallows every word he hears, like the good little Petalburg boy he is. Don't be daft, son! There's a cable car up the road from here. Now get moving! You're due for a chat with the Pokemon Professor."

    -----------------------------------------------------

    Sure enough we found a cable car past the next turn in the road. A stationary bicycle mounted inside moved the car along the line and the monks made Armstrong pedal us upward. The machop seethed every minute of the ride, insulted that he'd been pressed into such menial labour. Hermes said nothing; he was still shivering from the traumatic attack of the dark-type.

    On the way up I got a good eyeful of the monument Magma had been constructing atop the mountain. The entire southern rim of the volcano had been plated over with metal and a giant metal charizard head thrust from the wall like an ugly gargoyle. Were they building some kind of cathedral up here? Once the monks pushed us out I could see towering columns and what looked like a raised altar leaning over the crater of lava. Was this supposed to be a temple to house Magma's deity-Leader, and if so, what was with all the giant gears and machinery sticking out of the floor?

    I got no answers. My captors pushed past the construction area to a large tent of purple canvas on the far side of the crater. Hanging drapes portioned the interior into separate areas, and we stepped into what looked like a foreman's office. Mobile peg boards with construction blueprints surrounded a mahogany table stacked with books and parchment. At our intrusion, the monk seated behind the desk uttered a sigh of disgust.

    "Professor! Professor Maxwell, we got him! He was at the crossroads, just like you said!"

    "As I anticipated," the professor smirked, ignoring eye contact with his underlings. "Fallarbor was the closest refuge from the impact site, and a stranger to these lands would travel by established routes. Predicting the boy's movement was elementary." Maxwell finally looked up at us, throwing off his hood to reveal a head of slicked red hair and eyes permanently narrowed into contempt for the idiots surrounding him. "Remove your hoods, you oafs. I can't bloody well see who I'm talking to with these ridiculous cloaks." Maxwell jotted down the monks' squad number and issued new orders. "Rendezvous with Squad 11 and reinforce the southern pass. We've received reports of Aqua activity around Mauville City and I will not have our boarders violated by those rebel scum!"

    "That ain't fair, professor! You said there'd be time off for whoever caught the boy!"

    The disobedience didn't faze Maxwell. Instead of sullying his calm intellect by yelling he simply placed a pokeball on his desk and tapped the release button. The mightyena that popped out took care of the yelling. The squad of monks raced outside, leaving Armstrong, myself and a bagged Hermes with this pokemon professor. Maxwell spared us a glance.

    "Do forgive the lack of chairs; I had expected your would lie in hiding for another twenty-four hours. Clearly something quelled your cowardice and roused that foolhardy nature of yours." We'd only just met but the way Maxwell summed up my actions made me feel like a lab specimen he had spent years analyzing. The professor went back to scribbling his notes and didn't address me until he was finished his current page. "So, how is Birch? Still wasting away in Petalburg, clinging to hope like a remoraid on a dying Mantine?"

    Now there was a surprise. "You know Professor Birch?"

    "We were travelling companions," Maxwell confirmed. "We journeyed around the continent together, we explored its mysteries; we bonded over our shared disgust of the masses." He smirked - a fond memory - then went hard as granite. "Regrettably, when the war broke out Birch chose to uphold an illogical loyalty to Steven and opposed the Emperor. I, on the other hand, maintained the intellect to appreciate the inevitability of this new power's rise."

    Birch, a rebel warrior? I tried to imagine the plus-sized professor, or this gaunt scarecrow, commanding pokemon on the battlefield. Maxwell seemed to guess at my thoughts. "Of course, I didn't sully my hands in battle like Brawly and those meat-puppet soldiers. No, my talents lied in analysis. I shared my knowledge of the land - of Steven's pokeball technology - with a promising field commander specializing in draconian pokemon and assured his flawless takeover of the Lavaridge mountain range. As you can see," Maxwell gestured to the lavish tent, "we've come to a most mutually beneficial partnership. The unchallenged strength and charisma of a dragon tamer supported in his daily operations by my genius."

    "Pretty stupid costume you're wearing."

    Maxwell forced a thin smile. "A little aesthetic mismanagement is a small price to pay for power. Which brings us to our next subject - the badges you liberated from Brawly and Wattson. The Dragon Master would very much like them, if you please."

    "Go suck an exeggcute."

    "A pity," Maxwell sighed, standing and removing a knife from a drawer. He moved quickly, slashing the ropes at my wrists and then Armstrong's. "Let's get rid of those primitive restraints, shall we? I have simpler methods of keeping animals in check." He tossed a pokeball into Armstrong's hands. "Listen well, fighting type: you're holding a pressure ball, my custom design. The entire shell is wired to a hair-trigger. Adjust your grip in the slightest and you'll release the voltorb inside." Maxwell turned to me. "The badges, please."

    Armstrong's eyes were glued to the pokeball. I tried to play cool. "I'll order him to drop it. We'll take you with us."

    "You won't," Maxwell countered. "You and I will survive - somewhat frazzled - but your pokemon will die. I've profiled you, boy, and your impulsiveness is matched only by your selfishness. You act only for your own profit, and there's no profit in killing the last pokemon in your troop." He glanced back at Armstrong. "Your machop is beginning to perspire. The badges, please."

    I scowled. "You don't know me."

    "Oh but I do, most intimately. From Winona's reports I've learned about your exploits in Dewford and Mauville; now that I've seen you first-hand I've completed my assessment." He reached for a measuring stick on his desk and began pointing at me.

    "Let's start with your palms - smooth and without callus. You're a city boy, unused to labour or difficulty. You pay no attention to your studies and you can't be bothered with a part-time job. Next I look at your posture; the way you lean on one hip indicates your defiance of authority, but you always keep your back arched. Clear signs you have an ego to uphold. Selfish through and through." To Armstrong. "Good sir machop, your arms are trembling quite thoroughly. The badges, please."

    "Shut up!"

    "And your face. My, my, your face. There's so much living to be discovered in our dying. Oh, don't look at me with that pathetic shock; did you presume I hadn't deduced the true nature of this world? You and I and the rest of the trash here are dead; disembodied spirits moved on to a new world. Your pokemon will not be so fortunate. The badges, please."

    I shut my eyes and grit my teeth but Maxwell pushed on. "Now, your burn scars are the mark of an explosion, but what kind? The fact that they're localized on your head eliminates a house fire or a large-scale combustion; no, this was deliberate. You were targeted. An incendiary device aimed at your face? A vial of acid thrown at your features? Yes, whoever did this to you - and it was done deliberately - wanted you to suffer."

    "I swear to God, Virgil, I'm going to kill you!"

    "That's enough!"

    "The badges."

    "I lost them," I blurted. "They're gone. Please don't kill my pokemon. They're all I've got."

    Maxwell snorted and hit a kill switch on the pressure ball. Armstrong collapsed. "Did Birch share with you his Personality Transference Theory? That we continue to live out the passions and flaws that first killed us? I wonder if this is how you died - gambling a friend's trust just to maintain your ego."

    "My best friend killed me," I confessed. "Why'd he do it?"

    "Oh, that's elementary. You're a teenager - awash with hormones and incapable of rational thought. It was a crime of passion."

    "I'm Adelina, by the way. What's your name?"

    Roderigo...


    "I'm convinced of your ignorance regarding the Emperor's relics," Maxwell concluded. He rang a bell, summoning two guards to drag away Armstrong and Hermes. "Dropped in the rubble, most likely. I'll have to organize a more thorough investigation of the badlands."

    "Are we done here?"

    "Ah, again he postures! A kitten shinx with delusions of luxray. Spare me the bravado, boy. I would have fed you to my mightyena except the Dragon Master has requested to see you for himself."

    Lance! I tried to run but that mightyena materialized at the tent doorway, growling and forcing me back. Maxwell lifted me to my feet. "Try to appreciate the honour: the greatest and most powerful leader in all this existence has deemed your worthy of an audience. Step quickly, boy. The Dragon Master awaits."

    -----------------------------------------------------

    Maxwell prodded me beyond a curtain to the back of the tent. Everything was black, the only illumination a pair of torches. The Dragon Master preferred the darkness for his meditations.

    The Dragon Master, the scourge of Team Rocket; the champion of the Johto-Kanto Alliance... at least, I was pretty sure it was him. Lavaridge's leader had that same blaze of red hair, only longer than I remembered, and bundled into a whip-thin ponytail. He had those same intense eyes and hardened cheekbones, but everything below his nose was hidden - a scarf encircled his mouth and a black cape hugged his body. Are you like me, I wondered? Disfigured by death?

    "My lord, this is the boy Winona spoke of."

    Lance stood and took his own turn to appraise me. I just kept my eyes on the floor and tried not to flinch when his cloak brushed my leg. "This is the boy?" The Dragon Master's voice thundered low and sonorous and ... forced? Wait, was he deliberately speaking in a lower pitch? "This is the maggot that sent Winona shivering? The insect that cast Brawly into the sea?" He laughed, and it was one of those overdone 'bwa-ha-ha-ha' villain bits you hear in the movies. Then he started monologuing!

    "And yet you fell so readily into the dragon's claws! As expected, for I, Lance the Dragon Master, am peerless among the leaders of this land!"

    Something was ... off. "You're Lance? The Dragon Champion of Johto?"

    My words pleased the leader. "Ah, humility. You are wise to address me as 'champion', lowly mortal, for I am great and powerful beyond all comprehension."

    No, this didn't make sense. "Birch said we keep our personalities even after we die. Lance was a jerk, but he wasn't power hungry. What's with this evil overlord routine? And why are you hiding your face?" I took a bold step forward. "Are you really Lance?"

    "Be silent, boy or I will-"

    "Are you a girl?"

    "SHUT UP!" The torches flared into pillars of rage. "I am the Master of Fire and Earth, the Lord -"

    "Lord of the Mountain, yeah, I read the signs." To Maxwell, "This is a joke, right? A body double or something, righ-WHOA!" Fiery serpents spun from the torches and twisted around my body.

    "I AM the Master of Dragons and you will bow before me, boy!" I quickly crouched on the ground. Imposter or not, this person was clearly unstable.

    Maxwell forced his way through the awkwardness. "My lord, the boy has no badges. He's useless to us. We should dispose of him and his pokemon before he can create any undue mischief." But I'd prodded the dragon master beyond the point of reasoning.

    "No," s/he snarled. "The machinery's finally ready; I want him to watch. I want him to see me in my moment of triumph. I've bested Winona - I've caught this pitiful assassin; now I'm going to achieve what the Emperor never could and obliterate the Cult of Aqua in a single blow!"

    The Dragon Master pulled me close, a smile forming through the scarf. "You saw those torches, boy? You saw the power I command?" I had. Brawly manipulated water, Wattson electricity; the Dragon Master was a living flamethrower able to command and fuel fire. "You haven't seen anything yet. Maxwell, gather the troops at the altar. When I sit upon the Throne of God, boy, you'll be the first to grovel at my feet!"

    -----------------------------------------------------

    Something was wrong with Mount Chimney. When Maxwell shoved me out of the tent I found black smoke rising from the crater and a rumble like thunder trembling through the ground. None of the Magma monks paid it any attention but as Lance stomped toward her altar, teeth grit and fists clenched, the mountain seemed shake in rage alongside her.

    We all took our places for the ceremony - Lance at the center of the altar, raised where all the assembled monks could see and glorify her. Maxwell and a spare grunt stood back and to the side, guarding me and my pokemon. Armstrong looked weary and defeated; Hermes was still stuck inside that bag. I tried whispering to them but Maxwell shushed me. The show was about to begin.

    The Dragon Master stretched her arms and a shower of fire exploded from the volcano. "My loyal subjects, the day of ascension has come! For too long our splendour has been confined to this wretched mountain; today, our might will spread over this land with such fire and such furor that even the boundless ocean will shrink before us!"

    Maxwell gestured at the crowd and the hooded monks raised their fists to cheer. "Hail Magma! Glory to the Dragon Master!" It was a well-rehearsed line but they sounded like kids cheering over birthday socks - totally forced. A group huddled around an especially tall monk refused to cheer altogether, crossing their arms in defiance of this mandated religion. These monks didn't care about Lance or her crazy ideas; they just followed along to avoid getting burned!

    Lance didn't seem to mind; she was far too obsessed with her theatrical master plan to pay her underlings any attention. "Fires of the inferno - your master summons you! Go forth and cleanse the land of all who oppose me!"

    That's when the ground really began to shake and I realized I wasn't standing on a mountain any more, but on the back of a giant stirring from its rest. The lava pooled inside the crater - it was bubbling up, rising! Lance's face was screwed up in fierce concentration and her arms stretched over the molten liquid like a conductor demanding her orchestra for more: more volume, more thunder, more power! She was using her power to pull the lava up from the earth!

    Maxwell relayed orders into a pokenav and a metal clang shook the altar. Magma monks rushed to peer over the safety railings, shouting, "It's opened, it's opened!" They were all pointing to the giant charizard head, it's jaw unhinged like a snake and glowing red with liquid fire.

    Obliterate the Cult of Aqua in a single blow. The charizard gargoyle, it wasn't a statue, it was a spout! Magma had transformed the volcano into a continent-sized tea kettle and they were going to direct the lava straight towards Slateport City, a knife driven into the heart of the Aqua rebellion! But the Cult's home base was so far away! I thought of all the land I had trekked through - Windstrate's mansion, Mauville's houses and farms.

    I turned to Maxwell. "That lunatic's gonna bury everyone alive!"

    "And those who survive will bow in terror before the Dragon Master." Maxwell's eyes blazed with admiration. "Can you not admire the audacity, the brilliance of it all?"

    Brilliance, or insanity? The Dragon Master cackled before a backdrop of bursting hellfire while gallons of lava spewed down the mountain slope. "I am the Master of Fire and Earth! Look upon my works and tremble!"

    Someone among the monks had had enough of looking. A stone whizzed through the air and clipped Lance's ear, bursting her bubble. Maxwell's jaw dropped; the Dragon Master boiled over in rage. "Who dares?"

    "I dare!" That especially tall monk had stepped forward from the crowd, followed by a group of like-minded heretics. "Your words are bold, Dragon Master, but they are no more than the mewling of a child! Your tyranny ends today!"

    Lance grit her teeth, the Magma monks muttered to each other, confused. Only Maxwell had the puzzle solved, and he gave a dry chuckle. "Wolves in sheep's clothing. Knew I should have pushed for the uniform redesign."

    Father Archibald shucked his disguise, and Deacon Shelly and ten other Aqua pirates followed suit. "I sensed your dark ambitions when we uncovered your spy in Slateport, and then again Mauville, but had I realized the true depths of your depravity I would have ended your terraphilic slander years ago! This land-making machine must be destroyed! Children of Aqua, wash these sinners from the face of the earth!"

    Rusty knives thrust into the air with a roar. Maxwell rolled his eyes at the bravado and called orders through is pokenav. "Squads 3 through 6, form perimeter Delta. Remaining squads, attack positions Bravo."

    "Make them suffer, Maxwell!" Lance was paralyzed on the spot; her face screamed to join in the battle but she had to focus all her energy on the volcano to keep the lava flowing. Archibald and his men were surrounded, an island of blue in a sea of red, but what they lacked in numbers the Aqua strike force made up for in iron will. The pirates swept through the Magma monks like a tempest of gyrados, blood in their wake and smiles on their faces. I'd been wondering how warfare worked in this world - how could you win if your opponents automatically reattached missing limbs or regenerated stab wounds? Maxwell's strategy was containment. Apricot balls cracked open and a ring of numel encircled the pirates with flamethrower breath. Shielded behind their pokemon, the monks started tossing chains and nets over the char-broiled pirates. You couldn't kill a soul but you could immobilize it.

    Archibald had a far more gruesome strategy - marching through the fire, seizing a hapless monk by the neck and swinging him into his allies like a club. You terrified the enemy into submission.

    The pirates had hidden pokemon under their robes - portable shellder and clampearls that they now turned into high-pressure water cannons. Archibald wasn't satisfied with slicing up the monks or hacking off limbs; they blasted Lance's minions off their feet and off the mountain! The lucky ones fell off the slopes; others got a one-way trip into Mount Chimney's fiery pool. I shut my eyes; I didn't dare see what happened when a regenerating body sunk into a bath of liquid fire. The Magma monks felt much the same; one by one the survivors scattered and fled.

    Maxwell took the battle in stride. He could plan and out-think his opponents by five steps but tactical brilliance wouldn't help when his chess pieces panicked and ran off the board. "Human error," he hissed, mentally tallying a list of tortures for his cowardly subordinates. "My Lord, our objectives are compromised. We must retreat."

    "No! Not when I'm so close! Hold them back, Maxwell!"

    "With what? Your minions have left us!" Archibald and his pirates were charging the walkway, ready to skewer us all. They would have done it too, if Armstrong hadn't slammed his fists into the stage, blasting off a shockwave that bowled the Aquas off their feet. Lance scowled at me. "I don't need your help!"

    "Never look a gift horsea up the snout," Maxwell retorted, snatching his master by the wrist and dragging her for the cable car. "Tabitha, throw the boy in the pit and get moving!"

    That order was for my guard, who clubbed Armstrong, picked me up over his head and started marching for the lava pool. "Hermes, zap his brain with a psychic blast or something!"

    Boss, I'm not a kadabra! I don't have those kind of powers!

    "I thought you were a psychic!"

    I'm a rock!


    Too late anyway. My guard tossed me through the air, but instead of plunging into a molten bath I rammed against an invisible wall and crumpled on the ground. The monk had a second to puzzle over my survival before his face went blank, like an invisible rake had smacked him across the head. I ran to untie Hermes.

    "What was that back there?"

    I'm a rock, Boss! I float, and I can put up psychic barriers. He demonstrated again, and this time I saw the rainbow shimmer of the invisible barrier that had spared my fall. Not exactly great offense.

    "Unless you use your barriers as an invisible two-by-four," I gestured to the unconscious guard.

    Huh, never thought of that till now.

    Next thing I knew I was racing alongside Deacon Shelly and some Aquas for the cable car, our grudge match on hold as we both aimed for a bigger fish to fry. Maxwell shoved the Dragon Master into the car and made his stand, rolling a six-pack of pokeballs towards us.

    "Stand back!" he ordered, brandishing an electronic trigger with a big red button. "One more step and I detonate these pressure balls. I'll blow this ledge apart and send us all into the fire!"

    Shelly held back her grunts but Armstrong wasn't deterred. My machop whipped a rock at the cable car's support beams, smashing its rope line. "So much for your escape," I laughed.

    "Don't insult my intelligence, boy. I always have a contingency prepared."

    With a push of a button the cable car transformed. The rail pulleys detached, a propeller unfolded from its backside, and the roof popped open to release a red, cigar-shaped balloon. Maxwell waved adieu and stepped into his miniature zeppelin as it lifted off the mountain.

    "Coward!" the deacon roared. "Neither earth nor air will spare you from the ocean's wrath!"

    In reply, Maxwell stuck his trigger hand out the window and punched the red button. We all flinched as six capsule balls exploded with six handfuls of confetti and streamers. A colourful paper fluttered into my face. It read, Moron.

    Describing Armstrong as stunned was an understatement.

    "Well that bites," Shelly muttered, dropping her holy woman act and aiming her knife at my heart. "But at least I get the satisfaction of gutting you!"

    Father Archibald seized her wrist in mid strike. "Stay your hand, Shelly. This boy is no brother of ours, but neither is he kin to the Dragon Master. Go help the others dismantle that wretched land-making monstrosity."

    Shelly protested but a cool glare from her leader shut her up. Archibald focused his stare at me. "Once more I spare your life, boy. Consider it thanks for prompting us to investigate the Brotherhood's operations here." He had one last warning before turning away. "Choose your friends carefully. When Aqua sweeps away the refuse of the Emperor there will be no mercy for the undecided."

    Hermes, Armstrong and I stayed and watched the zeppelin retreat. At our backs the temple pillars fell to the Cult of Aqua and the great charizard's gush of lava slowed to a trickle. Looks like they're headed to Fort Lavaridge, Hermes observed. Boss, that place is a stronghold; once they get their defenses set we'll never get that badge!

    Badges? Was he still squawking about badges? I didn't care about the disappearing blimp but what did catch my attention was the flock of birds that came to escort the ship, and the massive tropius leading the pack. The rider with purple hair ...

    "We're after Winona," I reminded him. "And if the Dragon Master gets in my way then I'll take her down as well."
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