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[Pokémon] Communication


*aromatisse noise*
  • 169
    Hey there, me again. What we have here is the latest version of my second Pokémon fic, started back in '04 and completed roughly ten years later. Expect updates every couple of weeks or so.

    Content advisory: Rated T for strong violence, blood, character death, gore, body horror, mild language, mild nudity, and smoking.

    Chapter 1 – Foreign Relations
    Chapter 2 – Carried Away
    Chapter 3 – The Deal
    Chapter 4 – Spell of the Spotlight
    Chapter 5 – Elements Embraced
    Chapter 6 – Back Onstage
    Chapter 7 – The Sought-For Matter
    Chapter 8 – Gone
    Chapter 9 – Convergence
    Chapter 10 – Whitley's
    Chapter 11 – Bereaved
    Chapter 12 – Preclusion of Choice
    Chapter 13 – Small Steps
    Chapter 14 – Anywhere but Here
    Chapter 15 – Deceiving Yesterday
    Chapter 16 – Home
    Chapter 17 – The Academy
    Chapter 18 – Heart of the City
    Chapter 19 – A Sight for Sore Eyes
    Chapter 20 – Silence in the East
    Chapter 21 – Persona Non Grata
    Chapter 22 – The Serpent Denied
    Chapter 23 – Family Matters
    Chapter 24 – Impossible Tears
    Chapter 25 – Speak No Evil
    Chapter 26 – Mordial
    Chapter 27 – The Search
    Chapter 28 – Strangers
    Chapter 29 – To Return
    Chapter 30 – Take Care
    Chapter 31 – Wisteria
    Chapter 32 – Allies
    Chapter 33 – Safe
    Chapter 34 – Behind Enemy Lines
    Chapter 35 – Remnants
    Chapter 36 – What Was Lost
    Chapter 37 – Easy Come, Easy Go
    Chapter 38 – The Nexus of the Crisis
    Chapter 39 – Come to Collect
    Chapter 40 – Lightless Flames
    Chapter 41 – Beyond the Glass
    Chapter 42 – Back to the Surface

    And away we go...


    Chapter 1 – Foreign Relations

    In the depths of Shoal Cave, unknown to humanity at large and almost completely untouched by other species of pokémon, there was a place known by the snorunt and glalie who called it home as Virc-Dho. Here, in a cavern whose ice-covered surfaces glittered eerily in the glow given off by her eyes, a glalie by the name of Azvida Zgil-Al sat waiting for two different things.

    She was watching, staring intently at a round, black, featureless egg that was now beginning to shake slightly a couple of times each minute. It was bound to hatch at any moment now. She was also listening, just as she'd been doing for months now, for the first sign of an approach that might or might not even come.

    Invoking the power of her element, the glalie spontaneously generated a small heap of snow, which she arranged in a ring around the increasingly animated egg. The baby would be ravenous upon hatching.

    A grinding sound in the distance caught Azvida's attention. She winced at its volume, not only out of physical discomfort but also concern over others hearing it. She had told him emphatically that he needed to make as inconspicuous an entrance as possible… but, as she reminded herself, the very nature of just what he was made that especially difficult.

    Keeping the egg at the edge of her vision, Azvida only turned partly toward him as he came to a stop in the shadows nearby. "Hello, Grosh."

    Grosh only grunted in response, his face looking almost ghostly in what little of Azvida's cyan light touched it.

    Azvida's attention was quickly monopolized by the egg again as it gave an almighty lurch, rolling straight into the snow that had been piled in front of it. The glalie inhaled with a long, rattling hiss and held her breath, anxiously watching the event that was unfolding before her eyes. The egg gave one last rustle, and then, with a tiny crack, something small and pointed broke through the shell. With something of a drilling motion, the tip of a cone-shaped head continued to emerge from the hole it had made, cracking it open wider and wider until finally the egg simply fell apart.

    Amidst the broken eggshells, there now sat a tiny male snorunt. He tried to stand up, only to immediately fall right over. His conical body rolled pitifully as he tried in vain to right himself.

    Azvida couldn't suppress the gale of hissing, elated laughter that came forth at the sight of him. He was here. He was finally here. She rose from the ground and descended upon the snorunt, picking him up very gently and carefully and then setting him upright once more.

    Her son blinked up at her for a moment. Then he noticed the fresh, powdery snow that surrounded him, and he became oblivious to all else.

    Azvida grinned brightly at her new baby. She then looked into the shadows at her side. "Look, Grosh," she said, her voice alight with pure wonder. "Look at your son. Isn't he beautiful? Why don't you come closer? Don't you want to see him?"

    The shadowed form of Grosh stirred in the darkness. His gaze turned toward the newborn—then turned away. The rest of Grosh immediately followed.

    "Grosh, wait!" Azvida called to him. But Grosh kept moving on, scattering numerous rocks and chunks of ice in his wake. Within seconds, he was gone, back into the shadows from whence he'd come—never to return, Azvida was sure.

    The new mother sighed. "It'll just be us, then," she said as she set herself back down before her son. No surprise, she thought, yet she couldn't deny the pang of disappointment she felt at Grosh's departure. "We'll have to be everything for each other. But I know we can," she said, hoping to sound reassuring.

    Not that it mattered to the snorunt. He was too focused on the snow, which he was devouring voraciously. Once he'd eaten his fill, he discovered that he could also play in the snow, and he quickly became fully engrossed in that activity.

    Azvida smiled again. "Now, what to call you?" she wondered aloud. She thought about it for a little while, rejecting several potential candidates for her son's name until one that felt right finally came to her mind.

    "I know exactly the right name for you," Azvida said triumphantly. "You shall be called Solonn."

    * * *​

    A little over seven years into his life, Solonn was deemed old enough to go up to the snowgrounds, where he could meet and play with other children. But to get there, one first had to make one's way through a rather long series of tunnels, much to his displeasure. This was the farthest he'd ever had to walk; it was a little tiring, not to mention kind of slow compared to being carried in his mother's jaws. But ultimately, he'd be too big to carry that way. He had to get used to walking everywhere, whether he liked it or not.

    His weariness, combined with the fact that the tunnel they were taking looked practically the same through yard after yard, caused his patience to run out fairly quickly. "Are we there yet?" he finally asked, unable to keep himself from whining a bit.

    "Almost," Azvida answered, gliding along a few inches off the ground at less than half of her usual pace to let the snorunt's tiny feet keep up with her. "I told you, you'll know right away when we get there. It's very different from this place, and from every other place you've seen, for that matter."

    Better be, Solonn thought rather grumpily.

    Shortly thereafter, they finally arrived at the snowgrounds. Solonn saw at once that his mother had been right about this place—it was different. It was a huge, open space, nothing at all like the close confines of the winding tunnels and small caverns that made up the warren in which he lived.

    What he found most remarkable about it wasn't its size, however. It was the fact that the floor of this vast cavern was entirely blanketed in sparkling, white snow, just begging a snorunt to dive right in. Which is precisely what Solonn did.

    Azvida laughed. "Have fun with the other kids," she said, her son poking his head out of the snow at her words. "I'll be back soon." With that, she turned and left Solonn behind in the field of snow.

    Solonn watched her leave, wishing that she would stay, wondering why she didn't. He also wondered where those "other kids" she'd mentioned were. He didn't see anyone else there…

    POP! With absolutely no warning, something burst out of the snow, launching out right in front of his face.

    "Aaah!" Solonn was scared right off of his feet. He tumbled over backwards and landed upside-down, his pointed head sticking in the snow, his short legs kicking uselessly.

    He then heard a sound—laughter. Someone was laughing at him—and grabbing his feet. He screamed again as whoever it was started pulling on his legs just a little too hard. His ambusher didn't relent until he suddenly pulled Solonn from the snow. Solonn went flying from his grasp, landing in the snow several feet away with a whumpf (and fortunately not landing on his head this time).

    Solonn managed to right himself fairly quickly, and as he did, he heard footsteps approaching him. He turned to face the sound and found another snorunt, one who came to a stop a short distance before him. Was he the one who'd given Solonn that scare?

    Solonn's eyes flashed in anger. He lunged at the other snorunt, snapping his teeth and missing him by only a fraction of an inch.

    The other snorunt jumped backward away from Solonn, staring back in surprise for a moment. Then he burst out into laughter once more. Solonn glared, looking as though he might try to bite him again, which made him fall silent in a hurry. He backed up a bit farther and held out his hands as if to keep Solonn at bay.

    "Hey! It's okay!" the other snorunt said. "I didn't mean to scare you… well, not that bad, anyway…"

    Solonn hesitated, frowning in uncertainty.

    "I'm sorry," the other snorunt said earnestly. "It was just a joke." He approached Solonn again, albeit a bit gingerly. "I'm Zilag. Who are you?"

    Solonn hesitated a moment before answering. "…Solonn," he finally responded. "Are there any other kids here?" he asked warily.

    "Yeah. They're hiding," Zilag answered. "Come on out," he called out, "and don't scare him!"

    At Zilag's call, twelve other snorunt popped up out of their hiding places beneath the snow. Solonn remained wary of them at first, but through the minutes that passed, they heeded Zilag's advice; no one attempted to frighten him or otherwise make a joke at his expense. By the time his mother returned to take him home, Solonn had managed to shed his distrust and reluctance almost completely. As he left the snowgrounds, he actually looked forward to returning there.

    * * *​

    Azvida brought Solonn to the snowgrounds almost daily from that point onward. As the weeks went by, he and Zilag became very good friends. Every time Solonn returned to the snowgrounds, Zilag was there waiting for him.

    One day, Zilag gathered eight of his closest friends, including Solonn, to tell them how they were about to have the "best day ever".

    "I've found something so awesome, you'll go crazy when you see it," he said.

    "And what's that?" Solonn asked.

    Zilag smirked. He rolled up a snowball, turned around, and chucked it with full force into the ground. The snow it struck crumbled away on impact, falling into the rather steep-looking, downward-slanting passageway that he'd just revealed. The other eight snorunt all drew closer to the hole to try and peer down into it, but they were all wary of getting too close to it.

    "Right down there is a portal to another world," Zilag said in a exaggeratedly grand tone.

    "Yeah, right," Reizirr said.

    "It's true!" Zilag insisted. He grabbed her and pushed her face toward the hole, eliciting a very sharp little shriek out of her. "All you have to do to see it is to just go through there."

    "No, thanks!" Reizirr said as she managed to wriggle away from Zilag.

    "You're gonna miss out…" Zilag told her. He glanced about at the others, seeing a lot of uncertain faces looking back at him. Their clear trepidation did nothing to deter him from putting on a huge grin and going on to say, "Okay. Who wants to go first?"

    The others all exchanged nervous glances. Then, in unison, they took a big step farther back from the hole.

    "Oh, come on. It's so cool, I promise… Sical, how about you?" Zilag asked.

    "No way," she said firmly.


    Davron shook his head, insofar as he could.


    Faroski just turned and left the small crowd, having decided he'd be better off just watching the others from the opposite side of the cavern.

    Zilag sighed loudly in frustration. Then he turned to Solonn. "I know you'd love it. So come on, go for it."

    Solonn remained doubtful. "Uh…"

    "It's just a little slide and then a little climb," Zilag said a little impatiently. "You're not a wuss, are you?" he added.

    "What? No!" Solonn said. He looked down into the hole, wondering just how deep it really was. "I guess I could…"

    "That's the spirit!" Zilag said cheerfully, and then he shoved Solonn into the hole.

    "Aaaaaah!" Solonn screamed as he found himself rushing down the slide. The tightly-packed snow coating its walls made the ride smoother than it might have been otherwise—that is, until he reached the bottom and smacked right into a stone wall.

    Solonn pitched backward and fell to the floor, little lights exploding in his vision, his face smarting. After a few moments, he came back to his senses and became fully aware of his surroundings. He was in a very small chamber made of stone. Before and slightly above him, he saw a hole in the wall, one that was more than wide enough for him to enter.

    Solonn stood and stared with uncertainty into the hole for a short while, reluctant to enter it. He turned back around and looked back up the length of the snow chute… how in the world was someone supposed to get back up there? Zilag had neglected to explain that detail…

    Sighing, Solonn turned back toward the hole in the wall—there seemed to be no other way to go. Resigned, he hopped up, pulled himself into the hole, and started crawling upward.

    The climb through the secret tunnel was hardly enjoyable. At a couple of points, it was fairly steep; Solonn feared that he could easily slip and go tumbling back down the tunnel. Furthermore, the tunnel's rocky floor was uncomfortable and more than a little worrisome to crawl over—one wrong move, and those jagged edges could slice right into a hand or foot.

    Why, he wondered, had Zilag thought anyone would like this?

    Quite a while later, Solonn finally reached the end of the tunnel and gratefully hoisted himself out of there. Exhausted, he just lay still for a short time, glad to be on smooth, level ground again.

    Once he'd caught his breath, he got back on his feet and took a look around. He was in a very large cavern which, just as Zilag had promised, was like another world. For one thing, it was much brighter up here than it had been below. Solonn found the source of the light overhead: strange, pale rays were seeping into the cavern from cracks in the ceiling.

    As Solonn explored with growing curiosity, he found snow, ice and rocks—all of which he could find at home, of course. Here, however, they were just scattered about; rocky, uneven surfaces abruptly gave way to vast, shimmering expanses of smooth, ice-coated floors, and mounds of snow rose randomly over both. This contrasted considerably with the way things looked back in the warren; there, every aspect of the environment had been adapted by glalie to conform to their tastes and purposes. Solonn wondered to what sort of people and purpose, if any, a place like this could possibly belong.

    Right around the next hill of snow, he got his answer.

    He didn't move. He barely even breathed. The same was true of the creature that stared back at him through her dark brown eyes.

    Her appearance was stranger than anything Solonn could have ever imagined, especially with regards to the fact that there was a peculiar, mesmerizing glow emanating from her entire body. He'd never seen anything like it; he didn't have that glow, and neither did any of his friends. For that matter, neither did glalie.

    "What… what are you?" Solonn finally worked up the courage to ask.

    "What are you?" the creature countered.

    Solonn was almost too bewildered to answer. This creature even sounded so different… "I'm a snorunt," he said finally.

    "Oh. Never heard of that… Anyway, I'm a spheal."

    "I've never heard of what you are, either," Solonn said. As he stared at this creature—this spheal—his curiosity gave rise to a compulsion. "Can… can I touch you?" he asked.

    "Uh… sure, I guess," the spheal responded.

    Solonn stepped forward after a moment's delay. His hand shook as it reached out toward the spheal. When he touched her, he gasped and pulled his hand back at once, his eyes wide. She felt strange, and in a way that was rather startling.

    "What? Is something wrong?" the spheal asked.

    "No… it's just that you're so… " Solonn trailed off and stared with both fear and wonder shining through his eyes as he realized that he knew no word for the way that the spheal felt. He had no way of knowing it, but he'd just felt heat for the very first time. Though it hadn't hurt him, it had definitely made him uneasy. He withdrew his hands.

    Just then, a voice sounded from not too far away—another strange, foreign voice. "Sophine? Where are you?"

    Before Solonn could wonder about the voice's owner, she came into view. Solonn didn't know that it was a sealeo who had just arrived on the scene, but he could guess from her appearance that she was an evolved spheal.

    "There you are! You can't keep wandering away from me like that!" she scolded the spheal, though not too harshly. Then her gaze fell upon Solonn, and it froze there. "Sophine, get away from that," she said tensely. "Now. Those things are dangerous."

    "What? I'm not dangerous!" Solonn protested, stepping forward with his arms outstretched. "Honest!"

    "You stay away from my daughter, you little monster!" the sealeo cried, and then she lunged at Solonn.

    But just then, Sophine screamed, and the sound jarred her mother out of her charge. Her mother looked to see what had frightened Sophine and then cried out in fear, as well.

    Confused, Solonn followed the others' gazes. Now it was his turn to scream—hovering there with an absolutely livid expression was none other than his own mother.

    "Leave him alone!" Azvida spat. With a furious hiss, she darted forward. Her massive teeth snapped together with bone-shattering force bare inches away from the face of Sophine's mother.

    The sealeo gave a yelping bark as she turned away from the striking glalie. Then she gathered up her daughter in a single flipper and waddled off with her as fast as she could.

    Solonn watched them leave. Then, very nervously, he turned and approached his mother. Azvida turned to face him in an instant, making him jump back in startled surprise. Then she opened her jaws and grabbed Solonn up in her teeth by the top of his head. Her hold on him was painful, and he cried out, but she didn't put him down, carrying him in this fashion for the rest of the trip back home.

    * * *​

    "For the love of all gods, what were you thinking?" Azvida demanded.

    It wasn't my idea! Solonn thought but didn't dare say, fearing that doing so would mean betraying Zilag. "…I don't know!" he finally blurted.

    "Well, you're not going up there again, that's for sure," Azvida said firmly. "In fact, you're not going to be going anywhere for a long time, not even to the snowgrounds."

    "But… Mom, no! You can't!" Solonn protested. Surely she had to be bluffing, or so he hoped.

    "Oh, yes I can, and yes I will! It's for your own good, Solonn. You have to learn that there are places where you don't belong, places that are not safe!"

    "Not safe?" Apart from the behavior of the sealeo he'd met there, the secret cavern above hadn't seemed terribly dangerous, just strange…

    Azvida lowered her face, staring right into Solonn's eyes. "You think you're the first who's ever gone sneaking around up there? There have been plenty of kids before you who've had that bright idea. And you know what? Many of them never came back."

    "…What happened to them?" Solonn asked in a very small voice, though he wasn't altogether certain that he really wanted to know.

    "They vanished," Azvida replied simply. "Taken away by the creatures from above, we suspect," she elaborated.

    "You mean the spheal? Spheal took them?" Solonn asked incredulously.

    Azvida shook her head. "Other beings. Stranger beings."

    What could be stranger than a spheal? Solonn wondered, rather amazed by the notion.

    But that wasn't all he wondered about. "Mom?"


    "That spheal's mom… she called me a monster," Solonn said quietly. "She said I'm dangerous, but I'm not dangerous at all… am I?"

    "What? No, of course you're not," Azvida said. "And you're not a monster, either."

    "But… then why would she say that?" Solonn asked.

    Azvida sighed. "It's all right, Solonn. She meant nothing against you personally. It's just that… well, her kind fear ours. They always have." She sighed again. "To be fair, they do have a perfectly good reason to."

    "Well… what is it?" Solonn asked, a little afraid of the sort of answer he might receive.

    Azvida broke eye contact with Solonn. This wasn't a discussion she'd been in any hurry to have with him—she'd dreaded it as much as the eventual discussion of how eggs were made.

    Reluctantly, she sat down beside him. "There are certain things that every living creature has to do to stay alive," she began uneasily. "We have to breathe. We have to sleep. We have to eat. When creatures are different, the ways they keep themselves alive are also different. The spheal and their evolved forms, the sealeo and walrein, are different from us, and so they have their own ways that are right for them. Likewise, glalie are different from snorunt. And we have our own ways.

    "Now, one of the ways that creatures can have different needs is that for some, like snorunt, the things they need to eat in order to live are not alive themselves. But for others… like glalie… well, the things that creatures like us need to eat in order to live are alive."

    Solonn absorbed that. Then his heart froze. "You… you eat the spheal?" he ventured in disbelief, his voice cracking.

    "Yes," Azvida answered honestly, "sometimes. But not usually. Usually, we take the winged creatures instead; zubat, they're called."

    "It doesn't matter what they are. You still kill them!" Solonn shouted.

    "Yes," Azvida said, sounding very flustered. "Yes, we do, but we do it quickly. We do it gently. It doesn't hurt them. They just… they just stop. It's just like going to sleep, only permanently."

    "How can you know that?" Solonn countered. Azvida didn't answer. Solonn said nothing more for several minutes, just sitting and shaking silently. Then, with barely any voice at all, "Why can't you just eat the snow? Why?"

    "It's just not enough for us, Solonn," Azvida said quietly. "Someday, once you've evolved, you'll understand."

    "No, I don't want to! I don't want to grow up and eat people!"

    "Listen, I know how it sounds, but there really isn't anything wrong with it!" Azvida tried to assure him. "It's just part of how nature works. And a lot of creatures live this way, too, not just glalie. Even the spheal you met and her people; they feed on creatures called magikarp…"

    But Solonn wasn't listening anymore, and Azvida knew it. She sighed and fell silent, and neither of them said anything to one another for the remainder of that day.

    * * *​

    After the long weeks separating Solonn from the snowgrounds were finally behind him, he returned there to find Zilag just sitting there by himself.

    Solonn was immediately wary. "Where is everyone hiding?"

    "There's no one else here," Zilag said gloomily.

    Solonn walked over to him, frowning. "You got me into huge trouble, you know," he said.

    "Hey, I didn't get away with it, either!" Zilag shot back.

    "Well, I didn't tell on you!" Solonn insisted. "I swear!"

    "You didn't have to," Zilag said grimly. "My big sister came in and saw me trying to get Dileras to go down that hole. She went straight home and told Mom everything." He sighed. "And then everyone else's parents found out, too. Now no one wants to hang out with me cause they're all scared of getting into trouble again."

    "Oh…" Solonn sat down beside Zilag. "Well… I'm not really worried about that," he said, although a small part of him was. "I'll still hang out with you."

    Zilag's eyes widened, and he broke out into a huge grin. "Really? Thanks!"

    It was then that a strange sound caught the attention of both snorunt: a sort of fluttering noise coming from above. Zilag and Solonn looked up and saw its source flying about overhead. It was yet another creature that shone with that strange glow—the glow of heat, Solonn now knew.

    "A zubat," Solonn guessed aloud in a hushed voice as he gazed up at the newcomer. "What's one of those doing here?"

    "I don't know… I've never even seen one before," Zilag said.

    "I bet your parents have," Solonn said darkly. "My mom told me that glalie eat those things."

    Zilag turned to face Solonn at those words and stared incredulously at him for a moment. Then he broke into laughter. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard! They do not!"

    "Oh, yes they do," Solonn said as he continued to watch the zubat flit around, seemingly without direction, near the ceiling of the cavern.

    "No way!" Zilag said, still laughing. "I know! Let's ask the zubat if it's true! HEY, ZUBAT!" he shouted.

    The zubat steadfastly ignored the snorunt below, just wanting to focus on getting out of that place. It was bad enough that she'd gotten herself lost there—she didn't want to add to her troubles by getting herself mixed up with the locals.

    "The zubat's not listening," Solonn pointed out.

    "Well, maybe this'll get that thing to listen." Zilag made a snowball and chucked it into the air, but missed the zubat entirely. His second shot missed, too. "Come on, hold still!" he urged his target, throwing a third snowball. That one very nearly didn't miss, whizzing past the zubat's face just a hair's breadth away.

    The zubat shrieked, then turned on Zilag. Chittering angrily, she fired a spiraling, sparkling confuse ray at him. It struck him before he could do anything to avoid it and instantly and severely disoriented him, leaving him staggering around and screaming intermittently in a spontaneous panic.

    "What did you do to him?" Solonn demanded of the zubat, both scared and angry. The bat responded with a wing attack, forcing Solonn to duck in a hurry to avoid her as she dove at him, her wings glowing.

    As the zubat arced back up toward the ceiling, Solonn got back up onto his feet, gathered a number of snowballs as fast as he could, and began throwing them at the zubat, but to no avail. The zubat soon wheeled around for another wing attack; he only barely ducked out of the way in time.

    At this point, Solonn decided to give up on the snowballs. He began to gather ice-type energy… then lost hold of it as Zilag, who was still confused, came stumbling right into him and nearly knocked him over.

    "Hey!" Solonn shouted as he got himself out of the way of his brain-addled friend. He tapped into the power of his element once again, and this time he managed to summon a powder snow attack. It scattered snowflakes all about as it whistled toward the zubat on a small gust—but before it could connect, a similar but much stronger attack—a blizzard—came howling in and blew the powder snow completely off course.

    The blizzard was the work of Azvida, who had apparently just arrived and was clearly quite displeased. "Solonn Ahshi Zgil-Al!" she shouted. "You stop picking on that poor zubat right this instant; she's obviously lost here and needs help, not harassment!"

    Azvida's shouting brought Zilag back to his senses. "Ahshi?" He exploded into giggles. Both Azvida and Solonn glared potently at him—he shut up at once.

    "But Mom, she did something to Zilag! She made him freak out—I couldn't just let her get away with it!" Solonn said. "And what do you care what anybody does to her, anyway? She's just meat to you!"

    Azvida's eyes widened greatly, and their light intensified. "How dare you say such a thing," she hissed, appalled. "I would never think of such a creature as 'just meat'. They give us life; they're to be honored and respected!"

    To the zubat, Azvida said, "You'll certainly die from the cold if you stay here much longer. If you'll follow me, I'll lead you back up where you belong."

    The zubat made no response, no sound at all other than the faint flapping of her wings as she hovered warily in place.

    "It's all right," Azvida said, trying to sound as pleasant and soothing as possible. "I won't even touch you."

    The zubat hesitated at first, then flapped a short distance forward. She hesitated again, for longer this time. Finally, though still obviously very uncertain about the whole thing, she descended and began to follow Azvida out of the cavern, albeit at a healthy distance.

    "Please stay put until I return," Azvida instructed her son as she left. "Please." She and the zubat then vanished into the tunnels of the warren.

    As Solonn watched them leave, he was no longer sure which was stranger: other species or his own.
    Last edited:


    *aromatisse noise*
  • 169
    It's a bit early to post the next chapter, I know. But I figured I may as well go ahead, seeing as I have a very special announcement to make:

    Communication is now 100% complete.

    After all these years of working on it, I am beyond happy and relieved to be done at last. :')

    Now that we know this thread's gonna have a proper end when all is said and done, let's get on with the next step toward it, shall we? :3


    Chapter 2 – Carried Away

    The sound of footsteps echoed through the tunnel as Solonn walked along the route that led to the snowgrounds, and he walked alone. At the age of nineteen, he was old enough to go there unaccompanied and had been for several years.

    Solonn usually didn't run into anyone when traveling to the snowgrounds, and this was shaping up to be yet another uneventful trip. He heard no steps other than his own, and the level of the blue eyelight shining on the ice-covered surfaces that surrounded him stayed constant and low. There was nothing to indicate anyone of any other kind around, either.

    Without much farther to go to reach his destination, Solonn took to wondering who might already be there. He also wondered if today's activities would include sparring—he rather hoped they wouldn't. He'd battled on not only the previous day but the day before that; he wanted something different for today's trip to the snowgrounds.

    Then, abruptly, he ceased to care about the other snorunt's plans—or anything else, for that matter. The light in the tunnel cut out altogether, and the footsteps stopped and gave way to the sound of their now insensible maker falling to the floor.

    * * *​

    The next sight to greet Solonn's eyes quickly confused him. The space surrounding him was significantly wider now but also far less empty—a crowd of glalie now surrounded him. No sooner had he awoken than a great rush of murmurs rose up around him.

    "Oh, thank the gods, he's awake!" said a voice that he recognized as Azvida's, which just managed to rise above the din. "It's all right now, Solonn," she told him, responding to the growing bewilderment in his eyes. "You're home again."

    "Huh?" Solonn sat up, trying to finish coming to his senses quickly. "What's going on?" he asked.

    "We found you here this morning. You were unconscious for a while; you've only just awoken," answered an elderly male glalie whom Solonn didn't know. At the sound of his voice, the crowd ceased its murmuring.

    "Solonn, this is Sile Van-Kil," Azvida said, introducing the glalie who had just spoken. "He's with the Security Guild. Don't worry, you're not in any trouble with them," she added quickly, seeing the worried look that flitted across her son's face. "He just wants to ask you some questions."

    "That's right," Sile said. "First, we'd like to know if you left the warren of your own accord, or if you were taken involuntarily."

    Solonn's eyes widened. "…What? I didn't leave the warren," he said, growing even more confused. He hadn't set foot outside of Virc-Dho's borders even once since that day roughly twelve years prior when he'd encountered Sophine and her mother—or, at least, he couldn't recall having gone out there since then… What in the world is going on here?

    "You did leave, Mr. Zgil-Al," Sile said, his tone considerably sterner than before. "You were gone for nearly fifteen days."

    Solonn's confusion shifted toward fear. Part of his life was missing from his mind, and it wasn't exactly a small part… "I… I don't remember going out there, though, sir," he insisted. "Last thing I remember, I was on my way to the snowgrounds…"

    "You're certain you have no memory of where you went or whom or what you might have encountered?" Sile asked.

    "Yes, sir… I'm certain," Solonn answered shakily. "It's… it's like nothing happened at all."

    "Well, I'm afraid something did happen," Sile said, his tone softening with what sounded like pity. "As for what… well, we can't be certain, but one possibility is that your missing time is the result of a deliberate act of memory erasure. That, in turn, could be evidence of abduction by unknown psychic pokémon." At these words, murmurs arose in a fresh wave among the attendants.

    "But why? What would any such creatures want with him?" Azvida asked.

    "Your guess is as good as mine," Sile replied. "Needless to say, this means we'll all have to live with increased vigilance. We must keep our eyes open for anything strange. Mr. Zgil-Al is safely among us again, but the next victim may not be so fortunate…"

    "Well, whoever and whatever it was that took him, they'd better not show themselves around me. Not if they want to avoid pain, anyway," Azvida said with a flash of her eyes. She smiled weakly at Solonn. "I'm just so glad you got back safely. You had me worried half to death!"

    Solonn might have been glad to be back, too. The only obstacle was that lingering hole in his memory. Guess it's my turn to be worried half to death, he thought dismally as the crowd dissipated and he and his mother headed for home.

    * * *​

    Weeks passed before Azvida felt certain enough of her son's safety to let him set foot outside their residence again. Once she had, however, Solonn quickly came to wish she hadn't. It seemed there wasn't a single person Solonn could run into who didn't try to ask him a battery of questions about his disappearance. He had no answers for them regarding that topic, and at first he was able to explain that to them in a calm and patient manner. But it quickly became clear that they wouldn't accept that answer. They continued to hound him about the matter, and it wasn't long before he lost patience for their persistent interrogations.

    As a result, he took to spending as much time alone as he could. He visited the snowgrounds only when he was absolutely sure no one else was there (he'd long ago learned how to detect snorunt trying to hide in the snow) and thus not very often. For a time, at least, he was able to successfully avoid others and their questions both in the snowgrounds and everywhere else.

    Ultimately, it wasn't a snorunt or a glalie who broke his solitude. It was a zubat, one who came fluttering unexpectedly into the snowgrounds one day. It wasn't the same one Solonn had seen all those years ago, however; this one was noticeably smaller. He did have something in common with the previous zubat, though: he looked lost—very lost, in fact, and very anxious about it.

    Solonn watched as the zubat flapped about in frantic figure-eights overhead. The flying creature didn't seem to notice him at all and talked continuously to himself about how scared he was, how he didn't know where he was, and how he didn't know what to do—Solonn half expected the poor thing to pass out and fall to the snow below from not pausing to take a breath.

    When Solonn thought he could get a word in edgewise between the zubat's chitterings, "Hey!" he called up to him. "Do you need help?"

    The zubat gave a startled squeak. The next second, he plummeted from the air without any warning, diving right into the snorunt's face—Solonn braced himself for a wing attack or something equally unpleasant, but the zubat thankfully didn't attack him. Instead he merely asked, in a very high-strung voice, "Where am I?"

    Solonn winced at the volume and pitch of the zubat's voice. "You're where you don't belong," he then answered, which immediately earned a shriek of terror from the zubat. "Relax! It's all right. I can take you to someone who knows the way out of here."


    "Yes, really," Solonn said. "Now, come on; I don't want you to freeze."

    If the zubat had possessed eyes, they might have been sparkling. "Oh, thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you—"

    "Are you coming along or not?" Solonn interrupted. He turned and started walking away.

    "Oh yes, yes, right," the zubat said hastily, fluttering after Solonn in a hurry.

    As Solonn made his way through the warren, he tried to ignore the person following him. True, the last zubat he'd encountered had been rather hostile, but at least she'd also been relatively quiet. This zubat, on the other hand…

    "Wow! This place is so weird!" the zubat chittered, rattling on and on and on. "But it's still pretty cool, though! Super cool! …And super cold. Brrr! I don't like the cold. No, I sure don't like it. Of course, for that matter, I don't really like the sun, either… But that's okay, cause I still like you! And that's cause you're helping me get out of here! What a pal!" he squealed.

    Solonn cringed, his ears ringing. He reminded himself that he was doing the right thing by aiding this creature… or tried to remind himself of that, but the zubat's voice seemed to be trying its hardest to destroy his mind. Every word was like a little stone splinter in his brain.

    The zubat got right in his face—again. "Name's Zyrzir, by the way," the zubat said.

    Solonn knew that already. Zyrzir had already introduced himself six times since leaving the snowgrounds.

    "So, what's your name? Huh? Huh? Huh?" Zyrzir asked as he resumed following behind the snorunt.

    "Mr. Ice Beam," Solonn said, utterly deadpan.

    "Hey… that's not what you said last time!" Zyrzir said with a frown. "Last time, you said your name was Mr. Bitey! The time before that, you said your name was Mr. Snowball! And all the times before that, you didn't say anything at all, as if you didn't have a name, and that was your answer! Why won't you just please cooperate and tell me what your real name is, huh?" Zyrzir whined.

    Because you're annoying me to death, and I'm trying to ignore you so my brain doesn't explode! Solonn thought.

    But then Zyrzir laid down his ultimatum. "I won't stop asking until you tell me the truth."

    The snorunt produced a sound halfway between a groan and a sigh. "Fine. My name is Solonn. Satisfied?"

    "Oh yes, yes, yes! Thanks a thousand, Mr. Satisfied!" Zyrzir squeaked joyfully, at which Solonn made a face. "Oh, by the way, are we almost where we're supposed to be going? Are we? Are we? Are we?" the zubat then asked.

    "Yes, luckily for you." And even more luckily for me, Solonn added silently. Sure enough, they soon reached the Zgil-Al residence, where they were greeted almost immediately by Azvida.

    "Oh good," she said. "I was hoping you'd get back soon. Zilag was here looking for you. He just left not too long ago. I told him he could come back here after a little while."

    Solonn started to turn to leave at once.

    "No, you don't," Azvida said. She shifted the ice on the walls to form a barrier in front of Solonn. "Now, I don't know what's going on between you two, but I think it's time you sorted it out. And you're not leaving until you do just that."

    Solonn grudgingly started toward his room, but was obstructed once again, this time by his mother's face.

    "And might I ask why you've brought a zubat here?" she asked.

    "He needs out," Solonn said.

    "Fine, then. I'll deal with that, and you'll stay here and wait for Zilag," Azvida said. "And I mean it, stay here. I'll know if you don't." With that, she left, leading Zyrzir away with her.

    And just how would you know? Solonn wondered, but he decided not to chance it. He went to his room, and for several minutes he just sat there with nothing to do but dread Zilag's visit. He wished he could devise a way to distract himself from that inevitability, but when he tried to think of one, he couldn't come up with anything at all.

    The reason was that Zyrzir's voice was still infesting his brain for some reason. It was leaving no room whatsoever for any other thought processes to take place. Solonn tried to displace those memories, but it remained firmly stuck in his head, the words repeating again and again at a maddening pace. It was genuinely giving him a headache at this point.

    He groaned. "Why couldn't he just shut up?" he wondered aloud. "Gods, it was nonstop: 'Are we there yet? Brrr, it's cold! You're my friend!'"

    Solonn abruptly shut his mouth in surprise. That impression of Zyrzir's voice had been eerily close to the real thing… Feeling a giddy little spark of wonder, he tried it out again. "Hi, I'm Zyrzir! And I'm… so… annoying!"

    Dead on! he congratulated himself silently, bursting into laughter. It was then that the iron grip of the Zyrzir-voice on his brain finally relented, the headache subsiding all at once. In their wake, an idea occurred to him: maybe now he could give people something to talk about that they just might find more interesting than his recent abduction…

    Grinning in anticipation, Solonn put on the Zyrzir-voice once more. "Wait'll Zilag hears this!"

    * * *​

    In time, Azvida returned, checking at once to see if her son was still home. Shortly thereafter, Zilag arrived. Azvida showed him to Solonn's room right away, then left the two snorunt alone.

    "Uh…" Zilag started somewhat warily as he stood several paces behind Solonn, who had his back turned toward him.

    Solonn turned slightly to acknowledge Zilag, wearing an unreadable expression.

    "Yeah, hi," Zilag said awkwardly, sounding a bit troubled. "I just… you know, wanted to make sure that you're okay."

    "Why wouldn't I be?" Solonn asked nonchalantly.

    "Well… since that thing that happened—"

    "I really don't want to talk about that," Solonn interrupted flatly. "I can't anyway—I said I don't remember anything about that, and that's the truth."

    "I know! I believe you!" Zilag said.

    "And what about the others?" Solonn asked. "Have they finally got it through their heads yet?"

    "I told them to quit bugging you about that. I figured out that was why you've been avoiding everybody."

    "And you're sure they'll really listen to you?" Solonn asked, wearing a skeptical look on his face.

    "Well, even if they won't listen to me, I bet they'd listen to you. You're taller than any of us," Zilag pointed out.

    "Not by that much," Solonn said, rolling his eyes. "And I am not going to start pushing people around just because I'm bigger than them," he said, sounding slightly offended.

    "That's not exactly what I meant… " Zilag said—although it was almost what he meant. "Look, I just want you to be able to go out without having to worry about being harassed," he said earnestly, "and I promise I'll do whatever I can to keep people off your back about—well, you know what."

    Solonn turned around completely to face Zilag. Smiling, he said, "Thanks. I appreciate that."

    "No problem," Zilag said coolly. "So, uh… feel like hitting the snowgrounds and letting everybody know you're still alive?"

    "Well…" Solonn began. Then, he smiled craftily. Time to bring out the secret weapon… "Sure, why not?" he said perkily in his impression of Zyrzir's voice.

    Zilag stood completely still and silent for a moment as if petrified, his mouth slightly agape as he stared like an idiot. "…What was that?" he finally asked.

    "That," Solonn said slyly, "was the voice of a zubat."

    Zilag continued staring stupidly for a moment. Then he broke into disproportionately loud giggles, which brought Azvida rushing into the room.

    "What's going on in here?" she asked, sounding fairly bewildered.

    "I'm sorry," Zilag said, gasping a bit. He gestured toward Solonn. "It's just him; he's doing something funny. Do that zubat voice again!" he then requested of Solonn.

    "Zubat voice?" Azvida asked with a puzzled look at her son.

    Solonn hesitated, not sure how his mother would react to his impression; perhaps this sort of thing fell under the category of disrespecting the "sacred prey". In the end, he reckoned she probably wouldn't take it too seriously—it was just a silly little impression, after all.

    Proceeding with his performance, "Hi, I'm Zyrzir! My voice causes brain damage!" he chittered cheerfully.

    Azvida's eyes widened. Then she laughed, albeit in a much more subdued way than Zilag had. "Oh gods," she said once it had subsided, "that sounds exactly like him. I'd thought I'd never hear that horrid voice again!"

    "Isn't it just awful?" Solonn said, keeping the zubat voice.

    "Oh yes," Azvida agreed, chuckling a bit more as she turned to exit the room.

    "You have got to go and do that at the snowgrounds," Zilag said once she'd left. "I bet everyone'll be there if we go now."

    "Okay, then," Solonn said in his own voice, smiling. "Let's go."

    The two of them passed by Azvida as they headed out. "Guess you're going to go show off to everyone you can, aren't you?" Azvida teased Solonn.

    "Guess so," Solonn admitted as he and Zilag left the Zgil-Al residence.

    Azvida was glad to see that Solonn was up for social interaction again, especially given the way that he'd found to go about it. She chuckled to herself again in amusement and pride as she thought about Solonn's zubat impression again. She not only thought it was funny—Zyrzir's was the single most ridiculous voice and manner of speaking she'd ever heard, after all—she also thought that it was uncannily, even disturbingly accurate.

    How does he do that? she wondered. Solonn's zubat impression was so accurate that it was as if he wasn't just using the zubat's voice, but also—

    Azvida stopped laughing, quite astounded, as she realized that no, her son wasn't merely using the voice of a zubat. He was using their language, as well.

    * * *​

    Once Solonn and Zilag arrived at the snowgrounds, Solonn produced the zubat impression yet again. It went over fairly well with the crowd of snorunt who were gathered there.

    "That was so cool!" Reizirr said.

    "Yeah," Davron agreed. "Hey, let's see if I can do it." Davron's attempt at a zubat impression didn't sound like anyone or anything other than Davron, however. "Aw, crap…"

    "Just keep trying," Solonn said, and using the zubat voice in demonstration, added, "Like this, see?"

    "Wow, that's so impressive," said a sarcastic voice, one not belonging to a snorunt. Everyone in attendance turned toward its source. There, at the entrance to the snowgrounds, lingered a smirking glalie.

    "Kashisha, go away!" Zilag hissed. Kashisha was his older sister—though he wished she weren't.

    Ignoring her brother entirely, Kashisha advanced into the room, shoving aside any snorunt unfortunate enough to be in her path. "Seriously, I thought there was an actual zubat in here," she went on, "but it turns out to be just a bunch of snow-twerps. Shame, really. I was looking forward to biting its wings off."

    She stopped in front of Solonn. "You're the one responsible for that little trick?" she asked.

    Solonn remained utterly still and silent, wary of interacting with Kashisha in any way.

    "Better answer her," Zilag said. "She's evil incarnate."

    "Why, thank you for the compliment, dear brother," Kashisha said in a sugary tone, abruptly getting in Zilag's face; with a tiny squeak of fright, he dove into hiding under the snow. Then she got in Solonn's face. "Well?"

    "Yes," Solonn confirmed in a small voice.

    "Oh, I'm sorry, what was that? I didn't hear you…" Kashisha said melodiously.

    "I said yes! It was me!" Solonn shouted.

    Kashisha backed off slightly—very slightly. "Well, then. I guess that makes you pretty cool—for a stupid kid, anyway," she said.

    Stupid kid? Solonn thought indignantly. You're barely any older than I am! Which was true; Kashisha was only twenty-one months his senior, and just a year older than her brother. But she, like all her friends, had chosen to evolve early (six years ago, in her case). And like them, she treated those who waited until a respectable age to evolve like dirt.

    "I have a request for you, zubat-boy," Kashisha said then. "Let's hear… a spheal. Can you do that? Or is that too hard for the little baby?"

    The distinct feeling that Solonn got from Kashisha was that he'd better deliver. He tried hard to remember the way that Sophine had sounded. All of a sudden, the memory of that voice flooded his mind in just the same way that the memory of Zyrzir's voice had done right before he'd replicated it for the first time, though without the pain.

    "Is this what you mean?" Solonn asked, using Sophine's voice. This earned some impressed noises from the crowd and an approving nod of sorts from the glalie hovering before him.

    "Bravo," Kashisha said, grinning wickedly. "Say… why don't you come with me and entertain some of my friends?"

    "I don't know…" Solonn wanted to back away from her, but he felt rooted to the spot.

    "Oh, I think you'd better—unless you'd rather I snap you in half…"

    "Okay, fine, I'll go!"

    "Good! And while we're at it…" Kashisha plunged her face into the snow, pulled Zilag out of hiding, and dropped her protesting brother at Solonn's feet. "He'll be coming along with us, too. He is your best friend, after all, right? Surely he wouldn't want to miss your big debut in front of a real audience?"

    "No, ma'am, I wouldn't," Zilag said weakly in defeat.

    "Off we go, then!" Kashisha said merrily. She circled around Solonn and Zilag and began shoving them along before her. The two snorunt got moving in a hurry as Kashisha herded them out of the snowgrounds.

    "What should we do?" Reizirr asked once Kashisha and her victims had left.

    "Start composing their eulogies," Davron answered grimly.

    * * *​

    Solonn and Zilag scrambled to stay on their feet and ahead of Kashisha's periodically snapping jaws. She'd driven them into a part of the warren that Solonn had never seen before. With one last shove, she brought the journey of the two snorunt to an end, forcing them into a wide, low-ceilinged room.

    Solonn saw at once that he, Zilag, and the glalie who'd brought them here weren't the only ones present. The room was also occupied by nine other glalie who were sitting in a row and glaring at the two snorunt like some sort of sinister council.

    "I see you brought your pathetic little brother again," the male in the center of the row said. "I'm getting bored of tormenting him, though… but who's this other brat?"

    "This is Solonn," Kashisha told him. "He's our new court jester," she added with a grin. She nudged Solonn toward the glalie in the center of the row. "That, Solonn, is Sanaika, the Master of Ceremonies. And I do mean 'master'. Bow before him!"

    "Yes, bow!" Sanaika snapped.

    Solonn lowered his head slightly. Sanaika responded by spitting a chunk of ice that struck him in the forehead, eliciting a shout of pain from the snorunt.

    "The Master approves! You are now initiated into the Fellowship of Slaves!" Kashisha said gleefully. "Now! Perform for your master!"

    With a small sigh, Solonn ran through his impression of Zyrzir's voice, followed by that of Sophine's voice. Then, after rummaging briefly through his memories, he produced a third impression: the voice of Sophine's mother.

    "What an entertaining little weenie you are!" Sanaika remarked once Solonn had finished.

    "I knew you'd like him!" Kashisha exclaimed proudly. "That sealeo voice trick at the end was a nice touch, by the way," she told Solonn.

    "Yeah, but I can think of one impression that I guarantee you he doesn't know," Sanaika said. The glalie at either side of him gazed expectantly at him with looks of toadying curiosity. "Human."

    "Oh, that's brilliant!" Kashisha crowed, her eyes flashing diabolically. The other glalie echoed her enthusiastic approval.

    "…Wait, did you say 'human'?" Solonn asked. He was sure he couldn't have heard that right…

    "Yes, you little turd, human," Sanaika spat disdainfully. "You know, those weird, stupid-looking things with the long limbs and tiny little heads who sound completely ridiculous when they talk…"

    "And taste like crap," the glalie to Sanaika's left offered.

    "You wouldn't know," Sanaika scoffed at him. "But yes, they do taste like crap."

    "Humans don't exist," Solonn dared to say. "They're just a myth…"

    All of the glalie stared incredulously at Solonn. Zilag quickly looked away from him, fearful that something hideous was about to befall his friend.

    "Oh, they do exist," Sanaika said in a low, rather ominous voice. "In fact, you're going to find out for yourself just how real they are, and you might find yourself very, very grateful that they are, too."

    Sanaika brought himself to hover right in front of Solonn, just inches away from his face. "I am giving you a quest and an offer. You'll go up to where the humans are. You'll meet one, see them with your own eyes, and hopefully get to hear the idiotic sound of their voice. And if you can return to us with a perfectly realistic impression of that voice, then I promise you'll never have to come here again if you don't want to."

    "What do you say, little baby? You want to go human-hunting?" Kashisha asked playfully.

    "Oh, it's not his choice," Sanaika told her. "Now, you and the others can stay here and babysit your little brother while I deliver this twerp to his date with a human."

    "Aw, we wanted to come and watch!" Kashisha said. The other glalie griped, as well, and one of them even snapped at Sanaika in her outrage. Sanaika turned toward the offender. His eyes suddenly turned a blazing white, and a resounding crack split the air. His would-be attacker's eyes rolled back, and she dropped heavily to the floor.

    Solonn shuddered. That had been a nhaza, a glalie's primary predatory weapon. It can't kill us, he reminded himself. Azvida had told him as much. The worst it could do to any of their own kind was to knock them out. Sure enough, the stricken glalie quivered very slightly where she lay—still breathing.

    He shuddered again all the same.

    "You brain wrecks!" Sanaika said. "We can't all gather at the exit like that! Do you not realize how conspicuous we'd be? What if we were spotted by some ball-chucking human, huh? Or worse, by the authorities? Now, all of you, stay put, or else you'll all find icicles where you'd rather not."

    With that, Sanaika seized Solonn rather harshly in his jaws and set off into the warren with him. He carried the snorunt through a series of tunnels that led, much to Solonn's surprise, up to the very same cavern where Solonn had met Sophine and her mother all those years ago. Then Sanaika left the cavern, sealing the exit behind him with a wall of ice.

    Solonn knew there was no way for him to get through that ice wall. Barriers like that one were commonplace in the warren, existing to control where snorunt could and couldn't go. The ice they were made of was too thick for even teeth like his to break through. It was reinforced with the raw power of the ice element and could only be removed by the kind of control over ice that no snorunt possessed.

    He knew the tunnel that led up into this place from the snowgrounds had been blocked off in the same way not long after Kashisha had told on Zilag for encouraging others to travel through it. Zilag had told him as much years ago. So it seemed there was no option for Solonn other than to sit and wait for some glalie—and hopefully a decent one rather than someone like Sanaika—to discover he was here. He figured he couldn't rightly get into trouble like last time once he'd had a chance to tell how, and because of whom, he'd ended up here—or, at least, he hoped he couldn't…

    Solonn fidgeted where he sat, hoping he wouldn't have to wait much longer to be discovered, regardless of any punishment that might or might not be awaiting him. He was getting nervous about being here, and when he realized that it was because of those humans that Sanaika had spoken of, he couldn't help but give a little laugh.

    Gods, that's not what you're afraid of, is it? Solonn thought incredulously. Don't be stupid, he scolded himself silently. You know there's no such thing as humans!

    "Well, well, well. I just knew that if we kept coming back here, we were sure to find one sooner or later."

    Startled, Solonn jumped to his feet at the unexpected, somewhat gruff-sounding voice. He turned toward its source. Standing only a couple of feet away was a manectric, but Solonn had no way of recognizing that. The electric-type had managed to sneak right up behind Solonn, completely unnoticed until he'd spoken.

    "Who… who are you?" Solonn asked nervously.

    "Oh, there'll be plenty of time for introductions once we're back in Lilycove, buddy," the manectric said. He then unleashed a chilling, wavering howl, which was magnified and echoed by the cavern.

    As the howl faded, another sound arose. Solonn recognized it as the sound of snow crunching underfoot, but these footfalls sounded much heavier than those of any snorunt. The footsteps were approaching swiftly, and soon their owner came into view.

    For a very long moment, Solonn's mind went blank at the sight of the newcomer. They do exist, he finally managed, his eyes wide with wonder. Some tiny part of him still insisted it was impossible, but the creature that now stood a short distance before him fit Sanaika's description of a human well enough to make him believe otherwise.

    "Ah, Brett, you found one! Good job!" the human said brightly. Her voice surprised Solonn; he didn't think it fit Sanaika's descriptions of how humans sounded at all.

    The human detached a pokéball from its resting place at her hip. It expanded in her hand, more than tripling in size. "Come out, Aaron!" she said.

    The sphere burst open at its equator. Energy exploded from within it in a surge of white light, and then, much to Solonn's astonishment, it coagulated into a living creature. Another unfamiliar creature—a sceptile—now stood at the human's side.

    "Don't be afraid, snorunt," the human said gently. "We don't really want to hurt you. We're going to make this as easy on you as possible. You won't even feel a thing."

    She looked toward Brett and then toward Aaron. "Thunder wave and false swipe, please," she instructed them respectively. The two pokémon gave quick nods of acknowledgment, then began moving toward Solonn. Brett's fur crackled with dancing sparks of electricity, while one of the bladelike structures at Aaron's left wrist took on a white glow.

    Solonn could only stand and stare at first, transfixed by fascination and lingering disbelief at the human and the two pokémon who accompanied her. Then he screamed and tried to make a run for it.

    Brett released a small pulse of electric-type energy, which caught the fleeing snorunt with ease. Solonn cried out at the initial pain as the attack struck him, but a second later, that pain was gone—along with all other sensation throughout his body. His legs gave out from under him in the next instant, and he toppled over onto his side.

    Aaron was now standing over him, peering down through dull yellow eyes as he raised his glowing wrist blade. But Solonn couldn't see this. His view of Aaron was limited to the sceptile's tail and clawed feet. He didn't see the careful, precise strike that left him on the sheer edge of consciousness, and just as the human had promised, he didn't feel it either.

    "All right, that ought to do it," the human said. From a pouch strapped to her shoulder, she produced another capture ball, a great ball this time.

    Barely able to stay conscious, Solonn didn't quite register the human's next action: she threw the ball at him. It opened in midair before him and released a red beam that struck him and filled his fading vision with crimson light.

    One second, Solonn was lying paralyzed and nearly unconscious on the cavern's floor. The next… he was nowhere.
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    Chapter 3 – The Deal

    Solonn felt a number of things when he was released from the capture ball. First came sheer relief, both at no longer being drained and paralyzed (he distantly wondered how he had recovered so completely and suddenly) and, to a greater degree, at just being out of that ball—its particular style of confinement was just too surreal. He'd been conscious all the while that he'd been inside, but didn't seem to actually exist. It was as though the great ball had reduced him to nothing more than a mind without a body, impossible though such a thing should be. Trying to make sense of it earned him nothing more than a headache, so Solonn pushed that particular matter aside for the time being.

    With the mysteries of the capture ball no longer first and foremost on his mind, Solonn's focus shifted to the human who stood nearby. Since his captor was no longer wearing the heavy clothing that had protected her from the cold of Shoal Cave, she looked somewhat smaller now, and with her head no longer covered by a hood, he could now see her brown, shoulder-length hair.

    The next thing Solonn noticed about his present situation was that the environment he had been brought into was too warm for his liking. "Er… excuse me," he said as he looked up at the human. "It's a little too warm in here… could you do anything about that?"

    The human merely stared at him in response.

    Solonn repeated his request. This time, the human cocked her head a bit and smiled at him, but she still didn't answer, nor did she make any move to change the temperature.

    It was then that Solonn realized the human wasn't understanding a single word he was saying. This didn't make sense; whenever Solonn had encountered a member of another species before, they'd been able to understand him just like his own people could. Why, he wondered, was the human any different?

    Solonn wondered if she might understand him if he were to speak to her with a human voice. As he considered it, memories of her voice filled his mind, and he was sure he could pull off an imitation of it.

    With that confidence, he was about to give it a try—but then stopped himself. Doing these "impressions" was what had gotten him swept up into this situation to begin with. It was because he'd revealed that talent that he'd gotten mixed up with Sanaika's gang, and now—it hit him all at once—he would likely never see home again.

    Solonn started trembling in a sudden panic, and the human reacted right away. "Oh, poor little guy," she said, looking upon him with pity as she knelt down in front of him. "It's okay; you have nothing to be scared of."

    She opened her arms to Solonn, which only confused him. She then wrapped her arms around him and tried to lift him up, but he was heavier than she'd expected. Solonn, meanwhile, didn't like what she was doing. For a moment, his instincts took over, and he tried to wriggle free of her grasp. He just barely managed to stop himself short of biting her.

    Finally, recognizing both the futility of her efforts and Solonn's aversion to what she was trying to do, the human gave up and let go of him. Shaking the cold from her arms, she stood and fetched a pillow from the bed. She placed it on the floor for Solonn to sit on, hoping it'd make him more comfortable. The snorunt ignored it completely, giving her a penetrating stare.

    The human sighed. "Okay. I'll tell you what: I'll go get you something nice, something I promise you'll like. In the meantime, I'll give you a chance to get acquainted with a couple of your new friends. You've already met Aaron and Brett, but I have three other pokémon friends. I'm afraid you'll have to wait to meet Sei until she gets out of the pokémon center; she's been pretty sick. But you can go ahead and introduce yourself to these two."

    She removed two capture balls from her belt and released their occupants in twin surges of white light. A skarmory materialized at her right, while a claydol appeared at her left. There was something strangely disconcerting on a very primal level about the former, but Solonn couldn't quite place what it was.

    "This is Raze," the human said as she pointed at the skarmory, "and this is Ominous." She pointed at the claydol. "Oh… I forgot to introduce myself, didn't I?" she realized aloud with a giggle. "My name is Morgan Yorke. Anyway, these pokémon are some of my best friends, and I just know that ultimately you and I are going to be really good friends, too. See you in a few minutes!" she said, then left the room.

    For a moment, the other two pokémon just stared at Solonn, and he could only stare back. He soon began to wish they'd stop it, particularly with regards to Ominous—it was more than a little unnerving to have that many eyes staring at him from the same face.

    All those eyes left no room on Ominous's face for a mouth, which made it quite the surprise when the claydol spoke to him—although it didn't sound as though Ominous was actually saying anything. Their voice consisted of a rapid-fire series of low-pitched, hollow-sounding noises. Solonn got an immediate sense that he could never replicate that voice, no matter how hard he tried.

    "With your brain, nitwit!" Raze squawked, interrupting the claydol.

    Ominous winced, closing all of their eyes in unison. <I apologize,> they said. <I should not still be forgetting about that…>

    A second after Ominous had spoken, Solonn realized, astounded, that he hadn't exactly heard what they'd said. While their actual voice had rattled on incomprehensibly in his ears, the claydol's words had sounded within his mind, almost as if they were his own thoughts. Solonn wasn't quite sure what to make of this phenomenon.

    <As I was attempting to say,> Ominous went on, <the name by which Morgan called me is not my actual name. My true name is Oth.>

    "My name really is Raze, though," the skarmory said, sounding less than happy about it. "I was born in this house, and that's when Morgan gave me that name. I don't think it's such a great name, but…" She ruffled her magenta-feathered wings in the skarmory equivalent of a shrug. "So, what'd she name you?" Raze asked then.

    "Er… I don't know," Solonn admitted. "My real name is Solonn, though."

    <She must not have given him his new name yet, then,> Oth supposed.

    "Maybe she isn't going to give me another name," Solonn said.

    "Oh, she'll give you one," Raze said. "Maybe you'll like it, and maybe you won't. But you'll be grateful for it, and also grateful that you got landed with Morgan and not some other coordinator, because with some coordinators, you would just get called 'Snorunt'."

    "…Coordinators?" Solonn had never heard of such a thing.

    Raze cocked her head at Solonn. "You have a lot to learn," she said.

    "Then you have a lot to explain," Solonn countered. "What's a coordinator?"

    "Well, a coordinator is your human coach and partner for the contests," Raze explained. "And before you ask: in a contest, you just basically have to show off your powers. Use them in ways that impress humans. In your case, that means you can't just blow a couple of snowflakes at them and expect to win."

    Somehow the idea of "showing off" for the humans was less than appealing—in fact, it rather reminded Solonn of being ushered off by Kashisha to show off for her friends. "Wait, why would I want to do this, anyway?" he asked. "What's in it for me?"

    Raze's yellow eyes suddenly widened with glee. "I'll show you!" she said eagerly, then speedily crossed the room. "Come here!" she beckoned, standing before a bookcase that was just a bit shorter than she was. After a moment of skeptical hesitation, Solonn complied. "Have a look at these!" Raze said once the snorunt had joined her, inclining her head toward something sitting on the top shelf.

    "I can't see up there," Solonn told her.

    "Oh… oops," Raze said with a small, embarrassed laugh. Somewhat awkwardly, she used her beak to pick up the thing she was trying to show to Solonn, then set it down on the floor between herself and the snorunt.

    Solonn peered at the thing she'd placed before him. It was a large, flat, plastic case. Through its transparent lid, he could see a collection of twelve small trinkets: colored ribbons, each adorned with a little metal medallion. The case also contained slots for eight more of these ribbons.

    "The red ones are mine," Raze said, positively radiating pride, "the yellow ones are Oth's, and the green ones are Sei's. Now, yours, if I'm not mistaken, are gonna be blue."

    "Hm." You sure are assuming a lot, Raze… It was going to take more than just a bunch of ribbons to convince Solonn that these "contests" were anything he wanted to be involved with. "So," he spoke up after a long moment's silence, looking up from the ribbon case and right into Raze's eyes, "this is what Morgan keeps us for?"

    "Well, yeah, pretty much," Raze answered. She put the ribbon case back up on top of the bookcase, taking one last moment to admire her ribbons before turning her attention fully to the snorunt once more.

    "So… suppose I didn't want to be a part of these contests… would she take me back home, then?" Solonn asked.

    There was a prolonged silence. Raze and Oth exchanged awkward glances.

    "Well?" Solonn pressed.

    <Solonn…> Oth began hesitantly. <Morgan had been seeking a snorunt to train for entry into contests for quite some time. She has spent many hours composing routines and strategies for you… I do not imagine that she would want her plans to go to waste.>

    "Well, maybe she can just go find some other snorunt for the job," Solonn suggested. "Someone who actually wants it."

    <I do not believe you would really want that,> Oth said. <You do not truly wish for another snorunt, possibly one of your friends, to be taken from his or her home just so that you can return to your own.>

    Solonn stared agape at Oth for a moment. The claydol was completely right; Solonn didn't even try in the slightest to contradict them.

    "This… this is your home now, Solonn," Raze said, knowing the consolation was futile even as she offered it. "You'll get used to it eventually; I know you will."

    "Yeah, of course you can say that," Solonn muttered, not really bothering to make himself inaudible. "You were born here."

    "I—" Raze began to counter, but she couldn't quite find the right words and thus abandoned her comeback with a sigh.

    The door opened, and Morgan returned. Another human female accompanied her this time, slightly taller and with shorter, darker hair.

    "There he is," Morgan said as the two entered, pointing at Solonn. "What do you think of him?"

    "Oh, he's adorable," the other human remarked. She stooped slightly to bring herself closer to the snorunt's eye level. "Hi," she said amiably. "Let me introduce myself. I'm Eliza, Morgan's mother." She extended her arms to Solonn with an expecting gaze.

    "He doesn't do hugs," Morgan informed her.

    "Oh… Well, that's all right," Eliza said, withdrawing her arms and straightening her posture. "What's his name?" she asked.

    "I've decided to call him Azrael," Morgan replied.

    Solonn gave her a funny look. That's really the best you could come up with?

    "Oh, that's lovely," Eliza commented.

    Morgan smiled in response. Then she held a small, polystyrene bowl out in front of Solonn.

    Distracted by the new human, Solonn hadn't even noticed that Morgan had been holding the bowl. He now stared at it with uncertainty, edging somewhat closer to it to get a look inside. It contained something that looked more or less like snow but was bright blue.

    "This is for you," Morgan told him. "Try it, it's really good."

    Solonn gazed into the bowl for another second or two, then turned a skeptical gaze toward Morgan.

    "Go on, it's tasty. I promise you'll like it," Morgan tried to assure him.

    Still wearing a doubtful expression, Solonn took the bowl from Morgan's hands. He hesitated for another long moment before unenthusiastically dipping his hand into the blue snow, scooping some of it up, and putting it in his mouth. The snow had a flavor he could've never imagined—he conceded at once that it was just as good as Morgan had promised, if not moreso.

    However… the knowledge that performing tricks for people's amusement like some kind of jester was apparently his sole purpose here, and that there seemed to be no way to return to the life that he'd previously known, was now attending heavily upon him, leaving a rather unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn't feel like eating. With a despondent sigh, he set the bowl down and turned away from Morgan.

    "Hey… are you feeling okay?" Morgan asked worriedly.

    Solonn didn't respond to her, neither then nor following her several subsequent attempts to get through to him. More than once, she tried to tempt him with that blue snow, but he continued to refuse it. He couldn't change this new life, but for a while, at least, he could try to ignore it and pretend it wasn't happening.

    * * *​

    The rest of the evening consisted of an awkward pattern of failed interactions between Solonn and his would-be coordinator. Morgan tried time and time again to converse and be friendly with him, but each time, she was met with resolute silence. After each unsuccessful attempt to socialize with him, she left him alone for an hour or so before giving it another go, only to fail to get through to him yet again.

    She did, at least, leave Solonn out of the great ball through the night, for which he was grateful. Perhaps, he considered, she'd thought this would offer her new pokémon some time to get more accustomed to his surroundings. Instead the snorunt viewed it as a potential opportunity to flee from the human's custody while she slept.

    Unfortunately, he found out very quickly that escape wasn't an option. The door was rendered an impassible barrier by a sliding lock, one that was installed at a height beyond Solonn's reach. If it weren't for the fact that Morgan's bookcase contained small, pewter pokémon statues and nothing else, he might have been able to stack up a few books as a means to reach it.

    The room's only window was within Solonn's reach, but it didn't offer an avenue of escape, either; Morgan's room was upstairs in a two-story house. Though by no means enjoying his present situation, Solonn didn't want to escape it by falling to likely injury and possible death.

    Having given up on finding a way to slip out, he just sat there on the windowsill, staring out through the window at the alien environment outside. This was not his world, not his place… but he couldn't deny that he found it fascinating, even kind of lovely, as he watched the light show put on by the cars below.

    Though tired in many ways, most of which weren't physical, Solonn found that he couldn't sleep. His eyes remained open and fixed on the city outside, watching as the rising sun brought a new day over the horizon.

    A couple of hours later, Morgan stirred nearby in her bed, waking up. Sighing, Solonn turned away from the window at last, wondering how the human would try to reach him today.

    He got his answer quite shortly. Morgan left the room for a few minutes, then returned with more of that blue snow and set it down in front of him. He accepted it this time and ate nearly all of it, but only because he was earnestly very hungry. The human smiled at him as she took away the empty bowl, then left to have her own breakfast.

    It was when she returned that she attempted to step up the level of interaction between herself and her new pokémon a little more.

    "I'll bet you're wondering why you're here, aren't you?" she said, trying to sound as kindly and non-threatening as possible. "Well, you don't have to worry. It's not going to be anywhere near as scary as you might think. In fact, I bet you'll have more fun than you've ever had before."

    Morgan proceeded to illustrate her intention to enter Solonn in contests, not really telling him anything that he hadn't already heard from Raze and Oth the evening before. He pretended not to pay any attention to her, though in reality he was absorbing her every word. It seemed that he simply couldn't tune out an alien voice.

    The day progressed, and Morgan continued to share her ideas, telling him about the routines he could employ in contests. As she spoke, he had to admit to himself that she didn't sound as though she truly had any malevolent intentions for him. She wasn't really coming across as a human version of Kashisha; as far as he could tell, she only had a friendly desire to invite him into her strange little hobby, not any intent to prey on him in any sense.

    Whether Morgan's intentions were benign or not, Solonn still wasn't too keen on the idea of making a spectacle of himself, having learned all too well how that could earn the wrong kind of attention. There was also still the matter of his captor's unwillingness to let Solonn leave if he wished, which made it hard for him to readily accept any sort of friendship or partnership with her. As such, when Morgan offered to begin Solonn's training, he refused her efforts to bring him into the role she'd chosen for him, in silent protest of his detainment.

    That night, Solonn sat in the moonlight once again, contemplating his situation as he perched upon the windowsill and gazed outside. Lilycove bore no resemblance to the world Solonn had known, which left him certain that he was very far from home—too far for him to make it back there by himself.

    His eyes fell upon the bed where the human was peacefully sleeping. Solonn wanted to go home again, but this creature wouldn't allow it.

    Wait, though… how do I really know she wouldn't? the thought occurred to him. Raze and Oth had implied that Morgan had no intentions of letting him go, but the human herself had never said anything along the lines of, "You're never leaving. You're mine forever." Morgan had never specifically mentioned anything at all regarding whether or not Solonn could ever leave. Moreover, she didn't even know that he wanted to.

    What if she did know? he wondered. But he could really only guess what her response would be, for the problem remained that she was, for whatever reason, unable to understand his speech. He could not communicate with her.

    …Although, maybe he could. After all, he still hadn't tried to see if Morgan could understand him if he were to speak like a human. He was still hesitant to attempt it, however. The memory of what the last use of his mimicry had earned for him was still fresh on his mind.

    But the fact remained that Solonn would probably never know how Morgan would respond to his wish to go home unless he shared it with her. As he thought about it, it began to seem like he was doing himself more of a disservice by not giving it a try than by taking the risk.

    Furthermore, he questioned if there really was that much of a risk involved where she was concerned. True, he'd gotten into trouble the last time he'd done impressions. But as he considered again, Morgan was no Kashisha, at least not as far as he could tell, so maybe it wouldn't be like last time. Perhaps Morgan would simply hear him out and give him what he wanted without making him sorry for reaching out to her.

    But then, Solonn found himself considering what Oth had told him: <I do not imagine that she would want her plans to go to waste.> Morgan truly seemed to have her heart set on entering contests with him, and he suspected that she wouldn't abandon those plans so readily. He could tell her he wanted to leave, but as long as she held these intentions for him, what chance was there, really, that she'd let him go?

    That's when the idea hit him: maybe, just maybe, a deal could be struck.

    Solonn carefully gauged the distance between the windowsill and the bed, then sprang from his perch. The mattress yielded to his weight with a bounce as he landed, yet Morgan slept on, snoring slightly. Solonn gazed at her from the foot of the bed. Her sleeping form glowed softly through the darkness with her warmth, giving her an almost spectrelike appearance.

    Solonn made his way toward the concentrated glow that surrounded the human's head as if it were a beacon. Morgan's face was half concealed by a few errant strands of her hair. Solonn moved them aside, revealing the serene face of his captor. It was interesting, he thought, how a creature whose practice was to abduct people from their homes could look so incredibly benign. The snorunt then reached toward her face again, slowly drawing his hand across her cheek this time.

    Morgan stirred, but only slightly. Solonn had assumed the contrasting cold of his hand against her warm skin would wake her, but he realized now that he should've recognized her as a heavy sleeper when jumping on the bed had failed to do the job. He began prodding her in the temple, hoping that that would wake her up. If it didn't, he was prepared to do whatever was necessary. He wasn't averse to giving her a small bite if that was what it took.

    Luckily for Morgan (at least compared to the biting she'd have received otherwise), Solonn's current efforts succeeded, if only because one of his prods missed its mark somewhat and found its way into her left eye.

    "Hey!" she responded at once, waking up instantly but not quite fully. She lifted her head slightly from the pillow, grumbling incoherently and rubbing her sore eye for a moment, then shook her head in an effort to more fully awaken herself. Yawning loudly, she shifted and turned, sitting up a little more and craning her neck awkwardly to try and get a look at what could have possibly poked her in the eye. Her still-blurry vision just managed to make out the pointed silhouette of the snorunt standing next to her. Solonn's eyelight partially illuminated his face and reflected brightly off of his teeth, giving him a rather eerie appearance.

    "Hello, Morgan," he said quietly, nearly whispering, in a voice that wavered slightly but sounded like Morgan's nonetheless.

    Morgan blinked sleepily at the snorunt for a second. "…Hi," she said finally, half-yawning as she spoke.

    Then she realized whom and what she'd just replied to.

    In an instant, she was wide awake, sitting upright and staring with wide eyes at the pokémon beside her. For several seconds, a vocal response of any sort to the situation failed her. Eventually, she managed a half-gasped, "What?"

    "I said hello," Solonn repeated.

    Morgan was silently agape for a brief while before she could get her next words out. "…But… no, you can't…"

    "Yes, I can."

    "But… how?" Morgan asked, her voice sounding rather strained.

    "…I don't know how I can," Solonn admitted uneasily.

    Morgan took a moment to digest that silently. "This is a dream," she then decided aloud, and began to turn away from Solonn and back toward her pillow.

    "No, it's not," Solonn said. "And you know it's not." He leaned over her slightly so that the light from his eyes washed over her face. "But if you want to be sure, I can bite you. It'd hurt, and I'm sorry it would, but you'd be sure you were really feeling it, I promise you."

    Morgan sat up once again. For a second, she looked at Solonn as if she wanted to accuse him of lying, but that gaze faltered almost as soon as it had formed. She turned slightly, seeming less than willing to look him in the eye now. "It's okay, Azrael. You don't have to bite me. I… I believe you."

    Solonn nodded slightly. "Good. That's good," he said, then sighed in slight relief. There went the first obstacle—Morgan seemed to have accepted that she could now understand him. Hopefully, he could count on her to hear him out now. "…But Morgan? My name isn't Azrael. It's Solonn," he told her.

    Morgan looked surprised for a moment, but quickly relaxed once more. "It shouldn't surprise me that you have your own name," she said, sounding a bit apologetic. "I bet a lot of pokémon do. Like Sei; she told me hers the first time she evolved, and I've been calling her that ever since. Before that, I'd been calling her Enchantress…"

    Morgan chuckled faintly. "I liked that name, but she told me not to call her that anymore, so I don't. Now, Ominous… Sei told me what their real name was, and so I asked them if they wanted me to start calling them Oth from now on—that's their name—but according to Sei, they said not to. I think they might have been worried about hurting my feelings by turning down the name I gave them; they're such a softie, really…"

    "So… you mean you can understand Sei, too?" Solonn asked, a bit surprised.

    "Yeah. But that's only because she's a very powerful psychic-type. She has really advanced telepathic skills, and that's how she can make me understand her."

    "Oth has telepathy, too. Why can't you understand them?" Solonn asked.

    "…I actually didn't know that they had telepathy," Morgan said.

    Oth must be hiding it from her… Solonn realized, and began to wonder why they would. He also began to worry that maybe he shouldn't have told Morgan about their telepathy, seeing as Oth apparently desired to keep it a secret.

    Morgan, meanwhile, was able to make eye contact with Solonn again. Her expression now spoke of burgeoning amazement. "…I'm sorry, I shouldn't be goggling at you like this," she said as she realized the way she was looking at him. "It's just… God, this is so incredible. I thought pokémon had to use telepathy to make themselves understood."

    "Guess you were wrong," Solonn said simply.

    "Guess so." Morgan laughed softly and smiled; she looked as if she were proud of him. Why she should be, Solonn couldn't figure out; it wasn't as if she were responsible for his ability to speak to humans.

    The human's features shifted suddenly, becoming strangely unreadable. "Hey. Could you do me a favor, though?" she asked.


    "Do you… do you have to sound like a human when you talk?" Morgan asked. A very odd look came over her face as she realized something. "Do you have to sound like me? How can you sound like me?" she asked, sounding slightly alarmed.

    "Shh! Try to keep quiet; I don't want your mother to wake up," Solonn said. "And I already told you: I don't know how I do it."

    "…Sorry," Morgan said, lowering her voice significantly. "But anyway, could you just… um, not sound like me? No offense, but it's… kind of weirding me out. Why don't you just use your normal voice from now on, okay?"

    Solonn was about to tell Morgan that she wouldn't understand him anymore if he stopped using that voice. But then something caught in his mind: Why should what voice I use affect whether or not anyone understands me? A different voice should still produce the same words; it shouldn't have the power to transform those words into others. If someone couldn't understand him, he should have to use different words to be understood. Their words. Their language.

    The gears of his mind momentarily stopped turning as epiphany struck him like a falling stone. The only way Morgan could be understanding him was if he was, in fact, speaking her language instead of his own. And that was precisely what he was doing.

    Solonn was stupefied. How this could be possible? How could he just fluently speak a language that he didn't, couldn't know, a language of which he'd only heard a couple of handfuls of words? He swallowed hard, and his mouth went dry immediately afterward. He was fond of wondering, but his desire to understand this matter was so desperate that he could hardly stand it. He started trembling, his eyelight wavering.

    "Is… is something wrong?" Morgan asked, sounding more than a little concerned.

    Solonn met her gaze, the earnest care behind the human's eyes managing to register despite everything else going on behind his own eyes at the time. He tried to respond but couldn't decide what to say, especially since he wasn't quite sure of how he should say it. He should be able to use his own voice, he tried to reason silently—it had to be the language and not the voice—but he still couldn't quite believe it.

    "It's okay," Morgan said. "If you're not comfortable talking to me in your own voice, you don't really have to."

    Solonn closed his eyes. "No," he croaked softly, continuing to use Morgan's voice, his throat feeling as though it were trying to seal itself shut. "No, it's… it's not that."

    To prove that wasn't the issue, he'd have to try and speak to Morgan with his own voice while still speaking her language. The mental block was still there, the sense that he was doing something that shouldn't be possible, but he'd just have to find his way around it.

    Solonn took a deep breath and forced himself to return Morgan's gaze once more. "…It's nothing," he finally managed. Conscious as he was of the seemingly impossible thing he was doing, every word felt like he was pushing a boulder out of his mouth. Get a grip, he tried to command himself, you're supposed to be talking to her for a reason, remember? "Listen…" he began slowly, all too self-consciously. "I'm sorry I woke you… but we need to talk."

    Morgan nodded. "Okay. What about?"

    "Well… it's about those contests…"

    "You don't want to do them, do you?" Morgan said. "I've kind of gotten that impression."

    "…What?" Solonn was taken aback—he hadn't expected her to have recognized his desires already. "No… I mean, I'd rather not, but… I'll do them."

    "Azr—Solonn… you don't have to. Seriously, if you don't want to…"

    "No, it's okay," Solonn insisted. By the impression he'd gotten from Raze and Oth, he'd imagined that Morgan would take offense to his wishes to have nothing to do with the contests. He'd thought she'd vehemently refuse to relinquish her plans for him. Yet here she was, ready to give up her intentions for him without any sign of a conflict. Suddenly Solonn felt rather guilty about his unfavorable preconceptions of her.

    He sighed. "I know… I know you've been planning for this for a long time… and I know it means a lot to you. It's… it's not a big deal. Really. I'll do it—but only on one condition."

    "What?" Morgan asked, with a troubled, doubtful look into Solonn's eyes.

    Solonn took another deep breath. "Okay. Raze and Oth… they showed me their ribbons. Four each. That's… that's how many I have to get myself, isn't it? Four?" he asked. Morgan nodded. "Okay. After I get the fourth one—you have to promise me, Morgan—after I get that fourth ribbon… you have to let me go. You have to take me back home. Promise me, Morgan. Or I won't do it."

    "Oh, Solonn…" Morgan's gaze turned from merely troubled to earnestly sad, earnestly sorry. "If you want to go so bad, I'll take you home right now. I'll get Ominous out of their ball and wake them up, and we'll teleport there right—"

    "No!" Solonn interrupted her. His guilt had increased greatly—not only was Morgan fully accepting of his wishes regarding the contests, she was even completely ready and willing to take him right back home. And all this time, he'd imagined her as immovably, irreconcilably possessive of him, as a creature who'd never release his life from the grip of her own…

    "No… I said it's okay, and I meant it," he insisted, trying his best to convey firm conviction in spite of the way his voice was shaking. "I'll do this. I don't mind, I really don't, just as long as I know I'll be going home when this is done. That way… that way, we can both get what we want." He swallowed. "It's only fair, don't you think?"

    There was a long silence. Morgan just stared at Solonn until an odd, strangled sound escaped from her throat. In the next moment, her eyes filled with tears, which shone in the moonlight as they streamed down her face. Solonn had never seen such a thing in his life; he couldn't help but stare in wonder at it.

    Morgan nodded, but that action was overshadowed by a sudden, forward motion that was halfway between lunging and collapsing. Her arms encircled Solonn, and she pressed her forehead against his. The snorunt stiffened, initially surprised by and resistant to the unexpected embrace, but he managed to relax quickly enough.

    "Okay," Morgan said, half-whispering. "If you're really okay with this, then we'll go ahead with it. And then afterward, I'll take you home. I promise."

    Solonn nodded, acknowledging Morgan's acceptance of his terms. He'd imagined that he'd be greatly surprised should the deal go through. Now he couldn't believe he'd honestly expected it wouldn't. Morgan cared as much about his wishes as her own; that much was now certain. She was perfectly willing to give him what he wanted. In return for that—and as an apology for harboring such harsh preconceptions, though he did a fairly good job of convincing himself that guilt had little to do with it—he'd give her what she wanted. It seemed only fair, after all.

    The definite impression Solonn got from the human now was that her word could be trusted. One day, she'd take him home. But until then… It was now, with the initial panic at the thought of never returning to the warren having passed, that the opportunities of Solonn's situation dared to come forward at last. Until the day when he'd return to Virc-Dho, perhaps he'd get to encounter and experience more strange things, more wonders he could never have conceived of. This, he reckoned, could be interesting…
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    Chapter 4 – Spell of the Spotlight

    The following morning brought a choice.

    "All right, Solonn. The contest hall here in town will be holding two normal rank contests—those are the ones for newcomers—in the upcoming months," Morgan said. "There'll be one in three weeks, on the twenty-fifth, and then there'll be another one two months afterward, on August twenty-fifth. Now, if you start your training now, you could enter into the earlier one, but you might want to wait until the August contest so you can get more practice in and be more prepared. But it's your call, Solonn."

    "I'll go for the earlier one," Solonn said at once. In his mind, it was no question at all—the sooner he got started with these contests, the sooner he could be done with them and go home.

    Morgan nodded. "Okay, then." She'd have preferred for him to wait until the later contest; the extra time to prepare might have done him good. But she chose to respect Solonn's choice and allowed his decision to stand.

    * * *​

    That afternoon, Solonn's contest training began in earnest. It started in a strange manner: Morgan offered him a small, indigo-colored cube and told him to eat it, claiming it would help him do well in the contests.

    Solonn looked at Morgan as if she were crazy. "How is this thing supposed to affect whether or not I win?"

    "Well… what it does is it refines your appearance. These pokéblocks will help you look as healthy and as… er, handsome as you can look. Making a good visual impression on the audience and judges is very important."

    Solonn continued to gaze skeptically at the human. Whatever, he decided finally, and took the pokéblock from Morgan, devouring it quickly. The little candy was… okay; it was kind of good, except it had this funny, sort of sour aftertaste. That was really the only fault Solonn could find with the pokéblock, though, and it was really only mildly unpleasant—at first. Then he found the little candy cube beginning to disagree with him… then to strongly disagree with him…

    Morgan looked on with pity and poorly concealed revulsion. But the snorunt's reaction to the candy didn't dissuade her from attempting to feed him another one later that evening. Solonn resisted at first—he wasn't exactly eager to throw up again, after all.

    "This one's different," Morgan tried to assure him. "I made more than one formula since I didn't know which you'd do best with. Unfortunately, they just so happen to be the same color—but I promise you, they're not the same. I even got rid of all of the other kind, so there won't be any mix-ups."

    Solonn stared warily at her for a long while, his stomach threatening to go sour at just the mere memory of what the last pokéblock had done to him. Then, with a resigned sigh, he accepted the identical yet supposedly different pokéblock—and immediately discovered that Morgan had indeed been telling the truth. This little indigo cube was a far cry from its predecessor, with a great flavor and no disagreeable aftertaste. Seconds passed, and it showed no threat of sickening him. Solonn looked up at Morgan with an approving smile.

    Morgan smiled back. "Ah, so this one's a winner, huh?" Solonn nodded. "Good! Okay, then. You'll be getting two of these a day until they've done as much for you as they can," she told him.

    This was certainly an aspect of contest training that Solonn didn't mind in the least. Still, he was skeptical that merely eating candies would be enough to prepare him for any sort of competition. What else, he wondered, might Morgan have in store for him?

    * * *​

    Around noon the next day, Morgan left and returned a short while later accompanied by someone unfamiliar.

    "Solonn, this is Sei Salma, an alakazam," Morgan said.

    The pokémon at her side bowed, her blonde mustache twitching slightly as she smiled warmly. <A pleasure to meet you,> the alakazam said, her telepathic "voice" simulating a slightly gruff contralto that Solonn guessed was also the sound of Sei's actual voice. <I understand that you and Ms. Yorke have a most unique relationship, yes?>

    "…What?" Somehow Sei's statement had come across in a way that she surely hadn't intended.

    <You're able to speak to Ms. Yorke in her own language, are you not?> Sei said.

    "Oh… Yeah, that's right," Solonn confirmed, albeit a bit hesitantly.

    <Ms. Yorke and I were discussing this on the way here. We've arrived at a conclusion regarding your abilities. It's best that other humans don't discover your abilities, don't you agree?> Sei asked.

    "Yeah," Solonn said. "I'd really feel better if as few people knew about this as possible." By "people" he was referring not only to humans but to other pokémon, as well. In fact, he really would've preferred for Morgan to ask him for permission before revealing his secret to Sei…

    <I understand your concern,> Sei said then, <but I assure you, Ms. Yorke had your best interests in mind when she told me what you're able to do. She wouldn't have told me otherwise. Furthermore, you have my word that I won't reveal your secret to anyone without your consent… And yes, I've just read your thoughts. I do try to tune such things out for the sake of courtesy, but…> She shrugged. <Sometimes thoughts are simply too strong to block.>

    A mind-reader… Solonn figured that, courteous or not, Sei would've probably absorbed the knowledge of his abilities on her own sooner or later.

    <The privacy of those with no form of mental defense is something my people take very seriously,> Sei assured him earnestly. <We wouldn't be trusted very well by the majority of other species if we didn't stay out of their minds as much as possible. Even with our measures to respect their privacy in place, many species still don't trust us.>

    Whether or not that was meant as a guilt-trip, it certainly worked as one. "…Sorry," he said. "I'm sure you don't mean to pry into anybody's business."

    Sei gave a relieved, satisfied smile. <Now. Since protecting the secret of your skills is so important, I'm offering you a means to speak more securely with Ms. Yorke.>

    "And what would that be?" Solonn asked.

    <This.> There was a brief flash of light in Sei's eyes.

    <Well? What do you think?> Morgan asked.

    <What do I think of… Hey! How are you using telepathy?> Solonn asked—then, with a jolt, he realized that he, too, was speaking telepathically.

    <Sei. She's connected us via her own mind,> Morgan explained. <That way, we can talk to each other without anyone figuring out that… well, that we can talk to each other, get it?>

    <…I think so,> Solonn said, still somewhat bewildered at the notion of being able to communicate telepathically. There was something about it that made him feel oddly powerful yet kind of vulnerable at the same time. He wondered if he'd have agreed to try this if he'd known beforehand that it would involve his mind being opened and shared in such a way.

    <Telepathic communication is undetectable to humans,> Sei told Solonn then, <and you should be concerned with protecting your secret from humans above all others. You see, pokémon who can speak to and be understood by humans are quite rare, and humans often look upon rarity as something from which they can profit. If certain humans learned of your abilities, they would seek to exploit you for their own ends. I can guarantee you that you wouldn't find such exploitation to your liking.>

    Solonn cast a troubled gaze at Morgan. <Is this true?> he asked. Morgan had come across as trustworthy, but now Solonn wondered if she was merely a rare exception to a generally untrustworthy species.

    <Yes,> Morgan said, sounding more than a little ashamed. <Solonn, I would never want to see you exploited like that.>

    <Well, I wouldn't want that, either,> he said, shuddering slightly. He turned toward Sei. <Okay. I'll accept your connection,> he said. <Thanks.>

    <Think nothing of it,> the alakazam said, and with that she severed the psychic link between herself and the other two.

    Sei's offering was a welcome convenience indeed. As Solonn thought about it, something dawned on him: he wondered if the link could be used to let Morgan communicate with her other pokémon. After all, Sei's telepathic abilities could trick people into hearing words they understood, thus eliminating the language barrier between Morgan and her pokémon. Why hasn't Sei offered this to the others?

    To Solonn's surprise, Sei turned her gaze upon him and then shrugged her plated shoulders. "Because they never asked," she said simply, using her natural voice and the language of her own kind this time. The snorunt only stared at her in response, not quite knowing how to reply.

    Sei let out a long sigh. <Whew… It seems I've still got a bit of recovering to do before I'm quite up to speed again…>

    "You want to return to your ball for a while?" Morgan asked her.

    <Mmm… yes, I think so,> Sei answered. <I could do with a little time out of this poor, downtrodden flesh,> she added with a laugh.

    Morgan chuckled. "All right, then." She removed an ultra ball from her belt and recalled Sei with a beam of red light. The alakazam smiled wearily at Solonn before dissolving into energy and being drawn back into her ball.

    "I just don't understand how anybody could stand being inside one of those things," Solonn said with a small shudder, eying the ultra ball as Morgan minimized it and reattached it to her belt. "It's just so… " He trailed off, unable to truly describe what it was like in a capture ball.

    "So you really don't like being in a ball, huh?" Morgan asked. Solonn made a disapproving noise and shook his head. "Well, okay. You don't have to go back in there if you don't want to," she told him.

    Solonn smiled at her. With no return to the great ball looming over him, the time he'd spend with Morgan would be much easier to endure—and perhaps even enjoy.

    * * *​

    Several hours later, Solonn stood outside with Morgan and Sei in the backyard. Though evening was approaching, the sun was still hot enough and bright enough to bother him. Direct sunlight had a peculiar sort of harshness about it that the artificial light indoors lacked.

    There wasn't much Solonn could really do about it, other than to seek shade. Without delay, he made his way across the yard to stand under the large sitrus tree that stood tall in the backyard. Much better, he thought, satisfied.

    Morgan and Sei crossed the lawn to join Solonn. Sei promptly took a seat, leaning back contentedly against the trunk of the tree and opening a magazine. Meanwhile Morgan came to stand before the snorunt and presented a small, cylindrical plastic case. She opened it and produced a cyan-colored disc from inside.

    <I'll bet you're wondering what this is, huh?> Morgan said, making use of Sei's telepathy. <Well, this is a TM, Solonn. A technical machine. You can gain a new technique from it.>

    An elemental technique being obtained from a little plastic disc. It wasn't the most ridiculous idea Solonn had ever heard, although it came very close.

    <Now, we might not even need to use this,> Morgan continued. <Let's find out if we do… Solonn, could you show me the strongest ice-type technique you know?>

    <The strongest? I guess that would be this.> Solonn called on the power of his element. The glow of his eyes intensified momentarily as he gathered the ice-type energy that he'd need for the technique. A second later, the elemental charge coalesced between his hands, then fired forth as a jagged, electric blue beam that blasted a flurry of frozen leaves and twigs from the branches as it streaked off toward the sky.

    <Ice beam, huh? Okay, then it looks like we will need to use this.> Morgan knelt before Solonn, then popped open a compartment on one end of the TM case and slipped the disc inside. <There's another, stronger ice technique that you'll need to pull off your routine,> she said as she closed the compartment once more. <You'll get it from this.>

    Solonn eyed the case with uncertainty, his gaze caught and held by the lens that seemed to stare right back at him from one end of the case. <…This won't hurt, will it?>

    <No, it doesn't hurt,> Sei tried to reassure him. <I've received one myself. It'll be a funny feeling, but it won't last long. You have nothing to fear from it.>

    <Oh. Go ahead, then,> Solonn said, nodding toward Morgan.

    Morgan nodded back, then activated the TM, bringing the lens to bear on Solonn's forehead and pressing a button on the top of the case. It whirred to life, but apart from that nothing seemed to be happening at first; the beam projected by the case was invisible, and its initial impact was intangible.

    Then, with a rather strong shudder, Solonn found himself overwhelmed by a sudden surge of power. It reminded him of how it felt to summon some of his ice-type techniques, only it was stronger and went straight to his head rather than spreading throughout his entire body. It escalated into a giddying rush, and when it reached its abrupt end, he found himself feeling incredibly lightheaded.

    Solonn teetered comically for a moment, nearly falling onto his butt before he managed to shake himself out of his dizzy spell. <That was weird,> he remarked. <So, that's it? That's all it took?>

    <Mmm-hmm. You've just learned the blizzard technique,> Morgan confirmed as she removed the disc from the front compartment and put it away. <Go on, try it out—but be careful where you aim it, though; it can be pretty nasty.>

    <…Wait, blizzard? Are you serious?> Solonn asked. Morgan nodded, smiling brightly. But Solonn remained too bewildered to try out his new technique right away. It was just all too incredible that a simple disc could bestow any sort of power upon him, let alone one of the highest powers of his element.

    Though still skeptical, Solonn finally decided to go for it. Once again, he gathered elemental energy. He felt a sizable thrill as the surge of power defied his expectations and answered his summons, then manifested itself in a blast of icy wind and snow.

    As the blizzard howled forth, Solonn realized with a jolt of horror that he'd forgotten to aim the attack—its present course could blow a hole in the Yorkes' back fence. Fortunately, the blizzard proved underpowered, petering out before it could do any real damage.

    Solonn stared briefly at the small pile of snow that sat in the grass, watching as it began to melt in the heat of the June afternoon. That thing actually worked… He laughed to himself, pleasantly surprised.

    <Not bad,> Morgan remarked. <That was just a little one, but with practice, you should be able to pull off a much more impressive blizzard. And wait 'til you see what you can do when you combine that with other techniques!>

    <You can actually do that?> Solonn asked, intrigued. He'd never seen multiple techniques used in combination, not even by glalie.

    <Oh yes,> Morgan said. <In fact, artful combination of techniques is what contests are really all about. A good, creative, graceful presentation is what comes out on top every time. Now,> she went on, opening the TM case once more, <there's another one of these that you won't necessarily need, but it could still do you some good. Do you want to go ahead and take it now, or do you want to wait a little while before you take another one?>

    Solonn considered it for a moment, finally deciding there was no real reason to turn the offer down. <I'll take it,> he told Morgan. <Let's do this now.>

    The human nodded in acknowledgment and pulled another TM from the case, a fuchsia-colored disc this time. Solonn watched as she loaded it into the front compartment and activated it, wondering what sort of new power it would give him.

    Absorbing this technique felt quite different this time. The sensation of connecting with the raw power of his element was absent—he wasn't gaining an ice-type technique this time. Solonn didn't even have a chance to guess the alien element of his new power; the rush that accompanied its acquisition was gone almost as swiftly as it had come.

    <So what was that one?> Solonn asked once his head had cleared.

    <Light screen,> Morgan answered. <It's mostly a defensive technique, but there are also some pretty cool things you can do with it that are just for show. Try and call one up now,> she suggested. <It's not as difficult or powerful a move as blizzard, so you should be able to pull it off pretty easily.>

    <Okay.> Seeking the new, unfamiliar element within him, Solonn found the root of his new power and called it forth. There was a fleeting, tingling sensation in his head, peculiar but not unpleasant. Then he saw a bright pink aura form around each of his hands. He watched, fascinated, as it swiftly spread out into a force field that surrounded him completely.

    <Wow… this is pretty neat…> Solonn said as he gazed upon the wall of psychic energy that now surrounded him. <Wait, though… how do I get out of this thing?>

    <Oh, you don't have to get out of it. You're not trapped in one place by that thing; it'll follow you as you move,> Morgan said.

    Solonn decided to test that claim for himself. Sure enough, as he walked back and forth across the lawn, the shield that surrounded him stayed up and around him through his every movement. Then, unexpectedly, the light screen simply vanished.

    <What happened?> Solonn asked.

    <A light screen can only stay up for a few minutes at a time,> Morgan explained.

    <Oh. So are there any more of these I can use?> Solonn asked with a glance at the case.

    <I'm afraid not. Nearly all of the techniques you'll be using come naturally to you—your routine will mostly be ice-based. Anyway, it's not really very good for you to learn so many moves in one sitting. You could get a nasty headache,> Morgan said.

    Solonn's eyelight dimmed slightly; he was mildly disappointed to hear that he wouldn't be gaining any more new abilities anytime soon. <Well, okay then. So now what?>

    <Hmm. Right now, nothing,> Morgan replied. <You've really had enough excitement for one day. You may not feel like it right now, but physically, you've just had quite an experience. You've instantly learned two moves that usually take pokémon several years and lots of hard work to learn. Give it a little while, and you'll probably start feeling pretty tired. So let's just take it easy for the rest of the day, okay?>

    Solonn nodded. He would've liked to go ahead and continue preparing for the upcoming contest, but his energy had begun to wane the moment Morgan had said it would.

    <Your training will really start tomorrow,> Morgan told him. <You see, there are three rounds to each contest. Each one's different, so you'll be training in different ways.

    <For the first round, we'll just go out on stage along with all the other contestants, and the audience will basically just compare all the pokémon contestants based solely on their looks, and they'll all vote on which one they think looks the best. You don't really have to train for that; the pokéblocks pretty much take care of that aspect.

    <The second round will be your solo performance. This is where you'll be showing your techniques, combining them to make nice effects, et cetera. Don't worry too much about it—you'll be rehearsing your routine plenty every day. You'll get it down just fine.

    <Now, the third round is a battle,> Morgan told him. <Have you ever battled another pokémon before? You know, just for fun.>

    <Yeah,> Solonn answered, <but not very often, though.> He recalled the matches that Zilag and a few of his friends had held just for sport. The snorunt had never seriously hurt each other; they'd mostly just wrestled, with only the occasional, half-hearted bite or headbutt thrown in here and there. Ice-type techniques had been thrown around sometimes, too, to little effect. On several occasions, Zilag had invited Solonn to take part, but Solonn had only occasionally obliged. By and large, Solonn had been unenthusiastic about battling, even though he sometimes won those matches. As far as he'd been concerned, it was merely something to do in the event that there was nothing else to do. It hadn't exactly been his idea of fun.

    <That's okay,> Morgan assured him. <Some experience is better than none. Besides which, contest battling really isn't the same as battling anywhere else. Your goal won't be to hurt the opponent so much as to upstage them. You don't even necessarily have to 'beat' the other guy as long as you manage to look better during the match. I'll let you practice battling against a couple of the others here. Raze'd definitely be up for it—don't worry, she won't use any steel moves on you. Her style's a little different than the one you'll be using, but you'll still get the gist of how to handle yourself in one of these matches. All you have to do is to keep your poise and battle with grace.>

    Solonn nodded in acknowledgment, mentally reviewing what Morgan had told him to expect. It seemed there was more involved with being a contest pokémon than he'd initially imagined. He hoped the span of time separating him from that first contest would be enough to adequately prepare him. The sooner he could get that first ribbon, that first step behind him, the better.

    * * *​

    Each day that followed brought diligent training. Solonn spent many hours rehearsing his solo performance, as well as battling with Raze and even once with Sei Salma. He also continued to receive two pokéblocks each day until Morgan told him they'd finally done all they could for him.

    Solonn had assumed these measures were the only ones they'd need to take in order to prepare him for his debut. Then one night, five days before the date of the next contest, he was offered one last suggestion.

    He was sitting on Morgan's bed, waiting for her to return from an errand. When she got back, the first thing she did was take a capture ball from her belt, maximize it, and release Oth from inside it.

    "All right," Morgan said to the claydol. "It's time for you to check him out and see if he's ready." She gestured at Solonn.

    Huh? As Oth brought themself before Solonn, he wondered what in the world could possibly be going on. Without any form of explanation or warning, the foremost of the claydol's eyes dilated dramatically, and a pale red beam lanced forth from it and struck the snorunt. He almost cried out, but realized a split-second later that there was no pain. Very puzzled, he merely stared at Oth as they expanded the beam and swept it up and down over his body.

    Mere seconds later, Oth stopped scanning him, the beam disappearing. They turned toward Morgan (which seemed strange given the fact that Oth had eyes on every side of their head) and nodded as well as they could, inclining their entire body slightly in her direction.

    Morgan smiled. "Good news, Solonn. Ominous says you're ready."

    "That's nice, but ready for what?" Solonn asked in a quiet voice. He and Morgan had decided it was safe enough to converse openly in Morgan's room as long as they kept their voices down. Solonn had also decided, though not at all hastily, that Morgan's other pokémon could be trusted with his secret; he didn't mind Oth's presence there as he spoke with her.

    "Ready… for this!" Morgan reached into her pocket and pulled something out for Solonn to see. Nestled in her palm was something small in a blue wrapper. "I'd been looking around town for one, and I finally managed to scare one up."

    Solonn gazed at the proffered object for a moment, then turned a questioning gaze up toward Morgan.

    "This," Morgan explained, "is a rare candy. These give pokémon something of a boost. According to Ominous…" Morgan paused as excitement flitted across her features. "Well, this'll give you just enough of a boost to make a huge difference. With this… you could evolve."

    Solonn's eyes widened. "…That thing can't possibly cause evolution!" he said, laughing.

    "Oh, yes it can. So what do you say? Are you ready to do this?" Morgan asked.

    Solonn hesitated to answer. Part of him still couldn't believe that evolution could be induced by a piece of candy, but the part that could believe remained apprehensive in its own way. "Is there any particular reason why I need to evolve?"

    "Well, you don't necessarily have to do it, but it might work out to your advantage to go through with it," Morgan said. "Your routine is based almost exclusively on your ice-type powers, after all, and glalie have more finely-tuned abilities where their element is concerned. They can handle ice-type techniques more easily than snorunt can."

    Solonn couldn't argue with that. He knew firsthand that his people didn't truly come into their ice-type abilities until they evolved. And he had no doubt that he could execute his routine more easily as a glalie, and he was certainly concerned with succeeding in the upcoming contest.

    Still… this was a physical transformation she was suggesting. This wasn't something to be taken lightly—particularly not where his kind were concerned. Snorunt who evolved too early ran the risk of being corrupted by incomplete instincts. Furthermore, the changes involved with becoming a glalie were so drastic that it was almost like a change into a different species altogether. They began as snow-eating bipeds. They turned into limbless, floating predators.

    "The choice is yours, Solonn," Morgan told him gently. "I won't make you evolve if you don't want to."

    So… am I really ready to evolve? Solonn asked himself. Well… technically, I probably am, he answered. He was at roughly the age that was considered the safest and most appropriate time to start considering evolution. In fact, once they got to be very much older than he was now, his kind found themselves having to make a conscious effort to stop the process from occurring on its own.

    But… do I really want to go through with this now?

    Solonn couldn't answer that question, though he certainly tried. He wished he'd been given more time to think this through rather than having it dropped on him out of nowhere at nearly the last minute. In the end, he could only lower his gaze and sigh in response.

    "You don't want to do it, do you?" Morgan asked. Solonn shook his head. "That's okay, Solonn. That's perfectly fine."

    "Okay." Solonn's eyes followed the rare candy as Morgan put it back in her pocket. "Hey. Hold on to that. Just… you know, for whenever."

    Morgan nodded in acknowledgment. "Sure thing. If you ever decide you want it, just let me know. Do you want back in the ball?" Morgan then asked Oth. The claydol nodded in their curious fashion and was subsequently recalled.

    "All right, then," Morgan said. "Now, don't worry about your decision, okay? Like I said, you don't really have to evolve to do this. You'll do just fine."

    Solonn sincerely hoped that Morgan was right.

    * * *​

    In what felt like no time at all, the twenty-fifth had arrived. All at once, the task at hand was upon him, and it swept him up into a situation that made him realize that nothing could have truly, completely prepared him for it.

    Next thing he knew, he found himself riding in a car for the very first time. As he gazed out through the window, the scenery rushing by mirrored his perceptions of this experience: hurtling irresistibly forward, he scarcely had a chance to take it all in.

    The car came to a stop, and as he hopped out into the parking lot, Lilycove's contest hall seemed to blossom into being before him, right out of thin air. It was huge, and it loomed even larger with each step closer to its entrance.

    Solonn was immediately awestruck as he passed through the front doors into the contest hall's lobby. All around him, humans of widely varying appearance stood, accompanied by pokémon partners Solonn could've never imagined.

    Morgan led him into a queue, and there they waited for their turn at the desk before them. After a fairly short wait, they made it to the front, and the receptionist waiting there asked Morgan to present her contest pass. Without delay, Morgan produced a card and handed it to the human behind the desk. The receptionist held on to the pass for a few seconds; Solonn wasn't tall enough to see exactly what she was doing with it.

    When the receptionist gave the pass back to Morgan, she took a moment to peek over the edge of the desk at Solonn. "Oh, now isn't that a cutie," she remarked airily, flashing a very bright smile.

    Solonn returned her gaze with a slightly skeptical look. Cute? I'm not cute

    "You may now proceed," the receptionist then said. Morgan smiled at her, then led Solonn out of the lobby and toward the backstage area.

    Several minutes of doing nothing but waiting followed. The other contestants gathered backstage along with Solonn and his coordinator, anticipating the impending events with varying degrees of patience. A television mounted in the corner showed the scene that awaited the contestants. With an incredible amount of noise and a level of enthusiasm that was almost tangible, an audience was filing into the seemingly endless rows of seats, eagerly cheering for the show to begin.

    Their wait wasn't prolonged much further. The voice of the announcer came blaring forth, the audience quieting somewhat while he spoke.

    "Ladies and gentlemen," boomed his greatly magnified voice, "get ready to witness the hottest up-and-coming faces in the Hoenn contest circuit! The normal rank beauty contest shall now begin!"

    "It's time," Morgan informed Solonn in an excited whisper, then began guiding him before her as they made their way to the stage in an orderly procession along with all the other contestants.

    As Solonn emerged onto the stage, he was greeted by an unbelievable level of light and noise. The number of humans gathered just to look upon him and the other contestants was staggering—Solonn had never seen so many people in any one place before.

    He hadn't expected the audience to be that large…

    The coordinators and their pokémon partners lined up side by side across the stage, facing the audience. One by one, the announcer stopped before each team and introduced them, then moved on down the line to the next team. Before long, he arrived at Solonn and Morgan.

    "Next up, hailing from right here in Lilycove, it's Morgan Yorke and her snorunt, Solonn!" the announcer said. The audience gave them a peal of applause, just as they'd done for the other teams. Part of Solonn wondered just what they were applauding; neither he nor any of the other contestants had actually done anything yet.

    "Now it's time for you to cast your votes," the announcer told the audience after introducing the last few contestants. "Who will make it to the next round? You decide!"

    Solonn couldn't count the moments that passed as the audience cast their votes. His awareness of their scrutiny only intensified now that they were literally judging him. Unbeknownst to him, a close-up view of each of the pokémon in turn appeared on the colossal screen behind him—he might have been surprised, to say the least, to see a gigantic image of his own face staring back at him.

    Finally, the votes were all tallied, and the results appeared on the screen behind the contestants, who all turned to see who among them would proceed to the next round.

    "Look!" Morgan exclaimed. "There we are!" She pointed to the upper right corner of the screen; she and Solonn were indeed pictured there. They'd made it through the first round. With that obstacle out of the way, Solonn followed Morgan with a funny little detached sort of thrill as they and the other contestants returned backstage to prepare for the second round.

    The television there allowed him to watch the contestants who'd been slated to go on before him. For a crop of newcomers, their performances were generally pretty competent; none of them thus far had made any mistakes, at least not as far as Solonn could tell. He found a few of the routines boring despite their technical integrity, but there were a couple of the others that really stood out.

    Those performances easily held Solonn's rapt attention—and also managed to stoke the doubt within him even further. As his own turn came along, he found himself worrying that maybe he hadn't sufficiently trained for this after all.

    That worry followed Solonn out onto the stage as he was called forth. It was much darker as he emerged than it had been during the first round, but he could still see the crowd, could still make out all those faces. He'd been told what to expect since his training had begun, yet Morgan's descriptions seemed awfully weak and ill-fitting when held against this moment, these surroundings, the expectations held by all these people he had to impress…

    He came to stand in the center of the stage, and a single, bright spotlight fell upon him as the music that Morgan had chosen to accompany his routine rose up, seeming to emanate from the very walls of the contest hall itself. Under the ray of white light bearing down upon him, he felt overemphasized to dimensions far greater than his own, yet all too aware of how small he was compared to the vast, scrutinizing crowd.

    A moment later, the spell of the spotlight abated enough to let Solonn realize that he'd missed his cue. With a jolt, he hastily cast his hail technique up into the air above him. The summoned hailstones began falling at once, but at twice the normal intensity and not at all in the pattern he'd rehearsed—it was fortunate that this was a solo performance. Had Morgan accompanied Solonn on stage for this round, she'd have had to take cover from his bungled first move.

    Solonn winced a little at the mistake, hoping to make some sort of recovery with his next move. He called upon powder snow and felt the faintest relief as it bowed to his will, its winds sweeping up the falling hail in a gently turning, tamed cyclone. Solonn's creation partly obscured his view of the audience, for which he felt a wave of gratitude spread throughout his nerves. But he knew that his next move required him to forfeit that comforting veil.

    Sighing softly, Solonn kept the powder snow blowing as he slowly expanded the vortex of snowflakes and hailstones around himself, the music swelling in a slow crescendo. The winds swept around him in a growing spiral, and as the cyclone widened and thinned out, the multitude of humans before him filled his sights once more.

    Don't pay attention to them, Solonn urged himself, just pretend they're not there… He fought the urge to close his eyes and shut them out; letting his nervousness show could count against him in the judges' eyes. He was also fighting a burgeoning desire to simply cut his performance short and run.

    Trying desperately to keep a hold on his fraying nerves, he called upon the next aspect of his routine—the one that had given him the most trouble during his training. He still couldn't quite believe that he'd gained one of the highest powers of his element in a single moment's rush, disbelief that had caused him to struggle all the more with the technique.

    Don't think about what you're doing, Solonn tried to remind himself, just do it… At the music's cue, Solonn unleashed a blizzard to join his dancing cyclone. It howled forth, stirring the spiraling snowstorm into a frenzy as it was meant to do… but then, disobligingly, its winds began to falter. Solonn swore that he could feel his heart stop as the blizzard, along with the rest of the cyclone, came apart right before his eyes. As if in slow motion, snowflakes, sleet, and hailstones alike all fell to the stage.

    No… Solonn lamented, certain that his chance to obtain the ribbon and thereby take his first step back to Virc-Dho had died along with his enchanted snowstorm. His musical accompaniment suddenly blurred into a formless din in his ears. The spotlight swelled to an abnormal brightness, then swiftly vanished altogether, taking the stage, the audience, the surrounding noise, and Solonn's consciousness along with it.
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    Chapter 5 – Elements Embraced

    Solonn awoke several hours later, unaware of how much time had passed since his failure within the contest hall. His eyes opened to a view of Morgan's room, which was more dimly lit than usual.

    With a delay, he noted that he was lying at the foot of Morgan's bed, with a small, thin blanket draped over the lower half of his body. The blanket was slightly itchy and warmer than he liked, but he didn't bother to remove it just yet.

    His most recent memories gathered to bear down upon him in the present. The haze brought on by his unconsciousness gave way to focus, which in turn led him to actively muse on his failure. Again and again, his mind replayed the scene of his botched performance, and all the while he earnestly wondered what had happened to him up on that stage. Why had his routine—and then he himself—fallen apart before the audience?

    Because you weren't ready, he answered himself at last.

    I should have been… he countered. But he knew better, really. He hadn't been ready. He hadn't taken enough time to prepare for his first performance. He'd been in such a rush to get that first step toward home behind him, and it was because of that haste that his goal now lay further away.

    You should have waited until the later contest to try and get that ribbon, he admonished himself. Now you're just going to have to wait anyway.

    In that sense, perhaps, no harm done. He could just try again in two months, which would give him the extra time to train that he probably should have taken the first time around.

    But as Solonn continued to dwell on his failure, he couldn't help but wonder if his next performance wouldn't just end up suffering the same fate as his first, even with another two months' worth of preparation preceding it. After all, wouldn't the audience be just as large as it had been before? Wouldn't he be just as alone and exposed on that stage, with not only the spotlight but all of those countless human eyes focused on him?

    Solonn groaned, annoyed and disappointed in himself for how easily he'd succumbed to the pressure of his performance. You were supposed to be paying attention to what you were doing, not to the audience, he thought miserably. Morgan had even told him something along those lines during his training, yet he'd managed to lose sight of that advice right when he'd needed it most.

    As Solonn recalled, there'd been a couple of moments during his performance, albeit woefully brief ones, in which he almost—just almost—felt like he could just shut out everything around him and vanish into his routine. It was, he realized, a weaker version of something he'd felt a couple of times during his training. In harnessing some of his stronger ice-type abilities, he'd occasionally felt like he was becoming one with those powers, practically losing himself in them…

    Solonn sighed. That right there was the key. To maintain control over his performance despite what awaited him on stage, he had to somehow achieve and sustain unity with the element that brought his routine to life.

    But how?

    At that moment, he remembered something he was told just a few days prior. "Glalie have more finely-tuned abilities where their element is concerned," Morgan reminded him within his memory. "They can handle ice-type techniques more easily."

    Gods… she's right about that… Glalie could indeed perform ice techniques more easily than snorunt could—and perhaps not on account of having more elemental power so much as being closer to the power of their element…

    As if rallying to the point, words from a more distant past came forth, the words of his mother: "Our element is our very life, Solonn. We couldn't survive without its power, and by practicing its ways, we achieve some of the most rewarding experiences in our lives."

    So, that's the answer, then, isn't it?
    Solonn reckoned. If I evolve, maybe then I won't lose it in the middle of my routine next time… but gods Whether or not it was a solution, even if it was the only solution, the fact remained that it was still evolution—physical, permanent change. If he came to regret it, there'd be no way to undo it.

    Furthermore, he didn't even know what he could expect from the process itself. Having never evolved before, he couldn't be sure what it was actually like. He'd once asked his mother about it, but she'd told him that she couldn't adequately describe it. She'd also tried to assure him that the process usually didn't hurt, which was no real comfort, especially not with the presence of that nasty little "usually".

    Solonn couldn't deny that he was still apprehensive about evolving. But he also considered what it would be like to endure another performance that ended like the last one… and he realized that was something he actually feared more.

    He sat up, finally bothering to cast off that uncomfortable blanket. For minutes, he just sat there, staring at his hands as he tried to let his decision settle within him. He figured Morgan would probably return soon—he wanted to be ready to give her the news as soon as possible.

    Just as he'd managed to stop counting the passing seconds, the door to the bedroom opened slowly, with barely a creak. At first, Morgan only peeked in from the hall outside. Then, slowly and silently, she slipped into the room, closing the door almost noiselessly behind her.

    It was later than it had seemed, Solonn realized; Morgan was dressed for bed. He hoped she wouldn't mind being kept awake for a little while, especially since he wasn't sure he could maintain his resolve throughout the night.

    Inhaling very deeply, Solonn turned to face her. "Get it out," he said, sounding calmer than he felt.

    Morgan stared in bewilderment at him, a bit startled by how suddenly he'd spoken up, not quite processing what he'd said. "…Get what out?"

    "The candy, Morgan," Solonn said, maintaining an even tone with an effort. "It's time."

    Morgan blinked in utter surprise for a moment. "Oh," she said, and she looked a little worried. "…Now?"

    Solonn nodded slowly. "I'm sure you'd rather go to sleep, but…"

    "No, that's okay," Morgan assured him, though she sounded a bit shaken. She made her way over to the dresser, opened the topmost drawer, and rummaged through its contents a bit before she found what she was seeking.

    She started to take the rare candy out of the drawer, but then hesitated. "Solonn… are you sure you're really ready for this?"

    "Yes. I'm ready," Solonn said without much inflection, inwardly cursing the human's choice of words. Few phrases in existence bred as much doubt in him as "are you sure". The snorunt's gaze stayed fixed upon Morgan, nearly unblinking, but his eyelight was beginning to pulsate and flicker unsteadily, betraying his trepidation.

    "You just seem awfully nervous," Morgan said concernedly.

    Solonn made a small, dismissive noise. "It's really nothing. Everyone gets nervous right before they evolve," he said, guessing rather than actually knowing this. "It's not exactly a minor thing, you know."

    "No, it isn't," Morgan concurred. "But if you're sure you're ready… well, here goes nothing, I guess…" She unwrapped the rare candy and brought it to Solonn, placing it in his hand. "There. Just eat that, and the rest should follow."

    Solonn gave a quick nod. He looked down at the little pink candy that now sat in his hand… and kept on looking.

    "Are you gonna go ahead, then?" Morgan asked.

    Solonn snapped out of it. "Huh? Oh… right." He furrowed his brow at the rare candy, still staring down at it but making no further move other than to poke at it.

    "I don't blame you at all for being nervous, you know? I'm pretty nervous right now, myself," Morgan admitted.

    Solonn had already figured as much; he could hear both their hearts hammering. He gave her a little smile to try and ease some of the tension, but he knew the corners of his mouth were shaking all the while.

    Just get it over with! urged a voice in the back of his mind. Fighting in vain to stop his hand from trembling, he brought the rare candy to his mouth. His jaws were reluctant to part, but he finally pried them open just enough to shove the candy in, barely bothering to chew it or enjoy its somewhat sweet flavor before rushing it down his throat.

    There, he consoled himself, the voice of his mind trembling just as much as his body. Now just try to relax and wait for it to happen…

    Nothing happened.

    Moment after moment passed, and still the candy just sat there in his stomach, doing nothing whatsoever to change him. He felt absolutely no different than he had prior to eating the rare candy. The boost Morgan spoke of was completely absent, as were any feelings that even remotely suggested he was going to turn into a glalie anytime soon.

    "Guess you and Oth weren't right about me after all," Solonn said finally.

    "Guess not," Morgan said with a sigh. "It's just hard to believe, though. Ominous was so sure, and they know from such things… Are you sure you don't feel any different?"

    "No difference at all," Solonn replied.

    "It should have given you a boost, though, even if not enough of one to make you evolve," Morgan said.

    "It hasn't given me anything."

    "Hmm… maybe you just need enough time to digest it first," Morgan suggested.

    "Hmph." Solonn was done expecting anything from the rare candy. All it had made him was annoyed over suffering all that anticipation for nothing.

    Then there came the buzz.

    It was a distinct tingling that radiated from the pit of his stomach and spread throughout his entire body. It felt like pure energy was flowing through his veins. Exhilaration flooded his brain, making his breath catch in his throat. His eyes went huge.

    Morgan noticed, and her eyes did likewise. "Are you okay?" she asked anxiously. Her eyes grew even wider. "Is it happening?"

    Before Solonn could even begin to answer, a powerful jolt from deep within him struck with almost no warning, taking his breath away. The tingling sensation that was still coursing throughout his body shifted in an instant into a strong vibration, intensifying by the second and stoking a dull ache in his bones.

    His mouth opened in a silent scream as the sensations made a turn toward earnest pain. He stared wildly at Morgan, who now looked more terrified than excited. She could clearly see the fear and pain in his eyes. Then her face vanished from Solonn's sight as bright light began to shine from his entire body, filling his vision with a blindingly white emptiness.

    In an instant, Solonn went from feeling full to bursting with energy to feeling as though he were made of energy. In a sense, it was similar to entering a capture ball. The difference was that instead of feeling like he'd ceased to exist, he felt as though he were becoming more real, more alive.

    There was no longer any pain. Distantly, as he began to rematerialize into his new form, he could sense that he was growing larger, but it didn't register as a truly physical sensation—after all, he wasn't a truly physical being at the moment.

    But there was another, much stronger feeling that had no trouble at all getting through to him. This, he recognized with joy and amazement, was the raw power of the element of ice—and here he was, joined with it in a way that made his prior experiences look like the poor facsimiles of this strange, sweet union that they truly were. At last, he'd truly become one with his element, and it was wonderful.

    The bright, white nothingness finally drained from Solonn's vision, letting his surroundings come back into focus. The first thing he saw, through much sharper eyes than he'd had before, was the face of his coordinator. Her eyes were still very wide, and her mouth was agape.

    Solonn couldn't blame her. Along with his sight, all of his other senses had returned as well, giving him a full sense of what he'd become. He was well aware of the sheer size of his new body—he was huge, even if he didn't feel very heavy at all.

    He realized then that he'd taken to hovering without even trying; he now hung in midair just above Morgan's bed. Solonn became fascinated at once with his newly gained levitation. He moved himself for the first time in this new fashion, gliding a very short distance forward, marveling at how effortless it felt.

    Solonn was instantly at home in his new form. Elation and immense relief washed over him—he wondered how he could've ever feared to become this. A contented sigh escaped him, and he began to set himself down upon the bed with a smile—only to get right back up in a hurry when the bed creaked ominously beneath him, lightly knocking his horns against the ceiling in the process. Biting back a swear, Solonn looked up to see if they'd done any damage. To his relief, they hadn't.

    Morgan laughed. "Oh God, be careful! You're almost too big for this room, you know that?"

    She wasn't kidding. It was a good thing Morgan's room was so large; he took up a considerable share of its space as it was. If the room had been much smaller…

    "Actually… you're too big, period," Morgan noted. "No offense, but normally, glalie don't get quite so large; I'd expected you to be closer to my height, actually. Do you have any idea what could have made you turn out this way?"

    Solonn would have shrugged if it weren't for the fact that he no longer had shoulders. "Well, uh… I've always been kind of tall," he said in his new, much deeper voice, "but I have to admit, this is…" He trailed off, at a loss for words. He was easily half again the size of even the largest glalie he'd ever seen, and he had no idea why.

    "You know," Morgan said, "this might actually be a development that could work out in our favor. The audience is likely to be impressed by your size, and so are the judges."

    "Mm. Well, that's good to know."

    Morgan nodded. A second later, she looked as though something had just occurred to her. She glanced uneasily at the doorway, then at Solonn, and then back to the doorway once more. "Hey… um, how do you suppose we're even going to get you out of here so we can take you to the contest hall?"

    Solonn gave her a puzzled look, then followed her gaze and understood at once. "I will never fit through there," he said with a small, hissing chuckle. "Never again."

    "No, you won't," Morgan concurred, laughing.

    "…The ball will, though," Solonn noted.

    Morgan frowned slightly. "Well… you're right about that, but…" She sighed. "I don't know. I mean, I know you don't like it in there…"

    Solonn made a dismissive noise, shaking his head. "It's fine. You and I both know I can't be trapped here in this room forever. There's barely any room for us both to be in here at the same time; you'd hardly be able to get around in here with me in your way. You can't even get into your own bed with me in here."

    Morgan glanced backwards at where her belt was hung. Solonn's great ball gave off a slight, teal glint in the soft lamplight. "Yeah, I know," she said, still sounding rather guilty about the whole matter, "but…"

    "But nothing," Solonn said gently. "I don't mind going in there from time to time as long as it's only when I really have to. For now, just go ahead and get some sleep, all right? I'll go in the ball for the night, and in the morning you can just take me out to the backyard where there's plenty of room, and I'll just stay out there from now on."

    Morgan gave him one last look of uncertainty. "Well, as long as you're sure you don't mind…" she said, then went to fetch the great ball.

    "Hey," Solonn said. Morgan gave him an inquisitive look. "…I just wanted to thank you for making this happen… I never imagined this change would be so wonderful," he said earnestly.

    "Oh…" Morgan turned her head and smiled broadly, blushing a little. "You're welcome," she said. "I'm glad you're happy with your new form."

    She raised the ball toward Solonn, preparing to activate its recall function. "Goodnight, Solonn."

    "Goodnight," the glalie echoed. As the capture ball absorbed his body, thoughts of all that he had become absorbed the rest.

    * * *​

    Four days after Solonn's evolution, Morgan and Sei Salma stepped out into the backyard to join him. The former brought along a small, portable stereo, just as she'd done on Solonn's request every day since he had evolved.

    Solonn sat beneath the sitrus tree, watching the others as they approached. Morgan took a seat next to him, while Sei, carrying a large stack of magazines, levitated herself up into the branches above, picking a large sitrus berry as she settled into a comfortable position. Morgan then started the music with a smile.

    Solonn got the feeling he'd never cease to be amazed by the stereo that sat nearby, with the way it somehow produced human voices and the wide varieties of their music. Today's selection was especially impressive, and one song in particular took a peculiar hold of him.

    He closed his eyes, and he swore that he could actually see the music in his mind. He visualized it in the form of twisting, spiraling shapes that branched upward and outward, forming intricate patterns…

    A gasp from nearby interrupted his reverie. A second later, the music stopped. Solonn opened his eyes, and he hissed in surprise at what he saw. The shapes that he'd envisioned within his mind now surrounded the three of them, formed out of spontaneously generated ice.

    <But… how?> Solonn asked.

    <You're a cryokinetic,> Sei said, gazing down with a smile as she munched on the sitrus berry. <Among other things, this gives you the ability to generate ice. You're also able to mentally manipulate it. All glalie have these abilities.>

    <Well, yes, I knew that,> Solonn said, <but—>

    <—You didn't mean to use them,> Sei finished. <The subconscious activities of a cryokinetic can sometimes manifest themselves in a visible display, especially when said cryokinetic's abilities first awaken. And I didn't mean to read your mind there,> she added.

    Solonn continued to stare, stupefied by the sight that surrounded him. He'd created that display completely unwittingly. He'd managed to lose himself in that act, just as he'd lost himself in the music that had inspired it.

    His gaze fell upon Morgan, who looked fairly impressed as her eyes swept from one part of the ice formation to another. <Do you… do you like it?> he asked tentatively.

    Morgan turned toward him and nodded, beaming brightly. Her finger moved over the "PLAY" button. <Keep it up. Please,> she said, then pushed the button.

    The song resumed, and Solonn closed his eyes and tried to let the music absorb him once again, succeeding quite readily. For a moment, he wondered if manipulating the ice would be harder now that he was conscious of his actions, but he found that it was just as easy—and much more delightful. Solonn let his eyes open and serenely watched the manifestations of ice as they continued to change, dance, and grow in time with the music.
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    Chapter 6 – Back Onstage

    In the weeks that followed, Solonn underwent a far more stringent regimen of training and rehearsing than the one preceding his previous contest appearance, and he did so at his own request. On occasion, he spent an entire night rehearsing his routine alone in the backyard.

    "You don't really have to work so hard," Morgan told him more than once, but each time, Solonn insisted on continuing to rehearse to this extent.

    This was partly because he was, of course, intent on performing better than he had last time, but there was another motive behind his desire to devote so much time to perfecting his routine. Following that first interpretive ice display in the backyard, he and Morgan had decided to work one into his routine, even opting to replace the song he'd performed to last time with the one that had played when his abilities had awakened. Nothing else in his prior experience compared to the sensation of unity with his element—a sensation he now attained every time he practiced his routine. He became very keen on achieving that feeling as often as he could.

    Soon, those two months of preparation were behind him, and he found himself back onstage with his coordinator and all the other contestants in the Lilycove contest hall. The vast audience before him was in the process of voting, and Solonn quickly found that he couldn't help but wonder what they all thought of him. Consideration of this subject had come unbidden, but he made a conscious effort to dismiss it.

    If you can just get past this part, he told himself, then in just a short while, you can get away from all of them…

    The announcement that he'd received a sufficiently high rating from the audience to advance brought him a sense of relief and something else, as well: a mild but undeniable sort of eagerness. Soon he'd be alone on that stage, performing before that huge audience—but it would still be a chance to experience that incomparable unity with his element.

    And they won't be a part of that, he reminded himself as he went backstage with Morgan.

    Solonn made a point not to watch any of the performances preceding his own this time, remembering well how doing so had only intimidated him before. They don't matter, he thought resolutely. This is about something far beyond them.

    Finally, the time had come. Solonn emerged onto the stage, trying as he took his place there to view it as merely a stop en route to the far better place he was about to go.

    The lights went out. Nothing was visible to the crowd gathered within the auditorium except for two large, blue eyes glowing brightly from the center of the stage. Those eyes could still see the individual faces in the crowd quite well, more clearly than he had the time before…

    They will not be part of this.

    The music came alive. Very slowly, lights mounted in the stage turned on, shining pale blue beams on Solonn. Glistening within the glow, ice began rising in thin, vinelike shapes from the stage. They branched out and twisted as they grew slowly but steadily upward, swaying and flicking at the air in time with the music.

    The many branches of the seemingly living ice curled downward and inward toward their maker and joined together beneath his hovering body, forming a cradle of sorts. It began to ascend, lifting Solonn toward the ceiling.

    Meanwhile, more branches extended outward from the cradle to dance around him, then transformed into seven long, thin needles. Atop each of them, ice formed in the shape of a diamond.

    Solonn rose slowly from the ice along with the song's building crescendo. A protect aura bloomed around him as he lifted himself ever higher, surrounding himself with a deep blue glow. At the apex of his ascent, his eyes suddenly blazed with a surge of white light—and so did the diamonds of ice, which exploded one by one in time with the music in sparkling bursts of frozen mist.

    As the glow of the protect aura faded, Solonn descended to the stage once more, the ice beneath him gradually dissipating. The music worked itself into a frenzy soon after, and accordingly, Solonn summoned a miniature storm. Blizzard, icy wind and powder snow rushed in a spiral around him, the blue stage lights strobing all the while.

    Then the song abruptly ended, and Solonn's performance did likewise. The lights cut out; when they came back on a second later, there wasn't a trace of ice or of snow to be found anywhere. Nothing remained of the wintry spectacle save for the glalie who'd made it happen.

    Solonn looked out upon a silent audience as he hovered at the center of the stage, trembling a bit and breathing rather hard. Closing his eyes, he bowed deeply, inclining his face toward the floor. Then the audience erupted into applause—Solonn was grateful for their enthusiasm, but this was one moment when he kind of wished his evolution hadn't enhanced his hearing. The judges approved of his routine, as well; his score was in the top two, meaning that he'd proceed to the third and final round along with just one other finalist.

    Solonn momentarily returned to his great ball for a trip to the rejuvenation machine backstage. Second-round performances usually took quite a bit out of a pokémon, and Solonn's performance was no exception—without rejuvenation, he certainly wouldn't have the strength to perform well enough in the final round's battle. Once both he and his opponent had taken their turn in the machine, the third round was ready to begin.

    "Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer said, "we've seen quite a parade of truly skilled performers tonight. Now we're down to the very best of the crop, the final two. Let's hear it for Alex Rhodes and Kelly from Mauville and Morgan Yorke and Solonn from right here in Lilycove!"

    The exuberant noise of the crowd filled the air as the finalists made their way onto the stage. Solonn took his place a couple of yards in front of Morgan and gazed across the stage at the opposing team, which consisted of a girl with long, blonde, braided hair and a golduck who was giggling to herself.

    "The match will end when the clock runs out, when one pokémon's points are entirely depleted, or when one pokémon is rendered unable to battle," the announcer explained. "Without any further ado, let the final round begin!" With that, a loud tone rang out over the PA system, signaling the commencement of the battle.

    "All right, Solonn. Let's show them our icy wind/ice beam combo," Morgan said.

    "Then we'll start with psybeam and water pulse!" Alex said.

    Solonn summoned two of his ice-type abilities simultaneously. Charged with the pure elemental energy of the beam, the small, razor-edged ice particles contained within the icy wind took on a brilliant cyan glow as they rushed toward Kelly on a frigid gust.

    Meanwhile, Kelly launched her own attack, continuing to giggle inexplicably as she did so. Her combination of psybeam and water pulse created a rainbow-hued ray through which glowing blue rings of water-type energy rippled.

    Solonn's attack turned out to be the stronger of the two, the result of both halves of his combination coming from his own element. The ice-type combo overtook Kelly's attack and scattered its energies, foiling it. The shredding gale then assaulted Kelly herself. Being a water-type, she suffered very little from its charge of elemental energy, but the sharp edges of its icy shrapnel managed to tear shallow cuts all over the golduck's body, making her squawk in pain.

    Kelly's points suffered as a result of the hit. The bar that represented them on the scoreboard shortened, albeit only slightly.

    "Now, let's take some defensive measures, shall we? Light screen, Solonn," Morgan said.

    "We'll try our psybeam and water pulse combo again, then," Alex said. "He's sure to dislike it…"

    A glowing pink force field rose around Solonn, enveloping him completely. At the same time, Kelly fired her psychic/water-type combination attack again, which lanced forth in a rush of psychedelic colors. Solonn's psychic shield negated the water-type aspect of Kelly's attack, but the psybeam at the combo's core managed to penetrate the barrier. It struck him squarely between the eyes, its psychic-type energy drilling straight into his brain to try and addle his mind. Solonn snarled at the pain, shaking his head furiously to dispel the psychic assault. Confusion didn't set in this time, but he and his points still took a hit.

    "Okay, now give him a hydro pump!" Alex said enthusiastically.

    "Uh-oh… you'd better protect, Solonn," Morgan warned.

    Still giggling, Kelly summoned one of the highest powers of her element. An intense, blue glow filled her eyes, and a thick, powerful jet of highly pressurized water suddenly surged forth from her open bill.

    But just as the golduck launched her water-type assault, Solonn conjured a deep blue aura around himself. The hydro pump dissipated spectacularly on contact with the protect shield in a great burst of mist; the aura fell an instant later. Kelly's point bar shortened further due to the utter failure of her attack.

    Alex sighed. "Well, I was really hoping we wouldn't have to resort to this, but it looks like you guys have left us little choice. Attract, Kelly!"

    "What? Ah, no… protect, Solonn! Hurry!" Morgan urged. It was a gamble; a protect aura couldn't always be counted on to form more than once in succession. But there was simply no other hope for Solonn to avoid Kelly's technique.

    Solonn tried to bring the shield back, and for a fleeting moment, he seemed to have succeeded. But the aura was gone a split-second later, leaving Solonn with no form of defense between him and Kelly, the latter of whom was now surrounded by a rose-colored glow. With a sweeping motion of her arms, the pink light rolled off in a wave that washed swiftly and inescapably over Solonn.

    At first, he was rather appalled at himself. Good gods, have I seriously been attacking her? How could I have even considered doing harm to such a sweet and wonderful person? How could anyone? But the guilt evaporated quickly, leaving only a vapid happiness. Whatever spell he'd been over was gone. The fighting could end, and he and Kelly could enjoy a nice, peaceful evening.

    Morgan cast an uneasy glance at the scoreboard as Solonn's points suffered from both his failed protect technique and his succumbing to Kelly's attract. "Solonn!" Morgan shouted. "Listen to me: you've got to keep your head! She doesn't love you, and you don't really love her. It's just a trick! Now, quickly, hit her with a blizzard/icy wind combo before she can attack again!"

    To her dismay, Solonn ignored her instructions altogether.

    Kelly, meanwhile, was giggling her brains out more than ever. It was a wonder that she even heard her coordinator's next command, which was to blast Solonn with a hydro pump while he was still dopily daydreaming. But she heard indeed, and she didn't hesitate for even a second to attack her spellbound opponent.

    Solonn just stared as a sphere of water-type energy formed in front of the golduck, pulsing with light as it gathered power. Oh, how pretty…

    With a loud crash and a veritable explosion of water on impact, the hydro pump blasted Solonn with such force that he was nearly sent flying on a collision course with his coordinator. Solonn's points decreased greatly—they were now perilously low.

    Righting himself with some difficulty, Solonn gasped wildly for air in the wake of the hydro pump. In the next instant, the light screen he'd summoned finally faded away. If it hadn't been there when the hydro pump had struck, Solonn might not have been able to get back up afterward.

    What… that wasn't very nice… Solonn thought dazedly as he fought to catch his breath. I thought she liked me! He decided to go over to Kelly and ask her why she'd done that.

    "No, Solonn, don't get closer!" Morgan tried to warn him. "That'll just make it easier for her to blast you!"

    What? No! She'd never blast me! Solonn objected internally, as if Kelly hadn't done just that mere moments ago. She's my best friend!

    And then something clicked in his brain: Wait… no, she's not…

    "All right, Kelly, let's finish him off now," Alex called out, sounding very pleased with the current situation. "Surf!"

    "Come on, Solonn!" Morgan urged. "Cut through her tricks and give her a blizzard/ice beam combo! Come on, I know you can snap out of it!"

    As it so happened, Solonn already had.

    Kelly's giggles escalated into a sharp, triumphant quack of a laugh. She closed her eyes, then clasped her hands together and lifted them toward the ceiling. There was a brief, blue shimmer of water-type energy at her feet, followed by a pillar of water that began to rise from the stage beneath her. She inhaled deeply just before it engulfed her. The pillar lifted her from the stage and up through itself as it rose, ready to surge forth at any instant. Even as Kelly still rose up through the wave toward the position in which she'd ride it over her opponent, the summoned wall of water suddenly lurched forward toward its target.

    Solonn's eyes blazed with bluish-white light as his gaze fixed itself firmly on the burgeoning wave. As the water surged toward him, he threw his jaws wide open, and a narrow, highly concentrated blast of wind, ice, and snow exploded forth with raw ice-type energy crackling through it like lightning.

    The combination attack roared as it rushed through the air, intercepting Kelly's attack swiftly. With a series of cracking sounds, the ice-type blast froze the summoned wave around the golduck. Only the spiked crown of feathers atop her head had crested the wave before the water had frozen; not desiring to smother Kelly, Solonn quickly shifted the part of the frozen wave that surrounded her into a hollow sphere around her.

    "Oh crap! Kelly, you've got to get out of there!" Alex cried.

    Kelly was already trying to escape her icy prison. She clawed frantically at the frozen walls with fury swipes, but the surrounding ice was just too thick to succumb very readily to her claws. She fired a psybeam at the ice, but much of the psychic-type energy dissipated against the frozen barrier, while the rest just passed inconsequentially through it.

    Panicking, the golduck desperately tried once more to claw her way out, tearing savagely at the sphere with all her might. The ice was finally starting to give way to her efforts, but not by much.

    Meanwhile… there was only so much fresh air in that frozen prison, and Kelly was spending her oxygen quite swiftly through her struggles to free herself. Thus it was that in fairly short order, the golduck exhausted herself thoroughly and passed out. Seeing that she was out cold, Solonn sublimated the ice bubble that surrounded her, then slowly dissipated the pillar of frozen water beneath her, gently lowering her to the stage below.

    A loud buzzer sounded, and a large, red "X" appeared over Kelly's picture on the scoreboard. Solonn had won the final round—and just in time, too. The clock had nearly run out for the match, and despite the points Kelly had lost when her own attack had been turned against her, Solonn's score had still been lower. If Kelly hadn't fainted before the timer could hit zero, she would have won.

    "Ladies and gentlemen!" the announcer said in an exuberant voice. "Please give a great, big, hearty round of applause for the winners of the Lilycove normal rank beauty contest, Morgan Yorke and Solonn!"

    The lights in the auditorium blazed into vibrant colors, and showers of confetti began falling from the ceiling. A great surge of noise rose up from the audience, many of whom stood as they applauded and cheered.

    A shriek of delight sounded behind Solonn, making him wince slightly. Its source then tackled him in a joyous semi-embrace; Morgan was hardly fazed by the fact that her arms barely encircled him at all.

    After recalling Kelly, Alex rushed across the stage to shake her opponent's hand, looking impressed. A moment later, the short, mustached head judge approached Solonn and the two coordinators, then handed the normal rank beauty ribbon to Morgan.

    Good, the glalie thought as he gratefully lowered his weary body to the stage, good. One down, three to go…
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    Chapter 7 – The Sought-For Matter

    Having earned the normal rank beauty ribbon, Solonn's next goal was to obtain the super rank ribbon. The next super rank contest was slated for the fourteenth of November. Solonn lamented the amount of time that separated him from his next trip to the contest hall, but he also recognized its value. He'd have even more time to rehearse than he'd had prior to his last contest, and he was sure he'd need it in order to compete to the higher standard demanded by his higher rank.

    Though he'd have more time to prepare for this contest, he'd have less time to train with his coordinator. It was now early September, and a new school year had begun, leaving Morgan with less time to spend at home. Morgan wasn't the only one spending hours at school each day; Eliza was a teacher at one of the local elementary schools.

    As such, Solonn was left home alone for several hours on end nearly every day. Even Morgan's other pokémon weren't around to keep him company; most of them preferred to remain in their capture balls at nearly all times, for whatever reason. Sei didn't, but she preferred to go out into the city while the humans were away, doing gods only knew what.

    Not that Solonn exactly minded the solitude. He readily made use of the quiet time to meditate upon his connection to his element, which in turn helped him conceive and practice new ice displays. Solonn quickly grew to treasure these hours alone, time that belonged strictly to himself and his element. The only thing he could think of that would make these sessions better was if he could operate Morgan's stereo.

    One Tuesday morning, Solonn began another of these sessions, initiating a ritual that now preceded each rehearsal. He was about to enter the meditative state that would allow him to quickly achieve a very strong and deep connection with his element… but then he heard something moving in the grass just beyond the fence. Solonn would've normally dismissed the sound, but the one that followed—a puzzled vocalization of some sort—made it hard to ignore.

    He kept listening and caught an odd scrabbling noise—There's something climbing the fence… he knew at once, but couldn't even begin to guess what that something might be.

    A second later, the mystery solved itself. Solonn was now staring into the huge, crystalline eyes of a sableye who now sat upon the fence. He cocked his head at Solonn as if puzzled.

    "Who're you?" the sableye asked in a perky, slightly rasping voice.

    Solonn gave the sableye a bemused look. "I could ask you the same."

    The sableye chuckled weirdly, giving no other response to Solonn's retort. He then sprang from the fence and onto the sitrus tree, clinging to the bark with sprawled limbs. He scrabbled up the trunk and sat upon one of its branches, letting his short legs dangle off the side.

    Solonn couldn't even begin to figure out what in the world the little creature was up to, but quickly decided he had better things to do than bother with the sableye. He closed his eyes and commenced his meditation, determined to pay no mind to the presence perched above. He might have succeeded in this endeavor if it weren't for the overripe sitrus berry that burst against the top of his head a second later.

    Solonn turned a flat, annoyed glare upward. The sableye above him was grinning, showing an incredible number of tiny, pointed teeth. "What do you want, exactly?" Solonn demanded.

    The sableye stared down at Solonn for several moments with his brow furrowed, feigning deep thought. "I think I want to throw more fruit at you," he replied finally. With a faint whoosh, the sableye turned to smoke and shadows, then vanished in a feint attack. There was a bit of rustling amidst the branches before the sableye reappeared on the branch above Solonn, both arms laden with more sitrus berries. He started throwing them at Solonn but gave up after the first pair of them collided in vain with the glalie's deep blue protect aura.

    "You're no fun," the sableye pouted. He clambered down the tree trunk and sat down next to Solonn, drumming his fingers on the ground for a brief while. Then he began poking Solonn in the side, prodding at the gaps in the glalie's armor.

    With an exasperated sigh, Solonn turned to face him. "Could you leave me alone, please?"

    The sableye left Solonn alone—for about five seconds. Then he gave an exaggerated groan of boredom. A second later, he climbed back up the tree. He hung upside-down from a branch for a moment, then dropped down right onto the glalie's head.

    Solonn tried very hard to ignore the sableye, who was now dancing on top of his head. There is something wrong with that creature's mind. As far as he was aware, people typically didn't just enter someone's personal space and begin pestering them with no explanation.

    "Is there any reason why you need to be doing this to me?" Solonn asked, somehow managing to keep most of his impatience out of his tone.

    "Hm? No, not really," the sableye answered airily. He continued skittering around on Solonn's head for a few moments, then crawled headfirst down the glalie's forehead and lowered his face between Solonn's eyes, grinning. "Hi."

    "Go away, please," Solonn said.

    The sableye shook his head solemnly and began staring right into the glalie's eyes—and then recoiled, pulling his head back as though something had just taken a swipe at it. His faceted eyes flashed; he'd have been blinking in surprise if he'd had eyelids.

    "Hmmm…" the sableye said as he brought his face even closer to Solonn's.

    "What in the name of all gods are you doing now?"

    "I'm seeing you in a whole new way…" the sableye said, trying to sound mystical. "Hmmm… very interesting. Very interesting, indeed…"

    "Are you quite finished bothering me?" Solonn asked.

    The sableye took a moment to consider the question. "Almost," he responded. Then he planted a very juicy kiss right on the diamond-shaped patch of bare hide in the middle of Solonn's forehead. With that, he sprang off of the glalie's head and into the grass, then turned and gave Solonn a Cheshire grin. "Buh-bye!" he said cheerfully, then scampered off across the lawn, scaled the fence, and disappeared over the side.

    Supremely baffled by what had just happened, Solonn breathed a sigh of relief now that the sableye had left the scene. Stop trying to make sense of him, Solonn advised himself. You'll only end up giving yourself a headache. Giving the sableye no further thought, Solonn finally, gratefully resumed his session.

    * * *​

    The sableye hurried through the alleyways of Lilycove, anxious to get home as quickly as possible—he'd made quite the discovery while pestering that oversized glalie. The sableye's eyes held an peculiar sort of sight; if he looked hard enough, it showed him more than a person's appearance—it could also show him secrets. Among the glalie's, there was one in particular that was especially remarkable, and the sableye knew he wasn't the only one who'd take interest in it.

    In no time at all, he arrived at a modest brick house, a place he'd called home for only the past few days. He hurried up the walkway, pausing at the front door. Initiating a feint attack, he felt a momentary tingling of dark-type energy all throughout him before it swept him into a quick transformation. His body changed into shadowy wisps of black vapor before disappearing altogether. He reappeared inside the house, solidifying on the other side of the door.

    Once indoors, the sableye started screeching excitedly to alert another resident of the house of his arrival. Soon, a male human picked his way swiftly but carefully through an adjacent hallway and into the living room, dodging scattered cardboard boxes full of things he still hadn't unpacked. He'd only just emerged from the shower; his slightly long, auburn hair was still sopping wet, and he'd only bothered to throw on a pair of boxers before going to greet his pokémon.

    "Hey, Xi," he said. "Back kind of early today, aren't you? Are you feeling all right?"

    <I'm okay, Daron!> Xi cheerfully assured the human, employing the telepathic skills he'd inherited from his gastly father. He chuckled effervescently, his multitude of pointed teeth flashing in another of his enormous grins. <I just found something really neat, and I just couldn't wait to tell you about it! Oh, you won't believe it!>

    "Heh. Is that right?" Daron said as he crossed the living room to the front door and scooped his pokémon up into his arms. He carried Xi to the sofa and sat down. "So what'd you find, hmm?"

    Xi chuckled again. <You might not believe me if I just told you… I have to show you instead…> Xi told Daron, gesticulating dramatically and using the telepathic version of his "mystical" voice.

    Daron sighed. "Ah, that's never pleasant… but, if you insist…" He lifted Xi up to eye-level. The sableye beamed at him, then pressed his palms against Daron's temples. Daron braced himself, forcing himself to stare unwaveringly right into Xi's crystalline eyes. Those eyes lit up from within, and a sudden, painful jolt lanced into Daron's head as Xi's most recent memories rushed into his brain.

    Almost as soon as the memory transfer had begun, it was finished. Xi let go of his trainer's head, and Daron made a sound halfway between a sigh and a groan as he set the sableye down on the sofa cushion beside him, grateful that the process was quick, at least.

    Xi grinned up at his human companion. Daron returned the sableye's gaze with a positively awestruck expression, his eyes wide and staring.

    "You did it…" Daron said. "I don't believe it… less than a week on the job, and already you've hit pay dirt!" He laughed in sheer amazement and pride. "Great work, Xi!"

    Xi gave a squeal of delight. <I knew you'd like it!> he exclaimed while cheerfully applauding himself for his discovery.

    "Oh, I'm not the only one who'll like it," Daron said. "I'm gonna go call him right now," he added. He got up and made his way into the kitchen, retrieving the cell phone that he'd left on the counter and immediately placing a call he'd thought he might never get to make.

    "Mr. Saller?" a kindly-sounding, elderly man's voice answered within seconds. "What a pleasant surprise to hear from you, my boy! Have you quite settled in to your new home yet?"

    "Getting there," Daron replied. "I've still got a bit of unpacking to do, I'll admit, but I've gotten pretty accustomed to this place already. Xi and Cleo love it here," he added.

    "Oh good, good!" the voice on the phone responded. "So, tell me, my boy. What's the occasion for this conversation, hmm?"

    Daron smiled. "You might want to make sure you're sitting down, sir." He took a deep breath, then announced, "We've found one."

    Not a word issued from the receiver for a long moment. "…You're quite certain?" the old man finally asked.

    "One hundred percent," Daron said with confidence. "Xi's eyes don't lie, and he showed me exactly what they showed him."

    "Well, he'll need to show me, as well. Can't be certain any other way, after all, and we mustn't move ahead until we are indeed certain," the old man said. "You can transfer him here from the pokémon center."

    "Will do, sir," Daron assured him.

    "Good, good…" The old man sighed happily. "It's a wondrous thing, my boy, to see our goals coming to fruition so soon…"

    "It sure is," Daron concurred, nodding.

    "Well, then," the old man said crisply, "once I've had my meeting with Mr. Xi, we'll discuss our further course of action. Be on standby, my boy."

    "No problem, sir… And the authorities?"

    "A non-issue, as I stated during our first meeting," the voice on the phone assured him. "You need only concern yourself with the task at hand. See to it that everything is carried out without a hitch, and both you and your partners will be handsomely rewarded."

    "You can count on us," Daron said coolly, and then the old man hung up.

    * * *​

    Eight days had passed since the sableye's visit. Thankfully, the sableye hadn't returned since, leaving Solonn free to practice his art without any disturbances.

    At his summons, twin spires of ice extended toward the heavens, catching the sun's rays with a brilliant sparkle. They began a sinuous dance while their choreographer watched them, smiling serenely.

    "That's very pretty," said an unexpected, monotone voice from above.

    Surprised, Solonn looked up. A venomoth hovered overhead, scattering a small quantity of fine powder into the air with every flap of her wings.

    Another unexpected guest, Solonn thought, looking up at her somewhat warily. He could only hope this visitor wouldn't give him the same sort of company the previous one had. "Er… thank you," he said a bit awkwardly. He moved out from under the venomoth; the powder falling from her wings was beginning to irritate his eyes.

    "Sorry to interrupt your performance," the venomoth said, "but I was sent to give you something."

    The venomoth gave no further explanation for her next actions. Her wings made a dramatic shift from lavender to baby blue, and with a single, powerful flap, they tossed a cloud of pale blue sleep powder on a swift gust of wind at Solonn.

    Taken by surprise, Solonn failed to do anything to avoid the attack and inhaled some of its dust before he could stop himself. He tried to retaliate at once, but his ice beam missed its mark; his eyelids had closed irresistibly just before he could aim it. He dropped to the ground, swallowed up in a profoundly deep sleep.

    There was a faint rushing sound, and a mass of black vapors formed out of thin air just outside the back door. Xi now stood in the backyard, clutching a great ball in his hands. His faceted eyes found the sleeping glalie, and he broke into a grin. "You did it, Cleo!" he congratulated the venomoth, happily scampering across the lawn to join her.

    Cleo glanced down at the capture ball that Xi held. "Are you sure that's the right one?" she asked.

    "Uh-huh. I checked them all. This is the one!" the sableye answered with confidence; he'd scanned each of the capture balls and thereby found the digital signature marking this one as the glalie's.

    "And are you sure you know how to use that?"

    "Uh, yeah," Xi said a little crossly. With a exaggeratedly demonstrative air, he aimed the capture ball's lens at the sleeping glalie and recalled him into the device. "See? I told you I could do it," the sableye said triumphantly. Cleo just rolled her eyes at him.

    "Okay! We got what we came for," Xi said. "Let's go!" With the great ball clutched tightly in his hand, he quickly scampered up and over the fence and departed the scene in gleeful haste, with Cleo winging her way close behind him.
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    Chapter 8 – Gone

    Roughly three hours later, Solonn awoke at last, his eyes opening with something of a delay. Almost immediately, he realized he had no idea where he was. He was in the middle of a somewhat large, high-ceilinged, and presently rather dark room. The place was quite bare; there were no furnishings around him, and only a couple of scattered, human-made objects strewn about suggested that this place actually belonged to anyone. As far as Solonn could tell, he was presently alone.

    He didn't know what this place was or why he'd been taken here, but he was quite sure he didn't want to stay to find out. He promptly ascended from the ground, his last traces of drowsiness burned away by an urge to get out of there as soon as possible. His gaze swept the room in search of an exit and found a door in the wall to his left, near the back of the room. It was plainly too narrow to admit him, but Solonn wasn't going to let that stop him.

    Without a second's hesitation, he lowered his massive, horned head, ready to ram the door down and burst through its frame. With a surge of speed, he charged toward the exit—but some unseen barrier unexpectedly caught him short and sent him reeling back violently. Partly stunned and taken utterly by surprise by the recoil, he wildly overcompensated in his efforts to regain control of himself. He lost hold of his equilibrium entirely and ended up crashing face-first into the wooden floor, the boards beneath him splitting on impact.

    Solonn hissed and snarled in pain as red and white flashes played across the inner surfaces of his eyes and a shrill whine rang within his ears. He lay face down for a moment, wondering what in the world had just happened. Ignoring the throbbing in his head and the dizziness that came along with it, he lifted himself back up from the floor. He stared hard into the empty air before him as if he could will the barrier to appear, but saw no signs of it or its source.

    This phenomenon baffled Solonn, but he was determined to figure it out. He knew he had to overcome this obstacle to escape from this place, from the ones who'd brought him here, and from whatever their intentions for him were. He approached the invisible barrier slowly and carefully, mindful of the recoil it had given him when he'd charged it at full speed. He soon found it and felt it firmly resisting him as he pushed against it.

    Closing his eyes in determination, he slowly increased the pressure that he placed on the force field. He gradually entrusted every ounce of his considerable weight to it, exerting it upon the barrier with all his strength. But no matter how he hard he pressed, the barrier wouldn't yield to him. Still, he kept trying, despite how it worsened his headache.

    Then the force that held him at bay abruptly stopped resisting him altogether, causing him to pitch forward and fall onto his face again. He shouted a muffled oath into the floorboards as the pain in his head spiked sharply.

    He heard a sound then: quickly-approaching, human-sounding footsteps moving toward him from behind. He suspected it was someone involved with his abduction and detainment, probably coming to subdue him after hearing the commotion he'd caused. Certain that he couldn't get away from whomever was approaching in time, he prepared to fight his captor off. Growling a warning deep in his throat, he rose and turned to face—and to strike—whomever had just arrived.

    But Solonn caught himself short of attacking when his eyes fell upon the newly-arrived human, and he let the elemental energy that he'd gathered for his intended ice beam dissipate harmlessly. Standing there a couple of yards before him was none other than Morgan, breathing hard and casting furtive glances about herself every few seconds. Solonn noted at once how badly disheveled she looked: her skin was drenched with sweat, her hair was mussed, and her eyes were swollen and bloodshot as if she'd just spent an hour or two crying. She was carrying a hammer that wobbled as her shoulders heaved; it looked ready to drop to the floor at any second.

    "Oh, thank God I found you…" Morgan said almost voicelessly. "Now try to move toward me."

    Still fairly dumbfounded, Solonn did as she requested. Nothing pushed back against him as he approached her; the force field had fallen.

    "It's gone," he noted aloud as he came to hover before her. "Some kind of invisible barrier was holding me here—you stopped it somehow, didn't you?" Solonn asked. Morgan nodded. "Do you know what it was, exactly?" he asked.

    "It was a mean look," Morgan said hoarsely. "I found a sableye right out there." She pointed at the thick, maroon curtain hanging at the front of the room; Solonn had assumed it was another wall, but now recognized that someone could just push it out of the way and pass right through. "He was using that technique to keep you within a certain distance of him—until I hit him in the head with this." She raised the hammer, then let it fall to the floor. "He's out cold now."

    A sableye… Solonn had told Morgan of the creature who'd paid him a visit eight days ago, and she'd told him just what that creature was. The image of the sableye flashed within his mind… and was closely followed by that of the venomoth who'd shown up that very morning and drugged him with sleep powder—another unexpected guest within such a short frame of time. It seemed like an awfully unlikely coincidence…

    "Did you find anyone else here?" he asked Morgan. "A flying, purple pokémon, perhaps?"

    Morgan shook her head. "No. I searched this whole place over. No one else here except that sableye… I didn't find the rest of you here, either," she added, her voice quieting considerably on those last nine words.

    Solonn's brow furrowed in sudden, troubled confusion. "The rest of… what? Morgan, what are you talking about?" he asked worriedly.

    Morgan's eyes closed, and she turned away. She opened her mouth to speak, but whatever words she'd had prepared caught in her throat. "I'll explain soon," she finally managed, then turned to face Solonn again. Her eyes were brimming with tears. "Let's just get you out of here."

    Frowning in deep concern, Solonn nodded, then made for the curtain.

    "No," Morgan said, halting him. "That way just leads into another part of the building. We'll go out this way." She pointed toward the exit that Solonn had previously spotted. "That'll take us outside."

    Solonn made his way over to the door, and Morgan followed. "You're gonna have to smash the door down," the human told him as they reached it. Having already figured as much, Solonn was already backing up for a charge. Once he'd put enough distance between himself and the door, he lowered his head (resigned to the certainty that this would reawaken his headache), then hurtled forward in a headbutt attack. The door exploded from its hinges as he crashed through it, its frame bursting apart.

    Morgan quickly joined him outside. "Sit down just for a second," she instructed him. "You're much faster than I am—we can get out of here a lot quicker if you give me a ride."

    Solonn complied at once. As soon as he set himself down upon the grass, he felt Morgan clambering onto his back, using the gaps in his armor as handholds and footholds to climb up onto the top of his head.

    Morgan situated herself there, sitting with her legs extended forward and her hands clutching his horns. She started shivering hard; noting this, Solonn made a more conscious effort to focus his elemental power and keep his coldness to himself.

    "Okay," Morgan said, "okay. I'm going to tell you which way to go… you just concentrate on moving as fast as you can. Now go! Hurry!"

    Solonn set off in an instant, achieving his maximum velocity quickly. He worried that Morgan might fall off at this speed, but she seemed to hang onto him capably enough. While he'd expected her to have him hurry toward her house, she instead steered him into unknown territory, guiding him through a maze of alleyways barely wide enough to admit him.

    Her directions eventually led Solonn out of those alleyways and then, unbeknownst to him, out of the city itself. He'd been rushing along at top speed for minutes now and was tiring—he shuddered to think how much worse he'd feel if he'd had to run this far. Morgan urged him to keep going, and he figured she probably had a good reason to flee so far from that theater. Preferring to be safe rather than sorry, he continued on, ignoring his body's rising complaints.

    Solonn and Morgan were now swiftly moving westward along a scenic, grassy route. Delicate-looking metal fences lined the path on either side. Some distance beyond the fence on the right, a large, flat building stood. The fence on the left provided the sole barrier between the road and a treacherous drop off of a sheer cliff toward a sparkling expanse of water. Even though he could only see the scene to the south out of the corner of his eye, Solonn was in awe of what he could glimpse of the waters and the mountain they embraced.

    At length, this route gave way to a place teeming with trees and vast patches of tall grass. By this point, Solonn simply couldn't go any further. It's far enough… he figured, it has to be… Groaning, he sank to the ground, managing to resist the urge to roll over onto his back. He wasn't about to risk casting Morgan off and possibly crushing her.

    Morgan climbed off of him somewhat awkwardly. She sat down in the grass in front of him and promptly buried her face in her hands.

    For a very long moment, Solonn sat silently, trying to catch his breath and ignore the fact that he ached everywhere. "What's happened?" he finally asked, still practically wheezing.

    Several seconds passed before Morgan gave any sort of response. Her face remained buried in her palms, her fingers knitting themselves fretfully into the hair that framed it.

    "They're gone," she finally answered in barely more than a whisper.

    "…What's gone, Morgan?" Solonn asked softly, the edges of his voice frayed by rapidly-building dread.

    "Not 'what', Solonn," Morgan corrected him, her voice breaking. "Who." Her shoulders started to shake uncontrollably, and then she gave a wrenching sob. "My other pokémon are gone. Stolen. All of them."

    The news struck Solonn like a hammer. "What?" He could have sworn that his heart had just stopped. "Oh good gods… When did you find out?" he demanded.

    "A couple of hours ago," Morgan answered miserably, still hiding her face. Tears were now streaming through her fingers. "I wasn't feeling so good at school… really, really nauseous… and they excused me early. I came home, and you were gone, and all the others, too… they took the balls they were in and everything," she sobbed.

    Oth… Raze… Sei… Aaron… Brett… all those pokémon who'd become his good friends had been taken away, gods only knew where. As he thought about them, he became brutally aware of just how helpless they'd been in their capture balls—small, portable devices, easily carried off…

    But not all of them had been so vulnerable… "What about Sei?" Solonn asked. "She was out of the house, wasn't she?" The possibility of Sei still being free offered a ray of hope for the others—her psychic abilities could surely aid in locating them.

    Morgan shook her head. "No, she wasn't. Before I left, she said she was staying home… some marathon on TV…"

    Solonn gave a low, sorrowful hiss. He hadn't even noticed that Sei had been home all morning; he supposed he must have been too engrossed in his contest practice to be aware of her. "My gods…" he muttered. He almost feared to imagine what sort of abductors could have successfully subdued such a powerful psychic—he'd been beyond fortunate to have safely escaped from such dangerous captors.

    But the others… A sickening, unbidden parade of the grim scenarios that might have befallen his friends ran through his mind.

    "How did you manage to find me?" Solonn asked as soon as he could find the words.

    Morgan took a very deep, shuddering breath, trying in vain to calm herself. She finally took her hands off her face, revealing her still-bloodshot eyes and tear-streaked cheeks. "When I found you all gone," she started, having to pause to catch her breath in between sobs, "I called the police… they came and talked with me for a while…

    "After that… I don't know. I just started wandering—when I'm sad, I'll just do that, just go for a walk—and then I saw this place with this sign in front…" Her face contorted into what was unmistakably a grimace of disgust. "'See the Amazing Talking Glalie!', it said."

    Solonn's eyes widened dramatically, their light blazing. He hissed again, more sharply this time. "That's what they took me for? Some kind of freak to show off?" he asked. Morgan nodded regretfully. "How… how could they possibly have found out?" he demanded.

    "I don't know!" Morgan blurted. "I sure didn't tell anyone!"

    Solonn winced. "Sorry… I wasn't trying to accuse you…"

    "Oh God…" Morgan's tears began to fall even harder in a fresh surge. "No, I'm… I'm sure you weren't…"

    Solonn gave a long sigh. "It's all right…" he muttered. With difficulty, he lifted himself from the ground, setting himself back down closer to Morgan. Burying her face in her hands once more, she leaned into him at once, her side against his—he wished at once that she hadn't. He barely had any strength to keep his element at bay, and the human was shaking enough without him right up against her. But ultimately, Solonn had neither the heart to make her move nor the energy to move himself.

    For minutes on end, they just sat there beside one another, neither saying a word. Nothing disturbed the silence save for the faint calls of distant seabirds. Even Morgan's sobs had grown quiet, though they remained just as violent.

    "Did you say that you called for help… for people who could possibly help find the others?" Solonn finally asked in the softest, most soothing tone he could manage at the moment, trying despite his own terrible worry to provide a calming, consoling presence for his friend.

    "Mmm-hmm," Morgan responded weakly.

    "They might still set things right," Solonn said, attempting to reassure himself as well as Morgan. "They might still find out who did this… they might still find the others."

    "God, I hope so… Do you know anything about the ones who took you?" Morgan asked. "Anything that might help the police find them?"

    "Not really," Solonn answered with a sigh. "Some sort of winged pokémon came and threw some kind of strange dust on me, and then I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was where you found me. I have no idea what happened in between—I know that creature couldn't have worked alone, though. We know that sableye was involved, but there had to be others. I'm so sorry; I wish I knew more…"

    "It's okay," Morgan muttered. "It's not your fault. If anything… it's probably mine."

    "What? Gods, no, you know better than that!" Solonn responded incredulously.

    "Solonn, think about it. They probably came for you. Somehow, they found out about you, and then they took you so they could make money showing you off—and all the others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time…" Morgan turned her gaze briefly to the east, then closed her eyes. "I should have let you go when you first asked. Then none of this would be happening."

    Solonn closed his eyes. "Please, Morgan… don't blame yourself. Please." He opened his eyes once more and turned them upon her, their light dimmed by sorrow and weariness. "Besides," he added guiltily, lowering his gaze, "I'm the one who told you not to take me back right away, remember? It was my idea."

    But Solonn's words seemed useless; the look in Morgan's eyes told all too clearly that she was not consoled and not convinced. "Doesn't matter," she said, almost voicelessly. She tried once more to steady herself with a deep breath, but to no avail. "I shouldn't have kept you here. I guess there's just no safe place for someone like you among humans. Solonn… I'm letting you go now."

    Solonn stared at her, dumbfounded. Part of him returned to the last time Morgan had offered to release him, that night when he'd revealed his talents to her. Though he'd come to know her quite well by this point and knew she'd never thought of him as a possession, he was still amazed somehow that she, the very creature who'd taken him from his home, would so willingly relinquish him. Twice, he thought to respond, but neither time did he have any clue what to say.

    "Listen." Morgan rose shakily to her feet, casting another glance eastward, then turned to face Solonn once more. With an obvious effort, she kept her gaze locked firmly into his eyes. "Since… since the others are gone…" she said with difficulty, "…well, I can't have you teleported home, and there's an ocean between here and there, so…" She swallowed hard, running a hand fretfully through her hair. "What you're gonna have to do is just lie low for a while. I'm… I'm kind of scared for you to go back to Lilycove right now; the people who took you are still out there, and when they find out you got away…" She shook her head. "If they find you again, God knows what they'll do.

    "Just stay away from Lilycove for a week or two, just to be safe, and in the meantime, I'll try to get a hold of someone who can get you home. I promise. Maybe… maybe the others will be found by then… then Sei or Ominous could take you. But if you find some way to get home on your own… go ahead and take it. Please. Don't wait for me if you don't have to."

    Still in disbelief, Solonn remained silent for several moments more before responding. "If you're sure this is what you really want…" he began, uncertain. Morgan nodded almost imperceptibly. Solonn sighed in acquiescence. "All right," he said quietly. "I'll return to Lilycove after a few days. Until then," he said with a solemn look straight into her eyes, "I want you to take care of yourself. You're a good person, Morgan. You really are. I wouldn't want to see anything happen to you."

    Morgan nodded again. "Okay," she whispered, wiping the tears from her eyes as well as she could. She wrapped her arms around the glalie as far as they'd go in a long embrace, then let go and took several steps back from him. "Guess I'll see you again soon, but if I don't…" She shrugged feebly. "Goodbye, Solonn."

    "Goodbye," Solonn echoed. He rose from the ground, ignoring his body's protests, and bowed deeply.

    "Stay safe," Morgan said. With that, she turned and set off for the city in the east.

    "You, too," Solonn called after her, sinking back into the grass as he watched her go. He worried about Morgan, who'd been parted from so many dear friends in the blink of an eye. He feared even more for her other pokémon, whose fates remained unknown. There was no way of telling if things would be set right again for them. He could only hope they would.

    * * *​

    Morgan returned home, listlessly casting the light jacket she was wearing onto a nearby chair as she passed through the living room. After such a long, difficult day, her mind was somewhat distant. Out of habit, she made her way straight to the back door, to the backyard where she'd shared so many hours with the glalie who'd become one of her best friends. A sickening pang struck her at once as the door opened upon the empty space near the sitrus tree where he should have been.

    "Oh my God… Where is he?"
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    Chapter 9 – Convergence

    Very tall, thick grass surrounded Solonn, swaying slowly in a light breeze. Beneath him, the grass was flattened; he'd tried to sleep there the night before, to no avail. There, he now sat under the pale pink morning sky, gazing out into the east. Though it was too far away for him to actually see, the city he'd fled stood there beneath the rising sun.

    His abductors might have been combing Lilycove for him at that very moment. They might even have extended their search outside the city limits.

    He didn't know if his enemies were likely to find him before his allies could. Despite his worries, he still managed to hold on to some hope that Morgan could appear through the grass at any moment with the news that their friends were safe and she was ready to take him home.

    These were precisely the sorts of thoughts that had kept Solonn awake all night. Countless times, his eyes had begun to close, only to immediately fly open again and dart about fretfully in search of anyone who might have been approaching him.

    Solonn couldn't recall having been so on edge in his life, and he wondered how he'd be able to sleep that night if he still hadn't heard from Morgan or anyone else who could help him. He also wondered how he was going to feed himself at this point. While he'd lived with Morgan, she'd always provided for him. She'd given him that flavored snow to eat before he'd evolved, and afterward she'd given him specially-formulated pokémon food designed to meet the needs of a large carnivore without requiring them to do their own hunting.

    Now, without Morgan to feed him, he had no choice but to take on his natural role as an active predator. Solonn was anything but eager to go through with it. His hunger was steadily growing, but through minute after minute, hour after hour, he'd ignored its pleas. He was determined to continue doing so for as long as he could.

    He began to wonder just how long he could go without food. Morgan had always fed him twice a day. He didn't know how frequently the glalie back in Virc-Dho hunted; they didn't discuss such matters with snorunt.

    Solonn suspected this was so that the snorunt would be able to accept the instincts that came with evolution without any prior misgivings about predation in the way. He'd had those misgivings precisely ever since learning that glalie were carnivores. Still, the instincts were there inside him, as much a part of him as of any other glalie. He tried ignoring them, but they remained stubbornly in place, waiting for his inevitable surrender.

    He winced slightly at yet another pang of hunger. Morgan had fed him prior to leaving for school the day before, and he hadn't had anything since. Though he'd looked forward to the day when he'd regain his independence, the fact of the matter was that he'd fallen into the habits of a human's pokémon. He'd become unused to fending for himself, and he certainly wasn't prepared for anything along the lines of "roughing it".

    A brief rustling in the grass alerted Solonn to a newly-arrived presence not too far away. He turned and saw the glow of the newcomer's body heat, which seemed to flicker as it shone between the swaying blades of grass. Something stirred in the back of his mind, trying to persuade him to see the solution that lay in this discovery.

    Take them, it seemed to say. Take them and know relief.

    Solonn paid no mind to it, closing his eyes and turning away from the creature. He silently reminded himself that whatever the creature was, they were not prey. Still, his instincts pleaded their case, but still, Solonn managed to tune them out, even as they seemed to emphasize their point by sending another hunger pang down into his belly.

    I'm not doing it, he argued, gritting his teeth. Good gods, I'm not starving to death yet…

    His physical demands wouldn't be silenced, however, and they presented yet another unbidden argument: You'd better get used to this—it's how you'll be feeding yourself for the rest of your life. There aren't going to be any humans around to feed you when you get back to Virc-Dho.

    Solonn sighed in resignation. There was the undeniable truth of the matter: his independent survival required him to embrace his predatory nature. There'd be no processed pokémon food where he was going. There would only be prey—lives he'd have to end for the sake of his own. He knew he'd ultimately have to accept it. But he couldn't imagine ever liking it.

    With considerable reluctance, he turned back toward his would-be prey, rose from the ground, and began moving in their direction. The creature had drawn closer to him since he'd last looked toward them, as if oblivious to his presence; even moving at minimal speed, Solonn would be upon them swiftly.

    As Solonn approached, he called upon his element, summoning ice to hold the prey in place and prevent their escape. The hapless creature started screaming at once, their voice shrill and surprisingly loud to be coming from such a tiny throat and tiny lungs.

    Solonn tried to shut out the cries, but his keen hearing allowed him no such refuge. Struggling to steel himself for the task that lay ahead, he pushed his way through the grass separating him from his prey and looked upon them directly for the first time.

    There, with ice encasing her legs and tail, a female zigzagoon screamed again and again. Seeing the huge face of her captor looming before her had only heightened her terror. Her head thrashed and her spine arched as she fought to free herself, but her struggles were useless—in truth, she knew this just as well as Solonn did. Closing her eyes, she fearfully awaited her imminent demise.

    Solonn could almost taste his prey's fear on the air as he prepared to deliver the killing strike. She'd freeze solid in an instant. She wouldn't have time to suffer. He just needed to tap into that power, and the deed would be done…

    He hissed and wrenched himself away from her. He couldn't do it. He just couldn't. You should've just taken her out when you first noticed her. You shouldn't have looked at her first.

    Solonn looked back at the zigzagoon, whose features were contorted almost grotesquely in mortal terror. His throat constricted, and his stomach went sour, extinguishing his appetite. With a hiss of disgust, he instantly vaporized the ice holding the zigzagoon in place.

    After a second's delay, she dared to open her eyes. She stared up at Solonn with a wild gaze, paralyzed with fear and confusion.

    "Go," Solonn said abruptly. "Just go."

    The zigzagoon remained rooted to the spot, fixed in place by disbelief. Her jaw worked almost imperceptibly, as if she were trying to speak.

    Solonn didn't wait for her to pull her words together. "Go!" he shouted, darting at her to emphasize his point. With a squeak of fright, the zigzagoon scrambled away as fast as she could, with not a single glance behind her.

    Solonn sank wearily to the ground, more than a little disgusted with himself. Gods' mercies, you almost killed that poor creature… He shuddered as he thought of what would have happened if his reluctance hadn't gotten the better of him.

    "Well, that was certainly magnanimous of you," said a jovial and utterly unexpected voice.

    Quite startled in his rather compromised state, Solonn spun around instantly to face its source. He found a swellow hovering in midair before him, his beating wings stirring the grass below. Solonn wondered how this creature had managed to sneak up on him.

    The swellow landed, pushing the tall grass out of his face with his wings. "You know, ordinarily I might hesitate to stop and chat with an ice-type such as yourself, but given what I've just witnessed here, I'd dare assume yours to be safe company," he said, then bowed. "Do allow me to introduce myself. I am the swellow Jal'tai. And you are…?"

    Still slightly bewildered by the pokémon who'd appeared in his midst so suddenly, Solonn responded with a bit of a delay. "Solonn Zgil-Al," he introduced himself; then, after a short pause, he added, "the—"

    "Oh, I know, I know," Jal'tai interrupted with a chuckle. "You don't need to tell me what you are, Mr. Zgil-Al. There's no mistaking a glalie for anything else once you've seen one. So, then. I haven't seen you around these parts before. Have you only recently relocated here?"

    "I guess you could say that," Solonn replied. "I mean, I haven't exactly moved here permanently…" The swellow cocked his head inquisitively. Solonn hesitated at first to elaborate, but then reckoned it was safe as long as he didn't give away too many details. "I've just escaped from human kidnappers in Lilycove," he told the swellow. "I'm just lying low in this area until I can find some way to get back where I came from, across the sea."

    "Oh my… that must have been harrowing," Jal'tai remarked, sounding both astounded and pitying. "Thank goodness you escaped, then. Say… if you need a place to stay, I know an excellent candidate." He took on a rather grand pose, puffing out his feathered chest. "I don't reside in this area, either; I just like to come here every now and again for a break from all the hustle and bustle back home. I come from a city in the west, and it's the greatest city in the world, in my opinion. And I'd bet anything you'd agree with me, given the chance to see it with your own eyes! You could stay safe from your pursuers there, and in far more comfortable conditions than you'll find out here. Plus, I'm certain you'd find a means to cross the sea there—that is, if you'll want to leave!" the swellow added with another chuckle. "So, what do you say, hmm? Can I tempt you with a stay in my beloved city?"

    Solonn eyed him somewhat skeptically. "That's a very nice offer, but… well, I'd really rather not enter another human city if I can avoid it—that is what you're talking about, isn't it?"

    Jal'tai blinked in surprise, then burst out into crowing laughter. "No, no! It's not a human city, I assure you. You'd realize that very swiftly if you saw it for yourself. Oh, you'd be amazed at the things it has to show you…"

    Solonn considered the swellow's offer. Moving farther into the west, and thus farther from Lilycove, would keep him farther from the reach of his abductors. And the locals probably wouldn't mind sharing their food with him as well as their shelter; he could already feel the relief of being spared the need to hunt for a while.

    But at the same time, he couldn't help but think of Morgan and her promise to return if she found a way to take him back to Virc-Dho. He didn't want to discard all of his faith in her. And in all honesty, he still hoped to see her and her pokémon one last time, and preferably under happy circumstances. He wanted to bid them a proper farewell—the one they all deserved for treating him so well.

    He hadn't forgotten what else Morgan had said, though. She'd expressly told him that if he found another means to return home before she did, then he should take it. Solonn questioned whether or not this was truly what she wanted—would she really want to give up the chance to see him one last time?

    But in the end, he decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. This was what she'd said she wanted. The least he could do was believe her.

    "All right," he said finally.

    "Ah, excellent!" Jal'tai said, sounding supremely delighted. "Come, then, follow me!" With a powerful flap of his wings, Jal'tai took to the air, sending the grass below him into a frenzied dance as he set off very swiftly toward the west.

    Solonn sighed wearily; the evening before had been quite taxing and his body still wasn't quite ready to hurry anywhere. "Jal'tai? Excuse me, could you slow down a bit?" he called after the swellow as he struggled to keep the pace.

    "Oh, of course!" the swellow responded, and slowed down significantly. "Terribly sorry about that. I just simply can't wait to show you my city…"

    As Solonn followed Jal'tai, he found the tall grass thinning, eventually disappearing altogether. Conversely, the trees were becoming denser and more plentiful as he continued westward. Soon, Solonn found himself in a true forest—and a bit of inconvenience.

    "Jal'tai! Wait!" he shouted. Jal'tai had slowed down even further now that there wasn't enough space for him to fly. Solonn would've had no problem keeping up with him if it weren't for the fact that he was forced to pick his way between the trees that grew far enough apart to admit him.

    Jal'tai halted and turned. There was a smile playing about his eyes that suggested he was holding back an urge to laugh. "I apologize on the trees' behalf," he said, the tiniest of chuckles managing to break through.

    Solonn gave Jal'tai a dull glare, then continued trying to escape from the forest. "I do hope this 'city' of yours isn't so—" He broke into a snarl as a branch on one of the trees he was squeezing past swatted him just below his left eye. "—infested with trees…"

    "Oh heavens, no. The forest had to be cleared in that area before the city could be built—a necessary evil, I'm afraid, but I daresay it's come to give more to the area than it's taken. Anyway, you won't have to suffer the vegetation much longer. We're nearly there."

    This came as a surprise to Solonn; the only thing they seemed to be getting any closer to was another several acres of dense forest. Managing at last to catch up with Jal'tai after coming across a relatively sparse section of the forest, Solonn started looking about for signs of Jal'tai's city, but still saw nothing but trees.

    "Halt!" two voices shouted in unison. In nearly the same instant, a pair of stantler jumped out in front of Solonn and Jal'tai from behind two of the trees, landing gracefully on their dainty hooves. The stantler glared at them for a moment, lowering their golden antlers menacingly—then abruptly raised their heads once more and took a step back, looking alarmed.

    "Oh! We… we didn't realize it was you!" one of the stantler said.

    "We're so sorry… really, we are… very sorry…" the other one rambled.

    "Well, that is why it's wise to always look before you leap, now isn't it?" Jal'tai said pleasantly.

    The two stantler nodded. "Can… can you forgive us?" one of them asked.

    Jal'tai gave a chuckle and a dismissive wave of his wing. "Oh, of course, of course," he said. "No harm done at all. Now, why don't you fellows let us in and then see about having someone else finish your shifts, all right? It doesn't do to work too long; it's absolutely murder on the nerves, as we've seen quite clearly."

    "Yes, yes, of course…" one of the stantler muttered. His eyes drifted from Jal'tai to Solonn, and the other stantler's gaze followed. It was as if they'd actually failed to notice the large glalie hovering there up to that point.

    "Yes, he's with me. You know I wouldn't let just any of them in," Jal'tai said.

    Both stantler hesitated for one last moment. Then they gave another quick nod and stepped aside.

    "Thank you kindly," Jal'tai said warmly, bowing his head as he passed between the two guards. "Right this way," he said to Solonn, beckoning with his wing. "It's right through here."

    "Where?" Solonn asked as he moved forward alongside Jal'tai. "I don't see—"

    The glalie was instantly stricken silent by the sight that had spontaneously appeared before him. All at once, the endless forest ahead of them was replaced by a thoroughly modern city. He could see the sky again; the only trees in sight lined the streets in neat rows and stood here and there in people's yards. A few of the city's inhabitants, varying in species, were strolling along the sidewalks or milling about in the lawns or on street corners. Every now and then, a vehicle cruised up or down one of the visible streets at an easygoing pace.

    Still mesmerized by the city that had just appeared before him out of thin air, Solonn was a bit startled by the wing that clapped him heartily on the back then. He looked to the swellow beside him, who was smiling warmly in the fashion of his kind, the look in his eyes positively radiating pride.

    "Welcome, my friend," Jal'tai said, spreading his wings wide, "to Convergence, the city of a better future! Isn't it magnificent?"

    "Well…" Solonn began a bit awkwardly, furrowing his brow. Convergence had certainly made an impressive entrance, but beyond that… The fact of the matter was that he would've thought more of it if it hadn't seemed so familiar. Solonn had gazed out the window at Lilycove enough times to know a human-style city when he saw one. "It's certainly… er, doing well for itself, and I guess that's nice, but… Jal'tai, I thought you said this wasn't a human city…"

    The swellow chuckled. "Yes, I most certainly did. And on closer inspection, you'll realize that indeed, just as I stated, this is not a human city. Or do you not see the abundance of pokémon about?"

    "What of it? Pokémon live in human cities, too," Solonn pointed out.

    "True, true… but there remains a very significant difference between those cities and this one. Why, look over there," Jal'tai said, gesturing with his wing toward a truck that had stopped at a traffic light some distance before them. Its driver was large and hairy—and an ursaring. The light turned green, and the truck went on the move again, heading their way. Solonn could hear country music issuing from the vehicle's radio; the bear was nodding her head and growling along faintly with the song.

    "Now, there's something you won't see in a mere human city," Jal'tai said.

    The ursaring rounded a corner, pulled into a driveway, and stepped out of her truck. She then turned and spotted Jal'tai and Solonn. Her eyes widened, and she waved vigorously. "Hi!" she half-roared cheerfully from across the street.

    "Good day to you, madam!" Jal'tai returned, waving back at her. "I might also add that Ms. Olcarion actually owns that lovely house," he then informed Solonn. "As a matter of fact, all of those homes are owned by pokémon," he said, indicating the three houses to the right of the ursaring's home. "Independent pokémon, Solonn. Do you realize the significance of that?"

    Without waiting for Solonn to answer, he continued. "In human cities, pokémon are second-class citizens—if even that." Disgust flitted across his features. "But here, pokémon are afforded the same rights and opportunities as humans. They can own the same properties, operate the same vehicles, and enter the same occupations. Our academy offers education and training that only humans can receive elsewhere.

    "This is a community with no parallel in the world today, one in which pokémon and humans can truly live and work as equals. Do you see now what makes Convergence great?"

    Solonn nodded slightly, still absorbing Jal'tai's claims. Were pokémon really such non-entities in human society? True, pokémon were taken from their homes without consent and made to live with their captors, but Morgan had never mistreated him or any of her other pokémon… If what Jal'tai said was true, then he'd been quite fortunate to end up with her rather than with a more typical human.

    "Now, then," Jal'tai said crisply. "I'm feeling rather in the mood for lunch of a sudden… How about you?"

    Solonn made to answer Jal'tai, but his stomach beat him to it.

    "Ah, right then," Jal'tai said. "We'll go to Whitley's; it's to die for…"
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    Chapter 10 – Whitley's

    The swellow led Solonn deeper into Convergence, heading for the center of town. Along the way, Solonn spotted more of the city's residents out and about. They were mostly pokémon, some of whom were using human-made devices—which was nice, he supposed, but he wished the electabuzz they passed would shut off that leaf blower sometime soon. He could still hear the thing from several blocks away.

    Solonn also saw a pair of humans as he followed Jal'tai, and only a pair. It seemed that the pokémon outnumbered the humans here. As far as he could tell, though, the humans were happy to be living here. They were neither goggling nor blatantly avoiding looking at the pokémon citizens; it seemed they found nothing strange at all about the notion of pokémon outnumbering them and living their lives as if they were human themselves.

    At last, Solonn and Jal'tai arrived at Whitley's. The restaurant was a large, country-styled building with a fairly sizable, nearly empty parking lot. Above the entrance was a sign depicting an elderly, goateed man's smiling face. The words "Whitley's Family Restaurant" were spelled out beside the portrait—twice: once in what Solonn recognized as a form of human writing and once in a curious, unfamiliar script that seemed to be made up of eyes, with bars radiating out from them in varying shapes and at varying angles.

    Solonn was able to read the first script just as he could whenever he'd seen it before, so he wasn't terribly surprised that he could read the second script, as well. But there was more to his comprehension of the eyed letters than mere literacy, and he recognized this immediately.

    Puzzled, he brought the matter up with Jal'tai. "That second kind of writing, there on that sign… There's something different about it. I don't know how to explain it other than that it just feels… more natural to read somehow."

    "Ah. I suppose you've never seen unown-script before." Jal'tai smiled. "Well, Mr. Zgil-Al, there is a reason why it feels natural to read. It is our written language, the script of pokémon. Allow me to explain. The unown are a species of pokémon who are credited as the ones who eradicated many of the communication barriers between the peoples of the world. Many pokémon, myself included, believe that it was they who blessed the differing races of pokémon with the ability to understand both one another's languages and the spoken languages of humans. But for some reason, their blessing failed to touch humans, leaving them unable to understand pokémon speech.

    "The unown tried to solve the problem through the creation of a universal written language, a process so demanding that it apparently forced them to evolve to that specific end. They developed special written characters that they infused with a mysterious quality meant to render them instantly comprehensible to both pokémon and humans alike. And it worked, too, at least under some circumstances; with it, pokémon have been able to convey messages to humans that they could otherwise never receive. Sadly, the script failed to catch on—perhaps the cultures that used it were conquered or decimated by humans who trained pokémon to fight for them rather than communicating and living in harmony with them," the swellow added, bitterness seeping into his tone.

    "Anyhow," he finished, "though the script fell short of a perfect solution, it was successful enough that we saw fit to celebrate and honor the unown and their tremendous efforts toward interspecies understanding by using unown-script as a sort of official 'language' of our city. All citizens are required to memorize all of its symbols, humans and pokémon alike."

    Solonn took another look at the sign and its message in unown-script, intrigued and quite impressed. That an entire species would literally transform itself in the name of promoting universal communication… He wondered what it would be like to actually meet one of them. What could he learn from them—especially given his own relationship with the concept of universal communication?

    His eyes widened. Wait…

    "Tell me, Mr. Zgil-Al," Jal'tai spoke up crisply, interrupting Solonn's reverie almost as soon as it had begun, "when you mentioned that unown-script felt 'different to read'… did you mean as compared to human writing? I've always hoped to meet another who is human-literate just as I am."

    Solonn just barely managed to keep his jaw from dropping open. Stupid! he scolded himself. He fumbled internally for a means to repair any damage done. "Oh… no, I can't read that," he finally said, his words tumbling out a bit faster than he'd intended. "I just guessed that it said the same thing that it said below in the unown-script."

    "Hmm…" the swellow responded. "Well, perhaps if you're interested, I could teach you to read human-script sometime, hmm? In the meantime… I daresay we've tarried outside for long enough. Why wait a moment longer when food's right inside? Come on, then!"

    Solonn followed Jal'tai to the thankfully large front doors, which opened for them automatically. They entered the restaurant, which was warmly lit by a large number of hanging, stained-glass lamps, and were immediately greeted by a hitmonchan in a tuxedo.

    "Ah! You grace our presence in person yet again!" the hitmonchan exclaimed. "And this gentleman is your guest?" he asked, at which Jal'tai nodded. "Very well, then. Please, let me show you to your usual table."

    The hitmonchan beckoned them toward the back of the restaurant. They passed a table where a female human sat feeding small morsels of meat to a baby makuhita in a high chair that barely accommodated him. Solonn spotted an area off in one corner of the restaurant that was enclosed by slightly tinted, soft plastic walls with a zippered door flap. Inside, several koffing and grimer laughed around a pile of something slimy and rotten-looking beneath a large exhaust fan. In another corner, two magnemite contently orbited a peculiar, seven-foot-tall, towerlike structure that hummed faintly with electricity.

    Jal'tai's "usual table" was located in a private room in the very back of the restaurant. The room was decorated with paintings of landscapes on every wall and a potted shrub in every corner. A modest chandelier hung above the table in the center of the room, with small light bulbs rather than candles shining in its arms.

    Jal'tai perched atop his seat, his talons gripping the back of his chair while his tail feathers draped over it toward the floor. Solonn, being quite large, quite heavy, and just not equipped for sitting in chairs in general, merely pushed the one at the opposite end of the table aside and sat down in its place, grateful to be out of the air again after all the traveling he'd done lately.

    "Your orders, then, sirs?" the hitmonchan prompted.

    "Oh, it'll be the Cerulean fish platter for me. Yes, again," Jal'tai said with another of his chuckles. "And for him… oh, just give him the Specialty of the House to start with. And you know where to send the bill, of course."

    "Yes, sir!" the hitmonchan confirmed enthusiastically, then departed their table and the room.

    "Isn't it refreshing to see pokémon holding occupations other than 'gladiator'?" Jal'tai said wistfully. He sighed. "Alas, the indignities we suffer at the hands of humans… Which reminds me, Mr. Zgil-Al: what of those humans from whom you escaped? Do you have any idea what their motives might've been?"

    Solonn was taken a bit by surprise even though he hadn't exactly expected that his abduction wouldn't come up again; he'd just rather strongly hoped it wouldn't. Recovering quickly enough, "No idea whatsoever," he lied. "Frankly, I'm glad I never got the chance to find out."

    "Indeed," Jal'tai said. "You've certainly been spared a most degrading fate."

    You don't know the half of it… Solonn held Jal'tai's gaze for a moment more, then let his eyes flit about from one painting on the wall to another in the awkward silence that hung in the air until Jal'tai spoke again.

    "You mentioned fleeing from Lilycove… I've not heard of an ice-type colony anywhere in that vicinity—believe me, as a flying-type I would make sure to find out about it!" Jal'tai said with a laugh. "No offense, of course," he added quickly but coolly.

    "Meh," Solonn responded, not really bothered.

    "Anyhow, you were brought into Lilycove by these humans from someplace else, then, correct?" the swellow asked.

    "Well…" Solonn hesitated for a moment, but then supposed that there was no real harm in mentioning Morgan, though he opted against using her name. "Not by those humans, but yes, I was brought to Lilycove by a human." He mindfully chose the word "brought" rather than "taken"; Jal'tai clearly had a less than favorable attitude toward humans, especially those who kept pokémon. Solonn figured it was probably prudent to choose his words carefully; he didn't want the swellow to speak ill of Morgan. "I lived with her for several months. She really was a decent person. I won't lie about it—I do miss her…" He sighed. "She must be horribly worried about me…"

    "Do you think you'll ever return to her?" Jal'tai asked quietly.

    "I don't know," Solonn answered truthfully. "I mean, I'd like to, sure. I just don't know if Lilycove will ever be safe for me again… those people are still out there, and I don't know if they'll ever be caught."

    "Let us hope they will be, at any rate," Jal'tai said soberly. Solonn nodded in agreement.

    Their food arrived then, the hitmonchan deftly balancing a wide tray upon his large hands. The waiter set a ceramic platter partly covered in fish fillets in front of Jal'tai and an odd, wooden pedestal in front of Solonn. On top of the pedestal sat a large, raw steak. The hitmonchan then provided each of them with a saucer of water.

    "I'll be back shortly," he said merrily. "When I return, you just let me know if you need anything else, okay?" With that, he left the room.

    Solonn eyed the pedestal, puzzled. "What is this thing?"

    "Hmm?" was Jal'tai's muffled response; he already had a large chunk of fish in his beak. He swallowed it. "Oh yes, that. It's just something to make it a little easier for those without limbs to enjoy their meal, particularly someone like yourself—I can see where you'd experience some difficulty plucking meat off a plate as I'm doing."

    Solonn's eyes shifted the tiny distance upward from the pedestal to the steak itself. "So… this is meat, then?"

    "Mmm-hmm," the swellow confirmed through another bite of fish. "I imagine you're unused to it being cut and processed in such a manner, but I assure you, it is meat."

    Solonn made a small, wordless noise of acknowledgment. So… this thing before him had once been a part of a living creature. Trepidation fluttered in the vicinity of his heart as he continued to stare at the steak.

    Once again, his internal advocate for predation chose to speak up. It's what's right for you, you know.

    Solonn continued to eye the steak uneasily. Part of him couldn't help but try and picture what the former owner of this flesh had looked like before being slaughtered.

    Come on—it's not like you killed whatever they were, was the internal argument.

    That angle fell just short of mollifying him. He cast a quick glance at Jal'tai and found that the swellow was temporarily neglecting his fish fillets to gaze back at him concernedly.

    "Are you quite all right?" he asked. "You haven't touched your Specialty there."

    "Er…" Solonn began, pausing as he swallowed nervously. "…I was just trying to figure out what's so 'special' about it…" he half-muttered, inwardly cursing himself a bit for not coming up with a better response. Still, he preferred it to telling the truth. It shamed him somewhat to admit it to himself, but the fact was he was disinclined to confess—and perhaps have to justify—his reservations about eating meat.

    "Well, taste it and you'll find out!" Jal'tai said with the swellow equivalent of a beaming grin.

    Solonn shut his eyes briefly, battling an urge to grimace. Until he started eating, the swellow would probably continue to press the issue. He wasn't eager to go through with it, but he was all too aware of the swellow's eyes upon him.

    At least it hasn't got eyes, the other faction of his mind told him. At least it can't look back at you.

    Solonn sighed heavily. There might as well have been two in his company who wouldn't relent until he dug in. The fact that one of those persistent voices was actually a part of him didn't help matters.

    Silently, he rose from the floor and looked down at the steak. With a flash of light in his eyes, it froze instantly. Closing his eyes involuntarily, he lowered his face toward it and took it into his mouth.

    It didn't taste like he'd expected. He'd thought it would have the sharpest, most foul flavor imaginable. Instead it was actually rather bland. Solonn vaguely wondered if his brain had done him a favor and temporarily weakened his sense of taste.

    As he began to chew, he tried very hard not to think about exactly what he was grinding between his teeth. It's just ice, he tried to convince himself, that's all… He wanted to rush it down his throat as quickly as he could, but his gullet seemed possessed of contrary urges. It took a few attempts to force the meat down.

    Solonn opened his eyes again, only realizing then that he'd had them closed the whole time. Jal'tai was smiling at him, looking satisfied.

    "Was it to your liking?" the swellow asked.

    Solonn gave a quick nod, wondering if anything in his expression was contradicting the gesture. His eyes traveled downward to the saucer of water. Some good, fresh ice sounded like a good idea right about then.

    He was glad that water had been provided for him to freeze; he'd spend a bit less effort doing that than he would've spent generating ice out of thin air. He stared intently at it, and within mere moments it changed into a stalk of ice rising from the middle of the saucer. He nipped it off as close to the dish as he could, then sat back down as he crunched it up.

    The hitmonchan returned and immediately set about removing the cleared plates and pedestal as well as Solonn's saucer, leaving Jal'tai's largely ignored saucer where it sat. "Is there anything else I can get for you gentlemen?" he asked.

    "Nothing more for me," Jal'tai said, shaking his head gently. "What about you, Mr. Zgil-Al? Care for another Specialty?"

    There were very few things in the world that Solonn would have cared for less at that moment. "No thanks," he said—or tried to say. His words were almost completely engulfed in a massive yawn.

    "'No', did you say?" the hitmonchan asked.

    "Hm? Yeah, that's right," Solonn confirmed.

    "Very well then, sirs. I hope you've enjoyed your day here!" the hitmonchan said cheerfully, then left.

    Jal'tai took a moment to stretch his wings, then jumped down from the chair. "So, Mr. Zgil-Al. Would you like for me to give you a nice tour of the city?"

    "Ugh… that'd be nice, but…" He unleashed another yawn. "I don't know… I'm just really tired all of a sudden. I feel like I need to get to sleep."

    Concern filled Jal'tai's gaze. "Hmm. Well, in that case, I think we'd better seek out a place where you can rest. I think your recent tribulations must have finally taken their toll on you."

    Solonn nodded listlessly, suspecting the swellow was right. It seemed that his body had taken all it could; now it was demanding a break for a while.

    "Come, Mr. Zgil-Al. The Convergence Inn isn't terribly far from here at all. I should be able to get a room for you there without any trouble." The swellow left the private room and beckoned Solonn to follow.

    * * *​

    Solonn barely registered the trip from Whitley's to the Convergence Inn, hardly even aware of any conscious effort on his part to stay floating as he drifted lethargically behind the swellow. He didn't absorb Jal'tai's words when the swellow told him they'd arrived at their destination until several seconds after the fact.

    Vaguely, Solonn noted that he was following Jal'tai into the hotel. He almost didn't notice when Jal'tai strayed from his immediate vicinity and crossed the lobby to go speak with a swampert receptionist.

    Jal'tai returned shortly, then gestured with his wing toward an elevator to Solonn's right. "This way," he said. "Your room is on the top floor."

    Making a wordless noise of acknowledgment, Solonn let Jal'tai guide him toward a spacious elevator. Jal'tai pressed a button set in the wall beside the elevator's steel doors, which opened a few moments later. Solonn drifted into the elevator quite slowly and somewhat unsteadily; Jal'tai just managed to dash in after him before the doors closed and the elevator began to rise.

    Once it came to a stop, the two of them emerged onto the uppermost floor. Jal'tai moved ahead of Solonn and proceeded a short distance through the corridor. "Here it is!" he soon called back to the glalie.

    Solonn glided over to join him, so hampered by drowsiness at this point that he nearly drifted right into the wall before coming to a stop at the swellow's side.

    "This shall be your room for the night," Jal'tai said, "right in there." He gestured toward the very same wall that Solonn had almost bumped into. There was no door, no apparent way into the "room" that Jal'tai was indicating. The wall was nearly featureless save for the words "Grand Suite" in blue human- and unown-script and a pair of strange devices fitted into the wall next to them. One of these fixtures was some kind of keypad, while the other resembled nothing so much as a round, blank, gray eye.

    Even in his lethargy, Solonn managed to give the swellow quite the skeptical look.

    Jal'tai smiled. "Observe." Fluttering up into the air before the keypad, he punched a code into it using a single claw, then hurriedly flapped aside from it.

    "Ready," said a computerized voice from out of nowhere, and a large, glowing, green square lit up dramatically on the floor in front of the lens and keypad. "Please enter the transport field."

    "Go to that square and sit down," Jal'tai said.

    Solonn did as he was told. "Initializing scan," said the computerized voice. The lens on the wall awakened, glowing with a brilliant, golden light. It projected a beam of the same color, which touched Solonn, broadened to his width, and swept up and down over him. "Scan complete," the voice said, and the beam vanished.

    The tile flashed. A peculiar, tingling sensation prickled over the glalie's skin, followed by a strange sensation like going into a capture ball. But instead of entering a bodiless nothingness, he materialized inside a large, richly furnished suite with paintings on its walls that put the ones hanging up at Whitley's to shame. Marble figures of various dragon-type pokémon stood here and there, no two of them alike.

    Not that Solonn could truly appreciate his surroundings. To his weary eyes, everything around him was beginning to bleed together into a blur of color and light.

    "Hey in there!" Jal'tai shouted, his voice coming in through the wall. "Do you like it?"

    Solonn turned toward the wall and made a noise that was as affirmative-sounding as his exhaustion would allow.

    "Good, good!" Jal'tai responded merrily. "Now, listen, I doubt you'll need anything overnight; your suite comes very well equipped, I assure you. But, if you do… Well, have a look at the little table by that green armchair in the den." He gave the glalie ample time to find it; Solonn, in his present state, needed every second of it.

    "I see it," Solonn finally said, his words slurred. At least, he thought he saw it.

    "Good," Jal'tai said, speaking more loudly now. "Now, you'll notice the little black box with a large, round speaker on top—you can use that to call me if you need anything. It's voice-activated. You need only speak into it—say 'Page', then my name, followed by 'Room 44-B', which is where I'm going to be staying. Call, and I'll come up here as quickly as I can manage. Got it?"

    "Got it," Solonn confirmed, although he was only minimally aware of what he was saying.

    "All right, then. Rest well, Mr. Zgil-Al!" Jal'tai said brightly. His words were followed by a continuing silence, signifying that he'd left.

    With yet another huge yawn, Solonn lowered himself to the floor. He rolled onto his back and gratefully let his eyelids close, sighing as he did so. His fading mind drifted back to things he'd learned earlier that day, lingering on the unown. Solonn remembered, in a detached sort of way, that they'd piqued his interest, but he'd fallen too far toward sleep to remember why. Already half-dreaming, his brain conjured images of the fantastic, surreal beings that it guessed the unown to be, whimsically bizarre creatures that danced in circles around his consciousness as it dwindled away.
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    Chapter 11 – Bereaved

    The space surrounding Solonn was utterly silent and dark, but far from still, anything but empty. A stream of pure power rushed through this lightless, ethereal plane like a river. It brought the most wonderful feeling: an almost inebriatingly sweet familiarity that comforted and revitalized him as it flowed freely all around him.

    This was the raw, elemental power of ice, and he reveled in its direct presence and contact. He couldn't see it, but he recognized it in the surest, most ingrained way. He floated contently within it, free from distracting thoughts as the very essence of his mother element rushed over him.

    Subtly, imperceptibly at first, the elemental stream began to pick up speed. The glalie in the midst of it noticed with a delay, regarding it with nothing more than mild curiosity, still wrapped up in his unity with the power of ice. But concern eventually set in, and it grew stronger as the current flowed faster and faster—soon, the stream was rushing by so swiftly that he could barely perceive it.

    That concern turned to fear, and then panic, when Solonn couldn't feel it at all anymore. It was no longer flowing alongside him—it was rushing away.

    It was leaving him behind.

    No! No, come back! he tried to call out as it hurried to some distant, invisible point far beyond him. But in this place, he had no voice. He couldn't speak, couldn't move. He was helplessly suspended in empty space, the life-sustaining flow of elemental power nowhere to be found.

    Panicked, he cried out silently, again and again. How this could be happening? How could his mother element abandon him like this, knowing it would mean his death?

    His mind began to splinter in earnest as he made his final, desperate appeals for salvation, pleading voicelessly to the multitude of gods, begging for his life. But moments passed with no response. The severance from his element would not be undone.

    He almost didn't feel it when something finally disturbed the emptiness around him. Just as soon as he'd noticed it, before he could even begin to identify it, a strange, pacifying wave emanated from whatever it was and engulfed his mind completely.

    All will be fine, it seemed to say. Do not be concerned.

    The suggestion came as gently as could be, but also as irresistibly as possible. Perhaps it was death; perhaps it was salvation; perhaps it was something entirely beyond reckoning. Whatever it was, Solonn obeyed its consoling command without resistance. The glalie slipped away from all further thought and sensation without a care.

    * * *​

    Vague notions of waking up crept into Solonn's mind, just out of grasp of his full consciousness. Unhurriedly, he began reconnecting to his senses. With his eyes still closed and his consciousness liable to slip right back into sleep at any moment, he decided and attempted to rise up.

    He failed.

    Still only barely awake, emerging very slowly from the deepest sleep he'd ever known, Solonn felt something only marginally resembling concern. He could've sworn he'd just commanded himself to get up off the floor. He tried once more to ascend…

    …And failed again.

    As his mind unmuddled even further, a burgeoning panic set in, one that spiked when the notion finally hit him: I can't get up!

    His eyes flew open. A plant hung in a basket directly above him, a number of leafy tendrils spilling over the basket's rim to dangle toward the floor. Something was distinctly… off about it, and as his gaze shifted away from it, he realized what the problem was: his vision had gone strangely dull, lacking in definition and color. He started blinking rapidly, trying to clear out whatever was making it so hazy.

    At the same time, he went back to trying to ascend. His body still wouldn't respond; it was as if it no longer understood his instructions. The sound of pounding blood filled his ears as his heart began racing. Why can't I get up? He tried to calm himself enough to make sense of things and was only partially successful. Maybe his body would have an easier time carrying out a simpler task, he considered, and so he gave up on trying to rise for the time being. He'd be glad just to get off his back and sit upright again.

    To this, his body actually responded. But as it did so, he was stricken by a very unusual sensation: as his face pitched forward, he felt something cinching together in the vicinity of his abdomen—almost a bending sensation, as if at a waist, which was something he didn't have.

    And yet, he did.

    He cried out in disbelief at the sight that met his eyes, a picture that very bluntly told him how his body had bent in a fashion that should've been impossible. A pair of long legs ending in five-toed feet stretched out before him. And unless his mind was playing a very cruel trick on him—it had to be, he told himself silently in a repeating loop—those limbs were his.

    No… no, this can't be real… I'm still dreaming; I've got to be…
    Solonn was almost able to believe that conclusion—almost. Swallowing against a hard knot of dread that had built up in his throat, he stared intently at one of the feet and, hoping and expecting that the effort would fail, he willed it to move.

    It moved right on command.

    He screamed, flailing as he half-jumped, half-scuttled backward in horrified surprise. The back of his head connected sharply with a corner of the small table behind him. He shouted wordlessly at the pain as it exploded across the inner surface of his skull. There was no doubt about it: the pain was real. Though Solonn dearly wished otherwise, it seemed reality was determined to literally beat the truth into his head. This wasn't a dream. This was really happening. Somehow, impossibly, he had become human.

    He swooned and slumped backwards against the side of the nearby armchair, panting. His heart hammered in animalistic terror, making his chest ache. He almost felt like he could pass out at any moment and would have been all too grateful to do so, but his brain stayed disobligingly conscious and forced him to endure this bizarre new reality. As if possessed of their own will, his eyes just kept staring at the tall, lanky body that was now his own.

    This body was more than strange—it was wrong. He should not have this; he should not be this. He should be a glalie, a creature of the element of ice… but that element was no longer there for him. He tried to reach it again, part of him desperately hoping he could somehow return to his true form or at least feel more at home in this one if he succeeded. But no matter how he tried, he could no longer feel his mother element's embrace in the least.

    He moaned involuntarily, not at the throbbing, shooting pain that still lingered in his head but rather at the severance from his beloved element. His anguish swelled in his chest and then welled up behind his eyes until they could hold it in no longer. For the first time in his life, he was crying.

    Several minutes after the fact, he finally noticed there was something damp at the back of his head. Shaking, he glanced down at his hands for a moment as they lay limply at his sides. Then, only half-aware of what he was doing, he lifted one of them to the damp spot, recoiling at the warm stickiness he found there amidst the hair. He then brought that hand before his face, and he felt his throat go dry at what he saw. Though his vision had gone even blurrier, he could still make out the blood smeared across the tips of his fingers—red blood that didn't turn to mist in the air. Human blood for a human body.

    Which he should not have.

    Solonn closed his eyes and tried to retreat into the corners of his mind, thoroughly overwhelmed. He couldn't even remotely fathom how this could have happened to him, nor could he even begin to think of what to do under these circumstances.

    Sighing, he opened his eyes once more, resigned to the likelihood that he'd be staying awake for a while whether he liked it or not. He turned his head and let it drop listlessly to his left shoulder, faintly regarding a number of long, black strands of hair that fell across his face. Past them, through the corner of his eye, he could make out the table he'd backed into.

    A course of action occurred to him as he remembered what sat on that table.

    He didn't know what to do about this situation, but perhaps Jal'tai would. Solonn could think of no one else to turn to. He reached up and pulled the paging device down from the table, turning it over in his hands for a moment as he tried to remember how to operate it. Voice-activated, he soon recalled. You tell it what to do. After another few seconds, he thought he'd remembered exactly what he was supposed to say.

    He looked at the large speaker that dominated one side of the strange paging device; seeing no other prominent features on it, he figured this was where he should direct his command. He took a deep breath; then, "Page," he said, and he felt his throat constrict as soon as the word had escaped it. Presently-stuffy nose notwithstanding, his new voice sounded exactly like his old one. He still sounded like himself—why couldn't he still be himself in every other way?

    There was a small beep, and a tiny, green light turned on next to the speaker. "Please state the recipient's name and room number," the device said in the same computerized voice that the transporter outside the suite had used.

    "Jal'tai," Solonn answered hoarsely, "room 44-B." He dearly hoped he'd remembered that number correctly.

    "One moment please…" the device said.

    Solonn held his breath as he waited for a response. Thankfully, it seemed he'd gotten the number right; after several seconds: "Yes? Is there something you need?" Jal'tai asked through the speaker.

    "Oh yes," Solonn responded shakily, urgently, "yes, there is."

    "Oh dear…" Jal'tai clearly had no trouble picking up on Solonn's distress. There was a brief pause; then, "What's the matter?"

    Solonn strongly doubted Jal'tai would believe him. "Can't explain," he replied hurriedly. "I just need you here right now. Please hurry."

    Another pause. "Yes… yes, of course. I'll be right up," Jal'tai said finally.

    "Connection terminated," the device said. The beep sounded again, and the green light turned off.

    Solonn set the paging device down beside him and released a long, weary sigh. All he could do now was wait for Jal'tai to show up—even if he only had seconds to wait, he wasn't sure how well he could endure it. He was fully aware of how he trembled, his hands shaking like leaves. Tiny yet powerful twitches tugged and pricked at the skin around his eyes and mouth. Vaguely, he wondered if he might lose this body just as soon as he'd gained it; it was threatening to shake itself to pieces.

    As the seconds crept by, he stared blankly at one of dragon statues that sat a couple of yards away. It lay on its marble pedestal with its tapered wings outstretched and its taloned forearms crossed in front of it and gazed sightlessly back at Solonn with a look of absolute serenity that he quickly came to envy.

    A voice sounded then, startling Solonn and pulling his attention away from the statue. "Solonn? Are you all right in there?" It was Jal'tai. "May I come in now?" the swellow asked him through the wall.

    "Please do," Solonn called back shakily.

    "Of course, of course… just give me a moment here…" Jal'tai responded.

    A tone sounded shortly thereafter. "Prepare to receive a visitor," the computerized voice said, calm as ever. Solonn turned toward the wall separating the suite from the hall outside. A second later, a shimmering, pale green field of light appeared above a tile that matched the one outside, then solidified into Jal'tai, who stood there in front of the wall with a concerned look leveled at Solonn. If he was at all shocked or surprised to behold a human where there should've been a glalie, he didn't show it.

    Without a word, Jal'tai walked over to where Solonn was half-sitting and half-lying. He stopped in front of the former glalie, ruffled his wings, and folded them tightly against his back.

    "It's all right, Solonn," Jal'tai said calmly. "I can personally assure you that you've nothing to fear from your new form. After all—" He paused briefly to take a breath. "—it was I who designed that very body for you."

    That took a very long moment to fully register. For a moment, Solonn forgot to breathe. He gave the swellow a stupefied stare.

    Jal'tai nodded. "It's true, Solonn."

    The human's stare went flat. At first, he gave no further response, frozen in the moment. Then he inhaled very slowly, very deeply.

    "Why?" he asked, his voice strained. "Why… and how… in the fires of a thousand hells… did you turn me into a human?"

    Jal'tai closed his eyes and lowered his head. "Yes," he said soberly, "you are owed an explanation for all this. It's imperative that you fully understand the situation. I will address your question of 'how' first, since that comes with the shorter answer. To begin to answer that question, however, I must start by being more honest with you with regards to the matter of who—and what—I truly am."

    The swellow suddenly took to the air, hovering in place to Solonn's right and slightly above him. "Don't be frightened by what I'm about to show you," Jal'tai said, his words accompanied by the sound of his steadily beating wings, "for it is my true form. I am and shall still be the same person in spirit that I've shown myself to be up to this point."

    Solonn could only stare mutely at him, watching as the air around Jal'tai began to ripple and shimmer, blurring the swellow's form. Soon, Jal'tai completely lost definition, becoming nothing more than a wavering mass of faint light. Then the light intensified and began to take shape once more. When it faded away a second later, the swellow was gone. In his place was something very different, something blue and pale gray that, while still feathered, was no longer a bird.

    Jal'tai was now a dragon.
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    Chapter 12 – Preclusion of Choice

    "There," Jal'tai said. He sounded no different than he had prior to revealing his true form, and he tried to sound soothing, though he failed in that endeavor.

    Solonn stared agape at him for seconds on end. He then cast a couple of flitting glances back and forth between the Jal'tai and the nearby statue.

    Jal'tai followed one of those glances and then let out a chuckle. "No, no, dear boy," he said. "That is a latias. I am a latios."

    "What does what you are have to do with… with this?" Solonn demanded with a pained hiss, sweeping his gaze quickly over himself before returning his wild, bewildered stare to the dragon.

    "Well, my dear boy, it's actually quite relevant to what's been done to you, for it was by the transfigure technique—an ancient art which only survives in practice today among the lati—that you were given this form. A swellow couldn't have used the transfigure technique; on the chance you might've known that, I deemed it necessary to reveal my true form so that you'd believe me when I told you how I transformed you."

    Solonn hadn't known what swellow were and weren't capable of, nor did he care to know these things. Jal'tai's explanation held little meaning for Solonn and fell quite short of a satisfying answer.

    Hoping that the other question would yield a better one, "Why, Jal'tai?" Solonn pressed in a brittle voice, the words more exhaled than spoken.

    Lowering his head, Jal'tai drew back slightly from Solonn. "Forgive me, Mr. Zgil-Al," he said soberly. "I sincerely regret not being more straightforward with you from the start. But there was only one way this could be done feasibly, and unfortunately, it required me to keep you largely in the dark up to this point."

    The latios clasped his talons and met Solonn's gaze steadily despite the way the human's brown, bloodshot eyes pierced into his own. "The first thing you need to know in order to understand the situation is this: I'm not merely a proud citizen of this great city. I'm also the mayor and director of the Convergence Project, its guide and guardian."

    "Well, good for you," Solonn croaked acidly. "And what is it about that, exactly, that required you to turn me into this?"

    "Patience, my boy," Jal'tai said evenly, unfazed by Solonn's venom-laced response, earning a very indignant look from the former glalie. "You must allow me to explain, and not just for your own sake, either."

    The latios paused for a breath, then released it on a sigh before proceeding. "I love my city, Solonn," he said wistfully. "I love it more than anything else in this world. But the fact remains that I won't be around to guide it forever. Therefore, someone will need to take my place someday.

    "This is where you come in, Solonn. Now, it may not be obvious to the eye of the beholder, but I am getting on in years… Soon, I'll be retiring from my position as mayor of Convergence, and the city will need someone to take my office when I depart. That someone is required to have a very particular and very rare skill in common with me—it's rendered a necessity by the very nature of this place. My successor must be able, just as I am, to freely and fluently communicate with pokémon and humans alike. My successor must possess the Speech."

    Solonn's eyes widened dramatically. Automatically, he began crawling backwards away from Jal'tai, compelled to put a healthy distance between himself and the latios as swiftly as he could. How did he find out? he wondered fearfully. His mind was nearly racing too fast to arrive at any explanation, but the only one he managed to reach was the only one that made any sense to him anyway.

    Just as soon he'd thought of it, it was confirmed. "Yes, Solonn. I am a psychic," Jal'tai said, nodding. "But, no, that's not how I learned of your gift. Not initially, anyway," he clarified.

    Lowering his talons and turning them palms-outward, trying to appear as non-threatening as he could, Jal'tai began gliding slowly toward Solonn. His wings remained rigid and stationary all the while; a less mundane force powered his flight. Solonn kept backing away from the advancing latios but soon found himself backed into a corner, trapped by a wall to his left, a large, oak dresser to his right, and Jal'tai before him. The latios was now only a foot or so in front of Solonn.

    Jal'tai settled himself onto the carpet, folding his forearms in front of his chest, and continued. "I saw you, you see," the latios said. "The day before last, I saw what happened to you in Lilycove," he elaborated, with a note of earnest sorrow. "I was out for a nice flight—as I mentioned before, I do make occasional excursions outside Convergence, just for a change of pace. I chose to go eastward instead of southward that day. My course found me flying over Lilycove, and there I caught sight of a most deplorable scene: there was a sign out in front of an old, miserable looking theater, promising a real, live… 'talking' pokémon inside…" The latios spat out the word "talking" with as much force and distaste as if it were something he'd been gagging on.

    "I saw a small group of humans rush you into the theater through a side entrance," he went on. "I slipped in after them, cloaked by my psychic abilities. I found you sleeping backstage, and I tapped your mind while you slept—just deep enough to learn if what that sign claimed was true—and thereby confirmed that it was.

    "Even if it hadn't been, I would've broken you out of there. The way you were being treated there, as a spectacle… it was sickening…" he hissed, his red eyes narrowing in disgust. "I was about to free you myself, but just then, another human came onto the scene, one in whom I immediately sensed benevolent intentions regarding you. A quick tap of her mind told me she was your friend and had come to rescue you from your would-be exploiters.

    "You were awake at this point, but your attempts to escape were foiled by a restraining technique. I went and searched about the vicinity for the caster and thereby found a sableye—a dark-type, able to evade detection by my psychic senses. I dispatched him at once by means of a dragon claw."

    Solonn's eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion. "Morgan told me that she'd taken him out," he said.

    Jal'tai sighed. "I'm afraid both you and Morgan were misled where that's concerned," he told Solonn. "You see, your human companion happened to walk in onto the scene where the sableye had been hiding just as I was dealing with him—using dragon claw required me to shift my focus from my psychic element to my dragon element, thus forcing me to give up my invisibility, and so it was that Morgan saw me there. I should explain that my kind are… valued by humans—" There was another charge of revolted emphasis on the word "valued". "—due to our potent abilities. Though I sensed virtue in this particular human, I was in no position to say the same about the other humans in her life, and I confess that I was unwilling to take a chance on whether or not she'd keep my appearance a secret.

    "Therefore, I found it necessary to modify her memory. I quickly rendered myself invisible once more. Then I placed a hammer I found lying nearby into her hand and implanted a memory of her using it to knock out the sableye. I made her forget having seen me." He briefly closed his eyes and lowered his head as if in shame. "I regret that action now. I should've given her the benefit of the doubt. I should've recognized just how honorable she truly was. I did come to recognize it, after watching her help to free you, and following her as she guided you to safety outside the city…"

    The latios's face took on a faint, wistful smile. "She, a human, actually chose to let you part from her company rather than let you be exploited again… very noble… very rare. Anyhow… following the events of that evening, I knew you could go nowhere but west, and so I waited in the grass for you and then brought you here."

    "You could have told me all of this at the start," Solonn admonished him. "And none of that explains why you needed to change me like this."

    "Actually," Jal'tai said, "within what I've just told you lies the precise reason why your transformation was necessary. Those humans in Lilycove wanted to make a spectacle out of you because you were a glalie who could speak their language. For that quality, you were regarded as a freak—a valuable freak, yes, but a freak nonetheless—and you were treated as one.

    "Now you are a human who can speak pokémon languages—you've been speaking a glalie language this entire time, as a matter of fact," Jal'tai added. "My point is that humans sought to exploit and degrade you when you were a pokémon. They will not do that to you as a fellow human. The unfortunate truth is that generally speaking, humans only hold any real respect for their own kind. That is why I transformed you."

    "Without my consent!" Solonn shouted, throwing a feral look at Jal'tai.

    "Yes, and I apologize!" Jal'tai responded swiftly, actually sounding quite hurt. "But that was only to spare you a very painful and disturbing experience. If the subject knows transfiguration is coming, their brain can't be made to ignore it. With that in mind, I had a sleep-inducing drug added to your meal at Whitley's. Once I was certain you'd fallen asleep in here, I entered the suite. Then, using certain of my psychic abilities, I put a sort of… for lack of a better term, a lock upon your brain to separate it from your tactile senses so that you wouldn't awaken while I changed you."

    "You did it that way," Solonn countered, "because you knew I'd say 'no'."

    Jal'tai winced, then took on the most wounded expression Solonn had ever seen. It did nothing whatsoever to bring down the fear and outrage growing clearer by the second in Solonn's eyes. "Please, my dear boy… please… you must believe me when I say that I never wanted you to suffer. My course of action was for the sake of mercy, and yes, it precluded your choice. For that, I am sorry, Solonn, sorrier than I could ever adequately express. But it had to be done. I need you, Solonn."

    For a moment, Solonn had nothing to say to the latios, silent save for his long, hard, rasping breaths, his shoulders shaking. He merely held an unforgiving gaze straight into the eyes of the creature who'd subjected him to this change and torn him from his mother element, feeling fresh tears making their way down his face as he thought once more of what he'd lost. At length, he closed his eyes and let his head sink to his chest, his hair almost completely veiling his face, and he held that position for a very long moment.

    Finally, he lifted his head and opened his eyes, and he turned a cold, penetrating stare toward Jal'tai, his brows drawn tightly together, the already severe lines of his angular face sharpening further. "You're no different," Solonn said, his voice threatening to break. "You want to use my abilities to serve your purposes. You want to exploit me, Jal'tai, just like the humans did in Lilycove. You are no different from them."

    The latios pulled his head back as if Solonn had just taken a swing at him. His eyes widened dramatically, then narrowed sharply. "How dare you!" he hissed in outrage. "There is a tremendous difference between myself and those—" In lieu of a word, Jal'tai chose to describe the abductors of Lilycove with a short blast of acrid-smelling, sickly-yellow dragon breath over his shoulder. "I," he went on, his voice dripping with indignation, "respect you."

    "You respect me?" Solonn said sharply, incredulously. "Is that why you've lied to me and subjected me to a physical transformation without my consent? Is that why you're insulting my intelligence by expecting me to just sit here and swallow everything you say after that?"

    "Solonn, please…"

    Solonn shook his head. "No, Jal'tai. There is no reason why I should listen to you, not when you've been dishonest from the moment we met." Sudden suspicion flashed across his features. "Answer this, Jal'tai: if running the city required me to be made human, why didn't the same job require that of you?"

    "Because you can't do this," the latios said simply, and with another rippling shimmer, the dragon was gone. Sitting there instead was an elderly, goateed human man—Solonn immediately recognized him as the man pictured on the sign at Whitley's.

    "This is what the citizens of Convergence, as well as those with whom I do business outside of town, see when they look at me," Jal'tai said. "And this—" He suddenly sounded the part of the old man, too, with the human language to match. "—is what they hear. To them, I'm a human by the name of Rolf Whitley. Under this guise, I became a very important, albeit not widely recognized figure in human society. In addition to being the mastermind behind the Convergence Project, Rolf is also a very important senior member of the International Pokémon League. I couldn't have attained that kind of power and the resources that come along with it using my true identity as a pokémon."

    Jal'tai reassumed his latios form. "Now, under less demanding circumstances, I could simply apply a mirage to you, too. In fact, when we entered Convergence, and when I brought you into this hotel, I presented you just as you now appear. But the method does have its limits, limits that make it impractical as a full-time, twenty-four-seven solution. For one thing, I can't maintain a mirage from a distance, and not much of a distance, either. You'd have to remain within the sphere of my psychic perception, which in my old age is, I'm afraid, rather small. I think we can both agree that it would be impractical for me to follow you like a shadow everywhere you go, yes?"

    Solonn gave him a look that suggested he wasn't even inclined to agree about the sun being bright and the night being dark.

    "Furthermore," Jal'tai said, "it's not enough to merely look like a human. You must feel like a human, as well. What if another human wanted to shake your hand? You'd have to be able to offer one they could clasp, one they could feel. Now, while I can produce 'solid' mirages, as I use for my own needs in portraying a human, I'm afraid it's outside the scope of my abilities to project one over you and keep some kind of mirage or cloak over myself at all times. And it would be necessary for me to conceal my true identity somehow if I were to stay close enough to you at all times to maintain your disguise; again, being what I am, I mustn't let just anyone see me about. Furthermore… I will remind you of the fact that I won't be around to conceal your identity forever. Therefore, the only feasible way for you to meet those particular demands of this position was for me to transfigure you."

    Jal'tai sighed very heavily, lowering his head slightly and passing a talon backwards over it as if raking it through hair. "Solonn… do you not recognize how important it is to the future of the world that the Convergence Project is kept alive and running? This community must be maintained, for it's a shining example of the fact that pokémon and humans can and should live and work as absolute equals—that anything humans can do, we can do, too. It's an example sorely needed by the world. The state of relationships between humans and pokémon desperately needs to be changed. Solonn… did you know that most humans don't realize—or else deny—that pokémon are intelligent beings?"

    Solonn only stared back with wild eyes. His throat worked, but he didn't answer.

    "I didn't think you were aware of that," Jal'tai said softly, reading Solonn's blank silence correctly. "It's true, though. The majority of humans regard pokémon not as people, but as mere animals." Disgust rose back up through his voice at those words. "That is why they'll only respect one of their own kind," the latios said. "Hence the unfortunate need for our façades."

    Solonn was silent for a moment after Jal'tai had finished speaking, deep in thought. Then, with dawning epiphany in his eyes, "You said you needed me—me, specifically, because I have 'the Speech', as you called it. You said the person in charge of this city has to have this ability—it's necessary because the person running this city has to be able to communicate just as well with both humans and pokémon, because the job requires you to deal with both, do I understand right?"

    Jal'tai blinked in surprise, then relaxed, looking equally relieved and impressed. "Yes, that's correct," he confirmed.

    But to the latios's surprise, Solonn shook his head. "No, Jal'tai. There was another way. Telepaths, Jal'tai," he said. "Telepaths can make anyone understand them, including humans. How can you have not even considered this? You're probably a telepath yourself!"

    Jal'tai lowered his head slightly and sighed. "That would certainly be convenient if it were truly a viable option, but unfortunately there are reasons why it can't be. There's no shortage of people in this world who are mistrusting, even fearful of psychics and the abilities commonly associated with us, including telepathy. Those insecurities and superstitions make those of any species who'd have to rely on telepathy to communicate unsuitable for the job. Convergence and its mission will not be accepted by as many as we need if its leader is one to whom so many would not listen."

    "Even with our measures to respect their privacy in place, many species still don't trust us." Sei Salma's words echoed in Solonn's memory, and a twinge of guilt struck him. But at the same time, he couldn't help but sympathize with those who were wary of psychics—the notion of another creature being able to reach and affect his mind was harder for him to abide by when he thought of that latios having trespassed there so recently.

    After a moment of scrambling, his mind managed to scrape together another possible argument. "The unown-script, what about that?" he asked. "Both humans and pokémon understand it—and everyone here is made to learn it…"

    Jal'tai tried to speak then, but Solonn pressed on, something fierce in his expression. The human was now all too desperately certain that he'd found proof that Jal'tai hadn't had to do this to him, and that certainty stoked his fury to new heights. "Any human who knows the unown-script could have been your replacement, and there are plenty of those here because knowing unown-script is mandatory here. You didn't need me. It could have been any of them! You didn't need me!" he cried.

    "Solonn… you must get a hold of yourself," Jal'tai said, sounding genuinely concerned for Solonn—but there was also the slightest hint of a warning along the edges of his voice. "Calm down, please…"

    But Solonn was inconsolable. "You didn't have to do this to me! You didn't need me!" he practically shrieked.

    Jal'tai let out a long, slow exhalation and met Solonn's feral stare, looking like a parent who'd finally lost the last shred of patience for their child's behavior. "I said, calm down," he said, rising into the air and looking down upon the human with displeasure. There was an ominous gravity to his voice that hadn't been there before, a far cry from the jovial tone that he'd once used.

    Jal'tai raised his talons, then swiftly brought them together and pointed them at Solonn. The latios's eyes suddenly blazed with a fuchsia light—Solonn's went massively wide with shock, and he began gasping at the air, unable to breathe.

    "I can't have you losing your mind, Solonn," Jal'tai said gravely. "Not when you have such a demanding future ahead of you."

    Solonn could only stare back in mortal terror as Jal'tai's telekinetic onslaught continued, preventing his lungs from filling. His vision was failing, growing dark around the edges and hazing out of focus, and he could feel a smothering oblivion trying to consume his mind.

    But before he could succumb to the lack of air, Jal'tai relented. Solonn immediately took a massive, involuntary gulp of air, pain exploding within his chest as his lungs harshly refilled themselves. He slackened, slumping over against the dresser, his head hanging low. After several more sharp, gasping breaths, he weakly raised his head to look up at the latios, his face a sweat-drenched mask of pure, primal terror.

    Jal'tai gazed down sorrowfully at the former glalie, shaking his head. "I'm very disappointed in you, my boy," he said heavily. "I'd thought you would understand the importance of this project. This is about something far greater than you, Solonn. This is about the future of our world, a better future. An equal future. Without our efforts, pokémon will never earn the respect and dignity that we deserve from humanity."

    He set himself back down on the floor in front of Solonn, who automatically shrank further into the corner. The latios sighed in equal parts sorrow and exasperation. "You must accept your destiny, Solonn," he said quietly. "You must realize you were blessed with the Speech for a higher purpose."

    He laid a talon upon Solonn's arm to try and console him; Solonn immediately flinched at the contact but didn't have the strength to resist further. "Please, Solonn. This is a most wonderful and important calling that has chosen you… you should be honored, Solonn. At the very least, you should recognize that losing your head over this isn't going to make things any different for you, and it's not going to make things as they were. You must find the serenity to accept this. Please…" he said, squeezing the human's arm gently, "don't make me have to pacify you again. I told you that I never wanted you to suffer, and I meant it…"

    The latios sighed sorrowfully again and rose back up into the air. "Now, to answer your earlier questions regarding unown-script… it's true that it's mandatory for all citizens of this city to learn. However, it is not required learning in the rest of the world. As the mayor, and as part of the Convergence Project, you will frequently have to deal with outsiders, both human and pokémon, with whom you'll have to be able to speak on their terms. A human who possesses the Speech is the only one who can speak freely to all peoples, to whom all peoples would listen. Hence you are as you are. It's as simple as that. So you see, I do need you, Solonn."

    Jal'tai cast a glance off to his right, toward the bedroom. "In time, I hope you'll be able to see things more clearly. Until then, I'm afraid you'll have to remain in this suite. I will give you the code to exit the room using the transport tile when I feel you're ready to re-enter society as a human, and I will gladly speak with you more in order to help you prepare for your future duties, but only once I can be sure that you've regained your composure enough to listen to me. For now, though, I think you could do with some quiet time alone to relax and contemplate your destiny."

    Jal'tai's eyes once again took on the fuchsia glow that accompanied his telekinesis, and once again, he applied the psychic force to Solonn. But this time, he merely used his powers to gently lift Solonn from the floor. Panic was written all over the human's face; he desperately wanted to be released from Jal'tai's telekinetic hold, but it was just too strong. He couldn't put up any sort of a struggle against Jal'tai's power.

    The latios guided him through the air, bringing him into the suite's bedroom, then set him down upon the bed. "Be at peace, my dear boy," Jal'tai said in a warm, paternal tone. He relinquished the light in his eyes and his hold over Solonn along with it. Then a golden light blossomed around him. A second later, it faded, and Jal'tai was gone.

    The human lay there, alone now but finding no comfort in his solitude. Jal'tai was gone for the time being, but in teleporting out, he'd revealed that he could return at any time, without any warning.

    Solonn felt another pang of anguish as he lay there thinking upon what he'd become and what he could no longer be. With his identity and element gone, there was no returning to the life he'd once known. Even if he could escape from this suite, this prison, this city and the one to whom it belonged… what then? He couldn't go back to anyone he once knew, neither Morgan nor his own kind—or what had once been his kind—back in Virc-Dho. None of them would recognize him now, and he couldn't imagine that they'd believe that he was not as he appeared, that he really was the pokémon they'd once known, just trapped in a human body.

    Solonn moaned softly as if in defeat. Trembling, he drew his arms and legs up against his chest and broke into tears once more as he truly realized the impact of this new reality. His life as he had known it was over.
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    Chapter 13 – Small Steps

    Solonn lay listlessly on the bed, staring up at the ceiling fan above him as if mesmerized by the whirling of its blades. Through vision blurred by sheer exhaustion and an almost continuous stream of tears, it looked like a shimmering vortex of light and motion, and part of him felt like it could just draw him right in.

    Hours had passed since the loss of his identity, his element, and his freedom, but he hadn't regarded the time as it had crept by and didn't mark the passing moments now. Physically, he was utterly drained, but his mind was host to too many troubles to allow him any rest. He still ached from the telekinetic punishment he'd suffered at Jal'tai's hands. His body complained of hunger, of lying in the same position for a considerable while, and of a number of other things. But lost as he was in barely-willing contemplation of his situation, Solonn couldn't really care about his physical discomfort or even truly notice it. The troubles from within just seemed so petty in comparison to what—and who—now troubled him from the outside.

    Jal'tai's voice finally broke the near-silence, managing to cut through all the other things that were attending Solonn's mind. "Are you awake? I'd like to come in and have a few moments with you if you don't mind," the latios called to Solonn from the hall outside.

    Solonn didn't respond, not even so much as to turn toward the voice, but regarded what the latios had just said with weak derision. Since when do you care what I do or don't mind?

    "Prepare to receive a visitor,"
    announced the voice of the suite. Jal'tai was using the transport tile, Solonn realized. It seemed strange that Jal'tai would bother with it considering that he could simply teleport in whenever he pleased, with no need to warn his prisoner before entering. Solonn didn't even glance back toward the adjacent den and the transport tile therein, remaining motionless.

    Once inside, Jal'tai drifted silently into the bedroom. He appeared at the edge of Solonn's vision, and in his true form this time; he no longer bothered with any disguises, any pretense. Solonn shut his eyes, curling up and turning away from the latios. A second later, Jal'tai set himself down on the bed beside him.

    "Good morning, Solonn," he said amiably. "How are you feeling today, my boy?"

    Solonn gave no response.

    The latios frowned; already this wasn't going well for him. "I wanted to have a few more words with you about what lies ahead for you," he said, sounding considerably more reserved than he had moments ago. He moved closer to Solonn, looming over him for a moment before craning his neck downward to look right into the human's face.

    "Listen," Jal'tai said, something slightly authoritative creeping into his voice. "I know this has been quite an overwhelming experience for you, but you're going to have to adjust to things as they now are, and preferably before too much longer. There's much that you'll have to get used to, but I know you can do it."

    He lowered a talon and gently took hold of Solonn's face, lifting and turning it toward his own. Solonn didn't bother to resist the contact, his face expressionless as he finally looked at Jal'tai again through glazed eyes. Somewhere deep inside, a bitter, smoldering hatred arose at the sight of those red eyes, that kindly face, but Solonn didn't dare let it out despite being sure that it'd be wonderfully cathartic. He knew how dangerous Jal'tai's displeasure could be and was very mindful of the fact that any voiced dissent on his part might invite that wrath—and the mortal threat that came with it—once again.

    "You know," Jal'tai said, "there are certain positive aspects of your current situation that I don't think you've taken the time to consider. Perhaps they've simply failed to cross your mind in the midst of everything that must be buzzing about in there, or perhaps you didn't even know such benefits existed."

    Jal'tai paused to allow Solonn to ask what he was talking about, but no such question came. Apparently unfazed by Solonn's continuing silent treatment, he resumed. "I happen to know you have a particular aversion to eating meat," he said. "I inadvertently learned this about you when I confirmed that you have the Speech. Knowing this, I was sorry to make you partake of the Specialty of the House the night before last, and I apologize again now. But you needed it in order to have the strength to endure your transformation.

    "But you needn't ever eat meat again if you don't want to. Humans are omnivores, Solonn. They don't have to feed on the flesh of others. Good news for you, wouldn't you say?"

    The notion of never having to eat meat again might have appealed greatly to Solonn under different circumstances, but he couldn't see such a luxury being worth what his transfiguration had cost him. Through silence, he rejected Jal'tai's appeal.

    Jal'tai let go of the bright, hopeful look in his eyes at this point, his brow and mouth setting into hard lines. "Well, Solonn," he began, his tone rather stern now, "if you can't see the merit in this for yourself, I certainly hope you can at least be glad for what your cooperation will help make possible for others. After all, when it all comes down to it, this isn't about you, me, or this city, but rather the world, the future."

    Here he let go of Solonn's face and rose from the bed, hovering in place above the human. Solonn immediately turned away once more, trying to ignore the shadow that hung over him.

    "The fact of the matter is that whether or not you think you're ready to begin your new life, you must begin it nonetheless," Jal'tai told him firmly. "I told you that I'll soon need to be replaced as the mayor of this city, and I wasn't joking around. You have a lot to learn, Solonn, and you must begin doing so as soon as possible."

    Jal'tai left the room, leaving Solonn alone with the swarm of thoughts infesting his mind, including the question of what else the latios might have absorbed from his mind—and the doubt that the absorption had really been accidental. He figured Jal'tai had probably just gone ahead and pulled his mind wide open while he'd slept in that theater, leaving no corner of his brain untouched by his psychic powers, taking advantage of the fact that his subject was completely powerless to stop him.

    That was the way Jal'tai liked things to be, Solonn determined without a doubt: the latios preferred to be in total control of any given situation, with those he dealt in no position to contest his will. That was surely the real reason he'd turned Solonn into a creature devoid of elemental power: so that he couldn't really fight back.

    It wasn't long before Jal'tai returned. Not wanting to look upon him if he could help it, Solonn didn't even know Jal'tai was in the room with him again until the latios spoke.

    "It's time you started growing accustomed to your humanity, Solonn, but for your sake we'll begin with small steps. Here," Jal'tai said gently, then lowered something in front of Solonn.

    All Solonn could see was a length of black, folded fabric; his face was half-buried in the comforter underneath him. He couldn't tell what the offered item actually was.

    Jal'tai recognized that Solonn didn't really have the best view of what he was trying to show him. He unfolded the thing and laid it down directly in front of Solonn's face. Solonn could now clearly see that he'd just been given a pair of boxer shorts.

    "You do know how these go on, do you not?" Jal'tai asked.

    Solonn stared at the shorts. He did have a fair understanding of how they were supposed to be worn; the pants that Morgan had worn were fundamentally similar, albeit longer. He was almost too weary to bother with the boxers… but the events of the night before were still fresh in his mind, and the memories of the more painful ones shone especially vibrantly. If he didn't do what the latios expected of him, he risked being subjected to that psychic punishment again.

    Besides which, the boxers would restore some small amount of his dignity. Solonn tried to focus on that point in an effort to convince himself that his next actions were motivated by more than just terror. Without a word, he stirred, shifted, and grabbed the shorts. Rather awkwardly, he sat halfway up, staring at them and turning them over in his hands as he tried to figure out which side was which. Once he was sure he had it right, he put them on, slipping them over both ankles at once and wriggling clumsily the rest of the way into them.

    "Hmm… I'm afraid you've got those on backwards, my boy," Jal'tai said, wearing an odd expression that only partially succeeded in concealing a hint of amusement.

    With a faint sigh, Solonn took the shorts off and put them back on, correctly this time.

    "That's more like it," Jal'tai said with a smile and a nod. "Now, wearing clothing, even as little of it as you're presently wearing, might seem strange at first, but I promise you'll get used to it quickly enough."

    Solonn thought that was a little odd coming from someone who could just pretend his clothes onto himself. Besides which, he didn't find the notion of covering up strange at all; as a glalie, he'd kept most of his body covered in ice at nearly all times.

    "All right, then," Jal'tai said with a clap of his talons, his voice having regained its former brightness. "Why don't we take a little tour of this lovely little place, hmm? You'll be living in this suite until you're ready to take my office, so you might as well start making yourself at home here. Also, you'll need to get an idea of how everything works around here; this suite has everything you'll need in your day-to-day life, but that does you no good if you don't know where and how to get it all.

    "Up you get, then." Jal'tai didn't bother waiting for Solonn to get up of his own volition. Once again, he moved Solonn telekinetically, lifting him off of the bed and onto his feet. He then partially relaxed his psychic hold, keeping the human upright but otherwise allowing him to move freely.

    "No need to worry, my boy; I won't let you fall," Jal'tai assured him. "Now, I know this is about as different as possible from the levitation you'd been used to, but still, walking on two legs shouldn't be entirely alien to you. After all, you were born as a biped, were you not?"

    That much was true; in fact, it'd been less than three months since Solonn had previously had legs. He'd gotten around by walking for nearly two decades prior to his evolution.

    You've done it before, Solonn reminded himself in a continuous loop as he stood there, but that mantra fell just short of building any real confidence in his human legs. They were, after all, a far cry from a snorunt's; they were almost ridiculously long and gangly in comparison, and it was hard to believe they could really support him. He was so mistrustful of them that if it weren't for Jal'tai's telekinesis keeping him upright, his lack of faith might've made them give out.

    But again, Solonn was very mindful of the threat that lay at the end of Jal'tai's patience. Inhaling deeply, trying to avoid overanalyzing what he was doing, he took one short, unsteady step forward and then another. He stopped for a moment as he finally remembered to exhale the breath he'd taken; even if he wasn't altogether calm and sure of what he was doing, he wanted to look like he was. With an effort, he lifted his gaze from the carpet to the latios hovering nearby, signaling that he was good to go.

    Jal'tai accepted this, nodding slightly with a small smile. "Good, good. Come, then, let me show you around…"

    He turned to his left and drifted out of the bedroom, then looked over his shoulder and made a beckoning motion with a single talon. Unenthusiastically, but mindfully compliant all the same, Solonn followed. He tried to move a little quicker and more confidently than he'd been moving, but his faith in those limbs was still somewhat lacking, and it showed. While he was keeping fairly close to Jal'tai (though the latios's deliberately slow drift was mostly to credit for that), his legs were doing nearly as much wobbling as walking. But Jal'tai kept him steady, telekinetically supporting him through every step.

    The latios led him into the den, where there were especially many of those dragon statues. Solonn found himself rather disliking their blithe expressions, the way they smiled as if they approved of what had been done to him. Jal'tai drifted over to the green armchair; smiling, he motioned for the human to come and join. Apparently Jal'tai regarded the chair as noteworthy, though Solonn couldn't fathom why. He came to stand at Jal'tai's side, trying not to fidget too conspicuously despite his unease around the latios.

    "Have a look at this," Jal'tai said as he clutched the soft arm of the chair. He pulled up on it slowly to ensure that the human at his side could see what he was doing. The arm opened on an unseen hinge, revealing a previously hidden compartment containing a small, silver device.

    "This is the remote control for your entertainment system," Jal'tai told him. "In case you've not seen one of these in use, observe." He drifted over to a large oak armoire against the wall and opened it, revealing a television, a DVD player, and a CD player surrounded by speakers. Jal'tai then returned to Solonn's side and pointed the remote at the devices.

    "Pay close attention, now," Jal'tai instructed, and indicated one of the remote's buttons followed by another. He repeated this action a couple of times, intent on making sure that Solonn memorized the sequence, then pushed the two buttons in succession. The CD player came awake with golden LED numbers, and a split-second later, a light, jazzy tune started playing.

    Jal'tai let it play for a few moments, smiling slightly as he listened, his eyes closed. Then he shut the music off, making certain to let Solonn see how he did so.

    "If you're not in the mood for music, you could always enjoy what the television has to offer," the latios said, then demonstrated how to turn the television on. The screen lit up with an image of a human in a brightly colored suit and tie. The human was standing in front of a brown car, shouting about being crazy and about offering the lowest prices in Hoenn.

    "You've got three hundred and fifty-one channels to choose from. These arrows here—" He indicated two more buttons. "—will let you cycle up and down through them one at a time, or you can go straight to a channel by inputting its number with the numeral buttons. I'm sure you'll memorize the good ones quickly enough…" He glanced back at the television, where a different human was singing the praises of some bizarre device in a very shrill voice. Jal'tai regarded the commercial with an odd look before turning back to Solonn.

    "I'll admit, most of those channels are pure rubbish around the clock," he said, "but there are also a couple of real quality stations—they're broadcast from right here in Convergence," he informed Solonn, sounding unmistakably proud. He changed the channel again, and this time pokémon appeared on the screen rather than humans. A ledian sat behind a desk. Beside him, a small image appeared: a medicham in a police uniform, along with two houndoom with badges affixed to collars, leading three smeargle out of a building.

    "Police have finally apprehended the vandals responsible for defacing storefronts downtown on numerous occasions," the ledian anchorman reported, while at the bottom of the screen, his words were displayed in unown-script subtitles for the benefit of human viewers. "Whether these individuals were actively trying to claim territory or merely acting toward their own amusement remains unclear, but the CPD has issued a statement saying that whatever their motives might have—"

    Jal'tai turned off the television, then put the remote back in its storage compartment. "There's something else I have to show you with regards to the television, but let's finish having our look around first, shall we?"

    The latios left the den, and Solonn shuffled out after him with one last glance at the now dark and lifeless screen. He wasn't overly impressed with it; he was already somewhat familiar with television, having watched it with Morgan a few times back when he was still small enough to be kept indoors. Even then, though its ability to reproduce images and sounds even more faithfully than his own memory certainly impressed him, what he'd seen of its programming had fallen short of appealing. Under normal circumstances, the idea of the stations this city boasted, run by pokémon for pokémon, might have intrigued him. But again, these were far from normal circumstances.

    Jal'tai then guided him into a walk-in closet. It was fairly long and wide enough to admit Jal'tai's generous, rigid wingspan, albeit just barely.

    "Now, it was never my intent to have you running around in your underwear all the time," Jal'tai said, with yet another of his chuckles. "Here, I've provided you with an exquisite collection of some of the finest clothing money can buy. I've spared no expense for you, my boy—why, just look at this here." He gestured to his right, where a navy blue jacket hung.

    Much less interested in it than the latios seemed to be, "Hm," Solonn said. In truth, he found nothing at all remarkable about the jacket. He was equally unimpressed by the rest of the clothing Jal'tai showed him, but he gave the latios, who was obviously quite proud of these purchases, an occasional, noncommittal noise or vague nod, feigning at least some interest in his new wardrobe.

    As there wasn't room enough in the closet for Jal'tai to turn around, the latios chose to teleport back into the den. He resumed his tour, ushering Solonn into a spacious bathroom, one that had been designed with various species in mind. There were sinks at three different heights and four different kinds of toilets. The shower was quite large, with multiple spigots of varying shapes and sizes; in addition to the standard one that dispensed water, the others offered bathing options such as "mud", "sand", and "acid", according to a large, yellow label affixed just outside the shower compartment. All the fixtures were similarly labeled, with instructions for their use in human- and unown-script. Solonn also noticed small, white labels, apparently handwritten, that designated certain of the fixtures for human use.

    There were also mirrors in this room: one over each sink and a tall one that stood alone against the opposite wall. In the third mirror, Solonn saw his new, human face for the first time. The dark eyes that had become his own stared back at him from within the glass, bloodshot and glazed over.

    Solonn didn't notice at first when Jal'tai spoke next, the latios's words reaching him with a delay through the fog enveloping his mind. "This, Solonn, is where you'll attend to your hygienic needs… among other needs," the latios said. "Be sure to read those labels; they'll show you exactly how to use these things, as well as which among them you should use and which you shouldn't. Generally speaking, most of this equipment is for the purposes of cleaning and grooming yourself, whereas this—" Jal'tai craned his neck toward the toilets, pointing at the one that was suitable for use by humans. "—well, its purpose is…"

    Short moments later, they left the bathroom and went to the other end of the suite, where the kitchen was located. The room itself was quite small, as were the appliances within it: the refrigerator, sink, counter, and electric range were much shorter than their counterparts in kitchens designed solely for human use (though the refrigerator was also rather wider than the typical human-style model, so as not to forsake any of its capacity). Cabinets, drawers, a toaster, a blender, and a microwave oven were also set up at heights that were convenient for smaller species. Yellow instruction labels like those found in the bathroom were present here, too, detailing the use of each of the appliances. There was also a modest dining area adjoined to the kitchen, containing a small, low table and a trio of cushioned, wooden stools.

    "Here is where you can get yourself something to eat whenever the need or desire arises, as I would imagine it surely must have by now," Jal'tai said. "You must be famished, hmm?"

    Solonn was hungry indeed, and considerably so; he hadn't eaten since the evening before last. He'd just been so preoccupied through most of the time since that his hunger, as well as several other physical complaints, had gone largely ignored. Still, for the dragon's sake, "Hm," he responded, with yet another minimal nod to indicate his reply was affirmative.

    "Mmm-hmm, figured as much," Jal'tai said. He pulled a bowl down from the cabinets, followed by a box of frosted corn flakes. He set them on the kitchen counter, then fetched a quart-sized carton of milk and a nanab berry. Faintly humming the jazzy tune from earlier, the latios poured a small amount of cereal and milk into the bowl, then diced up the nanab with his claws and tossed that in, too.

    Jal'tai brought the bowl of cereal to the table along with a spoon, then fixed a glass of milk, set it down next to the bowl, and beckoned Solonn to come over. The human complied, stopping a couple of feet away from Jal'tai as the latios pulled out a chair for him and pointed at it.

    Having seen humans sit down before, Solonn had a sense of what to do. He went over to the chair, trying to allow his body to fold up and conform to it. He did a fairly commendable job of it, though he did drop himself onto the chair a little too hard; he grimaced at the unpleasant shock to his tailbone.

    "I certainly hope you like this," Jal'tai said pleasantly as he hovered beside Solonn. "It's something I've developed something of an addiction to, I'll confess," he said with a chuckle. "Plus, it's something that's very easy to whip up; I'm sure you can do it yourself anytime now that you've seen me do it. Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is the sort of thing you ought to be living on, but as far as more advanced meal preparation goes… well, no one becomes a master chef in a day, now do they?" He laughed again, then turned an expectant gaze straight into Solonn's eyes. "Well, have at it, then!" he said cheerfully.

    Solonn merely stared into his cereal for a moment. Almost robotically, he began to lower his hand toward the bowl—but a blue, three-clawed talon kept it from plunging into it.

    "Whoops!" Jal'tai exclaimed, laughing. "I can't believe I could be so forgetful… Here." He showed Solonn the spoon. "Use this; it's proper human etiquette, not to mention less messy. You just scoop it up like this," he said, miming the action a couple of times before handing the spoon to Solonn.

    Solonn did well enough with it; he only spilled a couple of spoonfuls. The cereal and berries were pleasantly sweet, but his near-apathy toward eating at the moment made it a little difficult to finish his breakfast. But he managed it nonetheless, earning a pleased smile from the dragon who'd been hovering beside him all the while.

    "There, now wasn't that nice?" Jal'tai asked; Solonn gave another vague response. The latios took a small roll of paper towels from the cabinets, cleaned up the spilled cereal, then put the used dishes into the sink. Once he was finished tidying up, he motioned for Solonn to rise and follow him once more, and the human did so without a word.

    Once they were back in the den, Jal'tai turned on the television back on, bringing a rather tone-deaf, singing meowth to life on the screen. "You'll recall that I mentioned having something else to show you over here, correct?" the latios said as he made his way over to the armoire, opening the cabinet under the television and producing a DVD jewel case from it. Solonn gave even less of a response than he'd been giving, but Jal'tai didn't seem to mind.

    The latios looked over his shoulder and saw Solonn just standing there beside the armchair. "Go ahead and have a seat," he said while carefully prying the disc out of its case with his claws. "Watch me carefully, now," he said once he saw that Solonn had done as he was told. He turned on the DVD player and popped in the disc, then went to hover at Solonn's side.

    "This is just one out of a series of videos I made for the benefit of my successor in the event that they'd come to me in the form of a pokémon," Jal'tai said as the video started, bringing up a simple menu in unown-script onto the screen. The menu bore only two options: "Setup" and "Play". "Now, to begin the video, you simply press these," he said, showing Solonn which buttons to press. "This will pause it if you need to take a break while viewing; this one will go back and replay certain parts if you need to review them or if you miss something; and this one will stop it when you're finished watching it. Then just take the disc out and put it back where it belongs—the 'OPEN' and 'POWER' buttons over there are clearly labeled," he added, waving toward the armoire.

    Meanwhile, the video began. Rather loud, synthesizer-based music started blaring, and "Humanity and You" appeared on the screen in brightly colored letters.

    Jal'tai grinned. "I think you'll enjoy these, Solonn; they really turned out quite nicely. These videos will help you learn the basic habits and skills of living as a human. Once you've watched this volume, you can just pop in another one and watch that. Mind you, they are numbered, and you'd do well to watch them in numerical order—some of the later ones might be a bit confusing if you don't."

    Jal'tai placed the remote in Solonn's hand, then drifted over to the wall separating the suite from the hall outside. "I'll check in on you again sometime soon," he said. "Oops… you've missed part of that video on account of my talking, haven't you?" he added, sounding mildly embarrassed and apologetic. "You might want to back that up, then. Well, anyhow, I'll be seeing you!" With that, the dragon left, once again skipping the keypad and transport tile and just teleporting out instead.

    Solonn stared dully at the television screen, not really absorbing anything going on there and not bothering to restart the video from the beginning as per Jal'tai's advice. His mind was still on Jal'tai even though the latios had left. Solonn had stashed most of his loathing for Jal'tai deep within his mind while in his presence, silently detached from it through a sort of numb resignation born of self-preservation. But now, with the latios no longer shadowing him, all of the offense, hatred, and bitter indignation that Jal'tai inspired within him came to the forefront once again.

    Solonn very briefly let his attention light upon the video. He shut the doors of his mind to it again almost immediately. The program was the handiwork of that latios, just another element of his scheme—Solonn couldn't help but dislike it. He paid the video no further mind even as it concluded, returned to the menu screen, and began playing its loud theme music on a continuous loop.
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    Chapter 14 – Anywhere but Here

    During Jal'tai's next visit two days later, Solonn looked at whatever he was shown, did whatever he was told to do, and managed to show no outward signs of resentment or indignation. As soon as the latios left, however, that veneer fell away, leaving behind a bitter, despondent man who mainly just languished through the hours, lacking the spirit to look after himself beyond the bare minimum needed to stay alive. He barely slept, didn't bathe or groom himself in any way, and didn't bother watching any more of the latios's training videos. He ate only when Jal'tai was actually present to make sure that he did.

    The self-neglect was beginning to take its toll on Solonn—which didn't go unnoticed by the latios, as Solonn learned the very next evening on Jal'tai's third visit.

    Jal'tai materialized in the room, and Solonn met his gaze at once from the green armchair. From the moment the dragon appeared, Solonn knew this visit wouldn't be like the others. The friendly, jovial air the latios had worn before was gone; his face was a hard-lined mask, the expression unreadable.

    Lowering his head slightly and folding his arms in front of his chest, Jal'tai brought himself to hover right in front of Solonn. His feathered brows drew together almost as if he were wincing in pain. He held the human's dark, flat stare for a long moment, then shook his head pityingly.

    "Look at you…" the latios said quietly. He moved even closer to Solonn, his gaze burning upon the former glalie's unshaven face from only a few inches away now. "Solonn," he said, his tone heavy, "I know you've been neglecting yourself and your lessons. This won't do, my boy. This won't do at all."

    Though Solonn's slackened features showed no sign of it, a spark of fear stirred and began swiftly growing deep inside him. Something not quite conscious. Something primal. Jal'tai knew he wasn't getting what he wanted from his would-be successor, and Solonn feared that he was about to suffer for disappointing the latios—and perhaps this time Jal'tai would just give up on getting what he wanted from Solonn and decide to cut his losses. In silent terror, Solonn awaited the fuchsia blaze in Jal'tai's eyes and the agony that would follow… but no such things came.

    "I told you emphatically that you must find it in yourself to make peace with this life," Jal'tai said soberly, "for it is something you cannot change. I told you this for a very good reason, Solonn: you can't live a life that you don't accept. If you keep on like this, you'll waste away… I cannot allow that, Solonn. There's too much at stake. I will not see the future of my city, my mission, simply fade out like this."

    He ascended higher into the air, nearly scraping the ceiling with his wingtips. From this height, he looked all the more imposing; Solonn was all too sure that this would be the end. But still the latios made no move to harm him.

    "For the sake of your destiny, as well as that of Convergence and the most noble cause for which it stands, serenity will be instilled in you," Jal'tai told Solonn firmly. "Fortunately, I've come across someone who should be of a tremendous benefit to that end. Her name is Neleng, and you'll be having your first session with her tonight. She ought to be arriving in less than an hour.

    "I dearly hope to see you improve, Solonn. There's no need for you to make things harder for yourself than you already have." With those words, Jal'tai left in his usual fashion, vanishing in a burst of golden light.

    Solonn's eyes lingered upon the empty space where Jal'tai had just been, resenting the latios's ability to simply leave this place in a flash—he wished he could do the same. The way Jal'tai kept flaunting that ability only served to rub Solonn's nose into the fact that he was stuck here. Solonn wondered if that was part of why Jal'tai always chose to teleport out.

    As the minutes passed, Solonn just sat there, doing nothing. He wasn't really anticipating Neleng's arrival; he'd been too preoccupied with the fear that he was about to be punished or even killed to pay much attention to what Jal'tai had actually said during his visit.

    At length, the computerized voice of the suite announced an incoming arrival. Solonn, expecting it would just be Jal'tai again, was faintly surprised to find someone and something very different there at the transport tile instead: a chimecho. He was a bit confused by the sight until he remembered Jal'tai's mention of a visitor. It was someone with an "N"-name, as far as he recalled; he couldn't remember the rest.

    The chimecho made her way into the den at once, her tail trailing from beneath her as she drifted through the air. She stopped before Solonn and smiled.

    "Good evening," she greeted him in an airy voice. "My name is Neleng, and I'm here to help clear your mind. Are you ready to begin?"

    Solonn didn't respond, staring at the chimecho with uncertainty. How could he be ready when he didn't really know what this creature had in store for him?

    But Neleng was prepared to proceed regardless of his answer or lack thereof. She beamed at him as brightly as if he'd just agreed with the utmost enthusiasm to whatever she was about to do. "Very well, then," she said. She rose until the golden suction disc on the top of her head met the ceiling and took hold of it, clinging tightly yet effortlessly.

    The chimecho gave a few gentle ripples of her tail as she hung there, smiling serenely down upon Solonn. "Just relax… Float away on a breeze of music…" she said. She began swaying there where she hung, very slowly, very gracefully, and then she began to sing.

    She began with only a single voice, but it gradually unfolded into a chorus of many, one voice at a time. Harmonies and countermelodies gracefully intertwined, weaving in and out amongst one another, merging, diverging, and reuniting in cycles.

    The music surrounded Solonn, absorbing his thoughts as it seemed to swirl around him. Under the song's spell, everything else within the scope of his consciousness was washed away. Soon, his world was comprised solely of the swirling currents of melody. Nothing else existed. Nothing else mattered.

    He didn't notice at first when the song finally ended, some twenty minutes later. Once he did, he looked about somewhat dazedly for the source of the music, briefly unable to remember where it had come from. Then the last of the psychic residue that the chimecho's song had left within his mind cleared… and the swarming miseries that had plagued his mind during the past few days faded with it.

    Not that he'd been entirely purged of them; hints of anguish and bitterness lingered, and would continue to do so as long as he remained imprisoned within this body and this suite. But Neleng's song had tamed those thoughts and feelings, to a degree. They were now organized, in a sense, not perfectly but well enough that they no longer smothered him with their weight.

    Solonn looked up at Neleng, who was still hanging there and swaying slightly. She appeared to be slowly emerging from a trance. She did something to me, Solonn reckoned, something psychic… Exactly what she'd done, he couldn't be sure. He just hoped it hadn't been anything harmful. It was, after all, Jal'tai who'd sent her.

    The chimecho finally went still, sighing softly as her eyes slowly opened. She detached herself from the ceiling, smiling as she descended once more.

    "I'll see you again tomorrow," she said. "Drift free until then…"

    Neleng floated away, and Solonn's gaze followed her as she went back to the wall between the suite and the hall outside. She brought the end of her tail up to reach the keypad there, folding its prehensile tip and using it to quickly input a sequence of numbers. The tile below her lit up, and she lowered herself onto it without delay. The lens scanned her, and a second later, she was gone in a green flash.

    Solonn stared with a twinge of envy at the now lightless tile. Jal'tai had shared the codes with Neleng. He likely had no intentions of sharing them with Solonn anytime soon, or possibly ever. They were only for Jal'tai and those who gladly served him.

    What did Jal'tai need with a transporter anyway? If he really wanted to make Solonn feel like he had nowhere else to go, no other choice to make, he could have just left those walls entirely blank. He could have brought in other teleporters to tend to his would-be successor. There was no need for a visible way out at all.

    Yet Jal'tai had insisted on installing the transporter—and insisted on using it to get in every time. Why? Why not just teleport in? Teleporting out made sense, Solonn conceded, and not just because Jal'tai made him feel all the more helpless in doing so. It was quicker, it was more convenient, and…

    And it kept anyone from seeing which numbers unlocked the tile. But Neleng… she didn't have that option. She might have pressed those keys as fast as she could, but…

    All of a sudden, the way from here seemed almost ridiculously clear. Neleng held the means for him to escape—he just needed to watch her closely whenever she used that transporter. If he could just see what she was doing—an almost painful thrill seized his heart—if he just could memorize the code…

    The hope began to fade almost as soon as it had arrived. There remained the matter of what he'd do after he got out. Since he was no longer a glalie and had no way to prove he ever was one, returning to Virc-Dho didn't seem like an option.

    The only other familiar place he had to go was Lilycove… and it occurred to him that if Morgan had been successfully reunited with her other pokémon—or at least one of the psychics among them—one of them could psychically confirm that he was indeed what he claimed to be. If so… at least he could make a new home among some of his friends, even if he could never go back to his original home.

    Then something else occurred to him, and it sent a chill straight into his heart. After he made his escape, Jal'tai would be sure to try and find him—and since Solonn had specifically mentioned fleeing from Lilycove, that was one of the places Jal'tai was sure to look.

    It was all too easy to picture Jal'tai in the Yorkes' house, with both Morgan and Eliza lying unconscious before him as he scoured their minds for information that might lead him to Solonn. The thought of them having their minds violated in such a manner was disgusting, and the thought of what might happen if any of Morgan's other pokémon were there to try and stop Jal'tai sickened him even further. Even if they all fought as a team, there was no guarantee that they could stand against the latios. And resisting him could cost them their lives.

    He sighed heavily; it seemed Lilycove was out of the question, too, leaving him to wonder just where he could go.

    Anywhere but here will do, Solonn decided finally, resolutely, anywhere he isn't. Maybe Solonn couldn't reclaim the life he'd once known. Maybe he'd never see any of his friends and family again. But he at least he could make his life his own again, taking it out of Jal'tai's talons. He didn't know what sort of future could possibly lie ahead of him now, but at least now there was a chance that it could be his future, his choice.

    With a deep breath, Solonn rose from the chair, shakily but determinedly. He leveled a hard stare at the wall and the keypad separating him from his freedom. Soon, he told himself silently, he would surpass that barrier. Soon, he would take back his life.

    * * *​

    From the moment he'd come up with his escape plan, Solonn carried on in a very different manner than he'd done in the days prior. He knew and accepted now that he'd have to prepare himself for the life he'd have to forge once he was free—a human life.

    So it was that not long after Neleng had left him, he'd sat down and watched one of Jal'tai's training videos. Though not exactly keen on watching something that Jal'tai had made, he'd determined that he'd just have to bite back his resentment where this was concerned. The videos provided valuable information and demonstrations that he'd need in his new life, and so he'd vowed to watch as many of them as he could before he made a break for it.

    He'd also regained the will to take care of himself again, fueled by the hope of impending freedom. He tried to get at least a couple of hours of sleep each night and bothered to feed himself whenever he hungered, knowing that he'd need his strength for his upcoming escape. He'd learned how to prepare a small variety of meals, but still wasn't quite brave enough to try making anything that required actual cooking—it wouldn't do for him to burn more food than he ate.

    The videos illustrated the importance of good hygiene and dressing well in human society, and Solonn took heed of those lessons. Though his first attempt at a bath resulted in minor scalding, and his first attempt at shaving left his face bleeding in no fewer than six places, he generally did a decent job of keeping himself tidy. He also began fully dressing himself rather than just lounging about in his underwear, knowing from both the videos and his time with the Yorkes that humans generally kept most of themselves covered at all times.

    During his visits over the course of these days, Jal'tai noticed the improvements in Solonn's well-being. As a result, the latios's demeanor was even livelier than ever, devoid of that stern displeasure—it seemed his would-be successor was finally accepting and growing into the role that had been chosen for him.

    Though Solonn's temperament was definitely improving, Jal'tai still sent Neleng over each night to perform her mindsong therapy. Solonn reckoned that the latios had decided those sessions might as well continue since they seemed to be doing some good. Indeed they were, but not solely in the way the latios had intended. Neleng's sessions helped keep Solonn's mind clear, which in turn allowed him to stay focused and determined to achieve his goal of escape.

    The chimecho was fulfilling her other role in Solonn's endeavor nicely, as well. After turning that armchair ever so slightly toward the transporter, he'd been able to watch Neleng punch in the code out of the corner of his eye with relative ease. After the eighth session, eleven days after the morning when he'd first awakened as a human, Solonn was sure that he'd successfully memorized the sequence. He was ready to make his move.

    Jal'tai had visited earlier that day, and Neleng had just left an hour or so ago, so Solonn wasn't expecting either of them anywhere near the suite again anytime soon. If ever there was an optimal time to make a break for it, this was it.

    He stood there before the keypad, his breathing shallow as his chest tightened. He raised a trembling, sweating hand to the keys, and one by one, his shaking index finger found each of the code's eight digits: Seven… three… four… nine… zero… four… six… two…

    The next second felt like it would never end. Then that second passed, and to Solonn's immeasurable relief, the tile below his feet took on that familiar, green glow and the lens scanned him.

    The tile gave a bright flash. He felt a tingling sensation over the surface of his skin, and then something rushed him through a brief nonexistence. When he rematerialized, he was on the other side of the wall.

    He took in the sight of the hallway stretching to either side, and a giddy sort of disbelief spread through him. A beat later, he dared to believe what the sight before him signified: he had done it. He was out, and now he could finally make his bid for freedom.

    In reverse, he replayed the memories of the last time he'd been out here, trying to remember how to get to the exit. It was hard to extract much detail from them; he'd been drugged the last time he'd been outside the suite, which had hampered his perception to no small degree.

    Luckily, Jal'tai's videos had included a segment on operating elevators. Solonn doubted he'd have remembered how to do so otherwise. Before long, he found the elevator for that floor and quickly pushed the button to call it up. When the doors finally opened, he hurried through them without a second's hesitation.

    Solonn chose the lowermost floor, and a breath later, a funny little plummeting sensation in his stomach signified the elevator's descent. Soon after, it came to a stop and its doors slid open, revealing a view of the spacious lobby—and the exit beyond.

    The lobby was relatively quiet at the moment, with no one there except for the swampert receptionist and a solitary primeape off in the corner, the latter half-watching cartoons on a wall-mounted TV. Solonn tried to hide his nervousness as he passed them, not wanting to draw too much attention to himself. As far as those two needed to be concerned, he was just a human being like any other, with no reason why he shouldn't be in that lobby or heading out those doors.

    Without a word, he crossed the room to the exit. Those last doors separating him from the way out of Convergence slid silently out of his way, and he stepped out into a starless, overcast night.

    He cast one last look behind him at the towering Convergence Inn, the place where his identity and element had been lost, the place that had been his prison for nearly two weeks. He averted his gaze once more almost immediately, walking away from it at a brisk pace. He never wanted to see that place again.

    Solonn had no choice but to stop at the next corner, where cars sped up and down the street in his way. He shivered as he stood there; the silk shirt and simple slacks he'd chosen to wear that day offered little protection against the chilly, late-September wind. Not terribly far away, he managed to identify the dark line of trees that represented the border between Convergence and its surrounding woods—that was his goal. The cars were currently barring his path… but seconds later, the way was clear once more. He took advantage of this at once, crossing the street before the traffic could pick up again.

    His eyes locked onto the boundary beyond which the world didn't belong to Jal'tai—the sooner he reached it, the better. He wanted to make a dash for the trees, but even now, he still wasn't entirely used to his new legs. He was still wary of running on them.

    He shook his head, trying to clear his mind of doubt. If you can walk, you can run, he told himself. Don't think about it; just do it! Hesitating no longer, he broke into a run with a somewhat awkward start, stumbling over the first step and nearly overcorrecting afterward.

    Once Solonn managed to stabilize himself, he silently told himself to keep running until he reached that forest. But he was unused to running for any great distance in any body, and exhaustion came on quite swiftly. Nonetheless, he ignored his body's demands for rest, his sights and determination fixed upon his goal. He only stopped when another red light and another wave of rushing cars blocked his path.

    Solonn gritted his teeth in pain as he waited anxiously for a break in the traffic, the cold, sharp wind tearing through his throat with each harsh, gasping breath. The forest wasn't much further before him now than the Convergence Inn was behind him; the closer he got to it, the more impatient to reach it he became.

    Finally, the path before him was clear and safe again. He hadn't even finished catching his breath from the last dash, but with such a short way left to go before he could put this city and the latios it belonged to behind him for good, he just couldn't wait to close that final distance.

    Amber sparkles of light streaked past him: rays from the streetlights, distorted by the tears that the stinging wind and a number of other things brought to his eyes as he ran. Shooting pains stabbed into his ribs, and there was a burning ache in his stomach and legs. Still, he tried to keep running, desperate to escape Convergence no matter how it hurt. As far as he was concerned at this point, living free was worth any suffering.

    Very nearly at the verge of collapsing, with his steps faltering and his heart hammering so violently that he thought it might explode at any second, Solonn reached Convergence's limit at last. He was seconds from crossing the boundary—

    —And then blazing jets of fire shot forth from either side with a loud fwooossssh and surged up before him. With an almost voiceless cry of alarm and surprise, he backpedaled at once from the burning line of flames in his path, stumbling and falling backwards in his haste. He tried to get back to his feet but failed. Realizing his legs wouldn't support him again anytime soon after what he'd just forced them to do, he instead started scrabbling backward to escape from the fire, only to be stopped very soon after when he bumped into something.

    Throwing a fearful glance over his shoulder, Solonn saw two houndoom, the golden badges affixed to their collars glinting in the light from the flames. Their jaws dripped with glowing embers as they stared him down, and both of them growled ominously.

    "Hold it right there," one of them snarled. "You're not going anywhere."

    As if to emphasize the point, the blazing line suddenly advanced at either side, forming a burning circle around Solonn and the two houndoom. The flames roared as they danced on all sides, but they didn't touch him, as if something were holding them at bay.

    That something—that someone—seemed to drop right out of the air in front of Solonn in the next moment, landing without a sound. A medicham in a police uniform now stood before him—Solonn had been so focused on the path directly before him that he'd failed to see her perched in the trees up ahead.

    Her eyes glowed bright fuchsia; she was using her psychic powers to manipulate the two houndoom's flames and keep them in check. But Solonn feared that it meant she was about to subject him to the same kind of telekinetic punishment Jal'tai had used. As it was, he couldn't move at all now, and he was sure his exhaustion wasn't solely to blame.

    The circle of flames simply and abruptly vanished, and the medicham stepped forward. She took hold of Solonn's arms, and using a combination of her telekinesis and her own physical strength, she brought him back to his feet. Solonn wanted to struggle but found, to no real surprise on his part, that he still couldn't move of his own accord.

    The houndoom stepped aside as the medicham moved to stand behind Solonn. Once there, she took both of his wrists in her hands, gripping them tightly."Start walking," she commanded him, her voice soft but her tone unmistakably serious.

    Tentatively, not quite daring to believe that the medicham could have loosened her psychic hold on him enough to let him walk, Solonn tried to take a step forward and succeeded. He tried to pull himself out of the medicham's grasp, but it was much too strong for him to break, especially given how very little strength his dash from the Convergence Inn had left him. Resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do to resist her, Solonn allowed the medicham to drive him onward, dreading whatever lay at their destination as he walked.

    The cops brought him back into town, the medicham telekinetically keeping her captive from collapsing outright. The houndoom nipped at his feet whenever he faltered too much in his steps, their fangs only missing him by a hair. At length, they arrived at a very tall, brick building downtown. A brass sign hung over its entrance, lit from below by bright lights; "CONVERGENCE TOWER", it read.

    The houndoom pushed the doors open, and the medicham shoved Solonn into the building, still holding on to him tightly. She steered him into an elevator, which made a long ascent before letting him and the cops out into a short hallway with massive, wooden doors at its end.

    The doors filled Solonn's vision as his captors came to a stop before them. A speaker mounted in the wall to his left came on with a brief crackle of static, and then the last voice in the world that Solonn wanted to hear at that moment spoke through it.

    "Bring him in," Jal'tai said. The cops responded to the order at once. The two houndoom pushed their way through the doors and held them open as the medicham brought Solonn into the room beyond.

    Solonn now stood in an enormous, richly furnished office. Seated before him at a very large and tidy desk was none other than Jal'tai, currently in the guise of Rolf Whitley. He leveled a stare at Solonn that was forbiddingly stern but unmistakably saddened at the same time.

    "That'll do, madam, gentlemen," Jal'tai said without inflection to the medicham and houndoom, dismissing them. The three cops nodded, and the medicham released both of her holds on Solonn before walking out of the office. The two houndoom followed her away, and the doors swung shut behind them.

    Solonn, still drained of most of his strength and no longer supported physically or psychically by the medicham, had dropped to his hands and knees almost immediately after she'd let go of him. He'd remained in that position since, his head hanging toward the hardwood floor. A winged shadow fell over him as soon as the cops were gone, and a second later, a talon descended upon his head, lifting his face.

    No longer wearing his human mirage, Jal'tai stared right into Solonn's eyes with a look of distinct sorrow. "I'm very disappointed in you, my boy," he said gravely. "I told you not to make things harder for yourself than they had to be, but you just wouldn't listen…"

    The latios sighed heavily, and his eyes began shimmering with tears. "I never wanted it to come to this," he said, his voice quavering as if threatening to break, "but you've left me no choice. I'm afraid that I must now take drastic measures to ensure your cooperation and the preservation of this city's noble mission…"
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    Chapter 15 – Deceiving Yesterday

    Taloned arms lowered, embracing Solonn and lifting him up off the floor. Grave, red eyes held his gaze. Solonn immediately wanted Jal'tai to let him go, but he simply lacked the strength to do anything more than shudder in the latios's arms. Part of him wanted to scream, but he didn't have that in him, either. All he could manage was a continuous stream of nearly voiceless protests, wordless save for an occasionally discernible "no".

    Jal'tai held him there against his chest for a long moment, drawing a deep breath as his somber stare continued to weigh upon Solonn's face. He could hardly stand the way Solonn was looking back at him. Hopelessness and terror were etched into every line of the human's face, an expression befitting cornered prey.

    It didn't have to be like this, the latios lamented silently. Everything could have been so much easier, but you just wouldn't let yourself see the way… and now…

    Jal'tai sighed, resigned with no small measure of regret to the course of action he was about to take. He envisioned himself and Solonn in another location, a place that lay hidden below that very tower, and focused his mind sharply on that image. Then he cast out a tendril of his psychic power and projected it into that destination. A fraction of a second later, the psychic force reeled them in, and with a burst of golden light, the two of them teleported out of the office.

    An instant later, that light drained from Solonn's vision, revealing his new surroundings. The room he and Jal'tai now occupied was just large enough to allow the rigid-winged latios to move about comfortably. It was dimly lit by a single lamp mounted overhead, which cast a soft, rose-colored glow over the room.

    Solonn saw little more of this place than what could be viewed over Jal'tai's shoulder, and most of what he could see was dominated by a large marble panel, on which an image of a latias stood out in relief. She was hovering in place, her arms outstretched, with a benevolent smile curving across her face. Her feathers were accented with inlaid gold, making her shine in the warm, gentle lighting.

    Below the panel sat several elaborately carved, earthen pots containing delicate-looking, fluffy white flowers. The pots surrounded a tiny, shallow pool, at whose center a small fountain continually flowed with a soft murmuring.

    In a detached way, Solonn wondered about the enshrined latias and what sort of a place this could be to contain such a thing. Not knowing made it hard to guess what Jal'tai could have in store for him here. But he was sure that whatever awaited him, it wouldn't be good.

    He let his head loll backwards over Jal'tai's arm to see what lay at the other end of the room. He was greeted by a very different sight: no shrines, no flowers, no portraits. There was only a metal table, unremarkable and featureless save for a series of slots arranged in symmetrical patterns all the way down its length.

    Solonn got a chilling sense that the table would be involved in whatever punishment Jal'tai intended for him. He swallowed hard as he stared at it, already imagining how he might suffer there.

    Jal'tai let go of him, but Solonn didn't hit the floor. There was no question why; he could see the fuchsia light in Jal'tai's eyes. The latios lifted him a little higher into the air, then began guiding him backward—toward that table. It seemed Solonn's suspicions about it had been right on the mark.

    He felt the cold, hard metal through his shirt as he was laid down on the table, the chill quickly seeping into his already aching bones. His limbs moved against his will as Jal'tai telekinetically repositioned them between pairs of those slots. The next second, metal bands suddenly erupted from the slots and shackled his arms, legs, and waist to the table.

    Slowly, Jal'tai moved toward Solonn. The light faded from his eyes as he came to a stop directly above his captive—and then a blaze of another kind awakened in its place, the exact nature of which Solonn feared to guess. But it was gone just as soon as Solonn had noticed it, leaving him wondering if he hadn't just imagined it.

    The latios closed his eyes. He took a long, steadying breath, clasping his talons as if in prayer. "I had dearly hoped it wouldn't come to this," he said, his voice sounding very heavy despite being barely more than whispered. "I'd hoped you would see things clearly and understand what's needed of you… I wanted to believe you would…"

    His eyes opened and met Solonn's gaze, weariness and disappointment written all over his face. "But I knew better, really," he said with very little inflection, "even from the very start—hence the need for our little experiment tonight."

    Before Solonn could guess what Jal'tai was referring to, the latios continued. "The events of this night were the final stage of this experiment, which was designed to test your willingness to serve our cause. On the night I transfigured you, I injected a small transmitter under your skin. I instructed Neleng to obliquely allow you to learn the exit code from her, and the police were told to keep an eye on your transmitter's signal and to apprehend you and bring you to me if you attempted to leave Convergence."

    An immediate sinking feeling struck deep into Solonn's chest, while his extremities went numb with shock. "…You set this up?" he asked hoarsely. He didn't want to believe it. Gods knew he didn't. But in hindsight… of course it was all a ruse. "You—" He paused momentarily, swallowing in a futile attempt to relieve his parched throat. "—you let me run away?"

    Jal'tai nodded slowly, sorrowfully. "I had to know if you would."

    The disbelief in Solonn's features turned to outrage. He looked right into Jal'tai's face with an unflinching, accusatory stare, a steady stream of tears running from his bloodshot eyes. "Of course I would!" he croaked, his voice cracking painfully. "Of course I would, after what you did to me!"

    Jal'tai gave a soft, troubled sound as he turned away from the human. He hovered there in place for several moments on end, staring at the shining image of the latias who smiled back at him from across the room. Then he lowered his head, and a beat later, he abruptly turned back toward Solonn.

    Though he knew it was useless to try, Solonn couldn't help but struggle in his restraints as Jal'tai drew close once more. Within a breath, Jal'tai was hovering over him again, and burning brightly within the latios's eyes…

    No, Solonn hadn't imagined the strange light that he'd seen there before. There it was again, but now that it lingered, more of its peculiar qualities presented themselves. It pulsed and swirled arrhythmically, constantly shifting its color and intensity. Solonn wanted to look away, but neither his head nor his eyes would obey him.

    The light and color expanded outward from Jal'tai's eyes in a sudden burst, spreading over the rest of his body and then washing over the entire room. The latios himself was reduced to a vague outline; if it hadn't been for his slight motion in midair as he breathed, Solonn would have easily lost sight of him.

    Sudden, sharp pain lanced into Solonn's eyes as the surrounding light intensified sharply. He cried out and kept trying to close them, to no avail. He could only scream on as they watered and burned, until finally his voice gave out.

    The dancing colors sped up dramatically, rushing in every direction around Solonn. In their frenzy, a powerful noise arose: a painfully intense, discordant chorus of screeches and roars. In the next second, Solonn swore he could taste and smell the chaos, as well; its scent and flavor were extremely sharp and sour, burning his throat as he inhaled, making him cough and gag.

    All at once, the phenomenon was assaulting every part of him at once. With every passing second, the punishment of his every sense grew stronger. Throttled by the grip of a full sensory overload, Solonn begged the gods for it to stop. He wished dearly that he'd just pass out.

    The outline of the latios above suddenly became much more distinct, and the change took an immediate and absolute hold of Solonn's attention even in the midst of the surrounding chaos. <Be at peace,> said a telepathic voice that mirrored Jal'tai's spoken voice, clear as a bell despite the din.

    Then the light, the noise, and all of the pain simply ceased.

    * * *​

    There was a delay before Solonn dared to recognize that the bizarre torture had finally ended. Once he did, he became aware of his surroundings—or rather, the lack thereof. He could see nothing, hear nothing, taste nothing, smell nothing, feel nothing. There was simply nothing around him to be perceived. He couldn't even perceive anything of himself other than his own awareness.

    He was instantly reminded of the great ball, and he began to wonder if he'd been sent into something along those lines. Was this was part of his punishment? Would Jal'tai keep him imprisoned here, perhaps only letting him out to inflict more of that multisensory torture upon him, until he was so severely traumatized that he'd accept anything?

    In a literal flash, his solitude was broken. A shapeless, luminous body shone like a star within the darkness that surrounded him, impossible light in a world without vision. Just as suddenly as it had appeared, it took on a familiar form.

    Jal'tai now hovered there in the emptiness before him, glowing brilliantly, a latios made out of pure, white light. Only the dragon's eyes were lightless, two fathomless, pitch-black holes in his luminous face.

    He spoke to Solonn telepathically, but in a mindvoice that was different than before, one as vast as the void that surrounded him. <No, Solonn. That is not what I've done to you, nor is it what I intend to do.>

    The sheer immensity of the psychic voice stoked Solonn's fear to new heights. He acknowledged Jal'tai's words, but he was too overwhelmed by them to respond.

    <I won't let any further harm come to you,> Jal'tai said somberly. <I know you'd never be able to forgive me for all that you've suffered to this point… and I wouldn't expect you to,> he added. <I doubt I'll ever be able to forgive myself… and if She won't, either, I would understand…>

    The glowing latios extended his arms. Solonn felt Jal'tai's embrace despite having nothing of himself with which to actually, physically feel anything, just as he'd seen and heard Jal'tai without eyes and ears.

    <Your suffering ends here,> Jal'tai tried to assure him. <I will now ensure that you will struggle no more.>

    What are you going to do to me? Solonn asked fearfully. He had no voice in this place, but he also had no doubt at this point that Jal'tai could hear his thoughts.

    <I could tell you,> Jal'tai replied, <but you wouldn't remember.>

    With that, the black holes that were the latios's eyes gave a single, massive flash of light that was even brighter than the rest of him, and Solonn knew no more.

    * * *​

    A gasp rent the air as lungs that had been suspended in stasis for nearly five minutes suddenly resumed their duties. Their owner's head sank as he took several moments to catch his breath. His spine arched and his talons flexed, awakening his muscles somewhat painfully.

    With something of an effort, Jal'tai made himself look upon Solonn's face. The human stared back through blank, dilated eyes that held a faint, silvery glow. He was still alive, but suspended in a peculiar state between consciousness and unconsciousness. His mind was subdued and encapsulated within a psychic prison, barred from access to his own brain. The lati had a name for this state: liasa andielenne. The waking death.

    Entering it was invariably horrific for the subject, and Jal'tai regretted this to no small degree. But he knew it was crucial for what he was about to do. There was work to be done within this human's brain, and said human couldn't be there to witness or interfere with the task at hand.

    Still, even with the necessary preparations made, Jal'tai worried for the outcome of this procedure. Major, intrusive psychic methods such as the one he was about to employ had a significant risk of detrimental side effects, especially in brains with no sort of defense against the psychic element. Of particular concern to Jal'tai was the fact that they could corrupt or even destroy psychic anomalies in the brain—anomalies such as the Speech.

    Hence Jal'tai had been severely reluctant to resort to this course of action—it had every bit as much potential to ruin his candidate as it had to secure him, if not more. Nevertheless, the latios committed himself to this act, convinced that there truly was no better option. The odds were overwhelmingly against finding yet another Speaker anytime soon; Jal'tai didn't know how long he had in this world to wait. And he knew that he'd rest much more easily once he could be sure Convergence's future was secured.

    Jal'tai cast an imploring glance over his shoulder at the marble panel behind him. Please watch over him, Rei'eli, he prayed silently to the image of the goddess that smiled at him from the far end of the room. Keep his gift whole.

    He turned back toward Solonn, his heart heavy with concern. He placed his talons upon the human's head, staring intently into his subject's empty eyes. His breathing slowed dramatically as his focus deepened, stoking his psychic element and manifesting it into a vehicle for his consciousness. As it carried him out of his own head and into Solonn's, he dearly hoped his goddess had heard his prayer.

    * * *​

    Haze enveloped the intruder, hanging calmly over the surrounding mindscape. It was a thick and very murky medium, one that would have offered up no distinction among its constituent elements to less sophisticated senses, and would have threatened to erase the lines between itself and a less capable invader.

    But the haze wouldn't absorb Jal'tai, nor would it keep any secrets from him. He could readily make out the individual memories that formed it, as well as the intricate ways they were connected. The task was made all the easier by liasa andielenne; the haze would have been roiling turbulently in an active mind, making it harder to see what lay within it. It also helped that he'd been here before.

    Within these memories was the key to the human's cooperation—answers to why it hadn't been achieved and how it could be. Jal'tai began to sift through the haze, searching for images of that overgrown field and the guise of the swellow he'd worn there twelve days prior. They looked considerably different from his own memories of the place, recorded through very different eyes, but there was no mistaking them.

    Having found the starting point for the relevant chain of memories, he proceeded to anchor his psychic power to it. Then he let the memories play within his mind, unfolding in chronological order at an incredible speed as he copied them all. Almost as soon as it had begun, the process was finished. In barely more than an instant, Jal'tai had obtained twelve days' worth of memories that were not his own.

    Now he had to deal with the original copies. There were two options where that was concerned. One was to simply erase them. The other was to keep them intact but heavily suppressed, locking them away deep within Solonn's subconscious mind.

    Erasure was the more alluring option, not to mention more comforting. But it required a much more intrusive procedure than merely sealing the memories would. Even doing as much as he'd already done was pushing it, endangering the very thing he'd gone to these lengths for. He didn't want to take the added risk unless it was truly necessary.

    Unwilling to decide on the matter too quickly, even now, Jal'tai replayed his own copies again, more slowly this time. He saw himself, disguised as a swellow, leading Solonn through the woods and into Convergence. He experienced Solonn's first morning as a human, vicariously feeling his fearful disbelief at his new form and his bereavement at the loss of his element. He watched himself reveal his own true form, listened to his own attempts to make Solonn listen to reason, and watched—and felt—the excruciating, telekinetic punishment he'd inflicted upon the human when his failure to convince Solonn through words had burned through his patience…

    …And here he paused, bringing the playback to a grinding halt. Suddenly confronted with the suffering his frustration had caused, made to actually feel the pain and terror he'd inflicted, he found himself overwhelmed by horror, guilt, and shame. What in heaven's name came over me? he wondered, aghast. By the Goddess… I could have killed him…

    Long moments passed before he regained himself enough to continue his work. Even then, he remained shaken by the reminder of what he'd done as he resumed studying the former glalie's recent memories, watching as Solonn dragged himself listlessly through his first few days as a human and then began planning an escape in the next, with the chain of memories ending with Solonn's foiled escape and his subjection to liasa andielenne.

    Jal'tai went back to contemplating his next actions, and for quite a while longer than he'd intended. Realizing just how close he'd already come to losing Solonn as a candidate, he was now especially disinclined to tempt fate any more than he could help. And yet… thoughts of that day when he'd lost control still haunted his mind. And if the human were to somehow recall it, it was sure to destroy any trust Jal'tai could instill in him.

    Finally… finally, Jal'tai made his decision. He isolated the memories of the past twelve days from the rest of the haze. Then he set a psychic lock upon them and relocated them to the deepest, most inaccessible layer of the human's mind—but not before extracting one particular memory from the chain and annihilating it.

    The offending history was now suppressed, but Jal'tai's work wasn't finished yet. As he withdrew from Solonn's mindscape to initiate the next step of the process, he tried to draw some relief and satisfaction from the fact that at least now Solonn would no longer recall his brutal punishment. But his efforts were hampered by the knowledge that he couldn't purge that memory from his own mind.

    * * *​

    With his consciousness having returned to the physical plane, Jal'tai once again beheld the motionless human before him. Solonn still wore the same blank, emotionless, lifeless expression he'd been wearing ever since he'd entered liasa andielenne.

    At least he's not suffering anymore, the latios thought wearily as he set himself down on the floor for a short break. Sustaining his presence within a foreign mind for extended periods of time was fairly taxing, especially at his age. He rested his head in his talons as he prepared to create a different version of events to replace the memories he'd just sealed away.

    Jal'tai still saw promise in Solonn despite the obstacles that had arisen in trying to get the human to recognize his potential. He was quite certain Solonn was capable of appreciating the Convergence Project's mission and thus might have accepted his new role under different circumstances. He still felt that no other course of action but the one he'd taken could've securely succeeded, that it had been the only way to be sure Solonn would take that form. What was done was done, and because Solonn had reacted so adversely to the way it was done, the next step was to make the human believe that things had been done differently.

    Jal'tai entered a trance in which he began fabricating an alternative version of the past twelve days. If all went well, this rewrite of history would turn Solonn into the ready and willing successor the latios so dearly hoped for.
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    Chapter 16 – Home

    "Go!" Solonn shouted at the terrified creature who cowered before him—the creature who'd nearly become his prey. He watched as the zigzagoon sprinted fearfully away through the tall grass, sickened by himself as he thought of what he'd nearly done.

    "Well, that was certainly magnanimous of you," said a bright, jovial voice.

    Surprised, Solonn turned at once to see who'd just spoken. He saw a feathered, blue-and-gray dragon hovering in midair a short distance away.

    The dragon introduced himself as Jal'tai, a latios. After Solonn had introduced himself in turn, Jal'tai asked what had brought him to this area, having never seen Solonn around before. Solonn told him that he'd fled from human abductors in Lilycove and was just trying to lie low until he could find a way to return to his home across the sea.

    Jal'tai offered him a place to stay in a city in the west, where he could be safe and comfortable. Solonn hesitated to take him up on the offer, reluctant to go into another human city. Jal'tai assured him that the place he had in mind was nothing of the sort. After a a little more consideration, Solonn accepted Jal'tai's offer and followed him westward through the forest.

    Upon arriving at their destination, a place Jal'tai identified as Convergence, Solonn couldn't help but notice familiarities about the city—ones that contradicted the latios's assurances.

    "Jal'tai, I thought you said this wasn't a human city…"

    "Yes, I most certainly did," Jal'tai responded. "And on closer inspection, you might realize that indeed, just as I stated, this is not a
    human city. Here in Convergence, pokémon and humans live and work as equals." He smiled proudly. "I'm the man in charge of this city, you see, and I wouldn't have it any other way around here."

    That last part took a moment to fully register. "…Wait, did you say you were
    in charge here?" Solonn asked once it clicked.

    Jal'tai nodded, still beaming. "Yes, that's correct," he said. "I am the mayor of this fine city. Convergence is my pride and joy—a testament to the equality of all peoples. You see… in the cities owned and ruled exclusively by humans, pokémon are second-class citizens—if even that." Disgust flitted across his face. "But here, pokémon are afforded the same rights and opportunities as humans. They can own the same properties, operate the same vehicles, and enter the same occupations. Our academy offers education and training that only humans can receive elsewhere.

    "My hope is that the rest of the human world will learn from Convergence's example, that they'll see that they can and should live alongside pokémon in harmony and equality. This community may very well be the starting point for a greatly-needed change in human-pokémon relations—perhaps then, pokémon will be respected by humans, rather than disregarded, exploited, and abused as we've all too often been in the past. Now do you see what makes Convergence great?"

    Solonn could only nod in response, still quite absorbed in what Jal'tai had just told him about the state of relations between humans and the other peoples of the world.

    Jal'tai offered to take him to lunch at a local restaurant, and he accepted. Along the way, he was shown how the pokémon citizens of Convergence used technological conveniences invented by humans to go about their everyday lives—a privilege they'd be denied in the human world, according to Jal'tai.

    Once they'd reached the restaurant and were served their respective meals, Jal'tai went on about the apparent schism between humans and other intelligent species.

    "As I was saying," the latios said as he paused momentarily in his enjoyment of his fish platter, "the way pokémon are perceived by humans
    desperately needs to be changed. Did you know that most humans don't realize—or else deny—that pokémon are intelligent beings?"

    Solonn looked up from the steak that had been served to him; he still hadn't touched it. "…No," he responded, sounding troubled. "No, I didn't know that."

    Jal'tai nodded sadly. "It's true. The majority of humans regard pokémon not as people, but as mere
    animals," he told Solonn, vehemence coloring his words and shining in his eyes.

    "Gods… How could they see us that way?" Solonn wondered aloud.

    The latios sighed sorrowfully. "I've been trying to figure that out myself for many years—to no avail, I'm afraid. All I know for certain is that they must be made to see the truth if pokémon are to receive the treatment we deserve from their kind."

    Jal'tai resumed his meal then, leaving Solonn to muse on all that he'd just learned. It disturbed and saddened him to think that most humans could regard pokémon so poorly. But he also couldn't help but think of Morgan—she'd always treated Solonn and her other pokémon with respect, not as inferiors. If she could respect pokémon, then maybe the humans who didn't could learn to do so, too. Maybe, Solonn considered, there was hope for the relations between humanity and the rest of the world's peoples.

    At length, Solonn finally forced himself to eat his steak. Shortly thereafter, he suddenly became incredibly tired—he suspected the trials of the prior evening were finally taking their toll on him. When he mentioned this to Jal'tai, the latios agreed, and he brought Solonn to a nearby hotel to get some much-needed rest.

    Solonn fell into a profoundly deep sleep just as soon as he entered his suite, and he stayed asleep until late in the following morning when he was awakened by a series of loud, shrill beeps followed by the sound of a computerized voice.

    "Receiving message," the voice said coolly.

    Solonn only distantly noted those words, not quite absorbing them, as he was still in the process of waking up. He was slightly more conscious when another, more familiar voice spoke up.

    "Solonn? Are you awake?" the latios asked.

    Stifling a yawn, Solonn rose from the floor and turned toward the source of Jal'tai's voice but saw no one. A second later, once he was fully awake, he spotted the paging device on the nearby table, and he remembered being told he could use it to call Jal'tai—apparently it also worked the other way around.

    "Yeah, I'm awake," he finally answered.

    "Good, good," Jal'tai said brightly. "Is it all right if I come and pay you a visit?"

    "Hm? Sure, go ahead," Solonn said.

    "Ah, very well, then," Jal'tai said. "I'll be right up in a moment."

    "Connection terminated," said the computerized voice again, and with another beep, the device shut itself off.

    Very shortly thereafter, that same voice spoke up again, this time to announce the arrival of a visitor. Bright green light blossomed from a tile on the floor near the wall, then faded as Jal'tai materialized within the suite.

    "Good morning," the latios said amiably. "How are you feeling today?"

    "Meh, just fine, I suppose," Solonn answered. "Still a little tired, but other than that…"

    "Hm," Jal'tai responded, nodding. "Well, I'm glad to hear that you seem to be on the mend. I was concerned about you yesterday, you know," he said earnestly. "I feared you wouldn't even make it to the hotel without passing out. Never in my life have I seen someone so suddenly and completely drained of energy… those humans in Lilycove must have put you through a most dreadful ordeal, indeed…"

    Solonn only made a small, wordless, affirmative noise in response.

    "Well, at least you managed to escape from those scoundrels," Jal'tai said. "You've certainly been spared a most unpleasant fate… Do you have any idea what their motives might have been in taking you?"

    Solonn hesitated to answer. Yes, he knew why he'd been taken—and in the wake of finding out, he was especially wary of bringing it up.

    But as he thought about it, he wondered if there was really any danger in confiding in Jal'tai. It wouldn't be the first time he'd trusted someone with his secret—he'd deemed Morgan and her pokémon safe, and he still felt that had been a sound judgment, even considering what had happened the day before he'd come to Convergence. His abilities had only gotten him into trouble after strangers had stumbled upon his secret on their own.

    Jal'tai didn't come across as untrustworthy, really. The latios had made it clear he disapproved of pokémon being mistreated and exploited—he seemed like one of the last people who'd ever make Solonn sorry to confide in him. And since Jal'tai was this city's leader, perhaps he had the authority to ensure that the wrong people never happened upon Solonn's secret again.

    Solonn hesitated for one last moment; then, "They wanted me…" he began, "because I can do something that apparently very few pokémon can do… I can speak to humans. In their own language." He sighed bitterly. "The humans who tried to take me wanted to show me off because of it, as a
    freak," he told Jal'tai, that last word more hissed than spoken.

    Jal'tai looked utterly appalled. "
    Sickening," he hissed. "Absolutely deplorable… what you possess is a gift; you should be honored for it, not exploited…"

    At length, Jal'tai drew a long breath, trying to calm himself, then released it on a sorrowful sigh. "I'm afraid such troubles come with the territory of your talents," he said soberly, closing his eyes and folding his hands. "I know it all too well myself…" He met Solonn's gaze directly. "It's true that exceedingly few possess the Speech—the ability to communicate universally. As such, I thought I might never find another who had this ability in common with me."

    Solonn stared speechlessly back at Jal'tai for seconds on end. He hadn't been expecting to come across someone who shared his linguistic abilities, either. Now he was certain he'd done the right thing by telling the latios his secret. Jal'tai was a kindred spirit—if anyone could be trusted, it was him.

    "So, this thing… this 'Speech', as you called it… it's gotten you into trouble, too?" Solonn asked, earning a nod from the latios in response. "Was the trouble with humans?"

    "Not exclusively," Jal'tai answered, "but mostly, yes. Hence the need for a bit of deceptiveness on my part, I'm afraid. Observe…"

    Solonn watched the latios, having no idea what to expect. A strange, shimmering glow surrounded Jal'tai, blurring his form until it was no longer recognizable. The light brightened momentarily, then began to take shape once more as it faded.

    Once it was gone completely, the latios had apparently gone with it. An elderly, goateed human in a brown suit stood there instead—the man pictured on the sign at Whitley's.

    "This is what the citizens of Convergence, as well as those with whom I do business outside of town, see when they look at me" he said. "To them, I'm a human by the name of Rolf Whitley—I virtually never work under my true identity. I lament that I must appear to the people as something and someone I'm not—it shouldn't have to be this way, but…"

    He sighed. "You see, as a pokémon who can speak human languages, humans may view me as a curiosity—a freak, as you so aptly put it," Jal'tai explained, clear distaste in his voice. "They won't listen to or respect something that they regard in such a demeaning way. But as a human who can speak pokémon language, I'm not seen as a freak, but merely gifted. It's a shameful double standard, but it's the reality for people like us, I'm afraid."

    With another brief shimmering of light all around him, Jal'tai resumed his true form. "So you see, that guise is how I'm able to not only live with my gift in peace but to use it to do good in this world."

    He turned toward Solonn. "You know, this place, this embodiment of all that I believe in… it couldn't have been made possible if I didn't have the Speech," he then said. "Because this is a community for both pokémon and humans, its leader must be able to deal with both equally. Thus this office demands the Speech, meaning that there are very few who could take care of this city's needs."

    An unreadable expression suddenly over took Jal'tai's features, but Solonn was given little time to look upon it or to wonder about it before Jal'tai turned away from him. A very long and rather awkward silence followed.

    Eventually, Jal'tai turned back, looking distinctly uneasy. "Solonn…" he began, "I would like to know if…" He faltered, unable to complete the sentence. "No," he said in a subdued voice a moment later, "no, I just couldn't ask such a thing of you…"

    Solonn's brows drew together, the light in his eyes flickering slightly in concern. "…What is it?" he asked. "What are you talking about?"

    Jal'tai only gazed back at him in silence for a time, looking almost guilty. Even once he did respond, he spoke with clear reluctance.

    "I'm… well, I'm not a young dragon anymore," he said quietly. "I won't be around to take care of this city forever… I love Convergence, Solonn," he all but whispered. "I worry for its future… I don't know what will become of this place without me. Who will watch over this city when I'm gone?"

    Solonn didn't know how to respond to that at first. Then he realized just what the latios was saying. "Are… are you saying you want
    me to take your place?" he asked, his eyes wide.

    "Well…" the latios responded with something of a delay, "as I said, only those who are blessed with the Speech are qualified to guide and maintain this community. And as I also mentioned, I hadn't expected that I'd ever find another such person. I've been fretting over the matter of who could replace me—and what might become of Convergence and its mission if no one suitable could be found…"

    Quite overwhelmed, Solonn suddenly needed to sit down. "…I don't know what to say…"

    "I don't imagine I would, either, if I were in your position," Jal'tai said quietly.

    "I mean… I understand what you're worried about, but… are you sure there's no one else you could ask?" Solonn asked, having trouble geting the words out.

    "I honestly can't say for certain," the latios answered, "but the odds are very much against it."

    With every passing second, Solonn felt more cornered by the matter. How the guilt had overtaken him so swiftly and strongly, and precisely where it had even come from, he couldn't guess, but there it was, impossible to deny. He understood Jal'tai's dilemma, and he genuinely cared… but still…

    "…I don't know," he said guiltily, "This isn't a minor matter—I mean, you're thinking of putting me in charge of an entire city?" He shook his head in disbelief. "Jal'tai… I don't know if I have it in me."

    "There's no need to worry where that's concerned," Jal'tai said softly. "I assure you that you'd be adequately educated and prepared to take up these responsibilities."

    The latios's already troubled expression suddenly became even moreso. "Solonn… there is one more thing I need to tell you before you commit yourself one way or another to my offer. I demonstrated how I disguise myself as a human in order to live and work with the Speech safely. You'd have to take on a human identity as well if you took my office. But since you're not endowed with the power to project a mirage over yourself… well, you'd have to come by your disguise by another means. The only other method by which you could pass for a human… is to actually become one."

    What?" Solonn thought he must surely have misheard the latios. "You can't be serious!"

    am serious, Solonn," Jal'tai said. "In order to replace me as the mayor of this city, you will have to be physically transformed into a human."

    "But… how is that even

    "There's an elemental technique that has been practiced by my people for millennia—namely the transfigure technique—that enables the user to change the form of another thing or person," Jal'tai explained. "Allow me to demonstrate…"

    Jal'tai left the room for a moment. When he returned, he was carrying a small decorative pillow in his talons. "Watch carefully," he said, then set the pillow down on the floor. He extended his arms, keeping his talons rigid over the pillow. Slowly, spheres of mint-green light swelled around his hands; soon after, an aura of the same color surrounded the pillow.

    The light began strobing; Solonn winced, his eyes narrowing to slits to fend off the flashing light. He fought to keep them from closing despite the discomfort, determined to see if Jal'tai could really do what he claimed. To his astonishment, Solonn saw the pillow warping, shifting somewhat jerkily and unevenly into another shape.

    With one final flash of green light and one last metamorphic spasm, the pillow was no more. Right before Solonn's eyes, it had been transfigured into a plant sitting in an earthen pot, its many leafy tendrils spilling out over the rim.

    "And that's how it's done," Jal'tai said, sounding somewhat winded, as he picked up the potted plant and examined it briefly. He cast a quick look up at the ceiling. "This would look rather nice right about there, I think…" he remarked, then set the plant back down and turned back toward Solonn once more.

    Solonn, meanwhile, stared dumbstruck at the plant. "Oh gods…" he said almost voicelessly. He'd risen from the floor without realizing it and was now starting to back away from the plant.

    "There's nothing to be afraid of," Jal'tai assured him. "If you choose to accept the change, I'll do everything in my power to make it as non-traumatic as I can. If you wish, I can render you unconscious during the actual transfiguration. You'd experience no discomfort whatsoever. Afterward, I promise that I'll help you become accustomed to your new form. Furthermore—" He inclined his head slightly further toward Solonn. "—the change isn't permanent. It will wear off after about eight to ten years… perhaps by that time, such masquerades will no longer be needed in this world."

    Those reassurances fell short of comforting Solonn, and Jal'tai recognized this. "I know physical transformation isn't something to be taken lightly, but it's also something you've had some prior experience with, is it not? Yours is an evolved form—perhaps you should try looking at this as just another stage of evolution."

    Jal'tai was right in one sense: this wasn't the first time that Solonn had faced a possible transformation. But Solonn hadn't accepted his last change hastily; he'd only agreed to go through with it once it had truly seemed necessary. Furthermore, after comparing his memory of evolution with the process he'd just beheld, he was quite certain they'd be two very different experiences.

    "This is just… all too much," Solonn said finally, wearily, as he set himself back down.

    "I understand," Jal'tai said softly. "I wouldn't expect anyone to make such a major decision in any hurry." He began to glide past Solonn, moving toward the transport tile, but turned back before activating it.

    "You can stay here as long as you like," he told Solonn. "And when you come to a decision regarding what I've offered you, please call me and let me know. I won't force you to decide one way or another… but I do ask that you consider what's at the heart of this matter. This community was born in the name of a better future, one in which the schism between humanity and all the other peoples of the world is bridged at last. Ask yourself: is this not a future that should become a reality?"

    Solonn winced, feeling as though a large weight had just dropped into his stomach. He did want to see equality between humans and pokémon, but there was still the matter of what acting on that desire here would require of him. He couldn't even begin to decide what to do.

    He finally pried his eyes away from the plant and turned quickly to face Jal'tai and ask how he was supposed to deal with these conflicting notions, but saw only a flash of green light. The latios had already gone, leaving him alone with the weight of this decision.

    For the rest of the day, Solonn's thoughts were monopolized by Jal'tai's offer, and it kept him awake throughout the night. He agreed with the latios's mission, and he couldn't deny that he truly wanted to help. But to
    become a human… how could he readily accept something that he could barely believe?

    As hour after hour went by, bringing the morning and then midday, Solonn's thoughts turned toward some of the things his own experience had taught him about the way humans tended to view and treat pokémon. Humans had wanted to profit from his abilities—and they hadn't been content to take him alone. He thought about the rest of Morgan's pokémon, whose condition and whereabouts were still unknown. He thought about Morgan herself, separated from some of her closest friends, shaken and crying the last time he'd seen her.

    If enough humans could be made to respect pokémon, then perhaps scenarios like that one would never happen again.

    The glalie's eyes drifted toward the paging device. There was his answer, it seemed. He'd been given an opportunity to do something that could significantly benefit the world—he had to take it, he decided then, even if the knowledge of what it would require still terrified him.

    He felt heavier than usual as he ascended, as though his body were less than willing to rise from the ground. With his heart hammering, he glided across the room until he found himself looking down upon the paging device. Once he'd remembered how to operate it, he used it to call Jal'tai.

    "Yes? What is it, my boy?" Jal'tai said once the connection went through.

    "…I'll do it," Solonn spat out before his trepidation could foil him.

    Jal'tai didn't respond right away; Solonn feared that perhaps he'd been too vague. But then, "All right, then," the latios said simply, then hung up.

    In virtually no time, Jal'tai arrived at the suite, entering by way of the transport tile and immediately bringing himself before Solonn.

    "I know this wasn't an easy decision for you," Jal'tai said, "but in the end, you've made the right choice." He gave a warm, proud smile. "We and our efforts will go down in history, Solonn. And someday, pokémon throughout the world will thank you for your selfless actions here."

    They were nice words, Solonn thought, but the glalie wasn't feeling quite as long-sighted at the moment as Jal'tai was. He couldn't really look to the future and any praise and appreciation that lay there—he could only see the present and what it was about to bring, and he really just wanted it to be over and done.

    "Do you want me to put you under for the transfiguration?" Jal'tai asked him.

    An image of the pillow's rather spasmodic transformation entered Solonn's mind, along with an unbidden sense of what such a process might actually feel like, and he shuddered. "Please do," he responded quickly.

    Jal'tai nodded in acknowledgment, then moved forward and placed his talons on top of the glalie's head, shuddering a bit at how cold it felt. "There will only be a moment's discomfort," he assured Solonn.

    Solonn gazed nervously into Jal'tai's eyes for a moment, hoping the latios was right—and then his vision and his consciousness were extinguished in an instant by something that sent a shock through his skull and a burst of red light to the back of his eyes.

    When Solonn awakened, the scene surrounding him had changed. He knew at once that he was seeing through different eyes, eyes that were much weaker and more limited in their range than his old ones. He shifted slightly, feeling soft surfaces all around him as his limbs stretched—yes,
    his limbs. Jal'tai's technique had worked—Solonn was now a human.

    He lifted his head and saw that he was presently lying in bed. The sheets that covered him prevented him from seeing most of his new form; he pushed them aside with one of his newly-formed arms to have a look at what he'd become.

    Somehow, seeing the human body that he now possessed actually made it harder to believe that the change had really happened.

    A shadow fell over him; he looked up and to his left and saw Jal'tai there, smiling gently as he hovered in place.

    "The transfiguration was a complete success," the latios said. "Here—have a look at your new face with this," he suggested, then offered Solonn a small hand mirror. The human took the mirror, and after a moment's fumbling with it, he managed to catch his own reflection in the glass. "Do you like it?" Jal'tai then asked.

    Solonn wasn't quite sure what to make of his new face; he could still hardly believe he even had it. He responded to Jal'tai's question with a noncommittal noise.

    "Well, given time, I'm sure you'll get used to it," the latios said as he took the mirror back from Solonn. "Come now," he said, offering Solonn a talon to help him up out of bed. "Let me show you around your new home and help you start getting used to your new form."

    Not knowing what else to do, Solonn took Jal'tai's hand. He let the latios give him a tour of the suite, hoping all the while that he really would get used to this new way of life eventually.

    On each day that followed, Jal'tai paid Solonn a visit, during which he helped Solonn learn human habits. He brought a series of instructional videos that demonstrated the ways of human life, and he gave Solonn extra tutelage on certain points of those lessons. While some human practices seemed strange (particularly where hygiene was concerned), he didn't resist his education, picking up the new habits quickly enough for Jal'tai's liking.

    Things carried on fairly smoothly in this manner until the eighth day following Solonn's transfiguration. Jal'tai had just left after giving a brief lecture to supplement a segment on one of the DVDs, specifically about the concept of money. Solonn was sitting in the den, reviewing that segment and trying out of semi-boredom to memorize whose portrait was on each denomination of the paper notes, when a sudden, incredibly strong pain awakened in his head, completely without warning.

    Solonn shouted in pain and alarm, wondering what in the world could be happening to him. It worsened with each passing second, making flashing spots explode in his vision and shooting a bolt of nausea down his throat.

    Certain that something was terribly wrong, he tried to call Jal'tai, hoping the latios could get help for him. He reached for the paging device—but as he did so, a powerful spasm tore through his body. His outstretched arm flailed wildly, knocking the device to the floor.

    He tried to pick it back up, but he still hadn't quite regained control of his muscles. No sooner had he risen from his chair than he collapsed to the floor—and he didn't get back up. The last thing Solonn was aware of before he blacked out completely was a blurred, sideways view of the paging device lying just inches away.

    * * *​

    Jal'tai emerged from his trance, having constructed and packaged a chain of memories to replace the ones he'd quarantined. He allowed himself a couple of minutes' worth of rest before rising and returning to the table where his subject lay.

    Once again, he entered the human's mind and immediately sought out the chronological telltales that identified the memory directly preceding the ones he'd locked away, showing him where the new memories were to be placed. Very carefully, Jal'tai implanted the chain, made certain its connections to the preceding memories were secure, then left the human's mind once more.

    The procedure was finished. Anxious anticipation spread through Jal'tai's nerves as he looked upon Solonn, wondering if the work he'd just done had secured the human as a successor or if it had done quite the opposite.

    This was the moment of truth, Jal'tai knew. He needed to see if interferening with Solonn's mind had robbed the human of the Speech. Focusing his psychic abilities, he stirred Solonn's consciousness within the confines of liasa andielenne without truly awakening it. The human shifted slightly in his shackles, turning his still-blank eyes toward Jal'tai. Solonn was now in a state in which he'd respond to stimuli and commands while being utterly unaware of doing so.

    "Solonn," Jal'tai addressed him. He held up one hand and pointed two claws toward his own eyes. "What am I pointing at?"

    Solonn maintained his empty stare at the latios for a brief moment. Then, "Vhekahr'syin sierahs hivhassen," he responded inflectionlessly.

    Glalie language, Jal'tai noted, unsurprised. Solonn had spoken his own language almost exclusively in all the time Jal'tai had known him; he wasn't one to "show off" his linguistic abilities. But this situation was one that required Solonn to do just that.

    "Solonn, this time you will answer in my language," Jal'tai instructed, then indicated his eyes once again. He'd never heard Solonn speak in lati language and was certain that the former glalie had never done so. If Solonn could respond in this language, it would be a good indication that his abilities had survived the psychic procedure. "What am I pointing at?" he repeated.

    Like the last time, there was a delay in Solonn's response, but it was longer than before—Jal'tai feared that the human wouldn't be able to respond as instructed. But then, much to Jal'tai's immense relief, "Catelisi adiele setali assiria," Solonn answered.

    "Oh… oh, thank the Goddess!" Jal'tai exclaimed almost breathlessly, so overjoyed with relief that he broke into tears. The procedure was a complete success—Solonn now possessed memories that would allow him to accept his new purpose, and he'd kept the skills that would allow him to serve it.

    Jal'tai released Solonn from both the hypnotic state and liasa andielenne, allowing the human to become fully unconscious at last. "Rest well, my boy," Jal'tai said softly. "You've certainly earned it."

    Smiling, Jal'tai turned and drifted over to his shrine to Rei'eli. Once there, he reached for the potted autillia flowers and closed his talons around a pair of them, allowing them to fall apart in his hands. He looked up at the serene face of his goddess as he held handfuls of petals over the fountain, an almost rapturous gratitude written all over his face.

    Thank you, Jal'tai prayed silently and sincerely. With all my heart, I thank you. With that, he let the petals fall from his hands, drifting gently down into the water in a symbolic return of the power that his goddess had lent him.

    * * *​

    "…which came back negative, thankfully… Oh look, he's awake!"

    Solonn awoke to the sound of the cheerful voice that had just spoken and was greeted with a somewhat blurry view of its owner: standing nearby was a chansey, who was looking at him and smiling. He also awoke to a splitting headache.

    "Oh good, good!" said another voice, a much more familiar one. "Could you give the two of us a moment, Miss Teresa?"

    "Of course," the chansey replied amiably, then left the room, her tail waving behind her as she waddled away.

    Groaning softly, Solonn rubbed his eyes to clear them, then cast a glance about himself, confused. He found that he was lying in a simple bed in a sterile, white room. He also found that he wasn't alone; seated at his bedside was an elderly man: Jal'tai in his human guise, Solonn recognized with a slight delay.

    "Good morning," Jal'tai said warmly. "Or, to be more accurate, good late morning," he amended with a chuckle. "Feeling all right?"

    "Ugh… not really," Solonn answered groggily. "Gods, my head hurts…"

    "Hmm," Jal'tai responded, sounding concerned. "Well, that's nothing a little aspirin won't cure, I'd reckon."

    Solonn cradled his aching head in his hands for a moment, hoping he'd be given some of this "aspirin" as soon as possible. "Where am I?" he then asked.

    "You're in the Haven, Solonn," Jal'tai told him, "our city's medical center. I brought you here after I found you unconscious on the floor in your suite. I've been so worried about you, my boy," he said earnestly, concern etched into the deep lines of his aged, presently-human face. "You were out cold for nearly four days."

    With some difficulty amid the pain, Solonn managed to recall the last evening he'd spent in that suite. A headache that was even worse than the one he was suffering now had struck him, and then he'd passed out. "What in the world happened to me back there?" he asked. "Gods, it scared me half to death…"

    "I'm afraid what you experienced was a side effect of your transfiguration," Jal'tai said. "That sort of a change can put a lot of stress on a body, and sometimes that stress can sneak up and hit you all at once—sometimes immediately, sometimes with a bit of a delay, but usually never."

    He sighed. "What you experienced is a rare occurrence indeed; I truthfully hadn't expected it to happen. It usually only follows transfigurations performed by less-than-skilled users… I assure you that I'm well-practiced in the art, but I fear that age may have deteriorated my skills somewhat. I sincerely apologize for your suffering," he said somberly, lowering his head.

    "Mmm," Solonn said dismissively. "Don't worry about it. You said you hadn't expected this to happen."

    Jal'tai gave a small, reserved smile. "You're too kind," he said gratefully. "Anyhow… as I mentioned, this is a very rare occurrence, and as such, I don't expect it to happen again. But just to be safe, I've enlisted the services of someone whose abilities should help you stay relaxed and well in both body and mind. Her name is Neleng, and I've made an appointment for her to come and visit you tonight. She can also offer a session any and every night after if you wish."

    "Okay," Solonn said, grateful for anything that might prevent him from going through this nightmare again.

    Jal'tai stood then—or more accurately, his human mirage stood. "So, then. Do you think you're up to resuming your education?"

    "Yeah… yeah, I think so," Solonn answered. "Although I think I'd like to get some of that 'aspirin' you were talking about first," he added.

    Jal'tai laughed brightly. "Ah, good," he said, smiling. "Yes, I think we can safely say that all the unpleasantness is behind you now."

    * * *​

    Not long after he'd awakened, Solonn was released from the Haven. He stepped out into the early afternoon under an overcast sky. A light rain was falling, making pattering noises against the wide, burgundy umbrella Jal'tai had given him. Jal'tai's human mirage held an identical umbrella, but whether the latios was actually holding one or simply projecting an image of one and letting the rain fall on him without a care, Solonn couldn't tell.

    A long, sleek, black car waited in the parking lot in front of the hospital; as Jal'tai and Solonn approached it, a uniformed human stepped out and opened a door in the back for each of them. Solonn got in and took a seat right away. Meanwhile Jal'tai merely projected his human mirage into the vehicle while he hovered above the car outside. The chauffeur closed the doors, then took his seat behind the wheel. Jal'tai's mirage smiled at Solonn from its place beside him as they set off toward the Convergence Inn.

    Solonn stared idly out the window during the ride, watching the urban scenery race past through a veil of autumn rain. As he did so, a peculiar notion came over him: a question of how he'd gotten there, how things had come to be as they presently were. He was briefly puzzled by it, but then dismissed the momentary confusion as a temporary malfunction of his mental faculties, some brief and harmless aftereffect of his recent malady that might never happen again. He gave it no further thought, just glad and grateful that the worst of it was over, and serenely let the wheels carry him home.
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    Chapter 17 – The Academy

    "Ahh… Sure is good to be back home, isn't it?" Jal'tai asked.

    Home… Solonn had only lived there for just under two weeks; there were aspects of this place—not to mention this body—that he was still getting used to. And yet… he couldn't deny that the suite was taking on a sense of familiarity, even comfort at times. It truly was beginning to feel like home.

    "Suppose so," he responded, semi-absently raking a hand through slightly damp hair.

    Jal'tai smiled at him. "Here, let me take your coat," he offered. Solonn allowed the latios to do just that. Then, still quite taxed from his recent hospitalization, Solonn went straight to the armchair in the den and dropped himself onto it.

    After putting Solonn's coat in its right place, Jal'tai disappeared into the kitchen; a moment later, Solonn could hear the rather loud whirring of the blender. Soon after it fell silent, Jal'tai drifted back into the den with a glass of something opaque and pale purple clutched in one of his talons.

    "Here," the latios said, handing the glass to Solonn. "It's one of my specialties. It's got something of an energizing property—the effect isn't as strong for humans as it is for pokémon, but it still ought to put a little of the vigor back into you. Plus, it's rather tasty," he added with a grin.

    Curious, Solonn gave it a try. It was pleasantly creamy, with a nice, strong berry flavor. He looked up from the drink to voice his approval—but where he expected to see a latios, there was only empty air. "Jal'tai?" he called out as he tried to spot him. He looked toward the transport tile just in time to see a green flash there.

    Puzzled, Solonn stared at the space where Jal'tai had just been. He took a sip of the berry smoothie every few moments as he wondered where Jal'tai had gone and why he'd left without warning. Before he could come up with any answers, the latios returned as suddenly and unexpectedly as he'd left.

    "Sorry to just pop out and back without warning," Jal'tai said, having noticed the somewhat bewildered look on Solonn's face. "I'd meant to pick this up on the way here, but it slipped my mind."

    Before Solonn could ask the latios had brought him, it was in his hands. It was a paperback book, one whose title instantly bemused him. "Parent's Choice: The Very Best Names for Your Baby?" Solonn read the title of the book aloud with an odd look on his face.

    The latios nodded. "You're going to choose a name from this book to use as your own from now on."

    "Is that really necessary?" Solonn asked. "What's wrong with the name I already have?"

    "Nothing, of course," Jal'tai answered. "But it's still a good idea for you to take a human name. It'll help to reinforce your human identity."

    Solonn's brow furrowed skeptically as he set his smoothie down on the table beside him and opened the book, riffling through its pages without really stopping to read them. "I still don't see the need for it… I don't think anyone outside my—" He nearly said "my own species", but caught himself short. He couldn't exactly call them that anymore. Managing not to get too ensnared by that matter, "No one other than snorunt and glalie would be likely to recognize it as anything other than a human name," he said. "And what are the odds of one of them showing up here?"

    "Good enough," Jal'tai replied. "You could encounter any number of species here. It's best to be prepared for anything. And furthermore, any effort that can be made to strengthen your new identity is a step worth taking. Your new occupation and your new life will be much easier if people have as few reasons as possible to ask questions. A name that strikes humans as unusual might lead them to inquire about its origins—about your origins, Solonn. Do you wish to face those kinds of questions?"

    "No," Solonn answered promptly. "No, I wouldn't." He didn't have much faith in his ability to come up with a convincing human background—he rather hoped he could avoid having to give out too many details.

    He opened the book again, bothering to read it from the beginning this time. Minutes wore on, and then hours, and still none of the names had struck his fancy. Finally, Solonn grew so weary of the whole matter that not even midway through the "M"-names, he decided to just settle on the next half-decent one he came across.

    "Michael," he said, meeting Jal'tai's gaze steadily enough, sounding more confident in his final choice than he truly was. "I'll take that one."

    Jal'tai gave him an inquisitive look, cocking his head slightly. "Are you sure?"

    Solonn barely managed to stifle a wince. Those words… "Absolutely," he replied at once, wanting to get the matter behind him as soon as possible.

    The latios smiled, nodding approvingly. "A fine choice, I say. Common enough, yet also quite stately, in my opinion." Solonn rolled his eyes at Jal'tai's choice of words. "Well, then. For our next matter of business, it might be a good idea to choose at least one middle name for yourself."

    Solonn sighed. From the time spent with Morgan and her pokémon, he'd learned (mostly from Sei) that many species didn't find it necessary to give their children more than a single personal name and some sort of a family name, if even that much. Sei only had two names, while Oth only had one. Solonn had rather envied them; he'd heard quite enough laughter over his own middle name for a lifetime.

    "Do I have to have a middle name, exactly?" Solonn asked tentatively. "I mean, do humans have to have one?"

    Another of those inquisitive looks crossed Jal'tai's face. "Well, no," the latios answered. "Plenty of human cultures don't use them, as a matter of fact. You don't have to yourself; I just thought I'd offer it as an option."

    "Thanks, but no thanks," Solonn said promptly. "I'd rather do without."

    "Very well," Jal'tai said, at which relief spread through Solonn.

    All that was left now was to take on a human surname—a name to represent a human family that he didn't have. The notion bothered Solonn, and he couldn't pretend it didn't. In his eyes, it almost amounted to denying his family, his mother…

    Denying doesn't have to mean forgetting, he realized. Whatever else had to change, he could still keep his memories.

    With that settled, he let Jal'tai suggest various human surnames to him, stopping the latios when he heard one that he didn't mind. Michael Layne was his new name, and while he didn't think nearly as well of it as Jal'tai did, he felt like he could have done a lot worse.

    "Whew," Jal'tai said, casting an eye toward the clock. "Well, that certainly took a while. I'd expected it would, though."

    "Yeah, well…" Solonn said, not really knowing how else to respond. Of course it should take a while to choose a name for yourself—who'd want a name they disliked or regretted following them wherever they went?

    That thought made something occur to him. "So, did you have a hard time choosing your human name?"

    So fleetingly that it could have easily been imagined, a strange, inscrutable look appeared on Jal'tai's face. "Actually, not really," he answered with only the slightest delay. "I came by the decision quite readily."

    "Hm." Not really sure of what he thought of that, if anything, Solonn dismissed the matter.

    "Well, what matters is that we've gotten this taken care of now," Jal'tai said pleasantly. "Now you've got a human name to match your human appearance—a name under which I can enroll you at the Convergence Academy," he added. "I've enlisted the services of a very capable instructor, one who'll teach you nearly everything else you'll need to know before you go into office. Systan Exeter knows you have a lot to learn, and they're sure to keep you very busy—I don't mean this to intimidate you, of course," he added with a sort of self-conscious little chuckle.

    Solonn gave a dismissive shake of his head. He'd known from the start that he'd have a lot of work ahead of him. He was a little surprised at first that Jal'tai wouldn't be handling most of his training, but then supposed he shouldn't be surprised. Jal'tai still had a city to run, after all. He couldn't be expected to tend to all his successor's needs.

    Solonn only hoped this "Exeter" would be likeable enough and hopefully not too strict.

    "Now, I won't be shipping you off to school just yet," Jal'tai told him. "You've been through a lot these past few days, and I think you're entitled to some rest before taking on something so major."

    The latios looked at the now-empty glass that sat on the table beside Solonn. "Would you like me to make you another smoothie before I go?"

    "Hmm? No, that's okay," Solonn answered. "Thanks anyway, though."

    Jal'tai nodded, but took the glass in his talon anyway. "It should be washed, at least," he said, pointing at the pale purple film that was drying inside of the glass, then disappeared into the kitchen.

    Shortly thereafter, Solonn heard the blender whir to life again, which puzzled him. It seemed his polite refusal had slipped from Jal'tai's mind.

    Sure enough, there was a fresh glass of the purple berry beverage in the latios's talon when he came back into the den. He set it down on the table with a funny sort of apologetic smile. "Sorry—I just couldn't resist," Jal'tai said. "I could tell you really liked the last one, so…" He shrugged.

    "Uh… thanks," Solonn replied politely, albeit a bit awkwardly.

    "Anyway," Jal'tai began, stretching his arms out and flexing his neck, "I'll be bringing you to the academy on, oh, the Monday after next, I think. I'll let you have a tour of the facilities and meet Exeter, and you can probably start your classes the next day.

    "Now, I won't lie to you—the workload will seem very heavy at times during the course of your education. But I truly believe you can handle it. And I have a lot of faith in Exeter—you'll be under the tutelage of one of the greatest and most important minds in all of Convergence. They'll make sure you stay on course and are fully prepared for the responsibilities that lie in your future. You have absolutely nothing to worry about—you're going to be in excellent hands… well, in a manner of speaking," he amended, then laughed.

    "In the meantime, though, I just want you to relax," Jal'tai told Solonn warmly and earnestly. "Yes, you've got quite a road ahead of you, but it's nothing to fear, nothing to be stressed about. I think you'll find your life becoming richer and better as you begin to truly apply yourself to your purpose. Coming into your role is something to look forward to, my boy. Keep that in mind and be at ease in it in your days to come.

    "Of course, Neleng can help you keep your nerves about you—she'll be here in just over an hour. And again, she can come to visit any evening you wish.

    "Until we meet again, take care." With that, Jal'tai went to the transport tile and disappeared, leaving Solonn alone with a berry smoothie and plenty on his mind.

    * * *​

    The night before Solonn's first visit to the academy arrived, and he went to bed thinking exclusively of what would await him the next day. What he most certainly didn't expect to be awaiting him the next morning was a latios holding a tray of hot, buttered pancakes, hovering almost directly over him.

    "Rise and shine!" Jal'tai greeted him cheerfully—and loudly.

    Jal'tai's voice startled Solonn awake at once, and startled him badly. "Bwaaa!" Solonn shouted, flailing momentarily in confusion. He very nearly knocked the pancakes right out of Jal'tai's talons; doing an admirable job at concealing most of his amusement, the latios backed up and watched patiently as Solonn untangled himself from the sheets.

    Sweeping a handful of matted black hair out of his face and trying to will his hammering heart to calm down, Solonn shot a bewildered, incredulous look at Jal'tai. "Good gods… why in the world did you think that was a good idea?"

    Jal'tai shrugged. "I figured that if you were anything like me, an ordinary alarm clock wouldn't do the trick, so…" He held out the tray in front of Solonn with a lopsided, hopeful smile.

    Still a bit frazzled, Solonn took the tray from Jal'tai without a word and started in on the pancakes. They were still quite warm, quite fresh; he vaguely wondered how Jal'tai had managed to slip in and cook breakfast without the smell awakening him. When he'd nearly finished the pancakes, he asked, "What time is it?"

    "It's 5:00 a.m.," Jal'tai replied.

    "…Oh, you have got to be joking," Solonn half-groaned, suddenly feeling rather drowsy again. It had been around 10:00, 9:00 at the earliest, when he'd awoke on the past several mornings. "I don't think I even got seven hours of sleep last night…"

    "Well, I did advise you to get to bed early this time, you know," Jal'tai pointed out.

    "Which I did," Solonn informed him, then paused to yawn. "A whole hour and a half earlier, in fact. I knew I'd be getting up early, but not this early… I'll bet the sun isn't even out yet, is it?"

    "It's about to be," Jal'tai said. "Anyway, you'll need to get used to early mornings. You'll need plenty of time each day for the lessons you're to learn and the work you'll be given, so the school day can't afford to start late. You should be glad you're going to be given such long hours. You'll be able to get through your courses much more quickly than you would if you were taught at a more leisurely pace."

    "Lucky me," Solonn muttered, still somewhat irritable from having been jolted awake. He stirred the remaining maple syrup on his plate about with his fork for a brief while, tracing little patterns in it, lacking the energy to think of anything better or more involving to do. "So how long until we leave?" he eventually asked.

    "In about three hours," Jal'tai answered.

    "…What? You woke me up before the sun, and we're not even leaving for another three hours?"

    Despite Solonn's agitation, Jal'tai kept a remarkably even temperament. "This is when you'll be waking nearly every day from now on," he told Solonn. "When you begin attending classes tomorrow, you'll be leaving an hour earlier than we'll leave today. I felt it was a good idea for you to start getting used to being up and around at this hour.

    "Now, the idea of waking up hours before you have to leave might seem silly to you, but it's important to have ample time to get yourself ready for where you're going. You should be able to shower, get dressed, have a nice breakfast, and even have a little time to just sit back and relax before you leave each day. Rushing to an appointment is never a good idea; it can have very sloppy results. Why, you wouldn't want to arrive there only to find you'd forgotten your trousers, now would you?"

    A crooked smile crept across Jal'tai's face, and he burst into uncontrollable laughter. Solonn only stared bemusedly at him for a moment, failing (or perhaps refusing) to see the humor in the situation that the latios had just illustrated. Slightly disturbed, he pushed his tray to the foot of the bed, then climbed off and left the room to go take a shower, leaving Jal'tai laughing at his own joke.

    Minutes later, Solonn was trying in vain to calm the static in his newly dried hair as he stepped out of the bathroom. There was Jal'tai in the den, perched oddly in the armchair and listening to his favorite jazz station with Solonn in his line of sight—he didn't seem to be paying the human any mind, but Solonn was still glad he'd remembered to put on his bathrobe.

    A sudden, brief fanfare sounded out of nowhere, clashing with the music that was coming from the radio. In a swift series of motions, Jal'tai silenced the radio and snatched a silver cell phone from the table nearby. He answered it just as it rang again.

    "Hello? …Ah, good morning, Ms. Kal!" he greeted the person on the other end of the line. Solonn stopped on his way to the closet, wondering who this "Ms. Kal" might be and why she was calling. "Is that right… So, the idea just struck you out of the blue, did it?" Jal'tai asked her. There was a pause as she responded, and then the latios laughed. "I'm sure they'll do just fine, and I know he's going to appreciate this. This was a very nice thing to do, you know, especially on such short notice." There was another pause. "Well, we'll be seeing you shortly. Goodbye."

    The latios hung up and put the phone down. His gaze then shifted to Solonn, and he raised a questioning eyebrow. Solonn could tell from the way that Jal'tai was looking at him that no, the latios hadn't just noticed him, and the notion that he'd been caught eavesdropping made Solonn oddly uneasy. Slightly embarrassed, he hurried out of Jal'tai's sight.

    Once dressed, he walked into the den to get Jal'tai's opinion of the outfit; the latios noticed him with a slight delay and then looked him over for perhaps a second and a half at most. "You forgot your tie," he then informed Solonn.

    Solonn made a face at Jal'tai. Ties were easily his least favorite aspect of human-style attire.

    "Come on, now. It's important to make a good first impression when introducing yourself somewhere new—hence the importance of dressing like a gentleman. My videos illustrated that point; do you not remember?" Jal'tai reminded him.

    "Right, right…" Solonn said blandly, walking off to finish getting himself ready to leave.

    * * *​

    Solonn walked along a fairly new-looking, barely-worn cobblestone path that wound through the sprawling grounds in front of Convergence Academy. He was accompanied by Jal'tai, who was presently wearing his human disguise. Every so often, a red or yellow leaf from one of the trees growing along the sides of the path fluttered down and landed on Solonn; he promptly brushed off the ones that he noticed, while Jal'tai removed the ones he didn't.

    As they got closer to the academy itself, Solonn noticed marble panels stretching across the face of the building at each of its floors. They depicted both humans and pokémon who were historically associated with wisdom, invention, and the arts, carved in relief. On the roof, several flags waved in the wind, lined up in a neat row and representing many different regions, with one of them representing the International Pokémon League. In the very center of them all, on a longer pole, was a flag representing Convergence itself, with the unown character "C" in black over a spiraling, silver-and-gold shape.

    On either side of the entrance, a large marble statue stood. One of them depicted an elderly human man with flowing robes and a long, curly beard, while the other was carved in the form of a wingless, five-horned dragon pokémon. The two figures each had an arm outstretched toward the other.

    "Aphilicus, a great human philosopher, and Meron, an emyril known to a number of pokémon cultures as the Father of Wisdom," Jal'tai identified the two statues after noticing Solonn looking at them. "Two of the greatest minds in history and therefore fitting icons to represent one of the most important educational facilities in the world.

    "Now," he said in a somewhat lowered voice, drawing the rest of Solonn's attention from the statues with a tap on the shoulder, "I'll remind you that you should make a conscious effort to speak human language most of the time. Almost exclusively, in fact. It seems much more fitting, much more natural for a human to speak in the fashion of their kind as a habit, Speech or no Speech; do you understand?"

    "Right," Solonn said, nodding.

    Looking pleased with Solonn's answer, Jal'tai motioned for him to enter the building alongside him. The two passed through the doors and into a vast foyer. A nearly full trophy case stood against the far wall adjacent to the doors, while the other walls were covered in plaques with the names and achievements of star pupils engraved in gold, as well as banners that sported mottos like "Knowledge Is Power!". There was a round symbol emblazoned in the center of the foyer on the linoleum floor, bearing the intertwining spiral of gold and silver from the Convergence flag.

    Footsteps sounded from the hall to the right, heavy-sounding with a faint clicking that suggested claws on the hard floor. Turning toward the sound, Solonn saw a nidoqueen making an approach. She soon reached Solonn and Jal'tai and stopped before them, smiling eagerly.

    "Ah, hello, Ms. Kal," Jal'tai greeted in a friendly tone.

    "Hello to you too, sir!" the nidoqueen returned enthusiastically. Her gaze shifted to the unfamiliar human at Jal'tai's side. "And this must be Mr. Layne, right?"

    "Correct," Jal'tai said.

    "Hello, Mr. Layne. It's so nice to meet you," Ms. Kal said merrily.

    "Nice to meet you, too," Solonn responded. Remembering some of the etiquette lessons from Jal'tai's instructional videos, he extended his hand to the nidoqueen. Ms. Kal seemed to have expected this; she took his hand readily in one of her own and shook it with a strong grip.

    "So have they got it all set, then?" Jal'tai asked her.

    "Oh yes," Ms. Kal said, beaming. "They're all ready to go."

    Jal'tai nodded and smiled. He turned to Solonn and said, "Ms. Kal is in charge of teaching some of the academy's younger students. She will not be teaching you. However… she and her class would certainly like to meet you. Come, let's go and say hello to the children. Lead the way, madam!"

    Eagerly, Ms. Kal turned back toward the hall she'd come from and set off. Jal'tai and Solonn followed her, the latter being especially careful to not follow too closely; he didn't want to step on the nidoqueen's tail. They soon reached a door with a placard that read "GRADE 1 (P) – MS. KAL"… but to Solonn's surprise, they kept walking right past it. Though perplexed as to why the nidoqueen passed by her own classroom, Solonn figured she knew what she was doing, and so he kept silent.

    Ms. Kal rounded a corner and continued onward, leading Jal'tai and Solonn behind her until she arrived at the entrance to the gymnasium. Excitedly, she opened the doors…

    "Welcome, Mr. Layne!" a chorus of voices shouted in less-than-perfect unison. The source of the greeting was a small, multispecies crowd of children—all pokémon, Solonn noted—perched on the bleachers. The children in front held signs that matched the spoken welcome—or were supposed to, anyway. The "l" and the first "e" in "Welcome" were in reverse order; the "y" in "Layne" was upside-down; and the student holding the "M" in "Mr." forgot to turn up his sign until all the other students had put theirs down.

    Ms. Kal's eyes darted toward Solonn and Jal'tai, holding an alarmed and very apologetic look. "Mr. Layne is very pleased by your excellent welcome," she said merrily—albeit rather hurriedly—to the children. She cast a hopeful yet urgent look at Solonn that seemed to say, "Right? Right?" Solonn took the cue and nodded, smiling warmly and managing not to look as vicariously embarrassed as he felt.

    An aipom in the third row lifted the hand on her tail to get the teacher's attention.

    "Yes, Ms. Chibbles?" Ms. Kal acknowledged her.

    "Is he gonna be our new teacher? Did you get fired?" asked Chibbles.

    Ms. Kal made an incredibly flustered face, her cheeks turning a shade befitting a bruised oran berry. "No, no, of course not, Ms. Chibbles," she said hastily. "Mr. Layne is going to be a new student here."

    Wondering gazes and whispers flittered among the students. "A grown-up's coming to our class? He must not be very smart…" a totodile in the back row said very loudly, without raising his hand.

    Ms. Kal winced and blushed even further, giving Solonn and Jal'tai another apologetic look. "Please don't speak out of turn, Mr. Cuomo," she reprimanded the totodile, though she didn't sound terribly assertive. "And no, Mr. Layne will be taught by Systan Exeter."

    The whispering among the students abruptly stopped. Ms. Kal smiled in relief, believing she'd finally regained the respect of the students, but Solonn got the feeling that it was actually the mention of Exeter's name that had brought the hush over the crowd. What sort of a person could Exeter could be for the mere mention of their name to command silence like that?

    "Well, then," Jal'tai spoke up suddenly, clapping a hand onto Solonn's shoulder and startling him so badly that the human nearly jumped at the voice and contact, "I'm certain Mr. Layne enjoyed your surprise greeting and had a lovely time meeting you all." Again, Solonn recognized the cue and nodded very self-consciously. "Have a nice day students! You too, Ms. Kal!" Jal'tai said.

    "Bye!" she responded cheerfully, waving heartily. As Solonn left the gym with Jal'tai, he turned briefly and noticed Cuomo standing up in the bleachers and mocking the nidoqueen's voice and the way she waggled her rear end when she waved. Ms. Kal was utterly oblivious to the totodile's actions.

    "Wasn't that a lovely little thing she decided to do there?" Jal'tai remarked. "Just a spur-of-the-moment, random act of kindness; she said the idea just hit her last Friday, and she simply had to try and pull it off for you. She's a good person, that Ms. Kal. She's only recently begun teaching here, but I think that given time, she'll really come into her own here. The children certainly do seem to like her, that's for certain."

    They seemed to like her, all right—in that she unintentionally amused them. Solonn's thoughts didn't linger upon the nidoqueen and her class for much longer, though. "What do you know about Exeter?" he asked.

    "That's Systan Exeter to you," Jal'tai corrected him, but not harshly. "You should always keep due etiquette in mind, my boy. Anyhow, I know quite a bit about Exeter, actually," the latios said, the white mustache of his human guise turning up in a smile. "Exeter is an old friend of mine and one of the primary founders of the Convergence Project. They provided a great deal of research into human industry and technology as well as a number of other key fields, which was vital to the conception and creation of this city and remains invaluable to Convergence and its citizens to this very day. Exeter's is a brilliant mind, and the unique abilities and properties of their kind give them unparalleled access to some very rich resources and broad varieties of information."

    Learning of Exeter's intelligence and importance only stoked further unease in Solonn. If they really were as smart as Jal'tai claimed, surely their classes would be extremely challenging. "Just how difficult are Systan Exeter's classes going to be?" he asked.

    "I'll be perfectly honest with you, Solonn: what you're about to undertake is a very intensive and demanding education. Exeter usually only tutors psychic students, particularly those with especially sophisticated mental capabilities. It took very little convincing to get them to agree to tutor you exclusively for as long as is necessary, though. Knowing your reason for being here, they were glad to put aside their other classes for a while; they cherish the welfare and future of this city as much as I do.

    "Exeter's are tough courses, yes, the most rigorous ones provided by this school. But Exeter themself is not harsh at all—they're one of the most patient and pleasant people you'll ever meet. They want you to learn all that you need to know, and they're willing to invest as much time and effort in your education as they must. All they'll ask is that you invest the same in yourself. Will you give them—and yourself—that much?"

    Solonn nodded silently. He was still somewhat nervous, but no longer about his teacher so much as about the magnitude of his undertaking, which seemed to be looming much larger than before now that he was about to confront it directly. "You know… I still can't entirely believe I'm doing this," he said quietly. "I still can't quite picture myself in charge of an entire city…"

    "You needn't try so hard to grasp these things all at once," Jal'tai said warmly. "Everything you're meant to be will come about in time."

    Solonn turned to look at Jal'tai, to regard the kindly, presently human face that smiled comfortingly back at him. He almost spoke, only to realize just as quickly that he didn't really have anything to say. He gave a smile that was less than earnest, feeling that Jal'tai's somehow demanded reciprocation, and then turned away, swallowing against a sudden lump in his throat.

    The two walked through the halls of the academy in silence broken only when a stream of human kids emerged from a classroom they passed, the students chatting animatedly as they diverged and made for their next classes. Noise filled the air as classrooms emptied throughout the building near-simultaneously. Several of the passing students shot looks at Jal'tai, clearly recognizing him—or recognizing Mayor Whitley, anyway. Most of them kept going, continuing to look back at him over their shoulders but nonetheless intent on getting to their classes in time. But a small handful of them couldn't help but stop.

    "Is it really you?" a short blond boy among them asked incredulously.

    "Well, I've always been me, as far back as I remember," Jal'tai responded, then laughed.

    The blond boy's eyes widened, and he exchanged significant looks with the other students. "What are you doing here?" he then asked, apparently the unofficial spokesman of the group.

    "Well, young man, Mr. Layne here and I have a very important appointment with the staff to get to. I'm afraid we really must be moving along, as a matter of fact… Good day to you all, students!" he said, bidding them farewell as he began to lead Solonn away.

    "Bye!" the blond boy called after Jal'tai. A couple of the other students echoed the farewell. Solonn looked over his shoulder and saw a few of them waving at him and Jal'tai, and he waved back.

    As the halls began to empty once more, Jal'tai came to a stop at the doors of an elevator, and Solonn followed suit.

    "Systan Exeter's class is on the top floor," Jal'tai informed him. "Many of their old psychic students would simply teleport up there, but we'll just have to make do with the elevator." The doors soon opened, and the two stepped inside. "Just be glad you're not being made to take the stairs," Jal'tai said with a small laugh.

    They arrived at the sixth floor, and Solonn found his nervousness peaking as they approached Exeter's classroom. He tried to distract himself with his surroundings, his eyes darting over the framed photographs that lined the walls. They depicted various noteworthy people, from past and present educators at the academy to important figures in Convergence to people who had worldwide fame or accolade. They couldn't hold his attention, however; his eyes soon turned forward once more and locked upon the swiftly approaching door.

    "SYSTAN EXETER – INTENSIVE EDUCATION," read the placard on the door. Jal'tai gave Solonn one last reassuring smile (which only slightly succeeded in its aim) and then pressed a button beside the doorknob. A faint tone sounded within the classroom.

    "Come in," a voice called from behind the door a moment later. It sounded strikingly similar to the soft chime of the doorbell, which surprised Solonn a bit.

    Taking the cue, Jal'tai opened the door and took a single step inside, beckoning Solonn into the classroom ahead of him. With no small measure of apprehension, Solonn did as he was directed. Once he was inside, he saw Jal'tai close the door behind him; involuntarily, Solonn imagined it sealing itself shut and melting into the wall, trapping him inside.

    Shaking such thoughts from his mind with only partial success, Solonn swept his gaze over the classroom. It was much smaller than he'd expected, and there was nothing at all on the pale blue walls. The classroom was almost entirely bare, in fact; it contained only a single desk and chair near the center, a longer desk up near the front on which there sat a number of unfamiliar devices, and a vast screen mounted on the wall above that desk.

    There, hovering before that screen, was Systan Exeter themself. Solonn hadn't really known what to expect his new teacher would actually be, but he was certain that nothing even remotely like the porygon2 he now beheld would have ever crossed his mind.

    Exeter glided effortlessly toward Solonn, who went stock still as they approached him. "Welcome, Mr. Layne," they said in their chiming voice as they stopped before him. They appeared to have nothing at all in the way of a mouth, and no other part of them moved when they spoke, either. Solonn found himself rather reminded of Oth, who hadn't used a mouth to speak, either. The difference was that he could comprehend Exeter's audible speech; they didn't need to resort to telepathy.

    Solonn knew that he couldn't shake hands with Exeter since they didn't have any. At a loss for any other way to greet the teacher, "…Hi," he said somewhat awkwardly.

    The porygon2 cocked their head slightly at Solonn, staring appraisingly at him through large, bright eyes. Finally, they lowered their head respectfully; when they looked up once more, there was something playing about their eyes that suggested a smile. "I'm most glad to meet you, Mr. Layne, and I'm even more pleased to be able to teach you."

    "…Thanks," Solonn said, still gathering his wits.

    Exeter made an odd, jingling sound that Solonn figured was laughter. Then they turned their attention toward Jal'tai. "You're looking well today, Mr. Jal'tai," they said.

    "Why, thank you. You're looking quite well, yourself," Jal'tai returned.

    Only then did it properly click that the porygon2 had referred to Jal'tai by his true name, his lati name, not the human name Jal'tai normally used in public. Solonn turned toward Jal'tai and saw that the latios had done away with his mirage and was now hovering there in his true form. He stared speechlessly at Jal'tai in surprise—Jal'tai revealed himself as he truly was to virtually no one, humans and pokémon alike.

    Jal'tai noticed the way Solonn was staring at him. "No need to worry, Michael," he assured him, interpreting that look correctly. "As I said, Systan Exeter and I go back quite a long way. They know me for who and what I truly am; they're one of the very few here who do."

    Solonn's gaze shifted between Jal'tai and Exeter, and he found himself feeling strangely singled-out all of a sudden. Those two knew each other by name, just as he knew them. The only identity that wasn't known by everyone present was his own. Jal'tai had only referred to him by his human name in the porygon2's presence. Exeter didn't know the true identity of their new student, and Solonn wondered if they ever would.

    "Say… why don't you give him a little preview of what you have to offer him?" Jal'tai suggested.

    The porygon2 gave another of their mouthless smiles. "Certainly!" they said brightly. They glided over to their desk and set themself down on a flat, gray, circular pad surrounded almost completely by the devices arranged there. Their eyes closed… and then, much to Solonn's surprise, the porygon2 sparkled, became transparent, and then disappeared completely.

    "What? …Where did they go?" Solonn hissed at Jal'tai.

    The screen over the desk suddenly came awake, showing an image of Exeter in front of a flowing, liquid-looking, emerald green background. "I'm right here!" the porygon2 said cheerfully, their melodious voice magnified greatly.

    Solonn could only stare at the screen that somehow contained the teacher. He might have asked Exeter how they'd done such a thing, but he found his brain and his mouth refusing to cooperate.

    Exeter gave another of their peculiar little laughs at Solonn's plain bewilderment. "Give me a subject," they then said.

    Solonn supposed that the teacher was addressing him and tried to think of something, but he was still a bit discombobulated; no suggestions came to mind.

    "How about… dragons?" Jal'tai suggested once it was clear that Solonn was drawing a blank.

    Apparently Exeter found Jal'tai's suggestion particularly amusing; their musical laughter tinkled on for several seconds before subsiding. Once they fell silent again, the porygon2 nodded in acknowledgment. Exeter's form then darkened to the green shade that surrounded them, their outline fading until the porygon2 blended into the background completely and vanished.

    A second later, the flowing green field was replaced by a mountain range. Sweeping classical music began playing as a salamence suddenly surged upward from behind the mountains and began soaring over their peaks. The salamence rushed across the screen, filling its view completely; when it cleared, a desert scene was revealed, through which a pack of flygon sped along, their wings buzzing.

    A few more cinematic scenes depicting different varieties of dragon pokémon in their natural environments played, then gave way to a screen on which small, three-dimensional representatives of numerous dragon species perched along the sides. Exeter returned to this screen at its center; some of the tiny dragons merely turned their heads toward the porygon2, while others among them hissed or growled at Exeter in disdain.

    "Please select a species for further discussion," the porygon2 prompted.

    "Let's have a look at the dragonite," Jal'tai suggested.

    Exeter acknowledged this and then turned toward the tiny dragonite at the upper right corner of the screen. The teacher, along with all of the other dragons, vanished as the dragonite increased in size, filling most of the screen. The dragon stood there at the center, where they remained as Exeter began describing that species in greater detail from offscreen. As the porygon2 continued narrating, the camera focused on the dragonite from several angles, and then the model of the dragon was replaced by a series of video clips of their species in action.

    Exeter was also asked to talk about the salamence and drathlon species before Jal'tai decided that was enough for the day. The porygon2 closed the dragon program, then rematerialized within the classroom as the screen went blank once more.

    "That was only a small example of the sort of lessons Systan Exeter has in store for you," Jal'tai told Solonn then. "Now, this is not the only method they'll employ; they'll provide a variety of different lesson types.

    "Also, I'm afraid that dragons won't be a focal point of your education. I just really like that particular program," he admitted with a chuckle. "Figured you might like it, too."

    Solonn nodded. It seemed learning under Systan Exeter might not be as unpleasant as he'd anticipated. At the very least, it looked as though it wouldn't be as boring as he'd expected. Given the porygon2's pleasant, even cheerful demeanor and what he'd seen of their teaching methods, he now imagined that the experience ahead of him might actually be kind of enjoyable.

    "Well, I suppose we'll be taking our leave now," Jal'tai said. "I'll let Michael have a look around the academy for a while longer, and then it's off to enjoy a nice, relaxing evening."

    Exeter turned toward Solonn and smiled once again. "I hope you'll enjoy your time here, Mr. Layne," they said. "Farewell, and I'll see you tomorrow!"

    "Goodbye," Solonn said, and then followed Jal'tai out the door.
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  • 169
    Bardothren: Now how the dink did this escape my notice? That is one hefty review right there, the kind that has the curious side effect of making me all the more interested in my own writing. (Which makes sense, I reckon--the more of an active interest you take in your work, the better it's liable to turn out.)

    The adverb thing in particular stuck out, seeing as it's not the first time I've had it brought to my attention. Definitely something to keep in mind, especially with a new project on the horizon.

    Thanks loads for the read and reply. :D Now I'll quit rambling for a bit and get on with the story...


    Chapter 18 – Heart of the City

    Solonn had never been able to guess exactly what he could expect from his education. As it turned out, neither what Morgan had told him about her school nor the demonstrations he was given at the academy painted the full picture.

    Solonn's education included a particular emphasis on the history and inner workings of the International Pokémon League, the powerful organization that funded and managed the Convergence Project and to which he'd one day be in direct service. He was also trained in a variety of skills and subjects, and exposed to a number of human languages. He acquired the latter just as readily as he'd acquired pokémon languages in the past; all part of having the Speech, Jal'tai told him.

    A day at school for him was nearly twice as long as it had been for Morgan, and unlike her, he had to attend classes seven days a week. Most of the students were offered vacations during the late winter, the spring, and the summer; he was not. He would only be allowed up to four days off each month; beyond that, he would only be excused by illness. While the time spent in class was long, the variety in the lessons, as well as the enthusiasm, patience, and understanding of the teacher, made the hours easier to endure than they might have been.

    Neleng and her therapeutic mindsongs certainly helped, too. Solonn suspected that his new schedule might devour his sanity if it weren't for the psychic oasis she provided for him every evening. He didn't want to go a single day without her services, and she was all too happy to oblige.

    On rare occasions, usually during Solonn's short breaks from schoolwork, Jal'tai himself would instruct him. The latios liked to take Solonn on field trips throughout Convergence to get his successor as acquainted with the city as possible, and he always had stories to tell about the places they visited, having witnessed the establishment of many of them firsthand.

    For nearly four years, Solonn was trained in this way. Finally, the day came when both the staff at the academy and Jal'tai himself agreed that he'd learned all he needed to know. According to them, he was now sufficiently prepared to take on this office—this new life—even if he could still barely believe it himself.

    One late morning the following week found him in what was presently Jal'tai's office and what would soon be his own—very soon. Once the witnesses arrived, the transfer of power would begin. Part of Solonn just wanted to get it over with. But for now, all he could do was wait, pacing back and forth across the circular room.

    "You needn't be working yourself into a frenzy, now," Jal'tai told him evenly, perched oddly over his chair behind his desk. When the witnesses arrived, he'd need to put on his human disguise, but he wasn't concerned about that for the time being. He had no reason to worry, and he knew it. He'd be given fair warning when his guests showed up; no one was allowed to simply barge into the mayor's office unannounced. He only wished the human in his company could be at ease, too. "I've already explained what's going to happen; it's not going to be any big deal, really, I assure you."

    Solonn only grunted distractedly in response, then resumed the mantra he'd been repeating in his mind in an effort to keep his nerves in check. It wasn't working as well as it had when he'd first started. Jal'tai had indeed outlined what he could expect, and it really was going to be a very simple and quiet affair. Regardless, his life was about to take a significant turn. The magnitude of that fact just wouldn't let him coax it off of his shoulders.

    He just hoped to all gods he'd be able to avoid fainting.

    It was a small mercy when the witnesses finally showed up; at least he could stop anticipating their arrival. Four humans were admitted into the office; Solonn recognized them immediately as senior members of the IPL. There were two men and two women, all of them older and well-dressed. They were accompanied by none other than Exeter, who smiled brightly and proudly in their mouthless fashion as they hovered alongside the league representatives.

    Jal'tai, now disguised as Rolf Whitley, rose from his chair and greeted his colleagues heartily. The representatives took a couple of minutes to exchange a few friendly words with him and to greet Solonn, as well. Then one of them produced a portfolio with a number of documents inside. He'd known this was coming, knew the contents of those documents nearly word-for-word. But it still seemed incredible that these pages could hold the power to transfer the leadership of an entire city.

    The representative took the pages out and handed them to Solonn. They outlined a contract of sorts, binding him to the authority of the IPL and to service to their Convergence Project, while bestowing the right and authority to govern Convergence as a community that was independent from the rest of Hoenn. The documents also contained an oath of service to the city, and Solonn was made to read this and everything else in those documents aloud to prove that he acknowledged and understood it all.

    Once Solonn had finished, he was told to set the documents down upon the desk. Jal'tai rearranged them so that the last page sat on top of the stack. One by one, the league members each signed their name on the topmost sheet. Systan Exeter came forward and signed the document as well, dipping the end of their "beak" into a small pot of ink and quickly writing their name in unown-script.

    Soon, it was Solonn's turn. Jal'tai handed him the pen, and Solonn stepped forward and let his gaze fall upon the empty line beneath the sweeping signature that spelled out Jal'tai's human name. He could feel the slightest slick of sweat forming between his fingers and the pen, and the space around him seemed to have gone preternaturally silent save for the strong, persistent rhythm of his pulse pounding in his ears. He hoped the others in attendance weren't too aware of his nervousness.

    Convergence and its mission would present a considerable duty in the years to come. But for now, all that was being asked of him was a name written on piece of paper. Bearing this in mind in an effort to keep things in perspective, he drew a breath and set the pen to the paper. He didn't exhale until his signature was shining back up at him in fresh, still-glistening ink.

    He frowned at it slightly; it wasn't particularly tidy, especially compared to Jal'tai's. Solonn didn't even think it resembled the way his human name looked in writing. Jal'tai had told him before that it was all right, that many people's signatures only marginally resembled their written names. Still, the semi-legibility of his own signature bothered Solonn, moreso than usual.

    "There you have it," Jal'tai said softly from Solonn's side. He took a rubber stamp that sat on his desk, pressed it into an inkpad, and stamped a blank space on the document with the pokéball emblem of the IPL in red ink. To the room at large, the latios said, "Let the records show that on this day, August the 26th, 2022, authority over the city of Convergence was hereby transferred from myself, Rolf Alan Whitley, to Michael Layne."

    The words reached Solonn with a delay, as did the smattering of polite, reserved applause that arose around him. With one simple act on his part, he'd signed his life away to this city and the cause for which it stood. In a ceremony that had lasted barely more than an hour, he had been given the reins of an entire community—and a mission that could bring about reform in societies all over the world and secure an everlasting place for himself in history.

    Was that really it? he couldn't help but wonder.

    After a round of congratulations and farewells from the league representatives as well as from Exeter, the guests departed. Jal'tai resumed his true form, wearing the biggest smile he could manage.

    "I'm more proud of you than I quite know how to express, my boy," he said, almost breathless with joy.

    "You're proud of the fact that I read a few sheets of paper and then scribbled a name on one?" Solonn joked.

    "Oh, you know better than that," Jal'tai said lightheartedly, gently cuffing the human about the shoulder. "You've come a considerable way to get to this point. You've given years of your life to prepare yourself for this day. Your dedication to our cause is nothing short of wonderful," he said rather dreamily.

    Solonn gave the gushing latios a funny look. "Whatever you say," he responded, leaning backwards against the desk and staring at his shoes.

    "Here," Jal'tai offered pleasantly, "why don't you take a seat?" He gestured toward the large chair behind the desk. "It's yours now, after all."

    "Yes," Solonn acknowledged, feeling oddly weary and excited at the same time, "it is, isn't it?" Unhurriedly, he strode around the desk and sat down in the chair. It wasn't quite as comfortable as it had looked, but it was better than just standing around. His eyes swept over the desk; it was very tidy, and much of what was there specifically suited Jal'tai's tastes. Solonn distantly wondered what the desk might look like after a few months in his possession.

    "So, then. Have you memorized what you're going to say?" Jal'tai asked then.

    "Yes, I have," Solonn responded promptly, resisting the urge to bite his tongue. What he'd had to memorize for his next task was really very short and simple, but nothing struck at his certainty like another person questioning it. He knew it was only meant as a friendly reminder, but it still bred some doubt within him. To try and avoid letting his mind stick on the matter, "How soon until they arrive?" he asked.

    "Probably well within the next hour. They'll want to get this done soon so it can be given the post-production treatment it'll need," Jal'tai answered.

    "And this'll air tonight?"

    "Yes; they'll be showing it during the evening news, as well as the nightly news. It'll also air during commercial breaks over the next few days," Jal'tai told him.

    "Hm. Terrific," Solonn said dryly. He noticed that his ponytail had fallen over his shoulder, and he idly fiddled with the hair for a moment before tossing it back behind himself. He'd let it grow quite a bit longer in recent months; it now hung a fair distance between his shoulder blades. He didn't particularly like having it pulled back like this, but wearing it this way was just one of those things that, for whatever reason, was considered more befitting of an authority figure—much like the suit he was presently wearing. He still thought he looked silly in it. But he'd come to accept that occasionally submitting to absurd things that he couldn't care less about was just part of being in a position of authority.

    He mused on this and other random things as he waited for his next task to be upon him, trying not to overanalyze what he was about to do. He was left alone with his thoughts for a short while when Jal'tai put his mirage back on and excused himself for a few minutes; the latios had only just returned when the next guests arrived.

    A small camera crew entered the office, consisting of a few humans alongside a blaziken cameraman who wore a rather ratty blue baseball cap backwards. They set up lights around the desk as Jal'tai positioned himself by the door, out of the shot. Without any warning, one of the humans came around the desk and attacked Solonn's face with a bit of makeup, then scrutinized him for a second before scampering away. Solonn tried hard not to shoot her a funny look, but failed.

    When things calmed down a bit more, the reality of the situation sank in all over again. An entire city would see what he was about to do. Some of them would probably see it more than once. The thought of it threatened to unnerve him, but he reminded himself that at least the eyes of the city weren't actually there in the office with him. They're not here, he reminded himself silently. Don't think about them.

    He was grateful for the brevity of the statement he was about to give; as one of the humans nearby began a countdown, he was able to quickly review it in his head one last time. He was also grateful that Jal'tai had offered to compose those words for him; it took at least some of the pressure off of him.

    The countdown ended, and the camera began filming. Steeling himself imperceptibly, the human looked directly into the lens and spoke his very first words to the city as its leader.

    "Hello, Convergence," he said evenly, congenially. "My name is Michael Layne. On August 26th, I was appointed as your new mayor. In taking this office, I have pledged myself to the continuing efforts to keep this city alive and prospering, as well as toward the ultimate goal of bettering the entire world by our example here.

    "I swear that I will ensure the maintenance of our city's unparalleled harmony among all peoples, and I will lead us in our endeavor to promote equality in civilizations beyond Convergence. I am fully dedicated to our local well-being as well as to our city's purpose on a greater scale.

    "Though young and a newcomer to public office, I am ready, willing, and able to serve you. Rest assured that I will do all that I can to meet your needs and expectations. We now enter a new era in the history of Convergence, and we enter it together. Best wishes to you all and to our future."

    Oh, thank the gods… Solonn let out a sigh of relief once the crew was no longer filming, grateful that he'd managed to avoid tripping on his words. Now he could only hope that he hadn't unwittingly pulled an odd face, or that the makeup artist wouldn't decide he hadn't looked right after all, or that nothing else that would require another take would happen. Thankfully, everyone seemed pleased with his performance and left without demanding a do-over.

    "See? Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Jal'tai said, dropping the mirage once more.

    "Meh," Solonn responded. "Of course, that's not the last TV appearance I'll have to make."

    "No, it certainly isn't. I'm afraid many occasions of public speaking lie in your future, televised or otherwise," Jal'tai said. "But then, you've known what came along with the job description for some time now, have you not?"

    "I know…" Solonn responded somewhat airily. "I'm just glad I don't have to do anything else of the sort today." He sighed and reclined as far as his chair would allow. "I can't wait for Neleng tonight, let me tell you…"

    "Oh… Well… I'm afraid that tonight's appointment with Neleng has been canceled," Jal'tai informed him.

    Solonn frowned worriedly. "What? Why?"

    "Something has come up," Jal'tai answered noncommittally.

    Solonn gave Jal'tai a concerned and rather suspicious look. "Why don't I like the sound of this?"

    "I haven't a clue, but I suspect that like everything else you've been through today, it won't be quite the tribulation you expect." Jal'tai put his human disguise back on and made for the door, but stopped just short of exiting. "Don't worry about it for now, all right? Why don't we go get some nice lunch, hmm?"

    Still a bit wary of whatever the latios was conspicuously omitting from discussion, Solonn didn't respond to the offer right away. Finally, "Sure," he said, then rose from his seat. As he accompanied Jal'tai out of the office, he wondered if he might manage to coax some information out of the latios over lunch.

    * * *​

    It was late afternoon, and Solonn was sitting alone back at his suite with the television on, though not really watching it. He'd had no luck in finding out what had changed his plans for the night; Jal'tai had simply sat (or rather perched) there during lunch, smiling in a knowing manner over first his sandwiches and then his parfait, somehow managing to redirect the conversation whenever it tried to turn toward the coming evening.

    Jal'tai's evasiveness had persisted throughout the rest of the day, all the way up to the point when he'd brought Solonn back to the Convergence Inn; then, vaguely mentioning that he had very important things to attend to, the latios had departed his company.

    Now Solonn had little else to do but sit there with one abysmally boring program or another blaring at him and the same host of questions endlessly circling his mind. What in the world was going to happen that night? How could he be kept in the dark about something so important that he'd had to cancel anything else he'd wanted to do that evening? How much longer would he continue living in this hotel suite now that he was the mayor? And why had whoever made sitcoms like the one currently playing thought that adding disembodied laughter to the program would make it any funnier?

    Finally unable to endure any more of it, Solonn turned the TV off. Just as soon as he'd done so, he received a peculiar message from the computerized voice of the suite.

    "Please stand on the transport tile and wait," it instructed him.

    Perplexed, Solonn was initially unsure about following the instructions, vaguely wondering why he was being asked to do such a thing. He decided quickly enough that he might as well go along with it, though, and soon he was doing as he was told.

    The tile activated, and he found himself in the corridor outside—and not alone. Standing there was a uniformed man with salt-and-pepper hair: the chauffeur employed to drive him and Jal'tai around town.

    "Follow me, sir," the chauffeur said simply, then turned and made for the nearby elevator with no further instructions or explanation. Though growing more baffled by the minute by what was going on, Solonn quickly followed the man into the elevator and then out of the hotel to the waiting vehicle.

    Solonn eventually arrived at a relatively modest but nonetheless stately mansion. Having been brought here several times over the past couple of years, Solonn recognized this place at once. This was where Jal'tai lived.

    The chauffeur stepped out of the car, then let Solonn out. He escorted Solonn up the walkway, stepping aside only when they reached the front doors. Almost as soon as they'd stopped there, the doors burst open—and Solonn was immediately blasted by an explosion of confetti.

    "Surprise!" shouted countless voices in unison.

    For a very long moment, Solonn could only stare wildly at the mirage-human standing just inside the door. Then he shook off the black and gold flecks of paper covering him (most of them, anyway), spat out a few more, and demanded, "What in the world was that for?"

    Very slowly, a smile crept across Jal'tai's presently human face, spreading into a full Cheshire grin. He then burst into uproarious laughter. "You silly boy, it's for you! Come on in," he said, stepping back a bit. Still eying Jal'tai warily, Solonn followed him into the mansion.

    Thankfully, there were no more startling surprises once he entered Jal'tai's home. But there were more pleasant surprises about. He'd always thought Jal'tai kept a nice household, but the latios had outdone himself tonight. Everything in sight had been tastefully decorated in black, silver, and gold.

    As Solonn went further into the house, he lost count of all the guests, some of whom he knew locally or recognized as league representatives, while others were completely unfamiliar. Friends of Jal'tai he hadn't met before, Solonn figured.

    Music began playing and grew louder as he continued to follow Jal'tai. He found its source at one end of a spacious living room. A seven-piece, multispecies band was playing the sort of light, easygoing jazz that Jal'tai liked.

    But soon after Solonn entered the room, they stopped playing. The guests' chattering ceased, and soon all eyes were on Jal'tai and Solonn, who had made their way to the center of the room.

    "Our guest of honor has arrived!" Jal'tai announced needlessly, beaming at the crowd. The moment the words left his mouth, the guests all erupted into applause. Solonn winced, expecting another confetti attack or some other, equally bizarre surprise from the guests. Luckily they seemed content to merely applaud him—until Jal'tai decided to lead them in a cheer, which Solonn endured with a somewhat forced smile.

    At Jal'tai's cue, the band went back to work, striking up a livelier tune than they'd been playing before, and the guests went back to milling amongst themselves. Jal'tai took a few moments to systematically hunt down every person Solonn hadn't been introduced to yet and rectify that unfamiliarity, then shepherded Solonn over to a presently unoccupied sofa, asking the nearest person to go fetch them a couple of drinks as they took their seats.

    "So. What do you think of this little surprise I put together for you, hmm?" Jal'tai then asked Solonn.

    What Solonn thought was that it was kind of an odd surprise. But it was the thought that counted, after all; so, "It's nice," he said, nodding approvingly. "How long were you planning this?"

    "Well, I always knew I wanted to do something special for you when this day finally arrived," Jal'tai answered, smiling. "As for the elements of the party itself, the invitations were sent out just over a week ago, around the time the decorations were purchased, and I booked the band over the weekend. Saved them from having to play another wedding, the lucky souls," he added with a laugh.

    Solonn responded wordlessly, and the two were silent for a little while after that, watching the band, watching the crowd. The man who'd been sent after drinks returned; Jal'tai and Solonn took them and thanked him before he disappeared into the crowd. Jal'tai stared into his drink for a moment, seemingly deep in thought. He took a small sip of it, then turned to Solonn with an unreadable expression.

    "I'll be leaving town tomorrow morning," Jal'tai told him, sounding rather hoarse all of a sudden.

    It took a moment for those words to sink in. Even once they had, Solonn was at a loss for how to react. He'd known for some time that Jal'tai had planned to leave Convergence once he was no longer its leader, but Solonn hadn't expected that he'd leave this soon after stepping down.

    "After I leave, this will be your home, of course," Jal'tai went on. "I'll help you move in tomorrow. It won't be any real trouble for me—I've decided to leave much of what's here to you, so it's not as though I'll really have much in the way of moving myself out to bother with."

    Somewhat overwhelmed, Solonn just sat silently for moments on end. The way things were unfolding was strangely difficult to get his head around; after years spent preparing for the life he was only just now entering, everything suddenly seemed to be happening so fast…

    "Are you all right, my boy?" Jal'tai asked, concerned.

    "…I'm fine," Solonn responded after a pause. He hesitated again, then admitted, "Part of me does kind of wish I'd known when you were leaving a little further in advance, though…"

    Jal'tai smiled sadly. "I'd certainly have told you if I'd been sure of it myself." He sighed. "I'll admit I'd been procrastinating over the matter for longer than I should have. I've been… reluctant to leave my city," he all but whispered. "In the end, I knew that if I didn't simply go, then I might not be able to bring myself to do it—hence the last minute decision. I'm terribly sorry if this inconveniences you in any way…"

    "No… no, it's not a problem at all," Solonn assured him quickly. It was obvious enough that the decision to leave Convergence behind had been supremely difficult for Jal'tai; though the human mirage that Jal'tai wore revealed only moderate sadness, Solonn strongly suspected that the latios behind that façade was on the verge of tears. He didn't want to let Jal'tai feel even remotely guilty for springing this news on him on such short notice; Solonn felt rather sorry for even mentioning that the lack of advance warning had bothered him. He also didn't have the heart to question why the latios found it necessary to leave, though he certainly wondered. Knowing as he did how having a resolution questioned could shake it apart, Solonn mindfully kept that question to himself.

    Jal'tai held Solonn's gaze with faint relief, then gave an earnest, albeit weary smile, grateful for Solonn's understanding. He knew that the human at his side would never realize just how much of his unspoken compassion was being recognized, having been kept ignorant of Jal'tai's psychic qualities ever since having his memory rewritten. But it was recognized indeed, and greatly appreciated.

    "Oh, look at me," Jal'tai said, his voice still cracking a bit, "glooming up your nice party like that; shame on me! Come on," he suggested in a slightly brighter tone as he stood, "why don't we go mingle a bit more?"

    Though still somewhat concerned for Jal'tai, sure that the matter of his departure was still weighing heavily upon him, Solonn humored the latios's pretense of lightening up. Throughout the rest of that evening and well into the night, he chatted with the guests, took in the music, and accepted the gifts that the attendees had brought for him, and he managed to appear to enjoy it all. All the while, though, the better part of his mind was preoccupied with thoughts of would soon befall both him and the latios who'd preceded him—what one would gain and what the other would lose.

    * * *​

    The August sun shone brightly, bearing down on Convergence from high in the sky. It was just before noon, but to Solonn it felt like it could have been almost any daylight hour; he hadn't slept the night before.

    He stood there in front of the mansion that was soon to be his own, distantly staring at the lone moving truck parked at the end of the driveway and the plain black car parked behind that truck. A pair of movers made trips back and forth between the truck and the house, bringing a few of Solonn's things in, hauling a few of Jal'tai's things out. It wasn't long at all before the job was finished; Solonn didn't own much, and there were very few of Jal'tai's possessions that the latios hadn't opted to leave behind.

    Shortly after the last of Solonn's belongings were brought into the mansion, Jal'tai emerged wordlessly alongside the movers. He stopped beside Solonn, remaining silent for several moments, staring pensively into the sky.

    "My Goddess, how I'm going to miss this place…" he finally whispered.

    Solonn said nothing in response, casting a somber gaze downward. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a very faint shimmering; when he looked toward its source, he saw that Jal'tai had resumed his true form.

    "I've taken the veil off of your eyes only," Jal'tai assured Solonn before the latter could raise any concerns. "This is most likely the last we'll ever see of one another… I want your final memories of me to be as I truly am."

    He laid his taloned hands upon Solonn's shoulders and sighed heavily. His eyes shone with unshed tears as he held the human's gaze, and a warm, broad smile slowly curved across his face. "You've come such a long way from the day I first met you," he said wistfully. "You've made me so very proud, my dear boy, prouder than I've ever been of anyone in my entire life. I know in my heart that you'll take good care of my city, that you'll serve and guide it with as much love and devotion as I always did…"

    At those words, Jal'tai could hold back his tears no longer. In a sudden motion, he wrapped his arms around Solonn in a long embrace. Solonn closed his eyes, feeling his own tears escape as he held on to the silently weeping latios.

    "I will miss my city," Jal'tai breathed, "but I will miss you even more."

    "I'll miss you, too," Solonn responded truthfully, realizing now more than ever just how much he'd miss the latios once he was gone.

    At length, Jal'tai finally let go of Solonn, slowly drifting backward from him. There was sorrow showing plainly through his features, but there was also pride, and it showed stronger still. "Take care, my boy," he said softly. "You are the heart of this city now."

    Solonn nodded in acknowledgment. "You take care, too," he said, his voice brittle.

    Jal'tai smiled at him. "Farewell," he said.

    "Farewell," Solonn returned.

    Slowly, reluctantly, the latios turned away. He glided silently over the driveway, stopping to hover above the black car, invisible to all but Solonn. Everyone else present saw a human mirage get into the back of the car. The engines hummed to life, and the two vehicles began to move out. Jal'tai gave one last, wistful look behind, then followed them away.

    Through tears, Solonn watched Jal'tai vanish beyond the horizon. With the latios gone, Convergence had truly fallen into Solonn's hands, and he felt the weight of that burden more than ever now that he carried it alone. As he turned away and entered his new home, he couldn't help but disagree with some of Jal'tai's parting words. Solonn was now the leader of this city, but in truth, Jal'tai would always be its heart.
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  • 169
    Bardothren: I'm impressed with your punctuality! I'd like to be able to claim the same sort of speed with regards to applying the previous review to the latest chapter, but the fact of the matter is I haven't had time to get to it--admittedly I only noticed the previous review earlier today. Whoopsie.

    So yeah, as far as anything I did right in chapter 18 goes, a lot of the credit goes to past-me. Same goes for all 24 chapters yet to come, as a matter of fact--this story's actually already completed. (I could link you to where I've got it posted in its entirety, but that'd have to be your call. Otherwise it probably counts as advertising, heh.) Next major battery of edits will probably come after the whole thing's posted everywhere else--that way I'll have everybody's reviews for everything available for reference in nice, easy-access packages.

    It's something of a relief to know that some of those extra words can fall to the cutting room floor. I think in the past I was overly concerned with avoiding ambiguity--hence also the excessive speech tags, I'd reckon. And yet some of the spots that could use clarifying the most remain bare, even after all these years. I can't help but look back and laugh a little.

    Just sticking the whole chapter under a spoiler tag, I'd considered. CSS never occurred to me, and if using it can have a positive effect on loading times I might have to give it a shot. Either way, oh man. You'd have loved some of the old chapters. :p Most of them, I eventually realized, were multiple chapters stuck under the same number for no good gods-be reason. Prior to that, breaking the character limit was the norm for my shit. In retrospect, I'm not sure how anyone had the patience for those behemoths. XD;

    Thanks as before for the read 'n' reply! :>


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  • 169
    Chapter 19 – A Sight for Sore Eyes

    Restlessly, he soared, his weary eyes sweeping the land below. He'd done next to nothing else for months now, stopping only to tend to his physical needs, never staying in any one place for long.

    A few months prior, he'd returned to his homeland, his work finally finished. There, he'd brought himself before the rulers of his people, who'd ordered him to do immense good in the world to atone for the crime he'd committed so long ago. He'd testified about all the work he'd done and the fruit it had yielded, hoping it would satisfy their demands.

    Of course, he'd been very selective about what he'd let them see—they didn't need to know how certain of his achievements had come about. His censored version of events had nearly fooled them, too. But he'd overestimated his ability to bend the truth in ways that favored him—and underestimated the silent, indignant protests that had lain deep within his own conscience.

    Upon learning the whole truth, they'd sentenced him to a permanent exile. They'd rendered him physically unable to return to his native land, and they'd barred him likewise from the places where his greatest crimes had been committed and where those he'd harmed the most were likely to go.

    And so, from the day he was cast out into the world, he did nothing but wander. He was tormented both night and day by thoughts and dreams of how things might've turned out differently. He tended to drift in circles, passing over the same areas so often that eventually he became familiar with the kinds of things that went on in those places.

    Thus he readily noticed that something was off today. His interest piqued, he descended to investigate. The scene that he found was as troubling as it was perplexing, if not moreso. He tried to remedy the situation, but even his most potent and sophisticated techniques proved useless.

    His mind raced with questions as he left the area, hoping to find a solution or aid elsewhere. Instead he found a scene identical to the one he'd just left behind. A search of the entire region only yielded more of the same, a widespread problem that neither he nor anyone else around could solve.

    Driven by a dark suspicion, he made for another part of the world entirely, praying for things to be well there. To his immense sorrow and fear, this region—fully separated from the one he'd just left behind—was swiftly and steadily going the way of the one before.

    The scope of this phenomenon was all too clear, and he was powerless to stop or undo it—a notion that sickened him to his core. And yet… it wasn't that there was truly nothing he could do. It was just that he could only do very little. With only enough power to protect a precious few, it became a matter of deciding whom he'd try and reach.

    He barely had to give it any thought before he knew where he wished to begin. Without another moment's hesitation, he shattered a bond of power between himself and someone nearly half a world away.

    * * *​

    Months had passed since Solonn had become the mayor of Convergence and Jal'tai had retired from the International Pokémon League, and the IPL had been pleased with Solonn's service throughout that time. The city prospered under his guidance just as it had under his predecessor; it seemed Convergence was capable of thriving under virtually any leadership.

    Confident in Solonn's abilities and competence, as well as in the stability of his city, the IPL had thus decided that the next phase of the Convergence Project could commence. It was time to begin revealing the integrated community to the public.

    The league in its entirety would learn of the city before the world at large could, starting with those in the highest ranks and working downward from there. The Apex League, the highest echelon of the IPL's organized battle division, had known about the Convergence Project from the start, as had the governing bodies outside of the IPL. Regional champions and elite trainers became privy to its existence shortly thereafter. The next step would be to inform the lower IPL members, those who operated at the city level.

    The various forms of pokémon-based competition that the International Pokémon League presided over were all seeing a lot of action at the time, as usual. Getting a hold of even a single region's league members all at once was therefore impractical. The IPL had thus decided to set up one-on-one meetings around the schedules of the lower-ranking members, letting them in on the Convergence Project when they weren't tangled up in other business.

    Solonn had been told he could introduce his city himself if he so wished. He could either convene with the lower IPL members via satellite, or he could meet with them in person. The IPL had decided that none of them would actually be allowed into the city itself until they'd been properly briefed.

    Solonn had rather liked the idea of going places he'd never seen before. Being new to the IPL as he was, his superiors had kept him busier than his predecessor had been in the same office, wanting to see if he was truly league material. Solonn's service to the Convergence Project generally kept him bound to the city that he led; he only ever left Convergence on IPL business, such as he was doing now. Any chance to step out of town, however briefly, was greatly appreciated, and so he'd gladly opted to speak with the lower-ranking members in person.

    His tour would take him to every city in which the IPL had any presence: any place where there was a gym, a breeding center, a pokémon laboratory—or a contest hall. So it was that today, he'd be going to a place that somehow he'd never really expected to see again: Lilycove.

    He'd thought about the people he'd known there often since he'd fled the city, wondering what had become of them and what would become of them. But from the moment he'd taken on the role of Jal'tai's successor and the form that came with it, he'd doubted that he'd ever have anything to do with those people again.

    Such thoughts were first and foremost on Solonn's mind again as he stood waiting for his personal teleporter. Solonn knew he wouldn't be in town for long; this was strictly a business trip, and he'd be leaving Lilycove as soon as his work there was done. It was therefore unlikely he'd see anyone he'd known while he was there, not out of a large city that was home to thousands of people.

    Besides which, it had been years since he'd had anything to do with any of them. For all he knew, the humans he'd known in Lilycove—as well as the pokémon, if they'd been rescued—might have moved somewhere else during that time. Maybe Morgan and her family had determined that they'd be safer if they left the city, too.

    "The guy's sure taking his time, isn't he?" remarked a voice to his immediate left. Solonn turned slightly to acknowledge Byron, a bodyguard hired to escort him during his travels. He was shorter than Solonn, but much broader. His muscle-bound physique was probably meant to be intimidating, but his slightly untidy, ash-blond hair and his round, smiling face counteracted that a bit. The bodyguard held a manila folder containing dossiers filled with information about Convergence; Solonn would use them as visual aids in his presentation.

    "Cliff will be ready soon enough, I'm sure," Solonn responded, hoping he was right even as he spoke—he wanted to get to Lilycove as soon as possible. But he stayed patient for the most part, knowing that the wait would be just as long, if not longer, if he went with a different mode of transportation. Whatever Cliff was doing at the moment could be excused; the convenience he provided was well worth the wait.

    "Sorry about the wait," said a clefable with an acid-green belt bag strapped around his waist. It was Cliff, who'd just entered the lobby from a nearby restroom; neither Solonn nor Byron had even known he'd been in there.

    The clefable walked up to Solonn and Byron, motioning for them to draw very close to him to make sure they were both caught in his teleportation field—an unnecessary action, since both of the humans had gone through this routine several times before. They were already moving toward Cliff as he approached.

    "Okay, Lilycove, is it?" Cliff asked. Solonn nodded. "All right, let's see… that's about, oh, two hundred miles south-by-southeast of here, right?"

    Solonn gave Cliff a weary, halfhearted glare. The clefable had insisted making the exact same joke prior to the past few teleportations. Byron was lucky that he couldn't understand Cliff; it spared him from having to suffer the old "I have no idea where we're supposed to be going" bit.

    "Nah, I know where it is; you know I'm just playing with you," Cliff said, taking a moment to laugh at his own joke before proceeding. He then closed his eyes, and after a moment's focus, a teleportation field swept the three travelers out of the lobby of the Convergence Tower and into the parking lot of their destination.

    The moment Solonn materialized in Lilycove, his gaze traveled upward along the face of the building that now filled almost his entire view. The Lilycove Contest Hall was almost exactly as he remembered it; it only lacked the crisper definition that his glalie eyes had offered. He stood staring at it for seconds on end, transfixed by the feelings and memories that the sight of it brought back.

    "You two just go on in and take care of business while I have a smoke, all right?" Cliff spoke up then, breaking Solonn's reverie. Without bothering to wait for any sort of reply, the clefable pulled a lighter and a pack of cigarettes out of his belt bag.

    "They're not going to let you do that…" Solonn muttered, to no response from Cliff. At every single stop on this tour so far, Cliff had tried to take a cigarette break outside whatever IPL building Solonn had been visiting. The people who worked there had reprimanded the clefable for it every time.

    The contest hall's doors opened, and a red-haired woman in a navy blue pantsuit stepped out. She trotted quickly toward Solonn and Byron on her high heels, offering a hand to the former before she'd even come to a stop before him.

    "Hi, good afternoon! I'm Mrs. Penn, the director of Lilycove's contest hall, but you can call me Meredith," she introduced, telling Solonn nothing her name tag hadn't already. Her gaze shifted toward Cliff, who was leaning against the building and smoking in silence with an odd sort of pensive look on his face. "That clefable should know this is a no-smoking zone," Meredith said with a frown.

    Cliff shot an annoyed glance at the director. "Just call the office when you're ready for me to come and get you," he told Solonn, then left the scene in a golden flash.

    "Come on then, right this way…" Meredith said once Cliff had left, motioning toward the doors before passing through them. Solonn followed her in at once, with Byron close at his side.

    Outside, the contest hall had looked more or less like Solonn remembered it. The inside was another story. Everything was still in its old place: the receptionist's desk; the posters on the wall; the large doors leading into the auditorium; and the smaller, more secluded entrance to the backstage area for the performers' use. But the atmosphere was much more subdued than it had ever been. He'd simply never seen it so empty before—there was no contest today, no excited people waiting for the show to begin.

    The contrast from what he remembered was strangely unsettling. He tried to maintain his focus, to keep his mind on the matter at hand rather than on the past. But in a place like this, where such vivid memories had been forged, he couldn't help but think of the times he'd spent here—as well as the person he'd shared them with.

    Once again, he wondered if Morgan still lived in Lilycove. If so, where was she now? What was she doing? And was she ever reunited with her other friends? He frowned in spite of himself, his gaze dropping to the floor. It pained him that he'd leave Lilycove with those questions unanswered.

    It also pained him to know that he'd returned here safely, but they would never know it.

    Lost in those thoughts, he almost didn't notice when Meredith stopped before them, having arrived at her office in the very back of the building. He followed her in without a word, taking the seat provided for him in front of the director's desk, while Byron stood silently beside him.

    The bodyguard handed Solonn the folder. Solonn let his gaze linger upon it for a second, then opened it. Before he could take anything out of it, a rather nasty itch overtook his eyes out of nowhere. He set the folder down on the desk; "One moment, please," he said, and began rubbing at his eyes. He managed to tame the irritation quickly enough, though his eyes still watered a bit afterward.

    "Oh, allergies?" Meredith asked. "I sympathize; I get them too around this time of year."

    "Huh. Well, normally, I don't," he told Meredith, then began blinking rapidly in an effort to stave off another impending itch. "It could be something in the air around here, I suppose."

    "Mm, could be," Meredith said with a shrug. "Tissue?" she offered, gesturing toward a box of them that sat on her desk.

    "No, but thank you," Solonn said. He figured he could do without one as long as his nose didn't decide to get involved. "So." He picked the folder back up and began sifting through it. "I assume you've been given some idea of why I've come here today, yes?"

    "Mmm-hmm," Meredith confirmed, nodding. "They mentioned some sort of major project the league's put together. They didn't go into details… Are you sure you don't need a tissue?" she asked again, more concernedly this time, for Solonn's eyes were clearly bothering him once again.

    Solonn gave a noncommittal reply as he rubbed his eyes, harder this time and seemingly in vain.

    "Actually, maybe you ought to try and rinse those out," the director suggested. "The men's room is up the hall to the right; I'll wait here while you take care of that."

    "Good idea," Solonn said, rising from his seat and passing the folder to Byron as the two of them left the room. Solonn had to fight to keep his eyes open; the itch was growing worse by the second. He made his way to the restroom as quickly as he could, halting Byron when the bodyguard tried to enter the room along with him.

    "You can stay out here," Solonn told him, wincing and screwing his eyes shut. They no longer merely itched. Now they burned. "I doubt there's anyone in there, and I'll only be a moment." With that, he stepped into the restroom and shut the door behind him, then forced his eyes open long enough to spot the sinks and rush toward them.

    Solonn gritted his teeth as he quickly shoved his hands underneath one of the motion sensors. He gathered handfuls of cool water and brought them to his eyes, rinsing them out vigorously. But rather than relenting, the searing pain only worsened. Soon, it became so intense that it took all he had not to cry out.

    The water shut off as he clutched his forehead, the pain stabbing into his eyes and skull so brutally that he couldn't even think to wonder what was wrong with him. But then… just as unexpectedly as it had come, the pain subsided, fading mercifully quickly until it was nothing more than a dull throb.

    Not quite daring to trust the relief at first, Solonn opened his eyes very slowly. He had to quell an immediate urge to close them again; the light in the room seemed brighter, harsher than before. He leaned over the sink for a few moments, trying to relax after his ordeal. Then he lifted his head and straightened his posture once more. When he did, his reflection in the mirror above the sink told him exactly what had been wrong with his eyes.

    This time, he couldn't stifle a scream.

    The face before him shook with shock and fear, staring wildly back at him with piercing blue eyes—glalie eyes.

    How…? No, this can't be happening now! he tried to convince himself in fearful confusion. But the truth couldn't be denied. Jal'tai's transfigure technique was wearing off—years before it was supposed to.

    The door burst open; Solonn immediately turned to prevent anyone from seeing what had happened to his eyes. "What's going on?" Byron demanded tensely.

    Solonn hesitated to answer. He'd kept the fact that he wasn't truly human a strict secret all this time. He'd never intended to reveal it, unsure of whether or not the citizens could handle the truth. Jal'tai, as it happened, had already thought of this, and had assured Solonn that the plan that he'd formulated to deal with this issue would go off without a hitch.

    In a few years, around when the transfiguration was supposed to wear off, Solonn was supposed to name a local glalie as his future successor—the very glalie he'd happen to become upon his reversion. After Michael vanished without a trace, Solonn would take his place, in a manner of speaking. By that time, society might be accepting of a pokémon in a position of leadership.

    But things weren't going according to plan. Here Solonn was, cornered, with his secret betraying itself. He hadn't had the warning he'd been assured of, and now there was no time to set up a smooth transition of power from the person he'd pretended to be to the person he actually was.

    The only way he could think of to keep his position was if someone could see that the pokémon he was becoming and the human he'd been were, in fact, the same person. Someone would have to witness his change, and that someone would have to be Byron. He could only hope the bodyguard wouldn't react too adversely to what he was about to see.

    "Sir… what's going on?" Byron asked again. Solonn heard him take a couple of steps closer.

    As Solonn braced himself for the revelation he was about to give, he saw the skin on his hands turn a dark, flat gray, toughening all the while. The truth could wait no longer.

    "Don't be alarmed," Solonn said as calmly as he could manage and far moreso than he felt. "I'll explain everything later… Just please, call Cliff. Now," he commanded flatly, and then he turned around.

    Solonn saw the look on Byron's face instantly turn from concern to shock as their eyes met. Byron stared speechlessly as he watched a human being turn gray as graphite right in front of him, a human being who looked back at him through glowing eyes. He stepped back from Solonn, tension written all over his stance.

    "What… what the hell…" the bodyguard stammered, his voice trailing off. His eyes didn't move, locked on to Solonn with an alert stare. His arm twitched, his hand moving to his side, where a handgun and a stun gun were concealed under his jacket.

    Solonn noticed this, but tried not to let his gaze shift conspicuously toward the weapons. He strongly doubted that Byron would shoot him, but the bodyguard might stun him if he thought Solonn was losing control of himself and posing a threat. The fact that Byron hadn't resorted to either weapon on first sight told Solonn that the human still recognized him, at least. He'd probably still listen to Solonn as long as they both kept their heads.

    "No time to explain," Solonn said. Then he gasped in shock and doubled over as something horribly cold struck deep into his bones. "Just call Cliff," he urged almost voicelessly. "Please, hurr—ahhhh!" He collapsed to his knees as pain like hammer blows struck his temples. His hands flew up and clutched his head—his horns had just erupted.

    Dizzy with pain and shivering violently, Solonn lifted his head with an effort and looked up at Byron through eyes that streamed with tears. The bodyguard had backed up even further, standing right at the door and still staring warily at Solonn, but there was also a hint of genuine concern in his eyes. One of Byron's hands still hovered near his weapons, but the other now held his phone. Come on… Solonn urged him silently, so cold that he could barely catch his breath. Call… please, for the gods' sakes, call!

    And then a strange, potent sensation took hold of Solonn. A familiar sensation. After years of separation, he'd returned to the embrace of his mother element. In the midst of his agony, the reunion was a wonderful escape. He quickly and completely lost himself in it.

    Solonn was utterly unaware of the sudden, intensely white flare in his eyes. He didn't notice the massive, involuntary release of ice-type energy that accompanied it until it rent the air with a sharp, resounding crack.

    The sound snapped Solonn out of his elemental ecstasy in an instant. The scene surrounding him returned to focus. There before him, a partially ice-glazed man stood fixed in a startled stance with an expression of sudden terror, no longer moving—or breathing.

    "Oh… oh gods…" Solonn said in a brittle voice, staring aghast at the man he'd just inadvertently flash-frozen. His newly formed heat-vision told him that not even the slightest hint of Byron's warmth still remained. Solonn's element had returned before he was ready and able to control it—as a result, someone had just died by his hand.

    Shaking in horror as well as unrelenting pain, Solonn tried to get up and away from the scene, but his body couldn't respond. His joints were beginning to lock and fuse together. Faint light swelled into his vision; a soft, sea green glow was now emanating from every square inch of his skin. The green light suddenly intensified in an almost blinding surge, and with the sickening sound of crunching bones, Solonn's arms and legs collapsed in on themselves, absorbed into his body in a single, violent instant. A split-second later, his spine shortened, a change that was less sudden but no less painful.

    Solonn's reversion accelerated further, and the agony of it was greater than any he'd ever known before. As his body expanded, reproportioned, and reconfigured in wrenching, spasmodic bursts, his pain manifested itself through an involuntary ice display. The ice that glued Byron's legs to the floor spread rapidly over every surface of the room and formed jagged spires that jutted out all around their maker.

    Solonn almost couldn't perceive anything other than the pain that consumed him. He could barely do anything of his own accord except to beg the gods to end his suffering soon. As if in answer to his prayers, his mother element sent another surge of power through him, one that rebounded back upon him with another loud crack. No sooner than he'd heard it, he fell unconscious.
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