View Full Version : The Fall to Redemption (PG-13)
17th February 2012, 3:03 AM
The Fall To Redemption
an Emerald Odyssey
Prologue - Virgil's Dream
The world has gone black.
When you think about it, there is no true "black": shut off your house lights and you can still see the city glow (or maybe the star-shine if you're a country boy). Shut your eyes and you can still see the after-image of light tingling through your nerves.
But all I can see is black - bottom of the ocean black; heart of the devil black; shut in a funeral casket black. Not a god-damn pinprick of light.
Now, I'm not the type that scares easily, but do you know what really scares me?
I can feel my eyelids blinking. Twitch all they want, all I can see is black.
Yeah, I'll let that sink in for a minute.
I can feel, but not well. It's like I've been bundled in a puffy snowsuit, dulling my touch. I think I'm lying on my back; my face is hot and itchy all over.
I can hear, but everything is muffled like I'm holding my breath underwater - the vibrations sluggish and echoing. Are those the rumbling wheels of a truck or a gurney across linoleum floor? Footsteps crash into my water-logged head like cannonball divers. It's a chore just to make out the voices:
The first speaker is a mixture of revolt and pity. "Is that a boy or a girl?"
The second manages a quick smirk. "Hard to say, huh?"
Hard to say? Are they talking about me? It's not like I have huge muscles or facial stubble, but I like to think that I'm obviously masculine! I try to turn my neck and look around but my head is in some sort of clamp, and just that little twist sends a spike of pain through my nerves. I almost faint.
The voices carry on. "Poor thing have a name?"
"Virgil, I think."
Now I know they're talking about me, but "poor thing"? What's going on? I can't see, I can't move and all this talk is driving me insane! I can feel my panicky breath, hot and humid, forced back against my skin. Is there something over my mouth? And what is that beeping noise?
The voices also notice the pulse. "Rate's going up. Going into shock."
Shock? Shocked? That's putting it mildly - I'm shifting into all-out "fight or flight" mode, you've got me so panicked! I have to see, I have to claw at this itch creeping over my face; I have to get up and rip this, this mask they've clamped over my mouth! I'm suffocating! I struggle but even the tiniest effort makes the pain spike.
"He's waking. Give him another dose."
What are you people doing to me? Let me go! I fight again, and this time an arm presses down on my chest. I think the voice is trying to comfort me, but the reassuring "ssh" is amplified through the water into an Arbok's hiss.
"Relax, kid," it says, just before a sharp point jabs my arm. "There's a whole world of adventure waiting for you. All you gotta do is sleep."
And then I'm shrinking - falling away from the voices, from the pain, from everything. And the world goes black.
Chapter I - Ten Things I Hate About Littleroot (http://www.serebiiforums.com/showpost.php?p=14164615&postcount=3)
Chapter II - A New Hope (http://www.serebiiforums.com/showpost.php?p=14164626&postcount=4)
Chapter III - The Ranger of Petalburg (http://www.serebiiforums.com/showthread.php?561591-The-Fall-to-Redemption-%28PG-13%29&p=14346443#post14346443)
Chapter IV - Through Forest and Water (http://www.serebiiforums.com/showthread.php?561591-The-Fall-to-Redemption-%28PG-13%29&p=14842500#post14842500)
Chapter V - The Oracle of Rustburo (http://www.serebiiforums.com/showthread.php?561591-The-Fall-to-Redemption-%28PG-13%29&p=14842503#post14842503)
Chapter VI - Shadows in the Granite Cave (http://www.serebiiforums.com/showthread.php?561591-The-Fall-to-Redemption-%28PG-13%29&p=14880049#post14880049)
Chapter VII - Dude, Where's My Capitalism? (http://www.serebiiforums.com/showthread.php?561591-The-Fall-to-Redemption-%28PG-13%29&p=14977380#post14977380)
17th February 2012, 3:06 AM
Chapter I - Ten Things I Hate About Littleroot
The nightmares are getting worse. This time, the sun has barely dawned when I bolt upright in my bed. I'm surrounded by an unfamiliar room - wooden panels and a pile of discarded clothes; the Spartan accommodations of a tiny cottage - and I slump back onto my pillow with a long exhale.
I'm still in Littleroot. I'm still lost and living on the kindness of strangers, and I still can't remember who I am. One nightmare is over but I've woken from "darkness to Darkrai", as Norman would say. Sure, you're no longer being devoured alive in your sleep but, shucks man, now there's a shadowy monster looming over your bed and it's going to rip you apart for interrupting the meal!
My name is Virgil. I'm still fuzzy about my last name, so it's "just Virgil".
I know that I'm sixteen years old and from Goldenrod City. I think I lived in an apartment because I remember looking down on the never-ending city from an impossibly high balcony. I know I'm a student because I remember nodding off at school one morning and immediately waking up because I dropped my head on the desk. I remember the juice of a fresh Tauros burger running down my lips while someone (a girl?) giggled behind me, and I remember the excitement of visiting the Pokeathlon dome to cheer my favourite team - the Electabuzzers.
Oh, I'm sorry - you want to skip the trivial junk and get on with the story? Well screw you! When a meal or a Monday morning is all you can remember about yourself maybe you'll understand why I'm hoarding these memories like pearls! I have to remember everything I can. Everything.
Even the nightmare. It came infrequently during the first two weeks - that dream of being tied down in the darkness, drugged and loaded into the back of a truck - but now I've been reliving it nightly, like a subconscious playlist looping over a single track. I'm frightened to think that it's less of a nightmare and more of a memory. Which raises a lot of disturbing questions, namely, who tied me up? Why did they drive me out to the middle of nowhere, and why can't I remember anything?
Just listing my troubles gives me a headache. The sun is raising itself over the village and that's excuse enough to get up. I stumble to the bathroom, then downstairs. Linda is already awake and fully dressed, of course; wrapping fresh bandages around her left arm before she goes out for her morning chores.
"Good morning, Virgil," she smiles. "You're up early. Can I fix you anything? Coffee?"
I grumble out a 'negative' and drop myself into the remaining kitchen chair. When the villagers first found me there was some debate as to where I would stay. Linda volunteered immediately. She's nice enough, I guess - in her forties but with a bit of gray creeping into her brown hair. Her eyes have this weathered look, like she's constantly sick or tired, but she's helpful, pleasant and with energy to spare. Some of the neighbours have even taken to referring to her as my "mother".
She's certainly fits the role - giving me her bed to sleep in, sewing me new clothes and enduring all of my panic attacks - but I'm not sure I like what that relationship implies. Being part of the family suggests you're staying permanently.
"Couldn't sleep?" I waggle my head 'no'. "That's a shame," she sighs. "Are you hungry? A full stomach might perk you up."
Another grunt. She tries again. "I could use a hand outside. You could run the wheelbarrow for me, and maybe the work will clear your mind." She's at her motherly best, trying everything to cheer me up. Even Megumi, her zigzagoon, is working on me - standing on her hind legs and pawing at my knee for a response. I push the raccoon away.
"Look," I tell them, "I appreciate everything you've done - letting me stay with you and all - but I'm just not in the mood. I need to take a walk."
Linda's eyes betray a hint of shock. "It's terribly early, Virgil. If you're going beyond the village gates, I'd feel safer if you took Beatrice with you." The little wurmple nesting atop the kitchen cupboards gave a frightened squeak at the suggestion.
"Thanks, but I won't go far," I lie. At the door, I add, "and I will come back." My last attempt at escape taught me just how futile it was to leave the safety of Littleroot. Beatrice would serve as a fine diversion from the outside horrors, but only once. After you've been eaten it's hard to stay helpful.
Outside, I scan for the glow of lights and find only the lanterns of the night watchmen. Littleroot village is asleep and at peace. Must be nice. If you looked up "small, backwater farming collective" on the Internet, I'm sure you'd find Littleroot as your first hit. If I had Internet out here maybe I could pinpoint this place on a map and find my way back to Goldenrod.
Patch is manning the village gate this morning. (It's a nickname he's earned thanks to the black covering over his right eye.) Patch has gotten better, but he still flinches a bit whenever he sees me. "Mornin', Virgil," he smiles - a forced smile. "You headin' out for a walk too?"
I force myself to grin back. "You betcha!" I've seen Patch without his eye covering and it infuriates me that someone as ugly as he has the nerve to startle at my face. A little sympathy among freaks, maybe? "Think you can open 'er up?"
"Sure! Ain't no problem, Virgil." I'm in the mood for as little human contact as possible, but a tinge of scientific curiosity prompts me to chat up the guard.
"Hey, Patch," I ask, "how long have you been in Littleroot?"
"Me? Three years, give or take."
"And before that?"
Patch stops. His eyes squint and his brow knits in a deep thought. "Well, shucks, Virgil, I can't really remember." Just as expected. Patch laughs it off, though. "Who knows - maybe I came from that fancy Golden city of yours, too."
Not likely, Hillbilly. "Don't matter much to me, though," Patch continues. "Littleroot is my home now, and I'm grateful to be here with Norman and the Leader watchin' out for me."
I nod my thanks and exit the village gates, adding to my mental tally of amnesia victims. There is something seriously disturbing about Littleroot.
When Linda first took me around the village I pegged it as one of these religious farming communities that shun modern technology and the outside world. Candles and outdoor pumps assume the roles of lightbulbs and indoor plumbing, while telephones, TVs and even pokeballs are foreign concepts. The villagers are simple people - they grow vegetables in their gardens, visit their neighbours during the evening and preserve food for the winter months.
The "lost world" story seemed to explain why no one recognized Goldenrod or the cities of Johto: everyone simply grew up and died within the village walls, and after generations they had lost all recollection of civilization. To the villagers, the outside world is Hoenn - an ancient term for Nothing.
Then I started talking to people like Patch and discovered just how thinly the roots of this little town run. No one has lived in Littleroot longer than five years, and while groups will introduce each other as "brothers", "sisters" or "parents and children", just looking at the spectrum of flesh tones informed me that the happy families of Littleroot were all informal adoptions.
As to how they arrived in Littleroot, the phrasing differed but everyone had the same story: "I just sort of woke up in the grass outside of town." The residents greeted them, got them a hot meal and a change of clothes and welcomed them unconditionally into the community.
I'd ask, "Didn't you panic? Weren't you worried about contacting your family and friends?" And the person will just shrug, avert his eyes and pick at his bandage wrappings, muttering something about being "happy with things as they are."
No one can remember who they were or where they came from. It's like there's some poison in the air here that fogs up memory! Maybe I have some slight immunity - that would explain my ragged bits of memory - but my knowledge has only made me the village oddity (well, that and my face); restless and panicky where everyone else embraces the bliss of ignorance. I describe Johto or Goldenrod to these people, trying to spark a recollection, but they just smile, tell me I've got an amazing imagination and that I should become a writer.
I really wish that Norman would make another visit to the village; I'd gladly endure another wild animal attack if it would bring him to our rescue. I really need to talk to someone who understands...
A solid 'clunk' against my foot wakes me from my pondering. I've traveled a surprising distance from the village, somewhere among the grassy meadows separating Littleroot and neighbouring Oldale. My ruminating has caused me to wander off the main road but has lead me to a nice discovery: an over-the shoulder satchel clinking with goodies. I try it on (finders keepers, duh!), proclaim it a good fit and proceed to rifle through my new treasures when a man's scream cuts through the air.
It's coming from the trees bordering the meadow, and now I see that this satchel is the first in a breadcrumb trail of discarded items: a chewed-up sandal, and then a shredded strip of white cloth direct me into the forest. The ongoing screams urge me through the trees.
You might be wondering why I ran so quickly towards such obvious danger. Well I'd like to know too! Linda had cautioned me about leaving the village beyond the safety of daylight, and I'd seen first-hand what sort of nasty creatures lived outside the walls of Littleroot. I dunno - maybe it was some primal instinct to protect a member of the herd; maybe it was morbid curiosity and the hope to see something exciting after weeks of repetitive chores. Maybe I just took my stupid pills that morning. Arceus knows I would have spared myself a whole mess of trouble if I had just walked away.
Instead, I trampled through the trees towards the snarls of a wild animal and the screams of human misery, pushing into a clearing where I found a fat, bearded man in a lab coat, ("oh," I thought at the moment, "it's that ... Guy. That guy who checks up on everyone's pokemon and smells really bad. That ... Pokemon Professor Guy,") writhing around on his back, begging Arceus to, "GET IT OFF! OH PLEASE, GOD, GET IT OFF!!", and a bloody zigzagoon working its fangs through his left kneecap.
Now, I refer to the animal as a zigzagoon out of pragmatism: I have to give you a working reference, and a zig is the closest living thing it resembles. But please bear in mind that this was not the sort of urban zigzagoon that sleeps under your porch and pries through your refuse bins on garbage day. It wasn't even the sort of wild zigzagoon that nests in tree hollows and competes with taillows for berries.
Because zigzagoons are - on the whole - cuddly, furry and good-natured creatures. They are certainly not black shadows branded with lightning bolt streaks and glowing hellfire eyes. Zigs are also solid matter. This thing moved fluidly like a storm cloud. On my approach it didn't so much as turn to face me as it rotated: head and tail sliding across the body to exchange spots, and legs twisting one hundred and eighty degrees in their sockets. It roared, spraying spittle and human blood over the field.
Fantastic! Never come between a wild animal and its meal; you might just become dessert. I started back-pedaling but the zig matched my every step. It was a homing missile, target-locked and ready to launch at the moment I moved faster than a jog. What was the proper behaviour for this situation? Play dead? Yeah, right. ... Wave my arms and make loud noises? I think the Prof had been plenty loud already. Blast, why hadn't I taken Beatrice? Better that slimy bug sausage than me!
Then I remembered - the satchel! I rifled through it, tossing whatever I could grab at the black monster: a journal, a sandwich, some old binoculars. The Zig didn't care; in fact, whenever my projectiles connected they phased through its vaporous body, ruffling its fur without causing so much as a flinch!
My hand seized a solid sphere - the item that would mark the beginning of my adventure and my misery. Back at that moment it was just another object to toss, but I remember thinking to myself - praying, really - please let this thing hit. Please let it work! Please, just put something between me and that monster!
And then I threw it.
And then I thought, "grenade!", because the sphere burst open in mid-flight and a fiery ball of energy launched out at the black 'goon, hammering the monster off its feet and face-first into a tree. A wet smack would have been satisfying, but the impact only made the zig burst into black smoke.
The sphere flew back into my hand - it ... it was a pokeball! - and the fire missile fluttered to the ground, shaking off its protective flames and raising its curious, coal-black eyes my way. "Tor," it chirped.
A growl. The black cloud had reassembled itself into zigzagoon form and was snarling with freshly stoked rage. The torchic spread her wings and clawed at the ground, daring the zig to "come at me, bro!"
It charged, and the torchic held her ground, storing up energy. The grass under her talons singed and smoked, and I swore I saw flames flicker along her scaly legs. The zig lunged, jaws wide, and at the last moment the torchic sprang into the sky so, while the astonished zig flew through empty air, the fire chick dove downward, raking her super-heated claws through the raccoon's back. The zig shrieked and crash-landed into the dirt. Knock-out!
The torchic was bracing herself for round two but the zig had taken enough punishment, limbs and head scrambled out of their proper sockets like a poorly-assembled Mr. Potato Head doll. It lay moaning in the dirt and then went limp - dissolving into formless smoke that slithered into the earth.
That was when I remembered to start breathing. Crisis resolved, the torchic looked me over, offering another inquisitive "tor?" I zapped her back into the pokeball before she could realize I wasn't her trainer.
"Is it gone?" That was the Pokemon Prof, still on his back and wheezing for air. Too freaked to form proper words, I responded with a vigorous shake of my head. My hands were shaking too. "Good boy. Good work," he panted. "Now lend me a hand, would you, and pass me my leg."
Ah yes, his left leg. Currently it was a bloody stump terminating at the knee cap, little jets of blood squirting out wherever the Prof was unable to clamp down on the wound. Everything from the tibia downward had been tossed into the bushes after the zig had turned its attention to me. "Hurry up, boy, before more of them come!"
That set me racing to the amputated limb - covered in blood and old man hair and still warm to touch. I stripped off my shirt, wrapped it around my hand as a makeshift glove, and even then I only dared grab it with a thumb and forefinger, holding it at arm's length while I ran back, muttering, "ew, ew, ew, oh god," with every step. I tossed it at the Prof, and it fell short. I could tell he was thoroughly impressed by my little girl antics.
"Wow, real brave, kid. Real brave." I tossed it far enough, I suppose, because the magic of Littleroot kicked in at that point and the leg dragged itself through the grass towards the Professor like iron filings towards a magneton. The bone fragments clicked into place (the Prof hissed and flinched), and muscle fibres grew towards each other at super-speed, followed swiftly by a weave of skin. It sounded and looked like the crawling of a thousand slimy maggots but when the ordeal was finished the prof's leg looked fresh and undamaged.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention this last little factoid about Littleroot. You see, whenever anyone gets hurt, be it a paper cut or a scraped knee or - as I've just shown - an amputated leg, the injury heals itself. It hurts like a hot poker, but your injuries always heal.
No one gets hurt in Littleroot. No one grows old, and nobody dies. Happy and ignorant, you have to stay here in Hoenn.
17th February 2012, 3:07 AM
Chapter II - A New Hope
"Get a move on, boy! It's the Quick and the Eaten out here and I for one am not contributing any more flesh to the local carnivores!"
Not that you couldn't stand to lose a few pounds, Prof. Believe me, I wanted nothing more than to tear my way back into Littleroot as fast as possible, but circumstances required that I run at a measured pace: at my rear, a forest ready to spring out hundreds of horrid little pokemon like a murderous jack-in-the-box; leading my way, the Professor's rear, emitting body odour on par with the deadliest poisonous pokemon. Seriously, the man reeked so fiercely he must have rubbed a koffing under his armpits every morning. I sure as hell didn't want to be eaten alive, but I was not going to park myself at ground zero when Birch's butt reached critical mass!
I was doing my best to be subtle, of course, but Birch (that was the Professor's name, by the way; thank you, selective memory,) must have caught me pinching my nose and gagging. "Mothballs," he panted over his shoulder, scooping a fistful of the white pellets from his pocket and waving them for me to see. "I always keep them on me. Perfect for warding off wild pokemon; most species can't stand the smell!"
Emphasis on 'most'. "What about the onions? What're those for?"
"That," the professor declared, waggling one of the red veggies in his other pocket, "is to keep humans from coming up to me and trapping me in some long-winded conversation about their boring and tedious lives."
"Ah." Misanthrope much?
Our jog back to Littleroot was spared further attack and conversation; I had that much to be grateful for. Patch pried open the gate at Birch's hammering and I was about to escape to Linda's house, throw myself in bed and write off this morning as a 'false start', but professor Stinks-a-lot had other plans.
"Hold on, there," he said, clamping a hairy palm over my shoulder and inspecting at my wrecked face. "Aha. Just as I thought - you're Linda's boy. So you're the fantastic newcomer that everyone insists on gossiping about - the boy who 'remembers things'. Things from beyond Hoenn."
"I guess. And you're Birch, the village veterinarian?"
"Professor Birch," he hissed, "resident expert of all matters pertaining to botany, zoology, and physiology. So don't you stick your nose up at me because I work with pokemon, kid. 'People' is just a fancy word for 'animal', and I'd be suturing and medicating the whole lot of you if humans actually needed doctors here." He paused to take a very aggressive bite of his onion. "Pwoffesoh!" he spat.
Yeah, I was more than skeptical about those credentials. On close inspection, his lab coat was just a white bathrobe - the kind you could skim off even two-star hotels - and between the sweat stains on his clothes, the wailmer-sized beer belly playing peak-a-boo from underneath his shirt, and the hippie-dippie sandals-'n-shorts on his hairy legs, he looked more like a geek on shore leave from his mother's basement than a 'master of the whatever-ologies'.
"Okay there," I said, shrugging off his sweaty palm. "So whatcha been you studying today, Prof? Local zigzagoon diets?"
Birch snorted, shooting a piece of onion at my nose. "Boy, your sun-crisped little noggin could scarcely fathom what I've been trying to accomplish outside the village. But if I had to phrase it in terms you'd understand, I was looking for pokemon to tame and capture."
"Well that turned out well."
"Exceedingly: first I'm robbed of a leg; next, I'm saved by the boy who's trying to rob my goods. Now give me that satchel!"
Truth be told, I'd forgotten all about the bag, still looped around my shoulder. Birch yanked over his property, muttering something about "kids these days" while he rifled through the contents. He didn't seem to mind the missing items, only showing a small tic when he noted an absence; it was his torchic's pokeball that he was after: cradling the sphere as though it were a fragile egg, cooing and whispering reassurances to the youngling inside while he inspected its capsule for damage.
"Boy, are you a Wurmple or Zigzagoon?"
"Me? Both, I guess, but technically they're Linda's pokemon."
"You've no pokemon?" The way Birch recoiled you'd think I had confessed myself a virgin. He hemmed, returning his gaze to the pokeball while his mind digested this information. "I want you to come with me to my laboratory. Please," he added, and with some effort. "I want to hear about this 'home' you remember."
Birch's "laboratory" was a retrofitted cattle bar on the far end of the village. The main floor was still lined with old, wooden animal stalls and metal cages for more unruly guests. "Cozy place," I lied. I guess this barn doubled as his home and veterinary ward. We climbed a ladder into the hay loft, now a personal office littered with books, stray paper and vials of unnaturally-coloured liquids. "Sit here," Birch ordered, flipping over a bucket and setting it underneath the only window.
"Now," he sighed, "I suppose human etiquette requires me to provide you, a houseguest, with some small confectioneries as a display of greeting and goodwill. Tea and cookies, is it?"
"I'll eat the cookies. I don't know about the tea."
Birch scowled; probably irritated about having to share his big belly's junk food with a fellow animal. "Well you're getting tea anyhow. I'll be back. Don't touch anything."
Of course, as soon as he waddled down the ladder to his pantry, I was up and about - flipping through his books and examining the posters on his wall, particularly the map with a bizarre continent and an accompanying chain of islands.
A yawn from the far corner.
Tucked behind piles of books and boxes, I could just make out a glass aquarium. Following the same stupid, nosey instinct that had lead me to Birch this morning, I inched my way through the protective clutter and knelt down for a look.
The habitat wasn't very big - just a mossy bed of rocks around a tub of water - but the occupant wasn't the type of pokemon to fuss over space: a wrinkled and withered slowpoke, its tail submerged in the empty pool, fishing for non-existent shellders; its body shuddering with every inhale and exhale it forced itself to complete. Had it the strength to lift its eyelids, I doubted the old thing had enough vision or brain-power left to recognize its cramped accommodations.
Still, I gave an appreciative whistle. First a torchic, and now a slowpoke! Okay, neither species was anything impressive, but Birch's pet collection left me in awe - a breath of fresh air in Littleroot's stale animal population. The village was nothing but zigzagoons and wurmples! Each household kept either a little racoon to help with weeding or an overgrown worm for spinning silk and mending clothes. Linda had the good fortune to own one of each critter, (Megumi and Beatrice, in case you weren't paying attention,) and in Littleroot that qualified her as living in opulence. It was weird, though: despite her extra helpers, Linda seemed to work herself twice as hard as the other villagers - she was always up with the sun, starting her chores extra early and then helping her neighbours when she was finished - like some bizarre, self-imposed penance for her house of plenty.
But back to my main point - Birch's exotic animals! This derpy slowpoke was calling out to be, well, poked! I was reaching a hand into the aquarium to tease the water-sloth's tail, but Birch chose that moment to return and loom over me.
The man whipped out a stick and split open my knuckles. Then he yanked me up by the collar. "If you so much as breathe on Chance, I swear to Arceus that the next blow comes with an axe. Got it?"
I barely heard the psycho over the pain in my hands. "I'm bleeding!" My fingers! I couldn't feel my fingers! That crazy man had broken my fingers!
"Oh grow up. Your hands will reset in a moment. See?"
I didn't want to look, so Birch forced my hands up to my face. Sure enough, the torn skin puckered together and my wounds zipped themselves shut at super-speed. My pores even slurped the spilt blood back into my system. Not a drop wasted.
"Better?" Birch asked with a sardonic smile.
Physically, yes, but my mood had yet to improve. "It still stings," I pouted. "Thanks, Doc. I'd love to see how you heal your patients."
Birch snorted at my ignorance. "You don't heal in Littleroot, Virgil. If you've hurt yourself, your body doesn't get better after an accident. You reset. Return to default." Birch handed me my tea and dropped his generous backside on the box nearest his slowpoke's aquarium. As he sat, his shirt rode up over his beer belly and I could just make out the three parallel scars raked across his gut.
I quivered. Reset? Back to default? What was I, a character in a video game ready to spring back, good as new, after a 'game over'? Contemplating the idea brought that nightmarish itch to my face again - so I shifted gears and started explaining to the Prof everything I could remember about Goldenrod and Johto. Birch wasn't like my ordinary audience, though. His eyes didn't go wide with amazement, and he didn't laugh or "ooh" over the details. He just sat there, hands at his chin, leaning forward and drinking in the details.
"Hoenn," he hemmed once my stories were spent. "That's what people come to this land with - Nothing. Oh, we retain our skills and talents: a carpenter grasps a hammer and understands how to wield it; a baker innately realizes how to prepare seeds and berries for her recipes. And our personalities seem intact as well. We know what we love, what we enjoy, who we hate.
"But our histories - the memories that shape ourselves; I've never met anyone able to retain that crucial information. Except for you." Birch hemmed, scanning me as though I were a puzzle to be unlocked. "Why is that, I wonder?"
I was spared my non-existent answer; saved by the bell, or rather, the bugle. A loud and regal trumpeting rang through the village and a loud voice boomed, "make way for the Imperial legions!"
Birch grimaced, and the disgust on his face told me this was an unpleasant nuisance, but a tolerated one. I turned to the window. Littleroot's gates were flung open wide; thrown back to admit a double column of soldiers in gold armor.
The procession was another blast from the past - plate armor, feathered helmets, and a herald lifting a banner emblazoned with a triangle of blue raindrops. Each soldier carried a long pike as a sidearm but those pointed sticks seemed mostly for show. Their true weapons were their pokemon.
The monsters brought up the rear: snarling, hulking beasts made of spikes, horns and armored muscle. Some I recognized - a nidoking, a rhydon - but the rest were just claws, jaws and feral animal paws, roaring and straining at the ends of their chain leashes.
I'd seen outsiders before, but never a show of force like this! Littleroot was in a panic - doors flinging open and villagers rushing out with baskets of bread and vegetables; bowing and groveling before the armored guards and depositing food in a ponyta-drawn wagon. "What's going on?"
"It happens every season," Birch grumbled. "The Emperor sends his troops to collect tribute from each village and city; a generosity tax for the privilege of living under his grace and protection."
I had to shake my head to make sure I'd heard him right. "An Emperor? You people have an Emperor out here?" I knew Littleroot was old fashioned, but Emperor? At least have the dignity to call your dictator 'President' or 'Prime Minister' or 'Pokemon League Champion'! "You're talking about the Leader, right?"
"No," Birch corrected, "Leader White is the Emperor's crony, charged with administering the Petalburg region. The Emperor, meanwhile, holds supreme authority over the entire continent and the surrounding archipelago."
This was too much - I was just barely wrapping my head around the idea of shadowy racoons or self-repairing limbs, but now these people lived in an Empire? An Empire that spanned an entire continent? "I'm not in Johto anymore, am I?"
"Johto?" The professor wrinkled his nose. "Oh right, that's what you call your homeland. Well I'd say you're a long ways off and then some."
It was hard to imagine a bleaker moment in my life, and not just because of the memory business. A Lost Village in the woods, I could deal with; just a hop, skip and a jump to the nearest highway and I could hitch-hike back to civilization. But an entire landmass? I looked back to Birch's wall map and the continent so foreign. Had my kidnappers gone so far as to ship me across the sea?
"This is crazy!"
"It's not that bad, all things considered," Birch sighed. "In the other regions, tribute doesn't stop at food - they take workers, too. Here, Norman keeps the pillaging in line."
True enough, I could spy my hero by the town gates, monitoring the forced harvest with fists clenched and mouth scowling. I could see how badly he wanted to sic his vigoroths on the soldiers and cease the extortion of goods, but these thugs of the raindrop banner were beyond his authority. Still, his presence ensured the robbery was civil - if the soldiers ever raised their voices at the peasants, or drew a pike to beat a slower harvester, Norman had only to glare and the assault was cut short. Even the feral pokemon shrunk from the ranger's cold stare.
The harvest continued for some half an hour until the soldiers' cart sunk heavy with food and the villagers' baskets came back empty. Another trumpet blast and the procession marched away, a furious Norman as their escort. I could almost hear the collective gurgle of bellies when that cart passed through the gates. Could you die of hunger, I wondered? Run out of fuel for that wonderful healing process and collapse in the blood from your half-healed wounds?
I was suddenly very eager to see Linda and scarf down every breadcrumb she had left. "How did you guys end up like this?"
"The Emperor rose to power some five years ago. He gathered an army of men and pokemon and marched westward across the continent, crushing all resistance. He parceled the land into regions and left his thugs to administer the law. He takes our food to keep us weak, and he takes the elderly so we'll forget a life before his reign. Five years, and it's off to the mines on Mossdeep."
Ouch, how did you follow up a grim statement like that? "So, uh ... when are you due?"
Birch laughed. "Me? Like I said, Norman keeps the pillaging in line. He has no love for the Emperor, and Leader White prefers to keep his peasants close. I've been around twelve years; how do you think I know all this?"
"Okay, so you remember the good ol' days?"
"And what good ol' days they were!" Birch clapped me on the back and laughed. Great - now I'd done it: I'd set the old geezer into 'rambling' mode!
"You know," Birch began (that's how all adults start their "back in my day" speeches), "people didn't always stay in Littleroot. Nowadays you have to - the patrols pick up any strays they find - but anyhow, people used to go on journeys. Spiritual quests, you might say; wandering the land until you found a place that felt right.
"Me, I had that wanderlust; that 'what's my purpose' sickness. I travelled all over the continent just to figure it out. I sailed out to Dewford, I hiked through the tall grass to Fortree; why, I even dragged my way up Mount Chimney just to get a look at that bubbling lava. I needed to know what this place was and why I was here."
I was awed by the change overtaking the Professor. Recounting his days of travel and adventure lent him a profound appearance, like a wise old sage. So of course he spoiled the mood by leaning back and scratching the brown fuzz on his belly. "But you know," he concluded, "the one who really sorted me out was Steven."
"Steven? Who's that?"
Birch only smirked. "Steven would say he's 'whoever you need him to be'. He's a wanderer; travels all over the land looking for people who happen to be stuck. Then he gives them a push forward. A shoulder to cry on, a set of hands to help with a project; Steven makes it his mission to help others."
Birch rambled on, describing all the times he'd encountered Steven - the jokes they had shared, the adventures they had blazed. This Steven guy sounded like a double plus-good version of Norman: the ultimate do-gooder and according to Birch, Steven travelled with the most exotic and incredible pokemon known to man. A Metagross? Heck, I'd get myself stuck in a mountain of despair if it meant I could meet this guy and his ginormous spider-tank companion! "Wish I could meet him," I confessed.
"Wouldn't we all," Birch snorted, back to his cankerous norm. "This whole island could use one good push out of its Empire-sized rut." He didn't dismiss my comment though; because he folded his hands to his chin, 'hmm-ed', and put his PhD-powered brain to some mighty internal processing.
"If anyone knew how to find Steven, I suppose it'd be the Oracle."
"The Oracle?" I was only just allowing myself to swallow the existence of an Emperor; now these people worshiped some all-knowing gypsy fortune teller? Give me a break!
"The Oracle," he nodded. "She's a wise woman who (if she's still around) lived in Rustboro. It's a sort of sacred city, out to the west. Beyond the Emperor's control. People say she knew everything there is to know about this land."
"Everything?" I murmured, the gears of my own brain churning. "So she would know how to get me home to Johto?"
Birch made an uncomfortable grunt. "Theoretically ..."
I was up on my feet and pacing with excitement. "Why didn't anyone tell me about this Oracle lady sooner? How do I get to that city? Rustboro, right? Is it -"and then it clicked. Birch, of course, felt obliged to spell out all the obstacles in my path:
"Rabid, monstrous pokemon; soldiers recruiting for the labour camps in Mossdeep, and, for the especially unlucky, roaming crazies from Cult of Aqua, hunting for new converts. My wistful Virgil, you wouldn't survive half a day out there -" and then he gave a little pause. Oh please say it. Please, please, please say it. "Unless ..." YES!
"Unless you happened to have a companion who could keep you safe."
"Tor!" We both turned to the fiery chick, perched on Birch's work desk and flapping its wings as if to agree with the professor. Wait, how had she exited her pokeball?
Birch seemed similarly perturbed by the pokemon's appearance. He rose slowly from his seat and offered his forearm to the torchic as a perch. She accepted unquestioningly, hopping onto his sleeve with a trusting, "pic, pic!" The professor gave his bird a final, fond scratch under the chin and then turned to me.
"I believe this little lady belongs to you."
"Seriously?" But the little hen had already sprung to the air; I just barely cupped my hands in time to offer her a landing pad. My own personal attack animal! I'm king of the world! Still, I suppose protocol required me to offer a token resistance. "No, really," I hemmed, "I couldn't!"
Birch snorted. "Of course you could! You were going to steal my bag, after all. Take the bloody bird before I have to chase you out with that axe! And take these too."
A wooden box was dumped onto my lap. The torchic repositioned to my shoulder so I could unclip the lid and open the chest of red and white orbs.
"More or less," the professor shrugged, and on closer inspection I noticed that the spheres were actually the hard, lumpy shells of local fruit - hollowed out, fitted with a reflective, metal interior and painted the traditional capture ball colours. "Steven helped me with the design, ages ago, but now they're just taking up space."
Could my luck get any better? A daughter! I'll bet he's got a hot, blind daughter who's yearning to experience life beyond Littleroot!
"Are you waiting for a goodbye hug, kid? Scram already!"
"Oh ..." Well, two for three wasn't bad. "Um, this torchic - does she have a name?"
"Up to you," Birch shrugged. No name? What, did he wait until his pokemon were old and decrepit before bestowing personal titles?
"All right, return to your ball for now, Robin."
"Robin? Wow, real inventive, kid. Not Jay or Pidgey?"
"Better than Chance. Or Birch," I added, bee-lining for the ladder.
He shouted after me. "Follow the roads to Petalburg and head west through the old forest! Find the Oracle! Find Steven!"
Ten-four to all but that last bit, old man. The only thing I was going to find was my ticket back to Johto.
My plan had been to sneak into the house, grab my spare clothes and a bit of food and vamoose, but my absence during the 'harvest' had put Linda on high alert. The minute I crept through the front door, Megumi started barking and I was caught in a flurry of hugs and "I was so worried" speeches.
Linda took the news better than expected. I figured she'd break down, cry and beg me not to go, but she just seemed stunned. She sat me down, of course; made me tell her the whole story about Birch, the shadow pokemon, and my plan to consult the Oracle two times so she could wrap her head around the crazy scheme.
"-and it's not like I'll be alone. Birch gave me one of his pokemon! Robin can take down anything that gets in our way!"
Linda regarded the little torchic, engaged in a mutual sniff-and-greet with Megumi, while Beatrice quivered at a distance. "It's going to be dangerous, Virgil."
"If there's a chance I can get home, I've got to take it. And it's not like I need your permission."
She finally nodded. "You're right. You have to live your own life." Finally! Open road, here I come! "BUT," she interjected, "I am not letting you or your pokemon out of this house until you've had a proper lunch."
There wasn't much left in the kitchen, but Linda put together sandwich for me and some vegetable scraps for Robin. And while we ate, she paced through the house like a mad-woman, packaging food and folding clothes. It wasn't until she reappeared with a giant knapsack that I clued in. "Whoa, whoa! I can't take all this stuff!"
"It's a long road to Rustburo, never mind Petalburg town," Linda smiled. "You'll need more than the clothes on your back for this journey."
Candles, blankets, a length of rope - everything she had went into the bag. As soon as we were finished eating she whipped off the tablecloth and folded that up too! Linda's house had been modest to begin with, but now it had been picked to the bones. I didn't want her charity, but the knapsack was forced over my shoulders anyhow. "Not too heavy?"
"No," I mumbled. It wasn't my back, but my stomach that felt heavy.
Finally, Linda handed me a strange sort of animal pelt. "Something I've been working on. For your head," she explained.
It was a wig. Soft to touch and made from white slakoth hair, it fit my blistered scalp perfectly. Linda steered me to a mirror and I had to fight to keep my eyes dry. I had hair again. I looked well, not normal - not with a face like mine - but normal-er.
"Not bad," I shrugged. "And it fits. What did you do, measure my head while I was asleep?"
Linda just winked at me. "Mother's intuition."
That soured the moment. "You're not my mom," I growled. "I mean, we're not related or anything. You don't have to do all of this."
She only smiled. "You are welcome here anytime, Virgil." Then Linda did something absolutely unexpected. She called for her pokemon, scooped up her zigzagoon and wurmple for one final embrace and transferred them to my arms.
"Keep him safe," she whispered to her companions. Megumi barked affirmative, and Beatrice - quivering, cowardly Beatrice - looked to her owner, gave her best insect approximation of a nervous gulp and nodded.
I couldn't speak. I was just grateful that Linda had left the bangs of my wig long, so if I tilted my head I could avoid her eye. "When this is done I'll ... I'll bring them back for you."
I whistled for Robin and ran out the door, grateful that red was the normal hue of my face. What is wrong with her? I wondered. Why would you give so much of yourself to a stranger?
"Argh, this will take twice as long carrying this dead weight on my back! And now I've got to look after you two useless lumps, don't I?"
Megumi and Beatrice had time to register a puzzled look apiece before I conked them with capture balls and stuffed them in my pocket. "Thanks a lot, Linda."
Never mind her. It was time to get out of this worthless, backwards Littleroot Village; time to track down this crazy Oracle lady and get me some answers. It was time to go home!
27th March 2012, 1:17 AM
Chapter III - The Ranger of Petalburg
It took an entire freakin' day to reach Oldale, and when I finally dragged myself through the fortified gates I had gleaned one more clue about my past: I was not the outdoors type.
"Mental note," I panted to my pokeballs, "force you to guys to evolve and make you carry my stuff."
I'd been bracing for a continual onslaught of black zigzagoons - relishing it, really; I had a fire-spewing hell-bird under my command and it was my turn to be the big bad bully - but my deadliest opponent that day was the hot sun beaming down on my head. Linda's hairpiece didn't have much ventilation and I stowed it pretty quickly, preferring to douse my scalp with water from a leather skin. My back was aching, my muscles were burning, and when my wurmple-silk shirt got wet with perspiration, it got itchy!
But I soldiered on. All these little irritations spurred me forward, invigorated my march. "Air conditioning. Showers. Refrigerated water. Gotta get this over with and get back home..."
Oldale wasn't much different from Littleroot: another pious little farming community hiding behind massive walls and watchtowers. The guards let me in unquestioningly - they wouldn't condemn a stranger to the zigzagoon-infested wilderness at night - and I used a letter of introduction written by my "mother" to earn a bed from one of her trading partners. The old woman was puzzled by my journey to Rustburo, but the late hour kept her from pestering me with many questions. I crashed the minute she showed me to my cot, barely remembering to release my encapsulated trio and order them to wake me at sunrise. I wanted to leave before my host could bother me with more talk.
Interesting enough, I was barely sore the next morning. I guess my weary muscles had 'reset', to use Birch's words.
Day two turned out to be another draining and uneventful trek through the Petalburg grasslands. I was starting to wonder if Robin had previously beaten up the alpha zigzagoon, and whether that black puff of smog had warned its pack to avoid the ugly kid with the tiny phoenix. I didn't see a single pokemon all day.
Walking all alone through the middle of nowhere got boring as hell, so I released my team for the company. Beatrice was a killjoy - she and I shared a mutual dislike of the sun, and she wormed her way into the crevices of my backpack to keep cool. Whatever. Her stubby legs couldn't match pace with a human anyway. Now, Megumi could keep up, but she insisted on zigzagging through the grass and darting after whatever sparkly stone or smelly mushroom caught her attention. It was cute the first couple of time she brought me a rock, but as the game climbed into the double and triple digits I had to knock her back into her pokeball or risk losing my sanity.
As for Robin, well, at least she kept quiet. I let her perch on top of my humongous backpack - a crow's nest lookout on the S.S. Virgil. The chick was oddly calm considering her circumstances. "You know," I said to her, "if you're holding down a panic attack and need to freak out, now's a good time to get it over with."
"Nothing to be ashamed of. Abandoned by your owner, kicked out of your safe and comfy home; trapped on a vagabond journey in some bizarro world with a total stranger. Perfectly natural to go nuts and panic." I glanced over my shoulder. Robin stared back, so I took that as a sign to continue.
"You know, I had it pretty bad when I first got here. Thought the villagers had kidnapped me and done something to my face. I went nuts - like, "shut me in a closet and call me 'claustrophobic' nuts". First chance I got, I bolted into the forest.
"Of course, that was when I still thought this was the back woods of Johto. I figured I'd find a highway on the other side of the trees and a truck driver who could take me back to civilization, television and tauros-burgers."
All I found was more forest. The brush grew thick, dark and repetitive until I felt like a cartoon character looping over recycled background frames. I was lost, dehydrated and - lucky me - a wild zigzagoon appeared! One of those black, crazy suckers with a taste for human flesh. It chased me, nipping and clawing at my legs until I toppled into the mud. I thought I was going to die; in fact, the zig was gearing up for the final blow when a new shadow stepped onto the scene.
"End of the line my fine, furry friend."
Norman. Planted between me and my doom: broad chest, square jaw, fists on his hips like a hero out of a Supermon comic. You know that story? The baby Cleffa, only survivor rocketed off a dying planet, adopted by Earth folk and gains superpowers? Fights for truth, justice and the Unovan way?
Bah, Google it, you Philistine!
Well the zig must have been feeling lucky because it pounced. Norman didn't even flinch; he just threw up an elbow and let the beast clamp down on his forearm. Supermon. He even had a cheesy one-liner prepared - "Sorry, stripy, but my friend is not on the menu tonight!" - before he grabbed the 'goon's tail, spun around like a shot-put thrower and launched the black cloud over the tree line.
Norman dusted off his hands - just another day on the job. "You must be Virgil," he said, flashing that honest, farm-boy smile Cleff Kent used in the comics. "Ready to go home, son?"
"When we got back to Littleroot, there was a whole search party looking for me. Linda'd panicked and gotten Norman and the Petalburg Rangers involved. After that, things got bearable. Kinda resigned myself to being stuck in Littleroot, but meeting Norman helped a lot too. When his patrols took him near the village he'd stop by and we'd talk. He's not stuck like the rest of these farm hicks - Norman sees something he doesn't like, he does something about it!
"Anyhow, the point is, if you're scared, well, it gets better." I looked back for a reaction and got a face-full of Robin's tail feathers. Her mind was absorbed by the horizon.
"Fine, then," I growled. But don't think that makes you better than me.
My wurmple was wimpy, my zigzagoon was zippy but my torchic - she had the most unfathomable penchant for trust and curiosity. All day long she kept swiveling her head like a security camera, squinting her black button eyes to get a good look at her new world. If I pulled out a package from my knapsack, Robin insisted on inspecting it first, trotting up to the fascinating trinket and poking her beak into the contents. She was determined to see everything up close.
And she had to stay close. If I let her walk on her own or if I stepped into the bushes for a pee break, Robin would flap her wings and break into little cheeps of distress. "I'm over here, stupid. Relax!" But she would continue to shriek and flail as though the sky were falling until I strode over and knelt before her, offering my palm to nuzzle her head against.
"So that's your weak spot - terrified of being alone?"
I thought I'd get a moment more to gloat, but Robin had already fallen asleep in my palm.
As the capital of the Leader's kingdom, Petalburg town was a proper metropolis. It was no Goldenrod - not by a long shot - but its tightly-packed houses and market roads bustling with foot traffic felt as comforting as a hot slice of home-made pie. Okay, the streets were cobblestone and the vehicles were just carts and rickshaws, but my city-slicker heart went gooey as a grimer now that I could disappear among the great crowds of civilization. Just a little further. Just a little further and I will be home.
Oldale, I had cleared as quickly as possible, but here I lingered. The streets were lined with colourful banners and I could hear music originating from the center of town. A party? What perfect timing! Linda had given me enough dried fruits to last a week, but here I could smell fresh bread and pastries! I recalled my team, adjusted my wig and let my nose guide the way to the celebratory freebies.
Petalburg's central plaza had been converted into a colourful mess hall, with long tables piled high with fruits, dainties and beer kegs. The party, however, was exclusive - reserved for the Emperor's gold-plated soldiers, laughing and joking as they ate and drank everything in sight.
"Disgusting, isn't it?" That came from the fellow on my right. I was one of a large gathering of hungry onlookers, spying on the feasting soldiers and their pokemon from the alleyways. "Those savages march through to our lands, rob us blind, and our Leader makes them his guests of honour. Animals!"
"Save your breath for the local animal," another growled. "The one inside our walls. There's a great, gluttonous ape ruining everything in this town. Just look at what he's done to poor Wally."
"Who's Wally?" I asked. An angry man with a scar through his forehead glared at my ignorance. "Wally White? The Leader's son? The boy caught himself a pokemon and now his father's forcing him to become a ranger!"
"Poor thing," a woman to my left chimed in. "That boy can barely run, let alone fend off an attack from those black devils. I heard Norman tried to talk the Leader out of it and got a hundred lashes for disobedience."
"I heard it was the 'Twenty Breaks'," said another. "Didn't you see how he was limping last week? Whatever he got, it wasn't something to shrug off easily."
Now that got my attention. "Norman? Is he here?"
"Stuck on guard duty at the stables, I think." The crowd gave me directions and I was off and running. I had zero interest in the politics of this backwards island, but if this Oracle really could send me home then this would be my last chance to see Norman, and I owed him above all people the courtesy of a proper goodbye.
"Norman!" I found my Supermon at the town stables, looking tired and frustrated as he hauled pails of water for the thirsty ponytas. The drudgery was probably a punishment handed down by this almighty Leader. As captain of the local law enforcement, Norman had higher callings than watering work horses, and it shocked me to see the anger crackling through the ranger's kind eyes. How long has Norman lived here? I wondered. How long has he put up with this garbage?
I hesitated, but then called again. "Norman!" This time he turned, and it made me proud that I could replace his grimness with an excited smile. "Well I'll be a mankey's uncle! Look who's come on up to the big city, Ling-Ling, it's Virgil!"
"Really?!" gasped a child's voice, then, "Hurray, it really is Virgil!" and a fuzzy cannonball tackled me to the ground for a round of bear hugs. Ling-Ling, Norman's spinda, was anything but restrained. "I missed you super-super much, Virgil! Didja come ta see Wally's celery moaning?"
"You mean 'Ceremony'," Norman corrected.
"Yeah, yeah - that thing! Wally found a super-special pokemon, so Papa's makin' him a pokemon ranger! Isn't that awesome?"
"That sure is something, Ling-Ling." I had to wheeze out that line, what with the little teddy bear bouncing on my rib cage. I'd forgotten how affectionate the little kid was.
"Didja bring me any presents, Virgil? Didja, didja??"
"I did bring a little something. Or better yet, 'someone'." There must have been one goofy grin all over my face as I retrieved my capsules. I'd been wondering how best to show off my pokemon to Norman, and this seemed the perfect introduction. Ling-Ling's jaw dropped as Megumi, Beatrice and then Robin materialized from beams of red light
"Wow, Papa, didja see that? It's magic! And Virgil made some new friends too! Papa, can we go play? Can we, pretty-please?"
Norman glanced my way, and I deferred to him with a shrug - didn't matter to me. "I think that's a great idea, Ling-Ling. Say, why don't you show Virgil's friends the south well? I bet Wally would enjoy the company." The dizzy little spinda wasted no time dragging off my pokemon in a 'follow-the-leader' race, while I stayed to help Norman carry his pails. I didn't ask, but I noticed an obvious limp in his walk.
"A torchic," he exclaimed. "I gotta say, Virgil, you're full of more surprises than a Clefairy's finger. Where'd you find that little lady? And what're those coloured shells you've got?"
"Pokeballs," I explained, letting him examine one of my stock. "Or, at least pretty close to the concept. Where I'm from, we use them to transport pokemon. Professor Birch from Littleroot gave these ones to me. The torchic too."
The capture ball left Norman completely baffled. As he peered and tapped at the storage device I couldn't help but think of primitive Man's first cautious interaction with fire. He handed it back carefully, a little wary of the device, I think. "Birch, huh? You must have tickled that man's funny bone just right. He's patched up my boys a few times, but he's a right prickly pear about lending anyone a hand. Ain't that right, Brutus? Victor?"
Norman's vigoroths grunted in agreement from the back of the stable. (Seemed the brothers needed another round of evolution for the brains to master human language.) Now, I assumed that Norman had brought them along to guard the soldiers' cart, but why did guard duty require the twin apes to haul huge wheelbarrows full of rocks? "Hey, what're you guys doing here?"
Norman flashed an honest grin. "Us? Oh, just a little landscaping project. See, there were all these boulders on the far side of town - taking up some mighty prime farmland, and I figured the Emperor's finest might lend a hand haulin' em away for us."
The vigoroths shared a cheeky laugh, and motioned for me to come close while they opened the soldier's canvassed cart and began swapping loaves of bread for lumps of rock. "You're taking the food back!"
"Well, everything but the top layer," Norman shrugged. "Gotta make it convincing in case one of 'em looks back or takes a snack."
Relief, sweet relief! I'd thought Norman's do-gooder spirit had finally been crushed, but all that anger and exhaustion I'd seen outside were merely the tricks of a clever actor, a mask of humility hiding a hero's drive for justice. "But won't you get in trouble if you're caught?"
"Trouble? Bah, I've sat through this sad spectacle enough times to know how it'll work - the platoon's gonna leave town tonight, every one of them drunk as skuntank in a batch of bad sitrus. They'll head east, over the river, and by the time any of 'em bothers to check under the tarp they'll be too far gone to do anything about it. If they're smart, they'll blame it on a raid by the Cult of Aqua and they'll stay out of trouble for drinking on duty.
"Besides," Norman continued, "taxes aughta be collected for the people's sake, not for some con-man on a far-off island who calls himself the messenger of God."
Clearly this Emperor guy was anything but respected. "But you still follow Leader White?"
Norman exhaled. "Virgil, when you're between a sawk and a hard place, you've got to pick your battles wisely. Don't get me wrong - Walter White is as kindly as a cacturne, and I'd like nothing better than to knock that puppet off his perch, but if we got rid of him the Emperor would only send someone worse. I tolerate him, Virgil. We all have to."
His voice lowered to a whisper. "White's sent me travelling on all sorts of diplomatic missions. I've met the people in charge of the other territories and let me tell you, the way they rule their lands, they make liepards look civilized. These leaders, they look human, but they ain't natural."
The itch creeping into my face told me it was time to change subjects. "So, I heard you've got a new recruit?"
Norman sighed. "Something like that. Wally - that's the Leader's kid - snuck out of the palace about a week back and came home with a pokemon. Well, you should've seen White, the man was happier than a chansey in a cubone's nest. Started ranting about his boy 'finally becoming a man', dragged me off duty and told me I was gonna train his Wally into a great warrior."
"I hear this Wally's a pretty lame ducklett. That it'll take a miracle to make him a ranger."
A laugh. "Well then, they'll just have to call me Norman the Miracle-Maker. Hey, why don't I introduce you him. C'mon!"
We walked over to the south courtyard, where Ling-Ling had appropriated the central fountain into a water park for my pokemon. The spinda's energy was infectious - he'd even convinced Beatrice to join in the splashing and swimming. A human boy was also dancing around in his bare feet, and one look told me that he must have been Wally. Put simply, the boy was a total loser. Twiggy limbs, a pale mop of green hair; heck, his white shirt had more colour than his skin! Not to mention the complete lack of stamina - he put in a good effort splashing around with the pokemon, but he constantly paused to catch his breath, and even the simple act of laughing aloud would be cut short and converted into a hacking cough. I know that taming anything stronger than a zig or wurmple qualified you for the rangers, but I couldn't see any future defender of Petalburg in this genetic reject.
Naturally, I had zero interest in mincing niceness with the kid, but Norman had already called him over. "Wally, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. This is Virgil from Littleroot."
Wally flinched when we shook hands. I didn't grab hard or anything, but when he withdrew his fingers they were black with bruises. "Hullo," he croaked. Literally. The kid looked ten but spoke like a lifelong chain-smoker.
"Um, hi." And then we just stared at each other.
"What happened to your face?"
If I'd been faster, things could have gotten ugly, but Norman put his hand on my shoulder before I could make a move. "Wally," he coughed, "I was just telling Virgil about your new pokemon. Do you think we could meet him?" The boy nodded and toddled off to find his monster, while Norman kept my temper cool.
"He's just a boy, Virgil. He didn't mean anything by it."
I nodded, but didn't reply.
"We're all the same," he continued. "We all have our marks." But why was mine so obvious? A scar, a missing limb, an ugly wound on your chest - all of those were so easy to conceal, and here in Petalburg, as in Littleroot, fashion dictated long, draping sleeves, scarves and cloaks in which to wrap your body. I ran a hand across my face, feeling the rough, blistered remains of flesh. It never hurt outright, just a phantom pain whenever I thought about it too much, and I could see perfectly fine despite the milky film covering my right orb. No, I think what really pissed me off was the obviousness of my deformity. Linda's wig helped conceal my scalp, bald and lumpy with burnt flesh, but short of donning a full-head veil and sweating through the heat, I had to bare my shame to the world. "Look kids, it's Virgil the human marshmallow - somebody stuck him in the fire a bit too long, though. Whoo-wee, look at that sucker burn!"
"Where's your mark?" I asked. Norman deflected my question, though. "Look, here comes Wally. Be cool."
The kid had returned carrying his identical baby brother. Same green hair, same white skin, same uselessly frail body. "This is Delphi," he explained proudly, lifting his trophy to my face. "He's my partner. We're gonna be the best rangers ever! If anyone messes with my dad, Delphi and me are gonna make 'em pay!"
A Ralts. Son of a Steelix, some people got all the luck! I had no illusions about Wally - he was doomed to a lifetime as a pathetic worm, but if he and Norman trained Delphi hard enough, that little nerd would have unlimited psychic potential at his command!
Norman nudged me, so I did my best to smile. "Well gee golly, aren't you lucky, Wally. Finding such a -" fantastic, unstoppable, omnipotent "... neat pokemon."
"It's more like Delphi found Wally," Norman explained. "Ralts are highly empathetic - they can sense strong emotions in other creatures. Grief and rage, they stay clear from that stuff, but gentleness and kindness draw them in like combees towards wild flowers. You can tell a lot about a person by how a Ralts reacts to him."
I was going to interject and clarify how that story was just an old wives tale when Delphi, whose quiet cooing had aggravated into rabid snarling, jumped from Wally's arms and sank his teeth into my hand.
Now, the next part I don't remember quite so well - everything happened all so suddenly and I may have gotten a little carried away in the heat of the moment. Having a wild animal clamp its jaws over your fingers would exasperate the best of us. So I may have reacted a little poorly - screaming and flailing around like a gyrados washed up on the seashore - and I may have acted with a less than healthy concern for Delphi's well-being, swinging my arm wildly and looking for some solid object against which to bash the little beastie's brain. And maybe - emphasis on maybe - while I was blinded to all but my desire to quell the pain, someone with green hair happened to step into the path of my out-of-control Ralts-hand.
So, when you ask me, "Virgil, how did Wally end up flying across the courtyard and hitting his head on the cobblestones?" I can say with absolute honesty that I truly have no idea.
But all of that was inconsequential. What really mattered is that for no good reason I was suddenly dog-piled by a secret service unit of Wigglytuffs and Loudreds, backpack confiscated, hands bound and then dragged across town like I was public enemy number one.
My captors yanked me through the gates of Petalburg's tallest building and tossed me onto the cold marble of a fancy throne room. That was my introduction to Walter White, the much-reviled Leader of Petalburg province.
Everyone had said the man was an animal, but I hadn't realized they'd been speaking literally. The Leader looked like an ape-pokemon, a proto-human with an upturned snout, bald head and all-too beady eyes tucked under a heavy brow. He was fat too, and proud of it, keeping his gold-embroidered robe open to show off his lazy paunch and huge man-boobs.
Seemed I had interrupted during meal time, judging by the trays of food surrounding his throne. White was gorging himself on whole melons, crushing the tough rinds with his bare hands and stuffing the wet flesh into his mouth. Anything too tough to swallow he spat into a golden spittoon strapped to the head of a rather unhappy-looking whismur. Let's just say White wasn't the most accurate shot.
The rangers guarding me didn't like it when I tried to look away - disrespectful, I guess - so I had to lie there on the ground, watching the spectacle until White had eaten his fill. When he spoke, it was in simple grunts. "You making trouble for my boy?"
"He started it." Okay, in retrospect, that did sound pretty lame, but in the heat of the moment it was the best I had.
White flared his nostrils. "Littleroot," he snarled. "I can smell the country stink all over you. There's two rules for your kind. One, keep the food coming." He paused to smash open another melon. "And two, keep the peace. Trouble enough here with wild animals. I don't need trouble from wild men."
White grabbed a golden goblet and drained the wine in one gulp. "My Petalburg town is a civilized place," he warned, while red liquid dribbled down his chin.
"Look, I didn't do anything - it was that stupid Wally and his stupid ralts! Go tie him up, why don't you!?"
That was a mistake. Lesson of the day, kids - you can be an ugly, stupid brute but that does not mean you don't love your children with every fibre of your being. The gloves were off. "We keep no prisons in Petalburg," White warned me. "No need. When men break my law, I make them wear the chain." His little whismur attendant was pulling at some metal links behind the throne. White picked up the little guy, tossing it and its payload at me.
A monstrous iron ball smashed into the floor tiles, followed by a set of heavy chains ending in four spiked manacles. The spikes, fyi, were on the interior of each cuff.
"The chain," White reiterated. "And my rangers toss you into the woods to cool your head. To respect the law, you have to live in a world without it. Nothing builds respect more than a night outdoors."
This was insane; I hadn't meant to hit Wally, even if I did think he was a sniveling waste of flesh! I tried explaining, as calmly and reasonably as I could, what a great misunderstanding this all was, and maybe the threat of torture made my words come out a little panicky.
"Look at you," White snorted, "On your knees and begging for mercy! An animal - biting at the weak, whimpering when you find a foe too strong! Guards, ready the chain!"
White only smiled as his rangers seized me. "To tame the animal within, it has to be taken out. The zigzagoons will take your animal - take it piece by piece!"
I wasn't the one to scream this time. It was Norman. Supermon had come to my rescue again! I didn't expect this new brand of rescuing, though.
Norman threw himself to the floor, a penitent man. "Mercy, my Leader! I beg of you! This is all my fault. In a moment of weakness I grew angry, and Delphi tried to attack me! I'm to blame for what happened to your son! Please, dear Leader, this boy was just a bystander. Wally's pain was my fault!"
"Your fault?" White bellowed. "And just what had you to be angry about, my Captain Norman? Do you find my kingdom unpleasant?
Norman averted his eyes.
White put his monkey brain to hard work, snorting and snuffing over this new testimony. He wanted someone tortured; it was clear as daylight that this monster was starving for screams of misery, but who to choose - a helpless boy framed for an act of violence, or a seditious captain of his troops? The leader chewed his lips and ground his teeth and finally gestured that I be released to the floor.
"We will talk later, Captain Norman. You and I, we will talk of many things."
Norman had been faking his emotions before, but there was no lie in his trembling body or his wide eyes. "Yes, my leader."
"You'll return to the stables immediately," White continued. "But first, you will take this ugly child and remove him from my Petalburg."
"Yes, my leader."
"Boy," White called to me, "Never let me see your face again. The chain is but my first tool of law. Am I right, Captain Norman?"
A spasm wracked my hero's body, and he had to force out his words. "Y-yes, my leader."
Norman escorted me back to the stables, where Ling-Ling and the vigoroths had been left to guard my backpack and my pokemon. I capsuled my team and we left without a word. Even Ling-Ling knew this was no time for banter.
Despite its size, Petalburg could still spread gossip as quickly as a small town. By the time we left the palace, everyone knew what had happened to Wally, and the price Norman would pay for my acquittal. A thousand hateful eyes burned into the back of my neck as Norman lead me through the streets. He wasn't just my hero, I realized. All of Petalburg loved the ranger captain, admired his dedication in raising a team of defenders and respected the pain he endured to keep the citizens safe. Even if the Leader hadn't threatened my exile I knew I'd never be permitted to show my face in the capital again. Not after what I had done to Norman. Wally and his Ralts were among the onlookers shaming me, and the hate twisting through their faces told what would happen if we ever met again.
The town outskirts approached. This was not at all how I had envisioned our goodbye. I couldn't leave with such a silence hanging between us. "So, um, the cart - are you still -"
"Virgil, it's time for you to go home."
I'd been bitten by animals, bullied around and beaten with a stick, but those words cut me with a new and deeper pain. "I'm sorry," I whispered. "I made a real mess of things." Norman just kept walking. "The Leader, he was bluffing, right? I mean, it's not like he really chains people up and throws them into the woods at night, right?"
"Virgil, as a pokemon ranger it is my duty to keep the peace in Petalburg province. So if my Leader ordered it, yes, I would prepare the chain and leave you to the wilds."
We resumed our walk in silence.
"It's strange, though," he continued. "On nights when the Leader orders a chaining, my vigoroths and I get this funny itch to go outdoor camping. We stay up all night and boy howdy, if any wilds come near our camp you can bet we give 'em hell."
Norman looked back at me, flashing that care-free farm boy smile. I didn't know if my tear ducts still worked, or if they were clogged behind charred skin, but I sure felt ready to give them a try. "How can you say that?" I blurted. "How can you be so good all the time? I screwed up - I wanted to hit that little brat - and now you're letting yourself be tortured so I can walk free? How can you act like everything is okay?"
"Everything is okay," Norman smiled. "Because I know you'll be safe."
Wet. They worked. They really did work. "Thank you, Norman."
"A 'thank you' from grumpy ol' Virgil? I guess Wally's training will have to settle for miracle number two."
I managed a laugh. "You're impossible, you know that?"
"And you're a good kid, Virgil. Don't get so hung up on letting your outside define your inside. There's more to you than that."
"And I know. Now come on, it's past noon but if we hurry we can make it to Oldale before nightfall."
"Actually, can we leave by the west gate? I'm not going back to Littleroot."
"Well you sure can't stay here. You heard the Leader."
"I know, it's cool. I'm going to Rustburo."
Well that stopped everything. "Rustburo?" Norman looked at me as though I had just declared myself a member of Team Rocket. "Virgil, you didn't just stop by to show off that torchic, did you?"
I sighed. "This is going to be a long story."
And it was. And when I was finished, Norman wasn't excited for me in the least bit. "Virgil, you've been lucky to make it this far with two house-pets and an untrained torchic, but it's dangerous going any further. As bad as things get here with White, I guarantee you the world past our borders is one hell of a mess worse."
"I know, I know - I've seen the zigzagoons."
Norman snorted. "Zigzagoons! You think zigzagoons are the worst you've got to deal with? I'm talking about people. The folk beyond Petalburg are nastier than a newborn deino. Virgil, why don't you stay here? You're a tough kid, and that bird of yours sounds like she can pack a wallop. The rangers need all the help we can get."
"Are you saying -?"
"Virgil, I can't change anything about the Empire, and we're stuck here with White selling us out to the big boss. It's a messed-up world, but this is my home and I want to do everything in my power to keep the people here safe. What d'ya say? Will you help me, Virgil?"
Virgil. Not "Just Virgil" anymore but Virgil the Pokemon Ranger; Virgil, Defender of Petalburg. Virgil, Norman's Friend. It was such an effort to speak, but in the end, I had to be Virgil of Johto. "Thanks, Norman, but I've got to see this oracle and find my way home."
Norman chuckled. "Home isn't a place, Virgil; it's the people you share your life with." He managed a smile, and I think that however much my refusal disappointed him, my conviction pleased him even more. I wasn't stuck anymore - I was taking action to change my world.
"Now, I'm not gonna say anymore," he continued. "You've gotta leave town and you gotta choose your own path, but I do want you to take something. Think of it as a bit of 'home away from home'." From his red ranger jacket, Norman produced a yellow, handheld communicator. "We call these Pokenavs. Standard issue for all rangers. This one is loaded with my personal frequency. Go to Rustburo, Virgil, but keep in touch. It doesn't even have to be if you're in trouble - just keep me updated. I'll even pass on your news to Linda whenever I'm in Littleroot."
Now it was my turn to look like a dumbfounded caveman. A walkie-talkie. An honest-to-god real piece of electronics! "You're kidding me! How does this work?"
"White orders them from some mechanic out in Mauville. As for the 'how', these things leave me as stumped as a snover in a scyther's den. I'm just grateful that they do work."
I brought the pokenav to my lips. "Thanks Norman," my voice echoed from a receiving unit in his jacket. "I'll call every day."
Norman tussled my hair and gave a final smile for good-luck. "Get going, Johto boy. You've got to clear the Petalburg Woods before sundown."
I nodded and started running. I wasn't sure whether I'd ever get my memories back, but I would fight tooth and nail if anyone tried to take my memories of Norman.
I ran west and left civilization behind me. Petalburg's buildings shrunk beneath the horizon, the cobblestone road decayed into dirt, and an angry ocean of trees rose up like an approaching storm. The road suddenly ended - fully consumed by weeds and claimed once more by the wilderness. All that stood between me and the dark forest was an endless field of wild grass and a wind-weathered signpost that read "Caution! Petalburg Woods ahead!"
The last obstacle between me and the Oracle's sacred city. Moment of truth. I shook out my nerves, sucked in a last breath of air, and stepped into the tall grass.
A black snout popped out of the thicket, snarling. "Well, well," I grinned. "Look who finally decided to show up."
Maybe the zig understood human speech, because its jaws curled a little wider, as though to smirk, and it gave a single bark - the deployment command. Suddenly I wasn't up against just one measly puff of smoke, but a whole thundercloud of black, lightning-branded zigzagoons.
Piece of cake. I tossed out all three of my pokemon even though I knew I would only make use of one. Beatrice took one look at the horde, shrieked and crawled up my leg and underneath my shirt. Megumi made a good effort of growling at her vaporous compatriots, but I could tell she wanted to flee just as badly. Only Robin maintained her cool, tilting her head and squinting as though she couldn't tell what all the fuss was about.
She was about to find out. "Robin, burn 'em up!"
A quick nod, then she was in attack-mode, flapping above the tall grass and firing a hot ember at the lead zig.
A clear miss. The tiny meteorite skipped through the grass.
"What was that? Robin - again!"
She gave me an odd blink but then fired off round two. This volley flew wide and to the right. "Robin, what the hell?"
She turned to my voice, clearly as confused as I. Only she didn't look directly at me, more like off to the side. "Pic?" she called to the empty air. Beatrice started screaming, and Robin repositioned to stare at the new sound. Then the lead zig gave a nasty bark and Robin swiveled again, allowing a second racoon to headbutt her blindside.
Tumbling through the grass left Robin completely disoriented - she resorted to her distress shrieks, flapping and cheeping for her trainer's help, and I could have been a million miles away for all she knew, because although she stared directly at me she was completely alone in her world of sound.
Birch, you two-faced son of a mawile! You didn't give me Robin for help; you gave her away because she's blind!
All this while, the zigs were scampering forward, black lightning crackling through the grass until we were surrounded by an electric fence. Not like this, I thought. I am not letting myself be dragged into the woods to become the self-refilling meat locker for a bunch of mutated raccoons!
"Back off!" I yelled. "I'm the alpha dog, got that? Rawr! Rawr!!" Yes, I actually snarled at them, don't judge me!
"I said, 'Back off'!!" Louder! I've got to be bigger than them! I threw my arms back, sucked in enough oxygen to fill a hot-air balloon, and prepared to scream out my lungs!
The cold, chilling howl of a wolf washed over the field.
Which was odd, seeing as I had yet to exhale.
The zigs found it odd as well. They froze, snouts darting about, trying to pinpoint the hunter's cry. The howls were growing louder. Whatever it was, it was coming closer.
These black zigzagoons did not seem to like surprises. One by one they vanished - literally vanished - bursting into little puffs of smoke that sunk into the ground like a toxic mist. Just what the hell were those things? And just what the hell was this new creature rustling through the bushes? Beatrice squealed, Megumi clung to my leg (I scooped her up and clung back), and Robin -
Robin squinted and stepped towards the sound. She tripped on a rock and fell flat on her face. A shadow stretched out of the bushes.
And then a little black puppy trotted onto the field. No, not a dog - that implied tameness. This was a wolf cub with angry yellow eyes and fangs too long to fit in its jaw. It didn't spare a glance at Linda's pokemon or me, quivering in our little puddles of urine. It smelled chicken. Dumb, easy poultry wriggling helplessly in the grass - Robin may as well have jumped into a greasy bucket with a side order of fries; she was that easy to catch!
The wolf trotted over to Robin, clamped its jaws over the scruff of her neck and pulled the little hen onto her feet.
I blinked. That was a funny way to eat your dinner.
Robin, ever-trusting Robin, could hear the newcomer breathing and hopped over to the wolf cub to chirp a sort of greeting. The pup only snorted in her face and turned away, snout held high and aloof. His body language seemed to be a warning: Don't mess up again, rookie. You might not be so lucky next time.
Then the pup - the poochyena - glared my way, barking once and tossing his snout in the direction of the far-off woods. Well, his posture growled, we going or what?
"Uh ... sure. I guess ... Amon?"
The name had popped into my head. I think I had read it in a history textbook or something. An ancient protector of the poor, or whatever. The name seemed to fit, or at least Amon gave no objection to his new namesake. He took the lead, trotting far enough ahead to avoid socializing, but close enough to cast angry glares back at Robin, checking to see if she was keeping up.
It looked like someone had just found herself a watchdog.
17th July 2012, 7:11 PM
Chapter IV - Through Forest and Water
I gladly conceded leadership of the Rustburo Expedition to Amon. The decision was a no-brainer: among the troop his nose and ears were clearly the sharpest, and so were his teeth. Arguing against his credentials would be painful, to say the least. So the little wolf took point, Beatrice hopped onto my backpack, and Megumi and I scampered after our black guide dog. Robin went straight back into her pokeball. I had no further use for her.
"You sure this is safe?" I asked as we entered the forest canopy, greeted by the angry stares of a thousand mummified corpses. Silkoons, Cascoons - I couldn't tell one from the other but they were everywhere, tucked among the tree branches like silk-wrapped security cameras, and their single eyes all looked plenty irritated over our intrusion.
Stepping into that forest made me realize the stupidity of my position. What was I doing? Placing my trust in a random, wild pokemon (a carnivore, to boot) just because he didn't immediately try to eat me? Maybe this mutt was just transferring us to his personal territory so he could avoid the zigzagoon competition. I planted my feet and ordered Megumi to heel. "It's a trap." Sure, pupae-pokemon were immobile, but I knew they kept their spinnerets exposed through evolution. One step further and we'd walk into a firing range lined by needle-spewing turrets. Virgil was paralyzed! He may be unable to move!
Amon noted the widening gap in our party and turned around with a look of annoyance. That's right - I'm on to you, buddy. No easy meals today. "I'm going around the forest," I told him. The wolf snorted, and traced my eyes up to the treetop snipers. "I'll admit your trap was pretty clever. But I'm clever-er!" Or was that 'more clever'? Clever-erest? Ah, whatever.
Clearly, my silver tongue failed to impress Amon. The wolf cub trotted over to a nearby tree and bucked his hind legs into the trunk, rattling its cocoon occupant from the branches. The pokemon crumpled against the ground like an egg shell, and that was all it was - a hollow shell.
"Wait, they're dead?" I reassessed my surroundings - those unblinking eyes were nothing but hardened lenses. I shook down another cocoon and caught it in mid-fall. An entry wound the diameter of a large carpentry nail had been punched through the whatever-coon's dorsal surface, continuing all the way through to its underside. Someone, or something, had deliberately killed each of these pokemon and left the corpses to rot in the trees.
I cast a wary glance at Amon, and the wolf pup just raised a padded paw. I got short claws, moron.
"Right," I nodded. "My bad." Whatever had killed these creatures needed opposable digits to grasp a spiked tool, or an index finger with a long dagger of a nail to puncture the helpless carapaces. And wouldn't it be lovely to meet that murderous chap while strolling through the woods all by myself? "Shall we carry on?" I asked Amon.
The wolf just trotted further into the woods. He was either extremely forgiving or extremely indifferent to my opinions. "Whoa, wait for me!"
We continued on into the forest crypt, Amon's nose picking out a trail where my eyes saw only randomly scattered trees. I kept my ears perked for the sound of hunting animals and, when the foliage ahead shook with movement, I was ready to react.
A chubby little man in a forest-green robe crashed through the bushes. His face was hooded but he couldn't hide the panic in his movement. Amon and I ducked behind a thick tree and watched as a feral, crazy-eyed poochyena caught up with the fleeing monk. There was a brief stand-off - the monk started swinging a broken tree branch, the poochyena's jaws snapped the weapon in half - and then the hooded man kept running.
I glanced at Amon. "Friend of yours?"
Evidently not, considering the angry growl overtaking Amon. The dumb mutt pushed past me and chased after the pair. Blast! This could have worked so perfectly - the green monk distracting the wild dog while we snuck through the forest, but clearly Amon had yet to appreciate the wisdom of helping others help themselves. And he never let me tag him with a pokeball. So against my better judgement I joined the chase, blundering into my first encounter with the Cult of Aqua.
Norman had told me stories about the Cult - a group of lunatics who worshipped the ocean as a living god - and warned me to stay clear of any men or women wearing blue bandanas. "They're animals, Virgil. They won't rest until the whole continent is groveling before their altars, and they don't take 'no' for an answer." When I caught up to Amon, we found the little monk on the receiving end of this aggressive evangelism, cornered by the rabid poochyena and its master, a homeless man with a knife.
No, I take that back - a street person retains his basic human dignity and insists on wearing whole articles of clothing. This wild man with the long hair and bare feet wore pieces of cloth - a shirt and pants stitched together from random scraps of black, white and blue - and the thick, wobbly suture lines declared his total incompetence in the craft of needlework. The Cult, I presumed, kept its wardrobe department severely underfunded.
His head was pretty good looking - once you got past the crazy eyes and the hobo stubble and the seaweed hair, that is. His saving grace was the fancy bandana sewn from sparkling blue silk and emblazed with a nasty skull-and-crossbones emblem. Without it he'd be just a hobo, but that sash bumped up his cred to 'pirate hobo'. Yarr, I guess.
"Defiler," he hissed at the monk. "You dare sully the Ocean with your heretic vessel? Emissary of a false idol, repent your wickedness!"
The monk squealed and hid his face. "Please don't hurt me!"
Well it must have been Opposite Day because the pirate threw a punch that tossed the poor monk off his feet! Then he straddled his prey, flipped out his knife and started with the stabbing. "Heretic! Defiler! Sinner!" The guy had a different name prepared for every thrust!
Now, as thrilling as it would have been to stay and expand my vocabulary, I did have to get to Rustburo. A stealthy retreat seemed in order, but Amon had confused "got away safely" with "angry, audible growling".
The pirate and his dog turned our way. Great! I grabbed Amon and clamped my hand over his snout. "Don't mind us. Just, uh, passing through!" Amon shook free and started barking outright. I didn't speak wolf-speak, but it sounded like there were a few choice words in that mouthful, considering how the pirate pooch snarled in return.
And the hobo? He just smiled and dropped to his knees to pray. "I thank thee, almighty Ocean, for this bounty I am about to receive. Let my blade strike true and deliver unto salvation this second heretic! Barnacle, seize the land-lover!"
Our poochyenas exploded at one another, tackling and biting each other in a tangle of black fur, and the pirate, obviously forgetting proper battle etiquette, licked his rusty blade and charged me!
I turned and ran, and god bless Linda for cramming my backpack with all sorts of useless junk because the first blow would have gone straight through my spine if not for her protective padding. Defense, check. Now it was time for her pokemon to deliver on the offense. "Do something!" I screamed at my zig and wurm duo. Megumi ran up a tree and Beatrice dived into the bushes. "I mean, do something to help me, you twits!" Didn't matter much, seeing as I tripped over a root and fell down face-first.
The pirate yelped. Amon had untangled from his dog fight and clamped his jaws around the cultist's hamstrings. "Vile cur," he growled, swinging his remaining foot into Amon's gut. The wolf cub went flying, out cold.
"Finish the others, Barnacle! The boy is mine!" His poochyena roared affirmative and dove after Beatrice. I heard her signature shriek and little else because now the pirate stood directly overtop me, grinning like a jack-o-lantern, his dagger ready for the plunge. Somebody, help me!
An avian shriek accompanied the blow to my head, but it wasn't a piercing blow; not even a painful blow. Overall, being stabbed with a knife felt a lot like getting slapped by a smelly fish. I opened my eyes and looked up at the underbelly of the white seabird who had claimed my head as her nest.
My attacker gasped with reverence. "A wingull! A daughter of the ocean!"
He collapsed to his knees and I picked myself up, flinching as the wingull dug at my scalp to keep her balance. The pirate and I stood there for a bizarre eternity, both of our faces freaked out beyond reason. We might have remained as statues, but then the gull spread her white, ribbony wings to their awesome length and the sun hit the forest canopy at just the right angle to cast an ominous shadow over the pirate.
He snapped. I'm not kidding; I seriously heard the little cracking noise that accompanies a human brain bursting into confetti. All that crazy, evangelical stabby-stabby business flew out with a scream and he melted into terrified mush "Mercy!" he wailed. "Mercy, oh daughter of the waves! I knew not this child was chosen. I - I must be punished! Punish me!" and when the two of us just continued staring, he took it upon himself to thrust his knife into his belly - once, twice, three times!
A second bird shrieked from the treetops and a navy bullet nicked past the pirate's head, ripping off his bandana. Mortified, he clutched at his nakedness. "My robe!" he screamed, and we both looked to the flighty little taillow dancing through the air with the blue sash in her talons.
The hobo didn't know what to do - he certainly couldn't call himself "pirate-hobo" anymore, not without his sea-scarf. I could see his mind in action: he had to grab the bird, but if he stretched a hand after it, he left his head naked and exposed! He certainly couldn't use his other hand; how else would he be able to stab himself for his transgressions? Maybe if he got up and tried hopping on one leg he could use his foot to swipe at the low-flying bird!
The taillow just chirp-giggled started flying higher. The hobo howled and started hopping after the little bird. "Barnacle, seize that beast! Retrieve my robe!"
Oh crud. I remembered about his mutt just as the enemy poochyena dragged itself out of the bushes. His eyes were unfocused, his legs struggled to keep from flopping over and his chest sported a bloody gash dripping with purple ooze. Barnacle gave a wimpy 'yip' to his master and staggered like an alcoholic after the retreating pirate.
"Return, you demon crow! Give it back!"
I glanced up at the wingull, still perched on my head and quite possibly preparing a 'sky drop' attack if you get my drift. "Um, thanks?" She gave my head a swift peck and flapped over to the bushes. Oh shoot, Beatrice! I jogged after the bird and pushed back the thicket to retrieve the corpse.
We found Beatrice's cowardly body stiff as a railroad spike, and I laughed out loud. A ring of black dog hair was caught around her horn like a crown of laurels. "No way, he jumped right onto your stinger?" Beatrice peaked open an eye, seeming every bit as surprised to be alive. Megumi joined us and started yipping at her long-time companion. I'm not sure what Beatrice squealed in return but it was probably something like, "Are you dead too?"
Megumi barked back. "Girl, you beat his sorry butt."
Beatrice cocked her head, clearly disbelieving. The wingull landed by the wurmple's side and nuzzled the bug in a very maternal way. A woof from behind, and Amon - still smarting from his kick to the gut - gave the little worm a nod of approval. Not bad, kid. Not bad.
Well, you wouldn't believe how proud that little larva looked - puffing up her chest and standing on her hind-most legs as though she was queen of the world! Linda's cowardly little worm was gone, and in her place stood Beatrice the Mighty, Destroyer of the Darkness.
The four of us returned to the forest trail where we found the little taillow standing guard over the green-robed monk. "Um, you okay?"
"W-water," he panted. I looked to the wingull, wondering what part of her belly to squeeze in order to turn her into a seltzer bottle. The glare on her face kyboshed that plan. So I knelt by the man's side and begrudgingly handed over my water canteen. The monk drank it up greedily, tipping back his head until his hood fell. Underneath his cowl, he was a middle-aged man with brown hair styled into a bizarre antenna. His was also bleeding badly, with one eye swollen and black. I only had to endure his ugliness a short while, as the magic of the land shut off his leaky faucet nose and pressed his stab wounds shut, good as knew.
"Many thanks, traveller," he sighed, returning my much lighter canteen. "Resetting -" he stopped, as all people did when they took their first good look at my face. To his credit he recovered remarkably fast. "Well, resetting always leaves a terrible thirst in my throat. I am all right, though. I'll be fine so long as my Mish-Mush is safe."
"You're what now?"
"Woom-woom! " came a little voice from the trees. A slimy, brown mushroom with beady eyes and tiny feet dropped into its master's arms, and the monk squealed in delight like a little girl who'd just been gifted a ponyta.
"Oh, your Shroomish." Now I knew why the monk looked so familiar to me - two pudgy faces, two sets of beady eyes and two odd tufts of hair sprouting off the tops of their heads. He was a mirror match to his pokemon.
"My one and only," the monk beamed. "I dread to think of what might happen if I lost my little Mish-Mush." The mushroom pokemon woom-woomed in agreement. "Mish-Mush and I are in your debt, kind stranger. How can we ever thank you for your timely intervention?"
"Uh, no thanks needed." The monk's face was fresh with mushroom slime from nuzzling his pokemon, and I didn't dare accept as little as a handshake. "I really need to keep moving. I'm trying to find my way to Rustburo."
"Then fortune smiles upon you, dear rescuer! Mish-Mush and I travel to the sacred city as well! Let us be your guiding light through this place of darkness. Barclay, envoy to the Lady Roxanne, is yours to command!"
No, no, no. No more tagger-ons, no more mouths to feed, no more creepy pokemaniacs with uncomfortably close relationships with their grass-type monsters. That's what I wanted to say, but somehow my brain slipped out a question first. "Um, who's Roxanne?"
Barclay was all grins. "Ah, perhaps you know my Lady by her formal title, the Oracle of Rustburo?"
And suddenly I was all grins myself.
Barclay shared his life story as we trekked through the woods. He'd awoken on the continent in a much more precarious situation than I. Instead of a kindly band of villagers, his welcoming party had been the darkness of the Petalburg Woods, and he'd stumbled blind and hungry through the forest maze for days.
"It was the Lady Roxanne who found me, parting the trees from my path and leading me to the sacred city. Words cannot describe the kindly face that cast aside the forest - a countenance robed with such radiance that I knew her to be an emissary of light!"
Barclary worshipped his rescuer and quickly joined the religious order that served the Oracle. From there it was years of sweeping floors, preparing tea and thanklessly slaving after a beautiful lady like a grade-A nerd. Since the Emperor's rise to power, though, Barclay and his brethren had been assigned greater responsibilities.
"The Lady Roxanne is forbidden from passing beyond the walls of the sacred city. As such, my brethren and I travel the land in her stead, reporting on what has become of her beloved realm. I am sorry to say that, more often than not, I am a bearer of bad news."
Barclay and his brothers had been returning from the island of Dewford when their ship had been ambushed by the Cult of Aqua. The other monks had been captured; only Barclay and his shroomish managed to escape to land, and even then it had seemed a futile effort until a wonderful boy had appeared, summoning his magnificent winged pokemon to cast the horrible demons back to the darkness.
Barclay, you may notice, had a penchant for poetic exaggeration.
We stopped to make camp once the sun dimmed. Barclay showed me how to clear the ground of flammable moss to construct a fire pit. While he rummaged through his pockets for matches, I summoned Robin and stood her atop our collection of twigs until her body heat forced combustion.
"Most magnificent," Barclay beamed. "Fire without the need for flint or matches! What a wonderful companion!"
It was the first time I'd released Robin since entering the woods and I capsuled her as soon as her job was done, tossing the pokeball over to the monk. "She's a useless piece of junk and you can take her if you like. She's blind."
I shared my own fanciful story, explaining how a monstrous snorelax of a man had conned me into taking a cross-country hike through zigzagoon country with the promise of protection from a noble warrior of fire. "Oh, Birch must be wetting himself with laughter right now. A dumb kid in the middle of the forest hedging all his bets on a bird with dead eye sockets."
Barclay listened cautiously, and when I'd ended my rant he sat Robin on the ground and ran some weird tests on the bird, panning his index finger across her face, left to right, up and down. "Her sight is weak," he concluded, "and the world must appear to her as a frightful haze. But surely you jest when you say -"
"I meant it. You can keep the lousy bird."
The idea horrified Barclay. "Good Virgil, my duties would place her in the line of danger! I could never abide risking the life of an innocent. No, this pokemon must remain by your side."
I grabbed my pokeball and aimed it at the bird. "Keep her or I toss her. Your choice."
"Virgil, be reasonable. The pain of losing a pokemon is ... unbearable."
Sure, for a bleeding-heart pokemaniac like you. Barclay tried arguing some more but I was firm. Robin ended up in Barclay's lap, and though she couldn't see, the way she hung her head showed she had some appreciation that I no longer wanted her. What did it matter, anyway? I could afford to ditch one dud chicken after assembling my sizable menagerie of battle beasts.
There was the newly-courageous (or arrogant) Beatrice, regaling Megumi and Mish-Mush with the story of how she'd slain the pirate hellhound, complete with pantomime actions and battle cries. The wingull stood at the back of the audience, using her beak to groom Megumi's coat free of leaves and burrs. As soon as she heard Robin's mournful cheeps, Trisha - that's what I was calling her - hopped over to the chick's side, nuzzling and cooing to the little bird with motherly affection. Trisha eventually calmed Robin enough to eat, and guided the blind bird to the food I'd laid out, chirping at Robin if she ate too fast, or in bites to big.
The taillow, Winry, kept half an eye on Beatrice's showmanship, but the flames of our campfire drew her true attention. Human tools fascinated her. The minute she'd spied Norman's shiny pokenav, she'd snatched it up in her talons and started fiddling with the dials, chirping in delight when it released a beep or static crackle. She'd totally messed up the radio settings, but even after I'd shooed her away and yelled at her for ruining my link to Norman she was still eyeing the shiny gadget in my lap, probably waiting for me to fall asleep so she could tinker with the machine some more.
Amon sat at the edge of the edge of the fire's light, glancing at us only to confirm that no invaders had breached his perimeter. I had my hunting dog, I had my aerial bombers; I didn't need a third meat-shield.
"You have a most envious ability," Barclay sniffled, his sudden tears glistening in the fire. "To be able to live for yourself, to walk away from a companion without regrets. If only I had that strength." Then he started sobbing outright. "My brothers are gone - prisoners of the Cult. I could have saved them but I fled! I don't deserve to live! I'm a coward!"
While Barclay blubbered into the sleeves of his robe, Trisha and Megumi, and then the whole pack gathered at his side, nuzzling and pawing at the monk to calm him down. Back at the edge of camp, Amon glared at me. Shut him up before he brings the whole forest over here.
"Um, hey," I coughed. "It's okay. I mean, no one expects you to fight a band of pirates with just a dumb old shroomish. It's his fault for not evolving into something strong!"
Mish-Mush's beady eyes warbled before my accusing finger. Oh no. The mushroom sniffled, its lips trembled, and then it joined its master in bawling its eyes out. Then Robin started crying, and Beatrice started panicking, and Megumi had to work double-time, comforting all the trauma victims. Winry took advantage of the chaos to snatch my pokenav, and Trisha started pecking at my head for causing such a row.
Amon just snorted and wandered off into the darkness.
Merciful nightfall saw an end to our little sob party. Barclay pulled himself together, stamped out our fire and ordered us into the trees. Any zigzagoons out on the hunt would have to work for their meal tonight. Barclay's green robe left him perfectly camouflaged but I felt plenty awkward and exposed. It was impossible to get comfortable, and every shift of my body made the leaves shake noisily. I couldn't be more obvious if I'd hung a neon sign from my neck.
Beatrice growled out assurances to me, puffing up her body and declaring she'd watch all night for danger. Yeah, good luck with that.
When I awoke next morning the trees held one more dead cocoon, and the sky held a golden butterfly reveling in the joy of flight.
Rustburo was unlike any city I'd seen. I could remember reading a book about the Ancient Civilization of Alph and looking at artist renderings of the once-mighty nation. Painters would analyze the skeletons of half-crumbled pillars and temples and imagine how the ancient but advanced metropolis might appear when whole and alive with people. Well imagine no further - I was in the thick of it!
The sacred city was surrounded by a wall of polished rock that curved outward like a bowl or a dish, and inside laid a paradise of green grass and trees. Every dwelling was a temple of smooth, black stone shaped into perfect cylinders or flawless prisms. I brushed my hands over the walls, looking for the edges of bricks, but every building seemed carved from a single, continuous boulder. The roads were paved from a shining, copper-like metal; it was like walking on bronze glass. Winry was looping through the air, overloaded by the architectural wonders.
But the grandest structure was a white tower that rose from the center of the city. "The Oracle's Library," Barclay beamed. "The seat of all knowledge."
A strange, alien monument hovered above the tower: a golden orb braced by four metal poles. The 'legs' connected into the dish-shaped wall so that the central 'body' floated just above the Oracle's library. It looked like a giant, metal surskit had claimed the city as its nest.
The curved walls, the library, the hovering monument - something about their design felt familiar, and behind the fog of amnesia I knew I'd seen this object so often as to make it trivial.
Barclay gave me an hour to roam the city. He had to report to the Oracle, debrief his disastrous expedition to Dewford, and explain about the wondrous champion of justice who had saved his life. Apparently the Oracle was rather selective about the people she met but my heroic deeds would guarantee me an audience.
We had a minor setback as Barclay left - Robin started wailing, a last-ditch effort to stay with me. "No," I snapped as the monk carried her away. "You're with him now."
The incident left my pokemon confused. Clearly, they expected Robin to continue with us. "She's gone," I snapped. "And if you guys don't pull your weight, I'll get rid of you too, got that?"
Megumi, Beatrice and Winry flinched and whimpered. Trisha snapped and dove at my face. Amon had to pin her down until I could find her pokeball, and the bird kept shrieking until the very last. You selfish brat! How dare you abandon her, after all she's done, or something like that. I didn't care.
"Any objections?" Racoon, bird and beautifly hid their heads. I zapped them all back to their capsules, satisfied with the chain of command. "What about you?" Something about the look Amon cast drove me nuts. Always judging; never angry or upset, just calmly observing what a complete and utter wreck I was. "If you've got a problem then you can just leave!"
Amon did just so, turning for the city gates.
I stomped through the city, pleased for once of my hideous face and how it kept people at a distance. Not that the people of Rustburo paid me much attention. Everyone looked so weary and tired, and while their city stood proud and beautiful, even the best-dressed had little more than rags to wear. When I poked my head into a random temple I found rows of sleeping cots, and green-robed monks serving soup to a line of hungry vagrants. These people, were they refugees from the Emperor's war, or something?
A familiar voice interrupted my thoughts. "Virgil!" It was Barclay, clearly exhausted and having run all this way to find me. I grinned. "About time, my man. So, when can I see the Oracle?"
The way Barclay wrung his hands and squirmed like a nervous wurmple should have tipped me off. "I fear the news of my expedition upset the Lady Roxanne far more than I anticipated. The Oracle will not be seeing outsiders today, or in the foreseeable future. Virgil, I am so terribly sorry -"
I didn't stay to listen. This is what happens when you help others - you get saddled with their baggage, clumped together with their failures and tossed aside like garbage. Well I didn't need Barclay's help. I could see the massive doors of the library. There were no guards to stop me, no locks to keep me out. If this Oracle couldn't schedule an appointment then I would book one by myself!
What was the worst that could happen?
17th July 2012, 7:12 PM
Chapter V - The Oracle of Rustburo
Running through the Oracle's library made me a sick with vertigo. Each floor was a massive cathedral with stained-glass windows and a tall, vaulted ceiling held up by columns. Bookshelves took the place of pews - towering wooden beasts whose upper contents could only be accessed by rolling stepladders. It was a shrine to the glory of written knowledge, but I couldn't find any faithful monks or devout worshippers with their heads bowed in a good book. My footsteps echoed across ten stories of empty stone. I will find you, Little Miss Oracle, I thought, and you will show me how to get back to Johto!
I could only take so much of the hot and stuffy air though, so I detoured to the nearest window to clear my head. My nausea only doubled when I pushed open the coloured glass.
I was only one story off the ground.
I pulled my head in. Ran back to the last stairwell I had climbed. Confirmed the fifty stone steps I had just mounted, identical in size and spacing to the last nine sets. "It's bigger on the inside."
I ran to the center of the room, to a plaza of reading tables set out for the absent scholars. I needed to sit down and catch my breath. Wild pokemon made from smoke; murderous pirate-hobos, and now buildings that defied all laws of spatial construction. How many more curve-balls did this continent have to offer? And why, from a bird's-eye view, did the temples of black stone with their copper roadways look like computer chips on a green circuit board? Just what made this city so 'sacred' anyway?
My confusion was observed by a giant statue residing in the middle of the study area. Like the Minotauros at the center of the maze, I thought. On previous floors I had seen sculptures of humans or legendary pokemon but this floor featured something more abstract: a giant polygonal block resembling a man's head. Its eyes were shut and two stumpy arms covered its ears. It could see no evil and hear no evil, but it sure could smell evil. The monolith was dominated by a gargantuan arrowhead nose painted bright red. The thing was massive - each nostril big enough to stuff with a human-sized booger. Portrait of a man with a bad cold.
That was when I noticed the stacks of books around me, and heard the footsteps of a librarian approaching. A twenty-something girl in a white dress dropped a fresh stack of manuscripts on the table. Finally, someone who could take me to the Oracle! "Excuse me -"
"The records on the far end are ready for re-shelving." Excuse me? She didn't even bother looking at me, just assumed I was a servant or something. Her nose was already wedged into the first book of her latest stack. "When you are finished, bring volumes 9832 A through J. That is all."
The girl took her seat and proceeded to ignore me. Who on Regigigas' Green Earth do you think you are? She may have been older than me but she was nowhere near the age of Barclay or the other monks I'd seen. Some stuck-up, preppy nun-in-training? No, if that were the case she'd have her brown hair tied up and hidden, not dangling in two funny, looping twin-tails. Figure-Eights, I realized. Infinite loops.
Well, whoever she was, she certainly had a knack for speed-reading. In less than a minute she had absorbed all the data from her first book, stacked it on a 'finished' pile and proceeding to the second text. One hand held the spine of the book, the other swept across page after page. Like a scanner lightbulb, I thought. She's a reading machine!
And she kept reading faster with every book. No, not just reading - searching. She wanted to find something in these tomes, something important but each book only frustrated her more. With every futile scan her forehead scrunched a little further, her fingers flipped a little faster and soon she wasn't just stacking her finished books but slamming them angrily.
Finally she snapped - sweeping the books off the table in a fit and dropping her head on the desk. Defeated. Being the knowledge-hungry scholar that I was, I stepped over to inspect the fallen books.
Empty. Every page of every book was a blank sheet.
"Just put them back," the girl whispered, too tired to even look up. "It's the same every day: the silence of a thousand voices, the blindness of a million eyes. We are trapped in a net winding ever tighter."
Was I supposed to say something? Pat her on the back or tell her to keep a stiff upper lip? Yeah, that had worked wonders with Barclay. I figured the best option was to slowly inch away from this awkward mess. Too bad my shoes scuffed so obviously against the floor. "Did you hear me?" the girl asked. "I said put them -" Now she looked up and realized I was not one of the green-robed monks. Her moment of despair had been witnessed by a stranger. "You are not authorized to access this area."
"Look, I don't want any trouble; I just need to see the Oracle."
"Oracle," she sneered back. "That title smacks of idolatry. I am Roxanne, and I am the System Administrator of the 724+ Entralink Network."
I knew that name. "Wait, you're the Oracle?"
The girl glared at me but, like a movie star spotted on a street corner, she knew the game was up. "According to some ... overzealous admirers, yes, I am the so-called Oracle of Rustburo."
I was expecting someone prettier. You know, an exotic beauty adorned in silk and jewels. That or some hideous old crone who'd amassed the wisdom of ages. The Oracle was a college girl. Fancy that. "Well, now that that's settled, I have a super-quick question for you."
"You all do," Roxanne snorted. "And you all expect me to wait at your beck and call, dispensing divine guidance like some automated service machine."
"Well it's not like you've got anything better to do, sitting in a building full of empty books."
"Empty? I am monitoring vital -" she stopped herself, irritated by how easily she had lost composure. "Treat them as equals," she reminded herself. "Treat them as equals." She started over: deep breath, stand up straight, force a perky smile. "How may I be of assistance, good sir?"
I would make this quick. Her eye was already beginning to twitch and go bloodshot. "Well, it's like this - I'm not supposed to be here."
"Yes. Human self-righteousness."
Whatever that meant. "Look, I was kidnapped. Someone drugged me, wrecked my face and gave me amnesia before dumping me out in Petalburg Province. I want to know how I can get back home. I'm from Goldenrod City, in Johto."
"Johto," Roxanne repeated. "Querying. Please wait." She stomped over to a random shelf, yanked out a book and thumbed through the pages. "Johto. One entry found. Category: human settlements. Region-class. Location ..." She stopped. Raised her incredulous eyes at mine. "You retain memory from 724-Prime."
Well suddenly I was the most fascinating little specimen to ever bother the Oracle for knowledge. Roxanne walked right up to me, grabbing my chin so she could twist and look at my face from all angles. "Ow," I winced. Static electricity from her fingers made me flinch, and a hundred little images from my nightmare flashed through my mind. Had she ... made those images appear?
"This is highly irregular," Roxanne surmised, stepping away as though I was riddled with strange diseases. Maybe I was - that irritating itch was returning to my face, ignited by the sudden flush of memories.
"How about my question? How do I get back to Johto?"
Roxanne's reply was simple. "You do not."
"You were brought here with purpose, and you will remain here accordingly."
"Who brought me here? Why?"
"That information is classified under the Lethe Protocol. I've given your answer, now go away."
She was right; she had given me one important answer. "You did this to me! You brought me here!" It was all so obvious - my 'irregular' memories, her knowledge of Johto. She knew. Maybe she hadn't kidnapped me directly but she was in on the conspiracy. "You take me back this instant!" Roxanne merely turned away to pick up her books, calling, "Security." Two armored geodudes seized my wrists, pulling me towards the stairs - away from the Oracle, away from my answers.
"You can't do this to me!" The pokeballs at my belt - if I could just stretch my hand... "You took my face, you took my life; I'm not playing your sick game anymore!" My thumb just barely brushed the access button, and my white wingull materialized into the library. "Trisha, take her down!"
The mother seabird only flapped in mid-air and looked down on me with stormy eyes. Blast, of all the capsules, why her? "Come on, you're my pokemon - help me!" Instead, Trisha landed on a table and watched me struggle. Was she trying to make a point? Show me how Robin felt when she'd been dragged off by a stranger? Well we'd see whose heart could harden the longest.
I tried kicking at one of the geodudes - a useless gesture, but my struggling made the guards ramp up their tactics. They hit me across the back, forcing me to my knees. "Agh!" Trisha flinched. Play through the pain, I thought. She can't stand to see children hurt. Every punch I took made Trisha wince in sympathy. My bones ached, but I screamed as though they broke. "Augh! Tri-Trisha... H-help ... me..." All the while Roxanne proceeded among her books, oblivious to the conflict welling up inside my wingull.
Trisha sprang at the geodudes, scrabbling her talons across their rocky hides while I fought to suppress my smile. Gotcha! Trisha clawed until her flippers came away bloody but the boulders found her no more irritating than a fly. They couldn't even be bothered to brush her away. The seabird moved to a new tactic. She launched herself to the library's roof, fighting against gravity like a missile pushing back an elastic sling, and when her catapult went taught Trisha fired herself at the ground, at the master of the rock-men. Roxanne made it all the sweeter when she heard Trisha's shriek - "What now?" - and turned to meet the oncoming blade.
It was over before the first book hit the floor: Trisha cutting like a knife, Roxanne clutching her face, the geodudes gasping and crumbling to dust. That last part was unexpected, but followed a sort of logic: take out the Big Boss, the little guys fall too.
Trisha landed on my shoulder, panting heavily while she rested against the side of my head. The fight had winded her, and though it hurt her just to breathe she still forced herself to squawk, to coo out some sort of reassuring words to me. My baby... Oh my baby you're all right.
I pushed away her smelly fish beak. "Lay off, mom. I'm fine," which was more than I could say for the great and powerful Oracle of Rustburo, huddled on the floor and covering her face with her hands. "Ready to talk, lady?"
I don't know how else to describe it. You know how your television picture, when the reception's lousy, will jump and twitch while it tries to update its signal? Or when your Internet video is buffering slowly and suddenly skips ahead a few seconds? Well that's what happened to her body. It flickered. One second she was sprawled on the floor, then flicker - she was standing up.
And she was pissed.
Roxanne touched her cheek, traced the wound Trisha had sliced from lip to ear, then flicker. The blood vanished.
That... that was cheating! When Birch and Barclay had healed their wounds it had taken time for the tissues to sew up. This Oracle - her body was like a computer image. All she had to do was hit 'refresh' and she was good as new!
It was time to run.
But I couldn't leave the study area. Flicker. There were no more exits, just a solid ring of bookshelves. I pawed over the leather covers, trying to find a lever for a secret passage. Flicker. My hands hissed and blistered from the sudden heat radiating off the leather covers. The shelves glowed like beds of hot coal, and an echoing voice rang through my skull:
It's time your learned your place, human. Roxanne stood atop a balcony overlooking the floor, an Empress surveying the gladiatorial field. On her chest, a rune like a blue triangle burned with a hot, blue light while she worked her magic over the building. The floor rattled from a quick earthquake and I turned to the blocky statue at the center of the arena. Its jaw had dropped open, shattering the floor tiles, and now black tar gushed from the statue's mouth like blood. I gagged at the stench of iron. Trisha tensed and spread her wings.
The tar didn't move naturally. Instead of pooling over the floor it grew thick, gained height; started shaping itself, and as it assumed a humanoid form I realized it's not a statue, it's a shell. The snail-creature pushed its snaky torso off the ground with two long, skeletal arms; a head bubbled up from the mass, blinked at me with two lantern-yellow eyes and bared its teeth.
Tentacles fired off the monster like harpoons, too fast to react. Too fast for a human, anyway. While I screamed, Trisha threw herself at the oncoming horde. The black tar snared her wings, legs, throat and slammed her into the ground.
Then they started reeling in.
Trisha struggled but the tendrils were too strong, too numerous to fight, and she'd been weakened already. With the last of her strength she flapped and flailed enough to flip her body around and she looked at me, cawing through her strangled throat. Help me! Baby, help me!
I was too busy pulling a table towards the bookshelves. Maybe, with a little height, I could climb over. A spare tentacle put that plan to rest, hacking through the wood and sending me on my backside.
Our eyes met in the last moment. The abomination had her close enough to grab in its skeletal arms and it hugged Trisha into the black tar of its body, forcing her under. Trisha had her wing outstretched, forcing her feathers to push towards me even though I was across the room and sitting dumbfounded while the black monster slithered back into its shell. She didn't give up though, fighting and flailing and holding on to some hope that I would save her. Shrieking to the end.
The maw snapped shut and the library fell silent.
My heart beat double-time through my chest while I waited for the monster to return and lasso me. Waited, and found myself disappointed. Was ... that it? My breathing slowed, I wiped the sweat from my face and looked to Roxanne, expecting to see a grin of sick delight. The Oracle just looked down on me as though waiting. "Are we done here?" I asked. She wanted to scare me, right? Put me in my place? Pretty lame monster, if you ask me, eating a bird but not finishing off the trainer.
Roxanne's lip curled with disgust. She motioned for one of the bookshelves to slide open. My exit. "You horrid little thing," she whispered. "Get out."
Gladly! I started backpedaling for the exit, keeping one eye on the statue, just in case. That, of course meant that I couldn't scan the floor for debris. I slipped magnificently on something round and whacked my butt a second time. What was that?
Wait a sec, when she'd reached out to me had she meant for me to -
Sharp talons dug into my head. "Ahh!" What was this? I'd never felt pain so hot, so intense, not from the worst of my nightmares. My skin burned, my bones buckled; my eyes were ... leaking? Why was I crying? Over Trisha? Hey, I didn't force her to fight; it was her own damn choice to jump at that thing!
To protect me.
She wanted to protect me.
And I could have saved her.
The talons ripped into my chest now. I couldn't stop it. I clawed at my skin, begged the magic of the land to work but the invisible claws wouldn't stop their rampage. Was this what Trisha felt? Had these same talons raked through her chest when she'd seen me hurt?
My baby... Oh my baby...
I let her die, and what for? So I could run away? Get out safely and crawl back to Littleroot? Back to square one? Up on her balcony, Roxanne was growing impatient. "I gave you a command, human, now get out!"
And I snarled back, "No."
The statue's maw dropped and the creature slithered out again, grabbing me by the throat with its sticky hands. "No," I coughed. Not while I still have questions. The gooey fingers kept squeezing but I forced myself to roar, "No, I'm not getting out!" and a black wolf cub matched my roar with its own.
Amon, what was he doing here?
The tar monster dropped me, repositioned its tendrils to strike the snarling pup at the open bookshelf. Amon crouched low, peeled back his lips and bellowed out a roar that shook every bookcase in the library. The monster howled back in its shrill voice but it was impossible to match Amon's ferocity. We had a standoff, and while the tentacles outnumbered the dumb mutt a dozen to one, Amon's every bark sent the monster flinching and inching back to its shell.
That was enough. Roxanne flickered down to the battleground and pulled me up by the neck with inhuman strength. "Another pawn to throw away?" she hissed. "I can eradicate you from existence, piece by piece, and yet this arrogance persists. Why?"
I couldn't speak for Amon; couldn't fathom what brought him to save me. I only knew myself. "I just want to go home," I wheezed.
"Pic, pic!" Amon hadn't come alone. A fiery torchic trotted into the fight, now sporting a cool pair of half-moon spectacles. "Robin?"
"I'm sorry!" Barclay wailed, his footsteps banging through the room. "I tried to stop them, my Lady, but after I put on the glasses, she -" He stopped, spotted the giant tar monster and gave a little squeak before turning tail.
The Oracle looked over my pokemon. I don't think she even once registered them as credible threats but she seemed intrigued by their ferocity, and by how many capsules lined my belt. "You have strength," she murmured, scanning me like a book to be deciphered, searching for some elusive data in my features. "Ah." She'd found it. "You have something to fight for."
Roxanne said no more, but that smug and otherworldly voice resounded inside my head. You could prove useful.
At the Oracle's signal, her abomination retreated into its shell. "Provoke me again, human, and I will labour with great pleasure to recreate the horrors of the Inferno. I'll say it again: you cannot go home. Now put your talents to some greater purpose besides irritating me."
The bookshelves flickered to their original positions and Roxanne dropped me. I'm sure she did something to alter the angle of my impact because I fell on my arm and twisted it to a most unnatural angle. "Augh!"
Roxanne found my mewling quite disgusting. "Why do you humans insist on making those awful noises? That distortion won't terminate a soul, and there is no pain but what you imagine."
I'd had enough with her clinical detachment. "I can feel my bones shifting, lady! That's a lot of pain to imagine!"
Counterpoint: "Any sensation of physical distress on your part is merely a by-product of your time spent interfacing with a flesh and blood container. You react to nerves that no longer exist. Steven referred to it as 'Phantom Pain'."
The Oracle knelt by my side, speaking slowly so she wouldn't have to repeat herself. "Human souls respond ... poorly to the loss of their physical sensory array. To negate this stress, Realm 724+ adjusts human consciousness to assume the last recorded form of your physical body."
"The 'form' of my body?"
"Yes. The body you left behind -"
I could finish the rest. "- when I died."
She didn't contradict me.
"When I died." I said it again, felt the revelation roll over my tongue. "I died. ... I'm dead." The words came out so naturally, they made so much sense. My face, Birch's stomach, Linda's arm. Killing blows. The ability to reset any wound - the dead couldn't get any deader. "And this continent - no, this world is ... the Afterlife?" No, something wasn't right - if this was paradise, why did people know pain and suffering? Why was there an Emperor robbing villages of food and treating his subjects like slaves? "Am ... am I in the Good Place?"
"You are where you deserve to be. The righteous rejoice in the Enlightenment; the wicked perish in the Inferno. As for your kind, those without dedication, without decision; you who waver between allegiance - for your kind there is Hoenn."
"I'm dead," I repeated for the millionth time. "And I've been judged. I'm not good enough to keep, but not worth the bother to burn. So I'm stuck here in this ... purgatory? I have to stay here forever?" Roxanne only walked away to her books, tired of our conversation. I thought of it: forever in Littleroot Village. Never aging, never dying; never progressing. An endless limbo.
"I can't be dead. I ... I shouldn't be dead! I'm only sixteen! What about my family, my friends? What about all the things I wanted to do?" I couldn't remember any of them, but I'm sure I dared to dream great dreams! I crawled after Roxanne, tugging at the hem of her dress. "Please, you have to send me back!" If the Afterlife was real, then surely second chances existed too? "I'm begging you!"
"I noticed. Perhaps you'll notice how little I care. Transfers are not my department."
Ah ha! "So there is a way. A way to go back? Please, I'll do anything!"
A sigh. Had I finally worn her down? "The only way to move beyond this realm," Roxanne explained, "is to conquer the seven sins."
Her dress flickered from my grasp. "Now leave, human. I have work to do." Maybe the stress of a dislocated shoulder caused me to hallucinate, but as she turned away I swore I saw a pair of red wings unfurl from her back and glisten under the window's light like a cloak of rubies.
The image buzzed through my eyes long after her the Oracle left my sight. Left me to face the undeniable truth.
I was dead.
No. My hand curled around Trisha's empty pokeball. I'm just somewhere in-between. Obviously some species didn't have that luxury.
"Glad you made it," I mumbled to the poochyena at my side. Amon just gave his trademark snort and scratched behind his ear. Seems we both had trouble dealing with gratitude.
"And you're back too," I said to Robin. She cheeped happily as I picked her up to inspect the spectacles wrapped around her head. What had Barclay said the other night when he ran his weird tests? Her sight is weak? But not completely gone, I guess. "Maybe you can stick around," I conceded.
I glanced back at Amon. "So, did you bring her here, or did she have to convince you?" The wolf's ears went stiff and he quickly turned away, pretending not to hear. Robin started to cheep a reply but Amon's growl shut her up. Hmm, touchy subject.
"Well, we can't stay here," I said, picking myself off the ground and motioning for the duo to follow. "The Oracle said there's a way back, and I'm going to find it."
There was just one thing to figure out.
"What's a sin?"
26th July 2012, 5:19 AM
Chapter VI - Shadows in the Granite Cave
I spent three days in Rustburo before I found my answer. Three day sleeping on a hard cot, three days lining up for soup rations and three days reciting the same useless memory fragments to the information-starved monks. Those green-robed guys loved me; I was like a visiting scholar and they scribbled down every detail of this fascinating "other world" I called Johto.
As for Roxanne, I became more of a pest to be tolerated. Barclay was her mouthpiece, and he informed me that the resources of the library were at my disposal. That sounded like a sign of trust, except that every time I left my study table to fetch a new book the heavy thunk of geodude security escorts trailed my footsteps. Yeah, I was not endearing myself to the book-lovers who began to repopulate the facility.
The Oracle's books were either blank or contained gibberish. Opening their covers revealed nonsensical geometric patterns that seemed to shift and gain depth like 3D puzzle images. "Those books contain the Word of God," Barclay explained one night during supper. "Even such indirect contact with the Creator is beyond man's comprehension."
"But Roxanne can read them."
Barclay frowned at my informal address of his Lady. "The Oracle's body bears no scars," he said, and apparently that statement was supposed to reveal some dark and shocking truth about ol' Roxy. What was it with these Rustburo people and their riddle-talk?
The next day Barclay showed me to what I called the 'kiddie section' - a wing of the library housing books written in plain and simple English. From science to philosophy, I could find whatever subject I needed. Apparently this Steven guy everyone kept fawning over had commissioned the wing in order to 'advance the knowledge and understanding of humanity'. I just wish he had thrown in a computer terminal. I may have been in Purgatory but Hell was a library organized under a pen-and-paper catalogue system.
While I spent my days hunting down books about sin, Amon took the other pokemon outside the city for training. It was better for us to keep separate - Megumi and Beatrice kept looking at me with big, anxious eyes that asked Where's Trisha?
I winced. Just thinking about Trisha encouraged those braviary talons to tighten their grip around my skull. The pain had never quite left - there was always this tightness around my chest or a migraine coursing through my brain. Was my body suffering some sort of guilt or post-traumatic stress? But then I had to remind myself that I had no body, and that these things I called hands and feet - even the burnt face that glared at me in the mirror - were just illusions my soul projected to keep itself from going insane. I could sink my 'teeth' into the skin of my 'forearm' - hard enough to leave indents - and watch the bite marks re-inflate to a healthy peach colour. I hadn't the nerve to put a knife to my skin or to chop off a toe, but the results would be the same. I was - no, everyone here was - the amazing Rubber Boy. We could pull or press or 'distort' our bodies all we wanted and this phantom flesh would simply snap back with elastic reliability.
But it would hurt. Oh, it would hurt.
According to the books, a sin was nothing more than a "morally bad act", a corruption. Every time you did something rotten, a black stain grew on the white fabric of your soul like it was a score card to be tallied when you died. Too many black check-marks? Uh oh, you're not getting into Club Paradise. There were also seven deadly sins - actions or attitudes thus labelled because they were catalysts for evil. Indulge in them even a little and they would encourage an exponential growth of wickedness. Lust, Gluttony, Envy, Greed, Sloth, Wrath and Pride. Those were the sins I had to conquer.
None of the books made any sense, though. How was I supposed to 'conquer' a bad deed like Lust? Stand up tall, place my hand over my heart and solemnly swear to never again ogle the ladies? Or Gluttony - "I, Virgil, pinkie-swear promise never to take a second helping of dessert after supper?" What bunk! There had to be some catch, some greater meaning to Roxanne's riddle.
I was not a fan of puzzles, or I lacked the patience to solve an impossible one. Whenever I grew too frustrated to carry on, I started fiddling with Norman's pokenav. Winry had twisted the dial off of the ranger's frequency, but I kept rotating the knobs, sending out a random "hello?" and hoping that I'd hit the right channel at the right time to catch Norman's attention.
Well today I got lucky. "Virgil?" That was Ling-Ling's voice over the comm. "Papa, papa," the little bear shouted. "I think I hear Virgil!" Papa bear took over. "Virgil, is that you? Thank Arceus - I've been trying to reach you for days!"
"Norman, am I ever glad I found you," and I meant every word. Just hearing the ranger's voice filled my spirits; I felt strong enough to shrug off the buzzards pecking at my head. "What about you? Are you ... you know ..." reeling from the agony of torture?
"Let's not talk about that, Virgil." That bad, huh? "You're safe and that's enough to keep me going. Where've you been, what happened?"
I told him everything - about meeting Amon and Winry and Trisha, saving Barclay from the Cult and losing my wingull to the foul mood of a cruel prophetess. I omitted Roxanne's revelation about our collective mortality, of course. The notion of death and damnation in limbo was tough enough for me to deal with; I didn't want to burden Norman with that existential quandary.
"You've been through the fire and back again," the ranger summarized, "but I'm proud of you for sticking up for yourself, Virgil. 'No, I'm not getting out'." He chuckled. "I can just imagine the look on that stuck-up Sybil when you told her that."
"Yeah, but now she won't even give me a straight answer," I moped. "First she says 'you can't go home'; then she tells me 'oh, you can go, just as soon as you conquer the seven sins.' I mean, how am I supposed to do that? Promise to never get angry or be proud again? Nothing here makes any sense!"
There's a literary theory stating that no mystery, puzzle or death-trap is fool-proof until it has frustrated an eight year-old child. Ling-Ling needed only two minutes and he came up with the answer I'd been struggling for days to find. "Papa!" the little bear gasped. "Six plus one is seven! Seven! Virgil's gotta beat up the -"
"Ling-Ling!" Norman's voice was furious. "Not another word. Virgil, just ignore him, he's only fooling around."
Was Norman trying to protect me from something? "Norman, if you or Ling-Ling know anything -"
"It's nothing, Virgil."
"Even nothing's better than what I got! Norman, please. Help me out here."
Norman didn't speak for a long time, and I imagine that back in Petalburg he was fighting with his better judgement. "Arceus have mercy on me," he finally whispered. "Virgil, are you anywhere near a map? It has to be one that shows the divisions of the Empire." Thankfully there was a monk nearby who could show me the intelligence reports his team had compiled for the Oracle. I unrolled a brown parchment displaying the continent and its surrounding island chains. "Look at the provincial boundaries," Norman told me. "Do the math."
The mainland was politically quartered: Petalburg, Lavaridge, Mauville, Fortree. Each territory held two or three major cities under its fold, while the archipelago smiling along the south-eastern shore was divided into a further two territories, Dewford and Mossdeep, with the largest of the islands distinguished and set aside by the stamp of a royal crown. Sootopolis, the Imperial Capital, plus six territories overseen by personal representatives of the Emperor. Seven leaders altogether. "Conquer the seven sins... Roxanne, she wants me to overthrow the Empire?"
"It's just one interpretation," Norman added. "She could be referring to the seven major sea routes, or the seven known cave systems -"
Yeah, but this theory was the only one big enough to fit the bill. I mean, you didn't just hand out resurrections like restaurant coupons, right? A person had to do something grand, something world-changing to rise from the dead, and what quest could be nobler or more heroic than overthrowing an evil dictator and his cronies? "I'm gonna do it, Norman. I'm gonna take down this Emperor guy."
The ranger sounded ready to slap me. "Virgil, don't be pig-headed! You're a tough boy but you're just a boy. These Leaders suppress entire cities with their bare hands. They don't hesitate to torture anyone who so much as whispers dissent."
"You keep saying that, but if this is my ticket home then I've got to try!" Now that I had a quest I wanted to visit these other territories; see for myself just how horrible their rulers were and if they had some weak spot. The people of Petalburg seemed pretty upset with Leader White - maybe I could do something to spark off a revolt. "Besides," I added, "it's not like they can kill me."
Norman's voice was dark and foreboding. "You might end up wishing they could."
He had to concede to my enthusiasm, though. "All right," he sighed. "I dragged you into this trapinch nest; I'd better guide you through it as best I can. I've made diplomatic travels to the other territories. I can give you information about the leaders and how they run their lands. Maybe, if you know what you're up against, Linda and I might get to see you again someday."
"I'm leading a mareep to the liepard's den," he whispered before disconnecting.
I told Barclay I wanted to speak with the Oracle. I had a whole speech prepared about how I wasn't going to take no for an answer but the timid monk just nodded and showed me the way. Apparently Roxanne had assigned me to her VIP list.
"I solved your little riddle," I told her. We were back in the study area where this whole mess began, and my address was directed to the infinity-eight hair loops on the back of the Oracle's head. Special privileges or not, Roxanne was still too absorbed in her meaningless books to look directly at a 'measly human'. "I'm gonna do it. I'll take down the Emperor and his Leaders."
"Oh?" She couldn't care less. To this magical 'thing' dressed up in human skin my war cry held all the threat of a little boy brandishing a toy pistol. That's nice, dear, "and where will your crusade begin?"
I licked my lips. "Dewford," I decided. According to Norman, Petalburg City was still hot with gossip about the trouble I'd rained down on Wally and their beloved ranger captain. Best to start on a clean slate - some place where the name 'Virgil' didn't rhyme with 'mud' and where the local ruler lacked a street-army of citizens eager to knock out my teeth.
Roxanne flipped another page. "You'll need transportation. Barclay, take one of the sailboats and escort this boy to Dewford Island." The monk started and stammered, still traumatized by his last sea voyage and the losses he had endured. "Is there a problem, Barclay?"
Barclay folded up like a Cherrim under rain. "N-no," he peeped. I wonder how Roxanne had first reacted to the news of the monks captured by the Cult. Had she been upset over their loss, or just frustrated that only the most incompetent of her minions had survived? "No problem whatsoever," he whimpered.
"Splendid," Roxanne replied. "Stay with the boy during his travels and provide whatever support he requests. I expect regular reports. You have a bird, yes?"
"Ah, my spearow was, ah ... eaten."
"Then get another. That is all." Our cue to leave. Barclay bowed and scuttled away. "Reports?" I asked.
Roxanne shut her book and moved to the next. "An indulgence. I'm curious to see how long a fool will persist on his errand."
I scowled. "Just be ready to beam me back to Johto when I'm finished."
We shall see, human.
The next morning Barclay and I were loaded with fresh supplies and portaging a small boat through the Petalburg Woods. Amon and Robin guarded the rear. A freshly-tamed pidgey roosted on Barclay's cloak, mirroring the twitchy nervousness of its new master. Plenty to be afraid of, I suppose - the sky heavy with storm clouds, our sea route claimed as pirate waters, and something was following us through the woods. We reached the coast all right, but as we cast off I noticed a black zigzagoon slither out of the grass. The two of us stared at one another across the neutral zone of water, and as the distance between us grew so did the mad grin on the monster's face.
Good riddance, I thought.
The waves grew choppy as we sailed onward but Barclay's had plenty practice as a sailor; he knew how to angles the mast so that we skimmed the water like a motorboat. All I had to do was sit back and try not to throw up. Robin squeaked like a baby every time a wave splashed over the bulkhead. I offered her a pokeball but the fire chick was determined to tough out the storm. She had something to prove, I suppose, but I don't think you get points for bravery if every time you're sprinkled with water you wail and bury your face in poochyena fur.
At last an island of gray rock rose up from the horizon. Dewford. "The waves are too rough," Barclay shouted over the spray. "If I try and take her ashore we'll be smashed!" Is it really that bad, I wondered, or is the scaredy-cat just stalling? Whatever the case, Amon knew what needed to be done. The poochyena took a flying leap into the tempest and started doggy-paddling to shore. Emboldened, Robin fluttered her wings and fell into the drink too, shrieking whenever her head popped above water.
Great, now I've got to rescue her. "I'll circle around and try to find a safe dock," Barclay shouted while I tied my backpack to a floating barrel. "Remember the packages!"
The cold hit me like an electric shock. I don't remember much of my swim, only that the waves did most of my work, tossing me face-first into a beach of rough pebbles. "Everyone still here?" I coughed. The pokeballs on my belt were accounted for, and Amon gave an affirmative bark. Robin fared the worst of us, bent over on hands and knees and coughing up swallowed sea water. Plus she'd lost her glasses. Her talons pat at her face, and then the sand, and then she stopped and felt her face again, realizing her angular, humanoid body with its golden plumage and wings grown into long arms with three razor talons each.
"Combusken," I coughed. "Guess that swim toughened you up." This explained the first of Barclay's packages - a larger pair of glasses to fit her post-evolution face. Robin placed the half-moon spectacles over her pointed beak and turned to Amon for approval. "Corr?" The wolf looked at her for a second longer than necessary, yawned, then trotted down the shore. That poochyena was only half her size now, but no more impressed with this rookie. Robin clenched her new fists, determined to prove her worth and promptly wobbled to her knees.
Seemed that new body would take some getting used to.
A light drizzle had started over the beach, but the thunder up above promised worse to come. We need to find shelter, I thought, but so far Dewford Island was nothing but tall cliffs and pebble beaches. A zubat flapped past our heads, just as eager to escape the oncoming rain. "Hey, those things live in caves, right?" Sure enough, Amon tracked the flying bug to a dark gap in the rock face.
I held out a torch to Robin. During our run she'd been working hard to figure out these new 'hand' things, and discovered she could generate sparks by scraping her talons together. It took her a few tries but we finally had a nice fireball-on-a-stick to illuminate our way. "Maybe this is that place Barclay mentioned. The Granite Cave?" Apparently the tunnel had been a favourite hang-out for this Steven guy, and if I happened to pass it I should leave my second package in the shrine at the back of the cave.
I peeled back the wrapping from a stout, white candle. "Seems Birch isn't the only guy pining for this Steven to show up." The monks and many of the people of Rustburo had carved their names into the wax. Most had simply scratched down a repeated, meaningless phrase: SALVA NOS.
The cave entrance was deceptively small. Inside, the ceiling stretched too high for our meager torch to reveal. I could hear that zubat from earlier flitting above our heads, monitoring the intruders to its home, and I could see an orange glow coming from around the bend. Was someone else taking shelter from the storm? "Blue bandanas," I warned Robin. "Burn 'em if you see 'em."
Steven's Shrine was a large alcove off the main path, every outcropping and ledge covered by the stumpy remains of melted candles. The only light currently shining belonged to the other pilgrim's lantern, and the man carrying it was anything but a dirty sea-hobo; quite the contrary, he was a model for the worst kinds of posh and hoity-toity fashion. His shoulders were draped in a white cloak sporting a pretentious popped collar, while a snooty beret capped his head. Plus his seafoam-coloured shirt was pressed far too tight and unbuttoned far too low for my comfort. All he needed was a stuck-up glameow in a handbag to complete his prissy and pompous ensemble. What an ego trip! Still, it wouldn't hurt to check.
"Are you Steven?" I asked.
The man whipped his head my way, rippling the blue bangs that fell over his face like an ocean wave. "Who, Moi?" Apparently I'd made the most hilarious joke ever because the pretty-boy put his fingers to his lips and started tittering like a patrat. "Am I Steven? Oh you flatterer, you're obviously new to these parts." His smile went ugly. "Yes, you're clearly a greenhorn - I would remember a face like that. Tell me, how do you manage to live with yourself? I mean, short of putting a paper bag over that mess?"
Oh we were going to be the best of friends, I could tell. "Maybe I'm no chiselled bimbo," I growled back, "but at least I wasn't murdered." The guy was close enough that I could see his own disfigurement - his throat had been slit open from left to right, and an ugly scar ringed his neck like a ghoulish grin.
Neck-boy took a step back. "My, my," he hummed, "aren't you clever. Seems you've figured out the entrance requirements to this little playground. Well, I was going to pin you down as one of those Petalburg country bumpkins - I mean, wurmple silk? How gauche! - but now I'm guessing you made a trip to Rustburo, no? Running errands for your little angel? Well, aren't we a pair!"
"Hang on, you know we're dead?" Even Roxanne's monks seemed ignorant of that truth; who was this guy?
Neck-boy tittered again. "Let's just say I'm on the 'need to know' list." He snatched the package from my hand. "What's this, another candle for Saint Steven? Another beacon to light the darkness? Puh-lease!"
I couldn't care less about honouring some dumb shrine, but having something yanked from my hand just pissed me off. I tried grabbing back the candle but Neck-boy kept side-stepping artfully. "Keep-away~" he sing-songed. Seemed his poncey attitude was irritating the pokemon as well. The zubat following me dived into neck-boy's face. "Ugh, you hideous little thing!" He swiped his arm, and the knife hidden up his sleeve sent the zubat tumbling to the ground. Robin ran to the bat's side. The blue fur of its face was smeared red.
Neck-boy mock-gasped. "Oh, I'm sorry, that belonged to you, didn't it? Well, at least now you'll match," he laughed!
Amon growled and the mocker realized how thoroughly he was outnumbered. "Hmph, this hole is getting a little stuffy for my liking. Here, take your stupid candle, it's only dirtying up my nails anyway." He made sure to kick dirt onto my pants as he pushed past.
"Who are you, anyway?"
"Moi? Just an artist and lover of water. I'd say it's been nice meeting you, but we both know you're not as stupid as you look. Ugh, I'm going to have to take an extra long bath to scrub your icky, icky face from my memory. Ta~!"
He even managed to sweep his cape at just the right speed to snuff out my torch. Great, just great.
The heat from a few shrine candles was the largest fire we could afford in an enclosed cave. I stripped off my wet clothes and huddled against the stone wall, cold and miserable from my encounter with that puffed-up bully. Well, most murders occur between friends or family, right? Bet they couldn't stand him back on Earth either.
Robin was plenty distressed too. Neck-boy had managed to slash the tiny zubat exactly where its left eye would grow. If it survived to evolution there'd be nothing but a scarred-up hollow on that half of its face. Robin did her best to hold the little bat to her chest and press a cloth over its wound, but the little bug was too panicked and hyped-up on adrenaline to sit still for her. It broke out of Robin's clumsy grasp and flew drunkenly into the cave tunnels.
"Just leave her," I told Robin. "You did your best."
Evidently, Robin disagreed. With a scowl on her face she jumped to her feet, lit a fresh fireball in her palm and stomped after the wayward bat. "Oh, come on!" Amon was watching the cave entrance so I popped Megumi out of her capsule and sent her after the combusken.
We quickly caught up. I couldn't tell how far Robin had run, but the path she'd taken definitely had a downward slant to it. How deep underground had we ventured? Up ahead, Robin stood still as a sentinel, and at the edge of our combined torch light we could see the wounded zubat, now flopping on the ground, and at the end of its strength. Was Robin enjoying the creature's misery? "Fine," I conceded. "I'll go get it," but Robin threw up her arm to block my path.
She wasn't watching the zubat - she was engaged in a stare-down with the beast just beyond our light. Now I saw it too - a pair of fluorescent eyes that glimmered like diamonds. The creature stood about a foot off the ground but otherwise melted seamlessly into the shadows, its eyes its only tell. Well, that and the hoarse, labored breathing issuing from its maw.
The creature grew bold, reaching an appendage - something odd hybrid of feather and claw - to seize its zubat prey. "Corr!" The fire in Robin's palm blossomed into a miniature sun; the shadow creature hissed and flinched from the light. It was some hideous, hunchbacked gremlin covered in purple slime. A sableye monster? But those diamond-eyed goblins were just urban legends, hoaxes! Sneasels photographed with the camera flash illuminating their eyes. There was no such thing as ghosts!
Then again, this was the homeland for "No Such Things". The fire stung the sableye but it wouldn't back down without a fight, cradling the zubat to its chest and hissing its pointed beak at the fire chick.
"Aou?" Megumi pushed ahead of us, keeping her body low and non-threatening. "Aou?" she yipped at the gremlin. What, was she trying to make friends with the monster? "Robin, burn it before it gets any closer." My combusken only raised her eyes in shock, and pointed a talon towards the slimy cave-beast, demanding that I look closer. Well, so long as it isn't coming near us...
I inched my torch closer, revealing the gremlin's avian features - its beak, pointed for snatching fish; its tail feathers and webbed flipper-feet. Even ribbony bird wings were present, though twisted into something more like human arms, with elbows and wrists and long primary feathers moving as individual fingers. It stood like an old, crippled meinshao with wrists folded up against its chest but it was clearly a seabird. A wingull dunked into a black tar bath.
It couldn't be. "Trisha?"
Linda's zigzagoon yapped at the sable-gull as though they were old friends. Remember? Megumi yipped, and pantomimed scratching burs from her neck. Petalburg Woods? The tarred wingull eased her fighting stance and turned to the spectacled combusken. A single 'caw' gurgled out of her throat, and she raised a wing above her head. You've grown. Robin nodded back.
Megumi knew, Robin knew, and what more proof did I need than the zubat cradled against the gremlin's chest, quiet and trusting as a babe in its mother's arms. The sable-gull drew a claw over the bat's face, smearing down a purple slime that hardened over the wounded eye. She offered the zubat back to Robin, bandaged and sedate. Then she turned to me.
"You died," I whispered. Hooked in like a fish and gobbled down whole. Yet here she stood, a little slimy and with funny glowing eyes but it was motherly Trisha all the same!
"Trisha, you're alive!" I grabbed her by the shoulders, intending to pick her up and joyfully spin her around. What a mistake. Her new body stretched like taffy - everything from the shoulders up lifted with me, while the rest kept rooted to the ground. I yelped and lost my grip. Trisha splattered against the ground as a bird-shaped smear of ooze. By the Light of Arceus, "I - I didn't mean to!" I had to help her up. Help her up before the eagle talons came for me twice as hard. I grabbed her wrist, but her arm only stretched like melted cheese.
That purple slime didn't just cover her body, it was her body. My wingull was a wax mannequin with a toothpick skeleton; if I breathed on her the wrong way she'd collapse into mush! I couldn't help, only wait as this freakish sable-gull tightened the cords holding together her ectoplasmic body and forced herself to resume a three-dimensional shape. The amazing rubber-bird. Appearing randomly in the wilderness after a mortal blow. This wasn't the legendary sableye, this was my reflection.
"You're dead. Dead like me," and whatever soul this pokemon possessed had assembled itself into this freakish imitation of life. A ghost.
Robin and Megumi stared at me, awaiting orders. "She's alive," I panted at them. "Don't just stand there - we're going back up! It's too damp down here, maybe she'll hold up better where it's dry. Go on!" I had to save her. If I made everything all right I'd make the pain go away.
Robin led the way. I hung behind, going side by side with Trisha like a good trainer would. "Come on, just a little further. That's it." Her every step was a Herculean labor. The tar of her flippers stuck to the ground; to walk, Trisha had to peel herself off the granite and quickly lunge forward before her leg could drip back to the floor. Now I understood why she kept her wing-arms tucked against her torso - if they weren't fastened to the slime of her chest they'd flop to the ground like runny ice cream and she'd have to scrape another set of appendages off the rocks.
I knelt and showed her pokeball. "Maybe this would be easier," I suggested.
Trisha dropped her head against my leg - her cheek flattening against my pants - and gave a weak nod. Thank you, she seemed to wheeze. Tired. So tired...
Those invisible eagle talons had eased off my head. Not that it mattered. Trisha's pokeball hung from my belt like an iron weight, my new burden to bear.
15th August 2012, 8:16 PM
Chapter VII - Dude, Where's My Capitalism?
I'd been psyching myself for all of the oddities awaiting me on Dewford Island, but a marijuana grow-op?
The rain had let up and while the clouds still threatened to burst with a second volley, for now it was dry enough to scrabble up the rocky shoreline in search of settlements. I'd been wondering if the island was nothing but miserable gray rocks when I found myself up to my shoulders in a crop of skunky-smelling plants waving their thin and finger-like leaves in the breeze. Welcome to cannabis country! The fact that I could tell that the plants were pot probably said something about my past life. I was probably really, really into botany.
Robin, Amon and I had to run for our lives at that point. The plantation was patrolled by very angry little meditite monkeys, but they backed off once they saw we were scared and running. Business, nothing personal. For all of Norman's doom and gloom, I figured these Dewford islanders were pretty chill if they bothered to grow so many recreational crops. Their town was probably some tropical resort along a palm-shaded beach. Sure, they were being controlled by a despotic leader but one bad apple couldn't spoil the whole bunch.
Beyond the plantation stood a tall, roadside billboard. The mural depicted a blue-haired surfer dude balancing at the head of a family-sized surfboard. Lined up behind him were a doctor, a teacher, a farmer and three school kids of various skin colours. Everyone was dressed in their occupational uniforms and mimicking their leader's cheesy smile and spread-armed surfing pose. The caption read, "Dewford: Riding a Wave of Prosperity!"
So I was rather stunned to discover the real-life Dewford Town was kind of a dump.
Buildings? Well, there were little huts slapped together from molding, white clay. Infrastructure? I think the more accurate term for the driftwood shacks was 'hovels'. The whole town looked as though a titan had scooped it out of the ocean, dumped it into his jumbo-sized kitchen blender and hit 'puree'. There was nothing here but ruins. As for the residents, I did find plenty of islanders relaxing in the sand but that was because they were too weak to pick themselves up off the street corners. Remember when I pondered the effects of starvation on your self-regenerating body? Well one look at Dewford's citizens told me that hunger wouldn't end you, but your imagined body would suffer from food depravation all the same. The people here were nothing but famished ribs and hollowed eyes.
I opened my radio channel back to Petalburg. "Norman, help me out here. I'm in Dewford Town but this place is completely run down! What happened here?"
"The handiwork of Leader Brawly," crackled my answer. "Dewford's Leader has an interesting way of running things. He doesn't believe in private property. On Dewford Island everything belongs to the state, which gives everyone gets an equal share of everything. The man's like a druddigon sitting on a mountain of treasure. Food, fuel, tools - he hoards it all in his warehouses and rations it out in scraps to those who have meal cards. No one is allowed to have more than anyone else."
"I'm beginning to see why you 'tolerate' Leader White," I muttered.
"Listen Virgil, this is important: if you pick a fight with Brawly -" but I had to switch off my pokenav. One of the stronger residents, a wispy-haired old man who hung off a gnarled walking staff, was making a bee-line for me, staring hungrily with eyes lit up like coals.
"An outsider," he rasped. I tried to back away but the old prune had latched a hand over my shoulder, and hunger and desperation gave him a grip like an iron vice. Amon and Robin growled at his advance. "Nice doggy," he fussed. "No need to growl; I won't hurt your master. But you will get hurt if the Leader's spies find you carrying so many personal possessions," he added. Right, my backpack. The people here had been eyeing me like I was an ice-cream vendor outside the gates of a fat camp. Not only was I loaded with goodies from Linda, but the Rustburo monks had generously topped off my supplies. I had a long journey ahead of me and don't think I was too keen on sharing.
"The name's Zebedee," prattled the old man. "You've come from across the waters, yes? Here, let me show you to Dewford Hall. You can rest there, yes." I didn't have much choice in the matter. The geezer dragged me across town to a larger, semi-decent looking warehouse, which I guess was their community center. Inside, several adults were chatting around a table while their children played with rag-doll surfer dudes. When we entered everyone froze but the silence was only a momentary hiccup - the grown-ups resumed their chat and the children scooted away to the far corner. A bald muscle-man sitting on a storage crate glared daggers at me.
"We don't get many newcomers," Zebedee offered. "They're really all quite nice." I had my doubts, though. I think everyone was calculating how much of their collective food would be diverted to the newcomer's stomach. The only nice-looking parts of this town were the inspirational posters glued over the walls: Dewford: Less is More! Dewford: We Have Nothing to Envy! and Dewford: Real Men Eat Only Two Meals a Day!
Zebedee started asking me questions. "Do you work a skilled trade? It's fine if you don't - we'll find a role for you, newcomer. Here in Dewford, everyone works for the good of the community. Famers send their crops to the Leader, weavers send their clothes, and bakers their bread. Then our Dear Leader, Arceus bless him, decides how these spoils will be distributed amongst the people. This week he's given us butter with our bread!"
In what messed-up world was a slice of lard a cause for celebration? "Well what if I want jam with my bread? Don't you have stores where you can buy extra food, or clothes?" I didn't realize it but my mouth had just soiled the air with blasphemy. The children all gasped; a mother ran to cover her girl's ears. Zebedee pulled me close.
"Everything we have is given to us by our Dear Leader. Trading goods for personal profit is a crime against the state!"
"Well that sucks."
The fire in Zebedee's eyes smouldered. "We have a place for heretics such as yourself," he snarled, and dragged me towards the muscle-man and his crate.
"Good day to you, Brother Zebedee," the bodybuilder growled. "Have you been keeping up with the latest trends?"
"Indeed I have, Brother Samson, and these days there's nothing trendier than Adamant Emerald."
The muscle-man nodded solemnly and rose to his feet, lifting the hollow crate from over a secret staircase. "Perhaps you should acquaint the outsider with our latest trend."
Indeed he would. Zebedee used his walking stick to prod me and my pokemon down the stairs. Yeesh, ten minutes in town and I was already a pariah. How did I keep doing this? I was bracing myself for a cavern of spiky torture equipment or underground prison cells but a hall of shopping kiosks?
Okay, seriously, what was with the unexpected reversals on this island?
"Welcome to the lifeblood of Dewford," Zebedee grinned, now amiable and ready for business. We were in an underground marketplace; no, more like an auction house or a stock exchange with dozens of sellers hollering prices for old vegetables or hand-stitched tunics hidden from the Leader's warehouses. Buyers swapped goods and stuffed them into their robes or anonymous burlap sacks. Once they all spotted Linda's fine tailoring and the mountain of a backpack I carried I was the star of the show!
"Friend, I have oddish leaves for sale! Super-effective against any ailment!"
"Friend, trade me your shirt for these magikarp livers - they're small but a delicacy!"
"Friend, that combusken will only be a burden on your travels! Trade me her for this marvelous bidoof!"
The people here were mad for goods; even Amon's barking did little to keep them at bay. "I thought you guys didn't believe in private property," I shouted.
"A curse on Leader Brawly!"
"Yeah, he's run this town into the ground!"
"What the Surf Boy doesn't know won't hurt him, eh? Besides, he'll never find this place!"
Then the ceiling rattled from an above-ground impact and the muscle-man Samson came rolling down the stairs in a heap. The merchants and hagglers went silent as the assailant plodded into their secret market. It was the spiky-haired surfer dude from the town billboard, looking noticeably less friendly in person. Angry veins throbbed over his forehead like barely-contained monsters, and his teeth ground together so tightly they threatened to snap through his jaw. Like the cigarette butt dangling from his lips, Leader Brawly smoldered with an internal fire.
A second man scampered down after the Leader. "There they are, Dear Leader, just like I told you! They've even brought an outside salesman!" The merchants swore at the turncoat but Brawly silenced the mob with a glare. He dismissed his informant with a loaf of bread, took a final puff of his cannabis cigarette and addressed the crowd.
"So what've we got here, huh? A bunch of money-hungry swinubs rolling in the filth of private enterprise? Stockpiling the wealth we've worked so hard to distribute? Taking advantage of your brother's hunger to cheat him of his day's bread?" Leader Brawly took a long and soothing drag from his joint. "Dude, that is so not cool."
The beach bum started pontificating. "You guys, like, need to mellow out! Embrace the richness that is simplicity! How many times have I got to say it - these 'possessions' you guys love so much? Well they're possessing you! All you people think about is 'stuff, stuff 'n more stuff'! They're spiritual ball-n-chains, man, and they are holding you all back from soaring free like the braviaries!"
Brawly stopped in front of a trembling young woman loaded with bread. "M-my children ..." Brawly shushed her and laid his hand on her head. "Relax," he smirked, soothing as a cool breeze. "I came to this island with a simple message: love your bro, and break bread evenly. That's not hard, is it?" The woman shook her head 'no'.
Brawly smiled, then sucker-punched her face. "So how come you people keep screwin' up, huh? What's it gonna take to ram my gospel down your money-hungry throats?" That cool breeze had whipped into an angry tempest. Brawly's gaze raked over the merchants, daring them to fight back and stoke his rage. The crowd only trembled and averted their eyes. It fell to Zebedee to speak for the people.
"Leader Brawly, you ask us to put our trust in the state, but we can't live on so little!"
"Whoa, whoa - chillax, bro. I explained it all before: we're on a five year plan. Y'see, we spend five years growin' and stockin' up on goods; then we spend five years sellin' the surplus t'the other provinces. We grow the green, we rake in the green."
Another voice grew bold. "But what have we got to sell? You've burned down all our crops and made us farm your worthless smoke weed!"
Brawly snorted and took another toke. "Dude, Mary Jane is a lady of many talents. We can make like, cooking oil, rope, fabric..."
"Those are made from hemp, you ignorant bottom-feeder, hemp! Marijuana is an inferior strain that's only good for sending up in flame!"
Brawly was silent a long while, probably scrambling through his mental filing cabinets to hunt down a non-existent counter-argument. "Yeah, well, y'know that's just like, your opinion, man."
"It's a scientific fact!"
"Yeah, well so's your mom."
Zebedee was at his breaking point. "That doesn't even make any sense!"
"Enough!" The irritation in Brawly's bloodshot eyes had come to a full boil. "Don't think you can distract me with your capitalist mumbo-jumbo, man, 'casue the Brawlster is not for sale. Now, I've asked you dudes nicely to shut down these corporate money farms but you keep going soft. So maybe it's time I gave you all another lesson."
Brawly shut his eyes and closed a fist over his heart. A prayer? That was his trump card? Well it sure unnerved the islanders - everyone was suddenly screaming and trampling over each other to reach the stairs. Maybe these people truly did deserve to starve if they couldn't realize this was the perfect opportunity to dog-pile the stoner! I had half a mind to sic Amon on him when I noticed the blue halo emanating beneath Brawly's fist. No it's not possible. I'd seen that glow before when a certain Oracle had powered up her world-shifting magic. This angry beach bum was another omnipotent, human-shaped 'thing' like Roxanne!
Leader Brawly could sense he still had an audience. "Anyone who doesn't wanna hang ten better get out of the pool, cause it's about to get wet."
I sprinted up the stairs. Zebedee was clanging an emergency bell and evacuating people to the outskirts of town, where the islanders fought each other to claim a perch on rooftops or tall boulders. The sea had boiled into a tempest and a supernaturally-tall tidal wave was surging towards the shore, more than enough to wipe Dewford out of existence. Is he really that crazy? But as the sheet of water neared the island the torrent concentrated itself into a single spout that powered forward like an angry gyrados. The water snake crashed into the shoreline and threw itself at Dewford Hall, annihilating the underground market in a watery explosion.
Droplets from the blast sprinkled the crowd, waking us from our collective stupor. People started wailing - merchants yelled at Brawly's loyalists; bystanders cursed the marketplace resistance and children howled in confusion. If not for his crooked staff, old Zebedee would have collapsed in despair. "This is the way of life in Dewford, outsider. Whatever we build up for ourselves is swallowed by the wrath of the waves." I looked upon the driftwood hovels of Dewford, homes constructed from the flotsam of Brawly's destructive lessons, and Norman's age-old warning surfaced in my mind. These leaders, they look human, but they ain't natural...
A commotion rose over the crowd. Leader Brawly was marching towards us, soaking wet but unscathed. If anything, he seemed re-invigorated by his little shower. "Let this serve as a reminder to you dudes: greed is not good!"
This was the end. My laughable little quest to 'conquer the seven sins' was finished. How could I possibly stand against a demigod who commanded the elements? It was time to sneak away and throw in the towel; settle into a quiet eternity of farming dirt back in Littleroot. While I deliberated on how to spend the rest of my afterlife, Robin was tracking Brawly with her raptor eyes, and when the beach messiah turned his back to address another part of the crowd, my combusken launched a flying kick at the leader's spine.
But Brawly's surfer-senses were tingling. He caught Robin's ankle at the last second and threw her into the ground. "I guess someone here didn't get the memo. You don't mess with the Brawlster!" Amon pounced in for a revenge shot but Brawly just booted the wolf away. "Whose pokemon are these?" The islanders pushed me forward like a sacrificial offering. Now that they couldn't buy my goods, what use was I? Brawly lit a fresh joint and grinned. It had probably been ages since anyone had challenged him directly; I think he was looking forward to this. "You lookin' fer a fight, new kid?"
"No sir! I never saw those pokemon before, sir! I'm not here for any trouble; in fact I was just about to leave!"
"Nobody leaves Dewford," Brawly snarled. "You think you're better than us, huh? Am I gonna have t'knock some humility inta ya? With my fists?" When the crowd failed to chuckle, Brawly sucked his joint dry, whistled and called for his pokemon. "Boxer!"
"Mah!" Somewhere inside the town a door was kicked down. Something terrible had been summoned and its every footstep rattled the pebbly ground beneath our feet. The islanders backed far away from our impromptu fighting arena. I was bracing myself for a mutated abomination to rival Roxanne's tar-statue when a doughy, yellow pokemon with chubby red cheeks and rabbit ears thudded over to Brawly's side. "Dude," I exclaimed, "your Pikachu got fat."
Brawly twisted his face sideways. "Are you high, bro? He's a Makuhita! Oh whatever. Here's how it works, new kid: you wanna fight? That's cool. Boxer flattens your pokemon into the ground, while I use your guts to wax my board. A'ight?"
Let it be known that I was not a stickler for rules. "Winry, Beatrice, Dolce!" Three pokeballs exploded in mid-air and three winged pokemon took to the skies. My beautifly, taillow and newly-claimed zubat all knew their roles, flying over the short-stack makuhita and dive-bombing Brawly's head. The stoner swatted at my flyers but they were all too fast and too agile, spinning around him like a super-sized swarm of gnats.
"Git outta my face! Aw, you are so dead now! Boxer, get that kid!" But with Amon and Robin moving to intercept I could afford a quick time-out to consult my pokenav. "Norman, I kinda got into a fight with Brawly. What were you trying to say before? How do I beat his pokemon?"
The ranger spat out an outraged "What? Virgil, I was saying 'if you pick a fight with Brawly, you're going to lose!' I've seen his makuhita tear a gyrados in half with its bare hands! There's no pokemon alive that can beat Brawly's Boxer!"
Amon and Robin tried double-teaming the doughy sumo wrestler anyway. It looked simple enough to take down - two trained fighters against the fat kid - until the makuhita took a deep breath and flexed. Pecs, abs, biceps, triceps - his body grew hard with muscles to rival a seasoned machamp and his frame puffed up to an incredible bulk! Boxer let their tackles and kicks slam into his rock-solid frame, and then Boxer smashed. Amon and Robin went down in one shot and Boxer started marching towards his next opponent. Me.
By the glowing halos of Arceus, I need a meat shield! I tossed out what I thought was Megumi's pokeball but instead the red sphere puked Trisha over the ground.
Boxer stopped. A mumble rippled over the crowd. Even Brawly's three-on-one fight with my flight crew paused as they all digested this hideous purple slime pulling itself into a humanoid shape. "Who cares what it is," Brawly shouted. "Just smash it!"
Boxer flexed a muscle-bound fist and did just so, bursting Trisha like a water balloon. Not again. I guess the afterlife was a fickle thing for pokemon. Oh, I could feel those eagle talons resuming their grip around my head! The makuhita dusted off his paws and continued his march.
Then he stopped. Did a double take at the purple gum stuck to his foot. The elastic tendril lead back to Trisha's liquefied corpse, even now forcing an arm and snarling head to resurface. Fingers formed around Boxer's ankle and yanked. You don't touch my baby.
Her survival surprised the pudgy wrestler, but ah well - everyone had their 'off' punches. Boxer smashed her again, splattering Trisha's brains over the rocks. Except now he had goo stuck to his fist, and the sable-gull was pulling herself together twice as fast. Boxer delivered a karate chop, splitting her head in half, but that just got his remaining hand wedged into the honey pot of Trisha's chest. He was stuck!
Brawly had picked up a stick and gained the upper hand by swinging it at my flyers. "Work harder, Boxer!" he yelled. "Bulk it up!"
Of course - if an enemy couldn't be defeated by regular smashing, then it just had to be smashed harder! Boxer pumped up his muscles and started pounding at Trisha's core. "Mah!" he roared, pulverizing the helpless sable-gull until she was flatter than a slab of ground meat. The makuhita paused to inspect his work and to catch his breath. A feathery hand bubbled up and slapped his belly.
Oh no you didn't! The makuhita dialed his muscles up to turbo mode, swinging his fists like a concert timpanist delivering his big drum solo. And whenever he grew tired and needed another breather, Trisha formed a cheeky little hand and slapped him across the face, or pulled his ears, or pinched his nipples. Brawly's pokemon kept ratcheting up his anger and his violence - flexing, gritting and straining his muscles until I was sure he'd gone constipated - but this puny little slime thing kept coming back for more!
Enough! The makuhita brought out his last resort, charging Trisha with locomotive speed to deliver a full-force skull bash! And just when he was about to make contact Trisha went limp. A very surprised makuhita flew over the puddle of ooze and into an equally surprised Brawly, and they didn't stop flying until they smashed through one, two and three driftwood houses.
My pokemon gathered around me and we watched the smoldering wreckage. Nothing, not a sign of life. I turned to the assembled crowd to receive their applause. "I did it," I panted. "I beat Brawly!" So why did the islanders look at me like was the scum of the earth?
"The wrath of the waves," Zebedee scowled. "You've damned us all, outsider."
Oh, right, that whole 'psychic mastery over water' thing. Right on cue Brawly burst from his rubble tomb, scarred, shirtless and seriously harshed out of his mellow mood. He thundered towards us with murder on his mind, and just as horrifying as his expression was the killing blow on chest - the flesh below his rib cage had been compacted into his spine, black from internal bleeding and glittering with fragments of aluminum. Wait, I thought Roxanne's people didn't carry scars...
The Dear Leader's sanity had snapped. "Okay bro - No more Mister Nice Brawly. You've just earned yourself a tsunami's worth of whoop-***! And 'cause this is Dewford," he grinned, "everybody gets an equal share."
Now the crowd was in a true panic. This was the end - the Leader was going to drag them all into the ocean! Loved ones gripped each other and shut their eyes as Brawly clenched the flesh over his heart...
And looked completely lost. He patted his chest, rifled into his pant pockets and searched his neck for a non-existent necklace. "The badge," he panicked. "Where'd it go? Where'd it -" The crash site. Brawly sprinted for the makuhita-containing mound of rubble but Winry got there first, diving at the mess of wood planks and winging back to my shoulder with a necklace pendant in her talons.
"My badge!" Brawly roared. "You give that back you stupid bird or I'll ... I'll..."
"Or you'll do what?" Zebedee snapped. Brawly turned and found himself surrounded by his islanders. They were cold and bruised and starved down to their bones but they all rose with a new strength. This monster had promised their destruction and failed to kill them all. No one understood the mechanics of the change but they all stood united by a powerful truth: the jig was up. Their omnipotent Leader had no more power.
Brawly raised his trembling fists. "Stay back," he warned, but the islanders had thrown off their fear. The mob tackled him and forced Brawly to his knees, holding him down until reinforcements could arrive with strong rope. Brawly roared and raged to the bitter end. "You can't do this! I fed you people, I protected you!"
"And now we'll feed and protect ourselves," Zebedee snapped. "People of Dewford, we are free!"
Their triumphant cheer was intercepted by a lone Clap. Clap. Clap. All eyes turned to the one-man audience lounging on a rooftop, a smarmy little prima-donna with a fancy cape, snooty beret and a slashed throat. Neck-boy.
"Bra-vo~" he sang, pausing to munch from a bag of peanuts. "No, really - that was magnificent. I loved the part where you were all about to celebrate your pitiful little uprising like it actually meant something. Hooray and all. I can't wait until Act Two where the Emperor's soldiers come to grind your faces back down into the mud."
The way the people gasped and screamed, you'd think a platoon of golden-plated soldiers had already arrived. "What, you're all afraid of this poofball?"
"Shut your mouth," Zebedee hissed. "Don't you realize who you're talking to? That's Wallace, the Emperor's Right-Hand Man!"
"And the handsomest corpse in this yard of bones," Neck-boy added, fluffing his hair. "Now then..." Wallace pounced off his rooftop, frightening away those closest as he stalked through the crowds.
"You ought to know I had to depart the capital on account of you wretches! You're late with your tribute, again! Give them some incentive to stay on schedule, the Emperor says. So I sail here to your damp and drafty and miserable little chunk of rock, and every minute I'm away from my manicurist my mind stews up all sorts of lovely little 'games' we can play that will make your existences as wretched as you've made mine!" Wallace had caught up with a group of children, and he pulled the youngest boy up by his hair, forcing their eyes to meet. "And then I find you all celebrating open rebellion against our glorious Emperor..."
And Wallace broke out into his patrat titter, giving the little ragamuffin a playful tug of the cheek. "And I must say this delightful little display of fisticuffs has brightened my disposition considerably. I mean, the audacity of you little mud-hut dwellers - it makes me laugh!" He threw his head back to cackle and the scar around his neck bobbed along in a smile.
Brawly sensed this was his final chance. "Wallace, be a bro an' help me out here!"
"Sorry, Brawly-boy, but the people have spoken and they've found you lacking. Viva la revolution~!"
Wallace shooed away the children and plodded over to me, eyeing the necklace Winry still held. "My, my, you're a hungry young go-getter. Only just arrived and you're already climbing the food chain hmm? I'm marginally impressed; I mean we haven't had a Leader deposed since ... well, ever!" He grabbed me by the collar and put his knife to my eye. "One week. You get one week to settle in, whip these miscreants into shape and then I come back for our Emperor's tribute. Don't disappoint me, Leader Virgil."
Wallace whipped his cape around him and pranced out of town with his nose high in the air. "One week!"
Once they were certain he was gone, the islanders turned their gaze on me. They were terrified, staring with the same hopelessness as when Brawly had raided their underground market. They'd just traded a familiar tyrant for a new evil, and this one came armed with six hideous pokemon instead of one. But how could I be the new leader, I wasn't a ... 'whatever' like Roxanne or Brawly. Did succession have something to do with the necklace Winry had plucked? I took the gold chain from her talons, staring at the dangling medallion. The badge, Brawly had called it. A blue fist clenched in an unspeakable wrath.
I cupped the badge in my hand and the world went black.
When I woke it was evening and Dewford burned with celebratory bonfires. The islanders had decided to make the most of their fleeting freedom, putting torches to Brawly's cannabis plants and rounding up the meditite guards into cages. They'd left me alone in the gravel, unwilling to challenge my pokemon sentinels or the Oracle's green-robed monk. "Barclay?" I muttered.
"I came as soon as I could," he protested. "Of course, between the storm up above and the mountainous waves, my swiftness was somewhat abated. When I saw the fires I thought you'd been lost!" Mish-Mush woom-woomed in tearful agreement.
"Brawly lost," I coughed. Ooh, all that smoke from the fields was making me light-headed. I showed Barclay my badge. "I'm the new Leader of Dewford."
I looked over my assembled pokemon. "For a girl with no eyes you fly pretty well," I told Dolce. The wounded zubat hugged my chest and started licking at my shirt. Okay, a little over-affectionate there. "And Trisha, wow that was nice! Hey, where is she, anyway?"
Robin gestured to the puddle of sludge at the periphery of our group. I tried giving her a congratulatory pat on the ... 'head'. The purple slime only flinched at my touch and spread itself thinner. She felt every blow, I realized, but she kept going no matter how many times that thing ripped her apart. "I uh ... guess you'd better get some rest," I muttered sheepishly. I had something important to do anyway.
The Dewford supply warehouses stood dark and empty, looted by the islander revolutionaries moments after my fainting spell. Now the metal buildings had been converted into garbage receptacles for unwanted trash. Brawly was tethered to a pillar by thick ropes, while metal chains pinned down Boxer. The makuhita had long since given up but I found Brawly struggling and straining against his straps like a wild beast. No one had offered him a replacement shirt and the fibreglass embedded in his crushed abdomen glittered against Barclay's torch.
I took a seat across from the ex-Leader and held up my new trinket. "You wanna tell me how this badge works, bro?"
The stoner spat in my face. "I'm not your bro, you capitalist pignite! Just you wait, I'm gonna bust outta here and mess your face up so bad you'll wish you never had a face!" He rambled on with his meaningless threats but I wasn't afraid of him, and I knew how to work a hungry dog. Brawly shut up the instant I brought out a pilfered tin of hash and some tobacco paper. My fingers knew exactly how to roll the joints and I placed all six of them between us. "Compliments of the state," I smiled.
Brawly made a face. "Ugh, this is that irony thing Winona's always talking about, isn't it?"
I placed the first joint closer to Brawly. "How'd you get this job?"
"By bein' a believer in the revolution, man. I was there when the Emperor started grabbin' power. I fought with him; I was on the frontlines when he knocked down Slateport and Petalburg. The man promised me we'd be the change this world needed, and that he'd give me the power to strip down this money-hungry world 'n create a true brotherhood of man."
I translated. "You were the Emperor's goon. When he took over he gave you a plum position on a quiet island and that shiny badge to enforce your will." Good boy. I gave Brawly a second cigarette. "How does the badge work? How do I get it to make giant tidal waves?"
"The badge doesn't do anything, bro; it just lets you do everything." I'm sure that sounded pretty clever in his head. "It's like a ... a battery, man. You put it on and you can feel the power runnin' through ya. The ocean? It's like I'm wading through a kiddie pool and I can just kick up all the water I want."
"Yeah, well I think it's broken." I gave him a third joint for a good half-answer.
"Honest truth? I couldn't do nothin' with it for a long time. It's like surfin' the waves, man. First few times you're gonna do a major wipe out - you can't even stand up on your board. You gotta get into the rhythm, get used to the water and then it's natural as breathin'."
"And the other Leaders, they all have these badges too?"
"Pretty sure," he shrugged. "I kinda do my own thing here in Dewford. I can tell you I'm the only one who knows how to rock the surf. That 'wrath of the waves' thing? That's a patented Brawlster move."
So they each had their own special 'talent'. One last question. "What memories did it bring back for you?" Brawly squinted as through a fog, so I elaborated. "When I touched the badge, I blacked out. Then I saw things. A scene from my past life."
That got him snickering. "Dude, what have you been smokin'? There's nothin' 'before' or 'after' this world. Life is here 'n now; everythin' else is just Hoenn."
He doesn't know we're dead. Brawly's badge felt cold and lifeless in my palm but it had done something to restore a piece my mind. That flashback, it felt just as real as my nightmare of being tied down in the darkness, and if one badge could restore a single memory...
Satisfied, I gathered up all the joints and left Brawly to scream in the empty warehouse. I was done here. I knew their dirty little secret. Take away the badge and they're just ordinary men.
These Leaders were going to crumble before me.
11th September 2012, 5:46 PM
Future chapters for this story will be available at the following websites:
Nuzlocke Forums (http://s7.zetaboards.com/Nuzlocke_Forum/topic/8612401/1/)
PokeCommunity Forums (http://www.pokecommunity.com/showthread.php?t=268446)
I hope at least one of these communities will prove convenient for the readers here. If you have membership at these websites be sure to leave your comments and reviews!
Thanks for reading,
28th September 2012, 9:35 AM
Whoa love it!
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