The pair of Raticate traveled through the forest towards the Burned Tower, Alexis’ scent growing stronger by the minute. The growing number of ruined buildings that were now almost unrecognizable from their original function due to the amount of foliage covering them helped confirm that they were traveling in the right direction. “You’re insane,” Kochu said.
Stonewall grunted. “Everybody says that. Hell, you said that already.”
“Well maybe they’re on to something,” Kochu said, her voice barely concealing the strain she felt. “How can you nearly die once and still be so eager to face a creature that defeated your teammates like they were nothing?”
Stonewall couldn’t help but smirk. “Death hasn’t had the sack to take me yet, which is more than Entei can say.” The smirk dissolved into a much more businesslike expression. “Plus, I have a bargaining chip.”
Stonewall nodded. “He went through all this to get it, but if he wants it so bad why didn’t he just take it when he had the chance? Why all this song ‘n dance?”
Given the information presented, Kochu found herself coming to the same conclusion as Stonewall. “He’s scared of it.”
“Exactly. I play this right and it could all blow over without a fight. But if it doesn’t…”
Stonewall stopped. Kochu jumped back, expecting another ambush, but noticed that Stonewall was deep in thought. “What’s wrong?”
“Kochu, I need a favor.”
“I don’t care if you’re going to fight Entei, I’m still not going to have sex with you.”
“What? No!” Stonewall hadn’t seen that one coming. “Is that all you think I am: a crazy sex-freak?”
“Yes.” Nothing in Kochu’s posture or voice suggested that she was kidding.
“Well…okay...yeah…that’s not the point though!” Once Stonewall had regained his composure he spoke again. “If things go bad, take Alexis and get out of here. Do whatever it takes.”
Kochu worried about the “whatever it takes” part, but at this point she knew that her life was in danger no matter what she did. She decided to hedge. “Only if you tell me why you’re doing so much for a trainer you hate.”
Stonewall looked at her, genuinely baffled. “What?”
“You snuck away without her knowing, you said terrible things about her to me…why not just take this chance and run away? Why do you want to help such a terrible person?”
“Say that. One. More. Time.”
Kochu didn’t grasp the subtext. “I said she sounds like a terrible person—“
Kochu wasn’t sure what happened next. All she remembered was that Stonewall disappeared in a blur of motion, and that a moment later he had managed to lift and pin her against a tree trunk: it was no small feat for a Raticate to lift its own body weight in the air with its forelimbs.
“Stonewall, what are you doing?” The sudden feral look in his eyes made Kochu almost sure that Stonewall had truly gone insane.
“You’ve never had a trainer, so I’m being real nice and cutting you some slack,” he began, the menace slicing at Kochu like a knife. “She’s my trainer: I talk **** about her, doesn’t mean you can. If I ever, EVER, EVER hear you say something bad about her again, I will bite off your tail and shove it down your throat. Got it?”
Kochu didn’t have the presence of mind to do anything else but nod. She was rewarded by being roughly dropped back on the ground. She eventually gathered up the courage to speak again. “I’m sorry.”
Stonewall stared at her for a moment, and his expression gradually softened to what Kochu assumed was as close as apologetic as Stonewall got. “It’s fine, you didn’t know,” he replied. “Alexis and me, it’s… complicated.”
He shook his head as if it attempting to clear his thoughts. “We got bigger things to worry about right now. Let’s not keep the ******* waiting.”
“So, you came.”
Stonewall looked around the clearing: it was a dump even by the low standards of Raticate. He made a deliberate show of ignoring the legendary Pokemon, instead focusing on finding what he had come for. Kochu stood behind him, doing her best to make herself as inconspicuous as possible.
“Stonewall!” Alexis emerged from behind Entei, worry, gratitude and confusion crossing her face in equal measure. Trainer and Pokemon alike might have run to embrace one another had Entei’s posture not suggested that such an action might be hazardous to their health.
“Hey boss,” Stonewall replied.
“Stonewall, what did you do this time?” Alexis expression had changed to concerned and accusatory.
Stonewall blanched. “Why does everybody say that?”
“Because of your track record,” Alexis replied. “Remember that one time with the pool?”
“How was I supposed to know it was sacred?”
“And the time you stole food from the Rattata at that temple?”
“I didn’t know they were somebody’s reincarnated ancestors!”
“And the thing with the Espeon?”
“For the last time, I DIDN’T KNOW SHE WAS A MAN!”
Entei’s voice travelled through the air like a thunderclap, silencing both Pokemon and trainer’s argument as well as most of the forest’s inhabitants. He took turns glaring at Stonewall and Alexis in turn. “I did not bring you here to listen to you prattle like milkmaids!”
Alexis’ expression hardened, and she returned to the problem at hand. “Why did you attack us?” she asked. “What do you want with my Raticate? Why does a servant of Ho-Oh even care about my Raticate?”
“Your Raticate—“ Entei began.
“Hey, I have a name!” Stonewall protested.
“Your Raticate,” Entei said, ignoring him, “is unimportant. What he has stumbled upon, however, is of great interest to my master.”
“What, this thing?” Stonewall said, gesturing with one forelimb to the amulet hanging around his neck. “Does your boss have interests we don’t know about? Does he like to dress up and feel pretty?”
Entei was a patient creature by human standards: as an immortal, he viewed time as a resource that was nearly as unlimited as air and gave it roughly as much consideration. Even so, he was beginning to wonder if the mercy he had shown the Raticate had been a wasted, fruitless gesture. He decided to focus his attention on the Raticate’s trainer, as at least she seemed amenable to dialogue. “You have heard of my master’s pact with humanity, correct?”
Alexis nodded. “I’ve read about it, but I’ve never heard what the pact was actually about.”
Entei’s eyes looked beyond her to stare into the distance, as if he could see the past play out before his eyes. “My master has always dreamed of a world of peace, a world where man and Pokemon alike might live in harmony with one another. He found in the people of Johto those amenable to making this dream a reality, and in their pact they promised to work together to achieve peace and prosperity. For generations Johto was a land of harmony: in time, it might have spread to other lands, and ultimately perhaps the world.”
Entei’s voice had gotten more wistful as he had spoken, but it was soon replaced with a bitter edge. “Then the pillagers came with their armies, seeking my master’s power and wealth, destroying all in their path. The work of generations…undone in mere months by man’s pettiness and greed.”
Entei’s eyes bored into Alexis, and for the first time this evening she began to feel a glimmer of fear. “Look around you, human. This is your forebears’ legacy.”
Clap. Clap. Clap. Kochu began to back away from Stonewall as subtly as she could, having decided that the great beast’s temper and her companion’s apparent disdain made being near him a dangerous prospect for her health.
Entei turned towards Stonewall, his anger barely restrained behind an impassive look. “Does my story amuse you, vermin?”
Stonewall stopped clapping and met Entei’s gaze. “So your boss created his little utopian ant farm and the mean old humans broke it and knocked over his precious tower. Boo-hoo, how sad, let’s all have a good cry about it. What the Hell does it have to do with us?”
Entei stared at Stonewall, and then did something completely unexpected.
It was a strange laugh, and not only because Entei’s laughter sounded like a gurgling volcano: the beast clearly saw the absurdity in whatever it was he was laughing about, but no humor in it.
Stonewall wasn’t sure how to take this new development. “What’s so funny?”
“Humans? You think humans destroyed the tower?”
A cry went up amongst the soldiers as they saw the great avian form spread its wings and take flight, the mist surrounding it blown away like a pair of curtains covering an open window. It came towards them, gaining speed and altitude as it flew.
“Scatter!” the general shouted to his men. “Archers, prepare to fire!” The general had fought enough flying Pokemon in his lengthy career to know that soldiers grouped together were easy prey, and he had come too far to not treat the legendary Pokemon’s power with a healthy dose of respect. His men ran in all directions as fast as they could go, the spearmen taking what refuge they could find against the flat, tilled earth while the archers drew their arrows, keeping Ho-Oh within their sights.
Ho-Oh came faster, flames beginning to trail off its brilliant plumage. It gave an ear-piercing cry.
Arrows erupted from the scattered arches like an angry swarm, flying from the ground towards Ho-Oh with breathtaking speed. None found their mark: those that were in range found their aim foiled by a great stroke of the legendary Pokemon’s wings, the wind generated causing the arrows to fly far off target if they were not stopped completely.
Ho-Oh passed overhead as the general shouted at his men, trying to regain control of his scattered troops and exhorting his archers to ready another volley. He had lost no men in the first path, and this baffled him: Ho-Oh had plenty of opportunity to strafe them, so why did he refuse to attack? Was he running away?
The general had no time to consider this as he watched Ho-Oh glide into a turn, the legendary Pokemon readying itself for another pass. It came towards them, faster and higher than before and…
The general ordered his archers to hold fire as Ho-Oh flew above and past them a second time, well out of their range and apparently unconcerned with the humans below. The fires coming off the mighty Pokemon were now raging so hot that they could feel the heat from the ground, the flames leaving brilliant contrails in the sky.
The general was at a total loss. Ho-Oh had made two passes and had not attacked, yet was clearly preparing for a mighty strike. What else was there to attack?
The general’s eyes followed Ho-Oh as it flew towards the tower, now so covered in flames that it was impossible to tell that a giant avian was at the center of the conflagration.
The pieces came together in his mind, screaming at the top of their lungs.
“Men, to me! Forward, forw—“
The general’s orders were drowned out by Ho-Oh’s keening screech and the terrible roar of flame. A massive tendril of flame erupted from Ho-Oh’s flaming body, straight towards the tower itself.
The general and his men could only watch stupefied as the Brass Tower was engulfed in flames.
Alexis was stunned. “Impossible.”
Entei regarded her, and shook his head. “It is the truth. I cannot lie.”
“But, the legends—“
“Legends say many things,” Entei replied with barely restrained contempt. “Your species’ collective memory is…wanting.”
“But why would Ho-Oh destroy his own tower?” Alexis asked. “What was there to gain?”
Entei began to pace back and forth slowly, as if it helped him recall the facts from the depths of his lengthy memory. “Word of the pact spread, and soon many came to Ecruteak, bringing tribute and hoping to curry the favor of my master. Gold, jewels, a treasure trove that you can scarcely imagine…all was brought here, to this tower.” Entei looked up, looking at the great height of a building that now stood, at its best spots, barely up to his shoulders.
“A dragon’s hoard, huh?” Stonewall asked.
Entei paused for a moment, expecting a snarky retort from the Raticate. When he received none, he continued. “Yes, but even that wealth paled next to the greatest treasures of my master. Among the tribute were numerous artifacts, items of power from ages known to history and empires long forgotten, items that could turn man and Pokemon alike into gods unto themselves.”
Alexis was suddenly beginning to see how it all came together. “Then, when you said ‘your master’s power’, you meant…”
Entei nodded. “Correct. The invaders did not come seeking only conquest: the tower was the true prize. By the time the invaders stood at the outskirts of Ecruteak the pact had been destroyed beyond any hope of recovery: in the eyes of my master it was better to destroy an empty symbol than let them gain power beyond reckoning and further plunge the world into darkness.
“But despite my master’s efforts, some of those artifacts survived the destruction: some hidden before the destruction of the tower, some taken from among the ruins, others spreading across the earth in ways we still do not fully understand. I was tasked with hunting them down and empowered to ensure they did not fall into the wrong hands by any means necessary.”
“Then those legends of you as ‘Ho-Oh’s wrath’…” Alexis said, trailing off.
“Yes. Those men thought they could defy me, and therefore defy Ho-Oh. They died as all fools do.” Entei fixed his gaze on Stonewall. “You need not join them. Give the amulet to me, and I will let you and your trainer go.”
“Then what’s all this ****?” Stonewall asked. “You wanted the amulet, so you attack my trainer to get it? Why, to prove how big your balls are?”
Entei shook his head, and his mane mirrored his movements like ripples in a pool. “I have no interest in your life, as undeserving as you are of it. It was the most expedient solution available.”
“This I gotta hear.”
Entei said nothing, apparently debating how much about the amulet the Raticate should know. He soon decided what he was about to reveal carried little risk. “That amulet carries an enchantment: so long as its wearer lives, no one can remove it but the wearer himself. That leaves two ways of resolving this: the first is that you cooperate and give the amulet to me of your own free will.”
Stonewall arched an eyebrow. “And the second?”
“I take it from your corpse.”
“Can’t say I like either of those,” Stonewall replied.
Entei’s temper was simmering to the surface like a volcano about to rain destruction on those below. “I did not bring you here to ask you what you would like, I brought you here to demonstrate that you are not beyond my grasp: you have your life now only because I have not yet chosen to take it. Give the amulet to me: I will not ask you again.”
Stonewall spared a glance over Entei’s shoulder at Alexis: the look on her face told him that she was wondering about the same thing he was. “So assuming I do give this amulet to you, so what? How does this make the world a better place?” he asked. “Humans seem to do a pretty good job killing each other without it.”
“It will not,” Entei admitted. He took a hidden pleasure in the shocked silence that followed, mostly because Stonewall seemed too surprised by the response to have a pithy retort.
“My master and I…disagree on this matter,” Entei continued. “Perhaps this is the reason that I am not favored.”
“Disagree? Favor?” Stonewall asked. “What the Hell are you talking about?”
“My master believes that humanity should be protected,” Entei said, shaking his head in exasperation, “but why? They are no more worthy of consideration than any other creature beyond their sheer numbers, yet so long as they live true peace is impossible.”
“That’s not true!” Alexis protested.
“Is it?” Entei asked. He gave her an empty smile. “For all your supposed enlightment, you are no better than beasts. You fight, you crave power, you hate. Your conflicts engulf the world and ensure that it shares in your suffering. Why should we struggle to protect you? If anything, we should stand aside and let events follow their natural course.”
Alexis stared at him, scarcely believing what she was hearing. “Do you really believe that? Don’t you have any humanity?”
Entei scoffed. “Humanity? I was never human, girl. I see the truth untainted by nostalgia: alas, if only my master did.”
Clap. Clap. Clap. “Wow,” Stonewall said, “I thought I was a rat *******.”
Entei pretended to ignore him, but it was readily obvious that his patience was wearing thin. “In the end, it is not my place to decide, only to obey. You have been given your choices, vermin: I will have the amulet in the end no matter what.”
Alexis and Stonewall exchanged glances. Stonewall shot Entei an apprasing look.
“We’re not that different, I guess,” Stonewall began. “We both have bosses that we have to listen to, even if we don’t agree with ‘em. Sucks sometimes, but that’s life.”
Entei regarded him silently.
“Fortunately for me,” Stonewall continued, “looks like me and my boss are on the same page on this one.”
Stonewall spared another glance at Alexis. She nodded.
“We both think you’re full of ****.”
It was the dead of night, but as Entei’s anger began to rise the clearing became as hot as high noon in the middle of the summer. Stonewall puffed himself out in an attempt to mimic the intimidating gesture, but fell short. He pressed on, undaunted. “I was out minding my own business and happened to stumble upon a knick-knack your boss wasn’t smart enough to keep track of: hey, I might even have given it to you if you’d played nice, that’s the kind of rat I am. But no, you come along acting like a jackass, insult me to my face, attack my friends, attack my trainer…on a normal day that’d be more than enough to chew your face off so bad that you’d spend the rest of your life eating through your ***. But that’s not good enough for you, is it? “
The plants underneath Entei’s feet were rapidly turning to ash.
“I’m the one who has the amulet: I’m the one who has the scary power that can’t be in mortal hands. And you’re the one acting like you hold all the cards? Don’t make me laugh.”
Entei response came in a tide of flame.
Kochu squealed and dived for cover, desperate to avoid being drawn into the battle between Raticate and beast. The flames tore through the underbrush before burning themselves out a dozen yards away, turning everything they touched to cinders.
Entei observed his handiwork. Nothing but blackened, charred ground remained, and that was the problem. Where did the Raticate go?
He felt clods of dirt thrown against his lower abdomen moments before he felt a large pair of incisors grip him from underneath. The beast roared and began to thrash about, slamming his body against the ground in an effort to dislodge the Raticate that had attacked him by Digging from below. It was several long moments before Entei managed to slam Stonewall between his body and a nearby rock, momentarily stunning the Raticate and causing him to lose his grip, falling to the ground with a large chunk of Entei’s fur in his mouth.
“Stonewall, Quick Attack!” Alexis shouted. Her voice shook Stonewall out of his daze, and he summoned up an unnatural burst of speed, passing through Entei’s legs and under a Flamethrower that expended its fury against the spot he had been standing a mere instant before.
Stonewall gave a wicked smile as Entei turned to face him, the fire type clearly having underestimated his opponent. He decided to rub it in. “This all you got, chump?”
One of Entei’s sides was missing a large chunk of hair, but he was more surprised than hurt. The surprise had not mellowed his rage, however, and he released another massive but clumsy gout of flame that Stonewall was easily available to avoid. The Raticate dashed, getting inside the beast’s legs and managing a few quick bites before Entei’s kicks and short bursts of fire forced him away again.
Despite his taunting Stonewall had no illusions: he knew that the longer the fight took, the more serious Entei would begin to take him and the less likely that he would survive. The amulet was a wild card in his favor, however.
Too bad he wasn’t sure how it worked.
Entei’s mouth filled with flames as he prepared another attack. Stonewall dived to the right, but the flames suddenly disappeared as Entei slammed the ground with his front legs: the Flamethrower had been a feint. The ground responded to Entei’s summons, hurling several large rocks at an off-balance Stonewall. He barely twisted in time, evading most except for one: the rock that found purchase managed only to graze his side, but it was enough to knock him further off his footing and send him stumbling back several steps. Stonewall leapt to his feet just in time to avoid the Fire Spin Entei sent twisting his way, the fiery tornado slamming into an ancient remnant of wall and causing the aging masonry to collapse with a sigh.
Closer, he had to get closer. His electric and ice energy was still depleted from the fight with the Gastly hours before, leaving him no way to fight back at range. Stonewall summoned another burst of speed, rapidly closing the distance. Entei’s mouth opened again, full of flame…
Entei let out a startled yelp as a piece of masonry made contact with his head, shattering on impact. The fire died as he turned to see Alexis duck behind a nearby wall.
It had only been a momentary distraction, but it had been enough. Entei howled as he Stonewall bit hard into his rear left leg, fangs tearing at tendon and bone. Stonewall struggled to stay underneath Entei as he continued to dig into the leg, seemingly safe from Entei’s attacks and seeking to do as much damage as possible.
Entei’s body gave off a sickening gurgling sound, as if lava was about to erupt from his skin at any moment. Stonewall felt the beast’s body heat rise so dramatically and quickly that it burned his tongue, causing the Raticate to let go in surprise. Entei’s body gave another great shudder.
And then the world exploded into fire.
Alexis dived towards the strongest and farthest wall she could find, covering her head with her hands as wave upon wave of heat and flame flowed freely from Entei’s body, the Eruption slamming against the wall like a tidal wave against the shore and causing the wall to groan ominously. She could hear Stonewall’s inarticulate screams as he got the worst of it, followed by an even more terrifying silence.
She only summoned the courage to look from behind her cover when the heat fell as quickly as it had come. Much of the clearing now looked like the site of a meteor impact with Entei at the center, rear leg held slightly in the air and bleeding profusely. The sheer force of the attack had knocked Stonewall several feet away, and Alexis watched with mixed relief as a translucent sphere of energy around Stonewall sputtered and died, revealing a badly burned Raticate beneath: it had taken him several precious moments to summon the Protective sphere as the Eruption had washed over him, and even then the Protect had barely been able to absorb even part of Entei’s attack. He had been able to take out one of the beast’s legs in exchange, but to Alexis’ seasoned eye there was little doubt that her Pokemon had gotten the worst of it.
Entei turned to face Stonewall as the Raticate staggered to his feet.
“Come on,” the Raticate hissed through a burned mouth, “is that all you got?” Contrary to Entei’s expectations, the severe burns that now covered several parts of the Raticate’s body seemed to have done little to dampen the Raticate’s fighting spirit: indeed, his posture and glare suggested that he was even more bloodthirsty and eager to fight than before.
Stonewall began to circle Entei, taking advantage of the fact that the beast’s injured limbs limited how quickly the fire type could turn to face him. Entei watched him circle warily: he knew that the Raticate was seeking another easy way in, hoping to take out another leg until he had crippled the great beast. This had to end now.
Entei’s posture loosened, the beast dropping its guard. In normal circumstances, Stonewall would have taken this sudden development with a grain of salt, but these were hardly normal circumstances: Stonewall was fighting an injured immortal creature and wearing an item of power, and the sheer thrum of adrenaline running through every fiber of his being drowned out all rational thought.
Stonewall circled towards Entei’s uninjured side and charged, emboldened by the fact that Entei made no move to avoid him or even counterattack. His mind roared with triumph as he neared Entei’s flank, ready to sink his jaws deep inside…
A wave of psychic force slammed into Stonewall mid-jump. The Extrasensory caught Stonewall by surprise, and he yelped in pain as he did a cartwheel through the air, hitting the ground head first just inches from Entei’s body. Stonewall’s vision swam as he tried to fight through his haze, trying to regain his footing, trying to get back into the fight…
He felt a great weight press down upon him. He struggled to look up, and saw that Entei had pinned him to the ground with one thick leg.
“You have lost,” Entei stated, no longer bothering to conceal the rage that ran through his very blood. “Surrender.”
“**** you,” Stonewall spat. “Not giving up…not while I haven’t even used my trump card…”
Entei followed Stonewall’s gaze as he looked at the amulet hanging around his neck, the stone disk somehow not having been pinned underneath the Raticate’s body when he hit the ground. It had survived the Eruption without any damage, still gleaming as brightly as the day it had been carved. Stonewall grabbed it with his free forelimb, holding it out in front of him like one would present a cross to a vampire. He grunted in concentration, apparently trying to summon forth the amulet’s unknown power.
Much to Stonewall’s despair, it didn’t seem to be working.
Entei’s temper grew even hotter. “You threaten me with an artifact you do not even understand!? The powers of that amulet cannot be wielded by a Pokemon, you pathetic fool!”
“You lie!” Stonewall spat, not willing to accept that his “trump card” had been the one with the rules printed on it.
“You dare to call me a liar?” Entei roared, any thoughts of mercy driven far from its mind in its terrible rage. “Let me clear your misconception!”
Alexis began to yell at Entei, begging him to yield, but the Eruption forced her to take refuge behind the wall once again. Stonewall’s howls filled the night, helpless to do anything but endure the terrible fires washing over him.
Alexis felt a tugging on her robe. She hazarded a look and saw Kochu staring at her, her eyes pleading for the pair of them to escape.
“I’m not leaving him,” Alexis said. Kochu gave a squeak in protest as Alexis bolted to a standing position, full of worry for the fate of her Pokemon.
From what she could see, it was a grim one.
“Stonewall…no…” she whispered. Entei stood triumphantly over the Raticate’s body, though after the battle it was hard to tell that Stonewall had even been a Raticate: nearly all his hair had been burned away, and that flesh that was visible was an ugly sea of black and red burns. Tiny stubs remained where his ears had once been, most of the cartilage incinerated by the Eruption.
Stonewall twitched. Entei stared at the sudden movement, and jumped back in surprise when the body returned his stare with even greater hatred. The beast could do little but watch in fascinated horror as Stonewall began to claw his way across the battered earth towards him, wheezing painfully for every inch gained, unable to stand and dragging his body forward with only his forelimbs.
The great beast could hardly believe his eyes. It had been ages since he had been forced to expend himself this greatly against an opponent, and yet his foe—a Raticate, no less!—not only still lived, but was still refusing to give up the fight, even though his body lied shattered and broken. Despite himself, Entei wondered if it was somehow the amulet’s power at work, because the only other logical conclusion was even more fantastic and unbelievable: that such a creature could summon such tremendous endurance simply through sheer determination.
“Stonewall, are you okay!?”
Caught off guard by his advesary’s signs of life, Entei had been too surprised to do anything but watch as Alexis ran over to her Pokemon, interposing herself between Stonewall and Entei. She knelt down to him, wanting to hold him in her arms yet afraid that touching his burns might hurt him even more.
He looked at her with reddening eyes, the very act of blinking apparently causing him great pain. “Get outta…the way…” he gurgled, every syllable a great strain.
Tears were welling in Alexis’ eyes. “Stonewall…it’s over…please stop…”
The sight of his trainer beginning to cry seemed to finally sap the Raticate of his resolve. “So…over then, huh…” he managed to choke out, “Had a good run…”
“Please don’t say that,” Alexis protested, “I’ll take you to the Pokemon center, everything’s going to be okay…”
Stonewall gave a weak, hoarse laugh. “You always…shitty liar…” He pawed weakly at the rope securing the amulet to his neck. “Here…”
Alexis looked over her shoulder at Entei. The beast stared at them impassively, waiting for Stonewall to pass on so that he could finally complete his duty.
Alexis turned back to Stonewall. Her hand guided his paw as he pulled the string over his head. Entei could do little but look on in horror as Alexis slipped the amulet around her own neck.
Stonewall smiled as much as his burned face would allow. “Like…it?”
“Yes, it’s beautiful.” Alexis did her best to hold back a sob.
Stonewall’s forelimbs finally gave out, and he collapsed onto the ground. Alexis bowed her head, hunched over his body.
She did not react as Entei approached. “Give the amulet to me,” the great beast demanded, his anger not gone but merely banished beneath the surface.
Alexis leaned down, and whispered something into Stonewall’s ear that Entei could not hear. She stood up and faced him. Her robe was in tatters, her hair matted from sweat, and her face was covered in ash with only small tracks of clear skin running down from her eyes, but her stare was as defiant as her Pokemon’s had been in his final moments.
“Kill me, then,” she said. Long ago the pair had promised each other that they would rise together and that they would fall together. Alexis refused to abandon that promise.
“Enough of this!”
Neither Alexis’ voice nor posture conveyed even a hint of fear. “You think humans are all dirt anyway. Why should my life matter to you?”
“Are you so eager to die?” Entei was incredulous. “Are you truly so foolish—“
Entei stopped short and tilted his head, as if listening to a voice only he could hear. His eyes widened.
“Master? Here?” He looked to the sky, and Alexis followed him, suddenly shocked to alertness by the call of a giant bird shattering the quiet, a beautiful, sonorous cry that she had never heard.
And then Ho-Oh appeared above the clearing. The massive bird hovered briefly high above the clearing, as if looking for something. It soon gave a great cry and began to descend to earth slowly, each slow, deliberate flap of its wings shaking the trees all around it with powerful surges of wind.
Alexis was enraptured by the way the giant bird seemed to glow with its own inner light, yet at the same time she found herself terrified by the gigantic hooked beak nearly as long as she was tall and the giant Pokemon’s piercing, all-knowing stare. Even though she had accepted her coming death, she remained standing only because her knees had locked themselves rigid in fear.
Ho-Oh landed in the clearing gracefully, those few pieces of the Burned Tower that had survived the battle finally collapsing under either the wind of Ho-Oh’s wings or its great weight pressing down upon them. The bird’s gaze swiveled across a once verdant field that now resembled a desert wasteland, as if retracing the battle that had just occurred in its own mind.
Entei kneeled to Ho-Oh far as its injured leg would allow. “It has been so long, my master. I beg your apologies that our reunion has been tainted by the impudence of these mortals. Please permit me to deal with them and I shall—“
Ho-Oh’s head swiveled towards Entei with surprising speed, the great bird staring down its beak at its servant. There were no words—at least, none that could be heard through the mundane expediency of sound—but Entei shuddered and cowered, as if Ho-Oh had somehow struck him with a mighty blow.
It turned back to Alexis and said nothing, yet Alexis somehow felt compelled to speak for reasons that not even she understood. She swallowed, trying hard not to think about how Ho-Oh could easily snuff out her own life, if she even merited that much personal attention.
She lifted the amulet to Ho-Oh, holding it in the palm of her hand. “This is what you came for. You want this, right?”
Ho-Oh was silent, but Alexis somehow got the feeling that she was both right and wrong.
Ho-Oh careened its neck slightly to look behind her, and as she looked back with it she realized that it was looking at Stonewall. She could barely make out the movement of her Raticate’s unconscious body rising and falling as Stonewall struggled against death itself, but his breathing was ragged and uneven. “They were going to destroy him, you know,” she explained. “The guy said I was crazy to take him…Hell, even my mom and dad thought I was crazy. And he was hard to live with at first.”
Ho-Oh said nothing.
“But…he really has a good heart, even if he doesn’t like to show it. He taught me things about myself that I never knew, and we went through so many things together. My life wouldn’t have been the same without him.” She turned back to Ho-Oh.
“I know that, in the grand scheme of things, neither of us are lives are worth much if it means a peaceful world. Why should they be?”
Ho-Oh watched silently as Alexis dropped the amulet, the artifact returning to where it had been loosely hanging around her neck before. “I won’t say I know more than you, Ho-Oh: if this amulet is so dangerous that no one can have it, I won’t fight you or say you’re wrong. If it’s the price for a better world, so be it.”
She fell to one knee and began to gently stroke Stonewall. He did not respond to her touch.
“But if it’s a world where Stonewall has to die, I don’t want to live in it,” she said. She turned to Ho-Oh, prostrated before the great Pokemon on one knee. “Whatever you decide, please do it quickly…he’s suffering.”
Ho-Oh glanced at Entei, but the beast looked away to avoid his master’s gaze. He turned back to the two souls before him, one blazing with its own life, one a rapidly fading cinder.
Ho-Oh exhaled, and the clearing was consumed by fire.
“No,” the general whispered, unaware that the word had escaped his mouth.
An experienced leader of men, the general felt his army’s morale drop as if had been weighted down with a great bolder and hurled into the sea. They were beginning to cautiously gather back into one mass, murmuring worriedly amongst each other as the tower continued to burn, the heat of the conflagration tangible even this far from the center of the city.
“No!” the general said, kneeling and punching the ground in frustration. The hoard of a god—the very thing they had fought and died and struggled for—was burning right before their eyes.
They had failed.
“Sir!” one of the general’s seconds shouted, pointing to the sky. He looked up to see Ho-Oh flying high above Ecruteak, burning so brightly that the evening was as bright as day and the setting sun in the distance looked dim in comparison.
The general found himself at a complete loss, unable to fathom what Ho-Oh was doing. “What in the world?”
As if in response a mighty scream erupted from Ho-Oh, so powerful and primal that it rattled in the bones of all who heard it. Great curtains of flame erupted from its body, falling towards the earth below. The general dove to the ground, seeking the safety of the cool earth and a patch with little flammable material as his army’s morale disintegrated, each man fleeing as they sought to avoid the apocalypse falling upon them.
It was several long moments before the general was able to convince himself that it was both over and that he was alive. He hazarded a glance at Ecruteak, expecting the city to have been wiped off the map in a torrent of flame, and was stunned to see that the only building burning was the Brass Tower: the buildings composing the city had somehow been left untouched, none so much as grazed by a tongue of flame.
The smell of singed flesh assaulted his nostrils, and he looked over his shoulder, expecting to see his men turned to ashes all around him. What he found was his scattered army spooked but unharmed, not a hair on their heads even singed.
This was a cold comfort, as the corpses around Ecruteak were all aflame, the bodies so thick from the fighting that their funeral pyre completely encircled the city. Then the fire receded as quickly as it came, the corpses consumed by Ho-Oh’s flames with unnatural speed.
The men looked at the fields of ash, their worried murmurs growing in pitch. They had heard of signs from the gods, and they knew what they saw before them had to be one: however, its meaning escaped them, and that lack of knowledge filled them with great fear. The ground suddenly lurched and buckled, as if concealing a great beast beneath the surface. Those men who had had the presence of mind not to throw aside their weapons pointed them at the ground uncertainly.
The ground erupted, but not in fire and death. Massive trunks ripped through the surface, greenery sprouting across lengthening branches even as the trees sped towards the sky with a speed that would have put kudzu to shame. Any hope of organization was cut short as the newborn forest continued to emerge from the ashes, scattering men in every direction.
Not that there was any organization to be had. The sight of an entire forest sprouting before their eyes had completely shattered the army’s resolve. The forest echoed with the screams of men fleeing through the trees, desperate to escape a Pokemon who stood in defiance of life and death.
The general found himself alone in the middle of the forest as the sound of screams faded. His Rapidash was gone, the horse Pokemon likely having already panicked and fled. Though he had not been crushed in battle, he felt the sting of defeat even harder than if he had bled out his last on the fields of Ecruteak. Ho-Oh had taken not a single life, yet the general found himself without his army, his ambitions burned away.
The forest echoed with his screams, the general denigrating Ho-Oh with every breath. So busy was he cursing the great Pokemon and his bitter fate that he had not noticed that one corpse continued to burn. The woman’s body had been forgotten in the chaos, but it had not been reduced to ash like the others: rather, her remains seemed to gain mass with each crackle and hiss, its limbs and torso growing and lengthening as it turned into something other.
The fire grew so large that even the general could soon hear it over the sound of his ranting. His curses stopped as he stared, slack-jawed and unable to comprehend the sight before him.
He shielded his eyes as the fire exploded outward with a great sigh. But the sight that awaited him when he looked again was more incredible still. An azure beast stood where the woman’s body had fallen and burned. It was a creature the general had never seen, a beast equal parts lupine and feline. Its purple mane and twin, ribbon-like tails flowing like water even though the air was still.
His sword was in his hand before he had realized he had drawn it. He charged at the newcomer, his battlecry multiplying into a cacophony as it echoed through the woods…
A great torrent of water erupted from nowhere and slammed him into a nearby tree, knocking the air out of his lungs and causing him to drop his sword. He watched as the beast approached him, his eyes betraying only the slightest hint of fear.
She stared at him. He stared back at her, the fear growing in his eyes.
And then suddenly the fear was gone, and he laughed. He stopped only when the pain in his chest from the impact threatened to overwhelm him, and he took smug joy in the sudden confusion that crossed the great beast’s face.
“I lost, but you did not win,” he said, answering the unspoken question. “Your god denied us his power, but at what price? His worshippers’ lands lie in ruins, his pact in tatters. Perhaps Ecruteak will remain loyal, but what of those other cities that were sacked and despoiled while he sat idle? If any were left alive, that is.”
Another fit of laughter until a sudden surge of pain cut it short. “Word will spread. Warlords will descend upon this land, eager to carve it apart and add it to their own holdings. Your god’s people will suffer and die, and he will do nothing. Nothing!”
The general took joy in her hardening expression. He had no doubt that he would die here, but it no longer mattered: no better fate awaited him back home.
“Your god,” he had used the phrase with increasing contempt as he spoke, and now spat it out as if it were an insult, “is a dreamer and a fool. There can be no peace in this world, not so long as all living things must end the lives of others to live. But he wouldn’t know this, would he? No, he doesn’t need to live by our petty rules just to survive…doesn’t understand…no, doesn’t want to understand.”
He gave her a wicked smile as she began to comprehend the magnitude of his words. “Your god has the power to create a true world of peace, but not the will to accept the truth of that peace.” The beast scowled at him, and the wind began to pick up as if stirred by her mood.
“And now you,” he pointed directly at her, “are bound to the will of that same god: a pathetic, spineless whelp of a god. Tell me, does it fill you with regret to know that your old life has been destroyed? Does it fill you with despair to be cursed to an eternity of fruitless servitude?”
Suicune’s voice shook the forest like a gale-force hurricane, causing leaves to fall from their branches and scattering those few bird Pokemon who had been brave enough to land on the nascent branches.
“My master does not accept your vile words,” Suicune said, her voice like the tide lapping against the shore. “And I reject them. There is no absolute path: there is always another way.”
The general stared at her, amused. “Do you think your god able to defy the nature of the world itself?” he asked.
She returned his stare. “That I stand before you is proof enough, is it not?” she replied.
He shrugged as if only partially conceding the point. “That your master can conquer but one barrier is meaningless,” he countered. “The road to peace is winding and treacherous, and the obstacles are far greater than saving a mere life. You follow a dream that will only lead you to despair.”
“Perhaps,” she admitted. “There are no guarantees, even for my master. It may be centuries, even millennia before our efforts bear fruit, if ever.”
Suicune looked towards the sky, her master far above. “But so long as there are those who strive for peace, those who are pure of heart, those who struggle because it is a dream worth fighting for…we will never give up. We will lend them our strength, for all our sakes.”
The general looked deeply into her eyes, and found that her words came not only from her master, but her very soul as well. “So be it,” he said after a long time. “We shall see who history proves correct.”
The general staggered to his feet, recovering his sword to use as an improvised walking stick. He exchanged one more look with her, but said nothing. He limped through the underbrush, and then he was gone.
Suicune stared at the path that he had taken for a long while, and then turned towards Ecruteak, feeling the sensation of her master and two other souls that burned with his flames just as hers now did. She called upon the wind as naturally as others took in breath, willing it to take her to Ecruteak. There was work to be done.
Alexis finally opened her eyes. Was she dead?
A part of her hoped not. If she was, Heaven’s decorator clearly suffered from a lack of imagination.
Alexis found herself in the clearing, the only difference from several seconds ago being that Ho-Oh and Entei were nowhere to be seen. Not only that, but it was as green and as verdant before: there was no longer any way to tell that Entei and Stonewall had ever clashed in mortal combat. What surprised her more was that she was still alive, and completely unharmed. She pulled back one of her sleeves, not yet willing to believe that she had not been hideously scarred by Ho-Oh’s fire. She was only slightly disappointed to find her assumption incorrect.
Alexis whipped around so quickly she nearly did a full rotation in place by mistake. Stonewall was lying on the ground, suffering a painful headache but with all his fur and not a single burn to be seen anywhere on his body: he was as whole as he had been when he had set out from the ryokan.
“Stonewall!” cried a relieved Kochu as she bounced out of her hiding spot. “I thought you were dead!”
“Dead?” Stonewall asked, trying to rub his temples but foiled by the short length of his forelimbs. “Why would I be dead?”
“You fought Entei! I saw you get burned alive!” Kochu said, apparently panicking well after the fact.
Stonewall squinted, as if trying to seize a memory just beyond his reach. “Yeah, I remember fighting him, but it’s fuzzy…he didn’t get the amulet, did he?”
He looked up at Alexis, noticing that the amulet he had brought her was around her neck. “Awesome, he didn’t. Looks good on you, boss!”
Despite his gift, Stonewall watched her expression: he wondered when she was going to give him a smack upside the head for wandering off and causing…well, a lot of trouble was putting it very mildly.
Alexis fell to her knees hugged him tightly. He was at a loss.
“Glad you like it,” he said, not sure how to react. “Boss…are you crying?”
The events of that night remained largely a mystery in Ecruteak. Despite several eyewitness accounts the authorities rejected the assertion that the legendary Pokemon Entei had ever attacked the ryokan, theorizing that the incident had been either a random attack by a feral Arcanine or a freak act of God (in the latter case they were closer than they realized). Nothing of note was ever found at the site of the Burned Tower, and the trainer alleged to have been there said nothing about the events that may or may not have transpired. The trainer’s Raticate was similarly taciturn, looking mildly confused at anyone who suggested that it spoke a human language.
Ecruteak’s gym leader returned a few days later, and the female trainer was his first opponent after his hiatus. She departed Ecruteak a day later, Fog Badge in hand, and the events of that night slowly faded from the collective consciousness of Ecruteak and into the footnotes of the city’s history.
Some time later, archaeologists would discover the Brass Tower’s ancient keystone, a large stone block that had spent quiet centuries in the clearing as a silent monument to what had been. More exciting than the keystone itself was the inscription upon it, apparently burned onto the surface mere months before yet somehow covered in centuries of dirt and detritus:
Children of men
Those of pure heart
So long as thou shalt strive
So strive shall I