Chapter Two: The Personification of Glaciers
“Celebi ... Celebi, please forgive me. I have killed the world. I have become the reaper, and the souls of nations are under my scythe. My gods, my gods... What have I done?”
-- Administrator Martor Serperior on the first tests of Project: Marble King
Light flickered on the aged stone walls. The Luminous Orb overhead was finally beginning to dim. While it slowly faded, the Golduck reclined in his metal chair as far as his chains would let him. Jack looked up at the floating Reuniclus officer with a emotionless stare.
“So? Good enough for your bosses back in Silver City to execute me?” Jack asked with a sneer. Telling his story to the disgruntled officer had unbolded the former soldier. He felt a strength within him that had been absent for too long, and with that strength came defiance. The Loyalty Square officer merely grunted in reply and ignored the Golduck. His gelatinous arms rose and fell in the air as they shuffled through the papers detailing the report thus far.
“Jackson... I find it a bit unbelievable that your own government would try to send you to your death. Gold Squad was a decorated team— virtually a national asset. Why would the king and Senate simply send you to your death? Doesn’t add up for me,” Hythal grunted before psychically lifting a wooden mug to his membrane. The blue contents within swiftly diffused into his cellular as he let out a gasp of contentment.
“Then I’ll continue until you do understand just how it could happen... Let me first explain what happened to the other members after the clouds began to crack beneath our feet...” Jack sighed. The Golduck leaned over the table once again and closed his eyes. Memories of the events swirled around in his mind until he found what he had been looking for.
“It all started for her after I fell...”
Thunder rumbled under her padded feet. The Zangoose commander looked down from the flawless sky only to find that the white ground was not entirely solid. She tried to hold her position and keep her scrambling squad in line, but that goal was quickly shoved aside. A blast of air from Jack’s Blowback Orb sent them all flying backwards away from the epicenter of the collapse. She flipped over the frozen ground just before a series of jagged cracks appeared through the thin clouds. The Zangoose dug her claws into the ground and pulled herself upright. A threatening growl escaped her lips as she frantically looked over her battered team.
“Regroup! Regroup! Damnit, get up!” she screamed, tugging on Terminance’s branch-like arm and pulling the Trevenant up to his roots. She barely had time to give the possessed tree a slap on his back before the ground gave way. The tops of the mountains rushed by past her sight until she was looking at the wide, rocky slope beneath her. She twisted around in the air, yelling in rare fear.
The darkened ground of Saltus Valley opened up, and seemed to be ready to devour her whole once she landed. Her mind raced; memories of her training flashed in her head. She needed an idea— that and a miracle if she was to survive the plumet. Nothing was useful to her now. She hadn’t prepared for this. She had knowingly dragged her squad into an unstable environment and now she was going to face the consequences splattered against the side of a mountain.
Kida glanced at her struggling teammates through the stinging air. Each of them chaotically flipping around and flailing beside the chunks of frozen clouds. Come on, Kida! Think! There’s gotta be a way to — Her thoughts were quickly disrupted by the mountainside she was trying to avoid. She didn’t have time to brace herself as her body slammed into a bank of packed snow.
Breath was forced from her lungs. Her body twisted against the icy powder, but did not break. She turned her body so that she flipped over her shoulder, slowing her slide along the slope. Grunting in pain, she dug her clawed feet into the snow to stop her momentum. Her body lurched forward, barely avoiding tumbling over the precipice down into the frozen abyss. Kida gasped, holding her paw to her chest to keep her heart inside. She frantically scanned the lonely mountainside for the remaining members of Gold Squad. Yet only a scathing, frozen wind met her gaze.
The Zangoose’s feet uncomfortably shifted on the small snowbank. Her fur was doing a poor job at keeping her warm as her heart slowly calmed. Looking about the deserted mountainside, she found herself utterly alone. For once, the tall, stone vines ensnaring her heart withered and broke apart. She could do nothing to stem the rush of emotions that thundered down upon her.
Kida kneeled to the ground; paws pressed hard against her face. Tears of terror, pain, and regret streamed down her face. She wanted nothing more in the world then to reverse the decisions she’d made in the last week. Her desire for gold and glory for herself and the squad, now left her alone on a desolate mountain. All the training she had forced her body through meant nothing. She was stuck in a hostile environment, rapidly running out of sunlight, and held the blood of her missing squadmates in her claws.
No. Kida... Kalitka! You have to focus! You have to live! Come on, girl...
Looking up from her tear-streaked face, she fumbled around the leather belt around her waist. Inside one of the pouches was a small, gilded seed that glinted brightly in the canted light. She despised the item, yet she needed it. Her paw shook wildly as she tips it into her mouth. Her teeth instantly chewed the smooth surface, crunching the contents out of its kernel. She roughly swallowed the bitter seed, but the aftereffect was worth the minor discomfort.
A false surge of courage welled up inside her mind and drove the tears from her eyes. A small, insidious part of her brain berated her for relaying on the so-called medicine seeds. However, Kida quickly stomped out the voice before rising to her feet. Her paws unclasped the golden badge from her crimson scarf and pressed the central button on its circular surface. She cleared her voice and took a deep breath before she confidently spoke to the mechanism.
“To all rescue centers, this is Commander Kalitka Zangoose of Gold Squad. Requesting immediate assistance from Saltus Valley. Priority one! I repeat, this is a priority one rescue call! Any and all available rescue teams are to report to Saltus Valley immediately! Many lives at stake!” Her breath turned into mist and her words became whispers in the wind. She knew that no one would hear her plea. Even if Post Town managed to detect it, she doubted there was anything they could do to help.
The Zangoose brushed her claws through her matted fur and tried to retain the last shred of her dignity. Picking up the badge again, she felt her courage leave her, and her confident words melted into insecurity.
“P-please! Gold Squad is s-scattered! H-hostile environment! We need assis-t-tance!” She felt her knees give out, the snow pressing into her fur, and the weight of her guilt pulling her down. “P-Please! F-for the love of P-Palkia! S-save me! I-I can’t die here! C-can’t die here! Plea— AHHHHHHHHH!” Her transmission was cut brutally short by the mountain’s sudden decision to collapse beneath her.
“That’s wonderful, Jackson. However, I’m not getting paid to listen to you explain how your squad reacted. I am here to hear your story.” The Reuniclus officer grunted, psychically stirring his drink. Jack huffed, leaning back in his chair and rattling his chains.
“I tell you it’s important... But, fine. If you wish to get back to me, then I’ll tell it. And Hythal? I’d rather not be interrupted again unless you have a genuine question. Is that too much to ask?”
“Jackson, you are a traitor. You have no rights here. I’ll ask what questions I need to, you hear me?” Hythal growled with an impatient glare.
Wind softly whispered through the frozen forest. No branches stirred, no leaves fell, nothing changed from the weak zephyr. Time in the iced woods meant nothing. The rays of the sun shone cold on the abysmally frozen Valley. Though the sky was broken, it changed little on the ground. The only evidence that something had happened was the dying echoes that paced through the hardened trees like lost souls.
“My name is Jack. Jack Golduck. Can anyone hear me? Anyone! Help me!”
His broken voice had echoed through the empty wastelands for the better part of two agonizing hours before his heart stopped from the penetrating cold. Against his will, he had blissfully began to slip into the numbing void of unconsciousness. The heavily injured Golduck entertained slim thoughts of survival by that point and uttered a final, sloppy prayer to the gods of the ocean before his eyes closed and his head slumped to the side in the snow.
His mind however, did not feel so tired or cold. Clarity seemed to rush into it as his body began the process of becoming one with the snow. Jack didn’t know what to make of it. He had been pushed to the brink of death before, his position in Gold Squad demanded it constantly, but he had never experienced this sudden calm.
Beyond the transcendence of thought and the sudden euphoria that rushed through his body, he found not the comforting embrace of Cresselia, but rather a realm fit for her dark rival. He wasn’t guided through to the waiting light, but rather found himself chained in the darkness. Manacles of solid ice sealing his limbs to the ground as the seething emptiness closed in on his struggling form. Jack couldn’t breathe, yet there was no need for him to. This was death, and he had earned this eternal punishment. The unseen gods of Verus decreed it so.
His bonds tightened, nearly breaking his blue skin. The Golduck viciously kicked and clawed at the living shards, but it instead creeped around his body. The darkened ice whispered inane words, uttered sayings to pollute his mind, and prophecies to make him slip away into the depths of death. Tendrils of frost wrapped around his arms and torso, making every movement more difficult and his mind wallow in lethargy. His body was enveloped in the ice. He felt it bite into his skin and strangle his heart. Jack let out a stifled yell with the last breath he had before the hellish ice clamped a thick hand over his beak.
Sight, smell, and feeling were robbed from him as the ice masked his head. He willed his body to move, to break down the frost, but there was nothing to be done. He would become one with the ice as it choked the life out of him. His mind raced while the ice froze him to the floor. Around his body, he felt it crack and grow like an insidious vine. The numbness set in just as the last of the ice solidified around his body.
This can’t be my eternity! No! NO! His thoughts screamed, seemingly driving away the darkness that tried to consume his consciousness. But it was for naught as the ice clamped down harder. Jack tensed and prepared for his permanent end. He had heard the tales of Erebus being a place of eternal cold and darkness, but he had failed to grasp what “eternity” truly was until then.
Seconds passed, but it could have been days for all the Golduck knew. In his dismal prison of cold and weakness, there was nothing he could do to count the minutes and hours he spent chained to the unforgiving wall of Erebus. He had deserved this. He truly did. Being a member of Gold Squad came with the stipulation that one would obey orders. No matter what they were.
Whether the damning sin came from the small Sentret girl he orphaned by murdering her mother in cold blood to leave no credible witnesses, or by he and his squad torching the thriving forest city afterwards. It could have also easily been the off-the-record raids they conducted at the Senate’s request on individuals who supported the Colonial independence movement. He might have looked away when the murders took place, but that didn’t change the fact that he still held the targets down while they died. Their blood was on his hands, and it was more than enough to earn the attention of Darkrai.
This was the fate of his soul: to rot forever under the dark chill of Erebus. In his haste to achieve glory on Gold Squad, he had condemned himself here until Arceus ended the world. His memories, the only figments he had left of the outside world and warmth, swelled around him. He was about to dive amid them and lose his mind to reliving his past when the mighty chasm that was the darkness shook.
A ray of light shone through the abyss, parting the nothingness. Claws, driven by the fury of freedom, slashed through the clutching arms of the ensnaring ice. He felt their sharp tips dig into his face as the ice on his head shattered, allowing air to flow again. Systematically, his arms, legs, and body was torn from the ice. He could not see his savior in the darkness, but he did what he could to stand and flee the mass of frozen water.
The weak light that had accompanied his rescue flickered as the shadowed figure grabbed his wrist and dragged behind at a mad sprint. The Golduck had no idea what was happening, yet he needed no reassurance that he was doing the right thing. His purgatory had tried to seal his soul, but he had been freed. He had been guilty, yet he was being given a second chance to escape this hell. The light grew brighter as he and his savior dashed up the endless stair towards the small pinnacle of light, with the darkness and ice trailing only a few steps behind. A single misstep on his part would destroy his only chance at life.
“Who--” he asked breathlessly.
“Shut up! Run!” The figure cut him off abruptly. Despite being able to see his own blue skin --now alarmingly paler from the ice-- he was unable to see past the hue of shadows that seemed to cling to the ethereal figure. The voice at least, sounded feminine to Jack, so that much was solved. However, he didn’t have the time to think about the information as shards of ice swiped across the back of his calves, leaving trails of blood in his skin as he ran faster.
As they inched closer to the light, he noticed more about the mysterious female who had single-handedly severed the darkness. Droplets of light rained down on them; the downpour growing with each weighted step they took towards escape. The personified shroud of fluid ice tried to snatch his soul and return him to his eternal sentence. As his eyes swung to the shadowed girl beside him, he saw that the shadow seemed to melt away from her in scattered droplets in the canted light.
The nearer they got to the light, the more of her he could see. Patches of white fur appeared from beneath the gentle grey covering as the shadows faded away. In the final stretch into the square doorway of pure light, she shook her head during her sprint. The mask of night that hid her face broke apart in an explosion of twilight. Jack nearly stumbled on the ancient stone stairs. During his sprint, his gaze met hers and memories clicked into place.
“Kida!” he screamed, his heart somersaulting in joy even while the essence of Erebus hunted them down. The Zangoose smiled her usual devious smile at him as they screeched to a stop at the threshold of the archway. Jack tried to see beyond the dazzling light, but his eyes could not see past the splendor. Kida didn’t pant or breathe. She simply pointed a claw at him and then the exit. Erebus roared after them, the pitch-black ice slithering quickly up the crumbling stone.
“No! Come with me, Kida! Come on!” he pleaded, but she continued to look at him with her usual, cold analytical stare. She shook her head and walked up to him. Her paws gripped his shoulders and she marched him to the edge of the light.
“I am not her. You have to find her in the real world. I am giving you that chance. Do not waste it by letting Erebus catch you now,” the Zangoose whispered into his ear as a blood curdling roar shook the stone foundations. “I go now. And so do you!” she yelled as she reared up her foot and kicked his stomach. As he stumbled into the wall of light, he saw the Zangoose melt back into the shadows as she leapt at the encroaching ice with her claws extended. A furious yell met his ears just as everything of the fabled realm of purgatory faded with a flash of white.
“Doctor .. Doctor! ... Ampharos! He ... The Cloud-Breaker is awake!” The sounds of the outside world pounded against his ears. Jack felt a spark shoot through his body as his arms twitched. His eyes still refused to open, but the Golduck noticed that his body was no longer numb from the cold. In fact, as far as he could tell, the cold was gone.
“Open your eyes, Golduck. There is much we need to discuss now that you are awake.” The voice was filled with knowledge. Wise, yet not hobbled with age. Jack’s eyes struggled to peel themselves apart before flying open and letting the light of the outside world overwhelm his senses. The Golduck let out a pained squawk as his hand shot to cover his burning eyes.
“There is not much time left, Golduck. Get up. Now.” The voice boomed against his aching ears as Jack’s eyes slowly flickered open and got used to the light. Disorientated, the Golduck coughed as he sat up from the bed of hay he was in. Instantly, he was met with an intense soreness from his chest. Clutching his stomach, he lowered his gaze to inspect himself. His gasp was stifled by the pain that followed.
His entire torso was wrapped in blood-stained bandages. The dull-white linen clung to his chest and limbs while he struggled to stand on his feet. A wave of dizziness washed over the soldier; threatening to make him double over in dry heaves. His aching legs stumbled out of the soft bed and onto the cold stone floor. Jack’s bleary eyes slowly fought through the fatigue. After a few minutes of blindly shuffling, the Golduck was able to properly survey the swaying chamber and the ones who had talked to him. A small paw grasped his right shoulder.
“Hello, Cloud-Breaker.” It was the same, wise voice from earlier, yet his body reacted differently. Jack’s hand shot down to his side, looking for his ice-axe, and grasped only bare flesh. Within a split second of realizing his beloved weapon was gone, his left hand curled into a glowing fist and swung at the speaker.
His energized, webbed fist was halted by a similarly charged paw. In the light, Jack saw that its owner, along with the wise voice, was a yellow and black Pokémon just shorter than him. The Ampharos grunted and easily pushed back his Brick Break attack. With his concentration diffused, Jack could only breathe deeply in relief when the irritated Electric-type lowered his own glowing paw in non-aggression.
“E-hem. As I was saying before you rudely attacked me... Greetings, Cloud-Breaker. We are pleased to have you among us once again. There are some of us here who wish to thank you for bringing back the sun to our frozen sky,” The older Ampharos elaborated and extended a paw to Jack. The alert Golduck didn’t accept his paw immediately, rather taking a moment to study his surroundings and the Ampharos.
He was inside a dimly lit cave. The floor was smooth and swept, but incredibly cold. Everything around him seemed to scream out how bitterly cold it was: the stone, the hay, the puffs of mist exiting his beak, and the air itself. Turning his attention away from the grizzled Ampharos, he saw that there were other Pokémon milling about the cavern also.
“H-hello...” Jack coughed as his body straightened up to full height. “I appreciate the treatment you gave me, sir. However, I must ask about the whereabouts of my weapon and gear that you found with me. They are Kingdom property,” Jack briskly stated. His mind swiftly spouting the protocol for interacting with civilians in a hostile environment. The Ampharos male chuckled as he reached into the large satchel that hung from his shoulder. A flash of silver met Jack’s eyes when the older Pokémon withdrew his treasured ice-axe and leather utility belt. Jack’s arm instinctively shot out at the weapon and belt, intending on snatching it back. However, his eager claws gripped nothing but air.
“I’ll give it back once you answer a few questions for me. Is that fair? Consider that your payment for fixin’ you up, son,” the Electric-type stated, holding up the axe out of Jack’s reach. The Golduck nearly considered tackling him for it, but backed away from this thought when a cackle of electricity sparked from the Ampharos’s other hand.
“Fine. What do you want?” Jack grunted. The older Pokémon merely gave him a disapproving glare before disappearing further into the cramped caverns. Not wanting to let his precious weapon and his other supplies out of his reach, Jack hastily followed. Trotting along behind the strange Pokémon, Jack glanced around the narrow passage. His webbed feet slapped against the smooth cave floor at regular rhythms. Each loud echo was only punctuated by a curse from Jack every time he stepped on a small stalagmite.
“You come at a troubled time, Cloud-Breaker. We are trapped under this infernal ice, as you saw. We are running out of time. A malady, cold as the ice, attempts to strike us down.” The Ampharos’s paw gestured to the rows of threadbare blankets along the cave wall. Looking closer, Jack saw that Pokémon were sleeping in them. “They appear sleeping, do they not? However, they sleep until death... And beyond...” Jack took another look at the row. This time he noticed what he had failed to see before.
Among the piles of rags, a Skitty lay still, its pink fur dulled to a sickly grey. In another pile was a Snivy and a Serperior, together, a family perhaps. Their green and white scales turned to blue and grey, as if they were freezing in the snow. And in yet another mess of cloth, the sight grew worse. Jack nearly heaved up his non-existant lunch when he saw the Tauros. The tawny beast’s fur had turned from a light brown to a patchy section of grey that was falling out of the skin. However, that was not the worst. The worst was the small, jagged shards of ice that stuck out of the Pokemon’s stomach and sides.
Jack’s vision began to weave in and out. He hadn’t been awake for ten minutes and he was being shoved into a world of sickness and ice. “Now you see, Cloud-Breaker, do you not? The sickness that eats us? Since the ice came, so has the clutches of infection... The children were among the first to fall.” Jack put his hands against his ears. This was enough. He wanted no more. Regardless of what they did for him, he knew he could not stay. He could not listen to the rambles of sickness and ice any longer.
With a yell, he twisted around and stormed out of the contaminated cavern. Ampharos’s paw was quick to hold onto his shoulder. “Where do you aim on going, young sir? You are desperately needed here.”
Jack huffed and turned on the Electric-type. With a fire in his eyes, he snatched his ice-axe and belt out of the Pokémon’s grip. Backing away from the surprised Ampharos, Jack hastily buckled the leather strip around his waist and held his weapon defensively. The curved, jagged blade glinted its sharpened steel in the flickering light of the cave.
“I am leaving. Thank you for healing me, but I have to go. I am sorry,” Jack retorted stiffly, giving the despairing older Pokémon a terse bow signaling that the conversation was at an end. Without another look at the aged healer, Jack turned his back and trudged up the sloping cave. He heard the Ampharos’s steps following him, but he did not acknowledge them. Every emaciated Pokémon the Golduck passed pressed itself against the sides of the cavern to let him by. Jack thought this a bit weird, but shook off the troubling observation. He continued upwards, moving along whichever path that felt the coldest.
After an unnaturally long stretch of minutes, Jack was met with his goal. Almost immediately, eyes widened in a mixture of surprise and fear.
“W-what in Erebus is this...?” He whispered while he gazed out at the entirety of Saltus Valley.
White. Everything was white. The endless stretch of forest was painted in the stark colors of a deep frost, despite it being the zenith of spring. Winter's hold arrested every movement. All around him, nothing stirred. Not the leaves on the trees, the water on the mountain stream, or even the wind itself.
Jack heard the crunching of pebbles behind him and quickly started down the slick, iced-over mountain. His feet barely managed little more than a controlled slide past the still trees. Jack huffed and carefully leaned backwards. Cold dirt hit his sore back like a hammer, yet he slid faster down the mountain path. His lungs sucked in the crisp, freezing air.
"Almost there...." he muttered. His arm held his axe and dragged it along the packed ice to control his descent. Rough stones tore at the thin, blue feathers on his back. Jack squawked in pain, closed his eyes tightly, and tried to focus his thoughts elsewhere. Before he knew it, his aching feet slammed into the hard earth at the base of the mountain. Jack looked up into the sky, determining how much daylight was left. Except the sky was still broken.
His eyes widened. At once, the weight of his deed fell upon him. Sunlight poured in solitary beams through the jagged holes in the frozen clouds. Wisps of solidified clouds shrouded the majority of Saltus Valley in darkness, but Jack could tell that there was not much time left until sunset. Wiping the chilled beads of frost off his forehead, Jack trudged through the icy dirt. His heart pounded inside his chest. Clutching his axe protectively, he tried to calm himself.
What are you doing, Jack? You’re a soldier. You are part of Gold Squad! Man up! Stop acting like the rookie you aren’t! His thoughts attempted to reassure, but the eerie quietness of the frozen forest around him quickly sapped his courage away. Within the shrinking light, Jack found the long, frost-worn branches that loomed over him a lot more menacing. He swallowed a lump in his throat, yet the fear failed to pass with it.
The Golduck continued his solitary march through the ominous wood. Not a single sound reached his ears other than the crunch of his own feet against the frozen dirt and leaves. After a few moments, Jack twirled around as a small branch snapped and fell to the ground. His heart was ready to explode out of his chest, and Jack had to clutch the sides of his head in order to keep his brain from overreacting. Somewhere in his memories he held the hours of strict training under the Kingdom. Somewhere inside his mind was the fortitude and stone-cold demeanor he held on missions. Try as he might, his mind was intent on letting him squirm in bone-shaking anxiety.
”If the truth is too horrible to believe, lie until it isn’t.” The words of the grizzled Senator Cicero Torkoal suddenly rang in his ears. Jack blinked. The old, steaming tortoise had wheezed out that gem of advice on their final day of training. It was puzzling to his young mind at the time, but the very next day he found out just how true the phrase was. It was his first mission under Gold Squad to the catastrophe zone of Zero Isle. It was there that he had first experienced what hell truly when the mystery dungeon engulfed the archipelago.
“Lie until it isn’t....” Jack mumbled under his breath. His webbed hands shivered in the darkening cold. Deciding that frostbite wasn’t a pleasant way to die, Jack reached inside one of the pouches on his belt, found a small reddish seed, and plopped it inside his mouth. Careful not to break the brittle skin, he sucked gingerly on the Blast Seed, feeling its generous spiciness kick into his system within seconds. The grip of Kyurem was broken in an instant.
Armed with warmth coursing through his veins, Jack swung his axe in front of him. The curved blade was not suited to hacking down branches, but it snapped the icy limbs down easily enough. Grinning smugly, the Golduck hiked down the new path through the woods. He grunted in pain every time a branch nicked his skin and drew droplets of blood, but pressed onwards despite the clear path he left behind him in the snow.
The comfort the Blast Seed brought was slowly ebbing away all too soon. Huffing, Jack downed a final branch with his axe and stepped into a clearing. It was hard to see in the fading light, but Jack could make it out well enough. He even rubbed his eyes to ensure he wasn’t dreaming, but it was reality. An entire village was in front of him; every building seemingly untouched by looters and simply left to freeze. Jack whooped in triumph and holstered the axe to his belt. His bruised bones ached for any shelter from this unbearable cold. Abandoning all military conduct, Jack praised Kyogre and Suicune at the top of his lungs. The Golduck sprinted faster than any Linoone into the village, smelling deeply the sterile air as if he could still detect the scents of life.
Panting in the square, he slowly halted himself and surveyed the surrounding buildings. He needed something that was airtight and preferably stocked with blankets. However, seeing that the town would have been sweltering in the summer heat when the ice came, his hopes of finding such a dwelling were dampened. Jack walked around, his feet crunching loudly in the old snow. He stalked around the square, inspecting the houses made up of clay and branches for something that offered to keep out the chilly air. Jack stood on the tips of his toes and peered into a window frame of a rather large hut. It was then that he noticed something inside that was absent from the others: movement.
Jack flew away from the building, his feet backpedalling through the snow just before a roar shattered the unearthly silence. The wall of the house was decimated by the huge claw that tore through it. Jack numbly stared. The beast’s thick flesh was peeling back around its body, instead replaced by an icy hide. Exactly like the Pokémon in the infirmary, jagged shards of ice stuck out at odd intervals from beneath its skin and bones. It was no longer any Pokémon that Jack knew.
It let out a ragged breath though its torn jaw and its decayed nose sniffed the air for the intruder. Jack’s heart nearly stopped as the creature’s gaze captured him. Its sunken, yellowed eyes narrowed in their sockets on his quivering form. Part of his mind wondered how much he looked like prey just then. What remained of the canine’s large, shaggy mane fell off as it shook its head in a guttural roar.
Fear attempted to upset the adrenaline-fueled courage in his heart. Jack’s feet stumbled backwards in the snow before his back slammed against a wall. Fear, he knew, could not rule him now. Sucking in a deep breath, Jack decided that he wouldn’t be caught off guard by the creature. Curling his toes into the ice, the Golduck grasped his axe tightly and held it at arms length. In three fluid movements, he crossed the frozen street and leaped up at the snarling, ice-covered Arcanine. Jack smiled. He felt something he hadn’t felt in a long time. He wanted to kill.
In less than two seconds, his arm swung forward, twisted the jagged point of the axe downwards, and slammed through the frozen flesh of the Arcanine. The entire curved end disappeared inside where shoulder bone and heart should have been. Next to his head, a low, angered growl vibrated through Jack’s body. His eyes not daring to look beside him, he gazed at the hole he left in the massive dog’s side. No blood, no viscera, no organs, just a haze of sub-zero mist that leaked forth from the wound. Jack felt his entire body fall numb in sheer, unnatural terror. His head craned to the side and he saw exactly what he had desperately hoped wasn’t real: the beast’s barred, yellowed teeth inches from his face.
Jack’s hardly saw the teeth before they opened, revealed a gaping, empty maw. Instead of the sharp tools tearing into his neck and severing his life, a jet of blue fire blasted forth from the hollow depths of the monstrous Arcanine. The Golduck blinked in surprise even as the tongues of the faux fire licked his face. It didn’t burn. Nothing burned. In fact, it was deathly cold against his skin. Confused, the Golduck barely stumbled back a step, yet that did not stop the hollow canine. With a rattling howl, the beast pounced into the air. Jack was quickly acquainted with the frosted ground and the dead weight of the diseased Arcanine pinning him down.
Air barely managed to squeak through his beak. A massive, frostbitten paw pressed down on his chest, crushing the life from his lungs. In an increasing fit of desperation, the soldier fired a frigid blast of his own from his beak, yet the Ice Beam did nothing against the infected Pokémon. Water quickly followed, only to dry to a trickle as another paw stepped on his throat. The mental prowess that his species commanded fled him when the creature proved to have no mind.
The ice controls the beast. Jack’s grip tightened around his axe and his arm flailed. The serrated edge slicing through the deadened flesh with each panicked blow, yet no blood was spilt. Jack met the creature’s primal, unfeeling gaze again. A drop of cold saliva fell into his cheek, and the Golduck’s military training fled within a microsecond of seeing the teeth. The jaw snapped forward. And then in a flash, the jaw was no more.
A bolt of blue lightning shot forth from above and seared away half of the Arcanine’s frozen face. Instantly, the heavy paws flew off his torso and Jack rolled onto his stomach. Pushing himself up, he scrambled away as fast as he could from the wounded monster. His heart pounded against his chest in a rhythm fit for a tribal drum. When the world finally ceased spinning, Jack looked up despite his head’s protests.
“And so you see what the sickness does to us, Cloud-Breaker. You now see what the Frost does to us...” Jack’s head ached and blood pounded in his skull. Pressure built up against the ruby set in his forehead, yearning for a way to relieve the tension. In his bleary vision, the long, yellow face stared amusedly down at him. After a few seconds, Jack realized that he was holding out a paw for him to take. Pushing back his discomfort, his free hand reached up and grasped the Ampharos’s.
Thoughts pulsed in his head, all trying to take in the array of new information. Why was the Ampharos here? Had he followed him somehow? What is this Frost? What happened here?
“The Frost. The Frost... See how it changes us... Frey-tal... I had feared for you, my friend... Though it appears the sickness captured you as well...” Jack slowly realized that the older Pokémon was no longer talking to him. The healer walked away, towards the smoldering body of the headless Arcanine. Jack leaned against a wall in exhaustion, despite being enchanted by the Electric-type’s actions. The Ampharos knelt down next to the frozen, smoking carcass, placed his hands over its pockmarked chest, and whispered a few verses of what seemed like a prayer.
“Maybe you shall walk the blessed fields again. There be promise in eternity; the world will again be green and bright. If your heart be as pure as your deeds, then you shall go before me. Drink up the new world. Be born anew in its splendor. Treasure everything you see. Be you rested and hale. Take in the golden hue. Maybe, if the legends will it so, I will walk there too...”
The Ampharos rose and turned back to Jack. A withering glare pierced the chilling wind. “Come, Cloud-Breaker. There is much to be done and a debt of life you owe to me now. Night falls faster with Time’s fading heart, so rise and run! We shall take refuge among the houses of the dead and spill your tongue to me there, you will.” Jack swallowed the lump in his throat and his thoughts sunk. The strange-speaking healer gently opened a door. The Ampharos stopped in the doorway and spoke out the side of his mouth. “It is time you learned what your Kingdom has done to us...”
To Jack, the open door was more than a passage from outside to in. It was the culmination of everything that had transpired in the last two days. He had lost the world, yet had gained a purpose. He was no longer Jackson Golduck, of Gold Squad. He was Jack the Golduck, the Cloud-Breaker and indebted to the Ampharos. His thoughts were interrupted by said Pokemon’s sudden voice.
“Are you coming, Cloud-Breaker? Be swift on your feet! The Frostbitten do not wait long after dark to find the living. If you are to see the sun again, the night must be endured. Time snaps at our heels, so make haste!” The fervered shouts boomed in the quiet cold of Saltus Valley. Jack still couldn’t take it all in, even as the last echoes faded away into the night. It couldn’t be real. This wasn’t an operation anymore; it was a nightmare born from the snow. With the death of the last echo, a chorus of howls erupted from the mountains. Screams taken from the depths of Erebus chilled his bones worse than the ice.
Jack took a breath and stepped through the door.
End Chapter Two