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Thread: Crack'd, or How the Love of Seafood Saved Unova

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    Chapter Nineteen: Infiltration, Act One

    Trains to Castelia were the best you could get in Unova; in fact, they were probably on a par with trains in other countries, Castelia being relatively large and modern, and by six o'clock the train was clattering through the suburbs, a haze of smoke lying thick in the distance over towers aflame with sunset.

    As I stared out of the window, I felt a sudden and uncharacteristic sense of excitement growing in me; I'd only ever visited Castelia twice in my life before – had only left White Forest a handful of times before Halley had appeared, in fact – and it still seemed to me to be a huge, glittering fantasy castle, all turrets and bright lights and magic. We all felt the same way, I think; Bianca had her nose pressed up against the window, looking at the angular, light-drenched pillar of the Mondelsson building standing tall to the north, and even Cheren kept taking short, darting glances at the scenery as we passed. Justine, Munny and Candy vied for positions on the table between the seats, each staring at the unrelenting sea of shining buildings with mingled fear and wonder; the only two unaffected were Halley, who was asleep on the seat next to me, and Lelouch, who was both too incurious to care and too preoccupied with his coming evolution – as Cheren had explained earlier, that was why he'd sprouted those small buds along his spine; he was beginning the process of changing his shape to a more mature form.

    “We need to discuss what we're going to do when we get there,” said Cheren at last, tearing himself away from the passing suburbs. “I think we're going to have to try and get inside the Green Party HQ.”

    I blinked and looked up from the window.

    “What? How are we going to do that?”

    “Well, therein lies the issue,” he replied. “I haven't a clue. If Harmonia has agents like Teiresias at his disposal, I dread to think what the security on that place is like. Not to mention the fact that presumably every single member of the Party knows who we are by this point.”

    “That's true,” said Halley, stretching luxuriously. I started; I thought she was asleep. “None of you have a chance of getting in there. I guess what you need is an infiltrator. Someone who can skulk.”

    Cheren raised his eyebrows.

    “Halley, you have no thumbs. You're not exactly an ideal agent.”

    “The information will be on computers or some sh*t like that,” she said, waving his concerns aside. “I can type. It'll just take me slightly longer with paws. And let's face it,” she continued, “the chances of any of you getting past Harmonia's security undetected is nil. Whereas I can hide inside a desk drawer if I have to.”

    “You're not that small—”

    “Yes, but I'm a cat,” she pointed out. “That makes me an honorary liquid: I can fit into pretty much anything.” She sighed. “Look, I'm not going to tell you what to do. I'm just telling you that I can get in there and you can't.”

    “Cheren, I think she's probably right,” said Bianca. “I mean... how are we going to get in?”

    He sighed.

    “I suppose you're right,” he said. “I just don't really like the idea of trusting the job to Halley.”

    “Hey!” cried Halley. “I'm right here, y'know. I can hear everything you're saying.”

    “I know. I don't care.”

    “I trust Halley,” I put in, thinking of our walk through the forest and the concern she had shown then; I was certain that her acidity was mostly an act. “I'm sure she can do it.”

    “There you go – Lauren's seal of approval,” said Halley. “What more do you want?”

    “Hmph,” muttered Cheren. “All right, all right. You're right, there doesn't seem to be any other way.” He took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Halley, if you deliberately screw this up—”

    “Being the extraordinarily perceptive young man that you are,” she snapped, “it surely hasn't escaped your attention that I've got a vested interest in the Party documents. I want clues to my past as much as anything else – amnesia, remember? And since I can't do it myself, I'm going to need you guys to help me out with whatever clues I find, so you have a guarantee I'll get what I can about N as well, and come back with it.” She glared at him, and I could almost feel the air writhe away from her eyes, trembling as if on the first breath of a thunderstorm. “Happy now?”

    “No. But I am satisfied.”

    “Good. Now go back to staring out the f*cking window and let me sleep.”

    She curled up again, flicking her tail moodily, and said no more; whether she really was asleep or not was open to debate, but it was clear the conversation was at an end.

    “Right,” said Bianca, voice strained with forced brightness. “That settles that, then. Anyone want to play I Spy?”

    It was a futile attempt to recover the atmosphere and she knew it. No one said anything more; even the Pokémon began to shift uncomfortably, and the silence only deepened as the train clattered on.

    ---

    “I don't think going backstage agrees with me,” said Niamh, losing her footing and falling headfirst into a wall. “I feel drunk.”

    “Yes, I've heard it does that,” replied Ezra sympathetically. “Never mind. You'll get used to it.”

    “I'd rather not. Can't we take a train next time?”

    Ezra shrugged.

    “We got from Nacrene to Castelia in twelve minutes this way. Can you do that by train?”

    “Fair enough.”

    Picking herself up, Niamh looked around and found herself utterly incapable of working out where they were; if Ezra hadn't told her so, she wouldn't have known that they had left Nacrene at all. A streetlamp, a pavement, two rows of old terraced housing; they could have been in any of Unova's larger cities. It wasn't until a little later, when she saw the flash of the Mondelsson building's spire above the rooftops, that she felt she really had travelled anywhere at all.

    “Right,” she said, blinking groggily. “Where are we going now?”

    “To the Party HQ,” replied Ezra. “We did discuss this, didn't we?”

    “Well, yeah,” she answered. “But aren't we going to wait until night? It'll be easier to go unnoticed in the dark.”

    Ezra smiled.

    “No,” he said. “It won't.” He patted himself on the chest. “We're nocturnal by nature,” he said. “When we do sleep – which is infrequently, I'll grant you – it's during the day. Once the moon is up, we won't be able to get within half a block of the building before we're spotted. And trust me,” he said, “we do not want to be spotted.”

    “Right. You know,” sighed Niamh, “it doesn't seem to me like I'm really much help to you here. The rules are different with you demons – my 'talents', as you put them, don't seem to apply.”

    “Not so. This is where you come into your own, Niamh.” Ezra took her arm and began walking down the street. “You know how to infiltrate a building, don't you?”

    “Yeah...?”

    “Well, frankly I don't,” he replied. “But what I do know how to do is evade demonic sentries and any traps that might have been laid for us. I also don't know how to deal with human guards without outright killing them; I always blast them a little too hard. Makes rather a, uh, a mess, too...” He shivered. “Never mind that. The point is, we need to pool our resources to get in. And that,” he said, “is why I need you.”

    Niamh stopped. There was something about what Ezra had said that she wasn't entirely sure she liked.

    “'Pool our resources'?” she asked cautiously. “What exactly do you mean by that? Because it's not like I can take another person in there with me, you know...”

    Ezra looked at her.

    “What? No, I really can't take you in with me.” She looked back, puzzled. “I know how to get myself in, but I don't know how to break someone inexperienced in with me...”

    “You don't have to,” he told her. “I'll simply possess you.”

    Niamh's eyes widened.

    “You can do that...?”

    “Yes, I can,” he replied. “Don't worry, I won't crush your free will or devour your soul or anything like that – I'll just be riding in the back of your head as an advisor. Occasionally I might require control over one of your hands to aim a spell or something, but other than that I promise I won't get in your way: you are, after all, the expert.”

    “Won't you be detected?”

    “Only if I take full control over you,” he replied. “Otherwise, your mind should shield me from anyone looking for a demon where there shouldn't be one.”

    “That implies they'll be able to detect me,” Niamh pointed out. “Is that going to be a problem?”

    “I don't think so. I should be able to keep your mental profile relatively low without giving myself away.”

    “All right,” said Niamh, who was now running out of objections, “I guess that's all my questions for now.”

    “Good,” replied Ezra, leading her down a short passage and out onto a broader street lined with large, old-fashioned townhouses. “Because we are now in Gaunton, three blocks from our target.” He pointed down the road. “It's just down there.” He turned to her and smiled reassuringly. “Now, I appreciate that this is an intimidating prospect, but really, it won't hurt, and I won't read your mind any more than I have to. Just, um, close your eyes and try to relax. The more worried you are, the more chance there is that this will go catastrophically wrong and I'll accidentally burst your soul.”

    “Really?”

    “No, not really,” said Ezra with a grin. “I'm joking.”

    “Ezra, you might want to avoid making jokes about that sort of thing in the future,” she said, voice strained. “Just a little tip.”

    “Really? All right,” he said mildly. “I'll bear that in mind. Now, shut your eyes and relax. This won't hurt at all.”

    Niamh had no doubt that it wouldn't hurt. She did, however, have some qualms about allowing a demon – however harmless he might seem to be – into her mind. In fact, she thought, she should probably mention that; it was best to get these things out in the open, after all.

    “Ezra,” she began, opening her eyes – and saw that he was gone.

    What is it? he asked.

    Niamh started. That had sounded a lot like her interior monologue – but not in her voice. In fact, she realised belatedly, it sounded like—

    My voice, yes, said Ezra. Macbeth's mind might have been 'full of scorpions', but it doesn't hold a candle to yours; it's bursting at the seams with monsters. You certainly do have a lot of personal demons, don't you?

    “I have one more now, it seems,” Niamh said, trying very hard to feel Ezra's presence inside her head and failing. “Uh – I thought you weren't going to read my mind?”

    I'm trying, replied Ezra testily. But if your anxieties will insist on attacking me, I can't very well not defend myself. I thought I told you to relax? The more tense you get, the more aggressive your mind's defences get – and that means I have to try harder to stay in here. If I try too hard, then I'm going to end up erasing parts of your mind – so please, try to relax a little.

    “OK, OK.” Deep breaths, Niamh told herself. In through the nose, out through the mouth; in through the nose, out through the mouth; forget about the demon in your skull; in through the nose...

    Thanks, said Ezra. Right. I have some information that might prove useful to you – close your eyes, please.

    Niamh did, and in the darkness behind her eyelids an image of a huge, rambling building appeared, all odd angles and strange colours. To her, unacquainted with architectural design, it seemed equally likely to be either a stupendous work of art or a waste of masonry; little did she know that not even experienced critics could agree on which category that particular edifice fell into. The appearance of the image itself was a surprise – but then she saw that it was moving, that the grass on the lawn was waving gently in the breeze and the CCTV cameras were sweeping their glassy eyes back and forth, and she could not refrain from gasping gently.

    This is Hawthorne House, where the Party has its headquarters, Ezra told her. It stands alone within a tall iron fence – this promptly appeared on the design – but don't worry about that; I can get you over it. What angle do you want to approach from? And how do you want to enter the building itself?

    “Can you—?”

    Yes, I'll rotate it; just tell me when to stop. By the way, you don't need to vocalise what you want to tell me; I can pick it up in your thoughts before the nervous impulse reaches your mouth.

    Niamh grinned.

    “This—”

    Yes, agreed Ezra. It would be a useful thing to have ordinarily, wouldn't it? Unfortunately, technology has a long way to go before it can replicate anything like this, so, well, enjoy it while it lasts.

    Yes, she might as well, thought Niamh; after all, Ezra didn't seem to be poking his nose into anything that didn't concern him, and he was providing her with tools that she would have killed to have in her ordinary line of work – so why not take pleasure in it? No point in worrying.

    Ah, that's better, sighed Ezra. Your mental defences are at an all-time low. Looks like you're getting used to this. Right! Image stopped.

    “There,” said Niamh, forgetting that the image did not exist on the same plane as her fingers and trying to point at it; the sharp pain of attempting to poke a brick wall brought the error home to her. “Ah, sh*t!”

    I know where you mean, said Ezra. A red line traced a circle around a first-floor window at the back of the west wing. Why here? Ah, I see, a CCTV blind spot. Fascinating. I didn't know you knew so much about security cameras – although I suppose in your line of work it's quite helpful.

    “Yeah,” replied Niamh. “If we can get in over the west fence, that'd be good – if we time it right, we can avoid the sweep of that camera there and get over to the drainpipe before it comes back. And if we stay close to the wall, that camera's field of vision should be just slightly too narrow to pick us up.”

    Yes. There's no need to say it out loud, but I get the idea. Right. Take a look at this.

    Hawthorne House slid to one side, and an elegant neoclassical townhouse appeared next to it, standing a little way off on the other side of a paved path, as if reluctant to be associated with so outlandish a building.

    Get to the front door of this building, Ezra told her. I'll take it from there.

    “OK,” said Niamh, opening her eyes and smiling amiably at a passerby who had seen her talking to thin air with her eyes shut and given her a worried look. “Let's go, Ezra.”

    She walked on, leaving the passerby staring in bewilderment after her, and watched the street get busier and more wealthy-looking around her; the buildings got taller and more elegant, and the distant rumble of protesters and journalists surrounding the Party HQ grew steadily louder. Gaunton was government town; though they had started life as townhouses, the buildings here all housed ministries or committees of some sort, and the area seethed with media people, flitting from event to event and congregating like flies on big stories – like Harmonia's electoral campaign and attendant Liberation policy.

    “Whoa,” murmured Niamh, as Hawthorne House hove into view. “It looks even more... uh... whatever it is up close.”

    Yes, agreed Ezra. It has to be seen to be believed, I think.

    “How do those two roofs fit together?” she wondered.

    Best not to think about it. It's said the architect perceived the world in six dimensions rather than the usual four.

    “How is that possible?”

    Well, I perceive it in five, he said thoughtfully. So I assume it works somehow.

    It did not take much thought for Niamh to decide that she really didn't want to ask too many questions about that.

    “Right,” she muttered. “We're here.”

    The townhouse, even more elegant when viewed up close, stretched away above her; as if to offset the serious mood of the façade, a spyhole winked conspiratorially at her from the centre of the shiny black door. Niamh liked this building; you knew where you stood with it.

    All right. Relax your right arm.

    Niamh did, and tried hard to keep from tensing her muscles as it began to move of its own accord, her fingers curling into a fist and her index finger extending to touch the keyhole. She felt a certain indefinable something leave her fingertip – and then her arm fell back to her side as if exhausted.

    “That was f*cking horrible,” she said with feeling.

    Yes, well, my apologies – but it did let me atomise the lock, Ezra told her. So! Time to enter, before people wonder why you're standing on the doorstep like this.

    Niamh took hold of the handle and pushed; the door swung freely open, and she walked into an oak-panelled hallway.

    Keep going. Act like you know what you're doing and hopefully no one will stop you. Turn left at the end of the hall; there should be a window at the end of the passage there.

    Niamh had done this sort of thing before, and did it now with panache: she smiled at the receptionist as she went past her desk, as if they knew each other, and spun herself through a doorway with one hand on the frame as if it were a familiar ritual. No one so much as glanced at her, and in a couple of seconds she was walking past a small group of myopic civil servants towards the window.

    Good. This is where we might get noticed. Relax; I'm taking over.

    For one moment, Niamh slumped on her feet – but then her body began to move without her input, stalking towards the window with a fluid grace that no human ever possessed before; her limbs seemed to roll and flow as if they were part smoke, and Niamh wondered exactly what Ezra was made of that he should move like this.

    Spirit, mostly, he answered. With a little blood, although there's precious little of that left in me these days.

    Niamh opened the window without conscious thought and climbed out and up onto the exterior wall with the alacrity and agility of a spider, her fingers digging impossibly into the stone. Her head swivelled back and forth, collecting glimpses of the ground, the wall and the street beyond so quickly that she felt herself becoming dizzy.

    “What in the fields of Neor—?”

    I have to get you over the fence, he said. Can't climb it or destroy it – they'd notice if we touched it. I can't jump it – the force of taking off would break your legs. So we have to gain a little height, and—

    Niamh's limbs twitched with a convulsive jerk, and she flew in a graceful backwards somersault over the iron railings; a moment later, without quite realising how, she was back in control and automatically moving through the blind spot between the cameras, reaching the cover of the rear wall of the west wing.

    Good, said Ezra. Commendable presence of mind. Your turn again, as you've discovered. I don't think we've been spotted, which is nice. We shouldn't show up on the camera facing that house's wall as anything but a blur; we were going quite fast.

    “All right,” said Niamh, glancing up at a camera wedged between the junction of the west wing and the main building and judging that it was currently occupied in looking at an ornamental flowerbed. “Good.” She took hold of the drainpipe and began to climb; it passed near the first-floor window, and with a jump that could only have been undertaken by the suicidally brave or the very experienced gained its windowsill.

    I'll open this, said Ezra, bringing her hand up to the glass. A network of fine black lines traced a cobweb of cracks over the pane, thickening and branching and growing more and more numerous until there was no glass left at all, just a mass of solid darkness; then, abruptly, he took her hand away, the blackness dissolved and a fine vitreous dust blew away silently on the wind.

    “Impressive,” murmured Niamh, swinging herself through the window and whacking a surprised clerk over the head with his keyboard. “Wish I could do that.”

    Trust me, the trade-off isn't worth it, sighed Ezra. You have no idea how much you miss being able to taste food until you can no longer do it.

    She might have enquired further about what he meant by that, but she was a little preoccupied in arranging the clerk to look like he had fallen asleep at his desk; a moment later, after checking that the rest of the office was clear, Niamh stole out of the room and into a red-carpeted corridor with more twists and turns than Gideon Mantell's spine.

    “Who the f*ck is Gideon Mantell?” she wondered aloud.

    That was one of my thoughts, Ezra said. Sorry. Our minds are pretty close to each other right now; you can appreciate that the odd thought slips across one way or the other.

    “Right,” said Niamh, glancing at an enamel sign on the wall and deducing that Harmonia's office was on the top floor of the main part of the building. “Friend of yours, is he?”

    No, he died around 1850. British palaeontologist. We never met, but we exchanged letters – scholarly debate, that sort of thing. Stop!

    Niamh froze.

    “What?”

    Look.

    Her hand pointed at a smoke alarm on the ceiling.

    “A smoke alarm?” she asked, puzzled.

    No. It's a curse. Hang on, I think I can show you... I'll just have to find your optic nerve. One moment!

    A second later, Niamh's eyes began to feel very dry for no real reason; she blinked, and when she opened them again she saw a small cluster of rotating, razor-edged teeth where the alarm had been.

    “'Sraven,” she muttered, staring in fascination as it drooled onto the carpet. “That's a curse?”

    Yes – or rather, it's a rat. I mean, it was a rat before some demon got to it and made it into a curse. Can't make something from nothing, you know. Anyway, I'd better disable it, or it'll probably do something vile to your skull.

    Niamh felt her hand rise and saw to her astonishment that a series of flat, translucent grey bands were rotating around it like electrons around an atom; as she watched, they peeled away, one by one, and wrapped themselves lovingly around the curse, smothering it and solidifying into something that looked like linoleum. The teeth twitched frantically and from somewhere in their depths came a panicked squeak – but the bands did not let go, and a moment later the remnants of the curse fell away from the ceiling and landed softly on the carpet.

    Niamh nudged it experimentally with the toe of her boot. The bands had taken on the texture of asphalt, and the whole thing was smoking gently. Of the curse, there was no sign except for one protruding tooth.

    “Huh,” she muttered. “Impressive.”

    Keep moving, said Ezra. Daytime security here is mostly mortal, but there's bound to be at least one demon somewhere in here, monitoring the curses. Depending on how lazy they are, we may not have long before they realise one has been tombed.

    “Tombed?” asked Niamh, heading down the corridor towards the main building; at the end was a stairwell, each flight separated by a spacious landing.

    Technical term. It's what I just did to that curse. Over there! That man looks like he doesn't think we should— Yes, that should do it, finished Ezra, as Niamh pushed the body down the stairs. Looks like he tripped and knocked himself out now, doesn't it?

    “It will,” she agreed, heading upstairs. “For about five minutes, until someone realises the bruises are on his neck instead of his skull. We have to be fast.”

    She hurried past two young men in grey suits who were going down to investigate the noise; they scarcely looked at her, as she had hoped, and she reached the upper floor without trouble. Here, a crescent-shaped hallway served as a junction between three or four passages, and a helpful plaque on one wall informed her that the one she wanted was to the left.

    “Why all these signs?” Niamh muttered under her breath, walking past a stern-looking woman who was attempting to tame a particularly truculent Blackberry. “Surely the people who work here know where everything is?”

    I suspect memory loss is common here, Ezra replied. I expect that the lower echelons of the Party don't know about the demons, and have their memories wiped quite frequently. They must forget all sorts of things.

    Niamh shook her head and headed down a corridor where the doors were made of steel.

    “This is f*cked up,” she said, slightly too loudly; the corridor's other occupant, a young man with a serious face, gave her an odd look.

    Keep walking, said Ezra sharply. Oh, you do not want to see her real face.

    “Demon?” murmured Niamh, so quietly it was barely vocalised.

    Very much so, replied Ezra. Probably the one who made the curse, judging by the extent to which she's altered her appearance.

    “You can look like a human too—”

    No, her real appearance. Moulding the flesh of a living creature is tricky, and moulding one's own essence is not only tricky but downright risky. I can create an illusion that makes me look human easily, but I wouldn't dare try to shift my real shape without a lot of skill. That demon there... Niamh felt a shudder run down her spine, and knew it was Ezra's rather than hers. She's spent quite some time customising her appearance. If she caught us, you would not be human by the time she was done with you, and I would not be a demon.

    Niamh caught a flurry of distant images at the edges of his thought – needles and long fingers, flesh running like candle-wax and knots tied in bones – and decided not to think about it.

    Good idea. Look!

    “I see it,” she said. “'G. HARMONIA, PARTY LEADER'.”

    Yes. Judging by the distance from the edge of the house, there must be two rooms here: presumably Harmonia's secretary's office, and his own beyond it.

    “Got it,” said Niamh, running over possibilities in her head. “I'll take it from here.”

    She knocked on the door and waited for a reply; someone called 'Come in' and she complied, waiting until the door had closed behind her before she moved.

    “Who—?”

    Harmonia's secretary was young and pretty, but she was not a martial arts master, and so did not get very much further than saying that before Niamh had choked her into unconsciousness. That done, she quietly barricaded the doors both to the main corridor and Harmonia's office with filing cabinets and waste-paper bins, then sat down in the secretary's chair, took a gulp of her coffee and began to investigate her computer.

    Nicely done, said Ezra admiringly. It always pays to go to the professionals.

    Niamh made a noncommittal noise in reply; she was currently mired in emails.

    “Who are these? They sound weird; are they demons?”

    Hmm? Sage Gorm, Sage Rood, Sage... well now, this is strange. I've never heard of any demons calling themselves sages before. Some do like to boast of their sagacity, but none have ever outright called themselves 'Sage' before. Harmonia does have a lot of meetings scheduled with these people, though, doesn't he?

    “Yeah. And these: M. Gentleman. Lots of meetings with him – and that's got to be the weirdest fake name I've ever come across.”

    It's not fake. Ezra did not seem to appreciate the joke – in fact, he sounded rather worried. It stands for Merry Gentleman. I think that's what the author calls them in the druids' book on demons – the Glasya-Labolas Treatise. I know them as fetches.

    “So M. Gentleman is a demon?”

    Not quite. It's one of Weland's slaves. But that isn't the worst of it: look at this. Harmonia's meeting with M. Gentleman today. Right now, in fact. Ezra paused. We are standing less than fifteen feet from an emissary of King Weland the Undying.

    Niamh started.

    “OK,” she said slowly. “Is it tough?”

    Ordinarily, no. They have no supernatural abilities save occasionally making their smiles broader than their face – I could tomb them easily. But I can't do that without alerting Weland to my presence – and if I do that, we're both dead.

    “What about if I go in there, beat it up and drag some information out of Harmonia?”

    That is the sort of plan that only someone who didn't know that fetches have superhuman strength would come up with. I won't be able to use a single power, not even to increase your strength: you'll be killed. Ezra hesitated. Niamh, why are you dismantling the barricade in front of the door to Harmonia's office?

    “I have a plan.”

    No you don't. I'm inside your head, Niamh – you can't lie to me.

    “Ezra, the secretary obviously doesn't have access to the information we need. I want to know where Smythe is, and I want him released. Harmonia can do both of those things. All I have to do is throw this fetch out the window or something, and I can interrogate Harmonia at my leisure—”

    Don't be an idiot! cried Ezra in agitation. You can't match this thing in combat, and if you or I die we both lose out: no Smythe, no dead Weland—

    “I have guns—”

    You could shoot it until it's fifty per cent lead, it won't matter – the damn thing probably died five hundred years ago! Ezra paused, evidently reining in his emotions; when he spoke again, his voice was calm. I'm not putting my mission above your own, he said quietly. But there really isn't much you can do against this thing.

    Niamh moved the last filing cabinet out of the way and paused with her hand on the doorknob. No guns, she thought; well, fine. She drew a compact silvery rod from her pocket instead.

    “Relax,” she told Ezra. “You hired the monster-slayer for a reason, right?”

    So saying, she flung the door open and walked in, extending the telescoping blade of her sword to full length with an expert flick of the wrist.

    ---

    Harmonia, sitting back in his chair, eyes closed.

    Tall, cadaverous-looking man before the desk, facing the window.

    Niamh's eyes roved across it and absorbed it all in less than a heartbeat, and before the door had even hit the wall her sword was whistling towards the man's head—

    Without looking, he reached out a hand and grabbed the sword by the blade. To Niamh's surprise, this stopped it as surely as if it had hit plate steel. She heaved at it for a moment, and found it, much to her consternation, immoveable.

    “Oh, sh*t,” she said.

    “An assassin,” said the man, turning to face her – and Niamh saw for the first time the unnatural pallor of his skin, the fixed, merry grin, and the dead eyes; saw it all, and wondered. He flung her sword down on the floor so hard it bounced; before it hit the ground again, Niamh had snatched it back up and had settled into a fighting stance.

    The fetch tilted his head. He wore a neat suit and a bowler hat that somehow amplified the sinister nature of his face; had he been tattooed with tribal designs and dressed in animal skins, Niamh didn't think he would have been nearly so distressing.

    Unheimlich, said Ezra. Or, as you call it in English, 'Uncanny'. Now is probably not the time to explain, though – now is the time to get out of here.

    “You must be Smythe's woman,” said the fetch. “How fortuitous.”

    It should not have had such a good vocabulary. (Niamh now thought of it as 'it', not 'he'; it was not human enough for 'he'.) It should have spoken in guttural snarls or some primitive grunting language; but it was so human, and so intelligent, and so alien...

    Niamh plunged her sword into its chest, but the fetch just stared and smiled.

    “Deadly,” it noted, running a finger down the side of the blade and watching its skin split open. No blood issued from the wound; it was simply a red line on a white field. “If you only knew the rules of our kind, you would make a formidable opponent.”

    Niamh pulled the sword out and lashed out again, scoring a long gash across its throat; the fetch did not, apparently, care.

    Stop sticking it, said Ezra urgently. If you must fight it, try and cut a limb off – it won't die, but it won't be able to move any more.

    “His Undying Majesty will be interested in you,” said the fetch meditatively, turning to face her as she moved around it, slowly manoeuvring herself into the position she wanted. “He'd love to meet you, I suspect. Who would have thought a human could penetrate so deeply into this building? There are curses at every approach, and Grimalkin is stationed in the corridor. Security here is impressive.”

    Niamh shrugged.

    “I've bypassed better,” she said, and pinned its neck to the desk.

    It cried out in surprise and kicked out wildly, its hands flying to its throat, but Niamh had already released the pin that kept the sword extended and the spring inside it retracted at speed; the blade collapsed and the hilt slammed into the fetch's neck with a crack of breaking bone.

    Knives materialised in Niamh's hands and she transferred one into the fetch's wrist as fast as it appeared, nailing it to the desk and severing a tendon; the other knife missed its mark, and the other hand caught her in the chest and knocked her flying.

    Niamh hit the far wall and jumped straight up again, ignoring the pain in her shoulder and rushing back towards the fallen fetch—

    Her own sword was at her throat.

    Niamh stared and swallowed. The fetch had apparently freed itself and sprung to its feet in less time than it had taken her to recover from the fall, which was itself less than three seconds; its hat had fallen off, and the knife was still stuck through its wrist, but other than that it seemed to be in exactly the same condition as when it had started the fight.

    “That would probably be how you bypassed the security, then,” said the fetch with a grin. “How perfectly marvellous. The King will be most amused.”

    Niamh's hand uncurled; her knife fell to the carpet.

    “Surrender already?” asked the fetch. “You do us an honour—”

    The hand was rising, and grey bands of light were writhing around it.

    The fetch could not blanch, for its skin was already the colour of milk, but its omnipresent grin slipped a notch.

    “Ah,” it said. “Ezra.”

    It erupted in a sheet of black flame as the bands snaked towards it; they drew together, clutching and grasping, but closed on nothing: the fetch had disappeared, leaving nothing behind but a few dark sparks and Niamh's blades, which fell to the floor from the spots where its wrist and hand had been. Cheated of their prey, the grey bands squeezed themselves into a singularity and disappeared with a mournful hiss.

    There was a silence.

    “Thanks,” said Niamh, after a moment or two.

    Niamh, said Ezra, his voice very quiet and very intense. Run. Now.

    It seemed a good idea. Grabbing the sword, the knife and Harmonia's laptop, Niamh hurried to the door and took to her heels as if all the fetches in Unova were lunging at her back.

  2. #127
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    Chapter Eighteen: A Smell of Petroleum Prevails Throughout
    The secret of the universe, eh? And also one of your stories?

    Nitpicks:

    as we were leaving, my phone rang, and, seeing who was calling, I answered with some trepidation.
    The comma after and isn't really needed, but it is still correct isn't it?

    “I think it's 'unrivalled' or something like that,” he said. “Anyway. His sagacity and might were unrivalled by any who came after; the kings of today were as nothing to him, for he was the last of the noble scion of Sondjr, and his name was Naudri, the Keeper of the Peace.”
    I thought it was Sandjr?

    “It explains everything,” Cheren said, typing something frantically on his phone. “I'm sure I read it somewhere... ah! Yeah, here, in an article in the New Unovan a few months ago. It's about research into the Dream World – says that in every case of Unovans monitored during sleep, REM sleep patterns start occurring at midnight exactly.” He looked up, and Halley looked back.
    “Yep,” she said. “You only start dreaming when the worlds switch over. It looks like you're subconsciously aware of it, even if you can't really process it.”
    You're missing the space between the two paragraphs.

    Also, you misspelled light as ilght somewhere, but I can't find it.

    A second smiling man, slightly thinner than the first and just as sallow, stood before him; while the one who had extracted him from the sarcophagus stood at the door, this one stepped forwards in spoke in the rich, unmistakeable voice of Ghetsis.
    Ghetsis must hate being so smiley.

    as Cheren had explained earlier, that was why he'd sprouted those small buds along his spine; he was beginning the process of changing his shape to a more mature form.
    This is way more realistic than the usual level up once and become completely different! (Okay, not completely different, but you get it)

    “Impressive,” murmured Niamh, swinging herself through the window and whacking a surprised clerk over the head with his keyboard. “Wish I could do that.”
    XD

    Knives materialised in Niamh's hands and she transferred one into the fetch's wrist as fast as it appeared, nailing it to the desk and severing a tendon; the other knife missed its mark, and the other hand caught her in the chest and knocked her flying.
    Assassin's Creed's Hidden Blades?

    It seemed a good idea. Grabbing the sword, the knife and Harmonia's laptop, Niamh hurried to the door and took to her heels as if all the fetches in Unova were lunging at her back.
    Isn't she running towards all the fetches though? And was Ghetsis sleeping all this time?

    Excellent chapter as always. Keep up the good work!


    Wild Future ~ Tyrone Walpole
    Credit
    I have claimed the Almighty Charizard.

  3. #128
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    Quote Originally Posted by TheDarkKnightFalls View Post
    The comma after and isn't really needed, but it is still correct isn't it?
    It is, although it's not strictly necessary, as you say. I tend a little towards the old-fashioned in my comma usage - that is to say, I like to have a few more than others might consider absolutely necessary, in order to better get across the flavour and rhythm of the sentence. I find it helps, since so many of my sentences end up being five or six lines long.

    Quote Originally Posted by TheDarkKnightFalls View Post
    I thought it was Sandjr?
    Oops. It was. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Quote Originally Posted by TheDarkKnightFalls View Post
    You're missing the space between the two paragraphs.

    Also, you misspelled light as ilght somewhere, but I can't find it.
    Yes, I am, and a quick search found the misspelling. Thanks.

    Quote Originally Posted by TheDarkKnightFalls View Post
    Ghetsis must hate being so smiley.
    I imagine the superhuman strength must do something to offset the disadvantages of the grin.

    Quote Originally Posted by TheDarkKnightFalls View Post
    This is way more realistic than the usual level up once and become completely different! (Okay, not completely different, but you get it)
    I treat Pokémon like animals, and I always assumed that, except for a few cases such as the Larvitar line or certain Bug-types, most Pokémon mature slowly at a constant rate. I usually try to use the growth patterns of each animal family a Pokémon is based on to decide how it matures, but in some cases, such as where a Pokémon is equal parts reptile and large carnivorous herb, it becomes somewhat uncertain and I have to fudge the details a little.

    Quote Originally Posted by TheDarkKnightFalls View Post
    Assassin's Creed's Hidden Blades?
    Every assassin should have them. And since I'm writing the story, every assassin does.

    Quote Originally Posted by TheDarkKnightFalls View Post
    Isn't she running towards all the fetches though? And was Ghetsis sleeping all this time?
    Ah! So you noticed. Well, there's only one fetch in the building, and it fled back to Weland; as for Ghetsis, you'll see what was up with him in the next chapter.

    Quote Originally Posted by TheDarkKnightFalls View Post
    Excellent chapter as always. Keep up the good work!
    Thank you for taking the time to let me know what you thought. I hope you continue to enjoy the story!

    F.A.B.

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    Chapter Twenty: Infiltration, Act Two

    Harmonia was not happy.

    While he had been in the trance, his mind hundreds of miles away in one of the Merry Gentlemen, it appeared the other Gentleman standing guard over him had been put to flight and his computer stolen.

    This was a Bad Thing, and everyone who had come into contact with him that evening had had this impressed on their minds quite forcibly.

    To make matters worse, Smythe had proven remarkably resistant to questioning. Harmonia had, at length, been forced to end the interrogation session when his normally quiescent sense of morality had started stirring in his heart; while not normally a man to flinch from the unnerving – his HawkEye was more perceptive than the manufacturers knew, and had opened up a dark and strange hidden world to him – he was not wholly comfortable punching a man to death, and had left Smythe alone when the blood and bruises became a bit too much. Despite his wounds, the man had grinned as Harmonia departed; this woman was, evidently, a point on which he was determined to remain silent. His grim non-cooperation had startled Harmonia as much as anything else; he hadn't known that Smythe was capable of such recalcitrance. Although, he told himself now, he should have known; he knew his history, after all, and he knew that Smythe had undergone worse than what he had submitted him to. He might be afraid, but he faced the objects of his fear with philosophical stoicism; however much of a coward he seemed, experience had proved his mettle and made him a braver man than most.

    This oversight on his part soured Harmonia still further, and he snapped out commands for the heightening of security with such venom as would have done credit to a particularly vindictive cobra. Human underlings scurried away like frightened mice; their demonic counterparts glared balefully, drifting off to their duties with hissed assurances that their King would hear of this. Complaints and fears aside, however, Hawthorne House was soon bursting at the seams with security measures.

    Curses and tomb-traps bristled from walls like fearsome clusters of carnivorous barnacles; teeth and tentacles trailed across floors and corridors, invisibly stroking the faces and shoulders of the security guards who patrolled in the corridors. They could not see them, of course, but Harmonia with his HawkEye and a few others with their natural gifts could, and this Party elite smiled grimly at the guardian terrors that grew and clicked in the shadows.

    And then there were the things that not even they could see properly: the men and women with a sardonic wit in their eyes – the ones who looked as if they knew a dark and grisly joke at humankind's expense, and enjoyed it immensely. Their true shapes were uncertain, but those with the eyes for it could sometimes, just for a moment, catch a glimpse of gold through bloody cracks in their flesh. Then, of course, the moment would pass, and they would flash you a knowing smile from an unbroken face, and walk on their way.

    By eight o'clock that night, therefore, Hawthorne House practically radiated menace, and it was through a subdued atmosphere that Caitlin Molloy made her way to see Harmonia.

    “Evening, Ghetsis,” she said. “How're you feeling?”

    “How do you think?” snapped Harmonia. “It's a complete and utter f*cking disaster! Whoever's got hold of that computer, they've got access to everything!” He thumped a fist down on the desk. “That damn kid! If it turns out it's White and Halley who stole this when he made me stop chasing them—”

    What Harmonia might have done had that turned out to be the case proved something of a moot point, however, as it was at this juncture that Caitlin thought she probably ought to interrupt.

    “We know who did it,” she replied. “And it wasn't them. It was your mystery woman.”

    Harmonia paused, fist stopping halfway through another thump of the desk.

    “Oh?”

    “I've been over the security footage,” she said patiently, “and while I have no idea how she got into the building, she was less careful on the way out – I suppose because the Gentleman left and she thought he was going to Weland for backup.”

    “He was,” replied Harmonia sourly. “When I came back to my body I found half a dozen embalmed dogs sh*tting all over the carpet and barking like mad. It seems Weland forgot that a sense of smell decays with the nose; they couldn't track a damn thing. It took me f*cking forever to get them sent back.”

    “Ah. I see.” Caitlin paused. “Well, um, anyway. Sairse was apparently in the west wing fiddling with a broken curse – I think the woman must have disarmed it somehow – but a couple of the regular guards tried to stop her. Doesn't seem like they got very far with that, but they remember her face, and the route she took out of the old drawing-room in the east wing took her right past one of the external cameras.” She placed a blurred photograph, evidently enlarged and sharpened as much as was possible, on the desk before him. “And here she is.”

    Harmonia snatched it up eagerly and perused it for some time.

    “I see,” he said at length. “And do we know who she is yet?”

    “That's where I come in,” replied Caitlin. “The way she dealt with the security here shows she's a professional, which means she must pass through the same spheres of life that I do. I've put out feelers among my contacts; we'll have answers some time tomorrow.”

    “Good,” said Harmonia with feeling. “The sooner we get this mess sorted out, the better.”

    “Yes, of course.” Caitlin hesitated. “There is one more thing, Ghetsis.”

    “Which is?”

    “There's someone waiting outside to see you,” she replied. “One of Weland's people.”

    “Well? Send him in, then.”

    “If you're sure,” she said. “It's just that he isn't any of the normal messengers.”

    Something cold curled snugly around Harmonia's heart.

    “No?” he asked, trying hard to keep his voice as level as he could.

    “No,” replied Caitlin. “He says he's the Chief of the Palace Guard, and he needs to talk to you about the rebels.”

    ---

    “I am the night,” muttered Halley to herself, slinking along the fence that separated Hawthorne House from the rest of the King's Road. “None shall see me coming, and when my vengeance is visited upon them, yea, they shall sh*t themselves in terror.” She paused and scratched her head. “I think that sentiment might be missing something in terms of poetry. Well, whatever.”

    It was half past eleven, and back at one of Castelia's Pokémon Centres Cheren, Bianca and Lauren were waiting with bated breath; they had, in fact, been waiting for some time now, as Halley had taken the scenic route and stopped to listen to a lonesome jazz saxophonist, playing to the moon atop the Telborn Bridge. She had been gone about two hours already, but saw no harm in making them wait. After all, she had decided, it would be interesting to see what they might notice if they were awake at midnight.

    Reaching a brick pillar at the corner of the square enclosure, Halley coiled and ran vertically up it; such was her speed that she almost crashed head-first into the urn on top of it, but she checked herself in time and wound around the edge of it, dropping down to the other side.

    “There,” she said to herself. “Fence surmounted. I'd like to see you do that, Cheren.”

    She picked her way across the lawn, pausing to push over a small and peculiarly hideous piece of statuary, and reached the shadow of the wall without incident; here, thinking over her actions and deciding that maybe the little statue was some kind of demonic idol, she doubled back and set it back on its feet.

    “No sense in tempting fate,” she said, patting it on the head and finding out too late that it had sharp little horns. “I could do without – ouch! – calling down the furies of hell on my head.”

    Back to the wall, then, and up onto the sill of a ground-floor window; from here, it was the work of a moment to reach the window's hood-moulding, and from there leap across to the roof of the porch, where she had a startling encounter with a large bat.

    “Eeek!” it shrilled, rising up from the slates like a materialising demon.

    “Sh*t!” yelped Halley, jumping backwards and almost losing her footing. “Ah – what the f*ck? Oh,” she said, finally realising what it was. “Oh, just a bat.”

    Eeek!” repeated the bat insistently. It looked something like a fox and something like an octopus; Halley was by no means an expert on chiropteran biology, but she was pretty sure that bats like that weren't normal.

    “Unova,” she said, regarding the bat with disgust. “Full of weird sh*t, isn't it?”

    The bat shrieked again, and wobbled its tentacular nose.

    “Not impressed,” replied Halley, stalking past it. “Find someone else to bother.”

    Realising that it had failed to intimidate the intruder, the bat – which was indeed of a species unique to Unova – seemed to deflate, and flapped off hurriedly into the night.

    “Good riddance,” said Halley, scrambling up the edge of a cartouche with an imperious-looking Latin inscription on it. “Rats with wings. And squid arms, apparently.”

    She looked around. There were just a couple of sets of windows between here and one of the lower roofs, and somewhere on that roof was a skylight that was just asking to be broken.

    “Piece of cake,” she said confidently. “Harmonia won't know what hit him.”

    It took only a couple of minutes for her to reach the gutter, and from there it was the work of a moment to gain the security of the roof. She padded along the slates towards the nearest skylight, feeling more smug than perhaps she ought to have felt, and then stopped dead when the clot of darkness welled up from nowhere in front of her.

    “Halley,” said Teiresias.

    “Sh*t,” said Halley.

    “I have been waiting,” replied the fiend. Halley made a half-hearted attempt to flee – but those unseen hands held her paws tight, as she knew they would.

    “So I see,” she replied. “Uh... so. Weren't you meant to not be chasing us any more?”

    The darkness seemed to roll, as if its surface were composed of waves, and two lights of indeterminate colour appeared somewhere in the middle of it.

    Halley had good night vision, but she still could not see what Teiresias really looked like, and for that she was grateful.

    “I am not here on behalf of Harmonia. I come here as a private individual.” Something like a paw, or perhaps more like a wheel, extended from the mass of darkness and scraped along a slate. “You have information that I require.”

    “And what might that be?”

    “Their name is not to be spoken here,” Teiresias went on, its voice lowering to a hiss like the shifting of shrouds in silent tombs. “But they are the stranded. And I must find them.”

    “Listen, I have no idea what you're talking about there,” replied Halley. “I'm an amnesiac, in case you hadn't worked that one out already. It may be that I know something about these 'stranded' you mention – but if I ever did, I've forgotten it.”

    Teiresias was silent. This was, Halley thought with a sense of rising panic, far more intimidating even than its grave-mould whisper.

    “But,” Halley went on desperately, “inside this building is information that might jog my memory.” She gave it an earnest look. “So, y'know, if you were to just let me go on my way without eating my soul or whatever it is you demons do, I'd be much obliged.”

    “Memory,” said Teiresias, a slow anger rising in its dead voice. “They took your memory to hide from me...”

    Something cracked loudly at its core, and the two halves of a bone clattered down over the slates and into the gutter. Halley did not look too closely, but she saw enough to know that it was human.

    “I cannot let you go,” said Teiresias, as if nothing had ever happened. “You will not survive the trip to the offices; security is tight here, and it has been tightened following a recent break-in.”
    Halley snorted – partly in derision, and partly as a way of putting the bone out of her head.

    “So what? I can avoid security with my eyes shut—”

    “Not when the guardians are of my kind,” said Teiresias, calm and implacable. “I cannot let you go in there. You will have to remember, and tell me now.”

    “Not possible,” replied Halley. “I can't just force memories back into my skull at will.”

    “You have no choice—”

    “Or what, exactly? You're going to kill me?” Halley laughed. “You won't get anything if you kill me, will you?”

    Teiresias was silent for a moment.

    “I could kill White,” it said. “Or your associates.”

    “Kill them, then,” replied Halley, lip curling back over sharp white teeth. “It's not going to jog my memory or anything.”

    It paused.

    “I see,” it said at length. “This is a difficult situation.”

    “No, it isn't,” she replied. “You just let me go in there and root around, and I'll be back, and if I remember anything I'll tell you. Simple, right?”

    “No.” Teiresias hesitated for a moment. “I shall assist you.”

    “No, you just let me— hey, what did you just say?”

    “I shall assist you.” Having finally decided on a course of action, the demon's voice seemed stronger; it had not sounded so sure of itself before. “You would never survive this on your own: I will have to come with you, and ensure your survival. And when we are done, you will tell me where I can find the stranded.”

    “Uh... OK,” agreed Halley, nodding feverishly. “Sure, sure. You got yourself a deal.”

    “Then let us go,” said Teiresias, and Halley could just about make out it shifting within its cloak of shadow. “There is little time to waste.”

    It swept over to a skylight and the hands that held Halley dissolved on the air; she stretched for a moment, then followed Teiresias as it slipped down through the space where moments ago there had been glass.

    A moonlit corridor; a tall, dark figure orbited by bands of greyish light – and then blackness, as the huge shadow of Teiresias swept across Halley's vision, overcoming the dark figure before it could so much as turn. A moment later there was nothing except a gigantic crouching shape, indistinct even in the silver light, and two great blind eyes hanging in the middle.

    “Dead,” rumbled Teiresias. It had two voices now, Halley noticed; one was its own, and one was something a little more human, that echoed its words in a distant, despairing scream. Perhaps that was the soul of the thing it had just devoured, she thought, and instantly regretted having the idea. “Follow me.” (Follow, follow, aaagh follow... me...)

    “All right,” she said shakily, and stalked along in Teiresias' wake. It cast no shadow, she noticed; the moonlight seemed to swerve around it and join up again on the other side.

    They made their way around a corner, and a few tooth-studded tentacles rose up from thin air on either side of them, hissing, Halley retreated, but Teiresias stood its ground – and a moment later, black rot spread up the tumorous limbs from their bases, and they dwindled into little heaps of mould that soaked into the carpet like ditchwater.

    “My power waxes,” said Teiresias, half to itself. (Waxes, waxes, power waxes...) “The King is as good as his word.” (Word....)

    “What was that?”

    A man's voice, and a door opened to the right; a blue-jacketed guard stepped cautiously through, stared in incoherent terror and vanished beneath the cloak of Teiresias' pounce.

    Halley looked away. She was not particularly averse to violence, but what Teiresias did was not for mortal eyes.

    They left what remained of the body and continued until they reached a stairwell; twice more did fleshy tendrils attempt to ensnare them, but each time Teiresias destroyed them without moving.

    “Two nights' time,” said Teiresias. “In two nights the moon will be dark. And I will be whole once again.”

    Two voices echoed its own now, and one was unmistakeably that of the fallen guard.

    From atop a newel post, something almost but not quite like a flayed owl hooted a soft warning; something dark and solid arced from Teiresias' core and scooped it into the fiend's body.

    The hooting stopped.

    Halley shivered.

    “Up,” commanded Teiresias. (Up, up, up... Up up...)

    Halley followed it as closely as she dared, hesitant about coming too near and wary of falling too far behind; Teiresias was deadly, yes, but it was currently on her side. However afraid of it she might be, her enemies had far more to fear.

    And fear indeed they did: in a small room two floors above them, the demon Sairse felt her curses blink out of existence one by one – and yet there came no report of increased demonic presence in the building. The only demons here were those who had been present all night.

    Silently, she called out to them, voice resonating down the dark paths, and silently they came, gathering on the upper floor, counting each other, working out who was missing.

    And they realised who was missing from the count.

    As one, they turned and fled.

    ---


    Teiresias paused.

    “They run,” it said. “My comrades fear me.” It did not sound sad, merely pensive. “It seems my association with the King is at an end.” (An end, at an end, an end... The King is at an end...)

    Halley didn't quite dare ask what it meant; she had a feeling that if it remembered she was there, it might turn around and consume her as it had done the guard.

    “I regret that,” Teiresias went on, tearing something bloody from a wall and crunching it with unseen mouthparts. “For a long time it seemed to me that he must command my loyalty. But I see now that my needs must come first. I am not of his kind; I am a useful footsoldier to him, but no more.” (No more! No more, no more... please, God, no more...) The stairs ended and gave way onto a landing with several corridors leading off it. “I must do what is best for myself,” it said. “I am not Unovan. I care not for the fate of this land.” (Fate, fate... The fate of this land...)

    Teiresias stalked towards the left-most passage and something like a coil of entrails slipped down from the ceiling to strangle it; it passed straight through the fiend's body, and with a small, tinny wail it was sucked in and vanished.

    “Anybody there?”

    Halley winced. Not again.

    Two guards, approaching from opposite corridors, guns raised; their eyes converged on Teiresias, a motionless totem of unremitting darkness, and they opened their mouths to say—

    Something dragged them beneath the floor.

    It was far too fast for Halley to see properly: a flicker of movement like the lightning strike of a snake, and then the carpet closed over them like water. But she saw enough to know that the clutching things were no serpents; they were hands, though their fingers were too many and too flexible to be human. As they began to move on once more, she thought of the hands she had felt clutching at her ankles in the past, and shivered. Those wounds the Glasya-Labolas had mentioned were clearly healing now, though it seemed to have taken several hundred years; it had gone from strength to strength since they had last met.

    “The office,” announced Teiresias, coming to a halt. (Office, office... Office...)

    Halley looked up. The door they stood before had Harmonia's name on it, and there was a considerable quantity of blood soaked into the carpet. Whatever had been guarding this door, Teiresias had destroyed it fairly comprehensively, and had done so before she had even seen it.

    “OK,” she said. “I'm... going to search in here now.” She paused. “There isn't anything waiting for me in there, is there?”

    There was a crack and the door fell off its hinges, revealing an empty office beyond.

    “No,” replied Teiresias. (No, no, oh please Woden no...)

    “All right, then,” said Halley, and padded cautiously in. There was a computer on the desk, and that seemed a good place to start; she jumped up onto the chair, and then climbed onto the desktop. “OK,” she said, a sudden grin twisting her face in two. “Time to do what I do best.”

    She pressed a paw down on the keyboard, and the screen lit up. A few swift keystrokes, and the Green Party's digital security came apart in shreds; a few more, and Halley was looking at a map of Unova that only Harmonia was supposed to be able to access. There was a little blue dot blinking in the eastern half of Nimbasa, and, puzzled, Halley sought the map's legend.

    She read it, and her eyes widened.

    “Well now,” she said slyly. “Harmonia, what have you been up to...?”

    ---

    “So where is this... Tomb-Gaol?” asked Niamh.

    Ezra looked grave.

    “In the court of King Weland the Undying,” he said. “Specifically, it's comprised of a complex accessed via the Great Western Transept.”

    They were once more two people, and were ensconced in the relative safety of a hotel room Niamh had booked in her name; once she had reached it, Ezra had detached himself soundlessly from her mind and taken up a seat in the only chair, forcing her to sit on the bed. A quick look through Harmonia's files indicated that Smythe was being held in the aforementioned Tomb-Gaol, and it was on this topic that Niamh was now questioning Ezra.

    “So let's go there,” she replied. “Actually, no. You're about to tell me why we can't do that, aren't you?”

    Ezra inclined his head.

    “You know me so well,” he said. “By forcing me to attack the fetch, you've given us away to Weland. He knows we're coming; the Court will be locked up so tightly that not even the wind can pass in or out without being intercepted.”

    “Ah.” Niamh felt her cheeks redden; it had been pretty foolhardy of her to charge the fetch – but then again, it hadn't been the sort of monster she had thought it would be. She had learned now; in future, she would leave that particular kind of threat to Ezra. “That would be my fault, then.”

    “Yes.” Ezra sighed. “Never mind. You were only doing your job, I suppose; you're a monster-slayer, after all.” Cigarette smoke started curling from between his lips. “We're going to have to change our plan,” he said. “Although I have to confess, I'm not sure how.”

    “Can we lure Weland out?” asked Niamh. “Or another member of the Court that we could hold hostage, and then exchange them for Portland?”

    “While I probably could contain most of Weland's subjects individually,” replied Ezra, “I doubt Weland cares enough about their well-being to give up Smythe for them. His plan to retake Unova is more important. However,” he added, “we do have one advantage. Our enemies don't know that there are two of us; I expect they'll think that you are just a body I happened to possess. It wouldn't occur to most of my kind to leave the mind of a host intact. Our appearance at Hawthorne House, in addition to yours at the Striaton Gym, will make it seem as if they have only to deal with me.”

    “Does that help us at all?” asked Niamh.

    “I have no idea,” replied Ezra. “But I thought we might count it. Oh, wait,” he said, face falling. “They must know there are two of us. That old man saw both of us in the forest, and it was quite clear we were working together.” He sighed. “Oh well. I wasn't sure what the advantage was anyway; I suppose I can hardly be sad to lose it.”

    “Yeah.” Niamh scratched her head and clicked through a few more of Harmonia's emails. “Hey,” she said abruptly. “There's just one king in Unova, right? Weland.”

    “Yes...?”

    “Well, there's something here about another one,” she said. “Look – 'Sairse said it would be an honour to serve under the Regent to the King of All Humans, in recognition of the compact between our peoples.'” She looked up at Ezra. “Make any sense to you?”

    Ezra stared.

    “The King of All Humans?” he queried. “It says that?”

    “Read it yourself,” she said, handing him the laptop. “Look.”

    He did, and his eyes widened still further.

    “But that's impossible,” he said, brow creasing. “I saw him die – I saw them all die.” He bit his lip, and the cigarette smoke dissipated. “This changes everything,” he said. “If they have returned...” He looked up. “Niamh,” he said, “we have to find this man – this King. We can stop Harmonia if we can explain to him what Weland is trying to do. He will listen; his kind always did.”

    “What? Who is this person?”

    “Before the dawn of civilisation – before even prehistory – there was a kingdom here in Unova,” replied Ezra. “It was destroyed when the first tribes of modern Unovans came here; the survivors covered their retreat by unleashing the last dragon and fled to their last fortress in the west. And there they lived in peace and seclusion as the country fell into war – until the Heroes came, and tamed the beast, and razed the last city of the First Kingdom to the ground.”

    “The First Kingdom,” breathed Niamh. “It was real?”

    “Very real,” he said. “It was the greatest civilisation ever to rise up on earth, and the greatest that ever will. Its kings were the Kings of All Humans – Kuningor va Jorwal, in the old tongue – and their bloodline was eradicated in the Bronze Age by the Twin Heroes. And,” he added, with great emphasis, “they have apparently returned from the grave.”

    Niamh sought desperately for words, and eventually came up with:

    “Oh.”

    “Oh indeed,” replied Ezra. “Something impossible is happening, Niamh, and we need to get to the bottom of it. If we can find this King and tell him what Weland is doing...” He paused. “Well. He will stop Harmonia and may even break the pact with Weland. Which could well result in a full-blown revolution in the Shrouded Court, as my people are forced to declare sides. In other words—”

    “Chaos,” finished Niamh. “And a way into the Court.”

    “Where we can kill Weland and rescue Smythe,” agreed Ezra. “Exactly.” He grinned. “Now,” he said, “let's see what else Harmonia's laptop has to offer...”

    ---

    “Why are you doing this?”

    That was not Teiresias' voice, thought Halley in alarm.

    She looked up and around the edge of the monitor, and saw that a cluster of tall, indistinct figures had appeared outside the office; the more closely she looked at them, the harder they were to see, and after a moment she found that looking at them out of the corner of her eye worked best. Each carried an object of uncertain shape in its right hand, around which grey bands of light orbited ceaselessly; the only other detail she could easily make out was that each was topped with a burning red pair of eyes.

    “I serve no master,” replied Teiresias, undaunted. “Jormal's Cycle comes to its peak, and my power returns.” (Returns, returns... My power returns...)

    “You have made an enemy of His Undying Majesty, Teiresias.”

    “I know how this ends,” said the demon. “I saw it all earlier tonight.” (Saw it all, all... Tonight...)

    That was right, thought Halley; Teiresias was proleptic. It could see the future. It must have seen that these beings would come for it, and she was willing to bet that it knew it was going to kill them all.

    The indistinct figures drew back a little, hesitant.

    “Ah,” said one, who seemed a likely candidate for the leader. “I don't think I need your gift to tell me that we ought to be elsewhere.”

    “It's too late,” Teiresias told it with undisguised delight, and swept forwards in a great curling rush of shadow—

    The figures broke and ran, but the souls were screaming out already – Too late! Too late! – and Teiresias came crashing down like the wrath of the gods—

    And Halley knew that once it was done, it was going to come after her looking for answers that she couldn't supply, glowing blackly with the power of freshly harvested souls, and she knew that if she couldn't give it the answers it wanted something very bad would happen, and so before it had a chance to notice she slipped across the room and up onto the windowsill – and a moment later she was gone, leaving nothing behind but an open window and a ringing alarm.
    Last edited by Cutlerine; 13th May 2013 at 10:06 AM.

  5. #130
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    Well then, hopefully Halley will remember something of use because with Teiresias gaining power at this rate, I doubt she'd be able to go far.

    Anyway, after a long time of not reading this (5 chapters) I have to say that I rather enjoyed not having to wait to see what happens next until this latest part.

    There is a repetition in this latest chapter where you use the word "at" twice in a row as "at at"

    I enjoyed the Harmonia complex invasion with Ezra and Naimh, they seem to be more interesting the main group. I'd give details but the reading of chapters has fused a lot of information into one jumbled mess and I forget in which chapter I read whatever thing I'd be referencing.

    Not much else to say other than sorry I haven't said anything in a while and I hope you keep up the good work.


    Credit to Brutaka for the amazing banner and user bar. Yeah, having 2 is redundant, but it shows you guys my favorite pokemon, what story I had planned and my position in the WoJ.

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    And then there were the things that not even they could see properly: the men and women with a sardonic wit in their eyes – the ones who looked as if they knew a dark and grisly joke at at humankind's expense, and enjoyed it immensely.
    I believe this is what Azurus was talking about. Right at the beginning of 'Infiltration, Act Two'.

    As always, fantastic work! This chapter was nicely atmospheric; almost like a horror movie. I see we're learning more about Teiresias' past ...

    ~Deadly


    plot, bounty hunters, crazed tax collectors
    a journeyfic by the most improved writer of 2012, second place
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  7. #132
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    Quote Originally Posted by Azurus View Post
    Well then, hopefully Halley will remember something of use because with Teiresias gaining power at this rate, I doubt she'd be able to go far.

    Anyway, after a long time of not reading this (5 chapters) I have to say that I rather enjoyed not having to wait to see what happens next until this latest part.

    There is a repetition in this latest chapter where you use the word "at" twice in a row as "at at"
    Thanks; it's been located and fixed.

    Quote Originally Posted by Azurus View Post
    I enjoyed the Harmonia complex invasion with Ezra and Naimh, they seem to be more interesting the main group. I'd give details but the reading of chapters has fused a lot of information into one jumbled mess and I forget in which chapter I read whatever thing I'd be referencing.

    Not much else to say other than sorry I haven't said anything in a while and I hope you keep up the good work.
    Thanks! I hope you continue to enjoy it.

    Quote Originally Posted by Deadly.Braviary View Post
    I believe this is what Azurus was talking about. Right at the beginning of 'Infiltration, Act Two'.

    As always, fantastic work! This chapter was nicely atmospheric; almost like a horror movie. I see we're learning more about Teiresias' past ...

    ~Deadly
    Thanks for pointing that out. And yeah, I do like occasionally dipping into that sort of area; it's a welcome relief from the usual levity.

    Anyway! Time for a new chapter.

    F.A.B.

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    Chapter Twenty-One: Our Man in Johannesburg

    “Anything yet?” asked Harmonia frantically.

    He and Caitlin sat in a large, comfortable drawing-room on the lowest floor of Hawthorne House; above their heads, the battle between Sairse's curses and the implacable Teiresias was raging, but it did so silently, and no one had yet noticed it. Sounds found it hard to penetrate the drawing-room – the governor who had built it had enjoyed peace and quiet, and had had rudimentary soundproofing installed under the wooden panelling; he had also populated the room with a series of overstuffed armchairs that absorbed noise and deadened the air, and it was actually rather hard to make yourself heard there. Harmonia would have had the whole room redecorated ages ago, but Hawthorne House was a listed building, and this room in particular, a marvel of nineteenth-century soundproofing engineering, had Grade I status under the Historic Architecture Law.

    “No,” Caitlin replied patiently, leaning back in her chair. “I told you, you'll know when they reply; I've got my phone right here.” She held it up again. She would have preferred to go home, but Harmonia claimed to be in the process of hatching a plan, and had demanded she stay until he was ready to put it into action.

    “All right,” he said at length, sounding a little calmer. “This Ezra that Weland's man told me about. If he's with this woman, it stands to reason that through her he's connected to Halley and her group – they both came to secure the dragonstone, didn't they? And they were both at the Gym in Striaton.”

    Caitlin frowned.

    “You want to smoke out Ezra by threatening the kids? I thought you'd promised N you wouldn't?”

    Harmonia shook his head.

    “I promised him that if his methods yielded results, I would relax my efforts to find the kids unless they started interfering,” he said. “Well, if they're connected to Ezra, they definitely are interfering – so I'm justified in trying to get to them, aren't I?”

    Caitlin saw the logic of this. It was sneaky, devious and thoroughly underhanded; she wholeheartedly approved. The only point of caution she raised was that Halley's gang had hospitalised two of their agents before in the Dreamyard, had systematically evaded Smythe and Teiresias, and had almost succeeded in getting the dragonstone back in the woods – would have done, had they known they were meant to be looking for the stone. They were young, but she was living proof that that meant nothing; with enough forethought and data to work with, raw intelligence could defeat experience.

    “True,” conceded Harmonia. “So, subtlety is in order.” He looked at her. “Time for one of our old friends, I think,” he said. “Bronius, maybe – or Rood?”

    “Oh, Rood, I think,” replied Caitlin with a wicked grin. “If you're thinking what I think you are, then this is exactly his sort of thing...”

    ---

    “Harmonia has some kind of tracking device implanted in N,” said Halley.

    “What?”

    “That's... well, that's pretty much all I managed to find out,” she admitted. “Before Teiresias went apesh*t and I decided to get out of there.”

    We were still in the lounge of the Pokémon Centre, where we'd spent the last few hours watching awful late-night TV and fretting; we'd gone quiet around midnight, when we knew to expect the switch between universes – but hadn't felt anything change, even though I knew that just a second ago I had been Lauren White. I remembered sitting up in the night waiting for Halley as me, even though I wasn't sure whether that history was real or simply imagined to cover up the fact that it was Lauren who'd done it; was there even a difference between Lauren doing it and me doing it? I wasn't so sure there was.

    At any rate, Halley had returned shortly after midnight, with a haunted look in her eyes and unusual information.

    “Teiresias was there?”

    “Yes,” said Halley. “And it doesn't seem to be working for Harmonia anymore. It wanted some information from me – information that I've forgotten, apparently – and I managed to talk it into helping me through the building in exchange for telling it. Thankfully, a pack of demons answering to someone called 'His Undying Majesty' showed up, and the fifteen seconds it took him to destroy them gave me time to get away.” She yawned. “F*cking hectic night, man.”

    “Wait,” I said, clutching at my head to try and stop it falling apart at the seams, “Teiresias has abandoned Harmonia and is coming after you personally?”

    “Looks like it.”

    “Doesn't that mean it'll be coming after us again?” I asked.

    There was silence.

    “I rather think it does,” said Cheren. “And I also don't think it's wise for us to stay in one place for too long. I'm not sure how it finds us, but it's getting good at it.”

    And,” put in Halley, “its powers are coming back. Something to do with a King – I presume this 'Undying Majesty' guy – and Jormal's Cycle. Whatever that is. Anyway, the point is: it's getting stronger. A lot stronger.”

    “It was strong to begin with,” said Bianca. “How much worse can it get?”

    Halley fixed her with serious green eyes – eyes that had self-evidently seen things that didn't bear the retelling.

    “A lot,” she replied insistently. “Trust me.”

    “Jormal's Cycle is a druidic thing,” said Cheren. “There are supposed to be cycles of rising and falling power in the land that recur over periods of time – Jormal's Cycle is a big one. Discovered by a man named Jormal, presumably. It's a two-hundred-year cycle that's just on its way to reaching its peak now.”

    “'Rising and falling power in the land'?” asked Halley. “What the f*ck does that even mean?”

    Cheren shrugged.

    “I'm not an expert,” he said. “I just know the definition.”

    “Really? Huh. I assumed you knew everything.”

    “Why does everyone keep saying that to me?”

    “Because you seem like you do,” Bianca told him, perfectly ingenuously, which seemed to calm his irritation a little.

    “Ugh. Fine,” he said, “but let's not wander off the point. What was this about Harmonia and a tracking device, Halley?”

    “Well, he has one implanted in N, I think,” she replied. “Or on him somewhere. There's a map of Unova with a dot on it where N is. I zoomed in and watched it for a little while, and saw it move, so I'm pretty sure there actually is a tracker on him somewhere. It said he was moving around the eastern half of the big city north of here at the moment.”

    “Nimbasa?”

    “I don't know – I don't know sh*t about Unovan geography. If you say it's Nimbasa, it's Nimbasa.” Halley yawned. “Now. I don't know about you, but I could use some sleep. I'll be in Lauren's room if you want me.”

    I frowned. Somehow the fact that she had confused us troubled me; some indefinable worry hovered at the edge of my mind, but I couldn't articulate it. Perhaps Lauren would be able to, I thought; perhaps she already had, and I didn't know.

    “Jared,” I corrected. “I'm Jared.”

    Halley blinked at me tiredly from the doorway.

    “Right,” she said. “Jared, right.” She yawned again. “I'm guessing Teiresias will have to lie low or run for a while after tonight, because this demon King is probably going to send stronger people to kill it when he realises it ate his last squad. I think we're safe for tonight at least.”

    She padded off towards the stairs, tail waving slowly behind her.

    “I guess that's something,” sighed Cheren. “Right. I'm going to bed. Bianca, set Munny on guard; it'll sense Teiresias approaching before anyone else can see it.”

    “OK,” she replied. “Night!”

    “Goodnight.”

    We dispersed and went our separate ways, each heading back to their own room; after the tension of the night's long wait, I was tired, and fell asleep easily. As predicted, Teiresias didn't show, and morning came without incident; I woke myself up at about ten with a loud sneeze, and stumbled down to the canteen – where I made the unwelcome discovery that Cheren was already up, and that he looked as neat and alert as if he'd had a full twelve hours of sleep.

    “Lelouch has finished evolving,” he announced with more enthusiasm than I was comfortable with first thing in the morning, and something that looked a lot like a Snivy but definitely wasn't slithered up onto the table, propelling itself with little kicks of its stumpy legs. Lelouch seemed to have become more serpentine overnight; he was certainly a lot longer, and a series of stiff, leafy plates projected from his spine where before there had been none. I had a look in his eyes, but there was nothing in them to indicate he'd become any more intelligent; I supposed that snakes didn't need a whole lot of brainpower.

    Candy couldn't quite believe that this was the same creature as before, and poked him experimentally with a taloned hand; Lelouch hissed crossly and made a half-hearted lunge for her that startled her into falling over backwards. Assuming that this was some kind of telekinetic projection on the snake's part, she decided the best course of action was retreat, and promptly hid inside my jacket.

    “Nice,” I said, patting her absently. “What do you call that?”

    “He's a Servine,” Cheren informed me. “You'll notice he uses his legs less and less – by the time he's a full-grown Serperior, he won't need legs at all, and they'll have atrophied so completely that they'll remain only as bone clusters within the main body.”

    “Yeah, great,” I mumbled. “Uh... Cheren, it's too early for a biology lecture.”

    He raised his eyebrows and speared a sausage delicately with his fork.

    “Suit yourself,” he said.

    I turned my attention to eating, but something was bothering me; I couldn't put my finger on what it was – then I looked up, and saw that there were a pair of decidedly Gothic-looking Trainers sitting at a table beyond Cheren. Nothing odd about that, I thought – what was it about them that was odd? I stared for a moment, but if there was anything, it was beyond me in my current sleep-fuddled state, and I returned my gaze to my plate, towards which Candy was creeping very, very slowly, as if she thought that I might not notice if she moved only in increments of less than a centimetre. I fed her a sausage and she squealed in delight.

    “Cheren! Jared!”

    Bianca's voice cut through the low chatter like a knife; she burst through the doors and scuttled over to us like an anguished crab.

    “Cheren!” she gasped, eyes wild and hat askew. “Munny's gone!”

    He started.

    “What do you mean, 'gone'?” he asked.

    “I mean gone!” she cried. “Gone gone! As in – not here!”

    “OK, calm down,” he said, sitting her down. Lelouch took advantage of his distraction to haul a long strip of bacon into his mouth from his plate, but Cheren didn't seem to notice. “What happened, exactly?”

    “Munny was floating just outside my window last night,” Bianca said, swallowing hard, “watching for Teiresias, like you said. But now... now it's not...”

    “OK.” Cheren thought for a moment. “We can find it,” he said decisively. “Lelouch!”

    The Servine's head snapped around and he swiftly sucked down the remaining bacon. Cheren patted his arm, and he slithered up and coiled around it, settling into position like an unusual hawk on a falconer's gauntlet.

    “All right,” he said, getting to his feet. “Follow me.”

    I grabbed a sausage for the road and hurried off with Candy after Bianca and Cheren; as I passed the Goth Trainers, I realised what it was that had struck me about them: they had broken handcuffs around their wrists, like I did. Abruptly, I recalled the girl with too much eyeshadow from Striaton, saying that she had to get some for herself; I hadn't been serious when I'd thought she would go and tell her friends about it, but perhaps she had.

    “Snakes have exceptional senses of smell,” Cheren explained as we passed down the hall. “It's a bit hit and miss, since they're not exactly smart, but Lelouch knows Munny's scent well and should be able to track it.”

    The air outside was cold and hit like a southbound freight train; I shuddered and tugged my jacket closer around me.

    “Ugh. Freezing.”

    “Ss,” agreed Lelouch; neither reptiles nor plants are cold-weather enthusiasts, and his leaf-plates were flattening themselves against his back at the touch of the chill air.

    “Why're they doing that?” I asked.

    “Thermoregulation,” said Cheren, setting off at a brisk pace to the spot beneath Bianca's bedroom window. “The leaves are full of blood vessels. When it's warm, they spread out to prevent overheating. When it's cold, they collapse to preserve energy. Here,” he announced, halting. “Bianca, Munny's ball, please.”

    She held it out and Lelouch flicked his forked tongue over it; Cheren held him up, and in one fluid movement he wriggled free of his arm and started slithering away across the pavement.

    I looked at Cheren.

    “That it?” I asked.

    “Yeah,” he replied. “Don't just stand there, follow him!”

    We made swift progress down the street; the Centre was not in a fashionable part of town, and there weren't too many people about. I could hear the roar from the shoppers' Mecca of the Eastmarch Arcade to the north; I half-hoped the trail would lead us there – it was good to be back in a big city, and a wander through some horrendously overcrowded shopping streets would have put me in an excellent mood for Munna-hunting.

    However, it was not to be: Lelouch brought us west via the back streets, avoiding the main roads; I supposed that meant someone had stolen Munny deliberately, and had taken the struggling Munna away via side roads where they stood less of a chance of being seen or questioned. That made things more serious: I stopped thinking about shopping opportunities, and focused on following Lelouch. The focus was necessary, I found; Lelouch did not apparently care to wait for the traffic to stop before attempting to cross the road, and on more than one occasion we had to be fast to grab him before he vanished under the wheels of a bus.

    “Munny's gone a really long way,” said Bianca anxiously. “What do you think happened?”

    “Someone took it,” Cheren replied. “I think, anyway.” Then, noticing her worry: “But don't worry. We'll find Munny, I'm certain – it's more why it was taken that bothers me.”

    “I'd been thinking about that, too,” I said. “Why would anyone want Munny?”

    “I don't know,” he replied honestly. “Perhaps someone is trying to stop us sensing Teiresias before it comes? Although I'm not sure what we could do against Teiresias even if we did know it was coming, given what Halley says it's become...” He paused for a moment, and I almost bumped into him. “Speaking of which, where is Halley?”

    “Uh... well, she was still asleep when I got up,” I said. “She must still be at the Pokémon Centre.”

    “She's going to be angry,” remarked Cheren, with just a hint of satisfaction in his voice. “Anyway. Lelouch, which way here?”

    We were close to the seafront now, a little north of the Hodder Docks; casting my mind back to previous trips to Castelia, I thought that we must be somewhere just south of Central Plaza. This would put us just east of the Gym, I thought – and I experienced no small satisfaction when Lelouch slipped around a corner, startling a small child, and onto Gym Street.

    The child shrieked and ran for her mother; Lelouch, interpreting this for some unknown reptilian reason as hostility, gave chase with a violent hiss. For a moment, we were too surprised to follow – and then, as Lelouch reared onto his stumpy legs in front of the cowering girl and her startled mother, our minds caught up to the situation and we ran to stop him. Cheren called for him to stop – but at the same time, I yelled at him to get back and Bianca cried to the girl to get away, with the result that Lelouch never heard his master's voice, and shot towards the girl—
    —only to be scooped up gently by a massive claw, and held carefully in the air out of harm's way.

    We stared, faltering in our sprint towards Lelouch; next to the mother and child was a towering creature in dull blue armour that looked like nothing so much as part of the Nacrene Museum torn loose, painted and brought to life: every square inch of its skin was covered in stony protrusions and knobbles, and the two lumpish limbs that arched above its head were so heavy with spines and crags that I couldn't imagine they were ever any use as actual wings. Even I knew what this thing was called; it was widely regarded as one of Unova's most impressive predators, and indeed one of the most impressive in Europe: the creature that out-gargoyled gargoyles, Druddigon.

    The sight of a Druddigon next to them was actually less reassuring than that of the Servine, and the mother and child fled squealing down the street; the Druddigon watched them go with a look of placid evil on its rough-hewn face. They were extremely cold-blooded and took half a day or more to warm up to a fit state to attack anything; most of the time, Druddigon simply sat there, like the statues they resembled, and waited. If roused to anger, however, they were capable of a kind of berserker bloodlust – a state in which they felt neither pain nor fatigue, and to which it was not generally advisable to provoke them if you valued your life, or those of the people in a mile radius around you.

    “Oh, bugger,” exclaimed someone petulantly from across the street. “I didn't think he'd scare them that much.”

    I looked for the speaker, and found her crossing the street; she looked a year or so younger than me, and had a tremendous mane of black hair that would probably, had it not been bound up into a ponytail, have reached her ankles. She was definitely weird enough to be a Trainer, and so I assumed she was the owner of the dread beast before us.

    “Ah,” she said, looking at us. “Is this yours?”

    “Yes,” replied Cheren, recovering his wits first and taking command of the situation. “He was startled by the girl screaming, I think. Still, no harm done—”

    “You should be more careful!” the girl admonished him. “What, are you trying to prove Harmonia right? Another second and he'd have bitten her – what are you even doing letting a Servine run loose in a city, anyway? You should know they're unpredictable around children!”

    Cheren gaped and staggered back as if physically struck; I don't think anyone had spoken to him like that for a long time. It must come as a shock, I thought with a small smile, to meet someone who didn't immediately recognise his superiority.

    “I—”

    “Frige preserve us from idiots like you,” sighed the girl. “Honestly...” She shook her head and gestured to the Druddigon as if to ask it what the world was coming to; the Druddigon gazed at her unblinkingly with its jaundiced eyes and grinned evilly. Not that it could help it, of course – that was just the way its mouth was shaped – but it did look incredibly evil. You could see why generations of Unovan sculptors had used Druddigon as the basis for depictions of demons.

    “I am tracking a stolen Pokémon,” replied Cheren stiffly, as if the words were being forced out of him. “I needed my Servine loose so he could keep track of the scent.”

    The girl's whole demeanour changed in an instant; she froze, cocked her head on one side and regarded Cheren with eyes from which all the indignation had drained in an instant.

    “A stolen Pokémon?”

    “Yes,” said Bianca, stepping forward shyly. “Mine... My Munna.”

    “Ah!” cried the girl. “You poor thing!” She slapped her Druddigon harder than I would have dared to; we all flinched as we heard it, wondering if she had catapulted the big dragon into one of its famous frenzies – but it just turned its head to look down at her, its scales rubbing together with a noise like grinding stone. “Put that Servine down,” she snapped. “Right now! We have to find this girl's Munna.”

    The Druddigon exhaled mightily and began lowering its claw to the ground; in its grip, Lelouch had been writhing furiously for some time, but the dragon hadn't even noticed.

    “Faster!” cried the girl, smiting it furiously on the shoulder. “There's no time to waste – didn't you hear me? Her Munna's been stolen!”

    The Druddigon continued moving at a steady pace, completely heedless of its mistress' efforts to speed it up, and at length released Lelouch onto the pavement; that done, it straightened up with a rumbling sigh, and settled into comfortable immobility. For his part, Lelouch, leaves flattened nervously against his back, retreated towards Cheren with all possible haste.

    “Come on!” cried the girl. “There's no time for this – get your Servine on the trail again!”

    “Your overgrown lizard has startled him,” snapped Cheren. “Recall it, and give me a minute to get my Servine moving again.”

    The girl tutted.

    “This is careless of you,” she said. “If you hadn't let him rush ahead, then you could have avoided all this and got your friend's Munna back by now—”

    “Stop blaming me for everything and let me solve the problem,” he replied coldly. “Unless you have some way to trace a Munna?”

    The girl glowered, but backed down; Cheren had won this one. She recalled her Druddigon in a flash of red light – for which we were all grateful; its presence was not exactly reassuring – and took a step back.

    “Fine,” she said. “Have it your way.”

    Lelouch, emboldened by the disappearance of his gigantic foe, slithered out into the open again; he tasted the air, and then the ground, and crossed the street. Mercifully, there were no cars at the moment – almost no people at all, in fact; Gym Street was quiet today – and the four of us followed him, a curiously motley procession in our assorted outfits.

    He slid up onto the pavement, proceeded a few dozen metres down – and stopped, almost dead opposite the Gym.

    As one, we all looked up at the building above.

    It was tall and dark, and only a few rows of the windows were lit; I guessed that it must be rented out by the floor, and not all the floors were currently occupied. It wasn't a nasty place – not particularly; more battered than truly decrepit – but there was an indefinable aura of menace about it. Or, to be more specific, I thought, I saw it as menacing: I had a bad feeling about this place. If there was anywhere that a criminal mastermind might secrete a stolen Pokémon, this would, I thought, be it.

    I looked at Cheren.

    “Here?”

    Lelouch had coiled himself neatly on the doorstep; his job, as far as he was concerned, was done.

    “I guess so,” said Cheren, recalling him. “Are you coming?”

    This was directed at the strange girl with the hair, who stuck her chin out defiantly in response.

    “I'm protecting the injured party here,” she said, grabbing Bianca's shoulders so firmly that she sank a little beneath her hands. “Of course I'm coming.”

    Cheren sighed.

    “Have it your way,” he said, sending out Justine. “Right. I'll just check the lobby – one moment.”

    He rubbed the filthy glass of the door with a sleeve, and cleared a space large enough to peer through; a moment later, he took his eye away and shrugged.

    “Looks clear,” he said. “I suppose they must be upstairs or something.” He had one hand on the handle when the girl interrupted.

    “Not so fast,” she said, eager to get back at him. “Let me see through there.”

    Cheren stared.

    “You really think I'm going to lead us all into a trap out of spite?”

    The girl ignored him and scrutinised the little patch of clear glass carefully.

    “Hm,” she said at length. “OK. Let's go, then.”

    She pushed the heavy doors apart and led us into a dingy lobby with cracked tiles on the floor. There was a receptionist's desk at the other end, but it was unmanned.

    “This thief,” I said. “They're not exactly high-class, are they?”

    Cheren shot me a look.

    “All right, all right,” I said, raising my hands pacifically. “Just a thought.”

    “Uh... guys?”

    The three of us turned to Bianca, who was tugging ineffectually at the doors.

    “I thought I'd wait outside,” she said unhappily. “But, um...”

    I sighed.

    “Great,” I muttered. “A trap.”

    ---

    In the depths of International Genetics' innermost chambers, something was stirring.

    A heart began to beat.

    Slow, reptilian eyelids peeled open.

    An unquenchable desire to kill Archen flickered into being.

    “The retriever's ready,” said the man who'd created it into the telephone. It flung itself at the glass separating them with a snarl, but bounced off; he didn't even flinch. A great many creatures had tried to break that glass, including some tougher than the retriever – but none had ever managed it. Well, none had managed it when he was on duty, anyway; if they had, he'd be dead, as were those of his colleagues who had been on duty on those occasions when the glass had failed. “Activation as and when you want it, sir.”

    Snarl. Leap. Bounce.

    “Good,” said the voice on the other end of the line – the chairman, as it happened, who we last saw forcing an agreement in the Ingen boardroom. “We called our agent again; she said that the Archen tore the museum apart here in Nacrene and helped start the riots, too. Whatever powers that thing has, it's getting out of hand.”

    “So immediate release?”

    Snarl. Leap. Bounce.

    “Nothing less,” replied the chairman. “Take it out into the woods and set it free.”

    “All right,” said the geneticist. “We'll prepare it for shipping right away, sir.”

    Snarl. Leap. Bounce.

    A dart hissed out of some hidden recess in the chamber and slipped neatly into the retriever's flesh; it had precisely zero effect, and more darts joined it until its flank bristled like a pincushion – at which point the beast finally succumbed, and toppled over with a disgruntled hiss.

    The geneticist whistled cheerfully.

    “I don't envy the kids who picked that bird up,” he said to himself, directing a couple of underlings with a crate over towards the sleeping abomination. “Not one little bit.”
    Last edited by Cutlerine; 18th May 2013 at 9:22 PM.

  9. #134
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    You have an instance of a mispelled Lelouch as Lelouh.

    And this is why you tear down the doors instead of sneak in, they won't close and lock behind you. Instead a magic barrier will form instead.

    Anyway, enjoying the cliffhangers here, and I have to wonder what exactly this retriever is.


    Credit to Brutaka for the amazing banner and user bar. Yeah, having 2 is redundant, but it shows you guys my favorite pokemon, what story I had planned and my position in the WoJ.

    Time, there's never enough of it but it's always there to waste.
    -Azurus

  10. #135
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    Quote Originally Posted by Azurus View Post
    You have an instance of a mispelled Lelouch as Lelouh.

    And this is why you tear down the doors instead of sneak in, they won't close and lock behind you. Instead a magic barrier will form instead.

    Anyway, enjoying the cliffhangers here, and I have to wonder what exactly this retriever is.
    Thanks - fixed it.

    To be fair, they didn't exactly sneak - they more just... walked in.

    Thanks for reading!

    Also: there may well be no chapter this weekend; it depends. I haven't even started it yet, since I spent all the time I would normally have spent writing in making a large cuddly Cthulhu. So, well, we'll see.

    F.A.B.
    Last edited by Cutlerine; 18th May 2013 at 9:27 PM.

  11. #136
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    Chapter Twenty-Two: Sage Advice

    One might perhaps have expected a demon from the mythic past to be less than au fait with modern computing technology. Such an expectation would have done no more than betray one's ignorance of exactly how much spare time a demon from the mythic past has on his hands. With only a little assistance from Niamh – confined to the vagaries of Windows 7; the last machine Ezra had encountered had run Windows 98 and a few things had been shuffled around – Ezra soon had the innards of Harmonia's data spread out before him like the carcase of a lion. Now, to carry the simile further, he had begun to pick over the entrails like a marabou stork.

    “Most interesting,” he mused. “Miss Molloy has outdone herself...” He looked across at Niamh, who had fallen asleep a while ago with the proviso that he wake her if he found anything; she had been awake for close to twenty-four hours now and, while she didn't particularly want to waste time sleeping, she knew that her performance would be adversely affected if she didn't allow herself to rest.

    Or something like that. Those probably hadn't been her exact words, now that Ezra thought of it; they were more than likely his.

    Ezra stretched and sighed, and let his human shape slough away like a spider-husk. He uncurled, dark and shining and new, and brought the part of himself which served as a head back to bear on the laptop.

    “Right,” he said. “I suppose I ought to see if I can't find out where exactly they performed this miracle, then.”

    And in the depths of his being things lit up like the ghosts of long-dead Christmas lights, pale and sad, and things that were not fingers stroked the keyboard with a loving, feather-light touch.

    ---

    “Now we have you,” said an old man in robes and a stupid hat. “You will listen to our demands.”

    I stared. Though he looked very much like the old man in robes and a stupid hat who we'd stopped in Pinwheel Forest, he was not that particular old man in robes and a stupid hat; he was a different old man in robes and a stupid hat, and to be honest, we were racking up the old men in robes and stupid hats at a faster rate than I was comfortable with. Were we to meet a third, I would have thought that fate was taking things too far; old men in robes and stupid hats were unusual in a way that even Teiresias wasn't, and I didn't much care to have so many of them being flung around with such abandon.

    Where exactly he had come from was another problem. I was pretty sure that there had been no one in the lobby until he'd started speaking, and now there was an old man in robes and a stupid hat brandishing a large automatic pistol.

    I blinked.

    That hadn't been there a moment ago, either.

    “What exactly is going on here?” I asked, puzzled. “I don't think I'm even thinking straight, let alone seeing it.”

    The old man sighed.

    “This en't the time for explanations,” he told me. He had a South African accent – or perhaps an Australian one. I wasn't entirely certain of the difference. “This is more the time where you comply with my demands or get shot.”

    “Gothitelle or something,” Cheren said, eyes fixed on the old man. “Space is bending. That's why the door's shut as well, I expect.”

    “Look, you're not being very good hostages,” said the old man. He sounded aggrieved. “Will you just—”

    “Have you considered that maybe we aren't hostages?” asked the girl with the hair.

    The old man looked nonplussed. This was evidently an aspect to the situation that he hadn't considered.

    “What?”

    “Well,” said the girl, idly fiddling with her fingers, “I don't know about you, but I think people with these” – here the Druddigon materialised between us and the old man – “don't really make good hostages.”

    The old man, to his credit, didn't swear and shoot blindly at the Druddigon. That would have been the instinctive response; it would also have been the one that ended with his skull between the big dragon's jaws. It takes a big, strong bullet from a big, strong gun to get through a Druddigon's hide, and his little handgun did not look like it was up to the job.

    He sighed.

    “Right,” he said. “So, this throws a spanner in the f*cking works, doesn't it? How the hell was I meant to know you were bringing a bloody Druddigon?”

    “You weren't,” replied Cheren reasonably. “Which is probably why you're going to hand over the Munna.”

    “Ah,” said the old man. “The Munna.”

    “Yes, the Munna.”

    The old man scratched his chin.

    “Fair enough,” he conceded. “The Munna.”

    This time, I saw how the trick worked: in the split second before Munny had fully appeared, I saw the air around it unfurl and draw back like a curtain; Cheren was right, I realised – one of those Pokémon that could move the fabric of reality around a bit was at work. Something like a Gothitelle, or – what was that other one? I couldn't remember the name.

    “Munny!” cried Bianca, rushing forwards.

    “Stop!” cried Cheren, trying and failing to grab her arm.

    “Gotcha!” cried the old man with satisfaction, snatching Bianca's arm and twisting her up close to him. The barrel of his gun came to rest against her temple. Munny looked like it was about to do something – but before it could move to assist its mistress, it disappeared again, folded back out of the visible universe.

    There was a very palpable silence.

    “Oops,” said Bianca, in a small voice.

    “Yes, oops,” replied Cheren, his sarcasm potentially more dangerous than the old man's gun. “Ack. Your move, old man.”

    “My name,” said the old man with dignity, “is Rood. I'm a sage.”

    He paused, as if expecting this admission to meet with gasps of wonder and delight, but none were forthcoming, and he sighed theatrically.

    “Sage Rood?” he repeated. “No one heard of me?”

    I looked at Cheren; if anyone had heard of him, it would have been him. However, he seemed as ignorant as the rest of us.

    “Seven Sages of Plasma?” asked Rood hopefully. “Seven Seas of Rhye? Seven Deadly Sins?”

    “I know the last two,” said Cheren. “I can only assume you're being facetious with those. But I have no idea who these Seven Sages are. Perhaps you'd care to enlighten us?”

    Rood grinned.

    “Nope,” he said. “I wouldn't care to engage you in any witty badinage, I'm afraid. We know you. You're a trickster.”

    “Not really,” said Cheren. “I'm mostly honest.”

    “Brutally so, though,” argued Rood. “Which, in this world of liars, is tantamount to—” He broke off abruptly. “Ah, you see? You almost got me going there.” He shook his head craftily. “Clever boy,” he said. “If you were more congenial to our glorious leader's general aim, then there might be a place for you in the new world order. However,” he said philosophically, “as you're not, there en't, so you're just going to comply with our demands or watch me redesign your girlfriend's head to include a fancy new blood fountain.”

    I had a feeling that was meant to be a joke, but no one was laughing. Doubtless Halley would have been in hysterics.

    “Actually,” I said suddenly, “I remember the Seven Sages of Plasma. Gorm said the same thing, didn't he?”

    Cheren gave me a look.

    “Now really isn't the best time, Jared,” he said. “In case you hadn't noticed, the situation is extremely delicate—”

    “Yeah, it is,” agreed Rood. “So! Time to comply with some demands.”

    “You keep saying that,” snapped Cheren, “but you haven't made a single one yet. Get to the point, would you?”

    “OK, OK.” Rood looked vaguely hurt. I wondered if he was perhaps slightly senile; he seemed to be more than one marble short of a full set. “Demand number one: lose the Druddigon.”

    I blinked. I had almost forgotten about it, despite the fact that it took up about as much space in the room as the rest of us together.

    We all looked at the girl with the hair. She had remained uncharacteristically silent so far; perhaps it was the sudden loss of her advantage that had done it. I doubt people who go through life with a Druddigon are used to someone else being in command of the situation.

    “How do we know you won't just shoot – um, her?” she asked.

    Rood blinked.

    “How do you know that? Well, let me see... No, wait, you don't. Hostage negotiations are founded on a system of trust, my girl. Well, trust and hostages. It's pretty pointless to have hostage negotiations without the hostage. Although I could probably manage it – this is my specialist area, kidnappings and such.”

    “He won't do it because if he shoots Bianca right now, he loses his advantage,” said Cheren calmly. “And if he loses his advantage, there is nothing at all to stop us from killing him.”

    “Killing?” said the girl with the hair uneasily. “That's... a little strong, isn't it?”

    “If he's willing to kill, we must play for the same stakes,” said Cheren. His eyes were utterly expressionless. I wasn't Lauren, I couldn't read people like she could – but it seemed to me that he believed every word he was saying, and a chill ran down my spine. “Isn't that right, Rood?”

    The old man smiled.

    “You see? You could go on to great things, you know.” He sighed. “Never mind. You're too righteous to join us. Let's move on – recall that Druddigon, and we can get to demand number two.”

    “Do it,” commanded Cheren, and reluctantly the girl obeyed. Without the Druddigon between us, I wondered whether or not I could cross the distance between Rood and me before he could pull the trigger. Too risky, I decided – especially with Candy still on my shoulder; I couldn't rush into a fight without making sure she was well away from it, or there was a large chance she would be crushed.

    “OK,” said Rood. “We can all breathe easier now. Demand number two: one of you must have some means of contacting Ezra Schwarz or the woman who's travelling with him. Do it now.”

    Cheren and I looked at each other, and then at Bianca. Candy, not to be left out, nibbled my earlobe until I looked at her too, but that was less important.

    “Who is Ezra Schwarz?” asked Cheren politely.

    “Don't f*ck with me,” Rood said patiently. “You must be working with him. You met his agent in Striaton; you must have met him in Nacrene too – he got the dragonstone, and the King says he felt you touch it.”

    His eyes lit on me when he said that, and for a moment I remembered being the dragon, riding the storm-blast on wings of flame – then, as quickly as it had come, the memory passed. I shivered again. It wasn't a good day for thinking.

    “No doubt all that is true,” said Cheren, “but we don't know who this Ezra guy is.”

    Rood looked slightly concerned.

    “I don't think,” he said, after a short pause, “that you're lying. Which, frankly, bothers me.”

    “I'm not lying,” replied Cheren. “Like you said: brutally honest.”

    Rood scowled.

    “I hate it when people throw your own words back at you,” he said. “Well, f*ck. You have no clue who Ezra is, do you?”

    “No,” I said. “None at all. So, do you have a demand number three, or are you going to give Bianca and Munny back and let us go?”

    Rood gritted his teeth.

    “I think I might have to do that,” he said reluctantly. “The King would... well. Unfortunately, his way is working better than the pursuit way, so it seems for now we obey his rules.”

    He pushed Bianca away roughly; being Bianca, she tripped over in her haste to get away, but Cheren stepped forwards and caught her before she fell.

    “I suppose I'll be on my way, then,” said Rood dismally. “I'd better tell Bronius... he was meant to show up here too, but it's as well he's late now... what a clusterf*ck.”

    So saying, he turned his back on us and vanished into thin air again, courtesy of the hidden Pokémon. Moments later, Munny reappeared – and this time, it stayed there when Bianca came to hug it.

    “Munny!”

    I stood there, watching her childlike happiness, and heard Cheren saying something and the girl with the hair saying something else; I felt Candy's claws on my shoulder and the hiss of her breath in my ear. I should have felt relieved – happy – something like that. But I wasn't.

    Something was wrong. Something Rood had said? Something about him in general? I wasn't sure. Would Lauren be able to work it out, I wondered. I hoped so.

    Whatever it was, there was something about Rood that struck me as terribly, terribly wrong, and as I stood there I couldn't help but feel that something had happened here that we had not seen, and which would soon enough rise out of the darkness to greet us with fiery eyes and a brace of wet, sharp teeth.

    ---

    “OK, what's going on— Iris?”

    I turned and looked. For some reason, it seemed Burgh had entered the building; quite why this was, I wasn't entirely sure, but later on it was revealed that the girl and her mother had called the Gym with reports of a rogue Druddigon and called him out to deal with it.

    “Iris,” repeated Burgh, staring at the girl with the hair. “I might have known it was you... And thank Woden it is you,” he added. “A wild Druddigon is more than I feel up to today. Or any day, really.”

    “Burgh,” replied the girl. “Sorry. I was helping these guys out. Someone stole this girl's Munna.”

    It was then that Burgh seemed to notice the rest of us.

    “Hey,” he said, vaguely surprised. “Jared. And you guys,” he added, obviously having completely forgotten who Cheren and Bianca actually were.

    “Yes,” replied Cheren dryly. “Us guys.”

    “It was one of those Sages,” I told Burgh. “Like the guy in Nacrene – same robes, same hat, same everything.”

    “Wait wait wait,” he said, holding up a hand. “Too many things at once. What exactly is going on here?”

    So I told him – or rather, I competed with Iris to tell him – and he nodded wisely at everything we said.

    “I see,” he said, so thoughtfully that it was clear that he didn't. “Well, then. The League needs to be informed – didn't you say you knew Shauntal?”

    “'Knew' is putting it a bit strongly,” I told him. “We met her once. She said there wasn't much she could do to help, but she would do what she could.”

    Burgh sighed.

    “Ah yeah,” he said. “I remember. She set us up for a fight with Harmonia...” He shook his head. “Those anti-battling organisations Harmonia set on us – we're really not doing well against them. All our resources are tied up trying to shut down protests at the League and dealing with accusations – not so much money but time, and we don't have the staff to give it all. And then there's the Striaton Gym.”

    “What?”

    “Haven't you heard? The triplets have quit.” He made a vague but expansive gesture with both hands. “It was all over the news this morning. They owned the building, too, so we've lost the property. We have to find new premises and a new Leader.”

    “Burgh, I can—”

    He cut her off abruptly.

    “No, Iris,” he said. “You're a Dragon-type specialist, and we can't have two Gyms of the same type without making it clear just how badly-off the League is right now. Besides, Drayden wants you to succeed him, and you know he's only a month or two off retirement.”

    “Why have they quit?” asked Cheren, returning to the point.

    “Chili's hurt pretty bad, replied Burgh softly. “He won't be able to Train again... well, not for a long time, anyway. His brothers feel that their place is at his side, so they've given their notice and gone on leave. The Gym sign comes down in about six weeks.”

    Cheren nodded slowly.

    “Teiresias,” he said, and the tone of his voice said it all.

    “Bastard,” I agreed..

    Iris looked at us in some confusion.

    “Am I missing something?” she asked, in a voice that strongly implied that if she was, someone had better explain it to her, and that they'd better do so right now. I'd never heard anyone but Cordelia use that particular voice before, and it made me a little homesick for a moment. I would call later today, I decided. Cordelia and Annie, if not my parents.

    “Uh... yeah,” admitted Burgh, the magnitude of the story placing it outside his ability to retell. “Look, come back to the Gym with me, guys. This is the sort of story you need to sit down to tell or hear, and I'm knackered anyway.”

    We agreed, and half an hour later were sitting around a small square table in a back room somewhere in the Gym, having laboriously explained to Burgh all that had occurred since Nacrene, and to Iris all that had occurred since Black City. I was amazed at how Byzantine the story of the last few days seemed to have become; it wasn't really apparent except in the retelling, but it was full of twists and branches and odd details that made it hell to recount.

    “O-K,” said Iris doubtfully, “assuming all this is true—”

    “You have my word that it is,” put in Burgh dutifully.

    “Burgh, your word depreciates in value with every joint you smoke,” she said wearily. “No offence.” Her tone made it quite clear that offence was meant, and if it wasn't taken then it was due in no way to her lack of effort.

    “It's for my art!” he protested.

    “Of course it is. Anyway, assuming this is all true – why haven't we done something?”

    “We are doing something,” said Cheren. “We're following N.”

    “I meant the League. Harmonia isn't just being mean, for Frige's sake, he must be breaking the law—”

    “I wasn't aware there was a law against liaising with demons and chasing cats,” Cheren replied. “More's the pity. And anyway, we have no idea what he's planning to do – we need information. And for that, we need N. He knows everything about everything.”

    “And we can't really attack Harmonia openly,” said Bianca, seizing her chance to join the conversation with zeal, “because whatever we do, he can pass it off as an underhanded League reaction to his Liberation policy.”

    “He will always be the injured party, yes,” agreed Cheren. “Furthermore, I'm certain that most of the demons with him – Teiresias seems to be something of an anomaly – are only visible to those they wish to be seen by. And other than their presence, there really isn't anything to connect him with any serious wrongdoing, no matter what we suspect of him.”

    Iris punched the table, and then tried very hard to look like she didn't regret it.

    “But that's not fair at all!” she cried.

    “No, it isn't,” agreed Cheren. “It is smart, though. Harmonia isn't an opponent to be taken lightly. If his demons can somehow make the populace vote for him, he'll be completely unassailable – although quite what the demons are getting out of this, I'm not sure.”

    “I think they're probably all that's stopping people abandoning him entirely,” said Burgh. “Have you noticed? The polls indicate he's still bottom of the league, despite all his press coverage. I don't know why anyone thinks he might still win the election – but they do. It's probably the demons.” He delivered a sage nod with these words, as if they were somehow something more than a few random assertions collected into one speech.

    “Er... perhaps,” said Cheren diplomatically, “but he's planning something else. Something that he needs N for. Something that he needs an impossible man for, something that – I presume – involves the dragons from your visions, Jared.”

    Iris' ears pricked up.

    “Dragons?”

    “Yes, dragons.” Cheren looked at me. “Remember them? The last few times you've met N, and when we went to the Library – visions of dragons, black and white like the Twin Heroes' symbols.”

    “And when you called him yesterday,” said Bianca. “He told you to chase the dragons.”

    I nodded.

    “OK,” I said. “But we don't know what they are.”

    “That's where I come in,” said Iris. “I can ask Drayden, if you like. No one knows more about Dragons. Or dragons, for that matter,” she added thoughtfully.

    “That would be very helpful, thank you,” said Cheren. “There's also—”

    “Oh, and Sandjr,” Bianca said. “We need to figure out the significance of that. Unless it was just a clue to N's namesake...”

    “That's true,” agreed Cheren. “Ah, N has so many answers here, and we have none!”

    “Well, we know where he is now, don't we?” I asked. “Nimbasa. Halley found out last night.”

    “Seems to me that you guys need to get after him as soon as possible, then – before he moves,” Burgh said. “Or before Harmonia makes a move. Iris, if you're done in Castelia, it'd be good if you went and spoke to Drayden, and I suppose I'd better talk to Shauntal – though she's pretty tied up with the triplets right now. Aspertia and Virbank have both been after Gyms of their own for years; they're going to be fighting tooth and claw to get one now, and we've got to liaise between the two of them.” Burgh shook his head. “F*cking politics! It's a killer.”

    “Yes,” said Cheren dryly. “Harmonia's taught us that much already.”

    Burgh laughed, though it wasn't exactly a pleasant one; it was too tired to be born of genuine good humour.

    “Yeah. Right, then. You'd better get going. Hell, I'd better get going. I have to report to the police about the so-called rampaging wild Druddigon...”

    Iris gave me her number, promising to call when she got information (she told me not to hold my breath; Drayden was mayor of Opelucid, after all, and he was notoriously busy) and we left. Not long afterwards, we were approaching the Pokémon Centre, to see a somewhat lost-looking Halley sitting by the bins at the side. When she saw us, her concern melted swiftly into fury, and she lost no time in stalking over to intercept us.

    “Where the f*ck have you been?” she demanded to know.

    “On a rescue mission,” replied Cheren. “Details later; we need to get going now.”

    “No, you listen,” she hissed angrily, but had to fall silent as we were entering the Centre; once safely past the receptionist, she broke out again into a vengeful murmur. “That won't do it,” she growled. “Do you know how difficult it is for me to move around this place without one of you guys pretending to be my owner? I was sitting out there by the f*cking bins for hours!”

    “We haven't been gone hours,” said Cheren reasonably. “You couldn't possibly have—”

    “Cher-en!” reprimanded Bianca. “We did leave without telling her where we were going...” She looked at me; I held up my hands in a way that said I was staying out of this one.

    “Right,” said Halley, rubbing against Bianca's legs. “I was all alone, and—”

    “Of course you were,” she said, picking her up and carrying her upstairs after us. “Cheren, you could be a bit more charitable—”

    “You know,” said Cheren acidly, “if you wore the collar, Halley, everyone would think you were just a regular tame cat, and they wouldn't question what you did.”

    “F*ck you,” she replied, probably less eloquently than she would have liked. Cheren did not deign to reply, and she wriggled out of Bianca's arms and stalked off in a foul mood.

    She was somewhat mollified by the revelation that we were going to Nimbasa on the strength of her advice, and was almost entirely placated when Candy climbed onto the bed and Halley was able to pull her tail; after that, it was a bit easier living with her on the walk to the train station, during which Bianca and I (Cheren refused, as a matter of principle) filled her in on what had happened earlier in the day.

    “He mentioned a King, did he?” she asked of Rood. “Interesting. There seem to be a hell of a lot of kings floating around Unova for a country without a monarchy.”

    “Meaning?” asked Bianca.

    “This 'Undying Majesty' guy – who, judging from his guards, is probably the guy in charge of the demons – and N,” Halley explained. “King. Teiresias called them both King. You think these Sages are linked to Harmonia?”

    I sighed.

    “I really wouldn't be surprised,” I said, thinking about how complicated and interconnected everything else seemed to be. “I really wouldn't.”

    The one thirty-two to Nimbasa departed as advertised, and I took advantage of the jourey to make good on my promise to myself earlier and call Black City.

    First was Cordelia, who seemed to have been expecting my call, and proceeded without preamble to shatter my calm entirely:

    “Mum and Dad have reported you as a missing person and called the police,” she said matter-of-factly. “So it's not just going to be the Green Party after you now, it's the—”

    “Woden hang 'em,” I groaned. “That's not good.”

    “No, it isn't,” she replied. “I suggest you stay—”

    “No,” I interrupted. “I'll... I'll call my government contacts,” I said, thinking suddenly of the League.

    “You've acquired government contacts?” Cordelia didn't sound surprised (was it even possible to surprise her?), but she certainly seemed to approve. “Good. That will help considerably. I've had to tell them everything, by the way.”

    “Did they believe any of it?”

    “No,” she replied, “but then again, I didn't expect them to.”

    I sighed. Could I not be left alone to pursue demonic electoral treachery for just a couple of weeks?

    “Right,” I said. “Thanks. I'll... I'll have to contact my people.”

    “Yes, it doesn't seem like you have any other choice,” agreed Cordelia. “Well, I'll see you, then.”

    With that, she hung up. I listened to the tone in mild stupefaction, wondering if she missed me at all, and called Annie instead: I was certain she'd show some signs of missing me, at least.

    I was right. We talked for half an hour and made each other quite sick with longing for the other's presence, and probably would have gone on longer had the train not gone into one of the tunnels leading into Nimbasa's huge station hub and the signal cut out.

    I sighed and hung up.

    “Guys,” I said, “the police are after me.”

    That got everyone's attention pretty fast. Cheren looked annoyed; Bianca looked concerned; Halley, for reasons best known to herself, grinned.

    “Good for you,” she said. “I always knew you had it in you. What's it for? Armed robbery? Assault and battery?”

    “No!” I snapped. “My parents have reported me as a missing person, unfortunately. I'm going to have to call the League and see if they can't intercede... I mean, it's in their interests for me to keep investigating, right? Since N isn't going to talk to anyone else.”

    “Yes, you'd better do that,” agreed Cheren. “We don't want any interference.”

    The train drew to a halt and we got off; the crush in the station removed any possibility of conversation, and for five minutes we concentrated on fighting our way through the station and up out of the ground exits. Once out, we found it had started to rain – a light, insistent rainfall that fell from the slate-coloured sky as evenly and continuously as from a shower head. Candy shivered and cheeped forlornly, and I tucked her into my jacket. She wriggled happily, dug her claws firmly into my stomach, and poked her head out the top so as not to miss anything that went on. Wondering why exactly I was putting myself through this for her sake, I turned to Halley and asked:

    “Which way?”

    “I'm not sure,” she said. “I've never been here before. Where are we now? Geographically speaking?”

    “Almost the dead centre of the city,” replied Cheren, stepping out of the way of a gaggle of people exiting the station. “Ah... hang on, let's get out of the way before we stop and talk.”

    We moved out of the way and huddled together close to the wall of the station; it seemed like it might provide some shelter from the rain, but, as we soon discovered, it didn't.

    “Well, N was in the eastern half and heading eastwards, the last I saw,” Halley told us. “Is there anything he might be heading toward?”

    “He could be planning to leave the city and go east through the forest,” Cheren proposed.

    “Or he could be visiting one of the theme parks,” suggested Bianca. “They're mostly on the eastern fringes of the city, right?”

    “That's right,” I said, recalling long-ago trips to Nimbasa's eastern edge and the colony of theme parks that fought for supremacy there. “They are. Why would he go there, though?”

    “I don't know. Why would he leave the city?”

    “Fair point. We have no idea what he's up to.”

    I sighed.

    “So, what do we do? Just get a bus east and keep looking out of the windows in case we spot him?”

    Cheren shrugged.

    “Might as well. You never know, perhaps he'll find us – he's run across us 'by accident' a suspiciously large number of times. Either he's looking for us, or whatever connection you with him will draw him to you.”

    I stared.

    “Really? You think it might work?”

    “Well, we can take a bus or we can walk,” he said, “and in this weather, frankly, I don't feel like walking.”

    “I'm liking this train of thought,” said Halley. “Cheren! For once, we agree.”

    “Yes, so it would seem. Hmm... we want a 436, I think. Or a 36.”

    Cheren was studying his phone; I wondered how he'd managed to find the bus routes online so quickly. Then again, I thought, this was Cheren we were dealing with: in two minutes, he'd have virtually any piece of trivia you cared to mention at his fingertips.

    Gear Station was surrounded by more bus stops than you would have felt justified in shaking a stick at; it took us a while, even with Cheren's maps, but we did eventually find Stop Q, where the 436 and 36 stopped, and shortly afterwards we were out of the rain and alone on the upper level of a dilapidated double decker. I wasn't sure whether or not we'd see anything through the water splattered across the windows, but right now it didn't seem to matter; I just wanted to be out of the rain.

    Something yellow flashed by in the rain; I peered out of the window and saw an Emolga, flitting between lampposts. I was just in the process of realising how uncommon it was to see one when I noticed the second Emolga landing next to it, and the Tranquill, and the three Pidove.

    By this point, there was no more room on the lamppost, and half of them flew in a group to the next one. They sat on the top and stared at me.

    I stared back.

    The bus started moving again, and the little group of flying Pokémon launched themselves into the air again, keeping pace with it as it moved.

    “Cheren, Bianca,” I said slowly. “I think we're being followed.”

    They looked out of the window, and I could tell immediately that they saw what I meant.

    “How unusual,” said Cheren. “Those... they aren't intelligent enough for someone to order them to trail us like that. They can't grasp such sophisticated instructions – they wouldn't understand the order.”

    “Perhaps they would,” said Bianca softly, “if you told them in their own language.”

    I nodded.

    “Well, then,” I said, my eyes following the cluster of Flying-types wheeling and flapping outside the window. “It looks like we might've found him...”

    Halley chuckled.

    “I don't think so, Jared,” she said pityingly. “He's been in control of this situation from the start. No way we'd have found him if he didn't want us to.”

    “What do you mean?” I asked, though I knew already what she was about to say.

    “We haven't found him,” she said. “He's found us.”
    Last edited by Cutlerine; 29th May 2013 at 10:19 AM.

  12. #137
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cutlerine View Post
    Ezra soon had the innards of Harmonia's data spread out before him like the carcase of a lion. Now, to carry the simile further, he had begun to pick over the entrails like a marabou stork.
    I believe you mean carcass?

    she knew that her performance would be adverse affected if she didn't allow herself to rest.
    And 'adversely' would be the word here, I think.

    A good chapter - I quite like Rood, and I'm liking where you're going with the whole 'police-after-Jared' thing. My main grouse with this chapter is not enough Haley, but I'm sure that will be resolved soon. Iris comes off as a little rough and abrasive to me, personality-wise - not sure where you're going with her, but I have a feeling I'm not going to like her. The chapter ending also felt slightly abrupt, but I suppose time flies when you're reading, and all that ^_^;

    ~Deadly


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    a journeyfic by the most improved writer of 2012, second place
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    Quote Originally Posted by Deadly.Braviary View Post
    I believe you mean carcass?
    Nope. I mean 'carcase'. If I wanted to write 'carcass', I would've done.

    Quote Originally Posted by Deadly.Braviary View Post
    And 'adversely' would be the word here, I think.
    Yes, you're right about that one.

    Quote Originally Posted by Deadly.Braviary View Post
    A good chapter - I quite like Rood, and I'm liking where you're going with the whole 'police-after-Jared' thing. My main grouse with this chapter is not enough Haley, but I'm sure that will be resolved soon. Iris comes off as a little rough and abrasive to me, personality-wise - not sure where you're going with her, but I have a feeling I'm not going to like her. The chapter ending also felt slightly abrupt, but I suppose time flies when you're reading, and all that ^_^;

    ~Deadly
    Mm... Iris is like that, but then again I've never liked her, so I was always bound to punish her when it came to incarnating her in words. The chapter does end abruptly, I agree, but for Sound Yet Mysterious Reasons, I couldn't end it anywhere else, and this seemed to me to be the least abrupt point. Perhaps I could smooth it out a bit; yesterday, when I did my pre-post edit, I really couldn't see a way to do so.

    EDIT: Done so, which says a lot about my state of mind yesterday. Hopefully the ending reads better now. Also fixed another typo that I really should have caught earlier.

    Thank you for reading!

    F.A.B.
    Last edited by Cutlerine; 29th May 2013 at 10:20 AM.

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    It's always a challenge to think of something to comment on, but I'll try.

    The Rood encounter, seemed a little short, like an event was meant to happen, but didn't. Could be my imagination though.

    Also, I'm sure all those Pokémon are controlled by demons and not whispered to by N, it would be more exciting that way.

    Looking forward to more.


    Credit to Brutaka for the amazing banner and user bar. Yeah, having 2 is redundant, but it shows you guys my favorite pokemon, what story I had planned and my position in the WoJ.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Azurus View Post
    It's always a challenge to think of something to comment on, but I'll try.

    The Rood encounter, seemed a little short, like an event was meant to happen, but didn't. Could be my imagination though.

    Also, I'm sure all those Pokémon are controlled by demons and not whispered to by N, it would be more exciting that way.

    Looking forward to more.
    That would be exciting, wouldn't it? Unfortunately, it's probably not true, but hey! Hope springs eternal.

    Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

    F.A.B.

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    Interlude: Harmonics

    Once upon a time there was a boy, and once upon a time there was a girl.

    We know how this story should go.

    But the truth is rarely so obliging as to fall neatly into predefined stories, and so the boy, who everyone agreed had a quiet intensity about him, and who would never meet your eye, followed her home one night and killed her.

    He would never have been able to tell you why he did that, although he thought about it often enough. He didn't think about it at all on that first night, when he staved her skull in with a brick. Nor did he think about it while he was digging the pit out in the woods where her body would lie – beneath that of a dog, in case bloodhounds found the grave. (He was careful even then, even before the accident.)

    The boy would only think about it a week or so later, when the police came to each house on the street, and asked if anyone had seen her.

    He said he hadn't, but he thought she had seemed a little preoccupied on the days before she disappeared. This was in fact true, but it was only because she had begun to think that someone was following her.

    Nothing came of the investigation, and the boy was left to wonder.

    He never did come to a satisfactory conclusion. Years later, when he was a man, he would only ever be able to say that perhaps certain people are simply born to do certain things.

    He was, he decided, born to do a great many things, and lots of people would come to know it.

    Chapter Twenty-three: In Thunder, Lightning or in Rain

    However much I might have been impressed by the way N contacted us, I wasn't impressed by where he chose to meet us. The Flying-types landed in a body on the arch that soared over the entrance to Olga and Benito's World of Adventure, a theme park based on a cartoon I hadn't seen since I was twelve and which I hadn't known was even still running. Beyond the arch I saw the loops of rollercoasters looming through the rain; it was getting worse, and the park itself looked deserted.

    “How much do you think it is to get in?” I asked the others.

    “Too expensive,” replied Halley. “Let's break in.”

    “No,” said Cheren. “It's the off season, it won't be too much.”

    It was true enough. There weren't many visitors to theme parks at this time of year; most of them were closed during Unova's harsh winter, and quite a few stayed closed through the dreary spring as well. Those that remained open charged much less, confident that virtually no one would be visiting them anyway.

    “All right,” I sighed. “Fine.”

    “We can always go on a couple of rides as well,” suggested Bianca brightly.

    “Damn it,” muttered Halley. “I'm pretty sure the height restrictions mean I can't go on any of these any more.”

    “I doubt they'll even let you into the park,” pointed out Cheren. “Why don't you wait here?”

    “Why doesn't everyone except Jared wait here?” asked Halley petulantly. “N isn't going to talk to anyone else, anyway.”

    “Fair point,” said Cheren. “It'll save money anyway.”

    “Oh,” said Bianca, disappointed. “I kind of wanted to go...”

    “Then go,” said Cheren. “I'm not stopping you. But I'll wait here.”

    “And I,” announced Halley, “will wait with you.”

    Cheren stared.

    “What?”

    “I'm not going in there to be reminded of things that humans can do and cats can't,” she said firmly. “I'll stay out here and entertain myself by arguing with you instead.”

    “Oh, joy.”

    “I'd better leave Candy here too,” I said, dislodging her from my shoulder and transferring her to my hand. “I don't think she'd be allowed, and I'm not sure I want N doing... whatever it is he does to her, either.”

    “Jared, I don't think—”

    “I don't care, Bianca,” I said. “I feel better with her here.”

    I handed Candy to Cheren; she celebrated this change of ownership with a loud squawk and an immediate attempt to see whether or not Cheren's glasses were, as she suspected, edible.

    “Thunor—!”

    Bianca and I left Halley laughing and Cheren trying desperately to disengage Candy's teeth, and were sold two tickets by the bored man in the office; minutes later, we were wandering through a deserted, rain-streaked wilderness of sad-looking rides. Everything looked like it wanted nothing better than to give up and go home, and like it would have done so had it possessed legs; rollercoasters, dippers, twisters – even the signs, brightly-coloured and cheery, looked like their gaiety was somewhat forced. The only bright spot was the occasional yellow flash of the underside of the Emolga's wing membranes.

    “This actually represents Olga and Benito's Dread Adventures pretty well,” Bianca pointed out. “It isn't very cheerful.”

    I thought back a few years.

    “No, I guess it wasn't,” I agreed, thinking of the episode where Benito's legs are stolen by the Limb Bandit. “Then again, I don't know what anyone expected of a show whose premise is literally 'a Swedish child and a Mexican child explore a bleak grey afterlife together with an array of dogs named after philosophers'.”

    “Now that you mention it,” said Bianca thoughtfully, as we passed the teacups, “it was quite weird.”

    “I think it's symptomatic,” I replied. “Symptomatic of all Unovan media. We don't make normal TV shows, or radio shows, or whatever. You must have noticed?”

    Bianca looked confused.

    “Really?”

    I sighed.

    “The most popular soap opera in this country is Skómst, which features three different mythical creatures and frequent appearances from an ése. Doesn't that tell you anything about our TV output as a nation?”

    “Yeah,” said Bianca. “I guess we make our own because the rest of the world's TV is too sensible.”

    That took me aback a little.

    “Oh. I... hadn't thought of it like that.”

    Here, we were interrupted by an insistent hoot from the Tranquill, and realised we'd stopped walking; Bianca apologised, and we started up again, following it and its fellows deeper into the park. A little way off was a dispirited-looking man dressed as Raoul the Clockwork Ghoul (a recurring villain, I recalled, from the show); he had the head of his costume tucked under one arm and was huddled under the roof of a carousel, smoking a cigarette. He stared at us without enthusiasm as we drew near.

    “Do you want me to put the head on and do the mascot thing?” he asked.

    Bianca's eyes lit up.

    “No,” I said, before she could reply. “No, thanks. You, uh, you carry on.”

    “Right,” he said, and turned away.

    Bianca pouted at me.

    “Why'd you say that?”

    “Could you really believe in Raoul the Clockwork Ghoul if you'd seen him a moment ago with his head off, smoking a cigarette?”

    She considered.

    “Yeah, I think so,” she said. “It seems like the sort of thing Raoul would do. I mean, he's a robot, he can take his head off if he wants. Though robots don't really smoke, I guess, but maybe ghouls do.”

    I frowned.

    “You know a lot about Olga and Benito's Dread Adventures,” I told her.

    “Uh – not that much,” she replied, suddenly somewhat embarrassed. “I mean—”

    “You still watch it?”

    “I like cartoons,” she said defensively.

    “I'm not condemning them,” I replied. “What you do with your Saturday mornings is none of my business.”

    “OK. Just... As long as you're not.”

    “And—” I broke off; something wasn't right. I could feel something tugging at me, but not on any part of my body that I could name; it was as if something was pulling at my soul.

    I was not surprised to see N leaning against the railings around the Ferris wheel.

    “Jared,” he said, smiling. “You found me. Is it your turn to hide now?”

    He stretched out his arms, and the Pokémon landed on them, chittering and squawking; he made a soft cooing noise, and the birds flapped off in that clattering way that pigeons do. The Emolga lingered for a moment, and then he dismissed them with a twitch of his nose and a guttural chuck.

    “We're not here to play hide and seek,” I replied.

    “No, you're here to question me, aren't you?” He sighed. “I can't promise you the answers you want. You know how it works. But I'll do what I can; you came a long way to find me, and a quest always justifies the handing out of a few answers.”

    I nodded. I knew how it worked. When I was near N, I always did; it was holding onto the understanding afterwards that was the problem.

    “Come with me,” he said, vaulting the fence into the queueing area. “Please. We'll talk as we ride.”

    I looked at Bianca.

    “Er... I'll be back in a minute,” I said. “Sorry about that.”

    “Nah, it's OK,” she replied. “I'll go on Wizard Corkoran's Wild Coaster while I wait. And maybe the magic carpet. And maybe—”

    “OK,” I said hurriedly, before she got carried away. “I'll see you in a bit.”

    She smiled and waved, and I joined N in the queueing area. We were waved through into a carriage by a slightly confused and very bored attendant, and then, with a jolt, the wheel began to move and the carriage rose from the ground.

    “Have you seen The Third Man?” asked N, as the tarmac started to fall away beneath us.

    “What?”

    “Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton? On the Wiener Riesenrad?”

    I shook my head.

    “Ah, never mind,” he said. “The wheel appealed to me because of that.” He was silent for a moment. “I wanted to learn to play the zither because of that film.”

    “I see.” I paused. The rain blurred the world beyond the glass walls; I imagined this was how a jellyfish saw the world, and thought that this was what it must be like, rising steadily and gently through a universe of water. “N, who are you?”

    “Do you know how Galvantula hunt?” he asked. “They sit in the middle of a web that stretches across miles of forest. Whisper-thin threads that wind between trees, carefully insulated with coils of rubbery silk where they touch the earth. And when something touches a thread, the vibration travels all the way back to the spider in the middle, and it flicks lightning down the wire to paralyse them.

    “That's who I am,” he said. “I'm the spider. Do you see?”

    “I think so,” I replied. A rollercoaster car rumbled past at eye level, and I dimly heard Bianca screaming in delight. We were quite high now, and I hadn't even managed to get a straight answer out of him. I needed to get him to cut down on the dramatic pauses.

    That was what I was meant to do. Instead, I asked, “What does that make me?”

    “The cat,” he replied. “You should look it up.”

    “OK,” I said. “How are you connected to Harmonia?”

    “He's my father,” he replied. “In a sense.”

    I gaped.

    “Your father?”

    “In a sense,” he repeated. “Not biologically, of course. Not strictly speaking legally, either. But he considers himself my father, and I suppose I do as well.”

    “Yeah, but...” I shook my head. “Wow. I didn't see that coming.”

    He smiled.

    “No one does,” he assured me.

    “Huh. You support him?” I asked.

    “Oh yes,” he replied. “I thought you knew that already.”

    “I wanted to make sure,” I replied. “I mean – you're unity, aren't you? How can you want to divide people and Pokémon?”

    “You're division, aren't you? How can you want them to remain together?” he asked.

    I hesitated. He had a point, though the words necessary to express it were beyond me.

    “I see what you mean.”

    “My essence is unity. That does not mean my opinions necessarily must be. Despite what fate has made of us, we do have free will.” N drew a little circle in the condensation on the window, and shaded one half of it in. “At least, I assume we do. If we don't, then I guess no one does.”

    “You know what Harmonia's doing, right?” I asked, changing the subject.

    “Yes. Every detail.”

    I did not ask what it was; he would not – indeed perhaps could not – tell me.

    “How can you support it?”

    “I know he won't succeed.” N peered out of his little semicircular window; we were nearly at the top of the wheel's arc now, and the rain had got so severe that you couldn't make out anything of the world beyond the glass but a dim blur. “Everyone will betray everyone else, you see. Weland will betray Harmonia. Harmonia will betray Weland. Teiresias already has betrayed both of them, by the sound of it.” He paused. “Ezra will betray Niamh,” he said softly. “Or the other way around. I'm not sure who breaks the thread first.”

    I didn't ask if he knew Niamh. He was the spider, after all; it all converged on him.

    “Who's Weland?” I asked. “And who's Ezra?”

    N sighed.

    “King Weland the Undying is the Archdevil, the Ur-Alf, the Hellerune; he is Lord-of-all-the-ghosts; he is the Ancient of Nights. He is,” he said, “the king of the demons.”

    That was just great. There were more demons than Teiresias involved in this mess, and it seemed they were even bigger and nastier than it was.

    “He's helping Harmonia, isn't he?” I asked, dreading the answer.

    “Yes. I'm sure you can find the rest about him yourself.”

    N started drawing on the window again; his finger traced a line of short, deft strokes that the rain warped into odd, trickly jumbles. We had just crested the top, I thought – but I was judging solely from the movement of the carriage; I could see nothing at all but flickering grey outside, and hear nothing but the susurrus of raindrops on metal.

    “All right. He sounds, uh, famous enough to look up, I guess. Who is Ezra?”

    “Another demon,” he said. “He wants to kill Weland.”

    “He wants to seize the throne?”

    “No. He has nobler goals.”

    “Which you're not going to tell me about.”

    “No, of course not.” He grinned. “You're learning the rules fast.”

    “You don't give me much choice.” I sighed. “OK, so, what else... oh, how are you connected to King Naudri?”

    “I am King N of All Humans,” he replied. “I inherited his throne. I am the first with the birthright for several thousand years.”

    Lightning – and then thunder almost immediately. I shivered. It was cold up here, and I didn't much care to be in something tall and made of metal during a thunderstorm.

    “Is that why Harmonia named you N?”

    He looked at me with something halfway between pity and exasperation, as if he had expected me to work this much out by now and was only now starting to think that perhaps that wasn't a realistic expectation.

    “Names are very important,” he told me. “I wouldn't trust anyone to supply something so important; I chose mine for myself, and I chose it because it is the name I was born to bear.”

    “Right,” I said, feeling as if I had just had something very important explained to me and had failed entirely to see it. “Um... is there anything else I should know?”

    “Of course,” he replied. “Libraries of it. But you know I can't give it to you; you have to go out and earn it. It's the price you pay for being a hero.”

    “I know,” I sighed. “I get it.”

    “'We have given you the blade, but you must find the dragon yourself',” quoted N.

    “Where's that from?”

    “An old story,” he replied. “Forgive me. Stories are the spider's prerogative.”

    “Right.” I paused. “Anything... uh, any idea what I should be doing next?”

    “Act on the information I just gave you,” he said. “That would be a good start.”

    The carriage was sinking fast now. Had the wheel sped up? Or had I just misjudged our position on its circumference earlier?

    “We won't meet again for some time,” N said, suddenly business-like. “In the darkness where my cousins live. Please don't contact me; I can't do any more and I don't want to disappoint you.”

    It seemed reasonable, though rational thought would surely have told me that his words made very little sense.

    “All right,” I agreed.

    We descended for a few minutes in silence; the thunder boomed out twice more, louder than before, and the rain's drumming rose to fever pitch, as if it were trying to drown it out.

    “One more thing,” I said, struck by something. “Just before we go.”

    “Yes?”

    “Who do you see when you look at me?”

    N considered for a moment.

    “People think it's very hard to hold two things in your mind at once,” he said. “But everyone is born with the ability. It's only after they start to see that most things in the world have only one outward face that they lose it. When I see you, now that I know who you are, I see Jared Black, and at the same time I see Lauren White. It isn't a question of transforming from one to the other,” he said. “There is no conflict. You are simply two things at once.”

    “I thought you might say something like that,” I admitted. “It makes me feel a bit better to hear it, though.”

    N smiled at me – that odd, gentle smile, which changed the shape of his face entirely, and made those who saw it suspect that perhaps he was not human at all but was in fact an angel.

    “Then take the information and wield it freely,” he said, as the door clunked open. He jumped out into the rain, feet kicking up plumes of water from the puddles outside; in what seemed like less than a second, he was soaked to the skin, his hair hanging wet and limp around his head in green hunks and his thin shirt so firmly plastered to his body that it seemed to be part of his skin. I realised for the first time how oddly he was proportioned; his body didn't look right, somehow – too thin, too long, too... something. His shoulder blades and collarbones seemed to rise up from within him like eruptions of volcanic rock from deep below ground; the rain running down his face trickled through hollows I had never seen on anyone else's face before, tracing an alien physiognomy. For a moment, as he tipped his head back and swallowed a mouthful of rainwater, he looked frighteningly alien – a visitor to Earth who had disguised himself so as to fit in, but not quite well enough.

    “Well, Jared,” he said. “It's been a pleasure.”

    “Uh... yeah, I guess,” I said, stepping reluctantly out of the carriage. “It was good to see you.

    “Yes. I love this rain!” he said suddenly, as if some passion he had hitherto been trying to hold back had broken loose and taken over him. “It makes me feel so alive— hello, Fenwick!”

    A small, mousy man in a thick coat and hood was hurrying towards us, unfurling a gigantic umbrella as he went. He didn't seem particularly pleased to see N.

    “My lord, you're drenched,” he observed, aghast. “You'll catch your death—”

    “No, I won't,” he said. “I'm a little tougher than that. Give that umbrella to Jared; I don't think he likes the rain.”

    He was right. I was always a bit concerned that maybe the studs on my jacket might rust or something when it rained.

    “But—!”

    “But nothing,” said N in terms that brooked no argument. “I neither want nor need it, and Jared does. Hand it over.”

    Reluctantly, Fenwick handed me the umbrella, which I accepted gladly; N might feel alive in this sort of weather, but I was fairly certain I wasn't far off death.

    “Thanks,” I said.

    “Not at all,” said N. “Now, Jared, I'll have to go now, or Fenwick will have an apoplectic fit.”

    Fenwick reddened at this, which in fact made him look closer to an apoplectic fit than ever.

    “My lord N—”

    “I'm coming,” he said gently. “Goodbye, Jared. I'll see you later.”

    “Bye,” I called, and I watched them, the short man and the tall, unnatural boy, until their silhouettes became one with the rain and disappeared into the curtains of water.

    ---

    Ezra had, in his eagerness, pushed Harmonia's laptop a little too hard, and it had begun to cry blood out of the fan vents. After that, it stopped working, and no amount of demonic fiddling could restore it to life.

    However, before it had perished, it had divulged another secret: the tracking program previously discovered by Halley. This meant that, with half a day's perambulation around the dark paths, and another few hours spent searching the physical world, Ezra and Niamh found themselves standing outside a theme park in the rain. Or at least, in a place where it was raining; they weren't in the rain themselves, given the way the raindrops ricocheted off something invisible that hovered above their heads. Niamh did not know what this something might be, but she also knew that raindrops shouldn't be ricocheting, and so wisely decided not to question it.

    Fleisweg,” said Ezra in some surprise, staring at the figures walking towards them on the other side of the gates. “He looks exactly the same as the last one.”

    “The last one?”

    “The last King,” said Ezra. “The King who was killed by Eodred, an archer in the army of the Twin Heroes, in the year 32.”

    “Oh.” Niamh blinked for a moment. “Uh, how?”

    “I have absolutely no idea, and I'm not sure it would be polite to ask. Or perhaps he won't mind; I don't know, I haven't met him yet. Shall we say hello?”

    Without waiting for an answer, Ezra stepped forwards towards the approaching figures, who were now separated from them by just a few metres of car park; here, he stopped, and lowered himself respectfully onto one knee.

    “Your Highness,” he said, bowing his head. “E—”

    “Ezra Schwarz, yes,” replied the King, coming closer and looking at him curiously. “I wondered what you looked like.”

    Niamh watched him carefully, and shuddered. She did not like this so-called King; in fact, she felt a strong urge to shoot him on the spot. The only things she had ever seen before that looked and felt as wrong and warped as he did were certain of the monsters she had been hired to destroy. Her eyes ran across him quickly, cataloguing the deviancies in his form: his eyes were an impossible colour, his musculature oddly anchored; his cheekbones were too thin, his brow too weak and the end joint of each finger far too long, with the nail overlarge and curved over the sides like a shield. Something in the set of his mouth argued for a few too many teeth, too, and her practised eye detected an abnormal skeletal structure beneath his skin. One of these oddities, she might accept as a genetic condition or something; two or three, even, if it came to it. But all of them together? No, thought Niamh, this man was not human, or if he was it was only in the same way that a tiger is a cat.

    “You can get up,” said the King. “I haven't really been crowned or anything. I just bear the blood.”

    Ezra got stiffly to his feet, and regarded him respectfully.

    “I saw your predecessor,” he said. “You are very like him.”

    “I know,” replied the King. “I have his name, or its son. I'm N.”

    He held out a hand for Ezra to shake, and Ezra did so – very carefully, as if this hand might suddenly turn into a valuable vase and fall to the wet asphalt to shatter.

    “This is Niamh Harper,” said Ezra, gesturing at her. “We're working together on a project.”

    N smiled lazily, and Niamh stuffed her hands into her pockets so that she wouldn't break his freakish, ivory-tombstone teeth.

    “Regicide,” he said. “I know all about it.”

    “Of course you would,” growled Niamh softly, under her breath. She transferred her attention to N's companion instead – a little mousy man, weedy and looking very much overwhelmed by the King's visitors. As well he might, she reflected; she had cleaned herself up at the hotel, but she still had an atmosphere around her that told you she was dangerous. Portland had once told her that for strangers, being around her was like having a dinner party with a live grenade balanced on a stick in the middle of the table; everyone wanted to get on with things and have a good time, but no one dared to move too much for fear of a sudden deadly explosion.

    She had laughed, she remembered, and told him he was silly and had no way with words.

    She missed him.

    “Well, then,” said N. “Why are you here?”

    “We came to tell you what Harmonia is doing – what Weland is doing,” said Ezra urgently. “You must understand, whatever they've told you, it's lies—”

    “I know,” he replied. “I'm not an idiot. I know what they want to do.”

    Ezra stared.

    “And you'll lend your support to it?”

    N hesitated.

    “Please don't be angry,” he began, and Niamh began to feel very angry indeed. This was the paragon of humanity? This was a man who could sway the minds of half the demons in Unova, who could by simply choosing to act up to his own f*cking title could save untold lives and give her a chance to get Portland back?

    “What do you mean?” asked Ezra. There was no longer any warmth in his voice.

    “Please don't be angry, but I have my own reasons for doing what I'm doing,” N said. His voice was gentle, placatory, but Niamh could see nothing of the sort in his eyes; they remained cold and dead. Were other people even there for him, she wondered. The bastard wasn't human, and obviously wasn't a demon either; did he think himself so superior to either species that neither mattered? “I have to keep going with this, or things will... things will be very much worse,” he finished lamely. “I'm sorry. I can't tell you more than that.”

    Niamh saw the look on Ezra's face, and she saw the cold indifference hiding behind the obsequious politeness in N's voice, and she thought, F*ck it.

    And she punched him in the mouth.

    N went down easily – in fact, he slammed into the ground as if flattened by a falling star; he was light, far lighter than any man his height had a right to be. The man at his side squealed in dismay and almost stepped forwards – but Niamh looked at him for just a fraction of a second, and he retreated in terror instead.

    “Bastard,” she spat. “What are you, anyway?”

    N stared up at her from the ground, unhearing, and touched his mouth. There was blood on his fingers.

    “I understand why you did that,” he said, in that horrible calm voice, and Niamh kicked out at him—

    A grey band of light held her foot fast two inches from N's ribs.

    “If he says he has his reasons, Niamh,” said Ezra, though he didn't sound entirely convinced, “then he has his reasons.”

    “People are going to f*cking die!” she snapped back, wrenching her foot free so hard that the light dissolved and turning to face him. “Doesn't he get it? If things go on as they are, Unova's f*cked – the world's f*cked!”

    “It is and it isn't,” said N. “The world as you know it is, but a new—”

    “Funnily enough,” interrupted Niamh, “I'm pretty fond of the world as it is.”

    “But the new world would be better,” he said earnestly, rising to his feet. “I'm afraid I can't tell you how – that's not how it works. But it will be, I promise.”

    Niamh stared.

    “We don't even have kings any more,” she said. “We don't want one person making all our decisions. We like to be consulted. That's why Weland has to die.”

    She hadn't thought of it before, but it was true: freedom was important. Niamh was no idealist; she knew that people would always be unhappy, would always fight and f*ck and murder for the scraps from the rich's dinner table (that was her world, after all), but she felt quite strongly that people did at least have the right to decide what was best for themselves. That went for the demons, too; how many actually wanted to support Weland's insane war on humanity? Everyone, Niamh decided suddenly, was due a little f*cking autonomy, soul-eating demon or not.

    “I can't help you,” said N. “And I can't tell you why, either.” His face looked unhappy, but his eyes were calm as ever: balls of ice, bloodless, inhuman.

    “Ezra, I think we ought to leave,” said Niamh tightly. She felt like she was going to explode, and she knew it was probably because of Portland but Woden fIcking hang 'em this guy was annoying and she was going to beat him into nothingness if they stayed. “Or.”

    “Yes, I can see your 'or',” said Ezra, stepping between her and N. He was now taller than before, she noticed. Quite a lot taller. “Your Highness. N. Whatever you wish to be called. I... don't pretend to understand your decision. Nor do I pretend to approve of it. Your actions are not those of your forefathers.”

    “I am them,” said N cryptically, “but they were never me. I have to do things differently.”

    “Doubtless.” Ezra sighed. Niamh couldn't see his face, but his head bowed a little. “We'll leave you now, your Highness. You have... complicated our plans a lot. And a lot rests on our plans.”

    “I'm sorry,” said N. “I really am.”

    “Goodbye, your Highness,” said Ezra, and he took Niamh's hand, and together they stepped away and into the dark.

    Fenwick scurried back over to N, wide-eyed and staring.

    “Who were they, my lord? Are you OK? Your lip—”

    N wiped the blood from it.

    “It's fine,” he said. “See? No cut.”

    It was true. There wasn't.

    “As for who they were...” N sighed. “It doesn't matter. We'll see them again, but I don't think they'll be as polite next time. I don't think Ezra will baulk at attacking me again.”

    The rain pattered on; it seemed to be easing a little, but that could just have been wishful thinking on Fenwick's part.

    “I see,” he said, though he didn't; it was just the easiest thing to say when N started talking about things that only spiders saw, or whatever it was he called it.

    “Mm,” said N, who knew exactly what the limitations of Fenwick's understanding were. “Come on, Fenwick. There's no sense in standing here all afternoon.”

    And they started to walk again, the rain splattering in freezing curtains around them.

    ---

    Ghetsis Harmonia was not happy.

    It is true that these days, it was almost a terminal affair with him, but today he felt it especially acutely.

    Rood had failed, and failed, moreover, due to Harmonia's error of judgement. If it had been his incompetence – if it had been Molloy's bad choice of Sage – if it had been almost literally anything else – the sting would have been mitigated. Not completely nullified; there was no amputating the barb on failure's armoured tail. But he would at least have been stung through a thick pair of jeans instead of on his bare and unprotected thigh.

    Harmonia thumped the table and refocused his HawkEye in rage. Now he was making inappropriately elaborate metaphors.

    Something had to be done. He needed good news, and he needed it soon. The past couple of days had been horrendously bad for the Party; the successes of his opponents could prove to be his downfall. The only enemies he'd beaten in that time were the League, and they weren't exactly putting up much of a fight at the moment.

    At that moment, his phone rang. He regarded it with the air of someone who has caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of their eye, and does not know whether it was the boy delivering the paper or a Bengal tiger taking up a good pouncing position.

    After a long pause, he picked it up.

    “Hello?” he said cautiously.

    “Good news, Ghetsis,” came the voice of Caitlin Molloy. “We found the mystery woman.”

    Relief flooded through Harmonia's system with such force that it threatened to spurt from his nostrils.

    “You have? Who is she?”

    “Her name is Niamh Harper,” she replied. “Apparently, she's – get this – a freelance monster-slayer. Not to be taken lightly, by all accounts; frankly, I'm not sure she finds humans very intimidating opponents, after some of the things she's meant to have killed.”

    “Oh.” Harmonia paused. “Well. Do we have any idea of her weaknesses?”

    “Yes, actually.” He could almost hear the grin in Caitlin's voice. “She's going after us for the sake of helping out one man that she's absolutely devoted to – one man that we already have as a hostage.”

    Harmonia's heart skipped a beat.

    “You can't mean...”

    “Yeah,” said Caitlin. “We've got her over a barrel, because we've got Portland Smythe.”
    Last edited by Cutlerine; 9th June 2013 at 11:15 PM.

  17. #142
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    N is just full of mysteries isn't he? I'm sure he could have just said to Ezra and co. that he knows that Harmonia will fail, but then again, perhaps it was just for Jareds ears.

    As for that good news for Harmonia having Smythe, I'm sure it will be the cause of Niamhe betraying Ezra as was stated by N, but I guess we'll wait and see.

    Always looking forward to more, keep it up.


    Credit to Brutaka for the amazing banner and user bar. Yeah, having 2 is redundant, but it shows you guys my favorite pokemon, what story I had planned and my position in the WoJ.

    Time, there's never enough of it but it's always there to waste.
    -Azurus

  18. #143
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    Quote Originally Posted by Azurus View Post
    N is just full of mysteries isn't he? I'm sure he could have just said to Ezra and co. that he knows that Harmonia will fail, but then again, perhaps it was just for Jareds ears.

    As for that good news for Harmonia having Smythe, I'm sure it will be the cause of Niamhe betraying Ezra as was stated by N, but I guess we'll wait and see.

    Always looking forward to more, keep it up.
    Well, I'd argue that Ezra probably knows Weland won't honour any deal he makes with Harmonia, considering how Weland regards humans; in addition to that, he probably doesn't think Harmonia is stupid enough to trust Weland implicitly, either. So I'm guessing he knows that everyone will betray each other - but that doesn't change anything. If Harmonia doesn't succeed, it will only be because Weland has succeeded instead - and that would be far, far worse. Besides, Ezra wants Weland dead, and with Weland dead Harmonia might succeed, which would mean that Harmonia would also have to be stopped.

    Ezra's own involvement, from his point of view, complicates matters. Unlike N, he doesn't have the ability to see situations totally objectively, from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator, to clarify things.

    As for Niamh betraying Ezra or vice versa... we shall see. I haven't decided who betrays who yet, or when it happens. The only thing we can be certain of is that there will most likely be blood, and a fairly major character will probably die.

    As ever, I thank you and anyone else who reads this for, well, reading this. I look forward to providing you with more entertainment in the future!

    F.A.B.

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    Chapter Twenty-four: Dinosaurs and Dragons

    People make a lot of assumptions about dinosaurs.

    And while we could go on and list them all here – for there are many we make, and not all are right – we really want to focus on one specific group of dinosaurs: the dromaeosaurids.

    People assume they hunted in packs. That they were smart. That they could, if given the chance, learn.

    Ingen had not been able to prove much of this, even after they had cloned some. Some dromaeosaurids were relatively smart, it seemed – but nowhere near as smart as the smartest birds, the crows. They didn't show much inclination to hunt in packs, either – it was all more disorganised than that, with them mobbing their prey like juvenile Komodo dragons. Whether this was because they had no one to teach them to cooperate or because they simply didn't have the intellect to form organised groups was uncertain; at least, it was until it was fairly conclusively determined that the dromaeosaurids showed very little interest in learning.

    This was bothersome. They had a roomful of resequenced velociraptors and nothing to do with them. They weren't even really big enough to use as guard dogs.

    It was then that it was decided that they ought to carry on where evolution had left off, and start making improvements.

    The beasts would have to be smarter, of course. And larger – but that was easy, there were other dromaeosaurids that were bigger, like utahraptor. They would have to be able to figure things out for themselves, should they need to be left to their own devices for a while.

    So they got to work, and it could be said that they got a little carried away – but really, who could blame them: after all, when one can put subdermal armour plating on your pet monster, then why not? And if you can gift it with the superstrong bones of a Machamp, then why not do that? And if you can combine the regenerative powers of the axolotl and the Blissey, then why not that as well?

    And in the end, Ingen were left with something very illegal, and very, very dangerous.

    Something that they discovered they could hard-wire with a pathological fixation for one particular thing.

    Something that they took to using to kill things that should never have been, and which should never have escaped.

    Something that was making its furious way towards Nimbasa, following the burning trail in its mind that would lead it to an Archen.

    ---

    Cheren and Halley hadn't waited in the rain, of course; they'd left a message on Bianca's phone and gone to the Pokémon Centre in the Clatter, Nimbasa's innermost district. The rain had, if anything, increased in ferocity since we'd left Olga and Benito's World of Adventure, and by the time we were back the umbrella N had given me was looking a little ragged around the edges. So was I, but that was only because a soaking-wet Bianca had been bouncing around splashing me by accident and telling me how amazing the rides had been. Apparently, she didn't particularly mind that the rain had turned her hat into a large green pancake and her hair into a limp imitation of straw; I suppose she was to be commended for her fortitude, but really all I wanted to do was get away from her before she got me any wetter.

    Once she and I were (mostly) dry again, we joined Cheren and Halley in the lounge, which was much busier than in other cities we'd been to – Nimbasa seemed to be a popular destination for Trainers. I pondered this for a moment, and then realised the connection between the city's famously attractive Gym Leader and the large number of teenage boys here.

    “Ah,” said Cheren, looking up as we entered. “How was it?”

    “It was amazing!” cried Bianca. “It was so cool – I went on the Gate to Hell coaster, and met Seńor Grool, and—”

    “I was thinking more about the meeting with N,” said Cheren carefully. “You know. The reason we went to the park in the first place.”

    “Oh.”

    I sat down next to him and held out my arm for Candy; she hopped off his head and rushed up my sleeve to bite my ear.

    “Ouch,” I said, pushing her beak away. “It went OK, Cheren, as it happens. I mean... he told me quite a lot.” I paused to think it over and assemble the information he'd given me into something comprehensible. “I... guess he dropped a lot of hints, but didn't give many specifics,” I said at last. “He mentioned that Harmonia is working with the king of the demons, someone called Weland the Undying. He mentioned that Teiresias has betrayed both of them. He mentioned that a demon called Ezra is trying to kill Weland – I think he's connected to Niamh Harper somehow.

    “He went on to suggest we look up something about a cat and a spider, and, uh...” I tried hard to recall; my mind seemed to execute a half-twist when I entered and left the area around N, and memories formed while with him came back to me with difficulty. “Uh... oh yeah. He said he's inherited the right to be King from King Naudri, whatever that means, and he says that Harmonia's his father.”

    “What?” asked Halley, then clamped her mouth shut before anyone who shouldn't started noticing she was talking.

    “Yeah, I know,” I said. “Weird, isn't it?”

    “Harmonia N's father,” said Cheren slowly. “How strange... there's no family resemblance at all, except the hair.”

    “He did say he wasn't his biological father,” I clarified. “Or actually his legal father. Just... they mutually consider Harmonia to be his father.”

    “Weird,” said Bianca, frowning. “So where did N come from?”

    “I don't know,” I replied. “But he didn't – when I saw him in the rain. He didn't – just didn't look human.”

    We fell silent for a while, and over the murmur of conversation in the room I heard a voice coming from the TV:

    “...Jared Black, who went missing in Black City over a week ago...”

    I sat up very straight, eyes flicking over to the TV screen – and then, seeing my own face looking back, hunched down again and tried hard to be inconspicuous.

    “He disappeared early on Eostre morning,” the newsreader was saying, looking seriously out at the world in a manner that she probably thought befitting of such a worrisome story. “He took with him his pet, an—”

    Please don't say 'Archen', I begged silently. Please, Mum, Dad, realise that having this Archen is illegal—

    “—exotic fanged parrot from Norway,” finished the newsreader.

    I stared.

    “Huh,” I said.

    “Attempts to contact him have failed, but he did leave an elaborate story involving persecution by Green Party leader Ghetsis Harmonia behind for his younger sister Cordelia to pass on,” she said. “Police are interviewing her to see if she knows about Jared's ultimate destination.”

    I raised my eyebrows.

    “Good luck with that,” I muttered.

    “His family declined to be interviewed, but asked the message to be put out that if Jared is watching this, would he please come home.”

    The newsreader was silent for a moment. Presumably she thought she looked composedly sorrowful, but in fact she looked vaguely constipated.

    “In other news, the Gym Leaders of Striaton Gym have announced their retirement from Training. Max Duveaux has the story.”

    I turned away from the TV and looked at the others.

    “I think,” I said, “I'm going to need to keep a close eye on the news. And get the f*ck out of this room.”

    “Yes,” replied Cheren, standing up. “Come on, let's move before someone notices you...”

    I followed him out closely in the hope that it might obscure my face; Bianca walked behind me in case my back was particularly memorable. She wasn't tall enough to block the back of my head from sight, but if anyone knew me well enough to recognise me from that, there probably wouldn't be any fooling them at all.

    A minute later, we had reconvened in Cheren's room (Bianca's and mine were full of wet clothes) and were wondering what exactly we ought to do.

    “We need to disguise you,” said Cheren decisively. “No one must know who you are—”

    “Can't we just call the League and ask them to talk to the police?” I asked. “They know who I am and what we're dealing with here—”

    “What makes you think the League have any clout with the police force?” asked Halley. “I know you suggested this before, but... come on. They barely have control of their own f*cking people, let alone the cops.”

    Cheren paused.

    “True,” he said. “That doesn't stop us trying. But even if you do stop the police actively looking for you, there's been a TV broadcast now. The nation will notice your face, Jared, no matter what – they'll see you, and when they do they'll stop you and call the police. It's going to cost time and effort to get it sorted out, and you might end up being sent back home anyway.”

    I sighed.

    “I see,” I said. “Well... f*ck.” I rubbed my eyes with the thumb and forefinger of one hand. It was too late for this; I'd spent a long time with N today, and battled through the rain, and I just felt exhausted. “All right. OK. What sort of thing are you thinking of?”

    “I wasn't. I haven't got a plan yet. I thought Munny might be able to make people who noticed you forget you were there, but I don't really think its skills are up to the task.”

    “Yeah,” agreed Bianca. “Munny's not so good at all that – no subtleties. Knock someone out, yeah, but probably not wipe a memory.”

    “Turn yourself into a cat,” suggested Halley. “It worked for me. Hell, even I don't know who I am any more.”

    I stared at her.

    “I would've thought you of all people wouldn't find that funny.”

    She shrugged – which, since she was a cat, amounted to a long, sinuous ripple of her spine.

    “I veer wildly between moments of self-deprecating humour and aggressively egotistical witticisms. Occasionally I stop in the middle and just vomit f*cking acid for a while.”

    “I'm not sure that makes sense.”

    “I'm not sure you make sense,” she said, and curled up on the bed.

    “Right,” said Cheren, ignoring her steadfastly, “let's think about what needs to change. The jacket you have is actually pretty good – it's distinctive, with all those studs, but half of Unova's teenagers are wearing ones just like it these days.”

    I nodded.

    “OK,” I said. “So that helps me blend in. But it doesn't change my face.”

    “And that's something that's got to happen,” said Halley sleepily. “Remember when I was listing the ways in which you and Lauren were opposites? This is another. Jared's f*ck ugly, and Lauren's... OK, not pretty, exactly. Less unattractive, maybe. Hell, you both look like something Swamp Thing shat out after a particularly violent curry.”

    “That is an unspeakably foul imagination you have,” Cheren told her conversationally. “Your talents must be in demand among all your friends, if you have any.”

    Halley grinned, unfazed, and went back to sleep.

    “I'm not sure what we can do,” said Cheren. “Your hair could change, I guess.”

    Black hair was the least common hair colour in Unova by far; our ancestors had been red- and blonde-haired northern barbarians and green-haired God-knew-who. (There had been a theory that the green hair genes came from sloth people, but it was later pointed out that sloths don't actually have green fur, and that in any case there was no such thing as sloth people.) When you saw a black-haired person, you knew that their ancestors had come to Unova in the last couple of hundred years. Or, if they were me, that they were born inexplicably dark-haired to blonde parents, which had caused some small friction between my mum and dad.

    I scratched my head.

    “I guess,” I said, unenthusiastically. “Dunno. Might be enou—”

    Bianca's phone rang, and she went outside into the hallway to take the call.

    “Might be enough,” I repeated. “We could go and buy hair dye or something tomorrow, I guess.”

    “Not 'we'. 'I'.” Cheren tapped his breast. “You want to go out on the busy streets the morning after they broadcast your status as a missing person? I'll deal with the dye for you.”

    “Good point,” I admitted. “Anyway, we'll call the League first, and see what they can do.”

    “Maybe I switched bodies with a cat,” said Halley thoughtfully. “In which case, I'm willing to heroically take this bullet for Jared and let him hide out in this pathetic cat body.”

    “Are you going to suggest anything serious at all?”

    “I could claw odd marks all over your face and disfigure you,” she said. “There. If that ain't serious, boys, I don't know what is.”

    “A serious wound, yeah. Not exactly a serious suggestion.”

    Halley sat up and placed one paw over her heart.

    “Jared,” she said. “Cheren. Since when have I been anything less than the f*cking model of gravity?”

    There was a lot I could have said in response to that, but she was saved from it by the ringing of my phone.

    “Hello?”

    “Jared?” It was Iris. “You're on the news.”

    “Yeah, I noticed. I was going to ask if the League could do anything about that, actually.”

    “I don't know,” she replied doubtfully. “I mean, we could say you've been deputised into the League for the purposes of a secret investigation, but I honestly don't know if we can make that wash.”

    “Why don't you just tell them I'm one of the two focal points of reality and the only one who can stop whatever horrendous evil N is lending his support to?”

    “Yeah, I don't think anyone will believe that,” she said.

    “Could you try? Because if I end up stuck back home, I don't think Harmonia can be stopped. N has to challenge me, at the end of all this – he has to, and it has to be me. The universe is always in balance, two weights on either side of a pivot, and one has to defeat the other before it can tip either way.” I didn't know where the words were coming from, but they rang in the air with the commanding authority of truth. “If I get stuck at home, they'll just have to bring him to me, or me to him. That puts people in Black City in danger – my family, in danger, and it also means that when I challenge him I won't know enough to win. To let the police investigation continue,” I said, “is to hand Harmonia and the demons their victory on a silver platter.”

    There was a silence.

    “Bloody hell,” said Iris, with a grudging admiration. “That was... that was a good speech.”

    “I've been learning from the best,” I told her, thinking of N. “So. Will you try?”

    “I'll see what I can do,” she said. “If we could only find Alder, then he'd be able to authorise the whole thing easily, but...” She sighed. “The whole League system is in a mess. I'll tell Grimsley and see what he can do.”

    “Thanks. I think it's going to be important.”

    “I can see that.”

    “Anyway. Was that all you wanted to call about?”

    “Yeah. I haven't had a chance to speak to Drayden yet – his mayoral duties have got him for the next couple of days. I'll call you when I find something out.”

    “OK.”

    She said goodbye and hung up.

    “Right,” I said. “That was Iris. She's going to speak to Grimsley about overturning the police investigation.”

    Cheren nodded.

    “Good—”

    The door opened, and Bianca came back in. Her face, usually flushed with excitement, was pale and bloodless; she seemed not so much to walk as float over the carpet, as if she had retreated several steps from reality.

    “Bianca?” Cheren had a hand on her arm immediately. “What's wrong?”

    She didn't say anything, just sat down on the bed. Candy cheeped uneasily.

    “Bianca?”

    “Dad called,” she said. Her voice lacked substance; like the rest of her, it had somehow removed itself from the real world. “The three weeks are up.”

    “What?” Cheren's eyes widened. “Thunor, I'd forgotten completely...”

    “What is it?” I asked.

    “Three weeks,” Cheren said, sitting down next to Bianca. “That's how long she had to do this. Her family is... not keen on Training. Her dad gave her three weeks to see what it was like, and it took a lot of arguing just to get that. We spent about half of it just getting to Striaton.”

    “Oh.” I wasn't sure what else to say.

    “He's coming tomorrow morning,” said Bianca. “Here. I can't just run away. Can I? I can't.”

    “You can convince him,” Cheren replied. “I'll help you.”

    “I don't know,” said Bianca, and she started to cry silently; at that point, very, very conscious that I was hanging around awkwardly, I retreated and went back to my room.

    A moment later, there was a scratching at the door, and I opened it for Halley.

    “They threw me out,” she said, as if surprised about it. “Apparently my suggestions were insensitive.”

    “They were,” I told her, putting Candy on the table and throwing myself onto the bed.

    “You didn't even hear them,” she replied, jumping up and settling like furry lead on my stomach.

    “I don't need to. I know they were insensitive.” I brooded for a moment. “What do you think Lauren's doing right now?” I asked.

    Halley looked at me.

    “Fixing the situation, I guess,” she said. “She's probably making Bianca feel better, while simultaneously trying to think of a way to let her continue on this journey.”

    “Huh.” I couldn't think of anything more eloquent.

    “Funny, isn't it? Bianca's about the sh*ttiest Trainer ever, but still she wants to go on...” Halley shook her head. “Cheren's going places. He's the sort of kid who gets in the news for beating all eight regional Gyms in under a year – I guarantee that in less than two years he'll be at least halfway through the Elite Four.”

    Beating the Elite Four wasn't something that normally happened. They were good – and merciless: you challenged all four in a row without respite, followed by the Champion. This was a challenge that most Gym Leaders couldn't complete; to beat one was amazing, to beat two was utterly fantastic, and to beat three was front-page news across half of Europe.

    “But Bianca,” Halley went on. “Bianca... she can't get better. It's not that she won't – not that she isn't truly applying herself, although she isn't. It's more that she's just... not capable. Some people are good at Training. Some people are good at writing. Some people are just f*cking failures.”

    “Bianca isn't a failure,” I said. It was the first thought to penetrate the cloud of general gloom that had settled over me.

    “No,” agreed Halley, apparently willing to take things seriously for once. “But she doesn't have a talent. She can't manipulate situations and people like Cheren. She can't fight or survive like you. She can't help others like Lauren. She has absolutely f*cking nothing, and it's like staring into a terrifying, bottomless abyss. Where does she go? What does she do? Who knows?” Halley stared inscrutably at Candy, who was challenging a lamp to a duel. “I doubt if she even knows it herself, but she's on this journey so she can figure out what it is that she wants to do,” she said.

    I stared at her.

    “What's got into you?” I asked, puzzled.

    “I'm not always serious,” said Halley, curling up, “but when I am, I delve pretty f*cking deep.”

    And then I knew, of course, that she had gone back to normal, and that I wasn't going to get any more sense out of her.

    I lay on my back and listened to the rain, rattling and hissing in the dark outside like a thousand threatened adders. What would Lauren do, I wondered. How would she help Bianca? I must know, somewhere – we were the same person, after all, even if we were opposites.

    What would you do, I asked, only I was too tired to say it aloud, so it echoed in my mind instead, blending with the sound of the rain. The clock on the table clicked over to 8.00; Halley rolled over in her sleep, landing on my chest and becoming heavier than ever, a huge presence that seemed to flow out through my limbs and leave me stuck there, immobile, a single thought pinned to a bed in a dry spot in the midst of the rain.

    What would you do, Lauren?

    There was nothing else, just the question and the rain and the huge weight that held me down – not in a threatening way; in fact, I could barely perceive it, because instead of a rational mind I had only the question, resounding like thunder in an empty head.

    I was dreaming, I realised suddenly. The thought came to me like an unobtrusive bassline underneath the guitar of the question. I was dreaming, because there was no longer any bed. I was lying inside the ribcage of a dragon, and the weight that was holding me still was the crushing meat of her muscles surrounding me. Her nerves had pierced my skin, and were intertwined with my own; we were one creature, one huge weapon ready for a colossal fight.

    What would you do, Lauren?

    My eyes were sealed beneath layers of mucous, protecting them from the dragon's vitriolic blood, but I saw through her eyes more clearly than I had ever seen through my own. Armies marched beneath me, a thousand armoured men and women with white and black plumes streaming from their helms. I saw the standard-bearers, ragged boys and girls who served as marching drummers too, with the great beams supporting the flag strapped to their backs; I saw the black dragon on the white field, and the white dragon on the black.

    What would you do, Lauren?

    The dragon and I flew on together, over the endless armies and the plains they marched across; we glanced to our right, and saw our brother-sister flying beside us. Lauren, I thought, as I saw the black creature riding the storm-cloud. Lauren, what would you do?

    Beyond the vanguard was a long plain and a wall of black granite; on the walls were more men and women, staring at us and at the armies we led from beneath the visors of pied armour. They glanced up at the Braviary and Mandibuzz that traced circles above them, and wondered if they should send them away rather than involve them in a fight they could not win.

    What would you do, Lauren?

    The army was close now, and huge creatures were stepping out of niches in the defenders' wall: great artificial men, built solidly of granite and river clay. They were as old as the city of granite and porphyry itself, and owed their fealty to the stone of its heart. They would be dangerous, but only until we took the throne; they defended the city, not the people. Stone looks after its own. Mortar never knows what it is to be blood.

    What would you do, Lauren?

    There he was, the King himself! He stood at the very centre of the defenders on the wall, a gigantic black Zoroark at his side. King Naudri, the man that we were all here to kill. Everything froze – the army halted its march, four hundred yards from the walls; the defenders stood to attention; the Braviary and Mandibuzz seemed to hang motionless in midair. Even we, the dragons and the master, hovered in place.

    What would you do, Lauren?

    And perhaps it was the sudden stillness and silence, but she finally seemed to hear me, and as quickly and easily as a fish slipping through water I was looking back at the white dragon from the black, and felt his huge muscles gripping a smaller, slimmer body, and knew that Jared had asked me a question.

    It isn't a question of transforming from one to the other. There is no conflict. You are simply two things at once.

    I started awake with a gasp. For a moment, I couldn't breathe – and then I remembered that there was no dragon crushing the air from my lungs. It had been a dream, or something without a name that I could only think of as a dream.

    I pushed Halley gently off my chest without waking her and walked over to the window. The rain had abated a little, but it was still lashing down violently. The clock was reflected in the glass; the green digits were illegible, but I didn't need it to know that it was sometime in the early morning. I could feel it, in that strange way you can if you wake up far too early.

    Drawing the curtains, I turned back towards the room. Something had changed, I was sure of it. I had come very close to something there – something that N had shown me, somehow. I was being shown the way – shown what I had to do. I didn't think about it too much; I knew it would come in time. But the important thing was that battle, I knew: the young king, defending his doomed people with every last stratagem they had to offer, and the Heroes, the dragons and the army.

    I closed my eyes and sat on the bed. I wasn't tired at all, despite the vividness of the dream. In fact, I felt quietly alert, and more so than I ever had before. I was learning, I thought. N had always been united with his ability: there was no mystery in it. I had to start out divided from mine, but I was, bit by bit, clawing it closer.

    At that moment, I became aware that I was holding something. I opened my palm and looked, but I couldn't make out what it was in the gloom; I switched on the bedside lamp, careful not to wake the sleeping Candy next to it, and held the object close to the light.

    In the middle of my tea-coloured palm was a small cone of metal. I stared at it for a moment, unable to work out what it was, and then my eyes widened.

    It was a stud from Jared's jacket.

    ---

    Three masked men broke into an office in Castelia and shot a clerk dead before flinging themselves from a window. No bodies were found in the street or in the building.

    A truck carrying copper pipes crashed on the way to the water treatment plant on Route 3.

    A garden shed in Striaton burned to the ground, harming no one.

    This was all that humans saw of the ferocious battle being fought between Weland's guards and Teiresias. The latter was heading east, away from the Green Party building and the Court; the former pursued it, engaging it and occasionally surviving.

    Teiresias was not stupid. It knew it was not immortal, and that it could not keep relying on its proleptic abilities to maintain this winning streak. It had to reach a place of safety, somewhere it could build up its powers further before pursuing further answers.

    After all, it knew Halley had them.

    She just needed to be reminded.

  20. #145
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    And now Jared/Lauren can bring things back from the other realm. Things are looking up.

    I'm really enjoying these scenes, very well done and mysterious, I'd like to see more of them at some point.

    Not much else to say other than Jared and Halley were unusually deep today.

    Keep it up, can't wait for next week.


    Credit to Brutaka for the amazing banner and user bar. Yeah, having 2 is redundant, but it shows you guys my favorite pokemon, what story I had planned and my position in the WoJ.

    Time, there's never enough of it but it's always there to waste.
    -Azurus

  21. #146
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    Quote Originally Posted by Azurus View Post
    And now Jared/Lauren can bring things back from the other realm. Things are looking up.
    Sort of. We'll see more of this in later chapters, but his/her awareness of himself/herself and what that means is expanding, which means... stuff like that.

    Quote Originally Posted by Azurus View Post
    I'm really enjoying these scenes, very well done and mysterious, I'd like to see more of them at some point.
    I enjoyed writing it too; there'll be more like it in future, since the story now calls for it. I also hope the final explanation at the end justifies the mystery.

    Quote Originally Posted by Azurus View Post
    Not much else to say other than Jared and Halley were unusually deep today.

    Keep it up, can't wait for next week.
    Ah, well, it happens to the best of us. Occasionally one does wax a little serious, although comparing people to Swamp Thing's bowel movements tends to take the edge off it a little.

    Hey ho. Onwards!

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

    F.A.B.

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    Chapter Twenty-five: The Longest Night

    Ezra was troubled.

    Doubtless the King had his reasons for what he was doing; his kind always did. But he couldn't help but worry that those reasons might not be as sound as they had been in ancient times. After all, two and a half thousand years had passed since the city of granite and porphyry had been seared to dust under the withering attacks of the dragons; the great grey golems were mud and ether, and the bloodline had been extinct. Who knew what changes the modern world might have wrought on the character of a king so out of time?

    Harmonia was the problem. Between his silver tongue and the strength lent to his cause by Weland, he was capable of almost anything – and what he couldn't win with words, he would take by force, as the riots in Nacrene had proved. Ezra could not even begin to imagine how he had acquired such a gigantic army, or what he might choose to do with it – for, although it had appeared in the guise of a mere disconnected rabble, it was an organised force, he was certain of it. Perhaps the police would realise, in time, that not all of the rioters even seemed to live in Nacrene; perhaps they would notice that most of them had melted away into the background and disappeared from the city when their task was done. Ezra couldn't say. The only thing he knew for certain was that Harmonia had brought a city of one and a half million to its knees to take a single artefact from a museum. When the smallest weapon you have is a private army, Ezra thought grimly, your largest is too terrible to be guessed at.

    “What are you thinking?” asked Niamh.

    He turned, surprised. He had forgotten she was there.

    “I'm thinking about Harmonia,” he said. “I think he may be more dangerous than we thought.”

    “I think he's exactly as dangerous as I thought,” replied Niamh. “I should have killed him in his office.”

    Ezra shook his head.

    “No. It would have been worse – much worse – if you had. Then Caitlin Molloy would have been in sole control of his organisation, and she's worse than he is. Harmonia may be dangerous, but at least he isn't a psychopath.”

    “Ah.” Niamh nodded. “I forgot about her.”

    “That's one of her tricks,” Ezra said gloomily. “Everyone forgets about her, or doesn't notice her. Not until it's too late.”

    “You don't sound happy,” ventured Niamh. She was more comfortable removing limbs than comforting people, but she considered Ezra (more or less) her friend now, and was willing to give it a try.

    “I'm not,” he replied. “Harmonia knows we stole his computer. Yes?”

    “Yes.”

    “So he has a good idea of what we now know.”

    “Yes.”

    “So where would he expect us to go next?”

    Niamh thought.

    “To Driftveil,” she said. “To the warehouse where the gold is.”

    “And more than that,” Ezra said darkly. “It's... grotesque, I have to say. I'll tell you when we get there. For the moment, let's consider that he knows where we're going, and that if we get what we want from there, we'll have a criminal accusation that we can level against him and perhaps force him to release Smythe.”

    “There's something we can use to blackmail him in there?” she asked. “I know there's the gold, but that's kind of tenuous—”

    “More than gold,” said Ezra. “As I said, I'll tell you when we get there. I'd rather not talk about it. It makes me... uncomfortable.”

    “OK,” said Niamh, frowning. “Fine. So you say there's something we can use to blackmail him in there – something that he so desperately needs to keep secret that he'd rather give up Portland than let it out?”

    “That's it,” said Ezra. “Now look at the news.”

    He pointed at the TV and turned the sound on.

    “...recent riots in Nacrene,” the newsreader was saying. “Some incoming footage now...”

    Blurry images of people chanting, punching the air, waving banners; the camera pulling back, showing how many there were – thousands upon thousands, pressed so tightly together that at times it seemed like they had become one vast pulsating creature. Someone threw a stone and the camera fell; it went dark before it hit the ground, and the recording ceased with a crunch of trampled plastic and metal.

    “The group is using the same 'Plasma' chant that was used in the Nacrene riots,” said the newsreader. “Police are trying to disperse the protesters, but there are too many at present for current Driftveil forces to make an impact. There—”

    Ezra switched it off again.

    “A blockade,” he said humourlessly. “Harmonia's blockading his own warehouse, and it looks like he's the victim. Thousands of people throughout the country will be saying he deserves it – but how many more will say that he doesn't quite deserve this?” He shook his head. “And all the while, no one can get in or out.”

    Niamh bit her lip.

    “How did you know that this would happen?”

    “If you live long enough, you start to see patterns,” Ezra told her. “Nothing in human action is truly original. There are only variations on the old. I don't know how Harmonia is controlling these people – whether they're hypnotised or whether they're supporters of his cause – but once I saw them in Nacrene, I knew he would use them again. When a megalomaniac like him tastes power like that, he inevitably finds he likes the flavour. And so he does it again.”

    Niamh sighed.

    “You could have told me this earlier—”

    “I didn't know earlier,” Ezra said. “I didn't think about the warehouse – I was too concerned with N.”

    “Fat lot of good that did us.”

    “Yes,” said Ezra, and for the first time Niamh could hear the years in his voice – uncounted aeons, trickling like sand through the cracks between his words. “It was futile.”

    She didn't know what to say. She had never heard age like that before – age beyond all comprehension; age that encompassed the world, that cupped human achievement in the palm of its hand and planted its feet so far beneath it that they were out of sight. Virtually every civilisation in human history but the First Kingdom had risen and fallen in the time since Ezra was born, she realised, and the thought took her breath away.

    “Anyway,” said Ezra, getting to his feet. “There's no point worrying on that score. If the bloodline of the Kings is corrupt, the source of the corruption lies with the man who made it his tool: Harmonia.” He held out a hand. “To Driftveil, Niamh, and we'll see if our powers combined can stand against his petty blockade!”

    ---

    I didn't feel like sleeping any more, so I crept downstairs and watched TV in the abandoned lounge instead. Now, at two in the morning, there was no one about and I didn't have to hide my face – thankfully. My white hair makes me pretty unmistakeable.

    There was nothing on, of course – reruns of Skómst, of old Simpsons episodes, the twenty-four hour news – but I wasn't really watching. I was thinking about the little metal cone in the palm of my hand.

    I rolled it around, the broken cuffs jingling on my wrists. (I'd got used to them by now; apparently they were in fashion or something, and I'd seen so many other people wearing them that I no longer thought they stood out.) I wanted to know what it meant – it was a question, I thought. Or it was the closest we could come to one, as things were now. Jared had wanted to know something, I thought, trying to concentrate on the dream, but what had it been? I wasn't sure. At any rate, he hadn't managed to bridge the gigantic divide between us. All he'd been able to do was throw a stud over – a tiny act of connection, but an important one.

    It meant, I thought, that in some way we were one person as well as two. We stood for division, but it wouldn't mean a thing if we were entirely separate people – then we'd be the same as any other two randomly-selected people in Unova. There had to be something connecting us, some thing that we had in common, that united us in the midst of our division. Through that thread, I thought, Jared had sent the stud – and through that thread, maybe we could call to each other.

    I wasn't sure. It felt right, but feeling wasn't quite the same as reality, I knew – although from what N said, it might be closer to it than I thought.

    “Ah, well,” I said to myself. “You'll figure it out, Lauren. And you, Jared,” I added, after a pause, though I wasn't so sure about him.

    “Who are you talking to?”

    I turned. It was Bianca. She didn't look like she'd slept very well; her face was pale and her eyes red.

    “Myself,” I replied. “How are you?”

    She sat down next to me.

    “Not good.”

    I hugged her.

    “We'll solve the problem, you know,” I said. “I know we will. We've got Cheren, after all. He almost out-talked Teiresias – I'm sure your dad won't be a problem.”

    Bianca pulled away from me, frowning in bewilderment.

    “It was all he could do to persuade him to let me go in the first place,” she said. “How can he improve on that?”

    “He's learned,” I reminded her. “He's getting better – at Training, at thinking. At outsmarting people. I bet he can do it.”

    Bianca shook her head.

    “Why do you have so much confidence in him?”

    I paused. I hadn't been expecting that.

    “Well...” I shrugged helplessly. “I've seen him do things I never could. He's – he convinced Rood to let you go. He kept Teiresias waiting in the dark long enough for help to arrive, even though that help didn't really work out the way we thought. Every time something happens, Cheren rises to the challenge. If this were a novel, he would be the main character.”

    Bianca actually laughed then, which I didn't understand but which I thought must be a good sign.

    “You're adorable,” she said. “If this were a novel, you'd be the main character, Lauren.”

    “Me? What – well, just because I'm the centrepiece doesn't make me—”

    “Shut up,” said Bianca, good-naturedly. “Lauren. Forget about Cheren. You're the important one. And I think – I think you can make my dad see reason.”

    “Uh... what?”

    She shook her head.

    “Don't worry about it,” she advised. “I think that tomorrow morning it's all going to happen anyway, whether you want it to or not.”

    I stared helplessly. Mysteries were all very well when they were coming out of N's mouth, but put them in the hands of someone else and I couldn't fathom them at all.

    “What?”

    “Don't worry,” repeated Bianca. “And, Lauren...?”

    “Yeah?”

    “Thank you,” she said, getting up. “I feel much better now.”

    I wasn't sure what to say, so I said nothing. I just watched her leave and listened to the sound of her footsteps on the stairs. It occurred to me that she was prettier than I'd first thought, but I let that thought slide away and covered it with my ties to Annie. Bianca was Cheren's, I thought, the future opening up before me like a book; give them five years, or ten, or fifteen, but they would come together in the end. They would have other friends, and girlfriends and boyfriends, perhaps even husbands and wives, all their own – but in the end, I was certain, it would just be them, as it was now. Cheren and Bianca, alone together.

    They didn't need anyone else, I realised. I wondered where that left me.

    I suddenly felt very tired. I clicked the TV off, and went back upstairs to bed. There would be time to worry about the future tomorrow; for now, I just wanted to sleep.

    Morning found me stuck in my room, wondering whether or not I could risk going outside without instantly being spotted and reported to the police; I was still there, dithering, when Cheren came in.

    “Thank you,” he said without preamble. “Bianca seems much calmer this morning.”

    I frowned.

    “How do you know that's down to me?”

    “Well, it wasn't me,” he said, “and it definitely wasn't Halley.”

    “F*ck you,” she said sleepily, from her nest among the sheets.

    “OK, maybe I did something,” I admitted. “Not much, though. I'm sure you helped too.”

    Cheren sighed.

    “Lauren, trying to compliment you is like trying to nail water to a wall. Please. Help me here.”

    “Sorry,” I said, blushing. “Thank you. We just had – um. We just talked a bit.”

    “Bianca's dad will be here at eleven,” Cheren said. “She wants you to talk to him then. Until that time – here.”

    He passed me Bianca's hat.

    “I'll stay with her,” he said. “You go to the computer room and look up anything you can that N might have told you.”

    “The hat is for...?”

    Disguise,” he said. “I know your hair's quite long, but you could sort of bunch it all up under the hat to hide it, couldn't you?”

    “Thus speaks a boy,” sighed Halley. “He's never had his hair done. I suspect he's done jack sh*t with it except have it cut when it gets in his eyes.”

    “Thanks,” I said hurriedly. “Come on, Halley. We'll – um – get going now.”

    “I have to come?”

    “Yes,” I said, looking in the mirror and adjusting Bianca's hat on my head. It didn't look particularly good on me, but then, I didn't suppose very many people could carry off an oversized green beret successfully. “You do.”

    She sighed.

    “Fine.”

    I was about to pick up Candy, but saw she was still asleep and decided to leave her be for now. We left the room, Cheren going left to his room and Halley and I turning right to the stairs. A couple of minutes later, I was seated in front of a computer, waiting for it to start up, and Halley was asleep on top of the monitor.

    “Um – Halley,” I said, “what do you think Bianca's dad's like?”

    “A fat bastard,” she replied, without opening her eyes. “Will that do?”

    “What?”

    “You asked me what I thought he'd be like. I have a mental image of him as being fat, and also as being a bastard. Is that clear enough for you?”

    “Why do you think that? It's not very nice...”

    “I have no idea why I think that,” she told me. “I just do, the same way I have a mental image of Steven Stone as being tall and handsome, even though I've never seen a picture of him.”

    “Who?”

    She opened one eye.

    “Jesus Christ. You're serious.” She sighed. “Look, the point is – don't you ever judge someone before you've met them? Don't you get a picture of them in your head, despite not having anything to base it on?”

    I thought.

    “Um... no. Not really.”

    She shook her head in stupefied amazement.

    “You are a weird, weird girl. Your computer's ready.”

    “Ah. Thank you.”

    I opened the browser and began to search. It was time to put the flesh on the bones N had given me – time to cash in my endless secrets and see if I could come up with a few answers.

    ---

    Sh*t,” said Ezra, as the dark paths opened up around them. “Hold on tight.”

    Niamh started to say 'what', but didn't get any further than opening her mouth: he tightened his grip on her hand and began to fly.

    The darkness roared past on either side of them like water; the stones of the path blurred into one long grey mass beneath their feet. Neither Niamh nor Ezra touched it; if they did, Niamh thought, the impact would certainly be lethal.

    Abruptly, she became aware that Ezra was no longer human; he had dissolved, becoming something huge and dark with vast arching things that might have been wings. The part of him that gripped her wrist felt like a hand, but when she looked at it all she saw was a thick curl of something like ink that oozed at the corners.

    “They knew where we were,” he boomed, in a voice that was at once human and, somehow, not. “They were lying in wait – N! N must have given us away!”

    “Who?” Niamh screamed against the roaring wind; not a breath of air escaped her lungs, but Ezra seemed to hear anyway.

    “The Houndguard,” he replied. “Weland's ghuls!”

    And then she saw them.

    They travelled along their own paths, stones materialising before them and disappearing behind, and they did not restrict themselves to a single shape; they were men and women in armour of polished stone, and at the same time they were colossal grey hyaenas, easily six feet at the shoulder – and at the same time they were also vast smoky billowing things that boiled with tongues and teeth, and whipped trails of saliva through the air.

    Not all of the paths they used led towards the one Ezra and Niamh followed, and frequently they had to turn away to switch to a side-path that would bring them back on track – but they were, she noted, gaining on them. They were experts at navigating the paths, she could tell that at a glance, and given a few minutes they would almost certainly be upon them.

    “I'm going to kill that N kid,” Niamh said to herself. Then, louder: “Can't we get out of here?”

    “They're taking the exit paths,” replied Ezra. “There are few safe places to walk here, and they stand on every one between us and the holes that lead back to your reality.”

    “That's reassuring.”

    “Isn't it just.”

    The ghuls snaked closer, tacking across the paths like sailboats; one shot right over their heads, its paws and feet and pseudopodia striking the transient stones of the path so hard they cracked as it passed. Strings of spittle dripped down and sizzled into nonexistence on the back of the thing that had been Ezra; Niamh wondered what would happen if they touched her.
    And now the ghuls were closer still, and a pair succeeded in jumping onto Ezra's path just behind them, baying and yelling and howling in all their shapes; Niamh felt the swish of stone swords and the hot carrion breath of predators' mouths at her back, and turned in midair to face them, trailing horizontally out behind Ezra.

    The ghuls were worse this close up, she thought, staring grimly into the eyes of the foremost one; it had six pairs, all overlaid like layers in a crushed Viennetta, and each burned with a different species of fervour: the absolute concentration of a professional soldier, the brute ferocity of an apex predator, the incomprehensible madness of the seething toothed fogs – all were present, and each magnified the last, so that the whole effect was of something unimaginably fearsome that would have burned clean through the soul of any ordinary human.

    “Frige, you're an ugly f*cker,” she told it, and shot it eight times in the face.

    The bullets slammed deep into the hyaena's skull and shattered it, but they ricocheted off the warrior's helmet, and their effect on the hideous cloud was best not even contemplated. The different visual inputs clashed so violently that Niamh blacked out for a moment; when she regained her senses, she saw the ghul was pursuing her as steadily as ever, without apparent wounds in any of its three shapes.

    “Ezra!” she yelled. “They're bulletproof!”

    “You don't say!” he yelled back. “Hang on, we're jumping tracks!”

    There was a terrible nothingness—

    They were flying along another path, and the two ghuls that had been behind them, surprised, ran straight into a third that had dropped down just in front of Ezra before they jumped; the three of them fell from the path, and something that seemed to be mostly invisible swallowed them with a grotesque lip-smacking noise that reverberated through the void like thunder.

    “What the f*ck was that?”

    “A lost soul,” replied Ezra, jumping to another path to avoid another descending ghul. “If you leave the path, and if you survive the experience... Well. This place changes you. Skorvow!

    This last was spat with some venom at a ghul racing alongside them on a path just a few feet away; Ezra swept one massive wing into its back and knocked it off-balance, but it recovered quickly and sank a cluster of bony teeth into his substance. He roared in pain and flapped wildly, corkscrewing impossibly along the path, wings pulling in tight to avoid contact with the stones; Niamh had a wild, dizzying glance of blackness and grey fur and a flash of brilliant gold, and then they were the right way up again, and the hapless ghul was being catapulted across the abyss. She expected it to be snatched up like the others, but it seemed it was lucky; a path formed behind it perpendicular to their own and it scrambled to its feet, rejoining the chase at ninety degrees to the norm.

    And now, she saw, despite their earlier victories, that the ghuls were massing; canny and crafty path-finders, fifteen or sixteen of them were bunched tightly around them now on all sides, stones flickering in and out of existence so fast they hardly seemed to be there at all.

    “We have a proposition!” whooped one, in a hyaena's awful laugh. “Stop and listen!”

    “Do you think we're idiots?” asked Niamh, and shot at it to add to the insult.

    “I don't deal with Weland,” growled Ezra. “I'm not interested in any proposition.”

    “They're not interested,” yowled the ghul.

    “Then what?” snapped another.

    “They killed Dozla!” screeched a third.

    “And Mogwai!”

    “And Abydos,” said another one, using the fluid mouths of its smoke-form to unutterably horrifying effect.

    They might be fearsome, thought Niamh, but they weren't exactly clever beasts.

    “So we kill them!”

    “Yes! Kill them!” crowed the first.

    “Kill them! Kill them!”

    “Oh, they're as bad as schoolchildren,” sighed Ezra, swooping down to within an inch of the path to avoid a clutching talon from above. “Niamh! Are you willing to take a risk?”

    The ghuls around them blanched.

    “He's going to do it!”

    “He wouldn't do it!”

    “He won't do it!”

    “Just f*cking get us out of here!” yelled Niamh.

    “Oh Kĺgskr,” said one of the ghouls – quite quietly, but perfectly audibly, as if for a moment the rushing of the wind had faded to nothing. “He's going to do it.”

    And Ezra leaped off the path into the void.

    ---

    “OK,” I said. “So the spider and the cat – that's the fable of unknown provenance.”

    “Probably dates from the First Kingdom,” suggested Halley helpfully. “Knowing N.”

    “Oh yeah, that's a good idea. It probably does.”

    The story was about a spider who vied for control of the world's stories with a huge, powerful hunting cat; the cat was good at tracking the stories down and catching them, but the spider knew about the divided nature of cats, half elegance and danger and half graceless idiocy, and left a large ball of silk in her path. The great hunter couldn't resist lying down to play with it, and the spider made off with all her stories in the threads of his web.

    “It's easy to see why N says he's the spider and I'm the cat,” I went on. “I'm not sure if there's any more relevance to it than that, though.”

    “There might be,” said Halley. “There are a lot of cats about, aren't there? Teiresias always appears in a cat body, and I'm a cat, and apparently you are, in a way, and, well... Cats f*cking everywhere, that's what I'm saying.” She frowned. “Well. No, not literally – if there were cats f*cking everywhere, there'd be even more cats, but – well, you know what I meant.”

    “Yeah, I get it, thanks,” I sighed, wondering how this could be the same person who had talked so seriously and penetratingly about Bianca the night before. “Um. Then – er – there's this King Weland.”

    “The King of the demons.”

    “Yeah. There's a lot about him – I don't know how much is true. He's in a lot of old myths, but he's only called Weland in the very oldest. In the ones I know, he's usually Jrael – 'Sen and the King's Daughter', 'The Cloak of Woven Rivers', 'The Thane and the Druid' – everyone in Unova knows those.”

    “In White Unova, at least,” Halley corrected. “I doubt many in Jared's world remember old stories.”

    “Maybe so. But that's not the important thing.” I looked up at her. “The important thing... well, there's one story that comes up over and over again. It's in his title – world-eater. The creation story – where the children find a darkness in a pit near the water-meadow and it climbs into their hearts, and then they bring it home to the village, and it spreads throughout everyone else. And then it makes them take it to the city, where it eats its way through a thousand hearts and grows so big that it starts bursting through the flesh; and the sunlight touches it and burns it and in its pain the darkness makes its slaves dig down and bury the entire city under the ground. It ends 'And that is how the Archdevil was made, and how his tomb-city in the earth was built.'”

    “Where are you going with this?” asked Halley.

    “Well...” I hesitated. “Doesn't that give you some idea of what we're up against? How this... How do we even – can we stop him?”

    I was trying very hard to keep my voice from shaking at that point, and Halley must have sensed it; she jumped down off the monitor and rubbed her head awkwardly against my cheek.

    “Not us, exactly,” she replied. “Never just us. But you, and N, and Niamh and that Ezra guy...” She shrugged. “I have every confidence that it'll work out. You're the one going on about f*cking stories – that's how stories work, isn't it?”

    “Oh,” I said. “Yeah, I suppose it is...”

    “Anyway,” she said, glancing at the lower right corner of the screen. “It's ten to eleven. Time to find Bianca.”

    “Ah!” I cried. “Yeah, yeah – let's do that.”

    I shut down the computer and hurried out to find the others; they weren't in any of our rooms, nor were they in the lounge, and it took a while for me to realise that they were outside in the small scrap of yard that separated the Centre from the street. As I passed through the doors, I realised to my surprise that Bianca's dad was, true to Halley's prediction, more than a little overweight; he had the comfortable, kindly shape of a pear, balanced on a pair of spindly legs. If he hadn't looked so angry, I would have taken to him immediately; as it was, I felt a bit overwhelmed.

    “...see what the problem is,” he was saying. “We've let you come far enough, haven't we? And the country's getting more dangerous by the day! Riots everywhere – you know there are rioters in Driftveil now? The League falling apart, the animal attacks on the Route 4 development...” He shook his head. “Bianca, sweetheart, I just—”

    “Hello,” I said, uncertainly. “Is this your dad, Bianca?”

    He glared at me, and I felt myself wilt like a plant caught in the searing eye of the sun.

    “Excuse me,” he said. “This is a family affair.”

    “Um,” I said, taking a step back without meaning to. “Er—”

    Bianca gave me a pleading look; I felt fear and the desire to help tugging on either side of my heart, shifting it out of place and making me feel queasy.

    Halley jumped up onto the fence and from there onto my shoulder, where she batted Bianca's hat off my head. Almost immediately, Bianca's father noticed my hair, and stared at me in startled recognition.

    “You,” he said, with wonder. “You're...”

    And then I realised what Halley had done; she had given me an opportunity to speak, and she had forced me into it – and, mentally thanking her as she dropped back to the floor, I said, “Yes, I'm Lauren White. You may recognise me from the news, but that's not why I wanted to speak to you.” Bianca's dad looked confused, and I felt myself growing more confident; I let myself be carried onwards on the wave of assurance, and went on, “My parents are worried about me too. I never really expected to be on this journey, so I never got to explain to them properly, and I am really worried about what they think. So I can sympathise with your concerns – after all, this is really, really dangerous. Demons and sinister politicians are abroad. People who are less than, or more than, human pop up and guide us from location to mysterious location, never giving us more than the tiniest hint about what's going to happen next.

    “But we keep going,” I said. “The sensible thing would of course be to go home and let someone else handle all of this – but I can't even consider that. And now, neither can Cheren or Bianca, either. Fate is moving like a flood, and we are all caught up in it – you could take Bianca home, but she would still be swept along in the water, and I think you would rather have her here, where at least she has others who understand what is happening to help her and protect her, than keep her alone at home where she's vulnerable to attack.

    “I don't know if what I'm saying makes any sense to you. Sometimes it barely makes sense to me – how can the world work this way? It just doesn't seem to fit with what we think about reality. But despite all of that...” I shrugged. “I don't know. I hope something of what I said rings true to you.”

    Bianca's dad stared at me for the longest time.

    “Bianca, get your hat,” he said. “We're going.”

    “No!” I cried. “No, listen—”

    “No, you listen—”

    “No, you listen, you fat f*ck,” growled Halley, which shut him up. “This is the centre of the f*cking universe here. Hear her out.”

    His eyes bulged and his mouth flapped uselessly like a fish's out of water.

    “I – a—”

    “Yes, a talking cat,” said Halley, climbing easily up his ponderous chest and settling around his ample shoulders. “Now” – she pointed his head at me – “listen to the hero.”

    His eyes met mine, and I felt something open up inside me – something that N cracked a little, sometimes; something that had split almost in half last night, when Jared had tried to talk to me – and I looked into his eyes with everything I had, a big, pale hand holding my own and a cluster of cold metal studs brushing my arm.

    Then the moment had passed, and the something closed up like a clamshell in my breast, and there was no one of myself here but me.

    Bianca's dad staggered back, shaken.

    “I don't understand,” he whispered, still staring at me. “I don't – what – who are you?”

    “It's confusing, I know,” said Halley, jumping down off his shoulders and sitting down at my feet. “You think the age of gods and heroes is long since past. But narratives like that never die, my flabby friend. They shed their skin and emerge with different scales, but they're the same at their core; from sacred trees to skyscrapers, gorgon to demon king, five thousand years can pass and things stay the same. Your daughter is caught in an epic, Mister Aaronson. Two thousand years ago, the scops would have sung her story in the mead-halls and lent her story the wings of immortality. You've lost that mindset, and believe me, so had I: no one loves the shiny, electric present more than me. But being around this motherf*cker” – she jerked her head up at me – “has forced me to broaden my views. “For want of a better way to put it, Mister Aaronson: here be dragons.”

    Bianca's dad sucked in a deep breath.

    “I think,” he said, in a quiet, shaky voice, “that the five of us need to talk this over.”

    ---

    Niamh ceased.

    On one level, she was aware of her body – of the pressure of Ezra's hand on her wrist, of the weight of the guns and knives in her coat, of her feet, drifting as if underwater through the abyssal nothing – but she could not convince herself of her own existence. And, as if determined to disprove Descartes with its dying breath, her mind decided that without a body it did not exist either, and stopped.

    There was absolutely nothing.

    Perhaps in the dream of some far-off sage a pack of ghuls were chattering, jumping up and down and arguing about what might happen to those foolish enough to jump off the path – but certainly, such a thing could never have happened in reality, for reality had stopped the moment the path had vanished from beneath their feet. Now there was nothing but the level waste, the rounding grey; they spun and drifted beneath the foundations of what Niamh had once called the universe.

    The void deepened, and the demon and the monster-slayer dripped gently on, drops of half-life in a world of endless apathy.

  23. #148
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    Bianca's dad just got the whole thing dropped on him, If I were him, I wouldn't know what to say.

    Not much else to say, other than how you pronounce Ghul. Like Ghoul or Gull?

    Anyway, enjoying this as always, and look forward to another chapter.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Azurus View Post
    Not much else to say, other than how you pronounce Ghul. Like Ghoul or Gull?
    I personally think of it like the Batman villain.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Azurus View Post
    Bianca's dad just got the whole thing dropped on him, If I were him, I wouldn't know what to say.

    Not much else to say, other than how you pronounce Ghul. Like Ghoul or Gull?

    Anyway, enjoying this as always, and look forward to another chapter.
    Quote Originally Posted by Ga'Hooleone View Post
    I personally think of it like the Batman villain.
    I've always assumed it was like 'good' but with an 'L' at the end; then again, I don't speak Arabic, so I'm not certain. It's probably more like 'ghoul' than 'gull'.

    Thank you all for reading!

    F.A.B.

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