Chapter Twenty-Six: From Nimbasa With Love
Niamh opened her eyes.
Then, because they were about a mile above the open ocean, she closed them again.
The wind swelled in her ears, a harsh, keening roar like lions in pain; the air stung her face, cold and wet and moving at such unbelievable speed that she thought it must be going straight through her, that it had torn thousands of tiny holes through her body and passed through to the other side—
And then everything stopped.
“Fleisweg,” said Ezra tiredly. “All right, Niamh. We made it.”
She opened her eyes. They were back on the dark path again; Ezra was human-shaped once more, and the sleeve of his coat was bloody.
“I'm fine,” he interrupted. “He bit me. No more.” He closed his eyes; they seemed to have sunk half an inch into their sockets, and dark shadows rimed them like frost. “We were lucky,” he said at length. “It seems we floated into an exit.”
“An exit in the sky?” asked Niamh.
“Yes,” he replied. “Somewhere north of Cuba, I think. I suppose no one's found it yet.”
“Where – was that the space between the paths?”
“Yes. Total nothingness. If we had spent much longer there, we would have been... altered. Perhaps we already have been,” he posited. “Though I confess we look the same at least.”
He opened his eyes with a sigh.
“Right,” said Ezra. “Come on; we'd better get moving. I don't know exactly where we are, but the ghuls will find us soon.”
“Yeah,” she said, getting to her feet. “About them. What are they, exactly?”
Ezra looked back over his shoulder, but did not slow his pace.
“The curses,” he said. “You know we can manipulate flesh – guide it into new shapes?”
“If you are strong enough, you can manipulate the essence of demons, too; transform yourself or others literally. And if you are very, very strong, you could do it on several levels, and craft three interwoven forms for each creature.” Ezra paused. “Weland,” he said at length, “is that strong.”
“Jesus.” Niamh shook her head. “Is that where the bulk of his powers are? Changing, er, life forms? Because, well, the fetches, the ghuls – he's always sent twisted things after us.”
“Very perceptive of you.” Ezra nodded. “Though it's less a matter of Weland being skilled at corruption than of him being corruption. He is the wellspring of all Unovan demons; a fount of taint, of malice, of change, that takes in matter and spits it out in a different shape.”
“We're not fighting a person here, are we?” asked Niamh, feeling a little uneasy. (It says much about her that this was the first time she had felt uneasy about killing Weland.) “It's more like... a force of nature.”
“That is exactly what he is,” agreed Ezra. “He existed long before he was Weland, as a sort of shadowy primordial ooze; he has birthed countless monsters. Some of the things you have killed in the past are probably his older children, things that he spawned in the distant past before he attained sentience and which have bred and evolved on in the darker corners of the world. Then, somewhere along the line, he became a person, created the first demons and built himself a city of tombs.”
“Well, how the hell do we kill him, then?” asked Niamh, not unreasonably.
“Let me worry about that,” said Ezra. “You just have to get me into his throne room.” He stopped walking. “For now, though, don't even worry about that. It's time to find a way into that warehouse.”
And Driftveil popped into existence all around them, like an especially impressive conjurer's trick; and an ice-cream truck came around the corner and crashed straight into Ezra.
“Lauren,” whispered Halley. “What exactly did you do to the poor bastard?”
“I showed him who I am,” I replied quietly. “Both of me.”
We were sitting in a small café that Cheren had spent some time in the day before, sheltering from the rain while waiting for Bianca and me; the table was liberally covered in half-drunk cups of tea and untouched cinnamon biscuits, and Bianca's dad was slowly dropping sugar cube after sugar cube into his coffee, stirring them in without actually noticing what he was doing.
“I really – I just don't know what to say,” he said.
“Take your time, Dad,” Bianca told him, touching his arm. “It's... weird.”
“But I,” he began, then stopped and shook his head. “Already. You've done so much already. Demons. Guns. Mutant cats.”
Cats, I thought. They're everywhere: Sytec, Halley, Teiresias...
“How can I— no, that isn't it.” He frowned.
“Take your time,” repeated Bianca.
“It's just...” He sighed. “All right. Lauren, I'd like to ask you a question.”
“Is it more safe for my daughter to be with you or to be at home?”
I thought of Cheren, and Jared; of Munny, Justine and Lelouch; of Harmonia, N and Teiresias. I thought of Weland.
“I think,” I said slowly, “that she'll almost definitely be safer here with us. Alone, she's too exposed, and there's no guarantee that someone won't come after her.” I hesitated. “I'm sorry for dragging her into all this,” I told him. “For dragging everyone into this. I shouldn't have.”
“Don't be stupid,” replied Cheren. “You couldn't avoid it. We ran into each other; it was like fate.”
I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been. Random chance seemed to be disappearing rapidly from my world; all events appeared to have a purpose, and no meetings were coincidences. It felt a bit like being a pinball bounced around a cosmic table.
“It does seem that way,” said Bianca's father. “I – all right.” He straightened up and took a deep breath, smoothing his hair back into place. “Right. I have no idea what I'll say to your mother, Bianca, but I'm – I believe what you say, Lauren.”
“Thank you,” I said, looking him in the eye; he flinched away from my gaze. That hurt, but I hid it and went on: “I promise we'll all do whatever we can to keep Bianca safe.”
“Yes,” agreed Cheren. “We will.”
Bianca's dad nodded.
“All right,” he said. “I know you will.”
Bianca hugged him tightly, and he walked us back to the Pokémon Centre, where he kissed Bianca goodbye and made her promise him not to take unnecessary risks. Then he walked away into the drizzle, and was gone.
“Thank you,” said Bianca, hugging me as well. “I knew you could do it.”
“Oh,” I said, blushing, “I think it was Halley, when she said—”
“Nope,” she interrupted. “We all saw it, Lauren. You were sort of – you looked...” She trailed off. “Cheren, you're good at describing things. What did she look like?”
Cheren considered for a moment.
“Legendary,” he concluded. “You looked like a figure out of the mythic past. In that moment,” he said, “anyone who looked at you knew that there really was an Aspertia Dragon, and that it was slain by Eodred Blodtoeth, or that there was a Medusa to be killed by Perseus. They saw how it is that humans can kill unconquerable monsters, or build a city from nothing and rise to be crowned kings.”
There was a short silence.
“Yeah, that'll do,” said Bianca, slightly awed. “That was good, Cheren.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “And, well, it probably wasn't quite like that—”
“No,” said Bianca. “It definitely was.”
I wasn't sure what to say to that, so settled for, “Um,” and went inside. It was still raining, after all.
“Oh,” I said, on our way back up to Cheren's room (since the living-room was too risky, it was our main meeting place now), “I looked up all the stuff that N told me about, by the way.”
“And?” asked Cheren.
I told them the story of the cat and the spider, and of how the Archdevil came to be; while they agreed that these were interesting, nothing, they said, actually told us what to do next.
“I mean, where do we go from here?” asked Cheren. “Are you sure he didn't drop any other hints?”
“Yes,” I replied. “No, I mean – well, but—”
“Spit it out,” said Halley, exasperated. “And will someone please open this door?”
I pushed open the door and we filed through into Cheren's room.
“Reading the stories reminded me,” I said, “Weland's tomb-city is always described as filled with mountains of gold and jewels, right? In fact, that's why there are so many stories about thieves trying to get in to steal them. And there's something in 'The Robber Prince' about the wealth of the underworld being his.”
“'He dwelleth under the earth, and the riches of the world beneath are rendered unto him as the tithes of subjects to their lord',” quoted Bianca.
I stared at her.
“Um... yes, that's it,” I said, surprised.
“I had to declaim that one for Unovan Studies last year,” she said sheepishly.
“I remember that,” said Cheren. “You forgot the part where Ulnere gets the key to the tomb-city gates, and so no one could figure out what you meant when you got to the bit where he breaks in.”
“Did you have to remind me?”
“Oh. Um, but you were very good, though,” added Cheren belatedly.
I hid a smile and said:
“OK. Well, if gold keeps mysteriously appearing in Harmonia's warehouse, where do you think it comes from and who puts it there?”
There was silence.
“Whoa,” said Halley, at length. “A salient observation from Lauren. Hold onto your f*cking hats, kids, because the rules just went out the window.”
“You're right,” said Cheren, ignoring her. “Of course... It has to be the demons. They're financing him.” He frowned. “Do you think that's it? That that's all they're doing – just giving him money and protection?”
I shook my head.
“No. Weland has a plan – N said he'd betray Harmonia once they were done.”
“Ah!” cried Halley suddenly. “I know!”
We stared at her.
“Why hasn't Weland killed you all already?” she asked. “Why has he been stuck underground all this time, if he enjoys killing people so much?”
“Well,” I said. “The ése—”
“Let's assume for a moment that the ése aren't real,” she said scathingly. “What else?”
“Um... the druids?”
“Exactly.” Halley jumped onto the bed. “I know they're weak now, but back in the days when all these other legends were happening, I bet they were stronger – they'd have to be. So Weland has stayed down there because he doesn't want to get all his minions killed – and who can blame him? But it gives Harmonia something to promise him, doesn't it?”
“I get it!” cried Bianca. “Harmonia achieves power and dissolves the Gorsedd, then Weland can come back to the surface!”
“Ah! And maybe the Pokémon Liberation policy is the same sort of thing,” suggested Cheren. “If there was no League and no Gorsedd, the only thing in Weland's way would be the army, and there's not a lot they can do to demons. So with one or both of them gone, Weland's path is almost entirely clear.”
“But it won't be, will it?” I asked, seeing it clearly now. “Harmonia's going to dissolve the League and tell Weland he can come up to the surface, but then have the High Gorsedd ready with some kind of banishing spell.”
“And he'll come up to the surface—”
“To get a fistful of mistletoe to the face, and sink back down to hell,” said Halley grimly. “That's what Harmonia wants, obviously. But you said N told you that Weland was going to betray Harmonia too – and come on, we should have seen that coming. The guy predates the f*cking wheel; he's seen more tricks than you've taken breaths.”
“What would he be planning to do, then?” wondered Bianca. “I mean, what would he do to Harmonia?”
“Kill him, probably,” theorised Cheren. “And I expect Harmonia suspects it; he's no slouch himself, and he must know it's risky to make deals with the King of the demons.”
“How would killing him help?”
“I believe dead bodies don't necessarily have to stop moving, where demons are involved,” said Cheren. “A puppet Prime Minister could weaken the Gorsedd and pave the way for a full-scale demon rising.”
There was a silence.
“I really don't know which one of them I'd prefer to win,” said Bianca.
“Hopefully, neither,” I replied.
“Emphasis on hopefully,” sighed Halley. “Anyway. Cheren's idea is only a theory. All of this is only theory, come to that. The question remains: what are we doing next?”
“Driftveil,” I said without hesitation.
Everyone stared at me.
“Why?” asked Cheren.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, we don't have any leads, do we? The only thing we can do is try and investigate the warehouse.”
“But where will that get us?” asked Cheren. “Is there anything there?”
“We won't know if we don't try,” I replied. “And there really doesn't seem to me to be anything else we can do, anyway.”
Bianca looked at him.
“She has a point,” she said. “What else can we do?”
“I suppose there isn't anything,” sighed Cheren. “Hm. It just feels... off, somehow.” He shrugged. “Never mind. You're the one with the mysterious sense for fate, Lauren. I'll trust your instincts.”
I took a step back.
“Ah!” I cried. “Wait – I mean, I'm not exactly – I might not be—”
“Shut the f*ck up,” said Halley tiredly. “Believe in yourself. For God's sake, you made a complete stranger believe in you just forty minutes ago. So much so, in fact, that he laid aside all his fear for his own daughter's safety for you. If he can trust you that much, you should bloody well be able to trust yourself that much too.”
“Sorry,” I said inadequately.
Halley rolled her eyes.
“And she apologises again. Jesus Christ.”
“Enough,” snapped Cheren. “Please. Enough of that.”
“Right,” said Bianca. “I'd, um, better start putting my stuff away.”
“OK,” said Cheren. “Me too.”
I looked around. His room looked as if not only did it not currently have an occupant, but it hadn't had one for the past seventeen years. It was more than spotless; it had the appearance of something that has just come off a factory line, and is currently being shrink-wrapped for freshness during the journey to the supermarket.
“OK,” I said. “Well, shall we meet up in the lobby in half an hour?”
Cheren glanced at Bianca.
“Better make it forty minutes,” he said.
“I'll be done in half an hour!” she protested.
He raised his eyebrows.
“Really, I will.”
“All right,” he said. “Half an hour it is.”
Forty minutes later, we were about ready to brave the rain once again; it had died down to a soft drizzle now, but it was so cold it seemed it must have a grudge against us, and we were all very glad when our bus arrived. I kept Bianca's hat on, hid my face beneath N's umbrella, and forced Candy to hide inside my jacket; it seemed to do the trick, because no one challenged me, and we made it onto the one seventeen to Driftveil without further incident.
Half an hour into the journey, Cheren, who was doing something on his phone, grunted in surprise.
“Look at this,” he said, handing the phone over. It was turned to the New Unovan website, Cheren's preferred news medium, and the article onscreen began with the words 'Riots broke out earlier today in Driftveil' and didn't get much better.
“Oh no,” I said softly, reading on. “'Plasma'? Again? It's the same people...”
“Those Seven Sages people,” said Cheren. “Yes. I suspected it before, but now it seems certain that they're connected to the Green Party – they've got the whole warehouse blocked off. It looks like they're attacking it, but they're not doing anything; it seems to me they're just there as an excuse to stop people getting in. Which is oddly convenient for the Party, considering we were just on our way there. Perhaps they know that we don't have enough information to go anywhere else.”
“What? Let me see,” said Bianca, and I handed her the phone. “That's not good,” she said unnecessarily, reading it.
“I know,” replied Cheren. “This might prove tricky.” He took the phone back. “I don't know how we—“
The train stopped.
A murmur of confusion ran through the carriage. I looked out of the window, and saw the Route 5 motorway to the left; through the other window, there was nothing but the dense forest of the Unovan countryside.
“Why have we stopped?” I wondered aloud. “What's happened?”
“Excuse me,” said the guard over the PA system. “Excuse me. The Driftveil Drawbridge has been, er, unexpectedly raised. Please bear with us while we try and find out what's going on.”
There was another murmur – the drawbridge raised, now? Trains using the bridge and ships needing to pass up the Valroy Channel to Driftveil were timed so that they didn't clash – even I knew that, and I knew almost nothing about anything that wasn't in White Forest.
Candy popped her head out of my jacket at the sound, but I pushed her back in.
“This is odd.” Cheren frowned. “Do you think it's related to the riots?”
Halley looked like she wanted to say something, but the carriage was quite full, and so she had to keep pretending she was a normal cat.
“I don't know,” I said. “Look, I'm sure—”
“It seems all entrances to Driftveil have been closed,” said the guard. “In light of ongoing riots in the Colster district, the Mayor has ordered that the city be isolated to prevent a repeat of the escapes in Nacrene while police and security forces try and disperse them. Um. Uh, please hang on a bit.”
Poor guard, I thought. He sounded flustered; doubtless this wasn't what he'd been expecting when he got up this morning. The poor man probably wanted nothing more than for this problem to go away, just like everyone else, and I expected the passengers were going to blame him for it – in cases like this, I thought sadly, the messenger gets shot for the news. Yes, there it was now: I could hear raised voices in the carriage ahead of ours, where the guard was. I longed to go and tell whoever was bothering him that it wasn't his fault, that we were all stuck here because of the Plasma rioters, not the guard, but I couldn't seem to find the courage.
“Do you think they're emptying the warehouse while these people stop people getting to it?” asked Bianca. “I mean, the fact that it seems like they're deliberately stopping us getting in kind of implies that there's something to find in there...”
“You're right,” he said, surprised. “If I were them, that's exactly what I would be doing... If we were there right now, I expect we'd find another of those damn Sages in there, overseeing some kind of evacuation.” He bit his lip. “We need a way in there.”
“Right.” It was the guard again. “We'll be returning to Gear Station as soon as the trains behind us move. Thank you for your patience.”
“Returning to Gear Station?” cried Bianca. “We can't do that!”
Most of the passengers in the carriage agreed with her about that, judging by the noise they made.
“No, we can't,” agreed Cheren. “We have to get over the Channel somehow.”
“Excuse me,” said the man sitting across the aisle from us. “I couldn't help overhearing that. You're Trainers, yes?”
“Yes,” replied Cheren, guardedly.
“Then you should know that there's another way across the Channel to Driftveil,” he told us. “It's an old Trainer Trail that – well, it's not used much any more, because the new one comes out at the bridge and that's more convenient – but it's not too overgrown.”
Cheren snapped his fingers, and recognition flickered in his eyes.
“That's the one,” said the man. “I was thinking of getting off here and taking it myself, but I don't have Pokémon myself—”
“Say no more,” cut in Bianca. “We'll take you. Won't we, guys?”
I looked at her. I could see why her father had been concerned; we had no idea who this man was. He could have been a murderer, a rapist, a lunatic intent on guiding us to our doom in the middle of the woods – and yet, on the basis that he'd reminded Cheren of another way to Driftveil, she was willing to trust him completely.
Shifting my gaze to the man, I studied him. Nothing about him told me that anything was amiss, but then again, I knew I was woefully inexperienced in the ways of the world. He was tall and broad, and moderately young – I would have placed him as in his late twenties, which was old enough for his face and young enough to justify his flamboyant shock of two-tone dyed-red hair. He was dressed soberly in a white T-shirt and loose-fitting, pale trousers; there was a kind of weathered look about him that made me think of rocks half-sunk in sand in lonely deserts, and I thought that he'd either suffered from bad acne as a teenager or spent a lot of time outdoors in bad weather. There might have been some kind of mark or scar on his lower cheek, too, but I couldn't be sure; it was hidden beneath his stubble – a commodity he had in abundance.
I glanced at Cheren.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think we'll be OK,” he replied, fixing those piercing eyes of his on the stranger. He would be looking right through him, I thought; if anyone could find anything suspicious about him, it would be Cheren. He could see right into your soul, I thought with a shiver.
“Look, if there's a problem, then that's fine,” said the man. “But I'm just trying to get to Driftveil, all right? Got to get to my niece's birthday party.” He indicated the solid-looking, badly-wrapped parcel on his lap. “I know it must seem weird and probably suspicious, but that's all there is to it.”
“He's telling the truth,” Cheren told us quietly, taking his eyes off him. I glanced at the stranger and fancied I could see scorch marks where Cheren's stare had touched him. “Definitely the truth.”
The man looked interested.
“That's quite a pair of eyes you've got on you,” he said. “Anyway. What do you say?”
“We'll do it,” Cheren told him. “Come on, then. We'll have to convince the guard to open the doors for us.”
“Cheers,” replied the man, as we all got to our feet. I could feel the eyes of the whole carriage on us; it made me a little uncomfortable (actually, a lot uncomfortable), but I resolved to put up with it. I was a hero, I told myself, but the words rang hollow; I didn't believe myself at all.
It took less than a minute to find the guard and considerably longer to persuade him that it would be all right to open the doors, but at length it was done, and we stood on the scrubby land by the tracks. Just ahead of us, the forest rose up in a dark, dense wall; behind us, the train formed an impassable barrier between us and the motorway. The rain had more or less gone, or perhaps it was confined to Nimbasa, and the sun was even making a weak effort to shine.
“That's better,” said the stranger, hefting his parcel. “Bit of fresh air's always preferable to the train. I wouldn't have taken it if I didn't have to get there by five...” He checked his watch. “Should make it,” he said. “Just about.”
“Excuse me,” said Cheren. “You never actually said – what's your name?”
The man looked surprised.
“Oh, didn't I say? 'Scuse me.” He held out a large, calloused hand to be shaken. “Pleased to meetcher,” he said. “Name's Alder.”