Major props to Zarrelion for his contributions to this chapter. I also urge all of you to please check out another one of his contributions to the Poke Wars series: The Files of Dr. Kaminko. If you haven't read it yet then you're in for a treat as it plans on going into the specs of the various vehicles that will be used in poke wars. I personally loved how it was written and I think you will to.
On another note, there's a relatively new site called Poke Manics on the internet. It's a web discussion board that I've been asked to be a part of. There are a lot of neat features to the site like the role playing section. I highly recommend you check it out, you may find something there you really like.
I would also like to dedicate this arc to Dacutesnowbunnies as a thank you for her illustrated version of the Exigence. She's been a little busy lately with school and life but check out her stuff at deviantart and send some love her way if you can.
This is kinda gonna be like the Convalescence where I'm posting this more as a sneak peak at the next Johto arc. I can't promise that I'll be updating this again soon, but it does allow for me to already have a foothold to update. Plus I owe you guys a few chapters considering I was gone for a few months. I hope you guys enjoy this chapter, I found it really fun to write.
"Why're we still here?" Banette asked.
Cacturne was silent for a long moment, staring off into the distance as he mulled over his next words. "That's the big question, isn't it? Why are we still here? Was it our skill alone that let us make it out of the city and through those Ursaring alive? Was it just luck that the group of Houndoom we encountered are helping us survive instead of tearing us to pieces? Is all of this happening for a reason and we're meant for something greater? I don't know Bane."
Cacturne sighed and held his head. "I just don't know. What I do know is that I'm glad to be alive today and see another beautiful morning like this." He gazed at the golden corona of sunrise inching across the sky and crowning the distant mountain range.
It wasn't long before Cacturne realized his friend had been quiet for far too long.
Banette and quiet didn't mix.
"Wow… that was…deep… " Banette's zipper smile widened. "And lame!" His level tone eventually devolved into snickers.
"That's what I get for letting my guard down around you." Cacturne mentally sighed.
"Didn't peg you for such a softy. What was all that all about anyway?"
"Nothing!" Cacturne swiftly replied.
Banette smiled again. "…Wanna talk about it?"
"Fine." The marionette allowed his smile to shrink. And for once, he sounded serious. "But seriously, why are we still here? Our shift's over."
"Why're you so eager to leave?" Cacturne demanded. "You don't sleep!"
"Doesn't mean I don't get tired. 'Sides, thought I'd do you a favor."
"You? Doing me a favor?" Cacturne said, turning to face the ghost.
"I do nice things…sometimes. Anyway I thought I'd be a true bro and give a chance ta mingle with Rosey."
"Don't call her that!" the living cactus snapped.
Banette looked askance. "Whaaat. Masquerain calls her that all the time."
"And it pisses her off! You want an ass full of grass, be my guest! Just don't get me involved! Anyway, he can call her that, they're on the same team," Cacturne grumbled. He turned towards the direction of the camp and took the first few steps.
"We're all a giant joint-party thing or something now, did you forget?" Banette asked as he followed suit.
"No… I didn't forget," the scarecrow mumbled. He silently hoped that the conversation would starve in the elongating silence.
"This is a touchy subject you isn't it?" The marionette snickered. He grinned deviously as a single black digit tapped the upper edge of his golden zipper mouth.
Only the crunch of gravel answered him back. As was usual for his kind of pokémon, the lack of reaction irked him. A scowl morphed into a smile as he deployed his ace in the hole.
"You like her, don't you?"
Cacturne did his best not to flinch; the slightest hints from his body language would give the ghost more ammunition to use against him. "What I think about her doesn't matter," he replied, his tone cool and neutral. He made sure not to make eye contact with the marionette.
"That wasn't a 'no'!" Banette said with a smile, spinning through the air as he orbited the scarecrow. "You know how to make me stop!"
Every revolution around Cacturne's head brought on the same singsong chant from the ghost. Harley's starter sighed and stopped walking, watching the haunted toy hold his hand by an imaginary ear as he floated closer to him, his head tilted back expectantly as if awaiting to hear a secret.
"Imighliker," Cacturne mumbled quickly under his breath; a futile hope in his heart that the rapid and quiet confession would sate the ghost.
"What was that? I didn't quite hear you!" Banette held a hand to his non-existent ear. "Enunciate please!"
Cacturne wondered if the sand rushing to his face would fuse into glass from the combined heat of his rage and embarrassment.
"I…might…like her," he said between gritted teeth, to which Banette began doing celebratory backflips in the air.
"See? Was that so hard?" Banette's zipper smile widened.
"A little. I died a bit on the inside."
"Oh come on! This is a good start."
"A start for what? This doesn't mean she likes me back!" Cacturne snapped. He gestured with his arm at the desolate wasteland surrounding them. "Besides, the apocalypse isn't conducive for relationships."
"Or maybe it's the best time. We're heading out today and who knows what's out there? I'm not saying anything's gonna happen but this may be the only time you get a chance to let someone know how you feel before it's too late."
Cacturne simply stared at the phantom puppet, wondering where that spark of insight had come from.
"That was surprisingly intelligent," Cacturne said before he started to walk again, filling the air with the sound of crunching gravel.
"I take offense to that!" Banette replied in mock pain as he resumed shadowing the cactus. "So when are you guys gonna tie the Grass Knot?"
Cacturne whirled around, giving the ghost a glare that could've melted a Steelix hide. "Two things," he said, his voice a low growl. "One: you sound smarter when you're quiet. Two: shut up about things you know nothing about."
"I know things!" Banette countered. "I mean; I know how it works for you grass-types. Ya take your stamen and stick it in her pis—"
"I'm not hearing this!" Cacturne chanted, pressing his stubby arms to the sides of his head to drown out Banette's undoubtedly obscene explanation of grass-type reproduction. "I don't know what's worse: listening to you or going out into the wasteland and getting ripped apart."
"Yeesh! Relax! You act like we're gonna drop dead the second we walk outta here. I'm sure we can take on whatever's out there."
"Like you handled the Golem?" Cacturne replied.
"Details." Banette waved his hand dismissively. "Besides, we have the whole group now instead of leaving half of to take care of Harley and the others."
"You are aware that Harley and the others can't really defend themselves?" Cacturne said. "And we still don't know what's out in the wasteland. And there's whatever scared the Houndoom into submission."
"I'm sure we'll be fine. And for the record, I know you love my company. Why else would hang around me so much?"
"We're nocturnal and someone has to keep watch at night." Cacturne stopped as Banette did so.
"Or…" Banette held up a finger and gave a thoughtful pause. "You're a secret masochist and ya can't get enough of me! I can't blame ya though. Ya know what they say, 'no Bane, no gain'."
"Nobody says that!"
"Give it time." The ghost shrugged and continued on his path, to which Cacturne sighed and pressed a stub against his face, dragging it down slowly. Letting out another sigh, he followed the haunted toy.
"Oh come on!" the marionette exclaimed. "I'd figure I'm at least better company than Octi. Nice guy and all, but he's a bit slow. Dumb as a rock-type."
"Be nice!" Cacturne chided halfheartedly.
"Fine. New subject. When you and her get sprouts, you gotta get'em to call me Uncle Baney."
Cacturne stopped and fixed him with a withering glare. "Bane, if I ever have kids, I'm not letting them near you!"
Banette's zipper mouth opened in shock as he stared at the cactus. "What!?" he exclaimed, seeming hurt by the statement "I'm great with kids!"
"Somehow, I really doubt that."
"Okay, so my kind have some abandonment issues! But I'm different."
"Really?" The scarecrow gave a deadpan stare.
"Yeah," Banette replied; his tone lower than usual and devoid of his usual endless mirth. "For one, I never bothered looking for my owner."
"Your owner?" Cacturne responded.
Banette wagged his finger. "That, my thorny friend, can wait for another night." The marionette's voice trailed off into silence.
Cacturne stared at the ghost for a few seconds. In contrast to Banette's usual lack of a filter between his brain and mouth (his long and profane explanation about grass-type reproduction was testament to that); it was as if this particular thought were locked in a vault.
It quickly dawned on him that as much time as he spent with the haunted toy, their time before being caught by Harley was never a topic that had been brought up. Figuring that Banette's past was a sensitive subject he wasn't privy to, he decided to not peer into the vault.
The sudden change in ground beneath his feet reminded him that in his ruminations, he walked right into their encampment without realizing it.
"Where do we go from here?" Harley's question successfully stilled all movement around the campfire. Drew's spoon was halfway up to his mouth before he lowered the contents back into the bowl. It had been a quiet meal with little room for small talk, save for the occasional compliment to Harley when they weren't scarfing down the food.
Harley had been practically glowing from the praise until something in his mind had drained the light from his demeanor. One thought lead to another and his smile had disappeared. The plan had been simple before: survive. There hadn't been room for much of anything else. Now that they had rested, eaten and gotten security from their pokémon and the Houndoom pack, they had the luxury of thinking of other more pressing issues.
"I used all the perishable items we got in our meal today. There's still some things left, but we're gonna need to restock in the next town soon," Harley said.
"We need to find the next town and let them know what happened if they don't already know. I was thinking of calling my family and letting them know I'm okay," May added.
Drew and Harley nodded when May's eyes landed on theirs. It was only when she met Whitney's gaze that she felt a surge of guilt coalesce like a stone in the pit of her stomach. She hadn't considered the gym leader with them when she'd spoken; hadn't thought of the effect her words might've had on the only other survivor of the city they'd escaped from. The source of May's silence was plain to see and with no words of comfort forthcoming in their minds the other two coordinators remained silent and focused on the grass.
Whitney could tell the tension in the air was because of her. If she didn't speak up, the tension would eventually build until it snapped like an overstretched cable.
The former Goldenrod City gym leader took a deep breath. "Uncle Milton was the last family I had left, so I don't have anywhere else to go right now. Part of me wants to go back and start over on the ranch, but I doubt there's anything left of the fields or even Goldenrod.
"Then again, I think starting over there would be too painful. I don't really have the money to build the entire ranch from scratch, at least not all at once. I can't think of any places right now that would be good to start even if I did. These last few days…I haven't been able to think about anything past what happened to us, so I haven't given much thought as to what I want to do with myself after all of this. I was hoping…I could tag along with you guys until I figured that out."
Whitney's voice was fragile and small; her fists trembled slightly as she gripped the hem of her skirt for some kind of leverage. May's eyes began to shimmer at the sight of the pinkette, struggling to hold an onset of tears inside. Whitney had seen her home, her family and her livelihood reduced to cinders on the wind before her very eyes; what could they say to someone who was the last survivor of their family?
Whitney's gaze eventually lifted and found three nodding faces and weak smiles. No one could fathom the idea of saying "no" to her.
"What say we leave today then?" Harley asked. "If we head out in an hour we might be able to make it to the next town before it gets dark."
Everyone hummed softly in approval, finishing the last bits of their meal and moving to gather their things. Harley had the most in terms of belongings. If the "borrowed" cooking utensils were to be considered his. The others immediately offered to carry some of the load, seeing as all they had were the tattered clothes on their backs and a few keepsakes.
Once packed, they told their pokémon their plans to leave and to say their final goodbyes to the Houndoom. At the same time, they made the arrangements of who to keep outside. Harley's party was given the night shift, seeing as they worked best in the darkness of night and were nocturnal by nature — with the exception of Octillery.
It had been agreed that they would keep at least one pokémon out at all times to guard them. The number had to be carefully chosen; too few pokémon would attract hostiles looking for a weak target. Too many pokémon would attract hostiles looking for a challenge. Choosing the pokémon was no easy task either. Some of their pokémon were suited for long-distance hiking but were not strong fighters. Others were powerful, but lacked the stamina for grueling marches. Munchlax and Venusaur were examples of the latter.
After some deliberation it had been decided that Blaziken would be May's guard. Glaceon guarded Harley. Drew's guard was his Masquerain. Roserade was to guard Whitney. Everyone else would be returned. But if the situation called for their support, they would be deployed.
With that, all that was left was to say their own goodbyes to the Houndoom and thank them for their help. Within moments, the dark pack assembled before as they made their way out of the clearing. For a moment, dark thoughts about the Houndoom arose; about how they would never let them leave. Their fears were quickly settled when the small sea of black fur parted to form a pathway.
The Alpha remained at the forefront of the group, holding something in his mouth as he made his way over to them. Blaziken moved ahead to intercept the pack's leader and quickly found the item in the Alpha's mouth being pressed into his claw.
May and the others remained silent throughout the entire exchange, unsure as to what was happening, but knowing that it was somehow significant. The fire starter stared quizzically at the item in his palm, still somewhat damp from being in the Alpha's mouth. Three equidistant slices had been made along the length of the worn and darkened wood. It was smooth to the touch; having been carved into shape by what Blaziken could only imagine was human hands. It was half a foot long and an inch thick but no matter how Blaziken looked at it, all he saw was a stick.
"What is this?" Blaziken asked innocently.
"A gift." The Alpha's response was simple and to the point.
"Yes. It was given to us when our pack had just formed. At the time we had been fooled by the humans into believing it was food. In the end, those very same humans were what allowed our pack to survive and make it this far. We have treasured it as a symbol of our friendship with them. It seems only fitting that it be returned to your group after what has transpired."
"Uh…thank you for this gift," Blaziken replied, unsure as to what to do and how to hold their token of friendship.
The Alpha smiled, other Houndoom in the pack began to snicker at some inside joke that Blaziken was not privy to.
The Alpha continued. "Do not be fooled by the stick's simple appearance for it is more than a mere symbol of friendship. It has been imbued with our scent and will let others know that you are friends of our pack and under our protection. I cannot promise you how far that protection will extend among my own kind. As for other pokémon, I cannot say anything about them but at the very least those that would be hostile to you will hesitate to attack you or be thrown off by the mixed scent.
"Thank you," Blaziken said in earnest, bowing slightly as he spoke.
"You are most welcome, friend. I hope that our paths may cross once more. Hopefully in better times. Please send my regards to Banette and Cacturne. Also, two of my runners will guide you down the safest path to the next town."
"We can't thank you enough for all that you and your pack have done."
"Think nothing of it. Were it not for the efforts of you and your group, we would not be speaking here today."
Blaziken made his way over to May, clearly confused as to what had just happened between her starter and the retreating Alpha. She did not expect for him to hold out his claw, offering the wooden token in one claw while gesturing towards the blanket she had repurposed into a traveling sack.
"Uh, okay. In here then." May eventually connected what Blaziken wanted and began unraveling the blanket to allow the wooden trinket inside. With a nod, he turned to find the entire Houndoom pack now missing, save for the two runners the Alpha had promised.
"Even in broad daylight," Blaziken muttered, hearing May and the others exclaim at the sudden disappearance.
The dark dog duo nodded and began to lead the way, May and the others quickly picked up on what was happening.
"What was that all about?" Harley whispered as they walked.
"I'm not really sure," May replied.
"What exactly did they give you?" Drew asked, voicing a question that had been on everyone's mind.
"I don't know…it…it kinda looks like a wooden hotdog…"
The walk to the next town was not a long one, nor was it difficult to follow. The dirt path they took hugged the mountainside and was bordered by the outer fringes of the forest. Despite the incredible sensory capabilities of the Houndoom, May and Drew's pokémon refused to lower their guard.
Masquerain had taken the lead, hoping his wing coloration would intimidate any potential attackers that saw them coming. Glaceon and Roserade guarded the flanks while Blaziken brought up the rear. The trip seemed to be going perfectly well when both Houndoom raised their heads abruptly and stopped in their tracks.
"What's wrong guys?" Masquerain called out. Having only heard only snippets of their hushed conversation, he wanted the full story.
"Do you smell—"
"—You don't think—"
"—He can't have—"
The Houndoom burst forward, not bothering to see if the others were following. Blaziken was tempted to bolt after them, his hand lifted up halfway before it fell to his side as he turned to face the rest of the group. There was no way for the others to keep up with him and the Houndoom if he went after them.
"Blaziken, there's a time and place for everything, but not now." Miltank's voice echoed through his mind the moment he realized that his leg was still healing.
"Where do you think they're going?" May asked aloud, her eyes cautiously scanning the forest.
"They could just be scouting ahead," Drew offered.
"What do you think, Blaziken?" Roserade whispered.
"I don't think it's an enemy, otherwise they would've asked us to help them. On top of that, their sense of smell would've tipped them off. It could just be what your coordinator said, they could just be scouting," Blaziken replied.
"I dunno about that. They seemed pretty spooked before they bolted," Masquerain said.
"Whatever it is, I'm sure we'll meet up with them. I doubt they'd try to ditch us this early on. Unless we were already close to the town they mentioned," Glaceon said. "As if anticipating everyone's response, he added, "They probably want to avoid humans with pokéballs, being, you know, wild," Glaceon concluded. Everyone else nodded, save for their coordinators who were not privy to the conversation.
As their turned around the mountainside they found the Houndoom duo, standing side by side and staring into the distance. A familiar smell reached Blaziken's nose before it did anyone else's, although he couldn't quite pin down where he recognized it from.
"Hey guys! What's up?" Masquerain called out, only to be ignored completely. It wasn't until they drew closer that it began to dawn on them as to what the Houndoom were fixated on.
The world beyond the Houndoom was black and gray, as if the sterile landscape of the moon had replaced the world they knew. A field of ash broken only by a few stones stretched into infinity. May's gasp was the first noise that broke the stifling silence that hung over them.
Whitney's eyes began to shimmer, her lips moved to form words but no sound left them at first. Horrified whispers gave way to loud and incoherent screams. The nightmarish scenes she had struggled to repress in the coming days now unloaded on her like a bursting dam.
She teetered to a side before falling to her knees, hands clawing over her face as if trying to futilely mask the scene before her. Harley was the first to react and caught her before she hit the ground. He gently slid the distraught Whitney onto the ashen ground. The group's attention was torn from the scene to the sound of her hysteric cries, its significance finally dawning on them.
"Masq, do you think you could …" Roserade's bouquet motioned towards Whitney. The Eyeball pokémon slowly turned to face her, then eventually to the pinkette.
"Uh, yeah…Rosy, sure," he replied shakily, expecting her to snap at him like she always did when he shortened her name. But her rebuke never came. His upper wings trembled, the air around him taking on a rosy hue. Once a cloud of mist had formed, he flapped his lower wings and sent the pink cloud to waft over to the group. Whitney's cries grew weaker within seconds as her body curled into a tight ball.
Blaziken felt an oddly dissonant mixture of shock and tranquility. While Masquerain's Sweet Scent had its intended effect, the sight of the ashen fields served to counteract the calm aura that washed over him.
"What happened here?" he asked, approaching the Houndoom who still stood just outside the burnt boundary.
"We think that Entei may have done this," one replied, his ears dropping as he lowered his head to the ground in a gesture of mourning.
"A powerful pokémon that visited us not too long before you and your group arrived. He asked us to kill any humans we came across. We lied and he left us but we never thought he would've done this. The town was fine when we stole the food and items you needed. With that level of power he displayed, it couldn't be anyone but him that did this," the other Houndoom replied.
"This…this was the town you were taking us to?" The fire starter's gaze lifted to the sea of soot in horrified realization.
"I'm afraid so. We might've known if the rain hadn't blocked out the smell."
"The Alpha will not be pleased. These people were kind to us, they did not deserve this fate," the other Houndoom growled.
"I am sorry Blaziken. We agreed to take you as far as the human settlement and despite its state; we have done as we were told. We need to alert the Alpha as to what has happened." The first Houndoom sighed.
Blaziken nodded. "I understand. There isn't much more you can do for us now. We'll take it from here."
"Thank you." They both nodded before bursting past him. By the time he had turned around the tail end of their shadowy streaks were disappearing around the mountainside.
"Damn." Banette released the breath he had been holding.
"You've been saying that for the last few hours," Cacturne said, unloading another round of spikes into the earth.
Cacturne stared at the toy for a silent moment, unaccustomed to hearing genuine apologies from him.
"Bane, it's fine. Trust me, I know. This all—"
"Fucked up," the marionette replied, not so much as a suggestion as he was voicing his own thoughts.
"Yeah…" Cacturne replied, letting silence take the place of conversation.
The duo made their way around the encampment, setting up their routine nightly defenses. Ghostly blue embers ringed the toy's body, lighting their way and dissuading any onlookers from attacking them.
Blaziken had told them of what had happened in their absence as they had switched shifts. The group had taken the long way around the ash fields, far enough to avoid the smell and the sight of it for Whitney's sake. As if by an unspoken agreement, no one spoke about what they had seen, but their withheld questions seemed to scream in the deafening silence.
Blaziken had been worried about the language barrier making it difficult to explain what had happened, but he eventually learned that he'd given the humans far too little credit.
They'd immediately figured out that the hellscape they laid eyes upon was the remains of their next destination. It wasn't a random attack; the rest of the forest had remained untouched. Once they had found the main road again, a group went back only to find that it led back to the same barren wasteland.
Explaining to them that the source of the devastation was a Pokémon named Entei was the hard part. With little understanding of the symbols from the human language, they had no way of telling them what they knew. Playing charades with them would only waste valuable time. And even if communications could be opened, what purpose would it serve? Knowing the identity of the town's destroyer wouldn't cause the ashen plains to revert to a thriving town. There was also no guarantee that their coordinators would even recognize the name of the Pokémon that did this.
They kept making their way down the road, eventually stopping to make camp when the sun began to dip into the horizon. Clefable had been added to night watch, standing guard over the others while Banette accompanied Cacturne on his rounds. Depending on the moon's phase she could absorb its light if she had a clear view. In contrast to her usual method of locomotion, the Fairy pokémon was walking. The same energy that allowed her miniscule wings to defy gravity was also what fueled her attacks. And that last battle had completely drained her.
She greeted them with a wave of her arm and a smile once they drew closer. A wave of relief washed over her as she saw that they were unharmed.
"How are they?" Cacturne asked, peering over her to see the slumbering figures of their group.
"They're okay, just…disheartened," Clefable replied.
"Who wouldn't be?" seemed to be the unspoken answer among them before they switched topics.
"I noticed they were arguing about something before we left," Banette said.
"They were trying to decide where to go from here. Most of the rations that the Houndoom brought for had been used up before we parted ways. They had expected to be able to replenish their supplies in the next town. Unfortunately, as we saw, that plan was now impossible," Clefable replied.
"Maybe the next one migh—" Cacturne optimistically began until Clefable's sobering words shot them down.
"Will there be a next one? That's been the entire debate since you left. We could keep going and find the exact same thing in the next settlement. Or would could stay here for a bit and round up some food. We can't go back; we can't keep relying on the Houndoom. They probably have their own problems without having to worry about providing us with supplies."
"Is there any guarantee that the next town isn't razed?" Cacturne countered.
"Is there any guarantee that it isn't?"
Seeing as the fairy's stinging retort had won the debate, Cacturne relented and changed subjects. "What did they decide in the end?"
"They're going to keep moving. Banette, do you think you could find some berries so that they can have something to make the trip?" The ghost gave a mock salute and a weak smile before flying off into the darkness of the woods.
"How's she doing?" Cacturne eventually asked.
Clefable let out a breath. "She's…better than she was earlier. Seeing that kind of desolation hit a little too close to home."
Cacturne shook his head and sighed. "For her sake I hope the next town is still there. I figure she can't take much more of this."
"She'll make it."
"You sound so sure."
Clefable nodded. "I'm still making it. Goldenrod and the ranch were my home too. At least she's still surrounded by her kind."
"You've got us," Cacturne replied. Clefable gave him a thoughtful smile. He stared at the stars with her. The night sky with its pinpricks of light was no longer just a scene of tranquil beauty. It was then that he suddenly felt so very small next to the infinite void of the cosmos.
"For what it's worth, thanks." Clefable smiled. "You've taken to everything we've been through better than I thought you would," Clefable added
"I've been through and seen weirder."
"Oh?" The fairy's interest had now been piqued as she looked intently at the scarecrow.
Cacturne sighed. "I have sand instead of blood; my attacks can now kill. And as much as I hate to admit it, my best friend is probably that deranged ghost we cried over...just before he came back from the dead."
"I knew you cared!" Banette cackled in the distance.