The Sacred Flame
"Hello, hello, hello! And welcome, to Kanto's 117th annual Indigo Conference! This is the day you've all been waiting for, and the weather couldn't be lovelier.
"This is the day when a year of travel, training and battle pays off, when the best of the best come together to show the world what it means to be a pokemon trainer. My name is Mikayla Utsa, and I will be your MC for this year's conference, here on Channel Four.
"My job these next few weeks is to keep you in the know, watching with the eyes of an expert. I'll be following all the returning finalists from past leagues and the top-ranked trainers from this years tournies. But we're also going to shake things up this season. I'll also be keeping tabs on some trainers who have followed unconventional paths to the Indigo Conference.
"Tih-Sa Shin spent ten-years as a high-speed racer, guaranteeing her place in the history books with her unprecedented three-year Grand Prix streak. It came as a shock to the sporting world when she announced her move into competitive battling, but from what I've seen, her pokemon's mastery of the air is nothing to be sneezed at. With a team led by her award-winning pidgeot, we'll see if Tih-Sa can soar into the final rounds of the Indigo Conference.
"I'll also be keeping my eye on Tormund Ahai. His name might sound familiar to our league-watching veterans. Tormund made top-two in the 111th Indigo Conference. At the time, he was known for his brutal training regime and habit of trading away any pokemon that underperformed in a match. But everything changed when he suffered a serious accident in training, that left his face scarred. After that, he disappeared completely from the public stage, but it seems he's finally decided to make his come-back. What will his fighting style be like after all these years? You'll just have to tune in and find out.
"Hailing all the way from Alola, where they have those oh-so-tasty masalas, we have Kalei Mahoe. By the way, if you've never had a masala, I spotted a stand right here outside the stadium. That's one cultural experience I can promise you won't regret. Mahoe is famous world-wide for her incredible Alolan marowak. The two performed together in a high-risk fire show before she turned that unique grace to battling. When she and her marowak fight, you can really feel their synergy.
"And last, but certainly not least, I'll be watching N Harmonia. Does the name ring a bell? It should! N was involved in the Team Plasma scandal in Unova, which made global headlines for several months running. His father Ghetsis was a convicted terrorist and conman, who almost pulled off a mass theft of the pokemon in Unova's pokemon storage system.
"But let's not judge a man by the sins of his father! N was cleared in the inquiry that followed the Plasma scandal. Since then he's been traveling and hosting his own radio-show. I didn't get a chance to tune in, but I hear it's riveting stuff. Now why, aside from his checkered past, should you care about N Harmonia? Well, I did a bit of digging and found that N is actually down in the Unovan Hall of Fame for defeating the champion! Wow! It's been ten years since then and I haven't seen any trace of him on the battle circuits, but a Hall of Famer is definitely someone to watch. He could be the rogue ponyta of this year's competition.
"Now that the opening parades are finished, it's time for the most important aspect of the opening ceremony. The torchbearer is entering the rink, bearing the sacred flame. Why do we call it that? Well, over hundreds of years this flame has never gone out. In ancient times, the flame was lit when the Kanto army waged war. As long as the fire burned, the people of Kanto knew that hope survived. That's right—the sacred flame is the true expression of Kanto's fighting spirit! It's what this championship is all about!
"So buckle up, friends. I'm so glad you're joining me on this journey, here for the 117th annual Indigo Conference!"
"Welcome back to your around-the-clock pokemon league coverage! I'm Mikayla Utsa and this is Channel Four. In the northwest stadium, I'm watching one N Harmonia take the field for his first qualifying match. N is one of several unconventional trainers I'm watching this year. He has no official ranking in Kanto, but actually defeated the Unovan champion ten years ago! This will be our first chance to see what he's really made of.
"N steps out—now that's a bit unusual—he's got a wigglypuff out already at his side. Because N has never formally competed before, his team roster is a complete mystery. His opponent, Kasia Dre, is a first-timer at the league, boasting nothing out of the ordinary in her team. She leads off with a electabuzz and it looks like N is sticking with the wigglytuff. Most electabuzz pack some fighting moves in their arsenal, but I wouldn't count out wigglytuff's massive defense and potential for airborne mobility.
"Electabuzz makes the first move, a low kick that wigglytuff easily dodges. Now Kasia's sending a spread of thundershock attacks, low energy pulses meant to throw the wigglytuff off balance. Ah! Here goes Electabuzz, heading in for a thunderpunch—
" . . . I'm sorry, something just . . .
"I don't know if I saw that correctly, but a replay is coming. Yes—N jumped directly in front of the attack and was hit by the thunderpunch himself. His wigglytuff is performing a heal pulse on him now. The injuries don't look too bad—the electabuzz probably pulled the attack at the last minute. The trainers are speaking . . . hold on, we're working on getting a mic down there . . .
"Oh! N seems to have brought his own."
"My name is N.
"I have come here today—here, to the heart of the madness—to denounce the crime of pokemon battling.
"You who have gathered here, to make pain into sport, listen carefully. No system that subjects people to constant and systematic brutality may stand. If you care for pokemon—if you believe that the pokemon are not lesser than humans—than you have no excuse. Watch! And maybe you will see."
"Well that's . . . the stadium is in uproar. Listen to those boos! The referees are congregating on the field, circling like a pack of spearow. The question at hand is whether N disqualified himself by interfering in the battle. This judgment may take a bit of time—I know I've never seen something like this before. Let's grab a couple of quick reactions from the crowd."
"What an idiot! He could have really hurt himself with a stunt like that!"
"The league's sure going downhill if they let wackos like that qualify."
"I don't know . . . it's crazy, but if the guy wants to make a statement, that's his right. I wouldn't get all the way to the pokemon league just to throw the chance away like this, though."
"And down on the field, it looks like a ruling has been reached.
". . . N is not being disqualified. Well, that's unexpected. It seems that the interference rules apply to attacks against enemy pokemon and improper use of healing items or moves. Using your own body to block an attack hasn't been done before, at least not in the league's recorded history, and thus isn't covered in the restrictions. Contestant Kasia is in furious conversation with the judges. Now she's heading back to her side. The battle is resuming! But neither trainer is making a move."
"What are you waiting for?"
"You—you're not going to do that again, are you?"
"What does it matter to you?"
"What does it matter!? You could get really hurt."
"You'd rather Wigglytuff got hurt?"
"That's the only logical conclusion. If you privilege my pain above hers, that is a choice you have made."
"And it looks like contestant Kasia has ordered a thunderbolt. N has—merciful Mew!—he's stepped straight into the attack.
"This is harrowing. For those of you tuning in by radio, the attack only lasted a few seconds, but N's body is still shaking. His skin is marked with burns and his hair is charred black. They've called for medical help. Contestant Kasia appears to be crying. She's speaking to the judge and—it's on the board. Kasia has forfeited the match.
"They've carried N off of the field. No one knows can say what condition he's in. A death on the battlefield hasn't occurred since 1971, when a rhyhorn's rampage went out of control. In this day and age, a battlefield death has always seemed unthinkable. Something almost archaic.
"The stadium's gone quiet. I can see a few members of the audience rising to face North, in a prayer to Suicune. The atmosphere is grim. This isn't what people traveled from around the world to witness.
"Hold up! I'm getting word that they were able to stabilize him. The stadium is roaring—everyone's relieved."
"What a kick-off to the 117th Indigo Conference. The mood here in the stadium is strange, somber. All the usual rivalries seem overshadowed by N Harmonia's protest-entry, after his intervention in a battle nearly led to his death yesterday.
"The league has come under immense pressure to make a ruling, but the Chairman is still refusing to alter the rules to disqualify N. In case you missed his statement, here's a replay."
"The Indigo Conference is Kanto's oldest and greatest institutions. It is far greater than the actions of any single trainer. As always, the league will act swiftly to punish rule-breaking, but we will not set a dangerous precedent by altering our own codes due to the actions of a single trainer."
"The statement's caused some uproar, but the league is caught between a rock and an onyx here. There's been growing calls to introduce oversight over the Chairman's rule-making power, and any break from precedent would be seized upon by his opponents.
"Still, this situation is far from usual. N isn't just challenging the rules—he's challenging the right of the league to even exist, the very concept of what we are gathered here to do.
"He's putting his life on the line for that belief.
"Here is what the Chairman told me, when I got the chance to put my question to him."
"This young man claims to despise the league, but he came here anyway. What does that say? Simply, that the Indigo Conference is the beating heart of Kanto, the center of our national identity.
Maybe he will learn something through his participation."
"Welcome back to your round-the-clock league coverage! I'm Mikayla Utsa, bringing you commentary on the first day of the post-qualifying matches.
"I'm in the south-east stadium this morning, where protest contestant N is scheduled to fight his first battle in round one. His three qualifying matches were won by forfeit—in case you haven't been following my coverage, N is a pokemon rights activist, who is refusing to let his pokemon take any attacks. He's shown that he's prepared to block attacks with his own body, and last week, a thunderbolt briefly stopped his heart.
"Since that first battle, his opponents have been forfeiting rather than risking landing a fatal attack. But his opponent this morning, Jaqueline Hong, has told the press that she has no intention of forfeiting. Jaqueline's a five-time contender, who most recently placed in the top four."
"I entered the pokemon league to win it. I'm not letting some nut-ball ruin this for me because of some crazy publicity stunt."
"The two are taking their places now, N with his wigglytuff at his side. Jaqueline leads off with Nidoqueen, one of the most impressive members of her team. Her nidoqueen is known for its superb combination of physical and special attacks. Though in this case . . . I'm not sure exactly what her strategy will be.
N has brought along his microphone-he's been using these matches to proselytize."
"Have you heard the story of Mew and the first pokemon?
"They say a great storm arose, and it had no end. This storm was caused by a war among the three great birds of the elements. Their war made the world thunder, ice, and fire. No place was safe from their devastation."
"Jacqueline starts off the match with a rain of poison stings attacks. They blanket the battlefield, forcing wigglytuff to jet around in the air."
"Peace-loving Mew begged the great birds to cease their fighting, but in their rage and fury they ignored her words. So Mew gathered all the pokemon of the land and sea and air, and brought them to her home, a small island situated safe in the eye of the storm. But she could not bring every pokemon and so she wept bitter tears as she listened to the destruction outside of her shelter."
"At last, the nidoqueen goes in for a horn attack, but N is in the way. The nidoqueen pulls the attack at the last minute, clearly uneasy. Jacqueline's yelling at her pokemon to be more accurate."
"Finally, the storm came to even Mew's refuge. She knew that against the combined wrath of the great birds, her protection could not hold for long.
"The three birds attacked Mew's barrier together. 'Fight us,' they screamed, 'why don't you fight?"
"This time, Nidoqueen doesn't hold back. When N steps forward, the attack hits him headlong, sending him flying back. Jacqueline sends Nidoqueen straight in for another attack, but Wigglytuff balloons quickly into the air, sending a healing pulse directed at her trainer."
"And she said in answer, 'I created the pokemon that walk this earth and swim the seas and fly in the skies. Yes, even you. And I will not fight."
"Oh my! Jacqueline's commanded an earthquake. It's—it's hard to know what to make of the attack. Wigglytuff's still air-born and it almost as if—
"At that moment, her shield broke. Zapdos sent his brightest bolt and Moltres his hottest flame and Articuno her coldest beam of ice. When their attacks hit Mew, the world seemed to stop. She plummeted into the ocean—but with her last spark of power, she healed the wounds of the pokemon that attacked her."
"—Almost as if she was targeting N. The referee had just called a break, while they review. It is against league rules to knowingly order attacks on trainers."
"With that, the storm quieted, as did the storm in the great bird's hearts. Repentant, they soared back to their mountains. And the pokemon she had protected found Mew, and healed her wounds. They said 'Mew, you are the most powerful of all the pokemon. If you had only fought, you could have ended the battle."
"But Mew said, 'No. By fighting, we never end the battle."
"The refs have finished conferring. Jacqueline's order cannot be understood as anything other than an intentional assault. She's been disqualified."
"N's not rising to celebrate his victory. It sounded like it was taking everything he had just to finish that parable.
"A few paramedics are helping him limp off the field now. The Indigo Conference's senior nurse told me that pokemon healing can work on humans in the short-term, but there's a reason nurses rarely resort to it. The process disrupts the body's natural healing mechanisms, leaving the patient increasingly vulnerable to minor hurts. At the rate he's going, the nurse told me, N could bleed out at a paper cut.
"What a lot of suffering, in the name of peace . . ."
"It's the second week of the Indigo League and I'm standing in the central stadium, where 64 trainers will receive the immense honor of fighting in the light of the sacred flame. I'm Mikayla Utsa, and this is Channel Four.
"In addition to the former finalists and some up-and-coming hotshots, I've been following a set of unconventional trainers. Two of them have made it all the way here, to the 32nd-finals: Tih-Sa Shin, the former champion racer, and N Harmonia, the pokemon rights activist who has excited concern and outrage with his life-risking protest bid for the championship. N's battle is due to begin in five minutes. It's a packed stadium—protest contestant or not, each of the trainers to fight in this stadium are making history.
"N's opponent, Jin Adachi, has told reporters she has a strategy to bypass N and make her way into the 16th-finals. She's taking the stage now—Jin hails from Lavender Town and has an impressive arsenal of ghost-pokemon. No doubt she has plenty of tricks up her sleeve, though Wigglytuff's normal-typing may put a damper on some of her usual tactics.
"No one knows how far N is prepared to go, but if he makes it much farther, there have been rumors that the league's Chairman intends to make a rule-change, despite his reluctance to do so thus far.
"N's actions have been making news all across Kanto, but here in the stadium the chief emotion has been impatience, mixed with concern over N's injuries. Nobody wants to be heartless, but this audience has travelled from far and wide to watch battles, not listen to sermons.
"And N walks out to a chorus of boos. He waves his hand limply at the crowd, which mostly goes silent at the gesture. N doesn't seem bothered by the crowd's disapproval. In between matches, he's been impossible to find, though that's not for lack of trying on the press corp's behalf.
"And the clock's begun! Ah, Jin leads off with Curse. That's a move rarely seen in the competitive battling world. As an attack, it's incredibly costly. Jin's gengar sacrifices some of its life force to lay a curse that will sap away Wigglytuff's strength after a few rounds of battle. Jin's taking a bet by weakening her trump pokemon off the bat that N doesn't have other pokemon and will be forced to forfeit once Wigglytuff is out. It's a risky move, but shrewd—there's no way to take a curse attack meant for another. I can see the curse is already at work on Wigglytuff, slowing her steps as she turns back imploringly to her trainer.
"What will N do?
"He's standing still, a fist clasped over his heart, like he is praying. What in the—a huge pokemon has just appeared in the sky. It's big and it's white—hard to say more from the ground. I don't recognize the species. It's landing next to N and he's mounted it.
"Now that the league cameras are getting a picture, I can see that it's some sort of dragon, with a flowing white mane. As it takes off again, its tail expels fire, like a jet engine.
"Leaving the battlefield mid-fight means instant forfeiture. But N has—he's landed on the pedestal where the sacred flame rests—
"—His pokemon just let out the most deafening roar. My hands are tingling. League officials are approaching the pedestal, but no one wants to get too close, in case—
N's got his microphone raised again. He's going to speak.
"I've just gotten word—I've just been told that we're to cease broadcasting. But, whatever happens now, the public needs to hear it. Sir, don't you think—"
The feed went dead.
Slowly, Mikayla raised her head.
It had been easier to watch, somehow, when she had an audience with her, when she was their eyes and ears. Now she stood alone in the silent, fearful stadium, watching the white dragon as it hunched over the golden bowl of fire. Whether it was that unearthly roar or just its sheer size, something about its presence changed the very texture of the air.
"You call this your sacred flame?" N said. His voice was hoarse, almost a whisper, magnified by the microphone into an eerie sound. Mikayla wondered distantly if the earthquake attack had damaged his lungs.
"You call this your sacred flame?" he said again. "You, who make sport out of pain? You degrade yourselves. Have you forgotten your history? The first flame was a gift, given by Arcanine to the human race. It was a gift of mercy.
"That was the true sacred flame. Now you call sacred this fire which burns only to fuel cruelty, pain, and subjugation?
The word crackled explosively through the crowd.
"If you have eyes still capable of sight, then watch. And if you have ears still able to hear, then listen. There is a true flame that burns inside every human and pokemon. This flame burns strongest when we come together to share our joys, as equals and companions, not as masters and slaves, bound together in a cruel game that has no winner. That is the flame you must seek, not this false idol."
He dropped the microphone with a clang that clapped across the stadium. The white dragon by his side bent over the fire. The stadium's screens captured the picture clearly, but Mikayla still missed the moment when, in the span of a breath, the dragon inhaled and drew the fire into itself.
The silence was absolute, composed of a thousand in-drawn breaths. Mikayla waited with a child's faith for the white dragon to burst into flames, to be consumed by the fire it had arrogantly taken. But the seconds crept forward and no change came, except that the clouds shifted, blinding Mikayla with their sudden glare.
When her vision cleared, N and the dragon were gone. So was the sacred flame.
The golden bowl sat empty on its pedestal.
The crowd roared back into life like a breaking storm. The noise was so thick it was impossible to make out anything, even the voices of league officials over the sound system as they appealed for calm.
Mikayla took a staggering step forward and found herself leaning against the cool metal of the balcony railings. She was almost glad her feed was dead. If she'd had to speak now, she wouldn't know what to say.
The chaos continued for another ten minutes, until suddenly the sound speakers began to blast the cheery strains of the opening anthem. As the crowd began to quiet, a voice on the loudspeakers assured them that the league would resume as soon as another flame could be transported from the special sanctum where it was stored. This wasn't the first time the fire at the league itself had been extinguished, the voice reminded them calmly. As recently as 1981, a sudden squall had snuffed out the flame.
Were they really going to continue? With nothing more than that?
The images of the next contestants were already flashing on the screens. Mikayla glanced around, taking in the shell-shocked faces of the audience. Then she noticed the green light blinking on her belt.
So she was supposed to go on too, like nothing had happened.
Making sport out of pain . . .
It wasn't like that. It wasn't like that at all. She'd MC'd four leagues now. She'd captured trainers in their triumphs and defeats. If anyone understood the true spirit of the league, it was her.
A helicopter came down to hover over the golden bowl. A man swung down off a rope ladder and, after a moment, a new flame sprung up. A ragged cheer went up from the crowd, but from where Mikayla was standing she could see most people weren't clapping. The faces around her were drawn and pensive.
"Uh, Mikayla," her supervisor's voice buzzed in her ear. "You're live again. Sorry for cutting you off earlier—the order came from the very top."
Mikayla adjusted her headset and drew in a breath. Right.
So now she had to say, "The contestants have taken the field after a brief interruption. We have Ai Shanda, a second-timer, and Isabel Levit, who only just scraped through her qualifying matches. Ai leads with a steelix and Isabel with a flareon. That's a tricky match-up—Flareon has the offensive advantage, but will be extremely vulnerable to rock attacks . . ."
Like he'd been listening, the steelix threw down an avalanche of stones. The flaren dodged with difficulty and the distraction cost her—the steelix scooped her up in its coils, squeezing tight . . .
Flareon cried out in pain.
That's what N would say, she thought suddenly.
But she needed to say it like this: "Flareon's caught between the proverbial rock and an onyx for sure. Her flame ducts are cut off completely by the immense pressure. Unless she can squeeze clear enough to access her flame, this match-up may be already over."
What would that feel like?
Mikayla has grown up in the shadow of Granite Cave, where landslides were common in the wet months. As a child, she'd woken at night to a deep rumbling sound, like the footsteps of a giant. She'd held her covers close, hoping the giant wouldn't step on anyone.
When she was nine, she'd chanced passed an avalanche site where they were digging out a body. She hadn't seen much, just a human hand and the dark purple of a fleece vest, brilliant as a lost gem against the gray rocks.
What would that feel like, she'd wondered as she walked away, to lie pressed down under all those rocks, knowing that no matter how hard you struggled, you still weren't strong enough.
You'd never be strong enough to get free.
"Mikayla, you've cut out. Are you still there?"
With difficulty, Mikayla dredged up words. "Flareon's crying out in pain . . . the rocks press in around her, squeezing so tightly she can't breath, can't flame. She tries to move, but the constriction is too much. She's absolutely helpless, and the pressure only grows—"
Making sport out of pain
Mikayla blinked and found her eyes were hot, wet.
"Can you imagine that?" she said. "Can you imagine?"
The worried voice in her headset buzzed. "Mikayla you don't sound well. Maybe you should take a breather. I can step in if you need a break."
Words, words, words—that was what it came down to, wasn't it? Words, in her ears, on the screen, on her lips. A whole nation, fixed on the same spectacle, but what you saw depended on what you heard.
"There was an attack just now," Mikayla said slowly. "An attack on the pokemon league. An attack on our values.
"Pokemon battling was my childhood. I grew up dreaming of standing on that stage. To be a league commentator has been an honor beyond my childhood dreams—being able to experience the Indigo League up close, every year. To share my joy with all of you, watching, listening around the world.
"The sacred flame was taken, today. Taken in protest. A man exposed himself to injury, pain, the risk of death to make this point—that pokemon are exposed to the same in every battle, every day. He accused us of sacrilege.
"Does anyone have an answer?
"I need to know, we need to hear, is there an answer to this attack? Because if we fly the flame, if we go on like this in silence—I can't hear anything except guilt.
"Tell me that what we're gathered here for is a celebration and not a crime. Tell me that the flame burning in our hearts, in my heart, that drew us to this place—tell me that flame is something sacred and not profane.
"If you can't—if there's nothing—"
"Mikayla, I'm sorry, I gotta stop you here. This content just isn't appropriate for our network."
Her feed cut into static. She pulled off her headphones slowly and looked back out onto the battlefield. The world seemed distorted and overly close, as if viewed through thick glass. Her hands were trembling.
So there's nothing.
She drew in a shaky breath. What completed the thought? What did you stand on, if you'd built a whole life over a void?
Her nav was starting to chime with notifications. Not the usual sparse words of congratulations that filled her feed after an intense match. A storm of words was waiting for her, blurring as she scrolled through them sightlessly.
She looked back up, out at the open sky, darkening as the sun dipped into evening. The fire burned weakly up on its pedestal, not bright enough to hold off the night.
There is a true flame . . .
The answer came to her when she closed her eyes, stark in its simplicity, in its condemnation.
If there's nothing, then we have to do something.
As she watched mutely from her perch, sunset stained the stadium red.
a/n: and that's the final part! Thanks to everyone who has stuck with this story since its inception five years ago.