She actually flinches. He sounds so excited, so cheerful, like she's an old friend he's delighted to have run into again.
"N." She stops short of the temple, where broken stone steps lead up to a crumbling altar. She's not looking at him, but at the pokémon behind him. Zekrom's there, of course, its generator cold and dark and its deep red eyes trained on her. The black dragon looks tiny next to the other pair, pokémon she recognizes only from storybooks. Dialga and Palkia watch impassively from either side of the dais.
So it's three this time. Three gods, and still only one of her. Hilda digs her nails into her palms, which are cold even in her mittens, and tries not to resent that she is alone.
N keeps blathering while she takes in the scene. "Zekrom told me Reshiram was getting close. It's been a long time, Hilda. I'm glad you made it. I was hoping I'd get a chance to see you again."
"N. What are you doing?"
"I was just talking to my new friends!" He gestures up at the dragons, who could be statues if not for the puffs of white that mark their breath. "These are Dialga and Palkia. Do you know the stories, Hilda?"
A little, but not as well as she should. It's Dawn who should be here, not her. Dawn faced these legends once before, when a different madman called them here. She'd faced them down and won. Hilda had not. And now the only hero left was the one standing across from her, taking her silence as an invitation to expound.
"These are Dialga and Palkia, the lords of time and space. The old stories say they stood here, on Mount Coronet, and started time flowing and space expanding and made the whole world start to turn. It sounds crazy, doesn't it? It's just a story. But maybe it really did happen." N pauses, grinning, inviting her to share his excitement. "Zekrom says maybe it could happen again."
"What are you talking about, N?" she snaps.
He isn't paying attention. He's staring up at Zekrom while he says, "You know, Hilda, the revolution hasn't really gone the way I hoped. I was young, I guess. Naive."
Hilda grits her teeth. She wants to shake him. She wants to shake him until the stupid puzzle-thing he's always wearing rattles, until she shakes out whatever buzzing in his head gives him these crazy ideas. And here he's talking like he used to be naive.
He doesn't notice her anger, of course. "I thought if I just talked to people, I could make them understand how pokémon are being mistreated, why pokéballs are bad, and I could inspire liberation that way. Some people were ready for the truth, I had Team Plasma, but Father was right—appealing to people's better judgement doesn't work. So then I believed in his plan. I believed that if I became the hero, then with Zekrom on my side I could make liberation happen, because who wouldn't listen to what the hero said? And a lot of people did, yes, that was the real beginning. But there were still some who didn't... As you know."
He gives a small, sad smile, and Hilda hunches deeper in her parka, which is little protection against Spear Pillar's withering gusts. Yes, she knows. Hilda thinks of Plasma troops storming secret meetings and bombing illicit pokéball manufacturing operations. She thinks of the other heroes—just children, they're all just children still—disappearing, falling out of contact, incarcerated or dead. She thinks of corpses, human and pokémon alike.
Hilda thinks these things but does not speak. N might have been waiting for her to say something, but now he goes on. "I never wanted this, Hilda. People killing each other—humans and pokémon are both suffering. The pokémon worst of all, because they're always the ones who have to fight. It isn't right. I know Father doesn't want me to worry—he tries not to let me see how the fighting goes. But Zekrom tells me."
Hilda's fists clench. Ah, yes. Dearest daddy. And what else didn't he want Junior seeing? Surely not how Plasma clamps down on "liberated" regions, how its enforcers—the only ones allowed to carry pokémon—terrorize everyone else. He wouldn't want N to worry, wouldn't want him to trouble himself with actually running the regions that fell under Plasma control. Ghetsis would save him from all of that.
Ah, but N hadn't told Daddy he was coming here, had he?
"Zekrom told me something else, too, about other legends," N says. "Dialga and Palkia can change the world, Hilda. They can make it so humans will never be able to hurt pokémon again. And nobody has to die!" He laughs and throws his arms out in delight. "Don't you see? I can make it all end, all the fighting, all the pain. I can make a new world—or two! One world for humans, and another for pokémon! They'll all be free, Hilda. They'll finally be able to live up to their full potential!"
She's grim in the face of his enthusiasm, remembering TV footage from a few years back, a sallow-faced man staring into the camera as he rambled. "This universe is corrupt. It cannot go on. I will make a new universe, a pure one, a perfect one. I am Cyrus. I am your new god..."
Dawn defeated Cyrus. She'd know how this goes. She was a real hero, unlike Hilda. She won.
But Dawn isn't here now. She will not be coming. Nor will any of the others, vanished or imprisoned or dead. All fallen before the true hero, all but Hilda. The one who had lost and so was no threat to him.
Hilda shifts her weight a little, moving one hand closer to her pocket and her pokéballs. "N. Listen to yourself. This is crazy. You're talking about destroying the world, N. You can't go through with this."
"I'm not destroying the world, Hilda. I'm changing it. That's what a hero does." He waves his arms, pacing in little circles. "Who's going to do it for me? I'm the only one who can, Hilda. I have to do it. It will make life better for everyone."
Hilda feels the smooth dome of an ultra ball under her fingers. It has a heft to it, a solidity you don't get nowadays. They just don't make them like they used to, not since they became illegal. "I can't let you do this, N. You're not going to save the world, you're going to kill it. I don't know what you... think you heard"—she glances into Zekrom's unfathomable red eyes—"but it's wrong. Let's talk about this. Let's go somewhere we can talk, okay, N?"
"No, Hilda. You're the one who doesn't understand." His voice is gentle, genuinely sympathetic. She clenches her teeth against a retort. "Dialga and Palkia are ready. They know what to do, and they understand what will happen. I hope you can see," he says with a small smile, "why I trust them more than you when it comes to matters of time and space. There's nothing left to talk about, Hilda. I won't let you stop me. I'm sorry you don't understand, but this is something I have to do."
She can't take the hangdog look on his face, like he feels sorry for her in her infinite ignorance. The ultra ball is out of her pocket and in the air before she can even really think about it, and she's calling Reshiram's name.
A cloud of light spills from the ultra ball, growing larger and larger to loom high overhead. Zekrom moves to put itself between N and Hilda, generator whirring and sparking as it starts to turn.
"So we're going to do this again, are we?" N asks, and he's grinning, the fool. "All right, then. Let's see if your truth can overcome"—Reshiram shakes the last motes of light from its feathers and keens a challenge that drowns out the rest of his speech, but that's all right. Hilda knows what he was going to say anyhow.
The dragons lunge for each other, and the air fills with jags of lightning and leaping flame. N is blocked from view by the dragons' bulk as they scuffle, jockeying for position. Then Reshiram spreads its wings and takes to the sky in a gust of wind so powerful it nearly knocks Hilda over backwards. Zekrom follows suit a moment later, and once the wind dies down and Hilda's blinked the dust from her eyes she can see N again.
His head's thrown back as he calls up to his dragon, whether commands or simple encouragement it's impossible to tell. Hilda's yelling, too, screaming herself hoarse as she gives orders she doubts Reshiram can hear. It doesn't matter—the dragons are compelled to fight by ancient enmity, and if they're paying any attention to their "trainers," they give no sign.
But still Hilda digs her nails into her palms and screams and screams, throws her whole heart into the battle because it seems like—yes, Reshiram falters, and Zekrom sinks its teeth into the white dragon's shoulder. And there—Reshiram is too slow to dodge a ball of lightning, and by the time it breathes a line of retaliatory flame, Zekrom's able to swoop out of the way.
She's losing. Again. She can't help it, she's buying into all the destiny bullshit, the nonsense about how the battle between the dragons is a battle between convictions, and that losing here means she isn't strong enough. Despite herself, she sees her own hesitation in Reshiram's flinches, her wavering faith in its timid, sluggish attacks. Is she losing, now, because she's never believed herself a hero?
It's absurd. It's insane. But still she's yelling with all her might, like the force of her words could lend strength to Reshiram's attacks, and praying that this time it will be enough. Please, please, just let it be enough.
The dragons crash back to earth in a confusion of feathers and flame, locked in bloody close combat. N is forced to duck away lest he be crushed or incinerated. The dragons' scuffle brings down ancient pillars and carves long furrows in the stony summit. Hot wind whips around the rocky spire, and Hilda throws up an arm to shield her face from the dust and her lashing hair. Brushfires start in the sparse mountain scrub, adding heat and smoke to the chaos. Still Hilda yells, hoarse, unable to hear her words over the sounds of battle, not sure whether she's even making a sound at all anymore, not knowing what she might be saying even if she is. Still the dragons fight on, raging in incoherent fury, oblivious to the world around them.
And then, abruptly, it's over. The combatants fall back, bloodied, limping, their wings torn and generators sputtering.
Reshiram is in a slumped crouch, one winged arm hanging broken and shredded, shuddering uselessly as the dragon gasps for breath. Zekrom's reeling where it stands, blood pouring from deep wounds in its chest and shoulders. In the sudden quiet, Hilda can hear herself again.
"Come on!" she's raving. "Just finish it. One more attack, that's all! Dragon claw! Finish it! Please, please just attack. Dragon breath! Fire blast! Anything! Please..."
Reshiram's great blue eyes roll around to regard her. It struggles to stand, bad wing flopping grotesquely, while across the way Zekrom is charging, the blue-glowing generator in its tail whining in protest, sparks arcing across its reflective black scales.
Reshiram makes an awkward lunge, raking with the claws on its good wing. The blow glances off Zekrom's shoulder, and the black dragon reaches out with its broad hands and grabs Reshiram around the neck.
The white dragon bucks and twists mindlessly as its sibling feeds lightning into its body, all that Zekrom's sputtering generator can muster. Zekrom tosses Reshiram to the ground, where it lies in a twitching, smoking heap.
The white dragon struggles for a moment, tries to rise. Hilda's voice dies in her throat as she locks eyes with it. Reshiram shudders, brokenly, and teeters on the edge of rising. Then the startlingly blue eyes close, and it falls back. The silence is ringing in its finality.
Hilda is frozen. She can't decide whether she's going to vomit or fall to her knees, and that indecision is the only thing keeping her from doing either. She wants to scream, to wail, to cry in the most ugly, shrieking way. But it's as though the air in her lungs has grown solid; it feels like no breath stirs in her throat. She can only watch mutely as N goes over to Zekrom, running a hand up and down the side of the dragon's leg, murmuring something to it.
The black dragon, with no pokéball to retreat to, slumps back on its haunches, wheezing, dark blood still dribbling over its scales and pooling on the shattered rock below. N finishes what he has to say, then turns back and up to the two dragons who watched the fight in impassive silence. Now they lean forward and seem to listen while N speaks.
Somehow, that's what wakes her. Hilda fumbles in her pocket, brings out the ultra ball in shaking hands, and manages to press the front button, recalling Reshiram in a great tide of red energy. She lowers her hands even as their trembling spreads up her arms to her shoulders, then across her whole body. Now she fights in earnest the battle to not fall over. She clamps down on the bile rising in the back of her throat, trying to find its way around the block still swelling there, preventing her from making any sound at all but the faintest whine. Hot tears roll down her cheeks, though she tries to keep her eyes focused on the scene in front of her.
So it happened again. The hero won the battle. The hero is not her.
She has to close her eyes for a moment while her chest heaves, tight with alternating waves of anger and despair. Once before she had been the only one standing between the hero and the world, and she had failed. Plasma had spread across Unova, then beyond. One by one the other heroes disappeared, they who had fought criminals, they who had fought gods, they who had won. They who could not stand against the legions of Plasma, nor against the hero and his black dragon. One by one they fell. One by one they retreated, fighting desperate skirmishes alongside what underground trainers remained. Then Hilda had stood between the hero and the world's end, the only one left, and again she had failed.
Finally anger overtakes hurt and shame. She clenches her fist and bares her teeth and opens tear-blurred eyes, glaring at the council in front of her.
They were just kids, dammit! Why were they the ones supposed to save the world? Hilda had never wanted this—she'd never asked for it. She'd just wanted to go on an adventure, like every other kid. But then had come the prophecy and the power, the Light Stone and the impossible moment when Reshiram woke and flew to her aid. For a few minutes she'd been able to convince herself it had all been meant to happen that way, that she really was special. And then, of course, she had lost.
Up on the platform, something is beginning. N steps back as the dragons turn from him and stare into each other's eyes. The gemstones at Dialga's joints begin to radiate blue light, while faint pink shines from Palkia's pearls. Overhead, the tumbling clouds stir faster.
"Hilda." She snaps out of her reverie and focuses back on N, wiping tears from her eyes, suddenly contemptuous. He smiles encouragingly. "It was a close battle. You almost beat me. You're a good trainer, Hilda, the best I've ever met. I can tell how much you care about your pokémon."
That's enough to burn all the self-pity from her body. She's still trembling, but with anger now. The world's ending, and he's going to stand there and try to make her feel better about a pokémon battle? The world's ending, and she's stuck here with this madman, the last hero, the boy who thinks he speaks to pokémon.
Behind him, it's starting. The legends draw back, still watching one another. Blue light scintillates around Dialga; red glows around Palkia. The legends throw back their heads and let out a shout so loud Hilda swears it must echo around the whole world.
What kind of madman could ever look at creatures like that and imagine he might speak with them, could ever understand them? The very incarnations of time and space, creatures that have lived since the birth of the universe—and he looks at them, and smiles, and calls them his friends. Cyrus assembled his own armies, bent years of research and technical brilliance towards using legends to remake the world—all the trouble he would have saved if he'd done like N and asked politely.
While Hilda fights down a deranged fit of giggles, N goes on, ignoring the chaos unfolding behind him. "When I first met you, Hilda, I was so confused. I didn't understand how pokémon could ever really love humans, or work together with them. I didn't think a trainer like you could exist." He absently reaches up to take hold of his hat before the rising end-winds can tear it from his head. The air between Dialga and Palkia ripples with distortion as the dragons roar and howl in some ancient song of ending. N raises his voice slightly to be heard over them. "But after battling you, and after really thinking about it, I realized I'd been wrong. It isn't as simple as pokémon needing to be separate from humans. There's so much they have to learn from one another. Together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
"It's true they have to be separated—the most important thing is that humans can't hurt pokémon anymore—but I don't think it needs to be forever. Maybe they can learn from each other somehow. Maybe someday we can be together again, as equals this time. That's how I would try to make the world if I could." He gives her a faint, sad smile. "But I don't think I can. All the people in it—they'd still be the same people. And you won't get equality without changing who people are."
Hilda isn't listening to him anymore. She watches the dragons sing their song of destruction, sees the rift forming between them. Zekrom's slumped at the base of their platform, eyes closed. It's then she realizes. They know what they're doing, after all. N believes he's converted them to his cause, that they're doing this for him.
But he's only some mad boy, and they are the lords of time and space, minds icy and unfathomable as the infinite universe. Who's really destroying the world here? Not the pawn who thinks himself a king. This is some ancient mandate, an idea conceived of by creatures only generously thought to care for the trifles of mortals. They know what's going on here.
So does Hilda. There's only one person who isn't in on the joke.
N follows her eyes and smiles kindly. "It's going to be okay, Hilda. I don't like that this has to happen, but this world has to end before the new ones can be born. This is what's best for everyone."
It's all too much. Hilda pulls five pokéballs from her pocket, screaming, "Everyone, go!" It's probably hopeless. But she can't stand around feeling sorry for herself, not when there's even the smallest hope of winning. She can't let it end like this.
The pokémon stream past a shocked and frozen N, Archeops in the lead. Hilda yells orders at their retreating backs, not that there's much to explain. They overwhelm the beleaguered Zekrom before it can rise, then rush onwards, heading for the universe-dragons and the spreading crack in reality. And then they start to vanish.
Archeops skirts the foggy white of the rift, yelling a battle cry at Dialga. But the tip of an outstretched wing snags on the widening light. The whiteness spills into him, fills him completely, and for a moment he shines like a dying star. And then, in a silent rush, he is gone.
Liepard is next, leaping over white fractured air and making for Palkia's legs. But he loses his footing, stumbles, and it takes only a second for a jagged crack to grow through his body, splitting and vanishing him in a burst of white light.
And she's gone and made it worse. She didn't even realize—Hilda runs herself, tears blurring her eyes again, screaming, "No! Stop! Stop!" She shoves N out of the way, staggers as her boots hit the thrumming, cracking stones of the plinth. "Stop!"
They're trying. After seeing what happened to their teammates, even her most courageous fighters waver. Their charge falls apart, they try to retreat. Lampent turns about, fleeing before the spreading blankness. But the rift is growing faster now, and it overtakes, the ghost vanishing into a wall of terrible fog.
Elgyem will not be deterred. It's hard to tell expression on that alien face, but Hilda thinks she sees some hopeless determination there, the desire to go down fighting. The psychic flits around Spear Pillar, teleporting away from the creeping blank and firing wave after wave of psychic energy at the dragon legends, to no visible effect. And then her poor, clever champion jumps to a point it thought would be safe, which would have been, even a second before, but where now the holes in the world's fabric have reached, and it too is lost.
Samurott pulls to a halt and stands frozen, trembling. Hilda runs up to her and throws her arms around her neck, burying her face in the water-type's long whiskers. She can feel Samurott's chest heaving as she takes gulping, slack-jawed breaths, but she's real, she's still here, she's still alive. Samurott leans into her trainer, eyes wide and white, pupils shrunk to tiny pinpricks as she watches the blank stretching up into the sky, spreading in all directions, blocking the dragons from view.
N's voice comes from behind her as the cracks spread, reaching for them. "I like you, Hilda. I'm sorry we had to be enemies. I hope we meet again someday, on the other side."
White, everything is white, and cold, and the dragon song is burning in her ears like a galaxy, spreading through her veins like fire. She can't feel Samurott's fur under her fingers. She can't feel anything.
Tyranitar stretches her claws out in front of her face, conjuring wisps of sandy air that twine and coil around her arm. The sandstorm spreads in snaking tendrils that twist around one another until the ocean breeze snatches them away. Tyranitar watches them scatter with lazy interest, enjoying the feel of the sun warming her rocky armor.
"Hey!" She turns to find Samurott coming up behind her, a pair of overstuffed bags slung across her shoulders, grinning fit to burst.
"Hey yourself. What took you so long, slowpoke?"
"Look who's talking. You're just sitting around staring at the ocean while I do all the work."
Tyranitar laughs and leans back on her hands, turning her attention back to the wave-thrashed cliffs below. "That's the price you've got to pay if you want me to keep saving your butt every dungeon. Loser does the shopping, that's how it goes."
Samurott snorts and shrugs out of the bags, then joins Tyranitar at the edge, settling down with front paws hanging into the void. "So? What's the news?" Tyranitar asks.
"You remember those natural disasters that started up around Treasure Town? All the earthquakes and floods and stuff?"
"Sure," Tyranitar rumbles, swinging her feet idly. "Had a cousin who moved out to Treasure Town a while back. Hope he's doing all right."
"Yeah, well, it turned out a meteor was going to strike near there, but a rescue team convinced Rayquaza to destroy it before that could happen. And get this—one of the team's members was a human!"
"Right, a human who got turned into a bulbasaur. Anyway, they were partnered up with a squirtle and—what's so funny?"
Tyranitar guffaws, head thrown back and whole body shaking with laughter. "Human turned into a bulbasaur? Now that's a good one! Who'd you hear that from? Lombre? Or, wait, I bet it was Tyrogue. He always says the weirdest things."
It takes Tyranitar a couple of seconds to realize Samurott isn't laughing. The water-type stares down at the ocean between her claws, frowning. "Oh, come on, don't tell me you actually believed that?" Tyranitar puts on a huge, toothy smile and raises her claws. "Ooh, look at me, I'm a big scary human coming to take you away. Grr! You'll never see your friends and family ever again!" She chuckles to herself. "Come on, Samurott. Humans are just stories for scaring naughty children. Everybody knows they aren't actually real."
"Zoroark says humans are real. They're just... somewhere else."
"Zoroark's crazier than a bag of skitty, and you know it." Samurott doesn't look up, doesn't respond at all, still wearing that morose expression. "Hey," Tyranitar says after a minute. "Sorry, uh, sorry, I didn't mean to be a jerk about it. I mean, if you believe in humans, then that's—"
"No, no, it's fine," Samurott says, raising her head with a sigh. She gives Tyranitar a smile, then turns and looks out across the sea. "I have to admit, I don't really get it myself. It's just something about humans, you know? Sometimes I almost feel like I..." Tyranitar waits, but Samurott just shakes her head. "Anyway. No need to apologize. So." Tyranitar perks up when Samurott's claws steal towards one of the discarded bags. "News isn't the only thing I brought back."
"You didn't," Tyranitar says, watching hungrily as Samurott pulls a black-and-white striped berry out of the bag. "Enigma berries? Where did you even find them?"
"Say what you will about my dungeoneering, I'm useful for some things," Samurott says, holding the berry out towards the fidgeting tyranitar.
She snatches it back again at the last moment when Tyranitar reaches out to grab it, and laughs at the big rock-type's huff of disappointment. "Come on, lazybones, if you want this you're going to have to work for it."
She's up and running before Tyranitar can react, dragging the bags awkwardly over her shoulder as she goes. The rock-type rumbles out a bad-tempered exclamation and heaves herself to her feet, taking off in a whirl of dust and hissing wind. By the time she catches up, when Samurott finally takes pity on her and slows down a bit, all thought of humans has long since been driven from her mind.
Samurott takes Alder's volcarona down in a single hit, and Hilda glances at the clock as the credits start rolling. That's enough of that. She really has to stop with the video games and get studying.
Hilda snaps the DS closed and tosses it aside, then lies back with a sigh. Afternoon sunlight streams through her window, illuminating the periodic table taped to the wall, glinting off the lacrosse trophies on her shelf—falling pointedly on her physics textbook.
Hilda groans and covers her eyes with her arm for a moment, then steals a glance at the DS. Maybe just one run through the Battle Subway...
No. No! Physics. She's going to study physics now so she can pass her class and get a good job and not end up homeless. In the real world you can't just be a monster-taming hobo your whole life.
Hilda sits up and pulls her textbook off the shelf, letting it fall open to the page where she's crammed all her notes. Quantum mechanics equations squiggle everywhere, and Hilda makes a face at them. Up in the corner a doodle of Palkia hunches on a bicycle while Dialga steams past, riding atop a train.
She tries to concentrate, she really does. But somehow her eyes keep stealing back towards her DS, lying so invitingly nearby. It's too bad pokémon aren't real, she thinks as she picks the game up again. She would make a damn awesome trainer.