Chapter 117 – The Shell
No matter how many times Spice ran her claws along her chest, the stone did not go away. She'd wondered if it was all a hallucination all the way back to Kilo Village, a long trek that had taken the bulk of the day. It was evening, now, in one of Kilo Village's hospitals.
She was afraid to pry it off of her, and some core part of her instincts—an instinct she was sure she didn't have before—told her that she shouldn't ever try to remove it. This time, she listened. The sense of dread she felt at the thought was equivalent to removing her own heart.
Leo was next to her, restrained in powerful, glowing bindings while sitting on the adjacent bed. Currently in front of her, inspecting the gemstone, was Phol, who asked her several questions. How she was feeling, if this hurt, if that hurt; all of it felt mundane to her. They'd brought in a Psychic or two as well, and found Spice to be of sound mind, but they had trouble with Leo. His own psionics interfered with theirs, and they eventually said that he was not stable and needed to be put under observation.
The Basin's effects were never this acute, not when they weren't even within the crater. Had its influence expanded? Yet, the only ones who would have been able to warn them… Anam, perhaps, or even Jerry… They were gone.
"All right, Spice," Phol said, "you seem to be healthy." The Incineroar looked over his charts, flipping a few pages. "But I want you to visit every few days. Do you want me to set up an appointment?"
"Yes, please. I may not care about the whole sleep thing, but this… this is different." She ran a claw around the emerald's edge again.
"Mm. Of course. And, your appearance…"
Spice winced. "I don't think I can face my family like this…"
"Hmph. Then I will go with you."
"Sugar would be terrified, and her poor kid, I don't really know if I want him to see…"
The gem wasn't that bad. The hexagons were probably 'cool' on some level. But she'd seen her reflection upon her arrival. She wasn't a Salazzle anymore. She had the vague shape of one, and when she looked with her own eyes, she seemed to be the same. But in her reflection, in the way she appeared to others, she looked like some kind of wraith. Her whole body had become a deep black; her eyes, featureless yellow lights.
Why, then, did she look normal to herself, yet not to anyone else? Was this some kind of curse?
"And about what you saw in the Basin," Phol went on, humming. "Do you want me to make a copy of everything you said, so you can remember?"
"Yeah. Just so I don't get it wrong. I need to put it to a report or something, maybe to Nevren when he gets back from his research."
"Mm. The basement of some building, a powerful Treecko, and Zygarde in your chest. If I didn't know you, I would have assumed you were coming up with some kind of elaborate prank."
"I still don't totally believe it," Spice admitted. "If it wasn't for this"—she gestured at the gem—"I would have thought it was all a dream."
"Mm." He nodded. "I'll get you a copy. As for him…"
During this whole exchange, Leo's eyes were darting between the speakers. Spice wasn't sure if he had blinked. He looked simultaneously afraid and eager of… something.
"He's… staying here."
"Leo… can you answer me?" Spice asked.
"Answer?" Leo repeated, his voice raspy. He cleared it. "Why am I here? What's all this for? Don't we need to go to the Basin to rescue someone… We need to save that voice, don't we? We're wasting time…"
"We can only hope that time away from the Basin will let his mind heal," Phol said gently. "He is in good hands."
"Right. Leo… don't run off, alright? I'll take care of that part of the mission because I'm immune to the Basin's effects. How's that sound?"
"No, no, no, no, I need to go, too," Leo whispered madly. "I'll bring someone else, too. We need a whole team to go. This is a great effort. That's fine, right? I'm the leader. So, that's my strategy. Tactician. Strategy. We'll go soon, right?"
It took every ounce of her will to not scream at him then, but she knew it wasn't any use. He'd babbled like this the whole way home, but at least he wasn't screaming it anymore. Maybe that meant the madness was fading. She glanced at Phol. "I'll take care of letting his folks know," she said. "Do you think he'll… ever be suited to have visitors?"
Phol hesitated. That was all she needed. But before she could leave, he quickly said, "Yes. Once we have better measures in place. Perhaps some family would help him recover."
It was a grasping hope, but hearing it from Phol, of all people… Maybe it was true.
"Okay," she said. "If that's the case, I'll wait for that copy. Thanks for everything."
On her way across town, Spice tried to ignore the looks she was getting from the others. Hushed whispers, a few frightened cries… This was much more than the usual reactions she got from her scar. She never had a good look at it in her reflection; was that gone? She could still see it when she looked down, but to everyone else, she was a shadowy wraith.
"They'll get used to it," Phol muttered. "You're a Heart. That's more than enough reason to trust you. Keep your credentials handy."
"I will," Spice muttered, holding her badge in one hand.
"…By the way, have you heard anything new about Angelo?" Phol asked. "He's been shut in his home all day. He missed his training with Rhys, but he didn't seem concerned. Said he wouldn't want to bother Angelo. But I'm concerned. It was ever since he was spotted talking to the Kilo Guardian."
"…We're calling that thing the Kilo Guardian now, are we?" Spice had missed the memo.
Phol and Spice exchanged a glare; Spice silently dared Phol to remark about her being the one to call someone a 'thing,' while Phol seemed to be weighing his options.
Spice huffed. "And Angelo talked to him?"
Eventually, he said, "It seems so. Which is surprising. Based on the rumors, Nate said something truly horrible to him before that sucked the morale right out of him."
"Well, I doubt it would take much, coming from… Nate."
"Is something wrong?"
"It's such a normal name," Spice said. "That's a human-era name, isn't it? Or, associated with them? How'd he get it?"
"Apparently, Anam named him," Phol said. "That's what he's said, at least."
On reflex, Spice thought it was absurd. Then she thought about everything else that Goodra had kept hidden, and it all made sense. "I'd buy that."
They got closer to the crater's edge where the flood channels on either side of the roads led into a carved-out, wide path through the mountain. From there was a long path that led down. Still more walking, but it would give Spice time to think.
Nate enjoyed resting the upper portion of his body near this passageway. The many eyes that dotted his form stared at them as they passed, and Spice decided to focus ahead. In response, Nate waved one of its five upper tendrils at them.
Unsure, Phol waved back, but continued on his way.
And as they descended the mountain, yet another newcomer bounded upward.
"Oh, what now?" Spice wasn't sure what to think of the figure from far away. Four legs, but a mismatch of body parts. No—a mutant? "Phol—get back."
"You can't heal," Phol countered, flames dancing around his wrists and waist. "That's a mutant, no doubt. Get ready."
Spice opened with a warning shot, balling up a Sludge Bomb in her hands and lobbing it forward. Phol pointed at the ball of sludge in midair and the emblem-like embers on his waist shot forward, enveloping the bomb in fire. The chimera didn't even bother to dodge, powering straight through it. Poison and flames licked at its metallic beak to nearly no effect.
"Gah! It's tough!" Spice readied another.
Phol went for a Flamethrower directly this time, but this time the beast leapt high into the air, landing a few feet in front of them.
Spice launched a Sludge Bomb from her hands, then in desperation one directly from her mouth. It dodged both with a quick roll, then pounced on Phol.
"NO!" Spice shouted, readying a good shot.
"Hi! Hi!" the beast said, talons pressed firmly on Phol's shoulders. It was taller than them both and had a massive crest on his head. Spice had never seen anything like it… "You look important! Is this Kilo Village?"
Spice noticed, on the thing's back, there was a Cherrim, nervously shuffling and trying to stay situated. Down the mountain, a hulking Houndoom with an oversized skull-chest plate bounded toward them.
Phol was trying to push the beast off of him, but not only was he heavy, he was pressing his full weight onto Phol. But he wasn't attacking and, once the initial rush wore off, Spice realized the thing wasn't actually fighting.
Grumbling, she eyed the incoming, strange Houndoom next. "He with you?"
"Yep! That's Lucas!"
"Get—off me!" Phol pushed and rolled away, grunting as he straightened the fur on his shoulders.
"I came with a message from Nevren! Are you a Heart?"
"I am," Spice said. "Nevren? Where is he?"
"He's in Quartz HQ making sure all the mutants are being taken care of and stuff!"
"I thought Nevren dispatched them, not took care of them."
"He does both!"
For some reason, Spice could easily imagine Nevren doing questionable science experiments on his captures. "Right. Okay. The message?"
The Cherrim wobbled closer and held out a small paper. Spice recognized Nevren's handwriting…
To the Thousand Hearts,
I trust that all is well! Very good work keeping the town properly managed. I am very proud of my organizational preparation and your execution of my plans. I have delivered to you one Silvally Lavender and his companions. Within this Silvally is information that should be delivered to the leviathan, Nate, who should be stationed around Kilo Mountain. If you have further questions or clarifications, seek out a Zygarde Hecto, who will be able to provide further guidance.
This message is void if not delivered before the twentieth day of Autumn's third moon, and plans have already been set that would render this message unnecessary.
"What day is it?" Spice asked. Without sleeping, she'd lost track.
"Nineteenth of Autumn's third," Phol said.
"Well. Nevren planned out when you'd arrive, too," Spice mumbled, looking at Lavender. "Talk to that thing." Spice pointed at Nate.
"Thanks, creepy lady!" Lavender happily bounded away with Lucas.
"Creepy…" Spice felt her blood pressure rising. "Whatever. Let's go. Those two freaks can do what they want."
A sharp cry put Spice in defense mode immediately, ready to block anything that might be thrown at her. But, to her luck, that had been all—Sugar had been the one to answer the door.
"Who's there?!" a booming voice called from inside, and a Rampardos stomped in next.
"Calm, enough," Phol spat. "It's Spice. I came to let you know that she's back from her mission. With a new look."
"It's really me, Sugar," Spice said with a frown. "I'm sorry for giving you a scare, but… I mean. I still live here."
The other, normal Salazzle held her chest, sighing. "That really scared me," she said, "Spice! What happened to you?!"
"I don't know," Spice said. "But I feel fine. That's… all. Where's Saffron?"
"Sleeping," Sugar's mate said.
"Let's hope he still is!" Spice growled, flicking him on the nose. "Dezz! What's with shouting when it's his nap time, huh?!"
"I—I—I mean—Sugar screamed, and—"
Sugar relaxed more. "It really is you." She tried to giggle, but it was nervous. "Spice… You know, Mom's been even more nervous than usual. I think she's aware of what's going on."
"She is?" Spice asked. "I thought she didn't care about all this."
"Maybe it's big enough that she's paying attention. But she's been saying some really odd things lately, when I visited. I'm… worried her mind's starting to go."
Phol shifted uncomfortably. "Er, well. I suppose I should be going. I don't think I should overhear family matters."
"Oh, I'm sorry—you're Phol, right? Thank you for bringing Spice to us." Sugar nodded.
"And, uh, sorry for the scare," Dezz added.
"Mm." Phol left. "Take care, Spice. You know where to find me if you need anything."
"You got it." Spice waved him off, and then looked to Sugar again. "What was Mom saying?"
"Strange things, I don't really remember," Sugar admitted. "Just that something was… wrong. She said to look out for wraiths. Which, well…"
Spice tensed. "I'm not a wraith."
"I—I know. I know. Sorry, I shouldn't have… mentioned it."
But it was obviously on her mind. Just as Spice came home looking like this… She sighed. "I need a drink."
She let herself in, leaving for the kitchen.
After all that, it was quiet, and Spice could finally take a moment to breathe. She dipped a ceramic cup in a bowl of water and took a long, lukewarm drink. It was a shame their cooling Orb had broken during the cataclysm. Those were too expensive to get new ones, for now.
Sugar gasped when she entered the kitchen, then held her chest. "Sorry, still getting used to it," she said with a strained smile.
"Yeah, yeah." Spice dismissed her with her free hand. After getting something from storage, Sugar offered to make dinner, which Spice obliged. Saffron was napping; he'd probably be startled, too, but he was a resilient kid. He probably knew some friends at school who were just as scary-looking as her anyway, right? He'd be fine if Sugar was there to prompt him.
Setting the cup down, Spice stared out of her home and toward the clear, orange skies. The wind blew and a flurry of autumn leaves danced across the window. It was a beautiful evening, like always.
Thunder boomed distantly. It was a regular occurrence by now. Spice knew that her innate sense for the stirring beneath the earth was actually Lugia on the other side of the planet. Every day, it got a little stronger…
After work, Owen ended up having a very productive day. Thanks to the sun in Null Village, he now knew that it was actually afternoon. First, he asked Marshadow where the crystal refineries or whatever equivalent was, and he was taken to a spot in Null Village that was in the manufacturing district. He offered to energize some of their most necessary equipment, but quickly tired out after only a few fully energized crystals. He wasn't sure what it was for, but it would perhaps help, and more importantly, it seemed to impress the guards.
Owen then tried to purify Marshadow, and apparently Dark Matter did not give him any commands to resist. He held Marshadow's shoulders and hoped for the best. If he did anything, Marshadow didn't react. He had only shrugged. "Eh, maybe next time."
Then, he tended to the Tree of Life in the center of town which, after speaking to some locals, he learned had completely grew around the sentinel tower that protected the village. It had been what fired those beams of ice at Gahi when he'd first arrived, and apparently was also used as emergency fire against a violent Titan. But now that the Tree took it over, the Titans avoided Null Village entirely.
Owen felt a little proud, but he tried not to brag.
On his way home, Owen walked familiar roads and decided to take a route that passed Hakk and Xypher's old home. Repairs must have been continuing, but with nighttime approaching, they must have stopped. It was funny how quickly Null Village had adjusted their schedules to day and night.
Owen was about to pass by, but then noticed that a few of the gems installed in the walls were too dark. Depleted. What kind of shoddy crystal installments were these?!
Shutting his eyes, Owen marched onward. Maybe they're just busy with other parts, he rationalized, but then glanced back. No, that wall seemed complete otherwise. And there were other parts that also seemed fully installed. Like they'd given up on those ones. Those weren't going to get fixed, were they? Forever dim unless Hakk complained about it. He probably would. But it might stress Xypher out. He seemed peculiar and might notice the depleted crystals first.
You're thinking way too much on this, Amelia commented.
It's your equipment inventory all over again, Klent added, sighing.
H-hey, proper equipment is important! Especially now that I'm weaker than ever!
Just fix the darn thing if it's bugging you so much! Amelia growled. All this obsessing over a freaking wall…
Maybe I will! Defiantly, Owen spun on his heels and marched toward the crystals.
In the end, they weren't very urgent, but Owen was feeling too restless to go back home. He felt he still had to do things, to fix things where he could to make up for lost time. And after Gahi and the antics of the team in general had led to Hakk's home getting destroyed, pitching in for some fixes would be worth it, wouldn't it?
The door was still open and most of the valuables were already taken out. It was dubbed inhospitable until the walls were repaired, and so far, they were only halfway complete.
"GAH!" Owen nearly leapt out of his feathers. He spun around and gasped again. "D-Demitri! Mispy!"
Mispy frowned disapprovingly. "Looting?"
The mutant Meganium slithered forward; Demitri looked around the empty rooms.
"He-hey, hang on, I didn't do anything here. It, uh, it was empty when I got here. I was energizing the crystals and stuff and—what are you doing?"
Mispy prodded at the ground with one of her vines, which opened to reveal a hissing mouth. "Hunting," she murmured.
"Mispy senses the aura of a Void Shadow underground right here," Demitri said. "The way it's moving, it must be some kind of chamber. It wasn't here before."
"It snuck in?" Owen asked. "Doesn't this place have a basement? I think Hakk mentioned that, but there aren't any stairs down…"
"Hmm… hidden passage," Mispy said, and then leaned her head down to the ground, sniffing. She followed the corners of the room, and Owen decided to try the other corner. Demitri stood awkwardly in the room, playing with his claws and cleaning some perceived dust on the wall.
"Here," Mispy said, pointing. "Demi."
"Oh, okay." Demitri ran his claws along where Mispy pointed. "Oh, hey, this wall goes in… Hang on." He gave it a firm push, and after some initial resistance, it gave way. The wall slid open on a hinge, revealing a wide, short stairway. They all silently listened… Movement downstairs in the dark.
"It's pretty dark down there," murmured Demitri, gulping.
"I'll help," Owen said, scaling Mispy's vines before turning around so his tail faced forward. He focused on the leaf, calling back some of that radiant energy… Yes. The autumn leaf began to glow like a dim flame.
Demitri and Mispy seemed mesmerized at first.
"…Um. You can go ahead now."
"Oh." Mispy nodded, then used Owen's light to descend. Demitri followed from the back, looking behind him nervously.
"Maybe Void Shadows go to places like this if it's abandoned. That's… creepy." Demitri toyed with his left tusk, ready to pull it out in case they had to fight.
"Don't hurt it yet," Owen said softly.
"What?" Mispy asked.
"It might still be a person… or multiple people… I don't know. Sorry, if it attacks, attack back."
Mispy frowned, looking skeptical, but didn't press.
The basement wasn't any larger than the upper floor, but it was too dark to see many details. Owen shined his leaf brighter and saw shelves filled with jars of unknown contents—maybe some kind of storage? But what got his attention next was the blob of dark sludge wriggling around in the corner, hissing.
"There," Mispy said, readying another Solar Beam.
"Mispy, wait—" Owen put out his leaf, making it too hard to aim.
"Why?!" Mispy hissed back.
"It didn't attack."
"It's not Amia."
"That's not—" It was. And that gave Owen pause. "Can't we just shoo it away?"
"Mispy's a guard. Her job is to kill these things. Besides, they'll just wake up someplace else in the Voidlands… There's nothing left of them, so…"
"So that means we can mistreat them?" Owen argued.
This time, Mispy paused, and the petals around her neck dimmed. "…Okay," she said. "But… I don't know how."
Owen gratefully lit his tail again. "…Excuse me," Owen said. "You can't be here. Can you leave?"
It hissed in response and slid toward them, but Owen recognized it as a slower, cautious approach.
"Guys, move aside."
"And let it loose?!" Demitri said.
"It's just a weak Void Shadow. It can't hurt anyone."
"These things are mean, Owen," Demitri squeaked.
"Hey. You won't hurt anyone, alright? Just go back to the forest. Otherwise, you'll have to answer to her." Owen pointed at Mispy, who growled and opened one of her vine-mouths threateningly.
It opened its face, or some equivalent of a face, in response, hissing, as it skittered off.
Mispy seemed to be watching its aura, so Owen took a moment to relax and breathe.
"That was… Maybe that was a higher Void Shadow than the ones we've had to deal with," Demitri said. "They usually just attack blindly."
Now that they were deeper in the basement, Owen could properly see what was on the shelves and nearly gasped again. "What—"
"What's wrong?" Demitri asked, following Owen's eyes. "Ah—!"
The jars each had single pairs of eyes in them. All staring, unblinking, frozen and floating in some kind of thick, clear syrup. Owen wasn't sure how many there were. A dozen on each shelf, and quite a few shelves… Some looked recently placed. Some were dusty and untouched. Small eyes, big eyes, black, brown…
Demitri squeaked. "W-wait, those are…" He pointed a shaking claw at one on the far end, one of the most recent additions based on how clean it looked. There was even some damp residue of that preserving fluid on the outer, metal seal. And in it were striking, reptilian, blue eyes. The shape of the pupil wasn't like the normal sort of its kind. Slitted, narrow, forever focused on something far away.
Owen didn't realize it at first because he often didn't look at them. Instead, he looked through them. Those were his eyes, from his first body that had died in the Voidlands.
"W-we should go. We should—"
"Too late." Mispy's head jerked toward the entrance. Someone had just come into her range of vision, and that could only mean…
"Oh, why now?!" Demitri squealed.
"It's the end of the work day. They must have been on their way back…" Owen hissed. "We took too long in here."
"Do we hide?" Demitri asked frantically. He searched and searched, but the way things were, they were simply too large. Mispy grabbed Owen and shoved her in her vines; Owen protested at first, but then he remembered what he'd just seen. What if Xypher wanted another set?
Hakk cursed from above. He'd seen the open door. No hiding now. In seconds, he was down, staring at Demitri and Mispy while Owen put out his leaf's light.
"…Hey," Hakk said.
"Please don't eat us," Demitri begged.
Owen just remembered that they both had a weakness to Ice. And so did he.
Hakk looked insulted. Xypher squawked from the first floor.
"I'm not gonna eat you," the huge Sandslash said. "Look, just… can you keep a secret?" there was a nervous waver in his voice.
"Why?" Mispy challenged.
"Because he didn't hurt anybody."
So it was Xypher's collection. That strange Corviknight, Class D, with barely any memories to his name, did this? He collected… eyes?
"H-he didn't—he didn't—but! But!" Demitri pointed at the jar. "Those are Owen's!"
"Yeah, so?!" Hakk spat. "Not like Xypher killed him! We found him during scouting and Xypher, look, this isn't important. Just—promise, you won't spread any rumors about this? Xypher's safe. He won't hurt anyone. You don't need—this is okay, alright? Don't tell anyone."
"What happens?" Mispy asked. "If… if…" She stumbled over her words.
"If you do? Then… Xypher will probably be sent away. He'd be considered too at-risk for Null Village, too dangerous and at risk of fully Voiding, and they'd send him off. And then he really will, alright? But he needs this, alright? Just—you don't get it. Do you have any idea what it's like to not…"
"But why?! What's the point?!" Demitri's voice cracked. "This—this is wrong! It's so… creepy, I—"
"Will you get over it?! People die! What use is a dead body?! Xypher keeps them, okay, who cares why, he doesn't take it from living folks, so—"
"What if he starts to?! W-we don't know, we—"
"Is he dangerous?" Mispy pressed.
"No, he's not. I said he's not!" Hakk roared. "Just leave! Okay?! Don't—don't tell anyone!"
Mispy regarded the shelves, then Demitri, who was leaning hard against Mispy's body. Owen felt all of these movements, and how tense Mispy felt, as he tried to get a good look at Hakk's expression. He wasn't familiar with Sandslash, and he once again cursed his lack of Perceive, but he still sensed… panic. Fear. But there was more to it. He couldn't place it, but…
Speak up, Klent encouraged.
C'mon, Owen. Don't just watch.
"Wait," Owen said, and all eyes—it felt like the jars were watching, too—were on him. Owen climbed out from Mispy's hold, even after she tried to pull him back for safety, but a quick glare made her reluctantly relent.
"Oh." Hakk glanced at the jar, and he suddenly looked trapped and desperate. Ice was swirling around his claws whether he wanted it or not. Like a trapped feral with no way out. Would he do something so terrible just to protect Xypher?
"I want to talk to Xypher," Owen said. "Alone."
More hesitating. Hakk shifted his weight. "Fine."
"You guys all go up. I'll stay here."
"But what if he kills you?" Demitri asked.
"Then report it and I'll see you in the morning."
Owen wasn't sure why they looked so disturbed by that, but they shuffled out one by one. Some chatter and squawks later, as Owen tried to keep his tiny heart rhythmic, Xypher descended.
He seemed significantly bigger than before, but that, Owen knew, was all in his head. The Corviknight's steely scales reflected the dim light his tail was giving off to keep things visible, as did the jars' edges and the glistening eyes within. The collection, of which Owen had become part of. This was all some strange, walking nightmare, and yet…
"Hey, Xypher," Owen greeted, bowing lightly.
Xypher squawked. "Hello. Hello, hello."
"Sorry for, uh, coming into your room. We sensed a Void Shadow here and didn't want it endangering anyone."
"Oh." Xypher's head twitched into a tilt. "Thank you."
So many questions from such an incomprehensible Pokémon. His mind wasn't all there and Owen knew it. He felt silly just for asking for this meeting, but…
"Do you know why you collect these?" Owen asked.
"I like them. They're bright. Bright, bright…"
Owen wasn't sure how to reply to that. Bright eyes? Maybe, under the right kind of light, but it was pretty dark in the basement. How did Xypher see them normally?
"I don't want to forget," Xypher said. "I can't. Can't, can't…"
"What?" Owen asked. "Forget?"
"I can't forget you." Xypher shook his head. "I can't. I can't."
He glanced at the jar, then at Xypher. The Corviknight's eyes were… there, yes, but vacant. A shell. Maybe, somewhere deep inside, the true Xypher was calling upon this shell to give an impulse or two to collect eyes. Eyes were important to him, and Owen couldn't know why. Not even Xypher did.
That understanding suddenly washed over him. Xypher was one death away from being Voided, and this was his effort to remember people. A small, desperate attempt… even though these jars were covered in dust, some so old that perhaps Xypher truly forgot them, he still wanted to 'keep' those memories. Owen wondered why Xypher, then, wanted to honor Owen's when they hadn't even met when he must have found his body.
"I thought I was put in a stew," Owen murmured.
"Found you before," Xypher said. "There are others. They live… in that place. They eat what they can. What they can, what they can… But I saved you first. I saved you, I saved you."
"You saved me…" Owen glanced at the jars again, at his own, judging him, or perhaps only watching and wondering. "Do you hurt anyone?"
"No. Only save. So you'll never die. Never, never…"
"What about people who are alive?" Owen asked.
Xypher looked confused. "Then they don't need to be saved."
He probably didn't have the capacity to lie. That… was enough. It wasn't like Xypher had any 'missing people' associated with him… And while it was… strange…
"Xypher, can you come close for a second? Lean down." This was silly. This was stupid. This was going to hurt. "Can you look at me?"
Still confused, the Corviknight approached and leaned forward—leaned so much that he fell onto his chest with a light chirp, and even then, his eyes were just barely level with Owen's.
And Owen leaned close until he could see his own, dim reflection in his shiny beak. He stared into Xypher's eyes. Xypher stared back, blankly, curiously, but there was a little glint in them, like he was pleased.
"Thank you," Xypher said. "I like your smile."
"Uh." Owen decided not to comment on it. "And… thank you for… keeping my old eyes safe. You can keep them. Just, don't do that too much, okay?"
"But how will I remember?" Xypher asked, and a flash of distress crossed his expression. "I… I can't forget. I can't. I can't."
"Hey, hey, it's alright," Owen said, putting a hand on Xypher's beak. It was cold and hard, not quite like ice, but close. "Why don't you… draw them? Work on drawing them?"
"That way, you can draw the eyes even of people who are still alive."
"Drawing…" Xypher said it again, but with enthusiasm. But then he deflated. "I'm bad at that. Bad, bad…"
"Aw, well. Maybe you can practice for now on the ones you see here. How about that?"
"Mm. Maybe. Maybe."
Owen stepped back and Xypher stood up. "I think that's all," Owen said. "Let's go back upstairs."
"Can I help?" Xypher asked, lowering a wing.
The motion startled Owen not because of how sudden it was, but how fluid and naturally it came to him. There was an ancient grace in the way Xypher leaned forward—the motion so ingrained in his core—that, for a split-second, Owen thought he saw the true Xypher awaken.
He couldn't refuse. "Sure."
Xypher gave Owen a ride to the first floor, where Owen smiled at Mispy and nodded once they got to the top. Demitri was a nervous wreck as usual, but Mispy was glaring at Hakk the whole time.
"It's okay," Owen said. "It's fine. Xypher is totally safe. How about we go home and get dinner?"
Mispy gave Owen a skeptical look, but Owen returned it with a firm, confident nod. Mispy kept her skepticism, but her expression softened enough. Owen knew what that meant. She would ask later… but for now, would take no action. She was too smart to operate purely on Owen's judgement, and that was fair.
And as Xypher marched outside, Owen couldn't get the sight of the jars out of his mind. Not because of their terror, but because of what they meant. There was no telling how many of them were like that in Null Village, desperately grasping for any way to hold memories down, no matter how strange.
That was what he was fighting for. That was what Dark Matter took away. And as Hakk remarked on the construction workers 'finally' getting to fixing the crystals, Owen couldn't stop looking at the back of Xypher's head.
Finally, he returned home.
They'd all gathered again for dinner, and it occurred to Owen that this had become somewhat of a tradition. Team Alloy helped organize an extra seat to fit Owen in properly, and he sat between Zena and Mispy. That evening, Demitri cooked for the team a Null Village staple of void plant salad with purple spice and red dressing. The result was a surprisingly appealing tapestry of dark leaves and red-purple sauces and powders.
"It's cheap," Demitri said, "but you kinda get used to it. These plants grow really well in the Voidlands and are actually pretty full of nutrients!"
"Most of your energy comes from the sauce, so make sure you eat all of it," Zena added, holding a fork in one of her ribbons tentatively.
"Mm." Owen eyed the plate, then glanced at Jerry down the table, who had previously expressed a preference for meat. Even he was eating it with a stoic expression. Owen wondered, as an outlaw who had to steal to get money and food, if Jerry was used to eating what he could.
Hesitant but not wanting to seem ungrateful, Owen tried his own, the fork unfamiliar in his claws. How much had changed in the few weeks that had passed. Some of the group were using technology that were more reminiscent of what he'd see in Kilo: special equipment that stuck to paws or appendages just as well as he could work with his hands, including the utensils. Even the bowls seemed to be crafted with fine materials procured in the Voidlands. Polished stones, ceramics, a lot of it totally smooth to the touch.
"Owen, are you okay?" Zena asked. "You seem… distracted."
"Just getting used to everything," Owen said with a smile. His eyes were tired, but Zena's had even less energy. Must have been a long day for both of them.
"Eh, makes sense." Gahi chomped on one of the leaves. He offered one to Trina, who was sitting on his head and eating her own, tiny plate, and she happily took the offer before exchanging for what looked like a tiny, blackened cherry tomato. Gahi caught it with his tongue and continued eating.
Finally, Owen tried it. Bitter. Very bitter. His tongue shriveled up. But he powered through and tried some of the dressing with it. Salty, sweet, actually not that bad. He had flashes to when he'd tried the red river water when he'd first arrived in the Voidlands, but it was brief.
The second bite was easier, and he took more of it this time. Somehow, bigger bites made it tastier. It was tough and crunchy in some parts. Bitter fluids were in the stems, and he wondered if it was supposed to be that way or if Demitri hadn't cooked it all out.
Owen felt like he was being watched. Glancing up, he caught three pairs of eyes on him. One was Zena. Comforting, concerned, and he smiled to try to ease her worries. The next was Eon, the other Charmander at the table, who smiled at him before he could react. Stars above, he still had to talk to him. Maybe later.
"You know, I actually got paid for that day of work," Owen said. "I think he might have given me a bonus for the repairs, but, uh, it might also have been for… giving him a scare about inspections. I hope I don't get in trouble for that."
"I think you'll be fine." Zena gently rubbed his shoulder.
"What, the bathhouse?" Jerry asked. "Anybody try and put the moves on you yet?"
"A few times," Zena said before Owen could object. "If anyone tries to get touchy with us, though, we're free to retaliate as we like."
"So, Hydro Pump."
"Ice Beam, actually."
"Y'know, that's better."
"Are all of you guys treated, y'know, questionably at work, or anything like that?" Owen asked.
"Well, some of us," Zena said, sighing. "But… we can defend ourselves. And Null Village is just like that. It isn't… like Kilo Village. People are different here."
"I heard some talk about that, actually," Jerry said. "At least before all this stuff with Dark Matter happened, the Voidlands was usually a place where lost spirits went, I guess. Those that died but had too much 'negativity' in their heart, or whatever. Personally, I don't buy it. But if it is true, then maybe the culture here is more hardened from harsh lives."
"Hardened," Owen mumbled.
"What, you think you're above it?" Jerry pressed. "You're right here with us, buddy."
"No, that's not—" Owen winced. "I'm sorry. I just didn't think… I mean, it's just a shock. That's all. I'm hoping that I can try to make some money or at least get some better living conditions for us if I find a job, too."
"Hmph. If you can prove you made that tree, or maybe show that you need to maintain it or something…" Jerry leaned forward. "I bet that would make you a killing."
"It's all temporary anyway," Zena dismissed. "All until we can be free from the Voidlands, right?"
"Yeah! Right." Owen nodded, taking another bite. The food wasn't too bad, but it was still bitter.
Xypher cawed nearby and Owen remembered that he was the third pair of eyes on him. The creepiest ones; did Xypher even blink? And he had two whole plates of Demitri's cooking, too.
"They say that the lower your Class, the more this weird food tastes good," Hakk said. "Guess that's why Xypher loves this stuff."
The Corviknight screeched.
"Y'know, that reminds me," Hakk said, "we oughta pay a visit at home again once we're through eating."
"Not done moving out yet?" Owen asked.
"Nah, just checking repairs," Hakk replied leisurely. "Anyway, let's eat. Here, Xypher, grab this weird thing."
Hakk tossed Xypher a squishy, purple fruit, and Xypher caught and swallowed it in mid-air. Owen realized that one was on his plate, too, but the smell made him suppress a retch. He glanced at Demitri, who wasn't paying attention. Owen hastily tossed it to Xypher next. Zena did the same.
And for a fleeting moment, everything felt normal.