Part One - Chill
At six in the morning, I dragged myself down to the motel's common room and tried to eat a hearty breakfast. It was no use. The toast tasted like crunchy ash in my mouth.
I sighed and put down the slice, realizing that my hands were shaking.
"Koal," Chester said mournfully. A smile found its way onto my face as I looked down at my torkoal. He was halfway through his bowl of coal and pokemunch.
"Don't worry, Ches," I said. "I'm fine."
The weather had hit -30 F, an unusually high temperature for Yakuto in late January. I wasn't likely to get a better chance, and if I waited much longer I might miss my chance altogether.
A decade of preparation and an old dream had brought me to this point. Today, I meant to capture a god.
A pokewatcher's online account had directed me to Yakuto, this town known for its record low temperatures. She'd claimed to have seen the god in these very mountains. In her blog post she had included a hastily-drawn sketch, colored in with smudges of blue and silver. Last night, as I lay in bed, on the verge of uneasy sleep, her words had echoed in my mind:
I have seen many beautiful sights in my years as a pokewatcher. Without a doubt, Articuno was the most beautiful.
"It's going to be cold up there, Ches," I said aloud. "Colder than it's been these last few days. I still think you should stay here."
"Torkoal," Chester said firmly. I looked into his stubborn eyes and sighed again. Chester has always been there when I needed him most. I can't think of anything that I could deny him.
"Fine, but the second we dip below -50 you are getting back in your ball."
"Tor," he said agreeably. Then he gave my unfinished food a meaningful glance.
He was right. I had worked for this for too long to make the mistake of an empty stomach.
I bent back over my food, shoveling the lukewarm rice into my mouth. When I looked up again I saw that I had company. The men who would guide my mountain ascent were standing at the entrance of the small dining room, their cheeks deeply pinked from the outside air.
I swallowed a final mouthful and pushed away my bowl. "Time to go?" I asked them.
"Yes," one of them said. I was pretty sure his name was Vadim. He was scowling under his great beard.
When I'd first come to Yakuto, the villagers had been happy to tell me stories about the Winter God, icy Articuno. But gradually they had begun to understand my intention. Then the smiles had soured, and open doors had been closed. If these men had their choice, I think they would have refused to take me up the mountain. But even at the end of the world, money talked.
They'll take me, I thought now, looking at their faces, but that doesn't mean they'll like it.
It took fifteen minutes before they pronounced me ready to go. I'd assembled my gear three days ago: the thermic layers, ice shoes, thick face mask. With all of it on I was sweltering inside the well-heated inn. I wore my pokeballs on a strap across my chest, easy to access when one moment's hesitation might be fatal.
The first part of the journey would be simple. Their trained skarmory could bring me up to the base of the mountain's peak. From there I would have to continue on foot. The winds that circled the peak were too fierce even for skarmory.
From all the folk-tales and hearsay I'd collected, Articuno dwelt on Mt. Kimbara's peak at this time of year.
Well. I was about to find out.
"Time to be off then," I said, amazed to find my voice steady. The door to the inn slammed shut behind us, its last breath of warmth stolen by the wind.
Vadim and his crew dropped me at the peak's base, staying only long enough to make sure that my gear was functional and my clothing was still properly in place. They didn't want my death on their conscience – but neither did they want me to succeed.
As I sent out Peesha, my mamoswine, I pondered blasphemy. We call them gods, these pokemon of myth and legend, but they are not gods. They are tangible, corporeal. They are still pokemon.
I know that better than most.
As we climbed the peak, the snow came up to Peesha's nose, forcing her to swing her giant tusks back and forth to clear a path. I let Chester out (my gauge read -46) and he expelled a great wave of heat, melting the snow in front of us. The local Xatu had foretold clear skies, but I have a healthy skepticism for prophecy. I worried that at any moment the skies would cloud over and a blizzard would make the narrow trail impassible. But so far we were lucky: there was no storm.
We trudged on for ninety minutes, slowly ascending. Chester was back in his ball, and Peesha was too focused on her task to make good company. I didn't mind, though. The cold was brutal, and even the thought of conversation exhausted me.
I checked my altimeter. We were high enough. It was time for the next step.
I released a pokeball, and Sorok emerged into the snow. The lucario was not mine. My friend Alana had lent him to me when I explained I needed a pokemon that could sense aura. I thought of Alana for a moment. It seemed laughable, out here in this barren wasteland, to remember the friends I'd made battling in sunny tournaments.
"Sorok," I said. "Please tell me what you sense. Articuno should feel like no being you've ever felt before."
Sorok knelt on the icy ground, his ears going flat. The cold didn't seem to bother him, and I felt grateful for the stroke of fortune that was the aura pokemon's resistance to ice.
As I waited in the snow, my thoughts began to wander. I remembered the first time I'd seen a picture of Articuno as a very young child. The picture – life-size, they said – jumped out at me. I had gasped, sure that the image was reality, that this unreal pokemon was truly staring at me, sharp red eyes that pierced me to the core.
I shook myself out of my reflections at Lucario's exclamation. "You found her?" I asked, adrenaline warming my body.
"Show me the way," I said. He took off at a loping run that Peesha struggled to follow.
It was a full forty minutes before he stopped. We had come to the opening of a natural cavern. The entrance was blocked by boulders and sheets of ice, but Sorok broke through easily with a powerful focus punch.
Before entering, I recalled Peesha. The way looked narrow and it would be better to go on foot.
The passage was iced over and I slipped several times as I made my way down it. The air around me was absolutely frigid. The tunnel let out into a wide cavern that opened to the sky. Perched on a tall rock was a sight that pummeled the breath from my body: Articuno, in all her rapturous glory.
No painting could have done her justice. Each tightly corded muscle brimmed with power. Her slightest motion was an act of seamless grace. I stood transfixed as she looked at me, her red eyes keen and as piercing as the icy wind.
Finally, I remembered myself. In a practiced movement, I released three of my pokemon almost simultaneously – Lunatone, Metagross, and Magnezone.
I didn't have to give them any commands. We'd rehearsed this for long enough.
Metagross and Magnezone rose to either side of Articuno. The cross on Metagross' chest began to glow an unearthly blue as he summoned a powerful psychic attack. The blue energy surrounded Articuno. Hopefully it would hold her in place.
I wasn't cold anymore. The adrenaline sparking through my body made me feel as if I were on fire.
Articuno has begun to resist Metagross' psychic. She beat her wings powerfully, fighting his hold, sending Metagross plummeting down and up in time with the beating of her wings.
"Magnezone!" I shouted. Electricity covered Articuno, a sticky static electricity that I hoped would paralyze her.
Articuno's movements grew more clumsy, but she was still mobile. In the corner of my eye, I saw Magnezone adjusting its aim. "Now!" I cried. Magnezone let loose a staggering bolt of electricity.
Articuno let out a high, clear cry. The beauty of the sound was so great that I forgot for a moment where I was and what I was doing.
Articuno brought down her wings and suddenly we were surrounded by a blizzard, the air white with whirling snow. "Don't let up!" I shouted, though the snow was too thick for my voice to carry.
But I'd been expecting this.
I released my secret weapon into my arms, where I cradled her against the wind. She was a castform, the only benefit I'd ever gotten from my mother's fame as a meteorologist. "Clear the skies," I told her.
The little pokemon squeezed her eyes shut. Her body began to tremble, and I feared she did not have enough power to stand up against this blizzard of a god.
But slowly, slowly, the snow began to disperse. I was able to make out Metagross and Magnezone, still afloat. The cold had not been deep enough to penetrate their steely bodies. Articuno was still there. She was panting now, exhausted by the effort of calling up the blizzard. But my pokemon were exhausted too.
It was time to end this.
"Lunatone," I said shakily, too low to be heard, but Lunatone knew what I wanted. It flew directly in front of Articuno, its eyes glowing a hypnotic red.
For a long moment the two stared at each other. Articuno's eyes were questioning, and despite her labored breathing their arrogance was undimmed. Then, slowly, Articuno's eyelids lowered and the beating of her wings slowed. Metagross cushioned her fall with his psychic, laying her to rest gently on the snow.
My hands were shaking so much that I almost couldn't hold the pokeball. And they shook as the pokeball shook, back and forth, like the frantic struggles of someone asphyxiating.
Even when the pokeball stopped moving and lay motionless on the snow, my hands still shook.
The journey back was a blur. I stumbled down the snowy peaks, my hands nestled in Peesha's thick fur. I must have sent up the flare, because at some point Vadim came, and a skarmory to bring me back.
I remember almost falling through the doorway of my room. Fatigued past the point of hunger, I only managed to undo my outer layers and take off my boots before sinking into my bed.
I fell asleep with Articuno's pokeball cradled close to my chest.
Later that night I woke suddenly, feeling chilled to the bone. It was dark in my room, too dark to be morning yet.
The window, I thought hazily. I must have left it open a crack.
I tightened the latch and then collapsed back into bed.
In my dreams, I was frozen alive.