Chapter One - A Reckoning
Hunter J methodically adjusted the straps of her thermal jumpsuit. The sheer cloth was constructed from heat-trapping polyamides, designed to deliver warmth without constraint. Mount Silver loomed above, a stern silhouette cut out against the white wintry sky. The cold wind snapped its teeth against her exposed face, as if in challenge, and Hunter J grinned, pulling up the tightly knitted cloth of her face mask.
She turned at the sound of Nurse Joy's plaintive voice. "What is it now?"
Posing as an elite-level trainer from Hoenn had its upsides. She'd received three hot, free meals a day and plenty of tidbits about the habits of the local pokemon as she acclimated to the high altitude. But putting up with the nurse's insipid chatter had left her at the end of a short, fraying rope.
"I made you some cocoa! It will keep you warm on the inside."
Nurse Joy smiled, pressing the cup forward. Hunter J eyed it with distaste. A smiling bellossom beamed back at her, garishly set in glazed ceramic against a background of flowering fields. One would think, Hunter J mused, that Mount Silver's Nurse Joy could at the very least try to emulate the mountain's brooding aesthetic.
"Thank you," Hunter J said stiffly, managing a thin, forced smile as she took the cup. Even through her wool gloves, she could feel the heat radiating off of it. A cautious sip left her tongue burnt and the crown of her mouth slick with melted chocolate. The cocoa was rich and smooth, the sweetness balanced by a spicy undertaste. Despite herself, she took another sip.
"You'll be flying up, then?" Nurse Joy said. "I do advise walking, you know. The altitude gradient is less intense when taken gradually."
Hunter J shook her head. "I'm in a hurry."
It was fatal to be out of the poaching circles for too long. She'd had some bad luck lately—a few failed jobs back to back. It didn't mean anything, but word got around all the same. What she needed was a quick, lucrative win. Mount Silver's famously powerful pokemon were just the ticket. True, they wouldn't go for much among the rich layabouts who pined for albino eevees and rare dratini eggs, but the pit-fighting rinks would pay good money for some really savage fighters. And it would remind the world that Hunter J wasn't like the other poachers. She wasn't someone who could be ignored.
"Salamence and I will be fine."
"You're planning to ride a salamance?" Nurse Joy's face wrinkled into a tapestry of concern. "With that double weakness to the cold, I'm not sure it's wise."
This time, Hunter J failed to contain her scowl. "Do you think I'm some kind of first-timer? Any ten year old could give me advice like that. But in the depths of a blizzard, on strange terrain, you think I want to rely on some weak-willed charizard I've barely had the time to train? Pokemon's true strength doesn't have anything to do with those academic typing charts. My salemance is strong."
The last word was almost hissed.
Nurse Joy took a small step back. "I—I'm sorry to have offended you. And I'm sure you know your own pokemon best. I understand, of course, that the bond between pokemon and trainer transcends mundanities like the cold. It's a beautiful thing to have, that bond. I really am envious."
Inwardly, Hunter J rolled her eyes. People rattled along in the grooves of their cliches like well-oiled trains. Strength had nothing to do with bonds—it was about will, pure and simple, which some people had and others did not. The latter would always be prey to the former. Sick to her stomach with this inane conversation, Hunter J turned her back and strode away without saying another word.
Around the back of the center, her gear was packed and ready to go: collapsible cages, sleep darts, and her petrifying gun. Hunter J didn't believe in leaving anything to chance. She released her salamence, noting absently his instinctive shudder as a gust of mountain air reached them.
"Weakling," she said. "It'll be far colder than that on the peak."
Salamence stiffened at her words. When the next gust hit, he didn't move a muscle.
"Good," Hunter J said, satisfied. Yes, it was will that mattered. She ran one last check. All her pokemon were strapped to her belt: Salamance's ball, Ariados, Drapion, Weavile, and that fresh charizard. She didn't like the thought of bringing an untested pokemon along, but a fire-type offered self-evident advantages, and her stock was low at the moment.
Everything was in order. Hunter J set off to face the mountain.
Five hours later found her chilled and weary, but almost content. The pokemon here were unaccustomed to humans and had no sense of when to hide and when to fight. They fought, each of them, as if fighting could give them a chance.
Hunter J had always found it amusing that she was labeled a poacher for her tactics. Trainers had a tendency to spit the word, as if they did something distinguishably different. As if there was some inherent fairness to their methods of capture. Fools—there was nothing equal about the relationship between a pokemon and a pokeball; Hunter J's methods were simply more efficient.
She lifted her arm to her face, squinting as she attempted to read the glowing numbers on her wristpad through the swirling snow. She'd strong-armed some disgraced research assistant into building pokemon transportation capabilities into the miniterized computer on her wristpad. The idiot had bleated a lot, but in the end he'd come through: the system had functioned so far without error. In fact, she was missing her airship a good deal less than she'd expected. True, the amenities were somewhat lacking, and the intimidation factor of a half ton airship couldn't be argued with—but there was something to be said for the immediacy of flying bareback. Feeling the ripple of Salamence's wing muscles as he followed her subtle directions was satisfying.
They were almost at the peak, now, and Hunter J wavered, unsure whether to press forward or head back. She'd more than filled her quota and picked up some standout specimens to boot—
Salamence caught the movement before she did, but his reaction triggered an automatic one in her. She jolted around, shooting with precision through the snow-covered pines. A loud roar told her that the shot had hit home. She dismounted Salamence and strode forward until she reached the foot of a fallen tyranitar, its mouth wet with froth.
Probably has young, Hunter J thought to herself. She pondered for a moment, and then made off to the right, her infrared glasses guiding her way. Up ahead she spotted the opening of a cave, nestled neatly between two large slabs of rock. Two heat signatures came from inside. Hunter J paused four meters away and scanned the area quickly.
The tyranitar's mate must be out of hearing range, gathering food, most likely. Otherwise it would have come at its mate's call.
She hardly had to duck as she stepped through the cave opening, which rose almost six feet. Two infant larvitar were huddled inside, surrounded by a nest of moss and fur. They'd clearly heard their mother's fall: their scales had developed the glistening sheen that was a young larvitar's only defense weapon.
Hunter J paralyzed them in two shots, stuck them in a capture device, and sent them off to the database. The mate would return to an empty nest. Would probably destroy half the area out of grief. Tyranitar were funny like that.
Time to make for the peak, she thought, as she made her way back to Salamence.
A lifetime of pokemon hunting had left Hunter J with a fine-tuned knowledge of pokemon behavior. If she ever had the inclination to write it down, she probably could give that old crank Birch a run for his money. And one thing she knew with certainty was that the peak of a mountain was always occupied by a pokemon strong enough to defeat any comer. A pokemon like that would be a fitting capstone to this productive day.
Hunter J examined her Salamence with a critical eye. The dragon had borne up well enough in the cold, reinvigorated by the bitter herbs she'd given him to chew. But she could see the weather was taking its toll. Would he be able to manage the journey to the peak and back?
What does it matter, Hunter J asked herself, suddenly irritated. I need to go up and so he'll take me. And if he faints, there's always the charizard.
"We're heading up," she told Salamence. Not waiting for an answer, she swung onto his back and squeezed her legs hard into his flanks.
The peak came into view all at once. The thick cover of trees vanished, and there was only white—a clearing, with a lone strip of snow leading to a sheer drop. Hunter J dismounted and made her way over to the edge, the snow crunching under her boots. The blizzard had abated somewhat. Below, it was a warm, clear day, and through the chilled air she could see all of Kanto and Johto laid out before her. The raw beauty of the view was almost obscene.
Hunter J turned away sharply, scanning the peak. She wasn't here to gawk, after all. She nudged Salamence, who was still staring out.
"Focus," she muttered. "Or I'm recalling you."
Two dancing lights appeared in her infrared glasses, a sign that two living bodies were approaching. Smiling, Hunter J prepared her gun. Two from the top, and that will be a wrap. Then I can get somewhere warm.
She was taken aback when a boy came into view, walking slowly up the peak towards her. His clothing did not match the arctic temperature—thin blue jeans and a red vest emblazoned with an outdated pokemon league logo. A red cap cast his face in shadow, but she judged that he was about fifteen. No older, certainly.
For a moment, they stared at each other. Must be experienced to have made it up here, Hunter J thought, but she didn't recognize him. Then again, she had never paid much attention to the Kanto-Johto circuit.
A pikachu, obscured behind his legs, scrambled up the boy's body and onto his shoulder. Hunter J eyed the pikachu with a more professional interest. She could feel the static charge of its presence despite the distance, a sure-sign of a powerful electric type. The redness of its cheek, the straightness of its tail—yes, here was a worthy target. Pikachu were mostly sold as pets, but there would doubtless be some pikachu fanatic eager to purchase a battle-ready one. Hunter J raised her stun-gun.
What happened next happened quickly. In the instant before she fired, the pikachu sent a precise electric charge at her left hand, which dropped limply to her side, paralyzed. As soon as she registered the attack, Hunter J released the four pokeballs on her belt with a single gesture and yelled for Salamence.
Salamence reared up and shot off a powerful dragon pulse at the boy, which his pikachu redirected to the side with an iron tail. Her other pokemon were quick to react —Drapion sent off a round of sludge bombs, Ariados a shadow ball, and Weavile a dark pulse. Each attack faltered against the shimmering yellow barrier the pikachu had conjured.
A light screen, Hunter J realized, clenching her fists. What a nuisance.
"Physical attacks," she snapped at her pokemon, frustrated by their slow uptake.
The boy took advantage of her distraction to call out three more pokemon of his own: a venosaur, an espeon, and a charizard. With an inward curse, Hunter J noticed that her own charizard had yet to attack.
"What are you waiting for?" she yelled at it. "Fireblast, now!"
Charizard's fire blast flared out wide and uncontrolled, as if startled. The venusaur dispersed the diffuse flames easily with a storm of razor-sharp leaves.
This is why I don't rely on untrained pokemon, Hunter J thought irritably, giving up on the charizard. She turned back to the main battle, just as Weavile fell back onto the snow, chest charred by a brutal flamethrower.
Twenty years of professional poaching had left Hunter J with a brutal instinct for winning battles. But the altitude left her head spinning and her hands heavy. She seemed to be reacting in slow-motion, her commands coming seconds too late.
I need to end this, now.
With her left hand, she reached once more for her stun-gun—a few quick blasts while they were distracted would be enough. But before she could fire, the ground erupted under her, thick, relentless vines shooting up and wrapping around her chest. They squeezed tighter and tighter.
As Hunter J gasped for air, the sky—white and clear—grew red and then went black.