Chapter 10 – Embracing the Predator

"Can't you do this any faster?" Syr urged.

"Do you want this done in a hurry or do you want it done right?" Madeline asked crossly.

"But—"

"Just keep your skin on, purple man!" the mr. mime snapped.

Teresa, Syr, and Jen had fetched Madeline, and after briefing her on what had happened to Esaax, they'd gone with her to access the Haven's pokémon database. In addition to being the first hospital designed to admit and treat both humans and pokémon, the Haven had also been a very active center of pokémon research. Here, an immense volume of pokémon-related data from all over the world was compiled.

Therefore it was odd, not to mention very frustrating for Madeline and those who were gathered there with her, when minute after minute of the mr. mime's work (which, Syr's impatience aside, was truthfully very speedy) continued to yield nothing on the subject of wobbuffet evolution.

"It must be super-obscure or else we'd have it already," Madeline said.

"Keep looking," Teresa directed her.

Madeline didn't pause, her fingers continuing to fly over the keys. Meanwhile, she shivered and said, "Brrr. Is it just me or did it just get really cold in here all of a sudden?"

"Yes, it is getting colder…" Teresa was well-insulated against the elements, but she'd noticed the chill, too. She cast a questioning glance at Jen. The snorunt caught her eye and suddenly looked as though he'd been caught robbing the cookie jar. With a small, embarrassed noise, Jen made a hasty exit.

"He didn't have to leave…" said Madeline, who was too busy to sound as sorry for Jen as she felt. She continued her search, her brow knitted in hard focus. Finally, "Argh."

"'Argh'?" Syr echoed, puzzled.

"Yes, argh. That's everything," Madeline said. "Nothing in here at all about wobbuffet being able to evolve. It can't even conceive of such a thing."

"Then he must have become an entirely new form of pokémon," said Syr.

"I don't think so," Teresa said. "We'd thought that wobbuffet were unable to evolve, but this proves that they actually are. They've probably always been—it just seems too unlikely that this is the first time this has happened. There's got to be a precedent."

"Well, if there is, it should be in here, but it's not," said Madeline. "We've got just about the most complete recorded history of pokémon you could ask for here. That includes some very obscure and unusual information, some of which is thousands of years old. So I seriously doubt the absence of any information about wobbuffet evolving is just an oversight."

Obscure and unusual information…

Thousands of years old…

"Karo," Syr all but whispered, wondering why he hadn't thought of this sooner. The arbok made for the door, rushing past the other two pokémon in the room.

"What are you doing?" Teresa asked, startled by Syr's sudden action.

"Plan B," Syr said. "Stay put; I'll be right back." With no further explanation, he left the Haven and set off down the street.

- o -

After traveling a short distance southward, Syr came to a three-story house in the part of town where the more expensive homes stood. This was the home of Ekunasic Karo.

Karo was a nosepass, aged 6,731 years, which among his kind was still fairly young. He'd once belonged to the gym leader Ren Bridges of the Apex League: the gyms open only to elite trainers. Following the Extinction, Karo was no longer bound by his gym duties and left with little to do apart from looking after his trainer's house. He thereby had the time to acquire a few new friends, whom he'd occasionally invite over to admire his trainer's collection of the rare, the unique, and the obscure.

Syr was included among those few. However, he hadn't spoken to or even seen Karo in over a year. Somewhat recently, he'd asked one of Karo's other friends what the nosepass might be up to, and the answer he'd gotten was that Karo had decided to go to sleep.

Therein lay the potential problem with Syr's idea: nosepass could sleep indefinitely and were profoundly difficult to wake. If Karo was still sleeping…

Syr knew he'd just have to find out whether or not that was the case and deal with the situation as it unfolded. He slithered up the walkway and immediately found something amiss: the door was unlocked and ajar. He knew that Karo would've had someone coming over periodically to take care of things while he slept, but he doubted any of Karo's housesitters would've so carelessly left the door open.

Cautiously, Syr slipped through the door, not knowing for certain what he'd find. He leaned in and nudged the lightswitch with his nose. In spite of the suspicious front the situation had already presented, Syr was nonetheless shocked by what he saw.

A number of hanging lights illuminated a scene of chaos. Trinkets and artifacts were scattered and broken all about. Furniture was upended, disarrayed, ruined. On top of that, the walls, floor, ceiling, and every other surface in sight was covered in three different colors of what was unmistakably smeargle graffiti—as was the nosepass in the middle of the room, who was just obliviously sitting there like the big rock he was.

Syr slithered over to Karo. The nosepass obviously hadn't been up and around during the invasion of his home. Even now, he remained more still and inanimate than seemed possible, even for a rock-type. It made Syr wonder if Karo was more than just very deeply asleep.

Concerned now, Syr pressed his head against Karo's back. He was able to hear something going on in there, working out an undeniable rhythm, albeit a very slow one. Syr let out the breath he'd been unwittingly holding, immensely relieved that the nosepass was still alive.

He glanced toward a nearby closet. I really need to memorize that pattern, he thought ruefully. He could've let Karo sleep if he'd already known it by heart. As it stood, he was now faced with the daunting task of waking him.

He tried shouting at Karo. He tried pushing and prodding at him. He even poked Karo in the eye, but still the nosepass kept snoozing on.

Syr was getting desperate at this point. He was on the verge of finding out whether or not Karo would respond to having something shoved up his huge, honking nose. Then he spotted something potentially useful in the corner.

It was a mace, which had caught Syr's eye when light had glinted off of its surface. It was the only metal object in the entire room, though clearly not a kind of metal that was attracted by Karo's magnetism; otherwise, the "up-the-nose" question might've answered itself.

Syr went over and lifted the mace with his tail. The weapon was good and heavy. Karo, meanwhile, was good and durable, enough so to avoid taking any serious injury from the thing. So Syr hoped, anyhow, as he returned to Karo and swung the mace into the side of the nosepass's face.

Nothing happened.

Syr tried striking Karo just a little bit harder, this time hitting him just below his massive nose, but Karo still wouldn't awaken.

Syr's desperation peaked. He gathered all his strength and then some, raising the mace as high as he could. With a yell, Syr brought it crashing down one last time, dead center into Karo's forehead.

Crack!

There was a small explosion of gray dust. When it cleared, Syr saw that he had opened a long, shallow fissure in Karo's head, splitting it like a melon.

Syr stared horrorstruck at the damage for a moment, terrified that he might have just killed one of his best friends. Then a groan issued from the nosepass. Karo rocked back and forth on his short legs a couple of times, then tilted backward and held that position, gazing up unsteadily at Syr.

Then, without warning, the nosepass lunged forward. Syr flung himself out of the way just as Karo's pointed nose punched a large hole in the floor right where the arbok had been seconds before.

Syr kept himself at a distance as Karo righted himself once more. "Karo, it's me!" he shouted, but it was no use. The nosepass was still fast asleep, with his cognitive faculties possibly compromised further by the blow to his head.

Worried that Karo might charge at him again, Syr tried to move out of the way. Much to his alarm, he found himself completely immobilized as if he were caught in an invisible vice. When'd he use block? Syr wondered, bewildered. He could do nothing but stare as Karo followed up with lock-on, his huge nose glowing as it brought itself to bear upon the arbok.

Syr knew what was coming next, and he wasn't looking forward to it at all. He knew he had to get Karo back to his senses… but if cracking the nosepass's head open couldn't awaken him completely, then what could?

At any rate, Syr wasn't keen on being on the receiving end of an electric blast if he could help it. With most of his options locked down at the moment, he prepared to use acid, but found to his shock that he couldn't even get his jaws open. Damn, that's a good block! Syr remarked silently as he was forced to swallow his own acid attack, leaving a sickening, burning sensation in his stomach.

An ominous hum resonated through the room, and the air tingled with electricity—Karo was about to unleash a zap cannon. Knowing he couldn't escape, Syr shut his eyes in dread and braced himself…

ZZZAP.

When stars stopped exploding in Syr's brain, he found himself lying on his side; the block that had been holding him in position had apparently been diverted to something else, though to what or why, Syr couldn't imagine.

Meanwhile, one of Karo's big, stumpy feet was filling almost his entire field of view.

Syr tried to bolt away, but the zap cannon attack had rendered him almost completely paralyzed, his body devoid of sensation and largely unresponsive. He was utterly helpless if Karo opted to crush his skull with that stone foot in his not-quite-conscious rampage.

Instead of attacking again, however, Karo spoke up. He seemed to be much more awake now, but he still sounded rather dazed. "Hey, Syr. Man, I don't know what's been going on… was I sleepwalking?"

"No, you were sleep-zapping," Syr said, struggling slightly to speak due to his numbed mouth.

"What?" Karo was apparently still coming to some of his senses and not having a particularly easy time doing so. "Aw… dude, I am so sorry… did I really?"

"Yes, you did."

"I am so sorry," Karo said again. He slowly became aware of his surroundings. "Aw no, I didn't do all this, did I?"

"No, it was some smeargle. They came in and trashed the place, marked all over everything. Including you."

"When?" Karo demanded.

"I have no clue," Syr responded.

"Hmmph. Yeah, it was smeargle, all right. Look at this mess…" The nosepass meandered around the house, surveying the vandalism and groaning ever louder as he stumbled upon more and more damage. At some point, he apparently came across his own reflection somewhere; "Aw crap, they did mark me!" he shouted. "…How'd they put this crack in my head, though?"

"They didn't. I did," Syr admitted. "I was trying to wake you up… Does it hurt?" Syr asked, hoping the answer was "no".

"No, not really," Karo replied. He came back into the room where Syr still lay immobilized. The hole he'd made in the floor caught and held his attention. "Who did this?"

"That would be you and your massive nose."

"Huh." Karo actually sounded as if he were impressed with himself.

Syr was not impressed. "Haven't you noticed that I'm paralyzed here?" he hissed.

"Whoa… Yeah, you are, aren't you? But that's okay. Ren always keeps a good supply of dried cheri berries around—"

"Gee, I wonder why?" Syr muttered.

"That's assuming those idiot mammals didn't get into them," Karo finished, ignoring Syr's comment. "I'll go get… oh. I forgot—they're in the kitchen," he groaned. "I can't go in there…"

"And why can't you go in there, exactly?" Syr demanded.

"Fridge."

It took a moment for Syr to make sense of that. The arbok then noticed that Karo was heading for the front door. "Wait, where are you going?"

"I'm gonna get help from across the street," Karo answered as he opened the door and began to step out. "Don't move." He stopped in his tracks as he realized he'd just said that to someone who was almost completely paralyzed at the moment. Then he burst out into loud, honking laughter, which was still audible long after he'd shut the door and left.

Syr just lay there on the floor, seething with annoyance and worry at how much time this misadventure was costing him and Esaax.

- o -

Teresa leaned against the office door, the tip of her tail flicking about restlessly. Whatever Syr had gone to do, she hadn't expected him to take this long about it. It was beginning to look as though Syr's search for answers would prove as fruitless as Madeline's had.

"Might as well look in on Esaax again," the chansey said wearily. "I imagine he's still asleep in there, though…"

Madeline turned in her seat to face Teresa. "Do you think maybe I could…?" She was fluttering her fingers and wearing a self-betraying smile.

Teresa looked her in the eyes, wearing an amused expression. Before she could say anything in response, however, someone flung the door open. Teresa was catapulted onto the floor, where she rolled for a short distance before she could pick herself back up again.

Regarding the sticky remnants of the now shattered egg in her belly pouch with severe annoyance, the chansey readied an angry glare for whomever was making their entrance. As it turned out, it was Jen. But before Teresa could chew him out, words came tumbling out of his mouth, loud and completely unintelligible.

"Say that again. And breathe this time," Teresa said, seizing the snorunt by his shoulders.

"There's-someone-at-the-front-door-and-I-don't-know-who-or-what-she-is-but-she's-here-to-see-Esaax-and-she's-really-freaked-out-and—" Jen very nearly passed out right then and there.

Teresa sighed. "I thought I told you to breathe," she said. "Thank you for letting me know about that, Jen. Now please go sit down and relax somewhere. Please."

Teresa went over to the desk where she'd set down the microphone unit for Esaax's cell, retrieved the device, and handed it to Madeline. "If he's up, you can tell him he has another visitor. But if he's not, don't wake him."

The chansey left the room, with Jen tottering woozily behind her. Madeline watched them go, then set out herself in a bit of a rush.

Esaax was currently housed in a part of the Haven that was rarely used, usually deserted, and far removed from the greater population of the hospital. This meant a bit of a walk for Madeline, but it was more than worth it as far as she was concerned.

Eventually, she found herself standing before Esaax's cell. She hit the switch on the microphone unit controlling the window, and once the window had opened, she peered through it eagerly. The dim light fed into the room at all times revealed that Esaax was still sleeping, his slender, spidery body curled up on the floor.

Madeline marveled at the sight before her, impressed with Esaax's new form beyond even her own expectations. If only he were awake, she wished silently, then I could see him in action…

The mr. mime began to turn away, sighing in disappointment. Then she thought she spotted something moving out of the corner of her eye. Turning back, she saw something long, black, and ringed with eyes appear in the window, searching about like a periscope. Esaax's new, saurian face rose up from the floor after it.

Madeline switched on the microphone and speaker in a hurry. "Aww, did you wake up just for me?" she asked.

"No," Esaax croaked. Madeline wilted in mock embarrassment. "I wasn't asleep," the kwazai added.

"You weren't?"

"I was faking it the whole time."

"Faking it, huh?" Madeline echoed skeptically. "What about the sleep powder Teresa blasted in there?"

Esaax smirked. A lime-green aura briefly shimmered around him.

Safeguard… Madeline just stared at him, her mouth hanging slightly open. She wondered how he'd managed to use it without Teresa noticing.

She continued to watch Esaax through the window, and he gazed right back at her almost… longingly… Madeline felt her mouth go dry. Could it be… does he really…? she wondered. "You… you really do understand the way I feel about you, don't you?" she asked, her pulse quickening.

Esaax merely blinked at her, pressing his vaguely smiling muzzle against the glass.

Whether that was a "yes", a "no", or anything in between was utterly irrelevant; Madeline had already made up her mind. She threw a glance over her shoulder at the security camera that looked down upon them. It, like the rest of the Haven's cameras, had gone out of order a couple of days prior and still hadn't been repaired, but she still had an odd, fleeting notion that she ought to disable it.

She decided against tampering with the camera, however, and instead turned her attention back toward the device in her hand. She uncapped a tiny green button on the microphone unit and let her finger hover over it for a moment before pushing it. There was a faint tone. Then, smoothly and almost silently, the door to Esaax's cell slid open.

The gangly shape within stirred, framed in soft light and looking ghostly. Esaax lurched forward and emerged from his cell, bowing his already low-slung head even further as he passed through the doorway. Now that he was no longer contained, he seemed much larger than he'd appeared to be while within his cell, and there was something about him that affected Madeline in a way she hadn't anticipated. Something her psychic centers were beginning to react to in a primal and increasingly uneasy way.

Esaax moved toward Madeline with slow, graceful steps. He loomed over her, twice her height. He drew an incredibly long, deep breath, his broad chest swelling immensely. A long, red tongue flitted quickly across his lips.

Madeline looked up at Esaax with awe, struggling to breathe more calmly and to stop trembling so much. With a smile that was unusually hesitant to form, she reached for one of his massive hands.

The spidery, blue fingers closed over Madeline's own with an iron grip. It was all she could do not to yelp in pain.

Esaax moved even closer and lowered his head, his face just inches from Madeline's. His lips drew back, baring his jagged teeth. He began caressing her face with his muzzle, drawing short, panting breaths, taking in her scent.

Madeline felt a wave of revulsion wash over her. This was not the experience with Esaax she'd fantasized about so many times. He was starting to scare her, and not only with his behavior alone—the discomfort in her psychic centers that his mere presence seemed to cause was still growing, and it was strong and distinct enough now that she recognized its warning for what it was: He's a dark-type now.

Nonetheless, she forced herself to look at him directly, trying as hard as she could not to appear as unsettled as she felt. She thought, or at least hoped, that if she could continue to treat him with affection, he'd snap out of this disturbing phase. Maybe he'd even start returning the favor.

She reached up with her other hand to touch the kwazai's face, caressing it with fingers that shook in spite of her efforts to calm them. His skin was rubbery and quite smooth, pleasant to the touch. She tried to focus on how nice it felt rather than on the fear that was steadily overtaking her. It began to work, too. But then Esaax's head moved with alarming speed, the jaws snapping harshly. His serrated teeth sank deeply into the meager flesh of her arm.

Madeline screamed in pain. All the love she'd had for Esaax was gone now, replaced by pure, primal terror. Knowing she currently had access to no attacks that could do him any harm, and aware that she'd likely just get them thrown right back at her at twice the power if she did have any, she tried desperately to free herself from him, but to no avail. Her escape was foiled soundly, not only by Esaax's sheer physical strength but also by the dark gray aura that flared into being around both pokémon at her attempt to escape. Esaax had retained his shadow tag ability.

He worried Madeline's arm in his jaws with shredding teeth and sharp, jerking movements of his neck until the appendage was torn away at the elbow, gruesomely freeing one side of her, drawing more cries of agony. His left hand clutched her right hand even more tightly, and there were several sickening cracks as the bones in his grip yielded to the pressure. His other hand shot forward and slammed into her chest, pinning her to the wall.

Now struggling to breathe, Madeline stared through eyes blurred with tears at the empty space where half of her arm had once been. Then, fearfully, she looked up at Esaax once more. His head was already raised for another strike. Her blood dripped slowly and thickly from his jaws, and she glimpsed a couple of her own fingers protruding from between his teeth before they, along with the rest of her severed limb, disappeared into his mouth and down his very long throat.

It was then that Esaax became aware of something new. He'd just discovered the presence of a power he hadn't tapped into thus far. He summoned it forth, and it rose up through his spine, radiated out through one arm, and gathered in his hand.

Esaax went ahead and released Madeline, letting her slump to the floor in her wavering consciousness, knowing she couldn't escape anyway. Curious, he gazed at his own hand. Energy in a shade of black he'd never seen before danced in a slow vortex around it with a glow that was intensifying by the second.

He drew that arm back as if he were working an invisible bow. All of his senses focused fully on the bleeding, shaking mr. mime before him. His concentration became heightened to its fullest. At this range, it was virtually unnecessary to take aim, but he instinctively sought out the most lethal trajectory for his new weapon.

His arm thrust forward. With a loud, hollow sound, a glowing black beam of incredible intensity exploded from his hand, blasting Madeline point-blank.

At that exact moment, a horrible, sudden pain hit Esaax like a wrecking ball, taking his breath away. Red light exploded in his vision. His nerves burned for what felt like innumerable seconds, and his head felt as though it were blowing itself apart.

In his suffering, Esaax staggered and fell to the floor. When he rose once more, his mind surfaced from the altered state it had been in for nearly the entire duration of the time since he'd evolved.

His vision returned in the next moment. He saw blood before him, as well as something mangled and twisted—a corpse. Something—someone—who, mere moments ago, had been alive—until he'd killed her.

Esaax recoiled with a scream, suddenly frantic to be as far away from the scene as possible. His stomach violently expelled its contents. His renewed clarity wouldn't let him believe that this was just a nightmare or a hallucination. The scene before his eyes unflinchingly spoke the truth: he'd murdered this pokémon. He'd tasted her blood. He'd eaten her flesh…

A howl of anguish and horror tore its way out through his throat. With fear, confusion, and disgust like none he'd ever known, all directed straight toward himself, Esaax brought his newfound technique to bear on the wall. He let it linger there until a large area of the wall had turned black and disintegrated, and then he fled into the night.