Chapter 17 – Lifeforce

It was like resurrection.

His spirit rose up from the depths of the nothingness that had been occupying him. His voice rose, as well, in a crescendo that kept growing with each repetition of the truth that had brought him back to his senses:

"She's here! She's here!"

She was here. Even after all these years, to his great surprise and even greater delight, she still remembered him… and, he hoped, still loved him. And at long last, she was back in his life. Any moment now, she might enter the room where he was being held, rescue him, and take him back into her embrace…

You fool.

The hollow voice droned from deep within his mind. Its strength and the way that it addressed Esaax so directly, completely unbidden, made its true nature horribly clear to Esaax. The cold and empty voice that had just spoken to him represented none other than the warped and malignant darkness residing within him. That darkness was no longer merely a part of him—they had become a separate entity lurking within him, a parasite trying to take his life for their own.

Your senses lie. Your joy is an illusion.

That's not true! Esaax argued internally. He felt and recognized the distinct psychic signature of Ntairow's presence and couldn't deny that he did. What that signature represented had changed, but who it signified was unmistakable.

You delude yourself. You will not have her.

You're wrong! Esaax said, silently and firmly. She's here for me—

But she will not stay. She abandoned you before, and will only abandon you again. Forget her.

"No!" Esaax shouted, speaking aloud now. "She'll be here soon, and we will have each other again. She's gonna save me!"

No one will save you. Nothing is left for you. Forget her. Forget yourself.

"No! You're wrong!" Esaax shouted, trying to defy and destroy the darkness through sheer force of will.

But the living darkness wouldn't be denied. They literally rose to the surface, manifesting in thin streaks of black energy that snaked over his skin like dark vines. The streaks crept out over his entire body and then merged together, leaving every square inch of his skin emitting the black glow of the parasitic darkness.

I am this body now, not you, they said. Your time is long past over. Give up.

"No, I refuse to!"

The darkness erupted into a seething, black aura around Esaax. Give up, they pressed.

"I REFUSE!"

As the kwazai's defiant roar faded, the darkness found themself possessed of a cold, absolute hatred, a feeling stronger than anything they'd felt in their hours-long existence. In the face of what seemed like real hope for salvation, Esaax had become too strong to simply erase—this wouldn't do, the darkness determined with a vicious resolve.

There will be no hope, no strength, no life for you, they declared hatefully. I will make you accept this. I will make you pray for oblivion!

The darkness unleashed a massive, hollow roar within Esaax's head. They seemed to retreat back into the corners of hiss mind, the dark aura vanishing and revealing his blue skin once more—but then the darkness sent a bolt of their power shooting down Esaax's spine. There was a burst of pain in the end of his tail, temporarily distorting the perception of his oculons.

A split-second later, there was a bright, orange flash that shocked Esaax out of breath and onto his knees.

- o -

As Syr slithered along behind Solonn, trying very hard but with scant success not to think about just what he was following, he felt something pull sharply on his tail and heard a loud thud. He looked back and saw that Ntairow had dropped Karo and gone totally rigid.

"What is it?" Syr asked.

"Esaax," Ntairow said, pain and fear both present in her tone. "He's returned to my perception—and he's in pain…"

"What? How bad is it?" Syr demanded worriedly.

"It's horrible… Dear Night, it's like his own body is rejecting him…"

"We're almost there," Solonn tried to assure her from where he now hovered in place, but his tone and the look on his face suggested that he'd become fairly worried himself.

His assurance was unnecessary, however—no sooner had he spoken than Ntairow rushed out in front of him, staggering slightly and clutching her head in pain but still managing to move fairly quickly, using her fully restored perception of Esaax to guide her.

Now that Ntairow was no longer helping him carry Karo, Syr couldn't hope to keep up with her. Still, he tried, not wanting at all to be left behind with the glalie—but before he could move an inch, he felt something lift the nosepass in his grip off the ground. He looked back and saw Karo rising on a pillar of ice, which then deposited him on top of a glalie's head, with the end of Syr's tail still wrapped around the unconscious nosepass.

With most of his body now off the ground, Syr was forced to either try to convince the glalie to put Karo back down or else release his own hold on him. The former hardly felt like an option, however; the glalie simply intimidated him too much for him to challenge what she'd done… and besides which, underneath it all, he did recognize that she was sincerely trying to help. As much as he would have preferred not to need the help of any of her kind, he fell short of ingratitude.

"…Thanks," he managed, his voice coming out as little more than a squeak.

"No problem," the glalie said, securing the nosepass to her head with ice as she spoke, and then she took off after Solonn and Ntairow. Syr hastened to follow her, still not altogether comfortable with the notion of leaving Karo unsupervised with one of them and spurred on further still by the sound of Ntairow screaming.

Soon, they caught up with Ntairow and Solonn, who'd just halted before a large pair of metal doors, the former leaning against the latter. Ntairow was silent now but grimacing in pain, one hand still holding her head.

Once everyone had come to a stop there, "This is Sylvester DeLeo, requesting entry," Solonn said, at which Syr's eyes widened in surprise—not because of what the glalie had said but how he'd said it. He'd sounded nothing like he had before; the voice he'd just used was quite a bit higher. But what really caught Syr's attention was that Solonn had just spoken in a human language—some corner of his mind fleetingly wondered if Solonn was just mimicking the words or if, like someone whom Syr had known so many years ago, this glalie actually spoke the language fluently.

"Voice recognition confirmed," said a computerized voice from an unseen source. "Please state password."

"Password," Solonn responded, still using the higher voice and the human language.

"Password valid," said the computerized voice. "Access granted."

The doors slid open, and with the unconscious nosepass in tow, the four entered a moderately-sized room that was more brightly lit than the rest of the Hope Institute. The scene now surrounding them was like a gallery of pre- and post-Extinction high technology.

And in the center of it all was Esaax, slumped in his containment field. He was all too plainly suffering, panting and groaning with his tail lashing and his hands gripping his head.

Ntairow rushed to him at once, pressing all four of her hands against the wall of energy as tears streamed from her widened eyes. The need to help this creature whose agony she shared burned within her, made all the more urgent and painful by the fact that this was the suffering of someone she loved. Right before her eyes, not to mention her more potent senses, Esaax was careening toward a highly volatile state. He direly needed her… but she couldn't get to him.

"How do you get him out of this thing?" she demanded.

"Over here!" Solonn called, and he led Ntairow over to a control panel.

"I don't know how to use this!" Ntairow told him.

"It's all right; I do. Just do exactly as I tell you, and we'll have him right out in no time," Solonn said.

Syr very briefly watched Ntairow and Solonn work, hoping they would indeed free Esaax as quickly as Solonn had claimed. He then looked back at Esaax with some difficulty, swallowing against a lump in his throat. "You're… you're going to be all right," he told Esaax as consolingly as he could manage, moving closer to the kwazai as he spoke.

Esaax shook his head and raised a hand as if in warning, at which Syr halted. The kwazai's jaws parted as though he were about to say something, but his voice was cut off before he could form a single word when a burst of searing, orange light suddenly blazed into being around him. He then cried out yet again as a enormous spasm tore through his body.

At that same instant, Ntairow convulsed likewise, echoing Esaax's scream in her empathy. She staggered, and Solonn moved quickly to break her fall.

"Dear Holy Night, he's tearing himself apart!" Ntairow cried.

"You're almost finished!" Solonn assured her.

Sure enough, the containment field soon vanished with a faint humming sound. Ntairow ran back to Esaax, dropping into something like a kneeling position and throwing all of her arms around him, crying against his chest as she embraced the newly-freed kwazai tightly.

Esaax lowered his forehead against hers and held it there as steadily as he could given that he was now shaking uncontrollably, his own tears sliding swiftly down his muzzle and falling to the floor. "Ntairow…" he said, his voice hoarse and quavering. "I'm—" He broke off briefly, giving another pained groan, at which Ntairow embraced him even tighter. "I'm glad you're here. I'd… given up on us ever finding each other again," he admitted, closing his eyes in shame.

"I should've found you sooner…" Ntairow lamented in a pained voice, nearly whispering. "Dear Night, look at you… you're so broken…" Esaax had gone into autoempathic crisis. That was something she couldn't repair—it was something that no one could repair until he was elementally stabilized. He just had so terribly little time…

"I don't think you can fix me now," Esaax said quietly. "I'm… I'm not gonna make it."

"No," Ntairow said fiercely, resolutely. "You will survive this… and your son will finally get to know the father he's been missing all these years."

Esaax just stared at Ntairow for a moment, his eyes filled with disbelief and wonder. Then a smile spread along his muzzle in spite of his pain. "…You're serious?"

Ntairow nodded. "He is called Zerzekai. And unless I'm mistaken, he's just begun his life as a wobbuffet," she informed Esaax proudly.

Esaax managed a faint but joyous laugh, then wrapped his arms around Ntairow, squeezing her as hard as his rapidly-waning strength would allow.

Though Esaax's body was growing steadily weaker, his spirit seemed to have grown much stronger. Ntairow knew that made this an especially good time to try and help him shed his excess darkness. Concentrating deeply, she tapped into her psychic element, aggravating and intensifying its susceptibility to psybane in the hopes of drawing the darkness in like a gravitational force.

She immediately found that something wasn't right. Esaax had a massive surplus of dark energy, one that seemed to be growing by the second, but the excess of elemental power wasn't responding correctly. Instead of spilling over into the receptive psychic who'd opened her element so readily, the darkness remained stubbornly in place, continuing to build up inside of Esaax.

Then the darkness chose to respond in their own way.

With no warning, a black aura flared around Esaax. In virtually the same instant, under the control of the darkness, Esaax roared in a voice as vast and hollow as the depths of space and fired a reflux attack at Ntairow. Her aura immediately flashed bright pink in an autonomic and futile mirror coat response as she collapsed, scattered black patches forming on her skin as she hit the ground.

The recoil from the reflux blast was enormous and instantaneous, and as it struck Esaax, he was simultaneously assaulted from within by a massive autoempathic shock. The dark aura that surrounded him then suddenly tore free and took to the air with a hollow-sounding howl, revealing an erratically-flashing, orange counter aura around the now screaming kwazai they'd left behind.

An ice beam and a volley of poison sting needles were launched in an attempt to arrest the shadow's flight, while the sharp sound of a sheer cold attack fired off with the same intent rang out at the same time. The disembodied darkness evaded all of the attacks effortlessly as they rushed swiftly through the air, destroying equipment and killing the lights as they swept in a circle around the room. They finally smashed into the wall and burned a hole through it and the walls beyond to the outside, where they seemed to dissipate and vanish completely.

With the shroud of living darkness lifted from him, Esaax was left as a regular, ruined kwazai. A final few sparks of orange energy flashed around him, and then the autoempathic attack ceased. Esaax then toppled over onto his side, panting arrhythmically, blood flowing freely from his eyes and mouth.

As if in slow motion, Syr was only just beginning to feel the tears escaping his eyes as he stared at the two kwazai before him. "…Esaax?" he spoke up tentatively, his voice barely coming to his summons. He heard Solonn say something in the background about checking to see if the paramedics had arrived yet, but the words didn't quite register in Syr's brain as they might have otherwise. All he could really focus on was the sight of Esaax before him, who gave not a single word in response. "Esaax!" Syr cried out, fearing the worst.

There was a slight movement before Syr's eyes. Esaax raised his head, albeit just barely. Syr called out to him again, but Esaax seemed not to notice, and the arbok quickly realized why.

Esaax had found Ntairow, and he gave a very faint, pained sound at the sight of her. With an immense effort, he rolled onto his belly and pulled himself up to lie beside her. As he lifted a shaking hand and extended it toward her, he prayed that he had enough lifeforce for what he intended to do.

Esaax laid his hand upon Ntairow's greater right arm, upon a patch of skin that hadn't been scorched by the dark attack. A soft, multicolored glow surrounded him, then spread from the point where his hand rested upon her until it radiated from every square inch of her skin, as well.

Syr stared at him with fear, his breath hitching in his chest. He felt a strong urge to rush over to Esaax and stop him—if Esaax succeeded in what he was doing, he'd be giving up some of his lifeforce, and Syr was all too sure that the kwazai had terribly little to spare.

Before Syr could even begin to act on that urge, the light surrounding the two kwazai suddenly grew to such an intensity that he recoiled from it involuntarily, his eyes shutting tight. Unseen by any in attendance, the shared aura swelled into a small, bright dome around Esaax and Ntairow as the lifeforce of the former flowed into the latter. The aura then burst into a cloud of tiny, colorful sparks, which fell in a brief, luminous shower over the two kwazai.

As the last sparks fell, Esaax looked down upon Ntairow, who was now fully restored. He smiled gently and kissed her forehead. Then he lay down next to her and quietly exhaled his last breath.

Ntairow drew a sudden, sharp breath, awake in an instant. She sat up abruptly, then immediately rolled over onto her hands and folded legs, her shoulders heaving as she coughed and sputtered uncontrollably.

Once her body relaxed, she began looking about frantically in confusion. Her eyes fell upon Esaax, who was surrounded now by no colors other than the deep blue of his own shed blood. She instantly recognized what had just happened.

Her cry of sorrow rang out for a very, very long moment.

Meanwhile, Syr could only stare at the scene before him at first. He began to slowly approach the two kwazai as Ntairow's cry faded out, still dragging Karo behind him. He finally reached them, and for a moment he just looked down at Esaax through blurred vision. Then he looked at Ntairow and saw her burying her face in two of her hands while the other two cradled Esaax's head, her whole body shaking as she wept.

Without really thinking, Syr released his hold on Karo and draped the end of his tail across Ntairow's shoulders. She turned to face him, and at first she looked as though she wanted to tell him to go away… but then that expression faded, and she only looked weary and broken. Her head sank, and she extended an arm to embrace Syr, and as the minutes passed, the two of them mourned Esaax without a single word.

- o -

From the bus, Syr watched street sign after street sign go by, the distance between him and the cemetery closing fast. As many times as he'd gone there since the burial, it still felt strange, far from routine.

Doing nothing at all to help things seem less surreal was what he'd learned about one of the ones responsible for Esaax's evolution, specifically Sylvester DeLeo. DeLeo was currently being tried for his crimes against the former wobbuffet alone; the one he'd claimed to have worked with toward bringing about Esaax's evolution had yet to be found, and there was nothing left of the strange, dark entity that had detached themself from Esaax.

DeLeo's fate had yet to be decided, and under different circumstances, Syr would've simply hoped for him to be locked away for a good long while. But when he saw that mechanized human disguise open up and recognized the meowth within it… Between the genuine pity he'd felt for DeLeo upon learning why he'd made Esaax evolve and the sickening, heartbreaking recognition that DeLeo had betrayed some of the meowth's best friends, Syr hadn't been altogether sure what he wanted to befall DeLeo, and still wasn't. All Syr knew for certain regarding that whole matter was that he might never be able to bring himself to speak to that meowth again.

There was, at least, one of his friends who'd taken a turn for the better in recent times. Karo had recovered swiftly in the wake of his explosion, having been given ample encouragement to heal by the staff at the Haven. Syr had also been informed that the glalie who'd been injured as the result of Karo's attack had survived and made a full recovery.

Syr had tried for the most part to focus on the things that were going well. More than ever, he felt an obligation to show strength for Jen's sake, especially with the Hope Institute still closed and the fact that Jen hadn't reacted well to the news of what DeLeo had done there.

Still, Syr neither could nor truly wanted to pretend the recent sorrows away, even though he couldn't always give audience to those matters without letting it show. He continued to visit the graves of his fallen friends even though he still tended to return to the bus visibly upset.

The bus arrived its destination, and Syr made his way out. In silence, the arbok went down the street a short distance, crossed the graveyard, and soon reached the place where Esaax had been laid to rest.

Syr coiled there, drawing a deep breath as he looked down upon the plaque before him. There were three names engraved there in unown-script; in addition to marking Esaax's grave, the plaque also memorialized Faurur and Drasigon, at Syr's request. This way, he'd reckoned, the family could be together again in this way, at least, if no other.

Not long after he'd arrived at the grave site, he noticed footsteps approaching. Turning toward their source, he found Ntairow standing a short distance away with an unfamiliar wobbuffet at her side.

Ntairow and the wobbuffet had stopped in their tracks the moment Syr had looked up at them, and the former now looked as though she'd decided to leave and come back another time, laying a hand upon the wobbuffet's shoulder as if to shepherd him off and beginning to turn away herself.

"No, it's all right," Syr called out to them. "You don't have to go… Come on over if you'd like."

The other two pokémon hesitated to take him up on his offer, but only very briefly. Soon, they were both standing at the arbok's side. Syr moved aside a bit in order to give them a better view of the grave. Almost as soon as he did, Ntairow knelt down before it, then extended and opened a hand over it, allowing a small, gray stone to fall onto the grass before her. As Ntairow stood once more, the wobbuffet placed a stone upon the grave, as well.

So that's where they've been coming from, Syr thought, having found similar gray rocks lying upon the grave on some of his previous visits. He'd considered clearing them away on a couple of those occasions and was now glad that he hadn't.

Syr was curious about the ritual he'd just witnessed, but he felt somewhat less than comfortable asking about it somehow. He decided instead to ask another of the questions that had formed in his mind upon the arrival of the other two visitors to this grave.

"Is he…?" he spoke up, nodding toward the wobbuffet, letting the question hang.

"Yes," Ntairow said, "this is Zerzekai, my son and Esaax's. Zerzekai, this is… I'm sorry, I never did get your name."

"Syr," the arbok supplied. "I'm Syr."

Ntairow nodded in acknowledgment. "Syr was one of your father's friends," she told Zerzekai. Her gaze then shifted back to Syr. "…I would like to thank you for that," she said to him. "For being there for him when and where you could. I could tell during our time together that you genuinely did care about him and wanted him to be well."

Syr lowered his head, averting his gaze slightly as he felt tears beginning to sting his eyes. "Yeah," he said solemnly. "Yeah, I did." And… and I still do, he added silently, and he meant it. He didn't know for certain what lay beyond life, if anything… but he hoped that somewhere, in some way, Esaax and everyone else he'd ever cared for and lost were happy and well, with all their troubles left behind forever.

It didn't ease the pain completely, didn't quite stop him altogether from wishing they were still with him. But it was some comfort, at least, however small, and as the minutes passed in silence, he hoped that the two who stood sharing those minutes with him had found or would find at least some small comfort of their own.

FIN