We decided to leave Birch to it and went to explore the grounds of his laboratory. I watched as Atsuto, Ruby and Esther took to the air and flew off to join some of the Flying Pokemon. Meanwhile, Matt and Tanya dived into the lake and the rest of us just walked round looking at all the Pokemon.
There were Pokemon everywhere we turned and, luckily, none of them seemed too concerned about us; at least, they didn't try to attack. I was approached by a curious little Skitty, but that's about it. It was so peaceful here, a marked contrast with all the fighting we had been doing lately, and I wished we could stay forever.
But, as with many things, this was not meant to be. Suddenly, Ruby came winging down, with Atsuto and Esther hot on her heels. The second I saw them, I knew we had trouble.
"What's going on?" I asked, looking up from where I was watching a Vulpix and a Jolteon playing together.
"Alana!" shouted Atsuto. "Proteus agents waiting in ambush!"
At first, I didn't believe it; we'd only recently had a false alarm. But the urgent tone in his voice soon convinced me that it was true. "Crap, crap and double crap!" I muttered. "Why can't they just leave us alone?!"
"Where are they?" asked Tanya, swimming to the shore of the lake and climbing out of the water. Matt followed her.
"Outside," replied Esther. "We . . ." She nodded towards Atsuto and Ruby. " . . . were flying around when we saw them."
In answer to further questioning, Atsuto, Ruby and Esther told us they had seen a black limousine rolling up to Birch's front door, escorted by men on motorbikes. The limo's numberplate was PR0 TEU2, the personalised numberplate belonging to our old "friend", Number 1. Why no-one had ever made the connection between it and the creation of human/Pokemon hybrids was something I didn't know.
Just then, Birch came rushing outside and asked us what was going on; a man in a grey suit had just knocked on his front door and demanded to know the whereabouts of some hybrids. "Get inside and lock the door!" I told him. "We'll handle the goons."
"Are you sure I can't help you in any way?" Birch asked.
"Yes, keep working on that vial," replied Heather. "Besides, it's us they want."
I was having a conversation with some Ponytas when I heard a commotion. In a panic, the Ponytas ran off. Then, I saw a limo pulling up.
"Hello, misplaced aggression!" I said as I charged, ready for revenge.
Number 1 stepped out of his limo, looking absolutely full of himself. As I looked at that face I hated so much, I wondered what exactly he was playing at. Why would he and his goons pull up in broad daylight? Wasn't it asking to be exposed?
"So," he said, gazing round at all of us. "You kids think you're clever, do you? Think you can outsmart me? Well, I've got news for you . . ."
"And I don't want to hear it!" I retorted, powering up a Shadow Ball. "Quick, everyone!" I shouted to my fellow hybrids. "Let 'em have it!" We would, I realised, never have a better opportunity than this. The Proteus labs were destroyed and the man who had started it all stood right in front of us.
Matt and Tanya both used Ice Beam, targetting the limo and freezing its wheels. I smiled to myself; if nothing else, we had at least prevented Number 1 from making a quick getaway. But that still left us with the problem of the goons on motorbikes. The bikes had to be disabled somehow.
"Target the bikes!" I shouted, watching with satisfaction as my Shadow Ball caught Number 1 full in the chest. I had no Attacks that could deal with the bikes, but I was willing to bet some of the others did.
I was right. Suddenly, two of the bikes unseated their riders and roared off into the distance; glancing round, I saw Crystal and Luke standing with their eyes closed and immediately guessed what must have happened. Our Psychic hybrids had used their powers to take control of the bikes. Seconds later, another bike was hit by a blast of fire - Zeod. Then, two more succumbed to Tanya and Matt's Water Attacks.
Soon, all Proteus's vehicles had been neutralised. But that still left us with the problem of taking out the agents themselves. This was it. This was what we had vowed to do from the start: destroy Proteus once and for all. But would we be able to pull it off?
"You dare come to the one place where we are happy and try to capture us again?! That cannot go unpunished!" I said as I charged for Number 1, fists ablaze. My eyes were a new shade of red, a shade of hatred. I was going to kick the crud out of him.
I turned to a nearby Proteus agent and glared hard at him. "Say your prayers!" I snarled as I focused all my energy into forming a huge Shadow Ball. That was fast becoming my favourite Attack; the ball of black energy seemed to symbolise the evil that was Proteus and, by throwing it at them, I felt I was effectively throwing back all the wrongs they had done.
The guy I targetted had no time to react. My Shadow Ball struck home, catching him full in the chest and knocking him flying. I walked over to where he lay prone on the ground and aimed a hefty kick at his worthless hide. "How d'you like that?!" I demanded. "You guys think you can control us?! Well, I've got news for you, buster - no-one controls Alana Willis!"
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the others battling the rest of the agents. Two of them were (courtesy of Crystal and Luke) dangling in mid-air with their trousers round their ankles; I had to suppress a grin at the sight of them. Meanwhile, Tanya and Matt had managed to freeze two more, while Atsuto, Ruby and Esther launched wave after wave of Flying Attacks. They flew in a v-formation, ready to divebomb our enemies. Then, I saw Zeod advancing on Number 1, his fist ablaze . . .
It was as if something had snapped inside me. Before I could stop myself, I ran at Zeod and knocked him to one side.
"Hey!" he said. "What gives?!"
"Number 1 is mine, Zeod!" I said grimly. God! What was I saying?! Was I really so obsessed with taking out this guy that I couldn't bear to see anyone else do it? Had I just let my desire for revenge cloud my judgement?
I did not have long to wonder before the agents, having recovered from our initial assault, regrouped and pulled out their stun guns. Those guns were bad news for us; we had all experienced the jarring pain of the bolts that were fired through them. Still, we were not beaten yet.
"Use distance Attacks!" I called to my fellow hybrids. "We've gotta disarm them!"
"I'm surprised our bodies haven't become immune to them after so many uses," I said as I saw the stun guns. It was partly serious, but mostly joking. In any case, I was using my fire to try to melt them.
Then, I got hit in the back. "Well, I was wrong . . ." I muttered as I collapsed.
I hurried over to Zeod. "Are you all right?" I asked.
He nodded shakily. "Yeah, I think so. Let's take 'em out!" With that, he staggered to his feet and launched a Flamethrower at several agents. That was just typical of Zeod; it would take more than a Proteus stun gun to bring him down.
Meanwhile, Belinda had come up with a particularly effective strategy for dealing with the stun guns. She was using her Vine Whip, sending two long vines snaking out from the flower on her shoulders and using them to grab the guns from the dumbstruck agents. Then, she would toss them across the field outside Birch's lab. Elsewhere, Crystal and Luke were using their Psychic abilities to levitate the guns out of their owners' hands. And, Atsuto, Ruby and Esther could fly, so they would have little problem dodging the bolts that were being fired at us.
But the rest of us had to constantly stay on our toes to avoid getting hit. We kept running in zigzag patterns, ready to hide behind the bushes if necessary. Not all of us, though; Heather was duking it out with a female Proteus agent, launching Attack after Attack and shouting just about every swear word ever invented. Again and again, she lashed out with her barbed tail. Again and again, the Proteus woman dodged, prompting an outburst of cussing from Heather.
I grew worried. "She can't handle all the Proteus goons!" I cried. "I've got to help her!" With that, I ran over to Heather and her opponent, readying a Shadow Ball as I did so. "Heather!" I shouted as I drew level with them. "What are you doing?!"
"Having a picnic in the park - what's it look like?!" she spat, glaring at me with that snaky look of hers. She brushed me aside and fixed the same gaze on her opponent.
I was worried. As a Seviper hybrid, Heather was tough, but there was no way she could take on all the Proteus agents alone. No matter what she said, I had to help her. I took aim at the woman she was fighting and launched my Shadow Ball.
"Oi!" Heather shouted as the agent was knocked to the ground. "What's gotten into you, Alana?! That witch was mine!"
"I'm lending you a hand, you moron!" I shot back. "Why don't you . . .?!"
I was cut off abruptly as three more Proteus agents appeared on the scene, their stun guns drawn. Before either of us could stop them, they fired, catching Heather full in the chest. She fell to the ground; even a tough Seviper hybrid couldn't possibly withstand the impact of three stun bolts.
I immediately felt bad. If only I hadn't interfered with her fight, she might not have been hit. But I had to take out as many Proteus agents as I could; the lust for revenge was taking over.
"Hey, guys, I have a plan to take out a group of them at once," I said. "Alana, get some distance and fire a Shadow Ball. Then, I'll turn it into a fire ball. Crystal, use your Psychic Attack to control it. Then, have it go through them like a bowling ball through bowling pins."
If this worked, they would have a big decrease in their numbers.
"Good plan," I said to Zeod. A burning Shadow Ball would certainly heat things up around here. And, if Zeod was right, it should give those Proteus goons something to think about. Maybe, we would finally get our revenge. "But we're gonna need more people," I added. "Atsuto, you can use Fire Attacks too, can't you?"
Atsuto, who had been grappling with a burly goon, nodded.
"Good, then you can help Zeod. And . . ." I glanced round at the others. ". . . I'll need Alex and Luke to back Crystal up. The rest of you, keep fighting; we can't let them get away with what they did to us."
Alex and Luke nodded and took up position next to Crystal. I stood forward with Zeod and Atsuko flanking me, my arms folded across my chest as I bravely looked Number 1 in the eye. "Right, buster!" I said with righteous anger dripping from my voice. "We're gonna teach you a lesson you'll never forget - if you live through it!"
But his only response was to laugh mirthlessly. "Ha! You punk kids teach me a lesso?! Don't you know there are Proteus cells all over the world? Even if you took my men out, you'd still have the rest of us to deal with!"
"And how exactly are they gonna find us?" demanded Belinda, who had a Proteus agent tangled in her Vine Whip.
"Easy. When we blended you kids with Pokemon, we implanted a small microchip into each of you. That's how we've been tracking you."
I digested this news in silence. It didn't please me, but I was hardly surprised by it. It was just like Number 1 to do something like that, something which meant that, even if we took out him and his men, we would still have other Proteus cells to worry about. The only way we would be safe was to find and remove the chips in each of us, but they could be anywhere and there wasn't time for that right now. We had work to do.
I pressed my hands together, but, before I could begin forming my Shadow Ball, I spotted something on the ground. I gasped; it was Heather, who was still down after getting hit by the stun guns. Even though this was our big chance to take Proteus out, I couldn't just leave her. I ran towards her and dropped to my knees.
"Heather?" I whispered, shaking her. I felt really bad, knowing it was my fault she got hit in the first place. "Heather, wake up!"
To my relief, she groaned and opened her eyes. "Alana?"
"Don't try to talk!" I warned. "We've got to get you away from here." I prepared to help her up, but, before I could do so, someone elbowed me out of the way.
"Allow me." It was Jason. I could hardly believe it; he and Heather normally hated each other simply because he was part Zangoose and she was part Seviper. Now, however, he was kneeling beside her, offering to support her as he helped her away from the scene of the battle. For once, she co-operated with him - or, maybe, she was too exhausted to argue.
I did not know. All I knew was that we still had a job to do. Once Jason and Heather were safely out of the line of fire, I ran back to my position, readying my Shadow Ball as I did so. "Now!" cried Zeod. I took aim and threw the Shadow Ball into the crowd of Proteus agents. Then, he and Atsuko took aim with their Flamethrowers, turning it into a ball of hot flames.
"Crystal! Luke! Alex!" I shouted.
In response, our two Psychic hybrids and our Ghost Hybrid used their Psychic Attack to take control of the ball of fire, sending it hurtling through the ranks of the Proteus agents while, at the same time, making sure none of our group got hit. I cheered as I saw several agents running around with their clothes on fire.
"Oh, yeah! I told you it would work!" I said as our enemies ran around like Combuskens with their heads cut off. "And, about the chips, most small technological things can be burned out, like leeches," I explained.
By this time, Number 1 had gotten up and was attempting to flee. "Care to do the honors?" I asked Alana as I mounted her on my back again.
We finally had our chance. Number 1 was in our sights and all we had to do was use our Attacks to blast him to Kingdom Come. But, even as Zeod asked if I wanted to "do the honours", my conscience pricked me. I couldn't do it; no matter what Number 1 had done to us, he was still a human being. And no-one has the right to decide when a life should end.
"What are you waiting for?!" cried Belinda, seeing my hesitation. "Finish him off!"
I shook my head and climbed down off Zeod. "I - I can't," I said in a barely audible voice.
Everyone looked at me incredulously, hardly able to believe what I was saying. After all I had said about Number 1, all the talk of getting revenge for what he did to us, why was I hesitating at this crucial moment? Why was I refusing the chance to finish him off once and for all? "What the hell are you talking about?!" demanded James. "Weren't you the one who wanted to get revenge in the first place?!"
I sighed. How could I make them understand? "I thought I did," I said simply. "But, now that it's come to it, I - I don't think I can kill him. It's not right."
"Alana's right," I stated, coming to her defence. "Despite all he has done to us, we can't say it wasn't partly out fault. I mean, since we were traveling alone, we were supposed to be on our guard at all times. But we weren't; we let ourselves get captured."
The others were looking at Zeod and me incredulously, scarcely able to believe what we were saying. "Not right?!" echoed Tanya, folding her flippers across her chest. "Hello! Have you forgotten everything he did to us? Have you forgotten how he turned us into hybrids?"
I sighed, wondering how I could explain it? When I started this revenge thing, I knew we'd have to take Number 1 out one day, but, now that we finally had him cornered and alone - his goons fled after we used that flaming Shadow Ball - things didn't seem so simple. I'd never had to kill anything in my life before and I wasn't sure I could start now.
"If you won't, I will!" declared Esther. With that, she took off into the air, her head glowing as she prepared to launch one of the most devastating Pokemon Attacks known - Hyper Beam. Most of us knew that Attack, but, aside from the time Atsuto used it to blast our way out Proteus's HQ, none of us had actually used it. It was too powerful, too likely to draw unwelcome attention to us. And it also rendered its user unable to attack for a few moments afterwards.
There was little I could do to stop Esther. She was determined to go through with this and I was not a Flying hybrid so I couldn't stop her. But, before she could fire her Hyper Beam, there was a sudden zinging sound and she crashed to the ground. I looked and saw Number 1 standing there with a gun in his hand; clearly, he had been hiding it under his suit all the time.
"Esther!" I cried as I ran over to her and knelt beside her. She was alive, but she was losing blood fast; unless she was treated promptly, she would not make it. "What have you done to her?!" I demanded, addressing Number 1, my old hatred of his organisation and everything it stood for returning in an instant. I felt a mixture of rage at the way in which Esther had been shot out of the sky and guilt over not having finished Number 1 when I had the chance. Then, as it had done in the battleroom, my rage translated itself into a blast of energy, knocking Number 1 to the ground.
"Whoa!" shouted James. "Great use of Frustration!"
I smiled, my attention focused on the man I had just downed. This was only the second time I had used Frustration, that strange Attack which translates a Pokemon's negative feelings into a blast of energy, but I wasn't through yet. Number 1 was trying to get up, so I quickly ran at him and knocked him back down. He got up again, this time grabbing hold of me and pinning me to the ground.
"So?" He thrust his face into mine, causing me to gag at the smell of his stale breath. "You thought you'd try and take me on, did you? Well, no-one's going to stop me, certainly not a bunch of teenaged freaks!" With that, he raised the gun he had used to shoot Esther and pressed it against my head. "Say your prayers!"
In that moment, I knew what he planned to do. Because he'd failed to recapture us, he was going to kill us all one by one. I closed my eyes and waited . . .
But the gunshot that should have ended my life never came. Instead, I heard a strange cacophony of noises, followed by the thump of something heavy falling. What was happening? There was only one way to find out, so, with a great deal of effort, I opened my eyes and sat up. I was still alive; I knew this because I was aching all over and I had a small cut on my left arm. And my fellow hybrids were here too, all except Esther.
"W - where's Esther?" I stammered, dreading the answer.
Zeod was at my side in an instant. "Shh! She's all right; Luke's using Recover to heal her." He reached down and helped me to my feet.
"Here, get on. You look too weak to walk at the moment," I said as I got Alana onto my back.
"You know, you kind of look like that Conquerer Pokepolion on his Ponyta when you're up there." I added in an attempt to lighten the mood. It didn't seem to be working.
I tried to smile at Zeod's words, but I was too exhausted both physically and mentally. Suddenly, I realised something. Where was Number 1? Why wasn't he still trying to catch and kill us?
"W - where'd Number 1 go?" I asked Crystal, the person nearest to me.
"Somewhere he won't bother us again." She turned her head in the direction of a freshly dug mound of earth, an unmarked grave, a fitting tribute to the man who had caused us all so much trouble.
"And hopefully he's having tea with the Devil as we speak," Atsuto joked, muttering a hasty apology when he saw the looks on our faces. We stood in silence for a moment, before I spoke to ask what had happened.
"When he got you on the ground," Jason said, looking me in the face, "we knew we had to do something. But we were afraid in case any Attacks we used hit you as well. Then, I decided we had to risk it, so I used a Thunderbolt, hoping it would jar him enough to get him off you . . ."
"Only, Alex and James had the same idea," filled in Ruby, folding her wings across her chest. "And, then, a bunch of Electric Pokemon from Birch's lab ran into the fray and all used their Electric Attacks at once. I'm pretty sure that's what killed him." She glared down at the grave with an expression which clearly said she would like to peck Number 1's heart out.
What she said certainly made sense. Normally, an Electric Attack will stun you, but it won't actually kill except in rare cases. But, if, as had happened to Number 1, you get hit by lots of Electric Attacks at once, the combined voltage can reach fatal levels. But, then, why hadn't I been electrocuted too?
"You used an involuntary Protect," explained Zeod, as if reading my mind. "Just before all the Electric Attacks were fired. It must have shielded you . . ." He paused. "Anyway, Number 1's gone. So what do we do now?"
I climbed down off his back. "Go see if Birch has found out what that vial is," I replied. And, with that, we all headed in the direction of the lab, Matt carrying Esther who still needed time to recover fully but, thanks to Luke's timely intervention was not in any danger. And, if Zeod's hunch about that vial was right, none us would ever have to worry about Proteus again.
In the lab, Birch had some good news. "Well, kids," he told us, "I've analysed the substance in the vial and it's definitely a key ingredient for creating human/Pokemon hybrids. You see," he went on, "Proteus weren't the first group to try this kind of thing; such experiments have been tried before, only on a smaller scale and with more benign intentions." He got up and looked round at all of us. "It's easy enough to create an antidote, but there's no way to get you completely back to normal; you'll more than likely have some Pokemon characteristics for the rest of your lives."
"As for Proteus," he went on, "I've contacted the police. Any surviving Proteus agents are now Wanted throughout Hoenn."
We exchanged glances, relieved that our ordeal finally seemed to be over. We had achieved what we had set out to do and destroyed the organisation which had made us what we were; their leader was dead and his followers were all on police Wanted lists. So, hopefully, none of them would dare try to start Proteus up again. And, if they did, we would be ready for them. With the Pokemon abilities we would retain even if we ceased to look like hybrids, we would fight until we emerged victorious.
Because, as they say, tomorrow is another day.