The girl perched proudly on the shoulders of her Dragonite, riding high above the earth. Her crystalline hair, turned fiery by the setting sun, billowed out behind her, tracing gleaming streaks across her long black cloak. Other Dragonites flew with her, a whole flock of them, as far as her eyes could see. They were calling her name.
Aurora was puzzled. Pokemon were supposed to say their own names, not hers.
"Aurora! You lazy girl, get up!"
They weren't supposed to insult her, either. With a moan, the girl rolled over and pulled a pillow over her head, abandoning her dreams of flying dragons... for the moment, anyway. It was too bad, really. Her dreams were the only place where she could ride the skies with her Pokemon. In reality, she wasn't a trainer at all, only another girl working a summer job in Goldenrod City. Getting up meant spending another long, boring day behind the counter at her parents' shop. It would be so nice to stay in bed a little while longer.
"Didn't you hear me?" her mother called. "I would think that today of all days, you would get yourself out of bed."
Her ears pricked up. Was there something special about today? Certainly not the first day of school - it was the middle of the summer. Not a holiday, either. She couldn't even think of any sales that were supposed to happen today. She frowned, trying hard to think, but her brain was always a bit slow starting in the morning. However, her curiosity never quit, so she crawled out from under her blankets and began hurriedly dressing herself.
By the time she was dressed, garbed in a pair of sensible denim shorts and a less-than-sensible gauzy blue shirt, she was feeling a bit more alert. She even hummed a bit as she stood in front of the mirror, brushing out her long and unusually pale hair and pulling it into a pair of pigtails to keep it out of her face. She shook them a bit to make sure they held, and grinned at her reflection. Next to it, another face smiled back serenely.
Of course, that was the way Aurora had wanted it. The face was on a poster, positioned just so it would reflect this way. It looked at her from other places in her room, too - more posters, magazine and newspaper clippings, even statuettes, all depicting the same woman. Even in her earliest memories, Aurora had always been fascinated with Clair, the Dragon Master of Blackthorn city, and that admiration had only grown as she'd gotten older. These days, it was almost an obsession. Aurora's ambition was to meet Clair someday. Even better, she would have loved to be her apprentice, the lucky girl who the Gym Leader taught to master the arts of dragon-training to run the Gym in her place someday. Unfortunately, you had to have Pokemon to be a Gym Leader, and that was one area where Aurora was sadly lacking.
Shaking her head to clear away such gloomy thoughts, she wandered over to her wall calendar, which, predictably, had a theme of Dragon-type Pokemon. The sight of a few baby Dratinis splashing in a pool cheered her up a bit. Picking up a marker, she went to mark off another day, and she glanced down at the date. Her stomach gave a funny lurch.
"It's today," she murmured, with a weird mix of joy and dismay. "I don't believe I forgot! Today's the day!"
In a daze, she wandered downstairs to breakfast, and found her family already gathered around the table waiting for her.
"Morning, Aurora!" called her younger brother Davey. "Happy birthday! How does it feel to be eleven?"
"The same as it did when I was ten," Aurora retorted. It wasn't an honest answer; just the thought of it was making her insides flutter. Tradition older than anyone could remember said that children wishing to become Pokemon masters began their training at age eleven. Aurora had been five years old when she had first decided that the life of a trainer was the one for her, and six years had seemed like plenty of time to convince her parents, but now...
"I suppose you think this is something special," said her father, looking over his paper.
"It is," said Aurora boldly. "I could start training today, if I wanted to."
"If you had a Pokemon," her mother amended.
"And if you didn't have responsibilities," answered her father. "You know you're needed here. someone has to look after the store, you know. Your mother and I can't do it alone."
"I know," said Aurora glumly.
Her parents owned a shop here in Goldenrod City, selling PokeGear to hopeful trainers. Aurora had always taken her turn, watching trainers come and go - and sometimes come again, if they proved unsuited to the difficult life of a trainer. More often, though, she would hear proud words from their friends and family, talking about the dangerous Pokemon they'd captured, the intense battles with other trainers, the Gym Badges they'd claimed. Some of them had gone all the way to the Indigo Plateau, and as far away as the Gyms in Kanto. And in the meantime, Aurora minded a shop after school.
"I'm getting old enough to watch the shop," said Davey. "Mom, Dad, if Aurora becomes a trainer, can I...?"
"Maybe," said his father. "Aurora, listen. Training is a difficult life. I tried it when I was your age. I didn't make it past the first Gym, and I tried. It broke my heart to see those Pokemon who trusted me being beaten again and again. I don't know if you can handle that."
"I won't have to," said Aurora stubbornly. "I'll train my Pokemon to win. You'll see, Dad. I'll be the greatest trainer to ever come out of Goldenrod - maybe all of Johto!"
"And what about your responsibilities here?" her father asked.
"Davey can handle it. He's good with that mechanical stuff - he likes it. He'll be happy here, and I never will until I get a chance to prove myself!"
"So, you're really determined to leave?" asked her mother. "You know, once you leave, there's no coming back until it's over. Think about all you'll miss here."
Aurora lowered her head. "There's nothing to miss. I'm not happy here - and you know it, too!"
Her father sighed. "I thought it might be just an early case of teenaged angst... but if you're really determined, we won't do you any good holding you back. You'll just find some way to run off without out permission, probably without proper supplies, and get yourself in trouble. Here."
Out from under the table, he took out two packages. One was a large box that rattled in interesting ways when he moved it. The other was a small sack that he carried gently.
"Happy birthday, Aurora," he said.
Stunned, Aurora reached out to open the box - and gasped in surprise. The box contained a set of PokeGear, the best her parents carried, equipped with a phone, a radio, maps of Johto and Kanto, and considerable storage space. Checking its contents, she was surprised to see that it contained six PokeBalls and an assortment of Potions and Antidotes. For a moment, she goggled at it all. Then, wondering what else could possibly be in the other bundle, she undid the bag's lacings and carefully tipped its contents onto the table. A single PokeBall rolled out. She picked it up and stared at it a moment, then turned unbelieving eyes on her father.
"Is this...?" she began.
"A Pokemon, yes," he replied. "Not a very good one, but it was the best we could do on short notice."
"Oh." She turned the ball over in her hands, glancing back at the pack. "You gave me six PokeBalls. I only need five to make a full team."
"Well, it never hurts to have a spare," said her father. "Besides, like I said, it's not a very good Pokemon. Just enough to get you started."
"Oh," said Aurora again. "Well... thanks. Thank you very much!"
"Just put it to good use," said her father.
"Breakfast," said her mother, setting down a stack of pancakes.
Aurora ate her food without tasting it. Her whole attention was riveted on her gifts, and she couldn't stop looking at the PokeGear, pressing its buttons, admiring the cards. From time to time, her hand would go down to the ball clipped at her belt. She wished she dared open it at the breakfast table, but she had a notion that would cause something of a commotion. For all she knew, there might be a Koffing in there that might fog up the kitchen for hours. Safer to release it outside. Still, she was itching to know what kind of Pokemon she was going to start her journey with, but the look in her father's eyes told her it would be safer not to ask. Instead, she bolted her meal as fast as she could and regarded her mother soulfully. She wasn't disappointed.
"I guess you want to leave right away," mom said. "I packed you a few sandwiches and things. They'll last you for a while, until you get to the next Pokemon Center."
"Thanks, Mom, you're the best!" Aurora enthused, eagerly grabbing the satchel she was offered. "Thank you too, Dad. This means the world to me. I won't let you down!"
He looked like he wanted to say something - maybe that she'd already let him down by not wanting to spend all her life as a shop clerk - but he swallowed it. "Good luck. You'll need it."
She got to her feet, slinging the bag over her shoulder and clipping the PokeGear onto her wrist. "I'm going! See you guys!"
"Bye, Aurora!" Davey called. "Come back and show me when you get all your Badges!"
Aurora grinned at him and darted out the door. Sunshine splashed down over her eyes, dazzling her, and she laughed as a morning breeze whisked through her long hair, reminding of her dream of sunsets and flying. Time for that dream to come true!
The guard at the Goldenrod City gate was helpful.
"Excuse me," said Aurora, standing on tiptoe to look over his desk. "I need to know the best way to get to Blackthorn."
"Blackthorn?" he repeated. "Why would you be wanting to go there?"
"I - I've got an interest in Dragon-type Pokemon," she said. If she told him her real reasons for going, he'd turn her around and point her to Violet City. Nobody ever began their training by picking fights with Clair, but a fight wasn't what Aurora wanted. "I wanted to see a few close-up, and I hear that's the best place to do it."
"True," he mused. "Still, there's no easy way to be getting straight to Blackthorn, not from here. No matter which way you go, you'll still have a long, hard trek."
"Then it won't matter which way I go, will it?" asked Aurora. "Just tell me how to get there, please. My Pokemon will protect me on the road."
"Well... the shortest route would be to go north, but you'd have to be passing through the Ice Caves, and them's dangerous for little girls alone. On the other hand, you could take the go east and try the mountain pass - still hard, but not as cold. That's the way I'd go if I were you."
"And how do I get to the mountain pass?" Aurora wanted to know.
"Go to Violet City, and then to Cherrygrove. You can use this gate or the North Gate - either road will get you there," he replied.
"Thanks!" Aurora replied, skipping away merrily.
"Of course," the guard began, but the girl had already rushed through the gate and out of sight. He sighed. "Of course, if you go that, you have to go through Ilex Forest, and Union Cave, and the Ruins of Alph... Kids these days! They don't listen!"
Unaware of all of that, Aurora trotted happily along, enjoying the feel of the wind and sun. It was the perfect day to start out on a journey - a little breezy, enough clouds to keep things cool, but still drenched in summer sunshine. The scenery here was pleasant, too - lots of waving grass, trees, and sparkly ponds. It was quiet except for the calls of birds and bugs in the grass.
"This would be a good time to let my Pokemon out," she decided. She unclipped the ball and held it up. "All right, whatever you are - I chose you!"
The ball opened up, spitting out a ball of red-orange light, which grew larger and more solid until it was not light at all, but a Pokemon.
"Spear!" it called. "Spear! Spearow!"
Aurora looked at the Spearow. The Spearow looked back. Like all of its kind, it was a small brown bird, with a sharp hooked beak and gleaming golden eyes, which it fixed defiantly on Aurora. Despite the fact that it seemed alert and strong, it looked a little on the thin and underfed side. A lot of its feathers were missing, and its beak and claws were battered. There was a long scar across its face, holding one eye half-closed, giving it a villainous squint.
"What happened to you?" Aurora asked. She was horrified. When her father had told her she wasn't getting a good 'mon, she'd though he'd meant something weak, like a Magikarp or a Hoppip. This was the furthest thing from her mind!
"Spear," said the Spearow. It hopped up to her and pecked at the PokeBall in her hand.
"You got hurt when the captured you? Is that it?"
The bird shook its head. "Spear, spear! Spearow!" It fluttered around in circles, flapping its wings and slashing crazily at the air. It took a moment for Aurora to realize it was pantomiming a battle.
"Oh, you got hurt in a fight?" she asked.
"Okay, a lot of fights."
"Spear, spear, spear!" The Spearow hopped over to peck at her again, this time clicking his beak against her PokeGear.
"What's that got to do with anything?" Aurora asked. "Oh, wait a minute, I think I get it. Your trainer pushed you to this?"
"Spearow!" it answered positively.
"Your trainer did this to you? What a monster! How could anybody do this to a Pokemon?"
"Spear, spear!" The Spearow lowered its head, fixing his scarred eye on her, raising its hackles and clicking its sharp beak.
"I guess he didn't like you, huh?" asked Aurora. "That's no excuse!"
"Spear," said the Spearow. He pecked the ball again.
"An empty Pokeball? Don't tell me he abandoned you!"
"Spearow." The bird hung its head sadly.
"Why would he do that?"
In reply, the Spearow did his battle-act again, only this time he allowed himself to fall to the ground, obviously beaten. Then he did his angry dog impression again.
"Okay, let me get this straight. Your trainer mistreated you, and since he didn't take good care of you, you started losing fights, so he decided you were too bad-tempered and too weak to keep. Is that what you're saying?"
The bird nodded, and Aurora felt a weird sensation inside. It was hard for her to believe she was holding a conversation with something that couldn't say anything but "Spearow," and even harder to believe she was understanding him even through his limited mode of communication.
"Well, I like you," she said decisively. "You have a right to be bad-tempered, after all you've been through. You know what? My parents don't like the way I behave, either."
"Yeah. I want to be a fighter. They want me to stay at home and do their boring work for them. And then I'm supposed to grow up and get married to some dull old shop-clerk and raise up lots of little stock-boys and sales-girls."
"Yeah, I know, it stinks. I mean, I know Goldenrod's famous for its shopping center, but give me a break! We have a gym, too, you know, and our Gym Leader's a girl, just like I am - not that much older than me, even! You think they'd know."
"Spear, spear, spearow."
"Yeah, people can be pretty silly sometimes," Aurora agreed. "Hey, did your trainer ever give you a name?"
"Spear." The bird dropped its head and ruffled its feathers.
"And you wouldn't want it if he had. All right, how about I give you a name?"
The Spearow thought it over. It flipped its wings in something that looked a bit like a shrug.
"Maybe?" Aurora interpreted.
The bird tilted its head, giving her a skeptical look.
"You'll answer if it's a name you like," said Aurora. "How about... Scar? It suits you. It's a warrior's name."
"Spearow!" said the bird. It flapped its wings again, and this time, it sounded like applause.
"I guess that's it, then," she answered, grinning. "Well, Scar, my name's Aurora. We're going a long way, you and I."
"Spear?" Scar looked around, as if trying to see where they were going.
"Well, for starters, we're headed for Azalea Town," answered Aurora, checking her map. "Hm. Ilex Forest is between here and there. I've heard that's rough."
"Spear, spear, spear!" Scar pecked and slashed at the air.
"Looks like you're game," Aurora answered. "And I'm ready if you're ready. Hm."
She studied the Pokemon a bit. The look in his eyes was telling her that maybe she was nicer than his last trainer, but that didn't mean he was ready to trust her, not by a long shot. After all, Spearows were famous for their ferocity, and this one was likely to have twice the bad temper of an ordinary Spearow. She was going to have to mind her manners around him, if she was going to rely on him as her lead Pokemon.
*But I'm going to train dragons,* said one little part of her mind. *Spearows are tough Pokemon, but they aren't dragons. They aren't anything like them.*
*I can't just abandon him,* she answered herself. *Not after what he's already been through.*
She had seen what became of Pokemon like that. Despite their best efforts at lawkeeping, no one had ever been able to throttle down all the activities of Team Rocket and smaller local gangs, and big cities like Goldenrod were magnets for lawbreakers. The Pokemon they used eventually became shattered, lashing out at anything that came near them, until they finally had to be put down to relieve them of their misery. Poor Scar had barely avoided that fate, it seemed, and Aurora wasn't going to bring him any closer to it.
*After all,* she reasoned, *even Clair had to fight her way through the Gyms before they would have made her a Gym Leader. She wouldn't have started out as a Dragon Master. Even she would have had to begin with something ordinary, like an Oddish... or a Spearow.*
"You know," she said, "there was a famous Pokemon trainer, Ash Ketchum. He let his Pikachu walk around loose, outside of a PokeBall. How would you like that? You'll be free to come and go as you please."
Scar regarded her as if he was sure she was up to something. She gave him an encouraging smile and deposited his PokeBall into her Gear.
"See? No Ball, no capture. Now I can't push you around so much."
"Spear!" Scar agreed. He hopped up to her side and tugged briefly on her shirt, letting the smooth material run through his beak. It took her a moment to process the odd mannerism: he was preening her, an avian gesture of friendship. She grinned at him.
"You like that, huh? It's a deal then. You keep me safe in the forest, and I'll let you do your thing. Agreed?"
"Spear!" The bird hopped a few paces, then turned his head to give her his squinty-eyed look, obviously wanting her to get a move on. Laughing, she hurried to catch up with him. She decided that, as usual, her father was wrong. She had gotten a good Pokemon, after all.
According to her PokeGear, the time was a little before noon. According to Aurora's eyes, it was midnight and gaining fast. The trees that grew in Ilex Forest might have well been a solid roof, for all the light they allowed to pass, and she was beginning to think she'd trade off all her gear for a Flash HM. The path wound around and about until she had no notion what direction she might be heading, or even if she was just walking in circles. The noises of things scurrying in the trees made her nervous, and she kept glancing over her shoulder - not that it did any good. Visibility was limited only to a few feet in all directions before everything faded into black shadows. Scar seemed undisturbed; he hopped along, occasionally harrying a wandering Weedle or sniffing out berry bushes.
"I don't like this place," she muttered. "I wish I had gone the other direction!"
Scar didn't comment. He'd found a bush and was busy gulping down berries. Aurora shrugged, thinking that he was probably quite happy here. From his ragged appearance, she guessed he hadn't been feeding too well lately, and it would do him good to be able to forage a while.
Suddenly, a dark shadow whizzed over her head, screeching at her. Aurora shrieked a bit herself, ducking and covering her head. The Zubat fluttered to a halt and turned around to swoop at her again. She looked up, saw what was flying at her with wings spread and fangs bared, and she screamed at a new level of intensity.
"I hate bats! I hate them, I hate them!" she cried, trying to defend herself and hide at the same time. The Zubat shot over her, missing her by inches. She waved at it, trying vaguely to smack it, and wound up losing her balance and falling into a bush. She thrashed around, trying desperately to free itself from its branches. Zubats would bite humans if they were hungry enough, and the idea of that nasty little fluttering thing sinking its fangs into her was enough to make her frantic.
There was a rushing noise and a loud screech. Aurora looked through the darkness, just able to see the ragged shape that could only be Scar. It threw itself at the Zubat, slashing at it with his sharp beak, until the bat gave a squeak and hurried off to find easier pray. A few seconds later, Scar was at her side, tugging at her shirt, trying to help her up. Calming now that the danger was gone, Aurora was able to scramble out of the shrub's grip.
"Thanks a lot," she said fervently. "You have no idea how much I loathe bats."
"Spear..." said Scar soothingly.
They moved on. Aurora hadn't thought the forest could get any darker, but it did, as the sun moved past its zenith and took what little light it had been giving so far. Everything looked grey and ghostly.
"I sure hope we get out of here soon," Aurora said nervously. "Not only is it dark and spooky in here, which it is, but I'm bushed. What do you say we break for lunch, Scar?"
Scar voiced no objections, so Aurora settled down at the base of what looked to be a reasonably safe tree, but only after Scar had flown up and given it a thorough bat inspection. Finding nothing but a couple of sleepy Hoothoots, Scar returned to the ground to share a sandwich with Aurora.
"Eat fast," she advised him. "I know I'm going to."
She sat back, closing her eyes to blot out the unpleasant scenery. A few seconds later, she realized she should have been a little more alert, as something reached out of the darkness and grabbed her shoulder.
"Eeek!" she squealed.
"Yow!" said something in the darkness. "Man, bust my eardrums, why doncha? You're the screamin'est person I ever met."
"Huh?" Aurora turned and squinted into the shadows. "Who's there? Who said that?"
"I did," a voice replied. Out of the darkness stepped a girl, no older than Aurora, with short dark hair and rosy cheeks. She grinned. "Scared ya, didn' I?"
"You sure did!" Aurora replied. "What's the idea of sneaking up on me like that?"
"Didn' know I was sneakin'," answered the other girl. She had a lazy way of speaking, giving words only casual pronunciation. "I was just hangin' around, mindin' my own business, an' I hear someone screamin' her head off, so I go and take a look. Thought I'd follow ya a bit, case ya were up to no good. I don' like people bein' up to no good 'less it's me."
"Well, I'm not up to no good," said Aurora. "I'm just trying to get through this forest without being eaten alive by Zubats. Happy?"
The girl appeared to be ignoring her.
"You've got a Pokemon," she commented. "He looks like he's been through the mill. What'd ya do to 'im?"
"I didn't do anything. I got him used. He came like this."
"Lousy trainer," said the girl, somehow managing to put all her contempt for such people into two words. "I've got a Pokemon, too, but he's useless. He prob'ly fell asleep back there somewheres. Slowpoke! Sloooowpooooke!"
There was a moment of silence. Then, somewhere off in the distance, came the sound of pattering feet. They walked a few paces, paused a while, and then took a few more shambling steps. Something yawned loudly.
"Are you a trainer, too?" asked Aurora.
"Nope," said the girl, grinning. "My name's Laine. I'm Kurt's granddaughter - you know Kurt, doncha?"
"Um," said Aurora. "Oh, yeah! He's the one who makes PokeBalls out of Apricorns, right?"
"You got it," Laine replied. "I'm his apprentice. He teaches me how to make 'em. Mostly I like the work okay, but sometimes I like to get out and wander 'round a bit. My feet get itchy, y'know."
"Yeah, I know the feeling," Aurora replied. "Hey, listen, if you know your way around here, could you show me the way out of this forest? I really want to get to Blackthorn City in a hurry, and I can't do it while I'm lost in here.
Laine whistled. "Blackthorn City! That's a far piece down the road. Sure you don't want to go somewhere closer?"
"No. Blackthorn City is the place for me." Aurora looked determined, and Scar crowed his agreement.
"Cool," said Laine, grinning again. "If that's really where you wanna go, I can show ya a good shortcut. There's a secret tunnel here that leads under Azalea Town, where I'm from, all the way to Union Cave. You'll save a lot of time."
"There aren't any bats in the cave, are there?" asked Aurora nervously.
"'Course there are bats! All caves 'round here have bats. You wanna go to Blackthorn or doncha?"
"Then you're gonna have to deal with bats," Laine finished. "Don' worry. Your Pokemon looks like he can handle more than a few bats... so can my Slowpoke, if he ever gets his butt over here. Slowpoke!"
"Slow..." came the sleepy answer. A pink head poked itself out of the shrubbery and gave Laine a puzzled look. "Poke?"
"There you are!" said Laine, giving him an exasperated look. To Aurora, she said, "Azalea is fulla Slowpokes, so a'course I had to get one. I'd rather have a cool Pokemon like yours."
Scar stood up a little straighter and preened his feathers.
"Well, I guess I can stand a few bats - as long as they don't get too close. By the way, I'm Aurora."
"Nice name," said Laine. "Come on, 'Rora. The tunnel's this way."
"I said Aurora, not Rora," Aurora said plaintively, but she followed the smiling girl anyway.
"Slow?" asked Slowpoke dazedly.
"Spear, spear," Scar urged. He nipped the Slowpoke on the tail. The 'mon thought about it for a while, then s-l-o-w-l-y got up and began to walk. Scar sighed and began trying to catch up with Aurora.
Laine led the way confidently through the twisting, shadowy paths, never showing any doubt even when Aurora was sure she couldn't have even seen the path, much less the right fork to take. Finally, they wound up standing in front of what looked like a large, elaborate birdhouse.
"The Ilex Temple," said Laine proudly. "This is where the tunnel begins."
"I don't see a tunnel," said Aurora.
"'Course you don't. Toldja, it's secret," said Laine. "Watch this."
She walked around the back, squinting through the shadows at the weathered carving. With a cry of delight, she found what she was looking for, reaching out and touching a small carving of a bird. The carving sank into the wood, and the whole structure turned as if on hinges, opening up a dark stairway.
"After you," she said.
"Not me! It's pitch black down there!" Aurora protested.
"Won' be for long," said Laine. She fished around in her pockets and pulled out what looked like a glowing coal, but Laine held it without any evidence of pain. It cast a warm orange-gold light for a radius of several feet.
"What's that?" asked Aurora, interested. Laine began walking down the stairs, holding up the whatever-it-was to light the way.
"A Charcoal amulet," she said. Her voice echoed in the small tunnel. "There's a guy in my village who's a fire-smith, and he makes this stuff like I make PokeBalls. I traded him a buncha good ones I made for this. Otherwise, I'd've had to save for a year before I coulda afforded it."
"Why is it so expensive? It just seems like a useful replacement for a flashlight to me."
"It's special," said Laine. "For me, it's just a night-light, but if I gave it to a Fire-type Pokemon, it would boost their powers way up. Trainers come from all over to pay out the nose for one. I'll get you one, someday, if you want."
"What?" yelped Aurora, surprised. "I couldn't ask you to do that, not if they're so expensive."
"It's nothing. Apricorns don' cost a thing, and people will pay a lot for the Balls we make outta them," Laine answered. "So I can get you Charcoal for nothing. Fun, huh?"
"I guess," Aurora replied. "But why would you want to give one to me?"
"No reason," said Laine with a shrug. "I like giving things. And I like you. You're funny."
"Thanks... I think."
"You are funny," Laine repeated. "You're not like the girls in Azalea. None of them wanna be trainers. The most they want is to date one a'the guys that hang around Bugsy's gym... or Bugsy, but I don' even think he's that cute. He hangs out with creepy-crawlies all day. So, why are you goin' to Blackthorn? I thought trainers usually started in Violet."
"It's sort of a private ambition of mine," said Aurora. "Okay, not that private. I want to meet Clair."
"Clair?" Laine repeated. "Why would you wanna meet her? I hear she's tough."
"She is tough," Aurora replied. "That's why I want to meet her. She used to be a girl just like me, once upon a time. Now she's the most powerful trainer in Johto. Even the Elite Four respect her! I heard Dragon Master Lance wants to make her his heir someday as leader of the Four. All my life, I've wanted to be just like her, so I'm going to Blackthorn to ask if she'll take me on as one of her junior trainers."
"With a Spearow?" asked Laine.
Scar's hackles raised, and Aurora blushed. "I have to start somewhere. Nobody's allowed to catch dragons in Johto without Clair's permission, you know. I'm sure I'll get a real Dragon-type if she hires me."
"Big if," Laine commented.
"Well, excuse me for having ambitions!" said Aurora. "You can sit around and hollow out nuts all day, but I'm going to do something impressive!"
"Hey, hey, hey, calm down!" Laine replied. "I'm not knockin' your ambitions. Heck, I got ambitions, too. Y'know what I wanna do? I wanna be a researcher, like Professor Oak and Professor Elm - only I don' wanna sit indoors messing with computers all day. I wanna go out and live with Pokemon, watch 'em first-hand an' see how they live. That's the only way to really learn about 'em."
"Oh," said Aurora.
"I know what you're thinkin'," said Laine. "You're thinkin' I don't act like a professor-type, aren't ya? I'm a country girl, I talk like a country girl, but I'm not stupid. I could be a scientist if I wanted to - and you can be a Dragon Master if you wanna fight for it. But it's gonna take a lot of fighting. Like I said, Clair's tough, and she doesn' like people. She doesn' even like her chosen junior trainers that much, an' she's not gonna like you marchin' up to her and askin' to be trained. You want to be her apprentice, you're gonna hafta work your butt off to get there. That's what I meant."
"I can work," Aurora replied. She looked down. "What is it, Scar?"
The Pokemon was almost frantic, hopping around, fluttering his wings and tugging at her shirt. Oddly enough, he wasn't making any sound, and his silence was enough to make the girls stop talking as well. In the silence that followed, they became aware of other sounds.
"What's that?" Aurora whispered.
"Dunno," Laine whispered back. "Doesn' sound like Pokemon, I know that much. Should we look?"
"It's either that or turn around and go back."
"Oh, good," said Laine. She grinned again. "I wanted an adventure. Move quiet."
She cupped her hand around the Charcoal, dimming its light so that they could only see where they were putting their feet. However, after they had gone a short distance, they found they didn't need that much light. Someone up ahead was burning torches, filling a large portion of the caverns with a clear golden glow. The girls and their Pokemon ducked behind a heap of rocks, peering out at the activity. A number of men, as well as a few women, were scurrying around busily. Some carried wheelbarrows full of rocks, some pickaxes and shovels, some armloads of electrical equipment. A few stood guard over Pokemon, mostly Rock- and Ground-types, with a few Machops thrown in for good measure, that were busily digging and chopping. Everyone was dressed in black, and every black jacket was marked with a bright red, block-letter "R."
"Team Rocket?" Laine whispered. "It can't be! They were driven out of Azalea years ago!"
"I've got news for you," Aurora whispered back. "Every time you drive them out, they just go somewhere else."
Their whispering stopped as the bustle of activity suddenly ceased. Someone new had stepped into the room, and everyone had dropped what they were doing - some more literally than most - to pay him their respects. He was a boy, no older than fifteen, with red hair that looked as if it would have liked to be spiky if he hadn't let it grow so long. As it was, it fell over his face, shading his eyes in a way that gave his young face a sinister touch. He was dressed in a Rocket uniform of pale blue-white, with long black boots and gloves. If he hadn't had such an angry, arrogant look on his face, he might have been rather handsome.
"How is work progressing?" he asked. His voice was like black velvet, soft and dark.
"Very well," one of the grunts replied. "We'll have everything done before you know it."
"Excellent," the boy replied. "I knew this would be the perfect location. In a place like Ilex Forest, we could build a whole fortress, and no one would ever be the wiser. Even if, by some miracle, someone hears of what we're up to, they'll never find us."
"Yes, sir," said the grunt, nodding respectfully.
"Proceed with the wiring as soon as possible," the boy ordered. "The construction of the hub will take more time, but once its done, I want it to have at least partial effect immediately. Once we're done, no Pokemon for miles around will be able to evolve... none but ours, anyway." He smiled. "If their Pokemon can't fight, we'll conquer them easily. Then perhaps we'll let them buy the privilege. We'll sell high, of course. Very, very high." He gave a villainous cackle, and the grunts obediently joined in.
"What's he talking about?" Laine hissed.
Aurora thought hard. "They took control of Pokemon evolution through a radio tower, once. It happened in my home town, so I heard all about it. Looks like they want to do it again, only backwards."
"Working underground instead of above. Stopping them from evolving instead of making it happen too fast."
"Ouch," said Laine. "Should we do something?"
"How are we going to do anything against a zillion trained Rockets?" Aurora hissed back.
Laine sat back and thought. "Hm..."
"I didn't mean that seriously!" said Aurora. "Listen, we've got to get out of here before-"
At that moment, a large, tawny animal padded up to the redheaded boy's side.
"Hello, Persian," he said, stroking its head. "What's that you say? We have intruders? Be a good boy and bring them back for me."
"Purr," the Persian agreed. It bounded forward, straight for the girls' hiding place, and they let out identical squawks of fear and consternation. The Persian leaped over them, wheeling around to block their exit. Scar flew at it, shrieking and clawing, only to be swatted out of the way with a huge paw. He hit the stone wall and fell, unconscious. Slowpoke looked at him, looked at the Persian, and curled up and went to sleep.
"You pesky Pokemon!" shouted Laine furiously. She kicked it as the Persian herded her and Aurora forwards. The Slowpoke rolled over and went to sleep. Laine rolled her eyes furiously. "If I live through this, I am going to study every kind of Pokemon there is, but never Slowpokes!"
They were marched forward to face off with the boy. Laine fumed, but Aurora was able to match his cold look with one of her own.
"You aren't going to get away with this, you know," she said. "Rockets never get away with anything. Every time they think they've got it good, some kid comes along and wipes the floor with them."
"Yes," he agreed. "And every time some kid comes along and wipes the floor with us, we find some way to come back, bad as ever. Also, this is the first time Team Rocket has been led by... a kid." He gave her a mocking smile. "I approve. I think we have more willpower and audacity than adults. And if anyone had any doubts that I could lead before, they'll forget them when I bring in you two spies. I'm not sure what Uncle will do to you, but I doubt it will be pleasant... unless..."
"Unless what?" asked Laine. "Unless we get down and beg for mercy? Fat chance."
"I meant, unless you decide to be reasonable," the boy replied. "Just the fact that you found this place hints that you have some intelligence. Join us, and we'll make it worth your while."
"I wouldn't join you for all the money in the world," Aurora spat.
"Then you're foolish as well as annoying," the boy replied. "Men, take these two somewhere safe. If they can't change their minds, then we'll take them to my uncle and let him deal with them."
"Yes, sir!" said the grunts. Two of them latched on to Aurora and Laine, and another prodded Scar until he woke up and started walking. A fourth tried to rouse Slowpoke, without success. He finally gave up and hauled it along by its tail.
"You lay off my Slowpoke!" Laine yelled at him. "He may be stupid and useless, but so are you, and you wouldn' want anyone to treat you like that!"
"Shut your big mouth, girl," one of the grunts snarled. He slapped her, leaving a red blotch across her face. She hissed, more in shock than anything else, but she fell silent.
At last, the girls were brought to what looked to be a rough-cut door set into an even rougher doorway.
"Should we leave them here?" one grunt wondered.
"It's the only room with a lock," another replied. "We don't have a choice."
"Oh, well." The grunt with the Slowpoke dropped it and went to open the door. The girls and their Pokemon were shoved inside, sending them sprawling across the floor. The door was slammed behind them, and there was the unmistakable click of a lock.
"I think we're stuck," Laine opined.
"Yeah," Aurora replied, "but look what we're stuck with!"
Laine looked. Sitting in the middle of the room was a great computerized mess, bristling with wires and sparkling with a myriad of lights.
"This must be the thing the Rockets are building," said Aurora, getting up to have a better look at it.
"Don't touch it! It might blow up, or somethin'," Laine cautioned.
"It won't," answered Aurora absently. She was busy giving the machine a thorough inspection. "What a mess. Whoever built this barely knew what they were doing. I could make one twice as good with one hand behind my back."
"Tell that to the Rockets," said Laine. "Maybe they'll let you live until ya do... Man, we are in so much trouble! I shoulda stayed in bed today. If we could just get out of this room..."
"Maybe we can. Let me look." Aurora went over to the door and squinted through the keyhole. "Just as I thought. It's nothing but a latch. Any girl with a hairpin could get out of this."
"Yeah, well, we don' have a hairpin," Laine pointed out.
"True," said Aurora, "but look around. We've got wires, nails, screwdrivers... I could pick a whole army of locks with the stuff in here." She sighed. "That would help if there weren't a real army on the other side of the door. Know any way to get past a bunch of mad Rockets and Pokemon?"
"Maybe," said Laine. "Didja get a good look at the Pokemon outside?"
"Did they look like trained Pokemon, or just forced labor?"
Aurora frowned. "Well, I didn't see any PokeBalls... I guess they're just here for as long as the Rockets need tunnels, which means that as soon as they're done tunneling..." She trailed off, feeling sick.
Laine grinned. "Leave 'em to me. Can you distract the Rockets a minute?"
"I think I can. Why?"
"Because those Rockets won' be so tough if I'm commandin' their Pokemon."
"How are you going to do that?" asked Aurora. "There's no way you could take out all of those Pokemon in just a few minutes!"
"I don' need to fight 'em. I just need to catch 'em," Laine replied.
"But you have to fight Pokemon to catch them."
"No ya don't. Didn' I tell ya, I make custom PokeBalls." She grinned, fishing a small sack from her pocket. "These beauties'll catch all kinds of nifty things."
"Great," said Aurora. "Then I'll handle the distraction. Hand me that pair of pliers, please."
Looking bemused, Laine did as she was told. Aurora took the pliers and began walking around the heap of metal, pulling out a wire here, putting it in there, tweaking this, cutting that.
"Whacha doin'?" asked Laine at last.
"Remember when I said it wouldn't blow up?"
"I'm going to change that."
Laine gave her a wide-eyed look. "You're nuts!"
"I am not. I used to work on PokeGear all the time. I'm good with electronics," Aurora replied. "I have a feeling that if this thing goes berserk, the Rockets will want to know all about it."
"If you say so," Laine replied.
"I say so. There! That should do the trick. If I were you, I'd back up."
Laine did as she was told, crouching in a corner next to the door. Aurora gave the machine a final tweak, flipped a switch, and ducked for cover. The machine came on with a whine that grew steadily louder, sending off showers of sparks. For a moment, it rocked around as if something was trying to get out, and then it expired with a mighty POW!
"Hit the deck!" Aurora commanded, making a dive for the far corner. Laine crouched and covered her head with her hands, while Scar tried to protect both of them with his outstretched wings. Predictably, the Slowpoke took no notice of the commotion, not even when a flying part bounced off of his head.
Within moments, the Rockets had arrived. The door flew open, crashing noisily into the wall and nearly falling off its hinges as black-garbed grunts poured into the room.
"What happened in here? Did a bomb go off?" demanded a female grunt.
"Looks like the hub just blew up," a man offered.
"I can see that!" she snapped. "You told me this thing was stable!"
"Well, it isn't anymore!" said another grunt, whacking his compatriot over the head. "Man! When that kid gets wind of this, we're finished!"
"Maybe we'd better try to fix it?" said someone anxiously.
"You'd better," said the woman. "And I'm going to be watching you the whole time, just to make sure you don't foul up again!"
While the Rockets argued, Aurora beckoned to Laine and began tiptoeing out of the room. They slipped into the hall and ducked into a shadow, Aurora panting from the narrow escape and Laine with her customary crazed grin.
"My turn," she said. "Now to get some reinforcements!"
While Aurora watched in amazement, Laine reached for her bag and pulled out a handful of marble-sized PokeBalls, all of them a surprising shade of bright green. Twitching one to full size, she slunk up to the work area where the slave Pokemon were still hacking along, digging out heaps of rock with beaten looks in their eyes. Squinting in concentration, Laine picked a target and lobbed the Ball. It soared in a graceful arc to strike a surprised Machop. It vanished in a flare of green light, and the ball returned to Laine's hand. Her eyes widened.
"Wow," she said. "That was impressive."
"You mean you didn't really know it would work?" asked Aurora, aghast.
"Well, I kinda figured they weren't in much of a shape to fight back," said Laine with a half-shrug. "Here, you try it!" She shoved a handful of the green PokeBalls into Aurora's hands.
Aurora gave a shrug of her own. "Guess this is a good time to practice catching Pokemon."
Soon the air was full of flying PokeBalls and green lights. One by one, the slaves vanished, while the pile of filled Balls rose higher. Just as Aurora was beginning to enjoy herself, Scar nipped her sharply on the elbow, making her drop the last Pokemon she'd captured.
"Shh!" she hissed at Laine. "Someone's coming!"
It was the redheaded boy again, flanked by a pair of other Rockets. They looked high- ranking; they wore nice suits instead of the standard black outfits.
"...can tell him things are progressing ahead of schedule," the boy was saying. "I will not have word of these setbacks getting back to my uncle."
"It's going to be hard to keep this under wraps," one warned. "The hub was supposed to be operational a week ago. We should have had this area covered already."
"Then we'll just have to work faster. Take some shortcuts," answered the boy. "We can patch things up later if they go wrong. Right now, the important thing is to have something to show here."
"That could be dangerous," the other Rocket commented. "You know he'll want to move immediately, as soon as he gets word that we've done something."
"Then we'd better move immediately," answered the boy, his voice dangerous.
"Yes, sir!" the Rockets answered.
"I don't care what it takes," said the boy. "Have them work around the clock! Bring in more Pokemon... Where are the Pokemon, anyway?"
"I don't know. They were here a minute ago..."
"Great! Everything's behind schedule, then we have spies, and now the Pokemon disappear... What else can go wrong?"
"How 'bout us routing your little organization completely?" asked Laine, stepping out from behind a rock. She was casually tossing one of the PokeBalls and giving him her manic grin.
"You know what?" said Aurora, stepping up behind her friend. "I don't like people who misuse Pokemon. Nothing makes me madder. I think I should do something about it, don't you?"
The redhead gave her a vicious smile. "I think you should have stayed in your prison. You're really in for it now! Persian, get them!"
"Persian!" roared the great cat, bounding into view. "Purr, Persian!"
"Oh, would you look at that," said Aurora. "A Persian. Evolved from Meowth, I believe. Normal-type. Not a lot of weaknesses, really... only Fighting moves are effective against them, and - what do you know? I just happen to have one. Go, Machop!"
She lobbed a Pokeball, and a freshly caught Machop burst into view. Aurora hadn't been expecting much, not from such a recently-captured Pokemon, but it spotted the Persian and attacked instantly. With a swift karate chop, the big cat was sent scurrying away with its tail between its legs, rather than stand up to an angry Fighting Pokemon.
"Hey, come back here!" the redhead shouted. "Coward! When I tell my uncle about this, he'll have you replaced with a Magikarp! Come back, you lousy Pokemon!"
"Chop, chop! Machop!" said the victor, posing for Aurora.
"What just happened?" asked Aurora. "Why'd he fight for me like that?"
"Those were Friendship Balls," Laine answered. "They'll make any Pokemon ya catch like ya... at least for a little while. Long enough for us ta teach this punk a lesson!"
"You haven't beaten me, not by a long shot!" the boy snarled.
"Oh, yeah?" said Aurora. "What are you going to do? You can't fight us when we've got all your Pokemon. We'll use them, if we have to."
"Fun. Just one little problem," answered the boy. "I'm a trainer, too. Behold!"
From his belt, he unclipped a ball and held it high.
"Seadra," he said. "An evolved Water-type, which just so happens to be strong against Rock- and Ground- types. I believe that's the majority of what you have there in those PokeBalls. Now who's making the threats?"
"I am," said Laine. "And now I say that if you knew what was good for you, you'd look down by your right foot."
The boy looked down. Sitting at his feet was a large pink Pokemon.
"Slow?" it said.
"And what is that supposed to do to me?" asked the boy.
"Slow... poke!" shouted the Slowpoke. It spat out a stream of bubbles, drenching the redheaded boy with water and blowing the PokeBall out of his hands. It bounced and rolled off into a corner. He tried to make a lunge for it, but Scar gave it a swat with his wing and sent it rolling down the tunnel and into the darkness.
"Good boy, Slowpoke!" Laine shouted. "I told ya he was good for somethin'!"
"Way to go, Scar!" said Aurora. She hugged the bird, making its eyes widen in surprise.
"Oh, Raticates!" the boy muttered, trying to shake the water out of his hair.
Just then, one of the Rocket grunts came scampering up, cringing and kowtowing before this child half his age.
"Hey, boss," he said, "they sent me to tell you - something's happened to the hub. I dunno what's been done to it, but it'll take weeks to fix! Looks like somebody sabotaged it.
"Sabotage," the boy repeated. He looked speculatively at the girls. "Lovely. We've been outsmarted by a couple of smirking females! How dare you be so careless as to let them anywhere near that machine?"
The grunt mumbled something and began backing away, trying to fade into the shadows. A glare from the redhead sent him away at a run. He looked back at the girls, who faced him calmly, each holding a PokeBall at ready.
"You're clever," he said at last. "All right. I concede victory this time... but don't think you've won the war, Winter-Hair. Team Rocket will be back. You can count on it."
"Don't be so cocky, Fire-Top," said Aurora. "If you can be beaten by a couple of little girls, who couldn't beat you?"
The boy scowled. "My name is Ember. Remember it. We'll meet again, and next time, you'll pay."
"My name is Aurora," she replied. "I'll look forward to seeing you."
Scowling furiously, Ember turned and stalked off, muttering to himself.
"Man, this was supposed to be my first big project! My uncle is going to skin me alive..." He wandered away to look for his missing PokeBall.
"Game over, Machop," she said. "Come on back!"
The Machop hopped eagerly back into his Ball, and Aurora handed it back to Laine. Scar gave it an accusatory stare.
"What's his problem?" Laine asked.
"He's mad because I let the Machop do the fighting instead of him," said Aurora. "It's okay, Scar. I'm not going to keep him. You could whip him any day. Don't you know Flying- types have the advantage over Fighting?"
That appeared to soothe his ruffled feelings a bit. He preened Aurora's shirt to let her know he forgave her.
"Come on," said Laine. "Let's get out of here before anything else weird happens."
"I'm with you," Aurora agreed.
Together, the two struck out down the tunnels.
A short while later, two girls and two Pokemon stepped out Union Cave and into the sunlight.
"I am so glad to be out of that!" said Aurora, tilting back her head to enjoy the sun on her face.
"What was so bad about that?" Laine asked. "We busted up some Rockets an' rescued a buncha Pokemon. I think we did a good day's work... Were you serious when you said you weren' gonna keep any of 'em?"
Aurora nodded. "It wouldn't be right. I want to make friends with Pokemon the old fashioned way. That's the only way to do it... Right, Scar!"
"Spearow!" it agreed fervently.
"Ya could be right," said Laine thoughtfully. "Oh, well. We'll send 'em home, then. Will you do us a favor, Slowpoke?"
"I'll take that as a yes," Laine answered. "It's more reaction than I usually get."
She reached into her pack and pulled out a notebook and a pen, and began jotting down what looked like a letter. Aurora tried to read over her friend's shoulder.
"What are you writing?" she asked.
"Letter to my grandpa," Laine replied. "Tellin' him I'm sendin' a buncha Pokemon that need good homes. He'll see to it they go to good trainers who'll treat 'em right. Also, telling him I'm goin' to Blackthorn with you."
"You are?" asked Aurora, stunned. "What for?"
"'Cause it'll be fun!" Laine replied. "Besides, didn't I tell you I've got itchy feet? I wanna see a bit more of the world than Azalea Town. Besides, I'm interested in Dragon Pokemon... and someone has to keep ya outta trouble."
"I can stay out of trouble," said Aurora.
"Not when you've got an angry Rocket on your tail."
"Who, Ember?" Aurora replied. "He's not a problem, he's an advantage. All great Pokemon trainers have great rivals."
Laine gave her a look of puzzlement mixed with respect, as if she'd just encountered a whole new breed of lunatic.
"Yup, you are a funny girl," she said at last. "I'm gonna enjoy hangin' around you. Besides, you as good as saved my life back there. If you hadn' been there, those Rockets prob'ly woulda fed me to a... a... well, I don't know what they'd feed me to, but I'm sure they'd have thought of something."
"You would have managed. We couldn't have done anything back there if you hadn't had those PokeBalls of yours."
"Which wouldn't have done me a bit of good if you hadn't been there. I still owe you," said Laine stubbornly.
"Whatever," Aurora laughed. "We can argue about it on the way to Blackthorn! Come on!"
They hurried up the road, laughing, as Scar flew happily above their heads in the clear blue sky.
*I'm really doing it!* thought Aurora. *Today I'm going to become a real Dragon trainer!*