A/N: Hum. Originally written for Pe2K's URPG contest thing. I find in-depth evaluations that are motivated by pixelated paychecks of fake money to be rather conducive to the improvement side of the creative process, and take full advantage of said program's perks. Anyway, posting here because I rather like the piece.
[Duskull] loves the crying of children. —Platinum Pokédex
"Did you come here to heal, too?"
The stranger is out of place, a camera-wielding, tote-bag-sporting tourist in a sea of dirty, pick-pocketing faces, as he stands in the meadow of pastel-splattered flowers in his beaten leather jacket and petal-crushing boots. She, a vision in white, smiles at him anyway. It is a flash of white and curve of the lips sweet enough to curdle milk, and in that moment, she is a priestess, an angel—pure, naïve—shimmering with blind joy, laughing with the gentle cascade of tinkling bells, twirling away from him through the rainbow-wheel meadow.
He wonders, in a flash of malice, how the crease of her eyes might change, how the corners of her lips might drop if he told her the truth.
Would her carefree prancing cease if he told her he was here to clear weeds from a dead boy's grave? Would her eyes widen in horrified fear if he grabbed her arms, her thin, pale, arms that are so, so fragile with the weakness of childhood, and pulled her near to whisper in her ear that no, he wasn't here to heal, and that no, flowers didn't make him happy. If he told her, as he tightened his twisting grip around her limbs, that this place reminded of him only of blood and anger and pain and helplessness—would she scream? Would she fall to the ground and scramble away from him, dragging her clothing of virgin white through the mud, scraping her shoulders of pure perfection and snagging her strawberry-blonde curls on the ground if he told her that a little child, scarcely her age, had died no more than twenty steps from her face?
And he looks at her, just considering it. She steps back. Her smile is already beginning to falter as he says nothing. All it would take is one movement, two, and he could—
But he doesn't. No matter how much he wants to scream, to yell, to make her fear him, fear this place, simply because she stands in it—simply because she calls it a place of peace, of healing; simply because she believes it paradise—he doesn't.
Instead, he repays her smile with one of his own—albeit a weak one, marred by lack of practice and the ludicrous hook of his over-large nose—kneels, and unclips a Pokéball from his belt.
"Something like that," he lies.
Too warm—not natural.
Wrong. It's wrong—hot, too hot, hotter than summer—
Swirling clouds—dark—black—coughing—crowning treetops—pouring through grass—
Creatures are scattering, fleeing from the relentless flames, the suffocating smoke.
Rushing, tumbling—running, everyone is running, shrieking, and then they are in the roiling flames and water is being called, but no one has the right Pokémon on them and the timbers are collapsing and the fire is nipping, biting—
—closer—closer—and the rescue—
Three are delivered.
Still the fire razes, stripping away skin and unknitting the knotted muscles beneath, steaming blood into formless vapor and searing the remnants of bone.
"Keep her busy." He pushes the spherical prison hidden behind peppermint markings into the child's hands and strides away.
He does not bother to avoid mashing the clinging flowers into the ground; he believes that considering the petals are endless, stretching to the very sky and leaving room for nothing in between, a broken stem or two will not be particularly harmful.
Two summers slip by, and the Fire's Children are physically unharmed.
The flowers dance, spectral fairies flitting in the winds, singing songs that tell of ancient times. He wonders: if he waited, if he listened, would they speak in a language he could comprehend?
He has no time to find out, though, as he is grabbed by the hand and dragged into a spinning waltz. For a moment, he flies with the fairies as they whisper twisted tales into his ear—terrifying, disgusting stories of a floating skull and blood and horror—but he stops listening. Instead he lets his feet churn, carefully not trampling the kaleidoscope flowers into the mud.
All too soon, his partner stops their spinning. "Hey, look!"
The finger points at a sable-cloaked death's head gleaming black in the summer sun, a blemish on the sunlit meadow—it is a bringer of death, a messenger of darkness with hellfire burning in its eyes.
All he can see is the flame and the fire, the accident that stripped him of his parents in its eyes and he scrambles backwards, away.
The creature shouldn't be there. It doesn't like light. It doesn't like sun. It doesn't like happy places and dancing children. It doesn't belong.
The bolder brother fancies himself a future trainer. He circles, brash and confident, extending a childish hand to the monster.
And it strikes.
It lashes out in a flash of shadow—powerful, surging, darkness that overwhelms like the lurching ocean waves. The blow should kill, but it doesn't; the spectral tendrils clip the eldest child's shoulder.
They both scream.
One—agony, terror, despair; the other—hissing glee, animalistic joy.
He, the smart one, the young one, the weak one—he falls to the ground, crushing through the pane of rainbow petals; all he can see is the whirlwind color spectrum and the arching stalks and pale sky dotted with cotton-candy clouds, framed by the sweet-smelling flowers whose scent—now merged with the tang of spilt blood and the shudder of energy—suddenly makes him think of blistered peels of burnt hands grasping, pulling, strangling….
He can't see, but God, he can hear.
Each strike comes with a rush of sound, an indescribable static; it crackles with power, with malice. It sings with delight at every squeal of sound as the child's body is carved into pieces. Each whispered assault is accompanied by hiccoughs, by whimpers and shudders and twitches that ring through the ground. As the inhabitants of the dirt writhe in his hair and the flowers croon their macabre songs into his ears, the simmering fervency of the fiend's onslaught swells with each sob. The demon snickers in delight as blood drips from the child's shoulders, cascading across the ground. The crimson splatters are thunder in his ears.
Even as his brother screams and the beast cackles, he is silent.
It is just inside the treeline, easily mistaken for dirt carelessly piled by roaming Pokémon and rocks thrown by belligerent kids. He finds it immediately. God, he can hear it—he can hear them—whispering, even now. He can feel the worms writhing in the dirt, crunching through bone, devouring the carrion-food; he can hear them slithering, sniggering. The weeds sing to him, just like the flowers so long ago, and he nearly drops to his knees, wanting nothing more than to claw at his ears and tear at his hair.
But he stops himself.
And then he just stands.
They take one look at the blood on his clothes and the horror in his eyes and they scream.
An accident, he calls it, trying to explain, still paralyzed with fear, but he has always been a violent child, caught hitting one too many playmates and tormenting one too many Pokémon for them to believe him. They tell him lies. They claim that his brother is only a bit hurt, that even though there is blood, and he has seen the body, his brother could not be dead. They say he must have provoked the terror, must have prodded the monster, but they insist that no Pokémon would ever go so far as to kill a human. Their harsh words condemn him; their jagged tongues slice his flesh with heartless accusations even as they try to pull him in, wrap him with a blanket and water as pale-faced adults gather flashlights and run to the meadow.
It is made all the more horrible because the knowledge closes around his heart, strangling its beating with icy claws because he knows—he knows, he can feel it flowing through his veins—it is not the truth.
He can't think straight. He doesn't know what he's doing, or where he's going, but something whispers to him from the gut of his stomach, chanting as he runs.
Takes its life for yourself.
His mind is collapsing in on itself. All he can do is heed the words.
He knocks down a visiting teenager, takes her bag. Two Pokéballs, one empty, one marked with a creature's name, are all it has to offer.
There are search parties wheeling through the meadows, but darkness has fallen and he reaches the body first. The ground is slick with torn flesh and seeping blood, but he kneels beside the bloodied corpse, still warm from the fading sun's heat and the glow of life, and pulls it to him. Achingly slowly, he rises, lifting the blood-soaked carcass with him. His arms tangle around the torso, grasping in the ragged, sliced remnants of its shirt as he drags the body through the copper-tinged mud. With every step, he shakes in revulsion; every muscle trembles. Again and again his hands slip through the slime of blood and fluids, and the aroma of waste and death wafts through his nose, lingering in the strands of his hair, making him gag.
His mind screams, writhing against the eyes that betray him as they creep closer to the corpse. He doesn't want to look, good God, he's trying to tear them away, but it's magnetic, luring him with its grotesque art; he can't stop. Merely the feel of his fingers digging into slick flesh ignites flares of nausea in his gut, but his betraying eyes will not abandon the mess. It is disgusting—an oozing, slobbery, slimy scarlet snarl of shredded clothing and skin—but he keeps tracing it again and again in the dim light. White bone gleams against crimson flesh, glaring out from jagged pits. One shoulder—his stomach clenches and he needs to vomit, aches to vomit—is completely missing, with only half of the blade still attached and the socket peering at him with a single grim eye. The face… not even his traitorous eyes will dare stray to the face.
He manages to jerk his sight away when he realizes that not a single solid patch of skin remains, but still the dangling, pockmarked limbs taunt him, skating across the edge of his vision, coaxing hysteria from its coiled resting place in the pit of his throat.
The trek is endless. His feet slide through mud and his legs keep collapsing, but still he lugs his tormenting burden—he can't stop, couldn't stop, shouldn't stop, even if he wants to, because it's all he can do now. He doesn't even pause when acid bile climbs through his throat as he retches into his mouth, still shaking, still trembling. Throbbing, aching—everything hurts, and his legs try to collapse as he leans to spit out the vomit. Still the carcass haunts him; he can not see the face, but he feels sure that it is grinning at him, laughing in the darkness.
And then he is there, among the trees, and his hands dig a hole and shove the ghastly husk of life into it; the stubby fingers lump dirt and rocks and leaves over the form—anything, anything to get it out of sight, to bury the lingering smell, the decay of death.
He remembers, trying to calm down, the last time he visited. Ten years ago, when he still wore the symbol of Magma on his back… sixteen years, when a badge and gun were newly looped from his back… twenty-three, when he was still roaming, chasing glory in the form of badges of another sort….
His finger slides over his other Pokéball.
The girl's Luxio doesn't obey him until he slaps it across the face.
And then—perhaps because it is unaccustomed to violence, perhaps because it believes compliance will be the simplest route—it runs beside him as he careens through the woods, heedless of everything around him. The trees howl. Their gnarled knobs and whorls pull malicious faces in the dark, clawing with twisted hands that whip and lash at him even as they reach to the sky, pleading for light, screaming for deliverance. Everything is dark, so, so dark as he sprints, falling over mossy rocks and crumbling logs, tripping through bushes and tumbling over twigs.
Branches lash at his face, scraping gashes on his cheeks and forehead; blood beads in his eyebrows, pools on his lashes, trickles into his eyes, blinding him with scarlet as the wind howls. He is battered on all sides, sprinting at impossible speeds through the long grass as air assaults him, but still he can smell the death on his hands.
The gnawing worm in his stomach tells him that the Duskull will approach him, even with a living weapon leaping at his side—it is drunk on its bloodlust, its desire to hear children scream and cry. It is intoxicated by its triumph, distracted by the scent of copper, the splash of red painted across its skeletal mask.
It has to be. The twisting pain and its whispers tell him that it is so.
And they are right.
"Duskull, the Requiem Pokémon." He tosses his head, spits at the ground. "Sing, birdie—sing." Spiteful, hateful—a voice that is nothing but vitriol.
A flash of light.
The flame behind its gaping sockets still burns.
He no longer possesses the strength to be frightened, and no longer has the presence of mind to understand that he has absolutely no idea of his stolen Pokémon's fighting capabilities. He has never been much one for petty games. Why rest his fate on fickle cards? After all, he has always believed the Ace of Clubs to be too busy drinking; the Ace of Spades, too distracted with her gardening, to bother showing up on time. Why let the spin of a coin decide his path? Metal is always biased to one side or another but never bothers to let him know which—it is completely ignorant to his needs. Why depend on the chance and gimmicks of inanimate objects when he can act and let everything else catch up?
If he fails, it will be entirely his fault. It will be because he guessed incorrectly, not because a Pokémon decides to be difficult.
No wildlife chirps tonight—the beasts of the forest have fled from blood and intruders—but the trees sing to him as he loops himself over their branches, clinging as his head spins and his knees try to buckle.
The Luxio hesitates, tensing; her coat ripples as moonlight collides with quivering sparks. For a single horrifying moment, he is afraid that despite the fact that she has no doubt been reared to revere and obey humans, she is going to bolt—and then she launches herself in front of the Duskull. Her jaws fasten around its mask, clamping down, crushing, grinding. A crack reverberates in the night-dark woods, echoing in the empty trees.
The attack passes innocuously through the specter, now only a hovering mask of death with brimstone eyes in the surrounding dusk, and it cackles out its shrill, keening laugh; it is chortling happily at the Luxio as her teeth grind together. His head twitches as he cringes away from the screeching dissonance of the laughter. He wants to stuff his fingers into his ears, to curl up on the ground and let it kill him…. "Thunder Fang!"
Instantly, shrouds of blackness curl out of the night, solidifying and hurling themselves straight at the Luxio. She falls away in a blurring arc of gold and blue, rolling under the strike while maintaining forward momentum. Electricity crackles and, with a speed faster than his eyes can trace her path, her maw is gaping, jolts of shock are lancing jaggedly from her teeth, shooting into the air, and she is once more fastened around the creature's ashen mask of bone.
This time, it is the mask that crunches beneath her jaws as the Duskull writhes, whipping her with shadow tendrils on all sides. His stomach churns at the jarring crunch of skeleton. Her jaws clamp down harder, grinding into bone and the Duskull is no longer cackling, but shrieking in pain and terror as it thrashes in undulating, black waves, struggling to wrench itself to freedom with increasingly panicked wisps of hardened shadow. The Luxio's pelt is singing, smoking from the shadowed attack, but still she clenches her teeth, clamping down through its crushed face, ignoring the blood—its or hers, she doesn't know—that has began to trickle down her throat.
His head is spinning and his eyes are growing heavy; the Sandman must have poured the entirety of the night's sleeping dust onto him, he thinks. The Duskull, even with its lava-pool eyes and stark mockery of a face, is beginning to blend into the night. The Luxio, too, is slipping away. Something doesn't feel right with his head, with his balance, and as he shifts his weight, the world whirls and he nearly falls. The Pokémon are still at an impasse, he remembers. He knows he has to help, join in, somehow—
A rock. A rock is what he needs, but his vision is fading—he must find one quickly.
How he manages to dig one out of the earth in the darkness, he doesn't know, but it's in his hands and he must—must what? The memory on its glossy wings will not grace him with its presence. But he hears something—grunts, groans, shrieks—and he sees them, the lion cub and the harbringer, locked in battle at a standstill.
He hurls the rock, and somehow, somehow, it slams into its target. "Spark!" The command is roared from his mouth at the same instant, and with the last of his strength he pulls the stolen Pokéball from his pocket, flicking his wrist so its path follows the earthen clod's.
The Luxio takes advantage of her opponent's momentary dizziness and obeys him one final time. Never relinquishing her jaw's ceaseless grip, she sends a whirling shock of electricity straight into the abomination's eyes. The ball shudders, dissolving into hundreds of wriggling slivers on impact, shoving the Duskull back with its force.
Red light flares in the somber forest. As she falls away, the ball wobbles and his vision falls into the black.
He whispers to the wind: "Sing me a threnody."
A Dusknoir cringes beside the dead boy's grave.