Wind rushed through Kari's hair as she clung to Dragonite's neck, her stomach fluttering in exhilaration as they descended towards the plateau. This was it: the site of the Indigo League. After a long, arduous journey of narrow victories, shameful losses, and eventually earning all eight Johto gym badges through blood, sweat and tears, she was finally here, and with Dragonite by her side, nothing could stop her from being crowned champion this year.
"You tired?" she called to her partner. The Pokémon grinned and took a playful dive by way of answer, and she chuckled even as her stomach took a lurch at the unexpected movement. "Thought not. I was thinking we should find a trainer for a practice match, just to see where we stand compared to the other people here. What do you say?"
"I'm in," replied the dragon and took another swoop downwards, energized at the thought of a battle. Kari smiled to herself. She had always figured that even if she hadn't been interested, he would have dragged her out to be a trainer anyway; he could never stand being a pet.
Dragonite skillfully pulled into a low, lazy hover over the general area and Kari peered down at the trainers, trying to pick out a suitable opponent. She ignored those that were just squabbling with one another; if they would come here and hold back on the training, they were probably just casual trainers and in the weaker half. Some were battling against each other, but if she landed next to a battle and watched until it was over, it would look like she was sneakily trying to gauge their battle styles and strategies for the tournament. But others were discussing strategies with their Pokémon or practicing moves alone, and it was to them that she looked now when scouting for potential opponents.
"That guy," she said at last. "Blond, ten o'clock. With the Scizor. Let's see if he's any good."
Her Pokémon nodded and approached the trainer she indicated, landing a safe distance away; it tended to startle people when they landed too close. The boy's Scizor was expertly smashing a rock into pieces with its metallic claws, paying them no notice as its trainer gave it some inaudible directions.
Kari slid off Dragonite's back. The trainer turned to her as the two of them walked towards him.
"Hey," she called, raising a hand in greeting. "I just got here and want an idea of how I stand. Quick one-on-one? Your strongest against my strongest?" She pointed a thumb over her shoulder to indicate her Pokémon while she quickly sized her opponent up. He was on the short side, skinny and pale and sickly-looking, but his light blue eyes sparkled with the same confidence she'd seen in his posture that had made her decide to challenge him. His Scizor looked disinterestedly up at her as the boy cocked his head slightly.
"A Dragonite?" he asked. "Impressive. Where'd you get it?"
Kari grinned. "My grandpa's one of the elders of the Dragon's Den in Blackthorn City. Gave him to me as a Dratini when I was a kid. So what have you got to match him? Scizor?"
The boy fingered one of the Pokéballs at his belt slowly as he glanced at the bug Pokémon. "Oh, no," he replied. "Scizor's not my strongest. That's why it needed the training." He turned his gaze back towards her and smiled. "Okay, you're on. One on one."
Dragonite stepped in front of Kari, giving her a quick nod and a grin before he turned to face his opponent. The other trainer detached the ball he'd been fiddling with from his belt, turned it over in his palm a few times, and then called, "Snorlax, go!"
Kari raised her eyebrows as the Pokéball he threw released a huge blob of white light. She'd assumed the kid was pretty good, sure, but not a lot of people had Snorlax, plus that it just didn't seem to fit such a small, skinny trainer. But unexpected as it was, it did not pose a problem for Dragonite; he stood tall and unwavering as the light took the shape of the Snorlax's enormous, round belly and two stubby feet, and Kari did not doubt that he could win.
"Okay, Dragonite, let's start off this battle with a Safeguard," she said, studying the other trainer's face as she gave the order. He still seemed calm, confident, self-assured. She wondered idly how long that would last.
Dragonite took off from the ground and formed a translucent white protective sphere around himself as he watched the other Pokémon closely. Kari could not see the Snorlax's head, but she could hear its heavy, deep voice mumbling as if in its sleep. Curse – wasn't that the move Morty's Ghost Pokémon had used? She cringed at the memory; Dratini had been brought down in both of her challenges by the terrifying, invisible specters the ghosts had produced by sacrificing their own strength. She could see in his eyes that he was anticipating the same, but he wasn't shuddering and shivering like he had then – in fact, a quick glance and a nod confirmed he didn't feel any adverse effects at all. Most likely the Safeguard had blocked it, then.
"Dragonite, Outrage," she said warily, watching the boy – he didn't look like someone whose move had just failed. Poker face? Or was she missing something?
"Curse again," the trainer ordered, and Kari looked sharply up at Dragonite in alarm as his body began to flare with blue flames. She was definitely missing something. This guy wasn't stupid enough to just retry a move that didn't work.
"Wait, Dragonite," she began, even though she knew at this point he couldn't hear or understand her. His face contorted with fabricated rage, and then he took a swooping dive towards the Snorlax and smashed his body into its gigantic belly, which gave way like a trampoline and sent him bouncing back up. The Snorlax continued to mumble as if it hadn't noticed the attack at all.
Dragonite was still showing no signs of being harmed by the Curse attack, however, and as soon as he regained control of his flight, he swooped down again in a more precisely aimed attack at the Snorlax's head. This time there was a reaction, an irritated grunt just as the dragon struck, but no more, and as Dragonite pulled back up, the trainer gave yet another order:
"One more Curse!"
It still wasn't affecting Dragonite at all from the looks of it; then it had to be affecting Snorlax himself, one way or another, since the boy kept using it. And when it was shrugging off powerful attacks so easily, it seemed plain that it was boosting its defensive abilities – she was lost as to how the same move could be doing this now and something completely different when Morty used it, but there was only one conclusion she could draw from this. Which meant that the best they could do was try to use moves that bypassed it.
"Dragonite," she called as her Pokémon smashed himself into Snorlax for the last time and the dragon flames faded from his body, "use a Dragon Rage!"
It took him a moment to reorient himself after the Outrage, but the Safeguard successfully warded off the worst of it. As Snorlax began to mumble for the third time, Dragonite took a deep breath and expelled it in a blast of blue-green fire that enveloped the Normal-type's body for a few tense seconds; Kari heard the Sorlax groan in pain and grinned triumphantly as she looked back at the other boy, daring him to come up with a counterstrategy.
"Snorlax, Body Slam."
Nothing at all happened for a few seconds; Kari seized the opportunity to shout, "Another Dragon Rage!"
As Dragonite prepared to repeat his previous attack, Snorlax's arms reached slowly forward on either side of its body, and miraculously, it managed to prop itself into a sitting position, allowing Kari to finally see its expressionless face just before it was hit with a second round of dragon fire. It grunted again, but in an aloof way, as if only barely aware of the pain. Then it leant forward, somehow got its legs under itself, and stood up, wobbling unsteadily.
An idea popped into her head, and she couldn't resist the opportunity to try. "Dragonite, knock it down with Extremespeed!" she called quickly, and her Pokémon became a tan-colored blur as he zoomed straight into Snorlax's body –
He let out a surprised whine of pain as he crashed against its no longer soft belly while it failed to budge at all, and then the Snorlax let itself fall forward, crushing Dragonite under its weight. The only sound he could make was a quiet squeak before he went limp.
Kari stared at it in horror, so flabbergasted that it took her a second to take out the Pokéball and recall him from underneath Snorlax's massive body. That thing couldn't just have taken out Dragonite in one measly blow. She looked limply up at the other trainer, who was smirking as he recalled his own Pokémon.
"Good battle," he said, and she couldn't shake the thought that he was subtly mocking her.
"That move. Curse." Kari looked away, blinking rapidly to preempt the tears that were dangerously close to forming in her eyes. "How does it work?"
"It sacrifices speed to improve both attack and defense," the boy answered. "It's pretty cool. I've got a spare TM, if you'd like."
Kari looked back at him. He was smiling, and though her sore loser instinct still wanted to think he was a cheap idiot, he really seemed to genuinely want to help.
"I think your Dragonite could use it well," he went on. "It knows Extremespeed, correct? So if it needs to strike quickly, it still can. And Dragonite are good with physical attacks."
Kari nodded slowly. Though she liked fast Pokémon and would normally not be keen on sacrificing speed, he was right; Dragonite could still strike first, using the unique move the elders had taught him. Best of all, nobody would expect it, since normal Dragonite didn't know Extremespeed. It would be just the thing to bring her team up to par, really, after the admitted shock of discovering that the trainers here were stronger than she'd thought.
"Well, I wouldn't want to take the last one from you," she said, not wanting to seem desperate or greedy.
"No, really, you can have it," the boy said and walked quickly over to a green backpack that lay propped against a nearby rock. He rummaged through it for a few seconds before drawing out a CD case and hurrying over to her with it to present it to her with a smile.
She took it; both the case and the CD were blank, which was odd for a TM, but then she had never heard of this TM before, so perhaps it was some sort of a beta thing. "Thanks," she said. "Thanks a lot."
"Glad to help," replied the boy before turning around to walk back to his Scizor, which was still waiting by the rocks.
"Hey, wait," Kari called, and he stopped, turning back around. She had meant to ask where he got the TM, but she changed her mind before the words reached her mouth. "I remember Morty used that move, but then it worked completely differently. What's up with that?"
"Oh, it's different for Ghost-types," the boy said.
Kari looked blankly at him. "Why?"
The trainer shrugged as he turned back to his bug Pokémon. "Dunno."
Kari turned over in her Pokémon Center bed for the umpteenth time; memories of Morty's frighteningly powerful, ghostly Pokémon and their creepy moves from today's catastrophic failure of a battle flitted around in her mind, keeping her awake.
"I wonder if Ghost Pokémon are the only ones that can use Curse," she mused aloud after a long while.
"Probably," muttered Dratini, who was curled up on the floor with his eyes closed. "Laying curses on the opponent? It's a very Ghost thing to do. I don't know of any other Pokémon that do anything quite like that."
"I guess." Kari paused. "But what about the sacrificing health for power bit? Morty worded it like that was just to get the power to do it. Couldn't you use the power for something other than cursing the opponent, then?"
"Go to sleep," said Dratini groggily. "Will you ever stop thinking about that move? You're just overanalyzing it because we lost a battle. It's not the end of the world."
Kari sighed. "I guess not. I'm sorry. Good night, Dratini."
"I'm so sorry," Kari said, stroking Dragonite's muzzle as the nurse left them alone in the recovery room. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," he replied heavily after a second's pause. "Just tired and dizzy. Some rest and I'll be fine."
"It's that move, Curse, I know it," she said. "It always leaves you a bit numb and tired. I should have known it wouldn't be wise to use it too often in one battle. I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault."
"No, really, I should never have had you use it. You said you didn't really like it after we first tried it; I should've listened to you then. It's bad for you, even if it powers you up. From now on, we're not using Curse ever again. Okay?"
Dragonite smiled, and she could tell he was relieved. "Thanks," he muttered.
"I'm sorry, Dragonite. I really am. You don't need some creepy power-up move to be strong. We're going to train and we'll win this thing without it. And I'll find that kid who gave me the TM and tell him to stop using it, too." She took a deep breath. "I love you, Dragonite," she said quietly. "I wouldn't want to win with a move that makes you sick."
The Pokémon nuzzled at her, closing his eyes. "I know," he whispered. "It's no one's fault. We just didn't know how bad it could get. That's all."
Kari paced around their room, still agitated after the loss earlier. "So the ghosts are sacrificing their own health to use that Curse thing, and then it puts a curse on you that has invisible specters assaulting you?"
Dratini nodded tiredly, probably a little annoyed at being interrogated the moment he was out of the Pokémon Center.
"How does that work? Morty's little speech implied that they're just hurting themselves to gather the power they need, but how do they gain power by hurting themselves? I've never heard of Pokémon doing that before."
"Beats me," Dratini replied, "but it's just a move. We can work around it. Stop worrying and let's figure it out."
"Fine." Kari took a deep breath. "Okay. You're right. It doesn't matter how it works. We'll just find our way past Morty, and then we'll hopefully never have to worry about that stupid move again."
Kari never did find the boy who'd given her the TM. She hadn't seen him around since that day, and nobody she asked knew his name or where he'd gone. She figured – or hoped – that he'd realized the unsettling aftereffects of the move and left to care for his Snorlax.
Meanwhile, Dragonite got better. It took several days before he felt motivated again, but it happened eventually, and within a week, he was back to his old cheerful, energetic self.
"What was up with that move, anyway?" said Kari during one training session. "I mean, what is it you're muttering when you use it? Pokémon swear words?"
"I don't really know," Dragonite replied, musing. "It's just part of the move. I'm not very consciously aware of exactly what it entails. It's like when I'm flying – it's not like I'm thinking about just what muscles I'm pulling."
"Huh. Are all TMs like that?"
"More or less." Dragonite took a deep breath and hit a nearby rock with a Fire Blast. "I guess I could use it and try to pay attention to the words this time."
"No way. We're never using that move again, remember?"
Dragonite tilted his head in thought as he drew back his paw and smashed the scorched rock to pieces with a well-aimed punch. "Well, in an emergency…"
"What are you talking about? Emergency or no, I won't make you use a move that hurts you in the long term. If that means we drop out of the tournament, so be it."
"You're forgetting one thing," Dragonite said, looking into her eyes. "I want to win, too. It's not that bad. I'd gladly lie in the Pokémon Center staring into space for twice that long if it meant we'd be champions. Of course I'd rather not if we could do without it, but when it would save us? Don't hesitate to order it. I'll do it."
"I guess," Kari said, not sure she was entirely convinced. She straightened herself and took a deep breath. "It probably won't come to that. We've been doing great so far; I think the Snorlax kid must have been head and shoulders above everybody else here or just about. I doubt we'll need it."
Dragonite shrugged, and the conversation moved on to Kari's preliminary battles and just how stupid that one kid had to be to send out his Venusaur against Magmar.
"Good match," said Morty as he recalled his Gengar, its cackling laugh echoing eerily around the room for a second after it disappeared.
Kari nodded numbly, speechless, still clutching Magmar's Pokéball in her hand.
"Ghost Pokémon have many ways of cursing opponents in one way or another to cripple or damage them in battle," Morty said. "The move we call Curse is a particularly useful and versatile one of those ways, even though gathering the energy to use it comes at a price. You're not the first trainer to fail to anticipate it."
The only word of this speech that really stuck for Kari at the moment was "fail". She had never lost to a gym leader before. They were predictable type specialists, all glaring common weaknesses that were easily exploited, with some high-leveled Pokémon but not high-leveled enough to make up for it – right? Wasn't that what she'd always said? And now she'd just lost to one, somehow.
She looked away, gave Morty some halfhearted goodbye-and-I'll-be-back and sped out towards the Pokémon Center, her face flushed. Next time, she would win.
And this was it. Finally, she was here in the main stadium, in front of thousands of spectators, staring her opponent down across the battlefield as the status screens crossed out his Alakazam. Dragonite stood his ground on Kari's end, battered after that Psychic that had thrown him into the wall, but satisfied and alert, ready to take on the last obstacle standing in the way between them and the championship.
That obstacle was a Tyranitar.
Kari knew one misstep would crush them now – Tyranitar had the type advantage, and Dragonite was hurt to boot. But she knew she could trust him to do his very best, no matter what happened; they could win this together, just like all the previous battles, just like the semifinal match when Dragonite had even taken out a Piloswine on his own.
"Tyranitar, Rock Slide!"
The Tyranitar let out a deep, rumbling roar as Dragonite took flight and zoomed towards it. Huge chunks of rock rose from the ground around Tyranitar while the dragon approached, paw clenched, and then as Dragonite's fist swung, the dinosaur jerked its head to the right, and the punch missed. Kari knew Dynamicpunch was easy to dodge, but as the boulders crashed into Dragonite's body and buried him under, she bit her lip with a twinge of guilt. Taking this risk probably hadn't been worth it; it had been a stupid move on her part, now when stupid moves could cost them the championship they both desired. She couldn't screw up like that again.
Screech. That would cripple his defensive abilities; she couldn't let that happen while he was out of control. "Wait!" Kari shouted before Dragonite had the chance to prepare his attack. He looked quickly around as Tyranitar opened his mouth and let out a horrifying, high-pitched sound; Kari saw Dragonite flinch as he heard it.
"Use Curse," she said after a moment's hesitation.
Dragonite closed his eyes and began to mutter inaudibly, and Kari could see pent-up tension in his body relaxing. Was it just an effect of the move? Or was he actually relieved she'd ordered it?
"Rock Slide!" shouted the other trainer, and Tyranitar roared, sending a barrage of rocks Dragonite's way.
"Again," Kari said and then cringed as Dragonite was crushed under the boulders, but then he rose up again, slowly but without difficulty, and continued to mumble.
There was a pause, and it hit Kari with a jolt that the other trainer probably felt the same about Curse as she had when she'd battled the Snorlax kid – he was probably confused, not sure what it did. And that meant they could use his confusion to replicate the Snorlax kid's strategy.
"Another Rock Slide," came the order at last, a hint of doubt in its tone.
Kari's heart thumped rapidly as she saw Dragonite open his eyes again. "One more Curse! Give it your all!"
Rocks buried the dragon underneath them yet again, but he rose from the rubble with a dazed indifference, his eyes closed again, and began his chant, a bit louder than before. And though it would not make much difference to the audience and the other trainer, it allowed Kari to finally make out the words:
Dark One, set your curse upon me
Drain my soul away
Steal my lifeblood
Bit by bit
Accept my final gift
At first she just stared in incomprehension, everything jumbling up in her head. "Dragonite?" she said in limp disbelief. "Dragonite, stop!" she called, louder, as it all began to piece itself back together in her mind, but the Pokémon didn't hear her and simply droned on in a low, raspy voice:
Give me power
Give me strength
I'll give you my soul
"Tyranitar, one more Rock Slide!" called the other trainer, oblivious; Kari stared wildly at him as if expecting him to step in to stop this somehow.
Give me glory
Give me fame
I will give you me
Dragonite looked up as his opponent began to raise rocks from the ground. For a moment Kari stared fixedly at his back, eyes wide, almost expecting him to vanish into thin air, but he did not vanish; he stood motionless, shrugging off the Rock Slide without so much as flinching.
"D-Dynamicpunch," she managed to say, all the while repeating to herself that he would be okay, that he would just need some rest and then he would be fine, and that it was worth it this one time if they won the League, right?
It took him a few seconds to react; the other trainer used the opportunity to order another Rock Slide. Then, slowly, Dragonite took off the ground, flew towards the Tyranitar – a few boulders smashed him in the face on the way, but he hardly seemed to notice – and smashed his fist into the dinosaur's stomach. The impact threw it backwards, sending it crashing into the wall as it roared and twisted in pain.
"Extremespeed!" Kari called quickly, and Dragonite tackled the Tyranitar down at a sudden blinding speed as it tried to rise. Its trainer stared open-mouthed at his Pokémon as it failed to make another attempt, and as the spectators realized the battle had reached its conclusion, the crowd erupted into explosive applause.
Dragonite stood still on the arena and blinked dully at Kari.
"Dratini, be ready," Kari said with confidence as she faced the leader of the Ecruteak Gym. Contrary to whatever prior ideas she had about Ghost-type specialists, Morty was a handsome, young man with a fair complexion and a lump of hay-blond hair held back by a purple headband – she really couldn't help thinking he didn't seem very tough.
"Ghost Pokémon are just souls that take a physical form," the gym leader began as Dratini slithered into the arena, focused and determined as always, his tail twitching in anticipation. "They're mischievous and humorous because high spirits nourish the soul, and for them, nourishing the soul means the body as well. Our souls are fragile and may never recover fully when damaged, but theirs can mend quickly; they have to, because otherwise they would die." He paused for a moment. "And that is why they fascinate me."
"Spare us the speech," Kari replied. "We're here for a badge, not a lecture."
"Very well," said Morty evenly as he removed a Pokéball from his belt. "Gastly, go! Use Curse!"
"He's the same. Doesn't speak, doesn't react to much, eats what you put in front of him." The nurse hesitated. "What on earth happened to him?" she asked quietly.
"I don't know," said Kari. "Let me see him."
The nurse bowed and led the way down a long corridor, into the private room Kari had paid to have him placed in after receiving the prize money. She waved the nurse out and closed the door, leaving her alone with the great dragon that lay flat on his stomach on the soft bed in the middle of the room.
"Dragonite?" she whispered. There was no response; the Pokémon's eyes stared blankly straight ahead. After a moment of silence, she pulled up a chair and sat down beside him. Her hand reached out to his neck and stroked it gently.
"We did it, you know. We're champions." She paused, watching his eye carefully for a reaction, but again there was none. Kari sighed and pulled her hand back, staring at her partner for a long while.
"It's pretty fun, being the champion," she said quietly. "They granted me access to Mount Silver, where only champions can go. I've met powerful trainers from other regions there. And kids recognize me in the street, ask for autographs." She paused again. "They ask how you're doing and want to see you, and I have to lie and tell them you're fine and you just don't like the attention. But I know you'd love it."
Kari gazed at the Pokémon for a few painful seconds, tears burning in her eyes. "Why aren't you getting better?" she asked bitterly, clenching her fist. "You always got better before. I thought you'd – you told me you'd get better. But now it's been two weeks and you're still not talking or reacting or…"
Her voice abruptly broke into a choked burst of hysterical sobbing, and somewhere within her flashed a ridiculous hope for a fairy-tale ending where seeing her cry would snap him out of it and he would rise to comfort her and everything would be back to normal. But she looked back at him and his eyes remained dull and lifeless, devoid of the spark that had once made him who he was.
"Please, look at me," she whispered pointlessly, and her heart jumped as his head moved, but sank again when his face turned towards her with that same empty stare, like a giant marionette strung up by her commands. She shivered at the unsettling void in his eyes and told him in a shaky voice to look away again.
"You still respond to commands," she thought aloud as the head turned back towards the wall. "You just don't have any will or personality or…"
There was a long silence; Kari looked away, gripping the armrest on her chair tightly as if she could make everything okay if she squeezed it hard enough. She knew, deep down, that Dragonite would never come back.
But she couldn't go home and tell her grandfather she had made him use a move that was chipping pieces from his soul in order to win the championship. Saying he'd told her he wanted to use it would be a hollow excuse. Saying he'd died would be an obvious lie when there had been no burial and no body, besides they'd want to know why. And the thought of euthanizing him, even though she knew he wasn't really him or anyone at all anymore, made her nauseous.
It crept upon her, slowly, as she sat there, that if he still obeyed orders, he could still battle. She could probably teach him some phrases, tell her family he no longer liked to be outside his Pokéball, and continue journeying so they would never be home long enough for it to become suspicious.
Dragonite had been strong before; Curse had made him invincible. She could conquer the leagues of the world and no one would ever know. Perhaps she could even consider it to be honoring the memory of the dragon who had once so loved to fight and compete.
Kari took a long look at Dragonite's Pokéball and shuddered at what she was about to do before she stood up, still unable to face him.
"Okay, Dragonite," she said, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. "We're leaving."
Author's note: In case it confused you, the league scenes were in chronological order, but the flashbacks to the Morty stuff were in reverse chronological order. I'm not sure how hard it is to tell; if you didn't get it until you read this, by all means tell me so I can see what I can do to make it clearer.
Likewise, the information given here should also be sufficient to work out fully how Curse works in this story, but if you're having a hard time piecing some part of it together, it might very well be my fault and you should tell me.