It had all been going better for a minute there, Morty had thought. Sure, he and Falkner had gotten off on the wrong foot initially, but Falkner had seemed genuinely interested in their talk about ghosts and the pros and cons of working with them. He'd started to think that there might be hope for—oh, maybe getting a cup of coffee together and talking about Drifloon. Something like that. Then maybe he'd finally be friends with a gym leader that he actually wanted to hang out with. And then he'd never have to spend another Johto-Kanto gym leader conference eating lunch with Sabrina, forced to watch her bend all the cutlery with her mind just to show off. But then he'd had to shut Falkner out with his reticence to talk about his premonitions, and further embarrassed him by pointing out the tower's obvious Freudian symbolism.
And something that really should've known better was about to make matters worse.
Falkner stopped dead and let out an indignant sound as his cheeks were stretched by invisible hands almost to their snapping point in a pantomime of a smile.
Morty sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Hey Gengar. You find anything?"
Gengar materialized, its ghostly hands pulling at Falkner's cheeks. "Garrr," it said with a disappointed shake of its head as it let Falkner's face snap back into its default expression.
"That's too bad," Morty said, but he didn't really expect this to go the easy way. "Thanks for trying," he said, as he called Gengar back into its Poke ball.
"Are you just going to let him get away with that?" Falkner demanded, rubbing his cheek irritably.
Morty shrugged. "He tried his best, but the Gastly nest is obviously well hidden."
"Oh," Morty said, noting Falkner's teeth-gritting expression. "Don't worry too much about it. Ghost Pokemon are naturally mischievous. I'm sure he didn't mean any harm, he was just having fun."
"That's how he has fun?" Falkner repeated incredulously. He glared off into the shadows. "You know, I can't even figure out why you'd want to be a ghost type trainer anyway. I mean, you don't exactly look like the fun-loving type," he added spitefully.
Morty did not take offense, but nodded seriously. "I suppose that's true," he said. "But I appreciate the ghost's well… high spirits." He smiled a rye little smile. "In my quest to see Ho-oh it would be all too easy for me to lose both my sense of humor… and sense of myself. The ghosts remind me of that, and I am quite grateful."
"You want to see Ho-oh that badly?" Falkner asked, all annoyance at Gengar's prank forgotten.
Morty nodded again. "Yes. More than anything." He paused and almost seemed to chide himself. "No, not more than anything. I want to see Ho-oh very badly, but I don't think Ho-oh would choose to appear to someone who'd disregard and throw everything away just to see it. I think Ho-oh values both people and Pokemon too much for that."
Falkner looked thoughtful. "My dad used to talk about Ho-oh," he said softly.
Morty looked at him out of the corner of his eye. Yes… it hadn't occurred to him, but the master of Flying Pokemon had just as much reason to want to be the lucky trainer to see Ho-oh as Morty did himself. Falkner of all people would appreciate and share Morty's desire to see the rainbow bird.
"What did he say?" Morty began to ask, but an answer wasn't forthcoming. They reached the top of the staircase and entered another room. Morty could feel a ghostly presence all around them that made the hairs on the back of his neck rise. It was so strong that Falkner must've been able to feel it too by his expression.
"I can't see anyone," Falkner said, head darting back and forth as his eyes squinted through the pitch black. "But they're here, aren't they?"
"No," Morty said, solemnly stretching his senses as far as they could reach. "They're very, very close, but they're not here. But…" he looked around the room. "This can't be right. They've got to be in the next room, but there is no next room." He cast his eyes on the many Bellsprout statues that decorated the room, but couldn't find a staircase. They really were on the top floor. "They can't be on the roof, can they?"
"Maybe," Falkner began, "but there's—" Whatever Falkner said next was overpowered by a sound like breathing static that filled the room with an overpowering force. Falkner tried to shout over it, but only his lips moved.
Then the room seemed to change. Crackling in tune with the unearthly sound, fire and smoke filled the room, flashing and juddering back and forth in black and white. Morty grit his teeth and looked wildly around, trying to locate the source of this pandemonium, but his own senses were overloaded in the presence of this monumental astral force. Falkner had no experience with this kind of phenomenon and was deathly pale.
Suddenly, with a retching sound, Falkner began to fall forward. It was as though the gravity of the room had switched and the wall had become the floor. Only Falkner seemed to be drawn by this irresistible force behind the back wall. He flailed and tried to get his footing, his eyes wide with horror, but nothing seemed to be strong enough to break away from that force.
It took a great force of will for Morty to move. He knew that they were no longer, technically speaking, in the physical world. They hadn't quite crossed over, but they were in one of the in-between places where the laws of physics get dumped out the window. The air around him felt like an oozing, liquid substance, and his entire body was heavy. His psychic senses were being shattered and blinded by the vast quantity of white noise. But still he rushed forward, chasing after Falkner as he was pulled by the ghostly force.
But he couldn't move fast enough. His shoulders ached as he stretched his arms as far as they could go, but he couldn't reach Falkner's desperately outreached hand. And the wall was approaching.
The wall did nothing to slow Falkner down. In this spectral dimension, in this scene that had played over and over again on the inside of Morty's eyelids, the Flying type gym leader passed straight through the wall as though it was made of smoke. Only the hand remained, white with terror, grasping, but still out of reach. And even that was gone in seconds as the fingertips sunk to the ghostly realm beyond.
Morty hit the wall hard. It had ceased to be a permeable membrane as soon as Falkner had passed through. Now it was just as solid as it had always been. He slammed his fists against as though that would open the barrier again.
"Falkner? Falkner! Can you hear me?" he shouted.
There was no answer, only a din of ghostly whispers.
He turned to the side and rammed his shoulder into the wall, hoping to break through, but the tower had stood for hundreds of years and wasn't going to break down any time soon. This is my fault. That thought surged through him with every bruising impact against the wall. He should've never let Falkner come along with him. This wasn't a nature walk for goodness sakes! He forgot sometimes. He got too comfortable, too confident in dealing with ghosts that he'd decided he could handle it. This was a dangerous business, and the threat of harm lurked around every corner. Not only was the body in peril, but the spirit. And now they'd taken Falkner. What were they doing to him?
Every ghostly utterance sounded like a sadistic laugh and a promise of pain to him. He couldn't hear Falkner screaming any more, but that only worried him more. He couldn't feel his shoulder anymore. He fell against the wall and down to the floor, his breathing ragged. He wanted to get up again, wanted to pound at the door until one of them broke, wanted to get beyond it to where they had taken Falkner. But his body screamed at him: stop. STOP! Think.
He tried. The adrenaline pulsing through his veins was telling him to fight and fight and fight, but he tried to calm himself, tried to think. Okay. They'd taken Falkner. What could they want with him? Was he just an innocent bystander in all this… or… maybe… yes, unlike Morty, Falkner was not an alien in the tower. This was his town and he'd played there as a child. He belonged in the tower. Perhaps the ghosts weren't acting out of bloodlust but out of a desire for help. Naturally they'd go to Falkner, the familiar face. The one who wasn't fighting them anymore, but trying to understand it all.
And hadn't Falkner said something just before everything went to hell? He was going to tell Morty something about the room, but didn't have time. Falkner knew the tower in and out. He'd explored it as a kid, he'd said. What did he know? What was hidden in this place?
He stared at the wall. No amount of pounding would get it to break, but… He knocked on the wall and heard a hollow echo. There had to be something beyond. How…?
His gaze fell on one of the many Bellsprout statues that lined the walls. Maybe…? He got up and touched it gingerly. The stone leaf seemed to give a little in his hand, he pulled on it and the wall slid open with a creak.
He stepped into the room, trying to prepare himself for the absolute worse—conjuring up all those dark and bloody rooms that reeked of loneliness and abuse—those places that left a scar on this world and the spirit world.
"Morty!" a voice cried, and there was a thump as the shorter leader ran into his arms.
Morty was already pretty sure that Falkner was not the huggy type. He considered for a moment the possibility of a ghost possessing Falkner—perhaps preying upon Morty's affections to lead him into a trap (the fact that those affections were already forming was enough to worry him). But as he heard the muffled, hysterical sounds and felt the dull ache of Falkner burying his face into his heavily bruised shoulder, he did not think this was the case. Even the strongest of us lose our cool when dragged through dimensions by unearthly and possibly sinister forces.
He patted Falkner's shuddering shoulders. "It's okay," he said. "I'm here." And he knew that once Falkner had a chance to calm down a bit, he'd be asked never to mention this situation again. He looked up into the midnight faces of more Gastly than ought to have been able to fit in the room. Their faces looked at him—expectant, judgmental. Then they glided their gaze over to something in the center of the room.
Morty let go of Falkner gently and moved toward the center of the Gasty's focus. There was a small, simply carved statue of a Bellsprout, not like the great ones that ranged the upper floors. But this one looked older and, somehow, more cherished. On either side of it were candles with blackened wicks. Not even thin streams of smoke issued from them as a small sign of the vibrancy they once must have had. On the floor were dried and decaying flowers.
"Have you been in here before Falkner?" Morty asked softly.
"Only once, when I was eight," Falkner said, through deep breaths as he tried to find calm. "But Sage Troy told me not to go here. He said it was a sacred place."
"It is," Morty said, in that same soft, careful voice. "This is a shrine. It's a monument to those wild Bellsprout that died here." He sniffed the air, though he seemed to be sensing the smells of a different time from this one. "I sense fire," he said, "and I sense pain."
He knelt down before the cold shrine, and took out a Poke ball. In a flash of red a Haunter appeared.
"Haunt-ahhh!" it proclaimed joyously to the physical and spiritual worlds.
"Haunter," Morty said, "I need you to fly down to the garden and bring up a branch with blossoms on it. Could you do that?"
"Haunt!" Haunter answered, throwing something close to a salute before flying straight through the wall and down.
With Haunter gone, Morty reached into his bag and pulled out a lighter. He flicked it into life and held it up to each candle. When their flames were lit they seemed to bring a glow to the Bellsprout carving that made it almost look alive. It even seemed to move in the flickering light.
"What's going on?" Falkner demanded, still working his way up from the depths of shock.
"They brought you here because they recognized you," Morty said. "Because you belong to this tower too and because you should care." He lowered his voice. "And because they knew I would follow you."
"Care about what?" Falkner asked.
"Do you recall? Sage Neal said that Sage Troy is away and Elder Li is ill. That's two senior members gone for weeks at a time. They're probably the only two who know about this shrine," Morty said. He paused. "…Besides you. But that was by accident."
"Haunt-ah!" Haunter called, phasing back into the room with a sprig of tender pink blossoms.
"Thank you, Haunter," Morty said, taking the branch and recalling Haunter. He wiped away the dusty, decayed offerings and set down the new flowers. The Gastly surrounding them disappeared one by one, cleared away like smoke in a strong wind. Morty closed his eyes. "That's all you wanted."
"Are you telling me," Falkner said, indignation having carried him out of his hysteria, "that all this fuss—attacking people and putting everyone in danger—was just because their shrine didn't get tended to for a few weeks?"
Morty kept his eyes closed. "Being remembered is all they have," he said, bringing his hands together in a prayer-like gesture. "To those Bellsprout, who passed away so many years ago in a terrible fire, this shrine is their only connection to this world and the people in it. It is the only small light in their darkness that says they still matter. It is… life for them. It's all the life they have left. Can you blame them, or the Gastly who acted on their behalf, for fighting for it?"
There was silence for a minute, then Morty felt movement beside him and opened one eye. Falkner was kneeling next to him, head bowed and hands clasped together in prayer. And so they prayed together in the small room with its insistent smell of incense, and they remembered the Bellsprout. That's all the shades could ask for now.
"We'll have to let Sage Neal know about this," Morty said, as he and Falkner left the small shrine and closed the door behind them. "I'm sure they didn't neglect the Bellsprout shrine on purpose, but perhaps it was something only senior sages were responsible for. With all the havoc over Elder Li's sickness, it's no surprise that the detail got overlooked or forgotten."
"Yes," Falkner said, and Morty noticed he was limping slightly. He must've hit the ground hard after the Gastly dragged him into the shrine. "The sages have a very ridged hierarchy. It doesn't surprise me that none of the others know about this."
"So… that's settled then," Morty said, feeling rather awkward now that the mission had been completed.
"Yeah," Falkner said with equal awkwardness. "Uh… back in the shrine when I—"
Morty held up a hand and said, "Don't worry. It's already forgotten."
Falkner gave him a look that said he didn't have to forget it, just never mention it again EVER.
After apparently struggling with himself (his aura now an unsure, muddy shade of blue) Falkner reached over and took Morty's hand. It honestly wasn't something Morty had suspected, but he tried to play it cool.
"I thought you had great night vision," he said.
"I do," Falkner said defensively. "It's just… well, I'm tired after all this and trying to see in the dark for this long is a real strain on my eyes. Not all of us have second sight, you know. The least you could do is help me out after dragging me into this."
Morty recalled doing no dragging, but nevertheless smiled and led Falkner down the stairs by the hand. "No problem," he said.
Silence bogged them down on the trip down the tower. The feeling of holding hands was strange enough to squelch out most everyday conversation. Passing comments about the weather wouldn't have survived a minute in that atmosphere.
But Morty tried. "So, I've been thinking," he said after he could no longer stand the silence, "maybe I'll come back to visit Violet City every so often. You know, to check on the Ghost population in the tower; make sure they're getting along okay. That kind of thing. Of course… it would be a big help if you'd come along with me."
"Of course," Falkner said, in a tone that implied this went without saying. "It would be my duty as the Violet City Gym Leader."
"Of course," Morty echoed.
"And," Falkner said, before the silence could take over once again, "I've been thinking too. Maybe I should visit Ecruteak City. You know, pay my respects to the Rainbow Bird and everything. I'd… I'd need a guide for that. And since I've helped you out here it only seems reasonable for you to—"
"I'd be happy to help," Morty answered before Falkner could trail off.
"Good," Falkner said in a voice that tried to convince both himself and Morty that there was no hidden softness behind it.
"Maybe," Morty said, looking off into the darkness and perhaps even the future, "maybe we'll see it together someday."
And so, the two walked through the darkened hallways, no longer filled with the shadows of forsaken ghosts. They passed into the courtyard where the first rays of the rising sun were making the circle of lanterns look like solar pretenders. There they met the group of sages who were far too grateful for the two leaders' help and far too relieved in seeing that they were alive to notice that they were still holding hands in the pale light of morning.