The Enigma Chronicles – Echoes
Chapter 16: Of Monsters and Men
I stood poised and motionless atop the ancient tower, as if sculpted there for the occasion. My arms froze and tensed as I gazed upwards into the brooding slate gray sky, with patches of darker mood splashed like bruises on its belly. Nightfall was imminent but the tropical winds were gravid with extreme potency, causing the ocean waters below to shudder and churn with violent strokes.
Not a single trace of glister or shimmer filtered through the ashen clouds above, a promise of the moonless night I'd long waited for. My patient hands cuffed together behind my back and I slowly leveled my gaze with the eye of the fading horizon, where a cold harsh wind approached. "Tonight is the night," I whispered fortuitously against the bleak, icy gusts rushing at me. "All I need now... is Clint."
As if to applaud, a booming bolt of blue lightning ignited in the sky, setting the clouds aflicker with fear and thunder. The island holding me stirred like an upset stomach as the hurricane hit harder.
For a fleeting second, I felt like the future was already upon me, premature but much welcomed. My eyes adjusted to the phantasy projecting from my mind: what fell from the sky was dry and hard and as red as blood, pouring down my bare skin in crimson streaks, seeping to the bone and the beast inside me.
Cries from every corner of the world echoed like thunder, some anguished and others rejoiced. A desperate game of survival was at hand. The skies filled with fire, the oceans with blood. A gust of shadows whirled around me like a cape, then filled my lungs, Giratina's power fusing with my blood. Perfection.
The rain fell harder now, smelling of rot. Legendaries, I loved it. So primordial. So exquisite. If only Wade could taste it, if only Anna would. What fools they were to pass up the hand of freedom and chaos, bloodshed and beauty. And for what? Rules and social norms and senseless infatuations with creatures we were supposed to feel indebted to? If everyone were to unlock their hidden talents, their inborn elements, what need would there ultimately be for such creatures?
Slipping back to reality, the world around me suddenly reverted to its dull, knavish coating. I blinked away the darkness at the edge of my vision, but refused to break my lax stance. Something else had diverted my attention anyhow—a presence strong with the Aura. And it was drawing closer to me, ascending the tower and reaching out to my lifeforce. I could hardly contain my smile. "I knew you wouldn't keep me waiting, Clint."
Like two Ninjasks leaving behind a cloud of dust in their wake, Anna and Wade charged furiously towards the village walls of the dragon clan. The twisted trees and rocky ridges around them blurred as they picked up speed, bringing them into focus as the vale of the mountain began to narrow.
In the distance, Sa'lu herself appeared at the very top of the village walls, standing proud and poised like a perfectly perched Altaria. She was wearing a smile that reached her baleful blue eyes, and time suddenly crawled to a standstill as Wade looked up to meet the dragon trainer's treacherous gaze.
Spotting the pair closing in, Sa'lu motioned her hand, as droves upon droves of Dragon Pokémon suddenly emerged from beyond the village walls. Together, they took to the skies in a whoosh of gust that nearly sent Anna and Wade scudding back down the mountain channel.
Dragons of all shapes and sizes now fended the village skies. From the meekest of Vibravas and Dragonairs to the colossal Charizards and Druddigons, they weaved in flight like the tails of scabrous kites, ready to set the valley ablaze at any given moment.
Only a few yards away from the walls, Wade pulled to a sudden halt, Anna following in suit beside him. Together, they stood their ground, mindful of the fire-breathing threats that loomed above. No doubt, these monsters were the clan's protectors, but they seemed more than inclined to follow Sa'lu's orders. This was clearly an advantage of being part of such a closely-knit civilization.
Sa'lu, presuming her opponents abject, signaled her pets fallback behind her as she sneered down at her old contact, "What took you so long, Professor?"
"Sa'lu!", Wade snorted back in rebuttal, stomping forward. His fired-up emotions suddenly engulfed him as he accused, "I trusted you to help me, you two-timing, double-crossing—"
The shadow sorceress merely shrugged off the outburst before it could desist, "I'm afraid insults will do you no favors, Professor. You're only delaying the inevitable!"
"Then try me on for size!", Anna stepped in and challenged. She vibrated with tense energy, short for words and eager for action. "I'll tear these walls down myself if I have to!"
Sa'lu's eyes settled on the blue-haired maiden in uniform, and she managed a slight, knowing smile. "Oh? You must be Anna." She watched Anna evenly, adopting a more serious tone. "I was asked to leave you unharmed, but it seems I have no choice!"
Anna barely had enough time to dwell on the remark and was immediately forced into a fighting stance, readying to charge forward again.
Sa'lu's fleeting gaze swept over her two challengers once more, then, finally, she turned on her heel and signaled her aerial platoon. "Seize them!", she commanded the Dragons, pointing to the invaders below. "These trespassers are attempting to breach our walls and despoil our sacred lands!"
As one, the Dragon army spurred into action, assuming the shape of an ominous arrow that seemed to stretch endlessly over Anna and Wade. At their head flew a radiant Dragonite, flames flickering fiercely from its snout.
"A Dragonite!", Anna gasped mid-sprint.
"Straight from the Blackthorn Gym!", Sa'lu clucked back from her nest. "Impressed? You should be!"
Anna stilled again and clutched the weaponry around her waist as she gave the aerial charge above a glancing scowl. "I didn't come this far to be Dragon toast!", she muttered, two of her trusty Pokéballs already purling through the air. "Jolteon! Absol! I choose you!"
The two quadrupeds made do in a flash, Jolteon emerging in a volt of lightning and Absol in a flurry of wind. Together, they stood their ground squarely in front of Anna, growling to the threat overhead.
The winged monsters made their move in a swift instant, swooping close enough to the ground to land their blows. Massive blasts of dragon-fire suddenly lit up the night sky, plummeting down and gushing into the mountain channel in a blazing river of blue lava.
Anna watched, awestruck, as the great, feverous inferno came rushing at her, purging every patch of green in its path. She couldn't divine the intensity the fire, the immensity of the Dragons' combined might. It was marveling!
Wade gently nudged Anna from behind, imploring her to make a move.
Licking her lips in careful anticipation, Anna stepped between her two Pokémon. "Jolteon, slow them down with Thunder Wave! Absol, pitch in with Razor Wind!"
Her orders came like the snap of a whip, thrusting both Pokémon into action. Absol lunged at the inferno horn-first, sending a sharp blade of wind slicing through the wildfire and effectively scattering the flames.
Jolteon then jumped in to engage the Dragons themselves, firing bolts of static shock from its coat of needle fur.
Alas, as if guided by some invisible reach of prowess, the aerial assailants breezed effortlessly through the volt snag, not even slightly bogged down by the paralysis attempt.
"Damn it!", Anna cursed beneath her breath, as more fire began to shower the mountain pass. "No good!"
The beasts swooped lower to the ground, at least two dozen strong, in all colors and sizes. Keeping in formation, they lunged for Anna and Wade with a ground-shaking roar, all the while Sa'lu's evil cackle rang thick in the distance.
Thinking on its feet, Jolteon rushed between Anna and the terrifying tarragons, drawing their attention and steering them away from its Trainer.
Anna, feeding off her Pokémon's ploy, barked, "Use Double Team!" She then whipped her head to Absol. "Ice Beam, now!"
Only a few yards away, Jolteon split into twenty, stunning its pursuers to a confounded halt, while Absol quickly used the distraction to discharge an arctic belt of ice from its muzzle.
But before the the attack could land, Dragonite came between glacial beam and its targets, shattering it to bits with a fireball!
Absol quickly sidestepped out of the way, passive and composed, as a second fiery glob spewed from Dragonite's jowls.
Seeing this shift in battle, Jolteon darted past the Dragon blockade and hurled a deadly blast of lightning upon the pseudo-legendary.
Dragonite merely twitched from the attack, yet reeled its head in outrage! It let out a bellowing cry, signaling the rest of the battalion patrolling above to press up their assault.
"Not even a scratch!", Anna gasped, before realizing Dragonite was dashing towards Wade. In a heartbeat, she shoved the older man out of harm's way, "Professor, look out!"
The professor hit the ground with a light thud, leaving Anna in the beast's path. The Pokémon raised its arm to strike, belching forth viscous blue plumes of lethal flames! Above, jagged bolts of crimson lighting and steady streams of multicolored pyre sleeted the mountain gorge, restricting her range of maneuvering.
Anna, now relying solely on the Aura for guidance, moved in tight, focused movements, twisting through Dragonite's advances while still circumventing the aerial barrage. She sidestepped, stopped, sidestepped again, and dived as explosions erupted all around her.
Wade, meanwhile, scrambled to his feet and took cover behind a nearby boulder, eying the skirmish from a safe distance. He didn't wish to intervene and break Anna's focus, nor did he wish to be burnt to a crisp from Dragonite's chromatic hellfire.
In the midst of so much chaos, however, Anna could only duck and dodge, finding no sound opportunity to retaliate. With every attack she eluded, she was only feeding the mighty Dragon's hot temper. It was like dancing with death. "Fuck, I can't keep this up much longer!", she panted tiredly, her concentration breaking. "And here I thought Dragonites were supposed to be kindhearted!"
Before she could even think to risk taking the offensive, both Jolteon and Absol skid in front of her, kicking up dirt into the beast's eyes.
Blinded on the spot, Dragonite stumbled back with a grunt, rubbing the grime out of its eyes vigorously.
"Nicely executed Sand Attack, guys!" , Anna applauded in an exasperated huff, then turned quickly on her heel. "Now let's find somewhere safe to fallback!"
The two Pokémon nodded. While Anna hurried off to fetch the professor, they trampled their feet into the dirt one last time, stirring up a dust cloud large enough conceal their escape from the entire platoon firing overhead.
In a desperate bid for cover, Anna swerved past the boulder hiding Wade, snatching his wrist and wrenching him off towards a mountain crevice big enough to shelter them.
Absol and Jolteon hurried to their aid, ushering the two humans safely inside the cave, then quickly shuffling in behind them as their lingering Sand Storm continued to blanket the mountain pass. Only angry, confused dragon cries could be heard echoing behind them, followed by the quake of fireballs and thunderbolts tearing frantically through the gorge.
"That should buy us some time." Anna knelt against the cave wall to catch her breath. Her eyes slowly wandered up to the professor as she panted, "I—I don't understand, Jolteon's Thunderbolt and Absol's Ice Beam barely had any effect on them!"
Wade chewed on his lower lip for a moment. "Dragon-Types channel more Negative Energy than any other Pokémon," he reasoned. "The Black Moon must be amplifying their power."
Anna rolled her eyes. "That explains the crazy blue fire and blood-red lightning." Finding her bearings again, she slowly moved to her feet, patting her two Pokémon warmly on their heads as she peaked outside: lightning bolts were now battering the battlegrounds rather than fire, striking from all different directions. "We'll have to fight thunder with thunder!" , She muttered, an idea formulating in her head. "Jolteon! Absol! Follow my lead!"
Before Wade could object, Anna had already darted back into the waning sandstorm to confront the Dragon fleet, Absol and Jolteon racing after her.
With both Pokémon covering her flanks, she bolted for the village walls head-on as flamethrowers and thunderbolts alike crackled and hissed in the air, trees and pikes aplenty exploding around her. She sprinted with as much drive as she could muster... dodging, weaving, pushing closer and closer to the walls without breaking a sweat.
Dragonite, having rebounded from its brief incapacitation, was once again commanding the aerial assault. With a vengeful twinkle in its eyes, it spotted Anna pressing towards the village and dived down to unleash a volley of velvet lighting upon the human and her Pokémon companions.
But Anna had spotted the discharge from the corner of her eyes, anticipating it. She stopped suddenly and whirled to her Pokémon, "Quick, both of you, find cover!"
They merely looked at her questioningly, then to each other with even blanker expressions.
"Will you just trust me?", she pleaded again through her teeth, standing her ground readily. "I have an idea!"
With no choice but to oblige, Absol and Jolteon moved aside, drawing off the other Dragons and leaving Dragonite for Anna.
Anna breathed out gently, time slowing, as she closed her eyes and thrust her hands outward to the incoming jolt. A glow of blue outlined her body, for the Aura was once again present and guiding her.
Suddenly, time sped up again.
The blast smashed into her like a magnetic meteorite, encasing her body in a shroud of red static. She held her stance, feet planted firm, and resisted the volts like a human lightning-rod, carefully feeding off her element and redirecting the lightning blast to the ground beneath her feet. "I... need more lightning!", she seethed, keeping focus. "I need... more power!"
Jolteon and Absol suddenly reappeared to fulfill her plea, each of them feeding a Thunderbolt to their master, empowering her Cho'moken.
It was enough. Smiling, reinvigorated, Anna focused all the stored electricity to the same outlet of her body and catapulted herself into the sky, lightning bolts hissing in her wake!
She slammed into Dragonite point-blank, nearly knocking the beast smack out of the sky, but managed to hang on with dear life as the two began to free fall as one. Thinking fast, she climbed around the creature's its underbelly and pulled herself up onto its back.
Chomping down her lower lip, Anna mounted herself firmly on the Dragon and yanked hard on its antennas, instantly waking the beast and steering him upright again before they could hit the ground.
"Excellent form, Anna!", Wade's voice cheered from below. "You are well in tune with your Cho'moken! Just remember not to store too much electricity at once or you could damage your Aura!"
Anna could barely hang on as Dragonite tired to shake her off its back, "Yeah... ugh … that's, uh, real great!", she managed a broken reply. "Any.. ugh... tips on Dragonair-riding?"
"Yes, actually!", he lectured back, suddenly serious in tone. "Always bring a saddle! You never know when you're going to need it!"
Shrugging off the professor's 'sagely' advice, Anna tugged the Dragon's antennas again, discharging surplus electricity from her fingertips.
Dragonite reared back in response to the unpleasant shock therapy, setting loose an explosive stream of firepower against the other dragons in passing.
"Huh?" Anna grinned, repeating the action, knowing to use it to her advantage.
Again, Dragonair bucked back, this time into a somersault as it spewed fire, thunder, and icy beams in every which direction, inadvertently taking out several of its brethren.
Holding her balance, Anna looked around and observed the aftermath: dragons dropping from the sky like flies, while others quickly retreated back to the village in fear of their leader's vile wrath.
"Yes!", Anna lauded gleefully. "We have a clear path now! All that's left is—"
Dragonite didn't give her the satisfaction of finishing. It jerked its body into a blunt whirl, throwing her off its back.
Anna found herself plummeting the next moment, but remained calm as she released a veil of protective Aura around her body and prepared herself for impact.
Once she hit the ground, Wade hurried to her side, helping her back to her feet. "Anna, can you stand alright?"
"I'm fine," she huffed, patting herself down. She was beginning to tire out from exerting so much energy in one battle, but a look of relief fell upon her face when she realized she'd landed only a few feet apart from the village's entrance.
Absol and Jolteon quickly joined Wade in gathering around her, but their attention was just as soon drawn to the starlit sky once more, as Dragonite belched the biggest, hottest Flamethrower it could conjure at the exhausted police sergeant.
Anna half-expected Absol and Jolteon to intervene like before, but astonishingly, another defender swooped in to save the day, using a psychic barrier to send the heated blast hurtling back at twice the speed and power, as if it wasn't bolstered enough already by the Black Moon.
The return fire hit its target swiftly and duly, felling the colossus right out of the night sky. Dragonite struck the ground instantly, sinking into a twenty-meter deep crater created by the incredible impact! The brute's body twitched painfully, its leathery wings tangled and bent across its body like a shroud.
"Kroothoot!" Perching delicately on Professor Wade's outstretched arm, Noctowl uttered a few triumphant hoots, slightly flapping its wings in succession. "Hoot! Kroothoot!"
Wiping the sweat off her brow, Anna opened her mouth to thank Clint's feathered friend for coming to their rescue in such a timely fashion... but immediately remembering Sa'lu, she pried her gaze up the massive walls of the commune. The Shadow Dragon Trainer was no longer at her post.
"We can still catch her, there's still time!", Wade sputtered desperately.
Anna observed their surroundings once more, from the fainted Dragon bodies littering the charred grounds to the unsettling silence hanging thick in the night. "This isn't over yet," she inferred, her voice suddenly steep and grave. "The village guards will be here any second, probably with more Dragon-Types to pit against us."
"I don't care!", protested the impatient professor. "If we can't catch Sa'lu, how can we hope to catch Metsuma?"
She didn't care to acknowledge how he'd phrased that question—making Metsuma a patsy for his oversights as usual—and instead answered with the same calm and humility Peer often demonstrated on her. "First thing's first, we need get into the village."
"Kroot!" Noctowl sprung into flight, ascending to one of the landing platforms connected to the village's walls and releasing the unguarded lever atop the spire.
Anna and Wade blanched as the great, ancient gates flung open with a clattering groan, allowing their entrance. Without thinking twice, they spurred inside, regrouping with Noctowl on the other side.
"Not bad, feather brain!", Anna commended the owl with a wink, then whipped her head to attention upon hearing the sound of frantic screaming. "Huh?"
The villagers of the clan were in a panic, none brave enough to face the team that had overwhelmed an entire slew of Dragon-Pokémon at the peak of their power, instead fleeing into their homes and temple hideouts.
Of course, this didn't come as any comfort to Anna. "Oh, just fucking peachy. Innocent bystanders are running scared from me!" She rubbed her temples in dismay, "I have got to be the worst police officer ever."
"Never mind that," Wade dismissed, unconcerned. "We'll explain the situation to the Elders later. Right now, we must find—"
The two glanced skyward, where Noctowl was fluttering in circles, trying to gather their attention.
Wade furrowed his bushy brow to the owl. "Noctowl, did you spot which way Sa'lu fled?"
The Pokémon aloft nodded its head, then darted east, hooting for them to follow.
Wade was already one step ahead, weaving through frightened crowds of Dragon Trainers to keep up with the bird.
Anna sighed, then waved Absol and Jolteon back to her flanks as she began to pursue her mentor into the village. "We'd better hurry before we run into anymore unwanted company..."
The wind itself seemed to let out a monitory shriek as the hero of the Pokémon League emerged from the opposite side of the rooftop. The moment upon a decade was finally here.
"Metsuma, what's the matter!", he cried out, and I could practically feel his impassioned gaze drilling impatiently into the back of my head, so anxious to 'rescue' me from harm's way and flee the storm in time, almost like this was just another chapter in his heroic storybook.
I ignored him for a moment, treading on a mouthful of unspoken words. I needed to proceed in the most delicate, nonthreatening way possible.
When I failed to answer his plea, he attempted a different question. "Are you... are you hurt?", he whimpered, concerned and protective as always. The tragic worry in his voice only fed my excitement. "Metsuma, answer me!"
Rainfall began to beat a steady rhythm between us as it hit the tiles of the rooftop, and I decided to act before the storm could worsen. Keeping my backside faced to Clint, I opened my mouth, hesitating to speak for a terse moment, then worded my response in the form of a question. "Do you know where we are, Clint?"
He seemed choked up at how calmly I was conducting myself amidst both a lethal storm and a 'hostage situation', but replied to my question, nonetheless. "Well... of course I know! This is Sky Pillar!"
I couldn't refrain from flashing another sinister smile. "Correct," I quietly approved, then took my cue to face him directly. When our eyes met, the usual vibrancy between us suddenly died, like a dramatic shift in gravity, and the atmosphere no longer felt weighted... but now hostile. "It's also the perfect spot to perform the ritual, undisturbed."
The Pokémon Master's face went stark pale, and I could sense as he shuddered mentally. "R—Ritual?", he floundered with his words, attempting to play coy with me. "What are you—"
His sentence broke off into something incoherent as I reached into my jacket and carefully pulled out an Ultra Ball from within. It felt so warm and electrifying in my hand, stimulated by the Black Moon and its cosmic properties.
It was then did I feel numbness creep through the Pokémon Master. Even his Aura went arid to my detection.
I let the Ultra Ball twirl on my pointer finger for a moment, then flung it into the sky as high as I could, letting it hurdle beyond the thunderclouds.
A flash of blinding light then lit up the dark heavens. Clint jumped back, startled. He looked around for a long moment in anticipation for a followup of rumble of thunder. Alas, he was too naive to put two-and-two together—and I had no intention of doing it for him.
It wasn't until the distinct smell of ozone descended over us did he finally realize that there was never any lighting bolt. Slowly, he tilted back his head to find the scaly, sinewy Lord of the Skies itself charging out from the clouds.
Clint ducked for cover, not that it was necessary. I immediately snapped my fingers and beckoned Rayquaza to my side. "No need for fear, Clint," I soothed the other man back to his feet. "I'd like you to meet the newest addition to my team: Rayquaza—the key component I need to open a path to the Distortion World!"
Clint's befuddled look faded into an intense stare. There was now more alertness to his eyes and posture than before, but a part of me could sense he didn't want to accept the ugly truth souring the back of his conscience.
I nodded once, proud of my words, then flexed my hands as I continued to showcase my trophy weapon. "If there's one Pokémon with a soaring degree of Negative Energy, it's undoubtedly Rayquaza!"
His emotions suddenly overwhelmed him, stirring in such force that he could hardly breathe, and his reply came in the form of ceaseless stuttering, "Wh—what is... I—I don't..."
I never abandoned my smile, but I took a worthy pause to trace every emotion bouncing around inside him. He was at his most vulnerable, I could connect the dots for myself. His stomach was withering somewhere down to the region of his knees, probably as the sight of his best friend and a Legendary beast, paired together as an unstoppable team, sank deep in his heart... his Aura.
I decided to ignore his turmoil for the time being, mainly because I fully expected he would need some time to adjust. I arched my head back so that my gaze could settle comfortably upon the storm-plagued skies. "Now we cross our fingers and pray that your little donation to me was worth the knowledge," I hissed, an obvious reference to the dragon scrolls. "Behold, the power of Black Moon!"
I didn't waste another second. Shifting on my heel, I swung towards Rayquaza and fed the sky titan a long, concentrated stare, then swiftly thrust my palms against the emerald scales sheltering the Pokémon's vibrant pulse. "The shadow moon above us, if fills me with infinite power over Hoenn Region's most fearsome Pokémon!"
Clint's eyes forcibly fixated on the scene. His expression was ridden with something somber, like staring at a beloved painting on a wall that he now felt indifferent towards.
I glanced away from him with a cackle and thrust my fists harder into the beast's scaly armor. Sealing my eyes shut and submerging myself in a catastrophically empowering sensation of dark alchemy, I could feel my energy begin to fuse with the Legendary Pokémon's, like two sundered symbiotes in a confined realm of nothingness.
Rayquaza's anguished cry pierced through the air like a siren, threatening to crack my focus. I merely seeped my fists deeper into the Dragon, my body completely girdled in a crimson Aura as I felt my fingertips come into contact with something liquid and searing hot. Rather than wince entirely, I pulled just one hand free, leaving the other wrist-deep inside Rayquaza's energy flow.
This was it. Now host to Rayquaza's power, I squeezed my eyes into a tighter focus and reached deeper, slowly drawing out the negative friction that heated the Pokémon's bloodstream. I absorbed its untold power through one hand and calmly released it out the other in slow, careful measures.
Rain now pelted heavily from the sky, battering the ground and making a loud, continuous pounding noise on the roof. Thunder crashed like pots and pans, silent lightning following and striking all around the island.
Slowly, as all of Rayquaza's negative force passed through me, the Black Moon yielded with a snap of snarling thunder. I flexed my free hand into a vice and the cord of velvet energy seeping out from me began revolving into a burnished streak of crimson volts, each breaking down into smaller discharges until, finally, culling together into what looked like a black hole.
An exasperated gasp slipped from my lungs, but I gathered myself enough to behold the end-result of my psychically strenuous endeavor. The portal before me was stretching and expanding in a steady rhythm, spitting up orchid swirls of smog and smoke. I whiffed the scent and smiled gaudily, like a chef proud of the feast he prepared.
Across the roof, Clint stumbled into my view, his eyes ample and his mouth ajar. He could deny the truth no longer, nor could he deny his part in it all. His moral scruples would soon be a scattered mess, but I would guide his lost soul down a more promising path.
Rayquaza stared down the Pokémon Master vigilantly, but I again waved the beast steady and took a few careful steps toward Clint, extending my finger towards the portal with an inviting expression. "This is it, Clint," I soundly proclaimed, dropping all pretenses. "Beyond this portal, Giratina awaits you, The Affinity Soul!"
A numbness crept through the Pokémon Master, making him unreadable even to me. His eyes narrowed frightfully and he choked back tears to voice his sheer disbelief. "Metsuma...", he whispered in a desolate plea, switching glances between me and the portal. "No... no... how can this be..."
The abandoned Kace home outside Pewter City, like a haunting sentry to a window of time, was a grimly sight indeed for lone twelve-year-old traveler Simon Moseley. He'd heard plenty stories about this place from the other scouts in his troop, about how the infamous Soul Robber had murdered his own mother and buried her in the backyard like a shameful secret.
Ribbons of worn, shredded police tape lay strewn about the property as far his eyes permitted. The police had apparently finished their final sweeps of the area some time ago, leaving the vacant house to deteriorate with the gruesome images it painted for the imagination.
Simon cringed and swallowed, the very thought of blood making his stomach clench. He contemplated turning back. He didn't know if he could bear another night patrolling these eerie grounds, hoping on the slim chance the Soul Robber would turn up for a fight. More importantly, he doubted he could even win such a fight!
He paced around in circles, biting his fingernails. "Th—This can't happen anymore. I can't keep showing up here every night and making a fool of myself!" He made to leave, but stopped short only seconds into his decision, "Of course, if I can't prove to the other scouts that I'm brave, I'll be the laughingstock of the troop!" He bit down on his lower lip thoughtfully, an idea sparking to life in his head. "I got it!", he proclaimed with a whimsical smile. "I'll just tell them I fought the Soul Robber and won!"
With that, he was gone... for about a minute.
"No, they'd know I was lying!", he pouted as he scuttled back to the house. "I'm a horrible liar!" His hands scraped listlessly over his tired and droopy face, and he marched up to a nearby tree and began banging his head repeatedly on the trunk. "What is wrong with you, Simon! Why can't you just get a grip—"
The branches above him rustled each time his head made contact with the trunk, prompting a horde of Zubats to come spilling out of the tree hollow.
Startled, Simon jumped back with a high-pitched shriek! "Ah! Don't hurt me!" He dropped to his knees and threw his arms over his head, waiting for the coast to clear.
Once the sound of their fluttering wings had trailed off, he pried one eye open and watched with a sigh of relief as they fled away into the forest. He stood up on wobbly legs, whimpering beneath his breath, "Nocturnal Pokémon are just the worst!" He brushed down his lap for safe measure and began muttering to himself, "I should have just stuck to my books, where I belong. This happens every single time I try to step out of my shell and do something courageous: I make stupid decisions and end up looking like a stupid person!"
"Psy?", a noise sounded down near his legs.
"Wha—!", he squealed, jumping three feet backward. "Stay back! I'm warning—!" He trailed off the moment he realized it was only a Psyduck wandering past. "Oh... phew." He smiled and wiped the nervous sweat off his forehead. "You gave me a startle there, little one. Do you need help finding your way back to the pond?"
The duckling Pokémon flapped its arms restlessly and began fidgeting in place. "Psy! Psy! Psyduck!" Without warning, it waddled away in a panic.
Watching, Simon touched his finger to his chin. "Or are you... running away FROM the pond? But the books say ponds are your natural habitat!", he cried out to the Pokémon. "Why would you—" He paused as he felt a tremor in the ground, then another, followed by another.
With a gasp, he swung in the direction Psyduck had initially appeared. The local lily pond that resided across the street from the abandoned Kace house gave a mighty splash, scaring off several more Pokémon into his direction.
Eyes brimming with terror, Simon dived aside just before the stampede could trample him, crawling his way behind the nearest tree. From there, he slowly peered around the trunk, watching anxiously as a ginormous metal drill surfaced from the water. "Oh no, please don't be him... please don't be him... please don't be him..."
The war machine came to a still at the bank of the pond, its earsplitting engines waning into silence. The metal hatchet on top the vehicle popped open and Cayman climbed his way out of it, Lunatone and Solrock hovering behind him like a couple of cartoon thought bubbles.
"We are dangerously short on fuel, Kami," Solrock informed the boy as he leapt to the sand.
"I agree, Kami," Lunatone chimed in, unsurprisingly. "Is this really a necessary pit stop?"
"This isn't a pit stop," Cayman grumbled in response as his harrowing gaze fell upon the familiar, ramshackle house just beyond the embankment. "This is my home."
He moved dubiously across the dirt road, nostalgic with every step, slowing down considerably by the time he was on the property. He could feel the shreds of yellow police tape crinkle beneath his boots, each to the echo of his mother's laughter fading in and out of his memories.
Lunatone and Solrock observed as their Master suddenly jerked a halt in front of his childhood bullpen, only a few yards away from the door. "Kami, you look pale and distrait," Solrock noted in a discomforting monotone. "Are you not feeling adequate?"
Cayman took a moment to reply. His face was purely expressionless. "I don't think I can go inside."
"I'm quite certain the front door is unlocked, Kami," Lunatone defended, taking his comment too literally.
He shook his head. "No, I mean, I don't think I can handle going in there without... without smelling a hot meal waiting for me in the kitchen... without seeing her smiling face round the corner of the hallway." He shoulders sagged, his eyes falling carelessly to his feet as his inner reflections finally bested his macho pride. "She was the only one left who truly loved me. She was always my safe place. Now... I don't know what the fuck to do with myself. I can't go back to Metsuma. Even if I did, it would probably just be so I could break his fucking neck."
Lunatone moved quickly to Cayman's side, suddenly more sentimental and motherly than trite and monotonous. "Then why did you come here, Kami?"
He grounded his teeth and jutted his chin out staunchly to fight back tears. "I thought... maybe this was all just some nightmare I needed to wake up from. But it's real. I've lost my mom... my girlfriend... every last shred of normalcy about me." He clenched his fists into tight balls, the veins in his arms bulging with fury. "I'm done following Metsuma around like I'm his lapdog. I swear... I will make him pay for all the bullshit he's put me through." He looked up to Lunatone and snarled sadistically, "I'll make him suffer like he made me suffer."
"Considering Metsuma's twisted sense of gaiety, he would most likely welcome such attitude," Solrock remarked from the peripheral.
"Hardly sympathetic, my wordy counterpart," Lunatone scolded the other astro-Pokémon, then returned to focus on Cayman. The young rebel's expression looked so sad, so weighted with it, it was as if he had nothing left to live for. Not without either causing more damage or receiving any. "Kami... is there nothing we can do to help you?"
Cayman dismissed them both with a fleet snort of derision. "How could you two possibly help me? You're a couple of space rocks with some crazy delusion that I'm your almighty deity!"
The two telepaths exchanged perturbed glances. This time, Solrock spoke, "You may not be a deity, Kami, but you still require our sustenance." Then, as one, the two recited in a creepy low pitch, "We have been specially tasked to serve you and only you."
Cayman raised his brow suspiciously. "Tasked? What are you—" He stopped. His body twirled on the spot, the Aura inside him tingling like never before. Without fully realizing it, he found himself staring out to the Lunan Mountains towering in the distance, specifically Mount Moon. There was something there, reaching out to his Aura.
"Kami?", Solrock broke his short-lived concentration. "Is something amiss?"
Cayman involuntarily placed a hand over his chest, unable to shift his gaze from the mural of mountains splayed before him. "I feel... something. There's a strong energy pull coming from Mount Moon. I can sense it."
Lunatone looked northward, to where Cayman's gaze was so engrossed with."Are you quite certain, Kami? It could just be a rather rare or powerful Pokémon roaming the mountain range."
Cayman shook his head and frowned. "That's just it. It's not a living creature. Usually I can only sense the energies and vibrations of other living organisms. But this is different."
"Perhaps it has some unknown relevance to the Black Moon," suggested Solrock, reminding them of the invisible cosmic wonder dawdling above.
Cayman gave the blackened sky a fleeting glance, then let his gaze settle on Mount Moon once again. "Yeah, well, I'd like to find out for sure." Skirting his way around the property, he reached for his belt but felt nothing there. "Damn it!", he remembered with a throaty curse. "I left Flygon and Steelix on Savile Island! I guess we'll have set out on foot."
The two Pokémon nodded, then quickly flanked Cayman from either side as he made to hike onward, his destination locked in his sights.
"Hold it right there, Soul Robber!", a small, shaky voice challenged them from a nearby thicket of trees. "You're not going anywhere! The jig is up!"
Cayman turned his head to place the voice. Out from the dense shadows emerged a spitting mirror of himself, but younger and clad in a dark green jacket and spotless white breeches. Maybe twelve or so, he was rather tall for his age, with a less than 'thin' build. Short, bristol green hair protruded out from beneath his hiking cap. Green-blue eyes with bursts of hazel scanned his older-looking double boldly from head to toe.
Solrock was the first to voice what they were all clearly thinking."Kami, that boy resembles—"
"That's not going to win him any favors," Cayman snorted, then took a threatening step towards the boyscout.
The boy flinched, but desperately tried to remain dominant. "I... I said stay where you are!"
Cayman rolled his eyes impatiently. "Run along, rookie. I don't see a badge on that little costume of yours."
The scout gave an arrogant smirk. "No badges, huh? I've collected nearly every scout badge in the Mountain Defense Troop!" With that decree, he began clumsily searching his uniform, with little success. "Oh, uh, just give me a second!", he muttered awkwardly, continuing to pat himself down. "It's in here somewhere!"
Unimpressed, Cayman crossed his arms over his chest and laughed hysterically, "What are you on about?"
"Oh, uh..." Gathering his wits, the boy puffed out his lanky chest and made a valiant pose. "I happen to be a mountain ranger! Protector of Pokémon all over the Lunan alpines! And when I learned a killer hailed from this town, I never concealed my doubts he might turn up again and try to harm the local Pokémon!" He slowly reached for the single Pokéball clipped at his waist, trying to be inconspicuous about it but failing miserably. "I've taken every night patrol available since you murdered your mother!"
"I didn't murder—" Cayman paused mid-sentence, then shrugged his shoulders in mockery. "Wait a sec, why the fuck am I defending myself to you? I still don't see a badge, kiddo! And I mean a real badge!"
The younger trainer paused to think of a sufficient answer. "Uh... consider it a citizen's arrest!" He then raised his Pokéball to the rouge. "Come peacefully and I won't have to use force!"
"This is almost too cute," Cayman couldn't help but guffaw, then motioned his head to Lunatone and Solrock. "Guys, send him running home to his mommy."
The boy blanched ashen pale at the fearsome sight of Lunatone and Solrock moving in to engage him. "Al—Alright! Y—You asked for it, Soul Robber!" He gulped nervously and tossed his Pokéball up into the air; though his mask was crumbling, he refused to give in without a fight. "Fearow, I choose you! Use Hyper Beam!"
The winged avian emerged with the tinsel flash of its Pokéball, already charging a Hyper Beam in its long, narrow beak as it fluttered foolhardily in front of its Trainer, vulnerable and exposed to enemy attack.
Cayman almost felt embarrassed for the chap. "Will you get a load of this kid?", he chuckled, but decided to take a different approach, just for kicks. "Fine, I'll play along. Use Reflect!"
The two space rocks drew back a little, then paused in mid-air, waiting and watching.
Fearow gave a squawk and released its attack. The blast of energy beamed across the clearing, but only to be deflected back by an invisible Psychic barrier, thrusting Fearow down to the dirt with swift but painful force.
Simon rushed over to his Pokémon as it flopped around in agony, but by the time he was there, the bird had already slipped into unconsciousness. "No!", he gasped, his bottom lip quivering as he looked up at Cayman. "You only won because that was my only Pokémon!"
"No, I won because you can't train Pokémon for shit," Cayman bit back as-a-matter-of-factually. "As if it wasn't pathetic enough that a self-proclaimed 'protector of Pokémon' only carries around one Pokémon with him, he starts off his first battle by wasting a perfectly good Hyper Beam, which by the way is a stupid move to have in the first place, considering Fearow has a lousy Special Attack stat, if not the lousiest."
Never feeling more stupid and afraid than in that moment, the young scout shriveled to the dirt like the complete mess he was.
Cayman ignored his groveling and instead swept his gaze over the battle's true casualty. "Lunatone! Solrock! Use Heal Pulse on Fearow!"
The boy lifted his head from his knees in utter abashment and sniffled, "Wh—What are you doing? Why... why would you revive—"
"Don't get the wrong idea, kid," Cayman muttered as he approached the boy, leaving the celestial pair to tend to Fearow. "Tell me your name."
The younger image of himself stuttered, "S—S—Simon."
Cayman nodded and rubbed his chin ponderously. "Aright, Simon. You say you know these mountains pretty well, right?"
Simon swallowed down a lump in hist throat and whimpered, "Y—Yes?"
"Good, because I need a guide to navigate me through Mount Moon." He smiled, then gestured a hand over to the pond, where the drill remained unattended. "My hunk of metal over there is low on fuel, so we'll use your Fearow to fly us there."
Overhearing this, Solrock and Lunatone whisked over to Cayman in a panic, "But Kami, we are more than capable of safely escorting you-"
"Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about you two," he said with a devious little grin, eyes darting back to the mountains. "You two will be our handy shields in case we get attacked by whatever's interfering with my Aura Sight." Again, he motioned to the drill. "In the meantime, sink the drill to the bottom of the pond. Until we get our hands on a decent fuel source, we need to keep it hidden."
"As you wish, Kami," the two Pokémon complied with a nod, then combined their Psychic powers to submerge the vehicle from afar.
Cayman then reached down and yanked Simon back to his feet. "As for you, don't leave my sight or you'll be sorry."
Simon refrained from nodding. He felt the suicidal urge to voice his protest, "I... I don't know if I can—"
"I could always just stab you in the gut with my Aura Blade, if you'd prefer that," Cayman countered as a thin red blade flickered to life in his right palm. He was bluffing, of course, but it was nice to be able to scare the cooperation out of measly little runts like Simon.
Simon took the hint and immediately relapsed to his frightened, cowardly self. "N—No, sir! Not necessary! I'll do what you say!"
"Good answer," the older boy growled and turned on his heel. "I'm not in the best fucking mood right now so keep your mouth shut until we reach the mountain." He eyed Lunatone and Solrock in immediate succession. "That includes you two."
All three of them nodded, effectively silenced.
"There's something powerful out there and I'm going to find out what it is." With Fearow restored and ready for flight, Cayman ushered Simon to keep his winged Pokémon under control while he prepared to mount it. "Come on, you Slowpokes! I'm not waiting around all night!"
Simon shuddered but forced himself to hop up on Fearow, settling comfortably against its vulturnine neck, yet practically a hostage as Cayman climbed up to seat behind him. "What have I gotten myself into this time?", he whispered timorously to himself as they began their ascent into the sky. "I give up trying to be something I'm not..."
"We can do this together, Clint!" My offer must have flown past him like a fighter jet, because he was looking around in a clueless daze, as if wondering where the silence had gone to. "We can fulfill the prophecy together! You will summon the Alpha Pokémon, and I will be the one to capture it! Then, we can harness its power and change the world not as Pokémon Masters, but as Pokémon conquerors!"
Alas, Clint's expression turned to one of complete disgust. He glanced away from me, heavy streams of tears now pouring down his face as he cringed, like fighting back some sour taste in his mouth. "How... how could you do this to me!", he demanded in a tense, anxious sob—but even then, his eyes refused to meet mine.
I held my tongue in silence, admittedly shaken by how this was unfolding. This wasn't what I wanted. I wanted Clint to consider the possibilities and accept that, together, the two of us could fulfill a destiny we both rightfully deserved! So then... why was he choosing to fight me on this? What the fuck was wrong in that head of his!
Beside me, Rayquaza stirred uncomfortably, sensing just how much closer to a threat Clint was becoming. The serpent had a keen instinct and was relying on it for survival. Perhaps I had to do the same and put this poor fool out of his misery already.
Still, a part of me just desperately wanted to... understand him, once and for all. "The world must scatter into its appurtenant chaos," I scowled in a last-ditch attempt to dissuade my so called 'friend' from turning his back on me. "Don't follow the hypocritical code of Wade or the Pokémon League! Follow your instinct!"
Clint stood in stony silence, as if his heart had just shattered all over the wet rooftop. He then buried his face in his hands and cried silently, as every word uttered from my mouth hit him like a blow to the gut. "No, no, no, no, no!", he babbled aimlessly, squeezing his watery eyes shut, like wishing away a nightmare. "I... I thought—"
"Listen to me!", I raised my voice to him, lightning dancing around me. "The human race needs an era of anarchy of put liberation into immediate effect... and the world's Pokémon, they must stoop to their destined rankings as inferiors! From then on, we shall coincide as an order of criminals and slaves! However... this cannot be accomplished without you, Clint! Only you can influence the divine powers of the dark Pokémon that dwells beyond our world! Wield its powers and help me seize this world for our own!"
Clint finally glanced at me, stoic, probably thinking the two of us looked like two prized fighters standing toe to toe before a match to the death, our hands balled into fists, our gazes locked, both of us prepared for the worst. The only peaceful way out of it was for him to wise up and accept my offer. I didn't want his potential to go to waste.
Unfortunately, it was becoming more and more apparent that he just wasn't willing to cooperate. He would have rathered betray me than disgrace his petty morals, his phony dignity, and, most shamefully, his responsibility as the Pokémon League Champion to maintain what he called 'harmony'. Hogwash, all of it.
"You haven't changed at all!", he spat out in a bout of anger, wiping away spent tears. Slowly, his shuddering sobs ceased and he was still. He was a new person now, standing up to me like this. "You're still as mad as ever!"
Shrugging off the ridicule, I braced myself and extended once more, more sternly and obstinately this time, "My offer still stands, Clint."
"You're out of your mind!", he scowled back instantly.
I inspected him openly, without pretense or defensive facade. It was the most honest expression I could muster without wearing a mask. "You swore you would never turn your back on me again," I jostled his memory with vague accusation. "Am I given to understand that that was just another one of your famous lies?"
He managed to bring his temper under control, if only for a second. "I hurt you once and I can never take that back," he whispered, then went on to spout more nonsense. "You were jealous of me, of the power I possessed. You hated the fact that Wade made me his product of research and not you. I should have seen it. I should have been a better friend and refused to follow through with his experiments. But I didn't." He hung his head ruefully, "Now I see... that I'm paying for my mistakes. This is all my fault."
"No, actually, I'm responsible for all of this." I couldn't let his mindless chatter go uncorrected. "You told me that I was the reason for the pathetic path you've chosen." I lifted my finger, indicating the childhood treasure still hanging innocently around his neck. "Had I not given you that Gym Badge when we were children, things could have been different. I did a saintly thing and I turned you into a saint. It was me who brainwashed you, not Wade or the Pokémon League. Let me fix it."
As if to mock me, he twisted my words right back into my face. "I did a monstrous thing and turned you into a monster. It was me who corrupted you. I should have fixed YOU."
"You're wrong!", I countered, unwilling to let him draw such crazy comparisons. "There's a difference: this is who I am, who I've always been. I wasn't made into a conqueror, I was rightly born one! You're the one who's corrupted!"
He shook his head in what I could only assume to be denial. "I broke my promise to you and continued to serve Wade's research, shattering your humanity."
"I demonstrated pity on you and gave you that Gym Badge, shattering your true potential!", I gave him a taste of his own medicine.
"Then maybe... this friendship was destined to be left dangling and incomplete," he concluded, in a burst of resentment. His eyes washed over me one last time and he just frowned. "Maybe it was all just a pipe dream."
I bowed my head acutely, still glaring at him from under my eyebrows. My voice was hoarse now, yet shaky in some places. "It could be so much more," I silently plied, "if you'd just open your mind to the possibilities!"
"No, Metsuma." His voice rose as he stiffened, chin raised high. "We're too different. We can't exist in this world together." His face suddenly screwed up as if he were about to sob again, but no noise escaped him. He merely stated in a cold and distant tone, "As much as I love you, I hate what you've become."
That was that then; his choice was made. Slowly, painstakingly, I motioned my hand to the portal. "Then you leave me no choice but to drag you in there myself!", I bit back irritably, lifting my eyes to fully gaze upon the traitor. "After all, only you can bring about the appearance of Giratina." His pitiful irrationality was not about to stand between me and the key to universal change.
Since Clint clearly wasn't going to comply, I knew I had to MAKE him comply, no matter what it took. I hadn't waited ten long years for some beloved superstar Pokémon Master to crush my dreams! Not again, not ever again!
Clint made his move without breaking eye contact. His hand traveled gingerly along his waistline until it settled upon the rear of his belt. From there, he pulled out an Apricorn from thin air.
I couldn't help but snicker at this. The clever bastard had stashed his most treasured Pokémon in a secret compartment along his belt. Of course, I wasn't really surprised nor disappointed. At least the Pokémon League's venerated hero would go out with a much-deserved bang. Besides, I always loved a good warm up.
The Apricorn in his hand dissolved into a strobe light; from it emerged Ho-Oh, the winged phoenix of fire, still thought to be mere myth among trainers. This would prove most interesting; a fateful battle between two Legendary Pokémon seemed only fitting for two all-powerful Pokémon Masters. Fortunately, he wouldn't survive to tell the epic tale.
I could feel Rayquaza's rage crescendo as the two giants exchanged fiery glances, Rayquaza growling and snorting with contempt as Ho-Oh flaunted its rainbow wings, taunting my dear pet. I wasn't concerned, for it would only backfire in the long run when Rayquaza reached its boiling point.
"You know, I'm almost glad you didn't listen to Calypso," I heckled my opponent from across the rooftop as a look of eagerness took shape on my face. "I'll give you the photo finish you deserve... but not before first yielding Giratina!"
He grimaced. "Right, the real reason you asked me back into your life. You've been using me from the beginning." His eyes narrowed and he pledged with a hand across his chest, "But no more, Metsuma. No more. It's over!" Pushing his injured feelings aside, he fell back into defensive stance beside Ho-Oh. "Like I said, we just can't coexist!"
I shrugged meagerly and nodded, feigning disappointment. "How upsetting." Then, after a short lapse of speech, I snapped my fingers to Rayquaza and uttered venomously, "Decimate the Ho-Oh."
Rayquaza roared violently and, in an instant, charged towards Ho-Oh at full sail, snaking and weaving through the blustering air and pelting rainfall like a spastic homing missile.
I smiled sadistically as vulnerable Clint scrambled to think on his feet. I shrugged off my suit jacket for battle, leaving only my dress shirt and tie to cover my upper half, and prepared myself for the easiest fight of my life.
The endless chase led Wade and Anna to an unguarded mountainside, just beyond the Dragon Village. There, they came upon a fresh-water pool with a narrow cascade of a waterfall spilling down a short cliff higher up the mount.
Wade looked distractedly to the sky, where Noctowl hooted and howled in distress. The Pokémon was telling him something. "She must have disappeared behind that waterfall," he inferred quietly, though Anna could hear quite well. "If I'm not mistaken, there's an entrance to a sacred cavern behind those falls. She must be retreating into the Dragon's Den."
"Dragon's Den?", Anna piped up, tiny alarms going off in her head. "She probably knows that turf too well for our own good! We'll be sitting Psyducks if we enter through there."
He leered over his shoulder at her and sneered, "We'll be sitting Psyducks if we stand out here, waiting for Metsuma to unleash Giratina upon the world!"
"Will you quit saying that?", she hollered, for she'd finally had enough of his loaded accusations. "We can't prove anything yet!"
He shrugged off her obvious denial and turned his head to the falls again. "Then why are we lulling around? If anyone knows anything about Metsuma's whereabouts, it's Sa'lu." With a bitter edge to his tongue, he reminded sharply, "There's a reason she's running from us, Anna: she clearly knows something that we don't."
"Then I guess I'll have to question her by force!" With an abrupt change of heart, Anna stormed across the clearing, right up to the oasis. Her eye caught a small paddle boat sitting on the waterfront, half buried in mud and tangled algae. "Look, we can use this canoe to enter the den!" She moved ankle-deep into the water and began digging the boat out its gunky grave. "Let's move fast!"
Wade nodded and proceeded to help her position the little wooden float upright in the water. Jolteon and Absol hopped aboard first once it was safely afloat. Wade and Anna then climbed in after them, squatted down, each with a paddle in their hands, and began rowing their merry way through mysterious waterfall.
Noctowl was already flying ahead of them, using its Psychic powers to navigate through the approaching dark of the cave.
Anna and Wade rowed in broad but measured strokes. Drifting daintily on the steady tide of the stretching tunnel, it seemed like no harm could come to them. The air was moist but purely tranquil. Torches lined the walls, dim but reassuring enough. The only indication of wrong came from a creeping fissure in the Aura, as if danger was just a short reach away.
Anna could feel it more intensely than her teacher, and she immediately stopped rowing. She dropped the ore to her side and slowly bent over her side of canoe, her sense guiding her. Small but questionable ripples danced across the glassy surface of the dark, abysmal water, emitting a distinct and gentle Aura. Reaching out with her powers, she inspected each one closely.
"Anna?", Wade murmured, concerned. "What is it?"
"I sense... something in the water." She squinted and leaned closer to the water as the ripples became smaller, then smaller, until there was nothing.
Anna drew back, but as soon as she did, a jet of water burst from the other side of the canoe, nearly tipping them over. "Whoa!"
A chain reaction promptly set off in succession, as the water all around the boat exploded into a string of geysers, each dissolving into a Dragonair.
Anna and Wade shot to their feet for a fight, but they were surrounded in mere seconds, the gentle blue serpents circling them from above and staring them down with their dark, glossy doll-like eyes.
Anna leaned back to mutter something to Wade, but paused when she felt an even deeper disturbance in the Aura.
The Dragonair suddenly convoy let out a simultaneous series of shrill, earsplitting cries, each of them twisting and convulsing aimlessly about the air.
Even Wade could recognize there was foul play amok. Stretching out with the Aura, he could feel the work of immense Negative Energy like no other, directly affecting the dragons. It was like there was something corrupting them from the shadows, something invisible and heinous. A dark and twisted magic not even he, as a professor, could accurately assay.
Before either Anna or Wade could do anything, the Dragons jerked unnatural;y still all at once, slowly turning to face the humans with a deep, evil hatred in their eyes, like mindless zombies with an unquenchable blood lust.
In one sharp movement, the nearest Dragonair fired a stream of flames.
"Absol, deflect with Thunderbolt!", Anna promptly reacted, then noticed more incoming flames from the other surrounding Dragons. "Now another, Jolteon!"
They were under attack now, borderline under siege. Absol and Jolteon hopped agilely about the boat, back and forth, side to side, to meet each Flamethrower with a timely Thunderbolt. It was a commendable effort, but even Anna knew they wouldn't be able to hold out forever without eventually keeling over in exhaustion.
"Cursed basilisks!", Wade hissed between grated teeth, then called further down the cave, "Noctowl, kindly lend a wing!"
As with earlier, the sharp, savvy owl swooped out of nowhere to join the fray, pealing through its scaly opponents to deliver blow after blow of Psychic blasts! It had learned to rely heavily on its extrasensory after years of studying Clint's Aura techniques.
Anna hastily took after Noctowl's example and deiced on her own hands-on approach, firing sphere after sphere of Aura in all directions to help counter the lethal bombardment of flames and icy gusts. "They're relentless!", she huffed, losing breath with each deployed sphere. "We can't keep this up forever!"
In response, several of the Dragonairs pressed up their aerial attacks, while a splinter party took to the water in a swift, synchronized instant. The combined splash of their coeval cannon-dive extinguished the torches on the walls and the cave suddenly flickered black, forcing Anna and her Pokémon to defend themselves in pitch darkness.
Sa'lu signature cackle suddenly rang across the lightless tunnel, bouncing freely off the walls.
As the battle intensified, Wade scoffed at the chilling laughter echoing around them and cried desperately to the top of his lungs, "Show yourself, Sa'lu!"
Cayman feasted his eyes upon the landmark with envy. Mount Moon definitely stood higher than everything but the stars. As the southernmost pike of the great northern mountains, it divided the Kanto Region from the wild lands of the north known as Lunan, with Pewter City and Cerulean City safely at the foothills of its vast, mighty range.
Reaching the gable of their flight, Cayman and Simon swooped to the steep mountain's midsection. "We're close, I can feel it," Cayman muttered beneath his breath, right into the clammy nape of Simon's neck. "Get ready to land."
"Wh—Where am I supposed to land?", Simon panicked, no accessible ridges in sight. "The whole outside of this mountain is one steep slope! If we even try getting off here, we'll just tumble right to the bottom!" He pointed a trembling finger downward. "The only safe way inside is through cave entrance on Route 3!"
Cayman shook his head smugly. "Nah. We'll just have to make our own entrance!" Slightly turning his head, he called over his shoulder, "Hey, tele-twits! See what you can do! Use Bulldoze Attack!"
Obeying orders, the crescent and sun-shaped duo glided past Cayman and smashed full-force through the side of the mountain with an earth-tremoring shock wave!
The resulting dust cloud cleared to reveal a gaping hole in the mountainside, ready for their convenience. Simon swallowed tensely as he and his group descended into the newly-forged threshold, while Cayman deepened his focus and refined his senses in preparation for what they would soon face.
As soon as they landed inside, they were immediately greeted by the utter darkness of the mountain's gloomy entrails. At the mouth of the cave, Cayman rested his hands on his hips and drew a breath of damp air. Mildew and the rich scent of earth filled his nostrils, so virile and masculine.
"It's too dark to see," Simon murmured, praying it would be incentive enough for them to turn back and call the whole thing off. The psychological weight of knowing that massive tons of solid rock pressed around, above, and below gave the damp air itself a feeling of density. And as much as he loved the mountains, he usually preferred to explore them from the outside. "M—Maybe we should wait till morning—"
"Relax, will ya?", Cayman chortled cockily as they started down the dismal tunnel. "I have the Aura on my side. It gives me eyes like a Zubat!"
Simon recalled his Fearow to its Pokéball and followed the sound of the older voice through the pitch black; but out of habitual impulse, he quickly jumped to correct Cayman's remark. "Actually... Zubat have no eyes. They rely on sophisticated radar systems to navigate through dark caves like this."
While Lunatone and Solrock snickered quietly to themselves, Cayman whirled and shot the boy a dirty look, not that it could even be seen in the dead of darkness around them. "Yeah, well... who the fuck asked you?"
Simon shriveled back a few paces, as if spooked . "I—I'm just trying to help!", he pleaded in a whimper. "I know this mountain very well. That's why you asked me along, isn't it?"
Cayman simply laughed and continued to march haughtily down the cave like some show-off gumshoe. "I'm pretty sure I can handle a couple of pesky Zubat on my own, should we run into any," he dismissed nonchalantly.
But he'd spoken too soon. A bale of nesting Golbats suddenly dropped from the cave ceiling, tackling Cayman to the ground.
Simon took a guarded step back and cleared his throat, taking the opportunity to calmly lecture, "Golbat, on the other hand, are a bit less predictable, as their enhanced supersonic waves give them a more imposing edge in dark environments."
"No kidding!", Cayman grunted, trying to writhe his way free from the winged rodents piling on top of him. "Thanks for the crash course, jerk!"
"We shall protect you, Kami!", Lunatone and Solrock shouted with twin war-cries, then proceeded to charge forward with reckless abandon.
Alas, the Golbats' incessant tugging and flailing against their victim caused them to roll over with Cayman and the astral duo smashed into the wall instead.
"What good are you two!", Cayman grunted, his voice muffled as his attackers domed over him like an anchor, their combined weight and spastic movements too much for him to bear up against.
"I'd steer clear of the fangs," Simon cautioned while standing idly by. "They can drain approximately three hundred cubic centimeters of blood per bite. I learned that the hard way the first time I hiked this mountain."
"For Arceus' sakes, help me!", the older boy hollered between gasps and grunts.
Simon paled, his shoulders shrunk back anxiously. "B-But I'm not sure that I should—"
"Don't think of it as a Pokémon Battle!", Cayman bellowed back. "Use your brain, not brawn!"
Wiping the cold sweat from his forehead, Simon reached for his Pokéball and sent it hurtling through the darkness. "F—Fearow, use Gust!"
The Beak Pokémon speared onto the scene in a flickering instant and, upon spotting the Golbat onrush, conjured a gale of wind with its great, lofty wings!
The bloodthirsty assailants scattered in disarray at the sudden overwhelming rush of air, then promptly retreated deep into the belly of the mountain in an uncoordinated panic.
Simon found the air in his lungs again and recalled his Pokémon. "Fearow, return!" Stowing his Pokéball away, he rushed towards Cayman and offered his hand to him. "Strong winds tend to interfere with supersonic sonar," he explained as he helped the elder boy back to his feet. "You didn't know that?"
"Just shut up, alright?", Cayman panted, swatting him aside dizzily. He just wanted to get back on the trail and forget his humiliation. "I'll light us a path." A crimson glow suddenly illuminated the cave as Cayman called upon his Aura Blade. "Stay ahead of me, will you?", he muttered over his shoulder, working hard to keep the sarcasm from his voice. "Apparently my Aura Senses aren't as finely tuned as your knowledge of these pikes."
Simon nodded and scuttled in front of Cayman. He didn't wish to upset the hot-tempered criminal, especially not while he was currently armed with his signature weapon. He feared even the slightest blunder could result in a severed limb.
Further behind, Solrock and Lunatone were only just now pulling themselves from the chalky rubble of their embarrassing washout. They shook off their stupor and raced eagerly to Cayman's side. "That was a slight misfire on our behalf," Solrock confessed in a doleful undertone. "Our sincerest apologies, Kami."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Cayman mumbled irritably, paying them little mind yet still earning a silent chuckle from Simon. "At least you guys hit SOMETHING this time."
Rayquaza zigzagged across the tower top in a dazzling but deadly flash of emerald. The response from Clint was surprisingly prompt, even for me. The newfound glint in his eye told me wonders as he flagged a hand to Ho-Oh. "Ho-Oh, use Fire Blast!"
I should have predicted as much. Craning back its head and chromatic wings, the Legendary Bird unleashed a fire so hot, that every raindrop within a three mile radius melted away, leaving nothing but a scorching maze of steam in its wake.
Rayquaza swiftly reversed direction, falling back, and I instinctively drew an arm over my eyes as a scalding wave of steam engulfed me. I couldn't help but sniff back a throaty chuckle, amused by such resourcefulness. It was just like Clint's style to use weather effects to falter an opponent's attributes in either speed or strength. Fortunately for me, Rayquaza was no ordinary opponent.
The noble duo would learn this the hard way.
With the aid of my Aura Sight, I saw clear through the fumes, tracing the movements of Clint and his volcano of a weapon. They were preparing another Fire Blast, which would likely smother the entire island in steam this time around. I wasn't so keen on letting such a hindrance take root.
At the click of my heel and the snap of my fingers, Rayquaza belted skyward and surfaced above the fiery haze, then continued to charge vigorously across the roof, unmarred. It tore through the climbing crests of steam, as if hopping platforms, then, once close enough, made a lissome pivot and slung its tail point-black into Ho-oh.
The fast-paced impact thrust the winged Pokémon into a backwards somersault, but using its massive wings to create a winded pressure of balance, the phoenix stabilized mid-air and vengefully fired another fiery napalm in Rayquaza's direction.
To meet this lethal discharge of flames, my scaly serpent belched a massive Hyper Beam from the root of its reptilian tongue.
I watched intently but stood my ground guardedly as the two deadly emissions of energy scrimmaged into a outbreak of asphyxiating smog.
I could faintly see Clint hacking on a raspy, involuntary cough as the wave of smog overwhelmed his lungs. He clutched desperately at his throat until the wind and rainfall finally extinguished the pollution. Glancing up with bloodshot eyes, he swatted away the last of the haze but stopped cold against the invisible reach of my calculating smile, against the way my perfect rows of teeth twinkled lustrously beneath the streaks of lightning flickering above.
Our silent, baleful exchange was cut short when he suddenly spotted Rayquaza resurface from the smog, darting towards him with its gullet and claws wide open.
"Time to submit, Clint," I muttered beneath my breath, my lips sealing shut and curving into a deeper smile.
I'd jinxed it. Before Rayquaza could snatch Clint, that wretched phoenix of his reacted too soon for comfort and plucked Clint from the ground, carrying him upward with its talons securely gripping each arm. I had to confess, the winged Legendary was admirably steadfast, knowing to protect its master as its first and foremost duty.
"Bless you, Ho-Oh!", Clint acknowledged gratefully as the pair ascended the chalky gray sky, where the storm continued to brew. It didn't seem to matter to Clint though; he'd have rathered take his chances with the weather than play into my game of hunt.
I crooked my head from left to right, no visual on my own servant. But I could certainly feel the serpent skulking nearby, probably among the storm clouds, waiting for the right moment to lurch from its hiding place and strike. I wouldn't interfere; this was now a predatory vendetta the Dragon was holding over Ho-oh, and I was more than obliged to welcome it.
"Keep an eye out for Rayquaza, Ho-Oh!" Peculiarly, Clint began to climbing his way up the talons of his Legendary Pokémon, until finally managing to maneuver comfortably onto its back. Wrapping his legs around the viridian-colored neck, he began steering his Pokémon away from Sky Pillar like the coward he was.
I was just about ready to unleash the hell of my mind's power before something crashed into me from behind, flipping me over like a tortilla. I landed on a scaly cushion and held on tight as the world suddenly zoomed around me, it had all happened in the blink of a weather eye.
Once I found my bearings, I realized I was riding Rayquaza bareback through the eye of the storm, charging madly after Clint and Ho-oh.
When we were only but a few meters behind them, I yanked Rayquaza's scaly collar with a wrenching tug and the Dragon launched a cued Hyper Beam, catching the fleeing pair off-guard. I made sure the angle was a clear shot, as to not fully damage my prize.
Direct hit. I howled fiercely in laughter as the blast struck Ho-Oh square in the paunch, sending the broiled bird and its cowardly master plummeting back down towards the tower top.
But I was caught flat-footed when Clint sprung into action mid-fall, jerking his Pokémon awake with a firm tug at its feathered neck. To my utter astonishment, Ho-Oh straightened out just inches from impact and curved upward before it could hit the surface of the tower.
I rubbed at my bristled chin, impressed. Even with the Black Moon's endless surplus of cosmic power fortifying our every attack, Clint and his pet were still a force to be reckoned with. Then again, this wasn't exactly surprising to me. Even when we were boys, Clint was always the more 'quick on the draw' type of Trainer; he could always time and focus his attacks just right and turn the tide of almost any match.
The daring duo immediately turned their attention to us on their flight back up, forcing me to set aside my reflections. Though jaded psychically, Ho-oh looked damned outraged now, engorged entirely by ruthless asperity seeping from deep emotions. And it occurred to me in that moment that this fight was far from over—it was just beginning.
This was something to relish: in just one deadly blow to its feathery gut, I had reminded Ho-oh why it had spent so many years hiding from humans, detesting them. A huge grin hung thick on my face when my eyes met the phoenix's, and I spurred Rayquaza forward, preparing to clash with the fiery fowl and the Pokémon Master that was soon to be history.
Cayman bumped against Simon from behind when the younger boy suddenly came to an abrupt halt. Cayman opened his mouth to curse him out but went silent when he found that they were standing at an intersection of tunnels, split into three different directions.
Simon looked all around with big eyes, puzzled yet intrigued by this mountainous labyrinth they'd embarked on.
"Which tunnel should we take?", asked Cayman, holding his Aura Blade high to the dark, gloomy passages.
Simon, knowing fully well what Cayman expected of him as his personal mountain guide, slowly crept to the threshold of the leftmost passage and knelt to the gravel. His hand grazed over faint but legible footprints left in the dirt. "This path looks the most promising. It's worn, and seems to have seen much use lately. Just look at the footmarks."
"I don't need a narration," Cayman groaned, yanking the lankier boy to his feet. "Just keep us on safe, stable course."
Simon nodded without a peep and quietly led his party of captors into the designated tunnel. These entrails were much different, by the looks. The walls sparkled with crystal fragments, illuminating the short earthen pathway into the heart of the mountain. Simon picked a loose crystal up off the ground and inspected it closely. The pale light filled his hand soothingly. It almost seemed to pulse, like a tiny white heartbeat.
Approaching Simon, Lunatone and Solrock hovered side by side up the sparkling passage, ever alert to their surroundings. Something was interfering with their Psychic powers, obstructing their scope of the mountain and forcing their guard up.
Coming up at the hind of the group, Cayman absorbed his Aura Blade back into his body, the glittering glow of the walls providing more than enough of light. Only the ground and high ceiling remained steeped in shadows, but it didn't seem to bother him nor slow him down.
"Be sure to watch your step," Simon cautioned further up ahead. "You wouldn't want to accidentally step on a Geodude."
"I would be able to detect it ahead of time," Cayman bragged with an overblown smile, as he seemed to weave effortlessly through boulders and rocky arches cluttering the cave. "We're in my element, after all. I can practically feel the Earth's heartbeat."
At this, Simon turned on his heel and spoke his mind without thinking first. "Then... why aren't YOU leading us to this mysterious energy source you sense?"
"I can only feel it through the Aura, not my Cho'moken," Cayman put it simply, not inclined to explain the full nature behind it. He was too focused on the dark pulse of the mountain, which seemed to be growing stronger in the Aura. "Besides, we're already so close, so I don't want to take any chances."
Simon raised a finger to the ceiling above Cayman, "In that case, you might want to duck your head."
Without questioning it, Cayman lowered his head as instructed, agilely crouching his way over to Simon. His eyes darted upward to see silhouetted swaddles of green and yellow suspending from the shadows overhead. "Kakuna?", he guessed on the spot, unsure at first.
Simon nodded. "They sometimes nest in tunnels because of the dark and peaceful atmosphere." Reaching forward, he quickly pulled Cayman close to him as more Kakuna suddenly descended from the ceiling, dangling gracefully on strands of silk. "You wouldn't want to bump into one while it's sleeping though, unless you're looking to get one whopper of a Beedrill sting."
Cayman let out a huff of relief and quirked an estranged brow to the perceptive scout. "How were you able to see it?"
"The shine of its shell gave off a glint," he clarified, pointing. "It's too faint for the untrained eye to see, but when you've lived in the area as long as I have, you eventually pick up on these things."
Cayman just stared at him in amazement, Lunatone and Solrock popping up behind him and doing the same. None of them could fathom just how complex a person this measly scout was beneath the surface.
Bothered by the leering pair of eyes staring him down, Simon shifted uncomfortably where he stood. "Wh—What is it?"
Cayman didn't bother trying to dress up the question plaguing his mind and just went for broke, "If you're this smart and this aware of your surroundings, how come you couldn't last five seconds in a Pokémon Battle with me?"
Simon was reluctant to respond at first. But fearing what Cayman might do if given the cold shoulder, words suddenly came spilling out of his mouth. "I've... I've learned a lot about the Pokémon I encounter in my travels, where they live and how they behave," he forced the confession out of his throat, voice quivery. "But when it comes to facing them and battling them... I'm hopeless."
Cayman inspected the boy up and down, as if to somehow validate what he'd just been told. But when Simon began to march deeper into the cave, pretending not to notice, Cayman wrinkled his nose in dismay and skittered after him, unwilling to let the matter drop. "You give up too easily, that's your problem."
The scrawny, cheerless boy with piercing blue eyes glared back at him over his shoulder. "I'm just not tough enough," he stated firmly, trying his best to put an end to the discussion. "That's all there is to it. I get so scared and panicked when it comes to fighting other Trainers and Pokémon. I cant react quick enough, I cant think on my feet. I just freeze up and stand there like a dope, wishing I was somewhere else." He began to walk again, only his gaze was cast dispiritedly to the ground this time. "I'm a coward. I'll never be anything more than some scrawny, cowardly dweeb who's afraid of his own shadow."
"Well, fuck, not with that attitude!", Cayman laughed beside him, his face softening, yet still unsatisfied with Simon's answer. There was no mistaking the inflexibility in his tone. "You lack self-confidence! You can't be afraid to bite the bullet once in a while. You don't push yourself hard enough to be threatening and intimidating."
"Who could ever be intimidated by me?", Simon marveled in a small, scratchy voice. "I mean, yes, I have a working knowledge of every geographical location in Lunan, along with all its flora and fauna—" He stopped speaking when he noticed Cayman's expression turn cold and serious. "Oh, sorry, I'll... I'll be quiet."
"No, it's not you," Cayman muttered, stopping suddenly. "The energy pulse is stronger now. We're... right next to it. I can feel it." Moving Simon sideways, he walked a short distance aside until the passage narrowed to a thin fissure, not small for either of them to fit through.
Keeping his distance, Simon could spot a faint glow oozing from the crevice. There was definitely something extraordinary on the other side.
Cayman attempted to squeeze in sideways, but it was hopeless. In his brashness, he swung out his arm, Aura Blade hissing to life in his palm. He raised the weapon high over his head and readied to gash his way through solid rock.
"Don't do that!", Simon gasped, snatching Cayman's forearm, though immediately regretting doing so. "Th—The tunnel could cave in on us!", he explained himself before the older boy could chuck him to the dirt.
Cayman gritted his teeth and retracted his blade, sneering, "Then toss me another suggestion, mountain genius!"
Swallowing, Simon gestured back the way they came. "We take a different trail and-"
"Fuck no, that could take us forever!" Cayman balled his hands into tight fists and slammed them into the obstructing wall, eyes fluttering shut as he fed his energy into the earth in front of him, willing it to respond to his Aura.
Simon stepped back nervously, mouth ajar, as Cayman's body took on a bright red hue. The energy hissed and fizzled around him as his focus deepened into something else.
A few moments passed and Cayman seemed to wobble in place. As he listened with his feet, the shudders and vibrations of the world around and beneath him throttled his concentration; but he pushed past them, honing them to his advantage. Breathing in and out, his fist curled tighter as he absorbed each shudder the Earth sent at him, redirecting it into the rock wall.
His arms suddenly twitched, muscles tensing. Before anyone could react, the chasm in the wall stretched open, the rock shifting and splitting further apart until it was just wide enough to enter through.
Cayman slowly opened his eyes and the erosion desisted. A pent-up gasp of air tore free from his lungs and looked on to his handiwork with a self-appreciating grin.
Simon mewled softly behind him, "H-How... how did you-"
Cayman waved him silent and walked through the newly forged breach in the wall to meet the power source calling to him from the other side. Curtains of stalactites descended in huge ropy spikes as they stepped into the cavernous room; columns where stalactites and stalagmites met formed a colonnade as if they were in the palace of some royalty.
In the center of the cavern, bathed in the warmth of the starlight shining through a large gap in the ceiling, sat an enormous round boulder on a pedestal of slightly raised rock. It shimmered and glowed a crimson brilliance, a God to the dozens of Clefairy orbiting around it in worship.
Cayman twitched to a halt, as if being pushed back. The energy the boulder radiated was staggering, dark and infernal. Was it because of the Black Moon, he wondered to himself? Was it because of these irritatingly voiced Clefairy singing and dancing around it like a strip pole?
Simon stepped to Cayman's side and perked up at the magnificent sight. "Oh, I know what that is!", he whispered aside to Cayman, careful not to disturb the Clefairy. "It's a Moon Stone! I guess the rumors were true. A lot of the hikers I've met in my travels say they've been to see it!"
Cayman licked his lips skeptically. "That can't be a Moon Stone," he retorted dryly. "It's... way too big."
Simon shrugged. "Well, those Clefairy sure seem to appreciate it!"
Cayman took another step closer, only to draw the attention of every Clefairy in the cave. It was as if they had sensed his approach somehow, like an ominous presence looming over them. In a terror-stricken uproar, the pixie Pokémon scattered into hiding, none brave enough to even glance Cayman in the eye. This wasn't normal.
But the green-haired rouge didn't think twice about it and just continued walking, the Moon Stone's mysterious power was pulling him in like a magnet. As he drew closer, the Aura began to react inside him, a cosmic sensation swelling through the contact; and he did his best to read it. "The Black Moon must have triggered some kind of reaction in the Moon Stone," he reasoned to himself. "Its properties are brimming with Negative Energy... but man, it's not like anything I've felt before."
He turned his head, spotting rustling movements in the shadows. The Clefairy were still scrambling to get out of sight. "What's wrong with them?", he snorted. "Why are they so afraid of me!"
Now observing from a different entrance to the cavern, Simon answered back in a clueless voice, "I... I couldn't tell you."
The older boy rolled his eyes. "Some ranger, you are." He spun to Lunatone and Solrock. "What do you guys think—" He trailed off when he realized the astral duo weren't listening to him, which was very unalike them. Instead, they were deep and lost in concentration. "Lunatone? Solrock?"
The two Pokémon levitated past Cayman, suspiciously enamored with the Moon Stone. It was like they were in some deep hypnotic state. Perhaps they felt the same connection as Cayman.
At a closer distance, an incomplete set of smaller stones surrounded the base of the interstellar rock. Cayman cocked his head curiously, counting the mini stones, then surveyed the sacred object in front of him again, finding himself lost in its lure once more. Slowly, carefully, he drew his hand from his side and pressed his palm against the hard surface of the meteorite.
A sudden dark sensation invaded him, seeping into any space it could get into, pressing into his mind, his soul, drowning him, dissolving him, diluting him. He felt himself plummeting, vision swirling and blurring. Stars and planets spun around him, just as they had in his nightmare back on Difo's ship.
Cayman reeled. The images seemed to come to him in stronger and in more potent waves: he was free-falling towards Earth like an unstoppable meteorite, his voyage through space coming to an end. The sound of a rushing air in his dreams roared in his ears now. He blinked, finding himself on his knees, clutching his chest as he fought off the waking nightmare.
Simon was already dropped down at the older boy's side, trying to jolt him from his possessed-state. The young scout's panicking voice could only be faintly heard by Cayman, muffled by the high pitched shriek of his plunge whistling in his ears as a bright white light engulfed his vision.
Finally, he snapped awake, almost crying out. His heart began to slow and his panic drained away. Sitting up slowly, he wiped a stray, involuntary tear from the corner of his eye and breathed deeply. It had been like staring at the sun, the afterimage permanently burned into his retina.
"Are you alright?", Simon choked out in a frightened voice, grasping the elder boy's arm with a steadying grip. "Are... are you hurt?"
Cayman shook his head and jumped to his feet as his strength came rushing back to him. He glared at the source of his pain and croaked, "There's something about this Moon Stone... that feels so familiar."
"We felt it as well, Kami," Lunatone and Solrock affirmed in unison, no longer under the boulder's spell.
Simon wanted to understand, wanted to open his mouth to question what had just happened, but found himself silenced when the Clefairy coterie began to emerge from the shadows, this time in twice their numbers from before. No longer did they appear afraid; in fact, they almost looked... angry.
Cayman quickly found that the animosity was being focused only on him and he stood his ground readily, Lunatone and Solrock covering his flanks.
"They don't seem to like you very much," Simon concluded nervously through chattering teeth. "M—Maybe we should leave."
Another cold, dark feeling crept up Cayman's spine. Apart from the tempered society of Clefairy closing in around him, something deep in his gut told him he needed to leave the cavern at once. Something wasn't quite right here, and it took all the courage he could muster to walk, not run, back towards the passage which they entered. "Yeah, uh, maybe..."
"Fairy, Fairy, Fairy!", the hostile group chanted as one, wagging their tiny hands from left to right. "Faiiirry! Faiiirry! Faiiirry!"
A glow of white engorged the embittered Pokémon and Simon twitched against Cayman side. Then it dawned on him. "Oh no... they're going to use Metronome!"
When the words reached his ears, Cayman lunged headfirst at the Pokémon... but it was too late. A flash of light engorged him.
His eyes opened to an entirely different world. He was no long toe to toe with the Clefairy inside Mount Moon. In fact, he wasn't sure where he was. The land was dark, lit only by the tiny points of frozen light in the sky; of course, the stars told him nothing of his predicament. Dense forests of pines stretched around him in somber silence, bathed in the faint, pale starlight of dusk.
Lunatone and Solrock approached from his right in dead silence. Simon stood frozen behind them, equally puzzled.
Cayman's eyes narrowed unpleasantly and he whirled, his heels shifting against soft ground. He was completely lost; there was no denying it now. The soil felt so different to his feet: rather than dry and packed together like on Mount Moon, it was suspiciously squishy and unstable.
"We're still in the mountains," Simon spoke with keen sharpness. "We're just not in the Mount Moon vicinity anymore. In fact... I think we're in the deeper woodlands of Lunan. The Clefairy must have teleported us here using their Metronome."
Cayman turned froward again and dug his boot into the clay-like terrain. The earth beneath his feet felt so frustratingly uneven, it suddenly dawned on him that they were standing on the slope of a bespattered hill. Everything was lopsided and asperous, marshy in places as it sucked at their shoes, with rises and hollows obscured by grass growing in odd directions.
Raising his chin, something in the Aura caught his attention. He could sense a different kind of energy emanating beyond the bend of the hill. Though not quite as threatening as the Moon Stone's proprieties, this source of power felt grander, like something spiritual and divine cutting its way through time.
Cayman, headstrong and boundless like always, immediately began scaling his way up the slope without second thought. In his mind, it was no coincidence he'd wandered into so many mysterious landmarks in one measly night. It just had to be the will of the Aura, and he wasn't about to turn his back on its guide, especially not now with so many life-boggling revelations surfacing from his suppressing years of heinous service to Metsuma.
"W—Wait!" A trembling mess, Simon begrudgingly clambered after him. He climbed to the best of his ability, hauling his knees up to his waists and placing them like storks with each step. This wasn't an unfamiliar experience for him; what really unnerved him was what waited for them beyond the hill. Deep in his gut, he wasn't even sure Cayman could protect HIMSELF the deeper they pressed into the unknown.
Clawing his way to the very top of the hill, Simon breathed laboriously and stood up on his wobbly, twig-like legs. He was surprised to find Cayman one step ahead of him, already surveying the scenery. "You're a better climber than me!", he chuckled with a shy, tenderhearted smile. "Where did you learn to—"
Cayman didn't even glance to the boy. He couldn't bring himself to look away from the spectacle splayed before him: the ashen, capsized remains of what looked like a city—no, a kingdom. The dim light that filtered down illuminated the ancient ruins with a ghostly quality that was equaled by the sinister, claustrophobic effect of the invading walls of the forests. The eerie scene was enhanced by the almost complete silence.
Simon could tell Cayman was making some sort of connection with this place and decided to lend a hand from his vast knowledge of the area. He swept his hand towards the vestiges of the once-proud city, as if presenting it as his own. "What you see are the old ruins of Emerald Kingdom. I did some research on it a while back. It's the only kingdom left untouched from the days of medieval Lunan. As you can see, it's uninhabited and in obvious disrepair."
Cayman gazed upon the ruins more intensively. Though disfigured and totaled to near-dust, they had this appearance, in the faint distant starlight, of castles and buildings walled with marble balustrades, just as Simon had described. He tried to imagine what it had all once looked like, even reaching out to the Aura for a visual—but saw nothing. He could only hear faint, barely detectable echoes of long-forgotten voices floating on the breeze.
The younger boy was having trouble reading Cayman's expression, though he didn't want to try too hard and risk being caught. It was probably for the best he waited for Cayman's mood to loosen up before asking questions. Quietly and without saying, he was growing more and more fond of this cold-blooded criminal and his interesting quirks. But he still had to remember he was indeed in the presence of proven murderer.
As expected, Cayman untensed and flicked his gaze to Simon pensively. "Why was this place abandoned?" He posed this question thickly, eyes not quite focused.
Simon shrugged somewhat skittishly, pulling what little info he could supply the other boy with. "Well... most other royal domains around here just sort of... evolved and industrialized over time, into cities and towns." He managed a small, diffident smile. "That's sort of what sets history apart from the present."
"No, I mean, why was this place left unindustrialized?", Cayman rephrased the question. It was his natural sense of curiosity getting the better of him again.
"Out of respect for the Aura Guardians, I imagine," retorted the all-knowing twelve-year-old. "Emerald Kingdom was once their sacred homestead. Now it's basically just a sacred... graveyard." He swallowed tautly and reeled, feeling more and more out of his comfort zone the longer they perched there. "Pay it no mind."
Cayman swiped the back of his hand across his sweaty brow and sucked his lungs full with a sharp inhale of breath. "Maybe I can find some answers here," he murmured to himself.
"Pay no mind to it," Simon enunciated slowly. "We should probably fly back to Pewter and—" He heard a swooshing sound behind him and spun back around, only to find Cayman skating down the landslide towards the city. In a fit of hysterics, he cried out, "What in the name of Arceus are you doing!"
"What's it look like I'm doing?", cackled the other boy from below. "Taking a field trip, doing a little exploring! Fuck, call it whatever you want!"
Lunatone and Solrock exchanged weary glances. But without protest, they sped after their master with blind allegiance, leaving Simon alone on the hilltop. This was their duty, after all: to protect Cayman wherever he went, at any cost.
Spooked scared by the abrupt abandonment of his fellow travelers, Simon chased his companions halfway down the gradient, waving for Cayman to wait up and hear him out for one measly second. "You shouldn't go in there!", he pleaded, quilting Cayman to another halt. "The area is very unstable! Besides, who knows what vicious scavengers are foraging the ruins for scraps!"
Cayman beamed at him widely. "Last I checked, I was the heartless murderer that you wanted punished; and if you're right about this place, you just might get your wish."
Simon shrunk back into his shoulders, chewing his lower lip embarrassedly. He quickly resorted to changing the subject, which was much less degrading than admitting he actually cared about the older youth's safety. "Well, just so you know, I've heard rumors of some hungry-looking Houndooms lurking around this place, with humped backs and long snouts and teeth just drooling to gnaw on flesh. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
"I can handle myself just fine, alright?", Cayman grumbled through stubborn lips, waving his hand as if to dismiss Simon. He just wanted to drop this charade already. "Look, you were a great help back at Mount Moon, but I can take it from here, so get lost or something. I officially release you from your captivity, not going to kill you, yada, yada, yada. Happy now?"
"B—B—But..." Simon stammered, folding his arms and shuffling awkwardly, torn between a rock and a hard place.
Cayman gave him a cold look from the distance. "You're not fitted for this, alright? Now scram!"
Watching the rouge and his two Pokémon set off into the ravaged kingdom remains, essentially deserting him, Simon felt a sharp impulse bubbling inside his core. He didn't know why or how, but he felt the need to set out with him, in spite of his fears. Maybe this was his test as a mountain ranger, his chance to finally live up to those badges he carried around in his satchel.
The fervid click of footsteps held Cayman still again, and he turned sharply on his heel to regard Simon's unexpected approach. When the boy stopped in front of him, he laughed quietly to himself. "You were a nervous, trembling mess when we met back in Pewter," he reminded after a few seconds of tense silence. "Why the change of heart?"
"Because I'm a mountain ranger," the younger blurted out, like it might all be one word, not one sentence. "I... I should want to learn more about these grounds, not cower from them." He smiled up at him weakly. "Don't you agree?"
Cayman faintly returned the glowing expression, then swung around to carry onward. "Just stick close and don't do anything stupid."
Simon nodded and straggled after him, though there was no denying the nervous sweat forming over his brow. Deep down, part of him was hoping he hadn't just made a fatal mistake in embarking on this suicidal exploit. He wished he had Cayman's bold backbone.
Of course, little did either of them know, they were being watched from a distance by two pairs of leering eyes skulking in the darkness of moldy, rotting wreckage. A look of rediscovered opportunity seemed to reflect between the two faceless beings of them as they exchanged evil glances, before finally, receding back into the shadows.
Clint and Ho-oh came at me in winged fury, and I reared Rayquaza higher into the air, hoping to tire them out with a lengthy chase. It wasn't in my nature to flee a fight, but I couldn't take any chances on a night so important. Rather than sacrifice Rayquaza so early in the battle, I would drag out the conflict long enough to exhaust Ho-oh, giving me the opportunity to deal a swift, deadly stroke against.
The pursuit was short lived and Ho-oh maneuvered in front of us in a stunning show of speed, stopping us short with a fleetly executed Flamethrower. The blast nearly knocked me flush off Rayquaza's back, but I held onto its scaly sheath for the throttling of my life as my legs dangled outwards. Now we were the ones plummeting.
I felt Rayquaza jerk awake as we began to free fall, shaking off its mild burn. The Dragon brandished dagger-like teeth to me, as if in some reassurance, then gunned upward in blind fury, forcing me to hang on even tighter.
I climbed back into the sitting position once we were back on the move, our sights set on the rainbow saboteur skimming the storm clouds ahead of us. I cracked my knuckles, limbering up my appendages, a smirk on my lips. Then, at my command, we charged into battle. Since we couldn't outrun them, we'd just have to outperform them—and blow them both to hell.
Spotting us, Ho-oh and Clint dived into a charging maneuver of their own. I kept my eyes peeled for even the slightest flicker of fire on their part, but none came. They were going to rush us raw. This just excited me even more.
We clashed in the sky like two fighter jets, the claws of our Pokémon trading ruthless blows as we twirled and weaved through shafts of lightning crashing down from above. This ensued for several minutes, and every so often I'd glance down at the tower to ensure the portal hadn't vanished yet. I only had till the break of dawn before the Black Moon defected, along with all the cosmic strength it bestowed on me.
The violent rainfall seemed to pour harder, soaking our vision and hindering our advances against one and other. I was actually beginning to grow bitter towards the stormy backdrop of our battle—because it wasn't a backdrop anymore, it was an impedance. Any clear shot I was able to get on Clint and Ho-Oh broke from spontaneous lightning bolts and pelting rainfall cutting through the sky.
Breaking still in the sky, Rayquaza fidgeted beneath me. This was a pretty gutsy move, practically baiting ourselves to the wrath of the storm. I wasn't quite sure what was wrong, nor was I too inclined to care. I just wanted to extinguish Ho-oh, nab Clint, and carry on with my ritual uninterrupted.
I moved to give Rayquaza a quick, disciplinary jab in the collar, but a pillar of lightning suddenly caught us unaware—or rather, caught me unaware. My eyes clamped shut instinctively and I ground my teeth for the worst.
But when I felt nothing, I pried one eye open, my gaze drifting from left to right. To my pleasant surprise, the lightning bolts were merely brushing off us with little more than a few, mild static shocks. Then it dawned me: of course! I had forgotten all about Rayquaza's Air Lock ability. Sa'lu had only mentioned it to me once, but I had been too absorbed in the Dragon Scroll's more impertinent knowledge to pay the unrelated details much heed.
What's more, while researching Rayquaza years ago, I had heard much-debated mythology of the great serpent suppressing a legendary war between Kyogre and Groudon: by stopping their influence on the weather. If such mythology was in fact true, I could now testify as to how; and ironically, I was using this same ability towards my ultimate goal of plunging the world right back to its messy, war-torn roots.
A short distance away, Clint gawked at us in utter disbelief. The weather effects bouncing clean off us was something he was blatantly failing to grasp. And the sheer look of spite running down his face might have accused us of cheating, but even I could attest that mother nature was simply mother nature.
Ho-oh twitched uneasily beneath Clint and the two bolted on sight, taking refuge above more clouds, probably realizing their odds were now much less favorable.
Before we could take off after them, I leaned forward and whispered into my serpent's scabrous nape, "I wish you'd told me about your little ability sooner than later, but you're lucky I'm in an upbeat mood." I then pointed to the clouds Clint and his pet were stowing away in, smiling. "Besides, if you can stop an apocalyptic war between two legendary gargantuans, you can easily subdue some spineless Pokémon Trainer and his bloated parrakeet."
Rayquaza nodded, snorted, then sailed us upward into the deepest, blackest clouds to snuff out our imperiled prey.
One measly Ice Beam to slip past Jolteon and Absol unnoticed was all it took, blowing the canoe to splinters and throwing Anna and Wade into the cold, murky water of the sacred den, as Dragonairs swarmed them from above and below.
Refusing to accept defeat, Anna swam heedlessly through the darkness, Wade following the splash of her kicks. A faint glimmer of light flickered further down the den, and she stroked towards it, treading water for dear life.
Absol and Jolteon doggy-paddled after them, while Noctowl patrolled from above, fending off any pursuing Dragonair to surface from the depths.
The tiny light grew bigger as they pushed closer, flickering on the walls of another cavern. And though shadows began to shrivel away, Sa'lu's presence was undeniable. Wade could feel her through the Aura but couldn't distinctly pin down her location. He required a deeper focus for that, which was near impossible to achieve while gadding about dragon-infested waters.
At last, after much strenuous breast-stroking, they pressed into the grotto as one, which was only scantly illuminated by the single torch Anna had spotted from distance. In the center of the cavern, a small but sufficient slab of land bulged from the water. Anna immediately swam for it, calling to the rest of her party behind her.
As they crawled ashore their little island, Sa'lu suddenly bounded from the cave ceiling, surfing on the back of her trusty Salamance. She cackled viciously as her reptilian steed began to shower their tiny isle with a barrage of fireballs!
Climbing to her feet, breathless Anna stood her ground, chucking Aura Spheres into the air to parry the firestorm.
Absol and Jolteon immediately joined her, covering her flanks, sending blasts of Thunderbolts and Razor Winds to accompany Anna's Aura Spheres.
Sa'lu and Salamance evaded their return fire with ease, then began to circle their meager little pedestal of land at sonic speed, making it next to impossible for Anna and her Pokémon to land a clear shot.
A distressful hoot suddenly echoed from the east. Wade pivoted to find Noctowl entering the alcove, bringing with it the strike team of ensorcelled Dragonairs it could no longer hold off by its lonesome.
Flapping its wings at an angle, the brave bird moved to engage Sa'lu, whom continued to fly around the holdout team amidst battering them with fireballs, but was instead shot clear out of the sky by a Thunderbolt Attack, courtesy of its sinewy pursuers.
"No, Noctowl!" Wade rushed to the very edge of the isle, Clint's feathered friend falling unconscious into his arms. "Stay strong, Noctowl! If not for us, for Clint!"
Though the casualty would hurt them long-term, Anna couldn't be bothered with Noctowl's defeat at the moment, as she was now forced to combat the combined assaults of both Sa'lu and the Dragonairs swarming at them in a vengeful comeback. "Absol! Jolteon! Let's give them everything we got!"
And they did just that, shifting from stance to stance, meeting fireballs with Thunderbolts, Flamethrowers with Air Slashes, and Ice beams with Ice beams.
Without speaking, Cayman and Simon scuffed clean through miles upon miles of wreckage, picking their way through the ruined and crumbled remnants of whatever ancient city had once flung faulted towers and fluted temples into the black sky. Debris clouds fogged their vision with every step, heaps of bloodstained rubble piled at every turn.
Despite the air of death and extinction hanging thick over the relic kingdom, Cayman felt as if the distant past was still in motion somehow: an eerie presence of people and Pokémon bustling past him, a haunting echo of clattering armor and galloping hooves. "This place is strong and alive with Aura," he observed as he surveyed his surroundings rather reticently. "But when I look around... all I see is a fucking ghost town."
Simon chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip. He was no expert when it came to the Aura's mysterious ways, but he had to reason aloud, "Maybe the spirits of the Guardians sought to preserve the city's innocence through the Aura." The very idea sent a mild shiver down his spine. "K—Kinda spooky, don't you think?"
Kicking down a wall of wreckage blocking their path, Cayman flicked an uncharacteristically modest glance to his young, sprightly travel guide. "I'll bet you know the medieval history of these mountains, right? And all its landmarks?" He didn't wait around for a response and immediately pressed, "So tell me, whatever the hell happened to the old monarchy?"
"The monarchy died with the Aura Guardians, according to legend," Simon jumped in gladly and informatively, as if reading right out of a textbook. "The Brethren Empire rose to succeed the Ministry's authority and unite the kingdoms as one superpower."
"Oh yeah?" Cayman eyeballed him warily. "How did that turn out for them?"
"Not so great." Simon admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. "After the Brethren King disappeared, his empire just sort of... died out. Unsovereigned dwellers left their shambled kingdoms and spread out across the outerlands, inhabiting Kanto and Johto and other scarcely populated territories. Places like Celadon and Cerulean and Saffron became recognized settlements. Sunset Kingdom evolved into Pewter City, Bifold Kingdom into Dual City. Everything just sort of revolutionized and industrialized all at once as people began to put the past behind them."
Cayman frowned heavily and, glancing around, edged closer, "You're telling me this is the only kingdom left that hasn't completely turned to either dust or polish?"
"Preserved as you see, Soul Robber," Simon affirmed with a nod, proud to share his knowledge. However, his pointer finger hovered over his dry lips when an exception came to mind, "Of course, the Cameron Palace of Rota is still standing proud, but it's mostly just a tourist venue now than anything else. The only reason it didn't dissolve with the other kingdoms is because it never officially joined the Brethren Empire, allowing it to maintain its own independent royal agenda for over a thousand years."
"Sure, I guess that's impressive," Cayman muttered, then asked with a brash smile and false propriety, "Is the queen a hottie?"
The twelve-year-old stopped short and flushed bright red. "I... I don't know the proper response to that question." In a tense, tight voice, he asked, "Why are you so interested anyway?"
"I don't know, because girls think I'm hot stuff." Cayman's smile broadened into a grin and he flexed his forearm where rapidly developing muscle tightened the sleeve. "Who can blame them, you know?"
Simon resisted the urge to roll his eyes, lest he be beaten to a pulp, and calmly reattempted, "No, I mean, why are you so interested in Lunan's history?"
Cayman gave a more timid smile, rubbing the back of his neck self-consciously with one hand. "I don't know. I guess I just... feel a strange connection to these mountains."
The young scout's eyebrows raised high. "Then maybe it wasn't the Moon Stone that caused you to black out after all. Maybe it was just the Aura of this place reaching out to you."
"Yeah, I guess it could be," the older boy played along, knowing better. While Simon's suggestion wasn't necessarily impossible, something inside himself indicated otherwise. "Huh. You sure know a lot about Aura."
"Why shouldn't I?", Simon inquired, sounding almost offended. "A lot of people dismiss it as mythical rubbish, but I know for a fact that Aura is very much real and that it first originated in these mountains." He raised his finger high, probing the air, as if searching for something to point to. "You see, there's this enormous Tree in Rota that—"
He never the finished the sentence. A pack of hungry, rabid Houndoom suddenly leapt out from a jumble of scrap and rubble, taking the pair by ambush.
The two boys tread to an immediate halt, standing back to back. They were cornered like prey as the five hellhounds closed in on them from all directions.
A shiver ran through Simon and then he was frozen, completely immobile, not even able to speak as the leader hound started to circle them, its teeth bared and a constant growl escaping its long, narrow snout. Cayman, however, flexed his arms for combat, his biceps curling up thick, one shoulder cracking from the force.
Simon winced at the sound. Then, behind him, he felt the older boy shift suddenly on his feet, followed by the familiar snap and hiss of an Aura Blade being ignited. He finally glanced over his shoulder to confirm and shuddered a little as Cayman drew his weapon on the savages.
Perceiving this as a challenge for dominance, the leader of the pack lunged.
The hairs on the back of Simon's neck stood up at the first click of the volcanic mutt's claws. He clenched his eyes shut, preparing for the worst.
Cayman grabbed a fistful of the younger boy's piney locks and shoved the boy out of harm's way as he took his stance against the first strike. "Don't just stand there, stupid! Take cover!"
Simon tumbled to the ground, but quickly scrambled to his feet. He watched from a safe distance as Cayman engaged the first of the five assailants.
The lead Houndoom charged manically, but Cayman cut down the firebreathing pooch with a swift blow to the collar and the Pokémon collapsed with a bloody whine. It twitched a few times, then went cold and still.
As the rest of the pack darted headfirst at Cayman in a vengeful fury, the spectating boyscout observing from the sidelines couldn't help but ask out of habitual politeness, "D—Don't you want my help!"
"I don't need it!", Cayman grunted mid-block, flinging two Pokéballs from his belt the first chance he had. "Lunatone! Solrock! Let's show them what we got!"
The astral duo reappeared on prompt and, without question as to what was happening, began firing Psybeams at every target surrounding Cayman.
Clever and speedy, the Houndooms dived acrobatically from the psychic charges, repaying in full with deadly bursts of flames.
Cayman deflected the Flamethrowers with ease, stepping side to side, back and forth, swinging his blade around like a natural-born swordsman. Simon couldn't help but marvel at the way the older male handled such sacred power at such a premature age. Legend had taught him that most Aura Guardians were never fully realized until adulthood, but Cayman was a whole 'nother animal apparently.
Feeling his power peak, the green-haired rouge moved into a sprint, slicing through two more Houndoom. "Fuck yeah!", he roared over their twinging remains, twirling his weapon at the remaining pair of mongrels standing before him. "Want some more, you mangy mutts?"
There was no hope for them. The two beasts snorted, bowing their horned heads in what could have been interpreted as surrender, then took off in full retreat.
It had all happened too fast for Cayman to even think about pursuing them, so he merely retracted his blades and stepped over the bodies of his latest victims.
Though somewhat perturbed by the gruesome carnage left behind, Simon timidly shuffled out from his hiding place. He dared to meet Cayman's fierce, feral gaze. His mouth dropped a little as he stumbled to make words, but after a breathless moment, he cleared his throat and blinked several times. A complex and confusing emotional residue lingered.
Cayman eyed him irefully and let out a groan. "What is it?"
The meeker boy squeaked, "You're a murderer... and you just saved my life."
"Well, damn, if you were hoping to be their dinner, I can always whistle them back," Cayman spat back, working hard to keep the sarcasm from his voice.
"No, no, I didn't mean it like that—"
Cayman's hand clamped down across Simon's blubbering mouth, and he glared heavily. "Let's get a couple things straight, alright?", he growled out through gnashed rows of teeth. "I'm not your fucking friend. I'm not your fucking protector. And I'm especially not your fucking babysitter. Get it?"
"Got it," came the muffled reply.
"Good." Pulling back his hand, he turned sharply with the crunch of his boots. "Now keep walking, will ya?"
Simon forced himself to take a deep breath, and then another, because he couldn't afford to have a panic attack. Obliging to Cayman's demands, he proceeded to march down their original path, leaving Cayman to linger behind momentarily and wonder if he had reacted a bit too harshly.
"Kami, perhaps it might be best you tame your temper," Lunatone suggested quietly, coming up behind him.
"I concur, Kami!", Solrock joined in, not as softly spoken as its counterpart. "I humbly concur—"
"Keep it to yourselves," Cayman muttered aside to them, then followed after Simon with little more thought on the matter.
Their trek through the junkyard unfurled into the inner walls of the forsaken kingdom, where more towers and houses lay strewn about in pasty sheets of residue. Deep craters were situated where town square pathways once lay, rusted helmets and armor half-buried in great mounds of detritus. It was a grim spectacle to behold, especially for Simon.
The scent of death lingering in the air grew heavier and stronger as they pushed deeper into the castle town remains, and Cayman followed the unearthly incense to the charred, leveled carcass of what resembled a chapel, lopsided and barely standing in the distance. It exuded more spiritual energy than anything else in the kingdom.
Cayman approached the shambled shrine, examined its elaborate architecture thoroughly, then carefully crept his way inside. Simon and the Pokémon followed at his heels, all three of them too frightened to lose sight of each other, especially at the risk of running into more rabid, bloodthirsty scavengers.
Inside the shrine, everything was moldy, withering, and falling apart. Singed artifacts and shredded books littered the dusty, ramshackle floor. Statues aplenty were toppled over each other like dominoes. Even the walls—those still intact and standing, anyway—seemed to be wilting away into oblivion.
"What is this place?", Cayman whispered, turning his head from left to right. His whole sense was practically screaming with emotion. All sorts of emotions: fear and anger, hopelessness and defiance, sadness and determination.
Simon didn't utter a sound, adhering to Cayman's earlier warning. He just curled his lips inward and shyly looked around the room.
Cayman quickly caught on to this and rolled his eyes, sighing over his shoulder, "You can talk now, okay?"
Simon gasped a breath of relief, as if he'd been fighting so hard to not answer the question in the first place. "Well, I'm not positive... but judging from the intricate statues and parchments, I'm guessing this is what's left of the Aura Guardian's Sanctum." He squatted down, his fingers caking in dust as he pawed at the floor like some curious historian. "This was probably their home, before they went extinct."
Cayman mulled over this as they proceeded into the next chamber, where more thousand-year-old scars awaited them. Staircases lay in broken chunks and pieces all throughout the dark corridors, shards of broken window glass like deadly briers as they prickled and jutted from the floorboards.
Simon entered the chamber apprehensively but, after warming up to his surroundings, absorbed it fully and studiously. This room was cluttered elusively with books and scrolls, though most were barely eligible through burn marks and torn, mangled pages. He picked up one book and surveyed its damages. "A lot of the stuff in here looks burnt and shredded, almost like it was on purpose." His eyes flicked up to Cayman. "I wonder what that's all about?"
Cayman wasn't as taken with the bibliotheca as the other boy was. He was still trying to clear through the fog of emotions surrounding his Aura. He wasn't even sure these emotions belonged to him. He wondered, perhaps Simon was right when he'd said the spirits were alive with the kingdom, protecting it and haunting unwanted intruders.
"Look at all these records and annals!", Simon chattered on from the corner of the chamber, rifling through a pestled bookshelf and blowing the dust off its ancient contents. He scanned the pages of one book, tossed it aside, then eagerly puttered through another. "Cayman, there's so much valuable information we could learn from this shrine!"
Cayman flinched at being called by his first name, particularly from a kid who was supposed to be cowering in fear of him. He was about to chaff the boyscout for his blatant slip up, but when it became apparent to him that Simon hadn't even noticed his own fumble, he decided to shrug it off and silently continue his patrol of the chamber.
His eye caught a silhouette of a statue standing proud in one piece in the opposite corner of the room, ensconced in shadows. He glided towards it for a better look. The bust was erected from white marble, portraying a robust figure, clad only in a cape and armor braccae, his eyes narrowed with savagery and face contorted into a soldier's scowl.
Cayman squinted as his eyes roamed down the statue, then lingered on something curious. A sigil of some sort was branded on the solder's hipbone, and Cayman instinctively lowered his hand to his side, feeling his own fleshy mark beneath his shirt. However, while his own scar resembled the letter 'T', the soldier's mark closely resembled a 'K'.
He pondered if 'K' stood for Kaiser, which only begged more questions in his reeling mind. He remembered Metsuma branding him in a fashion similar to the ancient Kaiser ritual; contradictorily, he also remembered Metsuma blatantly scoffing the ideals of the Kaisers shortly before erasing his memories.
Alas, he had no true sense of who the Kaisers really were—or who the Aura Guardians really were, for that matter. He only knew as much about the Aura as Metsuma had permitted; he knew how trigger it, how to channel it, how to wield it and weaponize it. But how it came in and out of existence was beyond his comprehension.
Solrock was the first to notice Cayman by his lonesome, staring fervently into the eyes of the statue in the corner of the room, and hovered to his side. "Is there specific data you would like us to assimilate, Kami?"
Rather than answer to the Pokémon, however, Cayman whirled to his travel guide. "What do you know about the Kaisers, Simon?"
Simon perked up from his research, eyes glossing over in disheveled recollection. "Kaisers? That sounds vaguely familiar." Setting the book he was holding down, the young ranger opened his satchel and began rummaging through it in search for his notebook. "Oh, uh, let me just check my notes."
"We are more than capable of answering that for you, Kami!", Solrock interjected with a hint of jealously.
Lunatone nodded and chimed in, "Simply allow us a few hours to browse through these archives!"
"Hell no," Cayman waved them off dismally, placing his focus back on Simon. "Simon, what do you got for me?"
Pulling out his notebook, Simon slouched back against the unstable bookshelf behind him and began browsing through his well-organized jottings. "Kaisers, you said, right?" He hummed a quiet tune to himself as he flipped through pages, then stopped when he found what he was looking for. "Aha! I have multiple notes under that reading. One defines the Umbra Kaisers as an ancient sect devoted to the study of the Aura. Similar to Aura Guardians but guided by different principles."
"'Different principles?'", Cayman parroted back, gaze shifting to the vicious-looking statue towering over him. "In other words, not as family-friendly."
The other boy flipped to another page of notes to confirm. "Uh, they were more interested in using the Aura to conquer, not mediate. It drove them to war, one which they apparently lost."
Cayman felt his throat tighten. "So what happened to them?"
Simon's eyes followed his trail of notes from left to right, but it led nowhere. Swallowing, he looked up from his notebook and cringed. "S—Sorry, but there's nothing else I can tell you," he confessed, stuffing the journal back in his knapsack. "I didn't do a whole lot of research on the subject. It was a busy day for me. I was writing a dissertation about how human expansion can affect the mountain's quality and quantity of air, water and aquatic resources—"
Cayman shot him 'that' look and snarled, "Do I look like I could give a shit?"
Simon shook his head in a panic and quickly buried his head back in the book he was studying. "Um... I'll just go back to reading silently then."
With a determined, rough exhale, Cayman turned back on his heel again to stare down the Kaiser sculpture carved in front of him.
"Fear not, Kami!", Solrock attempted to comfort him, rushing off with Lunatone to comb through a separate bookshelf. "We will gladly search these artifacts for more suitable information!"
He found some amusement in his Pokémon competing with Simon for his approval, but it wore off quickly and he quietly moved into the next foyer, unnoticed. He wanted to do some exploring on his own, without the peanut gallery pestering him every five seconds. Besides, he felt like he was budging closer to the source behind his Aura's unrest.
Stumbling into a new chamber, he was greeted by sheer darkness. There were no windows around for starlight to glitter through, leaving him to fend for himself.
He was about to summon his Aura Blade when he felt his knee brush against a sharp, jutting object on the ground. It bloomed with light the moment he pulled away, illuminating the room in a glittering green hue.
It was a crystal, lying abandoned on the floor.
Cayman reached his hand to touch it, but a moving projection flashed out from it, startling him as it displayed a cinematic of men and women in robes perishing beneath smog and flames, many of them burning alive.
Startled, Cayman gasped and stumbled back into another crystal, then, in a panic, sidestepped into another... then another... and another.
Within moments, projections flashed endlessly across the room, so lifelike and vivid. Images of mighty flames devouring robed nomads; of soldiers in green storming the sanctum and slaying everyone and everything in their path.
Cayman stood deadpan in the center of the chamber, carnage and destruction flickering and flashing around him, his heart racing wildly in his chest as he struggled to cope with what was happening.
Then it hit him. He was watching history in its darkest, most tragic hour.
Ho-Oh and Clint leapt out from their holdout amidst the storm clouds, surprising us both with yet another Fire Blast. The attack moved extremely fast, like a flicker in the wind, and Rayquaza and I, unable to dodge or parry in time, hung in the sky like sitting ducks as the fireball whistled narrowly towards us.
Rayquaza jerked backward upon impact with the phoenix's prismatic flames, but I remained balanced where I sat, having anticipated the blow's force. It was only a scuff anyhow; no real harm sustained. Besides, it seemed like they only ever threw Fire Blasts at us, which was proving easier and easier to build a tolerance to.
We bounced back into position at my prompt, only to find that Ho-oh and Clint were no longer where we'd left them. I felt a grin lift my lips, for even I was laboring to snuff out the pair through my Aura abilities. "Clever!", I called out, sarcastic, to no one in particular. "Another vanishing act, huh? But you can't hide from me forever, nor can you hide from Giratina! This is your kismet, Clint! This is your destiny!"
Then the tables turned. The squawking cry of Clint's winged inferno tore across the sky above us, and I shot my head up in time to behold the rich, colorful embers of a rainbow vortex coiling down upon us, ensnaring us in its fiery folds.
Not willing to chance anything, I tugged Rayquaza still, allowing the massive twister to entrap us in all its sacred, smoldering aura.
Another crystal projection flew past Cayman, among many others, showing several young, helpless Riolus and Lucarios fending off hordes of faceless soldiers closing in around them, their swords and spears raised and ready to deal bloodshed.
Then, as quickly as they were sheathed, the blades of the evil knights met their targets.
Holographic blood splattered all over Cayman's vision and he tripped backward, scrambling to crawl away from the footage. He wasn't so much sickened or disgusted as he was overwhelmed by the sheer explicitness of it all.
Anna and Wade dashed each of Sa'lu's aerial advances with every ounce of manpower they could muster. They could feel sweat dripping down their heaving faces as they pushed more and more Aura out of themselves to combat the threat, their strength dissolving and their very lifeforces at stake.
Sa'lu and Salamance didn't seem to notice, more concentrated on blowing Anna's entire group back into the water and incinerating the small slab of land they stood on. She was still circling their island on her pet, cackling like a wild woman, as the numerous Dragonairs under her spell continued to launch massive streams of fire, ice, and lightning.
To repel the Shadow Art army, Absol and Jolteon stood strong and unyielding behind Anna, delivering their own attacks at every opportunity given. It was a back and forth now between both sides, neither willing to relent or ease up.
More slaughter, more gore, more death. Cayman felt himself backed into the cold wall of the chamber, cornered, as he watched Aura Guardians, young and old, crumble to their knees and fall face down to the floor as treacherous fire engulfed their corpses.
He never missed a beat, he barely so much as blinked. He couldn't turn away even if he wanted to, for the images were so vivid and so lifelike. The screams of women and children bled into his ears, while arrows aplenty flew in all directions, swords clashing and various Pokémon-based attacks smashing through marble statues and lofty pillars.
Behind the typhoon of blazes encasing us, the shimmering silhouettes of Ho-Oh and Clint descended and began to surf the vortex, magnifying the signature attack's overall speed and ferocity. They probably assumed this would seal off any escape attempt on our part. Such a foolish miscalculation for such an accomplished Pokémon Master.
"I'm sorry, Metsuma!", Clint's repentant voice shuttered from beyond the hissing twister as they continued their circuit, the flames around us growing stronger as a result. "But... you left me with no other choice!"
I closed my eyes, ignoring his melodramatic parting words, and summoned a veil of protective Aura to cocoon us from harm. Even if Clint was a more experienced Pokémon Trainer, he had nothing on me when it came to the art of Aura Wielding. Heck, I had practically trained him to conjure his first Aura Sphere back when we were studying under Wade.
Seizing the opportunity, I spurred Rayquaza through the fiery tendrils of Ho-oh Sacred Fire, my Aura repelling any attempted harm, and we broke through the flashing colors with as much success as I had hoped.
Behind us, our breakout from the typhoon's hold had effectively upset its circular flow, breaking it down into scattering embers and ash drifting in the wind. But we didn't stop there. We kept going, picking up speed, as we charged the unsuspecting heroes with no restraint and no mercy.
Unable to flee in time, Clint flinched as we slammed into his great bird like a raging torpedo, scoring a much-needed critical hit.
The Pokémon opened its shuddering beak and let out a sharp, ear-piercing shriek as it slouched backwards, wings tucking into its belly, and began its plunge towards the chiseled gambrel of Sky Pillar below, carrying Clint down in its feathered clutch.
I could taste victory at last and it tasted oh so delectable. Now it was on to the main event: my long-anticipated award and the final chapter in the Clint Ketchum saga.
Sa'lu, Salamance, and the Dragonairs were now working in full coordination, engaging Anna and her Pokémon with various attack combinations, while still combing through the air at sonic speed, making it near impossible for the dutiful cop to land any direct hits. She could feel her energy thinning, her heart thrashing for relief.
Wade collapsed first, prostrate and spent. One more Aura Sphere and his very lifeforce would have perished, turning him to stone. He needed to reserve his Aura, let it regenerate inside himself instead of expending it all at once. This was something he couldn't stress enough to Anna, if only he could find his voice to caution her.
Even without his counsel, Anna noticed her movements becoming more sloppy and less adjusted. Her Aura Spheres were shriveling and her parries against Salamance's fireballs becoming less potent. She blamed this on her stamina. Unlike Metsuma or Clint, she was no Master Aura Wielder, so she never learned how to properly taper her attacks and reflexes down to focused but small-scale doses. It made her the least disciplined of the trio, hence the most vulnerable.
Sa'lu, bent on incinerating Anna and Wade's safe little isle, yanked violently on the spines protruding from Salamance's head, her long nails practically digging through the scales of the scarlet-winged Dragon.
Anna limped back, inexpressive. It occurred to her that the Black Moon was at its peak, when blue fireballs cannonballed through the air, double the size of their predecessors. Sa'lu had saved the best for last.
Crouched down against a felled pillar, Cayman squeezed his eyes shut, just listening to the ravaged cries and hissing flames the unsettling images brought. He couldn't decide if he was too repulsed to look or too ashamed not to. He'd wanted to root out the source of discord tainting the Aura, but he hadn't expected to stumble upon... this.
The chamber fell quiet moments later, the cataclysmic echoes of the past fading away, receding back into their crystal projectors. Cayman corked one eye open, making sure the coast was clear, then slowly stood to his feet. He swept his gaze over the glowing crystals with a questioning look; though he wasn't certain, he felt it safe to assume these projectors had once been the Ministry's, probably used for surveillance.
It was also safe to reason he'd reactivated the crystals with his Aura, prompting them to playback the latest recorded events. He'd heard about these kinds of crystals from his mother when she used to recount her hikes up Mount Moon, about how she'd occasionally stumble upon rare crystal plants lying half-buried in dirt: they were called Time Flowers and described by many simply as 'nature's special camcorders'.
Kneeling before one of the flowers entrenched in the floor, he carefully skimmed his hand over its shimmering, glass-like petals. It responded to his touch immediately and bloomed to life, replaying the projection of the Lucarios and Riolus buckling before the royal soldiers in glistering green armor.
His damaged eyes settled on the knights in green in sheer fascination, then their blood-soaked swords. "Am I a monster like them?", he muttered quietly to no one in particular. "An executioner? If so... then why don't I feel... disgusted. Is it... is it because I like having control over my enemies too?" He arched back and glared down at his rugged hands, as if they weren't his own, and snarled, "Has Metsuma really made me that twisted?"
To his amazement, a thick, serpent-like voice answered from the shadows, "The Aura Guardians were extinguished because they were consssssidered an imbalance to the Brethren Resolve."
Cayman wrenched himself to his feet, trying to make out the voice's beholder in the shadows, but to no avail.
"We watched the tragedy unfold ourselves, all those centuries ago," a new voice weighed in, this one softer but far more ghoulish. "A truly gruesome bloodbath it was. However... it was done so admirably."
Cayman swung in the direction of the new voice, only to find nothing there as well. He could sense their presences stirring in the dark reaches of the chamber, one moving in slithering patterns and the other floating daintily in the air, but he wasn't so inclined to dive senselessly into the shadows until he had a better idea of who he was facing.
"However, not even the Brethren Court was fit enough to rule this world, as I'm sssssure you've already deciphered by now." , The original voice—slimy and oozy—echoed across the chamber. "There isssss another, however, who wishes to fill the vacancy. He could help you."
"Yes, he could surely help you," the other faceless visitor agreed. "You and him just might have a lot in common."
Cayman kept his response distant and impassive. "Who are you?"
"We are but humble servants of Lunan's greatest being!", they chanted together, almost as if they'd rehearsed this encounter many times before. "He once ruled this kingdom with an iron fist, long before the Brethren Court, until he was slain by a miserable lot of Aura Guardian pests! Now his spirit rests beneath the ruins of the ancient royal temple, waiting to be set free!"
"How can some dead guy possibly help me overthrow Metsuma?", Cayman asked the shadows, still in that terse and unemotional tone. "The Black Moon is already here, and exacting my vengeance might not be as simple as I thought..." Dejectedly, his gaze plunged to the floor. "He'll be too strong for me to—"
"There is a greater power ssssstill, youth," the serpentine voice retorted with an unnatural hiss to his words. "This 'Metsuma' you ssssspeak of and his 'Black Moon' are of no consssssequence to the unremitting powers of the great Pharos Yagami, the most fearsome Umbra Kaiser in all of hissssstory! Should you want to meet him face to face, we will gladly show you to him."
Did such a power truly exist, Cayman wondered. A force greater than Metsuma? There was indeed some intrigue sparking inside him, but he wasn't prepared to admit this to a couple of anonymous strangers. "I'm not letting you show me anyone until you cut the gimmick and show me who YOU are!"
As per his demands, an Arbok slithered into view, moving in that zigzagging arrangement he'd picked up moments before. Judging from its unnaturally frail girth, the cobra looked as though it hadn't eaten a meal in decades and was only being kept alive by some form of grueling, punishing magic.
Behind the snake emerged a Dusclops, a mummified Pokémon Cayman had encountered only in the picture books from when he was a boy. He wondered what the cyclops was doing all the way out in Kanto. The species was supposed be exclusive to the Hoenn and Sinnoh Regions, with only rare exceptions.
The two Pokémon stopped in front of him, side by side, as if awaiting his judgment.
Suddenly remembering that these were the two that had been speaking to him, Cayman stared in a disappointment reminiscence to Metsuma, than asserted in a curiously flat voice, "You're... Pokémon?"
"Looks can be deceiving, youth," they both replied in perfect sync, startling Cayman somewhat. The Dusclops seemed to be speaking through Telepathy, much like his Lunatone and Solrock, but the Arbok was anyone's guess; as far as he knew, no Pokémon could pantomime the human language without the crutch of psychic powers.
Before Cayman could question it, Solrock's monotonous yowl penetrated the chamber from the adjoining corridor. "Kami!", the space rock called to him from a distance. "Kami, where did you wander off to!"
Cayman rolled his eyes. "Shit."
"We found some rather extraordinary and interesting information you might want to look at!", Lunatone chimed in.
Cayman pivoted on his heel, feeling the approaching tremors and vibrations in the ground. Simon was with them, coming down the hall, closing in on him. It was becoming more obvious that his absence hadn't gone unnoticed.
"Can't you use your Psychic powers to pin down his location?", Simon's voice inquired, muffled but lucid enough to make out.
"Quick, boy," Arbok hissed, gliding across the chamber and motioning its tail to a separate exit, one that more than likely led back outside the sanctum. "It is now or never! Only you are worthy of meeting our almighty Pharos! You have been ssssspecially chosen to awaken him!"
Cayman's forehead furrowed, scrunching undecidedly. He peaked back over his shoulder, to where his search party was impending. "Can I at least give them a head's up? Without me, they're a hopeless bunch of saps."
"We offer you only one chance," the cobra reprised, punctuating the last word with yet another hiss. "Either follow us now for guidance or ssssstay behind and be lost to your woesssss forever." The snake then rushed off down the exit, Dusclops pursuing and fading into the walls.
Not wanting to miss this chance and regret it later, Cayman pulled himself together and bolted after the mysterious pair, vanishing just moments before Simon and the interstellar duo entered the chamber.
Clint barely managed to hang on to his Pokémon as they plummeted together. When he realized Ho-Oh had slipped off into a blackout, he was left with no choice but to bury himself in the cushioning rainbow feathers of his Pokémon, as if that would somehow soften his impact. I could only savor this triumphant moment.
At the last second though, as if gushing out one last service to its master, Ho-Oh jerked its body into the face down position and enshrouded Clint underneath its indomitably guardian wings. This was probably to ensure Clint's survival, which I was counting on anyhow. I needed him alive for the next phase of my plan—but only just barely.
The two struck the rooftop with raw force and a cloud of timeworn dust erupted from their impact, bulging into the sky.
Surveying the aftermath from above, I reached out the with Aura, scanning the tower for life. I could sense Clint unconscious but in perfect health, thanks to Ho-oh's last-moment maneuver; the phoenix, however, was just barely hanging on to its last thread of life. This would work to my benefit. Without his Guardian Pokémon to protect him, the rest would be child's play.
Descending safely in front of the dissimulating portal, not far from Ho-oh's immobile body, I dismounted Rayquaza and straightened out my soaked dress shirt and tie out of sheer habit. I hardly felt the rain pelting against me anymore, the sensation of victory coursing through my veins almost numbing me to my core and blinding all other senses. It could have very well been the Black Moon having some kind of effect on me as it reached its pinnacle, but I was too distracted to read much into it.
Leaving my scaly servant of the skies to stand guard of the portal, I strode proudly across the roof towards my slain opponents, for this was the moment I'd waited ten long years for. My limbs tingled euphorically and my insides fluttered through every release of breath. I almost felt like King Arthur just moments before pulling the sword from the stone, or a pirate captain stumbling upon a vault of long-sought treasure. It was an indescribable feeling—not so much an emotion, but a rush of carnal, substratal energy.
I forced my feet to a halt only inches apart from the defeated heroes and gave their slumped, mangled bodies a fleeting once-over with my amber eyes. "Fools," I regarded them shortly. I reached down with both hands and pulled Clint out from underneath the protective wings of his barely conscious Pokémon. Just as I suspected, my old colleague was also comatose; but seeing him in such a sorry state brought out an unwanted bitterness in me. "He did this to himself, by turning against me... again," I kept reminding myself in my head."But... why couldn't he just... stick by my side. I just don't understand it!"
I shook off my conflicting thoughts for the better and turned on my heel, letting Clint's body sag down against my feet. I dug out Rayquaza's Ultra Ball from my belt and summoned the serpent back to its home, its services no longer required. With Clint incapacitated and powerless to my whim, I could surely handle the rest by myself with ease.
Quickly stowing the Pokéball away, I refaced myself forward, remembering the insensate form of my best friend still sprawled out before me. An overwhelming rage possessed me again as soon as I caught him in the headlights of my ember eyes. I bent down and seized the Pokémon Master by the throat, lifting him up with one hand and tearing his eyelids open with the other. I stared deep into his inanimate orbs, almost reprehensibly, then realized something. "Those eyes," I acknowledged with mild laughter. "Those are the eyes of a fraud. You are no Affinity Soul. You were just the delivery boy. I am the one bound to the prophecy—but by my own volition."
Remembering the mission at hand, I looked to the sea and saw waves hundreds of feet tall. I then looked on to the clouds above, where much broader veins of lightning swiped endlessly across the stormy yonder, carrying a wind that could tear apart the island in a matter of minutes. The Black Moon was indeed at its prime, the shift in weather and cosmic energy spoke that much to me, but time was still short. I had to act quickly and complete the ritual before the stroke of dawn.
After an extensive hike north of the sanctum, Cayman was brought before the pillaged ceremonial plaza of the Royal Temple, where once-tall, proud monuments of the late ruling family were now reduced to piles of ash, sown all over the royal grounds in blackish-like splotches. It was just another example of legendary history left out to rot and age crudely.
Cayman forced himself to not stop and notice, lest he get left behind. Chasing the speedy Arbok inside the temple, he blurted out impatiently to his reptilian guide, "How much further?"
Arbok either didn't hear the question or chose not to indulge it. Instead, the king cobra coasted its way to the center of the grand antechamber, slapping aside mounds of rubble and grime with its whip-like tail.
When the resulting dust cloud abated, Cayman spotted a giant chasm in the floor where the debris pile had resided just moments prior. He glanced unsurely between the hole in the ground and the kooky-eyed Arbok slinking around it. The passage seemed to travel deep beneath the temple, and the closer he inched towards it, the more clearly he could make out the shadowed likeness of a spiral staircase.
Arbok stopped cold in its circular patrol, catching Cayman unaware with a devilish smirk. "Proceed, Chosen One," the snake implored venomously, gesturing to the passageway with its pronged, flaky tail.
Cayman briefly lingered where he was. The energy reading emanating from beneath the temple was jarring, dark and ill-boding, but strangely different from Metsuma. More pressingly, he could feel it becoming stronger and more aware of his presence in the temple. It was all the more reason he couldn't turn back now. He wasn't afraid anyway. If anything, he'd finally found something in this depressing kingdom to peak his interest.
Taking a deep, sheltered breath, Cayman suppressed the last of his doubts and marched himself down the dark, gloomy stairway with a demeanor that screamed boldness. He followed the spindly flight of stairs through and through, using his Aura Sight to fell the swelling darkness along the way. With each step downward, the dark energy pulsing around him seeped deeper into his core, trying to throw him off balance and test his courage.
But Cayman was resilient and fearless. Reaching the bottom of the stairs with an indifferent sniff, he bolstered his senses and sighted his destination at the end of a long, narrow passage ahead of him. He pushed down it without further thought, picking up his pace, practically jogging into the belly of the beast just waiting to consume him.
Crystal stubs embedded in the ground now ushered him through the darkness of the hollow passage, leading right to the entrance of his checkpoint, where he was met by a magnificent set of rusted, bronze doors. A crystal gemstone, much like the one he'd encountered back in the Sanctum, sealed the entrance down the center.
Going with his gut, Cayman placed his taut hand over the crystal lock and it flickered in response to his Aura. The old chamber doors then split apart with an eerie hum, allowing him entrance beyond their mysterious folds.
When he stepped into the chamber, it took him a few observatory moments to realize he'd stepped into a tomb. Looking about himself, he found many marble slabs bearing treasures and antiques, or the remains of such anyway. Some of these were sealed and intact, but others had nearly vanished, leaving the silver handles and plates isolated amidst certain curious heaps of whitish dust.
There was something in particular he was searching around for, though, and it didn't take him long to find it. In a conspicuous alcove, near the center of the chamber, was one fairly well-preserved and untenanted casket, adorned with some strange runes engraved in the stone pedestal upholding it. It radiated a deathly scent and a malefic, predated aura.
Before he could approach the casket, Arbok and Dusclops appeared at either side of him, both just staring longingly at the shrine containing their fallen idol. It almost made him uncomfortable, but he didn't wish to interrupt if it was integral to awakening the Kaiser Pharos. Although he didn't see how staring like a wackjob would do them much good.
After several more moments of absolutely nothing happening, Cayman's patience wore thin and his doubts resurfaced. "What do I do now, just stand here and wait for your almighty ghost emperor to pop up out of nowhere?", he brazenly remarked, spinning on his heel. "Screw it, I knew this was a mistake. I'm going back."
"Simply touch the casket," an eerie, liquid voice reached his ears. "Then utter the chant engraved in my resting place."
The undead voice alone, so restful yet so domineering, wrenched him face-forward in one sweeping motion, like the crack of a whip. Overcome, Cayman swallowed down his earlier comments and tiptoed towards the coffin. He squinted hard as he did so, inspecting the dust-coated text inscribed in the wood panels. The sigils were like a foreign language to him. "I can't chant this," he grumbled rigidly, glancing back over his shoulder to Arbok and Dusclops. "I can't even read it, much less chant it!"
"Be at eassssse, youth," Arbok whispered out of respect to its master, slinking to the boy's side again. "Just echo the ancient hymn we dessssscant."
Cayman backed up slowly, feeling somewhat out of place as the two Pokémon came up beside him, beginning to croon their carol in a tongue as ancient as time itself. Their heads bobbed from side to side, their bodies shifting about in a demon-possessed dance, words unknown rising deep from their maws in ear-slitting harmony.
Cayman covered his ears from the blaring, borderline-disturbing tune. Nevertheless, he repeated what little he could understand, albeit in a much more monotonous reproduction.
Much to his shock, it sufficed. On the casket, the sigils resembling alphabet-like Pokémon shimmered rays of gaseous light, effectively silencing Cayman and the singing duo of servants now kneeling before the awakened spirit.
A mild quake shook the chamber. There was a new presence in the room now; the text took on a dingier glow, the letters becoming subtly distorted, the red of the walls twisting and pulsating with some sweaty, oily sheen. And for a fleeting moment, Cayman thought he was tweaked out on some hallucinogen.
The quivering casket finally latched open, spilling forth a swarm of unworldly Pokémon resembling the same sigils, all of them humming softly in a creepy but somehow beautiful chorus, "Unnnnnown... Unnnnnown... Unnnnnown... Unnnnnown."
Cayman stood his ground forbearing. As the sentient symbols hung intricately above his head, a shroud of fog and fire gushed out from the coffin, filling the room in a smoggy haze. There was a shimmery figure manifesting from the fiery pane, rising from the casket. A new Pokémon was materializing—one that best resembled a swirling, shadowy vortex of sorts. The imprisoned cries of over a hundred perishing souls groaned from its ominous numbles, pleading for a second chance at life.
Arbok and Dusclops bowed before the gaseous phantom, while Cayman didn't so much as bat a lash. He was trying to impose an air of fearlessness in the face of the specter, although he couldn't stifle a look of disappointment on his face when he realized the creature rising from the box was starting to closely resemble a Pokémon and not an emperor.
Ceasing its display of reverence, Arbok slithered up to the casket, gazing densely upon Spiritomb. "Massssster, the chosen bridge comes before you, sssssubmissive and willing. I am confident this one will give you no trouble. Strong and dauntlessssss, he is the perfect candidate to represent your return."
"Another Pokémon?", Cayman scoffed, wide-eyed, his crass words a blatant contrast of the boy the snake had just described. "Alright, I've seen more than enough," he chaffed them off dismissively, moving to turn back towards the entrance. "Thanks for the lovely sing-along, chumps, but if you'll excuse me, I've got more important things to take care of."
"Be still and hear what I have to offer," the oppressive voice from before stopped him in his tracks, this time with a note of menace.
Cayman took the demands with a grain of salt. He wasn't too interested in hearing a sales-pitch from a Spiritomb, but he'd came all this way anyway. What did he have to lose?
"The man you serve is but an imposter to the Kaiser Order," the shadowy, wraithy creature asserted, and Cayman knew immediately who the Pokémon was referring to. "Any power he wields is counterfeit, and therefore inferior to my own."
Cayman laced his arms over his chest as his lips contorted into a mocking smirk. "This, coming from a Pokémon who's been napping in a coffin for a thousand years."
"I am no Pokémon," Spiritomb soundly protested. "The demon you see before you is but a stubborn, mulish bastille that carries my lifeforce, along with the spirits of my one-hundred-and-seven disciples. We chose this form in the distant past as a means to consolidate our strengths and destroy our enemies. The attempt ended in failure, yet we remain bound to this form; and because of a curse placed on us, bound to this tomb as well."
Cayman raised an indefinite brow to the Pokémon's lengthy anecdote and bit back, "How do I know you're telling the truth?"
Spiritomb shriveled away into the smog, projecting itself as the fallen Pharos in its place. The misty, humanoid figure stood tall among the archaic symbols that floated about the air around him, encasing his ghostly self in a glittering dome of psychic energies.
His majestic face donned battle scars aplenty, while his long, flowing ruby-red hair framed them like a collector's set. His jaw was square and clenched, his shoulders hulking. His piercing eyes, though haunting, were as icy azure as the oceans themselves, glistering with a certain... allure. The long, black tangled mess of hair that raveled down his head clung low on his back like a bushy mane, only further speaking to the embodied masculinity he bared.
Cayman regarded the older man with a vague nod of approval. His question had been asked and answered. "You're him, then."
The older man returned the nod, then went on to declare, "I am Pharos Azien Yagami, ruler of the Kaiser Regime and bringer of infinite destruction!" His arms folded across his massive chest as he stared Cayman down. "Now, Chosen One, you will free me. I can feel your distress, your unease. You fear the imposter, you fear the sham who dares to bear the Aura for his own fatuous purposes. I can depose his reign and put him in his place. I am your last remaining hope."
Cayman licked his lips uncertainty. "But... the Black Moon—"
"—is of no concern to me," Azien cut him down swiftly, startling Cayman, such was the power behind his grisly voice. "I know of the prophecy your master seeks, first scribed and secreted in the Oci Chronicles." His eyes rolled back as his mind roamed elsewhere, his tone coming off as slightly distracted, "How I've longed to fully inherit the power and wisdom of those six precious books, along with the fabled seventh."
Bewildered beyond belief, Cayman tilted his head with a dim expression written all over his features. "What the fuck are you going on about? What book?"
Azien was quiet for a moment, pondering, then leaned in towards Cayman with a sleek, seductive voice. "What if I told you there was more than one prophecy to benefit from?", he took the younger man by surprise. "I could very well have access to all of them... and use their combined knowledge to make us invincible. No one would dare oppose two immortals."
The word 'immortal' seemed to steal the very breath from Cayman's lungs and he wondered for a second if he'd heard the Kaiser correctly. "Immortal... huh." He rubbed at his chin, stewing over his options—and his creeping desire to usurp Metsuma. "You can really... take down both Metsuma and Giratina?"
Azien's regal smile deepened as fog and fire warped his expression to something mesmeric. "All that... and more."
As fast as this all was progressing, Cayman couldn't help but toss out for safe measure, "What happens to me once you get rid of Metsuma?"
"Whatever you desire, my Chosen One," the Pharos responded coolly and raised his ghostly hands to the ceiling. "Show me your enemies, I will desecrate them all." He watched the boy pull back into the safety of his ruminations again, but briefly interrupted with a simple reminder, "You know you can't do this by yourself."
I heaved a strenuous inhale and pulled Clint against me, hoisting his unconscious body over my shoulder as I made my way back to the portal, still rotating and revolving ominously beneath the unseen moon.
I laid Clint down in front of the dimensional passage and towered over him with my heel pressed stably against his waist. I smiled with glorious intent as I opened my arms to the portal, dispensing my final words as a mortal in the most ceremonial way possible. "Now... we enter the realm of all things reverse... and bring forth my reward!" I dug my heel harder into Clint's soft flesh, set to roll his body into the portal.
Then I blinked.
"Ho-oh, now! Just like we planned! Hurry!"
It all went by like a blur and I was too taken aback to react in time: Clint shooting to his feet, Ho-Oh thrusting itself air-bound with the last of its dwindling energy, an ensuing gust of wind smacking into me like a tempest and knocking me square off my feet. I hit the ground like a sack of bricks, fate no longer on my side.
The vexing sight of the back of Clint's boots scurrying away in retreat immediately pushed me over the edge, smoldering like fire under my breastbone, and it gave me the strength to throw myself to my feet with an animal-like snarl. I didn't bother lunging after him. I merely reached out my hand and ensnared him with my mind, reeling him back in with all my Psychic power being focused in one last, foolhardy struggle for dominance.
He tried to fight it, struggling and writhing against my psychic binds, but the Black Moon's power dipping into my own was too much for him to bear. I tightened my outlet hand, successfully plucking him into the air, and it took me a moment to realize I was laughing like a very quiet fiend, becoming hoarser and hoarser the tighter I yanked on his invisible chains.
He choked out my name as he felt himself drawing near me, near the portal, as if pleading were his last resort, eyes brimming with such sweet defeat. I moved to finish the job, just as a giant wing cleaved down on me from above like a pendulum, leaving me less than a second to pull off something desperate.
I went ahead and shoved Clint towards the portal anyway, at the sacrifice of being clobbered across the rooftop by Ho-Oh's wing a split second later, the storm winds carrying me like a breeze.
Rushing air screeched through my ears until I collided with a pillar and buckled face down into the rugged ground. I glanced up from my momentary slump, just as Clint lost his balance from my last-minute shove and tumbled headfirst into the portal, his entire body being dragged in by black tendrils of distorted energy.
"Ho-Oh!", he cried out through gritted teeth, hardly able to get a word out. He was twisting and squirming in a thick shroud of shadows, vanishing away before my very eyes. "We... ugh... have to... seal this portal!"
Like a hijacked aircraft, the bird flew back to Clint and dived straight into the portal after its fading master, so they could fade away together.
As fitting as it seemed, I wasn't prepared to let them expunge my only entrance into the Distortion World. I sprung to my feet in a spasmodic gasp, shrugging off the minor aches and pains, and found myself battling through continuous wind and rainfall as I raced to the site of the portal.
From beyond the portal, Clint and Ho-oh were no longer visible; but their finishing act to bar me from the Distortion World was already in effect. A rainbow-colored aura was now smothering the portal down to size, closing it up like an unwanted scab. I could hardly believe my eyes, for Clint had at some point before this night learned how to counteract the ritual. Had he suspected this night would come after all, even after so much success in duping him?
I sprinted faster, refusing to let this be. The portal was just a small pocket of dark energy now, becoming smaller and smaller by the second. "No!", I howled to the heavens, tearing furiously through the storm itself as if it were foil. "I've waited too long!" I felt my breath heat up, harsh and untamed. My eyes tightened like a predator's, hardened and unblinking dead ahead.
Then my world powdered to dust with the bat of an eyelash: my ten years of hard work and careful, meticulous planning dissolving to small, worthless pieces.
The gateway to my perfect world had vanished, just seconds before I could reach it, leaving nothing but sprinkles of cosmic radiation to shimmer tauntingly in the watery downpour.
I was frozen in place—waiting, watching and wondering what would happen next. But nothing did, because this was reality. My dilated pupils turned glassy, my lips parted as if to release a string of violent, broken gasps. This feeling of failure, so unfamiliar to me. I wasn't quite sure how to react to it. I didn't feel emotion. I only felt this inherent impulse... this catalyst... to scream to the top of my lungs.
"No...", I heard my voice tremor deep and dangerous in my throat. I dropped to my knees, reveling in the feel of my flesh scraping against rock, as my eyes turned sharp and my mouth twisted something abnormal. My head rolled back on my shoulder, rain spitting down on my face in disgust, as a slew of curses spouted off my reptant tongue. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"
Fireballs pelted the ground around Anna as she attempted to get up, knocking her back down with explosive force and sending her somersaulting back into the black, icy water. She felt no real pain from the attack, but it succeeded in getting her tremendously aggravated.
Climbing back ashore the islet, she assumed a new stance, the last of her excess Aura ripening to just the right level. She had a plan, that much was certain to Jolteon and Absol, who continued their return fire against the Dragonairs spindling about the air, swooping in and out of the water.
Tilting her head up, Anna went for broke and began to tease the shadow maiden, "I'm no pushover, so any fire, ice, or wind you send at me just won't do the job! " A smile taking root on her lips succeeded to harass, "What, you don't have anything else up your sleeve?"
Sa'lu took quick notice of Anna's spunk and scowled. Yanking hard on Salamance's crusty cervix, she yelled into the Dragon's ear, "Salamance, Thunder Fang!"
"Perfect," Anna muttered beneath her breath, still holding on to that smile, as an electric blue glow outlined her body. She'd counted on Sa'lu falling for the bait and coercing her Pokémon to rely on its last known element—her own signature element. Now she'd turn the tables on the Shadow Trainer.
Descending over the little settlement, Salamance opened its ginormous gullet, electric sparks drooling from rows of serrated teeth.
Anna feigned a marred reaction as the Pokémon sunk its pearly whites into her arm, injecting over a thousand watts of electricity directly into her bloodstream. Sa'lu was now wearing the smile Anna had just moments ago, enchanted by the sight as she sat proudly on her winged throne, watching and waiting for lethal results.
But in truth, Anna was in a state of blissful exhilaration. Electricity was her Cho'moken Type, unknown to Sa'lu, and she was using her Aura to fully absorb the megaton voltage pumping through her veins. Molding it and charging it to her will.
Anna winced at the amount of strength returning to her and jerked her arm free from Salamance's vice maw. The electric juices pent up inside her were overflowing and she knew she had to expel before it could rupture. Thrusting out her palms, all the electric energy she'd collected suddenly redirected back at Salamance at twice the voltage.
It came in the form of a massive lightning bolt and blasted Salamance and Sa'lu clear across the cave like laserfire, ultimately knocking them both unconscious into the water.
Immediately thereafter, the Dragonairs snapped from their spell-induced haze and ceased their attacks in perfect unison. They glanced around the cavern, absolutely clueless as to how they'd gotten there, then quickly retreated underwater, leaving Anna and her group victorious... but more importantly, still in one piece.
Anna rushed to the waterfront, where Wade was still recuperating from his collapse, and roused him back to reality with a throttling jolt. The professor woke with a harsh gasp, rapidly blinking the last of his slumber away. He glanced around, finding no visible threats in rage, which was all the confirmation he needed to breathe a sigh of relief.
While Anna helped Wade back on his feet, Jolteon and Absol made other arrangements. With no instruction needed, they dived into the water to pull Sa'lu's unconscious body ashore.
Anna didn't waste a second. She helped the professor over to where the Dragon Trainer lay, then dropped down on one knee to smack her awake. It proved effective.
"You're beaten, Sa'lu!", Wade stated firmly in his most condescending voice, just as Sa'lu's lashes began to flutter conscious to the repeated slaps being inflicted across her face. "And you know precisely why we're here! Tell us what you know about Metsuma and the Black Moon!"
Playing coy, Sa'lu smiled sleepily in response and sat upright, setting her audience on high alert. She treated the pair to a silent, unspoken truce as she nodded her head, though this was only a ruse so they'd let their guard down.
It worked. The moment Anna and Wade relaxed their stances, Sa'lu surged past them. The Black Moon had restored her power and stamina, making her near uncatchable as she attempted to flee back into the water.
But Absol and Jolteon immediately sprung in front of her, blocking her escape, glaring her down with contempt.
She recoiled for a moment, then glared right back at the Pokémon as she began to move her hands about in animated play, as if to pull something out of thin air. While she was still just a beginner in the ways of the Shadow Arts, she knew she could depend on the Black Moon to lend her an extra boost of power. It had already enabled her to take Mastery of the Dragonairs, after all.
Anna wouldn't give her the satisfaction. Just as the young witch had begun to conjure the makings of a Twister, Anna tackled her to the ground, pinning her beneath her well-muscled weight. "Nice try, but no!", she snarled into the ear of the villainess, whom squirmed helplessly underneath her.
Wade popped up behind Anna's shoulder, offering only a disapproving grimace as his contribution. "You're foolish to rely so heavily on dark alchemies, Sa'lu. Perhaps you and Metsuma were made for each other!"
Anna picked herself up off the bonier woman, handgun drawn just in case. She wasn't afraid to pull the trigger if it came to it. It was her job, after all—to serve justice to those who resisted it.
However, Sa'lu merely rolled on her back, chawing over the professor's words with an innocent, bullshit smile. And she was doing so just to piss them off too. "'Metsuma'?", she uttered the name with slight mispronunciation, playing on their patience. "The name rings familiar... but I can't match it with a face"
Anna's eyes narrowed and she raised her weapon higher. "You'd better start spilling your guts before I do it FOR you!"
"Very well," Sa'lu said with an impassive shrug, sitting up. "You want the truth? Here it is: I haven't the slightest idea what the two of you are jabbering on about!"
This drove Wade ballistic. "Enough lies! You know something! Admit it!" He whipped his head to Anna, pleading silently to her through his gritted teeth, "Anna, threaten to call for backup! Pull out your cuffs! Anything to make her talk!"
But Anna's expression had softened, her concentration now elsewhere. She could no longer feel the Black Moon's power through her abilities. It was paling away, slowly but surely. "The rift in the Aura... it's gone and passed," she whispered, lowering her gun and looking back to Wade with a concerned look.
"What?", Wade uttered back, the feeling apparently not mutual—or perhaps his anger with Sa'lu was simply clouding his more temperate senses.
"It's vanished," Anna reworded herself, cocking a brow to him. "You don't sense it?"
He rotated his head, looking back down at Sa'lu. "I'd rather see for my own eyes," he grumbled, then began wagging his finger to the Dragon mistress. "Don't think we're letting you off the hook just yet!", he scolded. "You're coming with us!"
Sa'lu gave off another shrug and made with that sly, coyish grin again. "Whatever puts your mind at ease, professor."
Cayman kept where he stood, trapped beneath the older man's gaze. The Kaiser emperor's low, underhand chuckle threatened to heist away the last of his sanity yet he couldn't bring himself to immediately accept the proposal bestowed upon him. He wanted to, to some degree, but something inside him kept hollering him back from, like an annoying buzzer.
"We can rule this world together, if that is your wish." Azien extended a ghostly arm to the rouge, careful not to set him off. "But first... I need but one drop of pure Aura to break the curse and set my spirit free."
Cayman's eyes shifted from left to right. When he realized what Azien was insinuating, he jabbed his finger into his own chest in sheer bewilderment. "What, you mean MY Aura?"
The Kaiser nodded complacently. "Not a criteria you fancy, I imagine. However, that is the debt needed to break the curse, Chosen One. That is why my servants have brought you before me, on this very hour." As if to allude to the Black Moon and the danger it presented, Azien's reminded, "Our meeting on this fateful night was not by chance. It was sheer destiny."
Cayman felt his Aura pulsate in his chest, tossing about tides of memories he wished he'd never remembered. And as images of his dead mother flashed across his mind again, so to did the reawakened craving to strangle Metsuma with his bear hands; because of this, he knew his appetite for vengeance would never be satisfied unless he ended the crime lord himself. He wasn't sure how he'd pull if off, or where he'd wind up once he did, but he just knew it had to be done by his own hands, blood for blood. He wouldn't allow it any other way.
Arbok crept behind Cayman, nudging his ankle, trying to budge him from his musings so that he'd answer to the much-less-impatient Pharos hovering before him.
Cayman straightened back up again, his mind made up, and gave Azien his best disinterested expression. The temptation he'd felt was no longer there, replaced by a strong sense of independence. "You know what?", he sighed with a half-crooked smile, as if turning down a door-to-door salesmen. "I think I'll pass."
The flat-out rejection was met with background gasps from Arbok and Dusclops, whereas Azien's spectral eyes flared up incredulously. The Kaiser looked downright spooked, which was a rather amusing twist of irony.
"I don't need some outdated, has-been Kaiser fighting my battles," Cayman embellished, looking over at Azien assessingly, arms crossed over his chest to assert dominance. "I want to be the one to bring Metsuma down, by myself and on my own terms."
Azien didn't respond immediately. When he did, though, his ethereal voice oozed disgust. "You reject my powers in favor of your obnoxious, suicidal pride?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Cayman's eyes almost glittered in the dim light. He was a force to be reckoned with, from his cocksure posture to his fearless, upbeat smile. Even his replies were quick-witted, obnoxiously cheeky.
Azien grimaced, his face contorting as if the words he was about to speak were so taboo, so vulgar, that he struggled to even get it off the tip of his tongue.
Smiling like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, the green-haired teen motioned to Arbok and Dusclops with the raise of his chin and talked down to their master in a mocking, matronly voice, "Now why don't you go back to beddy-bye and have your pathetic cronies here sing you your ancient lullaby, okay?"
Azien's gaze flickered to his servants, the outrage in their eyes equally apparent to his own. Silently, but stridently, he ordered, "Restrain him."
The two Pokémon nodded, then vanished from sight, as Cayman prepared to take a step towards the evil Pharos standing in the casket. As he made to move, though, he couldn't see what was looping around his ankle next; at first, he thought it was the fog of Azien's prison brushing against his legs.
Then came a fierce tug.
Cayman's knees buckled together, his feet splayed apart, as he fell in the scaly, slimy cleft of Arbok's thick, muscular body. Five thick coils slid around and up his waist, covering him up to his shoulders, gripping him in a vice like hold as they squeezed tighter and tighter around him.
He writhed and grunted in discomfort at the increased pressure for a moment. He struggled to arch himself upright, his body completely enlaced in Arbok's tendrils. His eyes briefly swept over Azien's and he glared.
"How curious you are: only half as intelligent as the last pawn who visited this tomb, yet somehow more resistant than she," the Kaiser chided his captive, waving his hands through thick fog.
"I'm not as stupid as you think, actually," Cayman rasped, Arbok's coils moving up to his throat in retribution; even so, he managed to conjure a ridiculing smirk. "I mean, come on. We both know as soon as I free you and your pals, you'll need to take on some physical form, so you'll possess my body and be free to carry out your rampage of terror without even caring to remember our deal. That being said, I'm not letting you anywhere near my Aura, you majesty!"
"We shall see," Azien croaked back, gesturing to the fog again.
As if on cue, Dusclops then appeared from thin air, right in front of Cayman's face, though the latter could do nothing but stare up at the cyclops from the lung-crushing clasp Arbok held him bound to.
The spirit's single eye dazzled red into Cayman's pupils, and the young human's thrashing against Arbok's constricting immediately stilled. He was completely lost to Dusclops' hypnotic spell.
At last, Azien had the feisty rouge right where he wanted him. Now he could begin the ritual without protest. At the flick of his wrist, Arbok slowly unpeeled itself from Cayman's body, the entranced youth showing no reaction whatsoever. He simply stood submissive and captivated by Dusclops' flashing red orb, his own eyes swirling like tiny vortexes.
The cycloptic Pokémon held Cayman's gaze just a moment longer, then quietly gave instructions to its prisoner. "Submit to the Pharos, Chosen One," the ghost commanded, moving towards Azien while drawing Cayman in with its hypnotic eye. "Bestow upon him a single drop of your Aura."
"I am honored to serve the Pharos," Cayman ceded in an unnaturally monotonous pitch, then stepped towards Azien's casket as a small but adequate sphere of red fire flickered to life in the dip of his palm.
Azien stretched out his hand to make contact with the scarlet flame, though the mystic dome holding his ghastly essence severely limited his reach. Each time his hand brushed against the barrier, the Unown converged on him like moths on a lantern, attempting to thrust him back into his resting place.
With its embalmed finger, Dusclops beckoned its puppet to pass through the dome. Cayman obliged and stepped into the psychic force field, holding up his withering flame to the Kaiser emperor as if it were a bouquet of roses.
The Kaiser snickered iniquitously to the boy and snatched up the flame without a moment's hesitation.
It gave no reaction and vanished from his grasp in seconds.
"What?" Azien searched his hands thoroughly and turned desperately to Arbok and Dusclops. "This can't be! Nothing has happened!"
Distracted by its emperor's stupefied state, Dusclops whirled from Cayman and the boy instantly woke from his hypnosis. He glanced about the chamber, then focused on Azien, whom stood exactly where he'd left him before the Pokémon had ensnared him.
The expression of failure slowly contorting the face of the Pharos was enough for Cayman to put the pieces together. "Sorry, Azien," he mewled out in mock sympathy, as his Aura Blade sizzled to life in his firmly clenched fist. "I'm fresh out of pure Aura! Oh, didn't I mention?" His neck muscles cracked as he rolled his head back on his shoulders, his scowl twisting without transition to a smile. "I'm kind of a bad guy, like you."
Azien lifted his head to the remark. His eyes smoked with hate. "You wield the Umbra?" He ghostly hands molded into fists as he shot his incompetent lackeys a deadly glower. "Ingrates! I instructed you to bring me a vessel full of PURE Aura!"
The two Pokémon immediately bowed down in contrition, Arbok apologizing on their behalf. "Our deepessssst apologies, Master!", the cobra hissed, sounding panicked and crestfallen. "You sssssee, he was protecting another human whilssssst we were following him into the city! Is that not the mark of an Aura Guardian?"
"I will not endure this humiliation again!" Azien's voice was a shout of thunder. "Kill him, then bring me a worthy candidate!
"Perhaps that weakling who accompanied him into the city will suffice," Dusclops suggested to its partner, turning its lone eye on the opposition.
Cayman scoffed at the comment and assumed a defensive stance as the two Pokémon moved in engage him. "Simon may not be tough, but he's sure as hell smart enough to steer clear of you circus freaks! And apparently, so am I!" He gazed beyond the Pokémon, his attention briefly resting on their inanimate commander. "Face it, Azien. All you're doing now is grasping for straws in one last-ditch, desperate effort to regain the forgotten glory of your dead, ancient religion!"
The words were of no consequence to the undead Pharos as he slowly began to sink back into his prison. "Unfortunately for you, history will not see it that way." The deeper he descended, the more his voice sounded distant, blurred; as if it came from the bottom of a well.
Then he was gone, the Unown ushering the last of his essence back into their realm, the coffin latching shut behind them. The fog cleared, leaving the tomb transparent once again.
"Eliminate him!", the Kaiser's ominous echo called out to his minions from beyond the grave. "Reawaken me once you've captured his companions!"
Arbok and Dusclops restored their focus to Cayman and lunged at him in a joint ambush.
Cayman eyed the closer target and immediately engaged. His blade wove an intricate web of angles and curves, but Arbok agilely bobbed its head from each attempted blow, astounding Cayman with its mobility and sharp reflexes.
As the young rouge began to wear down from his excessive slashing at thin air, the cobra ducked low and slid between the swordsman's legs.
Cayman sidestepped and twirled in response, only to be greeted by Dusclops's narcotic eye dangling in front of him. He gasped, unable to tear his gaze away in time. He slowly brought his blade down as the Pokémon began to consume him in its hypnotic lure once again—only this time, the mummy's solo eye didn't shimmer with light, instead churning ominously like a black hole in the dead of space.
Cayman's body swayed drunkenly in response, from left to right, his skin turning stark pale, his eyes becoming heavy and inflamed. His very lifeforce threatened to dissolve in his chest the longer he stared into the hollow void of darkness that was Dusclops.
"The last thing the world needs is ANOTHER Soul Robber!", a muffled voice clamored out, just as the door to the crypt smashed down.
Arbok's eyes flicked to the source of the intrusion to find Simon and the astral duo piling over the collapsed entrance and into the tomb, just as Dusclops was preparing to finish its signature attack. The three hurried across the chamber to Cayman's aid and Arbok slithered after at full-speed to intercept them.
Simon was a nervous wreck, but he had to make a stand for Cayman's sake. With a peculiarly dusty text in his grasp, the aspiring mountain ranger charged in front of the cyclops as he fervently flipped through the book's pages, trying his best to avoid making eye-contact with the Pokémon as Cayman mistakenly had. "Come on!", he huffed out impatiently to himself, his fingers puddling around the book's dated print. "It's gotta be in here somewhere!"
Creeping up behind Simon, Arbok snarled, slowly and quietly slinking towards the chap's bony ankles.
But a sudden blast of psychic energy, courtesy of Solrock, launched the cobra face-first into the wall behind Dusclops.
Simon didn't even seem to notice, proudly pointing his finger skyward and proclaiming, "Aha!" Having found the content he'd been skimming for, his lips tottered to chant the vaguely-legible spell notes splayed before him as best he could, "'No spook drawith breath, no ghoul makeith death... light shineith bright when dark dareith fall... if not but a shadow, then not be at all'!
Dusclops twitched as soon as the spoken curse took hold, then let out a silent scream as its bulbous body began to disintegrate, melting away into the shadows. It would soon be shackled to the spirit world for its heinous misdeeds and forever remain there, never to return to the material world again.
Shaking off his daze, Cayman felt power gather around him again. His color returned, his eyes bright and focused. Turning on his heel, he offered Simon a quick, unspoken gratitude as his lips turned upward. He then summoned his Aura Blade again and charged towards Arbok, sprinting into a leaping-dive.
The snake was only just rebounding from Solrock's surprise attack and had null time to react as the human descended on him, making a spear of his blade.
When Cayman landed, the last thing Arbok felt was the emitter of the energy sword against the scaly flesh beneath its jaw; the last thing it heard as searing red Aura chewed upward through its head and burst from the top of its skull, burning away its life.
At last, it was over. Cayman took a step back as the lifeless, purple carcass in front of him shriveled to the floor, its last breaths leaving in ragged fits of terror. He repealed his weapon when he felt the snake's Aura disappear completely, and liberated a large breath of air from his lungs.
Remembering to properly thank his last-minute backup, he turned his head to his lanky, jittery lookalike. He shook his head in wonder while his smile grew to a grin he thought might split open his cheeks. "There might be hope for you after all."
"Knowledge is power!", Simon spieled in a miserably-attempted booming voice; and when Cayman just stared in response, he shrugged and gave his head a dismissive shake, embarrassed. He decided on a different riposte and held out the book in front of him. "I found this ancient text buried in the Sanctum ruins, authored by a medieval spellcaster named Pondo. It's riddled with spells on how to deal with Ghost-Type Pokémon."
The older teen wasn't so interested with the details. He cocked his brow and made aware the fact of the matter, "Still, you were brave enough to join in on the action, weren't you?"
Simon flushed, just a bit. He wasn't sure whether the question was meant as a compliment. "Yes... I guess I was, huh?"
Cayman's compulsory smile broadened toward a soft chuckle and he nodded. "It's a start, if nothing else." After a short silence, he swiveled and made for the exit, eying the ghostly wisp still oozing from Azien's coffin as he did so. "Let's get out of here."
From over the older Trainer's shoulder, Simon gladly replied, "Now there's something we can agree on."
Outside the Dragon's Den, Sa'lu joined her former opponents in their inspection of the sky. The moon's black silhouette against the slate blue backdrop of the stars was now a noticeably dappled blur in the sky, as if smudged clear off its planetary pedestal after a well-fought skirmish with the cosmos.
Wade knew firsthand the New Moon had reached its expiration point, yet there was no indication of any rigged prophecy, no evidence whatsoever of any ritual having took place. "The Black Moon is fading, as is the Negative Energy is bleeds," he spoke this as if unable to accept the words for himself. "Daylight approaches."
Anna looked relieved, incredibly relieved, as though some horrible, painfully chronic notion in her mind had suddenly and inexplicably eased. She offered softly, "If Metsuma was going to try something, he would have tried it already. But... no Giratina. No asymmetry in the Aura. No anything."
Wade inclined his head, uncompromising. "Give it some more time. He might still try and forge a portal before sunrise!"
Anna pitied seeing her scholar so worked up over this, and it pained her that she couldn't bring herself to sympathize with him. "It's a new day, Professor," she replied stiffly, her eyes catching the faint twinkle on the horizon. "It wouldn't work even if he tried. I can feel the cosmos shifting back into place, its dark energies waning by the second. We have to consider the possibility that maybe... Metsuma really is innocent."
As if expecting her to respond with that, the professor's boiling gaze flashed over Sa'lu; and his accusing finger immediately leveled with that gaze. "If he was innocent, why did SHE flee from us when we demanded to know his whereabouts!" His stare was hard as steel, and just a scrape short of openly hostile.
"I know nothing of Metsuma's whereabouts," Sa'lu said simply, even under such heated censure. "Even if I did, I wouldn't answer to the manner of hostility you two projected. You harassed me and attacked my village!"
"Don't play coy!" Wade's tone was so severe that the dragon inside Sa'lu coiled instinctively. "You were at Metsuma's home yesterday!"
The brunette winced as if she'd been stung, then spewed a weighty sigh from between her lips and disclosed in length, "Fine, I suppose I must confess: I went there merely to collect the Dragon Scrolls, at YOUR behest." Her eyes were suddenly chilling and hard like ice chips, rivaling Wade's own look of displeasure. "I didn't wish to alarm the Dragon Elders, so I decided to take matters into my own hands. I assumed Metsuma could trust an associate of the notorious Clint Ketchum. I was doing you a favor!"
Wade stretched out with the Aura to verify her story, but found nothing out of the ordinary. Every reading he got on her was too neat, too speckless. It was like probing a robot. "I... I can't tell if she's lying."
Anna decided to give it a shot herself, only she actually went to the trouble of physically reaching out wit her power, placing a hand just above the Dragon Trainer's bosom to better read her energy. "She's not giving me much to go on; I sense no tremors, no erratic heartbeats." Her lips curled inwards. She was still partly relieved but at the same time unconvinced, and an instant scowl gathered on her forehead. "Everything she told us was true, to my knowledge. Still... something seems out of place here."
The stern-faced professor bit down on his temper. His vision centered primarily on Anna, and he wanted to open his mouth and offer up an explanation that could still land the villainess in hot water. Alas, it was hopeless. He knew as well as Anna that they were at a dead end, that they had so little to charge the witch with.
Sa'lu quickly tired of the idle, unproductive silence. "Your friend is missing, so why are you still wasting your time here with me?", she questioned pensively, bitterly. She placed her hands upon her hips like a petulant child and went on to menace, "Perhaps I should inform the Dragon Elder's about tonight's indiscretion."
Wade and Anna exchanged glances, both thoughtfully grim; but only Wade had the courage to treat the threat as a mere bluff. "Just you try—"
Anna clawed her nails into his lab coat, yanking him quiet back to her side. "No, that won't be necessary," she saved, gridlocking what could have been a disaster—but not without extending one last wary glare to the shadow trainer, whom merely smirked casually in response.
Turning away from Sa'lu, her sights came to rest on the distant village, back the way they'd came. "It's over, Professor," she whispered aside as they quickly took their leave, even as Sa'lu's piercing gaze bore into the back of their heads every step of the way. "It was all a wild-Zangoose-chase. We have no business being here anymore."
Even while having the pleasure of watching the two set off in their disgrace and humiliation, Sa'lu's face tightened into a grimace; and she muttered crossly into the brisk, frosty air, "You'd better have a good excuse for tonight's failure, Metsuma."
I felt my chest seize up from the wild gulps of breaths I was taking. A strangled whimper caught in my throat, ready to leave in another slew of curses. But I was at a loss for words. I couldn't understand. I slightly glared up at the sky in disbelief, watching the storm clouds begin to part, morning just over the horizon. How could things have gone this way? How had failure even been an option when I'd calculated everything so... artistically?
I felt my knees buckle forward as they had earlier, then hit the hard surface of the rooftop, my hands going to my head where my fingers raked angrily through damp tussles and curls, my eyes jerking shut as I felt my world spiraling out of control. The nagging, embittering image of the portal disappearing played over and over in my mind to the crescendo of gusty winds threatening to sweep me off into the ocean.
I collapsed onto my side, bunching up nearly into a fetal position. I had my hands cradled over my face as I heaved furiously in my turmoil and utter horror. I had no idea how long I laid like this, feeling my sense of control unravel from within, spirit breaking from the despondency of everything. If the Black Moon was still calling to me, I couldn't hear it.
Something snapped inside me as the day's events flashed before my eyes. Between the terror of my out-of-left-field failure and the fallout of my desperate attempts to ensnare Clint, I was suddenly feeling lighter. I felt so hollow, moreso than usual, as I reviewed my losses from start to finish: I'd lost Clint's loyalty, the Black Moon was fading, and any chance I had at capturing Giratina was now practically nonexistent . It was suddenly all so surreal, yet so amusing, like the worst practical joke in the world. I was at the end of my rope and everything scattering out of control, but now I was finding it absolutely hilarious.
I heard a faint voice in the background. The wind maybe? It didn't matter, because I was suddenly laughing. The emptier I felt, the more invincible I was. As loud as I could, I was cackling. The faint whisper reaching out to me came again, and I rolled over onto my back, laughing like some deranged cartoon character as the last of the rainfall washed over me.
"Go back...", the wind trickled into my ear, more legibly this time, but I was too caught up in my merriment to care or really even notice.
"AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" I laughed so hard, so laboriously, I nearly ran out of breath. But I couldn't stop, even as my cackling turned into a squeaking series of snickers and snorts. "Heheheheehehehee…"
"Go back... Go back... Go back...", the harsh breeze kept repeating this, and I still wasn't sure I heard the words correctly in the midst of my momentary madness.
I gained some breath back, coughing in the process. I was staring up through the chasm of clouds now, to the synod of stars above. My body was limp. My chaotic bouts of laughter had drained me, and I was finally at peace with my failure. I heard the whisper in the background, but the words were lost to my weak, slow chuckling of self-acceptance.
Darker, more courting thoughts were running through my mind now, and I no longer felt those sensations terror and despair. I no longer felt like Metsuma Rocket, the aspiring criminal genius. I now felt a sense of rejuvenation, like I was smarter, stronger, more perceptive and aware than ever before.
It only lasted a moment, though, before I felt nothing again. Such a tease, and I had to wonder if the voice that had called to me was responsible.
As my soft chuckling died away to an eerie silence, the memory of the lost portal was just another experience I could shrug off and muse over. "Oh, how I prize the unpredictable," I respired to myself, laying flat where I was. "This is a blessing in disguise. Clearly, there's still more work to be done, more feathers to rustle."
Now I was sure I wasn't hearing the wind, because what had just uttered 'go back' to me sounded more firm and pronounced than before. I sat up slowly, rolling my eyes. There was only one explanation. "Now I'm hearing voices in my head. Delightful."
"No!", it growled in rebuttal, deep and guttural. It had a strange, ominous echo to its unusual speech. "I not imaginary! I real! Go back!"
I'd already laughed myself dry seconds earlier, so I wasn't exactly in an amused mood anymore. "Let's not stand on ceremony, voice." I stood to my feet with scouring eyes, rotating on my heels in a motion that could have burned rubber. "Face me or begone." I froze abruptly when I glanced down and noticed my shadow wasn't moving with me.
Before my very eyes, my silhouetted reflection dissolved into the ground, just as I felt something tap at my shoulder from behind. I swiveled on the spot, but no one was there to greet me. My eyes shifted stealthily from left to right, my Aura vigilant for any unidentified life-readings.
I felt a shaded presence looming behind me as soon as I stretched out with my power, and readied to get the jump on the unwelcome visitor with an Aura-braced spin kick.
I turned suddenly to deliver my blow to the stranger... only it was my shadow again, standing vertically across from me, its arms folded together in a smug posture. Now I knew unquestionably I'd gone off the deep end somewhere down the line tonight. Nonsense like this only ever happened in dreams.
Huh... dreams. It sounded bonkers, but not impractical.
My shadow contorted before I could express words, morphing into something else. It was a good thing I was a patient man, even while asleep; ten again, I wasn't so sure I was even in control of my dreams at this point. What had taken over was either a virus or a godsend.
The contortion suddenly gave shape to a familiarly cartoonish hourglass figure, its body as pitch black as the moonless night, with a white tuft of flowing white hair contrasting the raven skin on his bitty head. With long slender arms and what looked to be tatters along his jagged elbows, the creature was phantasmal in appearance, while not quite offsetting.
And I couldn't help shake the feeling that I'd seen this grisly entity somewhere before.
In my dreams. Of course.
A flashback of my visit to the Sinnoh Region immediately came to the forefront of my mind, back when I'd had that bizarre nightmare while staying in the Vielstone hotel. "You're more than just my shadow," I muttered, recapping the visuals in my mind. "I've seen you before. You're the Pokémon from that dream with the hooded men. Last we spoke, you ordered me to leave the Sinnoh Region."
The Ghost Pokémon's bright blue eyes held a slit glowing white pupil, shining through even the most advanced darkness to peer directly into my soul. His responses thereafter were short and firm. "Go back... to very beginning," it reiterated in its unusual speech pattern. "Start at... very beginning. Your very beginning. Alamos Town. I wait for you there. Answers wait for you there."
"Answers to what?", I demanded, politely.
Without mustering a spoken reply, the wispy, humanoid creature lifted into the sky, where nary a cloud nor raindrop loitered behind. Only a red, velvet yonder stretched endlessly over the Earth's atmosphere, like a dome of blood.
I licked my lips in satisfaction and felt my heart skip a beat as the shadow entity dissolved into a black haze that ripped open the air above me. Giratina emerged from its anamorphic depths, screaming out its freedom. Its cleft wings outstretched whilst its keen rosebud eyes panned the tower for a landing spot.
"Yes, now I see." I smiled gaily, even though I knew none of what I was seeing to be real. "You're saying I don't need Clint." And just like that, I felt like the new Metsuma again—and it wasn't just for a glancing second this time. It was here to stay. "Yes, of course. I needn't sink with my ship when I can just hijack another one. The pieces are still in place after all. I have everything I need and more." I twitched as the Shadow Dragon descended next to me, and I chortled between my teeth, "Bravo, Clint. You managed to set me back another decade. But it matters not. I waited ten whole years for the Black Moon. I can wait ten more."
I blinked. When my eyes opened, the fabricated world was gone in an instant. I was lying flat on my back again, reality settling over me. I jerked forward and pulled myself to my knees as I reflected on my dream and the shadow vision that created it, a smirk crookedly coming onto my face. "A Pokémon with power over sleep, eh? But why enter MY dreams?"
There was no response this time around, not even a whisper from the wind; while this was to be expected, I wasn't about to dismiss my encounter with the hourglass as a mere coincidence, considering this was the second time it had happened now. Besides, Pokémon were capable of so many different feats.
I carefully brought myself to my feet and breathed out my whole life up to that point. The change in me was still present, even after waking up. I felt it distinctly. "Okay, boogeyman," I inhaled. I couldn't get the shape of its body out of my mind. "I'll play your little game. I could use a good challenge to keep me on my feet."
As the apparition began to fade into the darkness of my subconscious, I felt my old self begin to expire. What had awoke from that dream was now something much more calculating and dangerous, a force to be reckoned with. Something that made me feel much more alive now as I started to plot in the depths of a devious and resentful mind. Of course, this was just the first step of a beautiful and wicked transformation.
The early hues of sunrise peaked over the mountain ridgelines in a colorful twinkle. Cayman basked in its promising warmth as he stood upon a grassy knoll just outside the kingdom, his olive-brown skin glowing radiantly with the scaling sun and its pledge of a brand new day. Lunan's endless forests and pikes, far and wide, beckoned him through the Earth's Aura, waiting to be explored.
His head turned slightly to regard Lunatone's approach. The crescent-shaped Pokémon orbited over him in a frenzy, reminding in a nagging but well-meaning voice, "Daylight is upon us, Kami, and still nothing has become of the Black Moon."
"Good," Cayman yawned, stretching out his arms for the long journey ahead. "That means I have more time."
"What do you mean?" The voice belonged to Simon this time. The budding mountain ranger stepped into view, escorted by Solrock. He shifted close enough to Cayman that he not come across as nervous or afraid, but didn't quite make it to the older boy's side.
Even if he was obviously distanced, Cayman didn't seem to care or notice. "There's still lots more of Lunan I want to explore, questions I need answered." He spun around fully and lifted a wishful brow to the child. "I could use a travel guide, someone who knows these mountains like no other."
Simon instinctively gulped in response. He even winced a little, as if to prepare for the worst, earning a short-lived chuckle from the older trainer. "Are you going to hurt me if I say no?"
Cayman's jaw clenched. This was just getting better and better. "You're not worth the energy, Simon." He offered a slightly wicked smile to accompany this mild jest, then continued to press, "So what's it gonna be?"
The gaunt, skin-flushed ranger looked visibly skeptical. He opened his mouth to speak on multiple counts, but nothing ever came out.
This only succeeded in trying Cayman's patience, which was a quality he didn't possess. "Well, fuck, I'm not going to stand around begging all day." He brushed past Simon, motioning Lunatone and Solrock to follow.
Simon jerked in reaction, nearly tripping over gravel as he clambered desperately after them. "Wait! I'll go with you! Don't leave—!" The moment he stepped down the slope, however, the bed of rocks supporting him yielded to his weight and he fell with a tumble, knocking into Cayman like a bowling pin.
Lunatone and Solrock reacted in record time and levitated the boys safely to their feet. Neither of them looked too bruised up, save for a few scuff marks.
Cayman brushed down his lap, while Simon waited dreadingly for the beating of a lifetime. But in an astonishing twist of wonder, Cayman addressed the ranger's last-minute change of heart instead, completely ignoring their tumble down the hill. "You really want to come along?"
Simon nodded and stared deeply, incisively into the bright blue eyes gawking right back at him, sucking in a deep breath to impart, "But in return... I want to be strong like you."
The request surprised Cayman, but he wasn't at all opposed to these terms. "What are you saying exactly?", he asked pointedly, arrogantly. "You want me to train you?"
As much as Simon just wanted to bow his head in embarrassment for even suggesting such a ridiculous pact, he couldn't hide his motives. "It's the only way I'll be able to make it on my own out here!", he gushed out in a panic-choked voice. "I can't survive these mountains looking over my shoulder every ten seconds, blindly challenging strangers and wild Pokémon and making a fool of myself!"
Cayman burst out laughing. "I don't fucking believe this!" When he noted the serious and desperate air about Simon, he couldn't resist a simple shrug—the kind that indicated he didn't care either way. "Ah, what the hell. You got yourself a deal. But it's going to be a lengthy journey though, so you better keep up and not drag your feet."
Simon's face glistened with a smile, until he reviewed Cayman's last statement and his jaw locked in confusion. "Wait, we're not going to be using Fearow?"
"Nope," Cayman replied, jumping down to the next sturdy rock. "First rule to being tough is knowing when to push yourself, even when it's stupid and unnecessary."
Simon quietly groaned in the pit of his throat, then muttered forcibly, "Yes, sir..." With that, he carefully but skittishly scaled his way downward, doing a miserable job at keeping up with his companions' pace.
Being called 'sir', meanwhile, had Cayman glowing the entire climb down the slope; it gave him hope that every member of the Nightfall Collective would one day refer to him as such. Of course, that was only assuming his destiny was to carry on his father's work and lead the criminal masses. He knew he had to decide his future in prudence and he hoped this soul-searching odyssey across Lunan would help him to discover his true place in the world.
"What about Metsuma, Kami?", Solrock's voice woke him from his musings, the very mention of the name stinging in his ears.
Lunatone jumped right in to admonish, "Yes, he will not be pleased when he returns to the island and discovers you are missing."
"Fuck him," Cayman breathlessly sputtered back, adorned with the smile of a true-born conqueror. He peered over his shoulder to ensure Simon was still a good distance behind them, then confided to his Pokémon in a hoarse whisper, "Just as Simon will be learning from me how to conquer HIS fears, I'll be learning from the legendary past how to rid of my own baggage."
I had just a couple detours to make before returning home, the first being the Dragon Village at the base of Mount Silver. I was careful to fly Rayquaza above the clouds for most of the flight there, since the police had already caught the Soul Robber mounted upon Rayquaza once before. What's more, I wasn't too eager to draw attention to myself and have my name and public image attached to the most prolific case in the history of Pokémon murders. Even if it was all my doing in the grand scheme of things.
Below, Sa'lu's cottage sat nestled in its usual mountain crevice and I navigated my faithful serpent into a nosedive. Thanks to Rayquaza's wind-punching speed, we landed in a blur, so even if by some slim chance someone had spotted us, they probably wouldn't have been able to get a decent enough impression to draw suspicion.
The Shadow Dragon Trainer herself stepped out from her home to meet us, though her greeting carried a barely-curbed patience. "I kept your fanclub occupied just long enough for you to enter the Distortion World and capture the Shadow Dragon, which clearly didn't happen for reasons I pray are justified."
It didn't take a Mankey to figure out she was past pleasantries. I could see exactly the look on her face as I dismounted Rayquaza: a mask of calm belied by a jaw so tight that when she spoke her mouth scarcely moved. "Clint got the better of me," I let it slide off my tongue, unashamed. "Fortunately, he also got the better of himself."
Her brows nearly knitted together at this point. "Oh?"
Though my stomach still occasionally clenched at the reality of Clint having bested me, I had to keep reminding myself who the last laugh really belonged to in order to fight the tension out of my voice. "Let's just say he's no longer in the equation of things. I've had quite enough of him and his righteous pride, to say the least. He's nothing but a pestering memory now." Just saying those magic words out loud tasted like candy in my mouth.
"That still doesn't excuse your failure tonight." Of course she didn't share my sentiment, given her lack of history with Clint to make her feel as strongly about his demise as I did.
But I didn't let her attempts to condescend me leave any impression. Instead I smiled back to her stone-cold scowl, and it felt enlivening. "It's far from a failure, Sa'lu." There, that was the tone I'd been searching for: a slightly scolding, headmasterish edge. I was back on form. "I like to think of Clint's removal from society as a truly valuable victory. For every door that closes, another one opens."
Her eyes shifted vigilantly to Rayquaza, then back to me. "Are you honestly prepared to wait around another decade for the Black Moon to reemerge? Without Clint, the ritual would prove useless anyhow."
My smiled tightened so furiously on my lips, I nearly had trouble getting my reply out. "I don't need Clint, it would seem."
Inexplicably, the Dragon Trainer looked distinctly uncomfortable. Without the grit, energy, or patience to keep on scolding me for my missteps, all she could bite out was, "I suppose tonight just wasn't the right time then."
Sa'lu still looked like she wanted to slap me silly to an extent, but then, just as suddenly as it had collapsed, that Aura of calm, centered impassivity rebuilt itself around her. "Is this where we part ways, then?", she breathed out the last of her strain, sharply looking away from me like she didn't care whether or not I responded.
"That's entirely up to you," I answered neutrally, then turned quickly on my heel to mount Rayquaza and saddle up for my flight home. Her silent treatment was enough for me to understand I wasn't wanted.
I was about halfway seated up Rayquaza's nape when I heard her voice sputter in a stray pant, "What will you do now?"
I twisted slightly, enough so to perceive her from my perch. After a slight hesitation, I imparted, "Something... came to my attention last tonight. I won't bore you with the details, but I was visited by a dark specter." With nothing to lose, I went for broke and asked, "Are you by any chance familiar with a Pokémon that can influence dreams?"
Sa'lu let her gaze drift casually to the trees to indicate her lack of interest. "No, but I'll gladly leave that mystery in your hands." She gave a silent sigh before looking upon me one last time. "We'll be in touch, Metsuma."
I took that as my cue to leave and immediately set off for the skies. My business in the Dragon Village was solely to touch base with Sa'lu, which I'd accomplished. Now I had to go and force a fast favor out of Kade Sorhagen in order to keep Maria off my back.
Clint woke to the gentle nudging of Ho-oh's beak against his ribcage and slowly sat up, ominous colors churning around him in greenish black patterns. The gravity felt strangely alien and his body seemed so much lighter than he remembered, as he practically floated back on his feet. Where was he, he questioned in his mind? What in the world was this place?
He didn't remember much after sealing away the portal, other than it had depleted him into unconsciousness. Then it all came rushing back... he was nowhere in the world. From the looks of it, it was its own world altogether, polluted and ravaged to scattered debris, toxic clouds, and lopsided islands drifting in every direction.
Clint stepped breezily to the edge of the platform carrying him to better study his surroundings. Everywhere he looked, distortion and disfigurement ran abundant. Staircases traveled topsy-turvy, waterfalls fell up instead of down. The tattered remains of buildings, stadiums, and ancient temples all floated past like a migrant cemetery, never to be mourned.
The vast emptiness of this forsaken place and its raw, solitary vibe immediately made his thoughts dwell on the man he once called 'best friend'. His hand reached down his shirt collar to fish out the badge necklace Metsuma had given him all those years ago. He watched it luster timelessly in the gloom of the Distortion World as he held it between his eyes, a tearful frown coming to his trembling lips.
With a spooked whimper, he tore the painful memory from his neck and chucked it into the black abyss below. He found his eyes turning unaccountably hot as he watched the trinket sink into oblivion, and his vision swam with unshed tears.
Ho-oh leaned in close behind the brooding Pokémon Master, resting the end of its caramel beak on his shaky shoulder to comfort him.
Clint sniffled back his pain and managed a faint smile as he turned his head slightly to meet the Pokémon's scarlet gaze. Reaching up a hand to stroke the strong beak nestled in the crook between his neck and shoulder, he sighed with resignation, "Looks like we're going to be here for a very long time."
Only a moment after he'd said this, he felt something peel apart the Aura around him. His eyes darted in rapid succession to the movement of a shadow zipping from one gutted building to another, drawing closer and closer each time.
Then it occurred to him that he wasn't alone—and the harder he thought on it, the more he began to remember just who this backward world belonged to.
As I dragged Kade through the front door of the manor against his will, he panted and wheezed like a perforated accordion. "Not so rough!", he whined, unable to loosen my grip no matter how hard he struggled; he had a rather flimsy, unimpressive build. "I just got off a plane, for Legendary's sake! I need my beauty sleep! Why are you dragging me into your home at this ungodly hour?"
I gently shut the door behind us and quickly retreated to the coat closet for something presentable to throw over my wet, saturated dress shirt. "Your morning is going to start out a little differently today," I explained as I fished out a sweater vest from the back of the closet. "You're going to help me."
"My morning doesn't start until I've had my first cocktail," he sighed effeminately.
Ignoring the remark, I finished dressing myself and turned to face him. My eyes studied his extravagant wardrobe for a long moment, so lustrous and woolly. "Just to be sure, you left town yesterday morning shortly after speaking to Clint, right?" I studied his face this time, serious in tone. "You were in Kalos visiting relatives all day, correct?"
"More like shopping my butt off in Lumiose City, hopping from clearance sale to clearance sale!" He whiffed the plush frill of his expensive coat, wiggling his springy body as he did so. The urge to rip the eyes out of my sockets was difficult to stove off. "Doesn't this fur coat look absolutely stunning? And it feels heavenly, too! I suppose I should thank the Mamoswine responsible for having such luscious wool!"
I stood very still for a long moment, until I could be absolutely sure that I could fabricate a believable story from Kade's stylish ensemble to coverup for my overnight absence, which Maria was sure to boil over.
Kade shrugged irritably at my extended lapse of speech. "Oh, don't look so surprised. Until HQ is cleaned up, I'm not allowed back to work full-time, so how I spend my vacation and how I spend my money ON vacation is my own personal business." His fingers coasted around his neck to dangle what looked like a paper stub. "Besides, I kept the price tag, didn't I? I wouldn't wear this thing a day over a month."
I opened my mouth to make my demands, only Maria's voice beat me to the punch. "Metsuma?", her petite voice called from the pit of the corner hallway, just around the master staircase. "Metsuma, is that you?"
The echo of her holler was immediately accompanied by the clicking of high-heels. I reeled to Kade in succession, only to find him reaching for the door handle to make a hasty exit. He bid defectively over his shoulder, "Well, if you won't be needing me anymore, I plan to spend the rest of my vacation in a drunken stupor. That should get rid of this jet-lag."
He turned the handle, but I slammed the door shut as soon as it creaked open and threw myself in front of him. I didn't waste a second explaining myself and stipulated forthwith, "Give me the coat."
He didn't bat a lash, just smiled reflexively. "You jest, surely."
I smiled back, though my tone went a trace extra firm. "Give me the coat or I'll see you fired."
That did the trick. Without protest, he discarded his fleece cocoon with the shrug of his shoulders and tossed it my way. The approaching footsteps clicking louder, my hands hastily smoothed down the coat's veneers in broad, even strokes. It felt as silky and luscious as Kade described, shorn down to imitate the feel of velvet.
I swiftly placed it over the coat hanger beside me just as Maria entered, though the very sight of me in the flesh paralyzed her where she stood. "Oh my God!" Cupping her mouth, she tore across the room like a bullet and pried herself into my arms, effortlessly overpowering my halfhearted resistance. "You had me worried sick!"
"I know, I should have given you a heads up," I reciprocated with half a smile, pulling her close enough to my chest that it at least simulated suffocation for my own private satisfaction.
Nonetheless, she clung to me, just breathing in my presence. Some time later, she found words again in the form of broken gasps. "W—We waited up all night for you!"
I winced slightly and drew back a little. "'We'?"
There was a sudden fluctuation in the Aura—or perhaps I was only just now catching on to it. Anna's zestful, hot-spirited presence punctured my senses and I raised my chin to find the foulmouthed cop herself standing silently in the jaws of the adjoining hallway, her eyes like two voltaic arrows ready to dart clean through me.
I inwardly scolded myself for not anticipating this. I had tasked Sa'lu with distracting Anna long enough for me to capture Giratina, but after that turned out to be a faux pass, I neglected to consider how to handle my stubborn admirer in the aftermath. This was just another fork in the road I had to overcome in order to revamp both myself and my plans.
"Anna." It was almost a moan from me. "This is... a pleasant surprise."
Alas, her mouth compressed into a thin, grim line. "Yeah, I guess so."
Maria bounced front and center from my periphery, her hands clasped firmly around my shoulders. "Where on Earth have you been?"
"Yeah, I'd like to hear all about it too," Anna concurred from across the room, though her tone sounded like the first of many questions in an interrogation.
I calmly stepped aside to reveal Kade still hunched over the door handle behind me. "I was in the Kalos Region, with Sorhagen."
"Hm?" When he suddenly realized all eyes were pinned on him, he perked up, straightened himself, and played along to my tune. "Oh, uh, yes. Very much indeed. He was with me. We spent the entire day there together."
Maria's lips were parted, her eyes shifting frequently between myself and Kade. She quizzically giggled, "What were you two doing all the way out in the Kalos Region?"
I laid a gentle finger on her lips, wearing a much broader grin. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about it, I didn't want to spoil the surprise. You see, I was flipping through some fashion catalogs earlier yesterday and I wanted Clint's opinion on what to get you for your birthday. Sadly, he never touched base with me." I then turned slightly to gesture to my co-storyteller. "Anyhow, the next thing I knew, Kade jumped in to fill the vacancy and offered to take me on one of his sale-hunting exploits."
At the unseen nudge of my elbow, Kade jolted, his head giving a series of forced, perhaps overly-exaggerated nods to back my statement. I could tell he was uncomfortable, but I only needed him to play along just long enough to make Maria swallow my bullshit.
She opened her mouth to reply, but slower than before, and more skeptical. "All the way out in Kalos? That's why you were in such a rush to leave yesterday morning?"
"Only the best for you, Maria," I fed her one lie after another.
She winced slightly. "Still... that seems a little far."
"Hey, I don't tell you how to do your shopping, lady!", Kade burst out, apparently taking Maria's comments a bit personally. Fortunately, he made quick and good to bail himself out, doing his best to reflect my jubilant expression. "I mean... of course it's far! But if you're looking for a hot bargain, Lumiose is the place to be!"
Before Maria could dare pose another inquiry, I took another step to the right so her eyes could take in Kade's luxurious fur coat hanging on the post where I'd left it. Once the dazzle in her eyes ignited, I resumed, "Then I saw this coat... and I knew I had to bring it back to you."
"S—Say what now?", Kade nearly choked out.
I pretended not to hear him. Instead, I lifted the coat off the hangar, veered behind my awe-stricken wife, and sensually draped it over her delicate shoulders. "I know it's a bit early but... Happy Birthday, sweetheart," I whispered, leaning in over her shoulder to plant a voluptuous kiss upon her rosy pink cheek.
She quivered ecstatically from the touch of my lips, then slowly moved in front of the nearby mirror to feast her eyes on her new look. "Oh my goodness," she gasped. "It's absolutely gorgeous!" She wrapped the neck of the wear tighter around her collar and did a little spin for Anna, to show off. "Oh, doesn't it look just exquisite, Anna?"
"Yes... it sure does," Anna returned softly, though her gaze was still centered squarely on me. Getting her off my back was going to be a whole nother animal, and a fur coat was definitely not going to cut it.
Kade sniffled softly behind me, gauging my interest, and I gladly used the excuse to tear away from Anna's prying eyes; only, I wasn't so sure I preferred seeing a grown man sob like a little girl separated from her pet Persian.
Turning away from the mirror, Maria soon picked up on where my attention had trailed off to. "Kade, are you crying?" She tilted her head at me, as if I was somehow supposed to divine what was happening. But she went at ease as a deeply touched smile held her features ripe and in place. "Oh, Kade... I bet such a sentimental gesture from a husband to wife just brings tears of joy to your eyes, doesn't it!"
Kade forced himself to nod his head, smiling pathetically through tears welling up in his eyes. "Sure, sure. That's exactly why I'm crying." Against my unspoken wishes, he continued to sob uncontrollably into his palms. He frowned against his fingers, squeezing his eyes more tightly shut to make sure no tears leaked out. "If you'll excuse me, I need to go tear up some receipts and then hang myself. You all have a fabulous day." He swung the front door open in a prompt, breezy fashion, then just as quickly bolted in a dramatic mess.
I took this without a blink. He'd served his purpose for the day and that was all that mattered. Now there was only one more loose end to tie up: Anna.
I was about to recenter on her when Maria jumped smack into me again with all her weight, arms lacing around my neck like ribbons around an expressionless mannequin. "I can't thank you enough, you sweetie pie!" She smothered a string of light, puckered kisses across my face, then retracted back to the comfort of her new garb and scampered down the main hallway like a giddy schoolgirl. "I'll go whip us all up a big breakfast while you two catch up!"
As if I'd planned it myself, Anna and I were finally alone.
She strode right up to me the first chance she got, arms folded pompously over her chest. "So... you have no idea where Clint is then?"
I shrugged, playing oblivious. "Why should I?"
Her mouth turned further downward, if that were even possible. "He's missing, Metsuma."
I touched her arm softly, my face white with dread. This was a performance I'd have to act the hell out of. "Are... are you sure?"
She nodded excessively, swallowing. Her radiant blue eyes glistened with tears unshed. "I... I thought that maybe... you were behind it."
I gave her a funny look. "Why would you think such an awful thing?"
"Because last night was—" She stopped herself abruptly, her face like stone again. "Forget it."
This was my chance to play the helpless victim and turn the tables on her little good-cop, bad-cop routine. "What, you think I kidnapped him or something?" I uttered the accusation so distraughtly, yet made sure to keep my voice as in-character as possible. "I... I thought we were past this, Anna."
"I did too!", she bit out the rising pain inside her, and spoke through clenched teeth. "Then I met your friend Sa'lu. When I went to confront her about where you'd gone, she mentioned that she was 'asked' to leave me unharmed. What the fuck does that even mean?" Her eyes narrowed as if to incriminate me themselves, effectively undermining my whole role-playing strategy. "She even knew my name right off the bat, Metsuma! Explain that!"
I could only fallback on another shrug as I endeavored to come up with something fast. "Clint... must have mentioned you to her at some point," I began. "They work in the same field, don't they? And we both know how overprotective Clint can be when it comes to his loved ones. He must have sensed something was off about Sa'lu and warned her to keep away from his friends and family. That's all."
"But... but that—" She shook her head helplessly, and a pair of tears spilled from her eyes. "Oh never mind Sa'lu! That doesn't explain Clint disappearing!"
"I'm sure he's fine," I laughed off the concern.
"No!" She fought to stay calm; the pain inside her demanded motion. It became wave after wave of tremors in the Aura, so simple for me to read. And she was absolutely breathless as she tried to fit the pieces together, "The PLC hasn't seen him! That ditzy, stuck-up wife of his hasn't seen him! You even said yourself he never showed up to meet with you yesterday! It doesn't add up, dammit! He couldn't have just... vanished from thin air!"
I moved behind her and massaged her shoulders, attempting to coax her into the hallway. "You're overworked, Anna. You're tense." She immediately shook me off her, but that didn't keep me from trying to leave myself. I just wanted to put this behind us. "Come on, the three of us will have a nice breakfast and—"
Her hand seized my arm with miraculous strength, and for the first time since I'd arrived, she looked straight into my eyes, seeking something that just wasn't there. "Our best friend is gone!", she continued to press me—this time for an emotion, not an answer. She was nearly screeching through her sobbing. "How can you be so fucking calm!"
I didn't know what else to do but just stand there as she held me by the arm. I was almost sure if I tried to leave again, she'd scream loud enough for Maria to come scurrying. I didn't need that, two women trying to unravel me at once.
Luckily, Anna came to her senses before I could attempt to half-ass an apology. Stormy eyes now simmered down to meager little sparks of frightened blue. Her grip on my wrist slackened and she shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry, I just... I don't know what to believe anymore."
With her vulnerability finally exposed to my liking, I jumped at the opportunity. My arms coiled around her waist and I pulled her just a hair's length apart from my chest. My stronger eyes pooled into her crippling ones, as I tilted her head back in my delicate palms, practically hoisting her up against me. "You don't trust me?", I whispered woefully, like a clever child with his puppy eyes trying to get out of trouble.
Her face was something approaching bleak despair. "Of course I trust you... but I feel like I shouldn't." Her heads tossed to the side and she muttered in a hoarse gasp, "It's complicated. I can't explain it."
"You don't have to." Cupping her chin, I moved her face back into position. At last, I had her right where I wanted her. "I know you think I'm hiding things underneath the surface, but I would never put my friends in jeopardy." I leaned forward to rest my cheek lightly on the crown of her head. "I would never hurt you, Anna. Never."
My touch must have unclenched her heart. Through the Aura, I could feel her patience, and her regained trust. Then, after a hesitant pause, her body surrendered next, pressing urgently into mine. She was done putting up a struggle, and she chuckled tearfully into the warmth of my chest, "I'm an idiot."
"No, I'm just that good a liar," I replied in my head; but in reality I answered with, "No, you're just confused."
Slowly stretching away from me, she nodded with a you-can-say-that-again look on her face, frowning deeply. "I should never have listened to the Professor," she sighed, gaze cast askew in reflection and self-pity. "He's trying to tear us all apart again. I should have seen it." Much to my secret pleasure, she seemed to accept her own words with a slow, serious nod... then her eyes suddenly flashed to mine with a faint smirk. "At least... I can depend on you."
"Don't be afraid." I glanced down at her small, slim fingers, and I slipped mine between them, clasping our two hands into a knot of prayer. "Just forget everything you think you know and trust in me." The words moved off my tongue like some steady, soothing anesthetic for the ears.
She melted into me again, squeezing me tight. I offered no resistance. I was like a sponge, absorbing every little worry and doubt in her mind and drowning them into forgotten depths. She was completely under my spell.
Later that day, a knock at the door of his study plucked Wade from his seat. He brushed off his cognitions and glanced up to find Anna standing frozen in the doorway with a tense stillness about her. He worried he wasn't going to like what news she had to deliver. In fact, he'd been up all hours of the night pondering how soon she'd report back to him, counting on some inkling of truth to support his convictions.
Anna did not speak, however. The heavy bags under her eyes indicated that she too hadn't slept at all since their showdown with Sa'lu.
When the room fell too quiet for his liking, Wade bent over his desk, his head sunken into his shoulders. "I've been mediating all morning," he said, unprepared for what he was about to reveal next. "Clint's Aura... is no longer among the living. What's left of his presence in this world is survived by that of his offspring."
Anna did not concur nor deny his depressing admission. She was numb to every little word that came out of his mouth, her heart left behind with Metsuma.
The tired professor corked a weary brow her way. "Have you been to the Ketchum residence yet? Did you find anything out?"
Her stern expression faltered and she brought herself to the edge of his desk. "I talked to Giovanni," she whispered, avoiding his eyes as she despondently detailed her findings. "He said a bunch of men broke into the house the last time he saw his father, one of them went by the name Calypso. And this Calypso supposedly held a gun to Clint's head at one point."
He lifted his eyebrow higher. "Really? What did these men have to say to Clint?"
She spread her hands in a melancholy shrug. "Gio said he couldn't hear anything because the henchmen restraining him were covering his ears. When I approached Rita about it, she called to the entire story made-up and nothing more than a childish cry for attention on Giovanni's part."
He frowned drolly and began to brainstorm. "Rita Ketchum is lying to protect someone. Probably Metsuma. He must know something about this—"
"Enough!", Anna finally exploded on him, too indisposed to entertain his accusations any further. His resentment towards Metsuma was still eating away at him, even after all these years, and she wanted no part of it. "Stop trying to pin this on an innocent man! I talked to Metsuma earlier this morning, alright? He wasn't even around when Clint disappeared! He was in Kalos!"
"Oh, please." There was no malice in his response, however, only wry amusement. "I'm sure he gave you a very convincing story. It's what he's best at." He saw an attempt to protest from her, but quickly smacked it down, raising his voice higher than any enlightened, sensible teacher should. "Don't even! Tell me, why must you keep defending his ridiculous stories! Why must you keep..." But he trailed off mid-sentence, just analyzing her for a second.
She fell dead silent under his intense scrutiny, her eyes cast downward in cover.
Then, as her silence alone spoke to him, everything suddenly added up and his eyes widened to twice their size. "Oh, dear Arceus," he gasped out sharply. He half fell into his chair and pressed the edge of his hand against his eyes, feeling so foolish for not having realized it earlier. "You're still in love with him, after all these years."
Again, Anna neglected to answer. Only this time, it was as if she couldn't.
"That's it, isn't it?", he rehashed, for his own sake. But when it occurred to him that he didn't need her confirmation, he simply wrinkled his nose in displeasure and waved his hand at her in a dismissive gesture. "You're just like Clint. You can't see clearly because of this... hold he has on you."
Enraged, she jerked her head up to meet his gaze. "I can see clearly, alright," she snarled behind barred teeth. "In fact... I can finally see just what a horrible person you are."
The venom in her words bit him hard and he shuddered in his seat. "Anna... Anna, I—"
Leaning into his desk, she seethed, "Don't ever fucking contact me again." Pivoting, she made for the door and stormed out of the room. "Goodbye, Professor."
Door slamming shut behind her, the room quaked violently and the items collecting dust on Wade's bookshelves threatened to spill onto the floor.
Then utter silence, lonesomeness. The professor squeezed his eyes shit with a painful clench as the vague but grim future inside his head turned even darker.
My return to HQ was far from exciting. The office seemed familiarly dull, I observed, as I pushed open the door and placed my coat on the empty stand. I listlessly took to the vacant seat behind my desk, just sitting there in my routinely professional fashion, as if nothing had changed since my last visit. I wasn't so sure I liked it.
My thoughts continued to dwell on my dream at Sky Pillar. I was ready to pursue this to no end, if it came down to it. Alamos Town would be my first destination. The location's name rang a bell but I couldn't match it with any particular visual.
Across the room, the door creaked open ajar, interrupting my thoughts. An Officer Jenny poked her head through the gap. "We've already searched Sorhagen's office, as well as Daken's quarters. Everything checks out, so no need to panic. It's not likely anymore bombs were planted past the lobby point. Of course, it's procedure that we search every inch of the building. And your office is next on the check list."
I nodded without protest. Now it was my turn to take a vacation, so Jenny and the bomb squad of stooges on her payroll could ransack my office. It didn't make any difference to me; I had nothing to hide from them. Besides, I'd have Kade to keep a close eye on them in my absence, in case something did go amiss. With his work station squeaky clean and no longer under quarantine, he'd be getting the call back to work soon enough.
I sighed and spread my arms out across the desktop. "Well, I suppose my hands are tied in this matter, aren't they?"
She nodded her head graciously. "We're going to have to ask you to relocate your workspace elsewhere while we investigate this level of the building." It felt like she didn't know what else to say and was simply repeating the same instructions over and over again. "Feel free to clean out your desk and collect any office essentials you require—"
"I'm familiar with how these things work," I shortstopped her with a smile of exaggerated patience. "May I have a minute alone?"
"Of course, sir." Again, she nodded, then shrunk back into the hallway and closed the door behind her.
Basking in silence again, I rolled my head back upon my shoulders, closing my eyes for just the briefest moment. I gently laughed, to an invisible presence, "We never did have that lunch, did we, Clint?" My eyes reopened suddenly and I nodded toward the sheer emptiness between my desk and the door, as if someone were standing there. "All that you were served yesterday was an offer of a lifetime, handed down to you on a silver platter. But I guess you just didn't have the same appetite for it as I did."
My fingers laced together on the desk like a pyramid, propping up my forehead. Again, I centered my thoughts on the specter from the dream. The phantom Pokémon cloaked like an hourglass. "Where are you, dark specter? Why won't you tell me anything else?"
"Hi, mind if I sit with you?", a small but friendly voice echoed from the distant past.
I jolted awake—only, I wasn't awake. I wasn't even in my office anymore.
Distant memories flooded out of me, painting up my vision from scratch, showing me my wasted youth. I was standing in the middle of a classroom, on that fateful day so many years ago. Everywhere I looked, students and Pokémon frolicked from desk to desk, while my so called father watched earnestly from behind his desk. Just the sight of him made me cringe.
Then, that cheerful little echo came again. "Mind if I sit with you?"
I turned only slightly to the corner of the room, where eight-year-old Clint Ketchum stood smiling in front of me with a tray of food in his hands. Then it finally hit me that this was just another dream—the dark specter toying with my subconscious again.
The little boy in the striped shirt continued to dazzle with his signature smile. "The Professor mentioned you usually eat lunch by yourself at recess, so I thought you might like someone to talk to."
"You're new here, aren't you?", I answered, only it wasn't me. It was younger me, sitting alone in the shadows, observing the other students from the comfort of his desk. Yes, that was me alright: the curly-haired adolescent that clung to lonesome corners at recess, while everyone else laughed and clowned around to their hearts content. Even now, I found them all unsightly and off-putting.
Clint pulled a chair to my old desk, setting his tray down on it and looking my younger self in the eye for the first time. "My name's Clint. Clint Ketchum," he introduced himself, not that I even remembered caring. "What's yours?"
The unsuspecting boy with dark curls didn't know what he was getting himself into, and I just wished I was visible to them so I could have warned him. But he stared Clint down, taking note of the light smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks, grimacing when he'd lost track several times. "Metsuma," he finally named himself for the other boy, though hardly enthusiastic about it.
"That's a pretty neat name!", the little jerk complimented, probably just to say something.
My childhood self entwined his fingers in a familiarly dejavu fashion and produced a cold, intense smile. "Who put you up to this?"
Clint's eyes widened in surprise. "N—No one!", he defended himself, the little liar. "I was just... hoping we could be friends."
"Why?", both me and my smaller self uttered out harmoniously, though I had only done so out of impulse.
Clint just shrugged and chuckled. "Why not?"
I felt my stomach tighten forebodingly, though the young me was far calmer, far more oblivious. If only he was able to hear me.
I watched myself about to look away when Clint reached into his belt pocket, pulling out an Apricorn. "Want to see my Pokémon?", he chipperly asked. "It's a Hoothoot! I found him in the forest with an injured wing, so I sort of adopted it. I... guess that's one thing you both share in common, huh?" He gave another glowing, disgusting smile and jumped to his feet. "Come on, we can go outside and I'll show him to you!"
The boy with dark curls remained seated, just studying Clint for a second. "What a curious creature..."
"You can't judge Hoothoot until I let him out of his Apricorn, silly!", cackled Clint.
But younger, naiver Metsuma just shook his head. "I was talking about YOU."
Caught unaware by the remark, the other boy scratched the back of his neck, unsure how to respond. A muscle in his cheek twitched, "Oh, uh, thank you." He quickly rebounded and hurried off towards the classroom door. "Anyway, I'll race you to the oak tree outside!"
I blinked before I could see myself rise up to chase after the spirited but soon-to-be-treacherous prodigal child.
I jerked upright in my office chair, back at my work desk again again. My breath left me in ragged gasps, my forehead creasing in concentration. I hadn't even remembered dozing off, but I doubted the hourglass Pokémon had enough influence over my sleep to actually induce it freely. No Pokémon could ever outwit me in such a way—or in any way.
"Aren't you coming, Metsuma?"
My deceitful eyes darted up to the office door, where the fledgling Ketchum stood smiling in wait, Apricorn in hand.
I returned the grin, as if to mislead the hallucination, then grabbed the closet object in reach—a stapler—then lurched over my desk in one swift motion and flung it across the room.
Of course, by the time I'd thrown it, I hadn't realized the illusion was gone.
The door swung open and Officer Jenny promptly ducked her head just before the stapler could smash into her perfectly flawless face. "Whoa!", she bellowed, glancing over her shoulder, then back to me. "That was a close shave, sir! I hope that's not how you greet everyone that walks through this door."
In a nice, smooth recovery, I coolly countered, "Just the one's who don't knock."
"R—Right, uh, sorry." She flushed deeply, embarrassed. "It's just... there's someone here to see you. I told her it wasn't a good time, but she insisted it was urgent."
I kept my voice under rigid control. "I'm not seeing any clients, at least not until your trusty bomb squad clears out."
Before Jenny could relay the message, a rather small figure brushed past her and entered the room cloaked fully in forest green vestments. "I'm afraid I'm not here to do business, Mr. Rocket." The voice behind the shawl belonged to a woman—a very young lady. "There is a far more pressing matter we need to discuss."
"Oh?" I immediately found enough intrigue to indulge her. "And what would that be?"
"Your son," she murmured, though just loud enough for Jenny's ears to register.
I was suddenly taking the situation a little less lightly as I sprung from my seat and entered my self-preservation function. "You must be mistaken!", I laughed with a crooked smirk, gaze suddenly flickering to Jenny. "I'll take care of this loony," I implored to the woman in blue uniform, gesturing to the hallway. "Would you please close the door on your way out?"
Fortunately, Jenny was more than compliant, if not understanding. "Of course, sir."
Once Jenny was gone, the slender, faceless figure practically glided across the room to meet me, her hands gently grazing the chair opposite me. "May I?" She didn't even bother waiting for my permission and fell into the seat regardless. Then, immediately following, she slowly brought her hands up to pull down the green hood covering her face. "Pardon the secrecy."
As soon as the shawl came down, a vaguely recognizable face greeted me to a thin but rueful frown. With glittering red hair and piercing gold eyes, this young maiden of sixteen, maybe seventeen, looked as though she'd been carved fresh out of prominence and wealth. Was this just another hallucination, or was I gazing upon the spitting image of my former nemesis, Odessa Fabula?
"You strike me as someone I might detest." I was careful with my words. I wanted HER to identify herself to ME. "The question is: have we met before?" I sat myself down to garner a better, more leveled view of her.
Even though she looked fairly young, she spoke like she was older, much older. "I am Eden Fabula, daughter of Odessa Fabula and heir to the Team Righteous cause."
"Yes, of course," I replied smoothly, casually. "Aren't you supposed to be dead?"
"I should ask you the same question," she countered, as if she'd rehearsed this confrontation in her head already. "Through Cayman, you've made a lot of people and Pokémon very angry." Her hands began roaming my desktop for something to amuse her, her eyes following in suit. "You've done terrible, terrible things."
She sat fiddling with the pens and pencils strewn across my desk, waiting for me to respond, so I blurted out, "Last I checked, the public adores me. In their eyes, I'm but a simple, graceful businessman."
"And you are, no mistake about that." She glanced up from her distraction and set down my belongings. "But beneath the surface, you're a monster who deals in savagery and toys with innocent souls. You're a wicked, evil mastermind who wants to infect our world with criminal scum, just as you did with Cosma Point."
I gave a shrug of the shoulders. "No one else besides you and me knows what really took place in Cosma, so what's to stop me from killing you right now?"
There was complete stillness from her. From the shadowed corners of the office, however, emerged three colorful bucks, similar in size but significantly diverse in appearance. With their horns reared and their snouts flared, as if to charge through the sheet metal, they had to be Pokémon.
The lankiest of the trio stood like a God, its aqua blue coat of fur shimmering and flouncing about its body. Its barbed tail and shoulder-blades jutted out like razor-sharp protrusions, ready to cleave through my flesh if I even attempted to lay a finger on Eden. Of course, I wasn't planning on doing such a thing, not now and certainty not here.
On the right corner of the room, the shadows produced a Pokémon with a bit less girth to its physique but more intensity in its expression. Sporitng greenish white patterns on its gauzy fur coat and leafy tufts on its slender shoulders, the antelope gave the most feminine vibe of the trio. Curled, dull points raveled out each side of its narrow head, dull but still formidable enough to pierce me by the looks.
Finally, my gaze focused to the center of the room, where a bovine-like Pokémon stared me down from beyond Eden's shoulder. Bulky and rounded like a canyon boulder, there was no doubt in my mind this Pokémon was a combat-powerhouse. Its teeth barred malignantly at me, its red-yellow eyes igniting at Eden's defense.
After I'd seen enough and inspected each of them closely, I clapped my hands slowly in applause and leaned back in my seat. "You came with bodyguards. Well played."
She flagged her escorts to down with a fleeting wave of her hand, never breaking from my gaze. "I know very well you won't cause a scene at your own place of business, but it never hurts to be too cautious."
"I admire that," I chuckled. She was a headstrong girl, I'd give her that; but I wasn't interested in exchanging respects. "Why exactly are you here then? To avenge your sweet but commiserably misguided mother?"
At last, she quirked a trace of a smile with the shake of her head, if only make her demands come across politely. "I'm here to ask you respectfully to leave Cayman alone." Amazing. As if my defeat at Sky Pillar wasn't already degrading enough for one day, here I was being talked down to by a little girl.
I knew where this was going already and rolled my eyes in favor of just bursting out laughing right then and there. "Eden, as helpless a romantic as I am, I can honestly tell you that Cayman only used you to bring down Team Righteous. He has no feelings for you... for anyone. He follows his instinct."
"I thought so too." Her glare slipped, just a bit. "Then he showed me a weakness about him, one you yourself have already exploited on numerous counts. His potential is being wasted. He needs to be released from your care immediately. Do try and make this easy on yourself. I'd hate to have to finish what I began and level this building entirely."
I went silent, thoughtfully silent. Once again, this meager girl demonstrated her ability to surprise me. "You staged the bombing in the lobby," I put the pieces together quietly, though this was actually too intriguing a twist for me not to relish, "and you had Calypso's snitch do your dirty work and plant those Voltorb so you could safely pin it all on the mob."
She folded her hands together in a demonstration of goodwill. "Please understand, that was just a small dose of what I'm capable of. Now, I'm stepping out from the shadows and confronting you personally, offering you the chance to come clean and meet my demands."
Now we were finally getting somewhere, but the upper hand was still mine by a long shot. "Do I look like I'm intimidated?", I whispered, leaning inward, making an expression of mock stupidity. "People like you, they can never hope to embrace what they can't understand. That is why you cling to such petty, short-sighted morals. I will never surrender to anyone. I'm a survivalist."
She fidgeted slightly, a hint of fear showing through her deadpan expression.
I then disarmed her completely with a few basic reminders. "You hide in the shadows, I hide in plain sight. I have an ever-growing arsenal of ruthless mercenaries and extremist criminals at my disposal. The only army YOU have is standing right behind you. That beings said, do you honestly believe you have some sort of advantage working for you?"
The look on her face was one of complete, naked discomfort and it was absolutely priceless. She didn't share her mother's tenacity, that was for sure.
"I didn't think so," I finished for her, not giving her the satisfaction of thinking up a rebuttal.
Though she looked rather deflated by my word choice, she gathered herself and heaved a long, disappointed sigh. "I can see there's no sense in trying to reason with a criminal." Promptly, she shot up from her seat. "Let the record show that, unlike my mother, I gave you the courtesy of surrender... but you turned it down. If fear won't get through to you, then I'm left with only one other option."
I barely so much as blinked, let alone moved from where I was. "Oh, I can't wait to see what you come up with. Chances are I'll have something for you as well."
"It won't be another bomb scare, I can assure you that much." She sputtered the word 'bomb' as if she'd tasted its sourness on her tongue. Nevertheless, she continued to threaten, "It'll be much quieter, more subtle."
The green buck stationed behind her stepped forth from the shadows, bowing its head to Eden, presenting a small potted plant on its curved set of horns.
Eden retrieved it and carefully set it on the desk in front of me. "Until next time, please accept this token of my thanks for seeing me on such short notice. It's a Black Orchid. I planted it myself. It really ties the room together, doesn't it?" She then sniffed the air, adding as an afterthought, "Makes the air of your presence feel a little less grim and lifeless."
I simply stared down at the exotic specimen, not wasting my time touching it. It was certainly candy to the eye, not that I cared much for plant-life. Even with the name 'Black Orchid', it had a rather colorful arrangement of petals. But was it supposed to be threatening?
"We'll be leaving now, Mr. Rocket," Eden's tender voice bid from the across the room. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time."
I glanced up just as Eden donned her hood and slipped back into the hallway. The Pokémon that had been accompanying her were already gone, probably via teleportation; it definitely would have explained how they'd even gotten into the building in the first place without anyone noticing.
I payed the unwanted visit little more thought, storing it away in my brain, and pushed the orchid to the very edge of my desk so I could return to my meditation in peace. I massaged my temples, my eyes fluttering shut in an involuntary reaction.
When I opened them, however, I half-expected to find young Clint calling to me from across the room again. But instead, there was another boy standing in front of the closed door of the office. He was older, about fifteen or sixteen, with a Meowth perched steadily on his shoulder. He wore Clint's smile, that damned creepy smile that never seemed to waver.
It dawned on me that I'd met this young man before. But why was he appearing to me? What was the message this time?
Then with the blink of my eyes, he was gone, just like Clint. I shook my head blankly and cursed beneath my breath, "Well... this could get annoying real fast."
Outside Fuchsia City, Eden regrouped with the Swords of Justice in a forest clearing. Light filtered through the trees towering above the trio, spotlighting them in luminous streaks of sunlight as they waited for Eden to speak. She envied their loyalty. Through Virizion, they had quickly become her most dependable, available allies. She took never take them for granted.
Terrakion, the biggest and bulkiest of the bunch, let out a snort of laughter. Despite his menacing appearance, he actually had quite a sense of humor. "Well that could have gone smoother," he uttered in his deep, glottal voice.
Cobalion, the blue-furred buck, nodded in agreement and tilted his longish head to the quiet Fabula standing across from them. "Now what happens, Lady Eden?"
"Always so cautious, aren't you, Cobalion?", chuckled Terrakion.
Cobalion's expression turned stark serious. "I'm simply curious as to where we go from here. Talking to that man seemed inconsequential."
Terrakion gave a slight shrug, frowning. "He sure sent a shiver down my horn, though. I got a bad vibe from that human."
Virizion, whom stood furthest away from Eden, was more or less reticent about the whole situation, keeping her opinions quiet and withheld for the moment. This Sword had been with Eden the longest, so she knew when not to speak outside her usual manners.
Cobalion sighed distressingly, clicking his hoofs into the dirt. "I'm still left puzzled by all of this." The goat-like quadruped then stepped out of the sunlight, moving closer to Eden. "When Virizion persuaded us to come to your aid, Lady Eden, I was under the impression you shared our interest in defending the Pokémon ecosystem."
Eden's head shot up to level with the Pokémon's imploring eyes. She reflected his frown. "As a Sword of Justice, I would think you'd be more disposed to eliminate the brainpower behind the recent Pokémon murders. We do share an interest. We share an enemy in the true Soul Robber, do we not?"
"She's got a point there, Cobalion," Terrakion concurred.
Eden turned primly on her heel, her back turned to the Swords as she quietly considered the worst possible scenario. "If Metsuma and his filth succeed in overthrowing the Pokémon League, it could upset the delicate balance we've been working so hard to achieve between humans and Pokémon. It could even cost us control of the Tatto Region." She glanced to them over her shoulder. "Even your beloved Unova is at stake."
This caused Cobalion to visibly stiffen. "I now understand the severity of the situation," he realized in his sedate but authoritative tone of Telepathy. "This 'Metsuma' character won't stop until he's contaminated the planet with criminal folly."
"Exactly," Eden said, turning back to face her faithful allies. "History would see his rise to power as the death of civilization as we know it, in which humans and Pokémon become enemies unto themselves. That is something we cannot allow. You are all committed to a mutual duty as the Swords of Justice, just as I have been charged with the duty of carrying on my mother's work and preserving Sherman Parry's legacy."
Finally, Virizion spoke out, passionate yet wistful as always, "Then we should go back and put an end to this already."
Eden waved down the hasty suggestion. "No, Virizion. I'm no more inclined to draw attention to myself than Metsuma is. Besides, it's much too risky for us to challenge him directly." She drew her hands to her lips, mentally combing through her options. "Let's see if we can still handle this... quietly."
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
DISCLAIMER: Sa'lu is the main antagonist of the 'Inheritance' saga and belongs to Nafa-tali.
Next Chapter: As the Black Moon arc closes, the Darkrai arc begins when Metsuma traces the source of his nightmares to his hometown in the Sinnoh Region and faces the shadows of his earliest origins. Meanwhile, Special Agent Peer begins looking in a new direction for his mystery mastermind—Metsuma's direction. Finally, Cayman's soul searching leads him to multiple destinations across Lunan as he struggles to answer the big question: what will become of him after he's dealt with Metsuma?
Simon Moseley: a young, aspiring Pokémon Ranger who, oddly enough, is terrified of battling with Pokémon and prefers studying them in their natural habitats. Despite his skittish personality, his vast knowledge and direction of the Lunan mountains is just what Cayman needs to complete his quest.