Chapter of
- The Mind -

Reality is not designed to be understood easily; Arceus does not sit in the sky and write history in the form of a popular novel with widespread appeal, ensuring that each and every paragraph catches the reader's attention and holds interest. "Oh, the Flygon's intestinal tract, it is too complicated for the casual scientist to follow, he will give me bad reviews!" he does not say. "Oh, and the Sudowoodo's life cycle, it is far too mundane! I will bore my audience to tears!" And certainly nothing like, "The Druddigon eats the eggs of her young, that is too offensive for the children! I must revise it to be more palatable to my sensitive audiences!"

Instead, Arceus has set into motion a reality without the approval of its inhabitants; a reality which merely exists without needing to be understood by anybody. There exist some who are driven to understand specific parts of reality using the limited and unreliable perceptions of the flesh, and record those findings for future reference, a practice we call "science." It is an ability which gives birth to knowledge, which then becomes dominion over fellow creation. And then there are simple-minded who would disregard the complex, the mundane, and the offensive as quickly as they would disregard a badly-written book, and to those people, Arceus owes no apology.

There is also a third type of person, perhaps the most curious of them all: the type who challenges oneself to understand the mundane, the offensive, and the complex nature of reality, and then to condense and contort and oversimply, until it might pass as a watered-down novel, easily digested by the simple-minded and brief enough to hold even the attention of a Goldeen: a task, you may notice, I am performing at this very moment. We are the mediums of knowledge in this world; we are the teachers.

The life of a teacher is not simple: we cannot hold one identity, but must hold two in tandem. On one shoulder, we bear the weight of our understandings, the things we hold as correct and important, and on the other, we must become the very students we teach, restrained by our naiveté and our stubbornness to learn. Mere expertise is not enough; we must create a childish and stupid version of ourselves, and view the world from their perspective on a regular basis. Without it, we cannot learn to communicate our ideas to the students, how to translate our expertise into the popular and gripping narrative that Arceus himself refused to write. But the two identities do not sit well with one another, each deeply resentful of the other's mere existence. Left unchallenged, one persona will overpower the other, erasing it from my personality and leaving me as nothing more than either a senile old imbecile or a loud and useless brat. Maintaining this balance becomes a daily struggle, one which I cannot easily explain whilst giving due credit to the challenge.

And for what reason? Why should we teachers deserve such a torturous life, to be torn between a celebration of enlightenment and lack thereof? I speak only for myself, and my answer is simple: it is purely in vain. It is the vanity in knowing that I have strengthened minds, and shepherded hearts; the vanity in knowing that I have changed something for the better. And so, I have pledged myself as a teacher until the day I die, my aim being to nurture and improve the mind in every form which I encounter it.

Hyacinth is my name. I am the eldest of the litter by eleven seasons. Naturally, it means I am also the wisest. But my intelligence has not excused me from a life of tribulation; if anything, it has driven me to circumstances worse than anything my seventeen brothers and sisters have seen, a claim I hold confidently even before hearing all of their stories in full. I will tell you a story about my own enlightenment, where it has led me, and what it has caused me to become. It is a story I tell in vain, but it could also be something I teach, if you choose to hear it with the intent to learn.

It was by my grandfather's misfortune that I became the firstborn grandchild. As he once explained to me, there was a day when he and grandmother inspected the eggs, and just then it must have occurred to him how he would need to divide his love and attention eighteen different ways, despite holding his deep-seated belief that each child deserved no less than his entire heart, the same belief which turned him away from fathering a second child until his first was gone and done with. Then, he became filled with some petty sort of nostalgia, and decided that he should hatch just one egg to start out with, as if to resurrect his son in some symbolic way. As you can imagine, it didn't work the way he might have wanted: as his second firstborn, I hatched from the egg a daughter rather than a son. Though he must have been disappointed at this missed opportunity to right some irrelevant wrong from his past, he didn't show it; he treated me just the way he likely would have treated his son if given the second chance he wanted, and did not hatch another of my siblings until I was nearly three, and almost an adolescent. The only odd thing, now that I mention it, is how he never willingly gave me a name. It was only when Hawthorn hatched that I became "Hyacinth," so that he might differentiate between his children. As to why he waited so long to name me, I suppose I never asked him about that; I should remember to ask him at the next opportunity.

Over the years as my siblings emerged from the eggs in batches of three or four, I did not squander the advantage of age I had been given, making certain I grew as the most sensible and intelligent among them. For to allow even one of my siblings to surpass me in wisdom or achievement, after having lived for less time upon the Earth than I, would have indelibly shamed me. But as the brightest of them, I suffered my own share of inconvenience, as they would bother me incessantly about things they should have already known, and ask me for answers to problems they ought to learn for themselves, and I was burdened with the dilemma of whether to spoil them with answers or teach them to think for themselves. Whether it was something about their class duties or their chores in the village, or whatever other imminent shortcomings they faced, I was cursed with the responsibility of compensating for their inadequacies. Knowing it was a fate I had brought upon myself, a forgone conclusion of my superior intelligence, I kept my peace.

But please understand, it was not the act of tutoring them which brought me to despise my role as the firstborn. By any means, I was not above offering wisdom to my own kin, at least on principle; it was not until they begged me to repeat my advice a second or third time, or perhaps a fourth on occasion, that it brought me great anger in trying to fathom why they regarded facts and lessons as things so disposable, fit to be discarded after only one use. I had always considered knowledge and sense as things invaluable, things to be enshrined in the mind and worshipped as the lifeblood of any sentient being, elevating our dignity above that of the oblivious rodents who knew nothing beyond various forms of hunger and fear, the same rodents who could not seem to outwit us on the days we desired meat for dinner. In comparison, an Eon was godlike, but only because we deemed it important to occasionally ignore our hungers and fears when we knew better than them, after, of course, we had taken the time to learn better than them. Surely, without our sense of rational discretion, we, too, would find our ends as simple prey for some feral beast, perhaps rising to no greater cause than to fill the stomach of a raptor or a bear on one unfortunate day. The way our father's life had ended was proof enough of it.

This marked the start of my teacher's conscience, the sense that humoring their desire for answers would harm them, and that I should instead lead their minds to improve, and show them the way to find the answers for themselves. But I was a poor teacher to them. Though I tried different illustrations and explanations, and different wordings, and sometimes riddles to which they could provide their own answers, they all remained ignorant in ways they should not have been, and I found I could not properly fix them, for they rejected my every attempt, guarding their mind from understanding as fiercely as grandfather would guard the den from hawks. They all shared this defect, even Dandelion, the most keenly observant of them all, and Azalea, the most passionate of will, and the others whose various traits I held in high regard; none of them shared the pride I held in my education, rejecting even those things which were most trivial and learned with the simplest of effort. It was not until my evolution that I finally came to understand the reason.

It should be of no surprise that I chose to become an Espeon. Most other Eon forms seemed to me as devolutions, returning the fox to the primitive elements which constitute the world, offering asylum in the water, the fire, and the various rudimentary states of matter. Only the Espeon could elevate me beyond my origins, a form which celebrated the mind and all its splendor, giving way to the knowledge, understanding, and power of communication I so desired. Many years before grandfather gathered us at the bonfire, I had already set my heart upon the Espeon form, and knew just what a solar-ribbon was, and even the nature of the rare and enchanting Eon-stones, and the spell which made them work. I had spotted the stone I desired and claimed it while my siblings still marveled at the beauty which the firelight cast upon the gems. And before even the same hour of the following day had arrived, I had pronounced the spell, "Accipio Mutatio," and wore my true form.

Only then, as I bid farewell to my siblings, perhaps never to see them again for generations, was the moment I found an enlightenment as to why they always stubbornly neglected my attempts to train them throughout the years, each avoiding me with different and creative means: when I peered into their minds for the first time with my new psionic senses, I found each with something in common: a sense of blind trust in themselves, and in their own ways and perceptions. This trust, I realized, was not a mark of ignorance or an enemy to open-mindedness, but it was there for a reason, as are most things which are found in patterns: this trust, this sense of security, it was something placed in their minds by Arceus himself, or whomever he commissioned to design the animal brain, and it was the very mechanism of learning. To destroy it outright would be a heartless and irresponsible act; if they had no reason to trust in their own convictions, what reason would they have to trust in mine? They would come to doubt everything and learn nothing, and I would leave them as lost and broken children. It is no wonder the mind is so stubborn in its beliefs, so naturally resilient to sudden and powerful changes, for to leave the mind so unguarded can only be a symptom of insanity.

And it struck me in that moment what I had been doing wrong, and I began to understand the true role and purpose of an effective teacher. It was not enough to merely outshine them in intelligence. For to assume they should listen to my words, only by virtue that I was right and that they were wrong, would only make me a hypocrite. For who among us does not assume, in some measure, that they know better than everyone else? Only the mentally unstable, perhaps. Instead, a teacher must first earn the student's trust, to prove in some meaningful way they intend no harm, that they wish not to destroy the student's sense of conviction and understanding, but to complement this conviction in a way which is practical and useful. Only then will the mind become opened and properly vulnerable to the methods of learning. Once I had accepted this, that the minds of the others were things to be respected and understood, I gave birth to the second Hyacinth, a burdensome figure who would reside within my mind as an incomplete and ignorant copy of myself, capable of understanding the flawed viewpoints of those I wished to teach.

My transformation was then complete, a transformation of the body and now also of the mind, but it was too late to help my siblings. They would all travel to faraway places beyond my reach, and their respective mentors would need to finish raising them. I left them behind to begin my adult life, and I accepted, all jurisdiction and responsibility over them now forgone, that they were not the ignorant ones, and that it was I who was ignorant, having underestimated the complexity of the sentient mind and the nature of trust. Now that I had the Espeon's psionic powers I always coveted, I decided I no longer needed to be so ignorant, and the sun could soon rise upon a day that I would stand as an effective teacher, capable of shaping and guiding even the most stubborn of minds in whatever way I might wish.

I - Thesis

The years forthcoming were quite kind to me, and served to me on a silver platter every blessing and convenience a young mistress like myself could want from life. After several years' work as a librarian in Southcreek City, I was easily accepted into Ivorin Academy, the most prestigious and renowned school standing in all the nonhuman lands. There, I trained diligently for over a half-decade, my knowledge and brilliance growing by the day. With little effort I eclipsed the class in each course I attended, and while the rest had needed to study, I spent my evenings mingling with my fellow psychics, or tucked away in my room's corner where I read by candlelight the stirring works of Alastair Brown or Daniel Stormchaser (the latter of which, in a disappointing twist of coincidence, I later learned to be my own brother). The only trade which proved the least bit challenging was, perhaps ironically, the art and science of the psychic.

Everyone assumes that any psychic may, at whim, eavesdrop on the unspoken thoughts of another without much effort, and know the secrets they hide. This assumption is only partially true; it depends on which secrets interest me. While the basic hungers and fears speak as clearly as the day and are impossible to hide from a psychic – do not bother trying to hide things like boredom, hunger, or infatuation, you will only make yourself a fool to me – the deeper thoughts of a sentient mind are as a language separate from what is spoken verbally, with an intricate set of rules and idioms, varying even between different instances of the same species. As with a language, proficiency and deep understanding are unattainable by intuition alone, only coming by the means of frequent exposure, concise study, and rigid practice.

When a creature is born into uncivilized society, it knows only its primal drives, that is, to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. In doing so, the creature will seek safety from discomfort, consume food and water, find favor with members of its own kin, and all the rest of the behaviors necessary for a species to evade extinction, without the slightest passing notion of what death is or why its innate behaviors help to prevent it. These creatures can only be called animals; their lives are animated and predictable, and are trivial to study. Ethologists, human and elemental alike, have filled libraries with record detailing how each known species will behave within any conceivable habitat under every known circumstance, without fear that their findings will become obsolete during their lifetimes or those of their fifteenth-generation descendants.

(As a note to the layman, 'elemental' is the academic term for the various types of animals capable of synchronizing with white-aura and acquiring sentience. This includes most known phyla apart from a select few, such as some varieties of fish, crustacean and arthropod. I know that humans coined a term of their own for the elemental, but it is a baffling term which eludes me at the moment. I will admit I was not particularly concerned with the study of human culture or history during my stay at Ivorin; I remember taking one course relating to human political history and I found it dreadfully uninteresting.)

While at first glance it might seem baffling that animals are imbued with the precise urges necessary for the propagation of their species, it is only because those particular species who failed to survive are removed from the picture entirely, making it difficult to study them or indeed to even acknowledge their existence, and casting even the most concrete discoveries into eternal ambiguity. It is said that history is written by the victors, and in the case of life itself, only those who do not fail to attend the present might remain to offer perspective of the past. The rest, those who failed when they most needed to adapt, or indeed to evolve, are tragically silenced.

But what happens to an animal which gains sentience? A sentient creature will form a tangled network of associations atop its primal drives, connections which begin to indirectly affect survival, rather than directly and immediately. For instance, a feral Eon might eat a dozen berries when it is hungry. A civil Eon may resist the urge and bear the pain of hunger, and instead plant the berries with their seeds, cultivate an orchard, then sell the entire harvest three seasons later at a public market, earning enough money to live comfortably for several years further without wanting of food. The ultimate intention remains as the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, yet the desired result is four events removed from the original action, something which a feral animal would not have the foresight to comprehend. After all, the immediate sensation of pain and discomfort generally indicates to the animal that something is wrong and needs to change quickly; it requires a form of higher intelligence to understand that immediately satisfying the hunger to the fullest is not the best course of action, and to recognize greater opportunities which wait hidden in the future when unintuitive steps are taken.

However – and here is where the study of the mind becomes truly fascinating – the feral animal is not replaced by sentience, but merely accompanied. That is to say, the shallow, uncivilized tendencies of the animal do not disappear at any point in a creature's life, regardless of the creature's intelligence. They remain always, distracting the mind with powerful but temporary waves of desire. But the creature might come to recognize them, to understand them, and to react in a way which involves foresight and inference, a way which might not quite resemble the behavior of the feral. Thus, a sentient creature possesses a dual nature, containing both the feral animal and the enlightened, sensible caretaker of said animal, fused together into a singular being, appearing as one but acting as two. I compare it to an old human living with his faithful hound who is trained to howl at the front door when sensing a suspicious movement outside. It cannot be expected of the hound to know whether the sound had come from a burglar or a friend; it is only the hound's instinct to signal for the human's attention, so the human might make the rational decision. Both sides are needed for the successful symbiosis: without the human, the hound could not enjoy the comfort of a warm bed or the decadent food from the human's pantry, and without the hound, the human could not be prepared for an unwanted visitor even late at night as he sleeps.

This notion, that a sentient creature is comprised of two distinct entities – the beast and the caretaker – is what makes teaching the principles of psychology quite challenging. Most have learned not to see the animal at all; they assume the beastly half has been dead and gone since the moment they learned to read and write, and that we intellectuals survive only by our splendid wits. Thus, it is difficult to find a person who is honest with oneself, able to distinguish their own true motives for their actions, or able to see the biases in their own perceptions. Even teachers and psychologists such as myself often fall to these fallacies, distorting and misinterpreting our own discoveries with our presumptuousness. This blindness to our own nature is so widespread, even among the academics, because the mind was created this way on purpose. Most patterns exist for a reason, and forgetting we have animal instincts makes life all the more simple and practical. This is the nature of the trust I spoke of earlier, the trust in oneself which allows one to learn truths and make assumptions without forever questioning everything in a great useless cycle. For the everyman and the simple-minded creature of habit, it is a perfect mechanism for sanity. But for the scientist who wishes to learn the real truth about the mind, or for the teacher who wishes to apply that truth, it is a steep obstacle to circumvent.

Indeed, In the midst of high society, it might sometimes become tempting to believe the animal aspect might be silenced entirely, or at the very least disregarded, while the enlightened, rational mind continues in existence without it. It is such an easy and convincing fallacy to fall for, especially when distracted by every manner of science and academia, but it is the most catastrophic misconception! Show me a creature, any creature, who does not hunger for food, flinch from pain, desire a mate, care for its children, or sleep when it is weary, and I will show you a corpse. Yet, I have met many who would think otherwise, believing that the philosophy for a civilized, intellectual individual is to asphyxiate the inner animal, learning to silence its each and every impulse and to act only upon pure rationality. Such thinkers become a very frustrating type of person: the insufferable bigot who acts only upon emotion while claiming to act only upon reason, and turning a blind eye to the difference between the two motives entirely. It is with despicable irony that those who claim to live only by logical reasoning are the most difficult to reason with, and it is only by means of a powerful emotion that one becomes so zealously trained as to hate emotion itself.

This is the reason I could not teach my younger siblings, for I had become that insufferable bigot to them. I tried to force them to disregard their passions and to worship the enlightened mind as I did, without realizing prior to my evolution that passions are just as much a product of the mind as knowledge, and just as important to the mind's function. I understand now that I might have more effectively helped them if I had not been so intent on making the feral halves of their persons disappear. Instead, I should have learned to speak to the heart, so that the intellect would listen. Now I understand the methods of persuasion clearly: change a mind, and the heart will revert the change; change a heart, and the mind will follow.

II - Discovery

During my stay at Ivorin, I would at times dwell on these mistakes, knowing that it was too late to help my brothers and sisters, until perhaps the day I would meet them again beneath the glow of a particular comet. Yet, before I would allow myself to sink too far into despair, I would need only remember I had learned from those mistakes I had made, and that I had innumerable days remaining in my life, days which I might use to educate others, perhaps many others, in the place of those I had lost. As one of the only three Eons grandfather had trusted well enough to send away without supervision of any sort, I kept my pride, knowing that it was exclusively upon my own merits that I had come so far. It was clear I was not an incapable person; I knew very well I could accomplish anything I desired. But the questions remained: what should I accomplish, and how? These are questions which fate decided to answer for me during my sixth year.

Had I stayed at the academy the full decade, I likely would have chosen a career in teaching, which I suppose would have made the academy into my permanent home. I suppose I will never know the answer now, because in the sixth year of my curriculum, I met with an opportunity I could not have turned my back upon: apparently, word of my academic achievement and scholarly integrity had spread to the far corners of the earth, for I one day unrolled a scroll addressed to myself, and found, printed upon the parchment in sharp and perfect calligraphy, an invitation into the highest ranks of the Solaris Fellowship.

It was a name every student of Ivorin knew well. Secretly, we all entertained our futile fantasies of winning their favor, many even hoping that several of our class-mates were possibly undercover agents in search of the brightest and most promising recruits. Even so, few could describe who the Solaris Fellowship actually were, or what they did, apart from the apparent fact that they were made of our generation's greatest minds, and they were hard at work developing legendary new technology and scientific advances, the likes of which even humanity with all their superiority and sophistication could not fathom. No one knew what sorts of magic and machinery lined the inner halls of their fortress, or who among us secretly belonged to them, feigning innocuousness as they would watch and study the unknowing world about them. We only knew they stood as the pinnacle of elemental development, and that finding favor with them was tantamount to becoming a personal acquaintance of Arceus, and equally as unlikely, such that their name was only ever mentioned in jest.

I remember re-reading the confidential document three times in the privacy of my suite, the second time to assure myself I was not having a dream, as the words would have otherwise changed themselves by the time my eyes would return to the top of the page, and the third to search for evidence of forgery. By the time it occurred to me the document was legitimate, my heart had stopped racing in thrill, and instead I smiled coyly at the nearest empty wall, remembering that my good fortune had been inevitable. Of course I would be noticed! My proficiency in the study of the mind outmatching all but perhaps a few of Ivorin's eldest instructors, it was foolish to ever believe I would not catch the eye of the elite. I had raised myself as a paragon of the Espeon species; minds like mine were rightfully in high demand, and only the richest and most worthwhile leaders could ever hope to earn my servitude. It had only been a matter of time before someone would open the door to me.

It was settled, then; having no need for further education, I terminated my contracts with Ivorin the very next day, gathered my belongings, and arranged to board a train for Excalibur Isle, the home of the Solaris Felloship's primary headquarters, and also home to the legendary Excalibur City: the richest elemental city in the world, the city of steel and diamonds. It was a place, supposedly, with no shortage of prestige or pleasure, a perpetual vacation fit only for the most intelligent, accomplished, and wealthiest of elementals. I had only known of the place by name and by picture, and entertained vague plans of perhaps visiting someday, letting the experience leave a mark upon my memories. I wanted to understand how elementals lived once they were removed from nearly every type of cruelty and unpleasantness that had once made us animals, and if there lived any children who would spend their entire lives there, never knowing the existence of pain, hunger, discomfort, or anything of the sort.

You might say this is where the heart of my story begins, when I left behind a lifestyle of straightforward education, which in hindsight was quite cowardly, and I set sights upon the vocation of applying my knowledge. You might imagine how smugly confident I may have been as I boarded the train with a large sum of money and a few of my choice belongings, imagining fantasies of becoming queen of Excalibur Isle or ruler of the Solaris Fellowship itself at some point. I knew nothing at all of what the future held, only that an endless cascade of good fortune had begun to pour upon my head, and that I deserved nothing less.

III - The Journey

In comparison to the humans, elementals are quite adept when it comes to large journeys, even those with heavy payloads. Having been built to carry the weight of our own burdens, and able to draw upon the reserves of ethereal energy we store inside of our souls, we soar on wings and gallop on hooves across the countryside without complaint, having no need of such large and noisy machines which the humans create for the same purposes. The chasing of the horizon, the pleasant burning within our limbs and the pounding of the heart, the solitude of the lonely road or the company of the herd, it is all a part of the elemental culture we take for granted, and it is not something I can say I ever gave due consideration until the moment I was forced to mount that obnoxious, rackety humanlike thing called the "train."

While I understand the need for ships to sail the sea, as I'm sure that every earthen-elemental and fire-elemental would be very quick to insist, the train proved to instill in me a bit of culture shock. As it turned out, some elementals were not content with their own god-given powers, and took it upon themselves to construct poor imitations of human technology. From what I have researched, I learned of only three small sets of rails that were ever built in the nonhuman lands, and it seems that elemental engineers defied the (admittedly wise and proper) human conventions of standardization, and cobbled together a different model of machine whenever a new engine needed to be built. One engine runs on some kind of grass-type energy crystal, and another on a large supercompressed mass of combustible lava-rock extracted from the earth's mantle, something which requires only the breath of a fire-elemental to re-ignite. The Excalibur Isle railway system was different still, as the engine crossed a long bridge and stopped every now and again to draw water from the sea, which became converted to water vapor used to propel the train.

All quite fascinating, yes, but on my first journey aboard that thunderous steel monster, I found myself asking, why? Why a train? I understood the need for the grass-rail and the fire-rail at least for the sake of argument, to ship goods through a mountain tunnel, and to provide a habitat of no-legged elementals with easier passage, respectively. But what of this water-rail? Did the people of Excalibur Isle truly consider the labor of well-motivated water elementals, who will gladly shuttle Groudon-weights of passengers and supplies across the sea's surface, too inefficient? Was the common sailboat or Lapras-carriage beneath their dignity? How lazy and entitled they seemed to me, as I stood aboard a crowded passenger car and watched the world unceremoniously pass by outside, to make journeys of such great lengths without lifting a leg! A long journey was something to be celebrated, to hone an elemental's mind and muscle, an exercise in survival and of pacing one's stamina, and of trust-building between companions. But there was nothing for us to learn standing aboard that train, and the passengers rarely spoke amongst one another, except to their own kin about matters which concerned no one. The entire experience was frankly pathetic, and I began to wonder if I was not standing in the company of fellow elementals, but a herd of dull, self-absorbed humans.

But it was not until I remembered to peer beneath the surface of their unguarded minds that I became truly disgusted. Their minds were lethargic and unoccupied, as cubs who had never learned to hunt and were indeed just sitting in wait of food, but not truly hungry. Some of my traveling companions focused only on the vibrations sent through the floor of the vehicle, others followed the far-away landmarks with their eyes. I most remember one particular person I searched, a shaggy Ursaring; he was returning to his family in Excalibur City, but did not understand why. He did not quite know why he had left in the first place, or why he was returning, or what he would say to his mate and children when he would arrive, or whether or not he felt proud of them in the slightest. Meaningless, colorless thoughts lined the shelves of his mind, and he purposely neglected them, fearing the inconvenience of deep thought. Everything, it seemed, was an inconvenience to him at the moment, from the incessant rumbling of the tracks, to the exact tint of the sunlight in the sky, to the very sight of the Growlithe pups to his left. Each thing he acknowledged either brought him pain, or numbness; nothing brought him livelihood or joy.

What miserable existences, I imagined, these citizens of Excalibur Isle must live! Never in my years at the academy had I witnessed such decrepit minds, so drained of any energy or purpose, as though they had all simultaneously fallen asleep with their eyes open. No, even then, a mind enraptured by a vivid dream is more active than one awake and aware, and surely more active than the minds I witnessed there. These people, I realized, more resembled very well-behaved pets, than they did civilized, sentient elementals. I began to hope and pray that this cart-full of livestock did not represent the whole of Excalibur City, and if it did, that the hallowed halls of the Solaris Fellowship would provide the refuge I would require from the commonfolk.

Perhaps since psychics are so affected by the mind-waves of others nearby, I soon felt myself growing as brain-dead as the others, wishing for the train to move faster so the spiritless commute might be over and done with. It would be stimulating enough to take my leave and explore the grounds of the prestigious city, I imagined, so I grew thankful for the passing miles, and thought I felt some distant spark of excitement as the train neared the channel bridge and was ready to ride the water's surface for the first time. Shattering my whimsy, the train lurched and slowed to a full halt before even touching the shoreline. A member of the vehicle's driving team shortly entered the room, informing us that the machine was performing a scheduled stop in Pommel Bay to unload supplies and compress more water, and that it would set out early the next morning, and we were all to disembark until then.

I was far from amused at the prospect of spending a night among the deplorable slums of Pommel Bay. The stench of moss and rotten meat which blasted me in the face as I stepped from the train car was enough to let me know that my journey had gone from joyless to agonizing, and implied a great deal about the uncultured barbarians who must have called this place their home. With telekinesis I tightened the straps of my saddlebags, ensuring no thief would catch a glimpse of their contents and be tempted, and moved with the dispersing crowd toward what must have been the town's capital.

No roads, or anything resembling them, had been installed between the town's buildings. Standing puddles dotted the mud like burst carbuncles, and I am not convinced they were entirely puddles of water, for they reeked of compost and drew swarms of mosquitos and other non-elemental pests. I fumed with indignity each time a paw sank into a soft spot upon the trodden ground and gathered filthy black stains upon my ankles. The town itself appeared half-destroyed, each building a shoddy and drenched pile of wooden planks, as though a hurricane had finished its work just before I arrived. There were no torches or street-lamps, nothing to keep the landscape from taking the appearance of a dreary swampland as the sunlight retreated. As a spoiled firstborn who had only ever been exposed to intelligent, hardworking peers and the esteemed fruits of their labor, I could not imagine how a dwelling of self-respecting elementals could show such disregard for their habitat. Unless, perhaps, they were all poison-types, and even then they should have taken more effort in caring for their town, to keep from offending the visitors bound for the city of paradise!

Still a childish fox at heart, my first thought was to hide somewhere dark and cozy, away from the putrid smells and the chilling blasts of wind from the sea, somewhere I could be alone with my thoughts. The crowd, or what was left of it, led me somewhere which honestly appeared promising: a building of solid stone, standing proud and tall like a castle fortress amidst the wasteland. The chiseled granite bricks suggested a level of care and craftsmanship of which I had assumed the citizens of this poor town had no concept, and a series of markings upon a nearby sign professed the building's purpose: a haven for elementals who did not wish, for whatever reason, to sleep beneath the moonlight, otherwise called an "inn." I made certain not to betray my sense of relief at the town's hospitality, and I straightened my shoulders, stiffened my legs, and paraded myself through the front door like a royal chariot-horse.

Moments later, after a brief talk with the hostess, it seemed as though I had finalized arrangements to stay for the night in the most luxurious room which the establishment had to offer. Money was not an issue to me, and in my impatience I outbid the rest of the patrons as the guest of honor, wanting nothing more than to collapse onto a throne of silken sheets. But there came a problem when I unlatched my saddlebags and shuffled through their contents: I could not seem to find my money. The whole pouch, which held a great wealth of coins and gemstones, was missing.

I wanted to panic, but I kept myself momentarily collected as I searched again. My books were still there, as were my medicines and clothing; everything but the money was exactly where I had left it. I began to visualize all of the day's events in my mind's eye, searching for the moment when I might have dropped the pouch on the floor, or left the bags unattended long enough for a thief to disturb them. But the bags, as far as I had remembered, had never left my person, and the belts had not been unlatched since the start of my journey. Soon there came a dreadful feeling, which I am sure many people know all too well when placed in such circumstances, telling me that I simply would not find anything, and that every moment I continued to search was only prolonging my humiliation. I did not linger in the foyer for long before I sheepishly excused myself to search for my money, even though I knew already that I would not find it; it could have been nowhere but in my saddlebags, and there was simply nowhere else to search.

Once outside, I slipped into a dark alleyway between the inn and the neighboring building. I did not want to be trampled by the other travelers as I would disassemble my bags in their entirety, down to the threads if I needed, in search of my life's savings. I inverted both of the bags and let their contents fall to the ground, hardly caring that my books were drawing water or that my favorite enchanted scarf was now soaking in a puddle of mud. I could tell as I sifted through everything that the money was not there, but I was stubborn in my denial and I continued to search, hoping that I was somehow to prove myself wrong.

After nearly an hour had passed, I had lost every ray of sunlight and was left with nothing but a pathetic glow from my gem, having not the energy to sustain a light-shining spell for much time. I vaguely realized I was crying when a chilled blast of air struck me in the face and made me feel the particular sting upon my cheeks. I hated myself for crying; it was something a lady should not do, whether in public or in private. A proper lady should keep her peace in all circumstances, and I had promised myself since my first year at Ivorin that I would not sink to such a level of indignity unless the situation absolutely called for it.

Even then I knew my plight was not all that bad; I still had my health and most of my possessions, and I still held a train pass on my person which would allow entrance into Excalibur City the next day. But it was the first time in my life I truly felt miserable and lost, without a sense of what the future held for me. I thought, how could I survive in the city of riches with no money of my own? How could I possibly impress my new employers while living on the streets? I imagined these questions as I collapsed into the mud and stared beyond the alleyway at the filthy streets of Pommel Bay, wondering how long I would need to wait before my pride would break and I would fully accept my failure.

It was then that I noticed a handsome shadow, one adorned with lucent rings of gold, approaching the inn's front door. With only a few more steps he would have disappeared from my sight. But, as fate would have it, he turned his head and noticed me in the last sliver of a moment, and I locked gazes with his bright red eyes. His name was Elliot, and he was the one who would later become my mate.

He was the perfect Umbreon in so many ways, the kind which any proper Espeon like myself should deserve. He was of the athletic type, with a strong and confident personality, sly and fearsome against his enemies yet so tender and kindhearted to those among his favor. If we had met under different circumstances, I surely would have formed a cunning plan to monopolize his attention while cursing myself for not meeting him any sooner. But understandably, infatuation was not the first thing on my mind that moment, or on his; we only saw one another as fellow Eons, I as someone who had fallen into an unfortunate condition and required assistance, and he as someone in a position to offer support. He disregarded his travelling companions and approached me cautiously, asking if I had been hurt, and whether I had been mugged by thieves. I replied that, yes, thieves had taken my money, and I explained that somehow my money had been taken without my noticing, and that I could not pay for my stay at the inn. He bowed his head for a moment to think, then without asking he began to help me collect my articles. He told me that he would not forgive himself if he let a fellow Eon stay overnight in a puddle of mud, and promised to convince the inn to let me stay.

He did just as he promised; by exchanging a word with the inn staff, he somehow convinced them to restore my original rooming arrangement at no cost to myself, and had them treating me like royalty as though I was not covered in filth and had committed no impropriety at all. I was impressed and instantly curious about this Umbreon and his reputation, but for obvious reasons I could not bring myself to carry a prolonged conversation, and I began to wonder whether enough of my fur was covered in mud that Elliot had in fact mistaken me for a fellow Umbreon. We spoke only for a minute with curt and halfhearted words; he told me his name and I explained to him my hopes to reach Excalibur Isle by the next evening. I soon thanked him for his kindness before retreating to my room, and all he asked in return was that I would contact him in the morning before boarding the train. Seeing that I was now indebted to him, I agreed to oblige.

The room was several classes higher than anything I had seen at the academy. The suite utilized magical holograms and appeared as a serene outdoor prairie, complete with a large running stream and bedding which resembled a tuft of soft grass beneath the gracious shade of a young tree. I found it quite suitable, and I knew it was only a taste of the privileges the city surely held in store. I found, however, that I could not enjoy my stay – I could not merely forget that I was now impoverished, with nothing of value to call my own save for a few personal effects, and that without money, the wonders of the city would likely be closed to me. As I took a very long bath in the artificial stream and enjoyed the solitude, I was very pleased, but it was the most painful kind of pleasure, for I knew that it would be gone too soon… or so I thought at the time.

IV - Companion

When morning came, I left my room to search for the kind Umbreon who had rescued me from the wretched alleyway on the previous night, and I found him already waiting for me at the foyer. When I spotted him, I held my head high and approached him without so much indignity this time, telling him that I appreciated his gesture of kindness and that I would not soon forget about him on my travels. He replied by asking me if I desired any company on the train, and explained that he and his friends were set to arrive at Excalibur City in a few days' time, and that it would only require a minimal effort to exchange his train pass so that he could travel with me. In that moment, I wondered if he had read my mind! The dreadful monotony of the train ride was still very fresh in my memory; it was almost a physically painful experience, and I simply couldn't bear the thought of sitting in place for another eleven hours with nothing but the passing of the ocean to distract me. In truth, when I heard Elliot's offer, a childish squeal of delight nearly escaped me, but I kept my composure and only told him that he was most welcome to accompany me.

And so it happened that after he exchanged a word with his troupe, we left behind the vile slums of Pommel Bay and found a suitable place on the coach to enjoy one another's company. Elliot proved to be a most wonderful distraction, and I became so absorbed with his thoughtful and intelligent ramblings that I had forgotten about the pack of brain-dead passengers which surrounded us. I learned that Elliot was a celebrity and a gladiator, and that his travelling troupe was a team of great renown. He explained that Excalibur City was to host a semifinal contest of the great gladiator tournament where he was to compete. Now, I had been vaguely aware of these tournaments, and I understood them to be akin to the "league" where contests were held in the human lands, but I had never cared to follow them closely. I had always taken them to be a mindless amusement, a celebration of brawn and bloodlust and not of thinking. I much preferred a good book to stir moral dilemmas and unanswered questions in my heart (although, at the very least, I enjoyed the occasional sense of excitement and good cheer brought when a local team happened to progress far enough in the tournament to matter). But in listening to Elliot's explanations, I began to see how I had misjudged the gladiator's sport entirely.

In truth, the tournament was an intellectual sport before a physical one. Elliot claimed he had read and memorized countless books regarding psychology, deceit, statistics, history, and the art of war, and that was only before he had spent a decade training with the masters of the arts. He said that he fancied himself a masterful tactician, or at the very least aspired to be one, and put his skills to use not only whenever he would step into an area, but at each moment of every day. The sport, he said, was just as much about how skillfully one might walk down an empty hallway or ride a crowded train, all the while plotting to understand and deceive his opponents, and to keep his own health, sanity, and focus at its peak. It was about creating plans in his dreams, and spreading false rumors to the contrary. It was about wearing a mask that he would never remove, acting the part of a character so masterfully that he one day hoped to forget the meek and insecure Umbreon who once only aspired to greatness. Being open-minded as I was at the time, I began to understand that a gladiator was much more than a feral beast who would growl and pounce for the amusement of a depraved crowd, but a miraculous feat of both mental and physical prowess which most could not fathom. And so, my respect for the Umbreon only grew.

Once we had exhausted conversation about our pasts, the topic changed, as it generally does under such circumstances, to our emotions at present. He told me of how he anticipated his upcoming battles versus a powerful rival team, and all the planning and practice which had been invested into it. He said that he was cautiously optimistic, although he added wryly that he would never admit to the "cautiously" part in public. And so, as I had predicted and feared, he asked me the same questions in return, and I reluctantly admitted to my dismay over my lost money, and how it would potentially affect my rapport with the Solaris Fellowship. I told him that without a room to stay or a way to assimilate into the culture of the city, I was mentally preparing myself for a swift and soul-crushing disappointment. I added with a sour sneer that I had might as well not even leave the train car, because I would only soon be returning from whence I had come.

My bitterness did not reach Elliot in the slightest, and he did not so much as flinch when he said that I shouldn't worry about anything. He spoke of the gladiator lodges, which were required by the tournament organization to be erected in every participating city, and that the lodges in Excalibur City were some of the most esteemed in the whole of the league, and that I was very much welcome to share with him whatever rooms his team was given until I had settled securely with the Solaris Fellowship. He added, as something of an understated afterthought, that he was wealthy beyond what he could reasonably spend, and that I could have whatever food or luxuries from the city that I would desire, and that I only needed to ask for them. And he spoke all of this without making eye contact with me, as though he was properly fascinated with something out the window.

It was then that I began to understand his true intentions. I instantly knew that he was trying to woo me, to win my heart, and that his offer to accompany me on the train had unwittingly been my first date! Without showing it, I scolded myself for not having suspected sooner, and I tried to decide whether to feel amused or appalled by his scheme. But before I had formed a clever retort to the crafty Umbreon, I realized I had learned something new. It was the answer to a mystery, of why Espeon and Umbreon are often portrayed together as lovers, both throughout history and in works of fiction. I had always assumed that an Umbreon would make an undesirable mate for me, just as any dark-type elemental would, since I could not read his mind. But in speaking with Elliot, I saw that he was a mysterious and fascinating person, and that it was precisely because I could not read his mind that I enjoyed speaking to him. If I wished to understand him, I could not merely provoke psychological responses to read from the top of his consciousness as I would with any other. Instead, I would need to remember how I used to accomplish mind-reading back when I was an Eevee, that is, through calculated conversation and observation of nonverbal responses. Elliot was a puzzle, and in peeling back the layers of his character, I found that I quite enjoyed the extra effort of solving him, and I had found a measure of emotional attachment to his company.

And so, I thought, "Why not humor this sly beast for the meanwhile? It is not as though I find any objections with him; in the most favorable case, he is dependable and perfect, and he is delivering himself to me on a diamond-studded plate, much like so many other things in life have. There is nothing to lose." And then I brushed against him, telling him that I had no objections, and that I was thankful beyond words for his compassion. But with a smirk, I added that I have quite expensive tastes, and that he might wish to reconsider his secondary offer if he did not want to be leeched dry.

V - Destination

I could barely appreciate the novelty of gliding across the ocean's surface upon a machine, listening to the waves crash against the railing and the fine mist forming upon the windows, before the journey had ended and the train had docked in its place upon the island. Though the day's ride had taken nearly three times longer than the first, my attention had been rightfully wasted by the stimulating conversations I shared with my new Umbreon companion, and both sunrise and sunset had passed by my eyes without my awareness. I would have perhaps felt regretful for the missed opportunity to drink the experience to its fullest, except that when the vehicle stopped moving I felt nothing else in my chest but the most dreadful sort of anxiousness, that I was a caged bird and that my owner was coming soon to set me free. I remembered that I was one of the few, privileged creatures deemed worthy enough to set foot upon the island and partake of its royal glory, and I simply could not wait another moment for the doors to fly open and let me wander the streets of my new home. Nothing else mattered in the world.

I invited Elliot to come with me so we would be first in line to file out of the coach. But he shook his head and told me that it would be wiser if I left the train ahead of him, and wait for him at the city gates. When I demanded an explanation, he seemed ashamed of something and told me that I would understand soon enough. With reluctance, I left him behind and disembarked from the car, and I found that I had stumbled into a very large, noisy crowd of creatures who had awaited the train's arrival, many of whom were I assume waiting to greet their family. Keeping my saddlebags close and shut tight, I pushed through them all until I found a suitable empty space to rest. I turned around to watch for Elliot, and found that he could not even step out of the door because the townsfolk had closed him in. "The Shadowmancer has arrived!" they said. "The Shadowmancer has come early! He has arrived without the rest of his team! Whatever could this mean?" And they pinned him in place, pleading for his attention like hatchling birds to their mother. He could not easily persuade them to leave, and he needed to humor them, until some large muscular creatures forcefully parted the crowd to let him pass.

He found me some time later outside the train station, after most of the other creatures had dispersed and none were left to bother us. When he approached me, I found that I couldn't stop laughing; I had not meant to laugh, of course, and I could tell by the scowl on his face that he was not amused, but my chest was caught in a spasm and tears poured from my eyes, and I had no choice in the matter. When it seemed that I had gained enough control, I would hear that name spoken in my head – "Shadowmancer" – and I would once again burst into a chuckle. It was enough that my legs had begun to fail, and I nearly keeled over.

He waited patiently until it seemed he could speak over my laughter, and then explained that "Shadowmancer" was his gladiator name, and since he remained in character at all times, nearly no one, even his teammates, called him "Elliot." I told him that it must have been humiliating to hear everyone call him that, even his closest friends, but he said that it was quite the contrary; he professed that it deeply gratified him to answer to the ridiculous name, and that he had not chosen it on accident. "There are two types of people," he told me. "There are people who like the name. My ego feeds from the praise they give me, and it helps me to maintain my confidence. Then there are people who don't like the name. They are the people who will underestimate what I can do."

With the late evening sky above us, darkened enough that new stars periodically blinked to life, we followed a winding path which connected the train house to the city gates. The road was long, but I was thankful enough to stretch my legs and breathe the fresh seaside air. Without so much sunlight I felt that I could not properly appreciate the landscaping work, but I at least appreciated that it was not Pommel Bay, and that it was clearly built to allow creatures to properly cross the land without coating themselves in mud and sand.

Though the worst of the crowd was gone, there was a steady trickle of straggling families and couples both ahead and behind us, so I kept my voice low as I continued to tease Elliot about his choice of a name. I told him, "It's fair enough, but why not choose a name which makes you sound like a predator? I'm certain it would have a greater effect on both your ego and your enemies. It would speak to the primal parts of us which know that there is no reasonable comfort around a predator." He replied, "I shouldn't have a name like that; it's better for the team leader to be perceived as the predator, and I'm not the team leader." Against my better judgement, I asked him what his team leader was called. He notably hesitated and glared at me, as though already knowing my reaction, and he told me that his team leader was "The Nightmare." And though I bit my lip enough to make it bleed, I couldn't keep myself from laughing again, and I stopped in my tracks to compose myself.

When I came to my senses, I found that sir Shadowmancer had gone on ahead of me. The street was built to circumvent a large, sharp hill in the terrain, but Elliot had disregarded the path and now stood gallantly at the summit. For a moment I gave pause; I needed to stop and appreciate the most charming sight of the Umbreon perched upon the grassy knoll, staring into the clearest of starry skies with the full moon. It was the only way I had ever seen Umbreon depicted in paintings: standing vigilantly at the top of some cliff, rings sparkling with the starlight and eyes as bright as cinders, as though he and the night itself were brothers, and he owned the whole world just so long as the sun did not rise to ruin his supremacy. It was stirring to have finally witnessed one of those paintings happen in the real world, a book cover's illustration in the flesh, and I stood for such a prolonged moment that he finally grew impatient and shouted at me to come and look. Following his beckon, I clambered to the top and there at his side I caught my first glimpse of the city.

When I laid eyes upon Excalibur City, I decided that I would rather live here than whatever wondrous heaven that Arceus had designed for the pure of heart after death. The very horizon was as an electric ocean of glowing gemstones, all arranged in symmetrical patterns as they marked every street corner and skyscraper with twinkles of blue and gold. My heart raced as I beheld the architecture of the buildings; each was so splendid and so tall, lined with the whitest and most silvery of steel, and between them walked hundreds of creatures seemingly oblivious to their grandeur. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the pinnacle of all creation; this was the center of the world, of everything elementals or humans had ever built, and that within its spacious confines lay every imaginable possibility, everything which any living soul could desire.

We descended the hill and returned to the path, following as it wound down and around to the city gates, and upon entering I found that my wonder and awe had turned to something like nauseous humility. The city was so pristine and shining, even at midnight, that I felt as though my footsteps and perhaps my mere existence would blemish it. Setting paw upon the paved roads, I found that they were made with some grainy but wonderfully comfortable substance; it had the appearance and cushion of sand, but did not give when touched. The steel-framed buildings were cleanly cut, and some were built with bricks which looked to be solid gemstones themselves, each block stacked and aligned flawlessly within the towering walls. The brightest of the lights were installed upon lamp posts, colorful glass prisms perched upon story-high stands, and somehow the different colors combined into a shade of otherworldly blue which was not so harsh on the eyes. It was all very dreamlike, and I suddenly feared that I would walk incorrectly, or otherwise break some unwritten rule of a perfect society, and bring humiliation and ruin upon my head. I shadowed Elliot closely and I made certain to steady my breathing, lest I let myself faint like a weakly rabbit.

It bewildered me how the city remained so active even at night. It seemed that not one marketplace or public facility had closed its doors at such a late hour, and elementals continually treaded the city streets without regard for the time of day, some lugging carts or carriages behind, others in gabby social cliques. A number of the cityfolk somehow recognized Sir Shadowmancer and made attempts for his attention and favor, but he kindly evaded a prolonged encounter with any of them, insisting he should not be distracted from checking in to his team's lodge as early as possible. The same could not be said about me, however; despite my apprehension and fear that I desecrated the city's majesty with my presence, I was in no hurry to rest for the night, or to do anything with my time but savor the sights and trespass into every open door. I peered into each building we passed and I glimpsed at incredible things within. One store held shelves full of glass sculptures. Another sold cloths of various sorts, and I wondered if any of them were enchanted, knowing I would need to inspect the contents of the entire store to pick out the one with my most favorite spell. But my great moment of weakness came when we passed a bakery, and the sugary fragrance brought me to such a swoon that I could no longer hide my longing from Elliot. He said to me, "If you would rather go shopping, you just have to ask," to which I replied, "If I start now, I worry I might not finish until I collapse from exhaustion. Come sunrise, you would need to come scrape me from the gutters." He laughed at my expense, and said, "Fine, you lead the way, then. I'd be ashamed to call myself an Umbreon if I couldn't stay awake long enough to see the sunrise every now and again."

From there I don't recall too clearly what happened with the rest of the night. I know that I let myself get hopelessly lost in the network of streets and merchant establishments. Though I refrained from insisting Elliot purchase anything for me – he said he hadn't yet visited the central bank to withdraw his funds – and besides that, I knew it was exasperating enough to make him follow me everywhere, and I truly didn't wish to offend him any more than necessary – it did not stop me from wanting to walk through each and every door and explore whatever the grand city had to offer. I vaguely remember visiting a jeweler, a candymaker, a noisy social establishment with live performers whose music could be heard from many blocks away, two great libraries, and more cloth-weavers and cookeries than I cared to count. I only remember the moment when I began to realize the city was undefeatable, and that my legs were to fail me even before I had wandered beyond the very first district. My moment of resignation came at some point when we stopped to share a meal at some peaceful café we had found on a street corner somewhere; the hostess had granted us a free serving of honeycake and fruit salad only by virtue that my escort was the Shadowmancer. It was too long of a rest, and my muscles began to tingle and shut down, and I begrudgingly admitted to the Umbreon that I was quite finished for the day. If he was relieved, he didn't show it; he only seemed to keep an unwavering guise that he was having just as much fun as I.

There came a glow in the sky as the sun thought about rising for the day, and we sat together at our table watching the changes happen to the city outside. The daylight had a calming effect on the place; the murmur and restlessness of the cityfolk seemed to at last die down at the sunlight's touch. Idly I said to Elliot that I wondered how many days it would take for me to see everything on the island, and he laughed and told me that few ever see it in their lifetime, and that I was crazy for believing it might only take a single night.

He explained to me how the island was structured: that it held at its center an enormous freshwater sea, nearly three hundred kilometers in diameter, and that the contents of Excalibur Isle were situated in a circle around the central lake. Civilization existed in twenty-six numbered districts around the ring of land beginning with the northernmost district and numbered counterclockwise. Excalibur City itself sat on the southernmost tip of the island, in the fourteenth district. It was often called the "Grand Hall District" by the townsfolk since it was the place where the train station was positioned, and so it was the first part of the island that newcomers will see. The districts served a variety of purposes: for instance, five of the island's districts were nature preserves fit for wild animals, two were for farming, two were for industry, and one was built to accommodate the exceptionally large elementals who would find trouble fitting through a standard human-sized doorway. Elliot asserted that the latter was a very humbling place, and it had nearly as many luxuries as the Grand Hall District, but that he couldn't set foot into it without fearing he would get stepped on.

I would have kept asking him questions, except that I found myself distracted by something odd and began to ignore the words he was speaking. See, when he had finished the fruit salad, all that was left in the bowl was a puddle of fruit juice. Rather than lapping at it with his tongue as most quadrupeds would, he used an eating utensil which had been provided by the restaurant: a small ladle, which helped him to sip the juice by the spoonful without making a mess of himself. But something bothered me about the way he used it, and I blankly stared at him until it occurred to me that he was using the utensil the same way a telekinetic would, that is, without making any contact with it. It floated up and down, from the bowl to his mouth, with nothing but his own willpower to support it. When he noticed my puzzled expression, he asked me if something was the matter, and I asked him if he knew telekinesis, for as far as I was aware, such a skill was impossible to learn by any Eon but the Espeon. He then raised the spoon, and explained that it was a "psycho-magnetic device," that the metal was enchanted such that any creature could use it just the same way as a psychic would. He said that these devices were standard across the whole island, and were used everywhere from hand tools to doorknobs to bag handles, and allowed creatures of many sizes and shapes to function in society with minimal accommodation for a lack of prehensile limbs.

"You know who invented them? I'll give you a hint," he said, "you're about to go work for them." And I can't say I was surprised; it was a marvelous and revolutionary idea, just the kind of invention I would attribute to the Solaris Fellowship, and it was not difficult to imagine that it would change the world more than perhaps the invention of the light crystal or the wheel. With some shame, I admitted that I had not researched enough about the Fellowship to have memorized all their works, especially those which hadn't yet spread to the rest of the world besides the island, and that I hadn't had enough time to breathe after I had received the letter of invitation or I would have already rectified the issue. He said, "Don't expect to learn much. Solaris is very secretive about their technology, even to the people who live here. But if you're going to work for them, I'm sure you'll learn something."

I then remembered about the letter from the Fellowship still tucked away in my left saddlebag. I hoped that it had been kept safer than my savings had, since it was my only proof of invitation and my only means to meet the organization in person. I was to send it back through the mail once I had come ashore and await further instructions. I worried about receiving a prompt response demanding my presence somewhere before I had caught up on my rest, especially after the frivolous night I had spent, and I told Elliot that I wanted to sleep for the night. He prodded me and said, "Don't you mean the day?" indicating the morning sunlight outside. Shortly afterwards we thanked the hostess and returned to the street.

I asked Elliot if he knew where we were going. He said, "I'm not familiar with this side of District Fourteen. But I think we should mail your letter before we retire for the day." I told him I agreed, and asked him if he knew where the post office was. He replied, "I don't have any idea where it is, but there's a way we can find out."

He guided me to a nearby lamp post, the kind which had set the city aglow with colors just hours before. The light had been deactivated, and it stood only to refract the sun's rays and cast triangles of focused sunbeams all across the street. He explained that the lamps were not just sources of illumination, but another revolutionary technology by Solaris: they were powerful antennas, able to broadcast telepathic signals to each nearby lamppost and relay them nearly anywhere in the city. At his instruction, I set a paw on the post and asked it, as though it were a living thing, where I could find the nearest post office. I then saw in my mind's eye an overview of District Fourteen from the sky, and with markings indicating my current location relative to my destination. When I turned my head in the direction it suggested, I saw before my eyes a shape indicating the direction I should walk. It was all very impressive technology, similar to the archival magic I had played with in my school years, spells which could be used to enchant an orb to tell a story or to display imaginary pictures. But I had never suspected it could be so interactive and able to respond to complex commands! Though I was quite fascinated, almost enough to try exploring its functions, I retracted my paw from the device and the foreign images in my head promptly disappeared.

"You can use them to communicate with nearly anyone in the city," Elliot said to me. "The network even spreads to the other side of the island. It's everywhere but in the conservation areas. There's only one thing I don't like about them… I can't use them. It won't work with dark-types. They haven't invented the technology yet. So I've never actually gotten to see what they look like in your mind."

It made enough sense to me; dark-types had evolved, after all, to be predators to the psychic-types. As such, their minds and souls are structured to be impervious to any invasion, at least from a psychic elemental such as myself. Psychic magic was the most versatile and prevalent type of energy used for enchantments, but it was always a lost cause trying to make any of it compatible with dark-type minds, so I imaged it would be quite a challenge upgrading these lamp-posts to be of any use for them. Then again, Elliot seemed to use the psycho-magnetic metal just fine; perhaps it would somehow be possible that he could one day use the telepathic network also. Humorously, I wondered if I would be assigned by Solaris to help improve this very technology; I gloated at the thought of becoming the first Espeon in the world to read an Umbreon's mind.

By about noonday we found the gladiator lodge, although I was nearly sleepwalking at that point and I couldn't appreciate the city's architecture any more than I already had. But my eyes were properly opened to find that Elliot's 'lodge' was in actuality more of a mansion, such that I wondered if I wasn't staring the front door to the very coliseum where the contests would take place. I soon discovered, as we were welcomed through the front door by the keykeepers, just to what extent that Excalibur City treats their gladiator celebrities as royalty. I found myself surrounded by red carpets, marble floors, crystal chandeliers, extravagant staircases... in all honesty it was a throne room, and it was only the front foyer. Again I felt guilty for merely treading my pawprints upon the scenery, and in my apprehension I asked the Umbreon how we should find our room. He pranced ahead of me and said, "What do you mean, 'our room'? This whole place is ours for the whole season until the tournament is over. Even if our team is eliminated from the semi-finals, we can stay here until the next tournament starts. That should be more than enough time for you to settle into your new career, shouldn't it? So go ahead, chew the carpets to shreds, steal from the pantry, do whatever you'd like! They'll just replace it after we're gone."

In my state of grogginess I asked him, "I understand, but does the same luxury extend to me? I am not a gladiator, after all." He said, "We are allowed visitors. We let them in all the time. As for living here with us… well, I think, as long as we have the lodge staff convinced that you and I are… a couple, so to say… they'll let you get away with at least as much as I can. You'd be able to come and go as you please. So I wonder, would you be willing to play the part, at least until you're settled in to your new career?" I agreed to it, of course, but I suspected it wasn't exactly necessary to have responded; I had, after all, already started playing the part since before we disembarked from the train, and I suspected he knew as much.

He then showed me to one of the bedrooms. It was the size of several houses combined, at least any houses I had seen in my lifetime, and filled with so much unnecessary extravagance that it outclassed the modest little suite at Pommel Bay. At first glance I perceived a few dozen pieces of furniture, some oaken, some golden… several mirrors and shelves and statues… It didn't need a hologram, I thought; one could fit an entire genuine prairie or forest between its walls without much effort. I supposed that these lodges were built to accommodate gigantic elemental creatures if they should happen to be members of the winning gladiator teams, but it left me senseless to bear witness to so much luxury all in one place. The bed itself was a large black lump in the very center of the room, its texture like a stormcloud. It didn't occur to me that it was even a bed until Elliot pointed it out to me, and I jumped onto it, snuggling between the puffy creases of the silken substance. The sheets felt like nothing, giving me the unnerving sensation that I was levitating and I couldn't feel my body weight anywhere, but the feeling turned to bliss as soon as I found that there was not a single uncomfortable position I could lay upon that bed. Elliot then leapt up onto the other side, allowing me plenty of space, and asked me how I felt.

I told him dreamily, "This is beyond my belief. I find it hard to believe they would afford such things to the gladiators. The queen, maybe. Or the business-minded, perhaps. Those responsible for building and funding the city. I wondered if I would ever find a room like this for myself, even if I became a proficient member of Solaris… but why the gladiators?"

"We are winners," Elliot said plainly. "More than two hundred teams register to compete in the tournament. The tournaments take three years each. After that, only four make it to Excalibur Isle."

I said again, "Yes, I understand that much. But why gladiators? Are these tournaments so central to the city's culture that they would treat you so prestigiously?"

He smiled at me, and I saw his expression change. I knew I was glimpsing at the Shadowmancer within him. He said to me with power in his voice, "In my time as a competitor, I have captured the hearts of millions. When I stand in the arena… I'm surrounded by an audience cheering for me, wishing that I would strike the finishing blow, or pull some stunt they've never seen before. They've forgotten all their troubles, all the things going wrong in their life… and for a time, they are free of it all, and their heart goes out to me. That is my career, Hyacinth. I'm here to rouse the excitement of everyone who watches me work. You said you enjoy books, don't you? Can you tell me how my job affects millions of people any different than that of an author?" And it may have been that I was already half asleep, but I couldn't find a rebuttal to him.

VI - Pretenders

I slept away the whole afternoon, but now that my life was more exciting than anything my dreams could have conjured, I was sure to wake myself while the evening was still young. I found Elliot in another room of the mansion reading a book, and he wished me good evening and explained that he'd visited the bank. He passed to me a pouch of coins and said sternly, "Please spend them. I have more money than I would want anymore. I used to enjoy collecting things, but then I got tired of lugging them around the world with me, so nowadays I don't own anything. I'd like to know that the coins are at least making someone happy."

So I left the Umbreon to himself and ran free into the city. Though he hadn't given me nearly as much as I had lost on the train, it brought me some confidence knowing that I was no longer bankrupt and that I could claim some of the city's prestige as my own. Unfortunately my shopping spree ended in only an hour, as I spent the entire contents of Elliot's pouch on a new scarf, a ball of candy, and a meal at the first delicatessen I found. The scarf was admittedly not as exciting as the one I had always kept on my person; my favorite, a striped green scarf which I had been given at some point during my stay at the academy, amplified my sense of direction, especially useful in the twisting halls of Ivorin. But I thought that it might be useful to purchase a scarf for warmth as well, and I bought a red one which was enchanted to make me feel warm all over. After purchasing it, I decided that the spell gave me the particular sensation of being submerged in lukewarm, already-used bathwater, and decided it would not see very much use.

I returned to the mansion after my short-lived excursion, contemplating along the way what should be done with the rest of the evening, be it more sleep, reading a book, or bothering sir Shadowmancer for more of his attention (or his dreadfully useless money). But when I arrived, Elliot nearly ran into me. He showed me a letter that had come in the mail from Solaris, and I settled down to read it. After a line of formality thanking me for responding to the offer, an invitation followed: I was to attend a stage performance at an amphitheater, where I would meet a representative of Solaris who would give me instructions on how to commence with the interviews and the initiation to the Fellowship. The performance was in three days.

I therefore put on hold all excitement about collecting worldly possessions and mingling with the city folk, and spent my allowance of money preparing myself for the interview. I bathed and groomed myself, clipped my claws, laundered my green scarf, and adjusted my sleeping period so that I would be fully awake and alert at the time of the event. Most importantly, I remembered all the achievements which had led me to this point, and I let my heart swell with confidence, knowing I would please whomever wished to speak with me. Elliot seemed surprised that I was so composed about the interview; he said that such an encounter would honestly frighten him. I told him that I thought of myself as competent and qualified enough in the theories of psychology and magic, at least in the academic sense, and I would undoubtedly be useful to Solaris. I then asked Elliot if he would accompany me, but he understandably declined, telling me his teammates were due to arrive that evening and he would need to speak with them as soon as they would step off the train. Finally, upon the afternoon of the event, he wished me the best of fortune and I set off to the theater on my own.

The stadium was easy to locate even without the help of the lampposts, as it sat in the center of a recreational park with no buildings, and thousands of creatures flocked upon its grounds. The whole place had the appearance of a hollowed-out theater, something that was once enclosed but since had large parts of the roof and the walls torn away to allow in the wind and the visage of the sky. Many pillars and strange monuments still stood around and above the audience which very much allowed it to retain its semblance of a closed room. In addition, there were several higher-class lofts positioned upon tall platforms, much like an enclosed theater would have, and I was told by the letter to wait at the staircase of the one furthest from the stage.

Upon arriving, I adjusted my green scarf snugly around my neck, making sure the frills would not drag along the floor. It was my favorite scarf not only because it allowed me to find my way through branching streets and confusing locales, but also because it kept me focused in other ways, such as in conversations with my superiors. It was a gift from an old teacher whose name I did not remember; she held a marvelous mastery over the subconscious mind, and had woven the spell herself to help enhance the wearer's values and sense of purpose. I had at first relied on it, but I later found that I had trained my thoughts to produce the same effect on my own, and I continued to wear it mostly for sentimental reasons. I considered it a part of my identity.

An hour before the performance was to begin, I was approached by, of all things, an Espeon. She introduced herself as Charlotte and was clear that she spoke on behalf of the Solaris Fellowship, and said that she was pleased to see me in person. I gave her my greatest respect, in no small part because she was my elder by at least two decades and looked down upon me even as she remained seated. She also wore several pieces of jewelry: she had an emerald pendant upon a necklace chain which clung to her chest, a peculiar silver tiara which hooked around her ears, and a very interesting golden brooch, something shaped like a water lily with an eye in the center, attached to the fork of her tail. Her adornments made her appear far too queenly and accomplished, and I knew my place in her presence. I determined I could not say anything out of line.

Though we each stayed out of the other's mind, as was the unspoken agreement by most psychics who do not wish to raise contention, I couldn't ignore the solid aura of her mind waves pressing against my consciousness and brushing with my fur. Here was an experienced psychic, likely someone who could tear my mind to shreds with little effort, but given she was interviewing me for a role in the Fellowship, I suspected she had a greater use for me than a limp doorstop.

I responded in turn, saying I was honored to have been chosen, and that I looked forward to whatever the Fellowship might have in store for me. She then said that it was not quite time to discuss business matters, and that she only wished to enjoy the show with me, and to hear me share my thoughts on it. An apt way to begin such a weighty interview, I thought: lure me to a sense of companionship and comfort before addressing the important matters. I would let my guard down, becoming more suggestible and susceptible to revealing the true nature of my character. But I was not alarmed; I was quite confident that I had nothing to hide, and so I did as I was instructed, sitting at Charlotte's side in the luxurious booth and preparing myself to appreciate the performance onstage.

The presentation was performed by a group who called themselves "The Pretenders;" they consisted of two Ditto, amorphous creatures with the capacity to change their appearance into nearly anything, and two Zoroark, creatures who could project the superficial appearance of changing their forms and their surrounding environments to an extent. Using their abilities to play a wide range of characters, they acted out a story I knew quite well: Stormlight, one of the more well-known of Daniel Stormchaser's works. It was a bittersweet tale of a naïve and reckless Jolteon who followed a thunderstorm and chanced upon an injured Suicune, and fell in love with her soon after. Unfortunately, none of The Pretenders had ever seen a Suicune in person, and thus could not conjure the image of one, and so they made do with a Samurott.

And that was only the beginning of the disappointment: this adaptation of the tale had taken a number of creative liberties with Stormchaser's work. Granted, some changes in pacing and the glossing over of minor themes are inevitable when adapting a two-hundred-thousand-word novel into a two-hours' performance, but it could not excuse everything! For instance, the Luxray's character, who in the book had represented Daniel's voice of reason as a foil to his random acts of flamboyancy, was represented here as a senile and useless villain who wished only keep his farmhands enslaved under his rule. Daniel himself had become the designated protagonist of the story as he broke free from the evil bounds of menial labor to elope with his newfound love, rather than the star-crossed wanderer who did not know how to question his heart. Several of the characters had been cut out, such as the Scyther pair; while perhaps reasonable in that there were not enough actors to represent them, it changed the whole meaning of the scene where they were supposed to provoke the Suicune to violence.

By the end of the second act when Daniel was already professing his love and devotion to the goddess, it dawned on me that the story had been re-written for the express purpose of making certain that everybody liked it; Stormchaser's difficult messages were downplayed and disregarded in favor of making certain that everyone in that theater would leave with a sweet taste in their mouths, professing the story on high and bringing praise to the performers. It was all condensed and simplified, and easy to follow; it would leave no unanswered questions, no heated implications of those who watched it. It would stir no controversy and raise no objections. I nearly heaved as I witnessed the mutilation of the story's final scene; I watched as the Jolteon dashed across the stage and proclaimed, "Samurott, take me with you!" to which the Samurott replied, "Of course, you shall be mine forever!" and the lights dimmed upon their tender embrace. I had thought until that point about writing a scathing review of the performance, but I decided there was no point, as it simply was not the same story anymore. What had started as a profound warning against the dangers of an unchecked heart had turned into a mere bedtime story. While the audience roared in applause, I remained seated and only stewed in disgust. I am only thankful that I was not yet aware of Stormchaser's true identity at the time; knowing that my brother's proud work had been so desecrated would have sent me into quite a fit.

In the wake of the applause, Charlotte turned to me and said, "What did you think?" and I kept my composure and only replied, "They are very talented actors, and played their parts well, but I personally preferred the novel."

"I suppose I can't blame you," she said. "I've read the original story several times and I'm inclined to agree. But I hope that at least you've found some enjoyment in what you've seen this evening; it is, after all, the line of work we'll be wanting from you."

I could not hide my abject astonishment, and I only said, "I have studied to be a psychologist and a clairvoyant, and Solaris wants me as an actor?"

Charlotte sounded a brittle laugh, almost offensively, and made me suspect I had given the exact answer she had planned. She said, "Oh, no, miss Hyacinth, you misunderstand. We do not need any more actors, we have enough already. Do you see down there, on the stage? The Pretenders are only some of our very talented actors. And do you see the audience who cheers for them as they bow? They are actors as well, all of them. And the citizens of Excalibur City, so are they. Whether merchant, or builder, or businessperson, or vermin living in the alleyways, they are all actors. As are all of the creatures who play a part on this proud island of ours… No, I assure you, we have all the actors we need." Then, she gave me a conspicuous glance, she said, "But we are in need of a playwright."

For all the time I had spent preparing for the meeting, reassuring myself that I would maintain a level of control over this conversation, I found that I had nothing meaningful to say. I had wanted to shape the future in some way, that much was for certain; but Charlotte's words had balked me, and brought me to suspect that I had yet to fathom just who the Fellowship were and what sort of things they accomplished. So I only asked her to clarify what she meant, thinking it might buy me some time to align my thoughts. She said, "Well, with all these actors on hand, someone will need to write the script, don't you think?"

Something moved in my heart, and I decided to hide my doubts and feign willingness, and I said, "You have my attention; just how, exactly, might I be of service to your organization?" But it was not so difficult to act interested, seeing that I had every intention of following this road wherever it might lead.

She told me, "Solaris is founded upon the belief that, with the proper methods, the natural order of the world might be broken. The natural order is quite savage and unfeeling, don't you agree? Animals murder one another for food, mothers eat their young, species are driven to extinction, and no good comes from it. Even in civilization, the natural order of the world echoes too loudly as we all must fight over food and money, and murder one another over differences in opinion… Things such as happiness, beauty, and most importantly ideas, cannot exist in such a vacuum; and so we have asked a question: 'as elementals, what are we truly capable of when we are not busy fighting for survival?' and the Solaris Fellowship is devoted to finding every possible answer to that question. The wonders of Excalibur Isle are only a small demonstration of what we believe to be possible."

But then she said, "However, in the course of our history, we have found it necessary to keep many of our ideas closely-guarded, so that they will not be used against us. For instance, some three hundred years ago, the Fellowship developed an explosive which used ghost-type energy to carve a precise shape into solid rock. It could be used to hollow out the inside of a stone leaving only the shell, or to dig a cave of any formation you'd like, leaving no rubble behind. It would have been a revolutionary technology for archeology, architecture, art, and many other fields. But some members of the Fellowship conspired to use it as a weapon, and threatened to activate one in the Fellowship halls if their demands were not met. Though the issue was resolved without incident, it brought us to realize how the spirit of the natural order is still very much alive within every creature, and that the only way we could continue with our mission was to fracture the Fellowship into different chapters, so that each chapter holds secrets not known by the other chapters. Though it does not completely stop secrets from spreading, it means that secrets are no longer distinguishable from rumors and lies, since it is not easily possible for any one person to verify any particular truth… and so we have been kept safer by this principle of segregating our ideas, and treachery from within has become not only very unlikely, but quite harmless."

"But there lies a problem; if the different chapters of the Fellowship cannot effectively communicate with one another, our efficiency as an organization is crippled. If we cannot cooperate, we cannot accomplish anything. And so we instated the overseers. I am Overseer Charlotte; I direct the fourteenth chapter of the Solaris Fellowship, and it is my duty to oversee the transfer of sensitive information between mine and other chapters whenever it is relevant. In this way, I manage the behavior and the productivity of my chapter, and we are able to cooperate with other chapters when necessary to further our goals. For instance, I might instruct my chapter to produce a ghost-type fusion spell for a glass catalyst, and another overseer will instruct their subordinates to produce a power source, and the two might be combined into the 'ghost bomb' in secret without either chapter knowing what they truly created together."

"So I am to become an overseer?" I asked her as my heart exploded with intrigue.

But she continued: "Well, you see, Miss Hyacinth, there is yet another problem you may have considered. Though the overseers share information between chapters, you might wonder who directs them and orchestrates their higher purposes. The Fellowship still has need of a small handful of high leaders who have access to all the secrets of each of the chapters, so that they might make decisions about the bigger picture – the direction of the Fellowship as a whole, and thus the future of Excalibur Isle. This is where we need you. You are to be trained as a 'highseer.' The whole Fellowship shall be opened to you, and most of its members will answer to you as their superior. Once you are trained, you shall even have the authority to command my own actions."

I wanted to squeal with delight, and to tell Elliot the interview had gone well and that I was happy beyond any of my expectations. I would not only join Solaris, but I would take charge of it? The whole Fellowship? Was this true, I wondered, or some type of dream? Had I actually woken up that morning? Through my excitement, I knew that Charlotte was closely monitoring me, and I knew I needed to impress her by demonstrating maturity over my childish reaction. Though my heart raced and my head tingled with the rush of blood, I calmed my breathing and I said to her, "Very well, then; how shall I go about becoming initiated?"

"You are already initiated," she told me. "We have been keeping an eye on you since the day you joined Ivorin Academy, and your writings and your accomplishments have convinced us beyond all doubt that you are exactly fit for the role. You are perfect; that much has already been determined. As far as the Fellowship is concerned, you are already a highseer. You only need to be trained, now; I will be the first of many overseers to guide you through your incubatory stage and show you how we operate from the inside. That is, assuming you accept the position. Should you have a change of heart, feel most free to ignore any further contact from us, and to stay in Excalibur City at your leisure and board the train whenever you'd like to leave. I'd imagine you would like to stay for a while, at least; I'm certain the Shadowmancer would like to know you'd be watching his performances. Though it is only a formality, I say this now, because once you begin to learn our trade secrets, it will become significantly harder on us if you were to decline our invitation… memory erasure would be involved, and it would be very convoluted and unpleasant for the both of us. But let it never be said that we did not give you the choice. Do you understand?"

"Yes, of course," I replied. I was so anxious that I must have forgotten to feel suspicious that they already knew of my connection to Elliot.

"Good," she said with a pleased grin. "In seven days from now, come to the shipyard pier in District Fifteen at the break of dawn. There will be several other candidates arriving on that day; pay them no mind. You are not in competition with them. Actually, we invited them as a precautionary measure in case you failed to appear, and now it is too late to revoke our invitations. Though I suppose one of them might be awarded an overseer position, if they are fortunate."

The theater had mostly emptied when we finished our talks, and once Charlotte wished me a good evening and went on her way, it occurred to me that I had completely failed to stand my ground in the conversation. She had taken complete control, showering wonderful revelations upon me without giving me time to swallow them, then asking me questions while my mind had been frozen in between thoughts. She had plainly manipulated me, and if the conversation had gone sour then I would have eternally scolded myself for letting her talk circles around me. I only failed to notice because she seemed genuinely pleased with me. But perhaps the elder Espeon had only been trying to impress me, I thought; I was to become her superior after all, and she had demonstrated her mastery of the sales pitch in a way I could not ignore. At the end of the night I found I only had respect for her, and I envied her knowledge and her skill.

And so I wandered home that evening very proud of myself, hardly noticing the dazzling crystal lamps or the aromas of the food; how could I, when I knew that I was soon to stand at the very pinnacle of the city, and partake of magical luxuries the townsfolk could never imagine? I would be one of the few, the elite, ever to witness the inner halls of the Fellowship, with magical inventions and technological developments so powerful that they needed to fracture the members just to keep them safe from one another. And furthermore, they were to give me such a position of absolute authority; they were to trust me completely with all of their secrets, such that they would surely allow me to wander the city and do as I please with what I knew. If I had been hired as a mere overseer, or even as a subordinate scientist or researcher, I would have feared for my relationship with Elliot. Surely, they would not have allowed me to remain in his company with the secrets I knew, lest I would accidentally leak them to the wrong ears. But as a highseer, I would inescapably hold enough power that I could singlehandedly destroy the organization if I desired. They would need to trust me with that power. It meant that, even as I tangled myself within this web of secrets, I would remain forever free to do whatever I pleased. But I thought to myself, what else did I expect? Somehow, I knew I was destined for such a bright future. From somewhere in my heart, I had suspected it since the earliest days at the academy. As an exemplar of the Espeon species, I simply deserved as much.

But that was not quite the end of my evening. As I returned to the mansion, I was approached by a strange creature that I had only seen in books: a Bisharp, something with a steel body akin to a Scizor. Her voice stood out from the noise of the city once she called me by name. She said that she wished to have a word with me, and drew me near the door of a closed establishment where we would not be bothered. Assuming that she was merely a street peddler or an apologist to some organization, I decided I would humor her before politely declining whatever idea she wished to sell me.

She did not tell me her name, but said to me, "You are Hyacinth, correct? If I am not mistaken, you have come from overseas because the Solaris Fellowship wishes to hire you. Is this correct?" Though I had not been expressly sworn to secrecy regarding this truth, I was wary of answering her. According to my better judgement, I simply said to her, "Why is it important?"

She replied, "There is something you need to know about the Fellowship before you make any advances with them. They are, without exaggeration, the worst kind of evil. They threaten to destroy the structure of all civilization as we know it, and if they had the power they craved, they would enslave all of Excalibur Isle under their rule." And to that, I asked, "Oh, really? And how do you know this, may I ask?"

"Trust me, we have sources," she said. "We have worked with dozens of Fellowship members in secret, and you wouldn't believe all of the terrible things that happen in their headquarters. It lies at the center of the great lake, under the water. They take the townsfolk there and they slaughter them. They slaughter innocent people and harvest their elemental energy. Our sources have verified that every five out of six missing townspeople are locked in prisons down there. You need to understand, they are trying to become an unstoppable force. They are dismantling Excalibur City, one piece at a time, and using it to build their power, and it's all happening right in front of us so that nobody notices. They say that the king of Excalibur Isle has already been brainwashed by them and lets them make all of his decisions." I listened to this steel-type thing ramble and I pretended to pay attention; "Interesting," I said. "Please, do go on."

She noticed my sarcasm, and it only increased her urgency. "Please listen. The Solaris Fellowship needs to be stopped," she said. "Even if you don't believe me, you at least need to believe that they're too powerful to be defeated. They couldn't be stopped. If they wanted, they could take away everything from us and reduce us to slaves. That needs to change. There needs to be a balance of power on Excalibur Isle. Someone needs to stand up to them." And then she handed me something: it was a golden coin, the kind used as common currency at the marketplaces. I flipped it over and noticed that the sun, which had been a central figure on the back of the coin, had been chiseled off. "We are the Penumbra Society," she said. "We number in the hundreds. We lurk in the shadows and do whatever possible to sap the power from Solaris and keep them in check."

Still staring at the coin, I said, "So, what are you saying? You want me to turn down their job offer and join your cult instead, is that it?" And she replied, "Absolutely not. Ideally, you should take job you have been offered. I only ask you if you would consider becoming a double-agent. You could leverage your position from within the Fellowship to deliver us information and do the most damage. It is dangerous, but the more of you we have, the better chance we stand against them. What you hold before you is worthless; coins are not the true currency of this world. Secrets are."

I needed to hesitate for a moment to appreciate the unexpected response. This cult, I realized, was more intelligent than they first seemed! But before I said another word, the Bisharp walked away, leaving me with the words, "Take some time and think about it. If you decide you want to make a difference, spend that coin at Lilligant's Winery in District Twelve, and we'll take care of the rest from there."

I tucked the coin into my scarf. I found myself fascinated with this shadow cult almost as much as the Fellowship itself. I decided I would need to choose my true allegiance quickly. But, somehow, I was not so bothered by this difficult decision of mine. I only knew that my life was growing more interesting by the minute, and I had faith in myself that I would eventually make the correct decision, whatever it turned out to be.

VII - Dreamcatching

Though I was eager to share my experiences with Elliot, I found that several visitors had taken up residence in the mansion and made it quite difficult for me to win his attention. They were the remainder of his team he had left behind in Pommel Bay on the morning after he had first met me. There was a Scrafty, who called himself "The Slacker," a Mawile, who was apparently called "The Nothing," and the team leader was a Sableye called "The Nightmare." Together, they didn't strike me as sophisticated as Elliot had claimed; I admit I expected more from a world champion team than a squad of tiny elementals who could not even seem to hold a coherent discussion amongst themselves. I was polite enough when he introduced them to me, but they only seemed interested in jeering at Elliot for sharing his room with me, saying that I was too good for him and that our love would never last. Once we pushed them away into the other rooms and had a peaceful moment to ourselves, Elliot sensed that I was underwhelmed by his friends, and he said, "I never expected you to take them seriously. Nobody takes us seriously. And that's exactly why we keep winning. We are deceivers. But they're a good bunch once you get used to them."

I laid on my back and regurgitated the whole evening to him, from the painfully underwhelming enactment of Stormlight to the entire conversation with Charlotte, and even to the Bisharp I met in the street. I let him look over the coin I had been given. I tirelessly rambled to him, never questioning my assumption that I trusted him completely with all of the secrets I learned. He sat patiently opposite of me, as he usually did when I would monologue to him, and he considered everything I said. When I was finished, he said to me, "Ignore this Penumbra cult. You're going to be a highseer. If you decided you didn't like the place, you could do fifty times more damage just by yourself than a hundred of them could. You don't need their permission to betray Solaris if you wanted. And besides, doesn't it strike you as odd that they contacted you in the first place? I have a feeling they had no idea you were supposed to be a highseer. It seems the risk of drawing attention to themselves and making a powerful enemy out of you would outweigh the rewards." He tossed the coin back to me and said, "But that's only my advice. Don't take my word for law. It's your career, not mine." And I said, "I appreciate it nonetheless; my thoughts were drifting in much the same direction, but you helped me to arrive to the conclusion faster than I would have."

He laughed, and with some whimsy he said, "But maybe if you find out this Penumbra cult is trustworthy, and you want to join them, let me know, alright? Maybe I'll join them too. I'm sure they could use an inside source from within the gladiator league. Couldn't hurt, could it?"

I smiled at him and said, "It's your career, not mine."

Following that strange evening I had another free week to spend in Excalibur City. Rather than explore town each and every night, I opted to visit the library and at last research the Solaris Fellowship however I could. To my surprise it was quite the difficult task, as even the library did not keep as much information about them as I would have liked, and most books only went so far as to say that they were powerful and glorious and deserving of everyone's worship. But I could not find a list of their inventions and accomplishments, even those which had been made public, or a history showing when they had been established and who their leaders were. I only gathered that they had invented a number of things, such as several varieties of light crystal, some building designs, and weed-killing poison.

Meanwhile, Elliot had important topics to discuss with his teammates, even though they never sounded important while I listened in on them, unless they were communicating in a coded language which involved acting like stooges and awkwardly laughing at every utterance of a bad joke. Needless to say, I didn't find myself fond of spending time with Elliot's team. He expressed a desire to bond me with them, but I always politely declined, claiming that I needed to study my place of employment while I still had the chance. Eventually, in a moment of weakness, the crafty Umbreon convinced me to join the team in an odd activity.

It was something they called "Dreamcatching," a tabletop game played on a grid made of concentric circles, each of which supposedly represented spaces on a battlefield and the playing pieces representing combatants in a struggle for the central space. Elliot spoke of the game in very high esteem, claiming that he had practiced many of his real-world strategies on the game board, and that he had learned to synchronize his thoughts and movements with his teammates because of it, and that his team would forever uphold the tradition of playing it at least twice every week. So he taught me the rules, told me about all the legal moves from adjoining spaces and the order of turns, and invited me one night to play.

I found the game juvenile and easy, and proceeded to massacre them with little effort as they gaped at my foresight and strategical prowess. "How!" cried the Sableye, when I had captured the central space on the board from him, "I perfected that strategy for years! How did you see through it?" And I calmly explained to him that there were only two possible routes he could have picked and that one was too obvious, so he was by the nature of a career deceiver obviously planning to choose the other. The dark-types sent me a round of congratulation, and then promptly demanded a rematch. Though I had wanted to make my exit on a note of victory, I found that I couldn't deny Elliot when he begged for me to stay. His eyes told me that he was earnestly happy to play the game, and that his spirit soared at the chance to include me with his friends, so I agreed to play once again. Twelve turns later, I found that I had been effortlessly eliminated from play; the keen dark-types had all seen through each of my attempted strategies, and I left the match looking like a fool.

It was a blow against my ego, and I grew short with all of them and accused them of teaming up against me, and of reading my mind. Elliot explained to me the truth behind his scheme: "The first match, we all intentionally played poorly," he said. "We wanted to see how you react when you are winning, whether you gloat, or smile, or have a glint in your eye, all those sorts of things. So when we started the second match, we were always able to tell when you had a plan that you were convinced would work, verses when you were only just desperate." The Scrafty added, "You play this long enough, and you'll start to realize the real game board isn't on the table, it's here," he said, pointing to his eyes. "You're only a winner if you know your enemy. Everything else is just useless details. Also that's what makes Nightmare over here so hard to beat. You can't read his eyes. You gotta watch for when he frowns for just a half-second. Or when he looks out the window. That's when you know you did something he didn't like."

I pursed my lips, then lent a wry smile to them. "Impressive," I said. "Well-played."

The Nightmare said to me, "You will find that the game of Dreamcatching never truly ends. There are only infinite battles of the same war, and each battle gives you hints as to how the next will play out. Just the way it is in the stadium, or with any game, really." He then asked me if I would fancy another game, and promised he would handicap himself to give me a chance. I politely declined and retired to Elliot's room, but before doing so I assured them I would play again in the future, and that I would be well aware of their tricks and that they should prepare themselves for a much greater challenge.

He joined me some time later, after the team had worn themselves out from their game. He must have feared that I had taken the loss personally, and asked me how I felt. While I wasn't distraught at my loss, it had given me something to think about. "I should have known you were psychologically profiling me," I said to him. "It should have been obvious to me from the start. It is the very first thing a teacher should do for their students, to watch their reactions and learn how they are adapting. I am a psychologist, and it is supposed to be my speciality to know these things. I am only wondering why it did not occur to me. I hope I have not lost my intelligence somewhere. When I visit Solaris in three days, I hope I am still the same Espeon who would have been a mind-instructor at Ivorin. It would shame me to find that my brain had fallen out somewhere during the journey and I left it sitting somewhere next to my gemstones."

He stared at me for a moment, and something stirred in those bright red eyes of his, as though I had triggered some repressed memory. He reassured me, "You are only having trouble adjusting. This is all new to you. When you have travelled all over the world like I have, every city and every stadium begins to look the same as the last, so you lose appreciation for the different cultures you are entertaining. But you also lose the sense of apprehension that keeps you from feeling as though you are at home. Nowadays, I can walk into any city and feel like I own it, because they are all the same. And my home is in the arena, wherever it might be. But when I started out, I felt the same way you did."

I replied to him, "Yes, but I'm afraid three days isn't enough time to have the same life experiences as you. I am only afraid because I cannot seem to think critically right now, and the last thing I want is to disappoint Solaris, or to find that I must learn all of my studies over again from scratch."

Elliot nearly cut me off, saying, "Hyacinth. Look at me. Look into my eyes." And I did. I watched as he glared at me with those keen eyes of his, and he crossed the bed, closing the distance between himself and I, until our snouts nearly touched. "Listen to me," he said. "You are going to be fine. Trust me."

I was taken aback at how forward he had become, and how personally he had seemed to take my insignificant plight. I wondered what I had said that had caused him to transform into the Shadowmancer so suddenly. But I remained silent, and his words had an inescapable effect on me.

"When I look at you, I see something in you that I've never seen in anyone before," he said. "There is something inside of you. I have looked into the eyes of many creatures in my time, but yours are the first that tell me you just might be the most brilliant, the most intelligent creature to have ever walked the earth, and that everyone who speaks to you or even lays eyes upon you isn't worthy enough to walk on the same ground as you. Excalibur City does not shine as brightly as you. We should all be honored that you are here."

Flatly, I said, "If you are going to flatter me, at least be reasonable about it." But he did not react; he only kept staring at me sternly, and did not even break a smile. "I am not exaggerating," he told me. "You can't read my mind to see what I truly think of you. That is why I need you to trust me when I say that you'll be fine. And if something goes wrong, I'll be there to beat up whoever gets in your way."

I let his words touch my heart, and my proper ego soon returned. I remembered who I was, and that I was brilliant and undefeatable, and that I could outsmart anything if I so desired, the least of which were a few irreverent dark-types at a tabletop game. And I let him cuddle next to me that night, bringing to me faint memories of when my siblings and I would sleep in tight little rows during the cold seasons. With Elliot at my side, I began to remember what it felt like not to be completely alone. It felt very warm.

VIII - The Experiment

Alas, I could not forever dwell carefree in the lap of luxury, for the sun soon dawned upon the day when I would tread to the shipyard at District Fifteen and report for my first day of work. I hardly remember sleeping that night; I only remember that I had spent hours bathing and grooming and packing my bags with all the things I thought to need. I had thoroughly laundered my scarf wore it proudly, hoping that by doing so I would be granted a certain visual identity among the Fellowship leaders to set me apart from all the other Espeon who surely worked there. In all, I had taken every precaution to make a perfect appearance, and I set out precisely an hour past midnight. Though it was a long walk and there were many distractions, I found it very straightforward thanks to the assistance of the lampposts which so kindly informed me of the shortest route at every turn. I arrived much earlier than I intended to, and spent the extra hour indulging in a proper breakfast of chestobread and green tea.

Despite my detour, I was the first to arrive at the shipyard. Quite a pleasant and tranquil view, it was, looking out over the island's central sea; it smelled fresh and invigorating, nothing at all like the salty ocean. I was given enough time to appreciate it, too, because the others were all quite tardy. I wore a smile, knowing the others were not nearly as invested in the job prospect as I, despite the delicious irony that I was the only one among them who had been guaranteed a position beforehand. There was a Meowstic with dreadful fur which needed to be brushed and trimmed, and a Kirlia who was petrified with fear, and finally a Medicham who had lost his way and had arrived so late that we nearly started without him. Though I attempted some thoughtful banter with them to lighten the mood, they would not have it, and remained deathly silent as though the job interview made them afraid for their lives. I noted that they were all psychics, and wondered if it was a requirement of the Fellowship that an overseer needed to be a psychic in order to ensure the subordinates would properly stay in line.

After enough of the awkward silence, Overseer Charlotte appeared and welcomed us to the Fellowship. I noted that most of the jewelry she had worn for our initial meeting was gone, giving her less of an imposing appearance… although she kept the golden brooch between the prongs on the end of her tail, and I began to wonder if it was permanently affixed to her. There was a twinkle in her eye which told me that she was quite impressed with my own appearance, and less so with the others, and I nearly wanted to ask her to leave them behind just to see how she would take the suggestion. But they came with us, all the same, and we were led not onto a boat as I anticipated, but into a nearby warehouse where fishing supplies were kept. The workers let us past as though we were invisible, and we navigated through the stockrooms of boxes until we came to a passageway which led to a staircase.

It was quite a wide stairwell, wide enough to accommodate a Steelix, I thought, and it wound down and around for at least fourteen revolutions before we emerged into a giant glass tunnel sitting upon the sea floor. Though I hid my reactions, I was quite impressed with what I saw: the sunlight streamed from the water's surface and glimmered upon the glass archway. The sea floor itself was murky and dark, but the curved glass focused light upon the center of the tunnel and made it as bright as day. Charlotte remained stoic and indifferent as though she'd long since been drained of all her wonder and awe, and I tried to act the same, but the others could not hold back their awestricken gasps, or their impulses to run and touch the panes of glass which encapsulated us. Children, I said to Charlotte with telepathy, in an attempt to impress her. She smirked at me and replied, Indeed, but let us humor them for a while longer. It is the least we can do.

The walk was quite long, and took us nearly an hour even at a reasonable pace. The tunnel ended at a monstrous undersea structure made of something like black cast-iron, which obvious to me was the very headquarters of the Fellowship. Charlotte worked some kind of a locking mechanism with her mind, and a gate opened to us, allowing us inside. And I must say, it was exactly how I'd always envisioned it: extensive golden corridors lined with regal carpets and crystal chandeliers. There were silver candlesticks and fearsome statues and arched ceilings painted with heroic battle scenes. There were glowing gemstones and sparkling glass spheres. In the center of it all, there stood a monumental golden pillar, the color of the shining sun, surrounded by an intricate shrine of symbols and jewelry. Had I expected anything less, my breath might have been taken from me, but after seeing what they had done to the gladiator lodge I had learned better than to expect any spared expense. I only allowed myself a small, satisfied smile. What do you think? Charlotte said to me. I certainly hope you like what you see. This will be your new home.

I forced some cynicism and I replied, It's decent, but are the minds of Solaris equally as majestic? They are what I have come to see. With an impressed hum, Charlotte said to me, We will be meeting one of them very shortly, and you can decide then.

I learned that the Solaris Fellowship building was itself built in the shape of the sun, with twenty-six different spokes, each pointed in the direction of one of the island's districts. Within each spoke resided a different chapter of the Fellowship. We walked through the hall of the fifteenth chapter, which was not governed by Charlotte, but by two other overseers whom I was yet to meet – Charlotte was granted free reign to enter and leave the chapter at her discretion, as her chapter often worked closely with theirs.

Though it certainly looked the part of a central throne room, it was only a twenty-sixth of the entire establishment, with the others decorated however the individual Fellowship chapters desired. It was very clear to me that the members of this chapter took immense pride in their home, enough to adorn it with such extravagance fit for several kings, and I could only begin to wonder what type of work had brought them such great wealth and self-importance.

Once Charlotte decided the stragglers had enjoyed enough of the glory – there was no sense in letting them get comfortable, because they were not to be hired anyway – we followed a small stairwell down to a new floor at an elevation below the seabed. This floor was made of wide, symmetrical hallways not nearly as ostentatious as the upstairs lobby. The place seemed plain, yet pristine; the walls were made of large polished tiles, and a winding series of bright wires in the ceiling filled the corridors with the most pleasant blue light, easy on the eyes and soothing to the mind. Instantly I recognized the floor as a laboratory of some sort, somewhere without visual noise or distractions, a place built for intellectuals to work efficiently. I was bursting with excitement to see what lay at the end of the halls and behind the mysterious doors, wondering if I'd soon glimpse at the creative process of some mythical new technology. But through my excitement, I held my peace.

After quite a long and lonely walk through the labyrinthine halls, Charlotte was greeted by a small, humanshape creature called a Gothitelle, an overseer of the chapter. I did not at the time recognize the species of creature, but I could tell by the force of its mind waves that it, too, was a psychic. I was beginning to see that the Fellowship was quite selective about what types of creatures they allowed into their service, or at the very least this particular chapter. "The examination is ready," he said. "You may bring your candidates anytime." And my heart pounded, knowing this exam would surely cull away the unsuitable trio of candidates which trailed behind Charlotte and I, and once rid of them she would pour to me the secrets of the Fellowship.

The overseer and her colleague guided us into one of the laboratory doors, and aesthetically the interior of the laboratory was much like the hallways, very plain and functional. But this room had a number of things inside of it, ranging from odd box-like machines, to cluttered tabletops, to an assembly of psychic-type elementals quietly peering through windows. I stepped over to one of the windows myself and glanced inside, and found that an Emolga was confined in a small, boxy chamber. It lay on its back, staring at the ceiling. I scoffed, thinking to myself, We are using ferals as test subjects. I am not surprised. But then I tried to mimic the Kadabra standing beside me, and I probed the rodent's mind, wondering what the Fellowship scientists may have been trying to observe. The Emolga's consciousness nearly swept me from my feet. Its mind was active, intelligent, and perhaps a bit panicked. It was educated. I realized that it was most certainly not a feral creature, but a real person.

His name was Youli. He was about twenty years of age. He enjoyed the taste of oranges and hated the texture of cake. He had seven siblings, dozens of cousins, and a family that loved him very much. He had arrived to Excalibur City only recently and was quite proud of making the journey, and he was busy warding away his nervousness by collecting his thoughts and articulating the stories he would tell to his family back in some forest on the mainland. In many ways, it reminded him of me. Like me, he was not quite sure why the Fellowship had brought him here, and was very unsettled that they had locked him inside a chamber. So we are going to perform a psychological test on him, I thought. We kidnap our test subjects. We are at least partially unethical. No wonder we hide here at the bottom of the sea. Again, I am not surprised.

But I did not know the half of it.

Overseer Charlotte finally addressed us for the first time since our meeting on the pier, saying to us, "Here we have two test subjects. Both are civil Emolga of similar age, character, and genetic build. The key difference between them is that the subject on the right (she indicated Youli) has been collected from Resplendent Rainforest, which lies some three thousand kilometers from the southeast of here on the mainland, and the one on the left is a citizen from Excalibur Isle's own eighth district. We will perform an experiment on them, and I would like for you to watch their minds and tell me what conclusions you draw." And so the five of us gathered around the window to Youli's chamber, and the experiment began.

There was a mechanical sound, and a steady vibration came from the chamber. Within moments, it became very clear, both to Youli and to myself, what was happening: the ceiling was descending, slowly and markedly. At that moment, I instantly knew the purpose of the test: we were going to murder the Emolga and study its psychological deterioration in the final moments before its instantaneous death.

The rodent panicked quite violently, darting around the room in search of an escape, and pounding on the window as he called for help. It occurred to me that the window was likely opaque on the inside, and so Youli did not know if anyone could heed his call. Static sparked across his body as he tried to conjure some electric-type technique that might let him escape, but the room was quite proofed against elemental attacks.

The test was brilliantly conceived, if I might say so; it effectively served two purposes, both to test our psychic analysis of the mind, and to make it very clear that anyone who worked here would need to check all sense of morality at the door and operate under an unfeeling scientific pretense. It made the most sense, after all; reality is not designed to be understood easily, especially those realities which are of the utmost importance yet cannot be studied ethically or without bringing offense to sensitive audiences, such as how a creature behaves in the moments before it is murdered. But to work for the Solaris Fellowship meant that we needed to become wholly pragmatic and learn to stop differentiating between right and wrong. Anyone unwilling to detach themselves from such puerile limitations would be unworthy.

The next few moments became a cacophony of thoughts and emotions, both from my colleagues and from the doomed Emolga. The other candidates were weaklings, and were not taking the experiment very well. My own heart raised its objections, of course, but I intended to impress Overseer Charlotte, and so I silenced them viciously and I listened to Youli's thoughts.

No, they won't really kill me, will they? This isn't what they said they would do! They only said they wanted to study me for a day and let me go.

I only wanted to make some money for my family.

Oh Raikou, what is going on?! There must be some kind of mistake!

I'm really going to die, aren't I?

This is the end, isn't it?

They tricked me! Those guys tricked me…

I'm going to die here where nobody can see me. I'm going to die alone!

No… no, Josh… I promised I'd bring him a crystal… No… Oh Josh… I can't leave you all alone… No! You're not ready for the world!

Eli! No… no… what's going to happen to Eli? He'll die without me… he needs me…

They all need me! No, how could I let this happen!? Oh Raikou, please let me out! Please! No! Don't let this happen to me! I've got to get out of here! I have to get out of here!

Why won't anyone listen to me?!

Oh, no… all the things I didn't do…

I should have gone south… with mother… I should have gone to Amethyst City while I had the chance.

This wasn't supposed to happen.

Oh… I'm so sorry… I regret everything… Raikou, if you can hear me… I regret everything…

His thoughts ended abruptly as his body was smashed beneath the sheets of metal, his skin and bones instantly turned into a fine powder. Though we were shielded from visually witnessing any of the gore, the final mind-wave which had come from the Emolga was something so indescribably vile and upsetting, I can only compare it to the sensation of having the fur and skin ripped away from my chest to let my innards spill onto the floor. But I did not let my revulsion overcome me; I remained stoic and analytical like the professional Espeon I was, and I kept my peace.

"Now, the next one," Charlotte said, and directed us to peer into another window where the second Emolga was kept prisoner. This one was a female named Skylark, one who had been grown and raised on Excalibur Isle. She was a very aloof creature with many friends. She enjoyed flying into thunderstorms and playing with lightning. She preferred the taste of salty candy and hated onions. She had two parents, but had left them several years before and did not care where they were.

Watching the ceiling begin to descend was not any easier than it was the first time. In fact, it was harder to watch; until I had witnessed Youli's death, I had entertained the hope that the ceiling would stop at the last minute and spare his life, or that it was some sort of illusion or trick. Knowing that I was surely about to witness another death, I felt my conscience claw at my heart, but I ignored it and watched the Emolga's mind as I was instructed:

Oh, I see. They're trying to scare me.

That's what this test is all about. I figured it out. Well, hah! I won't let them scare me.

This is actually kind of boring.

Ah, what else do I need to do today? When I get out of here, I need to go buy more seeds.

I need to talk to Jaquelin about that picnic next week.

I wonder if I can get tickets to the gladiator game.

Maybe I can ask mother to get me in. I haven't spoken to her in a long time. I hope she doesn't hate me. Ah, how am I going to get her to like Eric? There has to be a way.

I love Eric. He's the only one who understands me. I never get bored watching the stars with him. We should go to a musical for our next date.

Ahhh, is this test over yet? I feel like I've been in here forever.

I wonder when the ceiling will stop moving. It's coming down pretty far.

Hmm, that feels kinda weird…

And then her thoughts were silenced, but her final mind-waves did not feel the same as Youli's. I stepped back from Skylark's chamber, and suddenly I found that I had quite a lot to think about. But Overseer Charlotte interrupted my thoughts, asking us what we concluded from the experiment.

I glanced at the other candidates, interested in what they had to say. But the Medicham had fainted and the Kirlia was keeled over on the floor and was crying profusely, looking as though she would vomit. The Meowstic looked quite shaken, but he managed to give a reply: "In the final moments, the first one was concerned about his family, and the second one was only concerned about herself," he said. Charlotte listened to him and gave an unimpressed nod at his conclusion. "And what do you think, Hyacinth?" she said. "What are your thoughts?"

Although I found that I had to stare at the wall for a few moments to put my thoughts in order, I knew just what I wanted to say. While I stared at the wall and tried to digest the implications of my own thoughts, I replied: "The first one, Youli, he died miserably… And the other one, Skylark… she died happily."

The smile upon Charlotte's face told me that I had given just the answer she was looking for.

IX - The Meltdown

While the other candidates were escorted from the premises and likely had their memories erased, I found I at last had Charoltte's undivided attention. Admittedly I was not so thrilled anymore about merely being her favorite, given that I was far too overwhelmed and busy digesting what I had just seen, but I wasn't ready to appear weakly and insecure before her. I told myself that I could always show weakness later and in private. For the time being, I squared my shoulders and I wore my guise of professional confidence, keeping my peace, although I markedly avoided eye contact with the chambers where the experiments had taken place.

She seemed eternally pleased with me, and as we walked together back in the direction of the chapter's lobby, she at last began to explain everything I wished to hear. She thanked me graciously for attending the interview and for blessing the Fellowship headquarters with my presence, and she told me, "The experiment today was not so much a test for our candidates, as it was a demonstration of what we strive for. As I have told you, the Fellowship is built on a single guiding principle: we wish to see what happens when civilization is divorced from the rules of the wild. Pain, hunger, the constant struggle for survival and dominance… these are all the things we wish to remove from life, so that we as a society may focus on what is more important. The female Emolga was quite a model citizen, you see. Her impending death meant nothing to her, and so her life ended in a state of blissful ignorance. She was quite subdued; that is what we look for in our citizens. Whereas the male… well, he went out kicking and screaming, and it was all quite unpleasant, don't you agree? That is precisely the kind of attitude we are trying to avoid. The rabid animals such as himself bring everyone so much pain, and also they are too difficult to control."

These new concepts were as difficult to swallow as a bone lodged in my throat; they were quite alien to me, bearing no resemblance to any of the classical psychology I had studied at Ivorin. In reflecting over the deaths of the two Emolga, admittedly I found myself far more unsettled with Skylark's reaction than with Youli's. Yes, it was easy to empathize with Youli and feel his despair, but his reaction was… expected. Creatures struggle against their death, they cry out and plead for mercy. It is the mark of a sane individual. Skylark's reaction was something so unnatural and difficult to believe that I had become terrified in a way I had never before felt. I was also reminded of the minds of the train's passengers whom I had probed out of boredom at the time, especially the Ursaring who seemed unusually vapid and apathetic about his life and family, and it occurred to me that his behavior was by design.

I replied, "Skylark, the female, did not demonstrate an instinct for self-preservation… and you say that this is a strength and not a weakness?" She tilted her head as though amused at my confusion, and waved her brooch proudly behind her, and she said, "It is both; it is a weakness for the individual, but a strength for the society. After all, why should the death of a single person be a bother to the many? Our goal is to allow our people to live their lives acting as though death does not even exist. Once the fear of death has been silenced, there's no limit to how happy the people can become."

Now at this point we climbed the stairs and arrived back to the lavishly extravagant lobby of the fifteenth chapter. It struck me again as something too perfect, like a painting of a lost city come to life. I made a conscious effort to pay attention to Charlotte's words and not to distract myself gaping at the round golden pillar at the center of the room. She proceeded to tell me a very odd story.

"Five years ago," she said, "only a year after I was instated at my position here, there was a terrible tragedy. Solaris was at the time experimenting with magma channels deep beneath District Five, and a mathematical misestimate led to an accident. Pressure built, and fissures broke open in the ground, and all of District Five was buried beneath three meters of lava. We used our elemental barriers and technology to contain the eruption, but not before it destroyed nearly the entire district and everything within. It was a garden habitat there, fit primarily for grass-type elementals, all quite flammable, and nearly all of them perished in the accident. I seem to remember the survivor count being only in the low dozens. A few thousands of people, simply gone in one day. It is known as the 'meltdown incident,' and we are still trying to clean it up to this day.

"But nobody seemed to care about the loss of District Five. For the weeks following the tragedy, all around the island we all got up in the morning as though nothing happened. Shops opened, younglings went to their classes, shows continued to play as scheduled at the amphitheaters… certainly those friends and relatives of the lost would mourn the days away, but by and large it had no impact on the everyday life of our society here. Perhaps there was a tiny charity drive here or there, but there was no uproar, no rally, no great motion for change…

"And do you know why? It's because these people, they don't know anything else. They wake up in the morning, eat a nice breakfast, open their shops, send the younglings to school, day in and day out… it's all they know in life. It's all they understand. So that when a tragedy happens as terrible as the meltdown incident, they don't have the mental capacity to process it. It is too much for them to take. So they ignore the problem and block it away, and just keep doing the same things they do every day, and hope in the back of their minds that the problems will all somehow become resolved on their own. The meltdown tragedy has become something of a taboo that is not to be mentioned at all in public, and if you try, they will only pretend not to hear you.

"And that is where we have succeeded. We give the people what they need to ignore the tragedy of this world and focus on the kingdom we have constructed for them. We let them have all the food, the luxuries, the entertainment… we treat them as royalty, and in turn, they remain dependent on us to protect them from the terrible and unpleasant things. And certainly, nobody on this island will ever need to make a decision or anything important such as that; the best anyone can do is to become a useless member of the king's council, and Solaris hires all of our members from outside of this island anyway. The people who live here wouldn't know the first thing about trying to overthrow us. In fact, we have most of them convinced that we are working on an immortality potion which will be made freely available in two or so generations. And so most of them would never think to stand in our way and delay our important work."

I said to Charlotte, "Are you meaning to imply that Solaris actually rules Excalibur Isle?" I asked this, as it would help to explain why the headquarters had amassed so much wealth and was decorated as a castle. And she nodded and said, "Yes, of course. We are the playwrights. We orchestrate future of the isle. But see, we do not let the people know that, and that is one of the ways we keep the peace. We act as a scientific organization, some grandiose asset to the island, always making progressive breakthroughs and improving the quality of life for the people. It is not difficult to keep their respect; every once in a while we release to them some of the discoveries we made fifty years ago to keep their lives interesting. And without knowing that we are in charge, they cannot hold us accountable when things go wrong.

"Now, we have the King's court established in District One, and his council members who are said to represent the voices of the people. But they are mostly all actors, much like The Pretenders were on the stage. The King himself is particularly useless; he does not have the jurisdiction to do anything, and is only there to moderate the council. Solaris is the only organization with any power here. And so when things go wrong, the districts do not blame Solaris, and they do not blame the King, but they blame themselves. I had the pleasure of reading the minds of many creatures who had been affected by the meltdown, and they were all quite similar: 'Oh, if only we had elected council members with more competence! If only someone could have known about the fissures!" they all thought. As for Solaris, we were only seen as the noble heroes who used our power to contain the damage and to keep it from spreading to other districts. We were left blameless. This is how we keep the freedom to do whatever we wish, and regardless of the consequences, there are none who have the sense to oppose us."

I told her it was quite brilliant and efficient of a system, but as soon as I said it, I tasted an uncertain thought. Something about her statement seemed flimsy. Something about the way she had said it with such confidence nearly made the hairs stand on my spine. After a moment's hesitation, I said to her, "Are you certain that you are completely uncontested?" to which she replied, "Yes, quite certain. We know everything which happens upon this island. If anyone would even have rebellious thoughts against us, we would know in days."

I said to her, "On the night we first met, there was someone who told me otherwise." And I produced a certain coin from the fold in my scarf. I was about to begin explaining its significance to her, but she snatched it from me and squinted at it, demanding, "Where did you find this?" And I only said, "It was given to me by a Bisharp who approached me on the street the night we attended Stormlight. She claimed to represent a resistance movement called the Penumbra Society."

Her mood changed at once, and she became very stern. She flipped the coin back in my direction, saying, "There appears to have been a grave misunderstanding; please follow me."

So together we left the fifteenth chapter of the Fellowship completely, delving even deeper into the central halls of Solaris. With the chapter left behind us, the halls turned into something very forlorn and unremarkable. The very central hub of the entire facility was only a large circular hall, nearly half the size of a city, which provided branching passages to all twenty-six of the chapters. The hall itself was dark and unfriendly; it smelled of metal and paint, with its structure made of something like gray concrete putty adorned with nothing. The eerie silence seemed to carry far-away echoes of even the smallest noises; I could easily hear the footsteps of other creatures who followed somewhere behind us, and the sound of a single closing door was as a firecracker. After feeling so welcomed by the wealth and homeliness of the fifteenth chapter, the core of building seemed to me like we were traversing the small intestine of some mountain-sized creature, and it caused me to become skittish and annoyed, as though I was only now feeling the pressure of the great lake pressing down on my back.

As we marched clockwise around the great circular tunnel, I noticed how we passed several openings to the left – certainly they were the gates to the various chapters. I only noticed one conspicuous gate on our right side that led into the center of the circle itself. I decided not to ask about it, fearing that Charlotte was only focused on her own angry thoughts and would not like to reply.

Perhaps with some irony, there was no sunlight to be seen in that dreadful corridor, and no way to sense the passage of time. Our walk could have lasted all day, and I would not have known. After enough time to reflect on my thoughts, most of which were quite uncomfortable by now, we found the gate to the tenth chapter of the Fellowship. Charlotte stormed to the door and called out to someone, and a gatekeeper answered from the other side. "Send me Vignette, I know she is in there," she said to the gatekeeper. Before long, the door opened and a familiar Bisharp appeared before us.

The Bisharp was respectful but clearly alarmed to see us. I wondered if she was purposely ignoring me. "Is there a problem, overseer?" she said.

"I am here because I demand an explanation," Charlotte told the figure. She gestured to me with her tail and said, "This is our new highseer, Hyacinth. I was told that the two of you have already met. I would like to know what you hoped to accomplish by harassing her."

The metallic creature stared at me for a moment, then suddenly looked mortified. "Highseer?!" she said. "Nobody told me she was going to be a highseer! We haven't hired a highseer in ten years! I only saw her on the list of new hires, I thought she was only supposed to be a researcher working for you!" She rambled in her own defense, and I noticed her casting so many terrified glances to me, shaking as though she wanted only to run away and cower somewhere. Charlotte growled at her and said, "Can you imagine the embarrassment you might have caused to her? You could have gotten both of us fired!" and I realized that it was I she was terrified of, not Charlotte; it was I who would have been doing the firing.

At this point I realized, despite not knowing my way around the Fellowship yet, I outranked both of them, and so I knew they could not argue with me if I interrupted them. "Excuse me, I'm certain there will be no need to fire anyone," I said to the Bisharp, "but I would much appreciate it if you could kindly explain to me why you were posing as a spokesperson for the Penumbra Society."

"Oh, she was not posing as anyone, I assure you," Charlotte said with some bitterness, and sneered at Vignette. "She was only doing what she thought was her job, she was just not double-checking her targets before she approached them. The Penumbra Society is run by the tenth chapter of Solaris. They are meant to approach nearly all of us who would be hired, just not those who are to be hired in positions of power."

Upon hearing this, I swallowed hard. This had given me several baffling thoughts to untangle, and I tried not to show my bewilderment. To break the silence, I said, "I'm sorry, but I'm not quite sure I understand. Solaris runs its own opposition?"

"It is done in the name of security," Charlotte explained. "I hope you are beginning to see that we take our security quite seriously. Perhaps you would better understand if we were to show you how it works in person; I do believe the Penumbra Society is about to begin their meeting."

X - The Cult

We detoured through the tenth chapter, and I found it decorated very differently than the fifteenth. Tall scarlet curtains hung from the walls, and the ceiling was covered in a glass mosaic of the moon and stars. It evoked a very different mindset than the hall I had already seen, and at once I was consumed with thoughts of enigmatic cults and ancient prophecies. But there was no time to appreciate the mysterious hall, for we moved quickly past the chapter and through another underwater tunnel, and before very long we climbed a steep set of stairs and emerged into District Ten of Excalibur Isle.

This district had a very rustic design, certainly not as flashy or excessive as the Grand Hall District, yet there was still a haunting elegance to it. The roads were all cobbled, and each building was made of hardy stone sculpted in primeval patterns as though they'd been erected in a time before even humans had invented their apricorn capsules, and had remained standing ever since. Each building somewhat had the appearance of a church. The only modern accentuations were the ubiquitous lampposts, the same type which stood at the side of every street at the Grand Hall District. We ignored the quiet townsfolk as Vignette led us a ways into the heart of the solemn city, and we entered one of the stone buildings from the backside.

Undoubtedly, this building was a church. The upper level was crumbling and forsaken, with only a few broken statues to suggest that a marvelous shrine to the supernatural had once stood. I wondered momentarily if Charlotte's chapter had ransacked the place and hidden all of the wealth in her own hall's lobby, but I soon found that the empty chamber was only a distraction – much like the Solaris Fellowship itself, the true church had been built underground.

Together, the three of us came to stand at a balcony overlooking a gathering of elementals far down below who were listening to a monologue from some type of avian fellow. The chamber was dauntingly tall, with the floor so far below us, we could not hear anything aside from vague echoes of the bird's voice. Perhaps three hundred elementals were in attendance. Charlotte said, "I thought we might arrive on time for the daily meeting. See, here is Overseer Dogma, the Honchkrow, giving the daily address to the Penumbra Society. At these meetings, he tells a manner of motivational stories, and provides the members with updates on the constant struggle against the evils of the Solaris Fellowship. The crowd you see before him is perhaps three-fourths made of actors who have been trained by Overseer Dogma himself. The remaining one-fourth are genuinely concerned citizens who have been found all across the island and have shown a true initiative in wanting to resist against Solaris."

Vignette sensed my confusion, and told me, "Have you ever heard the saying, 'Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer'? This is the principle of the Penumbra Society. Alone, a single rebel can cause quite some annoyance to us. If multiple rebels unite, it poses a great security risk. And since we know we cannot prevent all citizens from growing to despise us and wanting to do something about it, we have merely created a place to put them. So we regularly hunt for these dissident citizens and we approach them, saying, 'Here is a group of like-minded individuals who want the same thing you do, come unite with them and make a powerful difference,' much in the same way I approached you. And once they join, we make sure they are kept busy with useless weekly meetings and meaningless news about grand rebellion efforts that never go anywhere. And we keep them from acting on their own accord by reminding them that everything should be done in coordinated group efforts."

Charlotte further explained, "There are several branches of the Penumbra Society stationed all across the island, and each branch is discouraged from contacting members of the other branches – for security purposes, of course. Thus, each branch leader can tell extravagant lies about the accomplishments of the other branches, and the members are left with no means to verify their claims. Therefore, the members are left with the proud misconception that the Penumbra Society is continually moving forward with a historic rebellion and that they are a part of it, when in fact the entire purpose of the rebellion is to ensure that the true threats remain utterly disarmed."

As I listened to this explanation, I must admit that I felt a passing wave of bitter sympathy to all those who understood the true evils of the Solaris Fellowship and harbored a desire to fight back; in truth, there was no hope of fighting back, and there was nobody to turn to. Excalibur Isle had been utterly lost, and aside from simply leaving the island altogether, there was no way to save it from the will of Solaris – from the will of the highseers such as myself. But the wave of sympathy was soon gone, and I grinned to my companions and said, "How ruthlessly efficient; I'm quite impressed." Vignette responded, "Yes, we've had centuries to perfect our methods."

I gave the Penumbra coin to Vignette, and she returned to her station at the Solaris headquarters, leaving Charlotte and I alone in the streets of the ominous city of stone. There was a certain beauty to the architecture of this place, and I could tell that it had its very own culture which the townsfolk must have worked quite hard to preserve through the centuries. But I found that I could no longer appreciate it, just as I could not appreciate the gold-studded gladiator's mansion or the visage of the city as it glimmered brighter than the stars – after learning of the true motives of Solaris, and the full extent of their power over the entire island, I could not see them as majestic things any longer. I began to wonder if they were all merely toys, things that the Solaris Fellowship used only for their own amusement with no regard for their intrinsic or cultural value.

But on the other shoulder, they were now my own toys as well; I began to peer at each cobblestone lodge and street-side dealer as if I owned all of it, as though it were all my rightful inheritance, things I might freely meddle with, and with no consequences to my actions. After all, if I were to detonate a bomb on accident and kill thousands of townsfolk, it apparently wouldn't matter to anyone, and I wouldn't be blamed; the townsfolk had all been bred and raised to turn a blind eye to tragedy. In thinking about it, I began to feel a sense of unprecedented freedom. I could do whatever I wished! The question now was, what kind of play did I want to write?

In a moment of whimsy, I asked Charlotte, "What if the Penumbra Society is publically outed as a fraud? Would we create a new, more secretive society for the same purpose?" Charlotte laughed again waving her spangled tail at me, and explained that Penumbra has been outed as a fraud more times than she could count, but the townspeople refused to accept it, and continued to believe in its stated purpose. "Just like the meltdown incident," she said, "the rebels themselves don't understand how to accept the truth that we control Penumbra. They cannot fathom a world where there is no hope to fight against us. Therefore they reject that possibility and insist on believing that Penumbra is still the champion of change that they wish, because it is the only world-view that won't lead to a dead-end. Reality is not designed to be understood easily, and people will always choose to believe the simple lie over the complicated truth."

She then invited me to try something: she wanted to see if I could convince any of the townsfolk of the truth. She told me that most of the townsfolk of District Ten were involved with Penumbra in some way, and told me to try convincing them of the grand con. Intrigued by this challenge, I pulled aside a Delcatty and I said to her, "I'm sorry to bother you, but are you aware that the Penumbra Society is only an instrument of Solaris?"

The pompous kitten rolled her eyes in our direction and said in a groaning voice, "Oh, not you people again. Do you have any proof?" I answered, "Proof? What kind of proof would you like?" She said in return, "Don't ask me, you're the one making the claim!" She wandered away a few moments later, muttering something to herself about "those useless skeptics." I snorted in her direction, and Charlotte encouraged me to try again. "Don't hold back," she said. "Get creative. Show me whether or not you can get someone to believe the truth."

So I straightened my shoulders and sauntered down the road with my head and my tail held high, acting as though I owned the city and everything within it. I then caught the attention of a Vigoroth ambling by with a bag upon his back, and I spent a moment probing his mind to find a statement which would catch his attention. I said to him, "Excuse me, but may I have a moment of your time? My name is Sunny, I'm a double-agent for the Solaris Fellowship and the Penumbra Society; I recently discovered that the Penumbra Society is completely controlled by Solaris, and is only designed to keep an eye on its enemies. I am trying to spread the word."

The little thing looked at me as though I had just murdered his whole family by delaying his afternoon commute by a few seconds, and he said, "Right, like I haven't heard that one before. Why should I believe you?" and this time I said, "I've brought my friend here with me, she is an overseer of Solaris, and knows quite a few things about it." And I cast a sideways glance at Charlotte, and saw that she looked quite surprised at my little stunt, but I could tell that she was willing to play along. The Vigoroth then said, "Oh yeah, how do I know you're a member of Solaris?" and my Espeon companion stepped up next to me and calmly said to him, "I know many secrets about Solaris. Our main headquarters lies at the bottom of Excalibur Isle's central lake, and we have entryways into it through each district."

The sloth only gave a disgusted snivel and said, "Nice try, but everybody knows that. That's no proof. Good luck trying to con people." And he made a hasty exit. I shrugged and turned to Charlotte, saying, "Well, I think he had a point. You can't provide credibility just by saying something that everybody knows. Otherwise, I suppose everyone could provide the same level of credibility. Next time, why not tell them something only a Solaris officer would know?" She chuckled and said, "As you wish, highseer."

It took some effort getting another townscreature to pay attention to our solicitations; many of them only wanted to ignore us, and many pretended not to see us, even though I read the very top of their minds and saw that they were avoiding a discussion. But we managed to flank a Mudkip so that he could not immediately run away, and we repeated the same script to him. Of course, he was skeptical and asked for proof. Charlotte wore a knowing smirk, and said, "Here is a secret that not many people know: the tragedy of District Five was the fault of Solaris. We've tried to cover it up so that nobody would blame us, but it was caused by an experiment gone wrong using magma and geothermal pressure. Solaris is responsible for all of those deaths."

The water-type stared at her for a moment, blinked, and replied, "How do I know you're not lying? Got any evidence for that?"

Somehow, this was a response I was not expecting; I didn't stop to consider that perhaps, after we had attempted to provide credibility, and evidence for the credibility, that he would still expect evidence for the evidence for the credibility. Of course, we had none that would he would find satisfactory, so we let him go, and I began to wonder if any persuasion method would possibly change someone's mind.

"Are you beginning to see the pattern?" Charlotte said to me in a singsong voice, endlessly amused as she watched me fit the pieces together. I blankly followed some townsfolk with my eyes as they meandered by, and I replied to her, "None of them will listen. They will just keep asking, 'How do I know that? How do I know that?' until they ask a question that we cannot answer, and they will take that as evidence of our fallibility and disregard our point." Charlotte then told me, "Yes, because you see, it is the nature of the mind that the overwhelming majority of knowledge itself is based on not truth, but trust. There are only so many things you can verify by your own accord; everything else you've learned is because you trusted someone else to tell you the truth. How do you know that the ocean is ten thousand meters deep? How do you know that the world is four thousand kilometers in diameter? How do you know that Daniel Stormchaser or St. Jasper the Great, or even Solaris Rai actually existed? These are all things that you cannot see with your own eyes, and so you cannot reliably verify them. But they are things that others have written in books, and everyone seems to agree that they are true, and so you've chosen to trust in the credibility of those writers."

And she motioned to the nearby townsfolk and said, "You cannot convince them of anything because they have already decided upon who and what they trust. They trust their families and their friends, and they trust Penumbra. And perhaps most of all they trust themselves. We are considered outsiders with foreign ideas who haven't earned their trust, and so they question what we say until they are able to reject our ideas. But as you can see, this poses an interesting existential dilemma: it is possible for a truth to exist that cannot be reliably proven. If I were to cut out your eyes, and for the sake of argument remove your capacity for telepathy, nobody would be able to prove to you that the sky is blue. It would not stop the sky from being blue, but it would become a truth that you are unable to verify for yourself. You would need to trust the word of someone else, and if the one whom you chose to trust is lying to you, then you will never know. This is the same dilemma that keeps Penumbra safe from their suspicions; the rebels have had their eyes cut out, and they are blind to our treachery, and so they can only listen to what they are told."

Thinking about this, I instantly remembered my own siblings and the thoughts I had seen within their minds once I had evolved. It was the same principle I had learned about them in the last days before I needed to leave them behind; they rightfully trusted themselves above all other things, and I had failed to earn that trust before attempting to change their minds. And now I learned that Solaris had not only come to that conclusion long before I had, but they were using it to manipulate hundreds of minds. The truth was there, always right in front of their face, and yet it was not shaped correctly to fit in with their notions of the world, and thus could not be accepted. It was gorgeously evil. A simple lie would always prevail over a complex truth; therefore, in order to hide a truth, it needed only to be made more complex than the lie behind which it would hide.

Once Charlotte had given me far too much for my mind to digest at once, she said, "I must be returning to the laboratory now. Congratulations on your new career. Feel free to gather your things and return to Solaris whenever you are ready, we have a room waiting for you. Then, I shall begin the process of training you to be a highseer. I understand if you wish to take a few days to say your goodbyes to the Shadowmancer." And at that point, I almost let her walk away, but I called to her at the last minute and said, "One last question. What if I decide I don't want this?"

She looked appalled at the suggestion. "What, you want to change your mind?" she said. "It's getting a bit late for that, miss Hyacinth. If you still wished to reject our offer, I'm certain we could arrange something, although it would likely involve a painful erasure process and permanent brain damage. Honestly I should hope that it would not be necessary at this point; you would make a fine leader here, we are all happy to have you on board." And then, as though an afterthought, she added, "And please, for your own safety and sanity, don't try to leave the island without the approval of the other highseers. You can't; it is surrounded by a force-field. The only way to pass through the field is by train, and we carefully watch everyone who boards the train. You may have noticed that the rest of the world has light crystal technology; that's because an overseer once betrayed us and smuggled it off the island. So we've had to tighten our border security to prevent another incident. I trust you'll understand."

"I understand," I told her, feigning confidence for the final time that day. "You have been nothing but kind to me. I will certainly consider your offer."

"You are a queen now," she said, whipping her tail brooch at me. "You'd best think carefully before abdicating your throne." She then left me to wander home, and I felt the chill of an oncoming storm tingle across my back. In truth, even though I could not say so to Charlotte, I was still not sure what I wanted.

XI - The Resolve

It took me the better half of the evening to stumble back to the Grand Hall District; I had to follow closely to the shoreline of the lake to minimize my walking time, and I followed the instructions of the lamp posts very closely to ensure that I would not detour into a filthy industrial zone. But I was driven by only one desire: I needed to see Elliot again, the only sane individual on the island as far as I was concerned, and to pour my heart to him. Whether he could advise me or not wasn't any of my concern, I found for the sake of my own mental stability that I needed to hear his voice and to let him help me carry my burdens. It was all that I wanted at the time. I ignored all distractions on my journey back to the mansion; the gemstones in the jewelry stores had lost their luster to me, the bakeries smelled like manure, the music sounded like strangled birds. I could not look another townscreature in the eye, and I bit my tongue whenever one of them mentioned something about "the Shadowmancer's girlfriend." I could not imagine how rumors could spread so quickly in this city, but it was beginning to infuriate me and I only wanted my privacy from the gossiping onlookers. They had no right to judge me.

I arrived late that evening, around the time Elliot and I had first seen the city at night, and I found that the wonderful Umbreon had been waiting for me at the door, even after his teammates had long since retired to their rooms. He welcomed me warmly, and at first I could only bury my forehead into his neck and breathe deeply, and he put his paw around me and held me closely. It felt wonderful to simply relax and to catch my breath after everything I had seen and done that day, and for several minutes we stood together without saying a word. When I was ready, I collapsed onto his bed and I told him everything, sparing not a single detail. The failed candidates, the underwater tunnels, the slaughtered test subjects, the truth of the meltdown, and the phony shadow cult… it all came out of my mouth in some order, and I reveled in the catharsis as I listened to myself speak.

Once my story was finished, I remember that I was laying on my side, very exhausted, and I said to him, "It is strange; in all of the years I spent imagining my future – as a scholar, a teacher, a clairvoyant – not once did I ever envision myself as a villain. Yet the die of fate has been cast, and here I am; this is apparently my destiny."

And then Elliot, the sappy soul that he was, he cuddled beside me and nudged my cheek, and said, "You know, you would make a beautiful villain."

I turned to glare at him, asking with my eyes whether or not he was crazy. He recoiled and said, "What? You honestly think any of that bothers me? Me, the one who beats up and publically humiliates my enemies for everyone's entertainment? There's a reason some people still call us 'evil-types.' I actually killed someone once or twice, too… sometimes you hit someone too hard, break the wrong bones, and sometimes the healing beams don't work fast enough, and… yeah. Just like that, they're gone. And all you can say is 'oops.' But that's an occupational hazard. It's tragic, but sometimes it's just part of the job, and you've got to train yourself not to be so sensitive to it."

I said, "But deaths in the arena are different. They happen on accident, and it's an inherent risk the contenders must accept. Solaris murders elementals in their experiments and they don't see anything wrong with it." And Elliot only said in reply, "Yes, but how many lives do their studies save using what they learn? How much good has come out of their inventions? I'm not saying that it's an easy decision to make. It's a very hard decision. But I think somebody's got to have the gall to make the hard decisions. And maybe that could be you."

When he spoke these words, I remember that my body was wracked with such a violent, pleasant shiver. I realized that he was far too supportive and accepting of me, far more than I deserved, and that I likely could not say a single word to him that would lessen his opinion of me. His love for me was unconditional; I could come home one day and tell him that I had saved the lives of a hundred townscreatures, or that I had murdered them, and either way he would congratulate me for my strength in doing what I believed to be right. It nearly brought me tears of happiness, and it was that moment when I began to understand that I belonged with him, and that I never wanted him to leave my side.

He said, "Do whatever you feel is going to fulfill your greatest potential. You could become the most beautiful arch-villain in the history of this island. Or you could be the most beautiful rebel leader. You could be anything you want. All I know is that whatever you're going to do, you're going to do it beautifully."

I nearly cried, but I stopped myself. It was not the time to cry. But in a great moment of weakness, I whispered to him, "Elliot, don't let me go."

And he pressed his paw against my chest and he tightened his hold on me, and he whispered back, "Never."

I slept long and soundly in his embrace, and my mind became very clear. I felt as though my dreams spelled out all the answers for me.

And I remember that I woke up in the middle of the night, and I felt Elliot's paw still clutching me so tightly that I had woken him with only a twitch. "Are you alright?" he said.

Though I was turned away from him so he could not see, I grinned with such glee; I was alright. Indeed, I felt magnificent; my thoughts had fallen into such a perfect order that had chased away any insecurity I had. "I know what I want to do," I said to him. "I'm going to join Solaris. I'm going to be the arch-villain, greater than any this island has ever known. I'm going to accept the job. And I will own it."

XII - Storm Light

At the following dawn, I packed all of my things into my saddlebags (save for some of the bulkier items I had purchased from the city), proudly wore my scarf, and I bid farewell to the Umbreon and his delusive teammates—but not before promising them I would return once a week to partake in a match of Dreamcatching with them, as after all I had threatened to pose a challenge to them, and I was not about to step down from it. Besides, I needed an excuse to speak regularly with Elliot, as I suspected I would need his support in sorting out my thoughts whenever they might overwhelm me.

I remember that morning so very clearly; I remember it because it was the day that I forsook my vocation as a teacher, someone who wished to enlighten and inspire those who listened, and instead chose to embrace my new role as a deceiver. All of those townscreatures around me were ignorant and brainless, and teaching them was no longer something I would concern myself with – instead, I would help to ensure that they would all stay the way they were, so that Solaris might work more efficiently. I remembered the empty sky, the ominous red sunrise of the early morning which signaled a storm front somewhere – I remember glancing back at the mansion as I followed the walkway, and I noticed a wild Natu scatter from the roof, as though to symbolize my betrayal of the proper psychic-type nature and the honorable principles upon which I had based my evolution. But I was resolute; I remembered what Elliot had said, that whatever path I chose, I would need to walk it beautifully, and so I set my sights on the road ahead and didn't look back.

When I arrived to District Fifteen, Charlotte waited for me. We met on the same pier, since that was the only nearby gateway to Solaris I knew. The elder Espeon looked quite pleased with herself, saying that she knew I would come: "When you study a mind closely enough, you will find that it is a chemical reaction with fully predictable results," she said. "We have been studying you closely since your second year at Ivorin when we first noticed you. I knew that you would struggle with the ideas I presented to you, and you would seek counsel, but eventually your mind would be changed. And here we stand today."

Perhaps I should have been unsettled by the implication that I had little to no privacy over the last six years, but I chose not to be offended. I was queen now, I needed to act the part. Charlotte said, "For your information, it was I who noticed you; you over-achieved in all of your courses, you were quite influential among your psychic groups, and you possessed an understanding of mind-waves that outmatched your instructors. Once you even thought that you should invent a new branch of parapsychology. I will boast and say that I was the one who submitted the petition to Solaris for you, and I pushed them to hire you as a highseer. So pardon me for being pleased that you have come this far." I bowed to her and thanked her for her consideration, although admittedly I was starting to forget the specifics of my accomplishments at Ivorin – it was though I was rapidly changing into a different person, such that the scholarly Espeon who would study the nights away was only a vague blur in my memory.

She then said to me, "To begin with, you must choose a new name for yourself. Here at Solaris, we are not known by our true names, much in the same way that some of us like to invent a new name for ourselves when we evolve. Can you think of something you would like to be called as a highseer?"

Without hesitating, I declared to her, "I shall be called Big Sister." It was a very good title, I thought; it was very strong, very intimidating and enigmatic, demanding of respect… and it was a name I already answered to since my earliest days as an Eevee. But Charlotte appeared very displeased with my decision, and radiated awkward thoughts. "That is a particular name you should not take," she said. "Please choose another."

I scoffed at her, and I said, "What, is it already taken?" She subtly dodged the question and said, "Perhaps you could say that. I suspect you'll learn the true reason soon enough, but it is not my place to say."

"Fine then," I said, brushing off the disappointment. "In that case, I shall be 'Stormlight.'"

Charlotte nodded and said, "Very well, Highseer Stormlight. Over the next ten years, you shall be given personal counsel by several of our overseers, and you will come to understand how our facilities perform their work. Of course, some of your instruction might not catch your interest, and you are free to ignore any of your training that particularly bores you. Our goal is to provide a framework for your own inspiration, so that one day you might use the resources at your disposal to direct your very own projects."

I told her that I had many ideas I would like to explore, especially in the realm of thoughts and creativity, things which teachers might use to better understand their students. I had always wanted to create a spell that would transcribe one's own thoughts into words, allowing anyone to create their very own stories effortlessly. Or perhaps a spell that would allow dreams to be recorded and experienced again. Or perhaps a sheet of paper which could be written upon, and erased, with only the touch of a paw. I began to ramble my ideas to Charlotte, wondering if she could assist me with my creative ventures, but she looked disinterested. "You need to be careful," she told me. "Whatever you create, it needs to be primarily useful to Solaris. Utility to yourself and the townsfolk must be secondary. Otherwise you might attract the ire of the other highseers for wasting our resources."

To demonstrate, she directed my attention to a nearby lamppost. "These posts are a project of my own chapter, and I am personally responsible for several improvements to the design," she said. "Project: Lighthouse, we call them. They are useful to the townspeople because they light the roads at night, and they provide many useful conveniences, such as giving directions and telling the time of day. Of course, they have become so commonplace in our cities that the townspeople cannot imagine living without them. But those functions are only secondary, you see. The primary function of the lamp posts is to read the minds of the townspeople. If anyone is standing in range of a crystal, their minds are illuminated completely, and we can hear all of their thoughts and view the images in the mind's eye, know their emotions, and also browse their memories. Furthermore, whenever someone contacts a lamppost telepathically, the entirety of their thoughts is recorded for later reference, so that we might glance back in time and analyze trends, watch the way an individual's thoughts might have gradually changed and determine what has caused the change. The lighthouse units operate in such a way that they their function is invisible and secret except to the Solaris members authorized to use them. And because they form a network nearly as large as the island itself, I might speak to a unit and ask for information contained by any other unit within the network; as we speak, I am casually inspecting the thoughts of a citizen in District Twenty." She stepped away from the lamppost and walked past me, saying, "Of course, he is only wondering what to have for lunch this afternoon. How typical. No one seems to have any interesting thoughts these days."

I continued staring at the post, marveling at its elegance. I asked pointedly, "Am I to assume that you have been reading my mind as well? And might I use these lighthouse units to read yours?" She said, "Yes, it is how I knew you would accept our offer. I have been closely watching your mind until the moment you showed up to the interview, but not since. Once someone becomes authorized to use the units for their true purposes, the units will no longer read their mind without their express consent. Solaris officers use them to communicate across long distances."

Again, something bothered me about the way she said this, as though she was not telling the full truth. I thought back to the recent past, both to things that Charlotte and Elliot had said, and I found a pattern. I told her, "When you wished to contact Vignette yesterday, you could not communicate with her telepathically. Instead, you needed to cross the chapter on foot to confront her in person. Vignette is a dark-type. Am I correct in assuming that these lighthouse units are unable to penetrate the mind of a dark-type?" She looked impressed that I had come to this conclusion, and she said, "Yes, that is correct. It is perhaps their greatest flaw. My chapter has been attempting to create a new version of the spell which will reveal a dark-type's thoughts, but Arceus has created dark-types to repel psychic energy so powerfully that it has been a trying challenge to break the barrier. But if I might, I could share with you a secret, so long as you tell no one:

"In truth, we have succeeded in enchanting a crystal that can break the barrier. It casts a temporary nullifying spell, based on a miraculous new psychic technique that humans have invented, to successfully probe a dark-type's mind. It is called Project: Renaissance, and currently it is only a prototype. There is only one thing stopping us from upgrading the lighthouse units to renaissance units: although they can read the minds of dark-types, as of yet it cannot be done secretly. The dark-type will always sense that something is intruding into their mind, and this for our purposes is unacceptable. The true purpose of the lamps would become clear to the townspeople, and they might begin to tear them down and cause a great mess. So we cannot deploy them in the current state, but we continue our efforts to find a combination of spells that will allow the renaissance units to work as seamlessly as their predecessors. Until then, we only try to recruit the dark-types to Penumbra to keep them all in one place."

I said to her, "Ah, the mind of a dark-type: one of life's oldest mysteries. And to think that you have come so close to solving it." Internally, my heart was simply racing. The people of this island truly had no hope of dismantling the prison which Solaris had constructed for them, not when we only needed to peer into a nearby lamppost and see all of their thoughts. It was beautifully tragic, in a way: an island full of creatures living what they thought was a glamourous and perfect life, yet it was all artificial and they would never know anything more.

I had always been fond of casual gossip, and at the thought of using the lampposts to instantly know everyone's secrets, my conscience was already in its death throes. I wondered if a conscience served any purpose when one's actions no longer have consequences. The precise moment it died might have been the moment when Charlotte asked me if I would like to try using the lampposts for myself.

Together we wandered around the Grand Hall District, and Charlotte taught me how to speak with the crystals and request information from them, and then for the sake of demonstration she gave permission to spy into her own mind. She did not let me very deeply in, only enough to engage in telepathy and exchange fleeting ideas, and in all it was not so different than my innate abilities as an Espeon. But then we wandered into the town's square where a festival of sorts was taking place. The park grounds crawled with rambunctious townscreatures. Traders gave samples of rare berries, and a troupe of singers bellowed loud, distracting melodies from a wooden gazebo. It was just the sort of formal gathering I should have attended if I were still interested in climbing the social ladder. I contacted a nearby crystal, and I began to survey the crowds to select my first test subject – but I never got the chance to choose one, because I had suddenly become the very center of attention.

It started when one tiny bird recognized me and shouted my name, and before I knew what was happening, a few dozen had crowded around me in admiration, begging me for their attention. They began barking questions at me, asking "Is it true that you are dating the Shadowmancer? Do you live in the lodge with him? Are you planning to have children?" Others said things such as, "Were you really hired by Solaris?" "Who wove your scarf?" "Which is your favorite restaurant?" And all sorts of ridiculous, useless questions about my opinions. It was the same sort of attention Elliot had tried to shield me from the night we stepped off the train, and I began to understand why – it was quite distracting, and really does not allow one to relax and simply be themselves.

While I was overwhelmed at first, I quickly learned to drink in the attention and to play along, giving a smile and a nod to whomever wanted one, and feigning interest in whatever they asked. I told them my favorite berry was the maranga, and that I quite liked The Pretenders, and that my scarf was a gift from a teacher, and that Elliot and I were merely close friends at the time with no certain plans for the future. I told them that my favorite restaurant thus far was the café on Magnificent Street, and that I was currently engaged in the new book by the human author Samuel Scott Drowsel, and that I indeed was now a member of Solaris with solid plans to improve the functions of the lampposts. Having said all this, I suddenly remembered that I had come to test those very lampposts for myself, and I decided to connect my mind to the nearest lighthouse unit and attempt to learn things about the townsfolk in a bit more of a direct fashion. I was not prepared for what happened next.

Without warning, there appeared before me a vivid explosion of information, as though a legendary being had detonated one of its mythical elemental attacks in the dark vacuum of my mind. The crowd around me became a prodigious library, filled with more thoughts and pages than I could hope to inspect in my insignificant lifetime; each memory, each individual sensation and perception of each creature around me was open to my unbridled curiosity. It was as though my clairvoyance had been released from a thousand binds I never knew existed. Flitting between the minds of the crowds surrounding me, I felt as though I could fly.

When I turned my focus on the contents of the thoughts, however, I found something else which deeply surprised me: they all shared one particular dominant thought, that I, this Espeon standing at the center of the crowd, was a stunning demonstration of a perfect elemental. There was not a single creature in that crowd who did not have a strong opinion of me; some adored me as a queen, others were fiercely jealous of my status and good fortune. Some saw me and thought less of their own mates, others thought less of themselves. "I want to be her," some said. "Look at how confidently she speaks. Look at how strong she stands, look at the intelligence behind her eyes. She must be something special if the Shadowmancer wanted to date her. Oh, what it must be like to have such a complete life, with the perfect husband and the perfect career here in the most perfect city in the world. I hope she notices me! I hope she casts her gaze in my direction! I need a scarf just like hers. I did not even know there was a berry called maranga, I must find them and acquire the taste! I did not know nonhuman creatures read human writing, is that really something people do? It sounds very sophisticated. I am a failure at life, I must ask her for advice. How would a lowly person like me ever show her my admiration? I want to know everything about her. I cannot stand the thought that I will never be as perfect as this Espeon standing right here."

And through it all, I did not know whether to feel flattered, or disgusted, or even envious of their simple-minded existence. Their vivid interpretations of my character truly were drowning out every other thought, and they had placed me on a golden pedestal in their minds, something they had reserved only for those they held the highest respect for, and only because of a chance encounter with an Umbreon I had met in Pommel Bay. I had suddenly become the most interesting, respected, and important creature in the city! But I began to realize, as I glanced from one thought to another in someone's mind, that they only idolized me because they had nobody else to idolize except for celebrities, because there was some kind of emptiness inside of them, an inability to look around and see perfection in anyone else. I was only the newest in a long chain of fleeting appearances by various public figures over time who had captured the hearts of the crowds. It would only be a matter of months, or perhaps weeks, before someone new would steal the spotlight from me – but until then, I knew that it was not just Elliot who loved me. Everyone loved me.

It is a bit difficult to describe, especially to a non-psychic elemental, the sensation of connecting to another's mind so completely. It is a bit like stepping into someone's home invisibly, and simply glancing about, shopping as though at a jeweler's. I can see the person there, I can see where they are directing their attentions, and I can see a variety of pictures and mirrors which reflect their perceptions of the world around them. But I can also look at their mind as a whole: I might open any book, glance inside any drawer I wish, and come to know them better than they would know themselves. It is a complete and perfect violation of privacy, and I also learn many things about the subject which would prove embarrassing if leaked in public, such as who they hate, who they desire as a mate, who they suspect as a criminal, these sorts of delicious things. Such an intimate intrusion is not generally possible unless attempted by a psychic of impressive skill and presence, such as an Alakazam, a Delphox, or perhaps Lugia herself. The best I can do, under normal circumstances, is to draw near enough to my subject that we may touch at the forehead, and even then I can only obtain an imperfect connection.

The lampposts, however, made the process completely effortless, and I could glance about the minds of the townsfolk as though glancing between words on a page. It brought to me a frightening rush of power, a sense that I owned everyone around me. Indeed, I could not probe the mind of a townsperson so completely and then not view them as something beneath me, as though they were my pet and I should chain them to a fencepost for my own amusement. When you can see the entire contents of a person's mind, that person belongs to you, in body and in soul; you have full control over them. You could speak a single word to make them happy, or to ruin their life. You could speak a single word to convince them to perform whatever action you wished. All because you can see the cause and effect happening before your eyes. And so the people, they became less than elementals to me: they became insects, as though every day I walked through the grand city, it was as an ant mound, with ants scurrying into holes, carrying foodstuffs and eggs, each busy with their assigned, pre-programmed chore. Their desires and their dreams became remarkably puny, and I quickly learned to laugh at them.

It became something of an addiction for several weeks after first connecting to the lamp posts to just walk the streets, or to stand at the walls of people's houses, or to sit in the public garden and just enter minds at my own whim. Oh, the gossip, the drama, the amusement of so many personal problems that were not mine… it was an infinite source of entertainment. I could have written twenty unauthorized biographies by the end of the first week alone, and they all would have been bestsellers. But it made me think, especially one night as I retired to my personal lair within the fifteenth chapter of Solaris, whether mind-control was something that had been thoroughly studied. After all, why simply observe the ants move about the mound, when you could move them yourself? Why not cause some drama here and there that otherwise would not have happened, and make things interesting? It would have been something useful for Solaris as well, I suspect: if we could directly influence and control someone's actions, it would remove quite much of the complexity from politics. And so I brought the topic up with Charlotte the next time we crossed paths.

"You need to be careful," she said, looking displeased with me once again. "Psi-based hypnosis is a controversial subject, even for Solaris. It has been studied before, but we generally do not rely on it, because it has one great flaw: namely, it is traceable. When someone is hypnotized, a cursory glance over their mind will make it obvious that they are not acting of their own will, much like if someone tried to disguise themselves by wearing a burlap sack over their head. It has been studied as a triviality, but it is quite impractical."

And so I said, "Could we possibly invent a form of mind-control that cannot be traced? I believe I am quite fascinated by these ideas; this may just become my first project for Solaris." She scowled as though she had just eaten something quite sour, and she said, "We already study the more physical methods, such as using trauma to trigger dissociative behavior. It turns out that if you repeatedly alternate traumatizing a subject with giving them comfort and letting them recover, they will lose all capacity to make their own decisions and they will do whatever they are told. Visit District Nine sometime, they know more about brainwashing than I. But with psi-based techniques? You are wasting your time. You cannot psychically program a mind while also hiding the programming. It is like taking a page out of a book and stuffing it into another book, and expecting the reader not to notice. It simply cannot be done reliably or easily."

"Ah, but it can be done," I said, hoping I would impress her with my initiative. But she would have none of it. She turned her nose at me and said, "Take my advice, highseer: mind-control isn't a field you'd enjoy. Perhaps when you're older and you have a bit more of an idea of what you are getting into, but for now, may I suggest your first project for Solaris be something simpler? Why not invent a color-changing hat, or something?"

Two could play at this game. I turned my nose at her. After all, I was her superior! I could do whatever I wanted, and I liked thinking about mind-control. I decided I would make all the little ants dance for me. I would even infuse the functionality into the lighthouse crystals, so as to keep it hidden from the public, yet available everywhere. Surely, it couldn't be that hard? And even if I could not create a mind-control spell to the Fellowship's liking I could at least create something that would be available in an emergency. I was convinced it was possible.

Other than my passing thoughts about mind-control, I had a completely unproductive week, as I had done nothing but bask in my luxuries and squander my infinite funds on those scallop-biscuits I had grown to like at the fishmonger in District Sixteen. I had also purchased even more accessories, such as a broach which could store elemental energy as a battery, and a scarf which helped me to see in the dark. While the enchantment was decent, the scarf's design was wretched, with neon pink and yellow that looked more like a lollipop than an article of clothing. In the end I decided that my green scarf was still superior, and for perhaps a few seconds I even entertained the thought of creating color-changing wool, as Charlotte had suggested.

Shortly enough I arrived back to the contender's mansion as I would once the week, and Elliot as usual was very happy to see me. His companions had also grown to enjoy my company, and I grew to return the sentiment somewhat, as they all seemed more bearable than they were when we had first met. We talked idly about our jobs over a nice long game of Dreamcatching, he about how they had encountered another team at the central harbor and had a real showing-up of one another, and I periodically teased them about how powerful a figure I had become, and that nothing on the island would happen without my knowledge. Apparently I could not foresee Elliot's game plan, however, because he crushed me at our climactic clash for the central space on the board. But as I agreed to another game, I came to realize that I was no longer simply humoring them at this table; I was truly enjoying myself, and I knew that I would look forward to the chance to unwind with them every week, and to have a taste of the simple life every now and again.

Of course, the part of the night I most looked forward to was my private conversation with Elliot after the games were over, and how we would stay awake almost to the sunrise, quietly exchanging our thoughts as he held me close to him. It was not difficult to think of conversation topics, especially since none of Solaris's secrets remained classified between us. The first thing I said to him on that night was, "What if I told you that I could rig the semifinal match to make sure you won? Because I can; I could spy on the opponents for you, and tell you everything that they're thinking. Would you be willing to conspire with me?"

Elliot hummed for a moment, and I think he enjoyed the idea. But he told me, "Nah, we'd better not. Not that I deny being filthy cheater or anything, because I am… but cheating is something that needs to be done tactfully. If someone suspects you, there'll be an investigation, and investigations lead to more rules. We already have like four hundred rules we need to follow. At this rate, in a few decades, the contests will be reduced to us lightly tapping one another on the shoulder to see who gets bored first."

And then I decided to speak to him about something more personal, something I had debated bringing up to him. I said, "Out of curiosity, how would you feel about having your own mind read?" By the sound of his voice I could tell that he was very uncomfortable at the suggestion, and he said, "It depends. If it were you doing the mind-reading, I'd consider it. Otherwise, I'm not so sure. I'm a dark-type. My secrets are kind of my whole identity, you know? I wouldn't want them to be taken away. Just like your identity now is to reach into people's minds and steal secrets, my identity is to keep secrets nobody can ever see. That's just what we are. Weird to think that once upon a time we were both the same little brown foxes, isn't it? And the paths we've chosen have led us to become opposites of one another."

I told him I'd never read his mind, even if I was given the opportunity. I told him that he was more interesting that way. I felt him hold me more tightly.

XIII - Big Sister

I woke sometime past dawn, perhaps only three hours after Elliot and I had run out of discussion topics. I broke away from his embrace and I descended the stairs of the foyer. My stomach was demanding nothing less than a delectable breakfast at the most expensive bakery in a block's radius. But I found that someone had slid an envelope beneath the door, bypassing the mailbox as though it were a message of utmost urgency. I brought it to my eyes and turned it over, and I read the writing on the front: it said, "To Storm Light." I opened it with some hesitation, and I found inside of the envelope a scrap of some flat, solid substance like stone or tile. There were clawmarks engraved upon the surface, reading, "Don't do anything you might regret. Big Sister is watching you." And for the moment, breakfast did not sound particularly appetizing anymore.

Having been deprived of a full night's sleep, I stared at the message for a full minute before the meaning was clear to me. It was a threat! Someone wished to exert control over me from the shadows. My mind began to spin with thoughts: 'Who would threaten me? How dare they! And furthermore… how dare they steal the name Big Sister, the name I wanted for myself?!'

In a moment of clarity, I realized that whoever had sent this note, Charlotte had known about it weeks before – that's why she had cautioned me against taking the name. I knew that she would be hearing some questions from me. I even wondered if Charlotte herself had sent the message, and whether or not she was secretly this "Big Sister" with the intention of preventing me from proceeding with my research on mind-control.

I jostled Elliot from his nap and showed him both the note and the envelope it had come in, and he looked profoundly worried for me. "I think you made an enemy," he said, tracing his paw across the tile. "This is blackmail. I've seen things like this before. And they know your highseer name? You might have made an enemy in your own Fellowship. I'd be careful if I were you." I asked him how he dealt with blackmail, and he said, "Sometimes they send a warning like this just to get you worried, but nothing comes out of it. I've gotten all kinds of notes threatening me personally unless I throw the match or drop out of the tournament. Those are the ones I just throw into the fire and ignore. They'll stop sending them if you make it clear that you don't care."

I said, "It looks like this one won't burn in the fireplace. And it seems a threat to my own safety; this sender has gone far out of their way to learn about me. For all I know, they could be my own supervisor. It doesn't bode well if I'm not even safe within my own Fellowship."

He said, "Well, you're safe with me. If you ever feel uncomfortable, I want you to run to me, alright? Don't care if I'm in the middle of training or wherever I am. If you're at work and something makes you feel threatened, you drop what you're doing and come where I can see you. And if you can't find me, you run into this room, you lock the door, and you wait for me to come home. Got that? Whoever this is, they won't get through me."

I told him I felt fairly confident about defending myself under normal circumstances, but if I truly felt overwhelmed by a force of threat, I would do just as he said. "In the meantime, you keep reading everyone's mind," he instructed me. "And keep bodyguards, and I don't know, practice your barriers, or whatever you psychics are good at. You're a highseer, I'm sure there are things that you can do to help your safety. Meanwhile, I can keep an eye out for you. I think I can let the team know, and maybe the officials. We can ask around."

I thanked him for his support. Ironically, it wasn't so much that I felt threatened by the blackmail notice; I simply could not stop thinking, "You scoundrel, you were the one who stole my highseer title. I will get you for this."

Following my receipt of the note, my next week of work was similar to the previous, in that I gallivanted around town and abused my powers whenever I felt like it, only stopping once in a while so that Charlotte could teach me something new about the Fellowship's inner workings. On one particular day, Charlotte took me inside of her chapter's archive rooms and tried to teach me about the record-keeping process. It was all very boring and I could not have feigned interest to save my own life. I figured it best to let her keep the work to herself. I instead took the opportunity to casually mention the blackmail notice, expecting that if she were the culprit she would play ignorant and try to give me information only at her own pace. But it seemed I was mistaken; as soon as I spoke of it, Charlotte pulled me into the corner in a state of panic.

"It wasn't from Big Sister, was it?" she asked. "Not you, too. We've been trying to keep it low-key, but there is something wrong among the highseers. This has gone on for two years now. You are the fifth highseer to receive this sort of message."

I asked why we were keeping it quiet instead of alerting the entire Fellowship to the danger. She said, "Do not spread word of this. We suspect that someone here in the Fellowship is the perpetrator, but we do not know who. No one else would have all the information about the identity of the highseers and what our titles are."

"Not to mention where we spend the weekend on occasion," I added sourly.

"Yes, exactly," she said. "If it is truly a disgruntled overseer who is planning to betray us, we need to investigate them without their knowledge. If they know we are on their tail, they will make themselves quite difficult to find. Of course, I have my suspicions about who's doing this. I believe it's someone in Penumbra, possibly Overseer Dogma himself. He has been employed here since before the letters started. But it is not my place to accuse him. That is up to the highseers."

"To think after all this time, Penumbra really might have been a resistance movement playing us all for fools," I mused.

She nodded with a scowl. "All the more reason we are doubling our efforts on Project: Renaissance," she said. "Overseer Dogma and his closest followers are all dark-types. They could have kept the secret under our nose quite effortlessly. I suppose that is one downside to putting all of the high-risk dark-types of the island in the same place…"

Given what she had told me, I was not entirely convinced she herself wasn't the perpetrator. But the likelihood had dropped reasonably low, and I decided that I would continue trusting her for the time being.

Once I had shifted the conversation away from the troubling topic, I thought to inquire about any records which could help me to explore the field of mind-control. I knew that Charlotte would be most displeased in my interest – she had made it quite clear that mind-control was the forbidden fruit of scientific advancement, which to me made it all the more tantalizing – and I knew despite my higher rank she would move to impede my progress. Therefore, I was sure to be most subtle in my approach. I began by asking to acquire some samples of the crystal catalysts used in the lighthouse units. She said that her chapter had dozens on hand, but they were not to be squandered since they were in limited supply, and that her chapter followed stringent recycling procedures. But she offered me the permission to play with one, given that I could find some willing spellweavers to enchant it for me.

Though I could read all but the most advanced of spellprints, I could not reliably make my own enchantments from scratch, and so I would need assistance. I shamelessly abused my authority and I proceeded to pull two of Charlotte's researchers off of the Renaissance project for an afternoon, making them enchant a crystal for my amusement. (I knew that she would soon learn of my meddlesome behavior, but perhaps I wished to spite her, to show her that I ignored her rules in favor of my own.) By the end of the day, I had achieved a working crystal with a respectably versatile hallucinogenic spell. It could conjure a single image of an object, one at a time, into someone's consciousness. It was a poor mimicry of a Zorua's power, I suppose – except that a Zorua casts its illusions by bending light and sound, and that my spell would inject thoughts and sensations directly into a target's mind. I hauled the prototype device into District Thirteen, a tranquil region of parks and farmlands, and I unleashed it upon the unwitting townsfolk.

To my surprise, I could not hook a test subject as easily as I wanted, and many hours passed before someone had taken the bait. I had conjured the illusion of a sparkling golden apple, ripe and blemishless and perfectly irresistible, to replace a lamppost. The townsfolk, however, were not easy to deceive. Reading their minds, I found that most assumed it to be a hologram, or indeed a Zorua's trick, and they gave it no further mind. In the early evening when I was just about growing bored with myself, I finally got a young Trapinch to pounce on the apple and sink its teeth into the lamppost, and I seized the opportunity to observe its psychological response. To my discouragement, it was just as Charlotte had warned me: the apple was clearly injected artificially into the subject's mind, and several of its normal sensory processes had turned themselves off to allow for the apple to appear. In my meddling I had left a footprint about as visible as a scarecrow in a pumpkin patch.

I then understood the monumental challenge set before me: true, untraceable hypnosis would require delving deeply into the subconscious, perhaps even interfering in the flow of dreams. But I knew that I would not back down from the challenge, even if it would cost me decades of my life! If I wished to become the greatest arch-villain Excalibur Isle would ever know, and to walk this path beautifully, I would need to earn the status and accomplish something no other highseer before me had the patience for. Someday, I told myself, I shall be the puppetmaster queen, and none shall oppose me!

Not wanting the crystal to go to waste, I spent another week using it to prank the people of District Thirteen before begrudgingly dragging it back to Charlotte's laboratory. I remember conjuring images of ravenous, impossible creatures to chase some unwitting folks back into their homes – Clover would have been proud of me, I am certain – but I soon grew weary of my shenanigans and crawled back to Charlotte. She, of course, was less than amused, but what could she do? I was the highseer and she was not. Like it or not, she had to put up with me. And I would have told her so in the most sneering, insufferable voice you could have imagined, except that she had something quite different on her mind that morning.

The moment I returned to her laboratory and we met in person, she said to me, "I know all about your nonsense, but you'll need to put it on hold for now. There has been an emergency, and the highseers are calling a meeting. You will need to attend."

XIV - The Directive

Though I had served Solaris for nearly two months by that time, the oddity of not having met my fellow highseers did not quite sink in until that instant. I assumed that we kept our distance by some unwritten agreement, drinking from the same well of resources while minding our own business. And I imagined they were keeping track of me somehow, perhaps reviewing Charlotte's reports of my activities. But I was now struck with the staggering thought that I would need to impress them at the meeting, and all of them at once! And this was after I had not been the most productive of highseers, and certainly had not demonstrated any of my renowned skills for which they had hired me. I had only been goofing off, and no one had yet made a move to stop me.

Perhaps this was the move, I told myself. Perhaps they had called the meeting because they were displeased, and were voting to lynch me. I tasted apprehension, an old and familiar flavor, back from the night I had almost spent in the alleyway beside the inn. I was afraid for my future. But I was not so cowardly as I was that night, and I would not break down crying as easily. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps they were pleased with me and needed my help. Perhaps I would contribute something substantial to the meeting. There was only one way to know for sure.

In the short few hours I had to prepare for the meeting of the highseers, Charlotte briefed me, to the extent of her knowledge, on what to expect. The highseers met in the central nexus, accessed through an elevator in the circular hub which connected all of the chapters. It was the only corridor I had noticed branching to the right on the day we visited the Penumbra chapter. Though the highseers themselves were, in theory, equal in rank to one another, there existed a web of political connections of between them, and Charlotte warned me not to overstep my boundaries until I became included in that web. "Do not speak unless spoken to," she told me as I brushed my fur and sorted through my thoughts. "Keep your mind closed and guarded, and do not attempt to breach the mind of anyone else. Do not use casual language. Do not assume anything about any individual figure until you have listened to them speak. They know you are new, and they will be understanding of your ignorance, but you are still not yet considered one of them. Be polite, know your place, and I'm certain you can begin to establish a reputation among them."

I said to myself, In other words, this is my true job interview. Everything leading to this was only a game. I got myself in the door, now I need to get myself cozy with their little club. Depending on how many there are, this might not be too hard.

Charlotte promised she would lead me there by telepathy, and would be on call to answer any of my questions. But even despite all of her reassurances, and my attempts to reinforce my own ego, I felt very small and powerless when as I walked alone through that hollow metallic hall, soon to find myself staring at the nexus elevator.

The elevator was a very large mechanism, much larger than it should have been. The floor was a flat steel piston about fourteen meters in diameter, sturdy and spacious enough to fit perhaps twelve Aggron at once. My first thought was that Solaris had no use for a meeting room with an elevator this large; the chamber was surely enough to fit the entire cabal of highseers comfortably. When the door shut me inside I felt strangely cold and isolated, as though I had just been committed to solitary confinement. There was something about it which disturbed me deeply, some type of smell which lingered in the stale air that made my animal instincts skittish, and I decided I wanted out of there as quickly as possible. I connected to the electronic mind of the device and told it to carry me. It asked me if I wished to be taken up or down.

I said to Charlotte, The elevator goes down? I know that I go up to the nexus, but what is down?

Charlotte replied with dark thoughts. You do not want to take the elevator down, she replied. Trust me. I have never been there myself, but I know that it is not a place you should visit unless absolutely necessary.

I said, At the very least, would you mind telling me what's down there? You know that I am drawn to break the rules, so perhaps you should put some effort into convincing me not to pursue my curiosity.

I could feel her sigh. It a place called 'the dungeon,' Highseer, she said. Make of that what you will.

Of course, it was mostly a bluff on my behalf; I had no intention of visiting this 'dungeon' place, especially not when another highseer might shortly need to use the elevator and wonder about who is poking around in places they should not be. I could smell the stains of something like rotten flesh upon the floor, and I wondered if the dungeon was a place where creatures were sent to die in some far more gruesome manner than any of our live experimental subjects. Not wanting to have my dark thoughts entertained, I heeded Charlotte's warning for the time being.

Within seconds, the elevator aligned itself with the upper floor known as the nexus, the only place among all of Solaris open only to the highseers. I was about to glimpse upon the most secretive, powerful chamber in all of Excalibur Isle, and perhaps the entire world if the leaders of Solaris were determined enough to rule it. It was the place where decisions were made by the select few who held the power to control everything. I suppose I expected something on the level of any of the main chapter lobbies, or the gladiators' mansion at the very least, something befitting of the kings and queens of scientific advancement. You might imagine my surprise in finding that the nexus was a terribly humble place, something akin to the building's broom closet. It was a confined, poorly-lit chamber with no décor and no features except for a raised platform at the center of the room, and a singular lighthouse crystal hanging above to illuminate its surface. The same metallic smell from the hallways of the central hub was quite overpowering here, and a great weight pressed upon my back as though I had found the very focal point for the gravity of the great lake. Once I had come to terms with this underwhelming room, I realized with some amusement that I was the very first to arrive to the meeting, and I took my place at the many-sided table, claiming one of the sides for myself and eyeing the elevator corridor in wait for my powerful colleagues.

The first to arrive was a Highseer Candace, a young female Kadabra who did not seem as nearly stern or high-strung as Charlotte had led me to expect. She seemed very cheerful and outgoing, and upon entering the room she immediately came to speak with me, taking her place at the table just to the left of mine. "Ah, Stormlight, is it?" she said to me with a smile of approval, "I have been hearing Charlotte's reports about you. Quite the maverick you are. If you ask me, everyone here is so boring and fixed in their ways. We need more leaders like you who are willing to ignore everything they're told and move in their own direction. Solaris could not have come nearly this far if it were not for those like you. If I have the time, I think I would like to be your next mentor after you've made Charlotte fed up with you. Don't let anyone else talk you into it, alright? I think you and I would get along very well." And strangely I found I could not come up with a reply so easily; she had not asked me any open-ended question, or inquired to know anything about me. She had only made statements about me, as though she only enjoyed hearing herself speak and state her ideas as facts. (Truly, we were of similar minds.) I thanked her politely and told her that I very much approved of everything I'd seen, and was excited to begin shaping the world in my own image.

Highseer Candace said to me, "Don't tell anyone else I said this, but the others don't quite approve of you just yet. They all thought it was too soon to replace Ryle. But I see something in you that tells me you might just be crazy enough to fill his shoes. So if they start talking down to you, don't let them get into your head. I'll stick up for you."

I said, "Thank you, I much appreciate it, but who is Ryle? This is the first I've heard of him. Was he a former member of this council?"

She stared at the ceiling as though peering into the distant past, and said, "Yes, Ryle was a good friend of mine. He left us a couple of years back, just got up and quit one day, didn't even say goodbye. He always had disagreements with the others, so I guess he just got tired of trying to make us all see things his way. It's a shame, really. He had some good ideas. And if there's one thing I hate, it's seeing good ideas go to waste."

Overall we spoke for about thirty minutes, with Highseer Candace doing most of the speaking and I doing most of the listening. I learned much about the Gardevoir known as Highseer Ryle. He was heavily invested in projects within District Five, and enjoyed splicing the genes of plants to make agricultural breakthroughs, and had invented several new evolutions of common berry plants that combined the medicinal effects of multiple berries at once, and others which would re-grow from the roots when cut down. His dream was to make medicine and agriculture into something simple and self-sufficient, something which the people could do effortlessly without supervision or stringent procedures. The meltdown incident proved to be his breaking point, as it washed away all of his life's progress in a sea of molten rock. I admit I felt quite bad for him when I heard of it; it's terrible to see so much effort and research go to waste so very suddenly.

I waited my turn to ask my own questions, but sadly I was not rewarded; the other highseers arrived suddenly, most on the same elevator trip. There were thirteen of us in total, a number to match the flat sides of the table around which we stood. I watched as they entered the room: two Alakazam, one Xatu, one Gallade, One Jynx, One Girafarig, Two Hypno, a Grumpig, and two others of species I did not recognize… watching their assembly only confirmed my suspicions that Solaris was highly selective about the types of elementals they hired. I mentioned this to Charlotte offhandedly, asking her if Solaris had ever hired a highseer who was not a psychic. That's a good question, she told me. Now that you mention it, I don't think I've ever met one. But it stands to reason; Arceus created psychic-types to keep the rest of creation in line. I doubt Solaris's hiring practices are by accident.

The meeting started in a very unceremonious manner. I expected the cabal to at the very least acknowledge the presence of a newcomer and to give me an official welcoming, but most of the highseers cast me disapproving glances or avoided eye contact with me entirely. Their mind-waves were all very intimidating and unpleasant, and I withdrew from them like a coward, giving up hope of making as good of a first impression as I had with Candace.

Highseer Aldridge, a gruff and daunting Alakazam, sent out a pulse from his mind, commanding us to silence ourselves and listen. I assumed that he was the one responsible for calling the meeting, as he seemed to be acting as the de-facto leader. "We have a serious problem which needs to be addressed," he said. "Something has slipped through the cracks." He then dropped a small broken tile onto the table, just like the one which appeared on my doorstep the week before. A gasp rose from several of the highseers, including Candace, and the rest seethed with indignation.

Highseer Daybreak, the Xatu, shook her head. "Ah, this would make seven," she said.

"Eight," corrected Highseer Halstead, a Hypno, as he motioned in my direction. "Stormlight received one just recently as well." And he turned to me and said, "Miss Stormlight, we have never met, but I am Charlotte's superior. She has been keeping me updated on your progress. She told me as soon as she heard you had been targeted by Big Sister."

I would have said something in reply, except Highseer Aldridge was sent into a raging fit by this news. "Stormlight arrived on the island only, what, three months ago?" he said, digging his fingertips onto the tabletop. "There is no reasonable explanation as to how someone could have known about her so soon. We must face the facts: there has been a great breach of security here. Something has been overlooked. And I will not stand any longer to have some rebels making a mockery of us. It is high time we came down upon this Big Sister and removed them from the picture. I have called this meeting today to discuss our options." As he spoke, his mind-waves were barbed and dark, as though he expected Arceus to enforce the very threats he made. So heartless were his thoughts that they physically stung me, I knew at once that this old feline was a tired and world-weary soul who had learned to love nobody and to see others only as tools for his schemes. I determined that I would never find myself on his bad side if I wished to live a long and happy life.

Highseer Reynold, the Gallade, spoke over him: "If you would ask me, I think there is only one assumption we might make about this 'Big Sister,'" he said. "It must be a band of dark-types. There is simply no other explanation as to how they could hide from us for so long. I guarantee, if you were to round up every dark-type on this island into a single room, Big Sister would be inside of that room."

Highseer Aldridge pointedly replied, "That is something we have already tried, and yet the threats continue to come. Argiope, keeping the dark-types in line is your job. How is it that you have failed to recruit Big Sister into Penumbra?" The other Alakazam responded blankly to the accusation and said in reply, "We've recruited all figures we've deemed threatening, according to the rules you set for us. We've missed nobody. It is possible that whomever the rebels are, they were informed of Penumbra's true nature by some means and have gone out of their way to avoid contact with us. We have not found them because they never appeared to be a threat in the first place. For better or worse, Big Sister knows what they are doing."

Highseer Candace said, "Maybe this wouldn't be a problem if Halstead would just finish on those dark-reader crystals already. Why can't we just use the crystals in their current state? We could find Big Sister in days." Halstead appeared absolutely offended by this and said, "Project: Renaissance is not ready to be deployed. How many times do I need to reiterate this? It likely will not be for another three years. It is crucial that the lamp posts need to function invisibly. We cannot deploy them until they are able to scrape a dark-type's mind without their knowledge or consent. That is, unless you want to see the whole island revolt in our faces."

As the meeting progressed and the greatest minds of my generation bickered amongst one another and attempted to delegate blame for something that was not any one person's fault, it became rather clear to me that I was not needed at the meeting at all. None of the other highseers had anything to say to me, or any questions at all to ask of me. I was only invited as a formality, and I had no role to play except as a witness to their quarrel. In fact, I'd dare say it was perhaps a bit discouraging to see them acting like such children, as though I was back in the orchards watching my own brothers and sisters argue and tussle over who had eaten the last sitrus berry. I wondered if perhaps the highseers had all inherited a position where nothing had ever gone wrong before, or at least on a scale such as this, and I wondered if any of them had a concept of problem resolution beyond merely complaining loudly until someone else would take the responsibility.

Of course, it was always me. I was always the one to take the responsibility. Nobody ever listened to me until the moment something went wrong, and then I was always the one who had to compensate for it. It was simply my duty as the elder sister, something which I had grown to accept. I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, Why stop now? And I seized the opportunity before me.

The highseers, all twelve of them, were appalled the moment I jumped onto the tabletop and made myself the center of attention. They all stopped talking at once, some giving me glares which said, "What is this rodent doing here, and who invited her into the room?" And the mind-waves they sent me were not much different in meaning. But I ignored it all and I stood at the center of the table for just a moment, drinking in the moment of tension I had created. It was a beautiful moment, knowing I had such a captive audience who would heed my every word. Instantly I remembered why I had wanted to be a teacher in the first place; this was something I loved. I relished every moment that I listened to myself speak.

And so I smiled assertively as I turned to make eye contact with each and every highseer, and I said to them, "I will do it. I will be the one to crush Big Sister." And just as I had hoped, they were all too stunned to reply. So I kept talking. "I might be new here," I said, "but I'm sitting here listening to you, and all I hear is self-entitled blather. As you sit here blaming one another for what should have been done differently, Big Sister is somewhere on our island, plotting her next move. They've issued a challenge to us. I had some projects of my own that I wished to explore, but it seems as though none of you are willing enough to take on this challenge, so it might as well be me. Give me full reign of the Fellowship's resources, and I will hunt down the rebels myself. And I will not tire until they are found." I paused for effect, and I stared Highseer Aldridge directly in the eye. I thought at first that my initiative had failed to impress anyone at the table, that is, until Highseer Candace broken the silence. She said, "You are bold, Stormlight. I support you."

Aldridge curled his nose at her, and said to me, "You have done nothing of use to us thus far. What reason do we have to place our trust in you?"

I responded by turning my tail at him and strutting back to my proper place at the table, and I said, "I suppose you'll just have to wait and see for yourself. But for now, let me prove to you that I am motivated: once I succeed, and every member of Big Sister is locked away in our laboratory awaiting lobotomies, I will take the name for myself. I will become known as Big Sister. After all, I am the firstborn of a very large family. All my life I have answered to the name, and I will not be satisfied until I have claimed it as my own title here upon Excalibur Isle. These are the stakes. Now, unless anyone has any objections, I believe you are all wasting the valuable time I could be using to hunt for our common enemy. May I be excused?"

Somehow, it worked. My offhanded request for "any objections" was apparently a cue to take a vote, and we went around the table and everyone professed that there were none. Even Highseer Aldridge begrudgingly agreed to my conditions. But in hindsight I know I should not have been so surprised; it is rare to find someone who would object to having blame shifted away from them. And so, the highseers agreed to direct any and all complaints about Big Sister to me, and the meeting ended about as soon as it had begun.

I exchanged a friendly word with Candace as we descended the elevator together, and I left the company of my colleagues knowing that, while I may have temporarily given up on my dream to mind-control the populace of Excalibur Isle, I was well on my way to something far greater. Perhaps destroying Big Sister would be my first act as the greatest arch-villain in the history of Solaris. And if not, at least I would finally have a fitting title for the role.

XV - The Breadcrumb Trail

I will say upfront that my search for Big Sister lasted twenty-three weeks in total, and that in the end I did not find what I was looking for. I found something else entirely, something which was very difficult to swallow and led me to complete my mental portrait of what Solaris stood for.

To begin with, I figured the most efficient way to chase Big Sister would be to trace them through their primary method of communication: the mail system. The post offices operated under the jurisdiction of Highseer Aldridge, and though I did not quite like the old feline as a person, he was cooperative enough to let me meddle in his business and implement my plans. I sent an announcement to the four mail-centers of the island in which I described a new policy, that every single outgoing envelope weighing five ounces or more would need to be silently transferred to the southern post office in the fourteenth district. From there, I could open them and see whether or not each one contained a blackmail shard, the sort of which Highseer Aldridge and I had recently received. From there, I figured I could trace the letter back from whence it came and commence an investigation at the point of its origin.

In theory, since the post office of the Grand Hall District was close enough to the gladiators' lodge, it would allow me to laze around in Elliot's room and plot my next move while I waited for the letters to trickle in. In practice, I found that I had far too much fun reading the contents of each and every letter I opened, so much so that I nearly forgot about the blackmail shards I was looking for. The heavy packages contained so many fascinating things, deeply personal thoughts and letters of love and hate, and even some arrangements of price-fixing schemes and other manners of business conspiracy. Casting my eyes upon things they were never meant to see brought me a new level of fun, just as great as the day I learned to properly use the lighthouses. Though reading minds was amusing in its own right, there was something special about seeing the townsfolk attempt to put their thoughts and feelings into their own words, something quite adorable. Checking the mail of Excalibur Isle fast became my favorite hobby.

I might have been happy forever, flitting through the contents of the envelopes and then sending them off to be re-sealed, except that one of the dreaded blackmail notices appeared early in the second month of my scheme and ruined my fun.

The envelope was addressed to Highseer Ramwright, a crazy old fellow whom I had grown to greatly dislike. (It might give you an idea why if I mentioned that he was a Girafarig who had amputated his own tail because he found it to be undignified. And that was not even half of what was wrong with that poor creature.) The blackmail notice was quite similar to mine, warning Ramwright to carefully consider his options because Big Sister was always watching. Unlike mine, it mentioned his true name ('Dozer,' for the record) and warned him that 'all bets were off' (which I'm assuming had something to do with match-fixing schemes he was involved with). I back-traced the sender and found it had passed through the northern mail branch of District One, and the letter itself had originated from somewhere in District Two. And so, the chase was on! At one final game night at the lodge, I told Elliot and his team that I was headed out on a business trip and would not be seeing them for the foreseeable future. The next day I contacted Highseer Argiope, the head director of the whole island-wide Penumbra Society, and together we set off to pay Big Sister a personal visit.

District Two was not a very active place, and seemed to be more of a retirement community than anything else. The thoughts of the citizens felt high-strung with politics and propriety, perhaps because the great castle of District One where the king and council members lived was only a half-day's walk to the east. The residential area was not large, housing five hundred at most, and I knew it would not pose too much of a challenge to comb the region for any lingering scent of the resistance movement. So Argiope gathered the followers he had brought and commenced with an aggressive recruitment campaign from the shadows, and I commenced with intruding into every mind I came across, every last mind in the district if I could help it.

At first there was no sign of anything amiss. The townsfolk went about their daily business with nothing in particular on their minds. For weeks, the only fascinating gossip of the town was the shadow cult who was supposedly recruiting members, and the visitation of a certain popular Espeon (a few of the younger ones wanted my autograph, or at least my approval). There were certain political issues at hand, like who should be the next candidate to represent District Two in the king's council, but none of these things mattered nearly as much as what would be for dinner each night. Eventually I grew bored with the meaningless and mundane lives of these elementals, and eavesdropping on their local gossip no longer amused me, and I wished to expedite my promotion to Big Sister… but the townsfolk were simply of no help to me, and I thought the trail had run cold. But one day I caught wind that someone, a green-colored elemental, may have fled to District Three around the same time Argiope and I had first arrived. I tried reaching into the next district with a lighthouse, but it provided no answers. And so, without telling Highseer Argiope or the Penumbra agents, I departed for District Three to begin my independent investigation.

District Three was a nature reserve for ferals, with a civil population even smaller than the last. I explored a temperate forest and a prairie, both quite reminiscent of my homeland, as I searched for any sentient mind which might provide me insight about this green fugitive. The landscape appeared natural and untouched, but the lighthouse network still covered the area – all the crystals were buried securely underground so as to not tarnish the countryside with their artificial light. Despite this, I could not find my target easily. I wondered what sort of green-colored elemental also had the ability to avoid detection by the lighthouses; I thought perhaps it was some recessive coloration of which I was not familiar. Perhaps it was a recessively-colored Espeon, for instance. I asked the conservation workers about suspicious activity, and I probed their recent memories to confirm their statements, but I could find nobody of any help. So I scavenged out in the wild on my own.

After a few days of camping in the forest and reliving the days of my youth, I found my target. It was only after noticing one day that I could not access the lighthouse network at all, and concluding that one of the buried crystals had malfunctioned and lost its enchantment somehow. I wondered if perhaps someone had nullified it on purpose; it was troubling at the time to think that the crystals could be so easily destroyed by the townsfolk. If so, it was truly vital to keep their function secret and unprovable. Once I found that I stood in a blind-spot where Solaris could not sense me, I scoured the whole area and found a civilized Grovyle sleeping upon a tall branch in the forest. Without the features of the crystal available, I needed to rely on the more rudimentary methods of mind-reading; I quietly climbed up the tree and positioned myself close enough to him that I could enter into his dream.

Upon synchronizing with the Grovyle's dream-state, I found myself standing in a town which I did not recognize. The lamp posts made it clear that I had not left the island, but which district I did not know. A disturbing feel lingered in the air, clearly an emotion from the sleeping Grovyle; this was a place he dreaded. There was an unseen horror lurking somewhere, its eye on everything.

"Are you from Solaris?" I heard him ask me in a disembodied voice. I turned around and found a young Treeko standing a few paces away. He was afraid of me.

I replied, "I am, but I won't hurt you. Are you alright?"

He shirked from me, but still hesitated, as though he was not yet ready to run away. The world began to morph around us both, the sky darkening with every step I took closer to him. "No, you found me… I can't believe you found me," he said. "I ran from you for so long."

"Why did you run?" I asked the child. It irritated me that I could not merely use a lighthouse to instantly know the answer without needing to ask. I wondered if I had lost my skills of persuasion because I relied on them for so long.

"Because you'll want me dead," he said. "If Solaris knows what I know, they'll want me dead."

"I'll be the judge of that," I said to him, "I'm not here to hurt you."

While I had started with the full intention of harshly interrogating this fugitive, I found myself too distracted by the dream I shared with him. Something was deathly wrong about it, as though the ground were about to open a pair of jaws below us and swallow us whole, and it made me sympathize with him. Perhaps he was Big Sister, perhaps he was not, but it did not matter to me at the moment; I genuinely wanted to help him. But he ran from me, using his dream-logic to teleport into the distance and sprint like the wind across a morphing landscape. With a sigh, I pursued him.

The dreamscape was actually very lovely: there were cozy little cottages everywhere, each with a perfectly square garden patch in the front yard. Some bird children were pecking berries from them, some quadrupeds ate their leaves. It seemed that everyone in this town was happy. I could feel the Grovyle's sympathy for them; they could not sense the terrifying things that he did. They couldn't see that the town itself hated them, and that the rays of the sun were cursed with an unseen darkness. He wanted so badly for them to see the danger, and to flee with him, but they could not be convinced. They only continued about their innocent little lives obliviously.

At last, after chasing him through several repetitions of the same terrain, I caught up with the Treecko as he stopped beside a water fountain. He clung to the marble ridge of the bowl and peered around it. "Stop," he commanded me, waving me over to join him. "Wait, no. You can't go there. They'll see you."

I said, "Who'll see me?"

He said, "Look, there it is," ducking behind the bowl of the fountain and pointing to the nearby edge of town where a few elementals wandered. "You need to hide. You need to hide or they'll see you." Growing quite infuriated with the dreamer's ambiguity, I did as he instructed me and I hid behind the fountain to watch.

I saw the figure of a Gardevoir walking from one house to another. It was looking for something; its eyes fixated on the gardens like it was searching for the most perfect berry. But something happened. A figure stood in its way. I held my breath, metaphorically speaking, when I recognized the figure who approached the Gardevoir: it was a Kadabra, one that I had made acquaintance with. It was Highseer Candace.

She said, "You know why I'm here."

The Gardevior acknowledged her and surprised me with a male's voice. "Perhaps I do," he said. "But I don't see what your objections are. These people need me."

"You either side with them, or you side with us," the Kadabra said. She then waved her hand and made the Gardevior fly into the air, landing with a crash into the central pillar of the fountain. Magical binds appeared around him, tying him to the fountain's pole. I ducked down as cold water droplets landed upon my face, giving me an unnerving chill.

The Gardevoir did not struggle. He only said, "I've served this Fellowship since before it fractured into chapters. I've worked here since before you were born. Who are you to say that what I've done is wrong? I've built this district from its roots. What have you done for the people, Candace?"

Candace ignored the question, and she said, "You have done far too much for these people. You have given them too much of our technology. What if this knowledge were to spread to the other districts? What if all the people on this island stopped relying on us to manage their farmlands and ration the food? You don't seem to understand. Our work is to make them dependent upon us. By giving them the tools of independence, you are undoing the work of Solaris and betraying us."

Ryle said, "I'm only doing what I have always done. I am moving these people forward."

She was stoic and cold, very different from the Kadabra I had shared a pleasant conversation with. She said, "Ryle, you are a relic of a bygone age, and you no longer have a place here. You are stuck in the days of the old Solaris and you refuse to adapt. The people mean nothing to us anymore, and if you side with them you are only getting in the way."

"The old age was glorious," Ryle said. "You were not there to see it. Look into my memories if you wish to believe. We built this island to be a paradise for the people. The people brought us our glory. Solaris never should have splintered into chapters and the highseers should have never been instated. I only agreed to become a highseer because I otherwise would have been stripped of the power to continue my life's work."

The Kadabra said back to him, "Well, Ryle, it is time to show you what we think of your life's work, and what we think of the people you've spent your life helping."

She turned to walk away. The trapped Gardevoir called out at the last minute and said, "Candace, you don't understand. There was a reason Solaris was not supposed to have highseers. We have too much power. If you keep craving more power, you will never be happy."

She said at last, "I'm afraid you're mistaken. I'm quite happy, just not with you." And she disappeared in a flash of teleportation, leaving the Gardevoir bound to the fountain pole, unable to dispel the magical ropes which held him in place.

The Treecko, whom I forgot was beside me, panicked suddenly. He demanded that I run, and he bolted away. I didn't heed his warning. Instead, I looked at the sky, which had turned a different color. It had become red. But I realized too late that I was no longer looking at the sky, but a tsunami of molten rock towering above the town.

In my own panic, I withdrew from his dream, and I was again sharing a branch with a sleeping Grovyle. In a moment of shock, I came to understand that the dream was a real event the Grovyle witnessed in his own youth. He was one of the few survivors of District Five's meltdown, and his terrible memories had sent him on the run from Solaris for the rest of his life. I knew then that he was not Big Sister, but just a wayward soul who should not have been left alive.

I remembered the conversation I had with Candace, and knew she had plainly manipulated me into a naïve friendship by pretending to be supportive. "Candace, you snake," I whispered to myself, tasting disgust and terrible regret for having ever consorted with such a terrible being. I began to see that, perhaps maybe, I was not cut out for the title of "greatest arch-villain" of Solaris. I already had plenty of competition in that respect, and I was not entirely sure anymore that I was heartless enough of a creature to play that role.

Before I left, I erased the Grovyle's memory of the traumatic event. I hoped that by doing so, I would relieve him from the burden of knowing the truth of the meltdown, and allow him to live more of a normal life without fear of being murdered by Solaris whenever he would let his guard down. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about me; I knew the truth would weigh upon my mind, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had effectively taken his burden from him. But I hoped that I had done what Ryle would have wanted, showing a small gesture of kindness to one of the last remaining survivors of his once-cherished people.

XVI - The Dungeon

My search for Big Sister continued for five months after my encounter with the Grovyle, but you might say that my heart was no longer in my work. I forsook the ambition to become Big Sister; I had realized that while I enjoyed entertaining grand presumptions of superiority, there still existed in my chest a heart of compassion, the heart of a teacher, and that I had lied to myself each and every time I claimed to have stopped its beating. I could not be the greatest, most beautiful villain on the island, not if it meant surpassing Candace and the other highseers in their murderous disregard for entire districts of civilians. I was someone who could not stand for wasted potential; I was one who lived to illustrate and cultivate potential. Candace was the type who believed that potential should be destroyed if it meant that hers would be increased. In her beliefs, I could see no beauty at all.

And so I pressed on with some fleeting intention of delivering upon the promises I had given to the highseers at the meeting, but I did not try very hard. In fact you might say that I sympathized with these mysterious rebels, and may have turned a blind eye to a hot trail every now and again simply to spite Candace and anyone else who might have been part of her disastrous plan. I wondered about the fate of whatever district we found to be harboring Big Sister; I wondered if they would be flooded with acid this time, or perhaps cast straight into Giratina's realm with a ghost bomb. And so I hoped not to find them wherever I went, and wished to see how long I could last by only pretending to play a role to Solaris.

Though it had taken a very long time, I finally understood the Fellowship I worked for: there might have been a day when Solaris was the crowning achievement of the elemental world, run by visionaries like Ryle who only wished to explore life's endless possibilities. But there existed some who wanted to rule for the sake of amusement or personal convenience. They hatched a cunning plan to take all the power for themselves, re-organizing the entire Fellowship to be ignorant and useless while they rose to command as the highseers. Once they had risen to power, they commanded not only the Fellowship but the whole island, and sought actively to spread their power to the lands beyond.

Under the rule of the new Solaris, the people could not have anything unless Solaris had more. Every single piece of technology we researched and developed was designed to rule and oppress. Nothing was designed with kindness or an inspiration for progress; such things were forbidden. Life was not to be happy for these people, not unless that happiness was to be given directly from the hand of Solaris. Independence was taboo and not to be mentioned. Dependence was law.

Knowing what I knew now, there was no hope that I could ever be happy as a highseer. The physical comforts, the gemstones and the clothes and the exotic food could no longer appeal to me. It was the same as dirt and bread, as far as I was concerned. But I kept going through the motions, offering the other highseers a progress report every ten days of the districts I had searched, and always discussing my plans for a more aggressive search using brilliant psychological traps. But it only lasted for so long before they caught on to my ruse.

On the second week of that sixth month, I received words that Highseer Aldridge had called another meeting, and he was very clear about why: I was to be taken off the case and a new plan was to be implemented immediately. I had failed.

You can imagine that I was not terribly thrilled to attend that meeting. In fact, I took my sweet time and I was the last to arrive; on my way to the nexus elevator, Charlotte informed me that all twelve of the highseers were already at the table and ready to begin the meeting. But when I entered the elevator car, I had a very insubordinate idea: since none of the other highseers were to use the elevator until the meeting's conclusion, and I knew precisely where they all were, then none of them would know if I were to take the elevator in the opposite direction and visit the so-called dungeon. It was too perfect of an opportunity to ignore.

Of course, Charlotte greatly disapproved of the idea, but my mind could not be changed. I was not about to wait for the next highseer meeting for a rare opportunity to visit the dungeon undetected. I stepped into the elevator and commanded it to take me down. Charlotte kept rambling to me: They will despise you for being so late. And I said, They already despise me for failing to capture Big Sister. What more can they do? Charlotte said, But that is all beside the point. I have never been down to the dungeon, but I know that you might not enjoy what you find down there. You understand that this is all on you.

The motors creaked and churned and made growling noises that frightened the infant fox somewhere deep inside of me. The chamber lurched and nearly entered free-fall. The lightheadedness and nausea was immediate, and I arched my back and dug my claws into the floor for a sense of security. Though I couldn't see outside of the elevator car, I knew at once that the earth was swallowing me alive, dropping me far deeper into some chasm than I could comprehend. The ride must have lasted some fifteen minutes at maximum speed, and I could already feel the very pressure of the earth upon me, threatening to crush my skull. This was an ungodly distance beneath the earth's surface, and I would have been surprised if even Groudon himself would have felt comfortable at such a depth. I wondered about the insane minds who thought of burrowing this far down.

The platform slowed to a stop and the doors opened, and the bright rays from the elevator chamber carved out the thick darkness before me. A repugnant scent of rust and mold struck me in the face, digging into the sides of my eyes and making them sting.

I stepped into some decrepit metallic hallway, and I pressed forward into the shadows. The hall was in absolute tatters, with panels dislodged from the ceiling and foreign objects collecting in the corners. When the rays of light from the elevator chamber became so faint that I could not see two steps in front of me, I lit the gemstone upon my head using a psychic technique I had learned many years before, and I found that the tunnel continued, nearly unchanging, very far into the distance. I was not about to waste the trip, so I quickened my pace and followed wherever it might lead.

Charlotte contacted me, which was surprising; I hadn't expected there to be any nearby lighthouse crystals, especially enough to network so far down into the core of the earth. She asked me if I had safely arrived to the dungeon. I told her I had, but that I hadn't seen anything of note. As soon as I began to feel comfortable talking with her, something slammed into a panel just ahead of me, causing me to leap a foot into the air. Upon closer inspection, I found that there was a creature of some sort peering at me through a window pane, and I hoped the window was stronger than standard glass. I squinted back at the creature, but I could not quite tell what it was, only that it was some sort of elemental, most likely a feral, judging from the laziness and lack of intelligence in its eyes. As I stared at it, I noticed that there were others watching me, pressing themselves against the window to glance at me as though I were some alien creature. I began to figure that the dungeon was a place for some chapter of the Fellowship to store their genetic experiments when they were not needed, and that perhaps these creatures were some attempt in creating new forms of elementals. But I was not satisfied with the ambiguity, and I disregarded them and continued onward.

After walking carefully for several more minutes, I noticed subtle changes in the air around me, and vibrations in the floor, as though large objects were moving somewhere just outside of the corridor. The smell was becoming worse; subtle hints of blood, mucus, and decomposed flesh became mixed with the thick dust, and I found myself breathing with my mouth in an attempt to block it away from my attention. The young fox inside of me was panicking now, and I found that my claws were drawn to their full length and would not retract, and that my footsteps clacked upon the floor in quite a distracting manner as I walked. I had seen test subjects before, and I had seen enough of them to grow somewhat desensitized to their plights, but what frightened me was the sheer size of the dungeon hallway. I could not imagine why it needed to be so lengthy, nearly as large as the Solaris headquarters itself, and perhaps moreso if I could not even see what lay beyond the windows. There were more windows to the outside, and occasionally I would see more creatures in the shadows, their eyes glinting in my gemstone's light as they watched me pass.

I told Charlotte that there were many windows, but no doors. She told me that, to her knowledge, the dungeon was designed to be staffed mostly by ghost-types, who could phase through the walls at whatever point they desired. But she told me that if I kept walking, I would find a way out of the hall to see what lay beyond. But she told me that I needed to hurry; although nobody had guessed my whereabouts yet, she stressed that she could not keep my secret for very much longer. She said that I had only two more hours to present myself to the meeting or one of the highseers might come after me and forcefully teleport me back to the base. If I get fired over this, it had better be worth it, she warned me. Not wanting her to be punished for my own curiosity, I broke into a run and tried to find the exit to the hall, fighting back the urge to vomit every time I inhaled the putrid air.

After running for perhaps forty minutes, the hallway merely ended at a closed gate operated by a simple chain-and-crank mechanism. I clutched the crank with my mind and turned it, but I remained wary that one of the mutants would lunge at me from the outside. I lifted the gate just enough for my body to fit underneath it, and I squeezed myself against the floor, bracing for whatever lay outside. But no amount of bracing would have prepared me for what I witnessed.

And I found that the dungeon beneath Solaris was an entire world with stone plains, tall cliffs, and distant mountains, all dimly lit by haphazardly-placed crystals, some stuck to the walls, others hanging from archways, others embedded into the floor, as though they were tumors which simply grew wherever they pleased. There was some running water as well, presumably leakage from the lake, which flowed down giant stalagmites and formed pleasant pools in the depressions. Even the atrocious smell became more bearable in the open air. I remember thinking for a moment, "This is quite an impressive place," but the thought did not last for very long… because I then noticed that one of the mountains was moving.

It was not a mountain, of course, but an impossibly large mound of creatures, all lethargically creeping and moving like flies upon a carcass… and I realized that it was mostly a mound of corpses, only with the living creatures crawling across it searching for food, some burrowing in between the bodies for darkness and privacy. The cavern came alive before me, as I realized that I was looking at more creatures than I was looking at rocks. Streaks of dried blood trailed across the floor, bodies and bones collected at the shorelines of the pool… Tens of thousands of creatures, of every size and every type, all preying on each other, wading through the layers of corpses searching for food, crawling up the walls and bathing in their own scum…

Revulsion exploded from my chest, and I spewed vomit upon the floor just outside of the gate, vomit which would never be cleaned away or soak into any soil… it would only stay there until it dried, adding to the monumental collage of gore and death that coated the walls of the dungeon.

I remember simply standing there, staring at something I had never expected to witness even in my deepest nightmares, and I realized… We have learned nothing.

I said this to Charlotte, too. I said, Charlotte… how is it that we are an organization with the greatest minds and the most scientific knowledge in the world… and yet we have learned nothing? How is it that with all of our knowledge, we have caused more pain and death to the world than we have prevented?

I felt a sigh from Charlotte as she realized that I had found the truth, and she told me, The Fellowship was founded by a powerful creature named Solaris Rai who dreamed of a perfect world. It is just as I have always told you, that our organization is founded upon the notion of freeing us from the laws of the wild, and letting us live without the constant struggle and the fear of death. But he knew that hardship could not be prevented completely. People would eventually disagree with one another, they'd always fight over food and money, and that no matter how hard we would try, someone would always rise to power and become filled with corruption. And as that happened, there would always be those in the world who would remain unloved and neglected, those who nobody wishes to care for. It is an inevitable cascade of events.

But Solaris Rai had a plan that would keep it from happening so quickly. He took all of those who are unloved and neglected, and he created a place to put them.

And so the Fellowship carved out this cavern with the ghost bombs, and took all the neglected and the unloved and threw them down here, so that we would more easily forget they exist. In doing this, we remove the greatest causes of war and strife from society, that being the struggle for fairness. The ghost bomb threat incident I described to you earlier was a faked performance, as was the fracturing of the Fellowship's chapters, in order to hide the true purpose of the ghost bombs and the existence of the dungeon.

The idea is that, if we could completely separate the paupers from the royalty, the loved from the unloved, the sufferers from the content, so much that each did not even know of the other's existence, that an extended era of peace could be achieved. After all, if the poor do not know of the rich's existence, they cannot feel envious, and if the rich do not know of the poor's existence, they cannot feel guilty, they will not be tempted to care for the poor and risk becoming one of them. Thus, the poor would remain silent, and the rich would stay at a managed population, never growing large enough that wealth and conveniences would grow too thin and breed the kind of petty greed that would lead to political movements and civil wars. And Solaris would remain at the apex as the arbiters of our society. There still exists a lower class up here on the surface, those alley-dwellers and street-rats you see every so often, but they are quiet and easy enough to ignore. Should they ever begin to grow numerous, we cull them by throwing the stragglers into the dungeon until they are no longer a bother, and nobody seems to notice when they go missing. Thankfully there has not been a culling in a long while, as the economy is quite good at the moment, but I'm certain the highseers will let you know if that is to change.

In simpler terms, the dungeon exists merely for the purposes of population control. I suppose we could outright kill them, but Solaris finds more use by keeping them around to harvest for genes and elemental energy.

And that is the truth about what you see right now. You have now met the paupers. Up here on the surface, we are the royalty.

And I thought… we are royalty. All of us, up on the surface, we were all royalty.

Not just the members of Solaris. Each and every creature who walked the streets of Excalibur Isle by the lamplight… they were all royalty as well. All of the shopkeepers, the children who played in the parks and suffered through long days at school, and even the beggars who lived in the alleyways and ate from the rejected scraps of the restaurants. The merchants, the gladiators, the pompous critics who would write essays about a misspoken line in yesternight's performance, the distraught bachelors who spent their nights weeping because they could not find love, the people who thought themselves worthless because they did not have a strong talent or could not buy the clothes they wished to wear, the mindless droves of townscreatures who would eat at the same restaurant every day because they didn't know better… They were all royalty, each and every one of them.

And these paupers were those we forced away from our attention. Their strife was too much for us to bear. In order to be happy, we needed to ignore them.

I did not stay to investigate the dungeon. I retreated back into the dusty hallway and dropped the crank behind me, and I sprinted back to the elevator at the same pace that my mind raced, and I began to wonder why I had even come to Excalibur Isle at all. Charlotte said, Do you see now why I advised against this? But I ignored her; I had a meeting to attend, and I did not have very long to compose myself and straighten out all of my thoughts. On the ride up the elevator I groomed myself to the extent that I could, and I flushed the unpleasant thoughts from the forefront of my mind. I hoped by the time that I stepped into the nexus chamber that the scent of death lingering around me would be attributed to the experiments of District Fifteen, and that I looked presentable enough to speak with the other highseers.

They welcomed me, of course, saying nothing of my tardiness, and invited me to take my place and sit down. As I had supposed, the topic jumped immediately to Big Sister. Apparently Highseer Aldridge had received a letter suggesting that the gladiator semifinal contest was to be sabotaged unless demands for money were met, and that apparently was the last straw. We would now move swiftly and crush Big Sister with our most brutal methods. Highseer Halstead said to me, "Although our Renaissance units are not yet built to operate in secret, they are our greatest weapon against the rebels, and so we have decided to use them in their current state. The main issue now becomes one of making the citizens of Excalibur Isle amiable to their functions. Though risky, it is the most ideal solution. This is where you come in, Highseer Stormlight."

Then Highseer Reynold turned to me and explained the plan. "Six days from now, the semifinal match begins, as you should already know by your connection to the Umbreon. We have arranged for you to take the seat of honor next to the king and the council members. Now, we have planted explosives under the arena floor, and when the Umbreon steps into the center ring on the first day of the event, we shall detonate them, and the Umbreon shall die. Once the dust clears, you are to rush out into the arena and find his body, and loudly grieve over it, and you will give an emotional speech to the audience. You are to blame the attack on the Penumbra Society, and say that the attack could have been prevented if there had only been more surveillance. In the weeks following, Solaris will announce plans to install the Renaissance units, and make their function very clear as mind-reading devices, designed to prevent another tragedy from occurring." Highseer Daybreak chimed in, saying, "In the worst case scenario, the townsfolk will only accept the renaissance units for the duration of the tournament, if the league does not decide to cancel it, and perhaps later they will call for their removal. This would give us a very limited chance to read the minds of dark-types and find Big Sister. However, if we stress that the units only read the most superficial of thoughts, and that they are only shared with Solaris and will never be used for political purposes or be seen by the king or the council members, we could ideally warm the public to the thought of keeping the Renaissance units in commission permanently."

I nodded, and I said, "It all sounds very reasonable, except… the Umbreon doesn't truly need to die, does he? Cannot we just injure him a bit, or fake the explosion altogether? I'm sure he would play along if I were to explain everything to him." But the highseers all laughed at me, and Highseer Daybreak said, "Ah, don't tell me that you're actually attached to him, are you? You should know by now that you can't be happy just by being attached to a single person." And Highseer Reynold said, "The public loves you, and knows that you are in a relationship with the Umbreon. In fact, we have made sure of this; we have been spreading rumors about you and the Umbreon since the day you arrived here, as we suspected that the gossip would prove useful. His death is the only thing that would make them so moved with empathy that they would accept having their minds read. They would do it to make you happy."

I asked if I had any say in the matter. They told me that I did not, as they had all taken the vote before I arrived, and the plan was set in stone.

"We know this might be difficult for you," said Highseer Halstead. "But we have seen the way your mind works, and we know that you do not have a rebellious bone in your body. We would not have hired you if we did not know for certain you would pull through. You might run home and cry to the Umbreon. You will struggle with yourself. But in the end, you will do as you are told. You are not to tell him of the plan. And you will let him go. And once your task is finished, you may just find that the twelve of us will have a greater level of… respect for you. Besides, after all the secrets you told him, you honestly didn't believe that we could let him live, did you?"

Once the meeting was adjourned, I did just what they said. I walked straight for the door, straight through my chapter, and broke into a gallop when I hit the street of the Grand Hall District. I ran all the way home to Elliot, nearly broke down the door to the mansion, and I continued running once I had entered the foyer.

He was there. He called to me. "Hey, what's wrong?" he said, poking his head from the study. "Are you alright? What are you doing home so early?" but I ignored him. I couldn't talk to him now. I sprinted up the stairs and locked myself in his room. I curled on his bed, ignoring his scrabbling at the door and his worried cries at me. "Let me in," he said. "It's okay, you can tell me!" he said. No, I couldn't. Not this time. I wasn't programmed to tell him, apparently. Apparently I was spineless enough to do exactly what Solaris wanted, and judging from my broken heart, I knew they were correct. I was going to let Elliot die just to save my own life and my own position. I was going to let him die just like the paupers in the dungeon.

Elliot broke down the door. When he stepped inside, he saw tears streaming from my eyes. "You're crying," he said, as though he was not familiar with this particular function of the eye. "Hyacinth, you're crying!" I only scowled at him, and he didn't approach me. Instead, he just stood and stared, as though he was at a complete loss of what to do. Finally, he said, "Alright, I guess this game's over. Time for you to know the truth."

And then he changed shape. He grew in size enough that he could stand on two legs, and sprouted more fur. And through my tear-filled eyes I was staring at a Zoroark.

I screeched at him. "Who are you?!" I cried. "Where's Elliot?!" With a bow he replied, "The Nothing, at your service. Elliot's out training today. But don't worry, that's about to change. Looks like we all need to have a little talk."

The Zoroark attacked me with a dark technique, and I lost consciousness.

XVII - The Truth

I woke in what appeared to be a prison. In the light which came from a window, I found that I was surrounded by four familiar dark-types: the Zoroark who had captured me, a Sableye, a Scrafty, and staring sadly from the far corner of the room, an Umbreon. The Sableye stood close to me with his claws drawn, making it very clear that I was not to move. I thought to reach out and contact a lamp post, but my attempt was blocked by some force I couldn't identify. My closest friend and his teammates were effectively holding me prisoner.

Seeing them together like this, I knew at once what was going on. I saw the way Elliot glared into my eyes, looking deeply regretful about something. He knew what I had realized.

The Nightmare glared at me with his unreadable gemstone eyes, and said, "Did you rest well?" I ignored him, and I only growled my accusation at them all: "You work for Big Sister. You've worked for Big Sister since the beginning. That's how you played with me. You sent blackmail letters to your own lodge to throw me off."

Elliot stepped closer to me, and he said, "Yeah, that's right. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, as they say." My heart turned sour hearing him speak so coldly. I couldn't bear the thought that he had only been pretending to love me. That he had played me for a fool like the crafty dark-type he was. But I didn't accept it. Like the brainwashed townsfolk, I wanted to ignore this tragedy. I wanted to keep believing that he was the Umbreon I thought I knew.

I demanded, "So, when are you planning to let me go? Or are you planning to kill me?" And the Zoroark was peering around the corner, and said, "Relax, we're just waiting on one more person." But I kept glaring into Elliot's eyes, and there was a certain vulnerability there, and I pressed it, and I scowled spitefully at him. He bowed his head and said, "Alright, Hyacinth, here's what you need to know. It's true that we are members of the gladiator league, but we've been bought off by Big Sister. Big Sister is… a covert operations unit, and we're here on Excalibur Isle to hurt Solaris in any way we can."

I said to him darkly, "You can't defeat Solaris. They are too powerful. Their control over this island is absolute. You are wasting your time." The Sableye said in reply, "I know, we're not here to tear the whole place down in one day. But we're gonna set them back. Currently the plan is to smuggle some technology from them. Once we can get some of the technology off the island and set it loose to the rest of the world, we can get it reverse-engineered and mass-produced, and Solaris can become that much less powerful. It's been done before. It's not much, but it's all we can do. We've got one chance, and we're gonna make it count. And you're gonna help us do it."

I said, "What makes you think I'm going to help you?! Last I checked, I work for them. If I betray them, they'll read my mind and they'll know. You have no idea what the consequences are for betraying Solaris. They'll kill me and make it look like an accident. That's why the District Five meltdown happened. It was done on purpose to kill a highseer the council didn't like. The rest of the district was just collateral damage. They're watching me. They're ready for me to betray them. I can't help you."

Elliot looked angered at what I had said. He stood before me and wore this fierce scowl, and told me, "Hyacinth, grow a spine. Everything's gone according to plan so far, and if we stick to the plan, we're getting out of this. You need to trust me."

I stood up tall and I said, "Fine, I'll grow a spine, and I'll stand up to you. Tell me who you work for. You said Big Sister bought you off, so you know who Big Sister is. Tell me. What, is it Overseer Dogma? Is it Reynold? Charlotte? Who?!" And I drew my claws and made it quite clear that I would go down fighting if they didn't meet my demand. Actually, I expected them to laugh. I knew they wouldn't beat me up; after all, I couldn't help them as just a pile of bloody tatters, and they'd just need to find a different double-agent to help them. But instead, they all went quiet and cast odd glances at one another.

The Scrafty was trying to hold back laughter. He said, "Well, who wants to tell her? I can't wait to see the look on her face."

Elliot stepped closer to me. "I'll tell her," he said, staring into my eyes. "Look, Hyacinth, this is going to be hard for you to believe, but I want you to stick with me for a minute…" And the dark-types all looked expectantly at me. He drew a deep breath and spat it out: "We're working for you. You are Big Sister."

I mentally tried to test this claim from every conceivable angle, yet it never made sense. "I don't understand," I said to the Umbreon. "What are you talking about? We met in the alleyway at Pommel Bay, remember?" And the Sableye grinned evilly, and he said, "Yeah, because you lost your money pouch, right? Wanna know why you lost it? You gave it to us on the train. That was your down payment for our cooperation. So that if this all blew up in our faces, we'd at least get away with some money. That was the deal."

I stepped backward and bumped against the wall, and I hung my head to hide my bewilderment. "I don't remember any of this," I said. "Why don't I remember paying you? Am I under the influence of amnesia? Were my memories erased? Is that why I've been feeling so unintelligent lately? Is this why I can't focus on my work? Is that why I can't remember any of my studies from Ivorin?" Elliot replied, "Not amnesia, exactly. You're under the influence of hypnosis. Your mind thinks you're dreaming. Your mind thinks this is all a big dream. But when you wake up, you'll remember everything again, but right now you can't remember what it's like to be awake. This was the only way you could get into Solaris without being detected as a traitor. Because you don't know you're a traitor. They can read your mind all they want, and all they'll ever see is the doormat who'll do anything for power and always does what she's told. Just the way they like you."

I tried to swallow the truth, that I did this… that I assembled Big Sister and I was a successful espionage artist… but my brain rejected the notion. It was simply not possible. It was too sudden, too different. I could not fathom the idea that there was another whole Hyacinth inside of me, completely separate from my own consciousness, and that I was merely a pawn in her game. "I did this," I said out loud, wondering if it would sound any more believable when I spoke the words. But the Zoroark turned to me and said, "That's not entirely true. You had some help. And guess who just showed up. Fashionably late as usual." And he welcomed a figure around the corner and into the room.

It was Charlotte.

She smiled warmly to me, and said, "Hyacinth, you might not understand it right now, but we planned this together. This was our conspiracy." And I gaped at her as well, trying to see her as anything other than the Solaris overseer, the figure who had always encouraged me along my descent into corruption. But she was someone different now; her eyes had changed, and she held herself with true kindness and humility as though I were a sister of hers. She even spoke with a different voice, as though the silky, devilish sneer I'd always heard coming from her was merely a mask for her true character. "I was never able to tell you this before, but that scarf still looks good on you," she said.

And then I knew who I was talking to. Her name wasn't Charlotte. It was Ophelia, my first-year parapsychology instructor at Ivorin Academy – someone I'd formed a strong bond with over seven years ago. Through my hypnosis, I must have forgotten her identity – but hearing her speak about my scarf brought the memory back so clearly, because she was the one who had woven it.

If my life did not feel like a dream before, it certainly did now. "Instructor Ophelia," I said to her in a hoarse whisper. "What's going on? Why are we here?" And she sat down in front of me, joining all of the dark-types in a small circle, and she explained everything.

"Since your first year at Ivorin, you were obsessed with dreams," she said to me in that voice that now rang so clear in my memory. "You were fascinated with them. You always wanted to learn how to play with your dreams. You wanted to learn what they meant and what they symbolized and how the mind crafted them, and how they drew from the contents of your memory. And one day, when you were dreaming, you realized that you could clearly remember the contents of other dreams, but not the real world. This gave you an idea. You wanted to make reality feel like a dream. You wanted to learn to completely invert the perception of dreaming and reality, creating two alternate personalities for yourself. And you came to me one day with this idea, and I told you that this was already possible. It was how hypnosis worked, which was already a thoroughly-studied branch of psychology. But your technique was different. After you demonstrated it, I realized: what you did was invent an entirely new method of hypnosis. You invented a type of steady, long-term hypnosis that remains untraceable. And you called it… dreamcatching."

I said, "Dreamcatching? Not the inane game Elliot always forced me to play?" And the Sableye said, "Oh, that stupid game? We made it up on the spot. Whenever you came over to play, what we were really doing was un-hypnotizing you so we could speak to the real Hyacinth for a bit. We just called it 'Playing Dreamcatching' so you would remember the game and not the nap we'd force you to take at the table so that you'd wake up as Big Sister. That's how you told us to take care of you." The Zoroark added, "You said that if we ever caught you crying, that was the signal for when we'd tell you the truth and put the plan into motion. That's why we are here."

I said, "Wait, if you woke me up as Big Sister once a week, then… how did Solaris not find out about this? The lampposts were all around the lodge, they would have been able to sense my personality changing." And Ophelia said, "Yes, it is true they can sense some changes in your demeanor through the lampposts, but we accounted for that. For a start, I was the one assigned to keep an eye on you, and I knew exactly what was happening. For extra security, I also hired a Natu to sit on the roof and feed the lampposts with false signals. In fact, she's on the roof right now keeping Solaris from knowing we're having this talk."

I said, "That explains how they never discovered me, but what about you? How did you carry through with all this, without having the highseers suspect that you're a traitor?"

My old instructor explained, "I was under the same hypnosis as you. Just as with a normal dream, it is sometimes possible to partially drift out of the dream-state and remember thoughts from your other personality, and if anyone noticed these thoughts, they would know that you are hypnotized. This was the problem psychologists have struggled with for decades. But you found the perfect workaround: dreamcatching requires a 'memento,' a physical object of sentimental value. The memento is the first thing you see when your dream begins, and so it has a powerful nostalgia attached to it, and will pull you back into the dream each time you look at it. So at times I would begin to surface from my hypnosis and remember the thoughts of my true self, I could use those thoughts to my advantage and manipulate Solaris as I needed. Then when I was in danger of having those thoughts read, all I would need to do, then, was glance at this…" and she swung her tail at me, showing me her golden flower-shaped brooch, "and Ophelia would be gone again, and I would have no memories of her. You worked in the same way; you would often let Big Sister make decisions for you, but you do not remember any of these decisions because you used your memento to forget them. This was the brilliance of the technique you invented; it's untraceable."

I looked down at myself, realizing that my scarf, the one Ophelia had woven for me, was my own memento. It was all beginning to make sense.

I said, "But I still don't understand. You left Ivorin six years before I did. How did we form this plan together so long in advance?" And Ophelia replied: "In the year I instructed you, I was offered a position at Solaris. When I told you about this, you were skeptical. You said that you distrusted the Fellowship, and figured that they were deeply corrupt… and I said to you, 'Alright, in that case, let's put your dreamcatching technique to good use. You use it on me first, and I'll go work for Solaris. If I find out that they're as evil as you say, then I'll make sure you get hired as well, and together we'll do some sort of harm to them.' And here we are today. I got you hired, one level above me no less, and you brought these rapscallions along with you, and here we are, poised to do some damage. I think it's high time they deserved some pain, don't you?"

I couldn't agree more. "What's the plan, then?" I asked. "Am I going to get my memories back now?" Elliot shook his head and said, "Not yet. It's too risky to wake you up just yet. There's only one more thing we need you to do, and then it'll all be over."

"I'm listening," I said.

"You're going to attend the opening day of the contest, just like Solaris wanted you to do," Ophelia told me. "You are to act naturally. Then, whatever happens, you are to react in whatever way you feel is just." I said, "Is that it? Those instructions are a bit vague." She replied, "Don't worry, this is one that the real Hyacinth planned out quite well. Trust us. And trust yourself. Here's what the real Hyacinth wanted to tell you: first, be patient, then, once something happens, do whatever you feel would make your grandfather most proud of you."

I nodded, instantly understanding what type of action I needed to take. But there was just one more question I had: "I'm not actually going to let you die, am I?" I said to Elliot.

He smirked at me. "I don't know, are you?" he said wryly. "I could tell you everything's going to be okay, that I've got a plan to make it out alive… but what if I'm lying? I might just be trying to cover up the fact that I'm about to make a heroic sacrifice so that all of you can get away with it. I can't tell you the truth without affecting the way you'll act. So you'll just have to trust me. Can you trust me?"

"For your sake, I hope I can," I shot at him. "I'll kill you if you don't make it out alive."

Our meeting adjourned, and I was left knowing that my journey, and my brush with the most evil organization in the nonhuman lands, was drawing to a close. There was only one more thing that needed to be done. I was just left wishing I knew what it was.

XVIII - The Explosion

There was quite a turnout at the first day of the contest, more than I was perhaps expecting. Being something that came about only once every three years, I suppose the semifinal event was something for Excalibur Isle to get riled up over, something to break up the monotony of the normal day-to-day life. Having never cared to attend one of these events before, I think I would have enjoyed taking part in all of the hubbub at least once, especially since I held a certain emotional investment for one side. Unfortunately, my mind was everywhere else besides, knowing this day was ill-fated and the contest likely was not going to proceed as the people had planned.

I was certainly given the royal treatment, chauffeured by the king and the high councilors themselves, and given a seat of honor upon a throne at one of the best vantage points in the arena, at the front row at the bottom floor where the contest would appear as a stage performance to me. Of course, I was no stranger to the very-important-person treatment, but I knew that my seating arrangement was not given to me on accident. I could not burst out onto the stage from a seat on the upper floor.

The stage was simply humongous; four entire rows of stadium seating were stacked upon one another, each plenty full of cheering spectators eager for the ceremonies to begin. Above our heads, a large glass dome encased us, giving full view of the evening sky. (I absently wondered for a moment about whether this design choice would discriminate against electric elementals, who would attack and recharge themselves by calling lightning from the clouds.) I leaned over to speak to the councilor of District Four, an elderly primate of some sort, and I said, "How many do you think are here today? Fifty thousand?" The council member replied, "Thereabouts, but it amuses me to know that with all these people in attendance, the Shadowmancer will only be interested in impressing one of them." Another councilor, a wisecracking Skarmory, of District Six I believe, he chimed in with, "And Arceus save his soul if he makes a single misstep, lady Hyacinth shall have him sleeping in the doghouse!" and we laughed. My laugh was quite hollow, however; I was indeed worried about Elliot making a misstep, but not the sort that they had probably meant.

I continued to make conversation with the politicians and I played my part, just as Big Sister had instructed of me: I was to be patient, and I was not to break character until something unusual would happen. It was only then that I would need to search my soul and determine the best course of action. I tried not to gaze at the opposite side of the stadium for too long, at the layers of writhing creatures would remind me of someplace else I had recently seen, a place I admittedly wished I knew nothing about. Though it hurt my conscience to know that we lived upon the backs of so many suffering elementals some two miles below the surface, I knew even then that I could not save them. It was not my place. Perhaps I could set into motion some series of events which would someday lead to their freedom, to the whole island's freedom; but for now, I needed to be patient and to trust in Big Sister's plan.

The roar of the stadium hushed down as the ceremony began; a dozen birds flew in colorful formations above the arena as a torch was slowly hefted into a pedestal and lit by a flame of blue starlight. In the solemnity, I thought I could hear the true Hyacinth trying to communicate with me. It was impossible, as I knew the neurons which comprised her personality were at the time disconnected, but I could have sworn to hear her whisper to me: "Smile. You will quite like what is about to happen." I suppose it may have been true, as that is precisely what I would have told myself at that point in time.

When the opening ceremony had finished, the sun had already set and the sky was alight with neon crystals. A very handsome Unfezant flew down from the stands and took place in the center stage, and began speaking. His voice sounded into all the stadium seats; there was a spell in place to amplify the voice of anyone standing near enough to the center of the arena. He welcomed us to the fifty-second triennial playoffs, mentioned the sponsors, and began to explain the rules: there was to be thirteen contests, held once a day for the next thirteen days, and the first team to win seven of the contests would progress to the world championship. My eyes glazed over at his explanation, knowing full well that the other twelve contests likely would not happen. My heart began to pound and my legs shook in fearful anticipation of whatever this announcer was prolonging.

The bird lifted a wing and proudly introduced Elliot's team: "I give you, the Harbingers of Darkness!" I nearly chuckled; Elliot never had told me the name of his team, and it was just as ridiculous as his title. But that was just how he operated; he knew that one was foolish to judge a book by its cover, and he wanted to take advantage of that foolishness. That was his nature.

The Sableye appeared first, making an impressive appearance by inflating the Unfezant's shadow until it was four times his size, then leaping out of the ground and taking a bow. "The Nightmare!" said the bird. And the crowd cheered.

Elliot came second, and I at last had the chance to witness why he was called the Shadowmancer: a vortex of black wisps formed upon the ground like a dust storm, and the shadows faded and became transparent, revealing the Umbreon floating in the center of the twister, his eyes and rings glowing fiercely. The twister vanished, and he fell to the ground, landing delicately. Impressive showmanship, I thought. I stood on my feet and shouted to him, remembering to act in character. "Ah-ha, he certainly seems confident!" someone said behind me.

But then he spoke, surprising the stadium and everyone in it, even the host. "I want to say something," he said, causing everyone to hush. "I am here tonight because of one person. Hyacinth," he said, turning to stare at me. Even from across the stadium, I could see his bright red eyes, the same ones which had captured my attention in the alleyway so many months ago. He said, "I come here tonight to walk my path, and to walk it beautifully."

And then he hung his head and he added, for all to hear… "Hyacinth… I'm sorry."

And then he began to walk towards the battle circle. I knew just what was about to happen next. In that moment, I just thought, "Don't do this, you idiot."

I broke into a sprint even before the explosives detonated. I threw myself down from my golden throne and raced across the dusty arena, hoping that I could tackle him before he would cross the line. But I had barely run a few meters before the entire arena shook, and a dust cloud popped into existence, scattering large pieces of debris and shrapnel everywhere. The crowd erupted in panic, and cried shouts of dismay from all around me, but nothing stopped me from running into that dust cloud.

By the time I had reached him, the cloud was already clearing, and I could see the motionless form of his body lying quite far from where he had stepped, as the explosion had blasted him clear to the other side of the circle. His body was bloodied and falling apart, and three pieces of shrapnel impaled him. It pained me to see him so horrid and undignified in death, but I did not care; I raced to him, and buried my head into his flank, and wailed lamentations. I demanded to him, "Why?! What was the point? What did you do this for?! Elliot, wake up and tell me. Don't you dare leave me. You promised… you promised you would never let me go."

But of course, the lifeless Umbreon didn't say anything, and I only collapsed there next to him, weeping into his bloody fur, wondering what I had done to deserve all of this. I wanted to wake up Big Sister and throttle her, and ask her why she had betrayed me. I wanted to turn back time to the night Elliot had told me the truth about Big Sister and call his bluff. He was always so talented with his bluffing, even I couldn't read him…

And I remember, after crying for some time, I lifted my head and looked around at the stands of creatures, the creatures who had come to witness a night of violent entertainment and mayhem… their panic and dismay had been silenced, and they all stood in solemn quiet, staring straight at me and my fallen companion. I was now the very center of attention. The eyes of Excalibur Isle were on me, the Espeon who had captured the city's heart. They wanted to hear what I had to say.

And I looked at all of them through the dust and the tears in my eyes, and I remembered Ophelia's words: Do whatever would make your grandfather most proud of you.

And I glanced into the sky, and I saw the birds circling above me, keeping watch on me. Among them, I saw a familiar Natu staying in line with the formation.

And that's when I knew what Big Sister had planned. The pieces of the puzzle came together, and her plan, in all its simplicity and ingenuity, was laid bare before my eyes. And I knew just what I needed to say to all who would listen: I needed to speak the truth. The absurdity of the act was so daunting. The lies Solaris had crafted were so complex and nuanced, they had become a language of their own. To speak the truth under such circumstances, to break form, it required a special kind of insanity, especially since all of Solaris likely had their eyes turned to me, waiting for whatever would be my next word.

I stood over the fallen Umbreon's body for a moment, then I walked into the center of the arena where the amplification spell would pick up my voice. I straightened my shoulders, I held my head high, and I glared at all of those aimless, mindless creatures who had attended the event. And I proceeded to explode at them.

"Where were you, when District Five was buried?" I said coldly. "Where were you when four thousand of your very own perished?"

"Who were they to you? Your friends, your distant relatives, the farmers who grew the vegetables you see on your plates every day? Oh, but they didn't matter to you, did they? Let everything sort itself out, you said! Let everything be just the way it was! Let us close our eyes and wish hard enough, you said, and if we only ignore it hard enough, it will be as though it never happened at all! And we can all go back to our silly games and our meaningless, worthless lives."

"Oh, but how can things ever be normal again, once four thousand innocent civilians wake up one morning to find a giant tsunami of molten rock blotting out the sun and about to crash down upon them? How horrified do you think they were in their final moments?! I've seen into their minds. I've seen the memories of the survivors. It's far more tragic than you can imagine. They relive the memories every night when they dream. Can you imagine what they saw? Imagine a wave of liquid fire the color of the sunrise, towering to the sky, about to crash down upon this arena and everyone inside. Imagine it about to destroy everything you've ever known, everything you've loved. Imagine that moment when you realize you've only seconds to act, if you want to survive."

"But you can't afford to think about that, can you? It's too much for you, isn't it? All that tragedy is something you can't fit inside of your head. You can't comprehend it. So you ignore it."

"I dare you to ignore this," I said, pointing at the Umbreon. "This is a tragedy you've seen for yourselves with your very own eyes. Tonight, one great warrior has fallen. Only one. One is a number you can understand. One is a number you can mourn over. This time, there is no excuse for your apathy."

"You think I care about who detonated this bomb? As far as I am concerned, each and every one of you, here in this arena, detonated the bomb. I hold you all responsible for Elliot's death. And you're going to repay me for it."

"We all have a common enemy. See, there is a shadow organization pulling all of the strings in this city. They're hidden underground, and they steal your secrets and they plot to undermine everything you do. They plot to control you. They plot to keep you useless and content. And it is because of them that things like this tragedy are allowed to happen."

"This organization… is the Penumbra Society. I demand that everyone here tonight stand with me. Today, we wage war on them."

There was an uncomfortable murmur in the crowd, and I paused to let them comprehend my words. Of course, I was still sticking to the script. I was about to break that script, and I knew that chaos would ensue the moment I would next open my mouth. I would speak the things they could not argue with. They could not simply ask for proof this time, not when their attention was fixed upon me. I knew they would believe whatever I said.

"The Penumbra Society is one in the same with the Solaris Fellowship," I said, proudly and confidently.

What happened next was difficult to describe. The murmur turned into a dull roar of disbelief. I also began to hear frantic telepathic signals passing through my mind, saying things like, "Where is she going with this?" "Lock the doors, nobody leaves the arena." "The train has left the station, why is it running early today?"

The domineering telepathy of Aldridge pierced through my barriers and said to me, Wrong answer, Highseer.

But I did not stop speaking. "Solaris is your enemy!" I proclaimed to anyone who would listen. "You think you built this city? You stood idly by while they built everything in their own image. You think you live here? You are merely convenient for them to keep around. You must fight them! You must realize that you live in a prison! You must take a stand against Solaris! You must tear down the lampposts which spy into your mind!"

They tried to mute my voice just then. For a brief moment, a signal was sent by someone to cut off the amplification spell. But my good friend, the Natu, counteracted it from up in the air, giving me precious more moments to continue speaking. I didn't know how much time I had left, but I was going to make every word count.

I began shrieking my words. "Look at you!" I cried. "There are five thousand of you here! You are an army! You could tear this city down and rebuild it in eight days! You could storm the castle or the headquarters of Solaris and take everything for yourself! Forget your clothes and your toys and your silly games! Forget your nights in the park and your dinners at the streetside café! You could rule the island! You could take everything Solaris has and make it your own! You could be free! If only you realized how enslaved you are!"

I saw them starting to come for me. They were edging away from the stands, the Penumbra overseers. They were coming to silence me forcibly. They were coming to beat me down, take me away, and tell the people that I had gone insane from the loss of my beloved Umbreon and that everything I say should be disregarded. I had only one or two sentences remaining, and I needed to choose them wisely.

"I am Big Sister!" I proclaimed. "Stand with me, and together we shall shine brighter than the sun!"

The crowd cheered. It was a very confused cheer, and I couldn't tell if they were following my speech or not. But it didn't matter. I saw the dark ones coming, the Penumbra leaders. They sprinted towards me from every angle, led by Overseer Dogma, the Murkrow. In thirty seconds, they would have encircled me.

I disregarded my would-be captors and skipped back over to the body of Elliot. Of course, it was not the body of Elliot at all – Elliot was somewhere else at the moment. I had caught on to the fact as soon as I had touched his fur; it was nothing like an Umbreon's. In fact, it was The Nothing, who now changed shape and revealed his true form. "A marvelous performance, madam" said the Zoroark as he bowed to me. "I was riveted the whole way."

"And you as well," I said to him. "Thank you, it has been quite a show that we've put on, hasn't it? Seven years in the making, as it were." He nodded, and said, "Ah, have you ever considered a tryout for The Pretenders? You have a gift for dramatics and hyperbole."

"I think not, but thank you," I said to the Zoroark with a wry smirk. "My strength is in my rhetoric. When all of this is over, I wish to be a teacher, not a pretender."

The Natu then flew down, landing between the two of us. She stretched her wings. "Ready to go?" she asked. "You are just on time. Done with about sixteen seconds to spare."

I nodded. I was ready. My work on Excalibur Isle was finally done. We each touched a wing of the Natu, and a few moments later, we disappeared into thin air.

XIX - The Aftermath

The next thing I knew, I was sitting peacefully on the train just as it escaped the force-field. I sat and watched the waves in the distant light of the stars. To my left, Elliot watched them with me, and to my right, there was Instructor Ophelia. The Sableye was somewhere to the front of the train, operating the engine. The Scrafty was in back, sorting through the cargo.

Of course, my riveting speech to the people of Excalibur Isle was only an elaborate distraction. The moment I began to speak disparaging words about Solaris, they immediately focused all their efforts upon stopping me; they did not notice that my outburst was only a smoke-and-mirrors show, and that one of their own was busy betraying them.

They did not stop to notice that Ophelia was raiding her chapter's archives, pulling out classified documents and prototype technology to be teleported onto the train. She had approximately six minutes and forty-five seconds to pull off the heist, starting from the moment I had mentioned the Solaris Fellowship, and she had performed gorgeously. As it turns out, she had brought her own band of rapscallions with her as well; the three candidates I had met on the pier on the morning of my interview were all her faithful goons. She had secretly hired the Meowstic into the Fellowship, while the Kirlia and the Medicham ran chores for her in town and helped to keep her correctly hypnotized. The Kirlia especially helped her by teleporting resources around. In all, the elementals who had called themselves Big Sister numbered ten, including the Natu, and we had all successfully escaped aboard the train that night.

They ended my hypnosis, and that of Ophelia's, letting us finally have the full extent of our memories back. Together, we merely watched the stars in the sky from the train's window, saying very little to one another and reflecting on what we had just accomplished. I was surprised to find that reverting to my true self did not feel very different, although it brought me a sense of keen clarity about how we had planned and carried out the great robbery.

"I have stolen the prototype of Project Renaissance, as well as the blueprints and spellprints for Project Lighthouse," Ophelia reported. "I have destroyed all records of the projects. I have also destroyed all records and profiles of everyone aboard this train at the moment, so that Solaris cannot seek out us or our families and retaliate for our actions… or at the very least, not easily. They will have no proof that we had ever existed."

Elliot nodded, saying, "Sounds good. That'll set them back, what, a century or two?"

"Indeed," I said, letting a smile of deep satisfaction spread across my face. Thinking for a moment, I wondered out loud, "What about the Grovyle? Was it you who led me to him?"

Ophelia said, "That was my doing. Only days after the meltdown, I had found the Treecko in District Six and I saw his memory of what had happened. That was my own turning point in my journey, and it was the moment I knew that Solaris needed to be resisted. I knew he would be killed if he were ever found, so I took him to District Three and I broke one of the underground lighthouses so that he could have a place to live. Soon after, I began my preparations to have you hired."

Later that night, as we relaxed to the sound of the rumbling wheels against the rail, I approached Elliot, that sly fox who had played the part of my companion so well. I knew he would never set foot into another arena, and if he did, he could never afford to attend the semifinal championship. His career had been a casualty of our scheme. I said to him, "Do you have any regrets about ending your career as an arena fighter?" and he laughed bitterly and shook his head, and told me, "I'll be fine. I've had enough fame and glory to last for a lifetime, and once we sell these secrets we've stolen, we'll have more than enough money to retire. And besides," he said, laughing to himself, "to be honest, after we swapped out our Mawile for a Zoroark pretending to be a Mawile late in the season – which breaks about fifty-seven rules in the tournament, I might add – we knew they'd find us out eventually. The Harbingers were filthy cheaters unto the very end. I just have to thank you for giving us much more of a fun career suicide than we would have made on our own."

"Happy to oblige," I told the clever Umbreon. I knew he would do well for himself.

As for the people of Excalibur Isle, I was not so sure of their fate. Would Big Sister remain an idol for them all? Would they fight in my name? Or had we doomed them all by forcing Solaris to enact drastic measures to tighten their chains? Would Solaris destroy the arena and everyone in it who had witnessed my outburst? Would they go so far as to kill their own king and the council members who had attended the event? Perhaps they could not; the townsfolk truly cared about the tournament and would not take it lightly if the arena were torn down. They would want their distraction back. They would riot and demand the arena be rebuilt, or they would rebuild it themselves. And they would find those to be held accountable for all the losses. Or, at the very least, this is what I envisioned in my mind, in my own imaginary world.

Ophelia told me there were other, true rebellion efforts fractured around the isle. She had encountered them: small factions of Penumbra who knew what was going on, and only played the part of being useless while they studied their enemy from the shadows in wait of the perfect moment. She told me there were some families who raised their children to not touch the lampposts, so that they could learn not to depend on their assistance. And she told me of dozens of overseers who were not happy with the barriers between the Fellowship chapters and would tear them down if given the chance. Though small, the seeds of change were there. I did not know if they would amount to anything, but they were there.

Whatever the case, I knew that the hope for the people of Excalibur Isle rested on the Dark-types, those whose minds could not be read, and should never be read. They were the last safe haven for rebellious plots and true secrets, and I had done my part in helping to make sure their gift could not be taken away. I already knew that other dark-type scientists would eagerly want to study Project Renaissance, and they would reverse-engineer it, making it useless. They would create an antidote for it. And Solaris's decades-long research about reading the minds of dark-types would be rendered meaningless.

And I felt accomplished in that, while I could not save everyone, I had at least saved the dark-types. The future of the island was now upon their shoulders.

We had planned to end our train ride at Salutary Pass, just seven kilometers south of Pommel Bay, and so when we breached onto the mainland, I knew our time together was nearing its end. I remember how the sun was beginning to rise as we all sat together in a circle, all ten of us, and we feasted upon hors d'oeuvres we'd raided from the concession cars… And our Zoroark companion turned to me and said, "There is just one thing I do not understand, miss. If it is true that you've planned all of this seven years in advance, how did you know that Solaris was so deplorable an organization even without having seen it for yourself? Was it only an educated guess?" And I replied, "You could say so," and I grew whimsical as I watched the stars begin to disappear in the sunlight.

I said, "When I was a young kit, I needed to know everything about my siblings. I simply loved gossip and everything about it; I wanted to know everything they did in secret, everything they said to one another about me and about the rest of the family. I spied in their personal diaries, I eavesdropped on their conversations behind closed doors. I listened to what my grandmother and grandfather said about everyone when they thought nobody was listening. And every time I heard a new secret I did not know before, such as… the truth about why Lavender would not attend his studies in the village, or that Jasmine truly despised Snapdragon and would not admit to it in public, these sorts of petty things… It brought me such joy just to hear them, and it made me feel powerful, as though I was the omniscient ruler of our family, that I was merely receiving something owed to me by Arceus, something I deserved by the birthright of being the eldest of the litter.

"Oh, and when I was caught in the act of eavesdropping, I would lie so shamelessly… I breathed lies just as easily as I breathed air, and I spoke them so fluently, as though they formed their very own language. 'No, grandfather. I was only heading back to the den. No, grandfather. I was not late to my studies today. No, grandfather, I was not listening to your discussion.' Ah, but he saw through all of my lies, and one day he told me, 'Hyacinth, you expect me to believe everything you say, but you forget that I've lived much longer than you have upon this world. And I know that if you continue to weave these narratives of yours, and keep saying these things which you know I cannot disprove, you will imprison yourself inside of them. You will someday become trapped inside of your own story, sealed away in an illusionary place where you have no faults, where everything makes perfect sense, and where no problem is too great to handle. You will become blinded by your pride, and that pride will become your downfall. Remember that some people will still hunger for the truth, and that by instinct they will know the truth when they hear it, no matter how enticing a narrative you have created for them.'

"Later, once I had become an Espeon and was preparing to journey into the world and begin writing my story for him, he confessed something to me. He said, 'You were a teacher from the moment you broke the eggshell. I hatched your egg because I wanted to see my son again. But no, you were not my son. You were my firstborn granddaughter. When I laid my eyes upon you, my narrative was shattered, and I was forced to see the truth.'

"And so, once I began to learn about Solaris and their great renown and their accomplishments, I thought to myself, 'Solaris is just like me. They thirst to know everything, even those things which are immoral to know and kept secret. Especially those things. They fancy themselves superior by birthright, and they seek to know the truths that others with a conscience would not chase. The only difference between Solaris and myself is that Solaris truly has all the power they want to find out such things, to make their lies believable, and there is nothing to stop them.'

"That is how I knew in my heart that Solaris held dark secrets of their own, even seven years in advance. I knew they could not be pure of heart, not unless there existed someone whom they feared, someone to pressure them when they would overstep their boundaries. Someone to answer to, in the way that I answered to my grandfather. And I told my close friend and instructor, Ophelia, that since there was nobody to act as a balance to their power, it might as well be me."

Dawn was still breaking when The Nightmare pulled the emergency brake on the train and left it stranded in the middle of the forest. The dark-types, now a successful band of professional thieves, unloaded their well-earned loot from the storage cars, and the Scrafty even tore out the force field key which allowed the train to pass into the protective bubble around the island. I was appalled when he showed me the small pearl, and I said, "You want to derail a train full of innocent passengers and send it sinking into the sea the moment it collides with the barrier?" and The Slacker replied, "Don't worry, this machine isn't going anywhere. I destroyed the engine trying to get the key. I hope Solaris knows how to build trains, or they might be spending a lot of time sitting in a corner and thinking about what they've done." And we laughed.

Ophelia approached me one last time, and told me something I had waited years to hear her say. Before she had left Ivorin, I pleaded to her that whenever we might meet again, she would tell me about the Amadeus comet. To my dismay, she said that she had asked all of the Fellowship's astronomers and inspected the star charts, but couldn't find any record of it. There were many comets in the sky, but there were no notable comets scheduled to appear during our lifetimes. "Either your grandfather was mistaken," she said, "or this Comet of Amadeus is perhaps not a comet at all. At this point, it is probably best that you wait and see; nobody will know better about the stars than Solaris did." I was disappointed in not knowing how long remained until I would see my family again, but I thanked her for the effort she had given.

I remember that final moment before we all went our separate ways… The Nightmare returned my down payment to me, which I knew would keep me quite well-fed and comfortable for years to come. He and his team would be inconceivably wealthy, given that nobody would steal their earnings from them unfairly (but I suspect that even if they did, they would only steal it back with interest). And Ophelia, she apparently had her own path to walk: she decided she wanted to find more orphans like the four psychic-type children she had brought with her to the island, and she wanted to raise them to be competent psychics. I wished well to all of them, and I said, "It was a pleasure doing business with you; perhaps one day we shall meet again in the history books." And I tied my scarf, tightened my saddlebags, and walked away into the sunrise. I knew that my career as a teacher was only just beginning. I had just taught Solaris a lesson, something which no other teacher at that time could claim, and so I could tell that I was off to a brilliant start.

I had walked perhaps thirty paces before a voice called my name. I turned to see Elliot galloping after me, his teammates nowhere to be seen. He looked formidable in his natural element, with his rings aglow and his ruby eyes like a guardian demon watching from the shadows…

He was panting hard when he came up to me, and he said, "Before you leave, there's one thing I still need to tell you about the heist."

I swiveled my tail, and I said, "Go on."

He said, "On the train, when we were planning everything? Before we got to Pommel Bay and I let you into the inn? You might not remember, but I was the one who suggested that we pretend to be a couple so that you could live in the lodge with us."

I nodded knowingly, and I told him, "Yes, I remember. If I recall correctly, you called it a strategic maneuver. And I believe you were quite right; it even gave the people a reason to pay closer attention to me, and make the distraction that much more effective. It seems to have worked out flawlessly, so I owe you my thanks. The team could not have done it without you."

Elliot bowed his head, and scratched at the dirt beneath his paw, and he said to me, "Look, I'm standing here right now because… I wanted a chance not to make the same mistake as Daniel Stormchaser. He waited too long to ask Samurott, and by the time he was ready to ask, she was already gone. And then I saw you walking away, and I knew this was the last chance I had…"

He was too bashful to look me in the eye as he spoke, but he eventually said to me, "Hyacinth… take me with you?"

And I smiled warmly at that devilish Umbreon, so strong even in his vulnerability… and I stepped up close to him, and I brushed against him, and I whispered, "You are always welcome in my company, Elliot Shadowmancer."

And he has been at my side ever since.


And so ends the story of my contest with the Solaris Fellowship. They were quite formidable, I will say; a veritable "problem student." But a professional teacher does not give up on a student, she only changes her methods.

As Elliot and I would learn upon our travels, there were many different types of people upon this world, and just as many types of minds, and that if you were to place any number of them together in a room and give them a lecture, each of them would internalize your message in a different way. And so it is foolish to try and teach a message and expect my audience to understand completely, or to agree with my words the very moment I speak them; in the end, I can only provide a stepping-stone or two, and invite my students to place their trust upon them. But the journey towards happiness and enlightenment is, and always will be, to each our very own.

On occasion, I remember the awful things I had seen on that dreadful island. Sometimes I still suffer nightmares about the corpse-strewn dungeons deep beneath Solaris; but I keep my humility, and know that I could not help them, just as I could not help my siblings before they would scatter across the world and find their own places. But those memories gave me a powerful lesson, a mindset, once which I will impart to you now, or at least I shall try. It is not a lesson about telling the truth when you can afford to lie, nor it is a lesson about distrusting those who are more powerful than you. No, it is not a lesson of demand, but one of perspective:

Dear reader, whomever you are:

If you can walk freely the cobbled road, coming and leaving as you please beneath the lamplight –

If you can sample from the market, taste the fruit of the vine at your leisure –

If you can read the thoughts and minds of your ancestors, bear witness to ideas that history might have forgotten –

If every once in a while you enjoy sharing a friendly contest with your rival –

If you hear the songs of the bards echoing from the street corner –

And if ever there was a moment that you have felt warm and secure, with your loved ones at your side –

Never forget that you are royalty, and that hundreds of thousands of souls have suffered and perished so that you could become what you are. By their sacrifices, you have been given the comforts you take for granted. Always remember them, so that their sacrifices shall never be without meaning.

The dungeons exist everywhere in this world. Some are kept hidden by purpose, others remain undiscovered only because no one cares to search. Someday you may discover one for yourself, and you will witness their pain just as I have. We turn our heads from their suffering prisoners, knowing there is little we can do. We cannot bear such a great burden while expecting to keep our sanity. And in neglecting them, we sometimes forget: it is us for whom they suffer.

Know that you are not expected to repay them, regardless of what people might tell you. Even if the fires of injustice burn within your chest, and your heart overflows with resolve, never let your pride blind you. Remember that you cannot save them all. Do not let yourself become a scapegoat for the guilt of those who came before you.

But if you are keen, and if you are willing, and if you utilize the resources and talents at your disposal, rather than squandering them all on life's fleeting fancies… you might save just some of them.

And as you are helping to save them, you will find that you can become something much more than you imagined:

You will set an example.

You will set into motion a series of events which will resonate through history, even long after you have left the stage.