Stage 11 - The Pact
Aurora was trying not to complain. She really had thought she was in better shape than this, and it was disconcerting to find out otherwise. Being an Apprentice Gym Leader wasn't physically taxing work (unless perhaps you were a Fighting-type master like Bruce) and most of the long distance traveling she did was accomplished with the help of her birds, and even all the walking she'd done lately had been done mostly on smooth, flat, well-traveled roads. Picking her way through rough, uncharted mountains was something else again. She envied the way that Yukiko and Ember were able to move so effortlessly over the rough terrain. Even Laine stomped along in her sturdy boots and didn't seem to be bothered by the effort of having to clamber up steep slopes or pick her way through brambles. Aurora seemed to be the only one who was feeling the strain, and she tried to hide it as best she could, even as she fell further and further behind the rest of the group. Scar abandoned the skies long enough to hop along beside her, croaking encouragement.
"Fear, fear, fear?"
She shook her head. "Thanks, but I don't think that would work."
"Yes, I'm sure. If you carried me, it would be too easy to get separated from everyone else."
Scar considered a moment, and then flapped up to the front of the group to trot along next to Ember instead. When Ember failed to notice him, he snaked his head around and dealt a few sharp pecks to Ember's hindquarters.
"Agh! What do you think you're doing?" Ember yelped.
Scar hissed at him. Ember scowled back.
"Aurora, can't you keep this feathered monstrosity under control for... oh," he finished lamely, as he caught sight of Aurora. "All right, I get your point. Yukiko, how far are we from our destination?"
"I'm not sure," Yukiko admitted, giving his map a perplexed look. "I thought we would have made more progress by now, but... I somehow find I am disoriented."
Ember sighed. "Fine, then. I guess we can afford to take a breather."
"I'm sorry," said Aurora, as she drew nearer. "I didn't tell him to do it."
"Well, you should have. Anyone can see you're worn out," Ember said. "I would have noticed if my mind hadn't been occupied. Sit and catch your breath while Yukiko figures out where in blazes we are."
"Aw shucks," Laine muttered. "That means we gotta waste more time. I thought we were in a hurry."
"There's only so much that can be done at the moment," said Ember. "Since our guide apparently doesn't know where he is at present, we might as well rest while we let him sort himself out." Nevertheless, he remained standing, prowling the area as if he thought there might be a clue lying out on the ground.
Aurora dropped gratefully onto a nearby stone and rubbed at her tired legs. She really would have liked to have been able to keep up better with the others. It was a little embarrassing, really. Still, as long as there was a good excuse...
"I know where we are," said Yukiko, looking a bit hurt. "I know exactly where we are. I know exactly where I am trying to lead you. It is only the matter of navigating from here to there that is causing difficulties."
"Well, some people kinda like straight lines..." Laine drawled.
Yukiko glared at her. "I have been attempting to lead us as directly as is possible, considering the terrain. It should not be a difficult matter, but... I find it hard to explain. My sense of direction fails me as we draw closer to the goal, and I find myself going astray." He held his hands up in a helpless gesture.
"The same thing happened to my men," Ember grumbled. "I was hoping they were just being stupid, as usual. It has to be that Psychic's doing."
"Like around Sabrina's Gym," said Laine. "The thing that made everybody not want to go inside."
There is such a thing in this place, Mew told Aurora. Someone put a lot of work into it. I don't think you four can get past it the way you did with Sabrina's.
Can you find your way through it? Aurora asked.
Sure I could! He's just a human, came the slightly disdainful answer. Any Psychic Pokemon could sneak through this. It's just you humans who have problems. It's just that if I put my energy into helping you find your way through the shield, I won't be able to protect you from his notice. I thought it was more important to keep you all safe, so he doesn't find you.
It is, and I'm grateful, Aurora replied. It just doesn't help us get un-lost.
Try something else, Mew suggested.
That's easy for you to say.
Think about it. Mew's presence in her mind faded, and she scowled. Why did the little creature have to drop hints instead of telling her things directly? Either that, or he just didn't know any solutions. It was hard to tell with him. Still, Aurora wasn't about to let herself be balked by something like this when they were so close to their goal. As she half-listened to Ember and Yukiko debating their next move, she stared thoughtfully up into the sky. There didn't seem to be a lot of Pokemon around. Off in the distance, she could just barely make out the black shape of a Murkrow.
Hmm... She ran her fingers over her Pokeballs, considering. Then she stood up.
"All right, I think I've got it!" she declared.
"Got what?" asked Ember, looking at her as if she'd lost her mind.
"I've figured out how to get past the block," she said.
Ember raised an eyebrow. "Enlighten us."
In response, Aurora flipped open a Pokeball and released Berry. The little bird fluttered around dazedly, chattering to himself.
"A Natu?" asked Yukiko. "How will that help us? I am sure you have raised it well, but I am not sure that this is a situation where baby birds will be useful."
"That's where you're wrong," Aurora answered. "He's exactly what we need - not just a bird, but a Psychic bird. He can find his way through the shield for us without getting confused. He can tell me which way is the right way, so I'll follow him and you'll follow me, and we'll all get there sooner or later."
"What if the Psychic guy does his thing and gets you all confuzzled, so you can't follow directions, huh?" asked Laine. "Then what?"
"I'm not sure that's likely to happen," Ember replied. "For all he might be able to make us doubt our own senses of direction to make us wander around in the wilderness, I doubt he could break the bond between a Pokemon and its trainer. If he could find a way to do that, I think he would have done it by now."
"Exactly," Aurora replied. She smiled a bit. Rusty had told her that it had been foretold that the mission would fail if she didn't take a Natu chick with her, and now it was turning out to be true. "Come on, Berry. Be a brave little bird, and show us where the bad man is hiding."
"Yes, you can have a berry if you find him," Aurora agreed. "Just be quick about it, okay? We don't have a lot of time to waste."
"Natu!" He took off with a whir of wings, flying his very fastest - which was something like the same pace as a person walking quickly. Aurora winced as she forced her tired legs into motion again. The trouble with things that could fly was that they could move in straight lines, whereas she had to dodge around whatever was in her way to keep up with him. She didn't stop to see if anyone was following her until she reached the top of a largish boulder that was in her way, and turned around to begin climbing down again. Everyone else was still staring at her as if she'd lost her mind.
"What are you waiting for?" she asked. "Come on already."
In response to her question, Yukiko shrugged and started walking. He looked over his shoulder and smiled at the rest of the group.
"She's no more or less lost than I am; I may as well follow her," he replied.
The rest of the group, finding themselves in danger of being left behind by their guide, hurried to catch up.
Berry flew straight on toward something that seemed to draw him like a magnet, and Aurora followed him. As she trudged onward, she felt a growing sense of confusion. Surely this was the right way, but... she'd seen that shrub before, hadn't she? Or had she? No, she was certain she'd been past that outcropping of rocks before. Hadn't she scraped her knee on that boulder? She shook herself. Of course she couldn't be imagining things; she had to be going the wrong way. She should turn around, backtrack, go find an alternate route... And then there came into her mind a different feeling, something that wasn't quite possible to put into words. It was the simple trust of a baby Pokemon who was too young and innocent to know the ways of fear and self-doubt. He only knew that his trainer had told him to do a task for her, and he would do it to the very best of his ability. The messages he sent her were of continued affirmation: he knew where the place she wanted was, and he was leading her to it. All she had to do was follow him. The longer she followed him, the easier it became, for the more confused she became about her surroundings, the harder it was to think of which direction she ought to go next, and the easier it was to follow someone who looked like he knew where he was going.
Gradually, the ground began to slant more steeply, and there were fewer trees. They were now well and truly on their way up the side of a mountain, and the going slowed as they picked their way up the slope. Finding hand and foot-holds on the side of the mountain was difficult in their addled state, but Berry did what he could to show everyone the way, and Laine, taking a leaf from Aurora's book, released her Espeon to help her find the way. Yukiko did his part by taking a rope and tying them all together, so they could anchor each other if one of them fell, and so no one would wander off in a daze and be lost. Even so, it was a slow and difficult climb.
And suddenly it ceased to be so difficult, because two things happened. One was that the fog of confusion lifted with an abruptness that left everyone reeling. The second was that they found themselves standing on a gravel-strewn road, which curved gently up the side of the mountain.
"Well, that's helpful," said Laine, looking speculatively up the path. "Easier'n climbin', anyways."
"I don't trust it," Ember muttered. "It's too easy. It could be a trap."
"That may be so," Yukiko replied, "but then again, it may not. Did our Psychic not have a helper who took orders from him? I am sure I heard words to that effect at some point."
Aurora nodded. "It was Blaine."
"Well, there you have it. He was hardly a man in his prime, and not much for physical exertion. He must have had some way of conferring with his master that did not involve laborious climbs. Perhaps this is his path."
"I still don't like it," said Ember.
"Like it or not, we're going to have to use it," Aurora replied. "Look at those cliffs! Between the road and that, I'll take the road, thanks."
Ember looked at the cliffs and agreed that, now that he thought about it, they were a bit sheer for climbing. Since there was no other choice if they wanted to continue their progress, they gathered their courage and walked determinedly up the path.
Whatever traps there might have been along this path, it still turned out to be, at least for a short distance, an excellent way to get up the mountain. It moved in a gradual spiral, never slanting so steeply that it would tax a person's strength too much, and it was smooth and easy to walk on. As they climbed higher, it also offered a clear view of their surroundings. Aurora shaded her eyes and stared off into the distance. She was fond of high places, and under any other circumstances, the view would have been enchanting. Even as it was, she was reluctant to look away and turn her attention to the top of the mountain. Ember noticed her.
"Your eyes are sharp," he said. "What do you see up there?"
"There's something that looks like the corner of a building," she said. "See? On the right, there. There's a square building made of white stone."
"I don't see it, but I'll take your word for it," Ember replied. "We must be getting close... and if we can see where he is, I don't doubt he can see us even more clearly. We'll have to proceed with extra caution. I'm surprised he hasn't already tried some-"
The rest of what he was going to say was cut off by a loud snap and a lavender flash, as if lightning had struck among them. Aurora heard Mew's voice cry out in a high-pitched squeal, but she couldn't react to it because something had slammed into her hard enough to knock the wind from her lungs. The rope securing her to her friends dissolved itself like tissue paper in water, and she went plummeting over the edge.
For a split-second, she didn't know what was going on. Then she looked and saw the ledge dropping away from her and her friends staring in horror as they fell. Then she realized that they were still and she was falling. That was when she found her breath and screamed.
The next thing she felt was a powerful jolt in the region of her shoulders, and her descent slowed as Scar labored to lift her up again. A smaller tug in back was Berry trying valiantly (though not accomplishing much) to lift her by her belt-loops. As they gently deposited her back on solid ground, she hugged both of them, trembling, until Ember pushed them away to kneel in front of her and grip her shoulders.
"I thought I told you not to scare me like that again," he said.
She managed to smile sheepishly. "Sorry, but it wasn't my fault! Blame him." She pointed up the mountain.
"I will, up close and personally, as soon as I can find him," Ember replied.
"I'm sorry," piped up a small voice. "I tried my best..."
Everyone turned to look at Mew, who had chosen that moment to make himself visible. Curiously, Aurora glanced at Yukiko to see how he was reacting, and saw him looking with more appreciation than surprise; obviously it took more than just seeing a legendarily rare Pokemon to impress him.
"I tried to protect you all," he said, seeing that everyone was now paying attention to him, "but he's a lot stronger from here than he was in Lavender Town. And I made a mistake."
"I'll say you made a mistake," Ember snapped. "Aurora almost got killed! What kind of protection do you call that?"
"It was a mistake," said Mew. "I thought he was coming after all of you, but he was only attacking her."
A chill settled over the group at this pronouncement. It was broken by Laine saying, "Maybe you'd better go back, Rora. If this kook wants to smush you in particl'ar, it might not be the best idea to go walkin' up to his doorstep and introducin' yourself to 'im."
"What good would leaving do?" she replied. "Wouldn't that just make it easier for him to get at me, without all of you with me? It's not like I can get away from him, not without going all the way back to Johto, or even further than that, if he'd even let me go that far. No, if he's aiming for me in particular, it means he must be afraid of me the most."
"Or he's just aiming for the weakest link," Yukiko offered. Everyone glared at him. "What? It is a possibility. Between a Dragon Master, two experienced mountaineers, and an Apprentice birdkeeper, who would you think was at the greatest disadvantage?"
"I'm going to keep going anyway," said Aurora. She stood up, and found her legs to be a bit shaky, but still useable. "I'm fine, really."
"She's a stubborn one," said Ember to nobody in particular. "It's probably best to give her what she wants."
When Aurora began walking again, he walked next to her, closer than he had been before.
You know, it will be much harder to protect you with him standing so close to you, Mew said in her mind.
You can still do it, though, can't you? she asked.
Then let's not tell him.
And still they went up. The road twisted more sharply around as they went higher up, so that they almost became dizzy. Aurora found that she had to look at her feet as she walked to avoid being stricken with vertigo. At last, the ground leveled, and they found themselves standing in front of a small, square building. It was made of the same stone as the mountain it was perched upon, looking less as if it had been built and more as if it had been sculpted by a particularly artistic mountain wind. It had a slightly peaked roof and a row of columns around it, so that it resembled a minor Greek temple. Removing any and all doubt that they'd found what they were looking for, there was a mark carved above the door that exactly matched the strange Badge Aurora had found.
"We're here," she said. "It looks like we all made it here alive, after all." She meant to sound confident and offhand, but a cold mountain wind whipped her words away and made them sound weak and empty.
"He's waiting for us," Ember said.
"Perhaps we had better have our Pokemon readied?" Yukiko suggested. He looked speculative at Scar, Berry, Sunset, and Mew. "He doesn't seem to like hurting those as much as he likes hurting humans."
"We'll call them out if it becomes necessary," Ember replied. "I don't like using Pokemon to attack someone. There are rules about that kind of thing."
"He's right," said Mew approvingly. He seemed much more enthused about the endorsement than really seemed necessary, and his human companions looked at him quizzically. He flipped himself upside down in a Mew-ish equivalent of a shrug.
"It's the Pact," he said. "You just don't do things that way. But I don't think he knows that." He gestured with his tail towards the door.
"I'm a little old to believe in fairy tales about the Pact," Ember replied.
"It's not a fairy tale," said Mew, sounding hurt. "We just don't talk about it much."
"Whatever," said Ember. "Let's just go inside and get this over with."
They climbed a short set of steps up to the door, and found that it opened creakily, revealing a dark hallway. They went inside. It was chilly and bleak within the building; clearly whoever had built it had not been thinking much about creature comforts, for the walls, floor, and ceiling were all of the same featureless gray stone, without so much as a carpet or a few paintings to enliven it. Doors lined either side of the corridor, which, when they were opened, revealed dark and cheerless rooms, some lit only by guttering candles, while others were completely black within. A sense of sadness pervaded everything. It was as if the Psychic's powerful sense of grief had soaked into the very stones. Aurora could feel it stealing into her mind: a feeling that whatever happiness life had to offer was gone...
No wonder he went crazy, up here brooding all alone, she thought. There seemed to be something heavy in the air that was keeping everyone from speaking. It was hard for her to keep her mind focused on the fact that the depression in this place was someone else's and not her own. Scar preened her hair encouragingly, and she gave him a wan smile.
At the far end of the hallway, they came to another door, identical to the first, with the same sign carved above it. There was a thin crack of light slipping beneath it. The trainers looked at each other for encouragement, and at last, they reached forward together and pushed it open. This door swung freely with the silence that came from much use, and everyone winced as sudden light struck their eyes. Aurora, whose eyes were the best, adjusted first, and stepped into the room before anyone could think to stop her.
This was the first room they had found that had windows in it, and light streamed in from what seemed like all directions. There was nothing to obstruct it, for there were no furnishings in this room. All that it held was a single stone pedestal with a half-spherical crystal perched on top of it. There was a name carved into it, and Aurora read it aloud.
"Yes," answered a voice.
Aurora jumped and looked around. At last her gaze settled on a faint shadow that stood between two of the windows, mostly obscured by the sheets of sunset light that blazed on either side of him. He stepped closer, and Aurora held her breath as he came into view.
Her first thought was that he did not look like a killer. He was tall and thin, with a quantity of untidy blond hair, which showed signs of receding on either side of widow's peak. His face was thin, fine-boned, and intelligent - she could see how he must have been handsome, many years ago, before time and grief had etched those deep lines into his brow and around his mouth. His clothes were blue and white and gold, made of fine, soft-looking cloth, but it had been worn threadbare, and looked as if it had been made for a broader, more muscular frame. Aurora stood silently, looking up into the man's careworn face, thinking to herself that this was the man she had come so far to see...
"You are the white bird," he said softly. "The one whose fate is to decide mine."
"I don't know about that," she said, "but I am Aurora Cummings, Gym Leader Falkner's Apprentice. Are you Alistair Whitehand?"
"I was once the Gym Leader Alistair. Not anymore." He raised his eyes to look at her companions. "You all should come in. I can't see you so well from here. My eyes are not what they used to be."
In response, Ember strode bravely forward.
"Do you know who I am, Alistair Whitehand?" he asked, and his deep voice echoed around the room. "I am Gym Leader Ember, of Blackthorn Gym. In the Pokemon League I am second only to the Elite Four and Lance himself. By that authority, I place you under arrest for crimes against the Pokemon League. You have this one chance to come peacefully, or else I will have to use force."
Ember stood proudly and stared straight into the Psychic's eyes. He was nearly as tall as Alistair, and a good deal more muscular. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that if it came down to a contest of strength, Ember would have no problem in forcing the other man to follow him.
Alistair laughed, a dry, cracked sound, but his eyes stayed dark.
"You will force me, Dragon Master?" he said softly. "Have you power to match my own, then? I know all about you, Ember Greensward. You have more power than is good for you, and it is burning you out. You are a flame that burns brightly and is quickly consumed. You would have been happier if you had never become a trainer. What has Pokemon training brought you, except burdens and pain? You don't know what you're doing and you're in too deeply to get out again. You ought to thank me for doing you the favor of removing you from your seat of power, so you don't have to worry about how to relieve yourself of your burdens."
"That isn't true," said Aurora. "Ember is loyal to the Pokemon Leauge."
"You say that because you trust him," Alistair replied. "I say what I say because I am a Psychic, and I can see his innermost thoughts. His mind is filled with worry for the future... and about you. I say again, it would have been better if he'd never become a trainer, and so would have never fallen in love with a girl who doesn't love him."
Ember blushed brilliantly, but his voice was steady as he said, "Be that as it may, I did become a trainer and I did meet her and I did follow her here to you - and you are still a murderer and you are still under arrest."
"I, a murderer?" Alistair gave his creaky laugh again. "The whole lot of you are murderers! You are slave drivers who capture innocent creatures and drive them to their deaths! I realized it too late to save my Morpheus from his cruel fate, but I can save the rest of the Pokemon. I can put a stop to this barbarism once and for all! I will destroy the Pokemon League and put an end to Pokemon training forever. I will make it so no Pokemon will have to suffer as my Morpheus did."
"Pssh!" said Laine scornfully. "You're gonna make it so as no more Pokemon are gonna die, huh? It'll be real easy, huh? Just get rid of the big, bad ol' Pokemon League and everything'll be hunky-dory. And I'm a murderer 'cause I'm in the League, so you gotta get rid of me. Huh. My mom died from gettin' sick. Why'n'cha get rid of all the germs so nobody gets sick anymore, huh? My dad died from freezin' in the snow. Why'n'cha make it so it doesn't snow anymore? Heck, my grandpa's prob'ly gonna die in bed of old age. Why'n'cha make it so nobody gets old anymore? If all that stuff makes people die, then all that's murderers, too. Pssh! Murderer, my butt."
"You talk too much," said Alistair. He waved a hand, and the stone on the pedestal flashed. Laine yelped as she was forced off her feet and slammed into the hard stone walls. She fell to the floor with a sickening thud.
"Laine!" Aurora cried, and rushed towards her, but Yukiko got there first.
"She is alive," he said, "only stunned. Maybe I can..." He reached for his PokeGear and took out a healing potion.
"I think not," Alistair said, and the bottle leaped from Yukiko's hands and threw itself out the window. "I am a bit tired from my misjudged attack before. I am not sure I have the strength to kill you all, but I can stun you long enough to put your bodies out the window. If you fall from this height, it won't matter if I have the strength to kill you myself or not."
Aurora kneeled next to her unconscious friend. Mew, why did you let this happen?
I'm tired too, you know! the little Pokemon protested. He's a lot stronger up close than I thought he would be.
Yukiko, seizing a desperate chance, flung himself forward and aimed a kick that would have made his ninja ancestors proud at either the Psychic or the stone. Whatever he was aiming for, he missed, for his foot came in contact with something invisible, and he was thrown halfway across the room. He landed on his feet, but badly, and there was an uncomfortable popping sound as his legs gave out underneath him. He struggled to stand, but the effort was clearly too much for him, and he sank back down with a groan of pain.
"Aurora, get out of here!" said Ember wildly.
"What? No, I can't leave!"
"You have to! He's too much for us!" said Ember. "I'll keep him occupied - you get to safety! Go!"
He reached for one of his Pokeballs, but the Psychic flicked it away with a wave of his hand, and it bounced across the room to land in a corner.
"Go!" said Ember again, wildly.
Aurora couldn't move. She couldn't leave, even though Scar was pulling frantically at her clothing, urging her towards the door. She couldn't leave while her friends were lying stretched out on the floor, perhaps not to live much longer. She couldn't leave while Ember was still standing defiant, risking his life for her - no, more than that, because he knew he couldn't stand up to this madman.
"I really can't let either of you leave," said the Psychic calmly. "You all know too much, and you have too much influence. I've let you spoil my plans enough already. If I let you leave, you will only come back with someone like Sabrina or Will who would stand a chance against me. I can't have you ruining my plans, so you will understand why I can't let you out of this place alive."
With that, he made a flourish, and a wave of force rolled across the room. Ember braced himself against it, but it pushed him back. He was hurled off his feet and cracked his head against a windowsill. Aurora hurried to his side, and he raised his pain-filled eyes to look at her.
"Aurora," he said, his voice choked. "I..."
Whatever he meant to say, be it confession or apology, it died on his lips, for he'd passed out. Aurora turned on the Psychic, her eyes stinging with tears.
"How dare you," she said softly. "How can you do this and think there's anything right about it?"
"It is justice," Alistair replied. "Justice must be served, and vengeance must be taken for the innocent Pokemon who have died at the hands of their filthy trainers." He began walking towards her. "You will join your friends now. It won't hurt."
Aurora cast about wildly, seeking some idea, something that would save her so that she could save her friends, if it wasn't already... No, it couldn't be too late. It would not be too late until she could no longer think otherwise. In the background, Scar hissed and crept angrily forward, looking as if he was ready to peck Alitair's eyes out.
"No, Scar, stay back!" she called.
"That's right," said Alistair. "I don't want to harm any Pokemon by accident."
It was then that Aurora seized on a desperate idea.
"My Pokemon!" she blurted out. "Before you kill me, let me say goodbye to my Pokemon!"
"As if they'd want to say goodbye to you!" Alistair scoffed. "But very well. I will grant you your request. You will hear from your own Pokemon the favor I am doing them by setting them free of you, and you can die knowing you did at least one thing right before the end."
With a flick of his wrist, Aurora's Pokeballs began to glow, and all of them burst open at once. Berry and Scar were now joined by Rusty, Frightful, Moondancer, and Blabberbeak, who gathered protectively around her. The Psychic was now under the scrutiny of a dozen sharp bird eyes.
"Well?" he asked. "Speak! Tell this trainer what you think of being held captive and forced to do battle for no reason than the entertainment of humans.
There was a deep ringing noise, the sound of Rusty's metallic laughter.
"Their entertainment?" he said. "What about ours?"'
Aurora was startled. She had always been able to hear Rusty's voice clearly in her mind, moreso than any of her other Pokemon. She was not, however, used to hearing his voice with her ears as well as her mind. She noticed the Psychic's stone was glowing softly, and realized that he must be doing something so that he could understand them all.
"Your entertainment?" Alistair repeated. "What do you mean?"
"Did you think Pokemon never fought each other at all, until humans came along?" Rusty said. "We did battle with each other long before the Brave and the Wise first spoke to us. It was Chie who first studied our abilities and learned how to match type against type, and it was Ichiko who first taught us rules and order, so that we would not fight each other to the death."
"But - but they could have left you in the wild," said Alistair, plainly flustered. "Why did there ever have to be trainers and Pokemon Leagues and all of that? Don't you want your freedom?"
"Kah!" Scar spat. "You idiot. You don't know anything, do you? Do you look like I'm not free to you?" He spread his wings to their fullest extent. "I know what it's like to have a bad trainer. If I ever find the trainer who let me take this scar, I will peck his eyes out. But Aurora is a good trainer. She lets me have my freedom, and so I stay with her."
"She battles with honor," Rusty agreed. "She does not use undue force. She respects her Pokemon and her opponent. I chose to be trained by her because I knew she would do these things."
"My trainer is kind," said Frightful. "She was afraid of me, but she healed me anyway. I am stronger now because she was gentle to me."
"It is true I was given to her as a gift," said Moondancer, "but I watched her and her friend forgive each other, and I knew she would be kind to me."
"But... I don't understand," Alistair protested, aghast. "She captured you all - she forces you to do battle for her own enjoyment!"
"No," said Aurora. "I didn't capture them. Not one of them. My Pokemon stay with me because they choose to. They're my partners and my friends. And those other Pokemon whose trainers you stole from them were their trainers' partners and friends." Her voice rose as she finished, "And now you're taking my best friends away from me and I won't let you! As an Apprentice and a Master I have the right to arrest you and take you back to Indigo Plateau to be judged, and no matter what, I am going to do it!"
"No," said Alistair, still staring at her and her Pokemon in horror. "It can't ... be like this."
"Get lost!" Blabberbeak shouted at him.
"That's right. My sentiments exactly," Aurora said.
"You are all deluded!" Alistair shouted. "She has you deceived, but I can still finish this. I can make all of you forget you ever met her, and then I will put an end to this Pokemon training insanity..."
He began to turn around, reaching for his crystal, but no sooner had he done so, when Aurora threw one of her empty Pokeballs at him. It got under his feet and made him lose his balance, and he fell facedown on the floor in such an ungainly manner that Aurora thought for a moment he must have broken every bone in his body. Before he could begin to collect himself, there was another crash, and the stone pedestal tipped over. The Psychic could only watch as his crystal fell to the hard floor and shattered into uncountable pieces. Looking down on the mess was Mew, who blinked his blue eyes in a way that suggested he had no idea how it had happened.
"Oops!" he said. "Looks like I broke it."
"Broken... I can never mend this..." said Alistair. He crawled on his hands and knees toward the broken stone, cupping the pieces in his hands as if hoping they would fall together and become whole again at his touch. He looked up at the cause of the disaster. "You are Mew, the legendary ancient Pokemon. You are a part of this?"
"We're all a part of it," said Mew. "All Pokemon are part of the Pact. Me especially, because I was there when it was made. Would you like to see? I can show it to you."
"Yes," said Alistair. "Help me to understand."
Mew nodded and closed his eyes. As Aurora watched, he began to glow, faintly at first, but then more and more brightly, until she could see nothing but pale pink light...
Then the pink light became the light of a sunrise, and Aurora found herself standing on a green hillside, looking down on a valley. Below her, she could see more green grass, and many flowers, and a broad lake. Many little pale shapes were flitting and diving in the water, and the sound of their laughter was like many faraway bells.
"What is this?" Aurora tried to ask, but her voice made no sound.
This is my memory, Mew answered in her mind. I am showing it to you, and to him. I am showing you how things were. This is where my home was, once, a long time ago.
Aurora stared down at the bright flitting shapes. Then all of those Pokemon are...?
Like me. Mew.
Aurora said nothing, but only watched, enchanted. It was a trainer's dream to even see one Mew, even if it was only a glimpse. Seeing dozens, hundreds of them, was breathtaking.
If only Laine could see this, she thought, and felt a pang, wondering for a moment if Laine would ever see anything again. She forced the thought out of her mind. Laine was still alive; she would get well. Aurora would believe that.
And then she forgot her worries as a shadow fell across the land. The green scent of growing things was blotted out by an acrid stench that made her eyes - or Mew's eyes, since these were his memories - water uncontrollably. A purple serpentine beast flew into the valley, breathing a cloud of poison over the land. The Mews gave a collective shriek of terror and scattered in all directions, but the dragon was as fast as they were. Aurora was shocked for a moment, until she realized what was happening.
Do something! It's killing them!
I can do nothing, Mew answered. This is a memory. They have been dead for hundreds of years.
What is... was... that thing?
A Dragon/Poison Pokemon. I don't know how such a thing evolved, but it was very powerful. It killed many Pokemon, not just my kind. We all lived in terror of it
Aurora was puzzled. But... if it was a Poison-type, why didn't you fight back? Poison is weak against Psychic types, and there were so many of you - all of you together should have been enough to stop it...
We didn't know that. No one had seen the patterns in types and attacks before. Humans were too afraid of Pokemon to want to study them closely, more than it took to defend themselves against us... and Pokemon had not yet learned to associate with humans, so we had not yet learned human intelligence. We thought like animals, and what animals think when they see a foe larger and stronger than themselves, is to flee from it.
So what happened?
The First Trainers came, Mew replied. There had been some few other humans who had tamed Pokemon, to keep them as pets or to turn them into service animals, or even to befriend them, but Chie and Ichiko were the first to study us, the first to try to understand. They were the first to show affinities. They organized us, and gathered together the strongest Pokemon in the lands. Ichiko taught us strategies to defeat the Dragon, and Chie was the wise one who made the first PokeBall and sealed it away for all eternity. Look, look!
The vision shifted, and Aurora found herself in a dark place... but not completely dark, because there were flickers of flame coming from here and there: the cave was filled as far as she could see with Pokemon, and some of them glowed with their own light. There were the fiery Pokemon, Entei, Moltres, and Groudon, and there were some, like Celebi, that gave off their own gentle glow. Aurora picked out the legendary birds, especially Articuno, with whom she had more familiarity than most people did. There were others there, too - some she knew by name, and others that were a mystery to her, and some she suspected had passed away into oblivion. They were all here now, though, looking down at the two humans standing in front of them.
They didn't look much like legends. They looked like people who had been on the road for far too long, who had been sleeping on the ground too often, and had been wearing the same clothes for days or weeks on end without the leisure of washing them. They looked scuffed and dirty and a bit underfed, but there was no doubt that these two were Ichiko and Chie, because every Pokemon in the room was watching them with reverent gazes. The boy was tall and slender, with a look of wiry strength about him. The girl was shorter and stockier, and there was something about her round, pleasant face and her alert eyes that reminded Aurora of Laine.
As Aurora watched, Ichiko stepped forward and placed a dark, roughly spherical object on the floor in the center of the cavern, kneeling as he did so.
"I bring to you the captive beast," he said. "He is sealed tightly. He will never escape."
"You have done us a great favor," said Lugia. "Not only by helping us defeat this creature, but by sharing with us your knowledge. It will be passed down from Pokemon to Pokemon for all generations, so that we will never again be at the mercy of a monster like this one."
"There's still a lot to learn," said Chie modestly. "We've only just begun to figure things out."
"You have made a beginning," said Entei. "We will learn together - humans and Pokemon. As you learn, you will train us, so that we can learn with you."
Groudon bowed his ponderous head. "That is the way it should be. We will be stronger together than we were apart. Would you agree, humans?"
"I can think of nothing I would like better," Ichiko replied, "than to spend my life together with Pokemon."
"Then so be it," said Rayquaza. "There will be a Pact! A pact of trust and honor between humankind and Pokemon-kind. Are we agreed on this?"
There were murmurs of accord from the gathered Pokemon. The great Dragon nodded.
"Then we, as representative of all Pokemon, do swear that as long as there are Pokemon, we will respect the bonds forged here between us and humanity."
"And we swear that as long as we live, we will endeavor to teach all humans to see Pokemon as friends and partners, so that as long as there are humans, we will share our knowledge and guidance with Pokemon."
"The Pact is made," said Celebi softly. "A promise that will last throughout all time. Humans will teach the Pokemon, and Pokemon will protect the humans, and both will serve each other."
"But that can't work all the time," said Chie. "I mean, it wouldn't be right for a Pokemon to obey somebody who didn't deserve it. Even if we do go around teaching everyone we meet how to take care of a Pokemon, most humans still think Pokemon are monsters. How is a Pokemon supposed to tell who's safe to talk to and who isn't?"
"We should have some kind of a mark or a sign, that we could give to people who have learned how to respect Pokemon properly," said Ichiko, thoughtfully toying with a pin that was holding his jacket shut. "Maybe they could wear medals, or badges of some kind..."
"Don't be silly," said his sister. "Who would want to have to remember to wear a badge around everywhere they go? But it's not a bad idea until we can think of something better..."
The image faded, and Aurora was almost tempted to smile. Her fingers brushed the Badges she wore, thinking that apparently nobody had ever gotten around to thinking of something better. That was probably just how it was, with humans.
"That was how it was," said Mew, and for a moment, Aurora thought he was answering her, until she looked up and saw that he was addressing Alistair. "The bond between Pokemon and humans has existed since that day. Some people have abused that trust - there will always be a few bad humans, and a few bad Pokemon. Most have been faithful to it. You are the only one since the Pact was made to go so far in trying to break it. Do you understand what you did wrong?"
"I just... Morpheus was my best friend, and I let him die. I just didn't want any more Pokemon to be hurt because of careless trainers like me. I wanted to die for hurting him."
"You should not have made other people die," Mew said. "That was a bad thing. You can't make that right. You hurt all the Pokemon who promised to protect their trainers. That was a bad thing, too."
"I begin to understand that," said Alistair. "Nothing I have done has done any good. There is nothing else I can do that will make things better. I have failed." He sighed. "I give up. I will accept my punishment. Take me in."
"Well, that is very good," said a slightly strained voice in the background, "but hadn't someone better do something about us first?"
Aurora looked at Yukiko, who was still lying on the floor and still not showing any signs that he was able to get up. Other than a look of considerable pain on his face, he seemed in no danger of dying anytime soon.
"Oh, that's right!" Aurora yelped, hating herself for her own forgetfulness. She scrambled at her PokeGear, thinking to find a Potion and wondering if such a thing would actually do any good at this point.
"Don't worry," said Mew. "I'll fix them. Restore!"
Waves of pearly light emanated from him to settle on Yukiko, Laine, and Ember. Yukiko got up and stood on his two feet as if he couldn't quite believe they were still attached to him.
"That was remarkably effective," he said. "I did not realize that move worked on humans as well as Pokemon."
Against the far wall, Laine began to stir.
"Ugh," she said. "Ow. Whose Machoke did I make mad?"
Seeing that her friend was all right, Aurora hurried to Ember's side. There was still blood on the floor and in his hair, and he looked paler than usual. She shook his shoulder gently, and was relieved to see him stir a little.
"Ouch," he said with a wince. "Entei's breath, but that smarts."
"Ember, are you okay?" asked Aurora.
He opened his eyes and managed to get them to focus on her.
"Aurora..." he said softly, and then shook himself a little. "Somehow or another, you seem to have managed not to get yourself killed."
"It's okay," she told him. "We talked him out of it. It's all going to be okay now... but Ember, I thought he killed you, and I'm so happy you're okay..."
And she hugged him as best she could while he was lying down, and he put his arm around her and told her rather grumpily that he was perfectly all right and she didn't need to make his headache any worse by crying all over him, and of course she didn't listen. Laine and Yukiko looked at them both, shrugged, and, as the only coherent members of the Pokemon League left in the room, they did what they could about properly arresting the Psychic.
Everyone who was anyone in the Pokemon League, and quite a few people who weren't, came to the trials. There were quite a few of them, between dealing with the Gym Leaders that Alistair had influenced into treason, not to mention Alistair himself. The trials took up an entire day, from dawn to dusk, and left Aurora with no leisure to do anything but listen in on the endless discussions and debates and presentations of evidence, and occasionally putting in her own testimony when it was required. It was exhausting, and left her with no time to converse with any of the rest of her friends, no matter how much she would have liked to slip away and talk about something, anything, other than what had been going on recently. It vaguely amazed her that she had the energy to feel anything but relief when the final trial began to draw to a close.
"Alistair Whitehand," said Lance, from his position in the seat of judgement, "you stand accused of such crimes as have not been committed against the League, either in living memory or throughout recorded history. Have you any final words to say in your defense?"
"None, Champion Lance," Alistair replied, head bowed. Worn as he had looked when Aurora had first seen him, he looked ten times older now. "I realize the depths of my misdeeds. I ask for no pity or mercy. Whatever the League sees as fit punishment for me, I will accept willingly."
"That is good," Lance replied. "We have considered your case carefully. For crimes of this magnitude, the law is clear. The recommended penalty is death."
There was a murmur in the crowd - it was all but unheard of for such a sentence to be handed down by the Pokemon League. Alistair said only, "It is what I deserve."
"However," Lance continued, "we have taken into account that your grief and solitude had left you not in your right mind. We also have considered the fact that you were once a good Gym Leader, and did many great things in service of the Pokemon League. Therefore, we have agreed that you are to be spared death, and will instead be imprisoned for the remainder of your years, to be guarded and watched over to ensure that you will never turn your mind to doing anything like this ever again."
He struck his gavel and the case was dismissed. Alistair was led away, looking not particularly enthused by the fact that his life had been spared; he simply looked resigned to his fate. Aurora saw him for a moment before he vanished into the crowd.
Out in the lobby, things became more lively, as everyone shook off the gloom of the trials and began rushing about to chatter with old friends. Aurora found herself accosted by Laine.
"Somethin' about that just ain't right," were her first words. "He kilt all those people; he shoulda got as good as he gave."
"Champion Lance is a shrewd man," said Ember, who strolled up to stand next to Aurora. He was looking rather pleased with himself about something. "Alistair isn't going to live long anyway. He's not a young man anymore, and he has nothing else to live for. This way he has to live with his shame. In a way, this is harsher than killing him."
"Well, maybe so," Laine said grudgingly. "Still, it just ain't right."
"No," Aurora agreed, "but killing him won't make it right. It won't bring back the people he killed, any more than killing them brought back his Morpheus. I think it's better this way, making the dying stop here."
"Wise words," said Ember. "Maybe there is something in your head besides feathers."
"What's makin' you look so smug?" Laine asked him, seizing on a more cheerful line of conversation. "You two ain't engaged now, are ya?"
"Not hardly," Ember replied. "Champion Lance made the other members of the League - the ones who were accusing me - give me a formal apology. I have been given an official reinduction as a Gym Leader, with high honors, and the grace period I asked for to get Team Rocket reorganized. Seems some people finally realized it might be useful to have some help from the shadows."
"That's wonderful! I'm so glad," Aurora replied.
Ember held his head a bit higher, looking quite pleased with the praise.
Suddenly, Aurora saw a glimpse of blue hair in the crowd, and she exclaimed, "Falkner! Over here!"
Falkner worked his way through the crowd, and as soon as he came close, Aurora rushed up and hugged him. Ember fumed, and Laine giggled. Scar just chuckled knowingly to himself.
"It's so good to see you!" Aurora exclaimed as she embraced her teacher. "I missed you so much!"
"I missed you too, Fledgling," he replied. "I wish I could have been there with you, but you and your friends did a good job without me. I am very, very proud of you."
Aurora blushed with pride. She was happy to see her teacher again, but... something, she wasn't sure what, had changed. She leaned back to look at him. It wasn't that he was any less handsome in her sight, or that she respected and loved him any less. Of course she loved him. He was her teacher and her second father. That was what he was meant to be. Her gaze roved around the room, and she was not entirely surprised to see a familiar face watching her intently from close by. She grinned suddenly.
"Falkner, I want you to say hello to a friend I made," she said, catching his hand and dragging him forwards to make introductions. "Falkner, you probably know Sabrina, right?"
Falkner looked at the lithe young woman with the long dark hair and knowing eyes, and he smiled appreciatively. Sabrina smiled back.
"I can't say I've had the pleasure of a formal introduction," he replied, "though I've heard nothing but good things about her. It is an honor to finally meet in person."
"I have been looking forward to meeting you, as well," Sabrina answered. She gave Aurora a wink, and Aurora slipped away to let the two of them get acquainted.
"Playing matchmaker, are we?" asked Ember. He looked relieved.
Aurora shrugged. "I had a feeling they might get along, that's all."
"Huh," said Laine. "A spymaster and a Psychic. I feel sorry for any kids they might have - they'd never be able to get away with anything with those two for parents."
Aurora giggled. "I don't know. It's not such a bad thing, being Falkner's daughter."
"I'm glad you finally got your head on straight," said Ember.
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" Aurora asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Nothing whatsoever," Ember replied. "Excuse me a minute, I think I see Morty over there, and I need to talk to him..."
He drifted over to where Morty was and whispered a few words into his ear. Morty looked surprised, but he followed Ember away with an expression that wasn't entirely without interest. Laine stared.
"What was that all about?" she asked.
"Nothing much," Aurora replied. "Ember just wants to offer Morty a job. I think Morty will take it. That will be nice."
"I'll take your word for it!" said Laine with a shrug.
Eventually, Aurora began to feel tired of all the crowds and the fuss, so when Laine wandered away to chat with Bruce, she let her go. Instead, she went outside to the front steps of the building, where she and Scar could sit alone and watch the stars come out.
"This isn't what I thought it would be like when I decided to become a Pokemon trainer," she said. "Alistair was wrong about a lot of things, but... it still isn't a happy job all the time."
Scar preened her hair sympathetically and put a wing around her shoulders. She leaned gently against him. She stayed quiet, thinking a lot about the things Alistair had done that could never be put right, and also about the jealousy and politics among the Gym Leaders, and Ember struggling to juggle his ideals and desires, and about Blaine and his ruined Gym, and the restless ghosts in Lavender Town, and about Giovanni and Claire, and the callous trainer that had left Scar with his distinctive markings. There were a lot of bad things in the world, and even if Aurora became the greatest Gym Leader there ever was, even if she was the Reigning Champion, which she wasn't likely to ever be, she still couldn't put it all right.
"So there you are," said a voice, and she looked up to see Falkner walking over to her, with Laine and Ember following him.
"I wanted to get some fresh air," she said, a bit guiltily.
"Nothing wrong with that," Falkner replied. "It's just that I didn't get to say everything I wanted to say before you presented me with a distraction."
"Does that mean you liked her?" asked Aurora.
"She is a fascinating young woman," Falkner replied, "but that is neither here nor there at the moment. I'll talk to her more later. Right now, I want to talk to you, my Fledgling... No, you aren't a fledgling anymore, are you? You've grown up so much since I first met you. You're well on your way to being a fine young woman. And that's a good thing, because you aren't my Apprentice anymore."
"What?" she yelped.
Falkner laughed. "Don't panic! I'm not punishing you. Listen: you know there's been some upheaval in the League lately. It will take ages to get it all straightened out. However, the fact remains that Champion Lance is missing a few cabinet members, and since it takes four people to make up the Elite Four, somebody has to be chosen to fill in the blanks, and, well... it seems Lance is thankful enough to me for the help that I've given him lately that he wants to give me a chance to spread my wings, so to speak. It seems I'm being promoted."
"You're joining the Elite Four?" Aurora exclaimed. "That's wonderful! Congratulations! You'll be good at it."
"I hope to be," said Falkner, smiling modestly. "I'm looking forward to being able to use some of my more powerful Pokemon in official matches. I think I'll enjoy it. However, since a trainer can't be a Gym Leader and one of the Elite Four at the same time, then that means that someone is going to have to take my place at the Gym..."
Aurora began to realize what he was getting at. She began to tremble.
"You don't mean...?"
"I have taught you everything you need to know," Falkner replied. "Your Pokemon are strong enough to handle the challenge. I have absolute faith that you will perform the task admirably. And it just so happens that I have managed to get Lance alone long enough to give me the necessary forms, so all we need is you and me and a couple of witnesses who are established members of the Pokemon League, who I happen to have brought with me. Ember is a high- ranking official and his name will look good on your contract. Laine's not so much so, since she doesn't rank above a Junior Trainer, but... it's not really about how high they rank, is it?"
"No, no, of course not," Aurora stammered. She raised her eyes to look at her two friends, and then lowered them again, not trusting herself not to cry from sheer gratitude and amazement. "There's no one I'd like more."
"Then there's no time like the present," said Falkner. He took out a folded sheet of paper and a pen, and signed his name to it. Then he passed it to Ember and Laine, pointing out where they should witness that he had signed over his title to the undersigned of his own free will, and they both wrote their names on the paper. Then it was passed to Aurora who took the pen with a shaking hand. There were two blank spaces at the very bottom of the page. On one of them, she wrote her name, her old name, the one she'd been born with and had used all her life, and - the minute she signed the second blank, would cease to be her name until the day she chose to sign the title away to someone else. Then she took a deep breath and wrote, for the first time, Gym Leader Aurora. She felt very strange. The shadows and the starlight made it feel like a dream. Her knees shook.
Falkner gently removed the paper and pen from her grip and put them away again, and then drew out a bit of metal from his pocket and pressed it into her hand. Her fingers curved around it. It felt cold and solid in her grip, and though she couldn't see it, she knew exactly what it was.
"A Gym Leader should always be ready to give out a Badge when the situation presents itself," he said. "Congratulations. I couldn't ask for more in a successor. You're going to do an excellent job, Gym Leader Aurora."
Scar gave a jubilant cry that echoed in the night and made Aurora clap her hands over her ears, and she almost dropped the Badge. She laughed; there was no mistaking that for a dream. She smiled.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you all!"
"Aw, look at who's a big bad Gym Leader now!" said Laine, giving Aurora a bone- cracking hug. "We knew you'd do it all along."
"Hmph," said Ember, looking as if he were trying not to smile, and not succeeding. "That paper may say you're a Gym Leader, but you still look like the same skinny little Winter-hair to me."
"And you may be a Gym Leader and a Rocket Boss and a Dragon Master and I don't know what else, but you still sound like the same snooty old Fire-top to me," Aurora retorted. "Come on, let's go inside! I want to tell Lapis and Nick and the twins and Sabrina and - and everybody!"
They scampered back into the building, hardly watching where they were putting their feet, Scar crowing excitedly and Laine chattering a mile a minute. Falkner walked in silence, smiling and running his fingers over the folded piece of paper. Aurora and Ember walked side by side, and when she threaded her fingers into his, he gave her a surprised look that melted into a smile. And over all of them, a small Pokemon looked down on them with wide blue eyes. He had lived a long time, and he had seen a lot of bad things that couldn't be put right. But he had seen other things, too, good things that couldn't be changed: family and friends, joy and hope, laughter and love. He was seeing them now, and it made him happy. Humans really were strange and wonderful things. With a tiny giggle, Mew turned somersault or two and vanished into the stars.