The cemetery was quiet, nearly empty. Most people who weren’t working or sleeping were staying indoors, anticipating more rain. There was only Syr, a lone arbok slithering up the path between the gates.
The placard marking his destination glinted a faint bronze in the scant sunlight. Syr came to a stop, his eyes roaming over three names embossed in unown-script: ESSAX EVERGRAY. FARRUR URSH NONKU. DROSSIGON URSH NONKU-EVERGRAY. Syr could only hope he’d guessed how to spell them correctly. He’d never actually seen any of the names in writing before.
He inhaled, steeling himself. “Hi, Esaax,” he said quietly. “Hi, Faurur… hi, Drasigon.” Syr had never actually met the young koffing; even now, it felt a bit awkward addressing her. But leaving her out felt worse somehow. “I hope you’re well. Hope you’re at peace.
“Anyway, uh… well. I have news for you.” Mostly for Faurur, truth be told. But he figured anything that had mattered to her would matter to the others. “I’ve made some new friends. Friends who might be able to help me look into the deranics for you.” Syr gave a faint, sad smile, closing his eyes. “A promise is a promise, right?”
His next breath came in as a loud sniffle, surprising him. When he’d begun crying, he couldn’t say. Sighing, Syr brought the end of his tail around to wipe at the lingering tears.
“…I guess I’d better get going, then,” he then said. “We’ll figure this out. We’ll save your people. And… and I’ll be careful. I promise.”
The arbok took a deep breath and let it out slowly, flexing his cobra hood as he exhaled. “Goodbye, for now,” he said on the next, then turned back toward the cemetery gates.
From there, home was about half an hour eastward. Insofar as he could call it home, anyway. His own house had been reduced to a blackened husk so recently that he could still smell the smoke whenever he thought about it. In the wake of its loss, his friend Karo had offered up his home, and Syr and his adopted son Jen had accepted.
But Karo wasn’t their only roommate.
Soon enough, the three-story brick house on Bayberry Street came into view. Syr went up the walkway and rapped on the front doors with his tail, to no response. He knocked again. “Coming, coming…” came a rasping voice from inside, accompanied by the sound of something heavy whispering over carpet.
One door opened, and there, holding the first third or so of himself upright in a very arboklike fashion, was Jen. Jen was a cryonide: black and bladed, humanoid above the waist, serpentlike below. Even now, Syr caught himself gawking at him, all but forgetting who he was. It was just that hard to believe this creature was his son—especially given how opposed the boy had been to evolving.
“I just didn’t want to become a glalie,” he’d clarified after Syr had seen his new form for the first time. “We found a way around that.”
“…Sorry,” Syr said, acknowledging his own stare. “Is everyone else downstairs?” he asked, craning his neck to look past Jen’s long shoulder spines.
“Ren is. He’s all the way downstairs. Karo might be with him.” Jen moved out of Syr’s way as he spoke; once the arbok was well and truly in the living room, Jen curled the end of his tail around the doorknob and pulled it shut. “Everyone else is out.”
All the way downstairs. That meant Ren was probably busy plugging away at a mystery of his own. For a moment, Syr wondered if maybe now wasn’t the time to have this discussion with him. No, he finally decided, unable to help himself. It’s been long enough.
He went to a nearby closet, opening the door with his tail, then drew an invisible pattern on its back wall with his snout. There was a click, and then a well-concealed door slid out of the way to reveal a roomy elevator. Syr wound his way in, then drew himself up into a tight coil.
“I need you to come down here with me,” he called out to Jen. The cryonide knew the winding halls beneath Ren’s house somewhat better than Syr did. Jen complied readily, maneuvering into the lift; both pokémon did their best to scrunch themselves out of each other’s way, mindful of Jen’s many barbs and blades.
Syr nudged a couple of buttons with his snout, and the elevator began its descent. He was concerned, however fleetingly, when it didn’t stop as soon as he’d expected; he was used to exiting at the Vault, home of Ren’s personal library as well as his valuables. Not this time, he reminded himself.
Eventually, the elevator’s rear door opened to off-white walls and clear, bright lighting, a far cry from the slightly old-fashioned décor above. Syr let Jen take the lead, following him through the halls, weaving around deep gouges in the floor, until finally they reached an open door.
In the room beyond, a smallish figure sat at the foot of a tall, presently-open tube of some sort. It resembled nothing more than an oversized aluminum can, but apparently it was some sort of stasis device. That was Ren’s theory, anyhow. He’d awoke within it earlier that week with no memory of the past fourteen years or so, including why he’d gone in there in the first place. Ever since, he’d made trips downstairs to try and make as much sense as he could of the thing, partly to see if he could get it working again, partly to try and jog his own memories about it.
Jen let himself into the room, at which Ren finally pried his eyes and thoughts from the tube. He turned to face the two new arrivals, regarding them through deep brown eyes, and for the second time that day, Syr caught himself staring.
It would be a long time, he imagined, before he’d get completely used to seeing a real, live human being in the flesh again.
Ren Bridges was the man’s name. He was short, entirely hairless, and wearing the same Kalos-flag shirt and black jeans as he’d been since awakening. Syr hadn’t even wondered why. He’d been too preoccupied with the fact that this man was alive at all when the rest of his kind had been extinct for more than a decade.
“Oh hey,” Ren said, shutting the toolbox at his side and hoisting it up as he stood.
“…Hey,” Syr responded after a beat. “So, uh… I was wondering…” The sense that he was wasting his words on this human, same as he would’ve been with any other, was still a little hard to shake.
But Ren had already proven that yes, he really could understand pokémon—yet another of the tube’s mysteries. He hadn’t been able to prior to emerging from it. “Yes…?” he prompted.
“About your library,” Syr went on. “Your books, your videos, anything you’ve got. I was wondering if there’s anything in there about der-an-ics…” That last word wasn’t one of his own. He wasn’t even sure it was part of any pokémon language. He wanted to make certain that Ren heard it clearly.
“There isn’t,” Ren said. He furrowed his brow and gazed upward in silent thought for a few moments. “Not by name, anyway. What do you know about them?”
“Not much,” Syr admitted. “But here’s what I do know: several years ago, off around Rustboro, these weird lights crossed the sky. I didn’t know what they were then, but I’ve since learned that those were the deranics. They came and enslaved some of the poison-types living in the area… including an old friend,” he added quietly. “She escaped a few days ago to warn me about them. She said they’d already done something to the world. Something big.”
He met Ren’s gaze again and found the human’s eyes wide and wild, his lips parted. “How many years ago?” Ren asked.
“It…” Didn’t feel so long ago at all, especially in the wake of all the reminders he’d gotten recently. Syr shook his head, trying to regain his perspective. “It was almost… oh my God.”
Almost fifteen years ago.
Syr didn’t say it aloud, hung up on disbelief that he’d never made this connection before. Or maybe he had. He couldn’t say for certain. He could barely think.
Nonetheless, Ren apparently pieced it together himself; “Don’t you think it’s a little strange,” he said, “that we’d get a visit from space invaders, or whatever the hell they were, right around the time when an entire species gets killed off?”
Syr had to fight through the buzzing in his brain to find words again. Suddenly the floodgates were open. Suddenly Faurur’s words made entirely too much sense. “That’s what they did,” he breathed. “Seter—… Seterazu… augh…” More “worm-language”, as Faurur had called it. He hoped he’d remember the exact words sooner rather than later. “That’s what she was talking about. It was them. They’re the ones behind the plague, or whatever it was…”
“Maybe,” Jen spoke up, quietly scraping his long, bladelike claws together. Syr gave him a questioning look, but the cryonide merely shrugged; apparently he had nothing more to contribute on the subject.
“If there’s any chance they were,” Ren said, “any chance whatsoever…” There was a tremor in his voice now. Whether it was fear or anger, Syr couldn’t tell. Maybe it was both. “I think,” the human resumed after a deep breath, “it behooves us to look into this.”
Syr felt a trickle of relief run down his spine. There was his next question out of the way. The mission that lay ahead would be difficult—there was no doubt about that. Syr had little chance of accomplishing anything on his own, but with a former Apex League gym leader on his side…
“What about the pokémon?” he asked. “Karo and the rest… do they automatically come too, or…”
“I’ll ask them,” Ren said. “Karo’ll wanna go at the very least.”
“I’d better stay,” Jen said. “Someone needs to watch the house, right?”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Syr said, and there was a definite note of relief in his voice. He’d honestly never wanted to drag Jen into this mess. The mission would be dangerous. Even if he could’ve known exactly what he was up against, Syr knew he wouldn’t have felt right bringing his son into harm’s way like that.
“Right then. Karo.” Ren plucked a great ball off his belt, pressing its button as he brought it forward. White light spilled out, and a moment later it resolved into a nosepass.
It took a moment for Karo to react to being let out. He made an odd little groaning noise, swiveling each of his arms in a full rotation, then pivoted to face Ren with an unpleasant grinding of stone on stone. “What?”
“How are you feeling?” Ren asked.
“Heh. Like I actually haven’t exploded in the past few days,” Karo responded.
Syr winced. The fact of the matter was that Karo had done exactly that. Syr recalled what had been left of his friend in the wake of the explosion, remembered crawling over scattered stones that used to be part of a living being, and shivered in discomfort.
“I’m glad you’re all right,” Syr said. It wasn’t the first time he’d said it since Karo had stepped out into the waiting room, whole again. But it came out every bit as earnestly. “Listen, there’s… well. We’ve made plans.”
“You told him about the things, didn’t you,” Karo said.
“Yeah… he didn’t know any more than we do,” Syr said, only to realize Ren hadn’t exactly confirmed whether or not there was any information about them in the Vault above. “Right?”
“Prior to now, I didn’t know anything at all. But now…” Another deep breath. His grip tightened on the handle of the toolbox. “I’ve learned enough to know this definitely warrants a closer look.”
“So we’re gonna go pay these deranics a visit?” More loud grinding as Karo turned to face Syr. “Count me in.”
No surprise there. Karo had insisted upon coming along the last time Syr was faced with a difficult task, as well. And he’d proven a valuable asset to the rescue party, even if the mission had ended in failure. “Just… try not to explode unless you absolutely have to,” Syr said. “Okay?”
Karo stepped forward, leaning back to look Syr right in the eyes. “Believe me,” he said, “when I tell you that I really, really frickin’ hate doing that, and when we make it back home, we are going to have a party, cake and all. I mean hey, we already owe him a welcome-back party, right?” he added, waving an arm toward his trainer.
“You don’t owe me a thing, Karo.” Ren closed the short distance to the nosepass’s side and patted him on the head. “I’m just glad to have you around.”
Jen craned his neck upward then, clicking his fanged mandibles against his teeth. “I should see if they’re back yet,” he decided aloud, and headed back toward the elevator. Ren recalled Karo and set off after the cryonide; with no real reason to stay below now, Syr followed.
They arrived upstairs just as the front doors opened, admitting a greninja by the name of Babs. She had a large plastic grocery bag slung over one shoulder and was already heading for the kitchen with it.
Two other pokémon followed her, one at a time… and Syr felt a lump form in his throat at the sight of them. The two of them were kwazai. And even now, it was hard for him to look at them without wishing they were the last pair of kwazai he’d met instead.
But they weren’t, he reminded himself with a pang of regret. They were Demi and Acheron, more of Ren’s pokémon. Siblings, if he remembered right. The former was a four-armed biped; the latter, a quadruped with very long limbs and neck and tail. Both were sky-blue, with black tails studded with eyes-that-weren’t. They’d been wobbuffet once, same as Esaax had. Unlike Esaax, they’d probably had a choice in the matter of whether or not they’d evolve.
It’s not him. He’s not Esaax. He had nothing to do with him.
“Just set those against the wall over there,” Ren told the two kwazai, who each carried a hefty stack of long, thin boxes.
Demi and Acheron did as instructed, setting them out of the way—save for one, which Demi began opening as she strode over to Ren on her stiltlike legs.
“What do you think?” she asked him, sliding out a wooden plank. “Nothing like what we had down in here before, I know, but I think it’s an upgrade.”
“It’s nice,” Ren said, and he couldn’t have sounded more preoccupied if he’d tried. “But the floor’s gonna have to wait. We have a more important job to do.”
“And that would be…?” There was Babs, leaning in the doorway from the kitchen. Her eyes shifted toward Ren’s belt. “Something to do with the nullshade?”
“Hopefully not,” Ren said, and Syr agreed, eying the relevant ultra ball with unease, all fangs bared. The creature within had tried to murder his son. Had succeeded in destroying their home. The nullshade, as they were apparently called, could just rot in that ball for all Syr cared.
“No, we’re going on something of a mission,” Ren went on, letting Karo back out as he spoke. The tension in the human’s voice had gone up again, and it stayed high as he explained the situation and illustrated what he, along with Syr and Karo, intended to do about it.
No sooner had he finished than the kwazai siblings voiced their desire to accompany him, almost in unison. This was good news, Syr told himself silently, despite the memories their presence might dredge up. Very good news. They’d be excellent bodyguards and formidable allies in general.
“Think I’ll stick around with Jen,” Babs said then. “Someone needs to keep prodding at that tube. We still technically don’t know what it actually does. We don’t even know why you built that thing in the first place. Or when.”
“That we don’t,” Ren said with a small but visible shudder, his gaze dropping floorward. Jen cast him a sympathetic look, softly clicking his fangs together, just as he’d done the last time that particular matter had come up. Missing memories were something the two of them had in common.
The human looked back up at Babs. “Thanks,” he told her. “I appreciate it.”
“No prob,” Babs responded.
“So…” Syr said then, “since we seem to have everything sorted out now, when do we leave?”
“Tonight. Partly for the kwazai’s sake, but…” Ren rubbed at his bald head. “Demi spoke with the glalie a couple of days ago, and at some point he apparently said something about anti-human sentiment—people who are glad we’re gone. People who don’t need to see me.” He met Syr’s gaze. “Is it true?”
It was Jen who fielded that question. “DeLeo was always worried about that… it’s why he asked us to be careful who we told about him.” His eyelight briefly dulled. “Then again, he wasn’t human after all…”
Syr’s gaze fell to the floor. No. DeLeo, the president of the now-defunct Hope Institute, wasn’t human. He was… Syr hissed, unable to say the word, even in his mind. But the face, that all too familiar face, appeared in his mind’s eye as if summoned all the same.
He could accept that DeLeo wasn’t human. He just wished to God that he were anything, anyone else.
Uncomfortable silence hovered for a few moments more. Then, “Either way… no. Not risking it. I mean, sure, we can probably pass me off as an especially sentimental ditto at least part of the time, but the fewer folks we’ll have to fool, the better. So yeah, we’ll let the diurnals skip off to bed. The kwazai can ward off everyone else. Demi will be watching our backs for the first night.”
“Okay,” Syr said. He glanced at the clock… remembered it was broken, and turned to look out the window instead. The clouds made it hard to gauge the sun’s exact position, but it still looked far from sundown.
Part of him still worried about the mission—the danger—that lay ahead. But as far as the rest of him was concerned, the sun couldn’t set soon enough.