Chapter 1: The Promise
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.
Chapter 2: Adjusting
Off in the distance, the treeline loomed. The forest proper was still minutes away, but from the looks of things, it was intent on expanding its borders. Houses and shops here were largely abandoned, no clear sign of pokémon activity save for the occasional smeargle scribble, but they couldn’t be called dead. Vegetation covered the walls, spilling out of the broken windows.
Some part of Syr idly wondered if the entire city might one day look like this, and he supposed he wouldn’t mind too much if it did.
The sun had been down for an hour or so when he and his teammates had left home. There was only the occasional working streetlight shining on them as they headed for the woods. If anyone were hiding in the shadows, if anyone were watching, they’d only see a roughly five-foot-tall figure in an oversized gray hoodie, their face obscured. The shape might stir some memories, some suspicions, but it would be hard to be sure what one was looking at with a large, hooded serpent and a tall, many-limbed creature at the figure’s sides, partially obscuring the view.
Not that Ren really expected to go the entire distance unnoticed. Nor did he expect he could truly convince anyone and everyone that he was actually a ditto. According to him, ditto had to absorb a few of a target’s cells in order to transform into them in their absence. Many people weren’t aware of this, but there was always the chance that they’d run into someone who was.
No one else in the party expected differently, either. Sooner or later, someone would recognize what was in their midst.
“At least I can say I did something,” Ren had said.
Before long, they finally reached the forest. Darkness swallowed them up very quickly, at which they moved into single file. Demi led the way, her eyes allowing her to see as if in broad daylight, her other, stranger senses combing the trees and brush for anything that moved or breathed or felt. One of her arms was twisted backward in a way that might’ve hurt some other creature, holding hands with her trainer. Ren, in turn, held the end of a belt, which was knotted to another belt, which was knotted to a third. The last pair of these was tied around Syr’s chest.
The arbok was grateful. He could smell just fine, could feel the footsteps ahead of him, had a vague sense of his teammates’ body heat. Strictly speaking, he could’ve followed those alone. He wouldn’t have lost track of the others. But seeing as he couldn’t exactly see, he might have plowed face-first into a tree, or gotten himself snared in a bramble. This way, neither he nor Ren would go anywhere Demi wouldn’t.
The evening was quiet, save for a breeze stirring the branches. Last time Syr had been in the area, the ninjask had been out and singing in full force. He didn’t exactly miss the racket, but the near-silence was putting him on edge.
He thought he heard a noise, something cracking off to his left. “What was that?” he asked automatically.
“No one,” Demi answered, just as she had the time before. “We’re fine, Syr,” she assured him. “If anyone tries to start something with us, they’re the ones who’ll be in trouble.”
“Yeah… yeah, you’re right.” Gym pokémon, he reminded himself. Kwazai followed of its own volition, with the related memories. He knew what her kind could do. Knew, and wished he didn’t.
Hours passed without incident. A few more possibly-imagined noises cropped up, but Syr held his tongue. They’ll deal with it, he reminded himself. And so will you. He wasn’t helpless. He tried to keep that in mind rather than linger on the fact that he’d been utterly useless the last time he’d been in a fight.
No one’s going to use sheer cold on you. The glalie went home.
“Anyone else getting tired?” Ren spoke up, interrupting that train of thought on its third or fourth go-around.
“Nope, not even close,” Demi said, but she stopped walking all the same.
“I… guess I’m not?” Syr realized he actually hadn’t been paying much attention to his own physical state. He flexed from neck to tail—nothing complained. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Right. I suppose this is what I get for being a nightsleeper this past couple of days,” Ren mused aloud.
“You needed the sleep,” Demi told him. “You’d already gone long enough without it.” She turned on the spot. “Shall I?”
“Yes,” Ren said, “and thanks.”
The next thing Syr knew, the belts around his chest were being tugged from a couple of feet higher. When Demi set off again, her footsteps alone resonated through the forest floor.
The three of them carried on in this fashion for a little while longer. Just as Syr was beginning to feel like maybe he could use a break himself, Demi stopped again, and when he tried to look past her he could see why.
A short distance ahead, the forest stopped rather abruptly. So, it seemed, did the ground. Syr frowned; had they gone the wrong way? He moved forward a bit for a better look, peering down… and saw relatively flat stone just eight, maybe ten feet down. Oh. Here was a place he’d actually never seen before, a place Ren hadn’t seen fit to mention when he’d gone over the route they’d take. Which, Syr supposed, meant it wasn’t really an obstacle.
He saw Ren drop the end of their makeshift tether, and in the next moment, Demi jumped off the edge, still holding the human in her arms, landing gracefully on her feet. She moved out of the way, then nodded toward Syr, at which the arbok let himself half-drop, half-slide down the slightly-sloping wall.
Demi made to pick up the end of the tether; but, “Hey, uh…” Syr said. The kwazai paused, slowly straightening back up. “Do you think we could take a break here for a little while? It’s, well. Starting to catch up to me,” he admitted, by which he meant more than the distance.
“We sure can.” Ren craned his neck back to look Demi in the eyes and pointed groundward; she set him down at her feet. Once he was on solid ground again, he unfastened the belts around Syr’s chest.
“Just as well,” Demi said. “Another dinner sounds good right about now.” She gazed off into the nearby bushes. “Wanna come with?” she asked Syr.
It took him a beat to realize what she was getting at. “Oh no, that’s fine. I’m not hungry.” He was thankful he’d fed within the past couple of weeks. He’d seen things recently that could easily kill his appetite if it tried to pipe up anytime soon.
They played across his mind again as he thought on the matter: a blackened corpse and bloodstained walls. Scattered stone, with chilling mist hanging heavily on the air. Sapphire pools spreading around an old friend.
Syr hissed, drawing in upon himself. No, he did not want to hunt right now. And he didn’t particularly want to watch anyone else do it, either. Especially since many hunters—kwazai included, from what he’d seen—preferred to devour their prey in pieces.
Demi merely shrugged in response, then strode off under the moonlight, eventually vanishing back into the vegetation. Syr watched her go, then turned his sights back toward Ren. The human was now sitting a couple of feet away, riffling through his backpack.
Getting his mind on some other topic felt like a very good idea right about then. “Hey,” Syr spoke up again. Ren looked up at him, his face shadowed by his hood. Syr realized all at once that he didn’t actually know what to talk about, so he just said the first thing that came to mind. “…Thanks again for coming with me.”
“Mm,” Ren said, with a dismissive little wave. He took a swig from his canteen. There was some sort of filter built into the thing, according to him, something that’d allow him to drink from any source along the way. A filter of his own design, apparently, adapted and improved from the models they used to sell at poké marts. “I could just as easily thank you for coming along with me. This business down south concerns me just as much as it concerns you.”
Syr didn’t respond at first, but then nodded in agreement. It was true for certain if they were right about the deranics.
Silence hovered for a minute or two. Then, “How long have you known?” Ren asked quietly.
“Wh…” Syr’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Known what?”
“About the deranics,” Ren said. “About what they did.”
The puzzlement increased. “I already told you, though. They came before the Extinction, and…” Oh. Of course. Syr sighed. “All these years, I thought the only things they’d done were to enslave Faurur and the koffing and force us to leave the area. Maybe I just didn’t want to imagine that they could’ve done even more than that. I don’t know.
“Then she came back, and… Ren, that was just earlier this week. And a lot’s happened since then.” He had to stop and stare incredulously at nothing in particular in the wake of such an understatement. “I just found out about the whole… Seterhath Zulo-Denvenda thing—” Right… that’s what she called it. “—and I haven’t really had much time to think about it.”
He bowed his head. “I’m sorry,” he added; it had just seemed prudent.
Ren’s hand went to his forehead, burying itself under his hood. “It’s fine. I just… wanted to make sure.” His own head lowered; Syr could see nothing of the human’s face now. A sigh hissed against his palm. “This has just been so damn much to take in.”
“It has,” Syr agreed solemnly. He thought to say something more, but nothing came to mind. “It has,” he merely repeated, and for uncounted minutes after, neither of them said anything else.
Eventually there was a rustling in the brush nearby. Syr immediately turned to face it and saw Demi returning to the clearing. He was vaguely relieved to find not a single speck of blood or gore anywhere on her person. Either she was a very tidy hunter or else she’d thought to wash up afterward.
The kwazai looked both him and Ren over for a moment, a frown slowly forming on her face. Then she stopped in front of them, dropped into an odd sort of kneel, and gathered both of them up into a hug.
Syr initially stiffened in surprise, but soon relaxed. Closing his eyes, he laid his head on her shoulder, unable to stop the tears from flowing. He tried to speak, but his breath hitched in his throat. The sentiment sounded in his mind all the same.
* * *
The sun was finally rising, sparkling on the surface of the river that flowed to their right. Demi was already grumbling under her breath about it. Soon, they’d need to camp for the day. It was just a matter of finding a suitable place.
“There should be a little cave around here somewhere,” Ren said, on his own feet again as he searched the surrounding area. “I spent the night in there once while I was making my way through Hoenn. It ought to…”
He trailed off. Syr followed his gaze and moved in for a closer look. There was an unnaturally symmetrical hole at ground level in the eastern cliff, the cavern beyond too dark to see into. “Is this it?” he asked.
Ren didn’t answer. Didn’t say anything at all for a couple of moments. Then, “Demi? Light it up.”
The human got out of her way; Syr figured he’d better do likewise and coiled off to the side. Demi approached the hole in the wall and folded her legs again, then extended a hand into the darkened space. A psybeam lanced from her open palm with a faint hum, filling the cavern with colorful light, pouring harmlessly into the far wall.
“Oh…” Ren said weakly.
It wasn’t a cavern. The space was too perfectly-shaped to have occurred naturally. No, this was a room, and it was filled with human-style furniture. It was hard to make out all the details past the dust and plantlife covering everything, but it looked simplistic. Cheerful. Like something out of a human child’s room. A moldy-looking lapras plush sat in one corner, its neck limp and doubled over.
He looked back at Ren and found him trembling again. The human’s dark eyes were wide and shining with tears. The room was vacant, but he looked upon it as if a ghost were staring back at him.
“This isn’t it, is it?” Syr asked quietly. He rather hoped it wasn’t, for Ren’s sake.
“No,” Demi answered, and she cut off the psybeam. “No it’s not.” She put a couple of arms around her trainer and shepherded him away from the hole in the wall.
It wasn’t long before they found the actual cave Ren had been referring to. Silently, the human waved Demi in first to see if anyone had claimed the cavern since he’d last been there. She walked back out a couple of minutes later, giving a thumbs-up.
“Okay,” Ren said, then recalled her into her dusk ball. He let Karo out in her stead.
The nosepass stared upstream for a moment after he emerged, then turned to face the cave. “Ah. This place again.”
Ren nodded. “We’re stopping here til sundown. I need you to block anyone who tries to join us.”
“Can do,” Karo said proudly, parking himself at the cave’s entrance.
Syr didn’t doubt him in the least. Judging by what Karo had told him about the battle that had left him in pieces, the nosepass had recently gained a lot of proficiency in the block technique.
That’s all he’ll do, the arbok tried to assure himself. Maybe a zap cannon, if it comes to that, he conceded. There’d be no explosion this time.
The cave was dark, almost nothing of the early sunlight spilling into it. But Ren was undeterred; apparently he knew its layout well enough to navigate without light, even after all this time. Syr heard the human stop after just a few steps, then felt the belts fall off once again. A moment later, he heard a rustling of canvas.
“Good night,” Ren said once he’d finished fussing with his sleeping bag. The fact that he was saying such a thing after sunrise didn’t seem to cross his mind.
Syr didn’t have the heart to correct him, all things considered. “Good night,” he responded, curling up on the floor next to the human.
Chapter 3: Wait It Out
No matter where he looked, Syr could only see two colors. Everything was charred a flat black, and a good portion of it all was dusted in powdery, light gray ash. Then something bright yellow walked into view, stepping around the debris surprisingly well for something with such short legs. Jen, Syr recognized. His son. A snorunt…
…Except no, he wasn’t a snorunt, Syr eventually remembered. Not anymore. That was when Syr realized he was dreaming and, by extension, that he’d actually managed to fall asleep.
Sleep… had been hard-won, even by the standards of the past few days. Syr remembered staring into the shadows for quite some time, struggling to keep his eyes closed and his mind quiet. He needed his rest for what lay ahead; he knew as much. It was just hard to get, what with the memories of his most recent nightmares.
This time, at least as far as he could recall, he’d been lucky. No blood, red or blue or any other color. No bestial roars or cries of agony. No stench of the newly dead. Just his poor old burnt-out house. It was downright cheerful compared to the last few dreams.
Syr would’ve nodded off again, as a matter of fact, if it hadn’t been for the loud, shrill voice at his back.
“Hey! HEY! The heck are you doing in there; this is mine, mine!”
Groaning, Syr lifted his head. A look back at the cave’s entrance showed him nothing but Karo, still standing guard, and the cliffs and vegetation beyond.
“Get out, get out, you stupid boulder!” the newcomer shouted. Syr could hear and feel a series of light thuds as the creature spoke; apparently she was hopping up and down in her rage.
“Hmm…” Karo rocked back and forth on his stumpy legs a couple of times. “…Nah.”
The unseen visitor gasped. “Ooh, now you’ve done it. Now you’ve done it! I’m gonna—” Do nothing, as it happened; Karo had his block field up, and nothing was getting in past the invisible barrier without a hell of a fight. As it stood, the newcomer merely smacked into the empty air with a noise as if she’d hit a wall. But the failed entry accomplished something, at least. It brought a strange, jagged red line into view, seemingly hovering in midair.
Oh. Syr had heard that this area was kecleon territory, though he’d never actually seen one about. Apparently it still was.
The arbok finally lifted his upper body off the ground and began moving toward the kecleon. He noticed Ren stirring as he slithered—She doesn’t need to see him, Syr decided quickly, and mindfully blocked off any view of the human with his coils and hood.
“…Wait a minute, how many of you lousy squatters are there?” the kecleon asked. “Augh, this is ridiculous. All of you, get out—ack!” A little burst of electricity, aimed at nothing in particular, had startled her right out of her near-invisibility.
“Go on,” Karo said. His nose was still glowing faintly. “Shoo. We’ll come out when we’re good and ready.”
The kecleon stared at him indignantly for a moment, hands clutched into tight, scaly fists. “No, you’ll get the heck out of my home right this instant!”
“Hold on.” Syr came to a stop next to Karo, his tongue flicking out for an especially long taste of the air. He met the kecleon’s gaze, or tried to; her eyes, swiveling independently, kept darting around. Following them was a bit dizzying. “If this is your home, why doesn’t it smell like a kecleon’s been living here?”
The kecleon huffed, plainly flustered. “Because I bathe!”
Syr shook his head. Her hygiene was irrelevant, and not only because he doubted the river could wash all of her scent off. “If you lived here, Demi would’ve picked up on it somehow.”
“Demi?” The kecleon strained to see past Syr’s hood, to no avail. “Don’t tell me there’s even more of you…” Both eyes turned toward Karo. “…Unless that’s Demi.”
“Bzzt, wrong!” Karo’s nose lit up again, brighter this time. “But here, have a consolation prize.”
The zap cannon didn’t actually hit anyone, as far as Syr could tell. Generally speaking, people saw that attack coming from miles away and got out of the way if they could, and the kecleon was no exception. He could hear her scurrying away through the bushes outside once the ringing in his ears had stopped.
Karo turned around to face Ren, nose held high in pride. “See? Told you I’d keep ’em out.”
“Didn’t doubt it for a second,” Ren said. He stood, his backpack in hand. “Now let’s get out of here in case she comes back with reinforcements. It’s nearly sundown anyway.”
“I’ll take your word for it, I guess,” Syr said. The clouds were thicker and darker than ever; he was a little surprised it wasn’t already pouring.
As if it already were, “Yeah, no, I’m not walking in that,” Karo said. He turned and started waddling back toward Ren. Light spilled out of his capture ball and drew him in before he got very far.
“After you, then,” Ren said, waving the arbok onward.
With a slightly delayed nod, Syr faced forward once more and slithered out into the open air. A moment later, Acheron materialized next to him. Syr realized he was already starting to inch away from the kwazai and forced himself to stop, but his upward stare lingered.
If Acheron noticed, he didn’t show it. His gaze swept over his surroundings, his tail waving lazily. He licked his lips. “Hmm. The coast is clear, far as I’m aware.”
“Good.” Ren emerged, wearing his pack once more.
Now that the human was back in the light, Syr could see the bags under his eyes. The arbok gave him a pitying frown. Surely an all-nighter spent on the road had tired the human out—hadn’t he gotten any sleep at all?
Ren didn’t seem to notice the look on Syr’s face as he uncoiled the belt-tether. He wrapped it around the arbok, same as he’d done the evening before, and with that, they were off.
The last of the daylight faded, and the clouds finally burst. In no time, the ground was soft. Ren prodded one of Acheron’s already-muddy legs; “He’s definitely strong enough to pull himself out of the mud if he gets stuck,” Ren explained as the kwazai crouched to pick him up. “I might not be.”
“I know,” Syr said without meaning to. The arbok could guess Acheron’s strength just fine. Even without evolving, wobbuffet were physically stronger than they had any right being, for all the good it did them. “…I don’t mean you’re weak; I mean…”
“I know what you mean,” Ren said. “It’s okay.”
Do you? Syr wondered, but kept the question to himself.
The three continued southward, with a sheer dropoff into the river not too far to their side all the while. He’s keeping us from going over, Syr told himself in an effort to dispel some of his unease around the kwazai. The heights weren’t an issue; Syr hadn’t been afraid of falling in and of itself for a long time. But the river ran fast, churned up all the more by the heavy rainfall and burgeoning winds. Getting swept away and bashed into rocks was a very real possibility.
That possibility loomed all the larger as they approached a rather long log bridge. It looked sturdy enough, anchored in such a way that it didn’t sway in the slightest… but there were no guard rails, not even so much as a rope to lean against. As far as he could remember, it had always been this way, nothing to either side of him as he’d crossed it en route to Convergence all those years ago. But the weather had been a lot milder then. Now the logs were damp—possibly slick—and either he was imagining things, or the wind was picking up by the minute.
Acheron trusted a single pod to the bridge, leaning into it. Maybe it creaked under his weight. Maybe it didn’t. The noise of the downpour made it impossible to be sure either way. At any rate, the kwazai looked back, nodded at Syr, and continued forward with apparent confidence.
Strapped to the rest of the party as he was, Syr had little choice but to follow. Already squinting against the rain in his eyes, he shut them altogether for a moment as the wind howled past. His muscles tensed of their own accord, and he hissed through his teeth. It’s safe, it’s safe, it’s safe, he tried to assure himself. “It’s safe…”
“It’s safe,” Acheron confirmed, speaking loudly over the rain.
Syr might’ve been more surprised to learn he’d begun saying it aloud if he weren’t so focused on the weather. “I’m not so sure,” he admitted.
As if to underscore his doubt, thunder rumbled in the distance. A flash off to the south caught Syr’s eye, and the thunder sounded again.
“…Hm. I think,” Ren said, half-shouting over the noise of the storm, “we need to pick up the pace.”
“Right,” Acheron agreed, and looked back toward Syr again. “Get ready to scoot.”
That was all the warning the kwazai gave before taking off at a gallop. Syr gave a strangled yelp as the tether yanked him forward, pulling himself back upright a beat later. Keeping up with Acheron at full speed was harder than he’d expected; the arbok was already panting, and the logs were bumping along under his belly so hard now that he was sure it’d leave bruises.
He was all the more relieved when they finally left the bridge behind—at least for a short time. Then lightning blinded him for seconds on end, and the accompanying thunder cracked so loudly and suddenly that he thought he felt his heart stop.
“We need shelter, now!” Ren said.
Acheron kept on running, and through the rain that stung his eyes, Syr noticed that the kwazai was headed for something that looked an awful lot like a solid stone wall. Hurtling toward it. Syr panicked in spite of himself, struggling against the tether, and shouted when a hollow roar sounded over the storm.
“You can open your eyes now,” Ren said.
Syr did so, only realizing then that he’d shut them. He looked up and saw the human slung over one of Acheron’s shoulders. The kwazai was standing stock still with his free hand extended, and…
Syr promptly looked away. He didn’t need to watch the black beam, bizarrely dark and bright at the same time, as it bored through the rock. Didn’t need to think about what that energy did to flesh.
But he thought about it all the same.
“That’ll do for now,” Ren said before too long, and Syr finally let himself look at the tunnel. It was too dark to tell how deep it ran… but at least he could be sure it was unoccupied, freshly-dug as it was. Unless Acheron had dug into a pre-existing tunnel or cavern. Syr hissed at himself. Not helping…
White light filled the tunnel ahead, briefly illuminating Karo’s silhouette. He turned himself around noisily. “Alre—” he began, but fell abruptly silent. A beat later, another loud peal of thunder sounded. “Ooh... yeah. Smart choice,” he said.
“I need you to put up a block field around us,” Ren said as Acheron carried him into the tunnel, Syr following close behind. “There’s no guarantee this place won’t collapse on us.” The tunnel lit up again, red this time, as he recalled Acheron.
“Got it. C’mere,” Karo said, and the others moved toward the sound of his voice now that Acheron was out of their way. He nudged Syr in the side. “Lucky you. You get to be awake for it this time.”
Syr thought about responding to that, but words failed him when he felt an invisible force pressing in on him from all sides, forcing his jaws shut and making it difficult to breathe. Moments later, just as he began to feel faint, the pressure abated.
“There you go,” Karo said.
“Thanks, buddy,” Ren said, then sighed. “And now… we wait.”
Syr wasn’t even remotely inclined to argue. The rain was an impenetrable sheet outside, and soon the sky was flashing almost continuously, forcing him to screw his eyes shut. He wanted to keep moving, but for the time being, there seemed to be no other course but to wait out the storm. So he lay half-coiled and listened to it, wondering if the weather was this nasty back in Convergence. I hope not.
By the time the thunderstorm finally ended, the sun had risen. “Guess we might as well go ahead and spend the night here. I mean day,” Ren said, though none too happily. The storm had cost them an entire night’s worth of travel, and his tone made it clear that he was anxious to get going again.
“Ah… about that,” Karo began, and he sounded more than a little exhausted. Pained, even. “I… really oughta kill the block. Now, I don’t think that ceiling’s gonna come down anytime soon, but.” His arms pivoted audibly; the nosepass was shrugging, insofar as he could.
Silence. Then, “Mm. No. We’ll find someplace else. Come on,” Ren said, getting up to leave—and promptly smacking face first into an invisible barrier. He staggered and tumbled over backward, falling in a heap on top of Syr.
“Ah crap…” Karo shuffled all the closer to his trainer. “I am so, so sorry, holy crap. You okay?”
“Yeah,” Ren managed, “yeah, I’m fine. If anything, I probably had that coming for working you so hard.”
“Yeah, no. No you didn’t. Now go find somewhere nice and take a nap. The block’s down,” Karo said. He pressed the tip of his nose to the button on one of Ren’s capture balls, then turned into red light and vanished.
Ren remained sprawled over the arbok’s side for a moment. Then another. And another. Syr began to wonder if the human had actually fallen asleep. Then he felt hands fussing with something at his chest. Right. The tether. He’d managed to forget it was even there.
Once it was off, Ren made for the exit, rolling up the belts and stuffing them into his backpack as he went. The arbok joined him outside, circling around to see his face past that hood. The human’s eyes still looked like hell.
“Karo’s right,” Syr said. “You really should take a nap.”
“Yeah.” Ren might’ve been agreeing, but he sounded too distracted for Syr to be sure. He reached for his belt, maximizing a dusk ball in his palm, then let Acheron back out.
The kwazai immediately pulled a face at the light gray sky. “Bit ahead of schedule, aren’t we?”
“Much the opposite.” Ren gazed southward for a moment, then shrugged off his backpack again. After briefly rummaging through its contents, he pulled out a small and very full cloth pouch. He shook out a leppa berry, then tossed it to Acheron. The kwazai caught it in his jaws and promptly swallowed it.
“I’m… gonna stop for the day,” Ren told him. “I promise. We just need to find a good spot to camp.” He waved toward the forest at the foot of the mountain. “Somewhere in there will probably do. We’ll need you to guard us. Karo’s earned a break.”
“Not a problem.” The kwazai turned and began lumbering toward the trees.
“Oh… but no secret bases,” Ren called after him.
Acheron stopped in his tracks, craning his neck back toward his trainer. Then he lowered his head. “No secret bases,” he said, as warmly and assuringly as his rather ghastly voice allowed, and picked the human up.
Back into the forest. The woods were thicker this time around, but rain still filtered through the leaves above. An especially fat drop landed on Syr’s snout and found its way right into his nose; he sneezed sharply, frightening something or another out of their perch nearby.
“Gesundheit,” Ren said semi-absently.
“Go back to sleep,” Acheron told him.
First came mild surprise that Ren had actually let himself doze off. Then came guilt at having awakened him. “Sorry,” Syr said.
Acheron gave a dismissive wave. He began to slow down, eventually stopping at a clearing with enough open space for the three of them, provided they didn’t lie too far apart. While the grass was still damp, the area wasn’t as muddy as it could’ve been.
Not that Syr minded the mud all that much, provided it wasn’t too deep. It felt kind of nice, actually, and the whole place smelled pleasantly of earth and rain and trees. But he doubted Ren would want it all over his clothes. Or his sleeping bag, for that matter.
But the sleeping bag didn’t come out. Acheron slowly lowered himself to the ground, his legs folding underneath him, the human still cradled in one arm. “Shh,” the kwazai said with a finger to his lips, and nodded downward. Ren had fallen asleep once more.
Not wanting to disturb him a second time, Syr went ahead and made himself as comfortable as he could. He took a minute or two to drink from a relatively clear puddle near his head, then lay the rest of himself down and closed his eyes. Before he knew it, he was out like a light.
“There he is!” a voice hissed from above, an hour or so after the others had gone to sleep. Acheron looked toward it, though he didn’t need to. His tail had already detected two invisible pokémon up in the branches: a pair of kecleon, obviously intending to start something.
Whether the “he” the kecleon referred to was Syr, Ren, or someone else, Acheron hardly cared. For the first time since his gym days, he was awake at stupid o’clock with an important job to do, and damned if he wasn’t going to do it.
He looked right at them with eyes and tail alike, baring his rows of daggerlike teeth. When that failed to scare them off, he raised a hand and conjured a black vortex around it.
“Leave,” he said very quietly, in a voice befitting the undead.
The kecleon left.
Chapter 4: Bound to Happen
Jen gazed out the window, idly watching the passing cars as well as the people in the park beyond. He hoped, as he’d done more than once since waking, for something more interesting to make an appearance out there, something that might help take his mind off his father’s current whereabouts, if only for a while.
He’d tried not to worry too much about Syr in the time since the arbok had left for the south, but it was proving much too difficult. After all, his father was going up against the killers of an entire species.
The possible killers, Jen told himself yet again, hoping as before to make Syr’s task seem rather less insurmountable. Less dangerous. I really shouldn’t jump to conclusions, he added this time around. His father and the human and all the rest of them had seemed convinced that the deranics had pulled the figurative trigger, but for that matter, Jen had been convinced that Anomaly was nothing but an ordinary gardevoir.
Jen winced. His latest effort to calm his worries had just backfired. Now he had another concern on the brain: the fact that the same creature who’d abused his trust, tried to murder him, and destroyed his home was technically accompanying Syr on his mission. There was nothing between the nullshade and the arbok but a metal sphere and the strange process that converted people into portable energy.
Unconsciously, he lifted a claw to his mouth, gnawing at it as he wondered how inescapable those things really were. Anomaly’s prison was one of the stronger models, according to Ren. But he knew firsthand how powerful that creature was, and how ruthless…
The unexpected noise startled Jen, causing him to accidentally nick his tongue with that claw. He hissed at the pain and stared confusedly at his hand for a moment, vaguely wondering when it had gotten anywhere near his face.
He turned toward the speaker and found Babs heading for the kitchen. “Did you fix it?” he asked as he followed her in.
“I wish, but no. I’m just remembering to take a break and eat for once,” Babs responded. She swung the cupboard wide open and pulled out a half-empty bag of tiny, dead insects. “…Want any?” she asked as she removed the clip that held it shut.
Jen almost declined her offer, but then reconsidered. He wasn’t particularly hungry, but it was a snack he hadn’t tried before. A potential distraction from the things on his mind, however small. “Sure,” he said, and slithered closer. He let Babs shake a few bugs out into his hand, prodded and examined them for a moment, then froze the lot of them and put them in his mouth.
“…Huh. They’re not bad, I guess,” he remarked a couple of moments later.
Babs chuckled. “Of course they’re not. And they’re loaded with energy, too. Which I’m gonna need, if that tube continues being such a stubborn little—”
* * *
“Waaaake up. C’mon, sleepyscales.”
It wasn’t the first time Syr had heard the light, breathy voice in the past few minutes. But this time, he realized that the voice was coming from outside his current surroundings. From outside his dream.
He felt someone poking at him with what had to be at least seven fingers at once and finally finished waking up, lifting his head and releasing an enormous yawn that all but turned his face inside-out. His jaws popped back into place, and he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes with his tail so that he could assess the current situation.
Still in the forest, just as before. The wind had died down a little more, and more of the day’s last light was filtering through the leaves than there’d been the past couple of evenings. It felt a bit warmer, too. Syr nodded in approval to no one in particular. If things really were clearing up, perhaps they wouldn’t get stuck hiding from another thunderstorm.
The puddle was still at his side, though smaller than before. He lapped at it some more; it wasn’t as cold this time, and more sediment had accumulated in it. Ren had his canteen out again, and Syr didn’t doubt for a second that the human’s water supply was tastier. Still, he held his tongue. Filter or no filter, no human could handle potentially contaminated water better than a poison-type could. Syr figured that if anyone ought to be rolling those particular dice, it was him.
Acheron was back in the ball, meanwhile, and Demi had taken his place in the clearing. “I’ll be back in a few,” she said, then strode off out of sight.
“Still not joining her, huh?”
Syr stopped staring off in the direction Demi had gone and met Ren’s gaze. “Oh… No, I’m not hungry,” he reminded him automatically. “I just ate last week.”
“I know.” Back into the pack the canteen went. “You’re still not entirely comfortable with them, are you.”
Syr was too embarrassed to answer at first. “Yeah,” he finally admitted. “I’m trying, though. I’m trying to see Demi and Acheron when I look at them and not… you know. I know they’re not going to hurt me. I know they had nothing to do with anything that happened last week. It just…”
“Happened last week,” Ren said quietly. “Literally just a few days ago.” He stood and approached the arbok, stepping in the puddle beside him but apparently not noticing. He put a hand against Syr’s back. “For both of us. What I’m getting at is… I’m not taking it personally that you’re still getting used to the twins. Neither are they. We get it.”
Of course. Of course they got it. Loss was at their tails as much as it was at his own—even moreso for Ren, who’d lost his entire race. Whose species would die out with him. And even though none of them had witnessed their personal tragedies like Syr had… God knew they could certainly imagine them. And sometimes imagining was a lot worse than knowing.
Something rustled in the distant branches, growing louder by the moment. Syr had very little time to wonder about it before a small group of mankey and vigoroth launched themselves into the clearing from above, claws and fists already glowing on a collision course with—
—Demi, who’d burst back out of the woods and thrown herself into the attackers’ path before they could connect with their intended targets. An orange aura exploded off her skin, forcefully repelling the horde; a couple of them smacked audibly into the trees.
A mankey who’d avoided Demi’s counter trap rolled out of the way of those who didn’t, diving past the kwazai to charge at Ren. Syr lunged to catch the fighting-type, only to overshoot as an invisible force field caught the mankey short. He faceplanted into the damp soil, half-wondering exactly when Ren had found the time to let Karo out.
Syr started to get up, but he flattened himself against the ground once more at the sound of a reflux beam roaring through the air. Something landed on his back in nearly the same instant, knocking the breath out of him and slashing at his hood. Syr twisted himself about on instinct, his coils wrapping around his attacker: a vigoroth, he discovered. Once he could actually see the thing, the fangs went in. He tightened his grip as the venom went to work; within seconds, the vigoroth passed out.
Around that point, things became somewhat quieter. A quick look around told Syr that most of the attackers were down for the count, lying at the twins’ muddy, bloody feet. The mankey who’d crashed into Karo’s block field was the only one still awake, sprawled and groaning and cursing in front of the nosepass. Ren was crouching next to Karo, clutching him tightly.
“All right. Shift the field over to that mankey,” the human said. “Don’t let her get up, but make sure she can still talk.”
Karo did as instructed. The mankey’s eyes went wide. “Augh, no! Let go of me!” she screeched.
“What, so you can put a crack in my nose? Not happening.” Karo leaned toward her, staring down his nose. He let a couple of sparks crackle over it as he chuckled ominously.
“No, you’ve got some explaining to do,” Ren told the mankey. “What was that all about?” he demanded, indicating the fallen pokémon with a wave.
“Oh, like it even matters what I say to you.” She rolled her eyes. “Stupid-ass human…”
“It matters,” Ren said, earning a highly bemused look from the fighting-type, “because I’m sure you’d like to get this over with as soon as possible. Demi?”
At his prompt, Demi stepped up and lowered one of her hands onto the mankey’s large, fuzzy head. Acheron joined her for good measure, bringing his head as close to their captive’s eye level as he could and growling deep within his throat. A dark gray aura briefly pulsed around him: shadow tag. Even if Karo lost hold of the block, the mankey wasn’t going anywhere.
“A-ah… I’m not scared of you,” the mankey said, and she couldn’t have sounded less convincing if she’d tried. “We knew you wouldn’t be alone. She said you had pokémon—”
“She?” Ren cocked his head. “Wouldn’t happen to be a kecleon, now would she?”
The mankey gave him no response other than a wild stare, sweat dampening her fur. Demi gave her a little squeeze. “Ack! Okay, yes, you typeless piece of crap, yes she was a kecleon. Said someone was running good people out of their homes around here—”
“That was not her home,” Karo said, half-snorting.
The mankey glared up at Karo. “Running good people out of their homes,” she repeated, “and scaring the locals. She wanted you out of the area. We all want you out of here.” Her eyes darted to meet Syr’s. “So why don’t you just go back south with the rest of the snakes and leave us alone?”
Snakes? Syr could practically feel his trains of thought grind to a halt in unison, but his mind jolted back to work just as quickly. Suddenly all he could think of was the last time he’d seen snakes in the south…
“We didn’t come from the south,” Acheron told the mankey. “And we’re not here to cause any trouble. We’re just passing through.”
The mankey scoffed. Her eyes traveled from Syr back to Ren and narrowed. “I don’t believe you,” she said simply, coldly.
“Okay,” Ren said, rubbing at his temple, “okay. Demi?” he said again.
At this, Demi let loose a psybeam right in the mankey’s face. The fighting-type’s eyes rolled back, and she was out like a light.
“Bound to happen sooner or later,” Ren muttered to himself.
Syr didn’t follow at first, but then the rest of his mind began filtering back up through the stirred memories. No, he realized, he didn’t need any clarification at all. He’d heard the sorts of things coming out of the mankey’s unseen mouth.
Now that the last of the attackers had gone quiet, his own injuries were vying for his attention once more. His back stung now more than ever. “Ren? Could you…”
But Ren was already pulling max potions out of his backpack. He tossed one each to Demi and Acheron, then approached Karo with another pair of them tucked under his arm. “Need any?” he asked.
“Nah. But I’d sure like to get out of this mud.” Karo grumbled wordlessly at the mushy ground for a moment before disappearing into the ball once more.
“You?” Ren asked Syr as he returned the great ball to his belt.
“Yeah.” Syr turned his back to the human. Soon after, he felt the spray of medicine against his back. He hissed as the pain flared hotter for a moment, then relaxed as the wounds closed and it faded out completely.
“Let’s get going,” Demi said, crushing her empty potion bottle before stashing it back into the pack. “Before those three wake up.”
Syr hadn’t had time to count the attackers, but he could have sworn there’d been at least six. He tried not to dwell too much on what had happened to the other three.
“Agreed,” Ren said, hesitating very briefly before recalling Acheron. He let Demi put the arbok’s leash back on, then grabbed up their supplies.
Soon, they were southbound once more. But Syr’s thoughts had a head start on them all. The distant past felt far less distant, and the fields and faces he’d abandoned were as clear in his mind’s eye as if they lay right in front of him.
Before, Syr could only wonder if the ekans he’d helped save had stayed where he’d left them. Now he was all too certain that they had.
Chapter 5: Normal
“So. Snakes.” Ren slowed down in midstep, possibly to glance back at Syr in vain. It was too dark to be sure. “Anyone you know?”
You knew he wasn’t gonna let that slip past. “Well… maybe,” Syr said. “I used to live with several ekans, down around Rustboro. Maybe these are the same guys, but maybe not.”
“Around Rustboro,” Ren repeated. “You mentioned poison-types in that area being enslaved by the deranics.”
“No, those were koffing,” Syr said. And at least one weezing. That part couldn’t quite make it out. “The ekans… I don’t know what happened to them,” he admitted. Very old guilt stirred somewhere in his stomach; he imagined it’d made it to his face, too. Certainly the kwazai in their midst was aware of it. He hoped she wouldn’t pry.
“Well I sure as hell hope they made it out of there. For their sake and ours. They—”
“Incoming branch,” Demi interrupted. “You’ll both need to duck.”
There was a little tug on the tether as Ren followed her advice. “No doubt they’ve had to deal with the deranics on some level,” the human resumed. “They might know something useful.”
Syr couldn’t argue with that, silent as he dipped under the branch himself. And he sincerely preferred the prospect of seeing those ekans again as opposed to finding out they’d been captured or eradicated.
Whether or not they’d be equally glad to see him… that was another story.
Eventually the stars came back into sight, the trees and clouds both thinning. Soon they were mirrored by lights in the valley below. Syr and the others had known beforehand that Mauville still had power, owing to its considerable electric pokémon population; the place made the news in Convergence from time to time.
Even now, with the moon high overhead, there were signs of activity in the city below—not terribly many, but enough to reasonably assume they’d run into someone who knew the lay of the land. Someone who could guide them to supplies, and maybe even a roof to spend the coming day under.
And maybe, Syr thought, someone else who knows about the ekans. Someone who could give him an update on his former charges, who’d actually seen them since…
Since I left them to fend for themselves against the deranics.
He hissed softly, the guilt spiking again. It had been the ekans’ decision to banish him. It had been his unwillingness to stand against Faurur that had convinced them he couldn’t be trusted, though he still wasn’t sorry for that, at least; he’d guessed, and correctly, that Faurur and her people were victims as much as anything else. And he didn’t doubt that, outnumbered as he was, the ekans could’ve forced him out if he’d refused to go willingly.
But he hadn’t had to run so far. No matter how deeply he’d feared and dreaded the possibility of fighting his oldest friend to the death… he could’ve stayed nearby, out of sight. Close enough to know if they truly needed his help more than Faurur needed his loyalty.
If anything had happened to them since, he couldn’t help but feel responsible.
Ren undid the tether once more. Syr and Demi joined him at his sides, and together they descended the path to the city limits. An old visitor’s center sat at the edge of town, dwarfed by much of the skyline. Light shone through its windows and glass roof, though it looked as though no one was actually inside. Just piles upon piles of junk. That was new; the last time Syr had been in this place, it had been entirely empty. Empty, and smelling of smoke.
The doors slid open, and the three filed in. Syr hissed as something prodded him sharply in the belly; scooting aside, he found a dull, spent revive crystal. It had apparently rolled free from a heap of the things near the entrance. Despite how cluttered the place was, his surroundings didn’t stink in the least.
“Uh, hello?” Demi’s tail was fanned out, and she was staring at the desk to the left as if she could see right through it. “Oh, good grief…” She smacked a couple of broken toys out of the way and slammed all four of her hands on the desk. “Hey! Wake up; you’ve got some visitors!”
“Hreh?” said someone out of sight. Demi stepped back, and a rather groggy looking linoone slowly sat up, eyes half-lidded for a moment before he snapped out of his doze. “Oh! Shoot, sorry about that. Must’ve forgot my midnight chestos. Uh… don’t tell my supervisor, okay?”
“Not a single peep,” Demi assured him, drawing fingers across her mouth as if zipping it shut. “We’re just gonna stop here in town for the day, restock on a few things, and then be on our way. I assume that’s not a problem?”
“Sounds reasonable enough,” the linoone said. He sprang up onto the desk, his bushy tail knocking a couple of tv remotes onto the floor. He hopped down after them in the next moment and began slowly circling the new arrivals. “Well, we don’t really have anything going on at the moment, and of course lots of folks are asleep… but hey, I think you’ll enjoy your stay noneth—”
He paused right in front of Ren, his head tilted to the side. Sniffing the air, he sat back up, peering into the human’s hooded face. A couple more sniffs; then, “Holy heck, are… are you…?”
“Am I what?” Ren responded. Though the linoone didn’t seem hostile just yet, Syr could see the human tense up a bit.
The linoone shut his mouth, looking fairly disappointed. He slumped back onto all fours, averting his gaze. “…Oh,” he said, pawing at one of the remotes and trying to look nonchalant. He didn’t exactly pull it off. “Okay. Sorry; I just… never mind. It was just wishful thinking.”
He looked back up at Ren. “Uh… word of advice: maaaaybe you should change outta that form, yeah? I mean, don’t get me wrong; you did a heck of a job on it. But… well… I’d just… hate to see a lot of people getting false hopes, you know?”
Ren nodded, eyes closed. “I know. But… look, this is all I have left of him,” Ren said, indicating his entire body with a sweep of his hands. “All any of us have.” His voice cracked, and it sounded awfully authentic. “I know it’s been years now, but… please. Try to understand.”
The linoone blinked, then looked away once more. “…I understand,” he said quietly, clawing the linoleum guiltily. “Just, uh… hooooo.” He shook his head a couple of times; his eyes were glistening with unshed tears. “Just be ready to explain yourself a few more times before all’s said and done, okay?”
“Yeah. I’m used to that by now,” Ren told him.
Another scrape at the floor. “Okay then, okay; I’ve held you guys up long enough. Looking for somewhere to stay a bit, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Demi answered.
“All right, well your best bet’s gonna be the old pokémon center. The doors are never locked and there’s always someone behind the desk, same as the old days…” For a moment, the linoone’s mind seemed to wander. “Anyway,” he continued as he caught himself, “do you remember where that is, or…?”
Ren nodded, as did Demi.
“Thought as much.” The linoone leapt back onto the desk. “Have a nice night,” he said, then disappeared behind it.
“This way,” Ren said, turning to lead the others down the street.
Some part of Syr’s mind lingered back at the visitor’s center. Just like that, the linoone had accepted that Ren was just another pokémon. Just a shapeshifter, preserving the legacy of their trainer any which way they could. He cast one more look back, then turned to Ren. “That went well.”
“Yeah,” Ren agreed. He didn’t sound particularly happy about it.
The street they traveled was quiet and, apart from the three of them, empty. Syr spotted a car or truck every once in a while, but none of them were occupied. Wordlessly, Ren crossed the asphalt to one of the derelict vehicles; the others followed. With an effort, the human wrenched one of the doors open. The interior stayed dark, and a strong smell of neglect wafted out.
Ren leaned in slightly, frowning as his gaze fell to the floor. He bent to grab whatever he’d just seen and pulled it out. It was the steering wheel, or rather about a third of it, detached from its rightful place and riddled with chew marks.
Sighing, he tossed it back in. “Yeah no, this is in no state to function whatsoever.”
“Most of them probably aren’t,” Syr said. “Cars, I mean. Not just here, but everywhere. A lot of pokémon find it faster or more convenient to travel the old-fashioned way. The ones who do use cars and buses and the like are mostly just hobbyists. People interested in the machines themselves.”
Like Jen had been, prior to his evolution. And still was. His old convertible had been torched along with the house, but even if it hadn’t been, it’d had a driver’s seat modified for a snorunt and lacked accommodations for those without legs. He’d been preparing himself to give it up for a long time, but under a belief that had eventually proved false.
“Of course, Adn told me he’d get me a new car after I evolved,” Jen had said. He’d tried not to sound disappointed, aware that was the least of the ways the ditto-in-disguise had betrayed them all, but his head had sunk low all the same.
Someday. Someday Jen would get that new car, tailored to his new anatomy. Syr had promised it to Jen’s face, and he promised it again, silently.
As if he needed any more reasons to try and come back in one piece.
The three set off again, passing plenty of lit windows with shadows moving inside; it seemed almost everyone was indoors at the moment, at least in this part of town. That was also new. Syr remembered the size of the crowd gathered around the pyres, all those years back. He doubted anyone in Mauville had gone indoors that day.
Along the way, they passed Mauville’s gym, or what had once been the gym, at least. Now it was something more akin to a museum, a memorial, stocked with mementos and records of the city’s lost human presence. It was one of Mauville’s big draws, as far as Syr understood. Apparently it never closed, either; it was lit up right down to the old neon sign above the doors, through which a buizel emerged as they passed.
Ren moved a little closer to Syr, all the better to obscure himself behind the arbok’s hood.
“I don’t think he noticed you,” Syr said.
“He didn’t. He’s too busy staring at you and me like he thinks we’re gonna make a meal out of him.” Demi craned her neck back to flash a smile at the buizel; Syr heard footsteps scurrying off into the distance in the next instant.
At length, they reached the pokémon center. Like the gym-turned-museum, it looked well-kept, the glass clean, the interior lights still relatively bright. The front doors immediately slid out of the way to admit the new arrivals; Syr hurried through before they could shut on his tail.
“Good evening,” said a soft voice from across the room. Syr turned toward it and saw a blissey behind the desk. No sooner than their eyes met, a concerned look crossed her face… but she wasn’t looking at Syr any longer. Her eyes were on Ren now, and she was already stepping out from behind her post to investigate further.
The blissey came to a stop in front of them, her dark eyes wide. She hesitated a moment, then reached up with a shaking paw toward Ren’s face. “You can’t be…”
Ren drew a deep breath. “I’m not,” he said somberly.
Frowning, the blissey withdrew her paw. “Right,” she muttered, “of course… I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Demi said, resting a hand on one of the blissey’s ruffled shoulders. “You’ve got rooms available, right?”
“We do.” The blissey looked the three of them over for a moment. “One for each of you, or…?”
“Just one for the three of us will do,” Demi said.
“All right, then.” The blissey turned toward the hallway. “4-B is free—that’ll be the fourth door to your right,” she clarified. No sooner had the words left her mouth than she glanced at Ren, looking a little sheepish. Apparently she’d only just remembered that one of her newest guests had used human-speech just minutes before.
“Thanks,” Demi said coolly, then led the way. They reached their designated room within seconds. “You two get some rest,” she said. “Someone should stay awake and keep watch.”
“Someone should…” Ren agreed as he opened the door, though he was clearly leaving something unsaid.
Their room for the night, and much of the following day, was very tidy. Paintings of seaside towns and harbors decorated the walls, free from dust and grime. There was a neatly-made bed resting near the far wall, with a presently-open bathroom door set across from it.
Said bed was only really large enough for Ren, but Syr hardly cared. Even back at his own house (at what used to be his house, he corrected himself automatically), he’d preferred the floor, with its ample room to coil up or stretch out as he pleased. There wasn’t as much room here, but at least he didn’t have to worry about flopping off of the bed.
Ren shut the door, then turned to face Demi, a dusk ball in hand. “You need your rest, too. I’ll have Karo on sentry duty again.”
Demi shrugged with all four shoulders. “Works for me,” she said. One of her hands closed over her trainer’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “Just make sure you get at least some sleep, okay?”
“I’ll do my best.” Ren recalled Demi, then let Karo out.
The nosepass immediately crossed the room to investigate a wastebasket in the corner. “Yep. Plastic,” he said, sounding relieved.
There was a flumpf from behind the two of them. Ren had just tossed himself onto the bed, from the sound of it. Sure enough, there he was, lying fully clothed on still-made sheets and staring at the nearest painting.
“It’s so… normal.” The human gave a weak laugh. “Look at this place. It’s like…” He rolled onto his side, facing the wall. “…Like nothing happened.”
Neither of the pokémon said anything in reply for moments on end. The silence was eventually broken by Karo’s heavy, muffled steps across the carpet. He stopped at Ren’s bedside. “Hey…” he said.
“…Uh… yeah,” Karo said awkwardly. “I’m gonna be here all day, all right? To block if you need it. Like if somebody barges in and chucks a poké ball at you or something.”
Now that was an image. “What? Why would anyone do that?” Syr wondered aloud.
“To see if I really am a pokémon,” Ren answered, still huddled up and staring at the wall.
“It’d be interesting to see how that turned out,” Karo said, and there was a definite eagerness in his voice.
“It’d bounce off me and leave a bruise, and I’d tell them I kept my trainer’s ball,” Ren muttered.
Karo gave another of his pseudo-shrugs. Syr was used to this sort of thing from the nosepass; as long as he’d known him, Karo had insinuated that Ren wasn’t human every chance he got. All the same, Syr was a little surprised that Karo was keeping up the act now that his trainer had returned safe and sound. Was it merely habit at this point, or did Karo genuinely believe that being human and being alive were still mutually exclusive?
“Just don’t fall asleep, all right, Karo?” Syr hadn’t forgotten the last time Karo had done so. Although, he acknowledged, they did have more options this time; this was, after all, a pokémon center. There might still be a few old awakenings lying around.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Karo responded. There was a moment’s silence. Then he burst out laughing, at which Ren and Syr both jolted.
“Hey, keep it down in there, will ya?” someone demanded from the room next door.
Karo’s laughter crumpled into indecent-sounding snorts and then died out entirely. “Sorry,” he said, though he didn’t quite sound the part, “sorry…”
“It’s okay,” Syr told him. “We could probably use a few good laughs, to be honest.” He saw Ren lift his head from the pillow only to lay it right back down.
For lack of any other ideas, Syr decided to do similarly. He nudged the wastebasket upright again, pushing it back into the corner to free up as much room as he could, then lay down, drawing his head in close to his side. As an afterthought, he groped around the wall with the end of his tail until he found the lightswitch. Off it went, plunging the room into darkness apart from the soft pink nightlight mounted next to the door.
Syr curled up, shutting his eyes, but his mind kept going. Not for the first time, he kind of wished he could laugh things off as easily as Karo could. As it was, he was a captive audience to all sorts of reminders of his current situation—even the carpet under his scales made it impossible to pretend he was somewhere else. This wasn’t his own home, or even the floor at Ren’s house. Jen wasn’t in the next room, or the room after that, or anywhere nearby at all. This was a dark little room in Mauville, in the middle of what might be a one-way trip.
Please let me see my son again, he prayed, and lay awake for nearly two hours afterward.
Chapter 6: The Serpents Acknowledged
There was a creak, then a click. With a delay, Syr registered light shining beyond his eyelids.
“This should cover it,” Demi said from somewhere nearby. “Just let me know if it doesn’t.”
Syr raised his head a few moments after, yawning, and found Ren sitting upright on the bed, munching on a granola bar and looking deep in thought. Karo still stood next to the bed and was now leaning back—the mattress had slipped a few inches closer to the wall as a result—and looking up at Demi, who stood in the open doorway with a stuffed cloth sack hanging off one shoulder.
“Hrm,” Ren eventually said, with an acknowledging nod toward Demi. He soon finished eating and got up off the bed, crumpling the now-empty wrapper and tossing it in the trash on his way to the adjacent bathroom. The sound and smell of a running shower soon followed.
“Poor guy’s wasting his time,” Karo said. “His clothes still smell.”
“They don’t have to.” Demi set the bag on the floor, then carefully stepped over Syr and knocked on the bathroom door. “Ren?” She stood there listening for a moment, then knocked louder. “Hey, Ren!”
“What?” he shouted over the running water.
“They’ve still got the laundry room up and running. Mind if I go wash your things?”
“No. Just a moment…”
The faucet stopped, and Syr heard the human’s wet footsteps slapping across linoleum. A moment later, the door opened just a crack and a human arm emerged, clutching a wad of clothing.
“I’ll be back as fast as I can,” Demi assured him, then left for the laundry room.
The shower cycled on once more. Syr turned his attention to Karo, who was now nosing through the sack Demi had left behind. “Oh man!” the nosepass said. “Dude, she found belues!”
Syr watched as Karo tipped the bag over, pulling it away from its contents with a featureless hand. The nosepass began greedily sorting the bulbous blue berries from the rest of the food. “I don’t think those were all for you, Syr said.
“Oh, yes they are,” Karo said. “Demi knows I love these things. Besides, look: there’s plenty of other stuff, and it’s mostly just Ren that needs it, right?” Without giving Syr a chance to answer, “Right.”
Supposing he couldn’t argue, Syr mindfully looked away. The noises Karo made while eating were bad enough. He didn’t need to watch it again.
A few minutes later, the bathroom door swung partway open. Remembering that Demi still had Ren’s clothes, Syr averted his gaze a second time.
Karo snorted in amusement. “Relax, man. He’s got a robe on.”
Cautiously, Syr turned to confirm it. Yes, Ren was wearing a bathrobe. Syr was thankful, though much more for Ren’s sake than for his own. Syr had never known a human who’d liked to be seen naked.
Before long, Demi was back with Ren’s clothes. The human dressed in the bathroom, returned to pack up the supplies, and then recalled Karo. It would be kind of odd, Syr acknowledged, if a pokémon left the room who hadn’t walked in in the first place. “Onward, then,” Ren said, pulling his hood back up over his bald head.
The three of them emerged into the lobby to a view of the setting sun through the glass doors. Not long after they’d checked out, there was an odd sound, like something smacking against flesh.
“Very funny,” Demi said.
A backward glance told Syr that she’d caught a poké ball of all things, the distinctive colors peeking through her long fingers. In the middle of the lobby stood a chansey who was looking more than a little guilty.
“…Sorry.” That wasn’t the chansey, but rather the blissey behind the receptionist counter. Her paw was as close to her face as it could get, embarrassment all over her expression. “She just… wanted to be sure.”
“It wouldn’t have worked,” Ren said hollowly, without looking back. He was already stepping through the doors. “I still have my poké ball.”
Demi still had the one the chansey had thrown, meanwhile, and was examining it between two fingers. “Hmm. I wonder if this thing’s unregistered.”
“Unlikely,” Ren said. But he held out a hand all the same, collecting the ball from her and stuffing it into the pack as he passed through the front doors. Once they’d left the pokémon center well and truly behind, Demi returned to her dusk ball, and out came Acheron.
The streets were a little busier this time around, though still devoid of any moving vehicles. As Syr had expected, it was mostly electric-types running about; he counted more electrike and manectric in particular than anything else. Some of them stopped what they were doing to watch the strangers go past, but none engaged them directly.
Soon the sun dropped completely out of sight, and the streetlights began shining down on them. After days of traveling through near total darkness, it was a nice change, at least as far as Syr was concerned. That luxury would likely be left behind in Mauville, though. Then it’d be back to the tethers.
“Hm,” Ren spoke up. “Sounds like the fountain’s still running.”
Sure enough, Syr picked out the sound of running water over the songs of bug-types and the crackling of electric-types at play. He could smell the water, too, very fresh and inviting. River water and puddles of muddy rain were fine and all, but the fact of the matter was that the clean sort tasted better.
We’re not stopping for a drink until we need to, he chided himself.
And then stopped anyway.
There was another scent on the air. A familiar scent.
His own kind, moreover.
The others noticed he’d stopped and did likewise. “What…” Ren began, but fell silent once he’d followed Syr’s gaze.
Across the expanse of grass between the fountain and the three of them, a dark shape was slithering closer. Another arbok was staring at the three of them now, her brow furrowed with uncertainty as she approached. Then her eyes widened.
Syr searched the face before him, trying to put a name to it, to no avail. She must have evolved after I left. “I’m sorry, but…” he began awkwardly.
Thankfully, she seemed to pick up on his unspoken question. "I’m Iph," she told him. “Do you remember me? I remember you.”
Ah. Syr had never known her all that well. She’d been one of the younger ekans; as such, she’d mostly kept to those her own age. “Yeah,” he said anyway. “I remember.”
“I’m surprised to see you again,” Iph said. “We saw you head north, but…” She shook her head, perhaps trying to clear it of something unwelcome from the past. “I’m just thankful you’re all right.”
A laugh escaped Syr, surprising even himself. “You’re glad I’m all right? I could say the same thing about you!” It was as if a dam had broken. All at once, the relief and gratitude and realization of just how much he’d missed his old charges came rushing in. Tearing up, he moved forward, bowing his head. He felt another scaly forehead join it after a beat.
“I’m just so, so glad you’re all right,” Syr said, feeling tears slide down his snout. Then something fell into place within his mind, something heavy and cold. This was only one arbok. He lifted his head once more. “Wait… where’s everyone else?”
Iph sighed. The relief Syr had seen on her face all but drained out. “They’re with Basath,” she answered, “watching the kids and the nest. Syr… only four of us made it out of there alive.”
The weight in his mind fell into his stomach, hard. Only four. There’d been more than twice that many when he’d left them. There might still be if he’d gone back south sooner.
Sick with guilt, he averted his gaze. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice shaking. The tears kept falling, running down his chest and into the grass. “God, this is all my fault; I shouldn’t have—”
“It wasn’t you,” Iph insisted.
Hesitantly, Syr met her gaze again. She was looking at him with more pity than sorrow now.
“It wasn’t you,” she repeated. “It was the deranics.”
“Of course it was.”
Ren’s voice immediately grabbed Iph’s attention. It honestly seemed as though she’d only just properly noticed the unfamiliar faces flanking Syr. More to the point, she’d finally noticed the uncannily human figure in her midst.
She gawked for a moment, her mouth hanging open. She shut it again with an effort, then leaned in toward Ren; Acheron responded with a warning growl. Iph flinched, but didn’t pull back, merely flicking her tongue out a few times, all but licking Ren at that distance. If the human was bothered by this, he gave no indication.
She finally withdrew, her eyes flitting about as if seeking an explanation. Finally she relaxed, resigned. “Vela always said there had to be at least some of you left,” she said.
“You mentioned the deranics,” Ren pressed on. “Have you seen them? Have you fought them?”
Iph twitched in surprise again at the sound of the human voice, the human language, but composed herself more quickly this time. “Not directly. Their koffing and weezing tracked us down, swarmed us, tried to take us by force. They didn’t take any of us alive. We didn’t let them.”
More leaden guilt. They’d stood their ground, same as Syr once had… before the enemy’d had his friend’s faces. Laid down their lives, when he hadn’t even been able to raise a fang against Faurur and her people.
“We’re going to deal with them,” Ren said. “We’re going to make them pay.”
Iph smiled at him, however weakly. “That’s very noble of you. Mad, maybe, but noble.”
“If there’s anything you can tell us about them,” Ren said, “anything that’ll prepare us for what’s to come…”
Iph inhaled deeply, flexing her hood. “Right, of course… Follow me.”
Off she went, deeper into the park, leading them past benches and bicycle racks that were covered in leaves and vines and a few stubborn flakes of paint. Soon, they reached a large playground. Apart from the fountain, this was the only part of the park Syr had seen so far that wasn’t overgrown. Monkey bars and twisted swings and a multi-tiered metal cage in the shape of a rocketship stood in an island of gravel, free from ivy…
And there, coiled around or draped over the playground equipment, were three other arbok, none of whom Syr recognized. There was also a pair of very young-looking ekans, who were peeking out from inside a crawl tube, plus a lone seviper.
The seviper was the first to notice they had company. She rose to attention at once; the rest of the serpents followed her gaze, and one of them gasped as the arbok all hurried to the seviper’s sides. The two ekans tried to join them; a fretful hiss from one of the arbok sent the hatchlings back into hiding.
“You’re Syr, aren’t you,” the seviper said.
Syr blinked stupidly for a moment, wondering how she knew his name; as far as he could recall, he’d never spoken to a seviper even once in his life. But his ignorance extinguished itself before he could ask. The other ek—the other arbok must’ve told her about me.
Imagining their talk of him must have been unfavorable, “…Yes,” he admitted.
“Hm.” The seviper craned her neck, trying to meet Acheron’s gaze. “And you…” There was a note of amazement in her voice. “…Esaax?”
“Nope,” Acheron said.
Meanwhile Syr’s mouth had gone dry. He could explain how the stranger knew him just fine, but how in the hell…
Basath. With everything else on his mind, he’d almost failed to register the fact that Iph had used that name. Now it clicked firmly into place, raising a cloud of recent memories.
“You never got to meet her, though, did you?”
One of the old crew, Esaax had called her. One of Jessie’s pokémon, then, or James’s, caught after Syr and Faurur’s departure. Esaax hadn’t said much else about Basath…
…Other than the fact that she apparently hated him.
That sick feeling intensified, dread joining the guilt. Syr dearly hoped that Basath wouldn’t delve any deeper into the Esaax topic than she already had. If she goes off on him…
“Excuse me,” one of the arbok next to Basath said, “but am I the only one who notices there’s a human over here?”
“No, you’re not.” One of the other arbok was staring at Ren with tension written all over her posture. “Basath, we need to go,” she said.
“Vela, don’t.” Iph’s tone suggested that she had to say that often. She mindfully put herself between Ren and Vela. “He’s not like the ones who caged us, all right? He wants to help us.”
Basath finally pried her eyes off of Syr, locking onto Ren as Iph moved out of the way once more. “Help us,” the seviper repeated. “How so?”
“The deranics need to pay,” Ren said. “For what they’ve done to my people and to yours.”
Two of the arbok exchanged glances. Vela was busy shooing the ekans away. (“But I wanna see the human!” one of them protested.) She hastily shepherded the children toward a large, fake tire lying on its side; once they disappeared into the middle of it, she went right back to eyeing the unexpected guests with clear distrust.
“Is that really what this is about?” Vela asked. She looked Syr right in the eye with such fierceness that he momentarily feared she was trying to paralyze him. “Or are you headed down there to join forces with him?”
“Vela…” Iph groaned.
“He was never willing to stand up to that nasty old weezing before,” Vela went on. “If he makes it down there and tells Farrer where we are, he’s going to come up here with the rest of his gasbags and—”
“Faurur is dead,” Syr blurted out. Vela’s mouth closed with a delay. Syr’s own words rang in his mind and settled thickly in his throat, making it hard to continue.“She had a xatu bring her up—” Iph and another of the arbok visibly shuddered at the mention of the psychic-type. “—to say goodbye to me.” And Esaax, he almost said, but caught himself short.
“She also came to warn us about the deranics,” he said, at which Vela openly scoffed.
“Enough,” Basath said, glaring pointedly at Vela; the latter drew back a bit, very slightly embarrassed. “Now. Let me get this straight: Faurur turned tail and deserted the deranics?”
“Yes,” Syr said. The end of his tail flicked about irritably; it was all he could do not to launch into an earnest tirade about his late friend’s trustworthiness. “She found out they’ve been lying to her colony. Hiding something… something big. Something that’s already affected the entire world.”
“Something that happened about a decade and a half ago,” Ren said. “I should hope I don’t need to spell it out for you.”
Basath and her friends kept silent for a few moments. “You’re going to take on a bunch of creatures who destroyed almost an entire species.” She went back to staring at Syr as she spoke. “And the living bombs who serve them. You.”
“They do have a psychic-type on their side,” the small male to Vela’s left said.
“One psychic-type,” Vela countered. “Singular.”
“Look,” Ren said. “We’re not planning to rush in, guns blazing. We know we’re outnumbered. We know we still have no idea what deranics actually are, let alone every single kind of technology they might have at their disposal. What we do know is they’ve developed some kind of superweapon, or something similar. That’s our target. We need to get whatever it is out of their hands before they can use it again. If we’re successful…” His voice trembled with something barely restrained. “Maybe we can turn it against them.”
“And then destroy it,” Acheron put in quickly, before anyone could jump to conclusions about their further intentions for the thing.
Basath shook her head. “Look. I don’t like to say this to anyone, but. Honestly?” She shook her head again. “You don’t have a chance in hell.”
“Basath. What about Verdanturf?” Iph said. “If the rumors are true…”
Vela snorted. “Good luck with that,” she muttered.
“Rumors? What rumors?” Ren asked.
“Talk of weird things happening in those parts,” Basath answered. “Possibly psychic things. We don’t know for sure—we’ve given the area a very wide berth, just to be safe. We can’t risk the eggs and children.”
“If there are psychics there,” Iph said, “and if these guys can get them on board…”
“Two ifs,” Basath said. She looked to be deep in thought. “At least.”
“It’s worth investigating,” Acheron said, folding his arms. "More psychics on our side would tip the odds a little more in our favor. And if they turn out hostile, well.” Black vorteces whirled around his fists for a moment. “We can handle them. I can handle them.”
“And you said they were around Verdanturf, right?” Syr asked. There was hope in his voice and his eyes despite the fact that if Iph was right, he’d be crawling right into a den of creatures whose mere presence could be sickening, depending on the species. Verdanturf was right there on the route they’d planned to take. If the psychics were willing to join them…
“Right,” Basath answered him. Then she sighed. “Syr?”
Syr flinched; was she about to lecture him on how awful another of his dead friends was? “Yes?”
“I wasn’t there when you bailed on these guys before,” she said. “Maybe I’ve had no right to judge you for it… but that hasn’t stopped me from doing so.” She leveled another hard stare into his eyes. “I just couldn’t stand the fact that not only one but two of her pokémon turned out to be such cowards. She deserved so much better…”
“I…” Syr faltered. He bowed his head. “…Yeah. Maybe you’re right about me. But Esaax wasn’t a coward.”
“He abandoned us when she died,” Basath went on, and there were tears at the corners of her eyes. “Right when we all needed each other the most, he just… ran away.” Another shake of her head. “But… look, this isn’t about him. It’s about you. I wish you’d had the guts you have now back before you left these guys. Back before the koffing started breeding out of control. But… well.” She gave him a rueful expression that was almost a smile. “Better late than never, I guess.”
She moved back a few feet, then inclined her head toward the southwest. “Go check ’em out,” she said. “We’d join you ourselves if we didn’t have a nest to look after.” Another jerk of her head, toward the tire this time, where the ekans sat watching the adults; Syr supposed the eggs were hidden there. “After that…”
Basath trailed off, apparently uncomfortable with sharing their plans beyond that. She looked to Ren again. “I don’t suppose there’s anything I can say or do to convince you to stay with us, is there.”
“I can think of a couple of things,” Ren said. He nodded toward her long, red-tinged fangs, then toward her bladed tail. “My friends would make you regret it, though.”
“Damn right, we would,” Acheron said.
The seviper gave another of those sad near-smiles. “I wouldn’t even consider it. Just… watch your back, would you? All of you, but especially you, human. Best of luck to you,” she said. “You’re gonna need it.”
“Thank you,” Ren said, followed by, “Come on.” He turned away from the seviper and her friends, waving for his teammates to follow. Syr glanced back at the serpents in the playground more than once as he complied, Basath’s somewhat backhanded endorsement still echoing in his head. Some part of him couldn’t help but think that maybe she’d have had just a little more faith in his party if it hadn’t included him.
Chapter 7: Verdanturf
It was close to midnight before the three of them left Mauville behind. The path to Verdanturf would be rather shorter than the road to Mauville had been, and what awaited them at its end remained a mystery. Basath and the arbok hadn’t seen the inhabitants of Verdanturf for themselves. All they’d had to go by was a rumor, one that had meant potential danger for the serpents at the time but potential hope for everyone now.
The tethers were back in the pack for this leg of the journey. They weren’t needed—the route connecting Mauville and its neighbor to the west was almost as well-lit as the city behind them, at least for the time being. Local volbeat and illumise had apparently chosen that night for a get-together; their lights, though flickering, were enough for the entire party to see by.
Syr and Acheron immediately tried to flag them down for information about the rumored psychic presence ahead, but not a single one paid them any mind, no matter how much noise they made. Acheron plucked a volbeat right out of the air and the bug-type simply kept beating his wings, apparently unaware that he wasn’t actually moving.
The kwazai shook his head. “They’re dead to the world,” he determined as he let the volbeat go. “The air’s too thick with their pheromones. If we were all volbeat and illumise, we might be able to grab their attention for more than a split-second, but as it stands…”
Syr glanced at the disused daycare center as they passed it by, presently covered in ivy and flashing insects. For just a moment, he wondered what the buildings of Verdanturf would look like. Then it was right back to contemplating its inhabitants.
“They might not be psychics,” he thought aloud.
“No, they might not,” Acheron agreed. Ren nodded in concurrence.
“They could be ghosts,” Syr went on, with a frown toward the part of him that perked up in hope at the possibility. Psychics can deal a bigger blow against the koffing. You know that.
“Ghost, dark, fairy,” Acheron said, counting each type off on his fingers. “Possibly fighting, or even dragon. And those are just the likeliest suspects after psychics.
“We can probably handle them, though, whatever they are,” he added. “And that’s if they decide to give us a hard time. Maybe they—”
Another volbeat practically divebombed the party, whooping and shouting and clearly oblivious to the presence of anyone outside his own kind. “Watch it!” Acheron snapped. He shook his head and sighed as the bug arced back into the air above.
Eventually, the flashing light of the swarming bug-types fell behind the three of them, replaced by the lights of the town as they closed the remaining distance. Verdanturf, it seemed, still had some electricity to its name, too, albeit markedly less than Mauville boasted. As they drew nearer, Syr could make out scattered functioning streetlamps, casting less light than was ideal but probably—hopefully—enough to keep the tethers packed away. Being able to move about freely—to dodge, to flee, as shameful as the latter notion felt—seemed like a very good idea under these circumstances.
There were no volbeat or illumise gathered on the rooftops here, but apart from that Verdanturf was highly reminiscent of the daycare he’d seen earlier, and then some. More leaves and vines covered these walls than any others he’d seen; he suspected that grass-types, first and foremost, had inherited this town.
Which could mean good news about the psychics—if that’s what they were. Most of the grass-types he could name were also poison-types. If they wanted anything to do with this place, surely they weren’t getting a hard time from their psychic neighbors.
That was the best-case scenario: psychics he could tolerate, like the twins.
Syr didn’t have to battle the thoughts that brought on for long. Something dark caught his eye from a couple of blocks down the street, something bobbing in midair. A very familiar scent reached him, burning his nose and tongue, and alarms went off inside his head.
“Koffing!” he shouted. “There’s a—”
No. Not one koffing, he realized in horror. Dozens of them, filtering in from around the vine-covered houses. He only had a moment’s glimpse of them before the smoke and smog they emitted blotted them from view.
They’ve found us. They’ve already found us!
Syr’s mind raced, threatening to distract him. His eyes stinging badly, he drew himself into a coil, flexing his jaws and letting his fangs swing forward, ready to strike. One of them could burst out of the smokescreen at any moment…
“Acheron?” he called out. He couldn’t see or smell either of the others through the pollution. He couldn’t even feel their movements through the ground. There was no way of telling where they were or if they were all right. “Acheron! Ren!” He broke into a momentary coughing fit, feeling his eyes flood with tears. “Anyone!”
With his vision blurred, he could only just make out a disturbance in the smoke in front of him. Something big, at least compared to the koffing. There was a moment’s hope that it was one of his allies… but the shape that emerged from the dark clouds was unmistakably a weezing’s.
He could have sworn his heart stopped dead, right then and there. He knew that pair of voices.
“Don’t make me hurt you. Please.”
No… This wasn’t possible. Faurur had burnt down to smoke and cinders right before his eyes. “You’re… you’re not real…” he managed, his chest tightening painfully. “You’re not real!”
With his eyes screwed tightly shut, Syr lunged. His jaws snapped shut on empty air—
—and just like that, the smoke was gone.
But so was Verdanturf.
His surroundings were far more artificial now. The plantlife blanketing the walls was replaced by flashing readouts over illuminated keyboards, and there was still no sign whatsoever of the others. His hands were shaking in front of—Hands? He stared at them in utter disbelief. A kwazai’s hands. A kwazai’s body. His now.
Syr saw his skin turn pitch black… and then it wasn’t his skin anymore. The kwazai collapsed as Syr rose above him—and then Syr was flying, shooting through the room like a bolt of lightning amid showers of sparks and ice beams lancing past—
A dead, sudden stop.
It was brighter now. The walls were partly crystalline. He was lying on his back, on something cool and soft… he had a body again. But it still wasn’t his own. He had legs again. Shuddering, he tried to raise his head and look at himself… but he was too weak to do anything but lie there and shake.
He felt something approach at the head of his bed, or whatever it was. Sensed it, in a way he couldn’t even name. A red hand moved into view, descending toward his chest—
—He was upright again. Surrounded by glalie. Terror struck deep, and he tried to scream, but no sound came out. He couldn’t even open his mouth to strike as the glalie rushed around him, hissing and snapping their guillotine teeth, their eyes burning blue…
A tremor started somewhere deep inside him. It intensified rapidly. Painfully. He still couldn’t scream.
There was a blinding glow, and a deafening noise, and a fleeting sense of being ripped apart from the inside—
—and just like that, reality returned, so hard and so fast that he didn’t dare believe it at first. But as his heart slowed, his breaths no longer stinging, he finally trusted his eyes, his nose, everything else. He was back in Verdanturf. Back in his own, limbless body.
And he was no longer alone.
There was Ren, visibly shaken. There were also a number of unfamiliar shapes scattered about—misdreavus, Syr realized a beat later, all lying unconscious on the cracked pavement. There was a mismagius, as well. He lay almost motionless at Acheron’s feet, glaring weakly but balefully up at the kwazai.
“Ffffeh. You are no fun whatsoever,” the ghost croaked, before Acheron silenced him with a reflux attack. The kwazai stepped back from the mismagius, his shoulders heaving as he panted. He took a moment to spit on the ghost, then went back to grimacing in pain as he strode over to his trainer’s side.
“That had better be the last of them,” Acheron said, sounding winded, before his legs crumpled underneath him.
Meanwhile Ren had managed to open his pack despite how unsteady his hands were. One of them emerged clutching a bottle of max potion. He set about treating Acheron, all while trying to calm his own breathing.
With something of an effort, Syr joined the two of them. “I think… that might have been them,” he said, lowering his head in dismay. “I think they were the ones Basath and the arbok heard about.”
Ren nodded, but he looked distracted. His hands were under his hood, massaging his temples. “It felt so real,” he murmured. “Too real.”
“Some of those weren’t even our memories,” Acheron said. “I saw you through my sister’s eyes. I had her hands.”
“They put me through one of Karo’s memories.” There was no doubt about it. That had been the glalie they’d faced in the Hope Institute, her and all her double team clones. That had been the explosion that had finally banished her illusions, experienced from a first-person perspective. If he hadn’t already hoped that Karo wouldn’t need to explode again, that would’ve done it.
As for the other foreign memories… those, he couldn’t even begin to identify.
Ren took another deep breath, then another, and then motioned for Acheron to help him up. “We should get moving,” he said, “before the ghosts wake up.”
No one argued with that. As soon as everyone was back upright, they were off down the street once more. Half expecting another ambush, another reality shift, Syr’s gaze swept back and forth over the silent, green city, staring as deep into the darkness as he could. His tongue flicked in and out rapidly, again and again and again, tasting the air for smoke or anything else out of the ordinary.
But nothing of the sort came. None of his senses reported anyone around, indoors or out. The kwazai gave no indication that he sensed anything, either. Not a single soul crossed their path, ghost-type or psychic-type or any other, and before Syr knew it, the sky was beginning to lighten and the entrance to the tunnel out of town was right there in front of them.
There’s still hope, he told himself. Maybe they’re in the tunnel.
The tethers came back out. Acheron took the leading end this time, and the three of them proceeded into the tunnel.
It smelled like it always had, as far as Syr could remember: cold, damp, and populated by whismur. Maybe a loudred or two. Nothing stood out.
He could hear hushed conversation coming from the shadows. The locals knew they had company. The rational part of Syr’s mind knew that he and his companions could certainly take on a bunch of whismur, loudred… probably even exploud, if it came to that. The rest’d had quite enough action for one night.
Faurur’s faces flashed across his mind. An image of Esaax followed, from the same top-down perspective as the time before. A shudder ran from his head to his tail, and a tug at his chest told him he’d stopped in his tracks.
He’d had quite enough action for a long, long time. But he had to keep going.
Thankfully, the tunnel’s inhabitants kept to themselves. The light at its end grew closer, brighter, until finally Syr and the others were standing under a clear morning sky.
Not far ahead, there was a small building with relatively dark and broken windows. A break room for people who’d worked in the tunnel, if Syr remembered right. Now… well. Now it could be serving any purpose.
Ren let go of Acheron’s hand and waved the kwazai forward. As quietly as he could, Acheron approached the house, peering through the windows with eyes and tail alike. Moments later, he turned to face the others, giving a thumbs-up.
Ren murmured something that sounded more or less like, “Good.” He made his tired way to the door, which Acheron was holding open for the two of them.
Syr followed the human into the dimly lit space beyond. The smell of dust was thick in the air; it drifted in the sunbeams, and Syr could feel himself carving a path at least a quarter-inch deep in the layer that covered the floor. A wooden table, minus one leg, sat slightly off-center in the room, surrounded by a few dirty cushions. In the corner behind it, there was an open refrigerator, and Ren was staring at it.
“Acheron? The fridge.”
Acheron strode past, stepping over the table. With a grunt, he pulled the refrigerator from its corner, cords trailing behind it, and dragged it outside.
“Those cabinets, too,” Ren added.
Bowing his head, the kwazai re-entered and removed more of the offending furniture; the reason why finally registered in Syr’s brain as he watched Acheron work. This was being done for Karo’s sake.
“What about the sink, though?” Acheron asked on his second return trip.
“That…” Ren sighed. “Well, I know where I’ll be sleeping.”
Acheron merely shrugged at that, then nodded toward his dusk ball. In went the kwazai, and out came the nosepass.
The moment he materialized, Karo made an odd, lunging motion toward the metal sink as if pulled by an invisible hand. He forced himself still with a shudder. “Uh… Ren?”
“I know,” Ren said. “Don’t worry about fighting it this time. I’ll bring this over.” He stooped and grabbed a cushion. “Just focus on the block.”
The nosepass made a contented sort of humming sound. “That is such a relief. You have no idea.” With that, he waddled over to the side of the room. He turned to the left—involuntarily, from the looks of it—and the right side of his nose plastered itself to the sink with a clang that made both Ren and Syr wince.
“Wow. That was loud,” Karo remarked, then snorted. “Heh, don’t worry, though. I’ll keep the whismur and whatnot at bay.”
Ren nodded silently. He sat down next to Karo, laying the dusty cushion on the floor.
“…Wait.” Syr circled the table and carefully grabbed the cushion with his lips, careful not to let his fangs pierce it. His snout scrunched up around it—it tasted nasty—but he resisted the urge to spit it back out just yet. He bashed it against the wall, again and again and again, a gray cloud bursting from it each time. Once it seemed as clean as it was going to get, he gave it back to Ren.
The human murmured something else, presumably thanking him. He lay down and seemed to pass right out the instant his head hit that cushion.
Unable to fend off his own exhaustion anymore, Syr collapsed into a heap… but his mind kept going. He silently begged it to shut down, even though he doubted his dreams would be any better than the memories of Verdanturf replaying unbidden again and again.
By and large, they weren’t.
Chapter 8: Systems Online
They stood by, their consoles arranged in a ring around a modestly-sized stage. Their eyes were trained on maps, on readouts, on the thing that sat like an oversized seedpod in the center of the room. Faces looked back from a few of the pits dotting its surface: some adoring, some puzzled.
Four-pronged tongues, dark and prehensile, jabbed at keys and flicked at switches. Something creaked overhead. Lights powered on around the metal iris that was the ceiling before it cycled open.
The seedpod hummed to life, rising slowly. A pale green glow surrounded each of its occupants, who murmured to themselves and one another in excitement.
Less than fifteen minutes remained.
* * *
“Jen! Holy crap, get in here; you have to see this!”
The voice over the intercom didn’t sound worried. On the contrary, Babs sounded positively elated. Figuring she must’ve made some major breakthrough with regards to the tube, Jen hurried to the elevator. Once in the lab, he navigated the off-white corridors with relative ease, fairly familiar with the layout at this point… but even if he hadn’t been, he would’ve guessed that the peculiar light coming from down the hall marked his destination.
The room with the tube was much more than large enough to contain him. All the same, he hung in the doorway as if frozen there, eyes and mouth wide open. The tube almost looked as though it had been replaced by a column of soft light, seafoam green and gently rippling.
“Hahaha, yes! In your face, tube!” Babs crowed, jabbing a finger toward the light. She turned to face Jen, and he suspected she was grinning her face off behind that tongue. “Told you I’d get this thing up and running again.”
“So… what is it, anyway?” Jen finally slithered into the room, scraping his claws together all the while. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
“No. Well… actually yeah, kind of. It reminds me a little of—”
The column of light brightened dramatically; Jen reflexively shut his eyes and shouted, as much in surprise as in pain. His eyelids couldn’t even block it all out. Hissing, he tried to shield his face with his hands… but they were gone. Everything was gone: the light, the floor underneath him, his own body—
—but only for a moment.
“Jen? Jen? Oh. Oh thank God, you’re all right…”
Babs. The last he’d seen of her was before everything had exploded into blazing light. After a moment’s hesitation, he finally dared to open his eyes.
At first, he saw little more than pink static, with the vague outline of a greninja right in front of him. Once that abated, he had just enough time to see that Babs seemed unharmed before the rest of his current circumstances seized his attention.
They were no longer in the lab. Where they were, he couldn’t even begin to guess. The room was roughly the size of the one they’d left and more or less ovoid, the curved surfaces a faintly metallic gray. There was a round lamp set into the ceiling, filling the space with whitish light that was thankfully much softer than the light that had brought them here.
As far as he could tell, there were no doors.
“Babs… where are we? And how are we gonna get out of here?”
“I don’t know,” she said, but was quick to add, “But I will find out; I promise you. And I will figure out what the hell is going on here. Ren wanted answers, not more questions.”
“You said the light kind of reminded you of something,” Jen remembered aloud. “What was it?”
Babs folded her arms. “A transport device. Meaning Ren might’ve spent the past fourteen-odd years somewhere other than dreamland, yet he doesn’t even remember this place. Or the fact that the tube apparently led here.”
Missing memories… Jen certainly had some experience in that department. “Maybe someone tampered w—”
He didn’t finish the sentence, his train of thought derailed by what he’d just seen. The wall to his left had just shuddered, as if alive. He stared, dumbfounded, as its seamless surface began parting down the middle like a set of curtains and an unfamiliar creature entered through the opening.
The newcomer had no visible face to their name, apart from their eyes. But Jen and Babs alike got the distinct impression that the stranger was genuinely surprised to see them.
* * *
The door opened, raising fresh swirls of dust from the floor. Demi and Acheron filed in, finished with their hunting. Deranic territory wasn’t much further now; Ren wanted both kwazai’s senses on the case.
The human had finished his own breakfast, as well, his mind clearly elsewhere all the while. He hadn’t said a word to Syr or Karo all day, and he’d only made a wordless, acknowledging noise when the twins had announced they were stepping out.
Syr couldn’t blame him. He’d had too much on his own mind for conversation, as well. They were getting close to their destination, to the last place he’d seen Faurur and her charges—the latter of whom might number in the dozens now, or more. He could only guess what “breeding out of control” entailed. At any rate, odds were very good they’d be engaging the deranics’ forces even sooner than they’d bargained for. He cast another glance out the broken window to his side as if he expected the smog to come rolling in at any moment.
Ren stood, stretching his arms and legs, and excused himself for a short time. Upon returning, “Does anyone else have any reason to hang around here any longer?”
No. No, Syr acknowledged, they really didn’t.
When no one answered in the affirmative, Ren nodded and made for the door. Three pokémon followed him out under the setting sun; Karo was currently in the ball to allow the party to move faster, while the nullshade was shut away for the same reasons as always.
The nullshade’s ball was out of the pack now, secured to the human’s belt. Ideally, it would stay there. Its contents were a last resort, a weapon for the most desperate circumstances only. A weapon they might not be able to control.
A reason, among all the others, why Syr was so deeply grateful that Jen hadn’t come along, no matter how much he missed him.
Rustboro was just visible off to the right, but that wasn’t their destination. They’d be heading into the woods again, albeit a different forest this time. It was the last thing standing between them and the place where he and his trainer had parted ways, and if it was anything like the previous forest, it wouldn’t be empty.
“What if the psychics are in there?” he mused aloud. “Maybe the ghosts just ran them out of town.”
“Too bad they didn’t run our way,” Acheron said.
“If they even existed,” Ren pointed out. He unzipped his jacket—this evening was rather warmer than the past few, and the sky was still clear—but insisted on keeping his hood up for the time being. “But suppose they did exist. Now suppose they were teleporters. They could’ve gone anywhere.” He stopped watching the ground in front of himself for a moment, looking straight ahead. “Including where we’re going.”
“We can certainly hope so,” Demi said.
And then stopped dead in her tracks. The next second, Acheron did likewise. Syr bumped right into the latter, whose tail lashed reflexively.
“Sorry, sorry…” Syr moved out in front of the two kwazai. “What’s going on?”
Neither of them answered at first. The two of them just stared ahead, at some unseen point past the trees. They trembled on the spot, their jaws parted. All eight of their oculons were locked in the same direction.
Finally, “Deaths,” Acheron said, much softer than he usually spoke. “Sudden. Dozens of them.”
“And a burst of poison-type energy,” Demi added. Her tail still flicked in agitation. “That… that can’t be natural. It’s too pure. There’s too much of it.”
“It’s not natural.” Ren stepped forward and lay a hand on one of each of the kwazai’s arms. His own were shaking so much that it was a wonder he could direct them. “It’s them. It’s their weapon. It has to be.”
“Oh… oh God…” Syr felt his mouth and throat go dry. It made all too much sense. That was why the deranics had needed the koffing. Seterhath Zulo-Denvenda was powered by their elemental energy.
Ren drew a shaking breath, his hooded head bowed for a moment. “Okay,” he said quietly. “You can handle this. I promise you can.” He was trying to sound composed, but his voice was too brittle. “Stay with it. We need to know if it’s spreading.”
Still staring into the distance, “…Spreading?” Acheron responded. “No. No, it’s already over. The pulse, I mean. No more casualties… for now.”
“That might’ve been a test run,” Demi guessed aloud. “The next one could be bigger.”
Bigger. Morbid images immediately filled Syr’s mind, echoes of the past that suddenly felt like the future. Bodies dropping everywhere, seizing up and gasping for air just like his own prey. Pyres burning into the night. Entire cities wracked with grief and fear. Rustboro could be next.
Convergence could be next.
That was the thought that broke him. With a strangled cry, Syr doubled back and surged toward the tunnel, sparing no attention for the rocks that bit into his flesh. All that mattered now was his son. All that mattered was being there for him, if he couldn’t save him…
Voices shouted from behind. Long, loping steps swiftly approached, and soon there were arms around his chest, holding him back.
“Let me go!” he said between sobs. “Let me go, please; I have to get to him…”
“It’s too far,” Acheron said. “Too far to run. You’d kill yourself trying.”
“We’re gonna die anyway!” Though the kwazai was only holding him tightly enough to keep him in place, he could feel his breaths growing short. His heart was hammering too fast, too hard.
“Syr… you can’t see him anytime soon,” Demi said as she circled around Syr and Acheron. “It’ll be at least a few more days unless we find a teleporter.”
“And your son’s a poison-type,” Acheron reminded Syr. “It’s an elemental weapon. Depending on how it works… he might be immune. Or at least resistant.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in properly. Poison. His own element. He knew how it worked. And yes… yes, no matter how hard it was to believe, his son was a fellow poison-type now. He’s not a snorunt anymore.
Syr’s heart slowed, if only somewhat. The lights stopped popping in the back of his eyes. He could breathe again… but he couldn’t completely trust that Jen was out of the woods. Neither was he, for that matter. It was, after all, possible to kill someone of his element with poison. Very, very difficult, but possible all the same.
Still, he relaxed just enough for Acheron to apparently trust that he wouldn’t bolt now, and indeed he stayed put once the kwazai let go. Stayed put, but kept eying that tunnel back to Verdanturf.
“We have to keep moving…” Ren said, somewhat out of breath; Syr, unaware that the human had caught up, jolted in surprise. “We’ve gotta keep moving on.”
Moving on. The words prickled along Syr’s spine. Moving forward, when no small part of him wanted to rush back the way he’d come. Pressing on, when some might expect him to give up.
When others had been promised that he’d press on.
“We have to keep moving,” he echoed hoarsely.
“Right,” Ren said. “Right.” With that, he pulled another max potion out of the pack and motioned for Syr to roll over.
The arbok didn’t follow at first. Then he finally, truly acknowledged the taste of blood on the air and realized its origin. He complied, wincing as Ren healed the cuts and scrapes that marred his belly. “Thanks,” he said once he’d righted himself once more.
Ren only responded with a quick nod. He then looked to each of the twins in turn and gestured southward.
“Good idea,” Demi said. Then she hoisted Syr up off the ground in all four arms.
“Wh—” Syr didn’t have time to question her actions beyond that. In the next moment, he no longer needed to. She was already running back toward the forest, much faster than Syr could’ve gone under his own power. Acheron was galloping alongside her, carrying Ren.
There was no telling how long it would be before the next pulse. There was no telling where it would hit—or if anywhere would be safe. He and the others had to move.
Chapter 9: Light and Smoke
The ovoid room opened into a winding tunnel. The walls were the same, shimmery gray here, with green and red cables snaking along the length of the hall like veins.
Gliding effortlessly ahead of them was the creature who’d opened the door: bipedal, with two pairs of of tentacles trailing back from their sides—most of the time. Every so often one pair would retract, and much of the creature’s reddish armor would go with it.
Babs had harbored a hunch about the being’s identity from the moment she’d laid eyes on them, and their fluttering between forms only bolstered her certainty. She only knew their kind from pictures and articles, but she knew enough to give her a nasty suspicion about what had happened to Ren.
Jen was right, assuming he’d been thinking what it had sounded like he’d been thinking. Babs had arrived at the same conclusion herself soon after she’d materialized in this place: someone or another had messed with Ren’s head. And these beings, these deoxys, these psychics, were looking like awfully likely candidates.
“We want answers,” she’d demanded just before they’d left the room. “And we want out.”
The deoxys at the door had said nothing at all in response. The psychic-type had jolted at her voice, their tentacles fretfully writhing. From the looks of it, the deoxys had been afraid of her.
Good, she’d thought, and had whipped her tongue in the creature’s general direction. Paralytic toxins and a touch of faintly glowing ectoplasm had splattered against the floor just in front of the deoxys’s dainty, pointed feet. The spot she’d licked had quivered, as if in revulsion.
Meanwhile, despite hovering a couple of inches off the floor, the deoxys had reeled back in alarm. Then they’d turned toward the tunnel beyond and made beckoning motions with their left tentacles. Seeing as there’d only been one confirmed exit from that initial room, Babs had followed; after a brief hesitation, so had Jen.
Eventually their guide stopped, brushing tentacles against the wall to their right. Again the wall rippled and split, and the deoxys led the two of them through it. Like the previous entryway, its edges felt curiously soft as Babs brushed past them. And, just as before, she turned back toward it once she’d passed through to find it seamless once more. She pressed a hand against it—it was as firm as stone now.
The three of them had entered another rounded, graphite-gray room, much larger than the one they’d left behind. A couple dozen of those simple, round lights she’d seen before were embedded high above. The walls and ceiling alike were covered with more green and red cables, many more, which formed an impenetrable thicket at the far end of the room.
The mass of cables shifted, writhing in place with an odd whispering noise. Something bulged forward from its center. The cables unfurled from around it as it slowly emerged, until finally they revealed another deoxys.
This one was legless and considerably larger than the first, perhaps ten feet tall from the tips of their five horns to the end of their short tail. Their core took up their entire chest, an enormous purple sphere easily four times the size of their head. They drifted out to the center of the room, hovering some seven feet off the floor with all those countless cables—those tentacles, Babs realized—sprouting from their sides and tethering them to the wall behind them.
Babs heard Jen slowly approach her side. His claws clicked and rasped against each other all the while. “Babs… this doesn’t seem safe,” he said under his breath. “At all.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she assured him. “I’ve got this.” To the larger deoxys, “All right. I take it you’re the boss around here?”
The voice that responded filled the room. Metallic droning and hissing sibilants and sounds she had no name for resonated from every direction at once.
Jen cried out at its volume. Babs winced, biting what little of her tongue she kept inside her mouth. “Yeah, no, didn’t catch that,” she said once the echoing died down. “Whatever that is, I don’t speak it.”
There was another, much quieter burst of the indecipherable language. The first deoxys moved forward and floated up to the other’s eye level. The two psychic-types conversed among themselves for a moment, forcing both their guests to cover their ears.
Finally, the guide turned to face Babs and Jen once more, then left the room in something of a hurry. The wall sealed shut behind them, trapping the greninja and cryonide alone with the huge deoxys.
“Hey!” Babs put herself squarely in front of Jen. “You can’t keep us locked up here forever!”
“Yes. I can.”
The voice wasn’t the deoxys’s own. It was Jen’s, albeit distorted and emotionless. Babs turned about in an instant and saw the cryonide surrounded by a pale blue aura. His eyes burned with the same color, and brilliantly at that; his pupils were washed right out of sight by the piercing glow.
“But I won’t,” Jen went on; the words weren’t his own, Babs recognized. “We mean you no harm. And no. No, I am not in charge. I am only the curator of our collected knowledge.”
“No harm…” Babs scoffed, turning to face the deoxys once more. Their body, including their countless tentacles, was surrounded by the same blue glow as the pokémon they’d taken over. “You’re psychically manipulating a poison-type. You know that’s a bad idea. You know you could kill him.”
Puppeted by the deoxys, Jen slithered out from behind her. He came to rest on his coiled tail just below the hovering psychic-type, his arms hanging slack at his sides. “At this moment, he is an extension of my body. I can extend my regenerative power to his flesh as if it were my own. He will survive, uninjured.”
Babs was about to express her doubt, but the words died in her throat when the cryonide lifted a hand and raked his long, deadly claws across his own stomach. The deoxys’s unearthly voice rang out once more.
She swore sharply and launched into the air, straight toward the curator’s face. Her night slash connected; she heard the creature cry out again, felt their carapace splinter under her conjured dark-type blades. Tiny fragments of it fell with her as she dropped back to the floor. She sprang backward from her landing, looking up to assess the damage…
…Which was disappearing right before her eyes.
Her gaze fell upon Jen. His wounds were vanishing, as well… including a gash across his face that mirrored the one she’d inflicted upon the deoxys. Aghast, she looked up once more; sure enough, a set of deep scratches was closing up on the deoxys’s abdomen, just below their core.
“We mean you no harm,” Jen repeated.
Babs swore again, hands clenching into fists. Jen wasn’t just an interpreter in all this. He was a hostage.
She locked eyes with the deoxys again, tense as a coiled spring, and stared at them in furious silence for a moment. “I’ll hold you to that,” she finally warned them. “You and everyone else in this place. I know you can’t recover forever.” Especially not when so much of that power was going toward keeping Jen intact despite direct psychic manipulation. “You’d better let him go before you hurt him in ways you can’t fix.”
“I will,” Jen said; then, “You should hesitate no longer in asking your questions.”
“Fine. What the hell did you do to my trainer?”
“Nothing. We have no previous knowledge of you or anyone you know.”
Babs shook her head. “Not buying it. He entered that device without even knowing what it was. A device that would’ve brought him here if it hadn’t gone on the fritz and spit him out beforehand.”
“Your device was transmitting a distress beacon matching the psychic signature of our kind. That’s the only reason we brought its contents aboard. We had expected other deoxys.”
“Which Ren isn’t! Something made him go into that thing against his will. And something made him build it in the first place. Yeah, he has no memory of that, either. It’s the one thing, the one part of his lab he can’t explain. So here we have a human being, unwittingly constructing some kind of transport pod that transmits deoxys signals, and I’m supposed to believe you had nothing whatsoever to do with it?”
“No one aboard this vessel had any knowledge of your world prior to receiving your beacon.”
Babs maintained her suspicious stare into the curator’s eyes. Even if the deoxys was telling the truth… The gap in Ren’s memory, the period of time he’d apparently slept right through, had begun roughly fourteen years ago—just prior to the Extinction. If the tube had begun transmitting its signal as soon as he’d gone inside…
Her lips curled in a snarl behind her tongue. “Billions of people,” she said, shaking in anger where she stood, “were killed by a plague of unknown origin. We still don’t know where the hell it came from. But we know when it came, deoxys: right after Ren built that thing. He unwittingly built a beacon to summon you—and then an entire species bites the dust.”
Dark-type energy bloomed about her arms, longing to coalesce into blades again. She indulged it, casting her own face in deep violet light, wishing dearly that she could put her elemental weapons to use without endangering Jen. “Tell me, deoxys: what the hell do you expect me to believe?”
The curator said nothing at first. Then they emitted another burst of indecipherable noise, even louder than any that had preceded it. Jen trembled in their telekinetic grasp, the light surrounding him going unsteady. With a final flicker, it went out entirely, and the cryonide collapsed in a thorny heap.
Babs leapt to his side automatically. He didn’t look hurt, not on the outside… but there was no telling if things were all right inside his skull. He still breathed, but God only knew for how long. With a scream, she flung herself at the deoxys again, her conjured night slash flaring bright and trained right on the deoxys’s core—
—but never connecting. Something seized her from below, pulling hard; her gaze snapped downward and found thick, flattened tentacles pulling her back to the floor, away from her target. She slashed at them instead, again and again, but they wouldn’t break, wouldn’t let go. The wounds she inflicted healed just as quickly as she could deal them.
More tentacles surged up to bind her, successfully pinning her arms to her sides and her tongue to her shoulders. She let a lick attack ripple along its length, and the red and green flesh shuddered, but it still refused to release her.
Jen, still insensible, was wrapped up in a snarl of tentacles as well. Babs saw a quartet of bulky, dome-headed deoxys emerge from the floor as if it were liquid; slithering sounds behind her told that something similar was happening on her end. She screamed in rage, muffled and wordless in the deoxys’ grasp until their grip tightened further—suddenly she couldn’t breathe.
She had a fleeting sense of being dragged away before everything went dark.
* * *
The forest was blowing apart.
With a shout that was smothered in mud a split second later, Syr dove ungracefully into the soft earth just as a nearby tree went to splinters. A couple managed to stick in his flesh despite his efforts; they snagged painfully as he pulled the rest of himself underground.
He swallowed the screaming and spitting he’d have let loose on the surface, intent on holding his breath. It was hard enough with his hood compressed against his sides. Sooner than he’d wanted to, he was forced to erupt from the forest floor in a burst of mud charged with ground-type energy. He rolled clumsily out of the way when it came raining back down, falling short of the bellies of the koffing overhead as if repelled by an invisible field.
Hissing, Syr rolled into a nearby trench and huddled under the dead log spanning it. He folded in on himself and pulled one of the splinters from his belly—and cursed in immediate regret. All that had done was let the wound bleed more freely.
“Demi!” he cried out hoarsely, hoping as he dissolved into a coughing fit that she could pinpoint his location by sound alone. The smokescreen above was growing thicker by the moment, blotting out any moonlight that might have reached them otherwise. The kwazai didn’t need their eyes to detect their allies and enemies, but their higher senses would struggle to focus if it got too hard for them to breathe. He tried to shout her name again, but another explosion somewhere out of reach drowned it out completely.
Something heavy landed on two feet right in front of him. The rest of the creature hit the ground a moment later, smelling distinctly of kwazai. Demi!
A koffing burst through the smoke in front of the two, already blazing with the telltale glow of an imminent explosion—only to lose hold of it when Demi lunged and dragged him down to the rain-soaked leaf litter. The koffing bellowed and writhed underneath her, swelling menacingly. Pulsing pink-and-gold light surrounded the two of them… and the koffing stopped struggling, deflating as fresh tears opened up in his mantle. Demi’s wounds, meanwhile, were rapidly closing.
The branches of her tail rippled, their oculons briefly meeting Syr’s gaze in the fading light. Demi immediately turned to face him and called upon another pain split, partially healing his wounds at the cost of inflicting weaker versions of them upon herself.
“Thanks,” Syr said automatically as he felt new strength welling up inside him, but he was hardly relieved. Demi only had so much of her own vitality to give. Eventually there wouldn’t be enough conscious bodies around to replenish it. Another blast rang out, hurtling more wooden shrapnel through the smokescreen above. Another drainable target lost.
Without a word, Demi sprang out of the trench. Syr turned blindly in the direction she’d gone, steeling himself to jump back into the fray, filling his lungs with relatively clean air while he could. His fangs glowed a deep violet, ready to puncture the hide of one of their attackers—and then the light abruptly cut out, its maker startled into losing the charge as an enormous set of jaws closed over his head.
He screamed into the cavernous, reeking mouth as its owner began slowly lifting him off the ground. His own mouth lit up with dark-type energy once more as he plunged his fangs into the oily tongue attempting to smother his face. The attack drew a muffled, pained roar from two voices at once—a weezing.
His blood ran cold. With an effort that wasn’t entirely physical, he flung the rest of his body over the floating creature, wrapping tight around the junctures between their body sections. He squeezed desperately, but to little effect. His oxygen supply was rapidly dwindling, taking his strength along with it…
Then there was a deafening noise and an explosion of light behind his eyes, and the next thing Syr knew, he was free.
If he hadn’t seen the weezing dropping out of the air alongside him, he wouldn’t even have known he was falling. He couldn’t feel the air as it rushed past, couldn’t feel the impact when he hit the ground. He realized with a delay that he was breathing properly again, hearing and then tasting the breaths passing over his tongue. Another beat later, he figured out that he couldn’t move.
A strangled cry escaped him, but his mouth refused to form words. Slowly, horribly slowly, his gaze panned across the inverted and dimly-lit scene before him… and landed upon a nosepass several yards away. Ren was crouching next to him, wearing an air filter in the form of a small, gray mask that covered his nose and mouth.
There was a faint glow about Karo’s nose that was only just fading out. Zap cannon. Karo had been the one to take down that weezing. Syr had just had the misfortune of being in the line of fire.
“Syr! Hang in there, buddy!” the nosepass called out to him. Syr heard Ren grab something out of his pack as the two hurried to pull the arbok into the safety of Karo’s block field.
Relief spread through Syr as they closed the gap. He didn’t feel the force field envelop him this time, but he was sure it had; Ren was now moving freely at his side, in space he wouldn’t have dared to occupy if it weren’t safe.
“Man,” said Karo, sounding more than a little tired, “am I ever grateful to see you again.”
“Lll… likewise,” Syr managed, still slightly mushmouthed; the medicine Ren was administering was only just taking effect. The party had gotten separated very early in the attack; Syr had gone to ground as a reflex, and by the time he’d first emerged the smokescreen had gone up, thick and nearly impenetrable.
“Try not to dig again, all right?” Karo advised him. “I can only extend the block so far.”
Syr nodded in response as soon as he could lift his head again. He gazed out beyond the invisible barrier, taking in a moonlit view of shattered trunks and fallen bodies. Some of the latter belonged to koffing—none of which had gone to cinders, as far as he could tell. That… that’s good, at least. It meant those koffing were still alive. There was still a chance they could be free, if all went well enough.
The same… could not be said of most of the non-koffing lying in the moonlight.
He’d known to expect the dead. He’d anticipated coming across them under much calmer circumstances, but he’d known they were headed for a grim scene all the same. That made it no easier to look upon the victims now. Most of them appeared uninjured, but their bodies were contorted in a way that told him they’d probably spent their last moments writhing in pain. Syr helplessly wondered if that’s how his human friends had looked at the end; at that thought, he immediately wrenched his gaze from the fallen.
His attention shifted back toward Karo. “Are you all right?” he managed, at which Karo grunted inconclusively. That… wasn’t comforting. Syr couldn’t see any damage to the nosepass’s person, but…
The kwazai. Something turned to ice inside him. “Where are the twins?” he asked, panic rising in his voice. “Where are they?”
“Don’t know, buddy,” Karo said. “But they’ve gotta be all right.. They’re not pushovers. They’ve never been…”
Ren, meanwhile, was silently, shakily rising to his feet. He took a step forward, toward the boundary of the block field; noticing this, Karo and Syr moved with him.
The arbok followed the human’s line of sight and picked out the deflated form of the weezing, still lying helplessly in the leaves and scattered debris. The poison-type groaned very quietly as the three of them approached. Another pair of voices, just as weak, echoed in Syr’s memory, and he swallowed hard against a lump in his throat.
Wordlessly, Ren knelt before the weezing. There was a poké ball in his hand—the one from Mauville, Syr realized. Not taking his eyes off his target for even a second, Ren swept his free hand downward, at which Karo made an acknowledging noise but nothing else appeared to happen. The human adjusted his grip on the ball, cocked his arm back—
And dissolved into a shapeless blob of red light.
Syr recoiled in alarm, falling backward; the shield was down. Karo gave a shout as the ball clattered awkwardly to the ground, still partially open and trailing light. The light quivered and then withdrew sharply into the capture device, which promptly snapped shut. The nosepass and arbok could only stare at it, both at a loss for words. Then the energy surged back out and snapped into the shape of a human body with a horrible, distorted noise.
Ren stood there among the leaves and the dead, panting and sweating and trembling so hard that it looked as though he could fall apart at any second. His hood fell back over his shoulders as he shook.
Somewhat gingerly, Karo reached up to prod at the human’s side. “Hey… hey Ren?” he spoke up. “Are you—”
Ren drew in a deep, shuddering breath. Then he crumpled to the ground.
Chapter 10: Belief
The kwazai came thundering in, heedless of any bodies in their path until they arrived at their trainer’s side. Both dropped to the filthy ground next to him as swiftly as their oddly-jointed legs allowed. Both their tails were lashing, and Demi was uttering a stream of prayers and profanity under her breath. Being the faster of the two, she was the one to gather Ren up in her free arms, though both kwazai grabbed for him.
Syr coiled frozen before the siblings, all but biting his tongue in worried anticipation. He couldn’t tell whether or not Ren was even alive. He hadn’t had the wits to see if the man was breathing before the kwazai had shown up, and now Demi’s arms blocked the view. He’d have to get the verdict from her or her brother secondhand.
His jaws parted to ask. But before he could get a breath out, “He’s still with us,” Karo spoke up. “…Right?”
“Right.” Acheron certainly felt some relief at that fact, but there was none of that in his voice. His tail had snaked around his waist to inspect the human and continued to do so; Demi’s was doing likewise, two branches over each shoulder.
“What happened?” Demi demanded, half-hissing. Her sharp teeth were bared. “What the hell happened to him?”
Once again, Syr made to speak. Once again, Karo beat him to the punch. “He caught himself,” he said, and he sounded… excited, almost. “That’s what happened.”
Acheron made a noise that might’ve become a word if something hadn’t plainly caught his attention then. “There,” he said in the next moment, meeting Syr’s gaze and pointing a short distance to the arbok’s right.
Syr glanced in that direction and thought he saw something reflecting a fleck of moonlight. Closer inspection revealed the ball, or what was left of it. It had been blown open, from the looks of it, its hinge bent backward so that the two halves touched. He scooped it up in his jaws but promptly spat it back out; it tasted burnt, and there were other, worse flavors to it that he feared to contemplate.
“It’s fried,” he said. “I guess this means he definitely won’t be catching that weezing.” Another rightward look told him the pokémon in question was still down. Alive, but possibly unconscious and therefore immune to a fresh ball anyhow. But they could’ve waited. Now they had no such option.
“Nnnn…” came a small voice from in front of him. Ren’s voice. The human wriggled feebly in Demi’s hold, lifting his hairless head. “Where…” Apparently that was as much of a sentence as he could manage at the moment.
“Still in the forest,” Acheron answered. “The fight’s over.”
Ren made a faint, disagreeable noise and shook his head. “Somewhere else…” he said, his voice slightly muffled by the mask, “now…”
“Yes,” Syr agreed at once, almost automatically. The koffing could start waking up at any time, and here was Ren, at his most vulnerable thus far. But there were additional reasons to get out of there, and Syr suspected the human had at least some of them on his mind.
Maybe Ren had been able to brave the sight of this place before. But in the wake of his impossible capture, there was no telling what he could handle.
Demi took Karo’s capture ball and recalled the nosepass, then passed her trainer to her brother and gathered Syr into her many arms once more. The two kwazai took off, leaving the clearing and the carnage behind and weaving their way into a part of the forest that hadn’t been withered or blasted away.
But as darkness fell over them once more, the fear of unseen dangers rose anew. It didn’t help that Syr could still smell the smoke and the koffing still lingering back in the clearing. The odors clung to him, furthermore, and to the rest of the party. It made it all the harder to be sure they’d really shaken them off for the time being.
“Water,” he thought aloud. “We need to find water.” Even if it couldn’t mask the smell entirely, it’d weaken it. His nerves would be grateful. His throat would be, too, after all the smoke and exertion.
“We will…” Demi muttered. Her mind was plainly on other things.
Syr realized then that he hadn’t heard a single sound out of Ren since the clearing. He almost asked about him, but no. That wasn’t necessary. If his condition worsened, the two empaths in their midst would give it away.
The sound of running water eventually caught his attention. “There’s a creek up ahead,” Acheron announced soon after. The taste of fresh water on the air arrived soon after, followed by the sight of moonlight sparkling off the water’s surface.
Demi stopped, setting Syr down alongside the creek. The arbok dipped his snout in for a drink, then let himself slip entirely underwater for a moment. When he raised his head above the surface to breathe, he saw a burst of light in the shape of a nosepass. Syr rippled his way through the shallow water, crawling over the stones until he reached the bank once more.
“Shield, right?” Karo asked. Nobody answered aloud, but someone must’ve nodded; there was that brief, full-body pressure again. “You awake, buddy?” he then asked.
“…Yeah.” Ren’s voice suggested an unspoken “barely”. He inhaled audibly; then, “The ball… it pulled me in. How…?”
“We don’t know,” Syr told him, wishing he had an answer. It only occurred to him after the fact that he could really only speak for himself on the matter.
“Oh, I think I know,” Karo said. There was that odd, giddy sort of tone again. Heavy footsteps reverberated through the rocks as the nosepass moved in closer to his trainer. “Congrats,” Karo said. “You’re officially one of us.”
“Not in that sense,” Acheron said. “You’re still human, Ren.”
“And yet the ball got him,” Karo pressed on. “I mean, yeah, it couldn’t hold onto him, but.” Stone scraped against stone, the familiar sound of arms swiveled into a shrug. “So what? Sometimes we break ‘em. Doesn’t mean a thing.”
“It could have been modified to catch humans,” Acheron said.
That hadn’t even crossed Syr’s mind as a possibility. Now that he thought about it, “There’d be people who’d try it. People with an anti-human agenda.”
“Or people with a pro-human agenda,” Demi offered, “wanting to capture them and lock them away for their own safety. Or people just curious as to whether or not it could be done.”
“Guys. Guys. Please. Do you not hear yourselves right now?” Karo was actually starting to sound a little agitated at this point. “Why are you jumping through hoops like this when there’s a much simpler answer right in front of you?”
“Because,” Demi said quietly, “if he were anything other than human, we’d know. We’d feel it. I know you know this.”
Karo didn’t respond at first. Then he averted his gaze with a small sort of huffing sound. “…How can you be cool with that?” he asked. “How am I supposed to be cool with this, when for all we know that virus or poison or whatever could still be floating around? I mean…” There was a moment’s silence, and then another’s. “We just got him back.”
Oh. Syr felt a sudden weight in the vicinity of his heart. Karo really couldn’t accept that a human could’ve survived the plague. Convincing himself that Ren was a pokémon was apparently the only way to stave off fears that it would come for his trainer after all.
Wordlessly, Syr emerged from the water and gently wrapped himself around Karo in an embrace of sorts. It occurred to him in nearly the same moment that he was sopping wet; he let go immediately, though he wished he hadn’t had to.
Meanwhile Ren squirmed in Acheron’s arms. “Let me go,” he said, but not harshly. He sounded as though he’d got a bit more of his strength back.
Acheron hesitated for a moment, then set him down on his feet. Ren immediately hugged the nosepass, and both kwazai embraced the two of them in turn.
Syr gave a faint, grateful smile. Now he won’t get wet, he reckoned, and encircled the rest of his friends.
“Can’t lose him again,” Karo murmured to himself in the middle of it all.
Part of Syr wanted to assure Karo that no, he wouldn’t lose Ren anytime soon. The rest… couldn’t bear to lie to him. He wasn’t sure Ren would be all right. Even if there was no trace of the plague anywhere now, even if Ren was entirely immune to it anyway, there were still innumerable things that could go wrong during this mission. They were facing a relatively unknown and uncounted enemy. There was no way of knowing exactly what sort of danger they were in.
This was, after all, quite possibly a one-way trip. But Syr had the sinking feeling that somewhere along the way, Karo had taken to refusing—and continued refusing—to truly acknowledge that.
“We know you’re worried,” Demi said. Acheron nodded in assent.
“We all know,” Ren put in. “I’m worried, too. Of course I wonder if… if maybe I’m living on borrowed time. I hope I’m not. I don’t wanna leave you, either. But…” Here he raised his head, looking over one shoulder and then the other, meeting the gaze of each of his pokémon in turn. “…whatever happens, I think you’ll be all right. You’re all strong. All of you.” He nodded toward Syr. “That includes you.”
Syr took on a funny sort of surprised expression for a moment before a hint of guilt settled into it. It was nice of Ren to say such a thing, but believing it… wasn’t so easy. “I don’t know about that,” he admitted.
The human kept one arm around Karo but turned to face Syr, or tried to; recognizing this, the pokémon surrounding him loosened their grip and backed up a bit. “You’ve already been through a lot,” Ren told Syr. “And a lot of it was recent, very recent. Anyone—anyone with half a heart—would’ve understood if you’d needed some time before taking this on. I would’ve. Your old friend probably would’ve. And yet…” He spread his free arm as far as he could. “Here you are.”
Syr’s gaze drifted groundward as he absorbed that. He still wasn’t altogether sure he agreed with the human’s words. In the end, all he could think to do with the information was to try and prove Ren right. Maybe, he supposed, he’d convince himself in the process.
At this point, Ren got around to healing the twins. Syr tried to take stock of the kwazai’s conditions in the moments before their injuries vanished, but it was difficult in a number of ways, what with so much blood and filth smeared over their bodies.
“Okay,” Ren said. “Time to get moving again. We’ll detour west a bit, just enough to put more space between us and the koffing.” He reached for one of his capture balls then, only to find an empty space.
“Oh whoops, here,” Demi said as she handed him Karo’s ball.
“Ready?” Ren asked Karo, pointing the lens at him.
“…Yeah,” Karo said. “But hey. Be careful, all right? We still haven’t had that party.”
“I will be,” Ren assured him, then recalled him and nodded up at the kwazai. They scooped up the slower members of their party and set off, splashing through the creek and disappearing into the dark woods beyond.
Chapter 11: Away
The room was dark, its cluster of ceiling lamps dimmed to a bare minimum glow. A low, distant thrumming was the only noise to be heard… until a loud, creaking yawn sounded from against one of the curved walls.
Jen stretched where he lay, his arms extending out in front of him while his tail unfurled and flexed down its length. His eyes opened, and for a very brief moment nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It had just been a nice nap, that was all.
A nap following an encounter with an enormous psychic stranger.
He jolted upright with a yell and coiled up tight, throwing wild looks about. Where was the creature? Where was he? What had happened?
Jen couldn’t even begin to answer the third question, but the others were somewhat more obliging. The huge pokémon wasn’t there, at least not at the moment. He remembered the last entrance they’d made, coming in right through the wall as if it were liquid, and he shivered. What if they were lurking just beyond his metallic gray surroundings even now?
As for where he was, all he could be sure of was that he was still in the place the tube had taken him, just not the room he’d been in last. This one was smaller, and unless he was mistaken, the floor was rather softer; he could feel it yielding slightly to his weight, shifting about as he moved.
And there, curled up on the opposite side of the room, was Babs. She was still alive; her body heat still formed a luminous aura around her, and she breathed slowly, calmly. As far as he could tell, she was merely sleeping, same as he had been up until a minute or so ago.
The greninja stirred as he approached her, mumbling something incoherent as her brain started itself up. She then startled awake, much as he had, relaxing somewhat once she was satisfied that they were alone for the time being.
“Urgh. Stupid damn deoxys…” she muttered as she sat back down, rubbing at her neck.
“What did they do to us?” Jen asked, moving to coil beside her. “I remember the… the deoxys making all that awful noise, and then…” He half-shrugged. “Then I woke up here. What happened?”
“What happened is that the big one took you over,” Babs answered, at which Jen’s eyes brightened and flickered in alarm. “Apparently that’s the only way they can talk to us—I’d have preferred it if they’d used me, but, well. Dark-type,” she said with a sigh, tapping her head.
“And the psychic power knocked me out,” Jen supposed aloud.
“Not right away. The deoxys was using their recovery powers to fix any damage they caused.” She shuddered. “It worked. At least while they were controlling you. Are you feeling okay now?”
“Yeah,” Jen said. He hoped that would continue to be the case. For all he knew, there was a blood vessel in his brain that was liable to burst at any moment.
That thought made him queasy. He swallowed thickly. “How’d we get here?” he asked, hoping to change the subject, if only slightly.
“Don’t know,” Babs answered. Her hand rose to massage the side of her neck again. “The big guy let you go, and I guess they put you under on the way out. They knocked me out the hard way.” Her eyes narrowed under a furrowed brow. “Everything was going… fine-ish until I brought up the plague. Then they freaked out and attacked us.” She looked Jen right in the eyes. “If that’s not suspicious, I don’t know what is.”
It was awfully suspicious, Jen thought. Why would these deoxys react so strongly, so violently to someone inquiring about the plague if they’d had nothing to do with it?
He curled in even tighter on himself, not liking what this might mean for himself and for Babs at all. No, he hadn’t wanted his father to be en route to the lair of humanity’s killers… but he hadn’t exactly wanted to face them himself, either.
That was assuming that he and Babs hadn’t been brought to exactly the place his father and company were headed. What if they were? What if “deoxys” was just another name for—
A bright red-and-green head with a blunt crest on either side suddenly popped out of the floor, interrupting Jen’s thoughts and making him cry out in surprise. The deoxys cocked their head at him as the rest of their body showed itself, emitting a quiet little burst of indecipherable noise.
“You!” Babs shouted as she sprung to her feet.
The deoxys shrunk in on themself in response. They changed shape in an instant, taking on that mostly-gray, long-crested form Jen had seen one take before.
“Yeah, you. I don’t su—hey, no, do NOT go back in the floor!” Babs said sharply, for the deoxys had begun doing that exactly. “Up. Now.”
The deoxys complied, then shifted back into their previous form.
Once she was satisfied that they’d stopped moving, “I’m not going to hurt you,” she said. “Not unless you attack first. Got it?”
Again the deoxys spoke up, just as quietly as they had before. Jen wondered if one of the deoxys from the auditorium, or whatever it had been, had spread the word that their voices caused their guests discomfort. Or maybe this was one of the deoxys from the auditorium.
Jen sincerely hoped this wasn’t just that big one in another form.
“Okay,” Babs said. “I take it you can’t talk to us either, can you. Not without speaking through one of us.” She sighed, folding her arms. “Honestly, I’m not really sure why I’m even asking you. How the hell are you gonna answer me without going into puppeteer mode?”
Very tentatively, the deoxys glided closer to Jen. They unfurled a single tentacle in his direction, at which he recoiled automatically. But the deoxys refrained from actually touching him. They knew better, he reckoned, what with Babs staring them down. They stared back at her, face unreadable as ever, and tilted their head again.
She shook hers. “I’m not the one you should be asking. It’s his brain. His safety. His choice. You ask him… such as you can.”
The deoxys did nothing for a moment, seemingly unwilling to take their eyes off her. They managed it in the end, looking into Jen’s eyes instead and pointing a tentacle at his spiked chest.
Jen hesitated to respond. The thought of being psychically manipulated brought back that queasy feeling again, for more reasons than one. He knew it could hurt him. He knew that he’d be completely powerless while under the deoxys’s control. And he knew he wouldn’t remember a moment of it—and he’d already had his memory messed with much more than he would’ve ever wanted.
But ultimately… ultimately, he thought with dismay, what choice did he have? How else were they going to get any answers from these creatures? They needed to know more, if they could. They needed to find out anything they could about this place—it might help them escape. And they needed to know what, if anything, the deoxys had to do with the plague.
He pulled in a deep breath. He almost consented right then and there, but caught himself; the deoxys might have taken him over the instant he’d agreed to it, and there were a few things he wanted to say first.
“When you’re in there,” he said to the deoxys, “…don’t change anything, all right? Don’t take out any memories. Don’t put any in. And don’t make me hurt anyone.”
“Oh, I won’t let them do that,” Babs promised. She flicked the end of her tongue at nothing in particular, letting a few glowing droplets fly.
“And you,” Jen said, turning to face her. “You’ll let me know everything they say, right?”
“Okay…” Jen said, steeling himself as best he could—and then his consciousness winked out in a flash.
Babs watched as, once again, the blue light surrounded Jen. The cryonide lifted his head, revealing the same burning blue eyes he’d sported last time. He uncoiled and slithered a little further away from Babs; the deoxys went with him. Under their psychic command, Jen gnashed his teeth a couple of times, clicking his fanged mandibles against them… and then giggled.
What the… Babs watched in bafflement for a moment as he kept on chattering and snapping, with the occasional, fleeting charge of dark-type energy flashing off his silver teeth. Then she realized what she was seeing.
“Okay, playtime’s over,” she told the deoxys. “He didn’t let you do this so you could experience the joy and wonder of having a mouth. He did this because I want to talk to you. You get it?”
Jen stopped biting the air and bowed his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. His voice was somewhat more inflected than it had been when the curator had puppeted him; he actually almost sounded sorry. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Well, first off: what was with the chokehold?” Babs demanded. “Why did you knock us out?”
“Because you needed to be decontaminated,” Jen answered. “It’s easier and faster to decontaminate people when they’re sleeping.”
“Yes. You were carrying the Red Hand’s virus. We had to scrub it off of you and take samples.”
Maybe the virus she and Jen had been carrying and the plague that had wiped out humanity were two different things. Babs had a nasty feeling that wasn’t the case, however… “This virus… how serious is it? Serious enough to kill off an entire species?”
Jen lowered his head again. “I’m afraid so. The Red Hand has eliminated many species this way.”
Babs felt a chill spread throughout her and form a deep, cold pit in her stomach. If they really had been carrying the virus all this time… had Ren been exposed? Would he succumb?
Had he already?
“…Okay.” It was hard to speak, with her mouth and throat having gone so dry. “In that case, what you need to do now is send us back where we came from.” Maybe it was too late to get to Ren. But if it wasn’t—if there was any chance he could be brought here and cleansed of the virus himself—then she needed to get to him.
If there wasn’t any chance he could be brought here and decontaminated… then she at least wanted a chance to see him one last time.
“I… I know you want to go home,” Jen said. “I’d want to go home, too, if someone took me away from here. But we can’t send you back yet. Our transporter needs to rest.”
“Rest? For how long?”
“Another two cycles, at least,” Jen replied.
Whatever that meant. Hours? Days? Babs almost demanded a clearer answer, but then suddenly remembered a couple things in particular that the curator had said: This vessel. Knowledge of our world.
“And we can’t just get out of here on our own,” Babs said, “can we.”
“No,” Jen said. “I know you probably don’t want to believe me, but… Here. Look.”
The deoxys moved out from behind Jen, though the blue glow signifying their control remained. They glided over to the nearest wall and let a pair of their tentacles sink in. The wall visibly rippled… then seemed to vanish, revealing a corridor beyond. Three other deoxys passed by with fleeting glances at the newly-formed window. A moment later, the opposite wall turned transparent, as well, followed by several more beyond it—and then Babs found herself looking at nothing at all. Just an endless, black void.
There was, she considered, a chance this could all be a trick of some sort. That the view to space was merely an illusion of some kind, meant to make her believe she was trapped when she actually wasn’t. But she recognized just as quickly that there was no real way to confirm it either way. If she shredded her way through those walls only to find that there really was nothing but a dark vacuum beyond, she’d be unable to help anyone at all anymore.
She cursed under her breath as the walls went opaque once more. No, she couldn’t get to Ren from here on her own. Not with a very real chance that there was an unknown but assuredly vast expanse of airless nothingness in the way.
“It won’t be long at all,” Jen tried to assure her. Babs looked his way once more. “We have the coordinates of your world from the beacon you sent,” he said. “We’re heading there now. By the time we get there, the transporter should be ready to send you back down.”
“You had better be right,” Babs muttered darkly. “Otherwise a mouth isn’t the only thing you’ll be missing.”
Jen quailed a little. For a moment, it looked as though he were crying… but no. No, that was blood, Babs realized, remembering the damage the curator had dealt to the cryonide. Jen’s kind had colorless blood.
“You’re hurting him,” she told the deoxys. “You need to be using your recover technique while you’re controlling him.”
“I… I know,” Jen said. Both he and the deoxys looked away, as if embarrassed. “I think I need to go now,” he said, closing his eyes. “I’m not sure I can keep healing him much longer. I’ve never done this before,” he admitted.
“…That’s fine,” Babs said, though she didn’t entirely mean it. She still had questions, and she wished she could have them answered without anyone’s health and safety on the line. It is what it is, she thought, but not happily.
The blue glow vanished. The deoxys slipped back through the floor, leaving Jen to sway on the spot.
“Nnnnn…” he groaned, raising a hand to his head as he worked to regain his balance. His eyes opened, shining yellow once more. “Is it over with?”
“Yeah. How’re you feeling?” Babs asked.
“Kind of dizzy,” Jen answered. “But otherwise I’m fine. What did they say?” he asked.
“Several things,” Babs said. She flopped back down into a sitting position with a sigh. “Some bad news… some potentially good news… and some unquestionably weird news.”
Chapter 12: In Bloom
The detour west had brought Syr and the rest of his party closer to Rustboro than they’d originally planned to go. In the morning, when they’d been seeking a place to camp, its south end would’ve been visible on the horizon—would have, if it hadn’t been for the fact that it had been more or less destroyed more than a decade prior.
The sight hadn’t surprised Syr. He’d known for years what had happened there. Though the plague had apparently put most of its victims to sleep before snuffing them out entirely, humanity’s end had not been entirely peaceful. They’d passed out in their cars. In their planes. He’d heard some of the crashes from the woods south of Mauville, had felt the distant impacts rattle the earth.
An especially large craft had gone down in Rustboro. In the end, the city’s survivors had not only elected against rebuilding at the crash site in any sense but had also chosen to raze what was left, leaving the barren site as a memorial to those lost there, humans and pokémon alike.
There had been pokémon casualties elsewhere, of course. Their death toll had certainly been lower than that of the humans, but still high enough to make some pokémon fear that the world was ending for all of its peoples. The only thing that separated the pokémon survivors from their dead (or from most of them, at least), was having been in the right places when the Extinction had hit.
If Syr had been in the wrong place…
Those thoughts were no kinder to him than they’d ever been. He shivered as he tried to get his mind on a different subject. It helped, but only slightly, that there was now a stone wall between him and the view to the west. It wasn’t a cave, exactly; more of an outcropping, really. A wall and a half with a ceiling. It was the best shelter they could find in the area.
Syr turned toward Ren, or toward his scent and silhouette, at least. The human was fidgeting with something, passing it back and forth between his hands. One of the other pokémon’s capture balls, Syr guessed, judging by the sound it made against Ren’s palms.
Karo sat nearby, as well, facing northward and slowly rocking back on forth on his short legs, ready to block at any moment. Enemy territory was still too close for comfort, and for the time being, the three of them were alone, waiting for the twins to return from the hunt.
Or from scavenging. God knew it was a lot harder to find anything living in those woods now.
The human stopped rolling the ball around and sighed to himself, shaking his head at some unvoiced thought. Reminiscing about his brief, horrific time inside a similar device, perhaps. Ren hadn’t really had a chance to go into detail about exactly what he’d experienced in there (though Syr wasn’t so sure the human would’ve been ready to talk about it anyway), but judging from the way the failed capture had looked, Syr had a nasty feeling that it had been painful. Terrifying.
He gave Ren a pitying frown, wondering what, if anything, he ought to say. “How are you feeling?” he finally asked.
Ren just sort of grunted at first. “Dizzy,” he said soon after.
Syr gave a sympathetic hum in response. “Because of the ball?” he supposed out loud.
“Or because he skipped breakfast,” Karo said.
“No, I didn’t,” Ren responded.
Syr tried to recall if he’d seen Ren actually eat anything in the past couple of hours, but couldn’t. He bumped the human’s pack with his snout. “Maybe you could use something anyway.”
Another grunt, but apparently Ren agreed; he took his mask back off, then swung his pack around and reached in. He kept digging through it for a few moments before letting out another sigh and simply shaking its contents out into the grass for easier access.
Syr found himself looking over the supplies as Ren felt around through them. The pile probably wasn’t really much smaller than it’d been before they’d left Convergence in the first place. But looking at it now, with their destination so close at hand, he felt doubt creep into his perception of it.
“Do we still have enough medicine?” he asked.
Ren paused in the middle of popping a packet open. Dried fruit, from the smell of it. His head turned ever so slightly in Karo’s direction. “Probably,” he said. “We’re almost there, assuming the koffing haven’t strayed too far from where you last saw them. And it sure doesn’t seem like they have.
“Once we’re in there… well. Hopefully we won’t need to be in there for long. If we can just get to this weapon of theirs...”
“We can wreck it,” Karo finished, sounding almost gleeful about the prospect. Ren nodded in confirmation.
“...And the koffing?” Syr asked. Getting to the deranics’ weapon was important. At this point, there really was no higher priority. He wasn’t about to argue otherwise. But he hadn’t forgotten why he’d proposed this mission in the first place. He still hoped that whatever else they had to do, whatever else came first… when all was said and done, at least some of Faurur’s people would be free. “What do we do about them? About helping them,” he clarified quickly.
“Whatever we can,” Ren said. He paused for a long drink of water and a shake of his canteen afterward to gauge how much was left. “I think… if we disable the weapon, if we can take the deranics down or force them to surrender, that might convince the koffing that they’re not worth serving any longer. If they no longer see the deranics as godlike, they might be more willing to desert them.”
“They might be,” Syr echoed, “but… I don’t know. It didn’t seem to take much to impress them in the first place.” At least, that’s how Faurur had made it seem. “The lights crossed the sky, and that was that. That’s all it took. They just… knew those were their gods.”
Ren took another mouthful of his breakfast, or snack, or whatever it was, chewing in silent thought for a short time. “They just knew,” he said finally. “Without meeting them.”
“Right,” Syr said.
“And did they know the name of their gods?” Ren asked. “Without meeting them?”
Syr’s frown deepened. “Yeah. They did.” The very first time he’d heard the deranics spoken of by name was mere minutes after the streaks in the sky had vanished.
“Well that doesn’t seem weird at all,” Karo remarked.
“What did they do to them?” Syr wondered aloud. “Did they just… beam the information into their heads? Why weren’t we affected?”
“Different brains,” Ren said. “Their brains were compatible with the signal. Yours, I guess, were not.” Another swig from the canteen. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that little introduction wasn’t all they transmitted.” He lifted his hooded head. “Your friends could very well have been brainwashed.”
Syr absorbed that silently. Then he hung his head. “I never doubted that they were victims in all this,” he said. “I just thought… all this time, I just thought they’d been lied to, and that was it. If you’re right, then they didn’t even get a choice about what to believe. They didn’t get to think it over. They just got taken. Taken all over again…”
He lifted his head again. “We have to save them,” he said. “Otherwise… God, otherwise everything she and I did, everything we gave up… it’s all for nothing.”
“I think we can,” Ren said. “I honestly think we can. I think they must have something or another still broadcasting that signal to this day. If we take that out, they’ll lose even more of their firepower.”
A little spark of hope lit up in Syr at those words, so swiftly it surprised him. For the first time since they’d set out, he could actually, properly imagine what a successful outcome in all this might look like. Devices whose shapes he could only guess bursting into sparks and smoke and flame. The sky above darkening with the emissions of countless rejoicing koffing. Vague, wormlike creatures cowering in surrender or lying twisted in pools of—
He shook his head briskly, rippling from neck to tail in a full-body shudder. He tried to steer his thoughts back toward the happier, less gory aspects of actually succeeding in their efforts, only to lose the threads when he saw Ren suddenly shoot to his feet.
Syr whipped around to follow the human’s line of sight, or where he presumed it to be. He went stock still at what he saw, his eyes widening in surprise. The twins were headed their way. Maybe they’d finished feeding. Maybe they hadn’t. It was entirely possible that they’d been distracted by the things they now carried.
The shapes were slightly murky in the darkness, but it looked as though Acheron had picked up something like a branch. There was a rustling noise as it swung in his grasp, suggesting leaves, and it gave off a very faint fruity scent. Demi’s cargo was silent, but less ambiguous all the same. The size, the shape, and the smell left no room for guessing. She’d caught a weezing.
“Urgh…” Ren said softly. Syr looked back just long enough to see the human leaning against Karo, his hooded head buried in one hand; he’d apparently stood up too quickly.
“You need to sit back down,” Demi told him as she and her brother stopped just outside the shelter, at which Ren readily did as she suggested.
“You didn’t have to go all the way back for that weezing,” he said.
“You’re right, and we didn’t,” Acheron said. “He came to us. Or tried to.”
“Subtle as a blimp,” Demi said, “luckily for us.” She gave the weezing a little shake. He dangled from one of her right hands by his larger mouth. He was drooling something dark and glistening.
“Be careful,” Syr warned. “Almost everything that comes out of them is toxic. Or wait, do you still have—”
“Safeguard? Yeah,” Acheron said. “But I figured I ought to grab these regardless.” He plunged the branch into the soil as if he were planting it, and at this distance Syr could see that it wasn’t a branch at all. The kwazai had simply uprooted an entire pecha plant.
There’s pechas for some of us, at least, but… Syr cast another concerned glance back toward Ren. He was the only member of the party who had neither the immunity of a poison-type nor the option of simply washing away poison with a little fruit juice. All he could do was hope to avoid getting poisoned in the first place.
Karo will protect him, Syr reminded himself. He can protect all of us. Including himself. There was a tiny little twinge of guilt as he realized that he’d actually managed to let himself forget that the nosepass was a gym leader’s pokémon, same as the kwazai.
“We figured you wanted to talk to him,” Acheron said, “seeing as you tried to catch him.”
“You figured right.” Ren took a moment to finish off the fruit packet, then fished some more food out of the pile.
“You gonna wake him now?” Karo asked.
“We probably have enough revives,” Demi said.
“Hmm,” Ren responded at first; then, “Give him a few minutes. Hopefully he’ll wake up on his own—you went easy on him, right?” he asked, facing Demi as he spoke.
“I kept the beam on him long enough to knock him out. Not a second longer.”
“Good,” Ren said. “Okay, then he might come around in a timely fashion. Again, we’ll give him a chance. If that fails, then we revive.”
As it turned out, it didn’t take long at all for the weezing to stir. He shuddered in place and vented a few acrid puffs of exhaust.
“Hnrrrrrn… why?” he asked as he rose shakily. His voices were especially hoarse and quiet; Syr was helplessly reminded of how Faurur had sounded the last time she’d spoken to him.
The weezing turned and rose a bit higher to meet Demi eye to eye, wobbling all the while. “Why did you attack me? I only wanted to talk.”
“You attacked me first,” Syr reminded him.
“I was still hungry,” the weezing said simply. “But then I thought, maybe I know you.” He descended and moved closer to Syr. “You’re Syr, aren’t you?”
“Yes…” Syr answered.
“She used to talk about you. A lot.” The weezing backed up again, still a bit unsteady in the air. “She liked you. She missed you, I think.”
Syr felt an ache in his chest at that. She had only managed to reunite with him at the end of her life, but how long had she been trying?
Would she have had to wait so long if he’d stuck around?
“That’s why I looked for you,” the weezing went on. “To apologize.” He swelled with a deep breath, then let it out in a puff of smoke. “I’m sorry,” he said to Syr.
Syr shook his head. “It’s…” He trailed off and shook his head again with a sigh. He couldn’t pretend it was fine well enough to say that it was. “Just… if you try to eat me again,” he said, “if you try to kill any of us, you could get hurt very badly. Very badly,” he stressed. He wanted to believe the others wouldn’t kill the weezing. But he was certain that any of them would rather do so than watch any of their teammates die. “Keep that in mind, all right?”
“They’ll hurt me anyway,” the weezing said.
“No they won’t,” Ren spoke up; his muffled voice told that the mask was back on. He stood back up; Karo shuffled into place to support him as fast as he could manage.
The weezing turned slightly to regard Ren. Do you know what he is? Syr wondered. If this weezing had been one of the koffing that he and Faurur had rescued from the poacher, then he’d had experience with humans before. A bad experience, at that.
Are you afraid of him?
“Now, listen,” Ren said. “They could’ve left you back there in the woods. They brought you here for a reason.”
“Yeah. We’ve got questions for you, weezing,” Karo said.
“Ongzi,” the weezing corrected him. “Ongzi ursh-Ungem.”
“Ongzi,” Ren said. “We need you to tell us about the deranics.”
“They are holy,” Ongzi said.
“They’re killers,” Ren responded, and stood up a little straighter, no longer leaning on Karo. “Look… I know you’re not going to want to hear this. And I’ll understand if you don’t believe it. But the fact of the matter is that they’re lying to you, one way or another. They might be controlling your minds, making you think they’re here for some benevolent reason when in reality they’ve murdered billions of people since they arrived.” He was visibly shaking now. “Humanity is extinct because of them.”
“What? That’s what you think? No,” Ongzi said. “Humans were killed by someone else. By enemies of the deranics.”
“Enemies.” Acheron folded his arms. “And who might those be?”
“The deranics don’t speak their names,” Ongzi answered.
“Snrk. How convenient,” Karo said.
“Ongzi,” Ren said again. “We need you to be honest with us, all right? There are a lot of lives at stake here, maybe even yours. And no,” he added quickly, “no, that’s not a threat. We’re not going to kill you. We don’t want to hurt you any more than we already have. We didn’t want to have to hurt you in the first place, and I’m sorry we had to. We’re here to help you and the rest of your people.”
“…My people don’t need your help,” Ongzi said. “My people have the holy ones.”
“You really believe that, don’t you,” Syr said pityingly.
“Of course I do. Why shouldn’t I? And why…” he asked Ren, “why should I believe you? Of course you lie. You are a lie. The deranics told us that there are no humans left.”
Ren sighed. Whether it was frustration at Ongzi’s refusal to believe him about the deranics or relief at the weezing’s refusal to believe he was human, Syr couldn’t say. “All right. Okay. Believe what you will about that. We’ll move on to the next question. Do you know about their weapon? If they have enemies, surely they’ve come up with some way to defend against them.”
Ongzi kept silent at first. “Maybe,” he conceded. “But I don’t know anything about that.”
“You’re sure about that?” Demi asked.
“Yes. I’m sure,” Ongzi said. “I’m telling you the truth. I haven’t seen anything like that. Maybe they keep a weapon in the small burrows. The places we don’t fit.”
One word in particular stood out for Syr. “Burrows… they’re underground, aren’t they?”
More silence. “…You still think they’re killers, don’t you,” Ongzi finally said.
“They are,” Ren insisted, as gently as he could manage. He still shook a little as he spoke. “And not only of humanity but also all those people in the forest. Don’t you think it’s a little strange that… that…”
“Ren…?” Demi said worriedly, for the human had begun panting. The ends of her tails gave a restless flick.
“Sit back down,” Acheron urged him.
“The enemies,” Ongzi was saying meanwhile, “it had to have been the enemies…”
“Where,” Ren said, half-gasping. He was seated again, and Demi was holding him in place with a free hand. “W-we need to know—”
“Ren?” Demi interrupted.
“Where… where is—”
Ren went abruptly silent. So did everything else. All at once, all Syr could hear was a strange, shrill whine, a noise that came from everywhere and nowhere all at once. The human went rigid as a board, and both kwazai were laying hands upon him and shouting silently.
Then Ren threw his head back, and an unseen force flung Syr onto his back like a rag doll.
He lay there gasping for a short while, unable to think through the throbbing pain in his head at first. It worsened as he lifted himself up, leaving him heaving uselessly for a moment. The shrill noise was gone now, but there were little spots of light burning in the back of his eyes, which lingered briefly even after he’d opened them.
Once those cleared, Syr righted himself with a groan. He gingerly turned his head toward Ren and found him standing at his full height, apparently steady on his feet. Both kwazai stood very close to him, as did Karo, but none of them appeared to be supporting him.
“I’m fine,” Ren told them. “I’m… I’m genuinely fine. I feel better than I’ve felt in days. What the hell…” He shook his head. “What’s going on with me? What did I just do?”
“Something psychic,” Syr said, his voice hushed with awe and lingering disbelief. If he hadn’t been on the receiving end of the phenomenon himself, there’d have been much more of the latter. But he knew what he’d felt. The particular, primal discomfort that element caused was unmistakable.
“The closest thing I can compare it to would be a confusion attack,” Demi said. “A weak one, thankfully for you and the weezing, but… yeah. That was the real thing, Ren.”
“Okay,” Ren said. “Okay. So what does that mean for me?” He swallowed audibly. “What am I?”
“Human,” Acheron answered, but there was the slightest hint of uncertainty in his tone. “As far as I can tell.” He sent a questioning look Demi’s way.
“I’m getting the same picture,” she said. “You’re human… but it looks like you’re also a psychic-type. Which isn’t exactly unprecedented.”
“I know,” Ren said. He flexed his hands in front of himself. “And I know… I know that sometimes psychic awakenings take their sweet time to happen, but…” The human put a hand under his hood, at which it fell back with a soft whispering of cloth. He shook his head again, for longer this time. “I can still barely believe it…”
“I think we’re all surprised,” Syr said, still fairly awestruck. “To say the least.”
“Syr…” There was a soft shuffling as Ren turned on the spot. “I’m so sorry,” he said earnestly. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“It’s all right,” Syr said, and he meant it. “You didn’t really hurt me; it was just… sort of a push. She’s right; it was weak.”
“Still…” The human shook his head again. “I don’t know. I can’t guarantee it won’t happen again. Or that it won’t be so weak next time. If… well, maybe this is a stupid question. I’d understand if you’re willing to take that risk, all things considered. But if you’d honestly rather not, I’d understand that, too.”
Syr felt a stirring of guilt at the suggestion. No. No, I can’t do that. I can’t run away. Not again. “I’ll stay,” he said quickly. “If something happens, we have medicine, right?” He… he probably can’t hurt you worse than that, he told himself. The human’s abilities were only just awakening. He could barely pull off a simple confusion attack. Anything worse might be outside his capability altogether, at least for a while.
“I… I will not stay.”
Heads and tails turned toward the pair of voices that had just spoken in unison. Ongzi, it seemed, was only just getting up. He rose very slowly and shakily, and only got himself about two feet off the ground before apparently giving up.
“I don’t want to spend any more time with you,” he went on. “I don’t want to answer any more questions. And…” He inhaled deeply, swelling dramatically, before letting the breath back out on a sigh. “I’m sorry. I can’t let you go there. I’m sorry, Syr. I’m sorry, Faurur.” He inflated again, emitting a blinding glow—
— which cut out in an instant as its source fell unconscious to the grass below. A gentler, more colorful light shone around Demi’s outstretched hand for a moment more before dissipating.
“I had really hoped he wouldn’t try that,” she said.
Syr stared at the fallen weezing. He was grateful that the explosion had been thwarted, but he worried for their would-be attacker all the same. “Is he okay?”
“He’s okay,” Demi assured him. “I promise you. He’ll wake up just fine after a while.”
“And we won’t be here when he does,” Ren said. He turned southward. “Underground,” he said, apparently thinking aloud. “Around where you saw those streaks go, I’d imagine. I guess you’ll be leading the way from here on out,” he told Syr.
“I guess so,” Syr said. He scanned the southern horizon. It was hard to make out much of anything at this hour. “It’d be easier to do during the day, but…” But there was no telling, after all, how long it would be before the deranics fired again. “I can get us back to where I used to live. If we start digging westward from there…”
“That’s our plan, then.” Ren dropped into a crouch and began scooping everything back into the pack. Once he’d gathered everything and straightened himself back up, he recalled Karo.
“Give them directions,” the human said, as Demi picked him up. Acheron scooped Syr up at roughly the same time.
“Okay. South for now,” Syr said. The kwazai took off immediately, leaving Ongzi behind.
Syr looked back over Acheron’s shoulder as they departed the scene, trusting that Demi was truthful about Ongzi’s condition but hoping he’d be all right regardless. It seemed as though the weezing was still under the deranics’ sway for the time being… but hopefully, hopefully, that wouldn’t be the case for much longer. Only once he was free would Ongzi well and truly be all right.
We’ll fight for you, Syr promised as he turned back toward their destination. I promise, we’ll fight for you. We won’t run.
I won’t run…
Chapter 13: Kindred Spirits
Jen hadn’t known what to expect ever since he’d found himself among the deoxys. Certainly he hadn’t expected to be served dinner. Or breakfast, or whatever it was. There was no telling time in a place like this.
But sure enough, there was a table raised in front of him and Babs, or rather what passed for a table. It was more of a pillar, really, quite a bit wider than it was tall, and made out of the same, metallic gray material as the surrounding walls and floor. In fact, it had literally grown up from the floor, fast and fluidly. He’d watched it happen. The odd sort of shifting-sand noise that had accompanied the process sounded in his mind once more as he remembered it.
“It’s almost like this place is alive,” he’d said to Babs after the table had formed. She’d agreed with him. He’d been kind of hoping she wouldn’t. Knowing that the two of them were apparently stuck in outer space was unsettling enough. The idea that they might furthermore be inside a living creature was even worse.
Sitting right in front of him, in a small indent in the table, were several pale green lumps of… something. Grown from the “ship”, if it could be called that, same as the table. The deoxys had told Babs that the food they had to offer was safe, carefully assembled on a molecular level to be compatible with each of their guests’ chemistry. They’d probably meant that to be assuring.
Babs had not managed to sound quite as assuring when she’d relayed that information to him. She didn’t seem to trust the food herself; there was none of it in front of her. The only thing filling her bowl (such as it was) was a generous helping of water—melted snow, which Jen had personally provided. The deoxys apparently had their own water to offer, but she’d declined that, as well. She cupped some more of it in her webbed hands as he watched, drinking some and deliberately spilling the rest over the top of her head.
He might have turned down the deoxys’ offerings, as well, except that he was feeling genuinely famished, as if he’d gone several days without eating anything at all—which, for all he knew, he had. Another part of him wondered if maybe this was some side effect of being used as a psychically-operated translator.
Either way, he didn’t feel as though he had the luxury of turning his figurative nose up at the food he’d been given. Hoping the deoxys were right about them being safe, and hoping his poison typing would protect him if they were wrong, he speared one of the strange, green nuggets on a single claw, froze it there, and delicately nipped off a piece.
His eyes widened. The green stuff was delicious.
“Babs?” he said once his mouth was clear. “Are you sure you don’t want to try any of this? It’s actually really, really good…”
The greninja was staring into the water. Without a sound, without looking up at him, she shook her head.
Maybe there was more than mistrust quelling her appetite.
Jen returned his sights to the food, but not his attention. He munched away at the nuggets, freezing and biting chunks off them on autopilot, all the while trying to decide exactly what he should say to help ease her mind.
He faced her again. “They said we’ll be home soon, right?”
Babs pulled in a long breath and let it hiss out her nostrils. “Yeah. They said that. And maybe they were telling the truth; who knows.” A hand disappeared into the folds of her tongue to prop her head up. “But hell, who knows what these guys consider ‘soon’?”
“I don’t even know how long we’ve been here,” Jen admitted.
“Same here. It feels like it’s been at least a day.” Her free hand clenched into a fist. It trembled, in rage or worry or both. “God, it could already be too late. Days too late.”
“Or maybe it’s not,” Jen said quietly. He couldn’t be sure either way, of course. All he knew for certain was that Ren had survived this far. The human had been living in the same house with Jen and Babs and their contamination for days before leaving Convergence, breathing air that might have carried the plague. Had lived for years and years prior to that, and who was to say that the metal tube had actually kept the virus out?
“Maybe he’s just immune,” the cryonide speculated aloud. “And maybe he’s not the only one.” A sentiment he hadn’t heard spoken aloud in a while, he realized. Not since the last time he’d visited the Hope Institute. A prickle of doubt made his eyelight stutter.
Just because he was lying about some things doesn’t mean he was lying about that, he told himself.
Babs took another drink. “He’d better be,” she said. “Nobody has the right to take him from us.”
There was another shifting noise then, as the material forming one of the walls (its flesh, Jen thought, at which he shivered) parted to create a doorway where none had been before. A deoxys hovered just beyond it. They seemed to beckon with their tentacles.
“We’re wanted for something,” Jen supposed.
Babs stood up. “This had better be good,” she told the new arrival, pointing at them for emphasis. She gave herself one last splash in the face, followed by a vigorous shake of her head and shoulders. “Come on,” she said to Jen as she began striding toward the doorway.
Jen started to follow, but paused at a faint, gnawing sensation in his stomach. With a flick of his hand, he skewered a couple more nuggets for the road, then hurried after her.
He sped through the red-and-green-veined halls, glad the post-puppeting dizziness had long since worn off; he doubted the deoxys’ offerings would taste as good coming back up. The deoxys eventually led them up a steep ramp, at which point he initially struggled a bit. He resorted to leaning forward and using his claws for added traction, hoping the surrounding vessel wouldn’t mind.
The ramp opened into a room barely larger than the one he and Babs had left but much, much busier. Deoxys of varying shapes and sizes lined the walls, all of their tentacles and some of their faces and chests buried in swathes of shimmering gray and panels of soft, glowing aquamarine. Others flitted back and forth across the room, some barely skimming the floor, some hovering higher overhead. They nimbly dodged around Jen, Babs, and their deoxys escort as they passed.
“All right,” Babs spoke up. “I’m going to assume we’re in here for a reason. Got something to show us? Or tell us, maybe? If it’s the latter, you know the drill. You run it by him first,” she told the deoxys firmly, gesturing toward Jen.
The escort fluttered the ends of their tentacles in a way that could’ve meant anything or nothing at all. They said something aloud, at which the rest of the deoxys cleared a space at the front of the room.
The wall there, formerly gray, darkened to black. A point of faintly blue light shone at its center. There was a shimmering of green in one corner, tiny symbols flashing by much too fast to have read even if Jen had known the language… and then the blue dot began growing. It began showing other colors: swirls and patches of white, strips and blotches of green and brown. Another, much smaller point of light appeared at its side as it grew.
Jen had realized what he was looking at before the image had finished zooming. He wasn’t entirely sure he could believe it. The same went for Babs, he imagined.
“I think they’re trying to tell us we’re almost there,” he said.
“Yeah,” Babs responded, her voice constricted. “I really hope you’re not jerking us around, deoxys,” she told their escort. “We’d better be close. And you had better be willing to send us back down there as soon as possible.”
As Jen stared at the dots in the darkness that represented home, he thought he saw a third point of light join them. Then he was certain he saw it. It was much smaller than the others. Dimmer. But not too dim for the eyes of a cave-dwelling predator.
“Wait…” he said, pointing a claw at the screen. “What is that?”
* * *
Darkness. The smell of dirt. For more than an hour now, Syr had known little else. He was underground, burrowing through the remaining time and space between his team and their goal. Damp earth parted before him as he corkscrewed through, packed tight along the sides by the ground-type power that propelled him.
It petered out once again, and he took the opportunity to rest and allow the others to catch up, same as he’d done in the wake of each preceding dig. Ren and Karo were trudging along behind him. It was Karo’s innate magnetic sense that kept them on course now. It was the psychic signature of many, many lifeforms that had shown them the way in the first place.
The five of them had followed that signal above ground for a time. They’d stopped and gone to ground upon seeing, and smelling, the vast cloud of smog that utterly blanketed their destination. The less of that Ren had to breathe, the better. There was only so much that his air filter could take.
The kwazai were stowed for the time being. It was better not to force Syr to dig a wider tunnel than was strictly necessary, Ren had figured aloud. Syr hadn’t argued, and still didn’t; the work was demanding enough as it was without the extra effort that would’ve been required to make room for very tall beings with bodies ill-suited to crawling.
He gave his head a shake, casting off mud and small stones; he heard them bounce harmlessly off the walls. He craned his neck back toward the others. “I think I could use a leppa.”
“Already got it out for you,” Ren said.
Syr nodded in recognition; he could taste the fruit on the air, even amidst the competing scents of soil and poorly-washed human. He doubled over on himself a little awkwardly, his tongue flitting repeatedly toward the leppa smell until it made contact with the firm, waxy skin. One more flick to lap it up, and then it was back to work.
“Oh hey. Hey!” Karo called out, barely any sooner than Syr had resumed digging.
The arbok stopped burrowing, shuddering as he lost the elemental charge. “What? What’s going on?”
“Some kind of magnetic field flared up outta nowhere up ahead,” Karo said.
“They know we’re coming,” Syr said. It was more an assumption than a suspicion, and one the entire party had shared before they’d even begun tunneling. If the deranics really were worms, it was easy to imagine that they were natural burrowers. It would surely occur to such creatures that something could approach from underground.
“Of course they do,” Ren said. There wasn’t any surprise in his voice, but there certainly was tension.
“Uh… it’s getting stronger,” Karo reported.
Ren spat out a curse. “Shield, now!”
The pressure engulfed Syr in an instant and let up just as fast. He drew back, muscles tensed, bracing for… something. What was Ren anticipating? Some sort of beam or pulse? A long, thin hiss passed through his fangs. If it was the weapon, maybe he’d be unharmed—or maybe not, at this range…
Seconds passed. Nothing happened, or so it seemed. “Karo?” Ren prompted.
“It’s keeping steady,” the nosepass said. “Guess it’s not building up to anything after all.”
“Hm.” Ren didn’t sound especially convinced. He let another few moments pass. “All right,” he said finally. “Bring it down. Syr? Let’s get moving again.”
Hoping they weren’t letting their guard down too soon, Syr crept forward once more and tested the wall with his snout. The moment he felt yielding earth instead of an impenetrable field, he called up another dig attack.
Just as he was beginning to wonder how much further they had to go, the tunnel opened quite suddenly into empty space. For the first time since he’d begun digging, he bothered to open his eyes, but found the cavern—or whatever it was—just as dark as the tunnel that had led to it. He sampled the air and found it much less stale-tasting than he’d have expected. There was a strange scent to it, reminiscent of a summer storm.
He pulled back into the tunnel. “Guys? I think we’re here.”
“Okay,” Ren said. “How much space is there? Enough for the twins?”
“I think so,” Syr replied. “I can make it bigger if need be.” Assuming all the walls were dirt and loose rocks, anyway. Reminding himself that there was someone just feet behind him who could shield him at a moment’s notice, he returned to the hole in the wall and let himself emerge into the open.
He reared up as high as he could and found no ceiling, stretched out as far as he could and found no walls in any direction but behind. “Oh yeah,” he said. “There’s room. I think this place is pretty big.”
Ren and Karo followed him out into the hollow. Lights flashed as the two kwazai were unleashed, and for a split second Syr caught a glimpse of something dark and metallic overhead. It seemed that they were directly underneath the deranics’ base.
“Light it up,” Ren said.
Syr felt a prickle of awareness that psychic energy was building nearby; out of the corner of his eye, he saw colorful light swelling around at least two of Demi’s hands. Psybeams burst forth, rainbow searchlights sweeping harmlessly over the walls—
—gone in a literal flash, as a much brighter light suddenly flooded the room.
Syr tried to shout, but something punched the air out of him the instant he opened his mouth. He heard Acheron snarling and Demi swearing as he caught his breath.
He realized he was unharmed at around the same time as the searing, pink blankness finally faded out from behind his closed eyes. With a groan, he shook the last of the haze out of his head and finally took in his surroundings.
The five of them were now in a vast, oblong space. The walls were brown-black, packed soil, which was dotted with gray and white stone. There were thick, metal pillars embedded in it; one of them stood less than a yard from the tunnel’s opening. A few more had been raised in the middle of the room, supporting the structure above.
Some twenty feet overhead, there curved the belly of an enormous, rust-red cylinder. It was dotted with floodlights that cast a warm, white glow over its metallic surface and the five beings who gazed up at it from below.
That was just the part that they could see. There was no telling how far the base extended beyond the earthen walls. No telling how much lay beneath the curtain of smog beyond the surface.
A wave of dizziness washed over Syr, and he realized he’d been forgetting to breathe for who knew how long. He gulped in air and felt it lodge in his throat. There it was: his destination, his mission, now literally hanging over his head, closer than ever before. Closer, and much more daunting.
A roaring sound rang out at his side. He flicked a gaze toward it and saw Acheron trying to burn a hole through the ceiling above. The dark-type energy spread out over its surface, forming rippling, violet-black circles that dissipated into nothing at their edges. The kwazai bared his teeth and snarled again, lifting another hand to redouble his efforts, to no avail.
He let the twin reflux beams die out. “Damn it,” he spat out between gasps.
“Shielded,” Ren muttered as he fished out another leppa berry for the kwazai. “Thought as much.”
“It’s got to give out eventually,” Demi figured aloud. “Whatever’s powering that has to have a finite source.”
So does our power, Syr thought uneasily as he watched Acheron wolf down the proffered berry. How many of those were left?
As another pair of reflux beams plowed into the invisible shield above, the floodlights dimmed somewhat. At first, Syr wondered if the deranics were already running out of power to keep the barrier up. He hoped that they were. But then another, different sort of light bloomed on the underside of the base: a single point of a slightly cooler hue.
Another sudden wave of pressure came and took his breath away; he recognized Karo’s block field this time. He braced for a possible attack again… but as before, none came. The new light merely cast a small, blue-white circle on the floor a short distance in front of them.
Then the light turned yellow, and it resolved into the shape of a worm.
The first thing that struck Syr was how small the being was. He’d been expecting something bigger somehow. Closer to his own size, if not larger. Instead he found himself looking upon a creature who couldn’t have attained eye level with him even if they’d stood on the end of their tail. They were dark yellow and scaleless, with a short, pointed snout and six bright pink eyes arranged in a ring around their head.
“Hello, arbok,” the deranic said in a somewhat high-pitched, slightly buzzing voice.
Syr didn’t respond, staring warily at them. His tongue flicked out, seeking the scent of the new arrival but finding nothing new. As he watched the deranic, they shimmered ever so slightly. Flickered a bit. He recognized the technology, though its name escaped him at the moment. The deranic was nothing but a projected image. They weren’t actually there.
“We weren’t expecting any of your people to come back,” the deranic went on. Speaking the language of the koffing and weezing, Syr realized then. “We… had hoped you wouldn’t. We don’t want there to be any more fighting.”
“No,” Ren spoke up. The tremor was back in his voice, the one Syr had come to recognize as anger rising to the surface. “No, wiping out the other side from a good, safe distance, giving them no chance to fight back… that’s more your style, isn’t it?”
“We didn’t want it to be,” the deranic said. Their tone didn’t change in the least; it was impossible to tell if they were truly remorseful. “But we have no choice. The enemy is powerful. And there are so few of us. The only way to destroy them is to surprise them.”
“They understand my language…” Ren noted, barely audible.
“You’re not destroying a damn thing from here on out,” Demi said, taking a step forward; despite the fact that they weren’t actually anywhere near her, the deranic squirmed back a bit. “You’ve done more than enough.”
The deranic’s head tilted ever so slightly to their left. A pair of voices spoke quietly, their owner somewhere out of sight, but Syr knew without a doubt what they belonged to: a weezing, repeating Demi’s words in their own language. An interpreter for a being who apparently only understood some pokémon, not all.
“Sadly… we have not,” the deranic responded once the weezing fell silent. “Many more must die.” Dark membranes slid over all six eyes in unison. “Very many… including all of my people.”
“Well, congrats,” Karo said. “You’re officially nuts.”
Syr couldn’t help but agree. It was hard to imagine why they had destroyed humanity. Hard to imagine why they were apparently bent on destroying even more of the world’s peoples. But why, he wondered, would they want to destroy themselves in the process?
“There is no other way,” the deranic insisted. “No other chance. Soon, they will come here. We must make sure they won’t leave. We will die. Many will die. But so will they. It’s a terrible, terrible thing… but it’s what’s right. This world will die, but many, many more will live because of this sacrifice.”
Syr shook his head. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “How is killing an entire world’s worth of innocent people supposed to save anyone? You’re talking about… about other worlds? We aren’t like you. We can’t even reach any other planet.”
“No,” the deranic said, with no need for translation by the weezing this time. “No, you don’t understand. You are not the threat. You are not the ones who destroyed our people. The ones who destroyed the human people.”
The rest of what the deranic had said finally reached Syr, finally made it past the promises of widespread death and destruction and slotted into place. “Soon, they will come here.”
Was there someone else in the picture? Someone else who killed from afar, who had yet to arrive in person?
“Humans were killed by someone else. By enemies of the deranics,” said a pair of voices in his memory.
“Don’t trust them,” said another.
“You are expecting a hell of a lot from us, deranic,” Ren said. His voice was quieter now, but still shaking with rage. “Here you are, asking us to believe in an enemy you can’t provide a scrap of evidence for. Expecting us to trust you, when at the very least you have certainly killed dozens if not hundreds of helpless pokémon. Expecting us to be all right with the fact that you’ve decided to sacrifice us all without giving us a say in the matter.”
The deranic was silent for a moment. “Some of the koffing here think you’re in disguise. We had hoped not, but…” Again the deranic closed their eyes, in their peculiar fashion. “Maybe if you really were human, you would understand. We would be the same. The last of our kind. Survivors of the same enemy, wishing for an end to their evil.”
“We are not the same,” Ren said. “Acheron?”
The kwazai nodded, acknowledging the implied command. He looked toward the projected image. “See you soon, worm,” he said, then went back to trying to burn through the ceiling.
The weezing spoke again. The deranic responded with a sound that might’ve been a sigh. “So it is,” they said, then vanished.
The shield didn’t hold out much longer. Dropped on purpose, perhaps, which stoked Syr’s unease further. Were they being admitted into a trap?
With a loud sizzling, the black beams finally broke through the metal barrier above them. Acheron let his arms drop to his sides for a short time, his shoulders heaving as he caught his breath. He extended an open, trembling hand toward Ren, closing it soon after on another berry, another max potion.
“Up here, sis,” Acheron said once he’d rejuvenated himself, at which Demi leapt and vaulted herself up onto his shoulders with her large upper hands. As he held her steady, she reached up, seized the irregular edges of the hole he’d made, and ripped it open wide enough to make a usable entrance.
With a grunt, she hoisted herself in. One by one, Acheron began lifting the rest of the party up to her waiting arms. As Syr’s turn came up, he wondered if the kwazai could feel his heart hammering away. This was it. Soon, very soon, this would all be over—one way or another.
Chapter 14: Seterhath Zulo-Denvenda
If Syr hadn’t known better, he might’ve sworn the deranic base was abandoned.
There were others here, besides himself and Ren and the latter’s team. Many others. But not a soul among them was anywhere to be seen. They’d all apparently drawn inward, away from the hole Acheron and Demi had ripped out of the wall.
Unluckily for the deranics, and quite fortunately for their enslaved pokémon, they couldn’t hide from the senses of the invaders. Syr and the rest of his party were moving toward them now, guided by the twins’ psychic abilities and the slowly building alien scent in the air. Every time Syr’s tongue darted out, he tasted that scent just a little bit more.
He slithered along the cool metal floor, occasionally passing over narrow tubes that crossed his path. More like them lined the rust-colored walls and spanned the space overhead, forcing him to duck from time to time. He could only imagine what a nuisance they were for the larger pokémon among them to pick their way through.
Things were quiet, for now. It might have been an opportunity to breathe, to collect himself for whatever was next, but he couldn’t take advantage of it. Couldn’t trust it. No one was getting in their way yet. The base had shown nothing in the way of defenses, not since the force field that had tried and failed to keep them out. The air was clean, breathable. The temperature was mild; the lighting, soft. Under other circumstances, it might have all seemed pleasant.
Under these, it felt like a trap.
But we have to keep going, he kept telling himself. After coming this far, after all he’d said and done, he could see no other course of action. None that didn’t make him sick to his stomach with guilt, at least.
Something hissed in the unseen space above him.
Syr froze. The human at his side and the kwazai at his head and tail did likewise, in imperfect unison. Karo was sent back out into their midst in a flash, materializing in a clear stretch of flooring somewhere ahead.
He felt Acheron push him forward, herding him and Ren closer to the nosepass. The press of a block field came and went just in time for dark, dirty-green clouds to billow into the halls. The gas swirled against the invisible barrier, too thick to penetrate it. He could still smell it, but only very faintly.
“There’s no one here,” Demi noted. “Nobody at all for… another thirty yards or so.”
“There doesn’t need to be,” Ren figured. “They could’ve collected the gas ahead of time, saved it to try and smoke out intruders while the koffing and weezing stay somewhere else.”
“Guarding the weapon?” Syr wondered aloud.
“Or getting ready to power it again,” Acheron said grimly.
“Pick him up, Demi,” Ren said. “We need to get moving again.”
The moment the nosepass’s feet left the floor, the party proceeded toward the unseen signs of life. The going was slower than Syr liked despite his unrelenting trepidation, owing to the still-cluttered passageway and the fact that they now had less time to react to its obstacles, what with the koffing exhaust forming an impenetrable smokescreen outside their protective bubble and everything going dark in the spaces between the fluorescent lamps.
“Bogeys,” Acheron announced before long. “Just a couple. Staying put.”
And continuing to stay put, it seemed, even as the party approached. Exactly what they were, Syr could only guess; at the moment, it was hard to smell or taste anything other than the occupants of the block field and a hint of the smog outside. Maybe koffing or weezing, with their usual compliment of combat abilities—at the very least. Maybe deranics themselves, and who knew how they might be armed.
Whoever it was, if they thought they were about to spring a successful ambush, they were probably mistaken. He clung to that thought in the hopes of steadying himself, bracing for a fight.
His fangs flexed and his hood flared to its widest at a rushing sound just up ahead. There was barely a moment’s delay before Demi lunged forward toward it; Syr lunged after her, his figurative hand forced by the kwazai and the block field behind him. The curtain of exhaust parted around them, revealing a room that looked barely big enough to accommodate the lot of them and two small, yellow figures huddled against the wall.
Another rushing noise sounded—a quick glance back told Syr that a door had shut behind them. His gaze snapped forward just as quickly and saw that Demi had lifted both of the deranics up to her eye level. Her upper hands were holding their heads up,while her lower hands supported the rest of their bodies. The color was rapidly draining from their faces, their pink eyes bulging.
“Drop the field for now,” Ren told Karo. The nosepass was now standing at Demi’s side, peering up at the deranics. “Be ready to pull it back up, but let yourself recharge for now.”
There was a whirring sound from above. The wisps of smog that had entered the room ahead of the party disappeared, sucked away by vents near the ceiling. The air now tasted even cleaner than it had above ground. Syr sucked it in gratefully, only now realizing just how stale the air had gotten inside that force field. Karo must have reinforced it, he supposed, and hoped that the nosepass hadn’t overexerted himself.
Ren stepped forward, toward the captive deranics; Demi shifted to allow him a more unobstructed view of them. His shoulders rose with a breath that escaped his mask with an almost mechanical hiss. “You two. Can you understand me?”
The deranics could do nothing but shake at first. Their plain fear only made them seem even smaller than they were; Syr was helplessly reminded of the ekans hatchlings back in Mauville.
The one to the left regained their composure at first, or at least part of it. “I… I can,” they said, and they said it in Ren’s language. “Zaltaphi never really cared much about human studies. But I…” Their black tongue flicked out for a moment. “Sorry. I am Kiat.”
“You opened the door for us,” Ren said. “You let us in. Why?”
Good question… Syr thought, eyeing the deranics warily. The feeling that this could all be a trap grew even stronger.
“We need to talk,” Kiat said. “We need your help. The captain’s going to kill us all… it’s madness. They must be stopped, but we can’t do it alone. We need you.”
Ren considered that in silence for a moment. “What you need,” he then said, “is to tell us where it is. The weapon. Seterhath Zulo-Denvenda.”
Both deranics’ eye membranes gave a rapid fluttering at those last words. Zaltaphi hissed something to Kiat in what Syr could only assume was their own language.
“What…” Kiat said, with what might’ve been confusion in their tone. “We can guide you to the weapon, yes, but… Seterhath has been dead for a very long time, long before we came here.”
Now it was Syr’s turn to be perplexed. He’d figured—they all had—that the name Faurur had told him before she’d died was that of the weapon itself. But in hindsight, she’d never actually said that was what it was. Something big done to the world… that was all she’d known about it. All she’d gathered about what it meant. The rest was merely an assumption on their part, the result of the way they’d put the pieces together since the attack on the forest. What if they’d been wrong?
What else might they have been wrong about?
Syr shivered. Don’t trust them, he reminded himself. She warned you. She warned you.
“Seterhath…” Kiat went on. “They were the one who discovered this world. The one who brought knowledge of your people to ours. The truth is that…” Their tongue gave another nervous flick.
“What, Kiat. The truth is what?” Ren demanded.
Kiat’s dark eyelids slid shut. “No… you deserve to know.” They met his gaze again. “The ones who destroyed your people were the same ones who destroyed ours. They learned of this world through our broadcasts. If it weren’t for Seterhath… they might never have found you.”
“More talk about the ‘real’ killers,” Acheron muttered. “More talk, and no proof.”
“None,” Ren agreed. To Kiat, “For all we know, this ‘enemy’ we supposedly share doesn’t exist,” he said. “Maybe you’re not the last of your kind. Maybe you’re just here to finish the job—a job started, deliberately, by deranics. We have no reason to trust you.”
“We know,” Kiat said. “I wouldn’t, either, if I were you. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you destroy the weapon. The killers will come to this world soon, looking for survivors of their plague. The captain will fire the weapon at full power when they arrive. It may kill the enemy—but it will kill all of us as well.
“The rest of us see it as atonement—that we should give our lives to stop the ones who murdered humanity, since it was because of us that the killers found you. They think it’s worth sacrificing what’s left of this world if it will save countless more. But we’re the last of our kind. Please… give our people a chance to survive.”
“Tell us where the weapon is,” Ren said. “Make no mistake: we will find it regardless. But if you show us the way, we stand a better chance of finding it in time. And if you tell us the truth…” He gave an encompassing wave across the small room, indicating all of the pokémon who were on his side. “We’re a lot likelier to show you mercy afterward.”
Kiat shuddered, insofar as they could in Demi’s grasp. “Of course,” they said, “of course. But… we can bring up a map for you. It would be easier, faster to show you the way than it would to try and explain it.”
Their tongue came out again, and the end of it unraveled into four branches, which gestured toward the right side of the room. The appendage withdrew; then, “There,” Kiat said. “The console is there. If you would let… no. No, why would you let us go…”
“We wouldn’t,” Demi said, but turned to face the console as she spoke. She bent forward and lowered her hands toward an array of buttons and recessed spots on the wall.
“Can either of you reach it?” Ren asked.
“Yes,” Kiat responded, and said something to Zaltaphi. The other deranic extended their tongue, whose branches immediately went to work, nimbly prodding at the console.
“Bear in mind,” Ren said, “that if you do anything other than call up that map, you’ll be wasting your time, and she’ll be squeezing the life out of you.”
Kiat didn’t respond, though they could have. Too frightened, perhaps. They were right to be, at least where their own life was concerned—the kwazai had left the koffing and weezing alive thus far, but Syr doubted they would extend the same mercy to deranics, especially when there was still a chance that they were, in fact, the engineers of the Extinction.
Whether the rest of the deranics really had anything to fear, what with their still-uncounted hordes of servants and their weapon of mass destruction… that, Syr couldn’t say.
The lights dimmed to near-darkness. A new light source flared to life overhead, and a moment later, a three-dimensional image sat in the middle of the room. Realizing he was in the midst of it, distorting part of it, Syr backed up out of the way; Karo and Acheron had to do likewise.
Barring Demi and her two captives, they were now all looking at part of the base’s interior in miniature. Before their eyes, a glowing yellow line traveled from one part of it to another. The line vanished, then repeated its previous animation, again and again.
“There,” Kiat said. “This route leads directly to the room containing the weapon.”
Ren’s eyes traced the golden line, his brow knitted. “What about security? What can we expect on arrival?”
“Some of our people are there at all times. They will be armed.”
“Armed with what, exactly?” Ren asked.
“Dart launchers,” Kiat answered. “Potentially lethal, if you’re hit by enough of them.” They made a soft hissing noise that might have been a sigh. “I would hope that you wouldn’t use lethal force yourselves… there are so few of us left. But… do what you must.”
“Oh, we’re gonna,” Karo promised. His nose emitted a few stray sparks; both deranics visibly flinched at the display.
“What about the koffing?” Syr asked uneasily. “There’ll be some of them guarding the weapon, right?” Part of him hoped there wouldn’t be, though he knew better than to expect that kind of luck. They’d be there, or they’d be en route, or both. As long as they remained under the deranics’ sway, he’d probably have to fight them. And if it came down to it… if some of them had to fall to save the rest…
Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.
Kiat didn’t respond to Syr’s question; they, unlike the deranic outside, apparently didn’t understand his language.
Ren, it seemed, had arrived at the same conclusion. “They’ll send in koffing and weezing against us, I assume,” he said.
“Some of them,” Kiat said. “They won’t want to risk too many. The weapon has enough elemental energy in reserve to fire at full power with some docks unoccupied, but only some. Only a few. But if you can disable the system controlling them, they will be confused. And if they see your arbok, they may not be willing to fight you any longer.”
Syr’s heart might have leapt at the prospect, but he didn’t quite dare to believe it. It had been more than a decade since he’d fled the area, and Faurur’s colony had greatly increased its numbers since then. How many of them would actually know who he was? How many of those who’d remember him were still alive?
“And how do we go about doing that?” Ren asked. “Where do we go?”
Kiat relayed more instructions to Zaltaphi. A few nimble tongue-darts later, the yellow line on the map began holding steady. A blue dot appeared at a point roughly two thirds of the way along its length and began pulsing gently.
“The transmitter is there,” Kiat said. “It will be behind the wall, in a room that only deranics can access… normally.”
Karo gave a chuckle. “Yeah, we’ll be able to access that thing just fine.”
“One last thing,” Ren said. He turned to face the two deranics once more, though Demi still partly blocked the view of them. “How would we identify your captain?”
“By scent… But none of you are familiar with their scent.”
“Are you?” Ren asked.
“...Yes,” Kiat answered.
“Then you’re coming with us,” Ren said.
Kiat made an alarmed-sounding noise and might have been about to protest. “…Of course,” they said instead. “But the smoke outside—”
“Isn’t an issue. Karo? Put a block on the door.”
“Got it,” Karo said. “Aaaaand blocked,” he reported a beat later.
“Open it,” Ren said to Kiat.
Kiat repeated the order in their own language. The door slid open once more, but none of the swirling murk outside encroached upon the room this time.
“And now just bubble it out, right?” Karo asked.
“Right,” Ren said, then drew closer to the nosepass. “Same formation as before,” he told everyone, “only Acheron carries Karo this time.”
Demi adjusted her hold on the deranics, allowing them to drape their tails across her shoulders so as to free her lower hands. “Try to choke me and you’ll get the fangs,” she warned them. “And I’ll scramble your brains while I’m at it.”
“She will, too,” Acheron said.
Shivering, Zaltaphi whispered something to Kiat. The latter responded in kind, punctuating the statement with a flick of their tongue. Zaltaphi seemed to calm at this, but only slightly.
Demi stepped past Karo, out into the clean pocket of air he’d created for them. The party resumed their single file procession through the darkened halls, now with a pair of possible allies.
Syr looked up at the lithe, yellow forms slung over Demi’s shoulders like bizarre scarves, trying to figure out to what extent he trusted them. The answer seemed to be more than none, which bothered him, setting a prickling discomfort at the base of his skull. They seemed reasonable, helpful—or at least, Kiat did—but they’d been kind and helpful toward Faurur, too.
And yet… nothing they were saying conflicted with what they’d learned about this place and its purpose from other sources. The deranic outside had made no bones about the fact that they intended a strike against their enemy that would cost countless other lives in the process, the deranics’ own included. Ongzi had said that the weapon was intended for the arrival of the deranics’ enemies, as well.
And was it really unreasonable to think that the deranics wouldn’t all be of one mind? That someone among them would see their plan for the lunacy it was?
Kiat and Zaltaphi had shown them the way to the deranics’ precious weapon. They’d even shown them the way to free the koffing and weezing from deranic control.
Were they earnestly aiding Syr and the others toward their goals? Or were they just telling the party what they thought they wanted to hear?
Chapter 15: Extraction
“Left at the next junction,” Kiat called out over the sound of several heavy bodies making their way through metal-floored halls. “Then left again, and up the ramp and to the right.”
It was, perhaps, fortunate that they all had Kiat there to remind them of the course to take. Syr didn’t trust his own memory of the map he’d been shown, of the glowing line that had illustrated the way to the weapon. There was simply too much on his mind to keep that picture clear. Had it been entirely up to him to get where they were going, they’d have been lost.
He hoped that one of the others recalled the route better than he did. If so, they’d be able to call Kiat out on any contradictions. If not… in that case, all they could do was hope these two deranics really were on their side and not trying to lead them off course.
The smog filling the halls had begun thinning shortly after he and his party had headed further into the deranic base with Kiat and Zaltaphi in tow. By this point, the air was clear once more. Maybe the deranics had actually run out of the toxic smoke, Syr had considered, though he’d been reluctant to get his hopes up on the matter. Or maybe there was equipment housed in the deeper reaches of the base that would be harmed by it.
Either way, Karo had dropped the block field, allowing them all to move faster and breathe fresher air. Syr was grateful, in a vicarious way, that the nosepass was getting a chance to rest the part of himself that was responsible for that technique. Karo would probably have to raise that shield many times more before all was said and done, and the party was down to their last couple of leppas.
Down a long corridor. Around a bend, and then another soon after. Another long, straight path opened up before them, with a well-lit ramp extending up out of sight.
“Incoming!” Demi shouted, briefly giving off a lime green glow as she activated a safeguard.
She was already running ahead as she spoke, forcing Kiat and Zaltaphi to hug her shoulders all the tighter to avoid being shaken off. Syr hastened to catch up with her, ignoring the way the narrow tubes running across the floor bumped harshly into his belly as he rushed over them.
A foul smell filled the air as they drew closer to the ramp. Dirty green smoke came rolling down from the floor above, swirling wildly as bodies pushed through it. Demi fired twin psybeams into the cloud, and a pair of koffing dropped heavily to the floor. A reflux tore through the air overhead and took down another, which rolled to a stop at Demi’s feet, looking half-charred.
“Keep moving!” Ren shouted.
Demi pressed on, blasting anyone who got in her way. Syr followed, holding his breath as he wound his way alongside Karo, anxious to get past the koffing Acheron had struck. He bumped face-first into something as he reached the top of the ramp and almost reflexively extended his fangs in a bite attack. They met tough, leathery hide and an acrid flavor. With a sharp jerk of his head, he flung the koffing away, hearing them collide with an unseen wall.
Two more beams of rainbow light seared past, and he found himself stumbling over one of their victims. As he rolled onto his side, he saw the smog beginning to clear again, fanned off behind them by Acheron’s large hands. He blew out a stale breath and sucked in the clean air gratefully, hearing some of the others doing likewise.
Syr looked ahead and behind for more assailants. He could just make out several koffing strewn at the foot of the ramp, none of which were moving—or burning, he noted with gratitude. All alive, and none in any fit state to harass them further anytime soon.
Moments passed, and no one else approached them from any direction. But he doubted the reprieve would last forever. This hadn’t been the first time they’d been accosted by the deranics’ servants since they’d set off to destroy the very thing that was controlling them. He doubted it would be the last.
“The transmitter,” he said, half-panting. “We’ve gotta get there…” The sooner they could get through to the koffing and weezing, the fewer they might have to fight. And the fewer they had to take down—the fewer chances for them to fall and never get up, bursting into flames where they lay—the better.
“We’ll get there,” Demi said.
“At this rate, we’ll reach it soon,” Kiat informed everyone.
The news might’ve been more comforting, coming from someone Syr trusted a little more. “Can anyone confirm that?” he asked.
“Yes,” Acheron said.
“Good,” Syr said, “that’s good…” And, unspoken, Thank you.
Still, when Kiat finally indicated that they should stop, it didn’t feel soon enough for Syr’s liking. Every moment in which the koffing and weezing were still under deranic control was a moment too long, a moment added to more than a decade’s worth.
“It’s there,” Kiat said, nodding toward the wall to their left. There was no door there, at least not of any sort that most of them could use. The only way in—or the only intended way—was beyond a circular hatch less than a foot wide, which was set in the wall near floor level and accessible via a tube too narrow for Ren and the pokémon to pass through.
Acheron lifted a hand that was surrounded by the telltale swirl of a reflux beam in the making. Syr expected this wall to give them as much trouble as the one outside had done, only to find the metal blackening before his eyes within seconds of the black beam hitting home.
The kwazai cut the attack as short he could. The moment he had, his sister lunged for the wall and tore it open. Shaking metal flakes from her hands, she stepped aside slightly, revealing a small space with a narrow steel cone at its center. There were three luminous bands near the pointed end, all glowing a cool shade of blue.
“Is it shielded?” Ren asked.
“Ordinarily,” Kiat said. “But you depleted the power allotted to the shields when you broke in. If they haven’t managed to build it back up yet, the transmitter will be exposed.”
“Ren? Let me try something,” Syr said. Maybe I can spare Acheron a reflux.
Seeming to cotton on, the human stepped out of his way. Syr let an acid attack well up inside him, then ducked his head and spat the dark fluid out at the transmitter. There was a hissing sound as it struck, and he thought he could see tiny bubbles fizzing on its surface. He was certain that he smelled the dissolving metal.
“Looks exposed to me,” Demi said.
“I got this one,” Karo said. “Put me down and give me some space.” Once Acheron complied, the nosepass backed up to the wall opposite the transmitter. Then he rammed himself directly into the small space, meeting the cone nose-first with a loud crashing sound.
He backed out of the hole in the wall. The transmitter was snapped almost cleanly in half and no longer emitting light.
“So that’s step one dealt with, then?” Demi said.
“Yes,” Kiat responded. “The signal will have stopped. It may now be possible to—”
A long, high-pitched note rang out.
“Now they sound the alarm,” Karo remarked.
“No...” Kiat breathed.
The siren dwindled, only to fade again. Down, up. Down, up. The lights, already rather soft, dimmed further.
“It’s happening,” Kiat said. “It’s happening!”
“Oh God, no, no…” Was there time to get to the weapon? Was there time to destroy it, or at least disable it? Syr couldn’t believe there was. Couldn’t think straight all of a sudden. He threw a wild, pleading glance around; it was met by a surge of red light. The sensation of strong arms hoisting him up by the middle followed, and their owner went hurtling forward.
The thundering footsteps rattled in Syr’s skull, stoking a headache that pounded in time with his heart. They reached the next ramp as the siren faded once more, and this time it didn’t sound again. This time, a soft and vaguely familiar voice filled the air, a deranic voice speaking deranic words.
“They’re killing us,” Kiat said, all but sobbing now. Zaltaphi really was sobbing, unable to speak at all through hitching breaths. “They’re killing us all...”
All the while, the twins never stopped for even an instant. They ran faster, harder than Syr had ever seen them go, panting like wild beasts as they fought to close the remaining distance. He felt Acheron’s heart hammering so hard he thought it might explode against his head.
“My children,” the voice over the loudspeakers said, in the language of the koffing and weezing this time, “we are in terrible danger. Our psychic enemies have come at last. They are attacking our minds… but we are strong. You are strong. You have served us so well. Together, we have the power to save us all.
“The earth will open up to you. Come down and go into the nest below. There is a place within it for each of you. Together, we will be free of their evil forever.”
“They won’t listen,” Syr said, desperately hoping it to be true. The transmitter was destroyed—but was that really enough? Would the deranics’ words break through the confusion and sway them even without the signal to control them?
“We can’t count on that,” Ren said from a short distance ahead. His voice was brittle, shaking. He sounded like he might be in tears.
Syr was crying at that point. Demi and her deranic and human cargo were a blue blur ahead of him. Syr blinked rapidly, shaking his head and swallowing his tears to the best of his ability. His vision cleared just as the kwazai staggered to a halt before a wall in their path. Numerous tubes snaked into this one; he saw a couple of deranics rush through them into the unseen room beyond.
His stomach dropped as Acheron fell to his knees. Syr tumbled out of his long arms and onto the floor, rolling to a stop next to Ren and the two deranics. The human was back on his own feet, scrambling to get the supplies that the twins needed out of a pack that was nearly empty at this point.
Once treated, Acheron rose again. His sister stepped away from the wall, no longer needing its support. Both were still trembling, however, if only very slightly—they were afraid, Syr realized. As powerful as they were, they were still afraid.
Of course they were. Of course, when for all anyone knew they were already too late. The weapon could be powering up right now, could fire any second—
Dark energy cut through the air and his train of thought in one roaring instant: a pair of reflux beams merged into one, burning the barrier to pitch blackness in seconds. No longer held back by her passengers, Demi turned a pair of shoulders to the darkened metal and rammed into the wall and the now-crumbling tubes alongside her brother as both kwazai put up their safeguards.
And then… there it was. Resembling nothing so much as an enormous berry or seedpod, the weapon loomed beneath a ceiling open to the dark, toxic clouds above. The dark gases seeped into the space below, only to be caught by powerful vents just inside and sucked out of sight. From outside, in tens and dozens, koffing and weezing were falling into the room, hurriedly taking their places in the pits that marred the weapon’s metal skin.
Still listening to the deranics. Still obeying their instructions. There just hadn’t been enough time to get through to them before all hell broke loose.
Syr could only hope now that there would be time later.
Colorful light strobed across the weapon’s surface as Demi leapt forward, firing psybeams from all four hands. She ran in a circle around it, dodging bursts of darts from the deranics’ chest-mounted launchers and jets of sludge from the koffing and weezing to the best of her ability as she poured the mind-addling energy into their ranks and the weapon’s occupants alike. Acheron and Syr kept on the move, as well, the former concentrating his fire upon the vast seedpod itself, the latter just desperately trying to hit whatever he could in the midst of all the flying attacks.
The arbok flung himself out of the way of another volley, clenching his jaws tight to keep the acid attack he was gathering inside himself from bursting out prematurely. He righted himself and let the corrosive fluid erupt from his throat, splattering a deranic and earning a horrible, piercing scream in return.
Syr dove and lunged across his own tail as another of the deranics retaliated. He saw Karo near the door, free from the ball, while Ren, Kiat, and Zaltaphi huddled close to him. There were three deranics in front of them, firing darts in vain against a block field.
He rushed toward their assailants while the trio’s backs were turned and began peppering them with poison sting shots. One of them took the brunt of it and went down at once, wailing in pain, but the other two swiftly turned toward their attacker, only to hit the floor in a daze as Demi rushed past and caught them both with a single, sweeping psybeam.
Meanwhile Karo took advantage of the moment and charged up a zap cannon. He dropped the block field just long enough to let the electric orb fly into the ring of consoles surrounding the weapon—
—only for it to sizzle harmlessly against a force field.
“No!” Syr cried hoarsely. The shields were back up. His eyes darted toward the weapon and found Acheron’s dark blasts being foiled in the exact same way as Karo’s attack had been.
There was a jabbing pain at Syr’s side, at which he yelped and automatically lashed his tail in the likely direction of his assailant, feeling it smack hard into something small. He looked and saw a deranic lying on the floor several feet away.
A roar of frustration seized his attention. Acheron was pouring everything he had into the weapon’s shield, even as his legs buckled beneath him. Syr followed suit, spraying burst after burst of needles charged with poison-type energy. He heard another zap cannon launch and explode against the barrier.
It had to come down Had to. The holes dotting the seedpod were filling with light, every single one, regardless of whether or not their occupants were still conscious. The weapon was beginning to hum loudly as it slowly rose toward the open ceiling.
He thought he heard Ren cry out, but there was too much noise to be sure. A moment later, “Fall back!” Karo shouted, his much louder voice overcoming the din. “Over here, over here!”
The arbok complied immediately. Demi strode alongside him, supporting a shaking Acheron. Both had several darts stuck in their skin like burs; Syr could only hope that their safeguards would protect them from whatever poisons might have been injected, just as he could only hope his typing would protect him from the pair of darts he’d caught himself.
He wrapped his body around Karo and the three people the nosepass was already guarding, having to make a conscious effort not to squeeze too tightly in his terror. “Bring it up, bring it up!” he begged Karo as the two kwazai joined them. Maybe… maybe the field could protect them. It was too much to hope, had to be. Too much to ask of Karo. But it felt like all he had left at this point.
Something flew through the air and struck the floor in front of him. It split open, releasing a specter made of lightless white fire with a burst of sparks like tiny, golden stars.
Syr stared at the creature with wide eyes. No…
The instant the nullshade was free, they let loose a dull gray shockwave. It didn’t touch Syr or the rest of his party—Karo had raised the block field again—but it knocked down the pack of approaching deranics, leaving them motionless on the floor. The nullshade then threw a confused glance about for a fleeting moment before their empty black eyes fell upon Ren.
“You!” they cried, their face contorted with hatred. A gray beam exploded from their hand into the force field and lingered there. The nullshade’s attack hissed and whined against it, and for a terrifying moment Syr thought he could feel some sort of burning energy beginning to seep in.
Then it cut off abruptly, while the nullshade cried out in pain. They turned in an instant to face their assailant; Syr followed their line of sight and saw that a weezing had broken free from the weapon, both mouths dripping with sludge.
With a scream of rage, the nullshade retaliated. Syr involuntarily averted his gaze, his eyes streaming with tears as he screwed them shut. The nullshade might actually have the power to bring down the shield and destroy that weapon… but they might very well destroy most if not all of Faurur’s people in the process.
Please, please don’t kill them all, please…
Shouts and cries and roars of pain and anguish filled the air. Something exploded on the far side of the room, followed by something else, all too near. There was a sizzling sound, followed by a heavy crash just inches away that made Syr scream and fall back against a sweat-drenched kwazai.
“Hey, it’s working!” Karo shouted. “They’re destroying that thing!”
With a monumental effort, Syr forced himself to open his eyes, to try and confirm that at least some part of their mission wasn’t going wrong. Through the tears and the smoke, it was hard to see anything at all apart from the occasional burst of light as another piece of equipment fell victim to the enraged specter and the hordes of koffing and weezing now fighting for their lives.
Then another light, soft and seafoam green, swelled into his vision.
“What…” The light, Syr realized with confusion, was coming from himself. Everyone else within Karo’s block field was emitting that glow, as well. “What’s happening now?”
“It…” Demi began, sounding winded. “It feels like we’re—”
Everything went green. There was a split-second of deafening noise, followed by dead silence and darkness and the sensation of being nowhere and nothing at all.
A very shrill tone broke the silence, stabbing deep into ears that felt like they were stuffed with cotton. The darkness gave way to a dull red glow. It was then that Syr dared to believe that he still existed.
Groaning in pain, he opened his eyes. The residual light from the bright flash drained out, and he realized immediately that he’d been transported somewhere else. He, along with Ren, the gym leader’s pokémon, and the two deranics, were now in a much larger space, whose gray walls were studded with bright, luminous, green and purple crystals. There was no sign of the koffing and weezing, no deranics apart from Kiat and Zaltaphi.
There was, however, a large crowd composed of strange, red-and-green, almost humanoid-looking beings surveying Syr and the others from all sides.
Chapter 16: As Below, So Above
There was something strange in orbit over the world Babs and Jen called home. Something that most definitely did not belong there.
It had looked for all the world like a meteor of some sort, a big lump of rock hanging over the planet. But it had simply popped into existence in a way that ordinary celestial objects didn’t.
Babs had called for the deoxys to stop the thing at once. Whether natural or not, its size alone gave it the potential to wreak terrible destruction simply by falling out of orbit. The deoxys had appeared to do nothing at all in response to her demands apart from speaking in their incomprehensible manner, even as Jen had raised his own pleas and Babs had conjured her dark blades.
Then one of the deoxys had seized Jen, completely without warning, and had used him to tell her that they believed the meteor to be another vessel of their own kind.
“We are trying to communicate with them,” Jen’s puppeteer had said. “We have yet to receive a response.”
The deoxys had kept trying, allowing some time between attempts for an answer to make it through the dimensional shortcut they used to carry their messages. At first Babs had thought they were wasting their time, that the craft—if that was what it actually was—was dead in the water, so to speak. But then it had undergone a dramatic transformation. It had expanded, its shell breaking free in a burst of tiny, shattered stone fragments, and taken on a polyhedral shape. Countless tentacles had sprouted from its red-and-gray surface, waving languidly in the airless void.
Once transformed, the thing had moved. Almost too fast for her eyes to track, it had crossed half a continent, coming to an unnaturally clean stop over a landmass whose shape looked worryingly familiar, even with the view zoomed out.
It had stopped, and then it had opened fire.
A spear of white-hot light. And then another. A third. A fourth. And by this point Babs was sure, sickeningly sure, that the meteor was indeed a ship, its every action fully intentional, and that it had just rained death over part of southwestern Hoenn.
Babs hadn’t gone with her trainer, all those days ago. But she’d been there when he and the rest of his team had plotted their course. She’d known where they were headed. And now she had just seen that area blasted into a deep, dark crater.
She screamed in anguish and frustration. The deoxys around her could have stopped this. Surely they could have stopped it. Why had they wasted their time trying to talk to the thing? Her dark blades reformed in an instant and slashed through the viewscreen, spraying her with dark fluid as it tore like the flesh it was.
No sooner than she’d destroyed the screen, dome-headed deoxys rose from the floor, their broad arms ensnaring her, regenerating faster than she could cut them away. They pulled her down, pinned flat on her back with her limbs and tongue restrained. Another, heavier body hit the deck at her side; she couldn’t turn her head, but she could just make out the form of Jen lying there, no longer surrounded by the blue light that indicated deoxys control.
Then everything gave a monstrous lurch, and for what might have been a single moment or a million on end, nothing her eyes showed her made any sense at all. She then recognized the ceiling above her, same as it had been—but also the many floors above, and an even greater number below her.
Every deoxys occupying the vessel that carried her.
Herself, and Jen, and every last nerve and vein and fiber of muscle that comprised them.
The core of the ship, of a vast deoxys looking every bit as much like an ordinary meteor as the craft on the screen had looked, and the very thoughts and processes darting through it in tiny arcs and flashes.
Too much. All too much. Her own mind went dark, beaten down under the waves of information by their sheer volume.
Eventually she became aware of something touching her face. Propping her up. The off-white lighting of the room she’d last seen on the other side of the rift pressed into her eyes. A groan escaped her, while choking, retching noises sounded at her side.
“Oh gods,” Jen sputtered once he was done being sick, “what… what just…?”
“I don’t…” Her brain was still putting itself back together, it seemed. She shook her head. “Some kind of…”
It was then that she noticed the viewscreen in front of her. A beat later, she remembered destroying it. The ship had grown a new one.
“Whoa, wait, what the hell is that?” Jen asked, sounding very much alarmed despite how hoarse he still sounded, pointing at the now much larger, much closer deoxys-craft on the screen.
“It’s…” Oh God. He doesn’t know. Jen had been in use as an interpreter while the “meteor” had transformed and carried out the orbital strike. He had no clue that down there, in the part of the world that might well have contained his father… her trainer, her friends… there might be nothing left alive.
But he must have managed to tear his gaze off the writhing mass that hung over the world and looked past it to the planet below. He must have seen the shoreline and recognized it and put the pieces together, because his eyes grew wide, their light unsteady, and for a moment he swayed as if he might collapse.
Babs felt a thick knot form in her throat. She swallowed against it; it remained firmly in place. Inhaling a shaky breath, she lay an arm across Jen’s shoulders. One of the blades sprouting from them nicked her hand. She didn’t care.
There’d never been any guarantee that Ren and the others would survive their mission. Deranics aside, there was still the threat of the Red Hand’s virus catching up with him after all. She’d tried, with only partial success, to maintain some tiny measure of hope, even against the straining impatience that she couldn’t help but feel with so much empty distance between herself and the answer to whether or not her loved ones were all right.
Now most of that distance was gone. But she was certain that any chance for a good outcome had vanished, as well.
* * *
One moment, Ren had been in the heart of the deranic base, hunkered down alongside four pokémon and a pair of wormlike aliens behind a shield while reality itself seemed to be blowing apart at the seams.
The next, they were out of the fray and surrounded by more deoxys than he would have ever expected to see in his entire lifetime, let alone all in one place.
Rescued? Possibly. But he wasn’t about to assume that meant they were safe.
One of the deoxys drifted free from the crowd. As they approached, spreading their tentacles wide in what looked like an attempt at a welcoming gesture, they emitted a series of bizarre sounds that seemed to buzz and scrape at the inside of his head. He winced, gritting his teeth.
“Wow. That’s, uh, one heck of an accent there,” Karo said.
“We can’t understand you,” Demi told the deoxys.
She sounded so tired, Ren noted. He glanced her way and saw her nearly doubled over as she continued to support her brother’s weight. Acheron, meanwhile, looked like he was on the verge of passing out.
Ren’s arm twitched slightly, old habits compelling it to pull medicine from the pack, but he tamped down the urge. There were too many eyes upon him. Too many eyes, and no way to be certain what their owners would do if they saw him make that move.
The deoxys paused in their approach, tilting their head to the side. They resumed moving just as quickly, finally coming to a stop directly in front of Ren.
“Don’t touch him,” Demi warned, her voice thin but menacing all the same.
The deoxys gave another quirk of their head. They spoke up again, more droning, more static, more crawling and clawing in Ren’s head…
“—never harm children of the elements unless it’s absolutely necessary. The five of you are safe here.”
Ren held the deoxys in a wild stare, his mouth hanging open behind his air filter. Their voice sounded exactly the same as it had from the start. But it made sense now, same as every other pokémon’s voice had ever since he’d emerged from that tube.
More changes. Still coming, even now.
What the hell is happening to me? he wondered yet again.
He licked his lips. Swallowed uncomfortably against a dry throat. “Safe,” he echoed. “Why should we believe that?” He was trembling as he spoke; he clenched his fists as if that would hold him together. “Why did you bring us here? How did you find us?”
“We detected a sudden surge of non-elemental life,” the deoxys said. “Power and intellect much greater than any mere, harmless animal would possess. We thought a surviving pocket of humanity might’ve detected our approach and was attempting some sort of counterattack.”
“It’s them,” said a very small, fearful voice, familiar yet not. “The killers…”
Zaltaphi, Ren realized with a detached sort of surprise. Another language, suddenly intelligible, and possibly not even a pokémon language this time.
“We also detected the presence of one of our own kind,” the deoxys went on, seemingly disregarding the deranic’s interjection for the time being, “along with a great deal of other elemental creatures. We would have loved to have saved more of you, but…” They sounded genuinely sorrowful somehow. Their eyes lowered to the floor, their tentacles knitting together in front of them.
Most of the deoxys’s words failed to take root properly, crowded out by the rest. The fact that Zaltaphi had called their kind killers, and the deoxys’s own words corroborated that accusation. The claim that there was a deoxys among those they’d pulled from the deranic base.
The implications of that claim.
“We can only hope they’ll find peace and fortune in the next life,” the deoxys said somberly. Their eyes lifted from the floor and fixed on the pair of deranics wrapped around Demi’s shoulders. “Just as we must hope for the two of you.”
They extended a tentacle toward the deranics, who shrunk back in plain terror. The tentacle brushed against an invisible barrier.
“Leave them alone,” Ren said, cold sweat running down his temples. The tremor was still there, but its source had transformed. He still feared these creatures. He’d read all about them, knew what even a single one was capable of—and here were many. But now… now he hated them. Hated them for all that they’d done and for the fact that there was almost certainly not a damn thing he could do to stop them from doing more.
The deoxys peered at him in silence for a moment, their face as inscrutable as their voice had once been. There was a faint shuffling sound, almost like footsteps across sand—and the deoxys dropped into the floor as if it were liquid.
Green-and-red tentacles shot up from under Karo’s feet. They dragged him under faster than even Demi could react.
The nosepass rose up from the floor in front of Ren with the deoxys looming behind him. Blue light surrounded his body and shone brightly from the dark recesses where his eyes were.
Dark blurs shot toward the others from both sides. Ren saw Demi’s hands fling out to intercept the one hurtling her way, but her senses were no match for that speed, especially in her current state. In an instant, she’d taken on a blue aura of her own, the work of a speed-deoxys at her side. Another speed-deoxys had taken hold of Syr.
“Let them go!” Ren shouted.
“They won’t be harmed,” the deoxys in front of him said, speaking through Karo in the nosepass’s own language. “Even now, we’re healing their injuries.”
Refusing to believe them, Ren stole a quick look for himself. The darts embedded in Demi’s skin were falling out, the wounds they left behind closing swiftly. The same was happening to Syr.
Acheron suddenly dropped to the floor, no longer supported by his sister; Ren flinched at the sound of the heavy impact. No aura shone around the unconscious kwazai. He had no puppeteer.
“We cannot extend our power to your dark-type friend,” one of the speed-deoxys said, using Syr’s voice.
A strangled cry sounded to Ren’s left. He turned his head in an instant. Demi had pulled Kiat and Zaltaphi off her shoulders and was now holding them by their necks. Their tails were wrapped tight around her arms, their tongues lolling out and trying to pry her fingers from their throats… but it was all in vain. She snapped the deranics’ necks with faint, sickening pops, then let the two of them fall limply to the floor.
Ren stared at them in shock for a moment. If Demi knew she’d been used to murder innocent people in cold blood, without having any say in the matter… A sickening, vicarious fury pooled in his stomach.
“You shouldn’t be troubled by the extermination of such wretched creatures,” the other speed-forme deoxys said through Demi. “Despite your appearance, I know you’re not one of them. You’re not an aberration.”
“And while that is an impressive transformation,” Karo’s controller said, “it’s time to let it go. You’re among your own kind again. You can be yourself once more.”
Ren said nothing. Didn’t want to acknowledge the deoxys’s words. Didn’t want to believe them. I’m not one of you. I am not one of you!
Yet he understood pokémon, as if he were one of their own.
Yet he had been trapped in a capture ball, however briefly.
Yet he had developed psychic abilities, even if it had taken decades to happen.
Something, something, had caused the deoxys to sense the presence of their own kind in the deranic base.
He wanted to throw up. Damn it all, he was not one of them!
But maybe… if he let them believe he was…
The idea of playing along with them when all he wanted to do was will them all to hell did nothing to calm his heart or settle his stomach. But it was the only way, the only course of action he could conceive of to buy himself and the pokémon who’d joined him on this mission some time. The only way they might ever be free of this horrible place and these horrible people.
He hung his head. “I don’t know how,” he said morosely. “After all this time… I don’t know how anymore. But… I do know that if I can’t put my friend in here—” He gestured carefully toward one of the dusk balls at his belt. “—he could die.” Best to let Acheron rest for now, he reckoned, lest the kwazai do something that might get him killed.
“Then yes,” said the deoxys puppeting Syr, “please do.”
Slower than he liked, still none too keen on making overly sudden movements with the eyes of so many powerful beings trained upon him, Ren recalled Acheron. His hand brushed the other unoccupied capture balls at his side as he reattached the kwazai’s dusk ball, lingering for a moment upon Demi’s, and an idea crossed his mind. He gave Karo’s controller a questioning look.
“The others are fine as they are,” they said.
They don’t trust me, Ren noted. Not entirely. Even if they believed he was one of their kind, he wasn’t really one of their number. He was just some castaway they’d picked up, one who’d already expressed disapproval of their behavior.
“You’ve spent too long among them,” the normal-deoxys went on. “But I can help you find yourself again.”
A real deoxys would agree to it, Ren suspected. But actually acting on that suspicion proved very difficult. His throat seemed paralyzed, unwilling to let him actually answer one way or another.
The deoxys didn’t allow it, either.
In an instant, the blue aura surrounding Karo was gone. The nosepass toppled over and stayed down. His former controller’s tentacles lashed out and seized Ren. They wrapped themselves around his arms, two to each, and then the tips pierced the skin.
Ren gasped, more in shock than anything else. The pain came in, stinging deep, when he began struggling in spite of himself. Large hands descended upon his shoulders and clasped around his ribcage, while a thick tail wrapped itself about his legs, holding him still.
Something stirred inside him. His stomach heaved, and a foul taste filled his mouth. There was a sudden, hideous pain just below his sternum, a tearing pain that forced the breath right out of him. When it came back, he screamed, crying out in agony as tears flooded his eyes and something warm poured out over his abdomen.
“It’s all right.” Demi’s voice. “The pain won’t last.”
It didn’t. Already, it was beginning to recede. The deoxys was healing him… or he was healing himself. He didn’t know. He didn’t want to think about it.
But even though the pain was nearly gone, something wasn’t right. Something was there, below his heart, radiating a gentle but distinctly foreign warmth.
The floor next to the normal-deoxys rippled. Another one emerged fluidly from its surface.
“The craft that has been trying to contact us has drawn nearer,” they said. “They demand to know why we’ve fired upon the planet.”
The words were perfectly clear—Ren understood all deoxys now, not only the one who’d first spoken to him. But their ramifications took a moment to sink in properly, raising a cloud of questions in their wake. Craft? What… what kind of craft? A spacecraft? Who…?
Murmurs arose from the crowd of deoxys onlookers, their voices too soft for Ren to make out their words.
“Those sorts… they’re incapable of understanding our mission,” Syr’s controller said bitterly. “There’s only one message worth sending them…”
* * *
“Maybe they hadn’t made it that far yet.”
Jen, still trying to reassure himself. He didn’t sound as though he believed his own words, nor did he look the part. His head was lowered; it was clear he could no longer stand to look upon the screen any longer. His arms hung limp at his sides.
Meanwhile Babs stared at the ship on the screen as if it were the ugliest thing she’d ever laid eyes upon.
“Come on,” she muttered. “Stop talking. Start shooting.”
The ship she stood aboard was a deoxys. Surely they were capable of fighting, same as any deoxys was. Surely they could pay the other craft back in kind for what they’d done to the planet below—for what they’d done to her closest friends.
She wanted to get her hands on those murderers herself. Seeing them burn from afar wasn’t the same as feeling her conjured blades severing tentacles and shattering crystalline cores. But it would have to suffice.
The screen filled with blinding white light. Jen shrieked in pain, and Babs flung an arm up to shield her eyes. No sooner than she’d done that, the entire room quaked, threatening to throw her off balance.
“We’ve been hit!” Jen cried.
Babs widened her stance, bracing herself in case of another tremor. “Fight back!” she shouted at the deoxys who shared the room with her—only to find them all disappearing into the walls and floor. “Hey! Get back here, damn it!”
An ominous rumbling and creaking reverberated throughout the room, followed by a sound like crashing thunder and a jolt that flung her onto her back despite her efforts.
“Gh!” she cried out as her head hit the floor, bending her crests back. She sprung to her feet once more, cursing at the way the sudden motion took her head from sore to screaming. Her eyes found the viewscreen again and saw chunks and flakes of rock shrinking into the distance, as well as green-and-red tentacles flexing in and out of view. A number of them merged together, forming long, scimitar-shaped claws pointed directly at the enemy craft.
“I think they’re taking your advice,” Jen said.
“About damn time,” said Babs.
* * *
It almost sounded like one of Ren’s own thoughts. The mental voice was like his own, but there was a sort of distance to it. It was almost as if he were being spoken to, silently, by a copy of himself.
What… we’re awake?
The pain was gone, but the normal-deoxys’s tentacles were still buried in his arm, still trying to coax him out of a human shape. He couldn’t feel himself transforming at this point, but here was his brain apparently talking to itself. Speaking independently. Something was being done to him.
I can’t see… why? Human? Human! Why can’t I see?
…Can’t you hear me?
He could, in a manner of speaking. But he couldn’t respond now, silently or otherwise. His entire body refused to heed his commands now, limp and powerless. His head had fallen to his chest; if it hadn’t been for the pokémon holding him tight, he would’ve crumpled to the floor.
“This shouldn’t be taking so long,” the deoxys controlling Syr said.
“The core has reformed, but the flesh is unchanging,” Demi’s controller noted aloud. “The human brain persists, but why?”
The deoxys in front of Ren kept silent, seemingly too absorbed in their work to respond. Their tentacles bristled, creating a faint tugging sensation in their patient’s arms.
The floor gave a jolt that nearly flung Ren up out of Syr’s grip. Demi stumbled where she stood, nearly toppling over onto the deoxys behind her. The sudden motion yanked the embedded tentacles out of Ren’s arms, causing the deoxys who’d been working on him to cry out in several discordant tones at once.
We’re under attack!
Ren tried to lift his head to see what was happening and found it responding to his wishes again. The normal-deoxys before him was shuddering, staring at the damaged tips of their tentacles as they swiftly mended.
“We’ll come back to you,” they promised, and then everything went black.
In near-unison, Ren, Syr, and Demi collapsed in a loose, unconscious heap. Ren’s pack fell open, its contents tumbling out over the arbok’s side and clattering against the floor and the nearby nosepass, as the deoxys filling the room slipped away through its metallic gray flesh.
* * *
It was a direct hit. So were the two that followed. Babs might’ve cheered if it weren’t for the fact that none of the attacks appeared to do any actual damage to the enemy craft. The thing was shielded.
She’d expected that much. But she snarled and swore and punched the screen all the same.
“They can’t keep it up forever…” Jen said, almost inaudible. Talking to himself again, Babs assumed.
“You’re right,” she responded all the same. “They can’t. No shield lasts indefinitely. As long as they keep pounding at—”
Babs broke off, covering her eyes once more. The room lurched again, hard. Another impact came right on its heels. She’d anticipated this sort of thing, but the jolts still nearly brought her down.
She spat out another curse. Hopefully their own shields would outlast the enemy’s.
Their own ship was changing position. The view of the other deoxys-craft was rotating, the curved arms no longer bearing on them. The enemy ship’s mass of tentacles, waving in the nothingness like something aquatic, all flexed toward them, following their movement as if watching them. Some of them formed a new set of scimitar-claws while the previous set unraveled themselves. Points of light formed at their tips.
Babs and Jen’s ship was quicker on the draw. A piercing ray cut the darkness, and a multitude of tentacles floated free from the opposing craft, severed. One of the enemy’s shots went wild, flying toward nothing for a short distance before petering out. The other three found their mark, and the last made the floor leap up beneath Jen and Babs and sent a sound like a thunderclap throughout the room.
The lights flickered and almost cut out completely. They stabilized quickly enough, but they were dimmer now.
“Oh gods, I think the ship’s hurt,” Jen said. His eyes were practically strobing with fear. “The shields, they’re—”
“Down. Yeah,” Babs said tersely. Her heart was hammering, stoking nausea. The image on the viewscreen wavered. The screen itself rippled as if it wanted to lose its shape. “But so are theirs.”
She tried to sound more hopeful than she felt. It helped, if only somewhat, that their last shot had inflicted actual damage upon the other deoxys-craft. But for all she knew, that was only a flesh wound. Maybe the enemy had landed a vital hit, and she and Jen wouldn’t know it until they found themselves suddenly unable to breathe.
Come on, she willed the ship, watching as the view of the enemy shifted once more and the claws of their own ship charged up for another attack. There are a lot of people counting on you.
* * *
The floor was shaking. It took Karo a moment to realize that he wasn’t dreaming, wasn’t imagining it. His eyes opened to flashing lights and the sight of a spent max revive crystal lying just inches from his face. Beyond it, his trainer was lying draped over Syr, with Demi a tangle of limbs beside them and two small, yellow shapes half-buried beneath her.
“Hey! Hey!” he called out to them. No reactions from anyone. He tried to stand, levering himself up on one arm—which folded right back underneath him as everything dipped sharply to the left. His friends went sliding. So did he.
Karo tried to focus on them as hard as he could despite the way the wall-crystals flashed and flared. He could feel the strain behind his eyes. Multiple targets. Not impossible to lock onto that many, but definitely not easy. He buzzed in frustration as the tension built further. Then a sharp, white outline suddenly surrounded his insensible allies, and everything else seemed to slow and desaturate for a moment. The lock-on was successful.
He cast a block field out like a net. It caught, and the five beings within it came to a less-than-gentle halt.
Five. Where was Acheron?
The floor beneath Karo leveled out. He took the opportunity to finally right himself, getting back to his feet with a grunt, and immediately set about scanning the scene for the missing kwazai. There was no sign of him. No sign of any deoxys, either. He, along with most of his allies and the two deranics, were all alone in the vast room.
He waddled his way over to the others—slower, so much slower than he wished he could. The floor still rattled ominously beneath him. Geez, what’s going on here? he wondered. Once he finally caught up to his friends, he expanded the shield to include himself, reinforcing it and making sure to cover the floor as well, making the pile of unconscious bodies shift slightly as the force field slid underneath them. Nothing’s gonna touch you. Nothing—
An almighty blaze of light ripped across his vision, momentarily blinding him. In its wake, an endless black expanse opened overhead and soon surrounded him. He felt his feet leave the floor of his conjured bubble, felt his back leave the wall he’d created behind him—he was floating. A weightless, hard-edged rock, trapped in a bubble with soft-bodied creatures whom he was utterly helpless to avoid crushing against the invisible walls.
Karo swore internally, at a loss for what to do. He felt himself bump into the block field again—and an idea hit him. With an effort, he conjured a second block field, just a small band across himself that pulled him flush against the barrier at his back. He could only hope it would hold. His head was already killing him.
Ren floated free of Syr’s already-loose coils and bumped gently into Karo’s forehead. His trainer’s shirt was covered in blood, fresh and revoltingly damp. But Ren was still alive, still breathing. At least a couple of the others were. Karo could hear them. He’d managed to trap some air along with them.
But it wouldn’t last forever, much as he dearly wanted to believe otherwise. And sooner or later, his stamina would give out, and the force field with it.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice cracking, and not solely from the strain of maintaining the blocks. “I tried…”
* * *
“We got ‘em…”
Babs stared wide-eyed at the screen, scarcely daring to believe what it showed her. But it was true. The Red Hand’s spacecraft was torn wide open, the vast deoxys-ship’s orbit slowly beginning to decay. Another volley of searing beams shredded the wounded vessel into smaller chunks, some with still-flailing tentacles.
“Oh my god, we got ‘em!” she said, with more confidence this time.
More shots were fired, breaking the destroyed ship down further and further until nothing remained but clouds of dust. Some of the sweeping rays caught free-floating deoxys in their path, disintegrating their bodies and leaving behind small, violet spheres that glittered in the light reflected from the bright disc of the planet.
“So… I guess it’s over, then.” Jen sounded relieved but not satisfied.
Babs understood all too well. On a grander scale, this might have been a tremendous victory. There was no telling how many lives they had just saved.
On a personal level, it still felt an awful lot like a loss.
As she watched another swath of enemy deoxys get reduced to their crystalline cores, she spotted an odd shape among the debris, something blue and gray and purple that almost looked like…
No. Not almost.
“Dad?” Jen extended a clawed hand toward the screen as if he could pluck the impossible sight out to safety. “Oh gods, Dad! How? How did he get out there?” he demanded, panicked.
That question could wait. The people out there couldn’t. Maybe it was already too late for them. But she could see how closely clustered they were, when she figured there ought to be nothing stopping them from drifting apart. Karo had wrapped them all up in one of those block-shields he’d learned to make. If those unseen walls were thick enough, and there was enough air in that thing…
“Hey! Hey!” she shouted to any deoxys who might be listening. “I know at least one of you can hear me. There’s people out there! People who aren’t deoxys! You gotta get ‘em on board right now! Hurry!”
Holding her breath, biting her tongue, she watched the screen for signs that someone had indeed heard her. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw her friends take on a familiar seafoam glow and then vanish altogether.
Don’t you die on me, the greninja willed the new arrivals. Don’t you dare.
Chapter 17: The Future
Syr awoke to nearly featureless, uniformly gray surroundings. The walls had a faintly metallic property to them, and the floor beneath his face was fairly soft and slightly rubbery.
His mind, upon catching up with his last waking moments, provided a picture of dozens of humanoid, oppressively psychic beings dotting walls like these, and he startled awake with a yelp.
Instinctively coiling, Syr looked around. The room was much smaller than the one he’d remembered; it couldn’t have held even a quarter of the creatures he’d seen before being knocked out. At the moment, it appeared to hold no one at all other than himself.
No longer being surrounded by psychics was a relief, however distant. But he couldn’t trust that none of them were watching him remotely. Overhead, there was something small and round that emitted light. For all he knew, they could see him through it, or sense him in some stranger way.
More troubling still, none of his allies were present. These creatures had managed to pry him away from the others despite Karo’s force field surrounding them—they’d slipped right under it, he recalled. Slipped right under and taken its maker. He hadn’t been able to stop them. Neither had the kwazai.
Maybe the others were being held alone, same as he was. Or maybe their captors had decided that the other pokémon, at least, were too dangerous to leave alive.
The tightness left his coils as a feeling of defeat spread throughout him like cold water. He could scream. He could thrash. He could fight… but what was that going to accomplish against an enemy that outnumbered him many times over?
There was a noise at his side, faint but undeniable. Motion and light followed. All his tension returned at once, and he swung about in an instant, hood flared and fangs forward, to face—
“Jen?” The initial shock at the sight of the cryonide in the arched doorway faded quickly, replaced by dawning horror: They got him, too. “Oh, God… how?” Tears brimmed in his eyes as he moved toward his son. “How did they find you?”
“It was the tube,” Jen said. “The one downstairs. It brought me and Babs up here.”
Syr’s brow furrowed as he absorbed that. It sounded as though that tube was, in fact, some sort of transporter. Something meant to bring Ren here. He’d escaped somehow… only for the psychics to find him anyway.
“Are you feeling okay?” Jen asked him. “They said they helped you recover, but…” He shook his head. “When I saw you out there, I was really scared that… that that was it. That I wouldn’t even get to say goodbye…”
Nothing hurt at the moment. Syr didn’t feel sick in the least. The deranics’ darts were no longer stuck in his skin. “I’m fine,” he said, wishing he sounded the part, for Jen’s sake. “But… what do you mean, ‘out there’? Where was I? Where were you?”
“You were outside this ship.” Jen waved a hand, indicating some unseen point beyond the far wall. “Out in space. You were on the other ship, and when these guys destroyed it, you guys came flying from the wreckage.”
For a moment, Syr just gawked at him. “That… is a lot to take in,” he admitted. “Ships? We’re on a ship?” he asked, at which Jen nodded. “And this isn’t the one we were on…” He looked up, scanning the ceiling, his gaze encompassing the unseen masters of the vessel he apparently occupied. “These people rescued us?”
“Yeah,” Jen said. “I think Ren might know more about the whole situation,” he added. “He can actually understand the deoxys.”
Syr blinked in surprise. “…Huh,” he said. Someone whom humans could understand, but pokémon couldn’t. He’d never met anyone like that before—except he had, he recalled. The creatures who’d surrounded him before he’d awoken here. Ren had spoken as though he understood them, when all Syr had heard from the beings was noise.
Unintelligible beings, aboard a ship whose interior was similar to this one’s. Both deoxys ships, he supposed. A new thread of worry uncurled within him: had he, along with his friends and family, gotten caught up in the middle of some sort of deoxys war?
He shuddered. “Yeah, I think I need to go talk to Ren about all this. I’m still not entirely convinced we’re safe here.”
“I wasn’t either, at first,” Jen said. “But these are the good guys.”
I hope you’re right, Syr thought, partly for his own sake but mostly for Jen’s. God knew he’d never wanted him to get wrapped up in all this. Jen was supposed to be waiting back at home, waiting for his father to return…
…Or not. Maybe now, at least, Jen would no longer have to wonder if Syr would make it back alive.
“Come on,” Jen said, backing up further into the hallway outside the room. “His room’s this way.”
Out of the room, into a corridor that appeared to be made of the exact same material. Jen moved with apparent confidence through the ship, which made Syr wonder just how long the cryonide had been here. When had he and Babs gotten that tube working?
For that matter, “How long was I unconscious?”
“I don’t know,” Jen said. “Not exactly, anyway. But not too long. Maybe a couple of hours. The deoxys work pretty fast, huh?”
One of said creatures breezed by as they hung a right. Syr felt a chill run down his back. “…I guess so,” he said.
Jen stopped at a blank, gray wall, no different from any of the others Syr had seen. The cryonide prodded it a couple of times in succession, and an entrance to a large room opened to them, the doorway’s edges rippling in a disconcertingly organic manner.
There was Ren, reclining on a long platform that was nothing more than a raised section of the floor extending from the far wall. His pokémon flanked the makeshift bed: the twins to one side, Karo and Babs to another.
“Hey, look who finally decided to come join us!” Karo said.
“Yeah,” Syr said automatically as he and Jen entered the room. He took in his new surroundings more thoroughly, seeing a group of people who all looked at least a little tired but apparently unharmed. The latter certainly hadn’t been the case when he’d last seen most of them. Both kwazai stood tall again, with not a single dart on their persons. No blood. No sweat. No filth.
Almost no filth. Ren had shed his shirt and hoodie, as well as his shoes and socks, but he was still wearing the same pants he’d worn all this time, and they most definitely needed a wash.
Deciding it was neither polite nor a priority to bring that up, “I’m glad everyone’s okay,” Syr said instead.
Ren averted his gaze. Demi growled faintly to herself.
“What? Who’s…” Syr began. But then he realized who was missing. “Those deranics,” he said. “Are they… here? On the ship?”
Ren shook his head. “No,” he answered. “Well… technically they are,” he amended, “but…” He sighed. “The Red Hand wouldn’t let them live.”
There had been a time when Syr would’ve never imagined himself mourning any deranic. But there he was, feeling something sink inside him at the news. Looking back, those two really had been on his side. They’d done nothing but help his party and their mission, and now…
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “They deserved better than this,” he said softly. Meeting Ren’s gaze once more, “The Red Hand… You mean the other ship?” he asked “The other deoxys?”
“Right,” Ren said. “They couldn’t abide by the deranics. By any intelligent species that wasn’t affiliated with any element—even if some part of its population was.” His jaw tightened. A deep frown line formed between his naked brows. “That’s why they murdered my people.”
“The killers will come to this world soon...”
“Our psychic enemies have come at last.”
Syr had figured the enemy deranics and their servants must have been lying, or at the very least misled about who had actually destroyed humanity. But in the end, the deoxys, the psychic enemies they’d spoken of, had arrived just as they’d predicted. And here was Ren, who’d certainly been as skeptical of the deranics’ claims as he’d been—if not moreso—attesting to their innocence in the matter.
But not innocent altogether. Regardless of their motivation, the deranic leadership had still tried to destroy the world, and in fact, they had nearly succeeded. If it hadn’t been for the nullshade…
His heart froze in his chest. Oh God, the nullshade. The last he’d seen of them was a nightmare, a scene of indiscriminate destruction, koffing and weezing fighting the specter in vain…
“Ren?” Syr spoke up, even more quietly than before. “What happened to the koffing and the weezing back at the base? Do you know?”
Another guilty aversion of those dark brown eyes. Syr felt a cold hand lay itself very gingerly upon his back.
“Ren had the deoxys scan the area in case the nullshade was still kicking around there,” Babs said. “The first scan… didn’t find anything. No signs of life whatsoever.”
Syr had guessed that answer before she could speak it. It dropped on him like a stone all the same. He slumped over and felt the tears start up again.
“However,” Babs continued, “the second scan picked up several koffing and a single weezing poking around the site about an hour later.”
“The ones from the forest,” Acheron said, “coming back home only to find a smoking crater.”
Almost cautiously, Syr lifted his head. “So… there were some survivors after all?”
“Not many,” Ren said. “Not enough. I know how important this was to you, and I know why.” His gaze dropped to his hands, which were folded in his lap. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come down to using that thing. I’d seriously considered leaving that ball back home. It’s a good thing I didn’t; I’m not saying otherwise. But, all the same… I’m sorry, Syr. I really am.”
The tears fell. Syr tried to respond, but his breath hitched hard in his chest. “I know,” he managed at last. “And… you’re right. We had to destroy that weapon.” A nasty little possibility crossed his mind. “…It was destroyed, right?”
“Thoroughly,” Acheron assured him.
“That’s… that’s good, yeah.” Syr sniffed loudly, doubling upon himself for a moment to wipe at his eyes with the end of his tail. “But wait… what about the Red Hand?” The misguided deranics were no longer a threat, but if there was still another force out there bent on wiping entire species off the face of reality…
“Gone,” Ren said. “The deoxys here made certain of it. They probed the surviving cores, confirmed that the Red Hand didn’t have any other ships anywhere. They were a single, small band of extremists, and now, well… now they’re nothing.”
“Small band or not, they ended a lot of lives,” Demi said. Both pairs of arms were folded, the ends of her tail curled inward. “How many worlds did you say they hit?” she asked Ren.
“Hundreds,” Ren said. “I don’t remember the exact number. Ours was the last.”
“Yeah, but give him the good news,” Karo said, sounding eager.
Good news? “I could definitely use some more of that,” Syr said.
Ren took a deep breath and released it. “It’s… tentative. But the deoxys said that they might be able to create a new human population using my genetic material. Might,” he stressed. “They’re hoping to do the same for the deranics, using Kiat and Zaltaphi’s.”
Syr’s eyes went wide. “They can do that?”
“They can try,” Ren responded. “The deoxys are profoundly gifted geneticists, but even so, they have so little to work with that there are no guarantees. Even if they’re successful, it’s going to take them a long time to produce the next generation.”
“Hopefully, by that time, the world’ll be ready for humans again,” Jen said.
“Hopefully,” Ren agreed. “If nothing else, well. They’ll have the deoxys on their side, at least. And if this world ultimately proves to be too hostile, the deoxys will try to find them another. But hopefully it won’t come to that.”
Syr nodded in understanding. Being driven out of one’s home wasn’t a fate he wished on anyone.
“Anyway… even if the new batch of humans could be finished tonight, the deoxys still need to get the planet scrubbed of the Red Hand’s virus,” Ren went on. “They’ll be making a vaccine, as well, but they’d rather be safe than sorry.”
That made sense, Syr thought. Losing a species to extinction once was bad enough. It would be all the more tragic for them to slip away again after being given another chance.
But wait… “You’re immune to the plague, right? Couldn’t they just give the new humans whatever you’ve got that made you that way?”
Ren frowned. “I’d prefer if they didn’t,” he said. He looked down again as he spoke, tracing a somewhat large, irregular scar over his upper abdomen. The scar, Syr noted, looked fairly fresh. “The deoxys agree with me, given the circumstances. And I think the new humans would, too.”
A troubled look came over Syr’s face. “What was making you immune, then?” he asked, almost afraid of the answer.
Ren was silent for a moment. “There was a deoxys in me,” he finally answered. The hand hovering over the scar trembled. “They’d been there for a long time, even before the Extinction. A traveling scientist of sorts, according to the core probe. They abducted me when I was young and performed some kind of experiment that went wrong. Most of their physical form was destroyed. The rest… merged with me, somehow.”
“Apparently that thing took him over from time to time,” Babs said, and she didn’t sound pleased about it. “Always while he was alone. I guess, on some level, they knew better than to show themself around us.” She smacked a fist into her open palm for emphasis. “That’s how they built that tube. They worked on it while they were in charge, and when they weren’t? He was none the wiser, and the same goes for the rest of us.”
“The tube was sending a beacon for other deoxys to come and collect us,” Ren explained. “It was also working with what little of their physical self was left. It was turning me into a deoxys,” he said, with a wild, fearful look in his eyes. “It would’ve taken… who knows how long on its own, but other deoxys could speed up the process. And they did, on the Red Hand ship.”
“The scar…” Syr said aloud without meaning to.
“Their core,” Ren said. “It emerged on its own.” He shuddered hard. “After the deoxys brought us in here, they took it out before it could inflict any more changes. But some of the changes… they’ll be here forever. I can still understand pokémon—including the deoxys. I could understand the deranics’ language there at the end, too—maybe I could also understand human languages that I couldn’t before; who knows? And I’m still a psychic-type.”
“But you’re also still human,” Acheron said. “And always will be.”
Ren gave a very faint smile. “Yeah. That’s true.” He sighed again. “Anyway… here’s the thing: I might still be immune to the plague. Maybe. But the deoxys really don’t want to chance it. I don’t want to chance it, either. So I’m staying here, at least until the vaccine’s ready.”
“And we’re staying with him,” Demi said. The rest of Ren’s pokémon nodded or made noises of assent.
Syr felt a twinge of disappointment at her words, which surprised him just a little. It wasn’t as though they would definitely never see one another again, after all. He supposed that on some level, he’d been taking for granted that if they lived through all this, they’d all be coming home together.
That train of thought, in turn, led him to wonder if he could go home whenever he was ready. Which, truthfully, was right then and there. Maybe the deoxys here were on the level. Maybe this place really was safe… but he felt uncomfortable here all the same.
Too many psychics, he supposed. Just too many. Maybe under other circumstances, he could get used to it more easily, just as Jen had apparently done. But after all he’d been through, it just seemed like too much to ask of himself.
What was more, he missed Convergence. He needed to see those familiar sights again, to feel the grass underneath him. Only then, he imagined, could he really begin to feel like this whole ordeal was truly over.
Still… if the others needed his support at the moment, he couldn’t exactly bail on them in good conscience. He considered how to word the question; then, “Should I stay, too?” he asked.
“Only if you want to,” Ren said. “I can’t imagine this is a particularly comfortable environment for you.”
“It’s not,” Syr admitted. “But I’m willing to stay if you need me.”
“Nah, we’ll be fine,” Karo assured him. “You go on ahead. Someone’s gotta see to it that nobody else scribbles any more crap on the walls,” he added with a crackle of electricity around his nose.
“Wait, though,” Jen spoke up. “They transported you guys in from outside. When they transported us, they had to wait and recharge before they could send anyone back.” He put a claw to his chin. “Then again, they brought us over from a much longer distance. Maybe they’re already recharged.”
“I can find out for you whenever you’re ready,” Ren said. “Just say the word.”
Syr took a deep breath. “Okay. I think I’m ready to go home now.” He turned toward Jen. “How about you?”
“Yeah,” Jen said.
“All right, then.” Ren swung his legs over the side of the platform and carefully stood up. “Come on. Let’s go flag someone down.”
“We’ll come with,” Demi said. She was on the other side of the bed in a single stride, whereupon she laid a hand on Ren’s shoulder. The two of them left the room, and Syr and Jen went after them. The rest of Ren’s pokémon brought up the rear.
It didn’t take long to find a deoxys to question; one of them was just a few yards away from the door. From the looks of things, they were just milling about, as if waiting for them to emerge, or maybe debating whether or not to come in themself.
The deoxys approached them with seeming eagerness. They spoke very quietly, wringing the tips of their tentacles.
“They want to know if we’re leaving,” Ren said. “Specifically you,” he said, with a point and glance over his shoulder at Jen, “and Babs.”
“Huh,” Babs said. “Well, I’m not, but the kid is.”
The deoxys looked down for a moment, their upper tentacles lowering to their sides. Their head lifted once more, and they spoke again.
“They hope you’ll come back again someday,” Ren said. “They enjoyed getting to know you two.”
“…Okay, admittedly, I still kind of suck at telling these guys apart. But I think… we know you, don’t we? You’re the one we met at the start,” Babs guessed.
The deoxys actually gave a nod before elaborating in their own language.
“And the one you spoke to after your meeting with the curator,” Ren translated.
“I guess you think this makes us friends, huh,” Babs said. “Well, you know what? Maybe it does. But don’t go thinking this means the rules have changed, all right?”
The deoxys steepled their tentacles and responded.
“They understand,” Ren said. He looked to the deoxys. “All right, then. Two of us need to go back down. Is that possible, or do they need to wait a while?”
Another nod. The deoxys must have realized what an ambiguous response that was; they provided vocal clarification a beat later.
“You’re good to go,” Ren confirmed.
Syr felt a wave of relief wash over him. It was finally happening. He was going home, alive and well… and, in a sense, successful.
“Oh, uh, one more thing,” Jen said. “Could you just put us back in the room? I don’t think either of us would fit in the tube.”
The deoxys nodded again. They moved ahead a short distance, then made a beckoning motion. Everyone else followed through the winding, rising, falling halls, until finally the deoxys compelled another wall to open.
The room they revealed wasn’t terribly large, just an ovoid space with a single light source overhead. There didn’t seem to be anything special about it. “Here? Really?” Syr wondered aloud.
“Yeah,” Jen said. “This is where me and Babs appeared after the tube activated.”
Syr leaned forward, flicking his tongue out to investigate the space further. It didn’t smell any more noteworthy than it looked. “So this is it, huh.” He turned to face the others. “I guess I should say goodbye, then. Goodbye… and thanks.”
He looked to each of them in turn. “Thanks for looking out for me. For saving my life—several times over.” He shook his head in astonishment. God, I came way too close…
“Hey, don’t mention it,” Karo said. “I wasn’t about to let you kick the bucket when home was right there within sight. Granted, it was like hundreds of miles below us, but still.”
“We all wanted you to be all right,” Demi said. “We wanted that for all of us. And I guess we succeeded… more or less.”
Syr could feel his eyes watering again. “I don’t think any of us could’ve done this alone,” he said. “I know I couldn’t have.”
“And we might’ve never gone on this mission without you,” Ren said. “And if we never had, my people and the deranics’ might’ve never gotten a second chance at life—even if it is just a small chance. So… thank you, Syr.” The human’s eyes had gone misty, as well. “Thank you.”
At that, Syr well and truly began crying, moved beyond words. Next thing he knew, he was caught up in a group hug. Though the tears kept flowing, he smiled earnestly.
Eventually, the embrace ended. Everyone moved mindfully out of the way, allowing Syr and Jen to enter the ovoid room together.
Syr turned one last time to take in the sight of the rest of his friends, seeing smiling faces, some streaked with tears. He smiled again. “I hope we’ll see each other again someday,” he said. “Until then… goodbye, friends,” he said.
“And good luck with the new people,” Jen added.
The others gave their own farewells in return. Then the wall reformed between those who would leave and those who would stay, and the room filled with seafoam light.
* * *
Evening was falling over the cemetery. Syr crossed the field of stones and placards on his own; Jen had stayed behind, watching over the house that was, for the time being, theirs alone.
When Syr reached the grave that Faurur, Esaax, and Drasigon shared, he noticed a few small stones lying in the grass before the bronze plate. Those hadn’t been there before; the plot had been pristine the last time he’d visited. He wondered if he ought to nudge them aside, but ultimately decided against it. Taking anything away from those three didn’t seem right somehow, even if the stones had just wound up there randomly.
It took a moment for Syr to find his voice. “Hi, Faurur,” he said once he had. “Hi, Esaax. Hi, Drasigon.
“Well… I’m back.” He shifted uneasily. “I… we… did what I said we were gonna do. Or… we tried.” He closed his eyes in shame, bowing his head. “Most of them… didn’t make it.” Tears carved warm paths down his snout. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. This isn’t the way I wanted things to turn out…”
Syr realized he was on the verge of sobbing. He inhaled deeply, trying to steady himself. It took a few tries before he managed. He had to hold himself together the best that he could. There was, after all, more to the message he’d come to deliver than just the bad news. And it was clear that Faurur and the others weren’t the only ones who needed to hear it again.
“Anyway…” he resumed, “the ones who did make it… well… they’re free now. They’re free. The deranics are gone.”
He felt a slight pang of guilt as soon as the words were out of his mouth. They might not be gone for good. But, as he reminded himself, any deranics who might be brought to life aboard that deoxys ship would not be the same ones who had enslaved her people. They’d have a chance to do good, just as Kiat and Zaltaphi had done.
“The bad ones are, anyway,” Syr amended. “The ones who enslaved your people are all gone. So are the people who destroyed humanity,” he added. “And maybe… maybe someday, humans will live in this world again. They won’t be the same humans, but still… it’s something, right?
“And, you know… in a way, it’s all thanks to you, Faurur,” he said. “I probably would’ve never known about the deranics if it wasn’t for you. I probably would never have gone back there again,” he admitted. “So thanks,” he said, and for the first time since entering the cemetery, he smiled.
A yawn escaped him, catching him off guard and embarrassing him slightly. All the time since he’d last slept, and the sheer amount and magnitude of what he’d done since, seemed to have caught up to his body at last.
“Guess I’d better be on my way,” Syr said. “You guys take care of each other, all right? Goodbye, for now.”
With that, he turned around and headed back toward the bus stop to await his ride home. Now, at last, it truly felt as though the mission was over. Though he hadn’t quite lived up to the letter of his promise, it was getting a little easier, at least, to believe that he’d fulfilled the spirit of it.