Chapter 1: The Haven
He lay down upon a cold, wet patch of grass, though it may as well have been a bed fit for a queen. It was soft and enveloping, like the sudden drowse that was pleasantly consuming him. He yawned, covering his mouth with his hand—her hand, pale-skinned and branching out into five separate fingers.
This was not his hand. This was not his point of view.
Something sky-blue appeared over the pale hand—his own, much simpler, fused hand, surrounded by a soft, multicolored glow. He looked into her eyes, though he knew he didn’t need to. He knew they were closed, knew that their owner slept. On some level, so did he, yet he remained awake. After all, it was only her sleep, which he happened to be experiencing vicariously. A second-hand sensation.
He recoiled from the sudden, stark vacuum where her lifeforce had been. Part of his own went with it, and the torn edges burned white-hot with pain. Disarray exploded in his mind—his cumbersome nervous system hadn’t unsynched in time, and now he couldn’t tell for certain whether he was living or dead, whether he was himself or the lifeless figure lying before him. Overwhelmed, he staggered backward until something caught under one of his pods and nearly tripped him.
His perception, all of his many senses, abruptly froze. For a moment, reality returned. Then he saw the object he’d just stepped on—red, white, and round—and the distinction between himself and the friend he’d just lost blurred even further. This poké ball was his—but also hers…
The poké ball rattled as he lifted it in his shaking hands. The vestigial joints at his knuckles constricted around it, and with a final, caterwauling scream tearing its way through his throat, both the poké ball and his psyche broke into shards…
* * *
The crack of the poké ball’s implosion blasted him out of the dream, just as it had every time before. He groaned feebly, wishing it had done so sooner. An ordinary nightmare was bad enough. He didn’t need to suffer it from two different perspectives at the same time.
But now, at least, the dreams really were only dreams, no matter how twisted. The pain wasn’t really present; it was only a shadow of the feeling, somewhere between remembered and imagined, and it was finally confined to those nightmares. For too long, it had followed him into his waking life, too.
Peace had been hard-won through the efforts of many over years in the Haven. Lazily, still yet to fully awaken, he opened his eyes and let their inner membranes slide back for one last view of his room there. It was a simple, small space, shut away from the outside world and its rude sun, perpetually shadowed in his preferred darkness.
He flexed his spine and his limbs, detaching his jaws in a massive yawn. There was a series of faint snaps as his joints relocated, followed by another sound: the trilling of the door alarm.
As he got to his feet, the lights came on slowly, gently, a feature for which he was quite grateful. It allowed eyes like his, accustomed to near-total darkness, to more gracefully adjust to the brightness on the other side of the door, which would only open the light-adjustment process was finished.
He’d have personally preferred for the lights to not come on at all, but most of the Haven’s staff were chansey. Their kind had nothing like the night-vision of his own; they required light to be active and able to perform their sometimes critical work. He’d often wondered why they didn’t just employ some nocturnal species to tend to the dark-sighted, but he’d always let the matter slide.
At any rate, he could tolerate light rather well for one of his kind, for he was used to it. Living with humans (and the hours those humans kept) for part of his life had caused him to develop diurnal habits. He suspected that he’d probably end up half-blind before his first century and wholly so halfway through his second, but it would be worth it. He’d loved those years he’d spent with the humans, and outside of the occasional nightmare, he could now recall them with more joy than sorrow.
The door slid open, and in stepped a chansey. A nametag clipped to her fur identified her as Teresa, at which Esaax smiled; she was his favorite among the staff. She carried a form attached to a clipboard; beaming proudly, she turned it around so that the paper faced him.
Wobbuffet, male, the paper read in unown-script. Designation: Esaax Evergray. He’d been denying that name and the history that came with it ever since his new life among the humans had begun. But now, in his “second new life”, he embraced it once more.
After all, once one gets over a thing like a spontaneous extinction, a little adolescent heartbreak is nothing…
He shook his head clear of such thoughts, determined to stay in the present, and returned his attention to the form. His eyes scanned its surface quickly, skimming over several more lines of personal data until he found he was looking for: 4/15/14…
“Well, this is it!” Teresa said cheerfully, matching Esaax’s thoughts at the moment almost word-for-word. Today, he would leave. Today, at last, he could. “Are you ready for your final tests?” the chansey asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Esaax answered, careful as always to prevent the automatic door from closing on his tail as he followed the chansey out of the room.
“Now, you do realize this means you’ll have to go see Adn just one last time.”
“I’m not scared of Adn,” the wobbuffet said, and for the most part he wasn’t. A measure of dread snuck into his voice all the same.
“Never said you were, but still, I know his method isn’t the most comfortable…”
“…But it’s what it takes and you’re gonna do it anyway, so…” Esaax shrugged in mock surrender.
“Right. Anyway,” Teresa said as she led Esaax down the hall, “we’ll be saving him for last, which is fine since we have other things to take care of anyway. We’ll just get you in when he’s finished; he’s with another patient at the moment.”
“Is he, now.”
“Yes, a relicanth.”
“Oh yes, he’s been at it for three days. But he is almost done with him; I made sure.”
Another door opened to admit the two of them. Therein were all the necessary resources for a basic physical exam, including a living resource: a pokémon who served as Teresa’s assistant—or, more precisely, as her hands. Specifically, this was a mr. mime by the name of Madeline. Her large and agile hands were well-suited for tools and equipment made for the very similar hands of humans, the sort of things for which the tiny, nearly-featureless paws of a chansey tended to be inadequate.
“Why, look at you!” Madeline said. “We don’t really need to look him over, do we, Terry? He’s the very incarnation of health right here, I’d say.”
She came up to stand before him and studied him with an eyebrow raised and a finger resting on her lips in a way that one might gaze at a work of art. Then she smiled and said, “Still working out, I see. Bet we’ll fill this place twice over after you get out with all the women you’ll drive crazy, you handsome blue devil.”
Flirting and teasing from Madeline—that wasn’t new. She hadn’t given him a break in that department since soon after she’d first met him. Esaax sincerely hoped she was just joking around, but if she wasn’t… Esaax tried very, very hard not to think about that possibility.
At any rate, her observation was correct—or the part about him working out was, anyway. Esaax had indeed been on a devout physical training regimen for quite some time now. Though Madeline liked to make him out to be some kind of beefcake, such wasn’t the case at all. The effects of his training, though visible, weren’t dramatic. Esaax was no bodybuilder; the point of his training was simply to help him harness and become aware of the strength that he already possessed.
The idea to start him on such a program had originally arisen from the poké ball incident that had inspired so many nightmares. As was common among his kind, Esaax hadn’t known the full magnitude of his own physical strength on account of being unable to use it against another living creature. As such, Esaax had been told that it might do him some good to become conscious of his “idle power”, lest anything else fall victim to it.
He’d agreed to this instantly. All his life, he’d broken things by accident; the chance to learn how to leave his klutzy side in the past was irresistible. On top of that, he’d soon discovered that the workouts also had the benefit of keeping his mind as busy and strong as the rest of him.
While he no longer needed the exercise in the therapeutic sense, he still enjoyed it as a hobby. He’d often wondered where he might train once he was released and had ultimately decided on the old human gym down the street, which fighting-types frequented.
He imagined that if he did go there, some machamp or maybe a hitmon of some kind might pick a fight with him—he figured they’d be unable to resist the allure of a psychic they could whale on without fear of eating psybeam. One or another of them would just let loose with the mega punches and seismic tosses, only to have those attacks thrown right back in their face, doubled in power…
The thought of such a thing was just too funny. Esaax might never have stopped laughing if his internal comedy hadn’t been interrupted by something cold attaching itself to his chest. He looked down at the stethoscope for a moment, then met the gaze of the mr. mime who’d put it there.
“Aw, come on, Teresa. That’s just lazy,” Esaax said, albeit lightheartedly. “You’ve never had to have her do this part before.”
“She insisted,” said the chansey.
Madeline just stood there with a smile suggesting that she had far more on her mind than anything Esaax’s heart was doing.
“In fact,” Teresa went on, “Madeline asked if she could handle the entire examination herself. And I told her she could.”
Esaax could do nothing but groan.
* * *
Minutes later, Esaax left the room alongside Teresa, who was failing miserably to stifle her laughter.
“I’m sorry,” she said between giggles, half-breathless and on the verge of tears, “but you should have seen your face!”
Esaax just scowled, his face flushed in the deep blue shade of his humiliation.
“She just wanted to give you something to remember her by, that’s all,” Teresa said.
“How very thoughtful of her.” Esaax’s voice hinted at a desire to vomit. “So now what?”
“Well, you could have your RE test now, or would you rather have something to eat first?”
“Heh. That is such a ridiculous question.”
“I know,” Teresa said with a chuckle.
The two stopped in their tracks as another chansey stepped into their path from around the corner. “He’s here,” the newcomer said.
“Oh good,” Teresa responded. “Tell him to wait in the cafeteria, okay?” She turned to Esaax. “I forgot to tell you, Esaax. A friend of yours has come to pick you up. You can chat with him over breakfast.”
“A friend? Who?” Esaax asked.
“Go and find out for yourself! I’m going to check up on Adn again and see if he’s anywhere near ready. See you later!”
Esaax watched Teresa waddle off, then made his way to the cafeteria, feeling awfully puzzled for someone who was supposed to have achieved clarity at last.
Chapter 2: Just a Little Favor
With a large amount of food in tow, Esaax scanned the cafeteria for the mystery visitor but found no sign of him. So he opted to stop at a table, set his tray down, and let this friend come to him.
It wasn’t long before he spotted an arbok entering the room. The arbok spotted Esaax in the same instant and rushed to greet him without hesitation, failing to notice both the skiploom he ran over in the process and the sound of her squeaky voice cursing him out immediately afterward.
“Syr? What in the world are you doing way out here?” Esaax rose and gave his old friend a massive hug as the arbok came to a stop beside the table. A bowl of oatmeal seemed to fall out of thin air, spilling all over Syr’s chest. Esaax had been balancing it on his head and had forgotten about it. “Oops…”
“That’s okay,” Syr said through gritted teeth, shaking off the hot oatmeal (which thankfully didn’t land on anyone else).
“Man, I haven’t seen you in years,” Esaax said before taking his seat once more and devouring an entire watmel berry in one bite. “Thought I’d never see you again—what are you even doing all the way out here?” he asked again.
“I live here now,” the arbok replied. “I found a pretty decent place. In fact, you can stay there for a while if you’d like. Would you?”
“Don’t really have anywhere else to go, so yeah, sure. Hey, I’ll even move in with you. Wouldn’t want you to be all alone, after all…”
“But I’m not alone. I adopted a son.”
Somehow Esaax hadn’t seen that one coming. He nearly choked on a brownie. “Okay… so I’m gonna be sharing a house with a giant, venomous serpent and his bitey little snakeling?” he joked, an eyebrow raised and a smirk on his face.
Syr gave him an odd look. “He’s not a snakeling, he’s a snorunt. His name is Jeneth, but we just call him Jen. And yes, he knows bite, but he doesn’t just randomly use that on people.”
“Snorunt? This is the wrong climate for those.”
“Tell his kind that. Supposedly, a bunch of glalie decided to settle in these parts, though I can’t imagine why they would’ve wanted to, and most of the people I know say that they’ve seen at least one around, too.” He shuddered. “Brrr. I get the creeps just thinking about them…”
“Huh. So where is this Jen?”
“Waiting in the car.”
“You left a baby outside in a car?”
“He’s not a baby. He’s a young man,” Syr said.
“Whatever. You still shouldn’t have left an ice-type out there under the sun.”
“He’s in the shade, Esaax. It’s his car; he drives it, and he gets to decide where to park it.”
A snorunt driving a car. No, nothing funny about that image… With a faint snicker, Esaax turned away from the topic of Jen and back to his gluttony.
“You still haven’t explained how someone your size could possibly need to eat a third of his own weight every day,” Syr teased.
“You still haven’t explained how someone your size can only need to eat once a month,” Esaax retorted. “But who cares? What I really wanna know about is—” Esaax saw Teresa heading their way. “Whoops, looks like we’ll have to talk about it later.” He shoved the remainder of his breakfast down his throat at once and waved at the chansey.
“What’s going on?” Syr asked.
“RE test. It’s just this exercise to make sure that some of my more… uh, complicated systems are working all right. It’s kind of neat—wanna watch?”
“You can do more than just watch,” said a voice from beside Syr.
Syr hadn’t bothered to look and see whom Esaax had waved at; as such, Teresa’s unexpected voice nearly scared him right out of his skin. “Waaugh!” he shouted.
“Daria could seriously use a break,” Teresa told Esaax, unfazed by the arbok’s outburst. “You could participate in her place,” she then added to Syr.
Syr gained a somewhat worried expression, still unsure what the chansey and wobbuffet were actually talking about, let alone if it was anything he should want to have any part of.
“Please?” Esaax pleaded in his cheesiest mock-begging tone. “It’ll be fun, I promise. Please?”
Syr sighed. “Well…”
* * *
Next thing Syr knew, they’d brought him into a very large and entirely empty room. It didn’t look at all equipped for any sort of medical testing. “I still don’t get it,” he admitted to Teresa. “What are we going to be doing here, exactly?”
“We need to make sure his retaliatory abilities are in good shape. To do this, they must be triggered. That’s where you’ll come in,” the chansey said.
Syr blinked nervously, nearly certain now that he knew what was being asked of him and hoping he was wrong. Reluctantly, he reached for confirmation. “Esaax, what do I have to do to trigger these… abilities?”
“Oh no.” The arbok looked to Teresa with a hint of desperation in his eyes. “…Are sure there’s no one else who could do this?”
Teresa sighed. “I’m afraid not,” she told him. She then ushered Syr aside, motioning for him to lean in toward her. “It will smart, yes,” she said, her voice lowered. “But it’s crucial that we do this. It’s to make sure his tail’s all right. He’s sustained some kind of trauma to it before, and very serious complications can arise from a tail injury in his species—and already have, in his case. We do not want him going into crisis again… do you know what that is?”
Syr shook his head.
“Autoempathic crisis is a vicious cycle caused by damage to a wobbuffet’s tail—or more specifically, to the pseudobrain in the tail, which is the source of their ability to use retaliatory attacks,” Teresa began to explain. “In crisis, the pseudobrain fails to distinguish pain with an internal cause from pain caused by an attacking enemy. It retaliates, involuntarily, by inflicting twice the pain on its source as usual—but with the source being the wobbuffet itself, it only creates a new, greater pain that it must also counter. The cycle continues repeating, doubling the pain again and again, until the agony reaches a level that the wobbuffet’s body just can’t bear any longer.
“I was there when he suffered his last crisis—it was awful. The convulsions, the screaming… God, how he screamed…” she whispered, sounding lost in the memory for a moment. “He was almost too far gone by the time we managed to stabilize him, and the dosage of painkillers it took to break the cycle nearly killed him in and of itself.”
“My God…” Syr said almost voicelessly, both amazed and alarmed. “You know… just for the record, I think the ‘trauma’ to his tail you mentioned was someone stepping on it,” he said, not naming that someone out of respect for the dearly departed. “More than once. Accidentally,” he added quickly.
“Yikes,” Teresa said, grimacing. “Well, anyway… the damage to his RE centers can never be fully repaired. He’ll never be entirely out of the woods. We may be forced to… well, to remove his tail if it gets out of hand again. So hopefully you see why it’s important that we’re made aware of any continuing problems he might have—we need to be able to take care of them before they get a chance to blow up in his face again. Will you help us?”
“Of course,” Syr said. “Still, I don’t really want to hurt him too much…”
“Just one acid and one bite,” Teresa said. “One special attack and one physical attack so we can gauge both responses.”
“You’re not testing his destiny bond?”
“Luckily for both of you, no.”
“Okay… okay, I can do that.” Syr turned toward Esaax and slithered somewhat closer to him, still nervous but knowing that he had to go through with this for Esaax’s sake. He called upon his acid technique, trying to keep it relatively weak so as not to hurt his friend—and by extension, himself—more than was necessary. The acid swiftly filled his mouth, and he spat it in a forceful spray toward Esaax.
Esaax was ready. His tail rose, its oculons collecting a broad spectrum of data about his opponent and any incoming attacks. Focusing hard, he opened the pathways to his retaliatory empathy centers. Doing this so consciously and deliberately was difficult for any wobbuffet, but years of practice had finally allowed him to master this ability. A bright pink aura flared around him as the acid hit its mark and seared the skin of his left arm, sending an amplified echo of the pain that the poison-type attack had caused back unto the arbok.
Syr shouted in pain and recoiled, surprised by the force of Esaax’s mirror coat—it seemed he hadn’t weakened his acid attack as much as he’d intended. “Sorry…” he said, at which Esaax made a dismissive gesture despite the pain in his expression.
“Very good,” Teresa said to Esaax. “Now this time, try to suppress it. Hit him a little harder, Syr,” she added, earning a rather uneasy look from the arbok.
This time, Esaax braced himself. His efforts to develop his abilities had enhanced them to a point where it took very little to set them off. As he took Syr’s second acid attack in the other arm, he had to fight hard to suppress his body’s urge to retaliate. Luckily for Syr, Esaax succeeded.
“Excellent! Syr, change attacks,” Teresa commanded.
Syr lunged forward in a bite attack, his fangs taking on the violet-black glow of dark-type energy as they connected with Esaax’s side—but he made a very conscious effort not to let them sink in too deeply. An orange flash heralded what was nonetheless a very strong counter attack, and the arbok was sent reeling back with a cry.
“What the…” Syr’s voice faltered as he struggled somewhat to pick himself back up off of the ground, panting slightly. “I’m holding back. I swear I’m holding back.”
“I’m sure you are, but you’re still hittting a psychic pokémon with a dark attack,” Teresa said. “Now bite him again.”
Syr opened his mouth… but then closed it. His brows were drawn together with worry.
“He’ll suppress it this time. You ought to be fine,” Teresa assured him.
Syr hesitated for another moment, then gave a quick nod and approached the wobbuffet again. He stopped in front of him, then gave one of his hands a very weak little nibble, with a negligible amount of dark energy accompanying the attack.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” Esaax said.
Syr bit him harder. Barely harder.
“Come on, that one didn’t count, either!”
“Do it, Syr,” Teresa said rather sternly.
“Okay, okay!” In his haste, Syr’s jaws snapped shut on their target with full force. Esaax cried out, and the sound echoed in the room for several seconds. The arbok quickly let go of him and cringed, but there was no orange flash and no painful retaliation.
There was, however, an irregular semicircle of deep punctures around Esaax’s chest and left shoulder. The wobbuffet panted as he stared, quite astonished, at the wounds. Syr stared at the damage as well, looking equally surprised and deeply apologetic.
Teresa managed a proud smile at Esaax. “Congratulations,” she said. “If your tail can resist that, it can probably resist anything.” Her frown swiftly returned as she watched the rivulets of cobalt-colored blood now seeping from Esaax’s wounds. “Looks like your prize for passing the test is going to be a healthy dose of hyper potion…”
Chapter 3: In Review
Esaax’s wounds were cleaned and repaired, leaving only a faint series of scars where the stronger bite had connected and nothing at all of his lesser injuries. Soon afterward, Teresa informed him that Adn was ready for him. Esaax told Syr to find somewhere comfortable to wait, then headed for Adn’s office. With a deep, steadying breath, he walked in of his own accord where once he’d have had to be pushed.
Behind that door stood a blue-haired gardevoir, who served as the Haven’s psychic regression therapist. His method was to make patients relive various moments in their pasts and gauge their present states of mind by their conscious and subconscious emotional reactions to their induced recollections. Despite the marathon session that he was reported to have just endured, he still looked as far from exhaustion as one could possibly be.
As always, not a word was spoken and no signal was made as Adn and his patient took their places. The scene of the office blurred and warped, swiftly replaced by very different surroundings. Once again, Esaax found himself thrust into a perfectly vivid replica of a scene from his memory. Now standing in this bygone time and place like a tourist in his own past, his regression began…
* * *
Esaax was born fifty-four years ago to the Evergray clan of the caves south of Blackthorn. His childhood was quiet and uneventful; not much changed from night to night until Esaax reached his mid-thirties. It was there and then, at the dawn of his adult life, that one evening brought something new—something that would alter the course of his life forever.
From faraway Hoenn, a nomadic branch of a clan called the Fade somehow journeyed across the sea and into Evergray territory. The foreigners were readily welcomed and allowed to stay as honorary members of the community while in the area.
Among the visitors was a wobbuffet by the name of Ntairow. She and Esaax began spending time together and soon bonded, first as friends, then as lovers.
Then, only a few months after arriving, the Fade moved on. Though Ntairow demanded to stay, and Esaax offered up his own pleas for her to remain with the Evergray clan, the elders of the Fade wouldn’t allow it. Ntairow was forced to depart with the rest of her clan, held and carried away in the arms of her people, leaving Esaax behind.
Esaax refused to accept this. He left the caves and tried to follow the Fade through the mountains, but he failed to catch up with them. The nomads were relatively swift, hardy, and used to traveling, whereas Esaax was out of shape. He collapsed there on the mountain trail under his very first sunrise.
He lay there for hours, breathless, heartsick, hungry, sunburned, and alone. Then some peculiar creatures came up the mountain trail and discovered him. They were humans, and they’d come in search of unusual and uncommon pokémon to give away as prizes at the Goldenrod Game Corner. Drained as he was, Esaax could do nothing to resist the red beam that pulled him into a very strange state of not-quite-being.
Week after week went by, spent largely in the confines of what the humans called a “poké ball”. He was let out only to be fed, and the portions given to him were much too small and too infrequent for his liking. As time passed, he began to lose hope of ever finding Ntairow again. Learning that he was the first and only wobbuffet acquired thus far by the Game Corner, with a price in game tokens no one was likely to win, made him all the more certain he wouldn’t.
Then one day, quite literally against the odds, a man from Palmpona cashed in enough tokens to take him home. Esaax was more than a little surprised to materialize not in the Game Corner’s back room but rather in the midst of a birthday party as a present for the man’s son, Benny.
Now in the hands of different humans, Esaax lived a very different life. Benny liked his new pokémon a great deal, and a strong friendship between the two formed quickly. Wherever the human boy went, Esaax went with him, and Esaax never had to go back into the poké ball once he’d made it clear that he disliked it.
Esaax lived this way for three years, and he loved it. He would’ve liked things to remain just as they were forever. But in Palmpona, it was inevitable for every pokémon to ultimately become fodder for the town’s trading obsession. Though Esaax didn’t understand Benny’s desire to trade him, he agreed to respect the young human’s wishes, allowing himself to be put up for trade out of gratitude for the kindness Benny had shown him.
As it so happened, the year Esaax was involved in the trade expo was the first year in its history in which things went awry. Thus it was that he accidentally became a member of Team Rocket. His partners consisted of two humans and four pokémon, one of the latter of which was able to speak the humans’ language. Though the Team Rocket way of existence was riddled with misadventures, Esaax came to find it amusing in a strange way. Fun, even.
Esaax’s new owner, Jessie, didn’t really understand much of anything about him, though—not his language, his needs, or his proper use in battle. She also failed to understand his feelings about being kept in a poké ball, but by that time he’d learned how to break out of one, much to her vexation.
While in her possession, the problems with his tail first began to rear their heads. One day found him going into autoempathic crisis and very nearly dying from it. Nearly losing him awakened a much greater appreciation for him in Jessie, and she soon became the best human friend that he’d ever had.
Unfortunately, not long after they’d finally connected in earnest, the world changed for pokémon—and ended for humans. A plague of fatal sleep mysteriously struck the entire human population all over the globe, bringing extinction to the species in just a matter of hours.
With Jessie gone and something of himself lost with her, Esaax fled the scene of her demise and wandered for days in shock. Sometime later, once his spirit had begun to mend itself, he began seeking out old friends, hoping they’d provide a foundation on which to rebuild his life. In particular, he sought his pokémon partners from Team Rocket. Ultimately, his quest yielded six no-shows, one rejection, and one successful reunion. That reunion was very promising in the beginning, but ultimately led to tragedy.
That was the last straw—Esaax’s stability was dealt the killing blow. Once again, he tried to run from his sorrow. Eventually, he found himself in the city of Convergence. It had once been a fully-integrated community, in which pokémon had lived, worked, and learned in many of the same ways the humans did. Following the Extinction, many of the pokémon there continued to live the lifestyles the humans had taught them, perhaps as an act of remembrance.
But Esaax had no more luck in finding serenity there than he’d had in any of the other places he’d searched. He fell into a spiral of sickness and despair that finally culminated with him trying to provoke a houndoom into killing him. She instead took pity on Esaax, delivering him to the Haven and thus to salvation…
* * *
With a quick yet gentle severing of mental connections, the session ended. It was still hard to believe that over half of a century could be compressed into less than five minutes. As far as Esaax was concerned, though, how it was possible wasn’t important. It was what it determined that mattered.
Usually, Adn would dismiss Esaax with a simple, psychic signal, not saying a single word. This time, much to Esaax’s surprise, was different.
“I see that the sorrows of your past can still evoke pain in you, Esaax,” the gardevoir said.
Esaax pondered that for a moment. Then he wilted. “You mean I failed the test?”
Adn burst into laughter so suddenly and unexpectedly that Esaax flinched. “No, no!” the gardevoir said warmly. “You’ve passed! If the memories of your grief and despair hadn’t hurt, then you would have failed. You ache where it is appropriate, and you rejoice where that is appropriate. For you, that’s what’s healthy. Numbness is not.”
“…So I can go, then?”
“Yes, you certainly may,” the gardevoir said, smiling proudly. “Farewell, and good luck to you!”
* * *
The time to return to the world at large had finally come. As Esaax stood before the exit next to Syr, he bade farewell to the people who’d taken such good care of him. Teresa made him smile, Madeline made him feel slightly ill, and a skiploom he didn’t even know just baffled him by doing something very rude with her tiny arms (which Esaax didn’t realize wasn’t intended for him). Adn was absent, apparently already engrossed in another session, but he sent his kind regards with Teresa.
On the verge of tears, yet beaming like the sun, Esaax thanked everyone for their support and waved one last goodbye. Then he passed through the doors as they opened, emerging into the outside world for what felt like the first time in eons.
Chapter 4: The Messenger
The nearest place to park in the shade was five blocks away from the Haven. Five blocks to walk under the harsh midday sun, which Esaax hadn’t been under for years. He certainly wasn’t enjoying it, and he continued to wonder how in the world a snorunt could tolerate it at all, shade or no shade. He still halfway expected to find a little gray-and-yellow corpse sitting behind the wheel—or perhaps just a puddle…
Breaking away from that train of thought and the rather morbid turn it had decided to take, Esaax tried to distract himself from the light and the heat. “Hey Syr. Think Jan’d let me drive? It’s been a while.”
“It’s ‘Jen’, Esaax, not ‘Jon’,” Syr corrected.
“I said ‘Jan’.”
“Well, whatever you said, it was wrong. Anyway, no, you can’t drive this car.”
“Yes I can,” Esaax said a bit crossly. “Just tell him to point the way.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s just not gonna happen. Besides which… well… I haven’t forgotten your record with vehicles. Every time you tried to drive something, anything, you’d break it or wreck it, or else you’d just—”
“But they fixed that at the Haven,” Esaax interrupted. “They made me stronger so I can be more careful and less likely to break things.”
The arbok at his side raised a scaly eyebrow at him. “…Somehow that doesn’t sound quite right.”
“I’m not gonna wreck it! Just let me drive the stupid thing!”
“I’ll only say this one more time. Listen very carefully. You can’t drive this car,” Syr said.
Esaax was about to argue some more, but then he actually saw the car—a copper convertible—for himself and knew at first sight that Syr was absolutely right. The wobbuffet couldn’t drive it, no matter how much he wanted to or how carefully he thought he could. The driver’s seat had been modified, reshaped expressly for small species to put everything within their reach. The space was so small and everything in it crammed so closely together that it would have been awkward to the point of impossibility for someone Esaax’s size to occupy and use.
And there was indeed a snorunt behind the wheel. Despite Esaax’s concerns, the ice-type was very much alive and well. Jen scrutinized Esaax through beady little eyes, nibbling every few seconds at a tropical snow cone as he stared. “That’s him?” he asked.
“Yes, this is Esaax. Esaax, this is my son, Jen,” Syr said.
“Uh… hi,” Esaax greeted him with an awkward little wave.
“Hi,” Jen responded, continuing to stare at Esaax. Then he smiled at the wobbuffet, further baring teeth that looked more than capable of taking off an arm. “I’m very happy to meet you, Esaax. You can ride up front with me if you want.”
Esaax shivered, finding that smile more than a little unnerving. But it looked as though he didn’t really have much choice with regards to the seating arrangements; Syr was really too big to ride anywhere but in the back, and it’d be more than a little cramped if Esaax joined him. Most of his body could handle the compression just fine, but his tail gave him pause.
So Esaax took his place next to the snorunt, albeit reluctantly. The arbok got in after him, coiling loosely across the back seats, and within seconds they were all on their way.
“So uh…” Esaax said to Jen shortly after they’d headed off, chatting more out of nervousness than actual interest, “how do you plan on driving this thing once you evolve and don’t have hands anymore?”
“He’s not evolving,” Syr said.
“Now that’s not fair,” said Esaax. “You can’t forbid him to evolve just because you’re scared of—”
“No, it’s all right,” Jen assured him. “I don’t want to become a glalie. If he said ‘do it’, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do it for anyone.”
“Huh. I always thought it’d be kind of neat to evolve,” Esaax said.
“You never have?” Jen asked.
“Well, yeah, I have, before I was born. But that doesn’t really count.”
“Huh… Anyway, it isn’t just ‘kind of neat’. It’s major. It’s not just your shape that changes—your whole life changes. Especially when it comes to changing into a glalie…”
Jen gave a small shudder and went dead silent, apparently not wanting to proceed any further with that topic. Luckily they arrived at their destination just then, preventing things from getting much more awkward.
The three of them entered the house, and the interior caught Esaax by surprise. This had once been a home for humans, and outwardly it still looked like one. But on the inside, only a scattered few furnishings, such as a television and a large, gray sofa, still spoke of its former residents. In the place of human décor, the home had largely taken on a more natural appearance, fashioned into a curious amalgam of a woodland burrow and a cave.
Esaax tossed himself onto the sofa like a bean bag and stared up at the ceiling and the artificial stalactites that hung there. Their points hung a lot closer to the ground than the ones he remembered from Evergray territory; he had to shoo away an sudden, unbidden mental image of one of them breaking off and falling on him. “How long did it take to put all this together?” he asked as he turned his gaze back toward the arbok, indicating his surroundings with a wave of his hand.
“Couple of months,” Syr answered. “We started right after I got Jen. We actually had a pretty small team working together on it; I’m surprised the work went by so fast.”
“I think it’s cool,” Esaax said. “You guys did a good job.”
That wasn’t Syr. Esaax looked over to his right and found Jen offering him some dainty-looking little cookies on a tray. There was that disturbing smile again—was that a smile? Man, that kid’s creepy, Esaax thought. He took two of the cookies and thanked Jen so as not to risk offending the snorunt’s feelings—he didn’t want to find out the hard way just what those teeth could do.
Esaax popped a couple of the cookies into his mouth, but a weird twinge prickling across the back of his mind in the next moment distracted him from their flavor at once. Someone, and something, were coming his way. He had no time at all to figure out how or why he knew this; just as soon as the notion had hit him, that someone was knocking at the door.
“I’ll get it,” Syr said as he went to answer the door. He opened it and found a xatu standing on the other side.
“Misters Esaax Evergray and Syr. Someone wishes to speak with you,” the xatu said.
“How’d you find us?” asked Esaax as he rose to join Syr.
“And who wants to speak with us?” Syr added.
“I foresaw myself arriving at this destination prior to leaving,” the xatu said in response to the first question. To the latter, “You are summoned by one Faurur ursh Nanku.”
Both Esaax’s and Syr’s eyes widened dramatically at this. Syr’s mouth fell slightly open, but he remained silent.
“I shall wait for you outside until you’re ready to leave.” Without even touching it, the xatu closed the door on the bewildered recipients of his message.
Esaax and Syr looked at each other for a few moments, neither saying a word. Finally, “Jen?” Syr spoke up, turning toward where Jen still stood with his cookie tray. “Esaax and I need to have a talk in private,” the arbok said. Jen nodded and planted himself on the sofa while the others left the room.
Syr led Esaax into the bathroom and shut the door. Esaax noticed that unlike the other rooms he’d seen, the bathroom was almost completely human-style. All the fixtures were still intact—including the toilet. Unbidden curiosities made it to the surface of his mind, even in spite of the much heavier thoughts already there.
Fortunately, Syr brought Esaax back into focus before he couldn’t help asking as well as wondering. “I’m not so sure about this,” the arbok said. “You’re the psychic. Tell me: can we really believe this guy?”
“I’m psychic, but I’m no mind-reader. Still, I’m pretty sure he’s for real. I got this… this feeling about him just before he showed up. I knew he was coming and that his arrival was very important somehow.”
“I guess so. I can still feel the weight of that, plus… something else. I’ve just got this instinct about him, and it just feels really, really… big.” He shrugged. “It’s enough for me to vouch for him, anyway.”
The wobbuffet noticed that he was pacing and realized he’d been doing so ever since he’d entered the bathroom. He’d overestimated his nerves yet again. He managed to get his legs to stop moving, but his tail kept on anxiously switching back and forth. Though he tried, he couldn’t calm it.
Sighing in surrender to his unrest, Esaax said, “You know, that’s actually what I wanted to discuss with you back at the Haven—not the xatu, obviously. I mean, you know, what all you two did after you left T—” He felt his voice catch in his throat. “What you guys did after you left us, and how Faurur’s been lately…”
“I actually haven’t talked with him in a long time,” Syr said, sounding a bit troubled.
“Her,” Esaax corrected.
“You really haven’t seen Faurur in a long time…” Esaax remarked. “What’s been keeping you guys out of touch? I always thought you were like the ultimate best friends and all…”
“Hey, it’s not like it was my fault!” Syr blurted out. His outburst surprised even himself. He took a moment to stop and breathe; then, “Sorry… sorry, it’s not like it was really Faurur’s fault, either. Something happened—something really strange. It was almost right after Faurur and I parted ways with you. These strange lights appeared and moved across the sky one night. The next day, the koffing were all saying that their ‘gods’ had arrived. They demanded that my people swear loyalty to these gods, too.
“We had no clue what they were talking about, and we weren’t about to just give ourselves and our faith to total strangers. So the koffing drove us all away—you wouldn’t believe how strong they can be in a group…” He shook his head. “Anyway… since you’ve seen her more recently than I have… how was she?”
Esaax hesitated. He didn’t really want to go on about what had happened between himself and Faurur; the memory still pained him to no small degree. But at the same time, he couldn’t help feeling like he owed it to Syr, seeing as the arbok and weezing had known each other and been close friends long before he’d come into the picture.
As Esaax began to tell his story, his voice underwent a marked transformation. His words were strained; it was all too clear that he was forcing them out.
“After the Extinction,” Esaax began, “I tried to get back together with some of the old crew. No luck finding anybody other than Basath, but… well, she kind of hates me… You never got to meet her, though, did you?”
“No, I didn’t,” Syr confirmed.
Relief washed over Esaax’s features; maybe he could put off discussing that incident, then. Deciding he needed to get back on topic as quickly as he could, “Eventually, I managed to find Faurur,” he said. “Now, as for these ‘gods’ you were talking about, she didn’t mention any such thing. And when I asked her where you were, the answer she gave me was really ambiguous. She told me that you and the ekans just decided to go off on your own somewhere, and that you gave no explanation as to why.
“What she said didn’t seem suspicious at the time. I don’t remember that anything about the situation did. But now that I think about it, I’m not surprised that I missed the signs. I was… kind of in another mind at the time…
“Anyway…” Esaax’s voice started to tremble and crack. “…Anyway, something went wrong—nothing to do with gods or sky-lights or any such crap. Faurur wanted to know, of course, what had become of her poor, precious ‘Master’. She actually, honestly didn’t know; that’s how far-removed her life had become. I had to break that news to her. I had to deliver that message—it was awful.
“You can just imagine her reaction, right?” But before Syr could answer, “Wrong. You have no idea. I mean, the level of adoration she had for him… it was much greater than we ever thought. I told her, and it was like I’d just ripped her right open…”
Once again, Esaax caught himself pacing and stopped himself, albeit with difficulty. But this time, rather than standing, he sank to the floor, sliding down the wall until his spine bent at a sharp angle.
“It was awful,” he repeated. “I just felt like a monster for making her feel that way. And so I swore that, no matter what, I would do anything to help her. I gave her that pain, so I had to be the one to take it away. I had to be there for her so she could recover.”
His voice changed yet again; it was now barely more than an exhalation. “We became very, very close…”
Syr’d had his head lowered in the somberness his friend was casting over the room. He finally looked back up at Esaax and found the wobbuffet staring at nothing.
“We became very close,” Esaax said, “and then… and then we…” He swallowed very hard. “We had an egg.”
For a moment, Syr was too surprised to say anything. Even once he found his voice and his wits again, “Oh… oh wow…” was all he managed.
“We had a little girl,” the wobbuffet continued. “A koffing, of course, but a little more blue than purple because of me. When she hatched, she was so tiny I could hold her in one hand…” He gave a wistful and very shaky smile. “She was named Drasigon, and I really liked that name. Faurur told me that it means ‘never ignored’, and I agreed on it instantly.”
Startlingly, his gaze locked back into focus in a single moment. With a stare like a homing missile straight into Syr’s eyes, Esaax said, “Guess how long she lasted.”
“Come on, guess.”
What kind of a thing is that to say? Syr wondered. “…How long?” he finally asked.
There was no response.
“How long?” Syr asked again, more gingerly this time.
“Four days,” Esaax answered abruptly, harshly. “Four days. That’s all. Four days, and then she just burst into flames. And then she was gone, Syr, like some evil magic hit her. For no reason!”
Esaax was shaking so hard at this point that it looked like he could just fall apart. His eyes closed, overflowing with tears. As Syr stared at him in shock and sorrow, feeling tears gathering at the corners of his eyes, he thought that he saw something strange, something troubling: for just a second, there seemed to be a faint, multicolored aura around Esaax.
“And Faurur was there when it happened, too,” Esaax went on. “We were just frozen there for a little while. I looked her right in the eyes, and… and I just didn’t know what to do, so I… so I just ran…”
Silently weeping, Syr gathered up the wobbuffet in his coils and embraced him tightly as if trying to hold him together. Though Syr certainly wanted to reunite with Faurur, he wasn’t sure it was such a good idea for Esaax to revisit that aspect of his past face-to-faces, regardless of whether or not the wobbuffet wished to do so. In fact, Syr began to wonder if maybe the only place Esaax ought to be going was right back to the Haven…
Before he could say anything to that effect, however, Esaax took a very deep breath, stood once more, and then effortlessly removed himself from the arbok’s coils. “I have to go back to her,” the wobbuffet said. “Right now.”
“Are… are you sure that’s such a good idea?” Syr asked quietly.
“She needs us,” Esaax responded, wiping the tears from his face as well as he could. “Both of us. She wouldn’t have called for us both if she didn’t. If something happened to her because I couldn’t be there for her…” He swallowed hard again. “…I don’t think I could forgive myself, Syr.”
Syr frowned at Esaax for a moment, still unsure about the situation. Esaax lowered his gaze, then turned toward the door. Sighing, Syr followed him out of the room and back to where the xatu was waiting, hoping that this was indeed the safer course of action for his friend to take.
Chapter 5: The Fire and the Air
A golden light swelled around Syr, Esaax, and the xatu. When it faded, the xatu bowed and bade them farewell, saying that he knew when to return for them. With that, he teleported away, leaving Esaax and Syr alone and somewhat confused.
Where the bird had brought them was not where either had expected to go. They were in a very long and narrow alleyway. Two tall, rather plain buildings loomed up on either side, and a huge cement wall created a dead end. The structures cast dreary, gray shadows into the alley that made it seem later in the day than it actually was.
“Look at this place,” Esaax said. “This could be any city… there’s no telling where we are.” He kicked at an old, dented soda can. “You know… I think it’s kinda strange that Faurur had us brought to meet her here when she could have had that xatu bring her to us.”
“I’m not surprised, actually,” Syr said, then shook his head as if trying to clear something out of it. “Poison-folk don’t tolerate being exposed to psychic energy very well. I know I didn’t particularly enjoy the trip, but I don’t think we really went very far. Otherwise, I’d really be feeling it. Faurur, however, doesn’t live anywhere near Convergence. Or didn’t the last time I saw her, anyway. It wouldn’t have been good for her to teleport that whole distance,” Syr explained.
“Right, of course… That makes sense.”
Syr nodded. “So where is she?”
“She’s here. I can totally feel it.”
“Oh, I know. I’m aware of her, too; she’s got to be nearby,” Syr said. “I’ll just keep looking over here, and you—” He fell silent.
“Esaax, come here,” the arbok said softly.
Esaax heeded the arbok, feeling an awful, compelling sort of dread about what he was going to see. What did he find? he wondered. Dear Night… she’s not dead, is she?
It turned out she wasn’t, but her current state suggested that might not be the case for much longer. She was reduced to lying deflated on the asphalt, pale and shapeless.
Esaax leaned forward as close to her as he could, but he couldn’t have reached eye level with her at this point without melting into the earth. Tears stung his eyes as he took in the sight before him. He could barely breathe, feeling as though he could just cave in on himself at any moment, just like she had.
But why had she? What had happened to her? Esaax had only seen Faurur this way once before: one time (out of countless many), when their meowth-head balloon had been shot down by that particular pikachu, she’d landed very ungracefully upon the rocks below. Her mantle had torn, leaving her deflated and unable to get up off the ground until she was given the necessary medical attention.
Esaax could see no sign of a breach this time, but still… “What did this to you?” he asked hoarsely.
“Nothing,” Faurur replied, her twin voices sounding very weak. “Nothing but the seasons. One hundred and thirteen seasons… too many…”
“What? Oh no, that’s right…” Esaax said as he remembered. It was a statistic that Faurur had mentioned to him while they’d been waiting for their egg to hatch. About a hundred seasons, or twenty-five years, was generally as long as any weezing could expect to live. Most didn’t make it anywhere near that far, and yet Faurur had managed to surpass that mark.
Thus Faurur was very, very old. Esaax explained these details to Syr while Faurur silently gathered her strength for more crucial words. The two gazed upon her with immense sorrow as the apparent truth sunk in: she hadn’t called them there to help her. She’d called them to say goodbye.
“Listen,” Faurur spoke up again. “I came here to warn you. Beware the strangers from the sky!”
“From the sky…” Syr’s mind, reluctant to process this situation further, didn’t know what to do with Faurur’s unexpected warning at first. “…Do you mean the sky-lights? I thought those were your gods,” Syr said.
Faurur emitted a sound of loathing, a deep groan that was alarmingly loud given her condition. “Gods?” she scoffed. “Deranics aren’t gods. Worms, maybe. But not gods. They tricked us. They promised us happiness. But they brought only slavery. My whole colony—my family, all of them, never to be free again. And after we fought so hard for them!” She stared up at Syr with anguish in all four of her eyes.
“I know,” the arbok said, his voice constrained. “It’s okay. Your people didn’t really mean to drive mine away, did they?”
“No. The deranics controlled us with their lies. But listen, they won’t stop with us. More will come and spread their worm-lies through all lands. They’ll seem so nice at first, but don’t trust them—that’s how they started with us.”
Faurur lowered her voices even more then, as if afraid of someone overhearing. “This is very important. Pay attention and never forget: their work has already begun. Already something huge has been done to the world by them. I know because I heard it from them myself. They think we’re too stupid to remember what they say… Anyway, they call it…”
She had to stop to catch her breath, but she was also working through a minor frustration. Finally, she forced herself to continue. “They call it ‘Seterhath Zulo-Denvenda’.” And then she literally spat, the sludge arcing weakly and splattering on the ground before her. “Filthy worm-language! We all know some of their words, but these…”
Faurur winced, revealing her pain for the first time. “I have no time,” she said, half-panting. “You must figure it out. Don’t forget: beware the deranics. And don’t forget ‘Seterhath Zulo-Denvenda’. Figure it out and warn the world, please!”
“We will,” Syr said, his voice shaking. “We will. Don’t worry.” Esaax nodded in agreement.
Faurur smiled at them. But then she cried out in agony.
Esaax cringed at the horrid noise—and just as it erupted from the dying weezing, a shard of burning pain sliced deep into his chest. In that moment, suspicions he’d had about himself for a long time grew stronger than ever before.
“Faurur… I think I can help you,” he said then, his voice sounding very fragile. He leaned forward and laid his hand upon her as he spoke—just as he’d done once before, with someone else…
Her body was still save for the vague fluttering of her mantle as she breathed. Esaax, meanwhile, was shaking so hard that he could barely stand as he struggled to accomplish something he still only suspected he could actually do. Even as the first hints of a multicolored aura began to blink into existence around him, he feared his efforts would prove to be in vain. Still, he kept trying. He owed her greatly, and for reasons beyond the fact that she’d been his friend and lover.
“I’m so sorry,” he managed in barely more than a whisper.
Faurur no longer howled or screamed. She seemed to have moved beyond pain at this point. She only made a small, puzzled noise at Esaax, as if she didn’t understand what he was saying.
“For running away,” Esaax elaborated. “For abandoning you all those years ago. First… first, Drasigon left you, and then I…”
Faurur actually gave a little chuckle of surprise. “Is that all? It’s fine! Don’t cry, I’m not angry at you. You just didn’t understand. Drasigon never left. She just changed into the air. You see? You just didn’t understand then, so you ran away. But now maybe you do understand.”
She must be delirious… Esaax thought. “I still shouldn’t have just taken off on you like that.”
“It’s fine,” Faurur repeated. “Why do you fret? You’re here now, right? And Drasigon…” Both of her mouths curved into weak but earnest smiles. “Drasigon is here, too, in the air. Can’t you feel her?”
So that’s what she’s saying. Esaax kept his hand upon Faurur despite how unnervingly warm she suddenly became. “I was always told that we become part of the earth after… you know.”
“Maybe,” Faurur said softly. “All I know is the fire and the air…”
And then, as if on cue, flames blossomed from within her. She gazed up at Esaax and Syr, her expression showing nothing but pure and serene adoration even as the fire raged. Within mere seconds, the flames had consumed her completely.
Esaax had involuntarily pulled his hand away just in time, but how close he’d come to being burned couldn’t have been further from his mind. He hadn’t had enough time to completely form the psychic link by which he’d hoped to help Faurur. A sense of failure grew within him, and it felt as if it were hollowing him out inside.
As Esaax watched Faurur’s ashes and embers float away, he felt Syr gently lay his tail-tip upon his shoulder.
“Esaax… I think there’s someplace you really need to be right now,” the arbok said very quietly.
Then, just as the xatu had promised, the golden light of teleportation bloomed once more to bring them home.
Chapter 6: Hope
Jen opened the door for Syr and Esaax upon their arrival. The arbok slithered into the house with all the liveliness of a zombie, practically carrying Esaax.
Syr placed the listless wobbuffet on the sofa and made his way into the kitchen, realizing a beat later that Jen had followed him. Without turning, he said, “I’m about to need you and your car again. Esaax is going right back to the Haven.”
“Going back?” There was a constant clicking as Jen’s tiny, gray feet hopped and skittered across the linoleum. He was apparently having a very hard time holding still.
Syr sighed heavily. “We’ve just experienced… something difficult. I’m worried that Esaax might not be well enough to handle it.”
Syr told Jen about what had happened in the alley with Faurur. He also told him about the strange aura that had appeared around Esaax before they’d gone to see her.
“They must have made some kind of mistake at the Haven. I think he’s still suffering from some kind of psychic disturbance,” he said.
Jen remained silent for a few moments after Syr had finished speaking. “…I think I might have an idea,” he then said.
The snorunt was still pacing, meanwhile. His eyelight was unsteady. Something was clearly gnawing at him. “Are you all right?” Syr asked.
Jen gave Syr a quick glance with preoccupied eyes and swallowed hard. “I’m fine,” he answered. “I think I am, anyway.”
“I hope you are; I’d hate for you to get sick, too.” Something else Jen had said finally clicked. “ You said you had an idea?”
“About Esaax? I was thinking it might be a good idea for him to come to Hope with me tonight. I mean, that place was originally established to help people handle loss,” Jen said. “Maybe the Haven alone just isn’t enough.”
It made sense, Syr thought. At the very least, it seemed like it was worth a try. “I think you might be on to something,” he said.
Jen nodded, insofar as he could. “Maybe you should go, too. I couldn’t help noticing the tears…”
Syr hadn’t noticed them. He quickly turned his head. “I’d… really rather not.” He forced himself to meet Jen’s gaze once more. “But don’t worry. I think all I need is some quiet time alone to remember. Then I’ll be fine.”
“Okay. I’m going to try and talk to him, if that’s all right.”
“Of course it is. Go ahead.”
Jen fetched the nomel cookies and a cup of water and carried them to the living room and the spiritless wobbuffet therein.
Esaax was still lying on the sofa. Mentally, he couldn’t have been further away. He didn’t seem to notice or care that his head and arms had come to dangle over the armrest, his face steadily turning a much deeper shade of blue.
Jen placed the cookies and water on the little coffee table in front of Esaax. Esaax paid no mind.
“I brought you some refreshments,” the snorunt said, but he may as well have spoken to a big, blue brick. He frowned concernedly at the wobbuffet. “You probably shouldn’t be hanging upside-down like that. You might get a head rush.”
He tried pushing Esaax’s head back up over the armrest, but it was too large and heavy for him to hoist up. So Jen decided to take a different approach. He hopped up onto the other end of the sofa and grabbed Esaax by the pods. With a tremendous effort, Jen managed to pull the wobbuffet back up into a more proper resting position.
Jen sat down on the armrest opposite Esaax, panting as he did so. Once he caught his breath, “I heard about what happened today,” he said. “I’m really sorry. I wish there was more I could do, but…”
If Esaax was listening, if he was even hearing Jen’s words, he gave no indication of it.
Jen’s frown deepened, but he carried on regardless. “Anyway… I was wondering if you’d like to come to the Hope Institute with me later on. The people there are very knowledgeable about the kinds of things you’ve been through. If you want to talk about it with them, you can. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, too. I think even just being there might help. I know it’s helped me. So… do you want to come along with me tonight?”
The snorunt might as well have said nothing at all. Esaax just continued his zombielike stare into nothingness with glazed eyes and sagging lips, completely unresponsive.
Jen sighed. How in the world can I get through to him? he wondered. He stared like a bird of prey at the untouched cup of water as he mulled over this problem. As he did, the liquid began a curious transformation. It shimmered and gave a slight quiver, and then with a tiny crack, it instantly froze solid. It then began sprouting up and out of the cup, spreading out into intricate, crystalline branches as it rose.
Strangely, this tree made of ice seemed to be just what it took to coax Esaax back into the present. The moment it caught his eye, he was enthralled by it; the shapes the enchanted ice was forming were soothing and mesmerizing in an odd way.
Esaax noticed the snorunt out of the corner of his eye. Is he doing this? he wondered. Wait… is he glowing? Esaax turned his sights fully toward Jen… but it seemed that there was no glow about him after all.
Huh. Must’ve imagined that, Esaax thought idly. Back to the tree… pretty… Still spellbound by the moving ice, “Where’d you say this was?” he asked in a voice that was devoid of inflection.
The wobbuffet’s voice snapped Jen out of his own altered state. Only then did he notice the ice tree, and he gasped in shock as he realized what had been happening. I almost let it go that time… It was getting harder and harder for him to resist the urges of a body that desperately wanted to evolve.
“Oh, um, it’s called the Hope Institute. It’s just on the other side of town,” he said. “Are you saying you want to go?”
Esaax was wearing a smile that looked both contented and intoxicated. “Yeah,” he answered, “sure…”
“All right,” Jen said. “I'll go tell my dad, then.” He hopped off the sofa and left the room, leaving Esaax to stare at his accidental creation. Jen wasn’t so fond of that tree, given what it signified, but at least some good seemed to be coming out of it. If anyone needed a nice distraction, it was certainly Esaax.
* * *
Mid-evening, Jen’s convertible pulled up to the curb across the street from the sprawling, single-story structure that was the Hope Institute. It had no identifying characteristics other than a simple wooden sign on which the word “HOPE” was painted in black unown-characters. The sign was crudely lit from beneath with a single lightbulb.
As Jen led Esaax (who was once again independently mobile, albeit still seeming a bit distracted) through the entrance, a sceptile at the door stopped and bowed in front of them.
“Blessings,” she said, her tone very warm and inviting.
“Blessings to you, too,” Jen replied, bowing in turn.
“Is the wobbuffet new here?” the sceptile asked.
“Yes, ma’am. He’ll be welcomed, right?”
“Of course.” The sceptile turned to Esaax. “Blessings,” she repeated, bowing to him and offering her clawed hands, which Esaax took as he returned what seemed to be the ritual greeting in this place.
“May your spirit be ever light,” the sceptile said in farewell, as Jen and Esaax left her behind and headed indoors.
Esaax followed Jen into an assembly space of some sort: a large, well-lit room whose walls were plastered with posters bearing various uplifting slogans in unown-script. Looking around, he saw a diverse collection of pokémon species gathering in this place. A few of the attendees were milling about, while others were conversing with one another in small cliques. Most of them, however, were already forming a nice and orderly audience. Standing, sitting, coiled, grounded, or perched in semi-loose rows, they all had their eyes or equivalent sensory organs trained straight forward at a presently unoccupied, scarlet-curtained stage.
Clearly something was about to take place there, and so Esaax turned his attention forward, too. It wasn’t long before the stage was no longer empty.
A hitmonlee stepped out from behind the curtain, carrying a microphone and a clipboard. He scanned the audience briefly, and for a moment he looked like he was ready to speak. But then he glanced at his clipboard and gave the mouthless equivalent of a frown.
The hitmonlee turned and shouted something to someone offstage, though Esaax was too far away to hear exactly what was said. At the hitmonlee’s call, an especially large glalie drifted across the stage toward him.
“Hey, Jen,” Esaax said, continuing to sound only partially present. “That glalie up there… is that someone you know?”
“No,” Jen said, and he sounded distinctly uneasy. “No, I don’t.”
“You’re sure you don’t? Cause he’s acting like he knows you. He’s looking this way right now.”
Indeed he was. He’d apparently become fixated on Jen and Esaax’s general location.
“…Why is he staring at us like that?” Esaax asked, nervousness beginning to break through his previously dazed tone.
The glalie hesitantly broke eye contact with Esaax and Jen as he finished his conversation with the hitmonlee. Then he went right back to giving the two of them the laser-eye. With his stare unbreaking, the glalie descended from the stage and started making his way into the audience.
“Why is he coming this way?” Esaax asked in a small, slightly panicked voice.
Jen didn’t answer. He only watched the glalie approach, standing stock still all the while.
The glalie came to a halt before the two of them. “Blessings,” he said.
“Blessings,” Esaax and Jen returned in unison. If Jen was still uneasy around the glalie, he did an admirable job concealing it.
The glalie’s gaze shifted more toward Esaax. “Pardon me,” he said, “but could you come with me, please?”
“…What for?” Esaax asked uneasily. He found himself starting to shiver and wished he could stop, but his steadily building unease wouldn’t let him. He was beginning to realize in earnest that he didn’t really have any idea what was going on here, and the current face of his uncertainty was just too large and too close for comfort.
“I’m sorry, but this is the youth assembly,” the glalie answered. “You’ll want our adult group.”
Esaax took another look around and finally recognized that the audience was indeed comprised entirely of children and adolescents. He looked to Jen, but the snorunt made no move to contradict the glalie.
With a nod and a vaguely affirmative noise, Esaax agreed to follow the glalie to this “adult group”. But just as they were about to leave, the glalie hesitated and turned back around. He was staring again, but only at Jen this time, and the glalie looked distinctly conflicted as he did so.
However, the action terminated without explanation, the same way it had begun. The glalie abandoned whatever that pause might have led to in something of a hurry, leaving Esaax scrambling to catch up.
Esaax followed behind the glalie through corridor after corridor. He might have been more fascinated by how swiftly such a creature was able to move in spite of having no legs and looking to be very heavy if it weren’t for the fact that he was growing more confused and anxious by the second.
What is this place… and why did I come here? He honestly couldn’t remember. His mind offered only blankness whenever he tried to present it with those questions.
He had other questions, too: Where are we going, exactly? How big is this place, anyway? The youth assembly looked like it was about to start when we left; wouldn’t the adult meeting have started by now, too? Shouldn’t we already be there?
Unless that’s not really where we’re going… That thought was truly unsettling. What if I really am in some kind of trouble… Oh crap, am I?
Esaax almost tried seeing if the glalie would shed some light on things, but he found that asking questions to his back wasn’t much easier than asking them to his face. He couldn’t just stay quiet, though; as it ever did, his nervousness forbade it. Esaax finally opted to start out with small talk, hoping it would help him to bring out the more important questions and their answers more easily.
“Excuse me, uh, sir?” Esaax began tentatively.
“What’s your name?” Esaax asked.
“Solonn,” the glalie answered, “and you?”
“Ah, all right, then. Pleasure to meet you, Esaax,” Solonn said.
The glalie’s last few words didn’t quite reach Esaax. Whatever the ice tree had done to the wobbuffet’s mind was continuing to dissolve at an increasing rate, replaced just as quickly by a growing, unrelenting feeling that he’d forgotten something crucially important, the sort of thing that should be utterly impossible to forget.
“I’m afraid we’re already a little late,” Solonn then said, “but the good news is that I know a shortcut through the building that’ll keep you from missing too much more of the assembly. We’ll just go right around here, and—”
Solonn halted all of a sudden, neither executing his turn nor finishing his sentence. A pair of doors to his right had just slid open unexpectedly. A second later, there emerged the most peculiar creature…
Chapter 7: One on One
Esaax stared at the creature who’d just stepped out into the corridor. The newcomer stood on two legs and had chin-length, reddish-brown hair. He wore human clothing, which in and of itself wasn’t terribly remarkable; Esaax had seen the occasional pokémon wear human-style clothing before, both before and after the Extinction. He’d even worn some himself. What had taken such a strong hold of Esaax’s attention was the fact that it really looked as though this wasn’t just another pokémon dressing like a human…
Esaax shook his head, dismissing that possibility as well as he could. There’s no way, he told himself silently. It has to be a trick of some kind. Like a disguise or something…
“Sir… don’t you have a client to tend to at the moment?” Solonn asked of the newcomer.
“He didn’t show,” DeLeo responded. “And I suspect he’s not gonna. He was doing an awful lot of sniffling last time. So I thought I’d take it easy and grab a bite to eat instead,” the newcomer replied. There was something strange about his voice; it almost sounded as though he were performing a less-than-perfect impression of another person.
It was then that he noticed Esaax. His eyes widened, and he smiled broadly. “Hey, there! Haven’t seen you around here before!” He offered his hand to the wobbuffet; Esaax took it after a moment’s hesitation, and was given a vigorous handshake with a surprisingly strong grip. “The name’s Sylvester DeLeo, and I’m the president and founder of this fine establishment. And you are…?”
“…Esaax” the wobbuffet replied.
“Glad to make your acquaintance, Esaax,” DeLeo said, still smiling. “Say… do you mind if I ask you a quick question?”
“Uh… No, I guess not,” Esaax responded.
“Okay, then. Tell me, what clan are you from?” DeLeo asked.
“Evergray,” Esaax answered, vaguely wondering why DeLeo wanted to know such a thing.
“Ah.” DeLeo straightened his posture. “All right, Esaax, if you’ll just follow me, I’ll take you to my private counseling office,” he said, gesturing toward the room he’d just left.
Esaax stared at the doors in uncertainty for a moment. He looked toward where Solonn had been hovering and found that the glalie had excused himself, taking his knowledge of how to get to the adult assembly with him. “Could I still go to the assembly?” he asked of DeLeo.
“Well, you could,” DeLeo said, “but you’ve already missed a good chunk of it. If you come with me we can take it from the top. Not only that, but your concerns—what you need—could be addressed more directly this way. Seeing as how you’re a first-timer here, I think you’d definitely benefit more from that than from walking in on a meeting that’s not only half-over but is also really geared more toward helping people out with more generalized problems.”
That seemed to make enough sense, at least as far as Esaax was concerned. The idea of going to a meeting and possibly not being able to understand what in the world the people there were talking about didn’t appeal to him at all; he was dealing with enough confusion as it was. “Okay,” Esaax said, allowing DeLeo to lead him into the private counseling office.
DeLeo took a seat behind a desk at the far end of the rather small room, then gestured toward a trio of chairs in differing styles and sizes that were lined up against the wall to Esaax’s right. Esaax regarded them for a couple of moments but then shook his head, indicating that he’d rather just stand.
Esaax had now fully emerged from the tranquilizing haze that had enveloped him, but his amnesia still remained. He was so preoccupied in his search for his missing memories that it was hard to pay unbroken attention to anything going on externally; as such, he didn’t notice right away when the office became significantly darker. He cast a glance up at the dim lights above him, then turned his sights back toward DeLeo.
“Thought you’d be a bit more comfortable this way,” DeLeo explained. “I know wobbuffet aren’t too keen on bright light.” He folded his hands on the desk before him. “So. Before we begin, I’m curious: how’d you discover us, Esaax?” he asked. “Did a friend tell you about us?”
A friend? Esaax didn’t know Jen particularly well, but he nonetheless responded with, “Yeah.”
“Well, I’m glad you took your friend’s advice. You did the right thing coming here, Esaax. I promise you: we’re gonna help you out, no matter what it takes, okay? Now, the first thing you’ve gotta do, though, is you need to tell me exactly what’s wrong.”
That’s what I wanna know! Esaax thought desperately, still struggling to regain his memory and perhaps thereby figure out what he was even doing in this strange place. He remained silent, staring at DeLeo with a very troubled look.
“It’s okay, Esaax,” DeLeo assured him. “You can trust me. Anything you tell me will remain strictly confidential. So you can just go right on ahead and let me know what’s troubling you.”
Esaax would have gladly let it all out if only he’d known what “it” was. Once again, he strained his mind for the answer, doubting his efforts would yield any success.
But then DeLeo provided the answer for him: “You’ve lost someone who meant a lot to you, haven’t you?”
Esaax felt his heart seem to stop for a moment, his breath catching halfway up his throat, as the last remnants of his trance shattered. His full memory returned suddenly, brutally, the sorrows that it carried revealed anew. Such stark lucidity following such a thick mental fog was painful, and he couldn’t help crying out.
“That’s right,” DeLeo said soothingly. “Just let it all out.” He noticed that Esaax was beginning to pitch and sway on the spot as if his spine were turning to rubber. DeLeo stood and managed to pull up a chair for Esaax just in time for the wobbuffet to collapse into it.
DeLeo then returned to his seat. “You’ve got something in common with just about everyone who’s come here, you know. Just like you, they’re also mourning people they loved—particularly their lost human friends. I know you’re gonna have no problem finding people here who can relate to your suffering.”
“No one can do that,” Esaax croaked, his eyes suddenly overflowing with tears. “They can’t possibly understand how I let her—how I let both of them down. How I failed them.” He turned away in shame. “They died because of me,” he whispered.
“Oh, Esaax, no. You know better than that,” DeLeo tried to console him. “It wasn’t your fault that—”
“But maybe it was!” Esaax interrupted. “I… I don’t know. Look, there’s something you don’t know about me. I know it’s gonna sound crazy, but… there’s something strange inside me. I don’t know what it is, but… it can heal people. I just know it can. It could even stop them from dying, but I just don’t understand it enough to know how…”
As Esaax spoke, he stared into the “eyes” of his own tail, gazing into their reddish-black blankness as if he could find the long-sought understanding of his own internal mysteries there. He finally closed both his eyes and his oculons in despair.
“Both times, I didn’t really think very much about doing it, if at all,” Esaax said in a low, cracking voice. “I just tried, and I failed. First Jessie, all those years ago. And then Faurur, just today! If I’m still not good enough to save the people I care about after all this time, then I never will be…”
Esaax fell silent then, but DeLeo gave no immediate response to what he’d said. DeLeo’s face had taken on a somewhat somber expression, his gaze cast downward.
“You know,” DeLeo said quietly after a couple of moments, meeting Esaax’s gaze once more, “you really shouldn’t give up on your talents just yet. And that’s not the only thing you shouldn’t give up on, either. You probably believe, like most people do, that humans are totally extinct. Just gone from the world forever. But what if I were to tell you—” He leaned over the desk toward Esaax for effect. “—that we’re not?”
“…‘We’?” The voice of one of the Evergray elders, reciting one of her favorite sayings, rang out in his memory: “A fool fears he is wrong—a wise man fears he is right.” Esaax had been skeptical about what his eyes had been telling him about DeLeo, but now all those doubts were falling away. DeLeo’s last three words had been spoken in a human language.
Pointing a shaking hand at DeLeo and sounding much more accusatory than he’d intended, he blurted, “You’re—”
“Human,” DeLeo finished, continuing to use that human language. “Yep, that’s right. One hundred percent, honest-to-goodness human. But I’ll bet you suspected it right from the start, though, didn’t you?”
Esaax was almost completely overwhelmed by what the situation was giving him. There had to be some flaw about this creature, Esaax’s mind insisted, something to prove that he wasn’t human, because he couldn’t be—especially not when certain other humans hadn’t been allowed to survive…
When Esaax managed to come up with potential evidence that DeLeo wasn’t what he claimed, he pursued it right away. “You can understand me,” he said. “And the glalie. Humans can’t do that.” Something else dawned on him, as well. “And you’ve been speaking our languages!” He wondered how in the world he hadn’t realized it sooner. “How? You can’t…” he spluttered.
“It’s true,” DeLeo said. “All my life, I’ve been able to talk to pokémon just like they do amongst themselves. Now I’m using that gift to help pokémon deal with their loss.” Even now, speaking in the language of his own kind, there was a definite, unplaceable strangeness about DeLeo’s voice. “I think that might just be the reason why I was spared,” he said solemnly, “though I still don’t have any idea as to how I was spared. Still… the fact that I was gives me hope—hope that I’m not the only one and that maybe… well, maybe those who were lost don’t have to stay lost.”
DeLeo opened a drawer in his desk then, and he began rummaging through its contents. “That’s the real reason why I founded the Hope Institute,” he said. “Not just for the pokémon who were left behind by the plague but for the humans, too. We’re trying to find other survivors so we can help protect them and any future generations of humanity… and we’re also trying to find ways to bring back the ones who didn’t survive.
“And that’s why I’m offering you this.” DeLeo pulled a small, white box out from the drawer. From within it, he brought out a syringe, which he proceeded to fill with a pale blue fluid.
Esaax swallowed against the anxiety that built up in his throat at the sight of the needle. “What’s that?” he asked nervously.
“It’s a serum we’ve developed for pokémon who have abilities or powers that have been compromised or are just plain missing altogether due to birth defects, illness, elemental disruption, or any of a whole slew of other causes. It restores those abilities and powers.”
Esaax’s eyes widened. “Then… you mean, it could strengthen me… and my power… so that it’s not too weak anymore? So that it could be there for me when I need it, and… and I could finally, really help people? And never let anyone down again?”
“Maybe,” DeLeo responded. “I’ve gotta warn you, though: the serum is untested…”
“Then you can test it on me,” Esaax said hoarsely but firmly.
DeLeo nodded and took Esaax’s arm. Seconds later, the serum was coursing through Esaax’s veins, while a single, silent vow repeated again and again behind the wobbuffet’s eyes: Never let anyone down again…
Chapter 8: Phasing Forward, Looking Back
The doors to DeLeo’s office opened, and Esaax let the human usher him out. The wobbuffet found it slightly harder to move than he was used to. His muscles were oddly tense, his tail flicking about restlessly, but his bones almost felt as if they could just melt away. Ah crap, don’t tell me I’m getting sick…
The voice from down the corridor drew Esaax’s attention. He looked and found Jen skittering his way.
“It’s time to go,” Jen said once he came to a stop. His eyes widened. “Wait… did you get to talk to Mr. DeLeo in private?”
Esaax was too distracted by his increasing unwellness to respond at first. “Oh .Yeah,” he finally managed.
DeLeo smiled down at the snorunt. “It was great to meet your friend, Jen. And I think I managed to make a real breakthrough for his benefit. Thanks very much for bringing him.”
“Oh, uh, no problem,” Jen said, still sounding slightly bewildered. “Thanks for helping him,” he added. He then bade DeLeo farewell and led an increasingly pale Esaax away.
DeLeo watched them leave, working his tie between his fingers with something of a faraway look in his mahogany eyes. It’s gonna be all right, Esaax, he thought. Soon you’ll have your old life back. Both of us will…
* * *
Esaax was riding back to Syr’s house with Jen, and he was now genuinely sick. It felt like someone was rearranging his insides, and clumsily at that.
Jen noticed Esaax’s condition at the next red light. “You don’t look so good,” he said.
“Nnnnrrrrrrr…” was Esaax’s reply, and it was the last thing out of his mouth until he and Jen were a block away from Syr’s house, when Esaax threw up over the side of the car.
“Oh…” Jen said as he pulled into the driveway, then stepped out to inspect the mess. “Guess you’ll need to have that checked out… ewww…”
“Haven…” Esaax managed to croak out, “now…”
“Okay, okay, don’t worry…” Jen said. He was about to get back into the car when the front door of the house opened. Syr slithered out and looked about ready to say something, but before the arbok could say a word, Esaax was violently sick again.
Syr shot a distressed look at the wobbuffet, and then at Jen. “What… what’s going on? When’d he get so sick?”
“Just a few minutes ago,” the snorunt answered. “It just hit him out of nowhere.”
“Haven…” Esaax groaned again.
Syr nodded. “Don’t worry,” he said, as much for his own benefit as for Esaax’s, “we’ll get you there right away.” He leapt into the backseat, while Jen got back behind the wheel. “Hurry!” Syr said.
The three of them made a beeline for the Haven, with Esaax vomiting twice more and developing tremors along the way.
* * *
Forty-five minutes had passed since arriving at the Haven. Syr was coiled up in a waiting room, anxiously awaiting an update on Esaax’s condition.
He heard footsteps and steeled himself for whatever news might be coming his way, but it was only Jen approaching, having just returned from getting the car washed.
“Is he going to be all right?” the snorunt asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Syr answered. “I’m still waiting for the nurse to come back.” The end of his tail curled and flexed fretfully.
At last, Teresa entered the waiting room, and Syr met her gaze in a near-instant with hope and dread surging through him all at once. “How is he?” he asked, struggling a bit to keep his voice from cracking.
“He’s stable, for now,” Teresa responded. “He actually came right out of that fit almost as soon as we’d gotten a hold of him. He might still relapse, though; we’ll need to keep him here until we can be sure of exactly what he’s experiencing. He’s in no hurry to leave anyway, trust me. He’s almost too weak to move at all.”
“So… you still don’t know what’s wrong with him?” Syr asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Teresa replied. “We still have some tests to run through, the results of which will hopefully give us the answers we’re looking for. Unfortunately, that will take time.”
Syr’s head lowered, his hope extinguished. The wait for answers wasn’t over after all. “Maybe it really was too soon to let him out,” he said. “That psychic sickness, the one he was in here for to begin with… I think it’s still there. I saw this strange, multicolored aura around him just hours ago, and he’s been like the living dead ever since…”
Teresa’s expression turned troubled. “No such aura ever appeared while he was here, not even once. Adn’s methods should have triggered it if it were still possible for it to be triggered.”
“Is Adn here?” Syr asked. His eyes and his tone begged for the answer to be yes.
“Not at the moment, I’m afraid,” Teresa said, and she sounded genuinely sorry about it. “But I’ll speak with him as soon as he gets back, all right?”
There was a moment’s delay, but then Syr sighed. “Okay,” he said, sounding defeated. “Just… please, take care of him. Please,” he said, looking imploringly into Teresa’s eyes.
“We’ll do everything we can,” Teresa tried to assure him, then turned and left.
As Syr watched her go, he dearly hoped that everything that the Haven’s staff could do would be enough.
* * *
Esaax lay in bed with his eyes closed, still suffering the aches and nausea of his mystery illness. Though miserable, he was about to fall asleep out of sheer exhaustion.
As such, he almost failed to notice the presence that entered his midst then, emerging from the wall just above his bed. A dark bluish-gray gengar now hovered over him, clutching a flat, black stone whose edges had a silvery sheen.
By the time Esaax’s presently-compromised psychic senses realized there was a potentially dangerous, partly ghost-type creature nearby, the gengar had already vanished from the scene. The stone, however, had not—Esaax opened his eyes in a delayed and imperfect state of primal alarm just in time to see it drop from the air and land right on his face.
He would have shouted in pain and surprise, but the moment the stone made contact with his skin, a massive jolt fired through his body that took his breath away. An instant later, it was gone and replaced by an especially unpleasant feeling in his bones—a stretching feeling, as if someone had seized each one of his limbs and both ends of his spine and were pulling on them as hard as they could. It genuinely felt as though every part of him were being stretched out of shape, as if his entire body were being forcibly and dramatically elongated.
There came a second shock, much greater than the first, when Esaax realized that it was.
* * *
Not far away, in a large puddle of recent rain, the reflection of a long, blue face gazed up at its owner: none other than Ntairow Fade, who was finally near the end of a very long search.
She’d been forced by her clan’s leadership to leave Esaax behind with the rest of the Evergray, but she’d never truly accepted the choice they’d made for her. Ultimately, she’d broken free from her clan, aided by a few fellow Fade she’d successfully convinced of the injustice that she’d been dealt.
Soon after she’d escaped, something new came into the picture. Something that had made her all the more glad that she was free to return to the Evergray and reunite with Esaax. That something appeared at her side now, another blue reflection in the water, resting on his long arms as he peered into the puddle with a large, perpetual smile.
“They’re ready, Mother,” the wynaut said.
He was her son, named Zerzekai. Tonight he was going to take part in the ritual of evolution—for about the fortieth time. Zerzekai seemed to fear evolving despite how earnestly he wanted to evolve; as such, every single one of his “transforming” battles thus far had ended the same way: cold feet and only two of them.
“The question is, are you ready?” Ntairow asked.
“Of course I’m ready! I know you’re gonna be proud of me if I do this, and I bet Father will be, too!”
“We’ll be proud of you no matter what,” Ntairow assured him. “And your father’s going to be absolutely delighted to finally meet you, no matter what form you’re in.”
When she’d made it back to Evergray territory, she’d been told that Esaax had left and was nowhere to be found. Upon learning this, she’d set out with her child in order to find him and bring him back to what she’d thought of as her new clan ever since she’d first spent time with them.
“But we already met! …Oh. No, we didn’t. Not really…” Zerzekai reminded himself, sounding crestfallen.
The wynaut and his mother had made numerous return trips to the Blackthorn area in search of Esaax. On one occasion, while exploring and playing alone, Zerzekai had actually found him. He’d realized almost as soon as he’d laid eyes and oculon upon Esaax that he was looking at his father, but he’d lost track of Esaax after running to tell Ntairow about his discovery.
“He should have recognized me,” Zerzekai said, and not for the first time.
Ntairow shook her head. “Different people’s senses don’t always work in the same ways. You know that.”
Differences in the way senses worked was a subject Ntairow’d had a very personal sort of experience with herself. Having already experienced a change in her own, she’d chosen to subject them to another set of enhancing alterations in order to ultimately track Esaax down. She remembered that at the time, she’d found it oddly funny that she’d managed to find the fairly obscure thing that was required to provoke those changes so much faster and easier than she’d found Esaax, and she wondered if he would find that similarly amusing.
She also wondered how much it was going to take to convince him that she was indeed the same person he’d known and loved before. Ntairow wanted to believe it would be easy enough, but…
She loved the Evergray. She really did. Their laws were nowhere near as strict as those of the Fade. But there was a lot about not only the world outside their caverns but also about the secrets of their own kind that they had yet to learn. If, in his time outside of Evergray territory, Esaax hadn’t learned that the course of action she’d taken in order to find him was even an option, she would have to enlighten him about it.
“We’re ready whenever you are!” a voice called out from not too far away then. Its source was a linoone, with a zigzagoon standing at her side.
“Go on, then, if you’re ready,” Ntairow told Zerzekai. “And remember: no matter how this turns out, we will both be proud of you.”
With a smile that was huge, even for a wynaut, Zerzekai rushed over to the linoone and zigzagoon and followed them to a larger clearing. The latter would be the one whom Zerzekai would fight (and defeat—the two normal-types had agreed to Ntairow’s request for the zigzagoon to throw the fight after having been paid handsomely in berries).
And after the battle, regardless of the outcome, they would go to reunite with Esaax. As a shout from the linoone signaled the start of the match, Ntairow found herself reminiscing about the last night she’d spent with him…
Ntairow’s reverie was abruptly shattered by something that seemed to explode inside her head, something that tore through the image of Esaax that she held within her mind and caused that picture to warp and twist.
Ntairow’s heart froze. “No… it’s not possible,” she whispered.
A horrid scream stabbed into her mind then—a psychic scream. It rose up, but then faltered and changed, distorted and corrupted in a way that could only have been achieved by…
“Dear Night, no!” Ntairow stood, reeling as she fought against the harsh brain-noise of the psybane that had suddenly and impossibly blossomed into being. “Don’t follow!” she called out to Zerzekai. But she could only hope and pray that her son had heard her and would obey, for she was already running full tilt toward Esaax and the horror that was befalling him. She suffered all the while as she ran, trying but failing to bite back cries of pain and clutching her head in her hands—in all four of them.
Chapter 9: Altered States
Esaax refused to believe it at first. Wake up, wake up, wake up! he screamed silently, again and again. But in truth, he knew better. This wasn’t a dream. There was no denying this new reality.
He’d shut his eyes to the sight of what was befalling him, wishing he could just pretend it away. Now that he was fully convinced that he couldn’t, a sort of morbid curiosity arose in him and compelled him to look again.
When he did, he saw the same thing his eyes had last shown him before he’d closed them in horror: his body was stretching itself out of shape, giving off a somewhat dim white glow as it did so. He was now longer than the bed on which he lay rather than the other way around—and he was still growing.
This surreal warping of his body had confused and terrified him more than it had actually hurt him up to this point, but now it made the shift from mere discomfort to sheer pain, starting when his head suddenly tore away from his shoulders in a single, violent jerk that threw him from the bed and onto the floor.
Esaax lay there in stunned bewilderment. His mind was almost frozen with fear, but his body was writhing and flailing in panic and agony. He vaguely wondered how he could possibly still be alive when it had genuinely felt like he’d just been beheaded.
The answer was that his head was still attached, though distantly now; he’d grown a very long neck. Its curvature gave him a clear, complete view of his transformation from a distance, as if he were watching it happening to someone else.
Still, the sight of his changes wasn’t anywhere near as awful as the way they felt—or the way they sounded. There was an audible creaking and crunching as his face bulged outward into an almost saurian shape. There were snaps and pops as his tail gained new vertebrae. There was a ripping sound as a meager coating of flesh raced to keep up with the rapidly elongating bones in his legs. There was the wet, sickening churning of altering organs, all the while accompanied by the violent pounding of his heart, every beat like brass knuckles to his sternum.
Pain exploded in his mouth as his original teeth were shattered by the sudden eruption of a new, more dangerous set: one row above and two below of curved, serrated teeth. At the same time, something searing-hot stabbed straight through his eyes to his brain, changing his vision.
His hands then seemed to tear themselves apart from within. Esaax watched in horrified revulsion as each of them split wide open, first at the knuckles and then off to one side, near the wrists. From the gashes, spindly, blood-soaked fingers began to emerge, four to each hand.
He wanted to scream. He’d been trying to all the while. But he was nearly breathless, and his voice wouldn’t come to his summons anyway. It was too consumed by its own changes to obey his involuntary commands.
Finally, there came the worst feeling of all, one that slowly spread up his now nearly eight-foot-long tail from the newly-formed bulb at its end that contained his pseudobrain. It wasn’t a pain but rather an impossible lack thereof. The part of him that should have been suffering the most instead felt nothing at all.
And furthermore, as he noted in fearful bewilderment, his new tail appeared to be eyeless… only to prove it wasn’t, right before his eyes. One by one, his new oculons opened in a ring around the bulb at the end of his tail, four in total.
Esaax’s tail twitched suddenly, and slowly, involuntarily, the multisensory organ curled inward. It brought itself to bear before his eyes, locking on to the center of his forehead. In that moment, in the dead stare of his own tail, Esaax’s heart seemed to stop, and he became as numb and still as a corpse. Then his tail and all of its senses came back to life, and with those senses, Esaax discovered an aspect of his new form that terrified him more than any other.
Right on cue, his voice returned. An unearthly roar tore its way out of him that was almost like two voices in one, simultaneously deep and piercing.
The weak light that had surrounded him finally gave out altogether, and the moment it did, the gengar who’d entered the room earlier appeared once more, rising up through the floor on the opposite side of the bed from Esaax. No sooner had she fully emerged than she seemed to melt back into the floor, her body losing definition as it rapidly dwindled, but she stopped shrinking once she was in her true form: that of a ditto by the name of Anomaly.
Anomaly flattened themself against the floor. As they did so, they extended part of their shapeless body in the form of two long, bright blue tendrils that were each as thin as a hair at the end. One of the tendrils reached out to grab the now spent evolutionary stone that lay a couple of feet away, while the other lashed out toward Esaax, who was now panicking, seemingly crazed.
Esaax’s tail noticed the swiftly-approaching tendril and flicked toward it. But Esaax, too absorbed in the fear and pain that still gripped him, gave no further reaction even as its end darted swiftly into the skin of one of his ankles.
The ditto withdrew both tendrils just as quickly, letting the stone rest on the floor right in front of their face for a moment as they hurriedly transformed again. As soon as a pair of white hands emerged from their changing form, they scooped it back up.
The shape Anomaly was taking was so familiar that they achieved it in no time. Where the ditto had sat mere seconds ago, the gardevoir known as Adn now crouched, but only for a moment before disappearing in a burst of golden light, leaving the Haven behind with no intentions of ever returning.
Almost immediately afterward, a small group of chansey nurses, drawn by Esaax’s screams, arrived at the scene to find the result of his unexpected evolution but nothing at all of its cause.
* * *
Esaax floated, suspended in some strange, viscous medium. Though smotheringly hot, the gel that was wrapped around him was also comforting. He knew it protected him as it held him fast.
There were tubes entering his body from all sides. They fed substances into him that burned like the worst of all acids and brought pain to every part of him, but they also nourished him and gave him life. Despite the hurt they caused, he was grateful for them.
Something appeared in the murky distance, moving toward Esaax with incredible speed and grace. Esaax distantly wondered how it could cut through the gel so effortlessly when he was held so firmly in place by the viscous substance. When the thing drew close enough, Esaax saw that it had the form of a huge, disembodied, four-fingered hand—or rather the shadow of such a hand.
It closed around Esaax the moment he was within range of its long, thin fingers. Its grip felt like being enveloped in icy water. The contrasting cold was sudden yet not terribly harsh. It soon registered as a pleasant and soothing change after having been in such sweltering heat for so long. As the chill sank in deeper, it even started to dull the acidic pain that had been flowing through him.
The hand was snuffing out Esaax’s suffering. It was also snuffing out his life. Little by little, he felt less and less. The coldness filled him completely, consuming his every feeling. And Esaax found himself thinking it was fine to let this chill flush out his soul and leave him hollow, so long as the pain was purged along with it.
The dark hand began to carry Esaax away, and Esaax was perfectly willing to let it. This new void that the shadow-hand offered was comforting. It was good, and it was right. It was where he belonged.
Dragged ever further into the darkness, Esaax felt his nourishing lifelines start to break and pull out of him. Each one lost left him more unfeeling. It was good. It was right. It was…
Wrong! Suddenly panicked, Esaax fought against the tow of the dark hand, straining and thrashing in vain to escape the nothingness—
—and succeeding instead in escaping his unconsciousness. His eyes opened, and he was instantly aware that he’d been moved to another location. There was no bed here, and there was no door, either. There was barely any space at all, just enough to comfortably hold his large, spidery form. This room was nothing more than a place to contain him. It was just a box—or rather a cage, Esaax couldn’t help but think: a cage with soft, padded walls rather than metal bars.
“Nicer than being in a poké ball, anyway,” he thought aloud, and he was immediately surprised by the voice he’d just produced. It was a rasping, guttural kind of voice, sounding somewhere between a hiss and a groan.
I don’t sound like that! Esaax thought fearfully, but the fact was he now did. And oddly enough, he became bored of the new voice just as quickly as he’d been shocked by it. All at once, he felt as if the new voice and all his other changes had always been there.
A movement to his right caught his attention. His tail immediately focused on the source of the motion. A window that had been well-concealed opened there, and a familiar chansey’s face was visible through its thick, reinforced glass.
Esaax pushed his torso up from the floor and got up onto his feet, standing at more than eight feet tall. His neck naturally curved forward and downward, preventing him from having to duck more than just a little to avoid the ceiling.
Teresa watched him stand up, her expression unchanging as he aimed his gaze directly into hers. Her view of the large, blue pokémon was blurred every few seconds by the fog of his breath clouding the glass, giving Esaax an almost miragelike appearance.
“Esaax Evergray,” Teresa addressed him.
Esaax turned his head. The room, he realized, was soundproof. Teresa was speaking into a microphone, and her voice was reaching him through an unseen speaker somewhere behind him. Meanwhile, she listened through a speaker outside.
He turned back toward Teresa. “What?” he responded.
“You’ve evolved,” Teresa said.
“Good eye,” Esaax said blandly. He folded his arms and cocked his head at Teresa. The senses of his tail told him that she wasn’t happy with him, but he found that he didn’t really care. “So what of it?”
“I wasn’t aware that multiple-stage evolution was possible for your species,” Teresa said. “Do you know what you’ve evolved into?”
Esaax only stared at her in response. He hadn’t been aware that wobbuffet could evolve, either. For a moment, he wondered just what he’d become, vaguely annoyed at the fact that he didn’t know. But soon he decided that something else about his current situation was much more important.
“Why did you imprison me?” he demanded.
“Are you honestly saying you don’t remember? Or are you just being a wiseguy again?” Teresa had a hard time disliking anyone, but this creature Esaax had become—or more specifically, the attitude that apparently went along with the change—was threatening to push it. “You exhibited threatening behavior. The nurses who found you following your evolution told me you tried to kick and bite them, so we sedated you and put you here.”
At those words, Esaax wondered how long he’d been unconscious, but that moment of curiosity was as short-lived as the one that had preceded it. He gave an annoyed sigh. “I seriously don’t remember doing any such thing,” he said, “but if you insist that I did, well… sorry. Now how about letting me out of here?”
“I don’t think so,” Teresa said. “You see, wobbuffet are incapable of direct violence. We don’t know what else evolution might have made you capable of. So we’re going to have to keep you in there until we’ve managed to figure you out. Oh, and by the way: if you’ve learned to use any beams or projectile attacks to compliment your new physical advantages, and you’re considering using them to break out, don’t bother. The room is elementproof.”
“Huh. Well, could you at least get me something to eat? I’m starving in here.” The cell that held Esaax blocked sounds but not scents. It wasn’t until he smelled the chansey and tasted her scent of warmth and life and flesh on the air that he realized just how hungry he was.
“All right. Just give us a few minutes, and we’ll bring you something,” Teresa assured him, her tone and expression softening somewhat.
“No,” Esaax said. “I can’t wait that long.” He took a step back, then suddenly lunged forward, trying but failing to kick down the door. His jaws snapped against the window, the sharp teeth scraping the glass again and again with a harsh screeching sound.
Teresa jumped back from Esaax’s futile but nonetheless startling strike. She uncapped a hidden button on her microphone unit and pressed it. With a loud hiss, sleep powder sprayed forcefully into Esaax’s cell from all directions. In a near-instant, the cell was filled with obscuring, bluish-white powder. Seconds later, vents and fans siphoned away the dust, and Esaax was visible once more. He was completely subdued now, curled up and sleeping on the floor.
Teresa sighed, gazing at him with pity. I’ll find a way to get through to you. I swear it, she said silently.
She made her way to the waiting room and the arbok and snorunt therein. Once there, she explained the current situation to them. She then brought them to Esaax’s cell and allowed them both to have a look at him.
“You honestly have no idea what he’s become?” Syr quietly asked Teresa as he held a troubled stare upon Esaax.
“Not at the moment, no,” Teresa answered. As she spoke, she flicked a switch on the microphone unit. The cell’s small window and its view to the pokémon within were closed off once more. With a determined expression, Teresa turned to the others. “Come with me,” she said. “We may be able to find out yet.”
Chapter 10: Embracing the Predator
“Can’t you do this any faster?” Syr urged.
“Do you want this done in a hurry or do you want it done right?” Madeline asked crossly.
“Just keep your skin on, purple man!” the mr. mime snapped.
Teresa, Syr, and Jen had fetched Madeline, and after briefing her on what had happened to Esaax, they’d gone with her to access the Haven’s pokémon database. In addition to being the first hospital designed to admit and treat both humans and pokémon, the Haven had also been a very active center of pokémon research. Here, an immense volume of pokémon-related data from all over the world was compiled.
Therefore it was odd, not to mention very frustrating for Madeline and those who were gathered there with her, when minute after minute of the mr. mime’s work (which, Syr’s impatience aside, was truthfully very speedy) continued to yield nothing on the subject of wobbuffet evolution.
“There’s something in here,” Madeline said, her fingers continuing to fly over the keys. “There’s gotta be…”
She paused in her work, if only fleetingly, to give an involuntary shiver. “Brrr. Is it just me or did it just get really cold in here all of a sudden?”
“Yes, it is getting colder…” Teresa was well-insulated against the elements, but she’d noticed the chill, too. She cast a questioning glance at Jen. The snorunt caught her eye and suddenly looked as though he’d been caught robbing the cookie jar. With a small, embarrassed noise, Jen made a hasty exit.
“He didn’t have to leave…” said Madeline, who was too busy to sound as sorry for Jen as she felt. She continued her search, her brow knitted in hard focus. Finally, “Argh.”
“‘Argh’?” Syr echoed, puzzled.
“Yes, argh. That’s everything,” Madeline said. “Nothing in here at all about wobbuffet’s evolution.”
“Maybe he’s become an entirely new form of pokémon,” said Syr.
“I don’t think so,” Teresa said. “It just seems too unlikely that this is the first time this has happened. There’s got to be a precedent.”
“Well, then it should be in here. But it’s not,” said Madeline. “We’ve got loads of information here, some of which is very obscure and unusual. History extending back thousands of years. So I seriously doubt the absence of evolved wobbuffet in here is just an oversight.”
Obscure and unusual…
Thousands of years old…
“Karo,” Syr all but whispered, wondering why he hadn’t thought of this sooner. The arbok made for the door, rushing past the other two pokémon in the room.
“What are you doing?” Teresa asked, startled by Syr’s sudden action.
“Plan B,” Syr said. “Stay put; I’ll be right back.” With no further explanation, he left the Haven and set off down the street.
* * *
After traveling a short distance southward, Syr came to a three-story house in the part of town where the more expensive homes stood. This was the home of Ekunasic Karo.
Karo was a nosepass, aged 6,731 years, which among his kind was still fairly young. He’d once belonged to the gym leader Ren Bridges of the Apex League: the gyms open only to elite trainers. Following the Extinction, Karo was no longer bound by his gym duties and left with little to do apart from looking after his trainer’s house. He thereby had the time to acquire a few new friends, whom he’d occasionally invite over to admire his trainer’s collection of the rare, the unique, and the obscure.
Syr was included among those few. However, he hadn’t spoken to or even seen Karo in over a year. Somewhat recently, he’d asked one of Karo’s other friends what the nosepass might be up to, and the answer he’d gotten was that Karo had decided to go to sleep.
Therein lay the potential problem with Syr’s idea: nosepass could sleep indefinitely and were profoundly difficult to wake. If Karo was still sleeping…
Syr knew he’d just have to find out whether or not that was the case and deal with the situation as it unfolded. He slithered up the walkway and immediately found something amiss: the door was unlocked and ajar. He knew that Karo would’ve had someone coming over periodically to take care of things while he slept, but he doubted any of Karo’s housesitters would’ve so carelessly left the door open.
Cautiously, Syr slipped through the door, not knowing for certain what he’d find. He leaned in and nudged the lightswitch with his nose. In spite of the suspicious front the situation had already presented, Syr was nonetheless shocked by what he saw.
A number of hanging lights illuminated a scene of chaos. Trinkets and artifacts were scattered and broken all about. Furniture was upended, disarrayed, ruined. On top of that, the walls, floor, ceiling, and every other surface in sight was covered in three different colors of what was unmistakably smeargle graffiti—as was the nosepass in the middle of the room, who was just obliviously sitting there like the big rock he was.
Syr slithered over to Karo. The nosepass obviously hadn’t been up and around during the invasion of his home. Even now, he remained more still and inanimate than seemed possible, even for a rock-type. It made Syr wonder if Karo was more than just very deeply asleep.
Concerned now, Syr pressed his head against Karo’s back. He was able to hear something going on in there, working out an undeniable rhythm, albeit a very slow one. Syr let out the breath he’d been unwittingly holding, immensely relieved that the nosepass was still alive.
He glanced toward a nearby closet. I really need to memorize that pattern, he thought ruefully. He could’ve let Karo sleep if he’d already known it by heart. As it stood, he was now faced with the daunting task of waking him.
He tried shouting at Karo. He tried pushing and prodding at him. He even poked Karo in the eye, but still the nosepass kept snoozing on.
Syr was getting desperate at this point. He was on the verge of finding out whether or not Karo would respond to having something shoved up his huge, honking nose. Then he spotted something potentially useful in the corner.
It was a mace, which had caught Syr’s eye when light had glinted off of its surface. It was the only metal object in the entire room, though clearly not a kind of metal that was attracted by Karo’s magnetism; otherwise, the “up-the-nose” question might’ve answered itself.
Syr went over and lifted the mace with his tail. The weapon was good and heavy. Karo, meanwhile, was good and durable, enough so to avoid taking any serious injury from the thing. So Syr hoped, anyhow, as he returned to Karo and swung the mace into the side of the nosepass’s face.
Syr tried striking Karo just a little bit harder, this time hitting him just below his massive nose, but Karo still wouldn’t awaken.
Syr’s desperation peaked. He gathered all his strength and then some, raising the mace as high as he could. With a yell, Syr brought it crashing down one last time, dead center into Karo’s forehead.
There was a small explosion of gray dust. When it cleared, Syr saw that he had opened a long, shallow fissure in Karo’s head, splitting it like a melon.
Syr stared horrorstruck at the damage for a moment, terrified that he might have just killed one of his best friends. Then a groan issued from the nosepass. Karo rocked back and forth on his short legs a couple of times, then tilted backward and held that position, gazing up unsteadily at Syr.
Then, without warning, the nosepass lunged forward. Syr flung himself out of the way just as Karo’s pointed nose punched a large hole in the floor right where the arbok had been seconds before.
Syr kept himself at a distance as Karo righted himself once more. “Karo, it’s me!” he shouted, but it was no use. The nosepass was still fast asleep, with his cognitive faculties possibly compromised further by the blow to his head.
Worried that Karo might charge at him again, Syr tried to move out of the way. Much to his alarm, he found himself completely immobilized as if he were caught in an invisible vice. When’d he use block? Syr wondered, bewildered. He could do nothing but stare as Karo followed up with lock-on, his huge nose glowing as it brought itself to bear upon the arbok.
Syr knew what was coming next, and he wasn’t looking forward to it at all. He knew he had to get Karo back to his senses… but if cracking the nosepass’s head open couldn’t awaken him completely, then what could?
At any rate, Syr wasn’t keen on being on the receiving end of an electric blast if he could help it. With most of his options locked down at the moment, he prepared to use acid, but found to his shock that he couldn’t even get his jaws open. Damn, that’s a good block! Syr remarked silently as he was forced to swallow his own acid attack, leaving a sickening, burning sensation in his stomach.
An ominous hum resonated through the room, and the air tingled with electricity—Karo was about to unleash a zap cannon. Knowing he couldn’t escape, Syr shut his eyes in dread and braced himself…
When stars stopped exploding in Syr’s brain, he found himself lying on his side; the block that had been holding him in position had apparently been diverted to something else, though to what or why, Syr couldn’t imagine.
Meanwhile, one of Karo’s big, stumpy feet was filling almost his entire field of view.
Syr tried to bolt away, but the zap cannon attack had rendered him almost completely paralyzed, his body devoid of sensation and largely unresponsive. He was utterly helpless if Karo opted to crush his skull with that stone foot in his not-quite-conscious rampage.
Instead of attacking again, however, Karo spoke up. He seemed to be much more awake now, but he still sounded rather dazed. “Hey, Syr. Man, I don’t know what’s been going on… was I sleepwalking?”
“No, you were sleep-zapping,” Syr said, struggling slightly to speak due to his numbed mouth.
“What?” Karo was apparently still coming to some of his senses and not having a particularly easy time doing so. “Aw… dude, I am so sorry… did I really?”
“Yes, you did.”
“I am so sorry,” Karo said again. He slowly became aware of his surroundings. “Aw no, I didn’t do all this, did I?”
“No, it was some smeargle. They came in and trashed the place, marked all over everything. Including you.”
“When?” Karo demanded.
“I have no clue,” Syr responded.
“Hmmph. Yeah, it was smeargle, all right. Look at this mess…” The nosepass meandered around the house, surveying the vandalism and groaning ever louder as he stumbled upon more and more damage. At some point, he apparently came across his own reflection somewhere; “Aw crap, they did mark me!” he shouted. “…How’d they put this crack in my head, though?”
“They didn’t. I did,” Syr admitted. “I was trying to wake you up… Does it hurt?” Syr asked, hoping the answer was “no”.
“No, not really,” Karo replied. He came back into the room where Syr still lay immobilized. The hole he’d made in the floor caught and held his attention. “Who did this?”
“That would be you and your massive nose.”
“Huh.” Karo actually sounded as if he were impressed with himself.
Syr was not impressed. “Haven’t you noticed that I’m paralyzed here?” he hissed.
“Whoa… Yeah, you are, aren’t you? But that’s okay. Ren always keeps a good supply of dried cheri berries around—”
“Gee, I wonder why?” Syr muttered.
“That’s assuming those idiot mammals didn’t get into them,” Karo finished, ignoring Syr’s comment. “I’ll go get… oh. I forgot—they’re in the kitchen,” he groaned. “I can’t go in there…”
“And why can’t you go in there, exactly?” Syr demanded.
It took a moment for Syr to make sense of that. The arbok then noticed that Karo was heading for the front door. “Wait, where are you going?”
“I’m gonna get help from across the street,” Karo answered as he opened the door and began to step out. “Don’t move.” He stopped in his tracks as he realized he’d just said that to someone who was almost completely paralyzed at the moment. Then he burst out into loud, honking laughter, which was still audible long after he’d shut the door and left.
Syr just lay there on the floor, seething with annoyance and worry at how much time this misadventure was costing him and Esaax.
* * *
Teresa leaned against the office door, the tip of her tail flicking about restlessly. Whatever Syr had gone to do, she hadn’t expected him to take this long about it. It was beginning to look as though Syr’s search for answers would prove as fruitless as Madeline’s had.
“Might as well look in on Esaax again,” the chansey said wearily. “I imagine he’s still asleep in there, though…”
Madeline turned in her seat to face Teresa. “Do you think maybe I could…?” She was fluttering her fingers and wearing a self-betraying smile.
Teresa looked her in the eyes, wearing an amused expression. Before she could say anything in response, however, someone flung the door open. Teresa was catapulted onto the floor, where she rolled for a short distance before she could pick herself back up again.
Regarding the sticky remnants of the now shattered egg in her belly pouch with severe annoyance, the chansey readied an angry glare for whomever was making their entrance. As it turned out, it was Jen. But before Teresa could chew him out, words came tumbling out of his mouth, loud and completely unintelligible.
“Say that again. And breathe this time,” Teresa said, seizing the snorunt by his shoulders.
“There’s-someone-at-the-front-door-and-I-don’t-know-who-or-what-she-is-but-she’s-here-to-see-Esaax-and-she’s-really-freaked-out-and—” Jen very nearly passed out right then and there.
Teresa sighed. “I thought I told you to breathe,” she said. “Thank you for letting me know about that, Jen. Now please go sit down and relax somewhere. Please.”
Teresa went over to the desk where she’d set down the microphone unit for Esaax’s cell, retrieved the device, and handed it to Madeline. “If he’s up, you can tell him he has another visitor. But if he’s not, don’t wake him.”
The chansey left the room, with Jen tottering woozily behind her. Madeline watched them go, then set out herself in a bit of a rush.
Esaax was currently housed in a part of the Haven that was rarely used, usually deserted, and far removed from the greater population of the hospital. This meant a bit of a walk for Madeline, but it was more than worth it as far as she was concerned.
Eventually, she found herself standing before Esaax’s cell. She hit the switch on the microphone unit controlling the window, and once the window had opened, she peered through it eagerly. The dim light fed into the room at all times revealed that Esaax was still sleeping, his slender, spidery body curled up on the floor.
Madeline marveled at the sight before her, impressed with Esaax’s new form beyond even her own expectations. If only he were awake, she wished silently, then I could see him in action…
The mr. mime began to turn away, sighing in disappointment. Then she thought she spotted something moving out of the corner of her eye. Turning back, she saw something long, black, and ringed with eyes appear in the window, searching about like a periscope. Esaax’s new, saurian face rose up from the floor after it.
Madeline switched on the microphone and speaker in a hurry. “Aww, did you wake up just for me?” she asked.
“No,” Esaax croaked, at which Madeline wilted in mock embarrassment. “I wasn’t asleep,” he added.
“I was faking it the whole time.”
“Faking it, huh?” Madeline echoed skeptically. “What about the sleep powder Teresa blasted in there?”
Esaax smirked. A lime green aura briefly shimmered around him.
Safeguard… Madeline just stared at him, her mouth hanging slightly open. She wondered how he’d managed to use it without Teresa noticing.
She continued to watch Esaax through the window, and he gazed right back at her almost… longingly… Madeline felt her mouth go dry. Could it be… does he really…? she wondered. “You… you really do understand the way I feel about you, don’t you?” she asked, her pulse quickening.
Esaax merely blinked at her, pressing his vaguely smiling muzzle against the glass.
Whether that was a “yes”, a “no”, or anything in between was utterly irrelevant; Madeline had already made up her mind. She threw a glance over her shoulder at the security camera that looked down upon them. It, like the rest of the Haven’s cameras, had gone out of order a couple of days prior and still hadn’t been repaired, but she still had an odd, fleeting notion that she ought to disable it.
She decided against tampering with the camera, however, and instead turned her attention back toward the device in her hand. She uncapped a tiny green button on the microphone unit and let her finger hover over it for a moment before pushing it. There was a faint tone. Then, smoothly and almost silently, the door to Esaax’s cell slid open.
The gangly shape within stirred, framed in soft light and looking ghostly. Esaax lurched forward and emerged from his cell, bowing his already low-slung head even further as he passed through the doorway. Now that he was no longer contained, he seemed much larger than he’d appeared to be while within his cell, and there was something about him that affected Madeline in a way she hadn’t anticipated. Something her psychic centers were beginning to react to in a primal and increasingly uneasy way.
Esaax moved toward Madeline with slow, graceful steps. He loomed over her, twice her height. He drew an incredibly long, deep breath, his broad chest swelling immensely. A long, red tongue flitted quickly across his lips.
Madeline looked up at Esaax with awe, struggling to breathe more calmly and to stop trembling so much. With a smile that was unusually hesitant to form, she reached for one of his massive hands.
The spidery, blue fingers closed over Madeline’s own with an iron grip. It was all she could do not to yelp in pain.
Esaax moved even closer and lowered his head, his face just inches from Madeline’s. His lips drew back, baring his jagged teeth. He began caressing her face with his muzzle, drawing short, panting breaths, taking in her scent.
Madeline felt a wave of revulsion wash over her. This was not the experience with Esaax she’d fantasized about so many times. He was starting to scare her, and not only with his behavior alone—the discomfort in her psychic centers that his mere presence seemed to cause was still growing, and it was strong and distinct enough now that she recognized its warning for what it was: He’s a dark-type now.
Nonetheless, she forced herself to look at him directly, trying as hard as she could not to appear as unsettled as she felt. She thought, or at least hoped, that if she could continue to treat him with affection, he’d snap out of this disturbing phase. Maybe he’d even start returning the favor.
She reached up with her other hand to touch Esaax’s face, caressing it with fingers that shook in spite of her efforts to calm them. His skin was rubbery and quite smooth, pleasant to the touch. She tried to focus on how nice it felt rather than on the fear that was steadily overtaking her. It began to work, too. But then Esaax’s head moved with alarming speed, the jaws snapping harshly. His serrated teeth sank deeply into the meager flesh of her arm.
Madeline screamed in pain. All the love she’d had for Esaax was gone now, replaced by pure, primal terror. Knowing she currently had access to no attacks that could do him any harm, and aware that she’d likely just get them thrown right back at her at twice the power if she did have any, she tried desperately to free herself from him, but to no avail. Her escape was foiled soundly, not only by Esaax’s sheer physical strength but also by the dark gray aura that flared into being around both pokémon at her attempt to escape. Esaax had retained his shadow tag ability.
He worried Madeline’s arm in his jaws with shredding teeth and sharp, jerking movements of his neck until the appendage was torn away at the elbow, gruesomely freeing one side of her, drawing more cries of agony. His left hand clutched her right hand even more tightly, and there were several sickening cracks as the bones in his grip yielded to the pressure. His other hand shot forward and slammed into her chest, pinning her to the wall.
Now struggling to breathe, Madeline stared through eyes blurred with tears at the empty space where half of her arm had once been. Then, fearfully, she looked up at Esaax once more. His head was already raised for another strike. Her blood dripped slowly and thickly from his jaws, and she glimpsed a couple of her own fingers protruding from between his teeth before they, along with the rest of her severed limb, disappeared into his mouth and down his very long throat.
It was then that Esaax became aware of something new. He’d just discovered the presence of a power he hadn’t tapped into thus far. He summoned it forth, and it rose up through his spine, radiated out through one arm, and gathered in his hand.
Esaax went ahead and released Madeline, letting her slump to the floor in her wavering consciousness, knowing she couldn’t escape anyway. Curious, he gazed at his own hand. Energy in a shade of black he’d never seen before danced in a slow vortex around it with a glow that was intensifying by the second.
He drew that arm back as if he were working an invisible bow. All of his senses focused fully on the bleeding, shaking mr. mime before him. His concentration became heightened to its fullest. At this range, it was virtually unnecessary to take aim, but he instinctively sought out the most lethal trajectory for his new weapon.
His arm thrust forward. With a loud, hollow sound, a glowing black beam of incredible intensity exploded from his hand, blasting Madeline point-blank.
At that exact moment, a horrible, sudden pain hit Esaax like a wrecking ball, taking his breath away. Red light exploded in his vision. His nerves burned for what felt like innumerable seconds, and his head felt as though it were blowing itself apart.
In his suffering, Esaax staggered and fell to the floor. When he rose once more, his mind surfaced from the altered state it had been in for nearly the entire duration of the time since he’d evolved.
His vision returned in the next moment. He saw blood before him, as well as something mangled and twisted—a corpse. Something—someone—who, mere moments ago, had been alive—until he’d killed her.
Esaax recoiled with a scream, suddenly frantic to be as far away from the scene as possible. His stomach violently expelled its contents. His renewed clarity wouldn’t let him believe that this was just a nightmare or a hallucination. The scene before his eyes unflinchingly spoke the truth: he’d murdered this pokémon. He’d tasted her blood. He’d eaten her flesh…
A howl of anguish and horror tore its way out through his throat. With fear, confusion, and disgust like none he’d ever known, all directed straight toward himself, Esaax brought his newfound technique to bear on the wall. He let it linger there until a large area of the wall had turned black and disintegrated, and then he fled into the night.
Chapter 11: The Vault
Karo returned just a short while after he’d left. He was accompanied by Breanna, a granbull from across the street, who fetched the dried cheri berries from Karo’s kitchen and administered them to Syr. She also provided a couple of sitrus berries from her own cupboard for the nosepass’s injury.
Syr had never watched Karo eat before. After finally doing so, the arbok decided he’d never watch it again if he could help it.
The granbull also tried to get the grafitti off of Karo. She was only partly successful.
After Breanna left, Syr explained what had happened to Esaax at the Haven. He then asked Karo if he knew anything about the evolved form of wobbuffet.
Karo gave Syr an odd, sly look. He beckoned the arbok to a closet that, when opened, appeared to contain nothing other than an obscene message scrawled in yellow smeargle ink. Karo brushed his nose against the back wall a few times, drawing an invisible pattern, and the wall slid aside to reveal another, larger room.
“After you,” Karo said, ushering Syr into the hidden room before entering it himself.
Syr wasn’t surprised by the secret room; this wasn’t the first time Karo had shown it to him. He also wasn’t surprised when he felt the room begin to descend; he’d taken this elevator a couple of times before.
“I take it this means you do know something about what wobbuffet evolve into?” he asked.
“You could say that.” The elevator came to a stop. “Now, you’re not gonna find one hair of smeargle in here,” Karo said, snorting grumpily. “Stupid furballs, scribbling their filth—I’d like to show them who likes to eat their own…”
Syr and Karo exited the elevator and entered what Ren had dubbed the Vault. It was a large room that housed all of Ren’s most valued possessions. Just as Karo had predicted, there were no signs of intrusion by smeargle.
The Vault contained more books than anything else, arranged on towering bookcases that lined the wall directly in front of Syr as well as those off to either side. Syr’s gaze swept over the vast book collection. “Which of these has what we want?” he asked.
“Never mind them,” Karo said, making his way further into the room. “I kinda got the impression that you’re in a hurry—” Syr made an exasperated noise at this, with the face to match. “—so, for the sake of time, just watch the screen.”
The screen Karo was referring to was mounted on the opposite wall to the elevator doors, covering a large portion of it. Syr slithered over to Karo, who produced a deep and very resonant sound. The overhead lights went out, and the screen before Syr and Karo flicked on.
“Number thirty-nine,” Karo said. Words and symbols flashed briefly on the screen, and then a film began to play…
A pokémon battle was about to begin in a gym lit by glowing, pale green crystals. The walls were decorated with carved figures of pokémon over a softly glowing background of shifting colors. The floor was covered by an equally colorful mosaic depicting planets, comets, and stars.
Ren sat on one side of the arena in a dark-colored, metal chair. The strange lighting and the camera angle didn’t allow for a very detailed examination of his appearance, revealing only that he was slight of build, completely bald, and dressed in simple, entirely black attire.
Opposite him, his challenger was seated in a chair like his own. The camera revealed somewhat more of her appearance than Ren’s. Like him, she wore dark clothing, deep blue denim for her jacket and pants and black for the rest of her outfit. Unlike him, she had hair: dark, unkempt, and reaching down past her shoulders.
“You’re sure you want to do this the straightforward way?” the gym leader said in his sly-sounding, slightly lilting voice. “The special features of my gym do exist solely out of consideration for the challenger.”
“Thanks, but I came here to battle a gym leader, not a gentleman,” responded the challenger in a low, cackling voice.
Ren gave a short laugh. “Out with it, then!”
The challenger produced a nest ball. “Go, Alain!”
With a burst of light, an alakazam appeared. Alain gazed intensely at the gym leader, holding both of his spoons in one hand while thoughtfully stroking his long whiskers with the other.
“Oh, that’s nice…” Ren remarked. “Very nice. A shame, really, considering… oh well. Acheron? Could you step forward, please?”
There was no poké ball of any kind thrown, no flash or sparkle of light to herald the entrance of Ren’s pokémon. Instead, the summoned creature emerged from the shadows at Ren’s side. Rays of pale green light fell upon Acheron, revealing…
“Okay, Syr, is that what you saw?” Karo asked.
“Yes. Yes, it is,” Syr answered almost breathlessly. The arbok could barely believe his eyes, but the sight they presented told the truth: whatever Esaax had become, Acheron was the exact same thing. “They’re desperate for information about these things back at the Haven. To think there’s been one here this whole time…”
“Eh, not really,” Karo said. “We didn’t spend a whole lot of time at home back during the gym days. Afterward, the big guy ended up wherever Ren did.”
“Right…” For a moment, Syr worried that the conversation was about to take a sad and awkward turn, but thankfully it did nothing of the sort. He returned his attention to the footage, watching the battle begin in earnest…
In the gyms of the Apex League, the trainers weren’t allowed to issue commands to their pokémon. Ren and his challenger had to sit back and watch their pokémon carry out the battle on their own terms.
Sensing the presence of the dark element within his opponent, Alain knew his psychic attacks were useless in this match. He furthermore identified Acheron by sight as a former wobbuffet; as such, Alain knew the rest of his attacks risked doing more harm to himself than to Acheron.
Alain quickly formulated a plan to get around that, however. He transferred one of his spoons to the other hand, then summoned one of the techniques he’d inherited from his medicham father. The air around the alakazam crackled with electricity, and miniature bolts of lightning began a frenzied dance around one of his hands.
Meanwhile Acheron stood calmly on the other side of the arena, his long tail waving as he watched his opponent with a faint smirk. Alain surged forward and leapt high into the air, his psychic power letting him hover over the head of his eight-foot-tall opponent for a moment before slamming a thunder punch into the back of Acheron’s neck.
Small tremors rippled through Acheron’s body as electricity briefly coursed through him, but he kept silent and showed no visible signs that the thunder punch had caused him any actual pain—until an orange aura blazed around him, sending the alakazam flying with the force of his counter attack.
Grunting in pain, Alain telekinetically righted himself in midair and looked intently at Acheron, hoping to see evidence that he’d successfully paralyzed him—the less pain Acheron could feel, the less he could inflict. But Acheron’s tail was waving just as fluidly as it had been before he’d taken the thunder punch, and his legs stayed steady beneath him.
Accepting this, Alain lowered himself back down to the ground and implemented the other aspect of his plan, hoping that it, at least, would work on the first try. He transferred his other spoon back into his empty hand, and then a dull red glow filled his eyes. A ball of energy in the same color gathered between his spoons and then fired at Acheron, bursting into jagged red streaks that snaked over his entire body on impact. The streaks gave a single red flash, then turned black and vanished into Acheron’s skin. Alain smiled—Acheron’s counter technique had been successfully disabled.
Acheron regarded this new development without any concern; he hadn’t planned to rely solely on that technique, and knew he could do just fine without it. He shut his eyes, letting his mind sink into a deep meditation.
Alain wasted no time in launching more attempts to paralyze his opponent, hoping to succeed before the effects of his disable technique wore off. The gym was filled with the crackling sounds of electric power as he delivered three more thunder punches in quick succession. Acheron reacted to none of them.
Alain moved back from him, once again checking to see if Acheron was showing any signs of paralysis. Acheron’s skin was blistered and raw at the site of each thunder punch’s impact, and he reeked of charred flesh and trembled on the spot.
Those tremors subsided very quickly, however, and the moment they did, Acheron’s body suddenly took on a bright red glow. The light expanded outward in a bide attack, forming a shockwave that knocked Alain off his feet and blasted him clear across the arena—he almost went flying right into his trainer’s face.
Acheron grinned as he watched the alakazam on the other side of the arena struggle to catch his breath and get back onto his feet. This, Acheron decided, was a good time to bring out the big guns—as weak as his opponent had become, he might only have to do it once. Besides which, he figured he’d played around with him long enough.
He let a dark-type charge build around one hand, seeing a faint, off-white glow surround Alain as he did so. The alakazam was trying to heal himself—but too late. No sooner had his injuries begun to mend themselves than a black beam came roaring forth from Acheron’s hand and struck him. Alain screamed in agony—and curiously, so did Acheron.
The attack ceased. Alain, covered from head to toe in black scorch marks, twitched briefly before falling unconscious and still. Acheron fell to his knees, still gasping in pain in the wake of his own attack, but he stayed conscious. The match was over. The challenger had lost.
“So that’s it, then,” Syr said, knowing that Apex gyms allowed only one pokémon to each competitor.
“Yep,” Karo confirmed. He produced the same low sound that he’d used to activate the video screen, and it shut off once more.
“That pokémon fighting the alakazam… what was that?” Syr asked.
“That,” Karo said, “was a kwazai.”
“Kwazai…” Syr echoed. “And that last attack he used…” Syr had never seen anything like it before, especially not from anything like a wobbuffet. This was no retaliatory technique—Acheron had attacked proactively, something wobbuffet were unable to do. Apparently evolution freed them from that restriction. “What in the world was that?”
“That would be reflux,” Karo answered. “It’s a dark-type attack, and it’s one of the nastiest ones there is, too.”
“So does this mean kwazai are dark-types?” Syr asked.
“Only half that. Psychic/dark-type, to be specific. But that’s only the guys. The girls, now, they’re another thing altogether…”
“Yeah. The guys evolve one way, and the girls evolve another,” Karo explained.
“…Just how much do you know about kwazai?” Syr asked, astounded.
“Meh… pretty good amount, I guess…” Karo replied nonchalantly.
“Okay,” Syr said. “Okay then. I’ve gotta get back to the Haven. And you need to come with me.”
* * *
Syr and Karo arrived shortly thereafter at the Haven. Once through the doors, they were immediately greeted by a scene that neither had expected to find.
Teresa was unloading a small bundle of assorted medicines onto the nearest counter when she noticed the arbok and the nosepass. “Oh good, you’re finally back!” she said.
But neither Syr nor Karo really heard her, particularly not Syr. This was because they’d noticed the tall, blue figure lying on a bench near where Teresa stood sifting through her portable remedies.
Syr moved closer to the unknown being. He was almost completely certain that this pokémon, with their blue skin and their black tail that held a presently-closed oculon in each of its four branches, had something in common with Esaax. He turned to Karo. “Is that…?”
“Yep, that’s a kwazai,” Karo confirmed.
Teresa joined them by the bench, carrying a spray-bottle of potion and a faintly glowing revive crystal. “Karo, I presume?” she asked of the nosepass. Karo responded affirmatively with a small grunt and an action that would’ve been a nod if he’d had a neck.
“What happened here?” Syr asked Teresa.
“Well, she showed up here and managed to let me know she was looking for Esaax, but something was driving her madder by the second. There seemed to be no calming her. And when we tried to restrain her, she started psywaving everything in sight before screaming bloody murder and passing out. Unfortunately, one of those psywaves hit Jen…”
“What?” Syr said, instantly worried.
“He’s not hurt,” Teresa assured him. “The poor kid’s just had his brain scrambled a little. He got so dizzy that he just tipped right over and hasn’t been able to get back onto his feet yet. But other than that, no damage done. He’ll be just fine before you know it.
“I put him right over there,” she added, pointing. “You can see for yourself.”
She was indicating a chair off in the corner, where the snorunt was lying with his eyes half-closed. Syr, distracted by the kwazai, hadn’t even seen him there. “How are you feeling?” he asked as he slithered over to Jen. Jen only groaned softly, rolled over, and turned his back on Syr in response.
“Best not to stimulate him too much right now if you’d rather he didn’t throw up,” Teresa said.
She took the revive and held it against the kwazai’s forehead. Its glow intensified for a moment, then went out entirely, leaving the spent crystal darkened like a burned-out lightbulb. The kwazai stirred slightly and gave a soft moan, her consciousness returning. Teresa then began spraying potion over the scrapes and bruises covering the kwazai’s arms; the wounds began fading away at once. “Poor thing. She must have taken a nasty spill on the way here,” the chansey said.
“Who is she?” Syr wondered aloud as he gazed down at the kwazai. “Did you manage to get any personal information out of her before she passed out?”
“I tried to get her name,” Teresa said, “and I think I succeeded. It sounded like ‘Intro’…”
Everyone’s attention turned to the kwazai. “What?” Teresa said.
“It’s N-tair-row.” The kwazai’s voice was breathy and lilting. She also sounded rather groggy at the moment—she was still in the process of waking up. “Is that all you want to know?”
Teresa opened her mouth to answer, but before she could get a single word out, she was interrupted by another chansey, one who was bawling her eyes out as she came barreling in. The new arrival just barely managed to come to a stop in time to avoid colliding with Teresa.
“Rebecca? What’s the matter?” Teresa asked, clearly alarmed.
Rebecca tried to speak, but then froze, her mouth quivering as she stood paralyzed by some unknown horror. Finally, she burst into hoarse, violent sobs.
The noise abruptly brought Ntairow to her senses. She got up onto her single pair of long, stiltlike legs with a suddenness more befitting teleportation than standing. She held her tail high, its branches fanning out.
“What is it, Rebecca?” Teresa asked again, more slowly this time. She took Rebecca’s paws in her own and gave her an imploring stare.
“It’s… just…horrible,” Rebecca managed to gasp out. She then backed away from Teresa and cast a fearful glance into the hallway she’d emerged from just moments before. Returning her tearful gaze to the others, “Here. It’s over here,” she said breathlessly, then took off down the hallway.
Teresa rushed after her as fast as her short legs would allow, accompanied by Syr, Karo, and Ntairow. Ultimately, Rebecca came to a halt, and once all of the others had arrived at their apparent destination, she wasted no time in fleeing the scene. She had not wanted to come back to that place and the sight that it presented, and upon seeing it with their own eyes, no one she’d brought there had to wonder why.
There was Madeline, lifeless and mangled. There was her blood, cast all over the floor and walls. And there was the door to Esaax’s cell, left wide open, with a hole burned through the far wall that was more than big enough to admit an escaping kwazai.
Cries of shock, sorrow and revulsion filled the air. Karo immediately looked away from the slain mr. mime. Syr turned and retched, though nothing came up. Ntairow cried out and buried her face in one of her left hands while reaching out with both of her right hands to prop herself against the wall.
“My God… no…” Teresa’s voice sounded very fragile. She leaned over the corpse, reaching for Madeline’s remaining hand. The fingers, broken and burnt black, crumbled into dust at her touch. Teresa immediately began sobbing.
Shakily, Syr turned to Ntairow. The kwazai swayed slightly where she stood, as if she were about to pass out again. She was clutching her head and chest simultaneously, and the tension in her face told Syr that she was in very real pain.
“The darkness…” Ntairow said almost voicelessly. “The residue of it still hangs in the air. But he’s not here.”
She pushed herself away from the wall and began striding determinedly toward the exit Esaax had made, avoiding the blood on the ground with sure, graceful steps. But then she found the end of a long, purple tail coiled around one of her arms as if to try and stop her.
“Wait!” Syr called out, struggling not to be dragged along as she kept walking.
The kwazai finally stopped and turned her long, flat face toward him, wearing the glare to end all glares.
“…Listen,” Syr said. “Esaax is my friend, too. If you’re going after him, I’m going with you.”
Karo approached Ntairow and Syr. The expression on his stone face was unreadable. “And if he’s going, then I’m going,” he said. “I’ll look after you, buddy, don’t worry,” he told Syr.
Ntairow didn’t feel as though she had the luxury of time or patience enough to argue with them. The urge to seek out the terribly troubled creature that Esaax had become and rush to his aid was hardwired into her brain—she couldn’t easily resist the demands of her highly developed powers of empathy, and she flat-out wouldn’t resist them when it was the suffering of someone she loved that spurred them into action. She nodded to Syr and Karo, and Syr released his hold on her.
The arbok looked back at Teresa. Tears fell silently from his gray eyes. “Take care of Jen,” he told her. Then Syr turned away, and he and Karo followed Ntairow out of the Haven in silence.
Chapter 12: Hunter of the Shadows
As silently as he could, Esaax staggered through the forest outside of Convergence. He’d put a considerable distance between himself and the Haven in quite a short time, having run at full speed the entire way. But now he was slowed down by exhaustion and impeded further by the rain-induced softness of the ground, as well as the maze of surrounding trees.
Though lightheaded and aching everywhere, Esaax nonetheless fought to keep his breathing calm and inaudible in spite of his lungs’ demands for more air. He wouldn’t allow himself to be heard if he could help it. He didn’t want to be noticed by any living thing.
He knew what he’d do if anything did show up. Thoughts of it—desires of it—were taking over his mind. The simple, undeniable fact was that he’d never known a hunger as savagely strong as what he now felt, and Esaax knew the next living creature to cross his path would be fatally obliged to stop it.
Going into the forest had been a wise move, he reckoned. There were pokémon here, but they were fewer in number and more scattered than the pokémon back in the city, where Esaax could effortlessly seek out his prey door-to-door…
He shook his head fiercely to clear it of the notion of running back to an easy feast. In his growing desperation, he silently called out, Stay away! Many pokémon feared psychic-types, and so he figured a mindvoice would likely keep most of his potential victims at a safe distance.
But, as Esaax quickly realized, his new form was no more telepathically gifted than his prior form. His silent message might have reached the mind of another psychic, but it was completely undetected by the hoothoot who appeared from the branches above, oblivious to Esaax’s desperate warning.
The bird was quite small, quite young. He was out on his very first hunt, but rather than spotting some relatively harmless and tasty prey creature, he’d instead found Esaax. Puzzled and curious, the hoothoot began flapping his way closer to the kwazai.
“No, no!” Esaax urged under his breath, but he was really trying to stop himself. And he was failing.
His heart raced as the hoothoot approached. The overwhelming power of his instincts flooded his brain, driving his mind beneath their currents. His senses lit up, and his muscles tensed—he was ready to strike. The hoothoot drew closer and closer—and then Esaax’s arm lashed out suddenly, his huge hand snatching the hoothoot right out of the air, his desire to avoid doing any further harm completely unreachable in an instant.
The hoothoot struggled in the kwazai’s strong grip, scattering feathers and screaming. The commotion brought another presence into Esaax’s company: that of the father noctowl.
Without a second’s hesitation, the noctowl attempted hypnosis, but Esaax had already raised his safeguard on the chance that the hoothoot might try the same thing. The kwazai merely stared into the pulsing, red light in the noctowl’s eyes with an utterly unconcerned expression.
“Let him go!” the noctowl cried, then surged forward in a take down attack, not caring about the pain the recoil would inflict upon him in the process. His strike ended up hurting him much more than he’d expected, however. An orange counter aura flared up around the kwazai a split-second before the take down could connect; the noctowl went reeling backward with a scream of pain and surprise.
With the noctowl now writhing on the ground, incapacitated for the moment, Esaax decided that he could finally eat in peace. His fingers closed around the hoothoot in his grip with all their strength. One last, piercing squawk escaped his prey, and then warm, thick streams of blood flowed freely over Esaax’s wrist and forearm as he squeezed the life out of the hoothoot. The kwazai then opened his mouth as wide as it would go. He shoved the bloody remnant of his victim into the back of his throat and swallowed it whole.
Esaax relocated his jaws and sighed happily. Then he caught sight of the furious father noctowl, who shrieked wordlessly in grief and rage as he managed to get back onto his feet and then leapt into flight. The noctowl’s wings shimmered and transformed into gleaming, metallic blades as he wheeled around in midair, ready to strike with steel wing.
Esaax was more than ready for him. His predatory eyes, which focused sharply on anything that lived and breathed, kept an unbreakable gaze upon the noctowl. His multisensory tail, meanwhile, guided his target acquisition with deadly precision. Just as the razor-sharp edge of one of the noctowl’s wings was about to slice into his neck, Esaax blasted the noctowl with a reflux attack. The noctowl was sent crashing into a tree several yards away, knocked out cold.
Though Esaax hadn’t given the slightest concern to the drawback of his dark-type attack prior to using it, he now found himself vaguely surprised that he felt so little recoil this time, particularly considering that he’d blasted the noctowl almost head-on and at very close range. While the price he’d just paid for using it was nothing to scoff at, it was nowhere near as terrible as what the reflux that had killed Madeline had earned him.
The shock to his body from blasting the noctowl unconscious was gone fairly quickly, whereas the shock to his mind that he’d experienced the last time he’d used reflux was absent altogether this time. As for his hunger, the young hoothoot he’d just devoured was too small to satisfy it. Quite eagerly, Esaax stepped forward to feed upon the noctowl, as well.
* * *
Ntairow had followed Esaax’s trail into the forest, with the arbok and nosepass close behind. The terrain had become more difficult upon entering the woods; there were patches of mud everywhere, some of them rather deep, in which the three pokémon had to avoid getting stuck. Within a matter of minutes, however, Karo failed in that endeavor.
“Move, you guys. I’m gonna try and blast my way out,” Karo announced. He began charging up his nose with an ominous hum.
“I get the feeling you should save your electricity, Karo,” Syr advised.
“Not to mention that you should consider the noise that might make,” Ntairow added.
Ntairow and Syr got as good a hold on the nosepass as was possible. Fortunately, they were both quite strong, so once they had a good grip on him, the going was easy enough.
“You can still stay behind,” Ntairow pointed out to Karo as she worked to free him. The nosepass only scowled at her as she pulled him out from the mud.
“He doesn’t need to stay behind. He just needs to watch his step,” Syr countered. “Are you all right now?” he asked Karo.
Karo just grunted inconclusively in reply. “Stupid mud,” he griped to himself. “I hate that stuff…”
“Well, on the bright side, it did cover up the rest of that smeargle graffiti,” Syr said.
The three got moving once again, picking their way through the trees and minding the scattered puddles of mud all the more carefully.
“Are we still on the right track?” Syr asked.
“We are,” Ntairow said, “but…”
“‘But’…?” Syr prompted her.
Ntairow sighed. “His spirit has closed itself off to me. I no longer share any of his sensations… it’s like the greater part of him has died…” The thought of what that could mean brought tears to her eyes that immediately began flowing down her face in steady streams. “I can still sense his physical presence—his body, that’s all—meaning I know where he is but not what he’s experiencing or doing—though I do have some idea,” she said darkly. “Very recent death hovers nearby…”
For quite a while in the wake of those words, the three continued after Esaax in total silence. As the quiet persisted, something crossed Syr’s mind and ultimately compelled him to ask about it.
“So…” he spoke up. “Ntairow, was it?”
The kwazai made a vaguely affirmative noise.
“There’s something I’ve been wondering…” Syr said.
“And that is…?”
“Well… you’ve known Esaax for a long time, right?”
“If you consider roughly a fifth of a century a long time, then yes,” Ntairow answered.
“I do,” Syr said, though what really struck him about the length of time that she’d just described was that it meant she actually hadn’t known Esaax for much longer than he had, which surprised him a bit. While Syr and Esaax had encountered others of the latter’s kind during their previous time together, they’d never really gotten the chance to get to know any of them under the circumstances. As such, Syr had assumed that Ntairow had come from wherever Esaax had, that the two kwazai had grown up together.
Since that apparently wasn’t the case, he reckoned Ntairow wouldn’t have gotten as many chances to have witnessed what he wanted to ask her about, but he figured it was worth a shot anyway.
“Anyway…” the arbok went on, “well, when you knew him… did you ever see any signs of it? Of his illness, I mean?”
Ntairow sent an odd look back at him. “What he’s going through right now was caused by his evolution. He only just evolved tonight.”
“No, not that… I’m talking about something else,” Syr said. “Something I saw earlier today. We… we lost an old friend today.” His voice cracked on those words, and he had to struggle a bit to continue. “Before we went to see her… and during… I saw this strange, multicolored aura try to form around him a couple of times.”
Ntairow didn’t stop walking, but she did tense up noticeably. “You’re certain it had many colors?” she asked, sounding somewhat awed and alarmed at the same time.
“Yes,” Syr confirmed. “And… I think it has something to do with grief. When I went to meet him at the Haven, they told me why he was in there. They said it was some kind of psychic illness, and they described something that happened… right after we lost one of our other friends.” Thinking about her brought out the tears that had been welling up in Syr’s eyes ever since he’d spoken of what had happened to Faurur; he shook them away as best as he could, which wasn’t terribly well at all.
“They said he’d apparently seen a multicolored aura appear around himself then,” he continued, “and then he couldn’t tell whether he was alive or dead or what. It broke him, Ntairow. It took the people at the Haven years before they got him back to anywhere near normal… but it looks like he needed more time.”
“Dear Night…” Ntairow said, half-whispering. “We were right about him all along…”
“What?” Syr asked. “Did you see the aura, too?”
“No,” Ntairow responded, “but I did see something just as important, something in his psychic signature that apparently none of his people recognized—or believed us about. Even Esaax himself couldn’t quite believe what we told him about what we saw. Some of us took their word for it—just assumed that there genuinely weren’t any among the Evergray and that we must have been mistaken in our perception of him somehow—but others weren’t so quick to dismiss it, including me…”
“Ntairow… what are you talking about?” Syr asked, trying not to sound as confused as he felt or as frustrated as he was beginning to feel. “They assumed there genuinely weren’t any what among the Evergray?”
“Healers,” Ntairow clarified. “Esaax is a healer. Most of our kind can only share our pain. Those like Esaax can share their lifeforce, as well. They use this ability to help others, to strengthen and heal them.”
“Wow…” Syr said, astonished at the notion that his friend could have been harboring such a secret all this time and vaguely wondering why he’d been keeping it a secret. “That’s amazing if it’s true… but I don’t know. It didn’t sound or look like he was really helping anyone—just hurting himself.”
“That’s part of how it’s supposed to work,” Ntairow told him. “Like I said, it involves sharing one’s lifeforce—giving of one’s self. But it’s not supposed to hurt the healer in the ways you described.
“And if it really wasn’t helping anyone… well, I’m not surprised. It sounds as though no one among his kind or anyone else he’s lived with over the years has known for sure that he was what he was any more than he’s known it. And his healer abilities have been compelling him to use them—and since he had no proper guidance, no way of really knowing what he was doing… of course he’s made mistakes. Of course things went wrong.” She sighed. “Dear Night, do I ever wish I’d reunited with him sooner…”
“Yeah… I wish I had, too,” Syr said, finding himself at a loss for anything else to say. “Not that I could have really helped him, but…”
Ntairow lowered her head slightly, acknowledging his words, but said nothing else for a moment. Then, “So how long have you known him, then?” she asked Syr.
“Not quite as long as you have,” Syr answered. “Only since just a few years before the Extinction. We… hadn’t been in touch for a while before today,” he admitted. “Me and… and another of our friends had to take care of something important—someone was threatening some of her kind and mine—and, well… He couldn’t come with us, and we couldn’t go with him.”
“Hmm,” was apparently all that Ntairow had to say to that.
Syr didn’t attempt to get anything more out of her for the time being, not on that subject or any other. He had a lot on his mind now, even more than before… and among those thoughts was something that had made its way back toward the forefront of his mind. Someone who’d so recently departed his life once and for all had been brought up more than once in the conversation he’d just had.
He felt fresh pangs of grief as his thoughts lingered on the subject of Faurur, and he tried but failed to hold back a fresh surge of tears as well as the sobs that accompanied them. Ntairow cast a concerned, sympathetic-looking glance over her shoulder at this but said nothing.
Karo, however, hastily waddled up to the arbok, fighting to stay alongside him. “You all right there, big guy?” he asked. “…Is this about that friend you said you lost earlier?”
Syr could only nod in response.
“Well—” Karo broke off into a swear as he nearly tripped on a branch. “…Whoops, sorry about that. Anyway… uh… crap. I kinda suck at this… I wish you’d been able to tell me about this sooner, like back at the house, maybe. I could’ve had Breanna bring us over some pie or something, and we could’ve talked about all this… Maybe she’d have had a better idea of what to say than I do.”
“It’s okay. I appreciate what you’re doing just fine,” Syr said, and he meant it. Still, he did have to agree with Karo’s wish that they’d had more of a chance to discuss what had happened with Faurur earlier—especially since the nosepass might have been in a position to help him carry out some of Faurur’s last wishes. Syr knew very little about what she’d asked him to start warning people about, but Karo, with the wealth of information that he had lying around at his home, might have been a little more knowledgeable about the things in question.
Even without ready access to those stores of information, Karo still might know something useful offhand. Deciding to find out for sure, “Hey, Karo… have you ever heard of deranics?” he asked the nosepass. “And something to do with them called—ah, what was it? …Oh yeah. ‘Seterhath Zulo-Denvenda’. Are you familiar with these things at all?”
“Hmm… I’m not, but Ren might be. When he gets back, I’ll ask him,” Karo said.
Syr sighed. “I really wish you’d stop talking about your trainer like that.”
“Like what?” Karo asked.
“Like… well, like he’s still alive,” Syr answered quietly.
“And why wouldn’t he be?” Karo asked.
“Well… because he’s human, Karo,” Syr said.
Karo snorted. “Whatever you say…”
Syr looked at him pityingly for a moment, as he usually did whenever Karo insisted on entertaining the notion that Ren was still alive. But with the weight of his own recent loss on his figurative shoulders, he let the subject drop early this time. Let him believe, if that’s the only way he can deal with it, he told himself, with some small part of him wishing he could do likewise.
* * *
Ceaselessly moving as if possessed, Esaax found the trees around him thinning. His wandering had brought him back toward the city, which was now perfectly fine by him. He was no longer hungry in the slightest anyway. He’d found the abandoned, partial carcass of a stantler minutes ago, and there’d been just enough left to chase away the last remaining traces of his hunger.
He’d eaten too much, actually. He felt slightly ill and sought to sleep it off as soon as he could find a decent place to do so. Before long, he spotted an unfinished mini mall. He figured he could go into one of the empty stores and at least avoid direct exposure to the sun, which was due to rise in just a matter of hours.
Esaax entered one of the stores through a large, smashed window. To his surprise, he was instantly greeted by a trio of voices:
“Hey, what’s that?”
“Huh, I can’t tell…”
“Who cares what he is? He doesn’t belong here!”
The owners of the three voices came forward to reveal themselves as three smeargle—needlessly, as Esaax had already seen them through the darkness. The one Esaax had heard last spoke again, introducing himself and his companions.
“Why, hello there! I’m Mark,” he said. “This is Tom—” He pointed at the smeargle to his right. “—and this is Travis.” He pointed at the one to his left. “And this,” Mark said, spreading his arms wide to indicate the space surrounding him, “is our territory. Thanks for the visit. Now get out!”
Mentioning that this place was their territory had also been unnecessary, as Esaax had already seen that, too. It was literally written all over the walls. It looked as though they were trying to convince themselves more than anyone else that this place belonged to them.
Esaax took a step toward the smeargle. The smeargle all took a step back. “Maybe you should get out,” the kwazai said.
“Hmm. Looks like blue-butt won’t listen to reason. What a shame,” Mark said, shaking his head. “Okay, then, if that’s how you wanna play…” He took a great leap backward and called out, “Go!”
Tom attacked first, using spark. Electricity crackled all around his body as he tackled the kwazai’s shoulder and held on tightly, allowing his electric charge to keep on flowing into his opponent.
Esaax snarled at the sizzling pain and retaliated with counter. The attack shocked Tom out of his electric technique, but the smeargle still refused to let go of him. Esaax solved that problem by grabbing the smeargle with his jaws and pulling him off, shaking him briefly before throwing him forcefully to the ground.
Esaax was sure that Tom was out of the fight, but then the smeargle began to emit the telltale glow of the recover technique. Tom’s wounds began mending swiftly. Esaax moved to try and foil Tom’s recovery—but then Travis seemed to launch out of nowhere with a blazing dynamic punch—
—and missed. His attack had been ruined by Esaax’s watchful tail, which had allowed the kwazai to sense its unsubtle approach and sidestep it almost lazily.
Snarling and muttering curses under his breath, Travis spun on his heel to face Esaax once more. He raised his fist, and it burst into rust-colored “flames” of fighting-type energy as he readied another dynamic punch. But he never got a chance to launch his second strike, for at that moment, Esaax fired a reflux attack at him. The force of the dark-type blast sent Travis flying into a junk-filled corner, where he was impaled upon a shard of jagged sheet metal. The smeargle’s eyes froze wide open as his body slid slowly down upon the daggerlike protrusion.
Esaax staggered at the jolt of his attack’s recoil. It compromised him for a moment that was just long enough to let Mark blast him right in the head with the reflux he’d just sketched from the kwazai himself.
The strike itself only hurt somewhat… but the moment after the last traces of its dark energy seeped into Esaax, a strange, harsh noise swelled to a painful intensity inside his skull. He gave a ragged, tormented-sounding cry and swayed on the spot as a dizzying wave washed over him, and then he dropped like a stone.
Just before he blacked out, he heard Tom say, “No, don’t shoot him again; let’s just get out of here!”
Chapter 13: X
Esaax wasn’t unconscious for long. He awoke and immediately wished he hadn’t; he was fatigued and nauseated, and pain pounded in his head and seared down the length of his spine to the end of his tail.
He tried to stand, but found that he couldn’t. Instead, he fell into a four-legged version of a kneeling position. He looked around, sweeping the space surrounding him with a gaze that wouldn’t quite focus. Grumbling, he buried his face in his hands and tried to rub the haze out of his eyes.
When he looked up again, he spotted movement off in the corner. He turned his head toward the motion. There, he saw Travis the smeargle crawl out of the junk pile, brush himself off, and begin walking up to him. The smeargle was covered in black scorch marks, with the metal shard still pierced right through him.
“Feeling all right?” Travis asked amiably.
Esaax stared blankly at Travis for a second. Then he tried to get back onto his feet again, succeeding this time, and started backing away from Travis in as much of a hurry as he could manage. His legs gave out from underneath him before he got very far, forcing him to kneel before the undead smeargle once more.
“What are you running from, huh? Can’t we have a little chat?” Travis asked.
“I’m not talking to you,” Esaax said flatly.
“Yes, you are, you just opened your mouth and said—”
“You’re a hallucination!”
“I’m a damn good hallucination, though, you have to admit,” Travis said, fidgeting with the bloody piece of metal that protruded from his chest.
Esaax shut his eyes and shook his head. To his dismay, Travis was still there when he opened his eyes once more. Esaax groaned. “I feel like crap,” he mumbled.
“Well, of course you do! I mean, think about it. You keep using that crazy black beam of yours, and you hurt yourself every time you use it, no matter how much you hold back when you do. And it’s cumulative, you know. That damage adds up over time.
“But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it?” Travis went on. “See, every time that nifty little attack bounces back at you, that’s pure dark energy hitting your system. Psybane. Which really shouldn’t bother you that much, right? After all, you’re half-psychic, but you’re half-dark, too, aren’t you?”
Esaax sighed. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“Well, now, wait a minute. Suppose that’s… not exactly right.”
“…What do you mean?” Esaax asked, perplexed.
“Botched evolution, my friend,” Travis answered. “Or are you gonna try and tell me that there wasn’t something distinctly… off about your evolutionary experience?”
Esaax only growled in response.
“The problem with you evolving is that you weren’t supposed to,” Travis said. “Wasn’t supposed to be possible, was it? My friend, you got forced into this form. You got forced into this combination of elements, and it’s not one that’s meant to be fooled around with.”
The smeargle began to pace in front of Esaax. “Dark and psychic. That’s a completely one-sided matchup right there. One is devastatingly dominant; the other, totally helpless. Now, maybe somewhere out there in the wide world of nature and supernature, that works just fine. But not here. Not in you.
“You just can’t go forcing these things, man. Yet someone—I repeat, someone—forced it on you. Now, I want you to take a moment right now to think back. Can you figure out who might’ve done this to you?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Esaax did as he was advised, but his present illness made it hard for him to focus well enough to recall his memories clearly. As he managed to remember some of the most recent things he’d done, he was sickened even further, swallowing hard as his stomach gave a threatening lurch.
It wasn’t until he managed to recall the period of time immediately preceding his evolution that anything even remotely resembling an answer to Travis’s question came to him. “I… I don’t know who it was for sure, but… I remember something hitting me right before I evolved. And I thought I felt someone in the room with me… I think it was a ghost.”
Travis cocked an eyebrow at him. “You thought you felt a ghost in the room with you, huh?” he said in a skeptical tone. “May I remind you that you… weren’t exactly feeling so great at the time? In case you haven’t noticed, sometimes the mind plays tricks on you when you’re feeling under the weather.”
Esaax just glared dully at him.
“But anyway,” Travis went on, “try looking a little further back than that. Is there anything else you’ve experienced recently that had any kind of significant physical effect on you?”
Esaax combed through his memories again, trying to keep his thoughts moving in a straight line backward from his evolution without overlooking any potentially important details. He remembered being brought to the Haven, then remembered the ride in Jen’s car from Syr’s house, and then remembered the ride to Syr’s house from…
Esaax’s eyes widened, and he felt his mouth go dry. In his mind’s eye, he could see the private counseling office at the Hope Institute, wherein a needle sank into his arm under the guidance of a human hand…
“DeLeo,” Esaax said hoarsely.
“It was that serum he gave me… that’s what started all this…”
“You’ve got it,” Travis said, beaming proudly. “You’re miserable now because of that sorry excuse for a human. He just tacked another type on you, and that screwed up the one you already had. Your new body was elementally unstable from the start, and it’s growing ever more so, I’m afraid…”
Travis came to stand right in front of Esaax. He stood on his toes, brought his paintbrush-tail forward, and painted a large “X” across the kwazai’s chest in bright red ink. “You’re a goner, Evergray.”
“What if I just don’t use that dark attack anymore?”
Travis shook his head sadly. “I’m afraid it’s too late now, my friend. Too much damage and too much stress in a period of time that’s much too short for your poor body to cope with… and there’s no fixing it, man. You’re on your way out, and there’s no turning back…”
Esaax spent a few moments in silence. “So this is really gonna kill me,” he said finally, wearily.
Travis made a small, affirmative noise, nodding. “And it’s all thanks to Mr. Sylvester DeLeo.”
Esaax sighed and knitted his spidery fingers on top of his head, covering his face with his large palms. “Maybe I should go,” he whispered. “I hate what I’ve become. Do you realize how many people I’ve killed just tonight?”
“You’re a predator now, so what? You’ve gotta eat, right?”
“I killed you on a full stomach,” Esaax pointed out.
“Accidentally. And no, you didn’t kill me, anyway; I’m just a hallucination, remember?”
Esaax groaned miserably and lowered his gaze to the dirty floor. “This is all just so wrong…”
“I agree,” said Travis, lowering his head somberly. “I wish that there was some way to change your fate… but there just isn’t one, man. Sorry. Oh… but there is something you can still do about it…”
“What’s that?” Esaax asked, lifting his gaze.
“DeLeo put this misery on you. Why don’t you go pay him back?”
“Come on. You know you wanna.”
“I don’t know,” Esaax muttered. “I’m just so tired…”
“There, you see? Your time is running out. So go on, get going. It’s not too far from here.”
“I don’t know if I can walk there right now, even if it is close. I’m sure I can’t run,” Esaax told the smeargle. “And besides, I… I just don’t think I have it in me… I mean, going over there, and then hurting him… killing him…”
“But you do have it in you, my friend,” Travis said with more than a hint of enthusiasm. “You can do this. You can pull this off. There’s just one thing you have to do.”
“And what’s that?”
The smeargle gave a bloody grin. “Surrender, Evergray. Let me take over.” His green eyes shifted dramatically in color, becoming black all throughout like a pair of deep, dark holes. The rest of him followed suit, the scattered scorchings of his coat spreading until he was pitch-black all over. He became an animate shadow, a dark mass that rapidly changed shape and grew into a dramatically different form.
Esaax now beheld another kwazai, one made out of softly glowing shadow-substance. He stared at them, and he quickly found himself moved by the sight and presence of them. They were beautiful, incredibly so, and he wondered why he hadn’t allowed himself to look at them and what they represented in this way before.
The shadow-kwazai lifted Esaax’s head in their hands, comforting him as if he were their child. They took him by the shoulders and lifted him back onto his feet, supporting his weight easily. They gazed deep into his eyes as they held him steady. “May I?” they asked in a hollow-sounding voice.
Esaax’s surrender was silent. He opened his arms to embrace the darkness, which melted into him like ice and left him feeling virtually nothing: no remorse for his recent actions or trepidation about what he was about to do, no pain or illness, not even the tiredness he’d known mere minutes before. All that was left was the cold simplicity of his new resolve: Go. Find him.
Esaax rose, left the empty store, and strode over to the curb, stepping over it onto the street. Headlights appeared from around the corner a short distance away, and the moment they did, he collapsed onto the asphalt.
The approaching car came to a stop just short of where Esaax had fallen, and the golduck who’d been driving got out and rushed to his side at once, leaving the vehicle running.
“Are you all right?” the golduck asked, concerned—then gave a squawk of surprise as a massive hand lying at his feet suddenly seized him by the ankles and pulled him to the ground. Esaax’s other hand came down hard in a fist against the golduck’s head immediately afterward, then did it again for good measure, knocking the golduck out.
Esaax got back to his feet once more, then went over to the car. He determined that he could probably fit into it and operate it just fine if it weren’t for that roof. With a fair bit of effort, he managed to tear enough of it away to suit his needs. He then smashed the window in his way and stepped over the door to get in, not noticing the shards of glass that bit into him as he did so. Somewhat awkwardly, he turned to face forward and extended his hind legs up and over into the seat behind him.
Had he been in his right mind, Esaax might have felt a thrill at the fact that he was going to drive for the first time in over a decade, with no Syr or anyone else around in any position to tell him that he couldn’t or shouldn’t. As it was, though, he was still focused entirely on the task that awaited him. Without a second’s hesitation, he sped off toward the Hope Institute, very nearly running over the golduck in the process.
* * *
Just as the three pokémon seeking Esaax left the forest, Ntairow abruptly stopped in front of Syr and Karo. Syr very nearly ran right into her, reeling back and veering off to the side just in time.
“Ntairow… what’s going on?” he asked her.
“I’ve lost him completely,” Ntairow said heavily. She turned to the others. “I can’t sense anything of him now. It’s as if he’s simply gone.”
“You don’t think that he’s… that he’s no longer alive, do you?” Syr asked fearfully in barely more than a whisper.
Ntairow lowered her head. “I don’t know,” she said quietly. “I honestly don’t know.”
Out of nowhere, two shapes burst onto the scene: the two surviving smeargle. They stopped dead at the sight of Ntairow.
“Run for it, it’s another one!” said Tom.
“No, it’s not…” said Mark.
“Yes, it is,” said Ntairow. She swiftly grabbed both smeargle by their tails and raised them to eye level. “You two have seen Esaax, then?”
“If by ‘Esaax’, you mean that big, blue thing who killed our friend, then yes!” Mark said, flailing in a futile attempt to escape.
Syr and Ntairow both winced at the news of yet another murder committed by their friend. Karo, meanwhile, came to stand before Ntairow and looked up at her two captives.
“Give them to me,” the nosepass said. There was an ominous weight to his voice that hadn’t been there before, and he seemed to be bearing down on the smeargle even from below.
It was then that the smeargle finally noticed Karo. Their nervousness visibly increased, and they began to struggle even more desperately to get away.
“Karo, you have no way of knowing if these are the same smeargle who broke into your house,” said Syr.
“Are you sure about that? Cause I’ve gotta say, they’re looking pretty guilty from here.” He edged even closer to the smeargle, and their reactions made it clear that they badly wanted to be somewhere else at this point. “See how they fear me,” Karo said with a laugh. “They know what they’ve done. And they know what’s coming. Now, let’s see…” he said, examining the ink that was beginning to leak from their tail-tips under the pressure of Ntairow’s grip. “There’s Mr. Blue… there’s Mr. Yellow… hey, where’s Mr. Red?”
“I already said, schnozzo, that ‘Esaax’ thing killed him! He tried to kill all of us!” Mark said angrily.
“And he was the one trespassing in our territory!” Tom added.
“Yeah, but then I blasted him with one of these—” Mark raised his hand and shot a reflux into the sky, at which Ntairow nearly dropped him. “—and down he went.”
“…You didn’t kill him, did you?” Ntairow asked shakily.
“No, Tom wouldn’t let me finish him off,” Mark said acidly.
“Cause when you shot him, it hurt you, too! You might have died if you’d killed him!” Tom responded.
“You can’t possibly know that any more than I can!” Mark argued. “Well, okay, then. When that blue freak wakes up and decides to come after us, I’ll just tell him he can go ahead and blast your brains out first since it’ll have been your bright idea to show mercy to the monster that’ll have made that lovely scenario possible in the first place, you dumbass!”
“Stop it, both of you,” Ntairow said firmly. She knocked the smeargles’ heads together. Karo cheered. “Is he still where you left him, then?” Ntairow demanded of the smeargle.
“Urgh… I don’t know,” Mark replied after he stopped seeing lights bursting in the back of his eyes. “If he’s stayed unconscious, then yes, he’s probably still there.”
“Actually… he’s not,” said Tom. Everyone, including Mark, turned to stare at him. “Over there,” Tom said, pointing.
Everyone looked in the direction that Tom was indicating. There they saw a kwazai in a mangled blue car hurtling down the street at an incredible speed.
Ntairow threw the two smeargle facefirst to the ground. “Come on!” she shouted, taking off at a run after the car. “And leave them alone!” she added over her shoulder to Karo.
“Awww…” the nosepass groaned, disappointed. He turned to the two smeargle, who were still sprawled out on the ground and rubbing their sore muzzles. Now he really was bearing down on them. “Make no mistake—I am so gonna squash you one of these days,” he told them, using the “ominous” voice once again. Then he shot off a tiny bolt of electricity to send the smeargle scurrying off on their way.
Chapter 14: Chasing a Rumor
Esaax rushed recklessly through the streets of Convergence, which were fortunately more or less deserted at the time. Most of the local pokémon were diurnal, and with sunrise approaching, most of those who didn’t keep daytime hours were getting ready to go to sleep.
The kwazai found what he was looking for fairly quickly, recognizing the squat box of a building that was the Hope Institute right away. He entered the parking lot and parked at an odd angle across two spaces, then jumped out of the car, landing less than gracefully and struggling for a couple of moments to keep from toppling over.
Esaax didn’t bother making his way around to the front door. He could sense living presences just a couple of yards past the wall that lay before him, two of whom were familiar—one of whom was his target.
He fired a sustained reflux into the barrier in front of him. As soon as enough of the wall had been weakened to admit him, he stepped forward right into it, causing the weakened portion to crumble into powder around him as he passed through it.
It turned out there was another wall between him and his quarry, but this fact didn’t faze him; he simply decided to repeat the process that had gotten him into the building in the first place. His body was somewhat less willing to oblige this time. There was a slightly longer delay than usual before the black beam came to his summons, and when the dark energy began pouring from his outstretched hand, his senses faltered a bit, his vision briefly dimming, the raised voices from the other side of the wall temporarily drowned out by a ringing in his ears.
Just as he’d done the time before, Esaax pushed his way through the wall and into the room beyond it as soon as he could. He was met with the sight of a small crowd of glalie with dark blue protect auras, and he could sense DeLeo’s presence behind them as the human used them for cover—but before he could try to leap over the glalie and get at his quarry, there was a loud crack, and he was down in an instant.
DeLeo stood and made his way over to the now unconscious kwazai, then looked down at him and sighed. “You could’ve just knocked, Esaax.”
* * *
When Esaax awoke, he was greeted by the sight of a long, spindly, robotic arm that extended from somewhere above him to a point right in front of his face. It clutched a now-darkened revive crystal in its metal fingers. Esaax considered biting the arm and tearing it down as he watched it swiftly ascend once more, but lingering grogginess kept him from acting on that idea before the arm had vanished.
It was then that his senses reawakened enough to detect the familiar presences from earlier very nearby: DeLeo and Solonn—the former of which provoked a very strong reaction. Esaax’s eyes and oculons both locked on to the human before him, and his exhaustion seemed to shatter into pieces; he promptly rose and began snapping and swiping at the wall of glowing, green energy that separated him from DeLeo.
In the next moment, however, he was no longer interested in trying to break out, lowering his arms and sinking to his knees. A calming gas had been released into the containment field from above while he’d been so distracted by his target.
“Shh… it’s all right, Esaax,” DeLeo said. “You’re exactly where you need to be right now. I’ll bet you’ve got a lot of questions about what’s happened to you, and I’ve got all the answers.”
DeLeo looked at him expectantly, but Esaax only stared back. The kwazai still entertained thoughts of attacking and killing the human, but no longer felt any need to act upon them.
DeLeo approached the containment field. He came to a stop right in front of it and leaned against the glowing wall as if it were ordinary glass. Doing so apparently didn’t hurt him in any way, just as it hadn’t hurt Esaax.
“You probably didn’t know you could evolve, did you?” DeLeo asked. “I know most wobbuffet don’t. So I’m gonna tell you a little story, Esaax. One that’ll explain why this has been kept from you—and why you shouldn’t be scared of it. No, you should be anything but scared…” he told Esaax with what sounded like awed excitement.
DeLeo took a step back, clasping his hands in front of himself. “There’s a legend,” he began, “hundreds of years old, about a king of the Mordial region named Asotura. His reign was glorious but short—he was killed by an assassin who was never found.
“The king’s body was discovered by his most faithful pokémon friend. And that friend was a kwazai, Esaax. Just like you are.
“Anyway, according to the legend, this kwazai refused to let the king be taken from him, and so he called on his ‘ultimate inner power’—and actually raised Asotura from the dead.
“Now, that was the good news for the king. The bad news was that his people decided they didn’t want his reign to continue. They didn’t exactly like the tale of Asotura’s resurrection, you see. They called it unnatural, and they called him an abomination.
“And the kwazai became demons in their eyes. The ancient Mordialans decided to just slaughter every single kwazai they could find. And they did the same thing to wobbuffet and wynaut, too, in order to make sure the kwazai were exterminated completely. Asotura’s own army even sided with the public. They went against the king’s orders to put an end to the killing and instead joined in the effort to eradicate your species. Doesn’t it just make you sick?”
Esaax neither said nor did a single thing in response. His two eyes and four oculons continued to hold the human in a dead, silent stare.
“Well, anyway…” DeLeo resumed, “as for Asotura himself, there wasn’t anyone around who didn’t want him dead—and permanently this time. But when they stormed the castle, he wasn’t anywhere to be found. Nobody knows how he got away, but he did, and he also managed to rescue a handful of your kind along with himself.
“After he escaped from Mordial, he looked for a place where your people could continue to be protected for generations to come. Apparently one was provided right here in Hoenn by a legendary pokémon—nobody knows which one. Whoever they were, they gave their home to the refugees. Then they used their legendary powers to hide the refugees’ new sanctuary before taking off for who knows where. You might’ve heard of this sanctuary, Esaax. These days, it’s known as Mirage Island.
“Anyway, the people of Asotura’s former kingdom tried to keep his story and the secret of your people’s final evolutionary form from surviving the ages. But their efforts ultimately proved useless, because that story was recorded—supposedly by Asotura himself—on a little something called the Tablet of Asotura. The tablet went missing for centuries, but it was eventually found by a human explorer from Pacifidlog. But before he could go public with his discovery, well… you know what happened fourteen years ago,” he said quietly.
“Luckily one of the explorer’s pokémon bothered to take care of the tablet after the explorer passed away. That pokémon eventually decided he wanted to see kwazai brought back into the world, and ultimately he found us and sought our assistance in that matter. Once he told me the story of Asotura and what his kwazai could do… well, there was no question about it. None. I knew I had to help him.”
DeLeo stepped back up to the containment field. “Do you remember what I told you earlier, Esaax?” he asked. “About why I founded the Hope Institute? This—” He gestured toward Esaax. “—ties into that. We turned you into this for a very special purpose, Esaax. A very, very important one.”
An expression that managed to look sort of hopeful and pained at the same time overtook his features. “I know what you’ve lost, Esaax. I know exactly what you’ve lost,” he said, and his voice cracked audibly on those last six words. “I’ve lost the exact same thing—the exact same people. But we’re gonna bring ’em back, Esaax. You’re gonna bring ’em back, as soon as we’re sure you’re strong enough.”
DeLeo pressed his hands against the wall of energy between him and Esaax once more. “You’ll see,” he half-whispered, sounding slightly crazed, his smile broadening. “It’s gonna be just like the old days. Only better.”
He then turned away from Esaax and made for the room’s exit, striding past Solonn as he went. Solonn had kept silent the entire time that DeLeo had been speaking to Esaax, and DeLeo had actually managed to forget the glalie was there until he walked past him.
As he spoke the voice command that opened the doors before him and then ushered Solonn out of the room ahead of him, part of him noticed that the glalie was wearing an expression that was severe-looking even for those of his kind, his large, luminous, blue eyes burning rather brighter than usual. DeLeo gave these details next to none of his mind, however, too absorbed in thoughts of how close he was to finally accomplishing the goal toward which he’d been striving for more than a decade, a goal that meant more to him than anything in the world.
A few seconds later, however, a low voice from behind him cut into those thoughts.
“How could you do such a thing?” Solonn demanded, sounding both angry and hurt.
DeLeo stopped in his tracks and turned to face the glalie. “…What? What’re you talking about?”
“You did this to him,” Solonn hissed, shaking slightly as he spoke, “without his consent? Without even so much as his awareness that he could be changed in such a way?”
DeLeo blinked at him, bemused. “What… what’s it to you?”
Solonn’s eyes narrowed. “You have no right to inflict a change on someone who doesn’t ask you for it first,” he said, moving even closer to DeLeo, causing the human to take a step back involuntarily. “No one has that right. You disgust me, DeLeo.”
Fear began showing through DeLeo’s expression insofar as it could. “Look… I’m sorry you don’t like how we’ve gone about this whole kwazai business, okay? I really am. But… don’t you understand what we’re trying to do here?” he asked, pained frustration in his voice. “Were you even paying attention to anything I said in there other than the parts you didn’t like? We’re trying to restore lives, Solonn! And let me tell you something: once we’ve restored certain lives in particular, I promise you Esaax is gonna be so happy that he’s not gonna care that he didn’t have a say in whether or not he evolved.”
“And what if this legend you spoke of is just that—just a legend?” Solonn asked. “What if it turns out that you’ve only been chasing a damn rumor all this time? Did you consider that possibility for even a second? Did you consider what it might do to Esaax if he were told that he can bring back people whom he cares about when in reality he can’t, to find out that he was subjected to a change—one that has obviously upset him very much—for nothing?”
DeLeo only stared at him at first. Then his face twisted into as much of an anguished look as it could. “…It’s more than just a legend,” he insisted. “I’m sorry you can’t see that… and I’m not gonna let you get in the way of our proving it!”
With an inhuman speed, DeLeo’s hands swung out toward Solonn and split down the middle with a faint click, each of them simultaneously opening up like the covers of a book and exposing dark, metallic nozzles. In very nearly the same instant, jets of fire came roaring out from the newly-revealed weapons—only to dissipate harmlessly against the dark blue aura their intended target had conjured around himself just in time.
Solonn hissed and recoiled in reaction to the fiery attack despite its futility. His eyes then blazed a bright white, and a crack echoed through the hallway as he unleashed a sheer cold attack on DeLeo.
The strike hit its mark—DeLeo immediately fell unconscious and dropped to the floor. Solonn briefly looked down upon him in lingering disbelief, still shaking in primal fear for a few moments, then called out to his co-workers in the Hope Institute, uncomfortable with the notion of leaving DeLeo unguarded despite the human’s present condition.
He couldn’t undo what DeLeo had done to Esaax. But he was determined to at least see to it that the human paid for it.
Chapter 15: The Swarm
There came a point when Ntairow’s patience for Karo’s speed—or rather his lack thereof—finally ran out. Without warning, she broke away from the party at a very fast run, ignoring the others’ shouted pleas to let them catch up.
Syr might have been able to keep relatively close to Ntairow, but he wouldn’t abandon Karo. Likewise, Syr wouldn’t abandon the search for Esaax, but having lost sight of him, and now separated from Ntairow and her empathic connection to Esaax, Syr could really only hope he was still moving in the right direction.
It was by pure chance that he and Karo eventually managed to reunite with Ntairow, several minutes after she’d left them. She was standing with her back against the front doors of none other than the Hope Institute.
“Of course…” Syr rushed to Ntairow’s side. “He’s here?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she answered.
“This is where it started,” Syr said, his eyes wide with realization. “Esaax got sick right after he left from here…” The arbok shook his head in disbelief and shame. “I should’ve figured it out much sooner, but I’d already made scapegoats out of the poor staff at the Haven… Looks like Esaax knew, though. And now he’s come back for answers.”
“Or blood,” Ntairow said grimly.
Syr immediately had to drive out a mental image of a massacre at Esaax’s hands. “…So how long have you been waiting out here?” he asked Ntairow.
“Too long. All the doors are locked, and I couldn’t force any of them open. Esaax opted to take a shortcut through one of the walls, but the hole’s been covered over with ice. And not normal ice, either. I was able to chip away at it somewhat, but it immediately grew back, almost as if it were alive…”
Syr shuddered, feeling his throat go dry. “Living” ice needed no further explanation—he could already imagine the sort of creatures that could be responsible for such things, could all too easily picture their hellishly glowing eyes, their massive teeth…
Nonetheless, he tried to brace himself as well as he could for what he might have to face beyond those doors. You’re doing this for Esaax, he reminded himself.
The arbok studied the doors for a moment. “I think I can help you get in,” he said. He motioned Ntairow out of the way with a jerk of his head, then spat a dark spray of full-strength acid at the metal doors. The attack caused them to soften and deform slightly and give off harsh, stinking fumes, but the poison-type technique failed to burn all the way through.
“I’m sorry,” Syr said, backing away from the doors once more. “It normally eats right through…”
“You’ve actually weakened it well,” Ntairow said. “I could certainly tear it open now if it weren’t for what the lingering acid would do to my hands in the process.”
“The acid won’t bother me.” That was all the warning that Karo gave before plowing into the doors. His large nose punched right through the softened metal, and the rest of him followed.
The others entered after him, careful to avoid the sharp, torn, acid-coated edges of their makeshift entrance. Once they were all in, Ntairow managed an impressed smile at Syr and Karo. “Great job, both of you,” she said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Syr and Karo said, almost in unison.
As the three of them entered the building, Karo turned back briefly to look at the hole that he and his nose had just created. “Wow, that’s even bigger than the last one,” he remarked. “Awesome.”
* * *
Purposefully, Moriel made her way through the corridors of the Hope Institute. The glalie kept a mindfully quick pace as she moved; she had a fairly important task to carry out.
Their employer apparently wasn’t quite the good guy that he’d made himself out to be. Solonn had told Moriel, as well as the rest of the glalie and the claydol and steelix among them, that DeLeo had tricked one of his clients into evolving, which was against the law in Convergence. As such, someone needed to go and alert the authorities, as well as contact the staff at the Haven so they could come to the victim’s aid.
Moriel had readily volunteered to take care of this matter. Having once been in league with their enemies, she still wasn’t entirely certain that she’d gained the full trust of the other glalie she now associated with, even after she’d fought alongside them. Any help she could provide for any of them was an opportunity she gladly seized.
As she navigated the winding halls of the building, she felt grateful that she’d been working there as long as she had. The Hope Institute’s internal layout could be a bit confusing for newcomers, but by that point, Moriel had memorized it fairly well. It also helped that the building was closed at the moment; it was easier to focus on where she was supposed to be going since it was largely empty.
Then she rounded a corner into a rather large room and found that the Hope Institute wasn’t as empty as she’d thought it was.
Moriel had stumbled upon Ntairow, Karo, and Syr. The former two looked upon her with largely unreadable expressions, but the arbok looked distinctly and increasingly afraid, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.
“Whoa, hey!” Moriel exclaimed. “Who are you, and wh—”
She was cut off as first a terrified shout and then a spray of acid escaped the arbok in a moment’s panic. Moriel shrieked in pain as the burning fluid struck her face, and she retaliated immediately and automatically: in an instant, the room was filled with a small army of illusory glalie, and at the same time, three loud cracks rang out in rapid succession.
All three of the sheer cold strikes hit their targets, but only Syr was affected. As he dropped to the floor, unconscious, the swarm of glalie began rushing around in circles around Ntairow and Syr—independently, at varying speeds, with some moving clockwise and others moving counterclockwise.
Then Moriel and her illusory copies all turned toward their targets just long enough to fire ice beams in unison, sending jagged, bright blue bolts of ice-type energy flying in a crisscrossing web around Ntairow, Karo, and the insensible arbok at their feet. Most of them passed inconsequentially through or around the nosepass and the kwazai, but one of them—the real one—struck Karo on the left side of the head, causing him to curse and stagger a bit.
A pale bluish-purple light filled Ntairow’s eyes as she tapped into her psywave technique. The branches of her tail were already fanned out and moving around independently, their oculons trying to pick out the telltales that would distinguish the real, living glalie from the nonliving copies, but something about the glalie was confounding her psychic senses. Unable to pick out her target directly, Ntairow instead spun on one foot, firing a quick volley of psywaves in a circle around her—but succeeding only in causing three illusory glalie to vanish before a protect aura went up around the remaining copies and their maker, foiling the rest of her attacks.
The swarm fired another web of ice beams, hitting Karo once again—Ntairow scowled, wishing she’d been able to tell where the real ice beam had come from so she could have dived in front of it. Using the glalie’s attacks to fuel mirror coat responses—and ultimately to fuel a devastating anguish attack once the kwazai had taken enough of them—seemed like the best hope for taking her out at this point. Psywaves were much slower, much easier to avoid than the instantaneous reactions that her retaliatory attacks were, and for all the help that Karo was providing in the fight, he might as well have been in the same state as Syr.
“Why aren’t you doing anything?” Ntairow demanded of the nosepass.
“I’m trying!” Karo insisted, and he was indeed trying. The trouble was that he had a very limited selection of techniques to use against their adversary, the consequence of his trainer having decided to limit the number of attacks he could learn to a mere four out of a belief that it’d make Karo hone those four to a greater potency and learn to use them more creatively.
Karo might not have minded this so much at the moment if one of the moves he’d been left with had been a nice rock-type attack, preferably one that would simply drop rocks on all of the glalie at once and thus weaken the real one enough to put an end to her double team illusions. His zap cannon was terribly difficult to aim and terribly easy to dodge, and being unable to pick out his actual target in the first place meant he couldn’t use lock-on to overcome those drawbacks.
The only hope he could see lay in his remaining two techniques, one of which he was trying to use not on the glalie but rather on Ntairow, Syr, and himself. Specifically, he was trying to impose a block field around the three of them. Blocking more than one target at the same time was never easy, and the current circumstances weren’t helping matters.
But then he saw Ntairow go completely rigid with a look of alarm, halted right in the middle of unleashing another series of psywaves. Satisfied as he could be that the field was secure around its targets, Karo focused on intensifying it so that it would not only prevent anything from breaking out of it but also prevent anything from breaking in.
A third ice beam came Karo’s way—only to dissipate harmlessly against the force field he’d summoned. Karo felt a spark of pride ignite within him—he’d succeeded. With a faint sense of relief, he let the block field withdraw from him, leaving it clinging to Ntairow and Syr as he unleashed the last of his four techniques.
All at once, the space was filled with blazing light and thunderous noise.
Chapter 16: Balance
Syr awoke to a very different scene. From where he was lying, he now had a sideways view of shattered floor tiles illuminated by scattered moonlight, as well as of an irregular hole in the wall through which Ntairow was leaning partway.
There was also a sound in the air that hadn’t been there before: a very faint moaning in an unfamiliar voice. Puzzled, Syr pulled himself up from the floor. A bit of a daze still lingered in the wake of his unconsciousness, making it hard at the moment to guess whom the voice belonged to.
He made his way over to Ntairow to see if she had any clue what its source was. The sound grew louder as he approached her, though not by much. Once he was by her side, he found out exactly whom he was hearing, and the answer snapped him back to full awareness in an instant.
Just on the other side of the ruined wall lay a glalie; Syr could only assume this was the same one who’d knocked him out. Even in her current state—her right horn missing its tip, her ice armor broken off in places, and a small pool of nearly colorless blood at her side that was already turning to pale mist—her presence made him distinctly uncomfortable. His breaths began escaping in worried hisses, and he automatically began moving back away from the broken wall.
Syr shifted his gaze to Ntairow and held it there, the glalie now entirely out of his sight. In the corner of his vision, he noticed a bluish-purple light glowing briefly through the hole in the wall. When it subsided, so did the moaning.
The arbok moved ever so slightly closer to Ntairow as she ducked back out of the hole in the wall. “Did you…?”
“She’s alive,” Ntairow said, which didn’t answer the question Syr had actually had in mind. “But she won’t be giving us any trouble again anytime soon,” she then said, which did. “You have nothing to fear from her now. Although I have to say that you undoubtedly scared her every bit as much as she scared you.”
“Yeah, well…” Syr began irritably, doubting Ntairow’s claim. Then he noticed the gray-and-orange shape lying several feet away from Ntairow, back in the direction they’d come from. “Karo!” he cried. He rushed over to him, ignoring the way the broken floor and scattered debris scraped and dug into his belly—but he stopped in his tracks when he got close enough to see just what sort of condition his friend was in.
He was looking at roughly half of a nosepass.
“Oh God…” Syr whispered.
“It’s all right,” Ntairow assured him. “He’s still alive, and he’s already begun to repair himself.”
Syr just stared for a moment at what was left of Karo, his horror giving way to a strange sort of awe. “He wasn’t kidding…” he said, more to himself than anyone else. Karo had once bragged to Syr that nosepass lived indefinitely if no one or nothing else could kill them, and that killing them wasn’t easy. The nosepass had said that even if he were smashed to pieces, he’d just regenerate. Syr had always just figured that Karo must’ve been exaggerating.
“He said it’s a very slow process, though. Regenerating, I mean,” Syr said, then sighed. “He needs to go to the Haven. They can speed up his repairs with their revives and potions. Otherwise… God, from the look of him, he probably won’t see the next hundred years. At least.”
“He’s perfectly stable for the time being,” Ntairow told him. “The same can’t be said for Esaax.” And with that, she turned away from the broken wall and the glalie beyond it and set off in search of Esaax once more.
Syr didn’t start following her right away. Leaving the glalie behind struck him as a very good idea, but leaving Karo behind didn’t, no matter how indestructible the nosepass claimed he was. Syr took a moment to wrap his tail securely around Karo, then proceeded onward after Ntairow. This time he noticed and dodged every bit of debris in his path, trying not to think too hard about where some of it had come from.
His efforts were in vain, however, foiled by two things in particular. One, he was literally carrying Karo’s weight, aware that there was less of it than there should be. Two, he still wasn’t entirely certain what had left Karo in such a state in the first place. “What did this to him, anyway?” he asked.
A couple of Ntairow’s tail branches curled toward Syr. She stopped and turned around, then sighed and closed the distance between her and the arbok; dragging Karo along had prevented Syr from catching up to her.
“He used an explosion,” Ntairow answered him as she went over to take hold of Karo. She saw a look of astonishment on Syr’s face—the arbok had craned his neck to watch what she’d been doing—and gave him a nod that silently said, It’s true, as well as a forward wave of one hand that silently said, Now let’s move along, please.
Syr followed her unspoken directions, slithering somewhat faster now that Ntairow was helping him carry the unconscious nosepass, still in disbelief at what he’d just been told. “God… what possessed him to resort to that?” he asked as they left the room for the corridor beyond.
“That glalie seemed to have a particular talent for using double team,” Ntairow said. “There were just too many copies, and they were indistinguishable from their maker. He decided to just take them all out at once, I suppose.” She smiled very faintly. “I do have to commend him for managing to do that—or to come close, anyway—without taking us out, as well. I’m still not completely sure how he did it.”
“I’m not sure either, but wow…” Syr said. I have got to make this up to him someday, he thought.
Meanwhile, something else Ntairow had said was striking him as a little odd. “…You said you couldn’t tell the real one from the copies, right?” he asked her.
“Yes, that’s right. I think her dark subtype may have been overdeveloped; it was deflecting my psychic perception.”
“Oh,” Syr said at first. Then, “Wait, what do you mean, ‘subtype’?”
“An elemental factor that’s strong enough to have an effect on its owner but not strong enough to figure into their actual type. All pokémon have—”
She fell abruptly silent, and Syr didn’t wonder why—he could see the reason for himself. It was another glalie encounter, but this time there were four of them, all of whom looked at least somewhat alarmed. On top of that, Solonn was one of those four; Syr immediately wished he’d been able to go through life without learning that glalie could get that large. There was also a claydol in the glalie’s midst, to whom Syr gave almost no real attention despite the creature’s typing; the arbok was aware of almost nothing beyond the glowing blue eyes that were quickly approaching and the frantic pounding of his own heart.
Distantly, he felt the weight he was helping to carry sink to the ground, then saw Ntairow move into his peripheral vision. “Stay put,” she hissed as she swiftly made her way around to stand beside him, “and try to stay calm. Please.”
Syr gave neither a word nor a motion in response. Her words had managed to get through to him over his urges to attack or flee or do something, but while he was managing to keep stock still for the time being, he was sure he could break at any moment.
“What are you people doing here?” one of the glalie demanded as he and the rest of his group came to a stop a few feet away from Ntairow, Syr, and Karo. He shifted slightly to look past Syr, his eyes finding the partially-destroyed nosepass still held in Syr’s coils. “Actually, never mind that. I think we’ve already got our answer,” he said, nodding toward the unconscious rock-type.
“You were responsible for that explosion?” Solonn asked Ntairow and Syr.
“Yes,” Ntairow began to answer evenly, at which Syr immediately threw her a sanity-questioning look, “but we hadn’t intended to. It was all just a misunderstanding. We ran into one of your people unexpectedly; he—” She gestured toward Syr. “—attacked her out of panic; and things just sort of escalated, unfortunately. Don’t worry—she’s still alive, although she does need to get some medical attention soon.”
The glalie who’d spoken first swore at this, and all of the glowing blue eyes that regarded the intruders widened. “Where is she?” he demanded.
Ntairow pointed back toward the room behind her. Two of the glalie rushed off in that direction at once, as did the claydol. “You will need to come along with us,” said one of the remaining glalie, at which Ntairow nodded and gave Syr a nudge, then went back to help carry Karo once more.
Syr felt a tug on the end of his tail, a signal from Ntairow that he needed to get moving. He was anything but enthusiastic about spending more time in the company of that many glalie, but the notion of offending them further by disobeying them scared him even more. Still, it was with considerable reluctance that he turned around and headed back to the site of the explosion; his body tried to fight him the entire way there.
As he and Ntairow carried Karo into the room, with two of the glalie following them, the two who’d gone in ahead of them turned to regard them from the spot by the broken wall where they and the claydol hovered. One of them stayed there with Moriel, while Solonn and the claydol approached the intruders. One of the glalie who’d just come in moved forward past Solonn and the claydol, pausing very briefly to assess Moriel’s condition before heading off toward an exit.
“Why did you come here?” Solonn asked of Ntairow and Syr, his tone heavy.
“Because someone here desperately needs help,” Ntairow said. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there’s a pokémon here who’s been forced to evolve. He’s elementally unstable—he needs a psychic-type of his own kind to serve as a vessel for his excess darkness. Please… you’ve got to give me a chance to try and balance him out. He won’t survive otherwise.”
“Do you mean Esaax?” Solonn asked her.
“Yes, I do. You’ve got to let me see him,” Ntairow said urgently.
“She could still be lying,” the glalie over by the broken wall pointed out.
Solonn sent him a brief glance, then sighed and turned his gaze back toward Ntairow. “Would you consent to a psychic scan in order to prove that you’re telling the truth?”
Ntairow didn’t quite bother to keep herself from scowling. “Will it be quick?”
<Yes,> the claydol assured her, speaking telepathically while what Syr could only assume was their actual voice rattled on incomprehensibly, <and it will be painless.>
“Fine, then,” Ntairow said.
Without hesitation, the claydol moved to hover right in front of her, lowered their head, and closed all but the foremost of their eyes. Soon afterward, <She is completely truthful in her claims,> the claydol confirmed.
“All right, then,” Solonn said quietly. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to where Esaax is being kept.” He made his way back toward the hallway that Ntairow, Syr, and Karo had tried to pass through before. “I hope for his sake that you succeed in saving him,” he said as first Ntairow and Syr—carrying Karo once more—followed him out of the room and then one of the other glalie did likewise. “He’s already been through enough that he didn’t deserve.”
“I hope I succeed, too,” Ntairow said quietly. Syr, still too uncomfortable in the presence of the glalie to speak, only nodded in agreement.
* * *
Not very far away from his would-be savior, Esaax stirred in his containment field, his eyes widening. Two words, nearly voiceless, escaped on a breath exhaled as if he’d been holding it all his life.
Chapter 17: Lifeforce
It was like resurrection.
His spirit rose up from the depths of the nothingness that had been occupying him. His voice rose, as well, in a crescendo that kept growing with each repetition of the truth that had brought him back to his senses:
“She’s here! She’s here!”
She was here. Even after all these years, to his great surprise and even greater delight, she still remembered him… and, he hoped, still loved him. And at long last, she was back in his life. Any moment now, she might enter the room where he was being held, rescue him, and take him back into her embrace…
The hollow voice droned from deep within his mind. Its strength and the way that it addressed Esaax so directly, completely unbidden, made its true nature horribly clear to Esaax. The cold and empty voice that had just spoken to him represented none other than the warped and malignant darkness residing within him. That darkness was no longer merely a part of him—they’d become a separate entity lurking within him, a parasite trying to take his life for their own.
Your senses lie. Your joy is an illusion.
That’s not true! Esaax argued internally. He felt and recognized the distinct psychic signature of Ntairow’s presence and couldn’t deny that he did. What that signature represented had changed, but who it signified was unmistakable.
You delude yourself. You will not have her.
You’re wrong! Esaax said, silently and firmly. She’s here for me—
—But she will not stay. She abandoned you before and will only abandon you again. Forget her.
“No!” Esaax shouted, speaking aloud now. “She’ll be here soon, and we will be together forever. She’s gonna save me!”
No one will save you. Nothing is left for you. Forget her. Forget yourself.
“No! You’re wrong!” Esaax shouted, trying to defy and destroy the darkness through sheer force of will.
But the living darkness wouldn’t be denied. They literally rose to the surface, manifesting in thin streaks of black energy that snaked over his skin like dark vines. The streaks crept out over his entire body and then merged together, leaving every square inch of his skin emitting the black glow of the parasitic darkness.
I am this body now, not you, they said. Your time is long past over. Give up.
“No, I refuse to!”
The darkness erupted into a seething, black aura around Esaax. Give up, they pressed.
As the kwazai’s defiant roar faded, the darkness found themself possessed of a cold, absolute hatred, a feeling stronger than anything they’d felt in their hours-long existence. In the face of what seemed like real hope for salvation, Esaax had become too strong to simply erase—this wouldn’t do, the darkness determined with a vicious resolve.
There will be no hope, no strength, no life for you, they declared hatefully. I will make you accept this. I will make you pray for oblivion!
The darkness unleashed a massive, hollow roar within Esaax’s head. They seemed to retreat back into the corners of his mind, the dark aura vanishing and revealing his blue skin once more—but then the darkness sent a bolt of their power shooting down Esaax’s spine. There was a burst of pain in the end of his tail, temporarily distorting the perception of his oculons.
A split-second later, there was a bright, orange flash that shocked Esaax out of breath and onto his knees.
* * *
As Syr slithered along behind Solonn, trying very hard but with little success not to think about just what he was following, he felt something pull sharply on his tail and heard a loud thud. He looked back and saw that Ntairow had dropped Karo and gone totally rigid.
“What is it?” Syr asked.
“Esaax,” Ntairow said, pain and fear both present in her tone. “He’s returned to my perception—and he’s in pain…”
“What? How bad is it?” Syr demanded worriedly.
“It’s horrible… Dear Night, it’s like his own body is rejecting him…”
“We’re almost there,” Solonn tried to assure her from where he now hovered in place, but his tone and the look on his face suggested that he’d become fairly worried himself.
His assurance was unnecessary, however—no sooner had he spoken than Ntairow rushed out in front of him, staggering slightly and clutching her head in pain but still managing to move fairly quickly, using her fully restored perception of Esaax to guide her.
Now that Ntairow was no longer helping him carry Karo, Syr couldn’t hope to keep up with her. Still, he tried, not wanting at all to be left behind with the glalie—but before he could move an inch, he felt something lift the nosepass in his grip off the ground. He looked back and saw Karo rising on a pillar of ice, which then deposited him on top of a glalie’s head, with the end of Syr’s tail still wrapped around the unconscious nosepass.
With most of his body now off the ground, Syr was forced to either try to convince the glalie to put Karo back down or else release his own hold on him. The former hardly felt like an option, however; the glalie simply intimidated him too much for him to challenge what she’d done… and besides which, underneath it all, he did recognize that she was sincerely trying to help. As much as he would have preferred not to need the help of any of her kind, he fell short of ingratitude.
“…Thanks,” he managed, his voice coming out as little more than a squeak.
“No problem,” the glalie said, securing the nosepass to her head with ice as she spoke, and then she took off after Solonn and Ntairow. Syr hastened to follow her, still not altogether comfortable with the notion of leaving Karo unsupervised with one of them and spurred on further still by the sound of Ntairow screaming.
Soon, they caught up with Ntairow and Solonn, who’d just halted before a large pair of metal doors, the former leaning against the latter. Ntairow was silent now but grimacing in pain, one hand still holding her head.
Once everyone had come to a stop there, “This is Sylvester DeLeo, requesting entry,” Solonn said, at which Syr’s eyes widened in surprise—not because of what the glalie had said but how he’d said it. He’d sounded nothing like he had before; the voice he’d just used was quite a bit higher. But what really caught Syr’s attention was that Solonn had just spoken in a human language—some corner of his mind fleetingly wondered if Solonn was just mimicking the words or if, like someone whom Syr had known so many years ago, this glalie actually spoke the language fluently.
“Voice recognition confirmed,” said a computerized voice from an unseen source. “Please state password.”
“Password,” Solonn responded, still using the higher voice and the human language.
“Password valid,” said the computerized voice. “Access granted.”
The doors slid open, and with the unconscious nosepass in tow, the four entered a moderately-sized room that was more brightly lit than the rest of the Hope Institute. The scene now surrounding them was like a gallery of pre- and post-Extinction high technology.
And in the center of it all was Esaax, slumped in his containment field. He was all too plainly suffering, panting and groaning with his tail lashing and his hands gripping his head.
Ntairow rushed to him at once, pressing all four of her hands against the wall of energy as tears streamed from her widened eyes. The need to help this creature whose agony she shared burned within her, made all the more urgent and painful by the fact that this was the suffering of someone she loved. Right before her eyes, not to mention her more potent senses, Esaax was careening toward a highly volatile state. He direly needed her… but she couldn’t get to him.
“How do you get him out of this thing?” she demanded.
“Over here!” Solonn called, and he led Ntairow over to a control panel.
“I don’t know how to use this!” Ntairow told him.
“It’s all right; I do. Just do exactly as I tell you, and we’ll have him right out in no time,” Solonn said.
Syr very briefly watched Ntairow and Solonn work, hoping they would indeed free Esaax as quickly as Solonn had claimed. He then looked back at Esaax with some difficulty, swallowing against a lump in his throat. “You’re… you’re going to be all right,” he told Esaax as consolingly as he could manage, moving closer to the kwazai as he spoke.
Esaax shook his head and raised a hand as if in warning, at which Syr halted. The kwazai’s jaws parted as though he were about to say something, but his voice was cut off before he could form a single word when a burst of searing, orange light suddenly blazed into being around him. He then cried out yet again as a enormous spasm tore through his body.
At that same instant, Ntairow convulsed likewise, echoing Esaax’s scream in her empathy. She staggered, and Solonn moved quickly to break her fall.
“Dear Holy Night, he’s tearing himself apart!” Ntairow cried.
“You’re almost finished!” Solonn assured her.
Sure enough, the containment field soon vanished with a faint humming sound. Ntairow ran back to Esaax, dropping into something like a kneeling position and throwing all of her arms around him, crying against his chest as she embraced the newly-freed kwazai tightly.
Esaax lowered his forehead against hers and held it there as steadily as he could given that he was now shaking uncontrollably, his own tears sliding swiftly down his muzzle and falling to the floor. “Ntairow…” he said, his voice hoarse and quavering. “I’m—” He broke off briefly, giving another pained groan, at which Ntairow embraced him even tighter. “I’m glad you’re here. I’d… given up on us ever finding each other again,” he admitted, closing his eyes in shame.
“I should’ve found you sooner…” Ntairow lamented in a pained voice, nearly whispering. “Dear Night, look at you… you’re so broken…” Esaax had gone into autoempathic crisis. That was something she couldn’t repair—it was something no one could repair until he was elementally stabilized. He just had so terribly little time…
“I don’t think you can fix me now,” Esaax said quietly. “I’m… I’m not gonna make it.”
“No,” Ntairow said fiercely, resolutely. “You will survive this… and your son will finally get to know the father he’s been missing all these years.”
Esaax just stared at Ntairow for a moment, his eyes filled with disbelief and wonder. Then a smile spread along his muzzle in spite of his pain. “…You’re serious?”
Ntairow nodded. “He is called Zerzekai. And unless I’m mistaken, he’s just begun his life as a wobbuffet,” she informed Esaax proudly.
Esaax managed a faint but joyous laugh, then wrapped his arms around Ntairow, squeezing her as hard as his rapidly-waning strength would allow.
Though Esaax’s body was growing steadily weaker, his spirit seemed to have grown much stronger. Ntairow knew that made this an especially good time to try and help him shed his excess darkness. Concentrating deeply, she tapped into her psychic element, aggravating and intensifying its susceptibility to psybane in the hopes of drawing the darkness in like a gravitational force.
She immediately found that something wasn’t right. Esaax had a massive surplus of dark energy, one that seemed to be growing by the second, but the excess of elemental power wasn’t responding correctly. Instead of spilling over into the receptive psychic who’d opened her element so readily, the darkness remained stubbornly in place, continuing to build up inside of Esaax.
Then the darkness chose to respond in their own way.
With no warning, a black aura flared around Esaax. In virtually the same instant, under the control of the darkness, Esaax roared in a voice as vast and hollow as the depths of space and fired a reflux attack at Ntairow. Her aura immediately flashed bright pink in an involuntary and futile mirror coat response as she collapsed, scattered black patches forming on her skin as she hit the ground.
The recoil from the reflux blast was enormous and instantaneous, and as it struck Esaax, he was simultaneously assaulted from within by a massive autoempathic shock. The dark aura that surrounded him then suddenly tore free and took to the air with a hollow-sounding howl, revealing an erratically-flashing, orange counter aura around the now screaming kwazai they’d left behind.
An ice beam and a volley of poison sting needles were launched in an attempt to arrest the shadow’s flight, while the sharp sound of a sheer cold attack fired off with the same intent rang out at the same time. The disembodied darkness evaded all of the attacks effortlessly as they rushed swiftly through the air, destroying equipment and killing the lights as they swept in a circle around the room. They finally smashed into the wall and burned a hole through it and the walls beyond to the outside, where they seemed to dissipate and vanish completely.
With the shroud of living darkness lifted from him, Esaax was left as a regular, ruined kwazai. A final few sparks of orange energy flashed around him, and then the autoempathic attack ceased. Esaax then toppled over onto his side, panting arrhythmically, blood flowing freely from his eyes and mouth.
As if in slow motion, Syr was only just beginning to feel the tears escaping his eyes as he stared at the two kwazai before him. “…Esaax?” he spoke up tentatively, his voice barely coming to his summons. He heard Solonn say something in the background about checking to see if the paramedics had arrived yet, but the words didn’t quite register in Syr’s brain as they might have otherwise. All he could really focus on was the sight of Esaax before him, who gave not a single word in response. “Esaax!” Syr cried out, fearing the worst.
There was a slight movement before Syr’s eyes. Esaax raised his head, albeit just barely. Syr called out to him again, but Esaax seemed not to notice, and the arbok quickly realized why.
Esaax had found Ntairow, and he gave a very faint, pained sound at the sight of her. With an immense effort, he rolled onto his belly and pulled himself up to lie beside her. As he lifted a shaking hand and extended it toward her, he prayed that he had enough lifeforce for what he intended to do.
Esaax laid his hand upon Ntairow’s greater right arm, upon a patch of skin that hadn’t been scorched by the dark attack. A soft, multicolored glow surrounded him, then spread from the point where his hand rested upon her until it radiated from every square inch of her skin, as well.
Syr stared at him with fear, his breath hitching in his chest. He felt a strong urge to rush over to Esaax and stop him—if Esaax succeeded in what he was doing, he’d be giving up some of his lifeforce, and Syr was all too sure that the kwazai had terribly little to spare.
Before Syr could even begin to act on that urge, the light surrounding the two kwazai suddenly grew to such an intensity that he recoiled from it involuntarily, his eyes shutting tight. Unseen by any in attendance, the shared aura swelled into a small, bright dome around Esaax and Ntairow as the lifeforce of the former flowed into the latter. The aura then burst into a cloud of tiny, colorful sparks, which fell in a brief, luminous shower over the two kwazai.
As the last sparks fell, Esaax looked down upon Ntairow, who was now fully restored. He smiled gently and kissed her forehead. Then he lay down next to her and quietly exhaled his last breath.
Ntairow drew a sudden, sharp breath, awake in an instant. She sat up abruptly, then immediately rolled over onto her hands and folded legs, her shoulders heaving as she coughed and sputtered uncontrollably.
Once her body relaxed, she began looking about frantically in confusion. Her eyes fell upon Esaax, who was surrounded now by no colors other than the deep blue of his own shed blood. She instantly recognized what had just happened.
Her cry of sorrow rang out for a very, very long moment.
Meanwhile, Syr could only stare at the scene before him at first. He began to slowly approach the two kwazai as Ntairow’s cry faded out, still dragging Karo behind him. He finally reached them, and for a moment he just looked down at Esaax through blurred vision. Then he looked at Ntairow and saw her burying her face in two of her hands while the other two cradled Esaax’s head, her whole body shaking as she wept.
Without really thinking, Syr released his hold on Karo and draped the end of his tail across Ntairow’s shoulders. She turned to face him, and at first she looked as though she wanted to tell him to go away… but then that expression faded, and she only looked weary and broken. Her head sank, and she extended an arm to embrace Syr, and as the minutes passed, the two of them mourned Esaax without a single word.
* * *
From the bus, Syr watched street sign after street sign go by, the distance between him and the cemetery closing fast. As many times as he’d gone there since the burial, it still felt strange, far from routine.
Doing nothing at all to help things seem less surreal was what he’d learned about one of the ones responsible for Esaax’s evolution, specifically Sylvester DeLeo. DeLeo was currently being tried for his crimes against the former wobbuffet alone; both the one he’d claimed to have worked with toward bringing about Esaax’s evolution and the strange, dark entity that had detached themself from Esaax had yet to be found—though Syr did have theories as to what had become of them. And if he was right, neither would be a threat to anyone any longer.
DeLeo’s fate had yet to be decided, and under different circumstances, Syr would’ve simply hoped for him to be locked away for a good long while. But after he’d seen the footage of that mechanized human disguise opening up and recognized the meowth within it… Between the genuine pity he’d felt for DeLeo upon learning why he’d made Esaax evolve and the sickening, heartbreaking recognition that DeLeo had betrayed some of the meowth’s best friends, Syr hadn’t been altogether sure what he wanted to befall DeLeo, and still wasn’t. All Syr knew for certain regarding that whole matter was that he might never be able to bring himself to speak to that meowth again.
There was, at least, one of his friends who’d taken a turn for the better in recent times. Karo had recovered swiftly in the wake of his explosion, having been given ample encouragement to heal by the staff at the Haven. Syr had also been informed that the glalie who’d been injured as the result of Karo’s attack had survived and made a full recovery.
Syr had tried for the most part to focus on the things that were going well. More than ever, he felt an obligation to show strength for Jen’s sake, especially with the Hope Institute still closed and the fact that Jen hadn’t reacted well to the news of what DeLeo had done there.
Still, Syr neither could nor truly wanted to pretend the recent sorrows away, even though he couldn’t always give audience to those matters without letting it show. He continued to visit the graves of his fallen friends even though he still tended to return to the bus visibly upset.
The bus arrived its destination, and Syr made his way out. In silence, the arbok went down the street a short distance, crossed the graveyard, and soon reached the place where Esaax had been laid to rest.
Syr coiled there, drawing a deep breath as he looked down upon the plaque before him. There were three names engraved there in unown-script; in addition to marking Esaax’s grave, the plaque also memorialized Faurur and Drasigon, at Syr’s request. This way, he’d reckoned, the family could be together again in this way, at least, if no other.
Not long after he’d arrived at the grave site, he noticed footsteps approaching. Turning toward their source, he found a kwazai standing a short distance away—Ntairow, he recognized a beat later—with an unfamiliar wobbuffet at her side.
Ntairow and the wobbuffet had stopped in their tracks the moment Syr had looked up at them, and the former now looked as though she’d decided to leave and come back another time, laying a hand upon the wobbuffet’s shoulder as if to shepherd him off and beginning to turn away herself.
“No, it’s all right,” Syr called out to them. “You don’t have to go… Come on over if you’d like.”
The other two pokémon hesitated to take him up on his offer, but only very briefly. Soon, they were both standing at the arbok’s side. Syr moved aside a bit in order to give them a better view of the grave. Almost as soon as he did, Ntairow knelt down before it, then extended and opened a hand over it, allowing a small, gray stone to fall onto the grass before her. As Ntairow stood once more, the wobbuffet placed a stone upon the grave, as well.
So that’s where they’ve been coming from, Syr thought, having found similar gray rocks lying upon the grave on some of his previous visits. He’d considered clearing them away on a couple of those occasions and was now glad that he hadn’t.
Syr was curious about the ritual he’d just witnessed, but he felt somewhat less than comfortable asking about it somehow. He decided instead to ask another of the questions that had formed in his mind upon the arrival of the other two visitors to this grave.
“Is he…?” he spoke up, nodding toward the wobbuffet, letting the question hang.
“Yes,” Ntairow said, “this is Zerzekai, my son and Esaax’s. Zerzekai, this is… I’m sorry, I never did get your name.”
“Syr,” the arbok supplied. “I’m Syr.”
Ntairow nodded in acknowledgment. “Syr was one of your father’s friends,” she told Zerzekai. Her gaze then shifted back to Syr. “…I would like to thank you for that,” she said to him. “For being there for him when and where you could. I could tell during our time together that you genuinely cared about him and wanted him to be well.”
Syr lowered his head, averting his gaze slightly as he felt tears beginning to sting his eyes. “Yeah,” he said solemnly. “Yeah, I did.” And… and I still do, he added silently, and he meant it. He didn’t know for certain what lay beyond life, if anything… but he hoped that somewhere, in some way, Esaax and everyone else he’d ever cared for and lost were happy and well, with all their troubles left behind forever.
It didn’t ease the pain completely, didn’t quite stop him altogether from wishing they were still with him. But it was some comfort, at least, however small, and as the minutes passed in silence, he hoped that the two who stood sharing those minutes with him had found, or would find, at least some small comfort of their own.