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In the depths of Shoal Cave, unknown to humanity at large and almost completely untouched by other species of pokémon, there was a place known by the snorunt and glalie who called it home as Virc-Dho. Here, in a cavern whose ice-covered surfaces glittered eerily in the glow given off by her eyes, a glalie by the name of Azvida Zgil-Al sat waiting for two different things.

She was watching, staring intently at a round, black, featureless egg that was now beginning to shake slightly a couple of times each minute. It was bound to hatch at any moment now. She was also listening, just as she’d been doing for months now, for the first sign of an approach that might or might not even come.

Invoking the power of her element, the glalie spontaneously generated a small heap of snow, which she arranged in a ring around the increasingly animated egg. The baby would be ravenous upon hatching.

A grinding sound in the distance caught Azvida’s attention. She winced at its volume, not only out of physical discomfort but also concern over others hearing it. She had told him emphatically that he needed to make as inconspicuous an entrance as possible… but, as she reminded herself, the very nature of just what he was made that especially difficult.

Keeping the egg at the edge of her vision, Azvida only turned partly toward him as he came to a stop in the shadows nearby. “Hello, Grosh.”

Grosh only grunted in response, his face looking almost ghostly in what little of Azvida’s cyan light touched it.

Azvida’s attention was quickly monopolized by the egg again as it gave an almighty lurch, rolling straight into the snow that had been piled in front of it. The glalie inhaled with a long, rattling hiss and held her breath, anxiously watching the event that was unfolding before her eyes. The egg gave one last rustle, and then, with a tiny crack, something small and pointed broke through the shell. With something of a drilling motion, the tip of a cone-shaped head continued to emerge from the hole it had made, cracking it open wider and wider until finally the egg simply fell apart.

Amidst the broken eggshells, there now sat a tiny male snorunt. He tried to stand up, only to immediately fall right over. His conical body rolled pitifully as he tried in vain to right himself.

Azvida couldn’t suppress the gale of hissing, elated laughter that came forth at the sight of him. He was here. He was finally here. She rose from the ground and descended upon the snorunt, picking him up very gently and carefully and then setting him upright once more.

Her son blinked up at her for a moment. Then he noticed the fresh, powdery snow that surrounded him, and he became oblivious to all else.

Azvida grinned brightly at her new baby. She then looked into the shadows at her side. “Look, Grosh,” she said, her voice alight with pure wonder. “Look at your son. Isn’t he beautiful? Why don’t you come closer? Don’t you want to see him?”

The shadowed form of Grosh stirred in the darkness. His gaze turned toward the newborn—then turned away. The rest of Grosh immediately followed.

“Grosh, wait!” Azvida called to him. But Grosh kept moving on, scattering numerous rocks and chunks of ice in his wake. Within seconds, he was gone, back into the shadows from whence he’d come—never to return, Azvida was sure.

The new mother sighed. “It’ll just be us, then,” she said as she set herself back down before her son. No surprise, she thought, yet she couldn’t deny the pang of disappointment she felt at Grosh’s departure. “We’ll have to be everything for each other. But I know we can,” she said, hoping to sound reassuring.

Not that it mattered to the snorunt. He was too focused on the snow, which he was devouring voraciously. Once he’d eaten his fill, he discovered that he could also play in the snow, and he quickly became fully engrossed in that activity.

Azvida smiled again. “Now, what to call you?” she wondered aloud. She thought about it for a little while, rejecting several potential candidates for her son’s name until one that felt right finally came to her mind.

“I know exactly the right name for you,” Azvida said triumphantly. “You shall be called Solonn.”


* * *


A little over seven years into his life, Solonn was deemed old enough to go up to the snowgrounds, where he could meet and play with other children. But to get there, one first had to make one’s way through a rather long series of tunnels, much to his displeasure. This was the farthest he’d ever had to walk; it was a little tiring, not to mention kind of slow compared to being carried in his mother’s jaws. But ultimately, he’d be too big to carry that way. He had to get used to walking everywhere, whether he liked it or not.

His weariness, combined with the fact that the tunnel they were taking looked practically the same through yard after yard, caused his patience to run out fairly quickly. “Are we there yet?” he finally asked, unable to keep himself from whining a bit.

“Almost,” Azvida answered, gliding along a few inches off the ground at less than half of her usual pace to let the snorunt’s tiny feet keep up with her. “I told you, you’ll know right away when we get there. It’s very different from this place, and from every other place you’ve seen, for that matter.”

Better be, Solonn thought rather grumpily.

Shortly thereafter, they finally arrived at the snowgrounds. Solonn saw at once that his mother had been right about this place—it was different. It was a huge, open space, nothing at all like the close confines of the winding tunnels and small caverns that made up the warren in which he lived.

What he found most remarkable about it wasn’t its size, however. It was the fact that the floor of this vast cavern was entirely blanketed in sparkling, white snow, just begging a snorunt to dive right in. Which is precisely what Solonn did.

Azvida laughed. “Have fun with the other kids,” she said, her son poking his head out of the snow at her words. “I’ll be back soon.” With that, she turned and left Solonn behind in the field of snow.

Solonn watched her leave, wishing that she would stay, wondering why she didn’t. He also wondered where those “other kids” she’d mentioned were. He didn’t see anyone else there…

POP! With absolutely no warning, something burst out of the snow, launching out right in front of his face.

“Aaah!” Solonn was scared right off of his feet. He tumbled over backwards and landed upside-down, his pointed head sticking in the snow, his short legs kicking uselessly.

He then heard a sound—laughter. Someone was laughing at him—and grabbing his feet. He screamed again as whoever it was started pulling on his legs just a little too hard. His ambusher didn’t relent until he suddenly pulled Solonn from the snow. Solonn went flying from his grasp, landing in the snow several feet away with a whumpf (and fortunately not landing on his head this time).

Solonn managed to right himself fairly quickly, and as he did, he heard footsteps approaching him. He turned to face the sound and found another snorunt, one who came to a stop a short distance before him. Was he the one who’d given Solonn that scare?

Solonn’s eyes flashed in anger. He lunged at the other snorunt, snapping his teeth and missing him by only a fraction of an inch.

The other snorunt jumped backward away from Solonn, staring back in surprise for a moment. Then he burst out into laughter once more. Solonn glared, looking as though he might try to bite him again, which made him fall silent in a hurry. He backed up a bit farther and held out his hands as if to keep Solonn at bay.

“Hey! It’s okay!” the other snorunt said. “I didn’t mean to scare you… well, not that bad, anyway…”

Solonn hesitated, frowning in uncertainty.

“I’m sorry,” the other snorunt said earnestly. “It was just a joke.” He approached Solonn again, albeit a bit gingerly. “I’m Zilag. Who are you?”

Solonn hesitated a moment before answering. “…Solonn,” he finally responded. “Are there any other kids here?” he asked warily.

“Yeah. They’re hiding,” Zilag answered. “Come on out,” he called out, “and don’t scare him!”

At Zilag’s call, twelve other snorunt popped up out of their hiding places beneath the snow. Solonn remained wary of them at first, but through the minutes that passed, they heeded Zilag’s advice; no one attempted to frighten him or otherwise make a joke at his expense. By the time his mother returned to take him home, Solonn had managed to shed his distrust and reluctance almost completely. As he left the snowgrounds, he actually looked forward to returning there.

* * *


Azvida brought Solonn to the snowgrounds almost daily from that point onward. As the weeks went by, he and Zilag became very good friends. Every time Solonn returned to the snowgrounds, Zilag was there waiting for him.

One day, Zilag gathered eight of his closest friends, including Solonn, to tell them how they were about to have the “best day ever”.

“I’ve found something so awesome, you’ll go crazy when you see it,” he said.

“And what’s that?” Solonn asked.

Zilag smirked. He rolled up a snowball, turned around, and chucked it with full force into the ground. The snow it struck crumbled away on impact, falling into the rather steep-looking, downward-slanting passageway that he’d just revealed. The other eight snorunt all drew closer to the hole to try and peer down into it, but they were all wary of getting too close to it.

“Right down there is a portal to another world,” Zilag said in a exaggeratedly grand tone.

“Yeah, right,” Reizirr said.

“It’s true!” Zilag insisted. He grabbed her and pushed her face toward the hole, eliciting a very sharp little shriek out of her. “All you have to do to see it is to just go through there.”

“No, thanks!” Reizirr said as she managed to wriggle away from Zilag.

“You’re gonna miss out…” Zilag told her. He glanced about at the others, seeing a lot of uncertain faces looking back at him. Their clear trepidation did nothing to deter him from putting on a huge grin and going on to say, “Okay. Who wants to go first?”

The others all exchanged nervous glances. Then, in unison, they took a big step farther back from the hole.

“Oh, come on. It’s so cool, I promise… Sical, how about you?” Zilag asked.

“No way,” she said firmly.

“Davron?”

Davron shook his head, insofar as he could.

“Faroski?”

Faroski just turned and left the small crowd, having decided he’d be better off just watching the others from the opposite side of the cavern.

Zilag sighed loudly in frustration. Then he turned to Solonn. “I know you’d love it. So come on, go for it.”

Solonn remained doubtful. “Uh…”

“It’s just a little slide and then a little climb,” Zilag said a little impatiently.  “You’re not a wuss, are you?” he added.

“What? No!” Solonn said. He looked down into the hole, wondering just how deep it really was. “I guess I could…”

“That’s the spirit!” Zilag said cheerfully, and then he shoved Solonn into the hole.

“Aaaaaah!” Solonn screamed as he found himself rushing down the slide. The tightly-packed snow coating its walls made the ride smoother than it might have been otherwise—that is, until he reached the bottom and smacked right into a stone wall.

Solonn pitched backward and fell to the floor, little lights exploding in his vision, his face smarting. After a few moments, he came back to his senses and became fully aware of his surroundings. He was in a very small chamber made of stone. Before and slightly above him, he saw a hole in the wall, one that was more than wide enough for him to enter.

Solonn stood and stared with uncertainty into the hole for a short while, reluctant to enter it. He turned back around and looked back up the length of the snow chute… how in the world was someone supposed to get back up there? Zilag had neglected to explain that detail…

Sighing, Solonn turned back toward the hole in the wall—there seemed to be no other way to go. Resigned, he hopped up, pulled himself into the hole, and started crawling upward.

The climb through the secret tunnel was hardly enjoyable. At a couple of points, it was fairly steep; Solonn feared that he could easily slip and go tumbling back down the tunnel. Furthermore, the tunnel’s rocky floor was uncomfortable and more than a little worrisome to crawl over—one wrong move, and those jagged edges could slice right into a hand or foot.

Why, he wondered, had Zilag thought anyone would like this?

Quite a while later, Solonn finally reached the end of the tunnel and gratefully hoisted himself out of there. Exhausted, he just lay still for a short time, glad to be on smooth, level ground again.

Once he’d caught his breath, he got back on his feet and took a look around. He was in a very large cavern which, just as Zilag had promised, was like another world. For one thing, it was much brighter up here than it had been below. Solonn found the source of the light overhead: strange, pale rays were seeping into the cavern from cracks in the ceiling.

As Solonn explored with growing curiosity, he found snow, ice and rocks—all of which he could find at home, of course. Here, however, they were just scattered about; rocky, uneven surfaces abruptly gave way to vast, shimmering expanses of smooth, ice-coated floors, and mounds of snow rose randomly over both. This contrasted considerably with the way things looked back in the warren; there, every aspect of the environment had been adapted by glalie to conform to their tastes and purposes. Solonn wondered to what sort of people and purpose, if any, a place like this could possibly belong.

Right around the next hill of snow, he got his answer.

He didn’t move. He barely even breathed. The same was true of the creature that stared back at him through her dark brown eyes.

Her appearance was stranger than anything Solonn could have ever imagined, especially with regards to the fact that there was a peculiar, mesmerizing glow emanating from her entire body. He’d never seen anything like it; he didn’t have that glow, and neither did any of his friends. For that matter, neither did glalie.

“What… what are you?” Solonn finally worked up the courage to ask.

“What are you?” the creature countered.

Solonn was almost too bewildered to answer. This creature even sounded so different… “I’m a snorunt,” he said finally.

“Oh. Never heard of that… Anyway, I’m a spheal.”

“I’ve never heard of what you are, either,” Solonn said. As he stared at this creature—this spheal—his curiosity gave rise to a compulsion. “Can… can I touch you?” he asked.

“Uh… sure, I guess,” the spheal responded.

Solonn stepped forward after a moment’s delay. His hand shook as it reached out toward the spheal. When he touched her, he gasped and pulled his hand back at once, his eyes wide. She felt strange, and in a way that was rather startling.

“What? Is something wrong?” the spheal asked.

“No… it’s just that you’re so… ” Solonn trailed off and stared with both fear and wonder shining through his eyes as he realized that he knew no word for the way that the spheal felt. He had no way of knowing it, but he’d just felt heat for the very first time. Though it hadn’t hurt him, it had definitely made him uneasy.

In spite of this, his curiosity led him to touch the spheal again, and he wasn’t so startled by her warmth this time. Something else soon caught his fascination.

“It’s… soft…” Solonn remarked, “and fluffy… What’s this stuff you’re covered in?” he asked.

“Er… that’s fur,” the spheal answered, giving him a funny look.

“It’s neat,” Solonn said.

“Uh, sure it is… Hey, could you stop petting me already?” the spheal finally demanded.

“Oh… sorry,” Solonn said, quite embarrassed, and took his hands off of the spheal in a hurry.

Just then, a voice sounded from not too far away—another strange, foreign voice. “Sophine? Where are you?”

Before Solonn could wonder about the voice’s owner, she came into view. Solonn didn’t know that it was a sealeo who had just arrived on the scene, but he could guess from her appearance that she was an evolved spheal.

“There you are! You can’t keep wandering away from me like that!” she scolded the spheal, though not too harshly. Then her gaze fell upon Solonn, and it froze there. “Sophine, get away from that,” she said tensely. “Now. Those things are dangerous.”

“What? I’m not dangerous!” Solonn protested, stepping forward with his arms outstretched. “Honest!”

“You stay away from my daughter, you little monster!” the sealeo cried, and then she lunged at Solonn.

But just then, Sophine screamed, and the sound jarred her mother out of her charge. Her mother looked to see what had frightened Sophine and then cried out in fear, as well.

Confused, Solonn followed the others’ gazes. Now it was his turn to scream—hovering there with an absolutely livid expression was none other than his own mother.

“Leave him alone!” Azvida spat. With a furious hiss, she darted forward. Her massive teeth snapped together with bone-shattering force bare inches away from the face of Sophine’s mother.

The sealeo gave a yelping bark as she turned away from the striking glalie. Then she gathered up her daughter in a single flipper and waddled off with her as fast as she could.

Solonn watched them leave. Then, very nervously, he turned and approached his mother. Azvida turned to face him in an instant, making him jump back in startled surprise. Then she opened her jaws and grabbed Solonn up in her teeth by the top of his head. Her hold on him was painful, and he cried out, but she didn’t put him down, carrying him in this fashion for the rest of the trip back home.

* * *

“For the love of all gods, what were you thinking?” Azvida demanded.

It wasn’t my idea! Solonn thought but didn’t dare say, fearing that doing so would mean betraying Zilag. “…I don’t know!” he finally blurted.

“Well, you’re not going up there again, that’s for sure,” Azvida said firmly. “In fact, you’re not going to be going anywhere for a long time, not even to the snowgrounds.”

“But… Mom, no! You can’t!” Solonn protested. Surely she had to be bluffing, or so he hoped.

“Oh, yes I can, and yes I will! It’s for your own good, Solonn. You have to learn that there are places where you don’t belong, places that are not safe!”

“Not safe?” Apart from the behavior of the sealeo he’d met there, the secret cavern above hadn’t seemed terribly dangerous, just strange…

Azvida lowered her face, staring right into Solonn’s eyes. “You think you’re the first who’s ever gone sneaking around up there? There have been plenty of kids before you who’ve had that bright idea. And you know what? Many of them never came back.”

“…What happened to them?” Solonn asked in a very small voice, though he wasn’t altogether certain that he really wanted to know.

“They vanished,” Azvida replied simply. “Taken away by the creatures from above, we suspect,” she elaborated.

“You mean the spheal? Spheal took them?” Solonn asked incredulously.

Azvida shook her head. “Other beings. Stranger beings.”

What could be stranger than a spheal? Solonn wondered, rather amazed by the notion.

But that wasn’t all he wondered about. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“That spheal’s mom… she called me a monster,” Solonn said quietly. “She said I’m dangerous, but I’m not dangerous at all… am I?”

“What? No, of course you’re not,” Azvida said. “And you’re not a monster, either.”

“But… then why would she say that?” Solonn asked.

Azvida sighed. “It’s all right, Solonn. She meant nothing against you personally. It’s just that… well, her kind fear ours. They always have.” She sighed again. “To be fair, they do have a perfectly good reason to.”

“Well… what is it?” Solonn asked, a little afraid of the sort of answer he might receive.

Azvida broke eye contact with Solonn. This wasn’t a discussion she’d been in any hurry to have with him—she’d dreaded it as much as the eventual discussion of how eggs were made.

Reluctantly, she sat down beside him. “There are certain things that every living creature has to do to stay alive,” she began uneasily. “We have to breathe. We have to sleep. We have to eat. When creatures are different, the ways they keep themselves alive are also different. The spheal and their evolved forms, the sealeo and walrein, are different from us, and so they have their own ways that are right for them. Likewise, glalie are different from snorunt. And we have our own ways.

“Now, one of the ways that creatures can have different needs is that for some, like snorunt, the things they need to eat in order to live are not alive themselves. But for others… like glalie… well, the things that creatures like us need to eat in order to live are alive.”

Solonn absorbed that. Then his heart froze. “You… you eat the spheal?” he ventured in disbelief, his voice cracking.

“Yes,” Azvida answered honestly, “sometimes. But not usually. Usually, we take the winged creatures instead; zubat, they’re called.”

“It doesn’t matter what they are. You still kill them!” Solonn shouted.

“Yes,” Azvida said, sounding very flustered. “Yes, we do, but we do it quickly. We do it gently. It doesn’t hurt them. They just… they just stop. It’s just like going to sleep, only permanently.”

How can you know that?” Solonn countered. Azvida didn’t answer. Solonn said nothing more for several minutes, just sitting and shaking silently. Then, with barely any voice at all, “Why can’t you just eat the snow? Why?”

“It’s just not enough for us, Solonn,” Azvida said quietly. “Someday, once you’ve evolved, you’ll understand.”

“No, I don’t want to! I don’t want to grow up and eat people!”

“Listen, I know how it sounds, but there really isn’t anything wrong with it!” Azvida tried to assure him. “It’s just part of how nature works. And a lot of creatures live this way, too, not just glalie. Even the spheal you met and her people; they feed on creatures called magikarp…”

But Solonn wasn’t listening anymore, and Azvida knew it. She sighed and fell silent, and neither of them said anything to one another for the remainder of that day.


* * *

After the long weeks separating Solonn from the snowgrounds were finally behind him, he returned there to find Zilag just sitting there by himself.

Solonn was immediately wary. “Where is everyone hiding?”

“There’s no one else here,” Zilag said gloomily.

Solonn walked over to him, frowning. “You got me into huge trouble, you know,” he said.

“Hey, I didn’t get away with it, either!” Zilag shot back.

“Well, I didn’t tell on you!” Solonn insisted. “I swear!”

“You didn’t have to,” Zilag said grimly. “My big sister came in and saw me trying to get Dileras to go down that hole. She went straight home and told Mom everything.” He sighed. “And then everyone else’s parents found out, too. Now no one wants to hang out with me cause they’re all scared of getting into trouble again.”

“Oh…” Solonn sat down beside Zilag. “Well… I’m not really worried about that,” he said, although a small part of him was. “I’ll still hang out with you.”

Zilag’s eyes widened, and he broke out into a huge grin. “Really? Thanks!”

It was then that a strange sound caught the attention of both snorunt: a sort of fluttering noise coming from above. Zilag and Solonn looked up and saw its source flying about overhead. It was yet another creature that shone with that strange glow—the glow of heat, Solonn now knew.

“A zubat,” Solonn guessed aloud in a hushed voice as he gazed up at the newcomer. “What’s one of those doing here?”

“I don’t know… I’ve never even seen one before,” Zilag said.

“I bet your parents have,” Solonn said darkly. “My mom told me that glalie eat those things.”

Zilag turned to face Solonn at those words and stared incredulously at him for a moment. Then he broke into laughter. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! They do not!”

“Oh, yes they do,” Solonn said as he continued to watch the zubat flit around, seemingly without direction, near the ceiling of the cavern.

“No way!” Zilag said, still laughing. “I know! Let’s ask the zubat if it’s true! HEY, ZUBAT!” he shouted.

The zubat steadfastly ignored the snorunt below, just wanting to focus on getting out of that place. It was bad enough that she’d gotten herself lost there—she didn’t want to add to her troubles by getting herself mixed up with the locals.

“The zubat’s not listening,” Solonn pointed out.

“Well, maybe this’ll get that thing to listen.” Zilag made a snowball and chucked it into the air, but missed the zubat entirely. His second shot missed, too. “Come on, hold still!” he urged his target, throwing a third snowball. That one very nearly didn’t miss, whizzing past the zubat’s face just a hair’s breadth away.

The zubat shrieked, then turned on Zilag. Chittering angrily, she fired a spiraling, sparkling confuse ray at him. It struck him before he could do anything to avoid it and instantly and severely disoriented him, leaving him staggering around and screaming intermittently in a spontaneous panic.

“What did you do to him?” Solonn demanded of the zubat, both scared and angry. The bat responded with a wing attack, forcing Solonn to duck in a hurry to avoid her as she dove at him, her wings glowing.

As the zubat arced back up toward the ceiling, Solonn got back up onto his feet, gathered a number of snowballs as fast as he could, and began throwing them at the zubat, but to no avail. The zubat soon wheeled around for another wing attack; he only barely ducked out of the way in time.

At this point, Solonn decided to give up on the snowballs. He began to gather ice-type energy… then lost hold of it as Zilag, who was still confused, came stumbling right into him and nearly knocked him over.

“Hey!” Solonn shouted as he got himself out of the way of his brain-addled friend. He tapped into the power of his element once again, and this time he managed to summon a powder snow attack. It scattered snowflakes all about as it whistled toward the zubat on a small gust—but before it could connect, a similar but much stronger attack—a blizzard—came howling in and blew the powder snow completely off course.

The blizzard was the work of Azvida, who had apparently just arrived and was clearly quite displeased. “Solonn Ahshi Zgil-Al!” she shouted. “You stop picking on that poor zubat right this instant; she’s obviously lost here and needs help, not harassment!”

Azvida’s shouting brought Zilag back to his senses. “Ahshi?” He exploded into giggles. Both Azvida and Solonn glared potently at him—he shut up at once.

“But Mom, she did something to Zilag! She made him freak out—I couldn’t just let her get away with it!” Solonn said. “And what do you care what anybody does to her, anyway? She’s just meat to you!”

Azvida’s eyes widened greatly, and their light intensified. “How dare you say such a thing,” she hissed, appalled. “I would never think of such a creature as ‘just meat’. They give us life; they’re to be honored and respected!”

To the zubat, Azvida said, “You’ll certainly die from the cold if you stay here much longer. If you’ll follow me, I’ll lead you back up where you belong.”

The zubat made no response, no sound at all other than the faint flapping of her wings as she hovered warily in place.

“It’s all right,” Azvida said, trying to sound as pleasant and soothing as possible. “I won’t even touch you.”

The zubat hesitated at first, then flapped a short distance forward. She hesitated again, for longer this time. Finally, though still obviously very uncertain about the whole thing, she descended and began to follow Azvida out of the cavern, albeit at a healthy distance.

“Please stay put until I return,” Azvida instructed her son as she left. “Please.” She and the zubat then vanished into the tunnels of the warren.

As Solonn watched them leave, he was no longer sure which was stranger: other species or his own.

Chapter Text

The sound of footsteps echoed through the tunnel as Solonn walked along the route that led to the snowgrounds, and he walked alone. At the age of nineteen, he was old enough to go there unaccompanied and had been for several years.

Solonn usually didn’t run into anyone when traveling to the snowgrounds, and this was shaping up to be yet another uneventful trip. He heard no steps other than his own, and the level of the blue eyelight shining on the ice-covered surfaces that surrounded him stayed constant and low. There was nothing to indicate anyone of any other kind around, either.

Without much farther to go to reach his destination, Solonn took to wondering who might already be there. He also wondered if today’s activities would include sparring—he rather hoped they wouldn’t. He’d battled on not only the previous day but the day before that; he wanted something different for today’s trip to the snowgrounds.

Then, abruptly, he ceased to care about the other snorunt’s plans—or anything else, for that matter. The light in the tunnel cut out altogether, and the footsteps stopped and gave way to the sound of their now insensible maker falling to the floor.


* * *

The next sight to greet Solonn’s eyes quickly confused him. The space surrounding him was significantly wider now but also far less empty—a crowd of glalie now surrounded him. No sooner had he awoken than a great rush of murmurs rose up around him.

“Oh, thank the gods, he’s awake!” said a voice that he recognized as Azvida’s, which just managed to rise above the din. “It’s all right now, Solonn,” she told him, responding to the growing bewilderment in his eyes. “You’re home again.”

“Huh?” Solonn sat up, trying to finish coming to his senses quickly. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“We found you here this morning. You were unconscious for a while; you’ve only just awoken,” answered an elderly male glalie whom Solonn didn’t know. At the sound of his voice, the crowd ceased its murmuring.

“Solonn, this is Sile Van-Kil,” Azvida said, introducing the glalie who had just spoken. “He’s with the Security Guild. Don’t worry, you’re not in any trouble with them,” she added quickly, seeing the worried look that flitted across her son’s face. “He just wants to ask you some questions.”

“That’s right,” Sile said. “First, we’d like to know if you left the warren of your own accord, or if you were taken involuntarily.”

Solonn’s eyes widened. “…What? I didn’t leave the warren,” he said, growing even more confused. He hadn’t set foot outside of Virc-Dho’s borders even once since that day roughly twelve years prior when he’d encountered Sophine and her mother—or, at least, he couldn’t recall having gone out there since then… What in the world is going on here?

“You did leave, Mr. Zgil-Al,” Sile said, his tone considerably sterner than before. “You were gone for nearly fifteen days.”

Solonn’s confusion shifted toward fear. Part of his life was missing from his mind, and it wasn’t exactly a small part… “I… I don’t remember going out there, though, sir,” he insisted. “Last thing I remember, I was on my way to the snowgrounds…”

“You’re certain you have no memory of where you went or whom or what you might have encountered?” Sile asked.

“Yes, sir… I’m certain,” Solonn answered shakily. “It’s… it’s like nothing happened at all.”

“Well, I’m afraid something did happen,” Sile said, his tone softening with what sounded like pity. “As for what… well, we can’t be certain, but one possibility is that your missing time is the result of a deliberate act of memory erasure. That, in turn, could be evidence of abduction by unknown psychic pokémon.” At these words, murmurs arose in a fresh wave among the attendants.

“But why? What would any such creatures want with him?” Azvida asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Sile replied. “Needless to say, this means we’ll all have to live with increased vigilance. We must keep our eyes open for anything strange. Mr. Zgil-Al is safely among us again, but the next victim may not be so fortunate…”

“Well, whoever and whatever it was that took him, they’d better not show themselves around me. Not if they want to avoid pain, anyway,” Azvida said with a flash of her eyes. She smiled weakly at Solonn. “I’m just so glad you got back safely. You had me worried half to death!”

Solonn might have been glad to be back, too. The only obstacle was that lingering hole in his memory. Guess it’s my turn to be worried half to death, he thought dismally as the crowd dissipated and he and his mother headed for home.

* * *

 

Weeks passed before Azvida felt certain enough of her son’s safety to let him set foot outside their residence again. Once she had, however, Solonn quickly came to wish she hadn’t. It seemed there wasn’t a single person Solonn could run into who didn’t try to ask him a battery of questions about his disappearance. He had no answers for them regarding that topic, and at first he was able to explain that to them in a calm and patient manner. But it quickly became clear that they wouldn’t accept that answer. They continued to hound him about the matter, and it wasn’t long before he lost patience for their persistent interrogations.

As a result, he took to spending as much time alone as he could. He visited the snowgrounds only when he was absolutely sure no one else was there (he’d long ago learned how to detect snorunt trying to hide in the snow) and thus not very often. For a time, at least, he was able to successfully avoid others and their questions both in the snowgrounds and everywhere else.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a snorunt or a glalie who broke his solitude. It was a zubat, one who came fluttering unexpectedly into the snowgrounds one day. It wasn’t the same one Solonn had seen all those years ago, however; this one was noticeably smaller. He did have something in common with the previous zubat, though: he looked lost—very lost, in fact, and very anxious about it.

Solonn watched as the zubat flapped about in frantic figure-eights overhead. The flying creature didn’t seem to notice him at all and talked continuously to himself about how scared he was, how he didn’t know where he was, and how he didn’t know what to do—Solonn half expected the poor thing to pass out and fall to the snow below from not pausing to take a breath.

When Solonn thought he could get a word in edgewise between the zubat’s chitterings, “Hey!” he called up to him. “Do you need help?”

The zubat gave a startled squeak. The next second, he plummeted from the air without any warning, diving right into the snorunt’s face—Solonn braced himself for a wing attack or something equally unpleasant, but the zubat thankfully didn’t attack him. Instead he merely asked, in a very high-strung voice, “Where am I?”

Solonn winced at the volume and pitch of the zubat’s voice. “You’re where you don’t belong,” he then answered, which immediately earned a shriek of terror from the zubat. “Relax! It’s all right. I can take you to someone who knows the way out of here.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really,” Solonn said. “Now, come on; I don’t want you to freeze.”

If the zubat had possessed eyes, they might have been sparkling. “Oh, thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you—”

“Are you coming along or not?” Solonn interrupted. He turned and started walking away.

“Oh yes, yes, right,” the zubat said hastily, fluttering after Solonn in a hurry.

As Solonn made his way through the warren, he tried to ignore the person following him. True, the last zubat he’d encountered had been rather hostile, but at least she’d also been relatively quiet. This zubat, on the other hand…

“Wow! This place is so weird!” the zubat chittered, rattling on and on and on. “But it’s still pretty cool, though! Super cool! …And super cold. Brrr! I don’t like the cold. No, I sure don’t like it. Of course, for that matter, I don’t really like the sun, either… But that’s okay, cause I still like you! And that’s cause you’re helping me get out of here! What a pal!” he squealed.

Solonn cringed, his ears ringing. He reminded himself that he was doing the right thing by aiding this creature… or tried to remind himself of that, but the zubat’s voice seemed to be trying its hardest to destroy his mind. Every word was like a little stone splinter in his brain. 

The zubat got right in his face—again. “Name’s Zyrzir, by the way,” the zubat said.

Solonn knew that already. Zyrzir had already introduced himself six times since leaving the snowgrounds.

“So, what’s your name? Huh? Huh? Huh?” Zyrzir asked as he resumed following behind the snorunt.

“Mr. Ice Beam,” Solonn said, utterly deadpan.

“Hey… that’s not what you said last time!” Zyrzir said with a frown. “Last time, you said your name was Mr. Bitey! The time before that, you said your name was Mr. Snowball! And all the times before that, you didn’t say anything at all, as if you didn’t have a name, and that was your answer! Why won’t you just please cooperate and tell me what your real name is, huh?” Zyrzir whined.

Because you’re annoying me to death, and I’m trying to ignore you so my brain doesn’t explode! Solonn thought.

But then Zyrzir laid down his ultimatum. “I won’t stop asking until you tell me the truth.”

The snorunt produced a sound halfway between a groan and a sigh. “Fine. My name is Solonn. Satisfied?”

“Oh yes, yes, yes! Thanks a thousand, Mr. Satisfied!” Zyrzir squeaked joyfully, at which Solonn made a face. “Oh, by the way, are we almost where we’re supposed to be going?  Are we? Are we? Are we?” the zubat then asked.

“Yes, luckily for you.” And even more luckily for me, Solonn added silently. Sure enough, they soon reached the Zgil-Al residence, where they were greeted almost immediately by Azvida.

“Oh good,” she said. “I was hoping you’d get back soon. Zilag was here looking for you. He just left not too long ago. I told him he could come back here after a little while.”

Solonn started to turn to leave at once.

“No, you don’t,” Azvida said. She shifted the ice on the walls to form a barrier in front of Solonn. “Now, I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but I think it’s time you sorted it out. And you’re not leaving until you do just that.”

Solonn grudgingly started toward his room, but was obstructed once again, this time by his mother’s face.

“And might I ask why you’ve brought a zubat here?” she asked.

“He needs out,” Solonn said.

“Fine, then. I’ll deal with that, and you’ll stay here and wait for Zilag,” Azvida said. “And I mean it, stay here. I’ll know if you don’t.” With that, she left, leading Zyrzir away with her.

And just how would you know? Solonn wondered, but he decided not to chance it. He went to his room, and for several minutes he just sat there with nothing to do but dread Zilag’s visit. He wished he could devise a way to distract himself from that inevitability, but when he tried to think of one, he couldn’t come up with anything at all.

The reason was that Zyrzir’s voice was still infesting his brain for some reason. It was leaving no room whatsoever for any other thought processes to take place. Solonn tried to displace those memories, but it remained firmly stuck in his head, the words repeating again and again at a maddening pace. It was genuinely giving him a headache at this point.

He groaned. “Why couldn’t he just shut up?” he wondered aloud. “Gods, it was nonstop: ‘Are we there yet? Brrr, it’s cold! You’re my friend!’”

Solonn abruptly shut his mouth in surprise. That impression of Zyrzir’s voice had been eerily close to the real thing… Feeling a giddy little spark of wonder, he tried it out again. “Hi, I’m Zyrzir! And I’m… so… annoying!”

Dead on! he congratulated himself silently, bursting into laughter. It was then that the iron grip of the Zyrzir-voice on his brain finally relented, the headache subsiding all at once. In their wake, an idea occurred to him: maybe now he could give people something to talk about that they just might find more interesting than his recent abduction…

Grinning in anticipation, Solonn put on the Zyrzir-voice once more. “Wait’ll Zilag hears this!”

* * *

In time, Azvida returned, checking at once to see if her son was still home. Shortly thereafter, Zilag arrived. Azvida showed him to Solonn’s room right away, then left the two snorunt alone.

“Uh…” Zilag started somewhat warily as he stood several paces behind Solonn, who had his back turned toward him.

Solonn turned slightly to acknowledge Zilag, wearing an unreadable expression.

“Yeah, hi,” Zilag said awkwardly, sounding a bit troubled. “I just… you know, wanted to make sure that you’re okay.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Solonn asked nonchalantly.

“Well… since that thing that happened—”

“I really don’t want to talk about that,” Solonn interrupted flatly. “I can’t anyway—I said I don’t remember anything about that, and that’s the truth.”

“I know! I believe you!” Zilag said.

“And what about the others?” Solonn asked. “Have they finally got it through their heads yet?”

“I told them to quit bugging you about that. I figured out that was why you’ve been avoiding everybody.”

“And you’re sure they’ll really listen to you?” Solonn asked, wearing a skeptical look on his face.

“Well, even if they won’t listen to me, I bet they’d listen to you. You’re taller than any of us,” Zilag pointed out.

“Not by that much,” Solonn said, rolling his eyes. “And I am not going to start pushing people around just because I’m bigger than them,” he said, sounding slightly offended.

“That’s not exactly what I meant… ” Zilag said—although it was almost what he meant. “Look, I just want you to be able to go out without having to worry about being harassed,” he said earnestly, “and I promise I’ll do whatever I can to keep people off your back about—well, you know what.”

Solonn turned around completely to face Zilag. Smiling, he said, “Thanks. I appreciate that.”

“No problem,” Zilag said coolly. “So, uh… feel like hitting the snowgrounds and letting everybody know you’re still alive?”

“Well…” Solonn began. Then, he smiled craftily. Time to bring out the secret weapon… “Sure, why not?” he said perkily in his impression of Zyrzir’s voice.

Zilag stood completely still and silent for a moment as if petrified, his mouth slightly agape as he stared like an idiot. “…What was that?” he finally asked.

“That,” Solonn said slyly, “was the voice of a zubat.”

Zilag continued staring stupidly for a moment. Then he broke into disproportionately loud giggles, which brought Azvida rushing into the room.

“What’s going on in here?” she asked, sounding fairly bewildered.

“I’m sorry,” Zilag said, gasping a bit. He gestured toward Solonn. “It’s just him; he’s doing something funny. Do that zubat voice again!” he then requested of Solonn.

“Zubat voice?” Azvida asked with a puzzled look at her son.

Solonn hesitated, not sure how his mother would react to his impression; perhaps this sort of thing fell under the category of disrespecting the “sacred prey”. In the end, he reckoned she probably wouldn’t take it too seriously—it was just a silly little impression, after all.

Proceeding with his performance, “Hi, I’m Zyrzir! My voice causes brain damage!” he chittered cheerfully.

Azvida’s eyes widened. Then she laughed, albeit in a much more subdued way than Zilag had. “Oh gods,” she said once it had subsided, “that sounds exactly like him. I’d thought I’d never hear that horrid voice again!”

“Isn’t it just awful?” Solonn said, keeping the zubat voice.

“Oh yes,” Azvida agreed, chuckling a bit more as she turned to exit the room.

“You have got to go and do that at the snowgrounds,” Zilag said once she’d left. “I bet everyone’ll be there if we go now.”

“Okay, then,” Solonn said in his own voice, smiling. “Let’s go.”

The two of them passed by Azvida as they headed out. “Guess you’re going to go show off to everyone you can, aren’t you?” Azvida teased Solonn.

“Guess so,” Solonn admitted as he and Zilag left the Zgil-Al residence.

Azvida was glad to see that Solonn was up for social interaction again, especially given the way that he’d found to go about it. She chuckled to herself again in amusement and pride as she thought about Solonn’s zubat impression again. She not only thought it was funny—Zyrzir’s was the single most ridiculous voice and manner of speaking she’d ever heard, after all—she also thought that it was uncannily, even disturbingly accurate.

How does he do that? she wondered. Solonn’s zubat impression was so accurate that it was as if he wasn’t just using the zubat’s voice, but also—

Azvida stopped laughing, quite astounded, as she realized that no, her son wasn’t merely using the voice of a zubat. He was using their language, as well.

* * *

Once Solonn and Zilag arrived at the snowgrounds, Solonn produced the zubat impression yet again. It went over fairly well with the crowd of snorunt who were gathered there.

“That was so cool!” Reizirr said.

“Yeah,” Davron agreed. “Hey, let’s see if I can do it.” Davron’s attempt at a zubat impression didn’t sound like anyone or anything other than Davron, however. “Aw, crap…”

“Just keep trying,” Solonn said, and using the zubat voice in demonstration, added, “Like this, see?”

“Wow, that’s so impressive,” said a sarcastic voice, one not belonging to a snorunt. Everyone in attendance turned toward its source. There, at the entrance to the snowgrounds, lingered a smirking glalie.

“Kashisha, go away!” Zilag hissed. Kashisha was his older sister—though he wished she weren’t.

Ignoring her brother entirely, Kashisha advanced into the room, shoving aside any snorunt unfortunate enough to be in her path. “Seriously, I thought there was an actual zubat in here,” she went on, “but it turns out to be just a bunch of snow-twerps. Shame, really. I was looking forward to biting its wings off.”

She stopped in front of Solonn. “You’re the one responsible for that little trick?” she asked.

Solonn remained utterly still and silent, wary of interacting with Kashisha in any way.

“Better answer her,” Zilag said. “She’s evil incarnate.”

“Why, thank you for the compliment, dear brother,” Kashisha said in a sugary tone, abruptly getting in Zilag’s face; with a tiny squeak of fright, he dove into hiding under the snow. Then she got in Solonn’s face. “Well?”

“Yes,” Solonn confirmed in a small voice.

“Oh, I’m sorry, what was that? I didn’t hear you…” Kashisha said melodiously.

“I said yes! It was me!” Solonn shouted.

Kashisha backed off slightly—very slightly. “Well, then. I guess that makes you pretty cool—for a stupid kid, anyway,” she said.

Stupid kid? Solonn thought indignantly. You’re barely any older than I am! Which was true; Kashisha was only twenty-one months his senior, and just a year older than her brother. But she, like all her friends, had chosen to evolve early (six years ago, in her case). And like them, she treated those who waited until a respectable age to evolve like dirt.

“I have a request for you, zubat-boy,” Kashisha said then. “Let’s hear… a spheal. Can you do that? Or is that too hard for the little baby?”

The distinct feeling that Solonn got from Kashisha was that he’d better deliver. He tried hard to remember the way that Sophine had sounded. All of a sudden, the memory of that voice flooded his mind in just the same way that the memory of Zyrzir’s voice had done right before he’d replicated it for the first time, though without the pain.

“Is this what you mean?” Solonn asked, using Sophine’s voice. This earned some impressed noises from the crowd and an approving nod of sorts from the glalie hovering before him.

“Bravo,” Kashisha said, grinning wickedly. “Say… why don’t you come with me and entertain some of my friends?”

“I don’t know…” Solonn wanted to back away from her, but he felt rooted to the spot.

“Oh, I think you’d better—unless you’d rather I snap you in half…”

“Okay, fine, I’ll go!”

“Good! And while we’re at it…” Kashisha plunged her face into the snow, pulled Zilag out of hiding, and dropped her protesting brother at Solonn’s feet. “He’ll be coming along with us, too. He is your best friend, after all, right? Surely he wouldn’t want to miss your big debut in front of a real audience?”

“No, ma’am, I wouldn’t,” Zilag said weakly in defeat.

“Off we go, then!” Kashisha said merrily. She circled around Solonn and Zilag and began shoving them along before her. The two snorunt got moving in a hurry as Kashisha herded them out of the snowgrounds.

“What should we do?” Reizirr asked once Kashisha and her victims had left.

“Start composing their eulogies,” Davron answered grimly.


* * *

 

Solonn and Zilag scrambled to stay on their feet and ahead of Kashisha’s periodically snapping jaws. She’d driven them into a part of the warren that Solonn had never seen before. With one last shove, she brought the journey of the two snorunt to an end, forcing them into a wide, low-ceilinged room.

Solonn saw at once that he, Zilag, and the glalie who’d brought them here weren’t the only ones present. The room was also occupied by nine other glalie who were sitting in a row and glaring at the two snorunt like some sort of sinister council.

“I see you brought your pathetic little brother again,” the male in the center of the row said. “I’m getting bored of tormenting him, though… but who’s this other brat?”

“This is Solonn,” Kashisha told him. “He’s our new court jester,” she added with a grin. She nudged Solonn toward the glalie in the center of the row. “That, Solonn, is Sanaika, the Master of Ceremonies. And I do mean ‘master’. Bow before him!”

“Yes, bow!” Sanaika snapped.

Solonn lowered his head slightly. Sanaika responded by spitting a chunk of ice that struck him in the forehead, eliciting a shout of pain from the snorunt.

“The Master approves! You are now initiated into the Fellowship of Slaves!” Kashisha said gleefully. “Now! Perform for your master!”

With a small sigh, Solonn ran through his impression of Zyrzir’s voice, followed by that of Sophine’s voice. Then, after rummaging briefly through his memories, he produced a third impression: the voice of Sophine’s mother.

“What an entertaining little weenie you are!” Sanaika remarked once Solonn had finished.

“I knew you’d like him!” Kashisha exclaimed proudly. “That sealeo voice trick at the end was a nice touch, by the way,” she told Solonn.

“Yeah, but I can think of one impression that I guarantee you he doesn’t know,” Sanaika said. The glalie at either side of him gazed expectantly at him with looks of toadying curiosity. “Human.”

“Oh, that’s brilliant!” Kashisha crowed, her eyes flashing diabolically. The other glalie echoed her enthusiastic approval.

“…Wait, did you say ‘human’?” Solonn asked. He was sure he couldn’t have heard that right…

“Yes, you little turd, human,” Sanaika spat disdainfully. “You know, those weird, stupid-looking things with the long limbs and tiny little heads who sound completely ridiculous when they talk…”

“And taste like crap,” the glalie to Sanaika’s left offered.

You wouldn’t know,” Sanaika scoffed at him. “But yes, they do taste like crap.”

“Humans don’t exist,” Solonn dared to say. “They’re just a myth…”

All of the glalie stared incredulously at Solonn. Zilag quickly looked away from him, fearful that something hideous was about to befall his friend.

“Oh, they do exist,” Sanaika said in a low, rather ominous voice. “In fact, you’re going to find out for yourself just how real they are, and you might find yourself very, very grateful that they are, too.”

Sanaika brought himself to hover right in front of Solonn, just inches away from his face. “I am giving you a quest and an offer. You’ll go up to where the humans are. You’ll meet one, see them with your own eyes, and hopefully get to hear the idiotic sound of their voice. And if you can return to us with a perfectly realistic impression of that voice, then I promise you’ll never have to come here again if you don’t want to.”

“What do you say, little baby? You want to go human-hunting?” Kashisha asked playfully.

“Oh, it’s not his choice,” Sanaika told her. “Now, you and the others can stay here and babysit your little brother while I deliver this twerp to his date with a human.”

“Aw, we wanted to come and watch!” Kashisha said. The other glalie griped, as well, and one of them even snapped at Sanaika in her outrage. Sanaika turned toward the offender. His eyes suddenly turned a blazing white, and a resounding crack split the air. His would-be attacker’s eyes rolled back, and she dropped heavily to the floor.

Solonn shuddered. That had been a nhaza, a glalie’s primary predatory weapon. It can't kill us, he reminded himself. Azvida had told him as much. The worst it could do to any of their own kind was to knock them out. Sure enough, the stricken glalie quivered very slightly where she lay—still breathing.

He shuddered again all the same.

“You brain wrecks!” Sanaika said. “We can’t all gather at the exit like that! Do you not realize how conspicuous we’d be? What if we were spotted by some ball-chucking human, huh? Or worse, by the authorities? Now, all of you, stay put, or else you’ll all find icicles where you’d rather not.”

With that, Sanaika seized Solonn rather harshly in his jaws and set off into the warren with him. He carried the snorunt through a series of tunnels that led, much to Solonn’s surprise, up to the very same cavern where Solonn had met Sophine and her mother all those years ago. Then Sanaika left the cavern, sealing the exit behind him with a wall of ice.

Solonn knew there was no way for him to get through that ice wall. Barriers like that one were commonplace in the warren, existing to control where snorunt could and couldn’t go. The ice they were made of was too thick for even teeth like his to break through. It was reinforced with the raw power of the ice element and could only be removed by the kind of control over ice that no snorunt possessed.

He knew the tunnel that led up into this place from the snowgrounds had been blocked off in the same way not long after Kashisha had told on Zilag for encouraging others to travel through it. Zilag had told him as much years ago. So it seemed there was no option for Solonn other than to sit and wait for some glalie—and hopefully a decent one rather than someone like Sanaika—to discover he was here. He figured he couldn’t rightly get into trouble like last time once he’d had a chance to tell how, and because of whom, he’d ended up here—or, at least, he hoped he couldn’t…

Solonn fidgeted where he sat, hoping he wouldn’t have to wait much longer to be discovered, regardless of any punishment that might or might not be awaiting him. He was getting nervous about being here, and when he realized that it was because of those humans that Sanaika had spoken of, he couldn’t help but give a little laugh.

Gods, that’s not what you’re afraid of, is it? Solonn thought incredulously. Don’t be stupid, he scolded himself silently. You know there’s no such thing as humans!

“Well, well, well. I just knew that if we kept coming back here, we were sure to find one sooner or later.”

Startled, Solonn jumped to his feet at the unexpected, somewhat gruff-sounding voice. He turned toward its source. Standing only a couple of feet away was a manectric, but Solonn had no way of recognizing that. The electric-type had managed to sneak right up behind Solonn, completely unnoticed until he’d spoken.

“Who… who are you?” Solonn asked nervously.

“Oh, there’ll be plenty of time for introductions once we’re back in Lilycove, buddy,” the manectric said. He then unleashed a chilling, wavering howl, which was magnified and echoed by the cavern.

As the howl faded, another sound arose. Solonn recognized it as the sound of snow crunching underfoot, but these footfalls sounded much heavier than those of any snorunt. The footsteps were approaching swiftly, and soon their owner came into view.

For a very long moment, Solonn’s mind went blank at the sight of the newcomer. They do exist, he finally managed, his eyes wide with wonder. Some tiny part of him still insisted it was impossible, but the creature that now stood a short distance before him fit Sanaika’s description of a human well enough to make him believe otherwise.

“Ah, Brett, you found one! Good job!” the human said brightly. Her voice surprised Solonn; he didn’t think it fit Sanaika’s descriptions of how humans sounded at all.

The human detached a pokéball from its resting place at her hip. It expanded in her hand, more than tripling in size. “Come out, Aaron!” she said.

The sphere burst open at its equator. Energy exploded from within it in a surge of white light, and then, much to Solonn’s astonishment, it coagulated into a living creature. Another unfamiliar creature—a sceptile—now stood at the human’s side.

“Don’t be afraid, snorunt,”  the human said gently. “We don’t really want to hurt you. We’re going to make this as easy on you as possible. You won’t even feel a thing.”

She looked toward Brett and then toward Aaron. “Thunder wave and false swipe, please,” she instructed them respectively. The two pokémon gave quick nods of acknowledgment, then began moving toward Solonn. Brett’s fur crackled with dancing sparks of electricity, while one of the bladelike structures at Aaron’s left wrist took on a white glow.

Solonn could only stand and stare at first, transfixed by fascination and lingering disbelief at the human and the two pokémon who accompanied her. Then he screamed and tried to make a run for it.

Brett released a small pulse of electric-type energy, which caught the fleeing snorunt with ease. Solonn cried out at the initial pain as the attack struck him, but a second later, that pain was gone—along with all other sensation throughout his body. His legs gave out from under him in the next instant, and he toppled over onto his side.

Aaron was now standing over him, peering down through dull yellow eyes as he raised his glowing wrist blade. But Solonn couldn’t see this. His view of Aaron was limited to the sceptile’s tail and clawed feet. He didn’t see the careful, precise strike that left him on the sheer edge of consciousness, and just as the human had promised, he didn’t feel it either.

“All right, that ought to do it,” the human said. From a pouch strapped to her shoulder, she produced another capture ball, a great ball this time.

Barely able to stay conscious, Solonn didn’t quite register the human’s next action: she threw the ball at him. It opened in midair before him and released a red beam that struck him and filled his fading vision with crimson light.

One second, Solonn was lying paralyzed and nearly unconscious on the cavern’s floor. The next… he was nowhere.

 

Chapter Text

Solonn felt a number of things when he was released from the capture ball. First came sheer relief, both at no longer being drained and paralyzed (he distantly wondered how he had recovered so completely and suddenly) and, to a greater degree, at just being out of that ball—its particular style of confinement was just too surreal. He’d been conscious all the while that he’d been inside, but didn’t seem to actually exist. It was as though the great ball had reduced him to nothing more than a mind without a body, impossible though such a thing should be. Trying to make sense of it earned him nothing more than a headache, so Solonn pushed that particular matter aside for the time being.

With the mysteries of the capture ball no longer first and foremost on his mind, Solonn’s focus shifted to the human who stood nearby. Since his captor was no longer wearing the heavy clothing that had protected her from the cold of Shoal Cave, she looked somewhat smaller now, and with her head no longer covered by a hood, he could now see her brown, shoulder-length hair.

The next thing Solonn noticed about his present situation was that the environment he had been brought into was too warm for his liking. “Er… excuse me,” he said as he looked up at the human. “It’s a little too warm in here… could you do anything about that?”

The human merely stared at him in response.

Solonn repeated his request. This time, the human cocked her head a bit and smiled at him, but she still didn’t answer, nor did she make any move to change the temperature.

It was then that Solonn realized the human wasn’t understanding a single word he was saying. This didn’t make sense; whenever Solonn had encountered a member of another species before, they’d been able to understand him just like his own people could. Why, he wondered, was the human any different?

Solonn wondered if she might understand him if he were to speak to her with a human voice. As he considered it, memories of her voice filled his mind, and he was sure he could pull off an imitation of it.

With that confidence, he was about to give it a try—but then stopped himself. Doing these “impressions” was what had gotten him swept up into this situation to begin with. It was because he’d revealed that talent that he’d gotten mixed up with Sanaika’s gang, and now—it hit him all at once—he would likely never see home again.

Solonn started trembling in a sudden panic, and the human reacted right away. “Oh, poor little guy,” she said, looking upon him with pity as she knelt down in front of him. “It’s okay; you have nothing to be scared of.”

She opened her arms to Solonn, which only confused him. She then wrapped her arms around him and tried to lift him up, but he was heavier than she’d expected. Solonn, meanwhile, didn’t like what she was doing. For a moment, his instincts took over, and he tried to wriggle free of her grasp. He just barely managed to stop himself short of biting her.

Finally, recognizing both the futility of her efforts and Solonn’s aversion to what she was trying to do, the human gave up and let go of him. Shaking the cold from her arms, she stood and fetched a pillow from the bed. She placed it on the floor for Solonn to sit on, hoping it’d make him more comfortable. The snorunt ignored it completely, giving her a penetrating stare.

The human sighed. “Okay. I’ll tell you what: I’ll go get you something nice, something I promise you’ll like. In the meantime, I’ll give you a chance to get acquainted with a couple of your new friends. You’ve already met Aaron and Brett, but I have three other pokémon friends. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait to meet Sei until she gets out of the pokémon center; she’s been pretty sick. But you can go ahead and introduce yourself to these two.”

She removed two capture balls from her belt and released their occupants in twin surges of white light. A skarmory materialized at her right, while a claydol appeared at her left. There was something strangely disconcerting on a very primal level about the former, but Solonn couldn’t quite place what it was.

“This is Raze,” the human said as she pointed at the skarmory, “and this is Ominous.” She pointed at the claydol. “Oh… I forgot to introduce myself, didn’t I?” she realized aloud with a giggle. “My name is Morgan Yorke. Anyway, these pokémon are some of my best friends, and I just know that ultimately you and I are going to be really good friends, too. See you in a few minutes!” she said, then left the room.

For a moment, the other two pokémon just stared at Solonn, and he could only stare back. He soon began to wish they’d stop it, particularly with regards to Ominous—it was more than a little unnerving to have that many eyes staring at him from the same face.

All those eyes left no room on Ominous’s face for a mouth, which made it quite the surprise when the claydol spoke to him—although it didn’t sound as though Ominous was actually saying anything. Their voice consisted of a rapid-fire series of low-pitched, hollow-sounding noises. Solonn got an immediate sense that he could never replicate that voice, no matter how hard he tried.

“With your brain, nitwit!” Raze squawked, interrupting the claydol.

Ominous winced, closing all of their eyes in unison. <I apologize,> they said. <I should not still be forgetting about that…>

A second after Ominous had spoken, Solonn realized, astounded, that he hadn’t exactly heard what they’d said. While their actual voice had rattled on incomprehensibly in his ears, the claydol’s words had sounded within his mind, almost as if they were his own thoughts. Solonn wasn’t quite sure what to make of this phenomenon.

<As I was attempting to say,> Ominous went on, <the name by which Morgan called me is not my actual name. My true name is Oth.>

“My name really is Raze, though,” the skarmory said, sounding less than happy about it. “I was born in this house, and that’s when Morgan gave me that name. I don’t think it’s such a great name, but…” She ruffled her magenta-feathered wings in the skarmory equivalent of a shrug. “So, what’d she name you?” Raze asked then.

“Er… I don’t know,” Solonn admitted. “My real name is Solonn, though.”

<She must not have given him his new name yet, then,> Oth supposed.

“Maybe she isn’t going to give me another name,” Solonn said.

“Oh, she’ll give you one,” Raze said. “Maybe you’ll like it, and maybe you won’t. But you’ll be grateful for it, and also grateful that you got landed with Morgan and not some other coordinator, because with some coordinators, you would just get called ‘Snorunt’.”

“…Coordinators?” Solonn had never heard of such a thing.

Raze cocked her head at Solonn. “You have a lot to learn,” she said.

“Then you have a lot to explain,” Solonn countered. “What’s a coordinator?”

“Well, a coordinator is your human coach and partner for the contests,” Raze explained. “And before you ask: in a contest, you just basically have to show off your powers. Use them in ways that impress humans. In your case, that means you can’t just blow a couple of snowflakes at them and expect to win.”

Somehow the idea of “showing off” for the humans was less than appealing—in fact, it rather reminded Solonn of being ushered off by Kashisha to show off for her friends. “Wait, why would I want to do this, anyway?” he asked. “What’s in it for me?”

Raze’s yellow eyes suddenly widened with glee. “I’ll show you!” she said eagerly, then speedily crossed the room. “Come here!” she beckoned, standing before a bookcase that was just a bit shorter than she was. After a moment of skeptical hesitation, Solonn complied. “Have a look at these!” Raze said once the snorunt had joined her, inclining her head toward something sitting on the top shelf.

“I can’t see up there,” Solonn told her.

“Oh… oops,” Raze said with a small, embarrassed laugh. Somewhat awkwardly, she used her beak to pick up the thing she was trying to show to Solonn, then set it down on the floor between herself and the snorunt.

Solonn peered at the thing she’d placed before him. It was a large, flat, plastic case. Through its transparent lid, he could see a collection of twelve small trinkets: colored ribbons, each adorned with a little metal medallion. The case also contained slots for eight more of these ribbons.

“The red ones are mine,” Raze said, positively radiating pride, “the yellow ones are Oth’s, and the green ones are Sei’s. Now, yours, if I’m not mistaken, are gonna be blue.”

“Hm.” You sure are assuming a lot, Raze… It was going to take more than just a bunch of ribbons to convince Solonn that these “contests” were anything he wanted to be involved with. “So,” he spoke up after a long moment’s silence, looking up from the ribbon case and right into Raze’s eyes, “this is what Morgan keeps us for?”

“Well, yeah, pretty much,” Raze answered. She put the ribbon case back up on top of the bookcase, taking one last moment to admire her ribbons before turning her attention fully to the snorunt once more.

“So… suppose I didn’t want to be a part of these contests… would she take me back home, then?” Solonn asked.

There was a prolonged silence. Raze and Oth exchanged awkward glances.

“Well?” Solonn pressed.

<Solonn…> Oth began hesitantly. <Morgan had been seeking a snorunt to train for entry into contests for quite some time. She has spent many hours composing routines and strategies for you… I do not imagine that she would want her plans to go to waste.>

“Well, maybe she can just go find some other snorunt for the job,” Solonn suggested. “Someone who actually wants it.”

<I do not believe you would really want that,> Oth said. <You do not truly wish for another snorunt, possibly one of your friends, to be taken from his or her home just so that you can return to your own.>

Solonn stared agape at Oth for a moment. The claydol was completely right; Solonn didn’t even try in the slightest to contradict them.

“This… this is your home now, Solonn,” Raze said, knowing the consolation was futile even as she offered it. “You’ll get used to it eventually; I know you will.”

“Yeah, of course you can say that,” Solonn muttered, not really bothering to make himself inaudible. “You were born here.”

“I—” Raze began to counter, but she couldn’t quite find the right words and thus abandoned her comeback with a sigh.

The door opened, and Morgan returned. Another human female accompanied her this time, slightly taller and with shorter, darker hair.

“There he is,” Morgan said as the two entered, pointing at Solonn. “What do you think of him?”

“Oh, he’s adorable,” the other human remarked. She stooped slightly to bring herself closer to the snorunt’s eye level. “Hi,” she said amiably. “Let me introduce myself. I’m Eliza, Morgan’s mother.” She extended her arms to Solonn with an expecting gaze.

“He doesn’t do hugs,” Morgan informed her.

“Oh… Well, that’s all right,” Eliza said, withdrawing her arms and straightening her posture. “What’s his name?” she asked.

“I’ve decided to call him Azrael,” Morgan replied.

Solonn gave her a funny look. That’s really the best you could come up with?

“Oh, that’s lovely,” Eliza commented.

Morgan smiled in response. Then she held a small, polystyrene bowl out in front of Solonn.

Distracted by the new human, Solonn hadn’t even noticed that Morgan had been holding the bowl. He now stared at it with uncertainty, edging somewhat closer to it to get a look inside. It contained something that looked more or less like snow but was bright blue.

“This is for you,” Morgan told him. “Try it, it’s really good.”

Solonn gazed into the bowl for another second or two, then turned a skeptical gaze toward Morgan.

“Go on, it’s tasty. I promise you’ll like it,” Morgan tried to assure him.

Still wearing a doubtful expression, Solonn took the bowl from Morgan’s hands. He hesitated for another long moment before unenthusiastically dipping his hand into the blue snow, scooping some of it up, and putting it in his mouth. The snow had a flavor he could’ve never imagined—he conceded at once that it was just as good as Morgan had promised, if not moreso.

However… the knowledge that performing tricks for people’s amusement like some kind of jester was apparently his sole purpose here, and that there seemed to be no way to return to the life that he’d previously known, was now attending heavily upon him, leaving a rather unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t feel like eating. With a despondent sigh, he set the bowl down and turned away from Morgan.

“Hey… are you feeling okay?” Morgan asked worriedly.

Solonn didn’t respond to her, neither then nor following her several subsequent attempts to get through to him. More than once, she tried to tempt him with that blue snow, but he continued to refuse it. He couldn’t change this new life, but for a while, at least, he could try to ignore it and pretend it wasn’t happening.


* * *

The rest of the evening consisted of an awkward pattern of failed interactions between Solonn and his would-be coordinator. Morgan tried time and time again to converse and be friendly with him, but each time, she was met with resolute silence. After each unsuccessful attempt to socialize with him, she left him alone for an hour or so before giving it another go, only to fail to get through to him yet again.

She did, at least, leave Solonn out of the great ball through the night, for which he was grateful. Perhaps, he considered, she’d thought this would offer her new pokémon some time to get more accustomed to his surroundings. Instead the snorunt viewed it as a potential opportunity to flee from the human’s custody while she slept.

Unfortunately, he found out very quickly that escape wasn’t an option. The door was rendered an impassible barrier by a sliding lock, one that was installed at a height beyond Solonn’s reach. If it weren’t for the fact that Morgan’s bookcase contained small, pewter pokémon statues and nothing else, he might have been able to stack up a few books as a means to reach it.

The room’s only window was within Solonn’s reach, but it didn’t offer an avenue of escape, either; Morgan’s room was upstairs in a two-story house. Though by no means enjoying his present situation, Solonn didn’t want to escape it by falling to likely injury and possible death.

Having given up on finding a way to slip out, he just sat there on the windowsill, staring out through the window at the alien environment outside. This was not his world, not his place… but he couldn’t deny that he found it fascinating, even kind of lovely, as he watched the light show put on by the cars below.

Though tired in many ways, most of which weren’t physical, Solonn found that he couldn’t sleep. His eyes remained open and fixed on the city outside, watching as the rising sun brought a new day over the horizon.

A couple of hours later, Morgan stirred nearby in her bed, waking up. Sighing, Solonn turned away from the window at last, wondering how the human would try to reach him today.

He got his answer quite shortly. Morgan left the room for a few minutes, then returned with more of that blue snow and set it down in front of him. He accepted it this time and ate nearly all of it, but only because he was earnestly very hungry. The human smiled at him as she took away the empty bowl, then left to have her own breakfast.

It was when she returned that she attempted to step up the level of interaction between herself and her new pokémon a little more.

“I’ll bet you’re wondering why you’re here, aren’t you?” she said, trying to sound as kindly and non-threatening as possible. “Well, you don’t have to worry. It’s not going to be anywhere near as scary as you might think. In fact, I bet you’ll have more fun than you’ve ever had before.”

Morgan proceeded to illustrate her intention to enter Solonn in contests, not really telling him anything that he hadn’t already heard from Raze and Oth the evening before. He pretended not to pay any attention to her, though in reality he was absorbing her every word. It seemed that he simply couldn’t tune out an alien voice.

The day progressed, and Morgan continued to share her ideas, telling him about the routines he could employ in contests. As she spoke, he had to admit to himself that she didn’t sound as though she truly had any malevolent intentions for him. She wasn’t really coming across as a human version of Kashisha; as far as he could tell, she only had a friendly desire to invite him into her strange little hobby, not any intent to prey on him in any sense.

Whether Morgan’s intentions were benign or not, Solonn still wasn’t too keen on the idea of making a spectacle of himself, having learned all too well how that could earn the wrong kind of attention. There was also still the matter of his captor’s unwillingness to let Solonn leave if he wished, which made it hard for him to readily accept any sort of friendship or partnership with her. As such, when Morgan offered to begin Solonn’s training, he refused her efforts to bring him into the role she’d chosen for him, in silent protest of his detainment.

That night, Solonn sat in the moonlight once again, contemplating his situation as he perched upon the windowsill and gazed outside. Lilycove bore no resemblance to the world Solonn had known, which left him certain that he was very far from home—too far for him to make it back there by himself.

His eyes fell upon the bed where the human was peacefully sleeping. Solonn wanted to go home again, but this creature wouldn’t allow it.

Wait, though… how do I really know she wouldn’t? the thought occurred to him. Raze and Oth had implied that Morgan had no intentions of letting him go, but the human herself had never said anything along the lines of, “You’re never leaving. You’re mine forever.” Morgan had never specifically mentioned anything at all regarding whether or not Solonn could ever leave. Moreover, she didn’t even know that he wanted to.

What if she did know? he wondered. But he could really only guess what her response would be, for the problem remained that she was, for whatever reason, unable to understand his speech. He could not communicate with her.

…Although, maybe he could. After all, he still hadn’t tried to see if Morgan could understand him if he were to speak like a human. He was still hesitant to attempt it, however. The memory of what the last use of his mimicry had earned for him was still fresh on his mind.

But the fact remained that Solonn would probably never know how Morgan would respond to his wish to go home unless he shared it with her. As he thought about it, it began to seem like he was doing himself more of a disservice by not giving it a try than by taking the risk.

Furthermore, he questioned if there really was that much of a risk involved where she was concerned. True, he’d gotten into trouble the last time he’d done impressions. But as he considered again, Morgan was no Kashisha, at least not as far as he could tell, so maybe it wouldn’t be like last time. Perhaps Morgan would simply hear him out and give him what he wanted without making him sorry for reaching out to her.

But then, Solonn found himself considering what Oth had told him: <I do not imagine that she would want her plans to go to waste.> Morgan truly seemed to have her heart set on entering contests with him, and he suspected that she wouldn’t abandon those plans so readily. He could tell her he wanted to leave, but as long as she held these intentions for him, what chance was there, really, that she’d let him go?

That’s when the idea hit him: maybe, just maybe, a deal could be struck.

Solonn carefully gauged the distance between the windowsill and the bed, then sprang from his perch. The mattress yielded to his weight with a bounce as he landed, yet Morgan slept on, snoring slightly. Solonn gazed at her from the foot of the bed. Her sleeping form glowed softly through the darkness with her warmth, giving her an almost spectrelike appearance.

Solonn made his way toward the concentrated glow that surrounded the human’s head as if it were a beacon. Morgan’s face was half concealed by a few errant strands of her hair. Solonn moved them aside, revealing the serene face of his captor. It was interesting, he thought, how a creature whose practice was to abduct people from their homes could look so incredibly benign. The snorunt then reached toward her face again, slowly drawing his hand across her cheek this time.

Morgan stirred, but only slightly. Solonn had assumed the contrasting cold of his hand against her warm skin would wake her, but he realized now that he should’ve recognized her as a heavy sleeper when jumping on the bed had failed to do the job. He began prodding her in the temple, hoping that that would wake her up. If it didn’t, he was prepared to do whatever was necessary. He wasn’t averse to giving her a small bite if that was what it took.

Luckily for Morgan (at least compared to the biting she’d have received otherwise), Solonn’s current efforts succeeded, if only because one of his prods missed its mark somewhat and found its way into her left eye.

“Hey!” she responded at once, waking up instantly but not quite fully. She lifted her head slightly from the pillow, grumbling incoherently and rubbing her sore eye for a moment, then shook her head in an effort to more fully awaken herself. Yawning loudly, she shifted and turned, sitting up a little more and craning her neck awkwardly to try and get a look at what could have possibly poked her in the eye. Her still-blurry vision just managed to make out the pointed silhouette of the snorunt standing next to her. Solonn’s eyelight partially illuminated his face and reflected brightly off of his teeth, giving him a rather eerie appearance.

“Hello, Morgan,” he said quietly, nearly whispering, in a voice that wavered slightly but sounded like Morgan’s nonetheless.

Morgan blinked sleepily at the snorunt for a second. “…Hi,” she said finally, half-yawning as she spoke.

Then she realized whom and what she’d just replied to.

In an instant, she was wide awake, sitting upright and staring with wide eyes at the pokémon beside her. For several seconds, a vocal response of any sort to the situation failed her. Eventually, she managed a half-gasped, “What?”

“I said hello,” Solonn repeated.

Morgan was silently agape for a brief while before she could get her next words out. “…But… no, you can’t…”

“Yes, I can.”

“But… how?” Morgan asked, her voice sounding rather strained.

“…I don’t know how I can,” Solonn admitted uneasily.

Morgan took a moment to digest that silently. “This is a dream,” she then decided aloud, and began to turn away from Solonn and back toward her pillow.

“No, it’s not,” Solonn said. “And you know it’s not.” He leaned over her slightly so that the light from his eyes washed over her face. “But if you want to be sure, I can bite you. It’d hurt, and I’m sorry it would, but you’d be sure you were really feeling it, I promise you.”

Morgan sat up once again. For a second, she looked at Solonn as if she wanted to accuse him of lying, but that gaze faltered almost as soon as it had formed. She turned slightly, seeming less than willing to look him in the eye now. “It’s okay, Azrael. You don’t have to bite me. I… I believe you.”

Solonn nodded slightly. “Good. That’s good,” he said, then sighed in slight relief. There went the first obstacle—Morgan seemed to have accepted that she could now understand him. Hopefully, he could count on her to hear him out now. “…But Morgan? My name isn’t Azrael. It’s Solonn,” he told her.

Morgan looked surprised for a moment, but quickly relaxed once more. “It shouldn’t surprise me that you have your own name,” she said, sounding a bit apologetic. “I bet a lot of pokémon do. Like Sei; she told me hers the first time she evolved, and I’ve been calling her that ever since. Before that, I’d been calling her Enchantress…”

Morgan chuckled faintly. “I liked that name, but she told me not to call her that anymore, so I don’t. Now, Ominous… Sei told me what their real name was, and so I asked them if they wanted me to start calling them Oth from now on—that’s their name—but according to Sei, they said not to. I think they might have been worried about hurting my feelings by turning down the name I gave them; they’re such a softie, really…”

“So… you mean you can understand Sei, too?” Solonn asked, a bit surprised.

“Yeah. But that’s only because she’s a very powerful psychic-type. She has really advanced telepathic skills, and that’s how she can make me understand her.”

“Oth has telepathy, too. Why can’t you understand them?” Solonn asked.

“…I actually didn’t know that they had telepathy,” Morgan said.

Oth must be hiding it from her… Solonn realized, and began to wonder why they would. He also began to worry that maybe he shouldn’t have told Morgan about their telepathy, seeing as Oth apparently desired to keep it a secret.

Morgan, meanwhile, was able to make eye contact with Solonn again. Her expression now spoke of burgeoning amazement. “…I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be goggling at you like this,” she said as she realized the way she was looking at him. “It’s just… God, this is so incredible. I thought pokémon had to use telepathy to make themselves understood.”

“Guess you were wrong,” Solonn said simply.

“Guess so.” Morgan laughed softly and smiled; she looked as if she were proud of him. Why she should be, Solonn couldn’t figure out; it wasn’t as if she were responsible for his ability to speak to humans.

The human’s features shifted suddenly, becoming strangely unreadable. “Hey. Could you do me a favor, though?” she asked.

“What?”

“Do you… do you have to sound like a human when you talk?” Morgan asked. A very odd look came over her face as she realized something. “Do you have to sound like me? How can you sound like me?” she asked, sounding slightly alarmed.

“Shh! Try to keep quiet; I don’t want your mother to wake up,” Solonn said. “And I already told you: I don’t know how I do it.”

“…Sorry,” Morgan said, lowering her voice significantly. “But anyway, could you just… um, not sound like me? No offense, but it’s… kind of weirding me out. Why don’t you just use your normal voice from now on, okay?”

Solonn was about to tell Morgan that she wouldn’t understand him anymore if he stopped using that voice. But then something caught in his mind: Why should what voice I use affect whether or not anyone understands me? A different voice should still produce the same words; it shouldn’t have the power to transform those words into others. If someone couldn’t understand him, he should have to use different words to be understood. Their words. Their language.

The gears of his mind momentarily stopped turning as epiphany struck him like a falling stone. The only way Morgan could be understanding him was if he was, in fact, speaking her language instead of his own. And that was precisely what he was doing.

Solonn was stupefied. How this could be possible? How could he just fluently speak a language that he didn’t, couldn’t know, a language of which he’d only heard a couple of handfuls of words? He swallowed hard, and his mouth went dry immediately afterward. He was fond of wondering, but his desire to understand this matter was so desperate that he could hardly stand it. He started trembling, his eyelight wavering.

“Is… is something wrong?” Morgan asked, sounding more than a little concerned.

Solonn met her gaze, the earnest care behind the human’s eyes managing to register despite everything else going on behind his own eyes at the time. He tried to respond but couldn’t decide what to say, especially since he wasn’t quite sure of how he should say it. He should be able to use his own voice, he tried to reason silently—it had to be the language and not the voice—but he still couldn’t quite believe it.

“It’s okay,” Morgan said. “If you’re not comfortable talking to me in your own voice, you don’t really have to.”

Solonn closed his eyes. “No,” he croaked softly, continuing to use Morgan’s voice, his throat feeling as though it were trying to seal itself shut. “No, it’s… it’s not that.”

To prove that wasn’t the issue, he’d have to try and speak to Morgan with his own voice while still speaking her language. The mental block was still there, the sense that he was doing something that shouldn’t be possible, but he’d just have to find his way around it.

Solonn took a deep breath and forced himself to return Morgan’s gaze once more. “…It’s nothing,” he finally managed. Conscious as he was of the seemingly impossible thing he was doing, every word felt like he was pushing a boulder out of his mouth. Get a grip, he tried to command himself, you’re supposed to be talking to her for a reason, remember? “Listen…” he began slowly, all too self-consciously. “I’m sorry I woke you… but we need to talk.”

Morgan nodded. “Okay. What about?”

“Well… it’s about those contests…”

“You don’t want to do them, do you?” Morgan said. “I’ve kind of gotten that impression.”

“…What?” Solonn was taken aback—he hadn’t expected her to have recognized his desires already. “No… I mean, I’d rather not, but… I’ll do them.”

“Azr—Solonn… you don’t have to. Seriously, if you don’t want to…”

“No, it’s okay,” Solonn insisted. By the impression he’d gotten from Raze and Oth, he’d imagined that Morgan would take offense to his wishes to have nothing to do with the contests. He’d thought she’d vehemently refuse to relinquish her plans for him. Yet here she was, ready to give up her intentions for him without any sign of a conflict. Suddenly Solonn felt rather guilty about his unfavorable preconceptions of her.

He sighed. “I know… I know you’ve been planning for this for a long time… and I know it means a lot to you. It’s… it’s not a big deal. Really. I’ll do it—but only on one condition.”

“What?” Morgan asked, with a troubled, doubtful look into Solonn’s eyes.

Solonn took another deep breath. “Okay. Raze and Oth… they showed me their ribbons. Four each. That’s… that’s how many I have to get myself, isn’t it? Four?” he asked. Morgan nodded. “Okay. After I get the fourth one—you have to promise me, Morgan—after I get that fourth ribbon… you have to let me go. You have to take me back home. Promise me, Morgan. Or I won’t do it.”

“Oh, Solonn…” Morgan’s gaze turned from merely troubled to earnestly sad, earnestly sorry. “If you want to go so bad, I’ll take you home right now. I’ll get Ominous out of their ball and wake them up, and we’ll teleport there right—”

“No!” Solonn interrupted her. His guilt had increased greatly—not only was Morgan fully accepting of his wishes regarding the contests, she was even completely ready and willing to take him right back home. And all this time, he’d imagined her as immovably, irreconcilably possessive of him, as a creature who’d never release his life from the grip of her own…

“No… I said it’s okay, and I meant it,” he insisted, trying his best to convey firm conviction in spite of the way his voice was shaking. “I’ll do this. I don’t mind, I really don’t, just as long as I know I’ll be going home when this is done. That way… that way, we can both get what we want.” He swallowed. “It’s only fair, don’t you think?”

There was a long silence. Morgan just stared at Solonn until an odd, strangled sound escaped from her throat. In the next moment, her eyes filled with tears, which shone in the moonlight as they streamed down her face. Solonn had never seen such a thing in his life; he couldn’t help but stare in wonder at it.

Morgan nodded, but that action was overshadowed by a sudden, forward motion that was halfway between lunging and collapsing. Her arms encircled Solonn, and she pressed her forehead against his. The snorunt stiffened, initially surprised by and resistant to the unexpected embrace, but he managed to relax quickly enough.

“Okay,” Morgan said, half-whispering. “If you’re really okay with this, then we’ll go ahead with it. And then afterward, I’ll take you home. I promise.”

Solonn nodded, acknowledging Morgan’s acceptance of his terms. He’d imagined that he’d be greatly surprised should the deal go through. Now he couldn’t believe he’d honestly expected it wouldn’t. Morgan cared as much about his wishes as her own; that much was now certain. She was perfectly willing to give him what he wanted. In return for that—and as an apology for harboring such harsh preconceptions, though he did a fairly good job of convincing himself that guilt had little to do with it—he’d give her what she wanted. It seemed only fair, after all.

The definite impression Solonn got from the human now was that her word could be trusted. One day, she’d take him home. But until then… It was now, with the initial panic at the thought of never returning to the warren having passed, that the opportunities of Solonn’s situation dared to come forward at last. Until the day when he’d return to Virc-Dho, perhaps he’d get to encounter and experience more strange things, more wonders he could never have conceived of. This, he reckoned, could be interesting…

Chapter Text

The following morning brought a choice.

“All right, Solonn. The contest hall here in town will be holding two normal rank contests—those are the ones for newcomers—in the upcoming months,” Morgan said. “There’ll be one in three weeks, on the twenty-fifth, and then there’ll be another one two months afterward, on August twenty-fifth. Now, if you start your training now, you could enter into the earlier one, but you might want to wait until the August contest so you can get more practice in and be more prepared. But it’s your call, Solonn.”

“I’ll go for the earlier one,” Solonn said at once. In his mind, it was no question at all—the sooner he got started with these contests, the sooner he could be done with them and go home.

Morgan nodded. “Okay, then.” She’d have preferred for him to wait until the later contest; the extra time to prepare might have done him good. But she chose to respect Solonn’s choice and allowed his decision to stand.

* * *

That afternoon, Solonn’s contest training began in earnest. It started in a strange manner: Morgan offered him a small, indigo-colored cube and told him to eat it, claiming it would help him do well in the contests.

Solonn looked at Morgan as if she were crazy. “How is this thing supposed to affect whether or not I win?”

“Well… what it does is it refines your appearance. These pokéblocks will help you look as healthy and as… er, handsome as you can look. Making a good visual impression on the audience and judges is very important.”

Solonn continued to gaze skeptically at the human. Whatever, he decided finally, and took the pokéblock from Morgan, devouring it quickly. The little candy was… okay; it was kind of good, except it had this funny, sort of sour aftertaste. That was really the only fault Solonn could find with the pokéblock, though, and it was really only mildly unpleasant—at first. Then he found the little candy cube beginning to disagree with him… then to strongly disagree with him…

Morgan looked on with pity and poorly concealed revulsion. But the snorunt’s reaction to the candy didn’t dissuade her from attempting to feed him another one later that evening. Solonn resisted at first—he wasn’t exactly eager to throw up again, after all.

“This one’s different,” Morgan tried to assure him. “I made more than one formula since I didn’t know which you’d do best with. Unfortunately, they just so happen to be the same color—but I promise you, they’re not the same. I even got rid of all of the other kind, so there won’t be any mix-ups.”

Solonn stared warily at her for a long while, his stomach threatening to go sour at just the mere memory of what the last pokéblock had done to him. Then, with a resigned sigh, he accepted the identical yet supposedly different pokéblock—and immediately discovered that Morgan had indeed been telling the truth. This little indigo cube was a far cry from its predecessor, with a great flavor and no disagreeable aftertaste. Seconds passed, and it showed no threat of sickening him. Solonn looked up at Morgan with an approving smile.

Morgan smiled back. “Ah, so this one’s a winner, huh?” Solonn nodded. “Good! Okay, then. You’ll be getting two of these a day until they’ve done as much for you as they can,” she told him.

This was certainly an aspect of contest training that Solonn didn’t mind in the least. Still, he was skeptical that merely eating candies would be enough to prepare him for any sort of competition. What else, he wondered, might Morgan have in store for him?

* * *

Around noon the next day, Morgan left and returned a short while later accompanied by someone unfamiliar.

“Solonn, this is Sei Salma, an alakazam,” Morgan said.

The pokémon at her side bowed, her blonde mustache twitching slightly as she smiled warmly. <A pleasure to meet you,> the alakazam said, her telepathic “voice” simulating a slightly gruff contralto that Solonn guessed was also the sound of Sei’s actual voice. <I understand that you and Ms. Yorke have a most unique relationship, yes?>

“…What?” Somehow Sei’s statement had come across in a way that she surely hadn’t intended.

<You’re able to speak to Ms. Yorke in her own language, are you not?> Sei said.

“Oh… Yeah, that’s right,” Solonn confirmed, albeit a bit hesitantly.

<Ms. Yorke and I were discussing this on the way here. We’ve arrived at a conclusion regarding your abilities. It’s best that other humans don’t discover your abilities, don’t you agree?> Sei asked.

“Yeah,” Solonn said. “I’d really feel better if as few people knew about this as possible.” By “people” he was referring not only to humans but to other pokémon, as well. In fact, he really would’ve preferred for Morgan to ask him for permission before revealing his secret to Sei…

<I understand your concern,> Sei said then, <but I assure you, Ms. Yorke had your best interests in mind when she told me what you’re able to do. She wouldn’t have told me otherwise. Furthermore, you have my word that I won’t reveal your secret to anyone without your consent… And yes, I’ve just read your thoughts. I do try to tune such things out for the sake of courtesy, but…> She shrugged. <Sometimes thoughts are simply too strong to block.>

A mind-reader… Solonn figured that, courteous or not, Sei would’ve probably absorbed the knowledge of his abilities on her own sooner or later.

<The privacy of those with no form of mental defense is something my people take very seriously,> Sei assured him earnestly. <We wouldn’t be trusted very well by the majority of other species if we didn’t stay out of their minds as much as possible. Even with our measures to respect their privacy in place, many species still don’t trust us.>

Whether or not that was meant as a guilt-trip, it certainly worked as one. “…Sorry,” he said. “I’m sure you don’t mean to pry into anybody’s business.”

Sei gave a relieved, satisfied smile. <Now. Since protecting the secret of your skills is so important, I’m offering you a means to speak more securely with Ms. Yorke.>

“And what would that be?” Solonn asked.

<This.> There was a brief flash of light in Sei’s eyes.

<Well? What do you think?> Morgan asked.

<What do I think of… Hey! How are you using telepathy?> Solonn asked—then, with a jolt, he realized that he, too, was speaking telepathically.

<Sei. She’s connected us via her own mind,> Morgan explained. <That way, we can talk to each other without anyone figuring out that… well, that we can talk to each other, get it?>

<…I think so,> Solonn said, still somewhat bewildered at the notion of being able to communicate telepathically. There was something about it that made him feel oddly powerful yet kind of vulnerable at the same time. He wondered if he’d have agreed to try this if he’d known beforehand that it would involve his mind being opened and shared in such a way.

<Telepathic communication is undetectable to humans,> Sei told Solonn then, <and you should be concerned with protecting your secret from humans above all others. You see, pokémon who can speak to and be understood by humans are quite rare, and humans often look upon rarity as something from which they can profit. If certain humans learned of your abilities, they would seek to exploit you for their own ends. I can guarantee you that you wouldn’t find such exploitation to your liking.>

Solonn cast a troubled gaze at Morgan. <Is this true?> he asked. Morgan had come across as trustworthy, but now Solonn wondered if she was merely a rare exception to a generally untrustworthy species.

<Yes,> Morgan said, sounding more than a little ashamed. <Solonn, I would never want to see you exploited like that.>

<Well, I wouldn’t want that, either,> he said, shuddering slightly. He turned toward Sei. <Okay. I’ll accept your connection,> he said. <Thanks.>

<Think nothing of it,> the alakazam said, and with that she severed the psychic link between herself and the other two.

Sei’s offering was a welcome convenience indeed. As Solonn thought about it, something dawned on him: he wondered if the link could be used to let Morgan communicate with her other pokémon. After all, Sei’s telepathic abilities could trick people into hearing words they understood, thus eliminating the language barrier between Morgan and her pokémon. Why hasn’t Sei offered this to the others?

To Solonn’s surprise, Sei turned her gaze upon him and then shrugged her plated shoulders. “Because they never asked,” she said simply, using her natural voice and the language of her own kind this time. The snorunt only stared at her in response, not quite knowing how to reply.

Sei let out a long sigh. <Whew… It seems I’ve still got a bit of recovering to do before I’m quite up to speed again…>

“You want to return to your ball for a while?” Morgan asked her.

<Mmm… yes, I think so,> Sei answered. <I could do with a little time out of this poor, downtrodden flesh,> she added with a laugh.

Morgan chuckled. “All right, then.” She removed an ultra ball from her belt and recalled Sei with a beam of red light. The alakazam smiled wearily at Solonn before dissolving into energy and being drawn back into her ball.

“I just don’t understand how anybody could stand being inside one of those things,” Solonn said with a small shudder, eying the ultra ball as Morgan minimized it and reattached it to her belt. “It’s just so… ” He trailed off, unable to truly describe what it was like in a capture ball.

“So you really don’t like being in a ball, huh?” Morgan asked. Solonn made a disapproving noise and shook his head. “Well, okay. You don’t have to go back in there if you don’t want to,” she told him.

Solonn smiled at her. With no return to the great ball looming over him, the time he’d spend with Morgan would be much easier to endure—and perhaps even enjoy.


* * *

Several hours later, Solonn stood outside with Morgan and Sei in the backyard. Though evening was approaching, the sun was still hot enough and bright enough to bother him. Direct sunlight had a peculiar sort of harshness about it that the artificial light indoors lacked.

There wasn’t much Solonn could really do about it, other than to seek shade. Without delay, he made his way across the yard to stand under the large sitrus tree that stood tall in the backyard. Much better, he thought, satisfied.

Morgan and Sei crossed the lawn to join Solonn. Sei promptly took a seat, leaning back contentedly against the trunk of the tree and opening a magazine. Meanwhile Morgan came to stand before the snorunt and presented a small, cylindrical plastic case. She opened it and produced a cyan-colored disc from inside.

<I’ll bet you’re wondering what this is, huh?> Morgan said, making use of Sei’s telepathy. <Well, this is a TM, Solonn. A technical machine. You can gain a new technique from it.>

An elemental technique being obtained from a little plastic disc. It wasn’t the most ridiculous idea Solonn had ever heard, although it came very close.

<Now, we might not even need to use this,> Morgan continued. <Let’s find out if we do… Solonn, could you show me the strongest ice-type technique you know?>

<The strongest? I guess that would be this.> Solonn called on the power of his element. The glow of his eyes intensified momentarily as he gathered the ice-type energy that he’d need for the technique. A second later, the elemental charge coalesced between his hands, then fired forth as a jagged, electric blue beam that blasted a flurry of frozen leaves and twigs from the branches as it streaked off toward the sky.

<Ice beam, huh? Okay, then it looks like we will need to use this.> Morgan knelt before Solonn, then popped open a compartment on one end of the TM case and slipped the disc inside. <There’s another, stronger ice technique that you’ll need to pull off your routine,> she said as she closed the compartment once more. <You’ll get it from this.>

Solonn eyed the case with uncertainty, his gaze caught and held by the lens that seemed to stare right back at him from one end of the case. <…This won’t hurt, will it?>

<No, it doesn’t hurt,> Sei tried to reassure him. <I’ve received one myself. It’ll be a funny feeling, but it won’t last long. You have nothing to fear from it.>

<Oh. Go ahead, then,> Solonn said, nodding toward Morgan.

Morgan nodded back, then activated the TM, bringing the lens to bear on Solonn’s forehead and pressing a button on the top of the case. It whirred to life, but apart from that nothing seemed to be happening at first; the beam projected by the case was invisible, and its initial impact was intangible.

Then, with a rather strong shudder, Solonn found himself overwhelmed by a sudden surge of power. It reminded him of how it felt to summon some of his ice-type techniques, only it was stronger and went straight to his head rather than spreading throughout his entire body. It escalated into a giddying rush, and when it reached its abrupt end, he found himself feeling incredibly lightheaded.

Solonn teetered comically for a moment, nearly falling onto his butt before he managed to shake himself out of his dizzy spell. <That was weird,> he remarked. <So, that’s it? That’s all it took?>

<Mmm-hmm. You’ve just learned the blizzard technique,> Morgan confirmed as she removed the disc from the front compartment and put it away. <Go on, try it out—but be careful where you aim it, though; it can be pretty nasty.>

<…Wait, blizzard? Are you serious?> Solonn asked. Morgan nodded, smiling brightly. But Solonn remained too bewildered to try out his new technique right away. It was just all too incredible that a simple disc could bestow any sort of power upon him, let alone one of the highest powers of his element.

Though still skeptical, Solonn finally decided to go for it. Once again, he gathered elemental energy. He felt a sizable thrill as the surge of power defied his expectations and answered his summons, then manifested itself in a blast of icy wind and snow.

As the blizzard howled forth, Solonn realized with a jolt of horror that he’d forgotten to aim the attack—its present course could blow a hole in the Yorkes’ back fence. Fortunately, the blizzard proved underpowered, petering out before it could do any real damage.

Solonn stared briefly at the small pile of snow that sat in the grass, watching as it began to melt in the heat of the June afternoon. That thing actually worked… He laughed to himself, pleasantly surprised.

<Not bad,> Morgan remarked. <That was just a little one, but with practice, you should be able to pull off a much more impressive blizzard. And wait ‘til you see what you can do when you combine that with other techniques!>

<You can actually do that?> Solonn asked, intrigued. He’d never seen multiple techniques used in combination, not even by glalie.

<Oh yes,> Morgan said. <In fact, artful combination of techniques is what contests are really all about. A good, creative, graceful presentation is what comes out on top every time. Now,> she went on, opening the TM case once more, <there’s another one of these that you won’t necessarily need, but it could still do you some good. Do you want to go ahead and take it now, or do you want to wait a little while before you take another one?>

Solonn considered it for a moment, finally deciding there was no real reason to turn the offer down. <I’ll take it,> he told Morgan. <Let’s do this now.>

The human nodded in acknowledgment and pulled another TM from the case, a fuchsia-colored disc this time. Solonn watched as she loaded it into the front compartment and activated it, wondering what sort of new power it would give him.

Absorbing this technique felt quite different this time. The sensation of connecting with the raw power of his element was absent—he wasn’t gaining an ice-type technique this time. Solonn didn’t even have a chance to guess the alien element of his new power; the rush that accompanied its acquisition was gone almost as swiftly as it had come.

<So what was that one?> Solonn asked once his head had cleared.

<Light screen,> Morgan answered. <It’s mostly a defensive technique, but there are also some pretty cool things you can do with it that are just for show. Try and call one up now,> she suggested. <It’s not as difficult or powerful a move as blizzard, so you should be able to pull it off pretty easily.>

<Okay.> Seeking the new, unfamiliar element within him, Solonn found the root of his new power and called it forth. There was a fleeting, tingling sensation in his head, peculiar but not unpleasant. Then he saw a bright pink aura form around each of his hands. He watched, fascinated, as it swiftly spread out into a force field that surrounded him completely.

<Wow… this is pretty neat…> Solonn said as he gazed upon the wall of psychic energy that now surrounded him. <Wait, though… how do I get out of this thing?>

<Oh, you don’t have to get out of it. You’re not trapped in one place by that thing; it’ll follow you as you move,> Morgan said.

Solonn decided to test that claim for himself. Sure enough, as he walked back and forth across the lawn, the shield that surrounded him stayed up and around him through his every movement. Then, unexpectedly, the light screen simply vanished.

<What happened?> Solonn asked.

<A light screen can only stay up for a few minutes at a time,> Morgan explained.

<Oh. So are there any more of these I can use?> Solonn asked with a glance at the case.

<I’m afraid not. Nearly all of the techniques you’ll be using come naturally to you—your routine will mostly be ice-based. Anyway, it’s not really very good for you to learn so many moves in one sitting. You could get a nasty headache,> Morgan said.

Solonn’s eyelight dimmed slightly; he was mildly disappointed to hear that he wouldn’t be gaining any more new abilities anytime soon. <Well, okay then. So now what?>

<Hmm. Right now, nothing,> Morgan replied. <You’ve really had enough excitement for one day. You may not feel like it right now, but physically, you’ve just had quite an experience. You’ve instantly learned two moves that usually take pokémon several years and lots of hard work to learn. Give it a little while, and you’ll probably start feeling pretty tired. So let’s just take it easy for the rest of the day, okay?>

Solonn nodded. He would’ve liked to go ahead and continue preparing for the upcoming contest, but his energy had begun to wane the moment Morgan had said it would.

<Your training will really start tomorrow,> Morgan told him. <You see, there are three rounds to each contest. Each one’s different, so you’ll be training in different ways.

<For the first round, we’ll just go out on stage along with all the other contestants, and the audience will basically just compare all the pokémon contestants based solely on their looks, and they’ll all vote on which one they think looks the best. You don’t really have to train for that; the pokéblocks pretty much take care of that aspect.

<The second round will be your solo performance. This is where you’ll be showing your techniques, combining them to make nice effects, et cetera. Don’t worry too much about it—you’ll be rehearsing your routine plenty every day. You’ll get it down just fine.

<Now, the third round is a battle,> Morgan told him. <Have you ever battled another pokémon before? You know, just for fun.>

<Yeah,> Solonn answered, <but not very often, though.> He recalled the matches that Zilag and a few of his friends had held just for sport. The snorunt had never seriously hurt each other; they’d mostly just wrestled, with only the occasional, half-hearted bite or headbutt thrown in here and there. Ice-type techniques had been thrown around sometimes, too, to little effect. On several occasions, Zilag had invited Solonn to take part, but Solonn had only occasionally obliged. By and large, Solonn had been unenthusiastic about battling, even though he sometimes won those matches. As far as he’d been concerned, it was merely something to do in the event that there was nothing else to do. It hadn’t exactly been his idea of fun.

<That’s okay,> Morgan assured him. <Some experience is better than none. Besides which, contest battling really isn’t the same as battling anywhere else. Your goal won’t be to hurt the opponent so much as to upstage them. You don’t even necessarily have to ‘beat’ the other guy as long as you manage to look better during the match. I’ll let you practice battling against a couple of the others here. Raze’d definitely be up for it—don’t worry, she won’t use any steel moves on you. Her style’s a little different than the one you’ll be using, but you’ll still get the gist of how to handle yourself in one of these matches. All you have to do is to keep your poise and battle with grace.>

Solonn nodded in acknowledgment, mentally reviewing what Morgan had told him to expect. It seemed there was more involved with being a contest pokémon than he’d initially imagined. He hoped the span of time separating him from that first contest would be enough to adequately prepare him. The sooner he could get that first ribbon, that first step behind him, the better.


* * *

Each day that followed brought diligent training. Solonn spent many hours rehearsing his solo performance, as well as battling with Raze and even once with Sei Salma. He also continued to receive two pokéblocks each day until Morgan told him they’d finally done all they could for him.

Solonn had assumed these measures were the only ones they’d need to take in order to prepare him for his debut. Then one night, five days before the date of the next contest, he was offered one last suggestion.

He was sitting on Morgan’s bed, waiting for her to return from an errand. When she got back, the first thing she did was take a capture ball from her belt, maximize it, and release Oth from inside it.

“All right,” Morgan said to the claydol. “It’s time for you to check him out and see if he’s ready.” She gestured at Solonn.

Huh? As Oth brought themself before Solonn, he wondered what in the world could possibly be going on. Without any form of explanation or warning, the foremost of the claydol’s eyes dilated dramatically, and a pale red beam lanced forth from it and struck the snorunt. He almost cried out, but realized a split-second later that there was no pain. Very puzzled, he merely stared at Oth as they expanded the beam and swept it up and down over his body.

Mere seconds later, Oth stopped scanning him, the beam disappearing. They turned toward Morgan (which seemed strange given the fact that Oth had eyes on every side of their head) and nodded as well as they could, inclining their entire body slightly in her direction.

Morgan smiled. “Good news, Solonn. Ominous says you’re ready.”

“That’s nice, but ready for what?” Solonn asked in a quiet voice. He and Morgan had decided it was safe enough to converse openly in Morgan’s room as long as they kept their voices down. Solonn had also decided, though not at all hastily, that Morgan’s other pokémon could be trusted with his secret; he didn’t mind Oth’s presence there as he spoke with her.

“Ready… for this!” Morgan reached into her pocket and pulled something out for Solonn to see. Nestled in her palm was something small in a blue wrapper. “I’d been looking around town for one, and I finally managed to scare one up.”

Solonn gazed at the proffered object for a moment, then turned a questioning gaze up toward Morgan.

“This,” Morgan explained, “is a rare candy. These give pokémon something of a boost. According to Ominous…” Morgan paused as excitement flitted across her features. “Well, this’ll give you just enough of a boost to make a huge difference. With this… you could evolve.”

Solonn’s eyes widened. “…That thing can’t possibly cause evolution!” he said, laughing.

“Oh, yes it can. So what do you say? Are you ready to do this?” Morgan asked.

Solonn hesitated to answer. Part of him still couldn’t believe that evolution could be induced by a piece of candy, but the part that could believe remained apprehensive in its own way. “Is there any particular reason why I need to evolve?”

“Well, you don’t necessarily have to do it, but it might work out to your advantage to go through with it,” Morgan said. “Your routine is based almost exclusively on your ice-type powers, after all, and glalie have more finely-tuned abilities where their element is concerned. They can handle ice-type techniques more easily than snorunt can.”

Solonn couldn’t argue with that. He knew firsthand that his people didn’t truly come into their ice-type abilities until they evolved. And he had no doubt that he could execute his routine more easily as a glalie, and he was certainly concerned with succeeding in the upcoming contest.

Still… this was a physical transformation she was suggesting. This wasn’t something to be taken lightly—particularly not where his kind were concerned. Snorunt who evolved too early ran the risk of being corrupted by incomplete instincts. Furthermore, the changes involved with becoming a glalie were so drastic that it was almost like a change into a different species altogether. They began as snow-eating bipeds. They turned into limbless, floating predators.

“The choice is yours, Solonn,” Morgan told him gently. “I won’t make you evolve if you don’t want to.”

So… am I really ready to evolve? Solonn asked himself. Well… technically, I probably am, he answered. He was at roughly the age that was considered the safest and most appropriate time to start considering evolution. In fact, once they got to be very much older than he was now, his kind found themselves having to make a conscious effort to stop the process from occurring on its own.

But… do I really want to go through with this now?

Solonn couldn’t answer that question, though he certainly tried. He wished he’d been given more time to think this through rather than having it dropped on him out of nowhere at nearly the last minute. In the end, he could only lower his gaze and sigh in response.

“You don’t want to do it, do you?” Morgan asked. Solonn shook his head. “That’s okay, Solonn. That’s perfectly fine.”

“Okay.” Solonn’s eyes followed the rare candy as Morgan put it back in her pocket. “Hey. Hold on to that. Just… you know, for whenever.”

Morgan nodded in acknowledgment. “Sure thing. If you ever decide you want it, just let me know. Do you want back in the ball?” Morgan then asked Oth. The claydol nodded in their curious fashion and was subsequently recalled.

“All right, then,” Morgan said. “Now, don’t worry about your decision, okay? Like I said, you don’t really have to evolve to do this. You’ll do just fine.”

Solonn sincerely hoped that Morgan was right.



* * *


In what felt like no time at all, the twenty-fifth had arrived. All at once, the task at hand was upon him, and it swept him up into a situation that made him realize that nothing could have truly, completely prepared him for it.

Next thing he knew, he found himself riding in a car for the very first time. As he gazed out through the window, the scenery rushing by mirrored his perceptions of this experience: hurtling irresistibly forward, he scarcely had a chance to take it all in.

The car came to a stop, and as he hopped out into the parking lot, Lilycove’s contest hall seemed to blossom into being before him, right out of thin air. It was huge, and it loomed even larger with each step closer to its entrance.

Solonn was immediately awestruck as he passed through the front doors into the contest hall’s lobby. All around him, humans of widely varying appearance stood, accompanied by pokémon partners Solonn could’ve never imagined.

Morgan led him into a queue, and there they waited for their turn at the desk before them. After a fairly short wait, they made it to the front, and the receptionist waiting there asked Morgan to present her contest pass. Without delay, Morgan produced a card and handed it to the human behind the desk. The receptionist held on to the pass for a few seconds; Solonn wasn’t tall enough to see exactly what she was doing with it.

When the receptionist gave the pass back to Morgan, she took a moment to peek over the edge of the desk at Solonn. “Oh, now isn’t that a cutie,” she remarked airily, flashing a very bright smile.

Solonn returned her gaze with a slightly skeptical look. Cute? I’m not cute

“You may now proceed,” the receptionist then said. Morgan smiled at her, then led Solonn out of the lobby and toward the backstage area.

Several minutes of doing nothing but waiting followed. The other contestants gathered backstage along with Solonn and his coordinator, anticipating the impending events with varying degrees of patience. A television mounted in the corner showed the scene that awaited the contestants. With an incredible amount of noise and a level of enthusiasm that was almost tangible, an audience was filing into the seemingly endless rows of seats, eagerly cheering for the show to begin.

Their wait wasn’t prolonged much further. The voice of the announcer came blaring forth, the audience quieting somewhat while he spoke.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” boomed his greatly magnified voice, “get ready to witness the hottest up-and-coming faces in the Hoenn contest circuit! The normal rank beauty contest shall now begin!”

“It’s time,” Morgan informed Solonn in an excited whisper, then began guiding him before her as they made their way to the stage in an orderly procession along with all the other contestants.

As Solonn emerged onto the stage, he was greeted by an unbelievable level of light and noise. The number of humans gathered just to look upon him and the other contestants was staggering—Solonn had never seen so many people in any one place before.

He hadn’t expected the audience to be that large…

The coordinators and their pokémon partners lined up side by side across the stage, facing the audience. One by one, the announcer stopped before each team and introduced them, then moved on down the line to the next team. Before long, he arrived at Solonn and Morgan.

“Next up, hailing from right here in Lilycove, it’s Morgan Yorke and her snorunt, Solonn!” the announcer said. The audience gave them a peal of applause, just as they’d done for the other teams. Part of Solonn wondered just what they were applauding; neither he nor any of the other contestants had actually done anything yet.

“Now it’s time for you to cast your votes,” the announcer told the audience after introducing the last few contestants. “Who will make it to the next round? You decide!”

Solonn couldn’t count the moments that passed as the audience cast their votes. His awareness of their scrutiny only intensified now that they were literally judging him. Unbeknownst to him, a close-up view of each of the pokémon in turn appeared on the colossal screen behind him—he might have been surprised, to say the least, to see a gigantic image of his own face staring back at him.

Finally, the votes were all tallied, and the results appeared on the screen behind the contestants, who all turned to see who among them would proceed to the next round.

“Look!” Morgan exclaimed. “There we are!” She pointed to the upper right corner of the screen; she and Solonn were indeed pictured there. They’d made it through the first round. With that obstacle out of the way, Solonn followed Morgan with a funny little detached sort of thrill as they and the other contestants returned backstage to prepare for the second round.

The television there allowed him to watch the contestants who’d been slated to go on before him. For a crop of newcomers, their performances were generally pretty competent; none of them thus far had made any mistakes, at least not as far as Solonn could tell. He found a few of the routines boring despite their technical integrity, but there were a couple of the others that really stood out.

Those performances easily held Solonn’s rapt attention—and also managed to stoke the doubt within him even further. As his own turn came along, he found himself worrying that maybe he hadn’t sufficiently trained for this after all.

That worry followed Solonn out onto the stage as he was called forth. It was much darker as he emerged than it had been during the first round, but he could still see the crowd, could still make out all those faces. He’d been told what to expect since his training had begun, yet Morgan’s descriptions seemed awfully weak and ill-fitting when held against this moment, these surroundings, the expectations held by all these people he had to impress…

He came to stand in the center of the stage, and a single, bright spotlight fell upon him as the music that Morgan had chosen to accompany his routine rose up, seeming to emanate from the very walls of the contest hall itself. Under the ray of white light bearing down upon him, he felt overemphasized to dimensions far greater than his own, yet all too aware of how small he was compared to the vast, scrutinizing crowd.

A moment later, the spell of the spotlight abated enough to let Solonn realize that he’d missed his cue. With a jolt, he hastily cast his hail technique up into the air above him. The summoned hailstones began falling at once, but at twice the normal intensity and not at all in the pattern he’d rehearsed—it was fortunate that this was a solo performance. Had Morgan accompanied Solonn on stage for this round, she’d have had to take cover from his bungled first move.

Solonn winced a little at the mistake, hoping to make some sort of recovery with his next move. He called upon powder snow and felt the faintest relief as it bowed to his will, its winds sweeping up the falling hail in a gently turning, tamed cyclone. Solonn’s creation partly obscured his view of the audience, for which he felt a wave of gratitude spread throughout his nerves. But he knew that his next move required him to forfeit that comforting veil.

Sighing softly, Solonn kept the powder snow blowing as he slowly expanded the vortex of snowflakes and hailstones around himself, the music swelling in a slow crescendo. The winds swept around him in a growing spiral, and as the cyclone widened and thinned out, the multitude of humans before him filled his sights once more.

Don’t pay attention to them, Solonn urged himself, just pretend they’re not there… He fought the urge to close his eyes and shut them out; letting his nervousness show could count against him in the judges’ eyes. He was also fighting a burgeoning desire to simply cut his performance short and run.

Trying desperately to keep a hold on his fraying nerves, he called upon the next aspect of his routine—the one that had given him the most trouble during his training. He still couldn’t quite believe that he’d gained one of the highest powers of his element in a single moment’s rush, disbelief that had caused him to struggle all the more with the technique.

Don’t think about what you’re doing, Solonn tried to remind himself, just do it… At the music’s cue, Solonn unleashed a blizzard to join his dancing cyclone. It howled forth, stirring the spiraling snowstorm into a frenzy as it was meant to do… but then, disobligingly, its winds began to falter. Solonn swore that he could feel his heart stop as the blizzard, along with the rest of the cyclone, came apart right before his eyes. As if in slow motion, snowflakes, sleet, and hailstones alike all fell to the stage.

No… Solonn lamented, certain that his chance to obtain the ribbon and thereby take his first step back to Virc-Dho had died along with his enchanted snowstorm. His musical accompaniment suddenly blurred into a formless din in his ears. The spotlight swelled to an abnormal brightness, then swiftly vanished altogether, taking the stage, the audience, the surrounding noise, and Solonn’s consciousness along with it.

Chapter Text

Solonn awoke several hours later, unaware of how much time had passed since his failure within the contest hall. His eyes opened to a view of Morgan’s room, which was more dimly lit than usual.

With a delay, he noted that he was lying at the foot of Morgan’s bed, with a small, thin blanket draped over the lower half of his body. The blanket was slightly itchy and warmer than he liked, but he didn’t bother to remove it just yet.

His most recent memories gathered to bear down upon him in the present. The haze brought on by his unconsciousness gave way to focus, which in turn led him to actively muse on his failure. Again and again, his mind replayed the scene of his botched performance, and all the while he earnestly wondered what had happened to him up on that stage. Why had his routine—and then he himself—fallen apart before the audience?

Because you weren’t ready, he answered himself at last.

I should have been… he countered. But he knew better, really. He hadn’t been ready. He hadn’t taken enough time to prepare for his first performance. He’d been in such a rush to get that first step toward home behind him, and it was because of that haste that his goal now lay further away.

You should have waited until the later contest to try and get that ribbon, he admonished himself. Now you’re just going to have to wait anyway.

In that sense, perhaps, no harm done. He could just try again in two months, which would give him the extra time to train that he probably should have taken the first time around.

But as Solonn continued to dwell on his failure, he couldn’t help but wonder if his next performance wouldn’t just end up suffering the same fate as his first, even with another two months’ worth of preparation preceding it. After all, wouldn’t the audience be just as large as it had been before? Wouldn’t he be just as alone and exposed on that stage, with not only the spotlight but all of those countless human eyes focused on him?

Solonn groaned, annoyed and disappointed in himself for how easily he’d succumbed to the pressure of his performance. You were supposed to be paying attention to what you were doing, not to the audience, he thought miserably. Morgan had even told him something along those lines during his training, yet he’d managed to lose sight of that advice right when he’d needed it most.

As Solonn recalled, there’d been a couple of moments during his performance, albeit woefully brief ones, in which he almost—just almost—felt like he could just shut out everything around him and vanish into his routine. It was, he realized, a weaker version of something he’d felt a couple of times during his training. In harnessing some of his stronger ice-type abilities, he’d occasionally felt like he was becoming one with those powers, practically losing himself in them…

Solonn sighed. That right there was the key. To maintain control over his performance despite what awaited him on stage, he had to somehow achieve and sustain unity with the element that brought his routine to life.

But how?

At that moment, he remembered something he was told just a few days prior. “Glalie have more finely-tuned abilities where their element is concerned,  Morgan reminded him within his memory. They can handle ice-type techniques more easily.

Gods… she’s right about that… Glalie could indeed perform ice techniques more easily than snorunt could—and perhaps not on account of having more elemental power so much as being closer to the power of their element…

As if rallying to the point, words from a more distant past came forth, the words of his mother: Our element is our very life, Solonn. We couldn’t survive without its power, and by practicing its ways, we achieve some of the most rewarding experiences in our lives.

So, that’s the answer, then, isn’t it? Solonn reckoned. If I evolve, maybe then I won’t lose it in the middle of my routine next time… but gods Whether or not it was a solution, even if it was the only solution, the fact remained that it was still evolution—physical, permanent change. If he came to regret it, there’d be no way to undo it.

Furthermore, he didn’t even know what he could expect from the process itself. Having never evolved before, he couldn’t be sure what it was actually like. He’d once asked his mother about it, but she’d told him that she couldn’t adequately describe it. She’d also tried to assure him that the process usually didn’t hurt, which was no real comfort, especially not with the presence of that nasty little “usually”.

Solonn couldn’t deny that he was still apprehensive about evolving. But he also considered what it would be like to endure another performance that ended like the last one… and he realized that was something he actually feared more. 

He sat up, finally bothering to cast off that uncomfortable blanket. For minutes, he just sat there, staring at his hands as he tried to let his decision settle within him. He figured Morgan would probably return soon—he wanted to be ready to give her the news as soon as possible.

Just as he’d managed to stop counting the passing seconds, the door to the bedroom opened slowly, with barely a creak. At first, Morgan only peeked in from the hall outside. Then, slowly and silently, she slipped into the room, closing the door almost noiselessly behind her.

It was later than it had seemed, Solonn realized; Morgan was dressed for bed. He hoped she wouldn’t mind being kept awake for a little while, especially since he wasn’t sure he could maintain his resolve throughout the night.

Inhaling very deeply, Solonn turned to face her. “Get it out,” he said, sounding calmer than he felt.

Morgan stared in bewilderment at him, a bit startled by how suddenly he’d spoken up, not quite processing what he’d said. “…Get what out?”

“The candy, Morgan,” Solonn said, maintaining an even tone with an effort. “It’s time.”

Morgan blinked in utter surprise for a moment. “Oh,” she said, and she looked a little worried. “…Now?”

Solonn nodded slowly. “I’m sure you’d rather go to sleep, but…”

“No, that’s okay,” Morgan assured him, though she sounded a bit shaken. She made her way over to the dresser, opened the topmost drawer, and rummaged through its contents a bit before she found what she was seeking.

She started to take the rare candy out of the drawer, but then hesitated. “Solonn… are you sure you’re really ready for this?”

“Yes. I’m ready,” Solonn said without much inflection, inwardly cursing the human’s choice of words. Few phrases in existence bred as much doubt in him as “are you sure”. The snorunt’s gaze stayed fixed upon Morgan, nearly unblinking, but his eyelight was beginning to pulsate and flicker unsteadily, betraying his trepidation.

“You just seem awfully nervous,” Morgan said concernedly.

Solonn made a small, dismissive noise. “It’s really nothing. Everyone gets nervous right before they evolve,” he said, guessing rather than actually knowing this. “It’s not exactly a minor thing, you know.”

“No, it isn’t,” Morgan concurred. “But if you’re sure you’re ready… well, here goes nothing, I guess…” She unwrapped the rare candy and brought it to Solonn, placing it in his hand. “There. Just eat that, and the rest should follow.”

Solonn gave a quick nod. He looked down at the little pink candy that now sat in his hand… and kept on looking.

“Are you gonna go ahead, then?” Morgan asked.

Solonn snapped out of it. “Huh? Oh… right.” He furrowed his brow at the rare candy, still staring down at it but making no further move other than to poke at it.

“I don’t blame you at all for being nervous, you know? I’m pretty nervous right now, myself,” Morgan admitted.

Solonn had already figured as much; he could hear both their hearts hammering. He gave her a little smile to try and ease some of the tension, but he knew the corners of his mouth were shaking all the while.

Just get it over with! urged a voice in the back of his mind. Fighting in vain to stop his hand from trembling, he brought the rare candy to his mouth. His jaws were reluctant to part, but he finally pried them open just enough to shove the candy in, barely bothering to chew it or enjoy its somewhat sweet flavor before rushing it down his throat.

There, he consoled himself, the voice of his mind trembling just as much as his body. Now just try to relax and wait for it to happen…

Nothing happened.

Moment after moment passed, and still the candy just sat there in his stomach, doing nothing whatsoever to change him. He felt absolutely no different than he had prior to eating the rare candy. The boost Morgan spoke of was completely absent, as were any feelings that even remotely suggested he was going to turn into a glalie anytime soon.

“Guess you and Oth weren’t right about me after all,” Solonn said finally.

“Guess not,” Morgan said with a sigh. “It’s just hard to believe, though. Ominous was so sure, and they know from such things… Are you sure you don’t feel any different?”

“No difference at all,” Solonn replied.

“It should have given you a boost, though, even if not enough of one to make you evolve,” Morgan said.

“It hasn’t given me anything.”

“Hmm… maybe you just need enough time to digest it first,” Morgan suggested.

“Hmph.” Solonn was done expecting anything from the rare candy. All it had made him was annoyed over suffering all that anticipation for nothing.

Then there came the buzz.

It was a distinct tingling that radiated from the pit of his stomach and spread throughout his entire body. It felt like pure energy was flowing through his veins. Exhilaration flooded his brain, making his breath catch in his throat. His eyes went huge.

Morgan noticed, and her eyes did likewise. “Are you okay?” she asked anxiously. Her eyes grew even wider. “Is it happening?”

Before Solonn could even begin to answer, a powerful jolt from deep within him struck with almost no warning, taking his breath away. The tingling sensation that was still coursing throughout his body shifted in an instant into a strong vibration, intensifying by the second and stoking a dull ache in his bones.

His mouth opened in a silent scream as the sensations made a turn toward earnest pain. He stared wildly at Morgan, who now looked more terrified than excited. She could clearly see the fear and pain in his eyes. Then her face vanished from Solonn’s sight as bright light began to shine from his entire body, filling his vision with a blindingly white emptiness.

In an instant, Solonn went from feeling full to bursting with energy to feeling as though he were made of energy. In a sense, it was similar to entering a capture ball. The difference was that instead of feeling like he’d ceased to exist, he felt as though he were becoming more real, more alive.

There was no longer any pain. Distantly, as he began to rematerialize into his new form, he could sense that he was growing larger, but it didn’t register as a truly physical sensation—after all, he wasn’t a truly physical being at the moment.

But there was another, much stronger feeling that had no trouble at all getting through to him. This, he recognized with joy and amazement, was the raw power of the element of ice—and here he was, joined with it in a way that made his prior experiences look like the poor facsimiles of this strange, sweet union that they truly were. At last, he’d truly become one with his element, and it was wonderful.

The bright, white nothingness finally drained from Solonn’s vision, letting his surroundings come back into focus. The first thing he saw, through much sharper eyes than he’d had before, was the face of his coordinator. Her eyes were still very wide, and her mouth was agape.

Solonn couldn’t blame her. Along with his sight, all of his other senses had returned as well, giving him a full sense of what he’d become. He was well aware of the sheer size of his new body—he was huge, even if he didn’t feel very heavy at all.

He realized then that he’d taken to hovering without even trying; he now hung in midair just above Morgan’s bed. Solonn became fascinated at once with his newly gained levitation. He moved himself for the first time in this new fashion, gliding a very short distance forward, marveling at how effortless it felt.

Solonn was instantly at home in his new form. Elation and immense relief washed over him—he wondered how he could’ve ever feared to become this. A contented sigh escaped him, and he began to set himself down upon the bed with a smile—only to get right back up in a hurry when the bed creaked ominously beneath him, lightly knocking his horns against the ceiling in the process. Biting back a swear, Solonn looked up to see if they’d done any damage. To his relief, they hadn’t.

Morgan laughed. “Oh God, be careful! You’re almost too big for this room, you know that?”

She wasn’t kidding. It was a good thing Morgan’s room was so large; he took up a considerable share of its space as it was. If the room had been much smaller…

“Actually… you’re too big, period,” Morgan noted. “No offense, but normally, glalie don’t get quite so large; I’d expected you to be closer to my height, actually. Do you have any idea what could have made you turn out this way?”

Solonn would have shrugged if it weren’t for the fact that he no longer had shoulders. “Well, uh… I’ve always been kind of tall,” he said in his new, much deeper voice, “but I have to admit, this is…” He trailed off, at a loss for words. He was easily half again the size of even the largest glalie he’d ever seen, and he had no idea why.

“You know,” Morgan said, “this might actually be a development that could work out in our favor. The audience is likely to be impressed by your size, and so are the judges.”

“Mm. Well, that’s good to know.”

Morgan nodded. A second later, she looked as though something had just occurred to her. She glanced uneasily at the doorway, then at Solonn, and then back to the doorway once more. “Hey… um, how do you suppose we’re even going to get you out of here so we can take you to the contest hall?”

Solonn gave her a puzzled look, then followed her gaze and understood at once. “I will never fit through there,” he said with a small, hissing chuckle. “Never again.”

“No, you won’t,” Morgan concurred, laughing.

“…The ball will, though,” Solonn noted.

Morgan frowned slightly. “Well… you’re right about that, but…” She sighed. “I don’t know. I mean, I know you don’t like it in there…”

Solonn made a dismissive noise, shaking his head. “It’s fine. You and I both know I can’t be trapped here in this room forever. There’s barely any room for us both to be in here at the same time; you’d hardly be able to get around in here with me in your way. You can’t even get into your own bed with me in here.”

Morgan glanced backwards at where her belt was hung. Solonn’s great ball gave off a slight, teal glint in the soft lamplight. “Yeah, I know,” she said, still sounding rather guilty about the whole matter, “but…”

“But nothing,” Solonn said gently. “I don’t mind going in there from time to time as long as it’s only when I really have to. For now, just go ahead and get some sleep, all right? I’ll go in the ball for the night, and in the morning you can just take me out to the backyard where there’s plenty of room, and I’ll just stay out there from now on.”

Morgan gave him one last look of uncertainty. “Well, as long as you’re sure you don’t mind…” she said, then went to fetch the great ball.

“Hey,” Solonn said. Morgan gave him an inquisitive look. “…I just wanted to thank you for making this happen… I never imagined this change would be so wonderful,” he said earnestly.

“Oh…” Morgan turned her head and smiled broadly, blushing a little. “You’re welcome,” she said. “I’m glad you’re happy with your new form.”

She raised the ball toward Solonn, preparing to activate its recall function. “Goodnight, Solonn.”

“Goodnight,” the glalie echoed. As the capture ball absorbed his body, thoughts of all that he had become absorbed the rest.

 

 

* * *

 

Four days after Solonn’s evolution, Morgan and Sei Salma stepped out into the backyard to join him. The former brought along a small, portable stereo, just as she’d done on Solonn’s request every day since he had evolved.

Solonn sat beneath the sitrus tree, watching the others as they approached. Morgan took a seat next to him, while Sei, carrying a large stack of magazines, levitated herself up into the branches above, picking a large sitrus berry as she settled into a comfortable position. Morgan then started the music with a smile.

Solonn got the feeling he’d never cease to be amazed by the stereo that sat nearby, with the way it somehow produced human voices and the wide varieties of their music. Today’s selection was especially impressive, and one song in particular took a peculiar hold of him.

He closed his eyes, and he swore that he could actually see the music in his mind. He visualized it in the form of twisting, spiraling shapes that branched upward and outward, forming intricate patterns…

A gasp from nearby interrupted his reverie. A second later, the music stopped. Solonn opened his eyes, and he hissed in surprise at what he saw. The shapes that he’d envisioned within his mind now surrounded the three of them, formed out of spontaneously generated ice.

<But… how?> Solonn asked.

<You’re a cryokinetic,> Sei said, gazing down with a smile as she munched on the sitrus berry. <Among other things, this gives you the ability to generate ice. You’re also able to mentally manipulate it. All glalie have these abilities.>

<Well, yes, I knew that,> Solonn said, <but—>

<—You didn’t mean to use them,> Sei finished. <The subconscious activities of a cryokinetic can sometimes manifest themselves in a visible display, especially when said cryokinetic’s abilities first awaken. And I didn’t mean to read your mind there,> she added.

Solonn continued to stare, stupefied by the sight that surrounded him. He’d created that display completely unwittingly. He’d managed to lose himself in that act, just as he’d lost himself in the music that had inspired it.

His gaze fell upon Morgan, who looked fairly impressed as her eyes swept from one part of the ice formation to another. <Do you… do you like it?> he asked tentatively.

Morgan turned toward him and nodded, beaming brightly. Her finger moved over the “PLAY” button. <Keep it up. Please,> she said, then pushed the button.

The song resumed, and Solonn closed his eyes and tried to let the music absorb him once again, succeeding quite readily. For a moment, he wondered if manipulating the ice would be harder now that he was conscious of his actions, but he found that it was just as easy—and much more delightful. Solonn let his eyes open and serenely watched the manifestations of ice as they continued to change, dance, and grow in time with the music.

Chapter Text

In the weeks that followed, Solonn underwent a far more stringent regimen of training and rehearsing than the one preceding his previous contest appearance, and he did so at his own request. On occasion, he spent an entire night rehearsing his routine alone in the backyard.

“You don’t really have to work so hard,” Morgan told him more than once, but each time, Solonn insisted on continuing to rehearse to this extent.

This was partly because he was, of course, intent on performing better than he had last time, but there was another motive behind his desire to devote so much time to perfecting his routine. Following that first interpretive ice display in the backyard, he and Morgan had decided to work one into his routine, even opting to replace the song he’d performed to last time with the one that had played when his abilities had awakened. Nothing else in his prior experience compared to the sensation of unity with his element—a sensation he now attained every time he practiced his routine. He became very keen on achieving that feeling as often as he could.

Soon, those two months of preparation were behind him, and he found himself back onstage with his coordinator and all the other contestants in the Lilycove contest hall. The vast audience before him was in the process of voting, and Solonn quickly found that he couldn’t help but wonder what they all thought of him. Consideration of this subject had come unbidden, but he made a conscious effort to dismiss it.

If you can just get past this part, he told himself, then in just a short while, you can get away from all of them…

The announcement that he’d received a sufficiently high rating from the audience to advance brought him a sense of relief and something else, as well: a mild but undeniable sort of eagerness. Soon he’d be alone on that stage, performing before that huge audience—but it would still be a chance to experience that incomparable unity with his element.

And they won’t be a part of that, he reminded himself as he went backstage with Morgan.

Solonn made a point not to watch any of the performances preceding his own this time, remembering well how doing so had only intimidated him before. They don’t matter, he thought resolutely. This is about something far beyond them.

Finally, the time had come. Solonn emerged onto the stage, trying as he took his place there to view it as merely a stop en route to the far better place he was about to go.

The lights went out. Nothing was visible to the crowd gathered within the auditorium except for two large, blue eyes glowing brightly from the center of the stage. Those eyes could still see the individual faces in the crowd quite well, more clearly than he had the time before…

They will not be part of this.

The music came alive. Very slowly, lights mounted in the stage turned on, shining pale blue beams on Solonn. Glistening within the glow, ice began rising in thin, vinelike shapes from the stage. They branched out and twisted as they grew slowly but steadily upward, swaying and flicking at the air in time with the music.

The many branches of the seemingly living ice curled downward and inward toward their maker and joined together beneath his hovering body, forming a cradle of sorts. It began to ascend, lifting Solonn toward the ceiling.

Meanwhile, more branches extended outward from the cradle to dance around him, then transformed into seven long, thin needles. Atop each of them, ice formed in the shape of a diamond.

Solonn rose slowly from the ice along with the song’s building crescendo. A protect aura bloomed around him as he lifted himself ever higher, surrounding himself with a deep blue glow. At the apex of his ascent, his eyes suddenly blazed with a surge of white light—and so did the diamonds of ice, which exploded one by one in time with the music in sparkling bursts of frozen mist.

As the glow of the protect aura faded, Solonn descended to the stage once more, the ice beneath him gradually dissipating. The music worked itself into a frenzy soon after, and accordingly, Solonn summoned a miniature storm. Blizzard, icy wind and powder snow rushed in a spiral around him, the blue stage lights strobing all the while.

Then the song abruptly ended, and Solonn’s performance did likewise. The lights cut out; when they came back on a second later, there wasn’t a trace of ice or of snow to be found anywhere. Nothing remained of the wintry spectacle save for the glalie who’d made it happen.

Solonn looked out upon a silent audience as he hovered at the center of the stage, trembling a bit and breathing rather hard. Closing his eyes, he bowed deeply, inclining his face toward the floor. Then the audience erupted into applause—Solonn was grateful for their enthusiasm, but this was one moment when he kind of wished his evolution hadn’t enhanced his hearing. The judges approved of his routine, as well; his score was in the top two, meaning that he’d proceed to the third and final round along with just one other finalist.

Solonn momentarily returned to his great ball for a trip to the rejuvenation machine backstage. Second-round performances usually took quite a bit out of a pokémon, and Solonn’s performance was no exception—without rejuvenation, he certainly wouldn’t have the strength to perform well enough in the final round’s battle. Once both he and his opponent had taken their turn in the machine, the third round was ready to begin.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said, “we’ve seen quite a parade of truly skilled performers tonight. Now we’re down to the very best of the crop, the final two. Let’s hear it for Alex Rhodes and Kelly from Mauville and Morgan Yorke and Solonn from right here in Lilycove!”

The exuberant noise of the crowd filled the air as the finalists made their way onto the stage. Solonn took his place a couple of yards in front of Morgan and gazed across the stage at the opposing team, which consisted of a girl with long, blonde, braided hair and a golduck who was giggling to herself.

“The match will end when the clock runs out, when one pokémon’s points are entirely depleted, or when one pokémon is rendered unable to battle,” the announcer explained. “Without any further ado, let the final round begin!” With that, a loud tone rang out over the PA system, signaling the commencement of the battle.

“All right, Solonn. Let’s show them our icy wind/ice beam combo,” Morgan said.

“Then we’ll start with psybeam and water pulse!” Alex said.

Solonn summoned two of his ice-type abilities simultaneously. Charged with the pure elemental energy of the beam, the small, razor-edged ice particles contained within the icy wind took on a brilliant cyan glow as they rushed toward Kelly on a frigid gust.

Meanwhile, Kelly launched her own attack, continuing to giggle inexplicably as she did so. Her combination of psybeam and water pulse created a rainbow-hued ray through which glowing blue rings of water-type energy rippled.

Solonn’s attack turned out to be the stronger of the two, the result of both halves of his combination coming from his own element. The ice-type combo overtook Kelly’s attack and scattered its energies, foiling it. The shredding gale then assaulted Kelly herself. Being a water-type, she suffered very little from its charge of elemental energy, but the sharp edges of its icy shrapnel managed to tear shallow cuts all over the golduck’s body, making her squawk in pain.

Kelly’s points suffered as a result of the hit. The bar that represented them on the scoreboard shortened, albeit only slightly.

“Now, let’s take some defensive measures, shall we? Light screen, Solonn,” Morgan said.

“We’ll try our psybeam and water pulse combo again, then,” Alex said. “He’s sure to dislike it…”

A glowing pink force field rose around Solonn, enveloping him completely. At the same time, Kelly fired her psychic/water-type combination attack again, which lanced forth in a rush of psychedelic colors. Solonn’s psychic shield negated the water-type aspect of Kelly’s attack, but the psybeam at the combo’s core managed to penetrate the barrier. It struck him squarely between the eyes, its psychic-type energy drilling straight into his brain to try and addle his mind. Solonn snarled at the pain, shaking his head furiously to dispel the psychic assault. Confusion didn’t set in this time, but he and his points still took a hit.

“Okay, now give him a hydro pump!” Alex said enthusiastically.

“Uh-oh… you’d better protect, Solonn,” Morgan warned.

Still giggling, Kelly summoned one of the highest powers of her element. An intense, blue glow filled her eyes, and a thick, powerful jet of highly pressurized water suddenly surged forth from her open bill.

But just as the golduck launched her water-type assault, Solonn conjured a deep blue aura around himself. The hydro pump dissipated spectacularly on contact with the protect shield in a great burst of mist; the aura fell an instant later. Kelly’s point bar shortened further due to the utter failure of her attack.

Alex sighed. “Well, I was really hoping we wouldn’t have to resort to this, but it looks like you guys have left us little choice. Attract, Kelly!”

“What? Ah, no… protect, Solonn! Hurry!” Morgan urged. It was a gamble; she knew a protect aura couldn’t always be counted on to form more than once in succession. But there was simply no other hope for Solonn to avoid Kelly’s technique.

Solonn tried to bring the shield back, and for a fleeting moment, he seemed to have succeeded. But the aura was gone a split-second later, leaving Solonn with no form of defense between him and Kelly, the latter of whom was now surrounded by a rose-colored glow. With a sweeping motion of her arms, the pink light rolled off in a wave that washed swiftly and inescapably over Solonn.

All at once, he was rather appalled at himself. Good gods, have I seriously been attacking that? How could I have even considered doing harm to such a beautiful creature? How could anyone? A very cheesy smile crept across his face as he surveyed Kelly from across the stage. Look at her, over there… so elegant… so exotic… those eyes… that tail!

Morgan cast an uneasy glance at the scoreboard as Solonn’s points suffered from both his failed protect technique and his succumbing to Kelly’s attract. “Solonn!” Morgan shouted. “Listen to me: you’ve got to keep your head! She doesn’t love you, and you don’t really love her. It’s just a trick! Now, quickly, hit her with a blizzard/icy wind combo before she can attack again!”

Solonn ignored Morgan’s instructions, simply refusing to attack the suddenly attractive golduck on the other side of the stage. Kelly, meanwhile, was giggling her brains out more than ever. It was a wonder that she even heard her coordinator’s next command, which was to blast Solonn with a hydro pump while he was still dopily goggling at her. But she heard indeed, and she didn’t hesitate for even a second to attack her infatuated opponent.

The water-type blast came hurtling toward Solonn. Oh, how pretty… he remarked silently and vacantly as it approached…

With a loud crash and a veritable explosion of water on impact, the hydro pump blasted Solonn with such force that he was nearly sent flying on a collision course with his coordinator. Solonn’s points decreased greatly—they were now perilously low.

Righting himself with some difficulty, Solonn gasped wildly for air in the wake of the hydro pump. In the next instant, the light screen he’d summoned finally faded away. If it hadn’t been there when the hydro pump had struck, Solonn might not have been able to get back up afterward.

Hey… that wasn’t very nice… Solonn thought dazedly as he fought to catch his breath. I thought she liked me! He decided to go over to Kelly and ask her why she’d done that.

“No, Solonn, don’t get closer!” Morgan tried to warn him. “That’ll just make it easier for her to blast you!”

No way! She’d never blast me! Solonn objected internally; somehow he’d forgotten that Kelly had done just that mere moments ago. She loves me!

And then something clicked in his brain: Wait… no, she doesn’t…

“All right, Kelly, let’s finish him off now,” Alex called out, sounding very pleased with the current situation. “Surf!”

“Come on, Solonn!” Morgan urged. “Cut through her tricks and give her a blizzard/ice beam combo! Come on, I know you can snap out of it!”

As it so happened, Solonn already had.

Kelly’s giggles escalated into a sharp, triumphant quack of a laugh. She closed her eyes, then clasped her hands together and lifted them toward the ceiling. There was a brief, blue shimmer of water-type energy at her feet, followed by a pillar of water that began to rise from the stage beneath her. She inhaled deeply just before it engulfed her. The pillar lifted her from the stage and up through itself as it rose, ready to surge forth at any instant. Even as Kelly still rose up through the wave toward the position in which she’d ride it over her opponent, the summoned wall of water suddenly lurched forward toward its target.

Solonn’s eyes blazed with bluish-white light as his gaze fixed itself firmly on the burgeoning wave. As the water surged toward him, he threw his jaws wide open, and a narrow, highly concentrated blast of wind, ice, and snow exploded forth with raw ice-type energy crackling through it like lightning.

The combination attack roared as it rushed through the air, intercepting Kelly’s attack swiftly. With a series of cracking sounds, the ice-type blast froze the summoned wave around the golduck. Only the spiked crown of feathers atop her head had crested the wave before the water had frozen; not desiring to smother Kelly, Solonn quickly shifted the part of the frozen wave that surrounded her into a hollow sphere around her.

“Oh crap! Kelly, you’ve got to get out of there!” Alex cried.

Kelly was already trying to escape her icy prison. She clawed frantically at the frozen walls with fury swipes, but the surrounding ice was just too thick to succumb very readily to her claws. She fired a psybeam at the ice, but much of the psychic-type energy dissipated against the frozen barrier, while the rest just passed inconsequentially through it.

Panicking, the golduck desperately tried once more to claw her way out, tearing savagely at the sphere with all her might. The ice was finally starting to give way to her efforts, but not by much.

Meanwhile… there was only so much fresh air in that frozen prison, and Kelly was spending her oxygen quite swiftly through her struggles to free herself. Thus it was that in fairly short order, the golduck exhausted herself thoroughly and passed out. Seeing that she was out cold, Solonn sublimated the ice bubble that surrounded her, then slowly dissipated the pillar of frozen water beneath her, gently lowering her to the stage below.

A loud buzzer sounded, and a large, red “X” appeared over Kelly’s picture on the scoreboard. Solonn had won the final round—and just in time, too. The clock had nearly run out for the match, and despite the points Kelly had lost when her own attack had been turned against her, Solonn’s score had still been lower. If Kelly hadn’t fainted before the timer could hit zero, she would have won.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” the announcer said in an exuberant voice. “Please give a great, big, hearty round of applause for the winners of the Lilycove normal rank beauty contest, Morgan Yorke and Solonn!”

The lights in the auditorium blazed into vibrant colors, and showers of confetti began falling from the ceiling. A great surge of noise rose up from the audience, many of whom stood as they applauded and cheered.

A shriek of delight sounded behind Solonn, making him wince slightly. Its source then tackled him in a joyous semi-embrace; Morgan was hardly fazed by the fact that her arms barely encircled him at all.

After recalling Kelly, Alex rushed across the stage to shake her opponent’s hand, looking impressed. A moment later, the short, mustached head judge approached Solonn and the two coordinators, then handed the normal rank beauty ribbon to Morgan.

Good, the glalie thought as he gratefully lowered his weary body to the stage, good. One down, three to go…

 

Chapter Text

Having earned the normal rank beauty ribbon, Solonn’s next goal was to obtain the super rank ribbon. The next super rank contest was slated for the fourteenth of November. Solonn lamented the amount of time that separated him from his next trip to the contest hall, but he also recognized its value. He’d have even more time to rehearse than he’d had prior to his last contest, and he was sure he’d need it in order to compete to the higher standard demanded by his higher rank.

Though he’d have more time to prepare for this contest, he’d have less time to train with his coordinator. It was now early September, and a new school year had begun, leaving Morgan with less time to spend at home. Morgan wasn’t the only one spending hours at school each day; Eliza was a teacher at one of the local elementary schools.

As such, Solonn was left home alone for several hours on end nearly every day. Even Morgan’s other pokémon weren’t around to keep him company; most of them preferred to remain in their capture balls at nearly all times, for whatever reason. Sei didn’t, but she preferred to go out into the city while the humans were away, doing gods only knew what.

Not that Solonn exactly minded the solitude. He readily made use of the quiet time to meditate upon his connection to his element, which in turn helped him conceive and practice new ice displays. Solonn quickly grew to treasure these hours alone, time that belonged strictly to himself and his element. The only thing he could think of that would make these sessions better was if he could operate Morgan’s stereo.

One Tuesday morning, Solonn began another of these sessions, initiating a ritual that now preceded each rehearsal. He was about to enter the meditative state that would allow him to quickly achieve a very strong and deep connection with his element… but then he heard something moving in the grass just beyond the fence. Solonn would’ve normally dismissed the sound, but the one that followed—a puzzled vocalization of some sort—made it hard to ignore.

He kept listening and caught an odd scrabbling noise—There’s something climbing the fence… he knew at once, but couldn’t even begin to guess what that something might be.

A second later, the mystery solved itself. Solonn was now staring into the huge, crystalline eyes of a sableye who now sat upon the fence. He cocked his head at Solonn as if puzzled.

“Who’re you?” the sableye asked in a perky, slightly rasping voice.

Solonn gave the sableye a bemused look. “I could ask you the same.”

The sableye chuckled weirdly, giving no other response to Solonn’s retort. He then sprang from the fence and onto the sitrus tree, clinging to the bark with sprawled limbs. He scrabbled up the trunk and sat upon one of its branches, letting his short legs dangle off the side.

Solonn couldn’t even begin to figure out what in the world the little creature was up to, but quickly decided he had better things to do than bother with the sableye. He closed his eyes and commenced his meditation, determined to pay no mind to the presence perched above. He might have succeeded in this endeavor if it weren’t for the overripe sitrus berry that burst against the top of his head a second later.

Solonn turned a flat, annoyed glare upward. The sableye above him was grinning, showing an incredible number of tiny, pointed teeth. “What do you want, exactly?” Solonn demanded.

The sableye stared down at Solonn for several moments with his brow furrowed, feigning deep thought. “I think I want to throw more fruit at you,” he replied finally. With a faint whoosh, the sableye turned to smoke and shadows, then vanished in a feint attack. There was a bit of rustling amidst the branches before the sableye reappeared on the branch above Solonn, both arms laden with more sitrus berries. He started throwing them at Solonn but gave up after the first pair of them collided in vain with the glalie’s deep blue protect aura.

“You’re no fun,” the sableye pouted. He clambered down the tree trunk and sat down next to Solonn, drumming his fingers on the ground for a brief while. Then he began poking Solonn in the side, prodding at the gaps in the glalie’s armor.

With an exasperated sigh, Solonn turned to face him. “Could you leave me alone, please?”

The sableye left Solonn alone—for about five seconds. Then he gave an exaggerated groan of boredom. A second later, he climbed back up the tree. He hung upside-down from a branch for a moment, then dropped down right onto the glalie’s head.

Solonn tried very hard to ignore the sableye, who was now dancing on top of his head. There is something wrong with that creature’s mind. As far as he was aware, people typically didn’t just enter someone’s personal space and begin pestering them with no explanation.

“Is there any reason why you need to be doing this to me?” Solonn asked, somehow managing to keep most of his impatience out of his tone.

“Hm? No, not really,” the sableye answered airily. He continued skittering around on Solonn’s head for a few moments, then crawled headfirst down the glalie’s forehead and lowered his face between Solonn’s eyes, grinning. “Hi.”

“Go away, please,” Solonn said.

The sableye shook his head solemnly and began staring right into the glalie’s eyes—and then recoiled, pulling his head back as though something had just taken a swipe at it. His faceted eyes flashed; he’d have been blinking in surprise if he’d had eyelids.

“Hmmm…” the sableye said as he brought his face even closer to Solonn’s.

“What in the name of all gods are you doing now?”

“I’m seeing you in a whole new way…” the sableye said, trying to sound mystical. “Hmmm… very interesting. Very interesting, indeed…”

“Are you quite finished bothering me?” Solonn asked.

The sableye took a moment to consider the question. “Almost,” he responded. Then he planted a very juicy kiss right on the diamond-shaped patch of bare hide in the middle of Solonn’s forehead. With that, he sprang off of the glalie’s head and into the grass, then turned and gave Solonn a Cheshire grin. “Buh-bye!” he said cheerfully, then scampered off across the lawn, scaled the fence, and disappeared over the side.

Supremely baffled by what had just happened, Solonn breathed a sigh of relief now that the sableye had left the scene. Stop trying to make sense of him, Solonn advised himself. You’ll only end up giving yourself a headache. Giving the sableye no further thought, Solonn finally, gratefully resumed his session.

 

* * *

 

The sableye hurried through the alleyways of Lilycove, anxious to get home as quickly as possible—he’d made quite the discovery while pestering that oversized glalie. The sableye’s eyes held an peculiar sort of sight; if he looked hard enough, it showed him more than a person’s appearance—it could also show him secrets. Among the glalie’s, there was one in particular that was especially remarkable, and the sableye knew he wasn’t the only one who’d take interest in it.

In no time at all, he arrived at a modest brick house, a place he’d called home for only the past few days. He hurried up the walkway, pausing at the front door. Initiating a feint attack, he felt a momentary tingling of dark-type energy all throughout him before it swept him into a quick transformation. His body changed into shadowy wisps of black vapor before disappearing altogether. He reappeared inside the house, solidifying on the other side of the door.

Once indoors, the sableye started screeching excitedly to alert another resident of the house of his arrival. Soon, a male human picked his way swiftly but carefully through an adjacent hallway and into the living room, dodging scattered cardboard boxes full of things he still hadn’t unpacked. He’d only just emerged from the shower; his slightly long, auburn hair was still sopping wet, and he’d only bothered to throw on a pair of boxers before going to greet his pokémon.

“Hey, Xi,” he said. “Back kind of early today, aren’t you? Are you feeling all right?”

<I’m okay, Daron!> Xi cheerfully assured the human, employing the telepathic skills he’d inherited from his gastly father. He chuckled effervescently, his multitude of pointed teeth flashing in another of his enormous grins. <I just found something really neat, and I just couldn’t wait to tell you about it! Oh, you won’t believe it!>

“Heh. Is that right?” Daron said as he crossed the living room to the front door and scooped his pokémon up into his arms. He carried Xi to the sofa and sat down. “So what’d you find, hmm?”

Xi chuckled again. <You might not believe me if I just told you… I have to show you instead…> Xi told Daron, gesticulating dramatically and using the telepathic version of his “mystical” voice.

Daron sighed. “Ah, that’s never pleasant… but, if you insist…” He lifted Xi up to eye-level. The sableye beamed at him, then pressed his palms against Daron’s temples. Daron braced himself, forcing himself to stare unwaveringly right into Xi’s crystalline eyes. Those eyes lit up from within, and a sudden, painful jolt lanced into Daron’s head as Xi’s most recent memories rushed into his brain.

Almost as soon as the memory transfer had begun, it was finished. Xi let go of his trainer’s head, and Daron made a sound halfway between a sigh and a groan as he set the sableye down on the sofa cushion beside him, grateful that the process was quick, at least.

Xi grinned up at his human companion. Daron returned the sableye’s gaze with a positively awestruck expression, his eyes wide and staring.

“You did it…” Daron said. “I don’t believe it… less than a week on the job, and already you’ve hit pay dirt!” He laughed in sheer amazement and pride. “Great work, Xi!”

Xi gave a squeal of delight. <I knew you’d like it!> he exclaimed while cheerfully applauding himself for his discovery.

“Oh, I’m not the only one who’ll like it,” Daron said. “I’m gonna go call him right now,” he added. He got up and made his way into the kitchen, retrieving the cell phone that he’d left on the counter and immediately placing a call he’d thought he might never get to make.

“Mr. Saller?” a kindly-sounding, elderly man’s voice answered within seconds. “What a pleasant surprise to hear from you, my boy! Have you quite settled in to your new home yet?”

“Getting there,” Daron replied. “I’ve still got a bit of unpacking to do, I’ll admit, but I’ve gotten pretty accustomed to this place already. Xi and Cleo love it here,” he added.

“Oh good, good!” the voice on the phone responded. “So, tell me, my boy. What’s the occasion for this conversation, hmm?”

Daron smiled. “You might want to make sure you’re sitting down, sir.” He took a deep breath, then announced, “We’ve found one.”

Not a word issued from the receiver for a long moment. “…You’re quite certain?” the old man finally asked.

“One hundred percent,” Daron said with confidence. “Xi’s eyes don’t lie, and he showed me exactly what they showed him.”

“Well, he’ll need to show me, as well. Can’t be certain any other way, after all, and we mustn’t move ahead until we are indeed certain,” the old man said. “You can transfer him here from the pokémon center.”

“Will do, sir,” Daron assured him.

“Good, good…” The old man sighed happily. “It’s a wondrous thing, my boy, to see our goals coming to fruition so soon…”

“It sure is,” Daron concurred, nodding.

“Well, then,” the old man said crisply, “once I’ve had my meeting with Mr. Xi, we’ll discuss our further course of action. Be on standby, my boy.”

“No problem, sir… And the authorities?”

“A non-issue, as I stated during our first meeting,” the voice on the phone assured him. “You need only concern yourself with the task at hand. See to it that everything is carried out without a hitch, and both you and your partners will be handsomely rewarded.”

“You can count on us,” Daron said coolly, and then the old man hung up.

 

* * *

 

Eight days had passed since the sableye’s visit. Thankfully, the sableye hadn’t returned since, leaving Solonn free to practice his art without any disturbances.

At his summons, twin spires of ice extended toward the heavens, catching the sun’s rays with a brilliant sparkle. They began a sinuous dance while their choreographer watched them, smiling serenely.

“That’s very pretty,” said an unexpected, monotone voice from above.

Surprised, Solonn looked up. A venomoth hovered overhead, scattering a small quantity of fine powder into the air with every flap of her wings.

Another unexpected guest, Solonn thought, looking up at her somewhat warily. He could only hope this visitor wouldn’t give him the same sort of company the previous one had. “Er… thank you,” he said a bit awkwardly. He moved out from under the venomoth; the powder falling from her wings was beginning to irritate his eyes.

“Sorry to interrupt your performance,” the venomoth said, “but I was sent to give you something.”

The venomoth gave no further explanation for her next actions. Her wings made a dramatic shift from lavender to baby blue, and with a single, powerful flap, they tossed a cloud of pale blue sleep powder on a swift gust of wind at Solonn.

Taken by surprise, Solonn failed to do anything to avoid the attack and inhaled some of its dust before he could stop himself. He tried to retaliate at once, but his ice beam missed its mark; his eyelids had closed irresistibly just before he could aim it. He dropped to the ground, swallowed up in a profoundly deep sleep.

There was a faint rushing sound, and a mass of black vapors formed out of thin air just outside the back door. Xi now stood in the backyard, clutching a great ball in his hands. His faceted eyes found the sleeping glalie, and he broke into a grin. “You did it, Cleo!” he congratulated the venomoth, happily scampering across the lawn to join her.

Cleo glanced down at the capture ball that Xi held. “Are you sure that’s the right one?” she asked.

“Uh-huh. I checked them all. This is the one!” the sableye answered with confidence; he’d scanned each of the capture balls and thereby found the digital signature marking this one as the glalie’s.

“And are you sure you know how to use that?”

“Uh, yeah,” Xi said a little crossly. With a exaggeratedly demonstrative air, he aimed the capture ball’s lens at the sleeping glalie and recalled him into the device. “See? I told you I could do it,” the sableye said triumphantly. Cleo just rolled her eyes at him.

“Okay! We got what we came for,” Xi said. “Let’s go!” With the great ball clutched tightly in his hand, he quickly scampered up and over the fence and departed the scene in gleeful haste, with Cleo winging her way close behind him.

Chapter Text

Roughly three hours later, Solonn awoke at last, his eyes opening with something of a delay. Almost immediately, he realized he had no idea where he was. He was in the middle of a somewhat large, high-ceilinged, and presently rather dark room. The place was quite bare; there were no furnishings around him, and only a couple of scattered, human-made objects strewn about suggested that this place actually belonged to anyone. As far as Solonn could tell, he was presently alone.

He didn’t know what this place was or why he’d been taken here, but he was quite sure he didn’t want to stay to find out. He promptly ascended from the ground, his last traces of drowsiness burned away by an urge to get out of there as soon as possible. His gaze swept the room in search of an exit and found a door in the wall to his left, near the back of the room. It was plainly too narrow to admit him, but Solonn wasn’t going to let that stop him.

Without a second’s hesitation, he lowered his massive, horned head, ready to ram the door down and burst through its frame. With a surge of speed, he charged toward the exit—but some unseen barrier unexpectedly caught him short and sent him reeling back violently. Partly stunned and taken utterly by surprise by the recoil, he wildly overcompensated in his efforts to regain control of himself. He lost hold of his equilibrium entirely and ended up crashing face-first into the wooden floor, the boards beneath him splitting on impact.

Solonn hissed and snarled in pain as red and white flashes played across the inner surfaces of his eyes and a shrill whine rang within his ears. He lay face down for a moment, wondering what in the world had just happened. Ignoring the throbbing in his head and the dizziness that came along with it, he lifted himself back up from the floor. He stared hard into the empty air before him as if he could will the barrier to appear, but saw no signs of it or its source.

This phenomenon baffled Solonn, but he was determined to figure it out. He knew he had to overcome this obstacle to escape from this place, from the ones who’d brought him here, and from whatever their intentions for him were. He approached the invisible barrier slowly and carefully, mindful of the recoil it had given him when he’d charged it at full speed. He soon found it and felt it firmly resisting him as he pushed against it.

Closing his eyes in determination, he slowly increased the pressure that he placed on the force field. He gradually entrusted every ounce of his considerable weight to it, exerting it upon the barrier with all his strength. But no matter how he hard he pressed, the barrier wouldn’t yield to him. Still, he kept trying, despite how it worsened his headache.

Then the force that held him at bay abruptly stopped resisting him altogether, causing him to pitch forward and fall onto his face again. He shouted a muffled oath into the floorboards as the pain in his head spiked sharply.

He heard a sound then: quickly-approaching, human-sounding footsteps moving toward him from behind. He suspected it was someone involved with his abduction and detainment, probably coming to subdue him after hearing the commotion he’d caused. Certain that he couldn’t get away from whomever was approaching in time, he prepared to fight his captor off. Growling a warning deep in his throat, he rose and turned to face—and to strike—whomever had just arrived.

But Solonn caught himself short of attacking when his eyes fell upon the newly-arrived human, and he let the elemental energy that he’d gathered for his intended ice beam dissipate harmlessly. Standing there a couple of yards before him was none other than Morgan, breathing hard and casting furtive glances about herself every few seconds. Solonn noted at once how badly disheveled she looked: her skin was drenched with sweat, her hair was mussed, and her eyes were swollen and bloodshot as if she’d just spent an hour or two crying. She was carrying a hammer that wobbled as her shoulders heaved; it looked ready to drop to the floor at any second.

“Oh, thank God I found you…” Morgan said almost voicelessly. “Now try to move toward me.”

Still fairly dumbfounded, Solonn did as she requested. Nothing pushed back against him as he approached her; the force field had fallen.

“It’s gone,” he noted aloud as he came to hover before her. “Some kind of invisible barrier was holding me here—you stopped it somehow, didn’t you?” Solonn asked. Morgan nodded. “Do you know what it was, exactly?” he asked.

“It was a mean look,” Morgan said hoarsely. “I found a sableye right out there.” She pointed at the thick, maroon curtain hanging at the front of the room; Solonn had assumed it was another wall, but now recognized that someone could just push it out of the way and pass right through. “He was using that technique to keep you within a certain distance of him—until I hit him in the head with this.” She raised the hammer, then let it fall to the floor. “He’s out cold now.”

A sableye… Solonn had told Morgan of the creature who’d paid him a visit eight days ago, and she’d told him just what that creature was. The image of the sableye flashed within his mind… and was closely followed by that of the venomoth who’d shown up that very morning and drugged him with sleep powder—another unexpected guest within such a short frame of time. It seemed like an awfully unlikely coincidence…

“Did you find anyone else here?” he asked Morgan. “A flying, purple pokémon, perhaps?”

Morgan shook her head. “No. I searched this whole place over. No one else here except that sableye… I didn’t find the rest of you here, either,” she added, her voice quieting considerably on those last nine words.

Solonn’s brow furrowed in sudden, troubled confusion. “The rest of… what? Morgan, what are you talking about?” he asked worriedly.

Morgan’s eyes closed, and she turned away. She opened her mouth to speak, but whatever words she’d had prepared caught in her throat. “I’ll explain soon,” she finally managed, then turned to face Solonn again. Her eyes were brimming with tears. “Let’s just get you out of here.”

Frowning in deep concern, Solonn nodded, then made for the curtain.

“No,” Morgan said, halting him. “That way just leads into another part of the building. We’ll go out this way.” She pointed toward the exit that Solonn had previously spotted. “That’ll take us outside.”

Solonn made his way over to the door, and Morgan followed. “You’re gonna have to smash the door down,” the human told him as they reached it. Having already figured as much, Solonn was already backing up for a charge. Once he’d put enough distance between himself and the door, he lowered his head (resigned to the certainty that this would reawaken his headache), then hurtled forward in a headbutt attack. The door exploded from its hinges as he crashed through it, its frame bursting apart.

Morgan quickly joined him outside. “Sit down just for a second,” she instructed him. “You’re much faster than I am—we can get out of here a lot quicker if you give me a ride.”

Solonn complied at once. As soon as he set himself down upon the grass, he felt Morgan clambering onto his back, using the gaps in his armor as handholds and footholds to climb up onto the top of his head.

Morgan situated herself there, sitting with her legs extended forward and her hands clutching his horns. She started shivering hard; noting this, Solonn made a more conscious effort to focus his elemental power and keep his coldness to himself.

“Okay,” Morgan said, “okay. I’m going to tell you which way to go… you just concentrate on moving as fast as you can. Now go! Hurry!”

Solonn set off in an instant, achieving his maximum velocity quickly. He worried that Morgan might fall off at this speed, but she seemed to hang onto him capably enough. While he’d expected her to have him hurry toward her house, she instead steered him into unknown territory, guiding him through a maze of alleyways barely wide enough to admit him.

Her directions eventually led Solonn out of those alleyways and then, unbeknownst to him, out of the city itself. He’d been rushing along at top speed for minutes now and was tiring—he shuddered to think how much worse he’d feel if he’d had to run this far. Morgan urged him to keep going, and he figured she probably had a good reason to flee so far from that theater. Preferring to be safe rather than sorry, he continued on, ignoring his body’s rising complaints.

Solonn and Morgan were now swiftly moving westward along a scenic, grassy route. Delicate-looking metal fences lined the path on either side. Some distance beyond the fence on the right, a large, flat building stood. The fence on the left provided the sole barrier between the road and a treacherous drop off of a sheer cliff toward a sparkling expanse of water. Even though he could only see the scene to the south out of the corner of his eye, Solonn was in awe of what he could glimpse of the waters and the mountain they embraced.

At length, this route gave way to a place teeming with trees and vast patches of tall grass. By this point, Solonn simply couldn’t go any further. It’s far enough… he figured, it has to be… Groaning, he sank to the ground, managing to resist the urge to roll over onto his back. He wasn’t about to risk casting Morgan off and possibly crushing her.

Morgan climbed off of him somewhat awkwardly. She sat down in the grass in front of him and promptly buried her face in her hands.

For a very long moment, Solonn sat silently, trying to catch his breath and ignore the fact that he ached everywhere. “What’s happened?” he finally asked, still practically wheezing.

Several seconds passed before Morgan gave any sort of response. Her face remained buried in her palms, her fingers knitting themselves fretfully into the hair that framed it.

“They’re gone,” she finally answered in barely more than a whisper.

“…What’s gone, Morgan?” Solonn asked softly, the edges of his voice frayed by rapidly-building dread.

“Not ‘what’, Solonn,” Morgan corrected him, her voice breaking. “Who.” Her shoulders started to shake uncontrollably, and then she gave a wrenching sob. “My other pokémon are gone. Stolen. All of them.”

The news struck Solonn like a hammer. “What?” He could have sworn that his heart had just stopped. “Oh good gods… When did you find out?” he demanded.

“A couple of hours ago,” Morgan answered miserably, still hiding her face. Tears were now streaming through her fingers. “I wasn’t feeling so good at school… really, really nauseous… and they excused me early. I came home, and you were gone, and all the others, too… they took the balls they were in and everything,” she sobbed.

Oth… Raze… Sei… Aaron… Brett… all those pokémon who’d become his good friends had been taken away, gods only knew where. As he thought about them, he became brutally aware of just how helpless they’d been in their capture balls—small, portable devices, easily carried off…

But not all of them had been so vulnerable… “What about Sei?” Solonn asked. “She was out of the house, wasn’t she?” The possibility of Sei still being free offered a ray of hope for the others—her psychic abilities could surely aid in locating them.

Morgan shook her head. “No, she wasn’t. Before I left, she said she was staying home… some marathon on TV…”

Solonn gave a low, sorrowful hiss. He hadn’t even noticed that Sei had been home all morning; he supposed he must have been too engrossed in his contest practice to be aware of her. “My gods…” he muttered. He almost feared to imagine what sort of abductors could have successfully subdued such a powerful psychic—he’d been beyond fortunate to have safely escaped from such dangerous captors.

But the others… A sickening, unbidden parade of the grim scenarios that might have befallen his friends ran through his mind.

“How did you manage to find me?” Solonn asked as soon as he could find the words.

Morgan took a very deep, shuddering breath, trying in vain to calm herself. She finally took her hands off her face, revealing her still-bloodshot eyes and tear-streaked cheeks. “When I found you all gone,” she started, having to pause to catch her breath in between sobs, “I called the police… they came and talked with me for a while…

“After that… I don’t know. I just started wandering—when I’m sad, I’ll just do that, just go for a walk—and then I saw this place with this sign in front…” Her face contorted into what was unmistakably a grimace of disgust. “‘See the Amazing Talking Glalie!’, it said.”

Solonn’s eyes widened dramatically, their light blazing. He hissed again, more sharply this time. “That’s what they took me for? Some kind of freak to show off?” he asked. Morgan nodded regretfully. “How… how could they possibly have found out?” he demanded.

“I don’t know!” Morgan blurted. “I sure didn’t tell anyone!”

Solonn winced. “Sorry… I wasn’t trying to accuse you…”

“Oh God…” Morgan’s tears began to fall even harder in a fresh surge. “No, I’m… I’m sure you weren’t…”

Solonn gave a long sigh. “It’s all right…” he muttered. With difficulty, he lifted himself from the ground, setting himself back down closer to Morgan. Burying her face in her hands once more, she leaned into him at once, her side against his—he wished at once that she hadn’t. He barely had any strength to keep his element at bay, and the human was shaking enough without him right up against her. But ultimately, Solonn had neither the heart to make her move nor the energy to move himself.

For minutes on end, they just sat there beside one another, neither saying a word. Nothing disturbed the silence save for the faint calls of distant seabirds. Even Morgan’s sobs had grown quiet, though they remained just as violent.

“Did you say that you called for help… for people who could possibly help find the others?” Solonn finally asked in the softest, most soothing tone he could manage at the moment, trying despite his own terrible worry to provide a calming, consoling presence for his friend.

“Mmm-hmm,” Morgan responded weakly.

“They might still set things right,” Solonn said, attempting to reassure himself as well as Morgan. “They might still find out who did this… they might still find the others.”

“God, I hope so… Do you know anything about the ones who took you?” Morgan asked. “Anything that might help the police find them?”

“Not really,” Solonn answered with a sigh. “Some sort of winged pokémon came and threw some kind of strange dust on me, and then I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was where you found me. I have no idea what happened in between—I know that creature couldn’t have worked alone, though. We know that sableye was involved, but there had to be others. I’m so sorry; I wish I knew more…”

“It’s okay,” Morgan muttered. “It’s not your fault. If anything… it’s probably mine.”

“What? Gods, no, you know better than that!” Solonn responded incredulously.

“Solonn, think about it. They probably came for you. Somehow, they found out about you, and then they took you so they could make money showing you off—and all the others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time…” Morgan turned her gaze briefly to the east, then closed her eyes. “I should have let you go when you first asked. Then none of this would be happening.”

Solonn closed his eyes. “Please, Morgan… don’t blame yourself. Please.” He opened his eyes once more and turned them upon her, their light dimmed by sorrow and weariness. “Besides,” he added guiltily, lowering his gaze, “I’m the one who told you not to take me back right away, remember? It was my idea.”

But Solonn’s words seemed useless; the look in Morgan’s eyes told all too clearly that she was not consoled and not convinced. “Doesn’t matter,” she said, almost voicelessly. She tried once more to steady herself with a deep breath, but to no avail. “I shouldn’t have kept you here. I guess there’s just no safe place for someone like you among humans. Solonn… I’m letting you go now.”

Solonn stared at her, dumbfounded. Part of him returned to the last time Morgan had offered to release him, that night when he’d revealed his talents to her. Though he’d come to know her quite well by this point and knew she’d never thought of him as a possession, he was still amazed somehow that she, the very creature who’d taken him from his home, would so willingly relinquish him. Twice, he thought to respond, but neither time did he have any clue what to say.

“Listen.” Morgan rose shakily to her feet, casting another glance eastward, then turned to face Solonn once more. With an obvious effort, she kept her gaze locked firmly into his eyes. “Since… since the others are gone…” she said with difficulty, “…well, I can’t have you teleported home, and there’s an ocean between here and there, so…” She swallowed hard, running a hand fretfully through her hair. “What you’re gonna have to do is just lie low for a while. I’m… I’m kind of scared for you to go back to Lilycove right now; the people who took you are still out there, and when they find out you got away…” She shook her head. “If they find you again, God knows what they’ll do.

“Just stay away from Lilycove for a week or two, just to be safe, and in the meantime, I’ll try to get a hold of someone who can get you home. I promise. Maybe… maybe the others will be found by then… then Sei or Ominous could take you. But if you find some way to get home on your own… go ahead and take it. Please. Don’t wait for me if you don’t have to.”

Still in disbelief, Solonn remained silent for several moments more before responding. “If you’re sure this is what you really want…” he began, uncertain. Morgan nodded almost imperceptibly. Solonn sighed in acquiescence. “All right,” he said quietly. “I’ll return to Lilycove after a few days. Until then,” he said with a solemn look straight into her eyes, “I want you to take care of yourself. You’re a good person, Morgan. You really are. I wouldn’t want to see anything happen to you.”

Morgan nodded again. “Okay,” she whispered, wiping the tears from her eyes as well as she could. She wrapped her arms around the glalie as far as they’d go in a long embrace, then let go and took several steps back from him. “Guess I’ll see you again soon, but if I don’t…” She shrugged feebly. “Goodbye, Solonn.”

“Goodbye,” Solonn echoed. He rose from the ground, ignoring his body’s protests, and bowed deeply.

“Stay safe,” Morgan said. With that, she turned and set off for the city in the east.

“You, too,” Solonn called after her, sinking back into the grass as he watched her go. He worried about Morgan, who’d been parted from so many dear friends in the blink of an eye. He feared even more for her other pokémon, whose fates remained unknown. There was no way of telling if things would be set right again for them. He could only hope they would.

 

* * *

 

Morgan returned home, listlessly casting the light jacket she was wearing onto a nearby chair as she passed through the living room. After such a long, difficult day, her mind was somewhat distant. Out of habit, she made her way straight to the back door, to the backyard where she’d shared so many hours with the glalie who’d become one of her best friends. A sickening pang struck her at once as the door opened upon the empty space near the sitrus tree where he should have been.

“Oh my God… Where is he?”

Chapter Text

Very tall, thick grass surrounded Solonn, swaying slowly in a light breeze. Beneath him, the grass was flattened; he’d tried to sleep there the night before, to no avail. There, he now sat under the pale pink morning sky, gazing out into the east. Though it was too far away for him to actually see, the city he’d fled stood there beneath the rising sun.

His abductors might have been combing Lilycove for him at that very moment. They might even have extended their search outside the city limits.

He didn’t know if his enemies were likely to find him before his allies could. Despite his worries, he still managed to hold on to some hope that Morgan could appear through the grass at any moment with the news that their friends were safe and she was ready to take him home.

These were precisely the sorts of thoughts that had kept Solonn awake all night. Countless times, his eyes had begun to close, only to immediately fly open again and dart about fretfully in search of anyone who might have been approaching him.

Solonn couldn’t recall having been so on edge in his life, and he wondered how he’d be able to sleep that night if he still hadn’t heard from Morgan or anyone else who could help him. He also wondered how he was going to feed himself at this point. While he’d lived with Morgan, she’d always provided for him. She’d given him that flavored snow to eat before he’d evolved, and afterward she’d given him specially-formulated pokémon food designed to meet the needs of a large carnivore without requiring them to do their own hunting.

Now, without Morgan to feed him, he had no choice but to take on his natural role as an active predator. Solonn was anything but eager to go through with it. His hunger was steadily growing, but through minute after minute, hour after hour, he’d ignored its pleas. He was determined to continue doing so for as long as he could.

He began to wonder just how long he could go without food. Morgan had always fed him twice a day. He didn’t know how frequently the glalie back in Virc-Dho hunted; they didn’t discuss such matters with snorunt.

Solonn suspected this was so that the snorunt would be able to accept the instincts that came with evolution without any prior misgivings about predation in the way. He’d had those misgivings precisely ever since learning that glalie were carnivores. Still, the instincts were there inside him, as much a part of him as of any other glalie. He tried ignoring them, but they remained stubbornly in place, waiting for his inevitable surrender.

He winced slightly at yet another pang of hunger. Morgan had fed him prior to leaving for school the day before, and he hadn’t had anything since. Though he’d looked forward to the day when he’d regain his independence, the fact of the matter was that he’d fallen into the habits of a human’s pokémon. He’d become unused to fending for himself, and he certainly wasn’t prepared for anything along the lines of “roughing it”.

A brief rustling in the grass alerted Solonn to a newly-arrived presence not too far away. He turned and saw the glow of the newcomer’s body heat, which seemed to flicker as it shone between the swaying blades of grass. Something stirred in the back of his mind, trying to persuade him to see the solution that lay in this discovery.

Take them, it seemed to say. Take them and know relief.

Solonn paid no mind to it, closing his eyes and turning away from the creature. He silently reminded himself that whatever the creature was, they were not prey. Still, his instincts pleaded their case, but still, Solonn managed to tune them out, even as they seemed to emphasize their point by sending another hunger pang down into his belly.

I’m not doing it, he argued, gritting his teeth. Good gods, I’m not starving to death yet…

His physical demands wouldn’t be silenced, however, and they presented yet another unbidden argument: You’d better get used to this—it’s how you’ll be feeding yourself for the rest of your life. There aren’t going to be any humans around to feed you when you get back to Virc-Dho.

Solonn sighed in resignation. There was the undeniable truth of the matter: his independent survival required him to embrace his predatory nature. There’d be no processed pokémon food where he was going. There would only be prey—lives he’d have to end for the sake of his own. He knew he’d ultimately have to accept it. But he couldn’t imagine ever liking it.

With considerable reluctance, he turned back toward his would-be prey, rose from the ground, and began moving in their direction. The creature had drawn closer to him since he’d last looked toward them, as if oblivious to his presence; even moving at minimal speed, Solonn would be upon them swiftly.

As Solonn approached, he called upon his element, summoning ice to hold the prey in place and prevent their escape. The hapless creature started screaming at once, their voice shrill and surprisingly loud to be coming from such a tiny throat and tiny lungs.

Solonn tried to shut out the cries, but his keen hearing allowed him no such refuge. Struggling to steel himself for the task that lay ahead, he pushed his way through the grass separating him from his prey and looked upon them directly for the first time.

There, with ice encasing her legs and tail, a female zigzagoon screamed again and again. Seeing the huge face of her captor looming before her had only heightened her terror. Her head thrashed and her spine arched as she fought to free herself, but her struggles were useless—in truth, she knew this just as well as Solonn did. Closing her eyes, she fearfully awaited her imminent demise.

Solonn could almost taste his prey’s fear on the air as he prepared to deliver the killing strike. She’d freeze solid in an instant. She wouldn’t have time to suffer. He just needed to tap into that power, and the deed would be done…

He hissed and wrenched himself away from her. He couldn’t do it. He just couldn’t. You should’ve just taken her out when you first noticed her. You shouldn’t have looked at her first.

Solonn looked back at the zigzagoon, whose features were contorted almost grotesquely in mortal terror. His throat constricted, and his stomach went sour, extinguishing his appetite. With a hiss of disgust, he instantly vaporized the ice holding the zigzagoon in place.

After a second’s delay, she dared to open her eyes. She stared up at Solonn with a wild gaze, paralyzed with fear and confusion.

“Go,” Solonn said abruptly. “Just go.”

The zigzagoon remained rooted to the spot, fixed in place by disbelief. Her jaw worked almost imperceptibly, as if she were trying to speak.

Solonn didn’t wait for her to pull her words together. “Go!” he shouted, darting at her to emphasize his point. With a squeak of fright, the zigzagoon scrambled away as fast as she could, with not a single glance behind her.

Solonn sank wearily to the ground, more than a little disgusted with himself. Gods’ mercies, you almost killed that poor creature… He shuddered as he thought of what would have happened if his reluctance hadn’t gotten the better of him.

“Well, that was certainly magnanimous of you,” said a jovial and utterly unexpected voice.

Quite startled in his rather compromised state, Solonn spun around instantly to face its source. He found a swellow hovering in midair before him, his beating wings stirring the grass below. Solonn wondered how this creature had managed to sneak up on him.

The swellow landed, pushing the tall grass out of his face with his wings. “You know, ordinarily I might hesitate to stop and chat with an ice-type such as yourself, but given what I’ve just witnessed here, I’d dare assume yours to be safe company,” he said, then bowed. “Do allow me to introduce myself. I am the swellow Jal’tai. And you are…?”

Still slightly bewildered by the pokémon who’d appeared in his midst so suddenly, Solonn responded with a bit of a delay. “Solonn Zgil-Al,” he introduced himself; then, after a short pause, he added, “the—”

“Oh, I know, I know,” Jal’tai interrupted with a chuckle. “You don’t need to tell me what you are, Mr. Zgil-Al. There’s no mistaking a glalie for anything else once you’ve seen one. So, then. I haven’t seen you around these parts before. Have you only recently relocated here?”

“I guess you could say that,” Solonn replied. “I mean, I haven’t exactly moved here permanently…” The swellow cocked his head inquisitively. Solonn hesitated at first to elaborate, but then reckoned it was safe as long as he didn’t give away too many details. “I’ve just escaped from human kidnappers in Lilycove,” he told the swellow. “I’m just lying low in this area until I can find some way to get back where I came from, across the sea.”

“Oh my… that must have been harrowing,” Jal’tai remarked, sounding both astounded and pitying. “Thank goodness you escaped, then. Say… if you need a place to stay, I know an excellent candidate.” He took on a rather grand pose, puffing out his feathered chest. “I don’t reside in this area, either; I just like to come here every now and again for a break from all the hustle and bustle back home. I come from a city in the west, and it’s the greatest city in the world, in my opinion. And I’d bet anything you’d agree with me, given the chance to see it with your own eyes! You could stay safe from your pursuers there, and in far more comfortable conditions than you’ll find out here. Plus, I’m certain you’d find a means to cross the sea there—that is, if you’ll want to leave!” the swellow added with another chuckle. “So, what do you say, hmm? Can I tempt you with a stay in my beloved city?”

Solonn eyed him somewhat skeptically. “That’s a very nice offer, but… well, I’d really rather not enter another human city if I can avoid it—that is what you’re talking about, isn’t it?”

Jal’tai blinked in surprise, then burst out into crowing laughter. “No, no! It’s not a human city, I assure you. You’d realize that very swiftly if you saw it for yourself. Oh, you’d be amazed at the things it has to show you…”

Solonn considered the swellow’s offer. Moving farther into the west, and thus farther from Lilycove, would keep him farther from the reach of his abductors. And the locals probably wouldn’t mind sharing their food with him as well as their shelter; he could already feel the relief of being spared the need to hunt for a while.

But at the same time, he couldn’t help but think of Morgan and her promise to return if she found a way to take him back to Virc-Dho. He didn’t want to discard all of his faith in her. And in all honesty, he still hoped to see her and her pokémon one last time, and preferably under happy circumstances. He wanted to bid them a proper farewell—the one they all deserved for treating him so well.

He hadn’t forgotten what else Morgan had said, though. She’d expressly told him that if he found another means to return home before she did, then he should take it. Solonn questioned whether or not this was truly what she wanted—would she really want to give up the chance to see him one last time?

But in the end, he decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. This was what she’d said she wanted. The least he could do was believe her.

“All right,” he said finally.

“Ah, excellent!” Jal’tai said, sounding supremely delighted. “Come, then, follow me!” With a powerful flap of his wings, Jal’tai took to the air, sending the grass below him into a frenzied dance as he set off very swiftly toward the west.

Solonn sighed wearily; the evening before had been quite taxing and his body still wasn’t quite ready to hurry anywhere. “Jal’tai? Excuse me, could you slow down a bit?” he called after the swellow as he struggled to keep the pace.

“Oh, of course!” the swellow responded, and slowed down significantly. “Terribly sorry about that. I just simply can’t wait to show you my city…”

As Solonn followed Jal’tai, he found the tall grass thinning, eventually disappearing altogether. Conversely, the trees were becoming denser and more plentiful as he continued westward. Soon, Solonn found himself in a true forest—and a bit of inconvenience.

“Jal’tai! Wait!” he shouted. Jal’tai had slowed down even further now that there wasn’t enough space for him to fly. Solonn would’ve had no problem keeping up with him if it weren’t for the fact that he was forced to pick his way between the trees that grew far enough apart to admit him.

Jal’tai halted and turned. There was a smile playing about his eyes that suggested he was holding back an urge to laugh. “I apologize on the trees’ behalf,” he said, the tiniest of chuckles managing to break through.

Solonn gave Jal’tai a dull glare, then continued trying to escape from the forest. “I do hope this ‘city’ of yours isn’t so—” He broke into a snarl as a branch on one of the trees he was squeezing past swatted him just below his left eye. “—infested with trees…”

“Oh heavens, no. The forest had to be cleared in that area before the city could be built—a necessary evil, I’m afraid, but I daresay it’s come to give more to the area than it’s taken. Anyway, you won’t have to suffer the vegetation much longer. We’re nearly there.”

This came as a surprise to Solonn; the only thing they seemed to be getting any closer to was another several acres of dense forest. Managing at last to catch up with Jal’tai after coming across a relatively sparse section of the forest, Solonn started looking about for signs of Jal’tai’s city, but still saw nothing but trees.

Halt!” two voices shouted in unison. In nearly the same instant, a pair of stantler jumped out in front of Solonn and Jal’tai from behind two of the trees, landing gracefully on their dainty hooves. The stantler glared at them for a moment, lowering their golden antlers menacingly—then abruptly raised their heads once more and took a step back, looking alarmed.

“Oh! We… we didn’t realize it was you!” one of the stantler said.

“We’re so sorry… really, we are… very sorry…” the other one rambled.

“Well, that is why it’s wise to always look before you leap, now isn’t it?” Jal’tai said pleasantly.

The two stantler nodded. “Can… can you forgive us?” one of them asked.

Jal’tai gave a chuckle and a dismissive wave of his wing. “Oh, of course, of course,” he said. “No harm done at all. Now, why don’t you fellows let us in and then see about having someone else finish your shifts, all right? It doesn’t do to work too long; it’s absolutely murder on the nerves, as we’ve seen quite clearly.”

“Yes, yes, of course…” one of the stantler muttered. His eyes drifted from Jal’tai to Solonn, and the other stantler’s gaze followed. It was as if they’d actually failed to notice the large glalie hovering there up to that point.

“Yes, he’s with me. You know I wouldn’t let just any of them in,” Jal’tai said.

Both stantler hesitated for one last moment. Then they gave another quick nod and stepped aside.

“Thank you kindly,” Jal’tai said warmly, bowing his head as he passed between the two guards. “Right this way,” he said to Solonn, beckoning with his wing. “It’s right through here.”

“Where?” Solonn asked as he moved forward alongside Jal’tai. “I don’t see—”

The glalie was instantly stricken silent by the sight that had spontaneously appeared before him. All at once, the endless forest ahead of them was replaced by a thoroughly modern city. He could see the sky again; the only trees in sight lined the streets in neat rows and stood here and there in people’s yards. A few of the city’s inhabitants, varying in species, were strolling along the sidewalks or milling about in the lawns or on street corners. Every now and then, a vehicle cruised up or down one of the visible streets at an easygoing pace.

Still mesmerized by the city that had just appeared before him out of thin air, Solonn was a bit startled by the wing that clapped him heartily on the back then. He looked to the swellow beside him, who was smiling warmly in the fashion of his kind, the look in his eyes positively radiating pride.

“Welcome, my friend,” Jal’tai said, spreading his wings wide, “to Convergence, the city of a better future! Isn’t it magnificent?”

“Well…” Solonn began a bit awkwardly, furrowing his brow. Convergence had certainly made an impressive entrance, but beyond that… The fact of the matter was that he would’ve thought more of it if it hadn’t seemed so familiar. Solonn had gazed out the window at Lilycove enough times to know a human-style city when he saw one. “It’s certainly… er, doing well for itself, and I guess that’s nice, but… Jal’tai, I thought you said this wasn’t a human city…”

The swellow chuckled. “Yes, I most certainly did. And on closer inspection, you’ll realize that indeed, just as I stated, this is not a human city. Or do you not see the abundance of pokémon about?”

“What of it? Pokémon live in human cities, too,” Solonn pointed out.

“True, true… but there remains a very significant difference between those cities and this one. Why, look over there,” Jal’tai said, gesturing with his wing toward a truck that had stopped at a traffic light some distance before them. Its driver was large and hairy—and an ursaring. The light turned green, and the truck went on the move again, heading their way. Solonn could hear country music issuing from the vehicle’s radio; the bear was nodding her head and growling along faintly with the song.

“Now, there’s something you won’t see in a mere human city,” Jal’tai said.

The ursaring rounded a corner, pulled into a driveway, and stepped out of her truck. She then turned and spotted Jal’tai and Solonn. Her eyes widened, and she waved vigorously. “Hi!” she half-roared cheerfully from across the street.

“Good day to you, madam!” Jal’tai returned, waving back at her. “I might also add that Ms. Olcarion actually owns that lovely house,” he then informed Solonn. “As a matter of fact, all of those homes are owned by pokémon,” he said, indicating the three houses to the right of the ursaring’s home. “Independent pokémon, Solonn. Do you realize the significance of that?”

Without waiting for Solonn to answer, he continued. “In human cities, pokémon are second-class citizens—if even that.” Disgust flitted across his features. “But here, pokémon are afforded the same rights and opportunities as humans. They can own the same properties, operate the same vehicles, and enter the same occupations. Our academy offers education and training that only humans can receive elsewhere.

“This is a community with no parallel in the world today, one in which pokémon and humans can truly live and work as equals. Do you see now what makes Convergence great?”

Solonn nodded slightly, still absorbing Jal’tai’s claims. Were pokémon really such non-entities in human society? True, pokémon were taken from their homes without consent and made to live with their captors, but Morgan had never mistreated him or any of her other pokémon… If what Jal’tai said was true, then he’d been quite fortunate to end up with her rather than with a more typical human.

“Now, then,” Jal’tai said crisply. “I’m feeling rather in the mood for lunch of a sudden… How about you?”

Solonn made to answer Jal’tai, but his stomach beat him to it.

“Ah, right then,” Jal’tai said. “We’ll go to Whitley’s; it’s to die for…”

Chapter Text

The swellow led Solonn deeper into Convergence, heading for the center of town. Along the way, Solonn spotted more of the city’s residents out and about. They were mostly pokémon, some of whom were using human-made devices—which was nice, he supposed, but he wished the electabuzz they passed would shut off that leaf blower sometime soon. He could still hear the thing from several blocks away.

Solonn also saw a pair of humans as he followed Jal’tai, and only a pair. It seemed that the pokémon outnumbered the humans here. As far as he could tell, though, the humans were happy to be living here. They were neither goggling nor blatantly avoiding looking at the pokémon citizens; it seemed they found nothing strange at all about the notion of pokémon outnumbering them and living their lives as if they were human themselves.

At last, Solonn and Jal’tai arrived at Whitley’s. The restaurant was a large, country-styled building with a fairly sizable, nearly empty parking lot. Above the entrance was a sign depicting an elderly, goateed man’s smiling face. The words “Whitley’s Family Restaurant” were spelled out beside the portrait—twice: once in what Solonn recognized as a form of human writing and once in a curious, unfamiliar script that seemed to be made up of eyes, with bars radiating out from them in varying shapes and at varying angles.

Solonn was able to read the first script just as he could whenever he’d seen it before, so he wasn’t terribly surprised that he could read the second script, as well. But there was more to his comprehension of the eyed letters than mere literacy, and he recognized this immediately.

Puzzled, he brought the matter up with Jal’tai. “That second kind of writing, there on that sign… There’s something different about it. I don’t know how to explain it other than that it just feels… more natural to read somehow.”

“Ah. I suppose you’ve never seen unown-script before.” Jal’tai smiled. “Well, Mr. Zgil-Al, there is a reason why it feels natural to read. It is our written language, the script of pokémon. Allow me to explain. The unown are a species of pokémon who are credited as the ones who eradicated many of the communication barriers between the peoples of the world. Many pokémon, myself included, believe that it was they who blessed the differing races of pokémon with the ability to understand both one another’s languages and the spoken languages of humans. But for some reason, their blessing failed to touch humans, leaving them unable to understand pokémon speech.

“The unown tried to solve the problem through the creation of a universal written language, a process so demanding that it apparently forced them to evolve to that specific end. They developed special written characters that they infused with a mysterious quality meant to render them instantly comprehensible to both pokémon and humans alike. And it worked, too, at least under some circumstances; with it, pokémon have been able to convey messages to humans that they could otherwise never receive. Sadly, the script failed to catch on—perhaps the cultures that used it were conquered or decimated by humans who trained pokémon to fight for them rather than communicating and living in harmony with them,” the swellow added, bitterness seeping into his tone.

“Anyhow,” he finished, “though the script fell short of a perfect solution, it was successful enough that we saw fit to celebrate and honor the unown and their tremendous efforts toward interspecies understanding by using unown-script as a sort of official ‘language’ of our city. All citizens are required to memorize all of its symbols, humans and pokémon alike.”

Solonn took another look at the sign and its message in unown-script, intrigued and quite impressed. That an entire species would literally transform itself in the name of promoting universal communication… He wondered what it would be like to actually meet one of them. What could he learn from them—especially given his own relationship with the concept of universal communication?

His eyes widened. Wait…

“Tell me, Mr. Zgil-Al,” Jal’tai spoke up crisply, interrupting Solonn’s reverie almost as soon as it had begun, “when you mentioned that unown-script felt ‘different to read’… did you mean as compared to human writing? I’ve always hoped to meet another who is human-literate just as I am.”

Solonn just barely managed to keep his jaw from dropping open. Stupid! he scolded himself. He fumbled internally for a means to repair any damage done. “Oh… no, I can’t read that,” he finally said, his words tumbling out a bit faster than he’d intended. “I just guessed that it said the same thing that it said below in the unown-script.”

“Hmm…” the swellow responded. “Well, perhaps if you’re interested, I could teach you to read human-script sometime, hmm? In the meantime… I daresay we’ve tarried outside for long enough. Why wait a moment longer when food’s right inside? Come on, then!”

Solonn followed Jal’tai to the thankfully large front doors, which opened for them automatically. They entered the restaurant, which was warmly lit by a large number of hanging, stained-glass lamps, and were immediately greeted by a hitmonchan in a tuxedo.

“Ah! You grace our presence in person yet again!” the hitmonchan exclaimed. “And this gentleman is your guest?” he asked, at which Jal’tai nodded. “Very well, then. Please, let me show you to your usual table.”

The hitmonchan beckoned them toward the back of the restaurant. They passed a table where a female human sat feeding small morsels of meat to a baby makuhita in a high chair that barely accommodated him. Solonn spotted an area off in one corner of the restaurant that was enclosed by slightly tinted, soft plastic walls with a zippered door flap. Inside, several koffing and grimer laughed around a pile of something slimy and rotten-looking beneath a large exhaust fan. In another corner, two magnemite contently orbited a peculiar, seven-foot-tall, towerlike structure that hummed faintly with electricity.

Jal’tai’s “usual table” was located in a private room in the very back of the restaurant. The room was decorated with paintings of landscapes on every wall and a potted shrub in every corner. A modest chandelier hung above the table in the center of the room, with small light bulbs rather than candles shining in its arms.

Jal’tai perched atop his seat, his talons gripping the back of his chair while his tail feathers draped over it toward the floor. Solonn, being quite large, quite heavy, and just not equipped for sitting in chairs in general, merely pushed the one at the opposite end of the table aside and sat down in its place, grateful to be out of the air again after all the traveling he’d done lately.

“Your orders, then, sirs?” the hitmonchan prompted.

“Oh, it’ll be the Cerulean fish platter for me. Yes, again,” Jal’tai said with another of his chuckles. “And for him… oh, just give him the Specialty of the House to start with. And you know where to send the bill, of course.”

“Yes, sir!” the hitmonchan confirmed enthusiastically, then departed their table and the room.

“Isn’t it refreshing to see pokémon holding occupations other than ‘gladiator’?” Jal’tai said wistfully. He sighed. “Alas, the indignities we suffer at the hands of humans… Which reminds me, Mr. Zgil-Al: what of those humans from whom you escaped? Do you have any idea what their motives might’ve been?”

Solonn was taken a bit by surprise even though he hadn’t exactly expected that his abduction wouldn’t come up again; he’d just rather strongly hoped it wouldn’t. Recovering quickly enough, “No idea whatsoever,” he lied. “Frankly, I’m glad I never got the chance to find out.”

“Indeed,” Jal’tai said. “You’ve certainly been spared a most degrading fate.”

You don’t know the half of it… Solonn held Jal’tai’s gaze for a moment more, then let his eyes flit about from one painting on the wall to another in the awkward silence that hung in the air until Jal’tai spoke again.

“You mentioned fleeing from Lilycove… I’ve not heard of an ice-type colony anywhere in that vicinity—believe me, as a flying-type I would make sure to find out about it!” Jal’tai said with a laugh. “No offense, of course,” he added quickly but coolly.

“Meh,” Solonn responded, not really bothered.

“Anyhow, you were brought into Lilycove by these humans from someplace else, then, correct?” the swellow asked.

“Well…” Solonn hesitated for a moment, but then supposed that there was no real harm in mentioning Morgan, though he opted against using her name. “Not by those humans, but yes, I was brought to Lilycove by a human.” He mindfully chose the word “brought” rather than “taken”; Jal’tai clearly had a less than favorable attitude toward humans, especially those who kept pokémon. Solonn figured it was probably prudent to choose his words carefully; he didn’t want the swellow to speak ill of Morgan. “I lived with her for several months. She really was a decent person. I won’t lie about it—I do miss her…” He sighed. “She must be horribly worried about me…”

“Do you think you’ll ever return to her?” Jal’tai asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” Solonn answered truthfully. “I mean, I’d like to, sure. I just don’t know if Lilycove will ever be safe for me again… those people are still out there, and I don’t know if they’ll ever be caught.”

“Let us hope they will be, at any rate,” Jal’tai said soberly. Solonn nodded in agreement.

Their food arrived then, the hitmonchan deftly balancing a wide tray upon his large hands. The waiter set a ceramic platter partly covered in fish fillets in front of Jal’tai and an odd, wooden pedestal in front of Solonn. On top of the pedestal sat a large, raw steak. The hitmonchan then provided each of them with a saucer of water.

“I’ll be back shortly,” he said merrily. “When I return, you just let me know if you need anything else, okay?” With that, he left the room.

Solonn eyed the pedestal, puzzled. “What is this thing?”

“Hmm?” was Jal’tai’s muffled response; he already had a large chunk of fish in his beak. He swallowed it. “Oh yes, that. It’s just something to make it a little easier for those without limbs to enjoy their meal, particularly someone like yourself—I can see where you’d experience some difficulty plucking meat off a plate as I’m doing.”

Solonn’s eyes shifted the tiny distance upward from the pedestal to the steak itself. “So… this is meat, then?”

“Mmm-hmm,” the swellow confirmed through another bite of fish. “I imagine you’re unused to it being cut and processed in such a manner, but I assure you, it is meat.”

Solonn made a small, wordless noise of acknowledgment. So… this thing before him had once been a part of a living creature. Trepidation fluttered in the vicinity of his heart as he continued to stare at the steak.

Once again, his internal advocate for predation chose to speak up. It’s what’s right for you, you know.

Solonn continued to eye the steak uneasily. Part of him couldn’t help but try and picture what the former owner of this flesh had looked like before being slaughtered.

Come on—it’s not like you killed whatever they were, was the internal argument.

That angle fell just short of mollifying him. He cast a quick glance at Jal’tai and found that the swellow was temporarily neglecting his fish fillets to gaze back at him concernedly.

“Are you quite all right?” he asked. “You haven’t touched your Specialty there.”

“Er…” Solonn began, pausing as he swallowed nervously. “…I was just trying to figure out what’s so ‘special’ about it…” he half-muttered, inwardly cursing himself a bit for not coming up with a better response. Still, he preferred it to telling the truth. It shamed him somewhat to admit it to himself, but the fact was he was disinclined to confess—and perhaps have to justify—his reservations about eating meat.

“Well, taste it and you’ll find out!” Jal’tai said with the swellow equivalent of a beaming grin.

Solonn shut his eyes briefly, battling an urge to grimace. Until he started eating, the swellow would probably continue to press the issue. He wasn’t eager to go through with it, but he was all too aware of the swellow’s eyes upon him.

At least it hasn’t got eyes, the other faction of his mind told him. At least it can’t look back at you.

Solonn sighed heavily. There might as well have been two in his company who wouldn’t relent until he dug in. The fact that one of those persistent voices was actually a part of him didn’t help matters.

Silently, he rose from the floor and looked down at the steak. With a flash of light in his eyes, it froze instantly. Closing his eyes involuntarily, he lowered his face toward it and took it into his mouth.

It didn’t taste like he’d expected. He’d thought it would have the sharpest, most foul flavor imaginable. Instead it was actually rather bland. Solonn vaguely wondered if his brain had done him a favor and temporarily weakened his sense of taste.

As he began to chew, he tried very hard not to think about exactly what he was grinding between his teeth. It’s just ice, he tried to convince himself, that’s all… He wanted to rush it down his throat as quickly as he could, but his gullet seemed possessed of contrary urges. It took a few attempts to force the meat down.

Solonn opened his eyes again, only realizing then that he’d had them closed the whole time. Jal’tai was smiling at him, looking satisfied.

“Was it to your liking?” the swellow asked.

Solonn gave a quick nod, wondering if anything in his expression was contradicting the gesture. His eyes traveled downward to the saucer of water. Some good, fresh ice sounded like a good idea right about then.

He was glad that water had been provided for him to freeze; he’d spend a bit less effort doing that than he would’ve spent generating ice out of thin air. He stared intently at it, and within mere moments it changed into a stalk of ice rising from the middle of the saucer. He nipped it off as close to the dish as he could, then sat back down as he crunched it up.

The hitmonchan returned and immediately set about removing the cleared plates and pedestal as well as Solonn’s saucer, leaving Jal’tai’s largely ignored saucer where it sat. “Is there anything else I can get for you gentlemen?” he asked.

“Nothing more for me,” Jal’tai said, shaking his head gently. “What about you, Mr. Zgil-Al? Care for another Specialty?”

There were very few things in the world that Solonn would have cared for less at that moment. “No thanks,” he said—or tried to say. His words were almost completely engulfed in a massive yawn.

“‘No’, did you say?” the hitmonchan asked.

“Hm? Yeah, that’s right,” Solonn confirmed.

“Very well then, sirs. I hope you’ve enjoyed your day here!” the hitmonchan said cheerfully, then left.

Jal’tai took a moment to stretch his wings, then jumped down from the chair. “So, Mr. Zgil-Al. Would you like for me to give you a nice tour of the city?”

“Ugh… that’d be nice, but…” He unleashed another yawn. “I don’t know… I’m just really tired all of a sudden. I feel like I need to get to sleep.”

Concern filled Jal’tai’s gaze. “Hmm. Well, in that case, I think we’d better seek out a place where you can rest. I think your recent tribulations must have finally taken their toll on you.”

Solonn nodded listlessly, suspecting the swellow was right. It seemed that his body had taken all it could; now it was demanding a break for a while.

“Come, Mr. Zgil-Al. The Convergence Inn isn’t terribly far from here at all. I should be able to get a room for you there without any trouble.” The swellow left the private room and beckoned Solonn to follow.

 

* * *

 

Solonn barely registered the trip from Whitley’s to the Convergence Inn, hardly even aware of any conscious effort on his part to stay floating as he drifted lethargically behind the swellow. He didn’t absorb Jal’tai’s words when the swellow told him they’d arrived at their destination until several seconds after the fact.

Vaguely, Solonn noted that he was following Jal’tai into the hotel. He almost didn’t notice when Jal’tai strayed from his immediate vicinity and crossed the lobby to go speak with a swampert receptionist.

Jal’tai returned shortly, then gestured with his wing toward an elevator to Solonn’s right. “This way,” he said. “Your room is on the top floor.”

Making a wordless noise of acknowledgment, Solonn let Jal’tai guide him toward a spacious elevator. Jal’tai pressed a button set in the wall beside the elevator’s steel doors, which opened a few moments later. Solonn drifted into the elevator quite slowly and somewhat unsteadily; Jal’tai just managed to dash in after him before the doors closed and the elevator began to rise.

Once it came to a stop, the two of them emerged onto the uppermost floor. Jal’tai moved ahead of Solonn and proceeded a short distance through the corridor. “Here it is!” he soon called back to the glalie.

Solonn glided over to join him, so hampered by drowsiness at this point that he nearly drifted right into the wall before coming to a stop at the swellow’s side.

“This shall be your room for the night,” Jal’tai said, “right in there.” He gestured toward the very same wall that Solonn had almost bumped into. There was no door, no apparent way into the “room” that Jal’tai was indicating. The wall was nearly featureless save for the words “Grand Suite” in blue human- and unown-script and a pair of strange devices fitted into the wall next to them. One of these fixtures was some kind of keypad, while the other resembled nothing so much as a round, blank, gray eye.

Even in his lethargy, Solonn managed to give the swellow quite the skeptical look.

Jal’tai smiled. “Observe.” Fluttering up into the air before the keypad, he punched a code into it using a single claw, then hurriedly flapped aside from it.

“Ready,” said a computerized voice from out of nowhere, and a large, glowing, green square lit up dramatically on the floor in front of the lens and keypad. “Please enter the transport field.”

“Go to that square and sit down,” Jal’tai said.

Solonn did as he was told. “Initializing scan,” said the computerized voice. The lens on the wall awakened, glowing with a brilliant, golden light. It projected a beam of the same color, which touched Solonn, broadened to his width, and swept up and down over him. “Scan complete,” the voice said, and the beam vanished.

The tile flashed. A peculiar, tingling sensation prickled over the glalie’s skin, followed by a strange sensation like going into a capture ball. But instead of entering a bodiless nothingness, he materialized inside a large, richly furnished suite with paintings on its walls that put the ones hanging up at Whitley’s to shame. Marble figures of various dragon-type pokémon stood here and there, no two of them alike.

Not that Solonn could truly appreciate his surroundings. To his weary eyes, everything around him was beginning to bleed together into a blur of color and light.

“Hey in there!” Jal’tai shouted, his voice coming in through the wall. “Do you like it?”

Solonn turned toward the wall and made a noise that was as affirmative-sounding as his exhaustion would allow.

“Good, good!” Jal’tai responded merrily. “Now, listen, I doubt you’ll need anything overnight; your suite comes very well equipped, I assure you. But, if you do… Well, have a look at the little table by that green armchair in the den.” He gave the glalie ample time to find it; Solonn, in his present state, needed every second of it.

“I see it,” Solonn finally said, his words slurred. At least, he thought he saw it.

“Good,” Jal’tai said, speaking more loudly now. “Now, you’ll notice the little black box with a large, round speaker on top—you can use that to call me if you need anything. It’s voice-activated. You need only speak into it—say ‘Page’, then my name, followed by ‘Room 44-B’, which is where I’m going to be staying. Call, and I’ll come up here as quickly as I can manage. Got it?”

“Got it,” Solonn confirmed, although he was only minimally aware of what he was saying.

“All right, then. Rest well, Mr. Zgil-Al!” Jal’tai said brightly. His words were followed by a continuing silence, signifying that he’d left.

With yet another huge yawn, Solonn lowered himself to the floor. He rolled onto his back and gratefully let his eyelids close, sighing as he did so. His fading mind drifted back to things he’d learned earlier that day, lingering on the unown. Solonn remembered, in a detached sort of way, that they’d piqued his interest, but he’d fallen too far toward sleep to remember why. Already half-dreaming, his brain conjured images of the fantastic, surreal beings that it guessed the unown to be, whimsically bizarre creatures that danced in circles around his consciousness as it dwindled away.

Chapter Text

The space surrounding Solonn was utterly silent and dark, but far from still, anything but empty. A stream of pure power rushed through this lightless, ethereal plane like a river. It brought the most wonderful feeling: an almost inebriatingly sweet familiarity that comforted and revitalized him as it flowed freely all around him.

This was the raw, elemental power of ice, and he reveled in its direct presence and contact. He couldn’t see it, but he recognized it in the surest, most ingrained way. He floated contently within it, free from distracting thoughts as the very essence of his mother element rushed over him.

Subtly, imperceptibly at first, the elemental stream began to pick up speed. The glalie in the midst of it noticed with a delay, regarding it with nothing more than mild curiosity, still wrapped up in his unity with the power of ice. But concern eventually set in, and it grew stronger as the current flowed faster and faster—soon, the stream was rushing by so swiftly that he could barely perceive it.

That concern turned to fear, and then panic, when Solonn couldn’t feel it at all anymore. It was no longer flowing alongside him—it was rushing away.

It was leaving him behind.

No! No, come back! he tried to call out as it hurried to some distant, invisible point far beyond him. But in this place, he had no voice. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. He was helplessly suspended in empty space, the life-sustaining flow of elemental power nowhere to be found.

Panicked, he cried out silently, again and again. How this could be happening? How could his mother element abandon him like this, knowing it would mean his death?

His mind began to splinter in earnest as he made his final, desperate appeals for salvation, pleading voicelessly to the multitude of gods, begging for his life. But moments passed with no response. The severance from his element would not be undone.

He almost didn’t feel it when something finally disturbed the emptiness around him. Just as soon as he’d noticed it, before he could even begin to identify it, a strange, pacifying wave emanated from whatever it was and engulfed his mind completely.

All will be fine, it seemed to say. Do not be concerned.

The suggestion came as gently as could be, but also as irresistibly as possible. Perhaps it was death; perhaps it was salvation; perhaps it was something entirely beyond reckoning. Whatever it was, Solonn obeyed its consoling command without resistance. The glalie slipped away from all further thought and sensation without a care.

* * *


Vague notions of waking up crept into Solonn’s mind, just out of grasp of his full consciousness. Unhurriedly, he began reconnecting to his senses. With his eyes still closed and his consciousness liable to slip right back into sleep at any moment, he decided and attempted to rise up.

He failed.

Still only barely awake, emerging very slowly from the deepest sleep he’d ever known, Solonn felt something only marginally resembling concern. He could’ve sworn he’d just commanded himself to get up off the floor. He tried once more to ascend…

…And failed again.

As his mind unmuddled even further, a burgeoning panic set in, one that spiked when the notion finally hit him: I can’t get up!

His eyes flew open. A plant hung in a basket directly above him, a number of leafy tendrils spilling over the basket’s rim to dangle toward the floor. Something was distinctly… off about it, and as his gaze shifted away from it, he realized what the problem was: his vision had gone strangely dull, lacking in definition and color. He started blinking rapidly, trying to clear out whatever was making it so hazy.

At the same time, he went back to trying to ascend. His body still wouldn’t respond; it was as if it no longer understood his instructions. The sound of pounding blood filled his ears as his heart began racing. Why can’t I get up? He tried to calm himself enough to make sense of things and was only partially successful. Maybe his body would have an easier time carrying out a simpler task, he considered, and so he gave up on trying to rise for the time being. He’d be glad just to get off his back and sit upright again.

To this, his body actually responded. But as it did so, he was stricken by a very unusual sensation: as his face pitched forward, he felt something cinching together in the vicinity of his abdomen—almost a bending sensation, as if at a waist, which was something he didn’t have.

And yet, he did.

He cried out in disbelief at the sight that met his eyes, a picture that very bluntly told him how his body had bent in a fashion that should’ve been impossible. A pair of long legs ending in five-toed feet stretched out before him. And unless his mind was playing a very cruel trick on him—it had to be, he told himself silently in a repeating loop—those limbs were his.

No… no, this can’t be real… I’m still dreaming; I’ve got to be…
 Solonn was almost able to believe that conclusion—almost. Swallowing against a hard knot of dread that had built up in his throat, he stared intently at one of the feet and, hoping and expecting that the effort would fail, he willed it to move.

It moved right on command.

He screamed, flailing as he half-jumped, half-scuttled backward in horrified surprise. The back of his head connected sharply with a corner of the small table behind him. He shouted wordlessly at the pain as it exploded across the inner surface of his skull. There was no doubt about it: the pain was real. Though Solonn dearly wished otherwise, it seemed reality was determined to literally beat the truth into his head. This wasn’t a dream. This was really happening. Somehow, impossibly, he had become human.

He swooned and slumped backwards against the side of the nearby armchair, panting. His heart hammered in animalistic terror, making his chest ache. He almost felt like he could pass out at any moment and would have been all too grateful to do so, but his brain stayed disobligingly conscious and forced him to endure this bizarre new reality. As if possessed of their own will, his eyes just kept staring at the tall, lanky body that was now his own.

This body was more than strange—it was wrong. He should not have this; he should not be this. He should be a glalie, a creature of the element of ice… but that element was no longer there for him. He tried to reach it again, part of him desperately hoping he could somehow return to his true form or at least feel more at home in this one if he succeeded. But no matter how he tried, he could no longer feel his mother element’s embrace in the least.

He moaned involuntarily, not at the throbbing, shooting pain that still lingered in his head but rather at the severance from his beloved element. His anguish swelled in his chest and then welled up behind his eyes until they could hold it in no longer. For the first time in his life, he was crying.

Several minutes after the fact, he finally noticed there was something damp at the back of his head. Shaking, he glanced down at his hands for a moment as they lay limply at his sides. Then, only half-aware of what he was doing, he lifted one of them to the damp spot, recoiling at the warm stickiness he found there amidst the hair. He then brought that hand before his face, and he felt his throat go dry at what he saw. Though his vision had gone even blurrier, he could still make out the blood smeared across the tips of his fingers—red blood that didn’t turn to mist in the air. Human blood for a human body.

Which he should not have.

Solonn closed his eyes and tried to retreat into the corners of his mind, thoroughly overwhelmed. He couldn’t even remotely fathom how this could have happened to him, nor could he even begin to think of what to do under these circumstances.

Sighing, he opened his eyes once more, resigned to the likelihood that he’d be staying awake for a while whether he liked it or not. He turned his head and let it drop listlessly to his left shoulder, faintly regarding a number of long, black strands of hair that fell across his face. Past them, through the corner of his eye, he could make out the table he’d backed into.

A course of action occurred to him as he remembered what sat on that table.

He didn’t know what to do about this situation, but perhaps Jal’tai would. Solonn could think of no one else to turn to. He reached up and pulled the paging device down from the table, turning it over in his hands for a moment as he tried to remember how to operate it. Voice-activated, he soon recalled. You tell it what to do. After another few seconds, he thought he’d remembered exactly what he was supposed to say.

He looked at the large speaker that dominated one side of the strange paging device; seeing no other prominent features on it, he figured this was where he should direct his command. He took a deep breath; then, “Page,” he said, and he felt his throat constrict as soon as the word had escaped it. Presently-stuffy nose notwithstanding, his new voice sounded exactly like his old one. He still sounded like himself—why couldn’t he still be himself in every other way?

There was a small beep, and a tiny, green light turned on next to the speaker. “Please state the recipient’s name and room number,” the device said in the same computerized voice that the transporter outside the suite had used.

“Jal’tai,” Solonn answered hoarsely, “room 44-B.” He dearly hoped he’d remembered that number correctly.

“One moment please…” the device said.

Solonn held his breath as he waited for a response. Thankfully, it seemed he’d gotten the number right; after several seconds: “Yes? Is there something you need?” Jal’tai asked through the speaker.

“Oh yes,” Solonn responded shakily, urgently, “yes, there is.”

“Oh dear…” Jal’tai clearly had no trouble picking up on Solonn’s distress. There was a brief pause; then, “What’s the matter?”

Solonn strongly doubted Jal’tai would believe him. “Can’t explain,” he replied hurriedly. “I just need you here right now. Please hurry.”

Another pause. “Yes… yes, of course. I’ll be right up,” Jal’tai said finally.

“Connection terminated,” the device said. The beep sounded again, and the green light turned off.

Solonn set the paging device down beside him and released a long, weary sigh. All he could do now was wait for Jal’tai to show up—even if he only had seconds to wait, he wasn’t sure how well he could endure it. He was fully aware of how he trembled, his hands shaking like leaves. Tiny yet powerful twitches tugged and pricked at the skin around his eyes and mouth. Vaguely, he wondered if he might lose this body just as soon as he’d gained it; it was threatening to shake itself to pieces.

As the seconds crept by, he stared blankly at one of dragon statues that sat a couple of yards away. It lay on its marble pedestal with its tapered wings outstretched and its taloned forearms crossed in front of it and gazed sightlessly back at Solonn with a look of absolute serenity that he quickly came to envy.

A voice sounded then, startling Solonn and pulling his attention away from the statue. “Solonn? Are you all right in there?” It was Jal’tai. “May I come in now?” the swellow asked him through the wall.

“Please do,” Solonn called back shakily.

“Of course, of course… just give me a moment here…” Jal’tai responded.

A tone sounded shortly thereafter. “Prepare to receive a visitor,” the computerized voice said, calm as ever. Solonn turned toward the wall separating the suite from the hall outside. A second later, a shimmering, pale green field of light appeared above a tile that matched the one outside, then solidified into Jal’tai, who stood there in front of the wall with a concerned look leveled at Solonn. If he was at all shocked or surprised to behold a human where there should’ve been a glalie, he didn’t show it.

Without a word, Jal’tai walked over to where Solonn was half-sitting and half-lying. He stopped in front of the former glalie, ruffled his wings, and folded them tightly against his back.

“It’s all right, Solonn,” Jal’tai said calmly. “I can personally assure you that you’ve nothing to fear from your new form. After all—” He paused briefly to take a breath. “—it was I who designed that very body for you.”

That took a very long moment to fully register. For a moment, Solonn forgot to breathe. He gave the swellow a stupefied stare.

Jal’tai nodded. “It’s true, Solonn.”

The human’s stare went flat. At first, he gave no further response, frozen in the moment. Then he inhaled very slowly, very deeply.

“Why?” he asked, his voice strained. “Why… and how… in the fires of a thousand hells… did you turn me into a human?”

Jal’tai closed his eyes and lowered his head. “Yes,” he said soberly, “you are owed an explanation for all this. It’s imperative that you fully understand the situation. I will address your question of ‘how’ first, since that comes with the shorter answer. To begin to answer that question, however, I must start by being more honest with you with regards to the matter of who—and what—I truly am.”

The swellow suddenly took to the air, hovering in place to Solonn’s right and slightly above him. “Don’t be frightened by what I’m about to show you,” Jal’tai said, his words accompanied by the sound of his steadily beating wings, “for it is my true form. I am and shall still be the same person in spirit that I’ve shown myself to be up to this point.”

Solonn could only stare mutely at him, watching as the air around Jal’tai began to ripple and shimmer, blurring the swellow’s form. Soon, Jal’tai completely lost definition, becoming nothing more than a wavering mass of faint light. Then the light intensified and began to take shape once more. When it faded away a second later, the swellow was gone. In his place was something very different, something blue and pale gray that, while still feathered, was no longer a bird.

Jal’tai was now a dragon.

Chapter Text

“There,” Jal’tai said. He sounded no different than he had prior to revealing his true form, and he tried to sound soothing, though he failed in that endeavor.

Solonn stared agape at him for seconds on end. He then cast a couple of flitting glances back and forth between the Jal’tai and the nearby statue.

Jal’tai followed one of those glances and then let out a chuckle. “No, no, dear boy,” he said. “That is a latias. I am a latios.”

“What does what you are have to do with… with this?” Solonn demanded with a pained hiss, sweeping his gaze quickly over himself before returning his wild, bewildered stare to the dragon.

“Well, my dear boy, it’s actually quite relevant to what’s been done to you, for it was by the transfigure technique—an ancient art which only survives in practice today among the lati—that you were given this form. A swellow couldn’t have used the transfigure technique; on the chance you might’ve known that, I deemed it necessary to reveal my true form so that you’d believe me when I told you how I transformed you.”

Solonn hadn’t known what swellow were and weren’t capable of, nor did he care to know these things. Jal’tai’s explanation held little meaning for Solonn and fell quite short of a satisfying answer.

Hoping that the other question would yield a better one, “Why, Jal’tai?” Solonn pressed in a brittle voice, the words more exhaled than spoken.

Lowering his head, Jal’tai drew back slightly from Solonn. “Forgive me, Mr. Zgil-Al,” he said soberly. “I sincerely regret not being more straightforward with you from the start. But there was only one way this could be done feasibly, and unfortunately, it required me to keep you largely in the dark up to this point.”

The latios clasped his talons and met Solonn’s gaze steadily despite the way the human’s brown, bloodshot eyes pierced into his own. “The first thing you need to know in order to understand the situation is this: I’m not merely a proud citizen of this great city. I’m also the mayor and director of the Convergence Project, its guide and guardian.”

“Well, good for you,” Solonn croaked acidly. “And what is it about that, exactly, that required you to turn me into this?”

“Patience, my boy,” Jal’tai said evenly, unfazed by Solonn’s venom-laced response, earning a very indignant look from the former glalie. “You must allow me to explain, and not just for your own sake, either.”

The latios paused for a breath, then released it on a sigh before proceeding. “I love my city, Solonn,” he said wistfully. “I love it more than anything else in this world. But the fact remains that I won’t be around to guide it forever. Therefore, someone will need to take my place someday.

“This is where you come in, Solonn. Now, it may not be obvious to the eye of the beholder, but I am getting on in years… Soon, I’ll be retiring from my position as mayor of Convergence, and the city will need someone to take my office when I depart. That someone is required to have a very particular and very rare skill in common with me—it’s rendered a necessity by the very nature of this place. My successor must be able, just as I am, to freely and fluently communicate with pokémon and humans alike. My successor must possess the Speech.”

Solonn’s eyes widened dramatically. Automatically, he began crawling backwards away from Jal’tai, compelled to put a healthy distance between himself and the latios as swiftly as he could. How did he find out? he wondered fearfully. His mind was nearly racing too fast to arrive at any explanation, but the only one he managed to reach was the only one that made any sense to him anyway.

Just as soon he’d thought of it, it was confirmed. “Yes, Solonn. I am a psychic,” Jal’tai said, nodding. “But, no, that’s not how I learned of your gift. Not initially, anyway,” he clarified.

Lowering his talons and turning them palms-outward, trying to appear as non-threatening as he could, Jal’tai began gliding slowly toward Solonn. His wings remained rigid and stationary all the while; a less mundane force powered his flight. Solonn kept backing away from the advancing latios but soon found himself backed into a corner, trapped by a wall to his left, a large, oak dresser to his right, and Jal’tai before him. The latios was now only a foot or so in front of Solonn.

Jal’tai settled himself onto the carpet, folding his forearms in front of his chest, and continued. “I saw you, you see,” the latios said. “The day before last, I saw what happened to you in Lilycove,” he elaborated, with a note of earnest sorrow. “I was out for a nice flight—as I mentioned before, I do make occasional excursions outside Convergence, just for a change of pace. I chose to go eastward instead of southward that day. My course found me flying over Lilycove, and there I caught sight of a most deplorable scene: there was a sign out in front of an old, miserable looking theater, promising a real, live… ‘talking’ pokémon inside…” The latios spat out the word “talking” with as much force and distaste as if it were something he’d been gagging on.

“I saw a small group of humans rush you into the theater through a side entrance,” he went on. “I slipped in after them, cloaked by my psychic abilities. I found you sleeping backstage, and I tapped your mind while you slept—just deep enough to learn if what that sign claimed was true—and thereby confirmed that it was.

“Even if it hadn’t been, I would’ve broken you out of there. The way you were being treated there, as a spectacle… it was sickening…” he hissed, his red eyes narrowing in disgust. “I was about to free you myself, but just then, another human came onto the scene, one in whom I immediately sensed benevolent intentions regarding you. A quick tap of her mind told me she was your friend and had come to rescue you from your would-be exploiters.

“You were awake at this point, but your attempts to escape were foiled by a restraining technique. I went and searched about the vicinity for the caster and thereby found a sableye—a dark-type, able to evade detection by my psychic senses. I dispatched him at once by means of a dragon claw.”

Solonn’s eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion. “Morgan told me that she’d taken him out,” he said.

Jal’tai sighed. “I’m afraid both you and Morgan were misled where that’s concerned,” he told Solonn. “You see, your human companion happened to walk in onto the scene where the sableye had been hiding just as I was dealing with him—using dragon claw required me to shift my focus from my psychic element to my dragon element, thus forcing me to give up my invisibility, and so it was that Morgan saw me there. I should explain that my kind are… valued by humans—” There was another charge of revolted emphasis on the word “valued”. “—due to our potent abilities. Though I sensed virtue in this particular human, I was in no position to say the same about the other humans in her life, and I confess that I was unwilling to take a chance on whether or not she’d keep my appearance a secret.

“Therefore, I found it necessary to modify her memory. I quickly rendered myself invisible once more. Then I placed a hammer I found lying nearby into her hand and implanted a memory of her using it to knock out the sableye. I made her forget having seen me.” He briefly closed his eyes and lowered his head as if in shame. “I regret that action now. I should’ve given her the benefit of the doubt. I should’ve recognized just how honorable she truly was. I did come to recognize it, after watching her help to free you, and following her as she guided you to safety outside the city…”

The latios’s face took on a faint, wistful smile. “She, a human, actually chose to let you part from her company rather than let you be exploited again… very noble… very rare. Anyhow… following the events of that evening, I knew you could go nowhere but west, and so I waited in the grass for you and then brought you here.”

“You could have told me all of this at the start,” Solonn admonished him. “And none of that explains why you needed to change me like this.”

“Actually,” Jal’tai said, “within what I’ve just told you lies the precise reason why your transformation was necessary. Those humans in Lilycove wanted to make a spectacle out of you because you were a glalie who could speak their language. For that quality, you were regarded as a freak—a valuable freak, yes, but a freak nonetheless—and you were treated as one.

“Now you are a human who can speak pokémon languages—you’ve been speaking a glalie language this entire time, as a matter of fact,” Jal’tai added. “My point is that humans sought to exploit and degrade you when you were a pokémon. They will not do that to you as a fellow human. The unfortunate truth is that generally speaking, humans only hold any real respect for their own kind. That is why I transformed you.”

“Without my consent!” Solonn shouted, throwing a feral look at Jal’tai.

“Yes, and I apologize!” Jal’tai responded swiftly, actually sounding quite hurt. “But that was only to spare you a very painful and disturbing experience. If the subject knows transfiguration is coming, their brain can’t be made to ignore it. With that in mind, I had a sleep-inducing drug added to your meal at Whitley’s. Once I was certain you’d fallen asleep in here, I entered the suite. Then, using certain of my psychic abilities, I put a sort of… for lack of a better term, a lock upon your brain to separate it from your tactile senses so that you wouldn’t awaken while I changed you.”

“You did it that way,” Solonn countered, “because you knew I’d say ‘no’.”

Jal’tai winced, then took on the most wounded expression Solonn had ever seen. It did nothing whatsoever to bring down the fear and outrage growing clearer by the second in Solonn’s eyes. “Please, my dear boy… please… you must believe me when I say that I never wanted you to suffer. My course of action was for the sake of mercy, and yes, it precluded your choice. For that, I am sorry, Solonn, sorrier than I could ever adequately express. But it had to be done. I need you, Solonn.”

For a moment, Solonn had nothing to say to the latios, silent save for his long, hard, rasping breaths, his shoulders shaking. He merely held an unforgiving gaze straight into the eyes of the creature who’d subjected him to this change and torn him from his mother element, feeling fresh tears making their way down his face as he thought once more of what he’d lost. At length, he closed his eyes and let his head sink to his chest, his hair almost completely veiling his face, and he held that position for a very long moment.

Finally, he lifted his head and opened his eyes, and he turned a cold, penetrating stare toward Jal’tai, his brows drawn tightly together, the already severe lines of his angular face sharpening further. “You’re no different,” Solonn said, his voice threatening to break. “You want to use my abilities to serve your purposes. You want to exploit me, Jal’tai, just like the humans did in Lilycove. You are no different from them.”

The latios pulled his head back as if Solonn had just taken a swing at him. His eyes widened dramatically, then narrowed sharply. “How dare you!” he hissed in outrage. “There is a tremendous difference between myself and those—” In lieu of a word, Jal’tai chose to describe the abductors of Lilycove with a short blast of acrid-smelling, sickly-yellow dragon breath over his shoulder. “I,” he went on, his voice dripping with indignation, “respect you.”

“You respect me?” Solonn said sharply, incredulously. “Is that why you’ve lied to me and subjected me to a physical transformation without my consent? Is that why you’re insulting my intelligence by expecting me to just sit here and swallow everything you say after that?”

“Solonn, please…”

Solonn shook his head. “No, Jal’tai. There is no reason why I should listen to you, not when you’ve been dishonest from the moment we met.” Sudden suspicion flashed across his features. “Answer this, Jal’tai: if running the city required me to be made human, why didn’t the same job require that of you?”

“Because you can’t do this,” the latios said simply, and with another rippling shimmer, the dragon was gone. Sitting there instead was an elderly, goateed human man—Solonn immediately recognized him as the man pictured on the sign at Whitley’s.

“This is what the citizens of Convergence, as well as those with whom I do business outside of town, see when they look at me,” Jal’tai said. “And this—” He suddenly sounded the part of the old man, too, with the human language to match. “—is what they hear. To them, I’m a human by the name of Rolf Whitley. Under this guise, I became a very important, albeit not widely recognized figure in human society. In addition to being the mastermind behind the Convergence Project, Rolf is also a very important senior member of the International Pokémon League. I couldn’t have attained that kind of power and the resources that come along with it using my true identity as a pokémon.”

Jal’tai reassumed his latios form. “Now, under less demanding circumstances, I could simply apply a mirage to you, too. In fact, when we entered Convergence, and when I brought you into this hotel, I presented you just as you now appear. But the method does have its limits, limits that make it impractical as a full-time, twenty-four-seven solution. For one thing, I can’t maintain a mirage from a distance, and not much of a distance, either. You’d have to remain within the sphere of my psychic perception, which in my old age is, I’m afraid, rather small. I think we can both agree that it would be impractical for me to follow you like a shadow everywhere you go, yes?”

Solonn gave him a look that suggested he wasn’t even inclined to agree about the sun being bright and the night being dark.

“Furthermore,” Jal’tai said, “it’s not enough to merely look like a human. You must feel like a human, as well. What if another human wanted to shake your hand? You’d have to be able to offer one they could clasp, one they could feel. Now, while I can produce ‘solid’ mirages, as I use for my own needs in portraying a human, I’m afraid it’s outside the scope of my abilities to project one over you and keep some kind of mirage or cloak over myself at all times. And it would be necessary for me to conceal my true identity somehow if I were to stay close enough to you at all times to maintain your disguise; again, being what I am, I mustn’t let just anyone see me about. Furthermore… I will remind you of the fact that I won’t be around to conceal your identity forever. Therefore, the only feasible way for you to meet those particular demands of this position was for me to transfigure you.”

Jal’tai sighed very heavily, lowering his head slightly and passing a talon backwards over it as if raking it through hair. “Solonn… do you not recognize how important it is to the future of the world that the Convergence Project is kept alive and running? This community must be maintained, for it’s a shining example of the fact that pokémon and humans can and should live and work as absolute equals—that anything humans can do, we can do, too. It’s an example sorely needed by the world. The state of relationships between humans and pokémon desperately needs to be changed. Solonn… did you know that most humans don’t realize—or else deny—that pokémon are intelligent beings?”

Solonn only stared back with wild eyes. His throat worked, but he didn’t answer.

“I didn’t think you were aware of that,” Jal’tai said softly, reading Solonn’s blank silence correctly. “It’s true, though. The majority of humans regard pokémon not as people, but as mere animals.” Disgust rose back up through his voice at those words. “That is why they’ll only respect one of their own kind,” the latios said. “Hence the unfortunate need for our façades.”

Solonn was silent for a moment after Jal’tai had finished speaking, deep in thought. Then, with dawning epiphany in his eyes, “You said you needed me—me, specifically, because I have ‘the Speech’, as you called it. You said the person in charge of this city has to have this ability—it’s necessary because the person running this city has to be able to communicate just as well with both humans and pokémon, because the job requires you to deal with both, do I understand right?”

Jal’tai blinked in surprise, then relaxed, looking equally relieved and impressed. “Yes, that’s correct,” he confirmed.

But to the latios’s surprise, Solonn shook his head. “No, Jal’tai. There was another way. Telepaths, Jal’tai,” he said. “Telepaths can make anyone understand them, including humans. How can you have not even considered this? You’re probably a telepath yourself!”

Jal’tai lowered his head slightly and sighed. “That would certainly be convenient if it were truly a viable option, but unfortunately there are reasons why it can’t be. There’s no shortage of people in this world who are mistrusting, even fearful of psychics and the abilities commonly associated with us, including telepathy. Those insecurities and superstitions make those of any species who’d have to rely on telepathy to communicate unsuitable for the job. Convergence and its mission will not be accepted by as many as we need if its leader is one to whom so many would not listen.”

Even with our measures to respect their privacy in place, many species still don’t trust us.”  Sei Salma’s words echoed in Solonn’s memory, and a twinge of guilt struck him. But at the same time, he couldn’t help but sympathize with those who were wary of psychics—the notion of another creature being able to reach and affect his mind was harder for him to abide by when he thought of that latios having trespassed there so recently.

After a moment of scrambling, his mind managed to scrape together another possible argument. “The unown-script, what about that?” he asked. “Both humans and pokémon understand it—and everyone here is made to learn it…”

Jal’tai tried to speak then, but Solonn pressed on, something fierce in his expression. The human was now all too desperately certain that he’d found proof that Jal’tai hadn’t had to do this to him, and that certainty stoked his fury to new heights. “Any human who knows the unown-script could have been your replacement, and there are plenty of those here because knowing unown-script is mandatory here. You didn’t need me. It could have been any of them! You didn’t need me!” he cried.

“Solonn… you must get a hold of yourself,” Jal’tai said, sounding genuinely concerned for Solonn—but there was also the slightest hint of a warning along the edges of his voice. “Calm down, please…”

But Solonn was inconsolable. “You didn’t have to do this to me! You didn’t need me!” he practically shrieked.

Jal’tai let out a long, slow exhalation and met Solonn’s feral stare, looking like a parent who’d finally lost the last shred of patience for their child’s behavior. “I said, calm down,” he said, rising into the air and looking down upon the human with displeasure. There was an ominous gravity to his voice that hadn’t been there before, a far cry from the jovial tone that he’d once used.

Jal’tai raised his talons, then swiftly brought them together and pointed them at Solonn. The latios’s eyes suddenly blazed with a fuchsia light—Solonn’s went massively wide with shock, and he began gasping at the air, unable to breathe.

“I can’t have you losing your mind, Solonn,” Jal’tai said gravely. “Not when you have such a demanding future ahead of you.”

Solonn could only stare back in mortal terror as Jal’tai’s telekinetic onslaught continued, preventing his lungs from filling. His vision was failing, growing dark around the edges and hazing out of focus, and he could feel a smothering oblivion trying to consume his mind.

But before he could succumb to the lack of air, Jal’tai relented. Solonn immediately took a massive, involuntary gulp of air, pain exploding within his chest as his lungs harshly refilled themselves. He slackened, slumping over against the dresser, his head hanging low. After several more sharp, gasping breaths, he weakly raised his head to look up at the latios, his face a sweat-drenched mask of pure, primal terror.

Jal’tai gazed down sorrowfully at the former glalie, shaking his head. “I’m very disappointed in you, my boy,” he said heavily. “I’d thought you would understand the importance of this project. This is about something far greater than you, Solonn. This is about the future of our world, a better future. An equal future. Without our efforts, pokémon will never earn the respect and dignity that we deserve from humanity.”

He set himself back down on the floor in front of Solonn, who automatically shrank further into the corner. The latios sighed in equal parts sorrow and exasperation. “You must accept your destiny, Solonn,” he said quietly. “You must realize you were blessed with the Speech for a higher purpose.”

He laid a talon upon Solonn’s arm to try and console him; Solonn immediately flinched at the contact but didn’t have the strength to resist further. “Please, Solonn. This is a most wonderful and important calling that has chosen you… you should be honored, Solonn. At the very least, you should recognize that losing your head over this isn’t going to make things any different for you, and it’s not going to make things as they were. You must find the serenity to accept this. Please…” he said, squeezing the human’s arm gently, “don’t make me have to pacify you again. I told you that I never wanted you to suffer, and I meant it…”

The latios sighed sorrowfully again and rose back up into the air. “Now, to answer your earlier questions regarding unown-script… it’s true that it’s mandatory for all citizens of this city to learn. However, it is not required learning in the rest of the world. As the mayor, and as part of the Convergence Project, you will frequently have to deal with outsiders, both human and pokémon, with whom you’ll have to be able to speak on their terms. A human who possesses the Speech is the only one who can speak freely to all peoples, to whom all peoples would listen. Hence you are as you are. It’s as simple as that. So you see, I do need you, Solonn.”

Jal’tai cast a glance off to his right, toward the bedroom. “In time, I hope you’ll be able to see things more clearly. Until then, I’m afraid you’ll have to remain in this suite. I will give you the code to exit the room using the transport tile when I feel you’re ready to re-enter society as a human, and I will gladly speak with you more in order to help you prepare for your future duties, but only once I can be sure that you’ve regained your composure enough to listen to me. For now, though, I think you could do with some quiet time alone to relax and contemplate your destiny.”

Jal’tai’s eyes once again took on the fuchsia glow that accompanied his telekinesis, and once again, he applied the psychic force to Solonn. But this time, he merely used his powers to gently lift Solonn from the floor. Panic was written all over the human’s face; he desperately wanted to be released from Jal’tai’s telekinetic hold, but it was just too strong. He couldn’t put up any sort of a struggle against Jal’tai’s power.

The latios guided him through the air, bringing him into the suite’s bedroom, then set him down upon the bed. “Be at peace, my dear boy,” Jal’tai said in a warm, paternal tone. He relinquished the light in his eyes and his hold over Solonn along with it. Then a golden light blossomed around him. A second later, it faded, and Jal’tai was gone.

The human lay there, alone now but finding no comfort in his solitude. Jal’tai was gone for the time being, but in teleporting out, he’d revealed that he could return at any time, without any warning.

Solonn felt another pang of anguish as he lay there thinking upon what he’d become and what he could no longer be. With his identity and element gone, there was no returning to the life he’d once known. Even if he could escape from this suite, this prison, this city and the one to whom it belonged… what then? He couldn’t go back to anyone he once knew, neither Morgan nor his own kind—or what had once been his kind—back in Virc-Dho. None of them would recognize him now, and he couldn’t imagine that they’d believe that he was not as he appeared, that he really was the pokémon they’d once known, just trapped in a human body.

Solonn moaned softly as if in defeat. Trembling, he drew his arms and legs up against his chest and broke into tears once more as he truly realized the impact of this new reality. His life as he had known it was over.

 

Chapter Text

Solonn lay listlessly on the bed, staring up at the ceiling fan above him as if mesmerized by the whirling of its blades. Through vision blurred by sheer exhaustion and an almost continuous stream of tears, it looked like a shimmering vortex of light and motion, and part of him felt like it could just draw him right in.

Hours had passed since the loss of his identity, his element, and his freedom, but he hadn’t regarded the time as it had crept by and didn’t mark the passing moments now. Physically, he was utterly drained, but his mind was host to too many troubles to allow him any rest. He still ached from the telekinetic punishment he’d suffered at Jal’tai’s hands. His body complained of hunger, of lying in the same position for a considerable while, and of a number of other things. But lost as he was in barely-willing contemplation of his situation, Solonn couldn’t really care about his physical discomfort or even truly notice it. The troubles from within just seemed so petty in comparison to what—and who—now troubled him from the outside.

Jal’tai’s voice finally broke the near-silence, managing to cut through all the other things that were attending Solonn’s mind. “Are you awake? I’d like to come in and have a few moments with you if you don’t mind,” the latios called to Solonn from the hall outside.

Solonn didn’t respond, not even so much as to turn toward the voice, but regarded what the latios had just said with weak derision. Since when do you care what I do or don’t mind?

“Prepare to receive a visitor,” announced the voice of the suite. Jal’tai was using the transport tile, Solonn realized. It seemed strange that Jal’tai would bother with it considering that he could simply teleport in whenever he pleased, with no need to warn his prisoner before entering. Solonn didn’t even glance back toward the adjacent den and the transport tile therein, remaining motionless.

Once inside, Jal’tai drifted silently into the bedroom. He appeared at the edge of Solonn’s vision, and in his true form this time; he no longer bothered with any disguises, any pretense. Solonn shut his eyes, curling up and turning away from the latios. A second later, Jal’tai set himself down on the bed beside him.

“Good morning, Solonn,” he said amiably. “How are you feeling today, my boy?”

Solonn gave no response.

The latios frowned; already this wasn’t going well for him. “I wanted to have a few more words with you about what lies ahead for you,” he said, sounding considerably more reserved than he had moments ago. He moved closer to Solonn, looming over him for a moment before craning his neck downward to look right into the human’s face.

“Listen,” Jal’tai said, something slightly authoritative creeping into his voice. “I know this has been quite an overwhelming experience for you, but you’re going to have to adjust to things as they now are, and preferably before too much longer. There’s much that you’ll have to get used to, but I know you can do it.”

He lowered a talon and gently took hold of Solonn’s face, lifting and turning it toward his own. Solonn didn’t bother to resist the contact, his face expressionless as he finally looked at Jal’tai again through glazed eyes. Somewhere deep inside, a bitter, smoldering hatred arose at the sight of those red eyes, that kindly face, but Solonn didn’t dare let it out despite being sure that it’d be wonderfully cathartic. He knew how dangerous Jal’tai’s displeasure could be and was very mindful of the fact that any voiced dissent on his part might invite that wrath—and the mortal threat that came with it—once again.

“You know,” Jal’tai said, “there are certain positive aspects of your current situation that I don’t think you’ve taken the time to consider. Perhaps they’ve simply failed to cross your mind in the midst of everything that must be buzzing about in there, or perhaps you didn’t even know such benefits existed.”

Jal’tai paused to allow Solonn to ask what he was talking about, but no such question came. Apparently unfazed by Solonn’s continuing silent treatment, he resumed. “I happen to know you have a particular aversion to eating meat,” he said. “I inadvertently learned this about you when I confirmed that you have the Speech. Knowing this, I was sorry to make you partake of the Specialty of the House the night before last, and I apologize again now. But you needed it in order to have the strength to endure your transformation.

“But you needn’t ever eat meat again if you don’t want to. Humans are omnivores, Solonn. They don’t have to feed on the flesh of others. Good news for you, wouldn’t you say?”

The notion of never having to eat meat again might have appealed greatly to Solonn under different circumstances, but he couldn’t see such a luxury being worth what his transfiguration had cost him. Through silence, he rejected Jal’tai’s appeal.

Jal’tai let go of the bright, hopeful look in his eyes at this point, his brow and mouth setting into hard lines. “Well, Solonn,” he began, his tone rather stern now, “if you can’t see the merit in this for yourself, I certainly hope you can at least be glad for what your cooperation will help make possible for others. After all, when it all comes down to it, this isn’t about you, me, or this city, but rather the world, the future.”

Here he let go of Solonn’s face and rose from the bed, hovering in place above the human. Solonn immediately turned away once more, trying to ignore the shadow that hung over him.

“The fact of the matter is that whether or not you think you’re ready to begin your new life, you must begin it nonetheless,” Jal’tai told him firmly. “I told you that I’ll soon need to be replaced as the mayor of this city, and I wasn’t joking around. You have a lot to learn, Solonn, and you must begin doing so as soon as possible.”

Jal’tai left the room, leaving Solonn alone with the swarm of thoughts infesting his mind, including the question of what else the latios might have absorbed from his mind—and the doubt that the absorption had really been accidental. He figured Jal’tai had probably just gone ahead and pulled his mind wide open while he’d slept in that theater, leaving no corner of his brain untouched by his psychic powers, taking advantage of the fact that his subject was completely powerless to stop him.

That was the way Jal’tai liked things to be, Solonn determined without a doubt: the latios preferred to be in total control of any given situation, with those he dealt in no position to contest his will. That was surely the real reason he’d turned Solonn into a creature devoid of elemental power: so that he couldn’t really fight back.

It wasn’t long before Jal’tai returned. Not wanting to look upon him if he could help it, Solonn didn’t even know Jal’tai was in the room with him again until the latios spoke.

“It’s time you started growing accustomed to your humanity, Solonn, but for your sake we’ll begin with small steps. Here,” Jal’tai said gently, then lowered something in front of Solonn.

All Solonn could see was a length of black, folded fabric; his face was half-buried in the comforter underneath him. He couldn’t tell what the offered item actually was.

Jal’tai recognized that Solonn didn’t really have the best view of what he was trying to show him. He unfolded the thing and laid it down directly in front of Solonn’s face. Solonn could now clearly see that he’d just been given a pair of boxer shorts.

“You do know how these go on, do you not?” Jal’tai asked.

Solonn stared at the shorts. He did have a fair understanding of how they were supposed to be worn; the pants that Morgan had worn were fundamentally similar, albeit longer. He was almost too weary to bother with the boxers… but the events of the night before were still fresh in his mind, and the memories of the more painful ones shone especially vibrantly. If he didn’t do what the latios expected of him, he risked being subjected to that psychic punishment again.

Besides which, the boxers would restore some small amount of his dignity. Solonn tried to focus on that point in an effort to convince himself that his next actions were motivated by more than just terror. Without a word, he stirred, shifted, and grabbed the shorts. Rather awkwardly, he sat halfway up, staring at them and turning them over in his hands as he tried to figure out which side was which. Once he was sure he had it right, he put them on, slipping them over both ankles at once and wriggling clumsily the rest of the way into them.

“Hmm… I’m afraid you’ve got those on backwards, my boy,” Jal’tai said, wearing an odd expression that only partially succeeded in concealing a hint of amusement.

With a faint sigh, Solonn took the shorts off and put them back on, correctly this time.

“That’s more like it,” Jal’tai said with a smile and a nod. “Now, wearing clothing, even as little of it as you’re presently wearing, might seem strange at first, but I promise you’ll get used to it quickly enough.”

Solonn thought that was a little odd coming from someone who could just pretend his clothes onto himself. Besides which, he didn’t find the notion of covering up strange at all; as a glalie, he’d kept most of his body covered in ice at nearly all times.

“All right, then,” Jal’tai said with a clap of his talons, his voice having regained its former brightness. “Why don’t we take a little tour of this lovely little place, hmm? You’ll be living in this suite until you’re ready to take my office, so you might as well start making yourself at home here. Also, you’ll need to get an idea of how everything works around here; this suite has everything you’ll need in your day-to-day life, but that does you no good if you don’t know where and how to get it all.

“Up you get, then.” Jal’tai didn’t bother waiting for Solonn to get up of his own volition. Once again, he moved Solonn telekinetically, lifting him off of the bed and onto his feet. He then partially relaxed his psychic hold, keeping the human upright but otherwise allowing him to move freely.

“No need to worry, my boy; I won’t let you fall,” Jal’tai assured him. “Now, I know this is about as different as possible from the levitation you’d been used to, but still, walking on two legs shouldn’t be entirely alien to you. After all, you were born as a biped, were you not?”

That much was true; in fact, it’d been less than three months since Solonn had previously had legs. He’d gotten around by walking for nearly two decades prior to his evolution.

You’ve done it before, Solonn reminded himself in a continuous loop as he stood there, but that mantra fell just short of building any real confidence in his human legs. They were, after all, a far cry from a snorunt’s; they were almost ridiculously long and gangly in comparison, and it was hard to believe they could really support him. He was so mistrustful of them that if it weren’t for Jal’tai’s telekinesis keeping him upright, his lack of faith might’ve made them give out.

But again, Solonn was very mindful of the threat that lay at the end of Jal’tai’s patience. Inhaling deeply, trying to avoid overanalyzing what he was doing, he took one short, unsteady step forward and then another. He stopped for a moment as he finally remembered to exhale the breath he’d taken; even if he wasn’t altogether calm and sure of what he was doing, he wanted to look like he was. With an effort, he lifted his gaze from the carpet to the latios hovering nearby, signaling that he was good to go.

Jal’tai accepted this, nodding slightly with a small smile. “Good, good. Come, then, let me show you around…”

He turned to his left and drifted out of the bedroom, then looked over his shoulder and made a beckoning motion with a single talon. Unenthusiastically, but mindfully compliant all the same, Solonn followed. He tried to move a little quicker and more confidently than he’d been moving, but his faith in those limbs was still somewhat lacking, and it showed. While he was keeping fairly close to Jal’tai (though the latios’s deliberately slow drift was mostly to credit for that), his legs were doing nearly as much wobbling as walking. But Jal’tai kept him steady, telekinetically supporting him through every step.

The latios led him into the den, where there were especially many of those dragon statues. Solonn found himself rather disliking their blithe expressions, the way they smiled as if they approved of what had been done to him. Jal’tai drifted over to the green armchair; smiling, he motioned for the human to come and join. Apparently Jal’tai regarded the chair as noteworthy, though Solonn couldn’t fathom why. He came to stand at Jal’tai’s side, trying not to fidget too conspicuously despite his unease around the latios.

“Have a look at this,” Jal’tai said as he clutched the soft arm of the chair. He pulled up on it slowly to ensure that the human at his side could see what he was doing. The arm opened on an unseen hinge, revealing a previously hidden compartment containing a small, silver device.

“This is the remote control for your entertainment system,” Jal’tai told him. “In case you’ve not seen one of these in use, observe.” He drifted over to a large oak armoire against the wall and opened it, revealing a television, a DVD player, and a CD player surrounded by speakers. Jal’tai then returned to Solonn’s side and pointed the remote at the devices.

“Pay close attention, now,” Jal’tai instructed, and indicated one of the remote’s buttons followed by another. He repeated this action a couple of times, intent on making sure that Solonn memorized the sequence, then pushed the two buttons in succession. The CD player came awake with golden LED numbers, and a split-second later, a light, jazzy tune started playing.

Jal’tai let it play for a few moments, smiling slightly as he listened, his eyes closed. Then he shut the music off, making certain to let Solonn see how he did so.

“If you’re not in the mood for music, you could always enjoy what the television has to offer,” the latios said, then demonstrated how to turn the television on. The screen lit up with an image of a human in a brightly colored suit and tie. The human was standing in front of a brown car, shouting about being crazy and about offering the lowest prices in Hoenn.

“You’ve got three hundred and fifty-one channels to choose from. These arrows here—” He indicated two more buttons. “—will let you cycle up and down through them one at a time, or you can go straight to a channel by inputting its number with the numeral buttons. I’m sure you’ll memorize the good ones quickly enough…” He glanced back at the television, where a different human was pictured offering the secret to shed excess weight around the hips, thighs, and buttocks. Jal’tai regarded the commercial with an odd look before turning back to Solonn.

“I’ll admit, most of those channels are pure rubbish around the clock,” he said, “but there are also a couple of real quality stations—they’re broadcast from right here in Convergence,” he informed Solonn, sounding unmistakably proud. He changed the channel again, and this time pokémon appeared on the screen rather than humans. A ledian sat behind a desk. Beside him, a small image appeared: a medicham in a police uniform, along with two houndoom with badges affixed to collars, leading three smeargle out of a building.

“Police have finally apprehended the vandals responsible for defacing storefronts downtown on numerous occasions,” the ledian anchorman reported, while at the bottom of the screen, his words were displayed in unown-script subtitles for the benefit of human viewers. “Whether these individuals were actively trying to claim territory or merely acting toward their own amusement remains unclear, but the CPD has issued a statement saying that whatever their motives might have—”

Jal’tai turned off the television, then put the remote back in its storage compartment. “There’s something else I have to show you with regards to the television, but let’s finish having our look around first, shall we?”

The latios left the den, and Solonn shuffled out after him with one last glance at the now dark and lifeless screen. He wasn’t overly impressed with it; he was already somewhat familiar with television, having watched it with Morgan a few times back when he was still small enough to be kept indoors. Even then, though its ability to reproduce images and sounds even more faithfully than his own memory certainly impressed him, what he’d seen of its programming had fallen short of appealing. Under normal circumstances, the idea of the stations this city boasted, run by pokémon for pokémon, might have intrigued him. But again, these were far from normal circumstances.

Jal’tai then guided him into a walk-in closet. It was fairly long and wide enough to admit Jal’tai’s generous, rigid wingspan, albeit just barely.

“Now, it was never my intent to have you running around in your underwear all the time,” Jal’tai said, with yet another of his chuckles. “Here, I’ve provided you with an exquisite collection of some of the finest clothing money can buy. I’ve spared no expense for you, my boy—why, just look at this here.” He gestured to his right, where a navy blue jacket hung.

Much less interested in it than the latios seemed to be, “Hm,” Solonn said. In truth, he found nothing at all remarkable about the jacket. He was equally unimpressed by the rest of the clothing Jal’tai showed him, but he gave the latios, who was obviously quite proud of these purchases, an occasional, noncommittal noise or vague nod, feigning at least some interest in his new wardrobe.

As there wasn’t room enough in the closet for Jal’tai to turn around, the latios chose to teleport back into the den. He resumed his tour, ushering Solonn into a spacious bathroom, one that had been designed with various species in mind. There were sinks at three different heights and four different kinds of toilets. The shower was quite large, with multiple spigots of varying shapes and sizes; in addition to the standard one that dispensed water, the others offered bathing options such as “mud”, “sand”, and “acid”, according to a large, yellow label affixed just outside the shower compartment. All the fixtures were similarly labeled, with instructions for their use in human- and unown-script. Solonn also noticed small, white labels, apparently handwritten, that designated certain of the fixtures for human use.

There were also mirrors in this room: one over each sink and a tall one that stood alone against the opposite wall. In the third mirror, Solonn saw his new, human face for the first time. The dark eyes that had become his own stared back at him from within the glass, bloodshot and glazed over.

Solonn didn’t notice at first when Jal’tai spoke next, the latios’s words reaching him with a delay through the fog enveloping his mind. “This, Solonn, is where you’ll attend to your hygienic needs… among other needs,” the latios said. “Be sure to read those labels; they’ll show you exactly how to use these things, as well as which among them you should use and which you shouldn’t. Generally speaking, most of this equipment is for the purposes of cleaning and grooming yourself, whereas this—” Jal’tai craned his neck toward the toilets, pointing at the one that was suitable for use by humans. “—well, its purpose is…”

Short moments later, they left the bathroom and went to the other end of the suite, where the kitchen was located. The room itself was quite small, as were the appliances within it: the refrigerator, sink, counter, and electric range were much shorter than their counterparts in kitchens designed solely for human use (though the refrigerator was also rather wider than the typical human-style model, so as not to forsake any of its capacity). Cabinets, drawers, a toaster, a blender, and a microwave oven were also set up at heights that were convenient for smaller species. Yellow instruction labels like those found in the bathroom were present here, too, detailing the use of each of the appliances. There was also a modest dining area adjoined to the kitchen, containing a small, low table and a trio of cushioned, wooden stools.

“Here is where you can get yourself something to eat whenever the need or desire arises, as I would imagine it surely must have by now,” Jal’tai said. “You must be famished, hmm?”

Solonn was hungry indeed, and considerably so; he hadn’t eaten since the evening before last. He’d just been so preoccupied through most of the time since that his hunger, as well as several other physical complaints, had gone largely ignored. Still, for the dragon’s sake, “Hm,” he responded, with yet another minimal nod to indicate his reply was affirmative.

“Mmm-hmm, figured as much,” Jal’tai said. He pulled a bowl down from the cabinets, followed by a box of frosted corn flakes. He set them on the kitchen counter, then fetched a quart-sized carton of milk and a nanab berry. Faintly humming the jazzy tune from earlier, the latios poured a small amount of cereal and milk into the bowl, then diced up the nanab with his claws and tossed that in, too.

Jal’tai brought the bowl of cereal to the table along with a spoon, then fixed a glass of milk, set it down next to the bowl, and beckoned Solonn to come over. The human complied, stopping a couple of feet away from Jal’tai as the latios pulled out a chair for him and pointed at it.

Having seen humans sit down before, Solonn had a sense of what to do. He went over to the chair, trying to allow his body to fold up and conform to it. He did a fairly commendable job of it, though he did drop himself onto the chair a little too hard; he grimaced at the unpleasant shock to his tailbone.

“I certainly hope you like this,” Jal’tai said pleasantly as he hovered beside Solonn. “It’s something I’ve developed something of an addiction to, I’ll confess,” he said with a chuckle. “Plus, it’s something that’s very easy to whip up; I’m sure you can do it yourself anytime now that you’ve seen me do it. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is the sort of thing you ought to be living on, but as far as more advanced meal preparation goes… well, no one becomes a master chef in a day, now do they?” He laughed again, then turned an expectant gaze straight into Solonn’s eyes. “Well, have at it, then!” he said cheerfully.

Solonn merely stared into his cereal for a moment. Almost robotically, he began to lower his hand toward the bowl—but a blue, three-clawed talon kept it from plunging into it.

“Whoops!” Jal’tai exclaimed, laughing. “I can’t believe I could be so forgetful… Here.” He showed Solonn the spoon. “Use this; it’s proper human etiquette, not to mention less messy. You just scoop it up like this,” he said, miming the action a couple of times before handing the spoon to Solonn.

Solonn did well enough with it; he only spilled a couple of spoonfuls. The cereal and berries were pleasantly sweet, but his near-apathy toward eating at the moment made it a little difficult to finish his breakfast. But he managed it nonetheless, earning a pleased smile from the dragon who’d been hovering beside him all the while.

“There, now wasn’t that nice?” Jal’tai asked; Solonn gave another vague response. The latios took a small roll of paper towels from the cabinets, cleaned up the spilled cereal, then put the used dishes into the sink. Once he was finished tidying up, he motioned for Solonn to rise and follow him once more, and the human did so without a word.

Once they were back in the den, Jal’tai turned on the television back on, bringing a rather tone-deaf, singing meowth to life on the screen. “You’ll recall that I mentioned having something else to show you over here, correct?” the latios said as he made his way over to the armoire, opening the cabinet under the television and producing a DVD jewel case from it. Solonn gave even less of a response than he’d been giving, but Jal’tai didn’t seem to mind.

The latios looked over his shoulder and saw Solonn just standing there beside the armchair. “Go ahead and have a seat,” he said while carefully prying the disc out of its case with his claws. “Watch me carefully, now,” he said once he saw that Solonn had done as he was told. He turned on the DVD player and popped in the disc, then went to hover at Solonn’s side.

“This is just one out of a series of videos I made for the benefit of my successor in the event that they’d come to me in the form of a pokémon,” Jal’tai said as the video started, bringing up a simple menu in unown-script onto the screen. The menu bore only two options: “Setup” and “Play”. “Now, to begin the video, you simply press these,” he said, showing Solonn which buttons to press. “This will pause it if you need to take a break while viewing; this one will go back and replay certain parts if you need to review them or if you miss something; and this one will stop it when you’re finished watching it. Then just take the disc out and put it back where it belongs—the ‘OPEN’ and ‘POWER’ buttons over there are clearly labeled,” he added, waving toward the armoire.

Meanwhile, the video began. Rather loud, synthesizer-based music started blaring, and “Humanity and You” appeared on the screen in brightly colored letters.

Jal’tai grinned. “I think you’ll enjoy these, Solonn; they really turned out quite nicely. These videos will help you learn the basic habits and skills of living as a human. Once you’ve watched this volume, you can just pop in another one and watch that. Mind you, they are numbered, and you’d do well to watch them in numerical order—some of the later ones might be a bit confusing if you don’t.”

Jal’tai placed the remote in Solonn’s hand, then drifted over to the wall separating the suite from the hall outside. “I’ll check in on you again sometime soon,” he said. “Oops… you’ve missed part of that video on account of my talking, haven’t you?” he added, sounding mildly embarrassed and apologetic. “You might want to back that up, then. Well, anyhow, I’ll be seeing you!” With that, the dragon left, once again skipping the keypad and transport tile and just teleporting out instead.

Solonn stared dully at the television screen, not really absorbing anything going on there and not bothering to restart the video from the beginning as per Jal’tai’s advice. His mind was still on Jal’tai even though the latios had left. Solonn had stashed most of his loathing for Jal’tai deep within his mind while in his presence, silently detached from it through a sort of numb resignation born of self-preservation. But now, with the latios no longer shadowing him, all of the offense, hatred, and bitter indignation that Jal’tai inspired within him came to the forefront once again.

Solonn very briefly let his attention light upon the video. He shut the doors of his mind to it again almost immediately. The program was the handiwork of that latios, just another element of his scheme—Solonn couldn’t help but dislike it. He paid the video no further mind even as it concluded, returned to the menu screen, and began playing its loud theme music on a continuous loop.

Chapter Text

During Jal’tai’s next visit two days later, Solonn looked at whatever he was shown, did whatever he was told to do, and managed to show no outward signs of resentment or indignation. As soon as the latios left, however, that veneer fell away, leaving behind a bitter, despondent man who mainly just languished through the hours, lacking the spirit to look after himself beyond the bare minimum needed to stay alive. He barely slept, didn’t bathe or groom himself in any way, and didn’t bother watching any more of the latios’s training videos. He ate only when Jal’tai was actually present to make sure that he did.

The self-neglect was beginning to take its toll on Solonn—which didn’t go unnoticed by the latios, as Solonn learned the very next evening on Jal’tai’s third visit.

Jal’tai materialized in the room, and Solonn met his gaze at once from the green armchair. From the moment the dragon appeared, Solonn knew this visit wouldn’t be like the others. The friendly, jovial air the latios had worn before was gone; his face was a hard-lined mask, the expression unreadable.

Lowering his head slightly and folding his arms in front of his chest, Jal’tai brought himself to hover right in front of Solonn. His feathered brows drew together almost as if he were wincing in pain. He held the human’s dark, flat stare for a long moment, then shook his head pityingly.

“Look at you…” the latios said quietly. He moved even closer to Solonn, his gaze burning upon the former glalie’s unshaven face from only a few inches away now. “Solonn,” he said, his tone heavy, “I know you’ve been neglecting yourself and your lessons. This won’t do, my boy. This won’t do at all.”

Though Solonn’s slackened features showed no sign of it, a spark of fear stirred and began swiftly growing deep inside him. Something not quite conscious. Something primal. Jal’tai knew he wasn’t getting what he wanted from his would-be successor, and Solonn feared that he was about to suffer for disappointing the latios—and perhaps this time Jal’tai would just give up on getting what he wanted from Solonn and decide to cut his losses. In silent terror, Solonn awaited the fuchsia blaze in Jal’tai’s eyes and the agony that would follow… but no such things came.

“I told you emphatically that you must find it in yourself to make peace with this life,” Jal’tai said soberly, “for it is something you cannot change. I told you this for a very good reason, Solonn: you can’t live a life that you don’t accept. If you keep on like this, you’ll waste away… I cannot allow that, Solonn. There’s too much at stake. I will not see the future of my city, my mission, simply fade out like this.”

He ascended higher into the air, nearly scraping the ceiling with his wingtips. From this height, he looked all the more imposing; Solonn was all too sure that this would be the end. But still the latios made no move to harm him.

“For the sake of your destiny, as well as that of Convergence and the most noble cause for which it stands, serenity will be instilled in you,” Jal’tai told Solonn firmly. “Fortunately, I’ve come across someone who should be of a tremendous benefit to that end. Her name is Neleng, and you’ll be having your first session with her tonight. She ought to be arriving in less than an hour.

“I dearly hope to see you improve, Solonn. There’s no need for you to make things harder for yourself than you already have.” With those words, Jal’tai left in his usual fashion, vanishing in a burst of golden light.

Solonn’s eyes lingered upon the empty space where Jal’tai had just been, resenting the latios’s ability to simply leave this place in a flash—he wished he could do the same. The way Jal’tai kept flaunting that ability only served to rub Solonn’s nose into the fact that he was stuck here. Solonn wondered if that was part of why Jal’tai always chose to teleport out.

As the minutes passed, Solonn just sat there, doing nothing. He wasn’t really anticipating Neleng’s arrival; he’d been too preoccupied with the fear that he was about to be punished or even killed to pay much attention to what Jal’tai had actually said during his visit.

At length, the computerized voice of the suite announced an incoming arrival. Solonn, expecting it would just be Jal’tai again, was faintly surprised to find someone and something very different there at the transport tile instead: a chimecho. He was a bit confused by the sight until he remembered Jal’tai’s mention of a visitor. It was someone with an “N”-name, as far as he recalled; he couldn’t remember the rest.

The chimecho made her way into the den at once, her tail trailing from beneath her as she drifted through the air. She stopped before Solonn and smiled.

“Good evening,” she greeted him in an airy voice. “My name is Neleng, and I’m here to help clear your mind. Are you ready to begin?”

Solonn didn’t respond, staring at the chimecho with uncertainty. How could he be ready when he didn’t really know what this creature had in store for him?

But Neleng was prepared to proceed regardless of his answer or lack thereof. She beamed at him as brightly as if he’d just agreed with the utmost enthusiasm to whatever she was about to do. “Very well, then,” she said. She rose until the golden suction disc on the top of her head met the ceiling and took hold of it, clinging tightly yet effortlessly.

The chimecho gave a few gentle ripples of her tail as she hung there, smiling serenely down upon Solonn. “Just relax… Float away on a breeze of music…” she said. She began swaying there where she hung, very slowly, very gracefully, and then she began to sing.

She began with only a single voice, but it gradually unfolded into a chorus of many, one voice at a time. Harmonies and countermelodies gracefully intertwined, weaving in and out amongst one another, merging, diverging, and reuniting in cycles.

The music surrounded Solonn, absorbing his thoughts as it seemed to swirl around him. Under the song’s spell, everything else within the scope of his consciousness was washed away. Soon, his world was comprised solely of the swirling currents of melody. Nothing else existed. Nothing else mattered.

He didn’t notice at first when the song finally ended, some twenty minutes later. Once he did, he looked about somewhat dazedly for the source of the music, briefly unable to remember where it had come from. Then the last of the psychic residue that the chimecho’s song had left within his mind cleared… and the swarming miseries that had plagued his mind during the past few days faded with it.

Not that he’d been entirely purged of them; hints of anguish and bitterness lingered, and would continue to do so as long as he remained imprisoned within this body and this suite. But Neleng’s song had tamed those thoughts and feelings, to a degree. They were now organized, in a sense, not perfectly but well enough that they no longer smothered him with their weight.

Solonn looked up at Neleng, who was still hanging there and swaying slightly. She appeared to be slowly emerging from a trance. She did something to me, Solonn reckoned, something psychic… Exactly what she’d done, he couldn’t be sure. He just hoped it hadn’t been anything harmful. It was, after all, Jal’tai who’d sent her.

The chimecho finally went still, sighing softly as her eyes slowly opened. She detached herself from the ceiling, smiling as she descended once more.

“I’ll see you again tomorrow,” she said. “Drift free until then…”

Neleng floated away, and Solonn’s gaze followed her as she went back to the wall between the suite and the hall outside. She brought the end of her tail up to reach the keypad there, folding its prehensile tip and using it to quickly input a sequence of numbers. The tile below her lit up, and she lowered herself onto it without delay. The lens scanned her, and a second later, she was gone in a green flash.

Solonn stared with a twinge of envy at the now lightless tile. Jal’tai had shared the codes with Neleng. He likely had no intentions of sharing them with Solonn anytime soon, or possibly ever. They were only for Jal’tai and those who gladly served him.

What did Jal’tai need with a transporter anyway? If he really wanted to make Solonn feel like he had nowhere else to go, no other choice to make, he could have just left those walls entirely blank. He could have brought in other teleporters to tend to his would-be successor. There was no need for a visible way out at all.

Yet Jal’tai had insisted on installing the transporter—and insisted on using it to get in every time. Why? Why not just teleport in? Teleporting out made sense, Solonn conceded, and not just because Jal’tai made him feel all the more helpless in doing so. It was quicker, it was more convenient, and…

And it kept anyone from seeing which numbers unlocked the tile. But Neleng… she didn’t have that option. She might have pressed those keys as fast as she could, but…

All of a sudden, the way from here seemed almost ridiculously clear. Neleng held the means for him to escape—he just needed to watch her closely whenever she used that transporter. If he could just see what she was doing—an almost painful thrill seized his heart—if he just could memorize the code…

The hope began to fade almost as soon as it had arrived. There remained the matter of what he’d do after he got out. Since he was no longer a glalie and had no way to prove he ever was one, returning to Virc-Dho didn’t seem like an option.

The only other familiar place he had to go was Lilycove… and it occurred to him that if Morgan had been successfully reunited with her other pokémon—or at least one of the psychics among them—one of them could psychically confirm that he was indeed what he claimed to be. If so… at least he could make a new home among some of his friends, even if he could never go back to his original home.

Then something else occurred to him, and it sent a chill straight into his heart. After he made his escape, Jal’tai would be sure to try and find him—and since Solonn had specifically mentioned fleeing from Lilycove, that was one of the places Jal’tai was sure to look.

It was all too easy to picture Jal’tai in the Yorkes’ house, with both Morgan and Eliza lying unconscious before him as he scoured their minds for information that might lead him to Solonn. The thought of them having their minds violated in such a manner was disgusting, and the thought of what might happen if any of Morgan’s other pokémon were there to try and stop Jal’tai sickened him even further. Even if they all fought as a team, there was no guarantee that they could stand against the latios. And resisting him could cost them their lives.

He sighed heavily; it seemed Lilycove was out of the question, too, leaving him to wonder just where he could go.

Anywhere but here will do, Solonn decided finally, resolutely, anywhere he isn’t. Maybe Solonn couldn’t reclaim the life he’d once known. Maybe he’d never see any of his friends and family again. But he at least he could make his life his own again, taking it out of Jal’tai’s talons. He didn’t know what sort of future could possibly lie ahead of him now, but at least now there was a chance that it could be his future, his choice.

With a deep breath, Solonn rose from the chair, shakily but determinedly. He leveled a hard stare at the wall and the keypad separating him from his freedom. Soon, he told himself silently, he would surpass that barrier. Soon, he would take back his life.

 

* * *

 

From the moment he’d come up with his escape plan, Solonn carried on in a very different manner than he’d done in the days prior. He knew and accepted now that he’d have to prepare himself for the life he’d have to forge once he was free—a human life.

So it was that not long after Neleng had left him, he’d sat down and watched one of Jal’tai’s training videos. Though not exactly keen on watching something that Jal’tai had made, he’d determined that he’d just have to bite back his resentment where this was concerned. The videos provided valuable information and demonstrations that he’d need in his new life, and so he’d vowed to watch as many of them as he could before he made a break for it.

He’d also regained the will to take care of himself again, fueled by the hope of impending freedom. He tried to get at least a couple of hours of sleep each night and bothered to feed himself whenever he hungered, knowing that he’d need his strength for his upcoming escape. He’d learned how to prepare a small variety of meals, but still wasn’t quite brave enough to try making anything that required actual cooking—it wouldn’t do for him to burn more food than he ate.

The videos illustrated the importance of good hygiene and dressing well in human society, and Solonn took heed of those lessons. Though his first attempt at a bath resulted in minor scalding, and his first attempt at shaving left his face bleeding in no fewer than six places, he generally did a decent job of keeping himself tidy. He also began fully dressing himself rather than just lounging about in his underwear, knowing from both the videos and his time with the Yorkes that humans generally kept most of themselves covered at all times.

During his visits over the course of these days, Jal’tai noticed the improvements in Solonn’s well-being. As a result, the latios’s demeanor was even livelier than ever, devoid of that stern displeasure—it seemed his would-be successor was finally accepting and growing into the role that had been chosen for him.

Though Solonn’s temperament was definitely improving, Jal’tai still sent Neleng over each night to perform her mindsong therapy. Solonn reckoned that the latios had decided those sessions might as well continue since they seemed to be doing some good. Indeed they were, but not solely in the way the latios had intended. Neleng’s sessions helped keep Solonn’s mind clear, which in turn allowed him to stay focused and determined to achieve his goal of escape.

The chimecho was fulfilling her other role in Solonn’s endeavor nicely, as well. After turning that armchair ever so slightly toward the transporter, he’d been able to watch Neleng punch in the code out of the corner of his eye with relative ease. After the eighth session, eleven days after the morning when he’d first awakened as a human, Solonn was sure that he’d successfully memorized the sequence. He was ready to make his move.

Jal’tai had visited earlier that day, and Neleng had just left an hour or so ago, so Solonn wasn’t expecting either of them anywhere near the suite again anytime soon. If ever there was an optimal time to make a break for it, this was it.

He stood there before the keypad, his breathing shallow as his chest tightened. He raised a trembling, sweating hand to the keys, and one by one, his shaking index finger found each of the code’s eight digits: Seven… three… four… nine… zero… four… six… two…

The next second felt like it would never end. Then that second passed, and to Solonn’s immeasurable relief, the tile below his feet took on that familiar, green glow and the lens scanned him.

The tile gave a bright flash. He felt a tingling sensation over the surface of his skin, and then something rushed him through a brief nonexistence. When he rematerialized, he was on the other side of the wall.

He took in the sight of the hallway stretching to either side, and a giddy sort of disbelief spread through him. A beat later, he dared to believe what the sight before him signified: he had done it. He was out, and now he could finally make his bid for freedom.

In reverse, he replayed the memories of the last time he’d been out here, trying to remember how to get to the exit. It was hard to extract much detail from them; he’d been drugged the last time he’d been outside the suite, which had hampered his perception to no small degree.

Luckily, Jal’tai’s videos had included a segment on operating elevators. Solonn doubted he’d have remembered how to do so otherwise. Before long, he found the elevator for that floor and quickly pushed the button to call it up. When the doors finally opened, he hurried through them without a second’s hesitation.

Solonn chose the lowermost floor, and a breath later, a funny little plummeting sensation in his stomach signified the elevator’s descent. Soon after, it came to a stop and its doors slid open, revealing a view of the spacious lobby—and the exit beyond.

The lobby was relatively quiet at the moment, with no one there except for the swampert receptionist and a solitary primeape off in the corner, the latter half-watching cartoons on a wall-mounted TV. Solonn tried to hide his nervousness as he passed them, not wanting to draw too much attention to himself. As far as those two needed to be concerned, he was just a human being like any other, with no reason why he shouldn’t be in that lobby or heading out those doors.

Without a word, he crossed the room to the exit. Those last doors separating him from the way out of Convergence slid silently out of his way, and he stepped out into a starless, overcast night.

He cast one last look behind him at the towering Convergence Inn, the place where his identity and element had been lost, the place that had been his prison for nearly two weeks. He averted his gaze once more almost immediately, walking away from it at a brisk pace. He never wanted to see that place again.

Solonn had no choice but to stop at the next corner, where cars sped up and down the street in his way. He shivered as he stood there; the silk shirt and simple slacks he’d chosen to wear that day offered little protection against the chilly, late-September wind. Not terribly far away, he managed to identify the dark line of trees that represented the border between Convergence and its surrounding woods—that was his goal. The cars were currently barring his path… but seconds later, the way was clear once more. He took advantage of this at once, crossing the street before the traffic could pick up again.

His eyes locked onto the boundary beyond which the world didn’t belong to Jal’tai—the sooner he reached it, the better. He wanted to make a dash for the trees, but even now, he still wasn’t entirely used to his new legs. He was still wary of running on them.

He shook his head, trying to clear his mind of doubt. If you can walk, you can run, he told himself. Don’t think about it; just do it! Hesitating no longer, he broke into a run with a somewhat awkward start, stumbling over the first step and nearly overcorrecting afterward.

Once Solonn managed to stabilize himself, he silently told himself to keep running until he reached that forest. But he was unused to running for any great distance in any body, and exhaustion came on quite swiftly. Nonetheless, he ignored his body’s demands for rest, his sights and determination fixed upon his goal. He only stopped when another red light and another wave of rushing cars blocked his path.

Solonn gritted his teeth in pain as he waited anxiously for a break in the traffic, the cold, sharp wind tearing through his throat with each harsh, gasping breath. The forest wasn’t much further before him now than the Convergence Inn was behind him; the closer he got to it, the more impatient to reach it he became.

Finally, the path before him was clear and safe again. He hadn’t even finished catching his breath from the last dash, but with such a short way left to go before he could put this city and the latios it belonged to behind him for good, he just couldn’t wait to close that final distance.

Amber sparkles of light streaked past him: rays from the streetlights, distorted by the tears that the stinging wind and a number of other things brought to his eyes as he ran. Shooting pains stabbed into his ribs, and there was a burning ache in his stomach and legs. Still, he tried to keep running, desperate to escape Convergence no matter how it hurt. As far as he was concerned at this point, living free was worth any suffering.

Very nearly at the verge of collapsing, with his steps faltering and his heart hammering so violently that he thought it might explode at any second, Solonn reached Convergence’s limit at last. He was seconds from crossing the boundary—

—And then blazing jets of fire shot forth from either side with a loud fwooossssh and surged up before him. With an almost voiceless cry of alarm and surprise, he backpedaled at once from the burning line of flames in his path, stumbling and falling backwards in his haste. He tried to get back to his feet but failed. Realizing his legs wouldn’t support him again anytime soon after what he’d just forced them to do, he instead started scrabbling backward to escape from the fire, only to be stopped very soon after when he bumped into something.

Throwing a fearful glance over his shoulder, Solonn saw two houndoom, the golden badges affixed to their collars glinting in the light from the flames. Their jaws dripped with glowing embers as they stared him down, and both of them growled ominously.

“Hold it right there,” one of them snarled. “You’re not going anywhere.”

As if to emphasize the point, the blazing line suddenly advanced at either side, forming a burning circle around Solonn and the two houndoom. The flames roared as they danced on all sides, but they didn’t touch him, as if something were holding them at bay.

That something—that someone—seemed to drop right out of the air in front of Solonn in the next moment, landing without a sound. A medicham in a police uniform now stood before him—Solonn had been so focused on the path directly before him that he’d failed to see her perched in the trees up ahead.

Her eyes glowed bright fuchsia; she was using her psychic powers to manipulate the two houndoom’s flames and keep them in check. But Solonn feared that it meant she was about to subject him to the same kind of telekinetic punishment Jal’tai had used. As it was, he couldn’t move at all now, and he was sure his exhaustion wasn’t solely to blame.

The circle of flames simply and abruptly vanished, and the medicham stepped forward. She took hold of Solonn’s arms, and using a combination of her telekinesis and her own physical strength, she brought him back to his feet. Solonn wanted to struggle but found, to no real surprise on his part, that he still couldn’t move of his own accord.

The houndoom stepped aside as the medicham moved to stand behind Solonn. Once there, she took both of his wrists in her hands, gripping them tightly.“Start walking,” she commanded him, her voice soft but her tone unmistakably serious.

Tentatively, not quite daring to believe that the medicham could have loosened her psychic hold on him enough to let him walk, Solonn tried to take a step forward and succeeded. He tried to pull himself out of the medicham’s grasp, but it was much too strong for him to break, especially given how very little strength his dash from the Convergence Inn had left him. Resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do to resist her, Solonn allowed the medicham to drive him onward, dreading whatever lay at their destination as he walked.

The cops brought him back into town, the medicham telekinetically keeping her captive from collapsing outright. The houndoom nipped at his feet whenever he faltered too much in his steps, their fangs only missing him by a hair. At length, they arrived at a very tall, brick building downtown. A brass sign hung over its entrance, lit from below by bright lights; “CONVERGENCE TOWER”, it read.

The houndoom pushed the doors open, and the medicham shoved Solonn into the building, still holding on to him tightly. She steered him into an elevator, which made a long ascent before letting him and the cops out into a short hallway with massive, wooden doors at its end.

The doors filled Solonn’s vision as his captors came to a stop before them. A speaker mounted in the wall to his left came on with a brief crackle of static, and then the last voice in the world that Solonn wanted to hear at that moment spoke through it.

“Bring him in,” Jal’tai said. The cops responded to the order at once. The two houndoom pushed their way through the doors and held them open as the medicham brought Solonn into the room beyond.

Solonn now stood in an enormous, richly furnished office. Seated before him at a very large and tidy desk was none other than Jal’tai, currently in the guise of Rolf Whitley. He leveled a stare at Solonn that was forbiddingly stern but unmistakably saddened at the same time.

“That’ll do, madam, gentlemen,” Jal’tai said without inflection to the medicham and houndoom, dismissing them. The three cops nodded, and the medicham released both of her holds on Solonn before walking out of the office. The two houndoom followed her away, and the doors swung shut behind them.

Solonn, still drained of most of his strength and no longer supported physically or psychically by the medicham, had dropped to his hands and knees almost immediately after she’d let go of him. He’d remained in that position since, his head hanging toward the hardwood floor. A winged shadow fell over him as soon as the cops were gone, and a second later, a talon descended upon his head, lifting his face.

No longer wearing his human mirage, Jal’tai stared right into Solonn’s eyes with a look of distinct sorrow. “I’m very disappointed in you, my boy,” he said gravely. “I told you not to make things harder for yourself than they had to be, but you just wouldn’t listen…”

The latios sighed heavily, and his eyes began shimmering with tears. “I never wanted it to come to this,” he said, his voice quavering as if threatening to break, “but you’ve left me no choice. I’m afraid that I must now take drastic measures to ensure your cooperation and the preservation of this city’s noble mission…”

 

Chapter Text

Taloned arms lowered, embracing Solonn and lifting him up off the floor. Grave, red eyes held his gaze. Solonn immediately wanted Jal’tai to let him go, but he simply lacked the strength to do anything more than shudder in the latios’s arms. Part of him wanted to scream, but he didn’t have that in him, either. All he could manage was a continuous stream of nearly voiceless protests, wordless save for an occasionally discernible “no”.

Jal’tai held him there against his chest for a long moment, drawing a deep breath as his somber stare continued to weigh upon Solonn’s face. He could hardly stand the way Solonn was looking back at him. Hopelessness and terror were etched into every line of the human’s face, an expression befitting cornered prey.

It didn’t have to be like this, the latios lamented silently. Everything could have been so much easier, but you just wouldn’t let yourself see the way… and now…

Jal’tai sighed, resigned with no small measure of regret to the course of action he was about to take. He envisioned himself and Solonn in another location, a place that lay hidden below that very tower, and focused his mind sharply on that image. Then he cast out a tendril of his psychic power and projected it into that destination. A fraction of a second later, the psychic force reeled them in, and with a burst of golden light, the two of them teleported out of the office.

An instant later, that light drained from Solonn’s vision, revealing his new surroundings. The room he and Jal’tai now occupied was just large enough to allow the rigid-winged latios to move about comfortably. It was dimly lit by a single lamp mounted overhead, which cast a soft, rose-colored glow over the room.

Solonn saw little more of this place than what could be viewed over Jal’tai’s shoulder, and most of what he could see was dominated by a large marble panel, on which an image of a latias stood out in relief. She was hovering in place, her arms outstretched, with a benevolent smile curving across her face. Her feathers were accented with inlaid gold, making her shine in the warm, gentle lighting.

Below the panel sat several elaborately carved, earthen pots containing delicate-looking, fluffy white flowers. The pots surrounded a tiny, shallow pool, at whose center a small fountain continually flowed with a soft murmuring.

In a detached way, Solonn wondered about the enshrined latias and what sort of a place this could be to contain such a thing. Not knowing made it hard to guess what Jal’tai could have in store for him here. But he was sure that whatever awaited him, it wouldn’t be good.

He let his head loll backwards over Jal’tai’s arm to see what lay at the other end of the room. He was greeted by a very different sight: no shrines, no flowers, no portraits. There was only a metal table, unremarkable and featureless save for a series of slots arranged in symmetrical patterns all the way down its length.

Solonn got a chilling sense that the table would be involved in whatever punishment Jal’tai intended for him. He swallowed hard as he stared at it, already imagining how he might suffer there.

Jal’tai let go of him, but Solonn didn’t hit the floor. There was no question why; he could see the fuchsia light in Jal’tai’s eyes. The latios lifted him a little higher into the air, then began guiding him backward—toward that table. It seemed Solonn’s suspicions about it had been right on the mark.

He felt the cold, hard metal through his shirt as he was laid down on the table, the chill quickly seeping into his already aching bones. His limbs moved against his will as Jal’tai telekinetically repositioned them between pairs of those slots. The next second, metal bands suddenly erupted from the slots and shackled his arms, legs, and waist to the table.

Slowly, Jal’tai moved toward Solonn. The light faded from his eyes as he came to a stop directly above his captive—and then a blaze of another kind awakened in its place, the exact nature of which Solonn feared to guess. But it was gone just as soon as Solonn had noticed it, leaving him wondering if he hadn’t just imagined it.

The latios closed his eyes. He took a long, steadying breath, clasping his talons as if in prayer. “I had dearly hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” he said, his voice sounding very heavy despite being barely more than whispered. “I’d hoped you would see things clearly and understand what’s needed of you… I wanted to believe you would…”

His eyes opened and met Solonn’s gaze, weariness and disappointment written all over his face. “But I knew better, really,” he said with very little inflection, “even from the very start—hence the need for our little experiment tonight.”

Before Solonn could guess what Jal’tai was referring to, the latios continued. “The events of this night were the final stage of this experiment, which was designed to test your willingness to serve our cause. On the night I transfigured you, I injected a small transmitter under your skin. I instructed Neleng to obliquely allow you to learn the exit code from her, and the police were told to keep an eye on your transmitter’s signal and to apprehend you and bring you to me if you attempted to leave Convergence.”

An immediate sinking feeling struck deep into Solonn’s chest, while his extremities went numb with shock. “…You set this up?” he asked hoarsely. He didn’t want to believe it. Gods knew he didn’t. But in hindsight… of course it was all a ruse. “You—” He paused momentarily, swallowing in a futile attempt to relieve his parched throat. “—you let me run away?”

Jal’tai nodded slowly, sorrowfully. “I had to know if you would.”

The disbelief in Solonn’s features turned to outrage. He looked right into Jal’tai’s face with an unflinching, accusatory stare, a steady stream of tears running from his bloodshot eyes. “Of course I would!” he croaked, his voice cracking painfully. “Of course I would, after what you did to me!”

Jal’tai gave a soft, troubled sound as he turned away from the human. He hovered there in place for several moments on end, staring at the shining image of the latias who smiled back at him from across the room. Then he lowered his head, and a beat later, he abruptly turned back toward Solonn.

Though he knew it was useless to try, Solonn couldn’t help but struggle in his restraints as Jal’tai drew close once more. Within a breath, Jal’tai was hovering over him again, and burning brightly within the latios’s eyes…

No, Solonn hadn’t imagined the strange light that he’d seen there before. There it was again, but now that it lingered, more of its peculiar qualities presented themselves. It pulsed and swirled arrhythmically, constantly shifting its color and intensity. Solonn wanted to look away, but neither his head nor his eyes would obey him.

The light and color expanded outward from Jal’tai’s eyes in a sudden burst, spreading over the rest of his body and then washing over the entire room. The latios himself was reduced to a vague outline; if it hadn’t been for his slight motion in midair as he breathed, Solonn would have easily lost sight of him.

Sudden, sharp pain lanced into Solonn’s eyes as the surrounding light intensified sharply. He cried out and kept trying to close them, to no avail. He could only scream on as they watered and burned, until finally his voice gave out.

The dancing colors sped up dramatically, rushing in every direction around Solonn. In their frenzy, a powerful noise arose: a painfully intense, discordant chorus of screeches and roars. In the next second, Solonn swore he could taste and smell the chaos, as well; its scent and flavor were extremely sharp and sour, burning his throat as he inhaled, making him cough and gag.

All at once, the phenomenon was assaulting every part of him at once. With every passing second, the punishment of his every sense grew stronger. Throttled by the grip of a full sensory overload, Solonn begged the gods for it to stop. He wished dearly that he’d just pass out.

The outline of the latios above suddenly became much more distinct, and the change took an immediate and absolute hold of Solonn’s attention even in the midst of the surrounding chaos. <Be at peace,> said a telepathic voice that mirrored Jal’tai’s spoken voice, clear as a bell despite the din.

Then the light, the noise, and all of the pain simply ceased.

 

* * *

 

There was a delay before Solonn dared to recognize that the bizarre torture had finally ended. Once he did, he became aware of his surroundings—or rather, the lack thereof. He could see nothing, hear nothing, taste nothing, smell nothing, feel nothing. There was simply nothing around him to be perceived. He couldn’t even perceive anything of himself other than his own awareness.

He was instantly reminded of the great ball, and he began to wonder if he’d been sent into something along those lines. Was this was part of his punishment? Would Jal’tai keep him imprisoned here, perhaps only letting him out to inflict more of that multisensory torture upon him, until he was so severely traumatized that he’d accept anything?

In a literal flash, his solitude was broken. A shapeless, luminous body shone like a star within the darkness that surrounded him, impossible light in a world without vision. Just as suddenly as it had appeared, it took on a familiar form.

Jal’tai now hovered there in the emptiness before him, glowing brilliantly, a latios made out of pure, white light. Only the dragon’s eyes were lightless, two fathomless, pitch-black holes in his luminous face.

He spoke to Solonn telepathically, but in a mindvoice that was different than before, one as vast as the void that surrounded him. <No, Solonn. That is not what I’ve done to you, nor is it what I intend to do.>

The sheer immensity of the psychic voice stoked Solonn’s fear to new heights. He acknowledged Jal’tai’s words, but he was too overwhelmed by them to respond.

<I won’t let any further harm come to you,> Jal’tai said somberly. <I know you’d never be able to forgive me for all that you’ve suffered to this point… and I wouldn’t expect you to,> he added. <I doubt I’ll ever be able to forgive myself… and if She won’t, either, I would understand…>

The glowing latios extended his arms. Solonn felt Jal’tai’s embrace despite having nothing of himself with which to actually, physically feel anything, just as he’d seen and heard Jal’tai without eyes and ears.

<Your suffering ends here,> Jal’tai tried to assure him. <I will now ensure that you will struggle no more.>

What are you going to do to me? Solonn asked fearfully. He had no voice in this place, but he also had no doubt at this point that Jal’tai could hear his thoughts.

<I could tell you,> Jal’tai replied, <but you wouldn’t remember.>

With that, the black holes that were the latios’s eyes gave a single, massive flash of light that was even brighter than the rest of him, and Solonn knew no more.

 

* * *

 

A gasp rent the air as lungs that had been suspended in stasis for nearly five minutes suddenly resumed their duties. Their owner’s head sank as he took several moments to catch his breath. His spine arched and his talons flexed, awakening his muscles somewhat painfully.

With something of an effort, Jal’tai made himself look upon Solonn’s face. The human stared back through blank, dilated eyes that held a faint, silvery glow. He was still alive, but suspended in a peculiar state between consciousness and unconsciousness. His mind was subdued and encapsulated within a psychic prison, barred from access to his own brain. The lati had a name for this state: liasa andielenne. The waking death.

Entering it was invariably horrific for the subject, and Jal’tai regretted this to no small degree. But he knew it was crucial for what he was about to do. There was work to be done within this human’s brain, and said human couldn’t be there to witness or interfere with the task at hand.

Still, even with the necessary preparations made, Jal’tai worried for the outcome of this procedure. Major, intrusive psychic methods such as the one he was about to employ had a significant risk of detrimental side effects, especially in brains with no sort of defense against the psychic element. Of particular concern to Jal’tai was the fact that they could corrupt or even destroy psychic anomalies in the brain—anomalies such as the Speech.

Hence Jal’tai had been severely reluctant to resort to this course of action—it had every bit as much potential to ruin his candidate as it had to secure him, if not more. Nevertheless, the latios committed himself to this act, convinced that there truly was no better option. The odds were overwhelmingly against finding yet another Speaker anytime soon; Jal’tai didn’t know how long he had in this world to wait. And he knew that he’d rest much more easily once he could be sure Convergence’s future was secured.

Jal’tai cast an imploring glance over his shoulder at the marble panel behind him. Please watch over him, Rei’eli, he prayed silently to the image of the goddess that smiled at him from the far end of the room. Keep his gift whole.

He turned back toward Solonn, his heart heavy with concern. He placed his talons upon the human’s head, staring intently into his subject’s empty eyes. His breathing slowed dramatically as his focus deepened, stoking his psychic element and manifesting it into a vehicle for his consciousness. As it carried him out of his own head and into Solonn’s, he dearly hoped his goddess had heard his prayer.

 

* * *

 

Haze enveloped the intruder, hanging calmly over the surrounding mindscape. It was a thick and very murky medium, one that would have offered up no distinction among its constituent elements to less sophisticated senses, and would have threatened to erase the lines between itself and a less capable invader.

But the haze wouldn’t absorb Jal’tai, nor would it keep any secrets from him. He could readily make out the individual memories that formed it, as well as the intricate ways they were connected. The task was made all the easier by liasa andielenne; the haze would have been roiling turbulently in an active mind, making it harder to see what lay within it. It also helped that he’d been here before.

Within these memories were the key to the human’s cooperation—answers to why it hadn’t been achieved and how it could be. Jal’tai began to sift through the haze, searching for images of that overgrown field and the guise of the swellow he’d worn there twelve days prior. They looked considerably different from his own memories of the place, recorded through very different eyes, but there was no mistaking them.

Having found the starting point for the relevant chain of memories, he proceeded to anchor his psychic power to it. Then he let the memories play within his mind, unfolding in chronological order at an incredible speed as he copied them all. Almost as soon as it had begun, the process was finished. In barely more than an instant, Jal’tai had obtained twelve days’ worth of memories that were not his own.

Now he had to deal with the original copies. There were two options where that was concerned. One was to simply erase them. The other was to keep them intact but heavily suppressed, locking them away deep within Solonn’s subconscious mind.

Erasure was the more alluring option, not to mention more comforting. But it required a much more intrusive procedure than merely sealing the memories would. Even doing as much as he’d already done was pushing it, endangering the very thing he’d gone to these lengths for. He didn’t want to take the added risk unless it was truly necessary.

Unwilling to decide on the matter too quickly, even now, Jal’tai replayed his own copies again, more slowly this time. He saw himself, disguised as a swellow, leading Solonn through the woods and into Convergence. He experienced Solonn’s first morning as a human, vicariously feeling his fearful disbelief at his new form and his bereavement at the loss of his element. He watched himself reveal his own true form, listened to his own attempts to make Solonn listen to reason, and watched—and felt—the excruciating, telekinetic punishment he’d inflicted upon the human when his failure to convince Solonn through words had burned through his patience…

…And here he paused, bringing the playback to a grinding halt. Suddenly confronted with the suffering his frustration had caused, made to actually feel the pain and terror he’d inflicted, he found himself overwhelmed by horror, guilt, and shame. What in heaven’s name came over me? he wondered, aghast. By the Goddess… I could have killed him…

Long moments passed before he regained himself enough to continue his work. Even then, he remained shaken by the reminder of what he’d done as he resumed studying the former glalie’s recent memories, watching as Solonn dragged himself listlessly through his first few days as a human and then began planning an escape in the next, with the chain of memories ending with Solonn’s foiled escape and his subjection to liasa andielenne.

Jal’tai went back to contemplating his next actions, and for quite a while longer than he’d intended. Realizing just how close he’d already come to losing Solonn as a candidate, he was now especially disinclined to tempt fate any more than he could help. And yet… thoughts of that day when he’d lost control still haunted his mind. And if the human were to somehow recall it, it was sure to destroy any trust Jal’tai could instill in him.

Finally… finally, Jal’tai made his decision. He isolated the memories of the past twelve days from the rest of the haze. Then he set a psychic lock upon them and relocated them to the deepest, most inaccessible layer of the human’s mind—but not before extracting one particular memory from the chain and annihilating it.

The offending history was now suppressed, but Jal’tai’s work wasn’t finished yet. As he withdrew from Solonn’s mindscape to initiate the next step of the process, he tried to draw some relief and satisfaction from the fact that at least now Solonn would no longer recall his brutal punishment. But his efforts were hampered by the knowledge that he couldn’t purge that memory from his own mind.

 

* * *

 

With his consciousness having returned to the physical plane, Jal’tai once again beheld the motionless human before him. Solonn still wore the same blank, emotionless, lifeless expression he’d been wearing ever since he’d entered liasa andielenne.

At least he’s not suffering anymore, the latios thought wearily as he set himself down on the floor for a short break. Sustaining his presence within a foreign mind for extended periods of time was fairly taxing, especially at his age. He rested his head in his talons as he prepared to create a different version of events to replace the memories he’d just sealed away.

Jal’tai still saw promise in Solonn despite the obstacles that had arisen in trying to get the human to recognize his potential. He was quite certain Solonn was capable of appreciating the Convergence Project’s mission and thus might have accepted his new role under different circumstances. He still felt that no other course of action but the one he’d taken could’ve securely succeeded, that it had been the only way to be sure Solonn would take that form. What was done was done, and because Solonn had reacted so adversely to the way it was done, the next step was to make the human believe that things had been done differently.

Jal’tai entered a trance in which he began fabricating an alternative version of the past twelve days. If all went well, this rewrite of history would turn Solonn into the ready and willing successor the latios so dearly hoped for.

Chapter Text

Go!” Solonn shouted at the terrified creature who cowered before him—the creature who’d nearly become his prey. He watched as the zigzagoon sprinted fearfully away through the tall grass, sickened by himself as he thought of what he’d nearly done.

“Well, that was certainly magnanimous of you,” said a bright, jovial voice.

Surprised, Solonn turned at once to see who’d just spoken. He saw a feathered, blue-and-gray dragon hovering in midair a short distance away.

The dragon introduced himself as Jal’tai, a latios. After Solonn had introduced himself in turn, Jal’tai asked what had brought him to this area, having never seen Solonn around before. Solonn told him that he’d fled from human abductors in Lilycove and was just trying to lie low until he could find a way to return to his home across the sea.

Jal’tai offered him a place to stay in a city in the west, where he could be safe and comfortable. Solonn hesitated to take him up on the offer, reluctant to go into another human city. Jal’tai assured him that the place he had in mind was nothing of the sort. After a a little more consideration, Solonn accepted Jal’tai’s offer and followed him westward through the forest.

Upon arriving at their destination, a place Jal’tai identified as Convergence, Solonn couldn’t help but notice familiarities about the city—ones that contradicted the latios’s assurances.

“Jal’tai, I thought you said this wasn’t a human city…”

“Yes, I most certainly did,” Jal’tai responded. “And on closer inspection, you might realize that indeed, just as I stated, this is not a
human city. Here in Convergence, pokémon and humans live and work as equals.” He smiled proudly. “I’m the man in charge of this city, you see, and I wouldn’t have it any other way around here.”

That last part took a moment to fully register. “…Wait, did you say you were
in charge here?” Solonn asked once it clicked.

Jal’tai nodded, still beaming. “Yes, that’s correct,” he said. “I am the mayor of this fine city. Convergence is my pride and joy—a testament to the equality of all peoples. You see… in the cities owned and ruled exclusively by humans, pokémon are second-class citizens—if even that.” Disgust flitted across his face. “But here, pokémon are afforded the same rights and opportunities as humans. They can own the same properties, operate the same vehicles, and enter the same occupations. Our academy offers education and training that only humans can receive elsewhere.

“My hope is that the rest of the human world will learn from Convergence’s example, that they’ll see that they can and should live alongside pokémon in harmony and equality. This community may very well be the starting point for a greatly-needed change in human-pokémon relations—perhaps then, pokémon will be respected by humans, rather than disregarded, exploited, and abused as we’ve all too often been in the past. Now do you see what makes Convergence great?”

Solonn could only nod in response, still quite absorbed in what Jal’tai had just told him about the state of relations between humans and the other peoples of the world.

Jal’tai offered to take him to lunch at a local restaurant, and he accepted. Along the way, he was shown how the pokémon citizens of Convergence used technological conveniences invented by humans to go about their everyday lives—a privilege they’d be denied in the human world, according to Jal’tai.

Once they’d reached the restaurant and were served their respective meals, Jal’tai went on about the apparent schism between humans and other intelligent species.

“As I was saying,” the latios said as he paused momentarily in his enjoyment of his fish platter, “the way pokémon are perceived by humans
desperately needs to be changed. Did you know that most humans don’t realize—or else deny—that pokémon are intelligent beings?”

Solonn looked up from the steak that had been served to him; he still hadn’t touched it. “…No,” he responded, sounding troubled. “No, I didn’t know that.”

Jal’tai nodded sadly. “It’s true. The majority of humans regard pokémon not as people, but as mere
animals,” he told Solonn, vehemence coloring his words and shining in his eyes.

“Gods… How could they see us that way?” Solonn wondered aloud.

The latios sighed sorrowfully. “I’ve been trying to figure that out myself for many years—to no avail, I’m afraid. All I know for certain is that they must be made to see the truth if pokémon are to receive the treatment we deserve from their kind.”

Jal’tai resumed his meal then, leaving Solonn to muse on all that he’d just learned. It disturbed and saddened him to think that most humans could regard pokémon so poorly. But he also couldn’t help but think of Morgan—she’d always treated Solonn and her other pokémon with respect, not as inferiors. If she could respect pokémon, then maybe the humans who didn’t could learn to do so, too. Maybe, Solonn considered, there was hope for the relations between humanity and the rest of the world’s peoples.

At length, Solonn finally forced himself to eat his steak. Shortly thereafter, he suddenly became incredibly tired—he suspected the trials of the prior evening were finally taking their toll on him. When he mentioned this to Jal’tai, the latios agreed, and he brought Solonn to a nearby hotel to get some much-needed rest.

Solonn fell into a profoundly deep sleep just as soon as he entered his suite, and he stayed asleep until late in the following morning when he was awakened by a series of loud, shrill beeps followed by the sound of a computerized voice.

“Receiving message,” the voice said coolly.

Solonn only distantly noted those words, not quite absorbing them, as he was still in the process of waking up. He was slightly more conscious when another, more familiar voice spoke up.

“Solonn? Are you awake?” the latios asked.

Stifling a yawn, Solonn rose from the floor and turned toward the source of Jal’tai’s voice but saw no one. A second later, once he was fully awake, he spotted the paging device on the nearby table, and he remembered being told he could use it to call Jal’tai—apparently it also worked the other way around.

“Yeah, I’m awake,” he finally answered.

“Good, good,” Jal’tai said brightly. “Is it all right if I come and pay you a visit?”

“Hm? Sure, go ahead,” Solonn said.

“Ah, very well, then,” Jal’tai said. “I’ll be right up in a moment.”

“Connection terminated,” said the computerized voice again, and with another beep, the device shut itself off.

Very shortly thereafter, that same voice spoke up again, this time to announce the arrival of a visitor. Bright green light blossomed from a tile on the floor near the wall, then faded as Jal’tai materialized within the suite.

“Good morning,” the latios said amiably. “How are you feeling today?”

“Meh, just fine, I suppose,” Solonn answered. “Still a little tired, but other than that…”

“Hm,” Jal’tai responded, nodding. “Well, I’m glad to hear that you seem to be on the mend. I was concerned about you yesterday, you know,” he said earnestly. “I feared you wouldn’t even make it to the hotel without passing out. Never in my life have I seen someone so suddenly and completely drained of energy… those humans in Lilycove must have put you through a most dreadful ordeal, indeed…”

Solonn only made a small, wordless, affirmative noise in response.

“Well, at least you managed to escape from those scoundrels,” Jal’tai said. “You’ve certainly been spared a most unpleasant fate… Do you have any idea what their motives might have been in taking you?”

Solonn hesitated to answer. Yes, he knew why he’d been taken—and in the wake of finding out, he was especially wary of bringing it up.

But as he thought about it, he wondered if there was really any danger in confiding in Jal’tai. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d trusted someone with his secret—he’d deemed Morgan and her pokémon safe, and he still felt that had been a sound judgment, even considering what had happened the day before he’d come to Convergence. His abilities had only gotten him into trouble after strangers had stumbled upon his secret on their own.

Jal’tai didn’t come across as untrustworthy, really. The latios had made it clear he disapproved of pokémon being mistreated and exploited—he seemed like one of the last people who’d ever make Solonn sorry to confide in him. And since Jal’tai was this city’s leader, perhaps he had the authority to ensure that the wrong people never happened upon Solonn’s secret again.

Solonn hesitated for one last moment; then, “They wanted me…” he began, “because I can do something that apparently very few pokémon can do… I can speak to humans. In their own language.” He sighed bitterly. “The humans who tried to take me wanted to show me off because of it, as a
freak,” he told Jal’tai, that last word more hissed than spoken.

Jal’tai looked utterly appalled. “
Sickening,” he hissed. “Absolutely deplorable… what you possess is a gift; you should be honored for it, not exploited…”

At length, Jal’tai drew a long breath, trying to calm himself, then released it on a sorrowful sigh. “I’m afraid such troubles come with the territory of your talents,” he said soberly, closing his eyes and folding his hands. “I know it all too well myself…” He met Solonn’s gaze directly. “It’s true that exceedingly few possess the Speech—the ability to communicate universally. As such, I thought I might never find another who had this ability in common with me.”

Solonn stared speechlessly back at Jal’tai for seconds on end. He hadn’t been expecting to come across someone who shared his linguistic abilities, either. Now he was certain he’d done the right thing by telling the latios his secret. Jal’tai was a kindred spirit—if anyone could be trusted, it was him.

“So, this thing… this ‘Speech’, as you called it… it’s gotten you into trouble, too?” Solonn asked, earning a nod from the latios in response. “Was the trouble with humans?”

“Not exclusively,” Jal’tai answered, “but mostly, yes. Hence the need for a bit of deceptiveness on my part, I’m afraid. Observe…”

Solonn watched the latios, having no idea what to expect. A strange, shimmering glow surrounded Jal’tai, blurring his form until it was no longer recognizable. The light brightened momentarily, then began to take shape once more as it faded.

Once it was gone completely, the latios had apparently gone with it. An elderly, goateed human in a brown suit stood there instead—the man pictured on the sign at Whitley’s.

“This is what the citizens of Convergence, as well as those with whom I do business outside of town, see when they look at me” he said. “To them, I’m a human by the name of Rolf Whitley—I virtually never work under my true identity. I lament that I must appear to the people as something and someone I’m not—it shouldn’t have to be this way, but…”

He sighed. “You see, as a pokémon who can speak human languages, humans may view me as a curiosity—a freak, as you so aptly put it,” Jal’tai explained, clear distaste in his voice. “They won’t listen to or respect something that they regard in such a demeaning way. But as a human who can speak pokémon language, I’m not seen as a freak, but merely gifted. It’s a shameful double standard, but it’s the reality for people like us, I’m afraid.”

With another brief shimmering of light all around him, Jal’tai resumed his true form. “So you see, that guise is how I’m able to not only live with my gift in peace but to use it to do good in this world.”

He turned toward Solonn. “You know, this place, this embodiment of all that I believe in… it couldn’t have been made possible if I didn’t have the Speech,” he then said. “Because this is a community for both pokémon and humans, its leader must be able to deal with both equally. Thus this office demands the Speech, meaning that there are very few who could take care of this city’s needs.”

An unreadable expression suddenly over took Jal’tai’s features, but Solonn was given little time to look upon it or to wonder about it before Jal’tai turned away from him. A very long and rather awkward silence followed.

Eventually, Jal’tai turned back, looking distinctly uneasy. “Solonn…” he began, “I would like to know if…” He faltered, unable to complete the sentence. “No,” he said in a subdued voice a moment later, “no, I just couldn’t ask such a thing of you…”

Solonn’s brows drew together, the light in his eyes flickering slightly in concern. “…What is it?” he asked. “What are you talking about?”

Jal’tai only gazed back at him in silence for a time, looking almost guilty. Even once he did respond, he spoke with clear reluctance.

“I’m… well, I’m not a young dragon anymore,” he said quietly. “I won’t be around to take care of this city forever… I love Convergence, Solonn,” he all but whispered. “I worry for its future… I don’t know what will become of this place without me. Who will watch over this city when I’m gone?”

Solonn didn’t know how to respond to that at first. Then he realized just what the latios was saying. “Are… are you saying you want
me to take your place?” he asked, his eyes wide.

“Well…” the latios responded with something of a delay, “as I said, only those who are blessed with the Speech are qualified to guide and maintain this community. And as I also mentioned, I hadn’t expected that I’d ever find another such person. I’ve been fretting over the matter of who could replace me—and what might become of Convergence and its mission if no one suitable could be found…”

Quite overwhelmed, Solonn suddenly needed to sit down. “…I don’t know what to say…”

“I don’t imagine I would, either, if I were in your position,” Jal’tai said quietly.

“I mean… I understand what you’re worried about, but… are you sure there’s no one else you could ask?” Solonn asked, having trouble geting the words out.

“I honestly can’t say for certain,” the latios answered, “but the odds are very much against it.”

With every passing second, Solonn felt more cornered by the matter. How the guilt had overtaken him so swiftly and strongly, and precisely where it had even come from, he couldn’t guess, but there it was, impossible to deny. He understood Jal’tai’s dilemma, and he genuinely cared… but still…

“…I don’t know,” he said guiltily, “This isn’t a minor matter—I mean, you’re thinking of putting me in charge of an entire city?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Jal’tai… I don’t know if I have it in me.”

“There’s no need to worry where that’s concerned,” Jal’tai said softly. “I assure you that you’d be adequately educated and prepared to take up these responsibilities.”

The latios’s already troubled expression suddenly became even moreso. “Solonn… there is one more thing I need to tell you before you commit yourself one way or another to my offer. I demonstrated how I disguise myself as a human in order to live and work with the Speech safely. You’d have to take on a human identity as well if you took my office. But since you’re not endowed with the power to project a mirage over yourself… well, you’d have to come by your disguise by another means. The only other method by which you could pass for a human… is to actually become one.”

“…
What?” Solonn thought he must surely have misheard the latios. “You can’t be serious!”

“I
am serious, Solonn,” Jal’tai said. “In order to replace me as the mayor of this city, you will have to be physically transformed into a human.”

“But… how is that even
possible?”

“There’s an elemental technique that has been practiced by my people for millennia—namely the transfigure technique—that enables the user to change the form of another thing or person,” Jal’tai explained. “Allow me to demonstrate…”

Jal’tai left the room for a moment. When he returned, he was carrying a small decorative pillow in his talons. “Watch carefully,” he said, then set the pillow down on the floor. He extended his arms, keeping his talons rigid over the pillow. Slowly, spheres of mint-green light swelled around his hands; soon after, an aura of the same color surrounded the pillow.

The light began strobing; Solonn winced, his eyes narrowing to slits to fend off the flashing light. He fought to keep them from closing despite the discomfort, determined to see if Jal’tai could really do what he claimed. To his astonishment, Solonn saw the pillow warping, shifting somewhat jerkily and unevenly into another shape.

With one final flash of green light and one last metamorphic spasm, the pillow was no more. Right before Solonn’s eyes, it had been transfigured into a plant sitting in an earthen pot, its many leafy tendrils spilling out over the rim.

“And that’s how it’s done,” Jal’tai said, sounding somewhat winded, as he picked up the potted plant and examined it briefly. He cast a quick look up at the ceiling. “This would look rather nice right about there, I think…” he remarked, then set the plant back down and turned back toward Solonn once more.

Solonn, meanwhile, stared dumbstruck at the plant. “Oh gods…” he said almost voicelessly. He’d risen from the floor without realizing it and was now starting to back away from the plant.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Jal’tai assured him. “If you choose to accept the change, I’ll do everything in my power to make it as non-traumatic as I can. If you wish, I can render you unconscious during the actual transfiguration. You’d experience no discomfort whatsoever. Afterward, I promise that I’ll help you become accustomed to your new form. Furthermore—” He inclined his head slightly further toward Solonn. “—the change isn’t permanent. It will wear off after about eight to ten years… perhaps by that time, such masquerades will no longer be needed in this world.”

Those reassurances fell short of comforting Solonn, and Jal’tai recognized this. “I know physical transformation isn’t something to be taken lightly, but it’s also something you’ve had some prior experience with, is it not? Yours is an evolved form—perhaps you should try looking at this as just another stage of evolution.”

Jal’tai was right in one sense: this wasn’t the first time that Solonn had faced a possible transformation. But Solonn hadn’t accepted his last change hastily; he’d only agreed to go through with it once it had truly seemed necessary. Furthermore, after comparing his memory of evolution with the process he’d just beheld, he was quite certain they’d be two very different experiences.

“This is just… all too much,” Solonn said finally, wearily, as he set himself back down.

“I understand,” Jal’tai said softly. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to make such a major decision in any hurry.” He began to glide past Solonn, moving toward the transport tile, but turned back before activating it.

“You can stay here as long as you like,” he told Solonn. “And when you come to a decision regarding what I’ve offered you, please call me and let me know. I won’t force you to decide one way or another… but I do ask that you consider what’s at the heart of this matter. This community was born in the name of a better future, one in which the schism between humanity and all the other peoples of the world is bridged at last. Ask yourself: is this not a future that should become a reality?”

Solonn winced, feeling as though a large weight had just dropped into his stomach. He did want to see equality between humans and pokémon, but there was still the matter of what acting on that desire here would require of him. He couldn’t even begin to decide what to do.

He finally pried his eyes away from the plant and turned quickly to face Jal’tai and ask how he was supposed to deal with these conflicting notions, but saw only a flash of green light. The latios had already gone, leaving him alone with the weight of this decision.

For the rest of the day, Solonn’s thoughts were monopolized by Jal’tai’s offer, and it kept him awake throughout the night. He agreed with the latios’s mission, and he couldn’t deny that he truly wanted to help. But to
become a human… how could he readily accept something that he could barely believe?

As hour after hour went by, bringing the morning and then midday, Solonn’s thoughts turned toward some of the things his own experience had taught him about the way humans tended to view and treat pokémon. Humans had wanted to profit from his abilities—and they hadn’t been content to take him alone. He thought about the rest of Morgan’s pokémon, whose condition and whereabouts were still unknown. He thought about Morgan herself, separated from some of her closest friends, shaken and crying the last time he’d seen her.

If enough humans could be made to respect pokémon, then perhaps scenarios like that one would never happen again.

The glalie’s eyes drifted toward the paging device. There was his answer, it seemed. He’d been given an opportunity to do something that could significantly benefit the world—he had to take it, he decided then, even if the knowledge of what it would require still terrified him.

He felt heavier than usual as he ascended, as though his body were less than willing to rise from the ground. With his heart hammering, he glided across the room until he found himself looking down upon the paging device. Once he’d remembered how to operate it, he used it to call Jal’tai.

“Yes? What is it, my boy?” Jal’tai said once the connection went through.

“…I’ll do it,” Solonn spat out before his trepidation could foil him.

Jal’tai didn’t respond right away; Solonn feared that perhaps he’d been too vague. But then,
“All right, then,” the latios said simply, then hung up.

In virtually no time, Jal’tai arrived at the suite, entering by way of the transport tile and immediately bringing himself before Solonn.

“I know this wasn’t an easy decision for you,” Jal’tai said, “but in the end, you’ve made the right choice.” He gave a warm, proud smile. “We and our efforts will go down in history, Solonn. And someday, pokémon throughout the world will thank you for your selfless actions here.”

They were nice words, Solonn thought, but the glalie wasn’t feeling quite as long-sighted at the moment as Jal’tai was. He couldn’t really look to the future and any praise and appreciation that lay there—he could only see the present and what it was about to bring, and he really just wanted it to be over and done.

“Do you want me to put you under for the transfiguration?” Jal’tai asked him.

An image of the pillow’s rather spasmodic transformation entered Solonn’s mind, along with an unbidden sense of what such a process might actually feel like, and he shuddered. “Please do,” he responded quickly.

Jal’tai nodded in acknowledgment, then moved forward and placed his talons on top of the glalie’s head, shuddering a bit at how cold it felt. “There will only be a moment’s discomfort,” he assured Solonn.

Solonn gazed nervously into Jal’tai’s eyes for a moment, hoping the latios was right—and then his vision and his consciousness were extinguished in an instant by something that sent a shock through his skull and a burst of red light to the back of his eyes.

When Solonn awakened, the scene surrounding him had changed. He knew at once that he was seeing through different eyes, eyes that were much weaker and more limited in their range than his old ones. He shifted slightly, feeling soft surfaces all around him as his limbs stretched—yes,
his limbs. Jal’tai’s technique had worked—Solonn was now a human.

He lifted his head and saw that he was presently lying in bed. The sheets that covered him prevented him from seeing most of his new form; he pushed them aside with one of his newly-formed arms to have a look at what he’d become.

Somehow, seeing the human body that he now possessed actually made it harder to believe that the change had really happened.

A shadow fell over him; he looked up and to his left and saw Jal’tai there, smiling gently as he hovered in place.

“The transfiguration was a complete success,” the latios said. “Here—have a look at your new face with this,” he suggested, then offered Solonn a small hand mirror. The human took the mirror, and after a moment’s fumbling with it, he managed to catch his own reflection in the glass. “Do you like it?” Jal’tai then asked.

Solonn wasn’t quite sure what to make of his new face; he could still hardly believe he even had it. He responded to Jal’tai’s question with a noncommittal noise.

“Well, given time, I’m sure you’ll get used to it,” the latios said as he took the mirror back from Solonn. “Come now,” he said, offering Solonn a talon to help him up out of bed. “Let me show you around your new home and help you start getting used to your new form.”

Not knowing what else to do, Solonn took Jal’tai’s hand. He let the latios give him a tour of the suite, hoping all the while that he really would get used to this new way of life eventually.

On each day that followed, Jal’tai paid Solonn a visit, during which he helped Solonn learn human habits. He brought a series of instructional videos that demonstrated the ways of human life, and he gave Solonn extra tutelage on certain points of those lessons. While some human practices seemed strange (particularly where hygiene was concerned), he didn’t resist his education, picking up the new habits quickly enough for Jal’tai’s liking.

Things carried on fairly smoothly in this manner until the eighth day following Solonn’s transfiguration. Jal’tai had just left after giving a brief lecture to supplement a segment on one of the DVDs, specifically about the concept of money. Solonn was sitting in the den, reviewing that segment and trying out of semi-boredom to memorize whose portrait was on each denomination of the paper notes, when a sudden, incredibly strong pain awakened in his head, completely without warning.

Solonn shouted in pain and alarm, wondering what in the world could be happening to him. It worsened with each passing second, making flashing spots explode in his vision and shooting a bolt of nausea down his throat.

Certain that something was terribly wrong, he tried to call Jal’tai, hoping the latios could get help for him. He reached for the paging device—but as he did so, a powerful spasm tore through his body. His outstretched arm flailed wildly, knocking the device to the floor.

He tried to pick it back up, but he still hadn’t quite regained control of his muscles. No sooner had he risen from his chair than he collapsed to the floor—and he didn’t get back up. The last thing Solonn was aware of before he blacked out completely was a blurred, sideways view of the paging device lying just inches away.

 

* * *

 

Jal’tai emerged from his trance, having constructed and packaged a chain of memories to replace the ones he’d quarantined. He allowed himself a couple of minutes’ worth of rest before rising and returning to the table where his subject lay.

Once again, he entered the human’s mind and immediately sought out the chronological telltales that identified the memory directly preceding the ones he’d locked away, showing him where the new memories were to be placed. Very carefully, Jal’tai implanted the chain, made certain its connections to the preceding memories were secure, then left the human’s mind once more.

The procedure was finished. Anxious anticipation spread through Jal’tai’s nerves as he looked upon Solonn, wondering if the work he’d just done had secured the human as a successor or if it had done quite the opposite.

This was the moment of truth, Jal’tai knew. He needed to see if interferening with Solonn’s mind had robbed the human of the Speech. Focusing his psychic abilities, he stirred Solonn’s consciousness within the confines of liasa andielenne without truly awakening it. The human shifted slightly in his shackles, turning his still-blank eyes toward Jal’tai. Solonn was now in a state in which he’d respond to stimuli and commands while being utterly unaware of doing so.

“Solonn,” Jal’tai addressed him. He held up one hand and pointed two claws toward his own eyes. “What am I pointing at?”

Solonn maintained his empty stare at the latios for a brief moment. Then, “Vhekahr’syin sierahs hivhassen,” he responded inflectionlessly.

Glalie language, Jal’tai noted, unsurprised. Solonn had spoken his own language almost exclusively in all the time Jal’tai had known him; he wasn’t one to “show off” his linguistic abilities. But this situation was one that required Solonn to do just that.

“Solonn, this time you will answer in my language,” Jal’tai instructed, then indicated his eyes once again. He’d never heard Solonn speak in lati language and was certain that the former glalie had never done so. If Solonn could respond in this language, it would be a good indication that his abilities had survived the psychic procedure. “What am I pointing at?” he repeated.

Like the last time, there was a delay in Solonn’s response, but it was longer than before—Jal’tai feared that the human wouldn’t be able to respond as instructed. But then, much to Jal’tai’s immense relief, “Catelisi adiele setali assiria,” Solonn answered.

“Oh… oh, thank the Goddess!” Jal’tai exclaimed almost breathlessly, so overjoyed with relief that he broke into tears. The procedure was a complete success—Solonn now possessed memories that would allow him to accept his new purpose, and he’d kept the skills that would allow him to serve it.

Jal’tai released Solonn from both the hypnotic state and liasa andielenne, allowing the human to become fully unconscious at last. “Rest well, my boy,” Jal’tai said softly. “You’ve certainly earned it.”

Smiling, Jal’tai turned and drifted over to his shrine to Rei’eli. Once there, he reached for the potted autillia flowers and closed his talons around a pair of them, allowing them to fall apart in his hands. He looked up at the serene face of his goddess as he held handfuls of petals over the fountain, an almost rapturous gratitude written all over his face.

Thank you, Jal’tai prayed silently and sincerely. With all my heart, I thank you. With that, he let the petals fall from his hands, drifting gently down into the water in a symbolic return of the power that his goddess had lent him.

 

* * *

 

“…which came back negative, thankfully… Oh look, he’s awake!”

Solonn awoke to the sound of the cheerful voice that had just spoken and was greeted with a somewhat blurry view of its owner: standing nearby was a chansey, who was looking at him and smiling. He also awoke to a splitting headache.

“Oh good, good!” said another voice, a much more familiar one. “Could you give the two of us a moment, Miss Teresa?”

“Of course,” the chansey replied amiably, then left the room, her tail waving behind her as she waddled away.

Groaning softly, Solonn rubbed his eyes to clear them, then cast a glance about himself, confused. He found that he was lying in a simple bed in a sterile, white room. He also found that he wasn’t alone; seated at his bedside was an elderly man: Jal’tai in his human guise, Solonn recognized with a slight delay.

“Good morning,” Jal’tai said warmly. “Or, to be more accurate, good late morning,” he amended with a chuckle. “Feeling all right?”

“Ugh… not really,” Solonn answered groggily. “Gods, my head hurts…”

“Hmm,” Jal’tai responded, sounding concerned. “Well, that’s nothing a little aspirin won’t cure, I’d reckon.”

Solonn cradled his aching head in his hands for a moment, hoping he’d be given some of this “aspirin” as soon as possible. “Where am I?” he then asked.

“You’re in the Haven, Solonn,” Jal’tai told him, “our city’s medical center. I brought you here after I found you unconscious on the floor in your suite. I’ve been so worried about you, my boy,” he said earnestly, concern etched into the deep lines of his aged, presently-human face. “You were out cold for nearly four days.”

With some difficulty amid the pain, Solonn managed to recall the last evening he’d spent in that suite. A headache that was even worse than the one he was suffering now had struck him, and then he’d passed out. “What in the world happened to me back there?” he asked. “Gods, it scared me half to death…”

“I’m afraid what you experienced was a side effect of your transfiguration,” Jal’tai said. “That sort of a change can put a lot of stress on a body, and sometimes that stress can sneak up and hit you all at once—sometimes immediately, sometimes with a bit of a delay, but usually never.”

He sighed. “What you experienced is a rare occurrence indeed; I truthfully hadn’t expected it to happen. It usually only follows transfigurations performed by less-than-skilled users… I assure you that I’m well-practiced in the art, but I fear that age may have deteriorated my skills somewhat. I sincerely apologize for your suffering,” he said somberly, lowering his head.

“Mmm,” Solonn said dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. You said you hadn’t expected this to happen.”

Jal’tai gave a small, reserved smile. “You’re too kind,” he said gratefully. “Anyhow… as I mentioned, this is a very rare occurrence, and as such, I don’t expect it to happen again. But just to be safe, I’ve enlisted the services of someone whose abilities should help you stay relaxed and well in both body and mind. Her name is Neleng, and I’ve made an appointment for her to come and visit you tonight. She can also offer a session any and every night after if you wish.”

“Okay,” Solonn said, grateful for anything that might prevent him from going through this nightmare again.

Jal’tai stood then—or more accurately, his human mirage stood. “So, then. Do you think you’re up to resuming your education?”

“Yeah… yeah, I think so,” Solonn answered. “Although I think I’d like to get some of that ‘aspirin’ you were talking about first,” he added.

Jal’tai laughed brightly. “Ah, good,” he said, smiling. “Yes, I think we can safely say that all the unpleasantness is behind you now.”

 

* * *

 

Not long after he’d awakened, Solonn was released from the Haven. He stepped out into the early afternoon under an overcast sky. A light rain was falling, making pattering noises against the wide, burgundy umbrella Jal’tai had given him. Jal’tai’s human mirage held an identical umbrella, but whether the latios was actually holding one or simply projecting an image of one and letting the rain fall on him without a care, Solonn couldn’t tell.

A long, sleek, black car waited in the parking lot in front of the hospital; as Jal’tai and Solonn approached it, a uniformed human stepped out and opened a door in the back for each of them. Solonn got in and took a seat right away. Meanwhile Jal’tai merely projected his human mirage into the vehicle while he hovered above the car outside. The chauffeur closed the doors, then took his seat behind the wheel. Jal’tai’s mirage smiled at Solonn from its place beside him as they set off toward the Convergence Inn.

Solonn stared idly out the window during the ride, watching the urban scenery race past through a veil of autumn rain. As he did so, a peculiar notion came over him: a question of how he’d gotten there, how things had come to be as they presently were. He was briefly puzzled by it, but then dismissed the momentary confusion as a temporary malfunction of his mental faculties, some brief and harmless aftereffect of his recent malady that might never happen again. He gave it no further thought, just glad and grateful that the worst of it was over, and serenely let the wheels carry him home.

Chapter Text

“Ahh… Sure is good to be back home, isn’t it?” Jal’tai asked.

Home… Solonn had only lived there for just under two weeks; there were aspects of this place—not to mention this body—that he was still getting used to. And yet… he couldn’t deny that the suite was taking on a sense of familiarity, even comfort at times. It truly was beginning to feel like home.

“Suppose so,” he responded, semi-absently raking a hand through slightly damp hair.

Jal’tai smiled at him. “Here, let me take your coat,” he offered. Solonn allowed the latios to do just that. Then, still quite taxed from his recent hospitalization, Solonn went straight to the armchair in the den and dropped himself onto it.

After putting Solonn’s coat in its right place, Jal’tai disappeared into the kitchen; a moment later, Solonn could hear the rather loud whirring of the blender. Soon after it fell silent, Jal’tai drifted back into the den with a glass of something opaque and pale purple clutched in one of his talons.

“Here,” the latios said, handing the glass to Solonn. “It’s one of my specialties. It’s got something of an energizing property—the effect isn’t as strong for humans as it is for pokémon, but it still ought to put a little of the vigor back into you. Plus, it’s rather tasty,” he added with a grin.

Curious, Solonn gave it a try. It was pleasantly creamy, with a nice, strong berry flavor. He looked up from the drink to voice his approval—but where he expected to see a latios, there was only empty air. “Jal’tai?” he called out as he tried to spot him. He looked toward the transport tile just in time to see a green flash there.

Puzzled, Solonn stared at the space where Jal’tai had just been. He took a sip of the berry smoothie every few moments as he wondered where Jal’tai had gone and why he’d left without warning. Before he could come up with any answers, the latios returned as suddenly and unexpectedly as he’d left.

“Sorry to just pop out and back without warning,” Jal’tai said, having noticed the somewhat bewildered look on Solonn’s face. “I’d meant to pick this up on the way here, but it slipped my mind.”

Before Solonn could ask the latios had brought him, it was in his hands. It was a paperback book, one whose title instantly bemused him. “Parent’s Choice: The Very Best Names for Your Baby?” Solonn read the title of the book aloud with an odd look on his face.

The latios nodded. “You’re going to choose a name from this book to use as your own from now on.”

“Is that really necessary?” Solonn asked. “What’s wrong with the name I already have?”

“Nothing, of course,” Jal’tai answered. “But it’s still a good idea for you to take a human name. It’ll help to reinforce your human identity.”

Solonn’s brow furrowed skeptically as he set his smoothie down on the table beside him and opened the book, riffling through its pages without really stopping to read them. “I still don’t see the need for it… I don’t think anyone outside my—” He nearly said “my own species”, but caught himself short. He couldn’t exactly call them that anymore. Managing not to get too ensnared by that matter, “No one other than snorunt and glalie would be likely to recognize it as anything other than a human name,” he said. “And what are the odds of one of them showing up here?”

“Good enough,” Jal’tai replied. “You could encounter any number of species here. It’s best to be prepared for anything. And furthermore, any effort that can be made to strengthen your new identity is a step worth taking. Your new occupation and your new life will be much easier if people have as few reasons as possible to ask questions. A name that strikes humans as unusual might lead them to inquire about its origins—about your origins, Solonn. Do you wish to face those kinds of questions?”

“No,” Solonn answered promptly. “No, I wouldn’t.” He didn’t have much faith in his ability to come up with a convincing human background—he rather hoped he could avoid having to give out too many details.

He opened the book again, bothering to read it from the beginning this time. Minutes wore on, and then hours, and still none of the names had struck his fancy. Finally, Solonn grew so weary of the whole matter that not even midway through the “M”-names, he decided to just settle on the next half-decent one he came across.

“Michael,” he said, meeting Jal’tai’s gaze steadily enough, sounding more confident in his final choice than he truly was. “I’ll take that one.”

Jal’tai gave him an inquisitive look, cocking his head slightly. “Are you sure?”

Solonn barely managed to stifle a wince. Those words… “Absolutely,” he replied at once, wanting to get the matter behind him as soon as possible.

The latios smiled, nodding approvingly. “A fine choice, I say. Common enough, yet also quite stately, in my opinion.” Solonn rolled his eyes at Jal’tai’s choice of words. “Well, then. For our next matter of business, it might be a good idea to choose at least one middle name for yourself.”

Solonn sighed. From the time spent with Morgan and her pokémon, he’d learned (mostly from Sei) that many species didn’t find it necessary to give their children more than a single personal name and some sort of a family name, if even that much. Sei only had two names, while Oth only had one. Solonn had rather envied them; he’d heard quite enough laughter over his own middle name for a lifetime.

“Do I have to have a middle name, exactly?” Solonn asked tentatively. “I mean, do humans have to have one?”

Another of those inquisitive looks crossed Jal’tai’s face. “Well, no,” the latios answered. “Plenty of human cultures don’t use them, as a matter of fact. You don’t have to yourself; I just thought I’d offer it as an option.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Solonn said promptly. “I’d rather do without.”

“Very well,” Jal’tai said, at which relief spread through Solonn.

All that was left now was to take on a human surname—a name to represent a human family that he didn’t have. The notion bothered Solonn, and he couldn’t pretend it didn’t. In his eyes, it almost amounted to denying his family, his mother…

Denying doesn’t have to mean forgetting, he realized. Whatever else had to change, he could still keep his memories.

With that settled, he let Jal’tai suggest various human surnames to him, stopping the latios when he heard one that he didn’t mind. Michael Layne was his new name, and while he didn’t think nearly as well of it as Jal’tai did, he felt like he could have done a lot worse.

“Whew,” Jal’tai said, casting an eye toward the clock. “Well, that certainly took a while. I’d expected it would, though.”

“Yeah, well…” Solonn said, not really knowing how else to respond. Of course it should take a while to choose a name for yourself—who’d want a name they disliked or regretted following them wherever they went?

That thought made something occur to him. “So, did you have a hard time choosing your human name?”

So fleetingly that it could have easily been imagined, a strange, inscrutable look appeared on Jal’tai’s face. “Actually, not really,” he answered with only the slightest delay. “I came by the decision quite readily.”

“Hm.” Not really sure of what he thought of that, if anything, Solonn dismissed the matter.

“Well, what matters is that we’ve gotten this taken care of now,” Jal’tai said pleasantly. “Now you’ve got a human name to match your human appearance—a name under which I can enroll you at the Convergence Academy,” he added. “I’ve enlisted the services of a very capable instructor, one who’ll teach you nearly everything else you’ll need to know before you go into office. Systan Exeter knows you have a lot to learn, and they’re sure to keep you very busy—I don’t mean this to intimidate you, of course,” he added with a sort of self-conscious little chuckle.

Solonn gave a dismissive shake of his head. He’d known from the start that he’d have a lot of work ahead of him. He was a little surprised at first that Jal’tai wouldn’t be handling most of his training, but then supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. Jal’tai still had a city to run, after all. He couldn’t be expected to tend to all his successor’s needs.

Solonn only hoped this “Exeter” would be likeable enough and hopefully not too strict.

“Now, I won’t be shipping you off to school just yet,” Jal’tai told him. “You’ve been through a lot these past few days, and I think you’re entitled to some rest before taking on something so major.”

The latios looked at the now-empty glass that sat on the table beside Solonn. “Would you like me to make you another smoothie before I go?”

“Hmm? No, that’s okay,” Solonn answered. “Thanks anyway, though.”

Jal’tai nodded, but took the glass in his talon anyway. “It should be washed, at least,” he said, pointing at the pale purple film that was drying inside of the glass, then disappeared into the kitchen.

Shortly thereafter, Solonn heard the blender whir to life again, which puzzled him. It seemed his polite refusal had slipped from Jal’tai’s mind.

Sure enough, there was a fresh glass of the purple berry beverage in the latios’s talon when he came back into the den. He set it down on the table with a funny sort of apologetic smile. “Sorry—I just couldn’t resist,” Jal’tai said. “I could tell you really liked the last one, so…” He shrugged.

“Uh… thanks,” Solonn replied politely, albeit a bit awkwardly.

“Anyway,” Jal’tai began, stretching his arms out and flexing his neck, “I’ll be bringing you to the academy on, oh, the Monday after next, I think. I’ll let you have a tour of the facilities and meet Exeter, and you can probably start your classes the next day.

“Now, I won’t lie to you—the workload will seem very heavy at times during the course of your education. But I truly believe you can handle it. And I have a lot of faith in Exeter—you’ll be under the tutelage of one of the greatest and most important minds in all of Convergence. They’ll make sure you stay on course and are fully prepared for the responsibilities that lie in your future. You have absolutely nothing to worry about—you’re going to be in excellent hands… well, in a manner of speaking,” he amended, then laughed.

“In the meantime, though, I just want you to relax,” Jal’tai told Solonn warmly and earnestly. “Yes, you’ve got quite a road ahead of you, but it’s nothing to fear, nothing to be stressed about. I think you’ll find your life becoming richer and better as you begin to truly apply yourself to your purpose. Coming into your role is something to look forward to, my boy. Keep that in mind and be at ease in it in your days to come.

“Of course, Neleng can help you keep your nerves about you—she’ll be here in just over an hour. And again, she can come to visit any evening you wish.

“Until we meet again, take care.” With that, Jal’tai went to the transport tile and disappeared, leaving Solonn alone with a berry smoothie and plenty on his mind.

 

* * *

 

The night before Solonn’s first visit to the academy arrived, and he went to bed thinking exclusively of what would await him the next day. What he most certainly didn’t expect to be awaiting him the next morning was a latios holding a tray of hot, buttered pancakes, hovering almost directly over him.

“Rise and shine!” Jal’tai greeted him cheerfully—and loudly.

Jal’tai’s voice startled Solonn awake at once, and startled him badly. “Bwaaa!” Solonn shouted, flailing momentarily in confusion. He very nearly knocked the pancakes right out of Jal’tai’s talons; doing an admirable job at concealing most of his amusement, the latios backed up and watched patiently as Solonn untangled himself from the sheets.

Sweeping a handful of matted black hair out of his face and trying to will his hammering heart to calm down, Solonn shot a bewildered, incredulous look at Jal’tai. “Good gods… why in the world did you think that was a good idea?”

Jal’tai shrugged. “I figured that if you were anything like me, an ordinary alarm clock wouldn’t do the trick, so…” He held out the tray in front of Solonn with a lopsided, hopeful smile.

Still a bit frazzled, Solonn took the tray from Jal’tai without a word and started in on the pancakes. They were still quite warm, quite fresh; he vaguely wondered how Jal’tai had managed to slip in and cook breakfast without the smell awakening him. When he’d nearly finished the pancakes, he asked, “What time is it?”

“It’s 5:00 a.m.,” Jal’tai replied.

“…Oh, you have got to be joking,” Solonn half-groaned, suddenly feeling rather drowsy again. It had been around 10:00, 9:00 at the earliest, when he’d awoke on the past several mornings. “I don’t think I even got seven hours of sleep last night…”

“Well, I did advise you to get to bed early this time, you know,” Jal’tai pointed out.

“Which I did,” Solonn informed him, then paused to yawn. “A whole hour and a half earlier, in fact. I knew I’d be getting up early, but not this early… I’ll bet the sun isn’t even out yet, is it?”

“It’s about to be,” Jal’tai said. “Anyway, you’ll need to get used to early mornings. You’ll need plenty of time each day for the lessons you’re to learn and the work you’ll be given, so the school day can’t afford to start late. You should be glad you’re going to be given such long hours. You’ll be able to get through your courses much more quickly than you would if you were taught at a more leisurely pace.”

“Lucky me,” Solonn muttered, still somewhat irritable from having been jolted awake. He stirred the remaining maple syrup on his plate about with his fork for a brief while, tracing little patterns in it, lacking the energy to think of anything better or more involving to do. “So how long until we leave?” he eventually asked.

“In about three hours,” Jal’tai answered.

“…What? You woke me up before the sun, and we’re not even leaving for another three hours?”

Despite Solonn’s agitation, Jal’tai kept a remarkably even temperament. “This is when you’ll be waking nearly every day from now on,” he told Solonn. “When you begin attending classes tomorrow, you’ll be leaving an hour earlier than we’ll leave today. I felt it was a good idea for you to start getting used to being up and around at this hour.

“Now, the idea of waking up hours before you have to leave might seem silly to you, but it’s important to have ample time to get yourself ready for where you’re going. You should be able to shower, get dressed, have a nice breakfast, and even have a little time to just sit back and relax before you leave each day. Rushing to an appointment is never a good idea; it can have very sloppy results. Why, you wouldn’t want to arrive there only to find you’d forgotten your trousers, now would you?”

A crooked smile crept across Jal’tai’s face, and he burst into uncontrollable laughter. Solonn only stared bemusedly at him for a moment, failing (or perhaps refusing) to see the humor in the situation that the latios had just illustrated. Slightly disturbed, he pushed his tray to the foot of the bed, then climbed off and left the room to go take a shower, leaving Jal’tai laughing at his own joke.

Minutes later, Solonn was trying in vain to calm the static in his newly dried hair as he stepped out of the bathroom. There was Jal’tai in the den, perched oddly in the armchair and listening to his favorite jazz station with Solonn in his line of sight—he didn’t seem to be paying the human any mind, but Solonn was still glad he’d remembered to put on his bathrobe.

A sudden, brief fanfare sounded out of nowhere, clashing with the music that was coming from the radio. In a swift series of motions, Jal’tai silenced the radio and snatched a silver cell phone from the table nearby. He answered it just as it rang again.

“Hello? …Ah, good morning, Ms. Kal!” he greeted the person on the other end of the line. Solonn stopped on his way to the closet, wondering who this “Ms. Kal” might be and why she was calling. “Is that right… So, the idea just struck you out of the blue, did it?” Jal’tai asked her. There was a pause as she responded, and then the latios laughed. “I’m sure they’ll do just fine, and I know he’s going to appreciate this. This was a very nice thing to do, you know, especially on such short notice.” There was another pause. “Well, we’ll be seeing you shortly. Goodbye.”

The latios hung up and put the phone down. His gaze then shifted to Solonn, and he raised a questioning eyebrow. Solonn could tell from the way that Jal’tai was looking at him that no, the latios hadn’t just noticed him, and the notion that he’d been caught eavesdropping made Solonn oddly uneasy. Slightly embarrassed, he hurried out of Jal’tai’s sight.

Once dressed, he walked into the den to get Jal’tai’s opinion of the outfit; the latios noticed him with a slight delay and then looked him over for perhaps a second and a half at most. “You forgot your tie,” he then informed Solonn.

Solonn made a face at Jal’tai. Ties were easily his least favorite aspect of human-style attire.

“Come on, now. It’s important to make a good first impression when introducing yourself somewhere new—hence the importance of dressing like a gentleman. My videos illustrated that point; do you not remember?” Jal’tai reminded him.

“Right, right…” Solonn said blandly, walking off to finish getting himself ready to leave.

 

* * *

 

Solonn walked along a fairly new-looking, barely-worn cobblestone path that wound through the sprawling grounds in front of Convergence Academy. He was accompanied by Jal’tai, who was presently wearing his human disguise. Every so often, a red or yellow leaf from one of the trees growing along the sides of the path fluttered down and landed on Solonn; he promptly brushed off the ones that he noticed, while Jal’tai removed the ones he didn’t.

As they got closer to the academy itself, Solonn noticed marble panels stretching across the face of the building at each of its floors. They depicted both humans and pokémon who were historically associated with wisdom, invention, and the arts, carved in relief. On the roof, several flags waved in the wind, lined up in a neat row and representing many different regions, with one of them representing the International Pokémon League. In the very center of them all, on a longer pole, was a flag representing Convergence itself, with the unown character “C” in black over a spiraling, silver-and-gold shape.

On either side of the entrance, a large marble statue stood. One of them depicted an elderly human man with flowing robes and a long, curly beard, while the other was carved in the form of a wingless, five-horned dragon pokémon. The two figures each had an arm outstretched toward the other.

“Aphilicus, a great human philosopher, and Meron, an emyril known to a number of pokémon cultures as the Father of Wisdom,” Jal’tai identified the two statues after noticing Solonn looking at them. “Two of the greatest minds in history and therefore fitting icons to represent one of the most important educational facilities in the world.

“Now,” he said in a somewhat lowered voice, drawing the rest of Solonn’s attention from the statues with a tap on the shoulder, “I’ll remind you that you should make a conscious effort to speak human language most of the time. Almost exclusively, in fact. It seems much more fitting, much more natural for a human to speak in the fashion of their kind as a habit, Speech or no Speech; do you understand?”

“Right,” Solonn said, nodding.

Looking pleased with Solonn’s answer, Jal’tai motioned for him to enter the building alongside him. The two passed through the doors and into a vast foyer. A nearly full trophy case stood against the far wall adjacent to the doors, while the other walls were covered in plaques with the names and achievements of star pupils engraved in gold, as well as banners that sported mottos like “Knowledge Is Power!”. There was a round symbol emblazoned in the center of the foyer on the linoleum floor, bearing the intertwining spiral of gold and silver from the Convergence flag.

Footsteps sounded from the hall to the right, heavy-sounding with a faint clicking that suggested claws on the hard floor. Turning toward the sound, Solonn saw a nidoqueen making an approach. She soon reached Solonn and Jal’tai and stopped before them, smiling eagerly.

“Ah, hello, Ms. Kal,” Jal’tai greeted in a friendly tone.

“Hello to you too, sir!” the nidoqueen returned enthusiastically. Her gaze shifted to the unfamiliar human at Jal’tai’s side. “And this must be Mr. Layne, right?”

“Correct,” Jal’tai said.

“Hello, Mr. Layne. It’s so nice to meet you,” Ms. Kal said merrily.

“Nice to meet you, too,” Solonn responded. Remembering some of the etiquette lessons from Jal’tai’s instructional videos, he extended his hand to the nidoqueen. Ms. Kal seemed to have expected this; she took his hand readily in one of her own and shook it with a strong grip.

“So have they got it all set, then?” Jal’tai asked her.

“Oh yes,” Ms. Kal said, beaming. “They’re all ready to go.”

Jal’tai nodded and smiled. He turned to Solonn and said, “Ms. Kal is in charge of teaching some of the academy’s younger students. She will not be teaching you. However… she and her class would certainly like to meet you. Come, let’s go and say hello to the children. Lead the way, madam!”

Eagerly, Ms. Kal turned back toward the hall she’d come from and set off. Jal’tai and Solonn followed her, the latter being especially careful to not follow too closely; he didn’t want to step on the nidoqueen’s tail. They soon reached a door with a placard that read “GRADE 1 (P) – MS. KAL”… but to Solonn’s surprise, they kept walking right past it. Though perplexed as to why the nidoqueen passed by her own classroom, Solonn figured she knew what she was doing, and so he kept silent.

Ms. Kal rounded a corner and continued onward, leading Jal’tai and Solonn behind her until she arrived at the entrance to the gymnasium. Excitedly, she opened the doors…

Welcome, Mr. Layne!” a chorus of voices shouted in less-than-perfect unison. The source of the greeting was a small, multispecies crowd of children—all pokémon, Solonn noted—perched on the bleachers. The children in front held signs that matched the spoken welcome—or were supposed to, anyway. The “l” and the first “e” in “Welcome” were in reverse order; the “y” in “Layne” was upside-down; and the student holding the “M” in “Mr.” forgot to turn up his sign until all the other students had put theirs down.

Ms. Kal’s eyes darted toward Solonn and Jal’tai, holding an alarmed and very apologetic look. “Mr. Layne is very pleased by your excellent welcome,” she said merrily—albeit rather hurriedly—to the children. She cast a hopeful yet urgent look at Solonn that seemed to say, “Right? Right?” Solonn took the cue and nodded, smiling warmly and managing not to look as vicariously embarrassed as he felt.

An aipom in the third row lifted the hand on her tail to get the teacher’s attention.

“Yes, Ms. Chibbles?” Ms. Kal acknowledged her.

“Is he gonna be our new teacher? Did you get fired?” asked Chibbles.

Ms. Kal made an incredibly flustered face, her cheeks turning a shade befitting a bruised oran berry. “No, no, of course not, Ms. Chibbles,” she said hastily. “Mr. Layne is going to be a new student here.”

Wondering gazes and whispers flittered among the students. “A grown-up’s coming to our class? He must not be very smart…” a totodile in the back row said very loudly, without raising his hand.

Ms. Kal winced and blushed even further, giving Solonn and Jal’tai another apologetic look. “Please don’t speak out of turn, Mr. Cuomo,” she reprimanded the totodile, though she didn’t sound terribly assertive. “And no, Mr. Layne will be taught by Systan Exeter.”

The whispering among the students abruptly stopped. Ms. Kal smiled in relief, believing she’d finally regained the respect of the students, but Solonn got the feeling that it was actually the mention of Exeter’s name that had brought the hush over the crowd. What sort of a person could Exeter could be for the mere mention of their name to command silence like that?

“Well, then,” Jal’tai spoke up suddenly, clapping a hand onto Solonn’s shoulder and startling him so badly that the human nearly jumped at the voice and contact, “I’m certain Mr. Layne enjoyed your surprise greeting and had a lovely time meeting you all.” Again, Solonn recognized the cue and nodded very self-consciously. “Have a nice day students! You too, Ms. Kal!” Jal’tai said.

“Bye!” she responded cheerfully, waving heartily. As Solonn left the gym with Jal’tai, he turned briefly and noticed Cuomo standing up in the bleachers and mocking the nidoqueen’s voice and the way she waggled her rear end when she waved. Ms. Kal was utterly oblivious to the totodile’s actions.

“Wasn’t that a lovely little thing she decided to do there?” Jal’tai remarked. “Just a spur-of-the-moment, random act of kindness; she said the idea just hit her last Friday, and she simply had to try and pull it off for you. She’s a good person, that Ms. Kal. She’s only recently begun teaching here, but I think that given time, she’ll really come into her own here. The children certainly do seem to like her, that’s for certain.”

They seemed to like her, all right—in that she unintentionally amused them. Solonn’s thoughts didn’t linger upon the nidoqueen and her class for much longer, though. “What do you know about Exeter?” he asked.

“That’s Systan Exeter to you,” Jal’tai corrected him, but not harshly. “You should always keep due etiquette in mind, my boy. Anyhow, I know quite a bit about Exeter, actually,” the latios said, the white mustache of his human guise turning up in a smile. “Exeter is an old friend of mine and one of the primary founders of the Convergence Project. They provided a great deal of research into human industry and technology as well as a number of other key fields, which was vital to the conception and creation of this city and remains invaluable to Convergence and its citizens to this very day. Exeter’s is a brilliant mind, and the unique abilities and properties of their kind give them unparalleled access to some very rich resources and broad varieties of information.”

Learning of Exeter’s intelligence and importance only stoked further unease in Solonn. If they really were as smart as Jal’tai claimed, surely their classes would be extremely challenging. “Just how difficult are Systan Exeter’s classes going to be?” he asked.

“I’ll be perfectly honest with you, Solonn: what you’re about to undertake is a very intensive and demanding education. Exeter usually only tutors psychic students, particularly those with especially sophisticated mental capabilities. It took very little convincing to get them to agree to tutor you exclusively for as long as is necessary, though. Knowing your reason for being here, they were glad to put aside their other classes for a while; they cherish the welfare and future of this city as much as I do.

“Exeter’s are tough courses, yes, the most rigorous ones provided by this school. But Exeter themself is not harsh at all—they’re one of the most patient and pleasant people you’ll ever meet. They want you to learn all that you need to know, and they’re willing to invest as much time and effort in your education as they must. All they’ll ask is that you invest the same in yourself. Will you give them—and yourself—that much?”

Solonn nodded silently. He was still somewhat nervous, but no longer about his teacher so much as about the magnitude of his undertaking, which seemed to be looming much larger than before now that he was about to confront it directly. “You know… I still can’t entirely believe I’m doing this,” he said quietly. “I still can’t quite picture myself in charge of an entire city…”

“You needn’t try so hard to grasp these things all at once,” Jal’tai said warmly. “Everything you’re meant to be will come about in time.”

Solonn turned to look at Jal’tai, to regard the kindly, presently human face that smiled comfortingly back at him. He almost spoke, only to realize just as quickly that he didn’t really have anything to say. He gave a smile that was less than earnest, feeling that Jal’tai’s somehow demanded reciprocation, and then turned away, swallowing against a sudden lump in his throat.

The two walked through the halls of the academy in silence broken only when a stream of human kids emerged from a classroom they passed, the students chatting animatedly as they diverged and made for their next classes. Noise filled the air as classrooms emptied throughout the building near-simultaneously. Several of the passing students shot looks at Jal’tai, clearly recognizing him—or recognizing Mayor Whitley, anyway. Most of them kept going, continuing to look back at him over their shoulders but nonetheless intent on getting to their classes in time. But a small handful of them couldn’t help but stop.

“Is it really you?” a short blond boy among them asked incredulously.

“Well, I’ve always been me, as far back as I remember,” Jal’tai responded, then laughed.

The blond boy’s eyes widened, and he exchanged significant looks with the other students. “What are you doing here?” he then asked, apparently the unofficial spokesman of the group.

“Well, young man, Mr. Layne here and I have a very important appointment with the staff to get to. I’m afraid we really must be moving along, as a matter of fact… Good day to you all, students!” he said, bidding them farewell as he began to lead Solonn away.

“Bye!” the blond boy called after Jal’tai. A couple of the other students echoed the farewell. Solonn looked over his shoulder and saw a few of them waving at him and Jal’tai, and he waved back.

As the halls began to empty once more, Jal’tai came to a stop at the doors of an elevator, and Solonn followed suit.

Systan Exeter’s class is on the top floor,” Jal’tai informed him. “Many of their old psychic students would simply teleport up there, but we’ll just have to make do with the elevator.” The doors soon opened, and the two stepped inside. “Just be glad you’re not being made to take the stairs,” Jal’tai said with a small laugh.

They arrived at the sixth floor, and Solonn found his nervousness peaking as they approached Exeter’s classroom. He tried to distract himself with his surroundings, his eyes darting over the framed photographs that lined the walls. They depicted various noteworthy people, from past and present educators at the academy to important figures in Convergence to people who had worldwide fame or accolade. They couldn’t hold his attention, however; his eyes soon turned forward once more and locked upon the swiftly approaching door.

“SYSTAN EXETER – INTENSIVE EDUCATION,” read the placard on the door. Jal’tai gave Solonn one last reassuring smile (which only slightly succeeded in its aim) and then pressed a button beside the doorknob. A faint tone sounded within the classroom.

“Come in,” a voice called from behind the door a moment later. It sounded strikingly similar to the soft chime of the doorbell, which surprised Solonn a bit.

Taking the cue, Jal’tai opened the door and took a single step inside, beckoning Solonn into the classroom ahead of him. With no small measure of apprehension, Solonn did as he was directed. Once he was inside, he saw Jal’tai close the door behind him; involuntarily, Solonn imagined it sealing itself shut and melting into the wall, trapping him inside.

Shaking such thoughts from his mind with only partial success, Solonn swept his gaze over the classroom. It was much smaller than he’d expected, and there was nothing at all on the pale blue walls. The classroom was almost entirely bare, in fact; it contained only a single desk and chair near the center, a longer desk up near the front on which there sat a number of unfamiliar devices, and a vast screen mounted on the wall above that desk.

There, hovering before that screen, was Systan Exeter themself. Solonn hadn’t really known what to expect his new teacher would actually be, but he was certain that nothing even remotely like the porygon2 he now beheld would have ever crossed his mind.

Exeter glided effortlessly toward Solonn, who went stock still as they approached him. “Welcome, Mr. Layne,” they said in their chiming voice as they stopped before him. They appeared to have nothing at all in the way of a mouth, and no other part of them moved when they spoke, either. Solonn found himself rather reminded of Oth, who hadn’t used a mouth to speak, either. The difference was that he could comprehend Exeter’s audible speech; they didn’t need to resort to telepathy.

Solonn knew that he couldn’t shake hands with Exeter since they didn’t have any. At a loss for any other way to greet the teacher, “…Hi,” he said somewhat awkwardly.

The porygon2 cocked their head slightly at Solonn, staring appraisingly at him through large, bright eyes. Finally, they lowered their head respectfully; when they looked up once more, there was something playing about their eyes that suggested a smile. “I’m most glad to meet you, Mr. Layne, and I’m even more pleased to be able to teach you.”

“…Thanks,” Solonn said, still gathering his wits.

Exeter made an odd, jingling sound that Solonn figured was laughter. Then they turned their attention toward Jal’tai. “You’re looking well today, Mr. Jal’tai,” they said.

“Why, thank you. You’re looking quite well, yourself,” Jal’tai returned.

Only then did it properly click that the porygon2 had referred to Jal’tai by his true name, his lati name, not the human name Jal’tai normally used in public. Solonn turned toward Jal’tai and saw that the latios had done away with his mirage and was now hovering there in his true form. He stared speechlessly at Jal’tai in surprise—Jal’tai revealed himself as he truly was to virtually no one, humans and pokémon alike.

Jal’tai noticed the way Solonn was staring at him. “No need to worry, Michael,” he assured him, interpreting that look correctly. “As I said, Systan Exeter and I go back quite a long way. They know me for who and what I truly am; they’re one of the very few here who do.”

Solonn’s gaze shifted between Jal’tai and Exeter, and he found himself feeling strangely singled-out all of a sudden. Those two knew each other by name, just as he knew them. The only identity that wasn’t known by everyone present was his own. Jal’tai had only referred to him by his human name in the porygon2’s presence. Exeter didn’t know the true identity of their new student, and Solonn wondered if they ever would.

“Say… why don’t you give him a little preview of what you have to offer him?” Jal’tai suggested.

The porygon2 gave another of their mouthless smiles. “Certainly!” they said brightly. They glided over to their desk and set themself down on a flat, gray, circular pad surrounded almost completely by the devices arranged there. Their eyes closed… and then, much to Solonn’s surprise, the porygon2 sparkled, became transparent, and then disappeared completely.

“What? …Where did they go?” Solonn hissed at Jal’tai.

The screen over the desk suddenly came awake, showing an image of Exeter in front of a flowing, liquid-looking, emerald green background. “I’m right here!” the porygon2 said cheerfully, their melodious voice magnified greatly.

Solonn could only stare at the screen that somehow contained the teacher. He might have asked Exeter how they’d done such a thing, but he found his brain and his mouth refusing to cooperate.

Exeter gave another of their peculiar little laughs at Solonn’s plain bewilderment. “Give me a subject,” they then said.

Solonn supposed that the teacher was addressing him and tried to think of something, but he was still a bit discombobulated; no suggestions came to mind.

“How about… dragons?” Jal’tai suggested once it was clear that Solonn was drawing a blank.

Apparently Exeter found Jal’tai’s suggestion particularly amusing; their musical laughter tinkled on for several seconds before subsiding. Once they fell silent again, the porygon2 nodded in acknowledgment. Exeter’s form then darkened to the green shade that surrounded them, their outline fading until the porygon2 blended into the background completely and vanished.

A second later, the flowing green field was replaced by a mountain range. Sweeping classical music began playing as a salamence suddenly surged upward from behind the mountains and began soaring over their peaks. The salamence rushed across the screen, filling its view completely; when it cleared, a desert scene was revealed, through which a pack of flygon sped along, their wings buzzing.

A few more cinematic scenes depicting different varieties of dragon pokémon in their natural environments played, then gave way to a screen on which small, three-dimensional representatives of numerous dragon species perched along the sides. Exeter returned to this screen at its center; some of the tiny dragons merely turned their heads toward the porygon2, while others among them hissed or growled at Exeter in disdain.

“Please select a species for further discussion,” the porygon2 prompted.

“Let’s have a look at the dragonite,” Jal’tai suggested.

Exeter acknowledged this and then turned toward the tiny dragonite at the upper right corner of the screen. The teacher, along with all of the other dragons, vanished as the dragonite increased in size, filling most of the screen. The dragon stood there at the center, where they remained as Exeter began describing that species in greater detail from offscreen. As the porygon2 continued narrating, the camera focused on the dragonite from several angles, and then the model of the dragon was replaced by a series of video clips of their species in action.

Exeter was also asked to talk about the salamence and drathlon species before Jal’tai decided that was enough for the day. The porygon2 closed the dragon program, then rematerialized within the classroom as the screen went blank once more.

“That was only a small example of the sort of lessons Systan Exeter has in store for you,” Jal’tai told Solonn then. “Now, this is not the only method they’ll employ; they’ll provide a variety of different lesson types.

“Also, I’m afraid that dragons won’t be a focal point of your education. I just really like that particular program,” he admitted with a chuckle. “Figured you might like it, too.”

Solonn nodded. It seemed learning under Systan Exeter might not be as unpleasant as he’d anticipated. At the very least, it looked as though it wouldn’t be as boring as he’d expected. Given the porygon2’s pleasant, even cheerful demeanor and what he’d seen of their teaching methods, he now imagined that the experience ahead of him might actually be kind of enjoyable.

“Well, I suppose we’ll be taking our leave now,” Jal’tai said. “I’ll let Michael have a look around the academy for a while longer, and then it’s off to enjoy a nice, relaxing evening.”

Exeter turned toward Solonn and smiled once again. “I hope you’ll enjoy your time here, Mr. Layne,” they said. “Farewell, and I’ll see you tomorrow!”

“Goodbye,” Solonn said, and then followed Jal’tai out the door.

Chapter Text

Solonn had never been able to guess exactly what he could expect from his education. As it turned out, neither what Morgan had told him about her school nor the demonstrations he was given at the academy painted the full picture.

Solonn’s education included a particular emphasis on the history and inner workings of the International Pokémon League, the powerful organization that funded and managed the Convergence Project and to which he’d one day be in direct service. He was also trained in a variety of skills and subjects, and exposed to a number of human languages. He acquired the latter just as readily as he’d acquired pokémon languages in the past; all part of having the Speech, Jal’tai told him.

A day at school for him was nearly twice as long as it had been for Morgan, and unlike her, he had to attend classes seven days a week. Most of the students were offered vacations during the late winter, the spring, and the summer; he was not. He would only be allowed up to four days off each month; beyond that, he would only be excused by illness. While the time spent in class was long, the variety in the lessons, as well as the enthusiasm, patience, and understanding of the teacher, made the hours easier to endure than they might have been.

Neleng and her therapeutic mindsongs certainly helped, too. Solonn suspected that his new schedule might devour his sanity if it weren’t for the psychic oasis she provided for him every evening. He didn’t want to go a single day without her services, and she was all too happy to oblige.

On rare occasions, usually during Solonn’s short breaks from schoolwork, Jal’tai himself would instruct him. The latios liked to take Solonn on field trips throughout Convergence to get his successor as acquainted with the city as possible, and he always had stories to tell about the places they visited, having witnessed the establishment of many of them firsthand.

For nearly four years, Solonn was trained in this way. Finally, the day came when both the staff at the academy and Jal’tai himself agreed that he’d learned all he needed to know. According to them, he was now sufficiently prepared to take on this office—this new life—even if he could still barely believe it himself.

One late morning the following week found him in what was presently Jal’tai’s office and what would soon be his own—very soon. Once the witnesses arrived, the transfer of power would begin. Part of Solonn just wanted to get it over with. But for now, all he could do was wait, pacing back and forth across the circular room.

“You needn’t be working yourself into a frenzy, now,” Jal’tai told him evenly, perched oddly over his chair behind his desk. When the witnesses arrived, he’d need to put on his human disguise, but he wasn’t concerned about that for the time being. He had no reason to worry, and he knew it. He’d be given fair warning when his guests showed up; no one was allowed to simply barge into the mayor’s office unannounced. He only wished the human in his company could be at ease, too. “I’ve already explained what’s going to happen; it’s not going to be any big deal, really, I assure you.”

Solonn only grunted distractedly in response, then resumed the mantra he’d been repeating in his mind in an effort to keep his nerves in check. It wasn’t working as well as it had when he’d first started. Jal’tai had indeed outlined what he could expect, and it really was going to be a very simple and quiet affair. Regardless, his life was about to take a significant turn. The magnitude of that fact just wouldn’t let him coax it off of his shoulders.

He just hoped to all gods he’d be able to avoid fainting.

It was a small mercy when the witnesses finally showed up; at least he could stop anticipating their arrival. Four humans were admitted into the office; Solonn recognized them immediately as senior members of the IPL. There were two men and two women, all of them older and well-dressed. They were accompanied by none other than Exeter, who smiled brightly and proudly in their mouthless fashion as they hovered alongside the league representatives.

Jal’tai, now disguised as Rolf Whitley, rose from his chair and greeted his colleagues heartily. The representatives took a couple of minutes to exchange a few friendly words with him and to greet Solonn, as well. Then one of them produced a portfolio with a number of documents inside. He’d known this was coming, knew the contents of those documents nearly word-for-word. But it still seemed incredible that these pages could hold the power to transfer the leadership of an entire city.

The representative took the pages out and handed them to Solonn. They outlined a contract of sorts, binding him to the authority of the IPL and to service to their Convergence Project, while bestowing the right and authority to govern Convergence as a community that was independent from the rest of Hoenn. The documents also contained an oath of service to the city, and Solonn was made to read this and everything else in those documents aloud to prove that he acknowledged and understood it all.

Once Solonn had finished, he was told to set the documents down upon the desk. Jal’tai rearranged them so that the last page sat on top of the stack. One by one, the league members each signed their name on the topmost sheet. Systan Exeter came forward and signed the document as well, dipping the end of their “beak” into a small pot of ink and quickly writing their name in unown-script.

Soon, it was Solonn’s turn. Jal’tai handed him the pen, and Solonn stepped forward and let his gaze fall upon the empty line beneath the sweeping signature that spelled out Jal’tai’s human name. He could feel the slightest slick of sweat forming between his fingers and the pen, and the space around him seemed to have gone preternaturally silent save for the strong, persistent rhythm of his pulse pounding in his ears. He hoped the others in attendance weren’t too aware of his nervousness.

Convergence and its mission would present a considerable duty in the years to come. But for now, all that was being asked of him was a name written on piece of paper. Bearing this in mind in an effort to keep things in perspective, he drew a breath and set the pen to the paper. He didn’t exhale until his signature was shining back up at him in fresh, still-glistening ink.

He frowned at it slightly; it wasn’t particularly tidy, especially compared to Jal’tai’s. Solonn didn’t even think it resembled the way his human name looked in writing. Jal’tai had told him before that it was all right, that many people’s signatures only marginally resembled their written names. Still, the semi-legibility of his own signature bothered Solonn, moreso than usual.

“There you have it,” Jal’tai said softly from Solonn’s side. He took a rubber stamp that sat on his desk, pressed it into an inkpad, and stamped a blank space on the document with the pokéball emblem of the IPL in red ink. To the room at large, the latios said, “Let the records show that on this day, August the 26th, 2022, authority over the city of Convergence was hereby transferred from myself, Rolf Alan Whitley, to Michael Layne.”

The words reached Solonn with a delay, as did the smattering of polite, reserved applause that arose around him. With one simple act on his part, he’d signed his life away to this city and the cause for which it stood. In a ceremony that had lasted barely more than an hour, he had been given the reins of an entire community—and a mission that could bring about reform in societies all over the world and secure an everlasting place for himself in history.

Was that really it? he couldn’t help but wonder.

After a round of congratulations and farewells from the league representatives as well as from Exeter, the guests departed. Jal’tai resumed his true form, wearing the biggest smile he could manage.

“I’m more proud of you than I quite know how to express, my boy,” he said, almost breathless with joy.

“You’re proud of the fact that I read a few sheets of paper and then scribbled a name on one?” Solonn joked.

“Oh, you know better than that,” Jal’tai said lightheartedly, gently cuffing the human about the shoulder. “You’ve come a considerable way to get to this point. You’ve given years of your life to prepare yourself for this day. Your dedication to our cause is nothing short of wonderful,” he said rather dreamily.

Solonn gave the gushing latios a funny look. “Whatever you say,” he responded, leaning backwards against the desk and staring at his shoes.

“Here,” Jal’tai offered pleasantly, “why don’t you take a seat?” He gestured toward the large chair behind the desk. “It’s yours now, after all.”

“Yes,” Solonn acknowledged, feeling oddly weary and excited at the same time, “it is, isn’t it?” Unhurriedly, he strode around the desk and sat down in the chair. It wasn’t quite as comfortable as it had looked, but it was better than just standing around. His eyes swept over the desk; it was very tidy, and much of what was there specifically suited Jal’tai’s tastes. Solonn distantly wondered what the desk might look like after a few months in his possession.

“So, then. Have you memorized what you’re going to say?” Jal’tai asked then.

“Yes, I have,” Solonn responded promptly, resisting the urge to bite his tongue. What he’d had to memorize for his next task was really very short and simple, but nothing struck at his certainty like another person questioning it. He knew it was only meant as a friendly reminder, but it still bred some doubt within him. To try and avoid letting his mind stick on the matter, “How soon until they arrive?” he asked.

“Probably well within the next hour. They’ll want to get this done soon so it can be given the post-production treatment it’ll need,” Jal’tai answered.

“And this’ll air tonight?”

“Yes; they’ll be showing it during the evening news, as well as the nightly news. It’ll also air during commercial breaks over the next few days,” Jal’tai told him.

“Hm. Terrific,” Solonn said dryly. He noticed that his ponytail had fallen over his shoulder, and he idly fiddled with the hair for a moment before tossing it back behind himself. He’d let it grow quite a bit longer in recent months; it now hung a fair distance between his shoulder blades. He didn’t particularly like having it pulled back like this, but wearing it this way was just one of those things that, for whatever reason, was considered more befitting of an authority figure—much like the suit he was presently wearing. He still thought he looked silly in it. But he’d come to accept that occasionally submitting to absurd things that he couldn’t care less about was just part of being in a position of authority.

He mused on this and other random things as he waited for his next task to be upon him, trying not to overanalyze what he was about to do. He was left alone with his thoughts for a short while when Jal’tai put his mirage back on and excused himself for a few minutes; the latios had only just returned when the next guests arrived.

A small camera crew entered the office, consisting of a few humans alongside a blaziken cameraman who wore a rather ratty blue baseball cap backwards. They set up lights around the desk as Jal’tai positioned himself by the door, out of the shot. Without any warning, one of the humans came around the desk and attacked Solonn’s face with a bit of makeup, then scrutinized him for a second before scampering away. Solonn tried hard not to shoot her a funny look, but failed.

When things calmed down a bit more, the reality of the situation sank in all over again. An entire city would see what he was about to do. Some of them would probably see it more than once. The thought of it threatened to unnerve him, but he reminded himself that at least the eyes of the city weren’t actually there in the office with him. They’re not here, he reminded himself silently. Don’t think about them.

He was grateful for the brevity of the statement he was about to give; as one of the humans nearby began a countdown, he was able to quickly review it in his head one last time. He was also grateful that Jal’tai had offered to compose those words for him; it took at least some of the pressure off of him.

The countdown ended, and the camera began filming. Steeling himself imperceptibly, the human looked directly into the lens and spoke his very first words to the city as its leader.

“Hello, Convergence,” he said evenly, congenially. “My name is Michael Layne. On August 26th, I was appointed as your new mayor. In taking this office, I have pledged myself to the continuing efforts to keep this city alive and prospering, as well as toward the ultimate goal of bettering the entire world by our example here.

“I swear that I will ensure the maintenance of our city’s unparalleled harmony among all peoples, and I will lead us in our endeavor to promote equality in civilizations beyond Convergence. I am fully dedicated to our local well-being as well as to our city’s purpose on a greater scale.

“Though young and a newcomer to public office, I am ready, willing, and able to serve you. Rest assured that I will do all that I can to meet your needs and expectations. We now enter a new era in the history of Convergence, and we enter it together. Best wishes to you all and to our future.”

Oh, thank the gods… Solonn let out a sigh of relief once the crew was no longer filming, grateful that he’d managed to avoid tripping on his words. Now he could only hope that he hadn’t unwittingly pulled an odd face, or that the makeup artist wouldn’t decide he hadn’t looked right after all, or that nothing else that would require another take would happen. Thankfully, everyone seemed pleased with his performance and left without demanding a do-over.

“See? Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Jal’tai said, dropping the mirage once more.

“Meh,” Solonn responded. “Of course, that’s not the last TV appearance I’ll have to make.”

“No, it certainly isn’t. I’m afraid many occasions of public speaking lie in your future, televised or otherwise,” Jal’tai said. “But then, you’ve known what came along with the job description for some time now, have you not?”

“I know…” Solonn responded somewhat airily. “I’m just glad I don’t have to do anything else of the sort today.” He sighed and reclined as far as his chair would allow. “I can’t wait for Neleng tonight, let me tell you…”

“Oh… Well… I’m afraid that tonight’s appointment with Neleng has been canceled,” Jal’tai informed him.

Solonn frowned worriedly. “What? Why?”

“Something has come up,” Jal’tai answered noncommittally.

Solonn gave Jal’tai a concerned and rather suspicious look. “Why don’t I like the sound of this?”

“I haven’t a clue, but I suspect that like everything else you’ve been through today, it won’t be quite the tribulation you expect.” Jal’tai put his human disguise back on and made for the door, but stopped just short of exiting. “Don’t worry about it for now, all right? Why don’t we go get some nice lunch, hmm?”

Still a bit wary of whatever the latios was conspicuously omitting from discussion, Solonn didn’t respond to the offer right away. Finally, “Sure,” he said, then rose from his seat. As he accompanied Jal’tai out of the office, he wondered if he might manage to coax some information out of the latios over lunch.

 

* * *

 

It was late afternoon, and Solonn was sitting alone back at his suite with the television on, though not really watching it. He’d had no luck in finding out what had changed his plans for the night; Jal’tai had simply sat (or rather perched) there during lunch, smiling in a knowing manner over first his sandwiches and then his parfait, somehow managing to redirect the conversation whenever it tried to turn toward the coming evening.

Jal’tai’s evasiveness had persisted throughout the rest of the day, all the way up to the point when he’d brought Solonn back to the Convergence Inn; then, vaguely mentioning that he had very important things to attend to, the latios had departed his company.

Now Solonn had little else to do but sit there with one abysmally boring program or another blaring at him and the same host of questions endlessly circling his mind. What in the world was going to happen that night? How could he be kept in the dark about something so important that he’d had to cancel anything else he’d wanted to do that evening? How much longer would he continue living in this hotel suite now that he was the mayor? And why had whoever made sitcoms like the one currently playing thought that adding disembodied laughter to the program would make it any funnier?

Finally unable to endure any more of it, Solonn turned the TV off. Just as soon as he’d done so, he received a peculiar message from the computerized voice of the suite.

“Please stand on the transport tile and wait,” it instructed him.

Perplexed, Solonn was initially unsure about following the instructions, vaguely wondering why he was being asked to do such a thing. He decided quickly enough that he might as well go along with it, though, and soon he was doing as he was told.

The tile activated, and he found himself in the corridor outside—and not alone. Standing there was a uniformed man with salt-and-pepper hair: the chauffeur employed to drive him and Jal’tai around town.

“Follow me, sir,” the chauffeur said simply, then turned and made for the nearby elevator with no further instructions or explanation. Though growing more baffled by the minute by what was going on, Solonn quickly followed the man into the elevator and then out of the hotel to the waiting vehicle.

Solonn eventually arrived at a relatively modest but nonetheless stately mansion. Having been brought here several times over the past couple of years, Solonn recognized this place at once. This was where Jal’tai lived.

The chauffeur stepped out of the car, then let Solonn out. He escorted Solonn up the walkway, stepping aside only when they reached the front doors. Almost as soon as they’d stopped there, the doors burst open—and Solonn was immediately blasted by an explosion of confetti.

Surprise!” shouted countless voices in unison.

For a very long moment, Solonn could only stare wildly at the mirage-human standing just inside the door. Then he shook off the black and gold flecks of paper covering him (most of them, anyway), spat out a few more, and demanded, “What in the world was that for?”

Very slowly, a smile crept across Jal’tai’s presently human face, spreading into a full Cheshire grin. He then burst into uproarious laughter. “You silly boy, it’s for you! Come on in,” he said, stepping back a bit. Still eying Jal’tai warily, Solonn followed him into the mansion.

Thankfully, there were no more startling surprises once he entered Jal’tai’s home. But there were more pleasant surprises about. He’d always thought Jal’tai kept a nice household, but the latios had outdone himself tonight. Everything in sight had been tastefully decorated in black, silver, and gold.

As Solonn went further into the house, he lost count of all the guests, some of whom he knew locally or recognized as league representatives, while others were completely unfamiliar. Friends of Jal’tai he hadn’t met before, Solonn figured.

Music began playing and grew louder as he continued to follow Jal’tai. He found its source at one end of a spacious living room. A seven-piece, multispecies band was playing the sort of light, easygoing jazz that Jal’tai liked.

But soon after Solonn entered the room, they stopped playing. The guests’ chattering ceased, and soon all eyes were on Jal’tai and Solonn, who had made their way to the center of the room.

“Our guest of honor has arrived!” Jal’tai announced needlessly, beaming at the crowd. The moment the words left his mouth, the guests all erupted into applause. Solonn winced, expecting another confetti attack or some other, equally bizarre surprise from the guests. Luckily they seemed content to merely applaud him—until Jal’tai decided to lead them in a cheer, which Solonn endured with a somewhat forced smile.

At Jal’tai’s cue, the band went back to work, striking up a livelier tune than they’d been playing before, and the guests went back to milling amongst themselves. Jal’tai took a few moments to systematically hunt down every person Solonn hadn’t been introduced to yet and rectify that unfamiliarity, then shepherded Solonn over to a presently unoccupied sofa, asking the nearest person to go fetch them a couple of drinks as they took their seats.

“So. What do you think of this little surprise I put together for you, hmm?” Jal’tai then asked Solonn.

What Solonn thought was that it was kind of an odd surprise. But it was the thought that counted, after all; so, “It’s nice,” he said, nodding approvingly. “How long were you planning this?”

“Well, I always knew I wanted to do something special for you when this day finally arrived,” Jal’tai answered, smiling. “As for the elements of the party itself, the invitations were sent out just over a week ago, around the time the decorations were purchased, and I booked the band over the weekend. Saved them from having to play another wedding, the lucky souls,” he added with a laugh.

Solonn responded wordlessly, and the two were silent for a little while after that, watching the band, watching the crowd. The man who’d been sent after drinks returned; Jal’tai and Solonn took them and thanked him before he disappeared into the crowd. Jal’tai stared into his drink for a moment, seemingly deep in thought. He took a small sip of it, then turned to Solonn with an unreadable expression.

“I’ll be leaving town tomorrow morning,” Jal’tai told him, sounding rather hoarse all of a sudden.

It took a moment for those words to sink in. Even once they had, Solonn was at a loss for how to react. He’d known for some time that Jal’tai had planned to leave Convergence once he was no longer its leader, but Solonn hadn’t expected that he’d leave this soon after stepping down.

“After I leave, this will be your home, of course,” Jal’tai went on. “I’ll help you move in tomorrow. It won’t be any real trouble for me—I’ve decided to leave much of what’s here to you, so it’s not as though I’ll really have much in the way of moving myself out to bother with.”

Somewhat overwhelmed, Solonn just sat silently for moments on end. The way things were unfolding was strangely difficult to get his head around; after years spent preparing for the life he was only just now entering, everything suddenly seemed to be happening so fast…

“Are you all right, my boy?” Jal’tai asked, concerned.

“…I’m fine,” Solonn responded after a pause. He hesitated again, then admitted, “Part of me does kind of wish I’d known when you were leaving a little further in advance, though…”

Jal’tai smiled sadly. “I’d certainly have told you if I’d been sure of it myself.” He sighed. “I’ll admit I’d been procrastinating over the matter for longer than I should have. I’ve been… reluctant to leave my city,” he all but whispered. “In the end, I knew that if I didn’t simply go, then I might not be able to bring myself to do it—hence the last minute decision. I’m terribly sorry if this inconveniences you in any way…”

“No… no, it’s not a problem at all,” Solonn assured him quickly. It was obvious enough that the decision to leave Convergence behind had been supremely difficult for Jal’tai; though the human mirage that Jal’tai wore revealed only moderate sadness, Solonn strongly suspected that the latios behind that façade was on the verge of tears. He didn’t want to let Jal’tai feel even remotely guilty for springing this news on him on such short notice; Solonn felt rather sorry for even mentioning that the lack of advance warning had bothered him. He also didn’t have the heart to question why the latios found it necessary to leave, though he certainly wondered. Knowing as he did how having a resolution questioned could shake it apart, Solonn mindfully kept that question to himself.

Jal’tai held Solonn’s gaze with faint relief, then gave an earnest, albeit weary smile, grateful for Solonn’s understanding. He knew that the human at his side would never realize just how much of his unspoken compassion was being recognized, having been kept ignorant of Jal’tai’s psychic qualities ever since having his memory rewritten. But it was recognized indeed, and greatly appreciated.

“Oh, look at me,” Jal’tai said, his voice still cracking a bit, “glooming up your nice party like that; shame on me! Come on,” he suggested in a slightly brighter tone as he stood, “why don’t we go mingle a bit more?”

Though still somewhat concerned for Jal’tai, sure that the matter of his departure was still weighing heavily upon him, Solonn humored the latios’s pretense of lightening up. Throughout the rest of that evening and well into the night, he chatted with the guests, took in the music, and accepted the gifts that the attendees had brought for him, and he managed to appear to enjoy it all. All the while, though, the better part of his mind was preoccupied with thoughts of would soon befall both him and the latios who’d preceded him—what one would gain and what the other would lose.

 

* * *

 

The August sun shone brightly, bearing down on Convergence from high in the sky. It was just before noon, but to Solonn it felt like it could have been almost any daylight hour; he hadn’t slept the night before.

He stood there in front of the mansion that was soon to be his own, distantly staring at the lone moving truck parked at the end of the driveway and the plain black car parked behind that truck. A pair of movers made trips back and forth between the truck and the house, bringing a few of Solonn’s things in, hauling a few of Jal’tai’s things out. It wasn’t long at all before the job was finished; Solonn didn’t own much, and there were very few of Jal’tai’s possessions that the latios hadn’t opted to leave behind.

Shortly after the last of Solonn’s belongings were brought into the mansion, Jal’tai emerged wordlessly alongside the movers. He stopped beside Solonn, remaining silent for several moments, staring pensively into the sky.

“My Goddess, how I’m going to miss this place…” he finally whispered.

Solonn said nothing in response, casting a somber gaze downward. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a very faint shimmering; when he looked toward its source, he saw that Jal’tai had resumed his true form.

“I’ve taken the veil off of your eyes only,” Jal’tai assured Solonn before the latter could raise any concerns. “This is most likely the last we’ll ever see of one another… I want your final memories of me to be as I truly am.”

He laid his taloned hands upon Solonn’s shoulders and sighed heavily. His eyes shone with unshed tears as he held the human’s gaze, and a warm, broad smile slowly curved across his face. “You’ve come such a long way from the day I first met you,” he said wistfully. “You’ve made me so very proud, my dear boy, prouder than I’ve ever been of anyone in my entire life. I know in my heart that you’ll take good care of my city, that you’ll serve and guide it with as much love and devotion as I always did…”

At those words, Jal’tai could hold back his tears no longer. In a sudden motion, he wrapped his arms around Solonn in a long embrace. Solonn closed his eyes, feeling his own tears escape as he held on to the silently weeping latios.

“I will miss my city,” Jal’tai breathed, “but I will miss you even more.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” Solonn responded truthfully, realizing now more than ever just how much he’d miss the latios once he was gone.

At length, Jal’tai finally let go of Solonn, slowly drifting backward from him. There was sorrow showing plainly through his features, but there was also pride, and it showed stronger still. “Take care, my boy,” he said softly. “You are the heart of this city now.”

Solonn nodded in acknowledgment. “You take care, too,” he said, his voice brittle.

Jal’tai smiled at him. “Farewell,” he said.

“Farewell,” Solonn returned.

Slowly, reluctantly, the latios turned away. He glided silently over the driveway, stopping to hover above the black car, invisible to all but Solonn. Everyone else present saw a human mirage get into the back of the car. The engines hummed to life, and the two vehicles began to move out. Jal’tai gave one last, wistful look behind, then followed them away.

Through tears, Solonn watched Jal’tai vanish beyond the horizon. With the latios gone, Convergence had truly fallen into Solonn’s hands, and he felt the weight of that burden more than ever now that he carried it alone. As he turned away and entered his new home, he couldn’t help but disagree with some of Jal’tai’s parting words. Solonn was now the leader of this city, but in truth, Jal’tai would always be its heart.

Chapter Text

Restlessly, he soared, his weary eyes sweeping the land below. He’d done next to nothing else for months now, stopping only to tend to his physical needs, never staying in any one place for long.

A few months prior, he’d returned to his homeland, his work finally finished. There, he’d brought himself before the rulers of his people, who’d ordered him to do immense good in the world to atone for the crime he’d committed so long ago. He’d testified about all the work he’d done and the fruit it had yielded, hoping it would satisfy their demands.

Of course, he’d been very selective about what he’d let them see—they didn’t need to know how certain of his achievements had come about. His censored version of events had nearly fooled them, too. But he’d overestimated his ability to bend the truth in ways that favored him—and underestimated the silent, indignant protests that had lain deep within his own conscience.

Upon learning the whole truth, they’d sentenced him to a permanent exile. They’d rendered him physically unable to return to his native land, and they’d barred him likewise from the places where his greatest crimes had been committed and where those he’d harmed the most were likely to go.

And so, from the day he was cast out into the world, he did nothing but wander. He was tormented both night and day by thoughts and dreams of how things might’ve turned out differently. He tended to drift in circles, passing over the same areas so often that eventually he became familiar with the kinds of things that went on in those places.

Thus he readily noticed that something was off today. His interest piqued, he descended to investigate. The scene that he found was as troubling as it was perplexing, if not moreso. He tried to remedy the situation, but even his most potent and sophisticated techniques proved useless.

His mind raced with questions as he left the area, hoping to find a solution or aid elsewhere. Instead he found a scene identical to the one he’d just left behind. A search of the entire region only yielded more of the same, a widespread problem that neither he nor anyone else around could solve.

Driven by a dark suspicion, he made for another part of the world entirely, praying for things to be well there. To his immense sorrow and fear, this region—fully separated from the one he’d just left behind—was swiftly and steadily going the way of the one before.

The scope of this phenomenon was all too clear, and he was powerless to stop or undo it—a notion that sickened him to his core. And yet… it wasn’t that there was truly nothing he could do. It was just that he could only do very little. With only enough power to protect a precious few, it became a matter of deciding whom he’d try and reach.

He barely had to give it any thought before he knew where he wished to begin. Without another moment’s hesitation, he shattered a bond of power between himself and someone nearly half a world away.

 

* * *

 

Months had passed since Solonn had become the mayor of Convergence and Jal’tai had retired from the International Pokémon League, and the IPL had been pleased with Solonn’s service throughout that time. The city prospered under his guidance just as it had under his predecessor; it seemed Convergence was capable of thriving under virtually any leadership.

Confident in Solonn’s abilities and competence, as well as in the stability of his city, the IPL had thus decided that the next phase of the Convergence Project could commence. It was time to begin revealing the integrated community to the public.

The league in its entirety would learn of the city before the world at large could, starting with those in the highest ranks and working downward from there. The Apex League, the highest echelon of the IPL’s organized battle division, had known about the Convergence Project from the start, as had the governing bodies outside of the IPL. Regional champions and elite trainers became privy to its existence shortly thereafter. The next step would be to inform the lower IPL members, those who operated at the city level.

The various forms of pokémon-based competition that the International Pokémon League presided over were all seeing a lot of action at the time, as usual. Getting a hold of even a single region’s league members all at once was therefore impractical. The IPL had thus decided to set up one-on-one meetings around the schedules of the lower-ranking members, letting them in on the Convergence Project when they weren’t tangled up in other business.

Solonn had been told he could introduce his city himself if he so wished. He could either convene with the lower IPL members via satellite, or he could meet with them in person. The IPL had decided that none of them would actually be allowed into the city itself until they’d been properly briefed.

Solonn had rather liked the idea of going places he’d never seen before. Being new to the IPL as he was, his superiors had kept him busier than his predecessor had been in the same office, wanting to see if he was truly league material. Solonn’s service to the Convergence Project generally kept him bound to the city that he led; he only ever left Convergence on IPL business, such as he was doing now. Any chance to step out of town, however briefly, was greatly appreciated, and so he’d gladly opted to speak with the lower-ranking members in person.

His tour would take him to every city in which the IPL had any presence: any place where there was a gym, a breeding center, a pokémon laboratory—or a contest hall. So it was that today, he’d be going to a place that somehow he’d never really expected to see again: Lilycove.

He’d thought about the people he’d known there often since he’d fled the city, wondering what had become of them and what would become of them. But from the moment he’d taken on the role of Jal’tai’s successor and the form that came with it, he’d doubted that he’d ever have anything to do with those people again.

Such thoughts were first and foremost on Solonn’s mind again as he stood waiting for his personal teleporter. Solonn knew he wouldn’t be in town for long; this was strictly a business trip, and he’d be leaving Lilycove as soon as his work there was done. It was therefore unlikely he’d see anyone he’d known while he was there, not out of a large city that was home to thousands of people.

Besides which, it had been years since he’d had anything to do with any of them. For all he knew, the humans he’d known in Lilycove—as well as the pokémon, if they’d been rescued—might have moved somewhere else during that time. Maybe Morgan and her family had determined that they’d be safer if they left the city, too.

“The guy’s sure taking his time, isn’t he?” remarked a voice to his immediate left. Solonn turned slightly to acknowledge Byron, a bodyguard hired to escort him during his travels. He was shorter than Solonn, but much broader. His muscle-bound physique was probably meant to be intimidating, but his slightly untidy, ash-blond hair and his round, smiling face counteracted that a bit. The bodyguard held a manila folder containing dossiers filled with information about Convergence; Solonn would use them as visual aids in his presentation.

“Cliff will be ready soon enough, I’m sure,” Solonn responded, hoping he was right even as he spoke—he wanted to get to Lilycove as soon as possible. But he stayed patient for the most part, knowing that the wait would be just as long, if not longer, if he went with a different mode of transportation. Whatever Cliff was doing at the moment could be excused; the convenience he provided was well worth the wait.

“Sorry about the wait,” said a clefable with an acid-green fanny pack strapped around his waist. It was Cliff, who’d just entered the lobby from a nearby restroom; neither Solonn nor Byron had even known he’d been in there.

The clefable walked up to Solonn and Byron, motioning for them to draw very close to him to make sure they were both caught in his teleportation field—an unnecessary action, since both of the humans had gone through this routine several times before. They were already moving toward Cliff as he approached.

“Okay, Lilycove, is it?” Cliff asked. Solonn nodded. “All right, let’s see… that’s about, oh, two hundred miles south-by-southeast of here, right?”

Solonn gave Cliff a weary, halfhearted glare. The clefable had insisted making the exact same joke prior to the past few teleportations. Byron was lucky that he couldn’t understand Cliff; it spared him from having to suffer the old “I have no idea where we’re supposed to be going” bit.

“Nah, I know where it is; you know I’m just playing with you,” Cliff said, taking a moment to laugh at his own joke before proceeding. He then closed his eyes, and after a moment’s focus, a teleportation field swept the three travelers out of the lobby of the Convergence Tower and into the parking lot of their destination.

The moment Solonn materialized in Lilycove, his gaze traveled upward along the face of the building that now filled almost his entire view. The Lilycove Contest Hall was almost exactly as he remembered it; it only lacked the crisper definition that his glalie eyes had offered. He stood staring at it for seconds on end, transfixed by the feelings and memories that the sight of it brought back.

“You two just go on in and take care of business while I have a smoke, all right?” Cliff spoke up then, breaking Solonn’s reverie. Without bothering to wait for any sort of reply, the clefable pulled a lighter and a pack of cigarettes out of his fanny pack.

“They’re not going to let you do that…” Solonn muttered, to no response from Cliff. At every single stop on this tour so far, Cliff had tried to take a cigarette break outside whatever IPL building Solonn had been visiting. The people who worked there had reprimanded the clefable for it every time.

The contest hall’s doors opened, and a red-haired woman in a navy blue pantsuit stepped out. She trotted quickly toward Solonn and Byron on her high heels, offering a hand to the former before she’d even come to a stop before him.

“Hi, good afternoon! I’m Mrs. Penn, the director of Lilycove’s contest hall, but you can call me Meredith,” she introduced, telling Solonn nothing her name tag hadn’t already. Her gaze shifted toward Cliff, who was leaning against the building and smoking in silence with an odd sort of pensive look on his face. “That clefable should know this is a no-smoking zone,” Meredith said with a frown.

Cliff shot an annoyed glance at the director. “Just call the office when you’re ready for me to come and get you,” he told Solonn, then left the scene in a golden flash.

“Come on then, right this way…” Meredith said once Cliff had left, motioning toward the doors before passing through them. Solonn followed her in at once, with Byron close at his side.

Outside, the contest hall had looked more or less like Solonn remembered it. The inside was another story. Everything was still in its old place: the receptionist’s desk; the posters on the wall; the large doors leading into the auditorium; and the smaller, more secluded entrance to the backstage area for the performers’ use. But the atmosphere was much more subdued than it had ever been. He’d simply never seen it so empty before—there was no contest today, no excited people waiting for the show to begin.

The contrast from what he remembered was strangely unsettling. He tried to maintain his focus, to keep his mind on the matter at hand rather than on the past. But in a place like this, where such vivid memories had been forged, he couldn’t help but think of the times he’d spent here—as well as the person he’d shared them with.

Once again, he wondered if Morgan still lived in Lilycove. If so, where was she now? What was she doing? And was she ever reunited with her other friends? He frowned in spite of himself, his gaze dropping to the floor. It pained him that he’d leave Lilycove with those questions unanswered.

It also pained him to know that he’d returned here safely, but they would never know it.

Lost in those thoughts, he almost didn’t notice when Meredith stopped before them, having arrived at her office in the very back of the building. He followed her in without a word, taking the seat provided for him in front of the director’s desk, while Byron stood silently beside him.

The bodyguard handed Solonn the folder. Solonn let his gaze linger upon it for a second, then opened it. Before he could take anything out of it, a rather nasty itch overtook his eyes out of nowhere. He set the folder down on the desk; “One moment, please,” he said, and began rubbing at his eyes. He managed to tame the irritation quickly enough, though his eyes still watered a bit afterward.

“Oh, allergies?” Meredith asked. “I sympathize; I get them too around this time of year.”

“Huh. Well, normally, I don’t,” he told Meredith, then began blinking rapidly in an effort to stave off another impending itch. “It could be something in the air around here, I suppose.”

“Mm, could be,” Meredith said with a shrug. “Tissue?” she offered, gesturing toward a box of them that sat on her desk.

“No, but thank you,” Solonn said. He figured he could do without one as long as his nose didn’t decide to get involved. “So.” He picked the folder back up and began sifting through it. “I assume you’ve been given some idea of why I’ve come here today, yes?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Meredith confirmed, nodding. “They mentioned some sort of major project the league’s put together. They didn’t go into details… Are you sure you don’t need a tissue?” she asked again, more concernedly this time, for Solonn’s eyes were clearly bothering him once again.

Solonn gave a noncommittal reply as he rubbed his eyes, harder this time and seemingly in vain.

“Actually, maybe you ought to try and rinse those out,” the director suggested. “The men’s room is up the hall to the right; I’ll wait here while you take care of that.”

“Good idea,” Solonn said, rising from his seat and passing the folder to Byron as the two of them left the room. Solonn had to fight to keep his eyes open; the itch was growing worse by the second. He made his way to the restroom as quickly as he could, halting Byron when the bodyguard tried to enter the room along with him.

“You can stay out here,” Solonn told him, wincing and screwing his eyes shut. They no longer merely itched. Now they burned. “I doubt there’s anyone in there, and I’ll only be a moment.” With that, he stepped into the restroom and shut the door behind him, then forced his eyes open long enough to spot the sinks and rush toward them.

Solonn gritted his teeth as he quickly shoved his hands underneath one of the motion sensors. He gathered handfuls of cool water and brought them to his eyes, rinsing them out vigorously. But rather than relenting, the searing pain only worsened. Soon, it became so intense that it took all he had not to cry out.

The water shut off as he clutched his forehead, the pain stabbing into his eyes and skull so brutally that he couldn’t even think to wonder what was wrong with him. But then… just as unexpectedly as it had come, the pain subsided, fading mercifully quickly until it was nothing more than a dull throb.

Not quite daring to trust the relief at first, Solonn opened his eyes very slowly. He had to quell an immediate urge to close them again; the light in the room seemed brighter, harsher than before. He leaned over the sink for a few moments, trying to relax after his ordeal. Then he lifted his head and straightened his posture once more. When he did, his reflection in the mirror above the sink told him exactly what had been wrong with his eyes.

This time, he couldn’t stifle a scream.

The face before him shook with shock and fear, staring wildly back at him with piercing blue eyes—glalie eyes.

How…? No, this can’t be happening now! he tried to convince himself in fearful confusion. But the truth couldn’t be denied. Jal’tai’s transfigure technique was wearing off—years before it was supposed to.

The door burst open; Solonn immediately turned to prevent anyone from seeing what had happened to his eyes. “What’s going on?” Byron demanded tensely.

Solonn hesitated to answer. He’d kept the fact that he wasn’t truly human a strict secret all this time. He’d never intended to reveal it, unsure of whether or not the citizens could handle the truth. Jal’tai, as it happened, had already thought of this, and had assured Solonn that the plan that he’d formulated to deal with this issue would go off without a hitch.

In a few years, around when the transfiguration was supposed to wear off, Solonn was supposed to name a local glalie as his future successor—the very glalie he’d happen to become upon his reversion. After Michael vanished without a trace, Solonn would take his place, in a manner of speaking. By that time, society might be accepting of a pokémon in a position of leadership.

But things weren’t going according to plan. Here Solonn was, cornered, with his secret betraying itself. He hadn’t had the warning he’d been assured of, and now there was no time to set up a smooth transition of power from the person he’d pretended to be to the person he actually was.

The only way he could think of to keep his position was if someone could see that the pokémon he was becoming and the human he’d been were, in fact, the same person. Someone would have to witness his change, and that someone would have to be Byron. He could only hope the bodyguard wouldn’t react too adversely to what he was about to see.

“Sir… what’s going on?” Byron asked again. Solonn heard him take a couple of steps closer.

As Solonn braced himself for the revelation he was about to give, he saw the skin on his hands turn a dark, flat gray, toughening all the while. The truth could wait no longer.

“Don’t be alarmed,” Solonn said as calmly as he could manage and far moreso than he felt. “I’ll explain everything later… Just please, call Cliff. Now,” he commanded flatly, and then he turned around.

Solonn saw the look on Byron’s face instantly turn from concern to shock as their eyes met. Byron stared speechlessly as he watched a human being turn gray as graphite right in front of him, a human being who looked back at him through glowing eyes. He stepped back from Solonn, tension written all over his stance.

“What… what the hell…” the bodyguard stammered, his voice trailing off. His eyes didn’t move, locked on to Solonn with an alert stare. His arm twitched, his hand moving to his side, where a handgun and a stun gun were concealed under his jacket.

Solonn noticed this, but tried not to let his gaze shift conspicuously toward the weapons. He strongly doubted that Byron would shoot him, but the bodyguard might stun him if he thought Solonn was losing control of himself and posing a threat. The fact that Byron hadn’t resorted to either weapon on first sight told Solonn that the human still recognized him, at least. He’d probably still listen to Solonn as long as they both kept their heads.

“No time to explain,” Solonn said. Then he gasped in shock and doubled over as something horribly cold struck deep into his bones. “Just call Cliff,” he urged almost voicelessly. “Please, hurr—ahhhh!” He collapsed to his knees as pain like hammer blows struck his temples. His hands flew up and clutched his head—his horns had just erupted.

Dizzy with pain and shivering violently, Solonn lifted his head with an effort and looked up at Byron through eyes that streamed with tears. The bodyguard had backed up even further, standing right at the door and still staring warily at Solonn, but there was also a hint of genuine concern in his eyes. One of Byron’s hands still hovered near his weapons, but the other now held his phone. Come on… Solonn urged him silently, so cold that he could barely catch his breath. Call… please, for the gods’ sakes, call!

And then a strange, potent sensation took hold of Solonn. A familiar sensation. After years of separation, he’d returned to the embrace of his mother element. In the midst of his agony, the reunion was a wonderful escape. He quickly and completely lost himself in it.

Solonn was utterly unaware of the sudden, intensely white flare in his eyes. He didn’t notice the massive, involuntary release of ice-type energy that accompanied it until it rent the air with a sharp, resounding crack.

The sound snapped Solonn out of his elemental ecstasy in an instant. The scene surrounding him returned to focus. There before him, a partially ice-glazed man stood fixed in a startled stance with an expression of sudden terror, no longer moving—or breathing.

“Oh… oh gods…” Solonn said in a brittle voice, staring aghast at the man he’d just inadvertently flash-frozen. His newly formed heat-vision told him that not even the slightest hint of Byron’s warmth still remained. Solonn’s element had returned before he was ready and able to control it—as a result, someone had just died by his hand.

Shaking in horror as well as unrelenting pain, Solonn tried to get up and away from the scene, but his body couldn’t respond. His joints were beginning to lock and fuse together. Faint light swelled into his vision; a soft, sea green glow was now emanating from every square inch of his skin. The green light suddenly intensified in an almost blinding surge, and with the sickening sound of crunching bones, Solonn’s arms and legs collapsed in on themselves, absorbed into his body in a single, violent instant. A split-second later, his spine shortened, a change that was less sudden but no less painful.

Solonn’s reversion accelerated further, and the agony of it was greater than any he’d ever known before. As his body expanded, reproportioned, and reconfigured in wrenching, spasmodic bursts, his pain manifested itself through an involuntary ice display. The ice that glued Byron’s legs to the floor spread rapidly over every surface of the room and formed jagged spires that jutted out all around their maker.

Solonn almost couldn’t perceive anything other than the pain that consumed him. He could barely do anything of his own accord except to beg the gods to end his suffering soon. As if in answer to his prayers, his mother element sent another surge of power through him, one that rebounded back upon him with another loud crack. No sooner than he’d heard it, he fell unconscious.

Chapter Text

The next thing Solonn was aware of was a steady humming, one that grew louder as he finished reconnecting to his senses. The pain he’d known prior to losing consciousness awakened along with him, but it was far weaker now, barely more than a dull ache. As his wits returned, he remembered what had caused it; it flared up a bit at the memory.

Then he remembered the eyes that had stared back at him emptily after he’d stolen the life from behind them.

His eyes flew open, and he sat up in alarm, his heart pounding and his stomach turning as he recalled what he’d done. He realized at once that he wasn’t where he’d last been and that he was apparently alone here. A soft, off-white light glow filled his vision, shining from all sides. There were dark walls and the flashing indicators of some unidentifiable equipment some distance before him, and as his eyes focused and made out the finer details of these things, he realized the glow wasn’t coming from them. It was coming from a wall of energy that stood between him and everything else in this place, one of many such walls that fully enclosed him.

Solonn rose somewhat awkwardly from the floor, lowered his head slightly, and experimentally prodded the energy barrier with one of his horns. It gave him a nasty shock, which did nothing to calm his nerves. He realized he was in a containment field, imprisoned within some place he didn’t even remotely recognize, and he had a terrible feeling that he knew why. Someone must have opened that restroom door and found him there along with the man he’d just killed, and now he was being held captive for the life he’d taken.

With a very heavy heart, Solonn sank to the floor and closed his eyes in deep, solemn thought. Where would he be if Byron were still alive, and what would have followed? Would he be kept in this place forever… and if so, what would befall Convergence? If neither Michael nor the pokémon he truly was were there to lead its citizens, then who could?

Through closed eyelids, Solonn just managed to perceive a brief surge in the lighting around him. It was so quick that he could have easily imagined it, but he opened his eyes anyway. What he saw surprised him to no small degree.

Bathed in the soft light of the force field, surrounded by the aura of her own body heat, Sei Salma glowed like an apparition. Her deep blue eyes were unreadable as she gazed upon him, her mustache drooping in an expression that resembled a frown but suggested far more.

“It really is you,” she all but whispered. “I’d given up on ever seeing you again… and yet here you are.”

“Sei?” Solonn asked incredulously, his eyes widening; the alakazam nodded. “Gods, I thought I’d never see you again, either!” Solonn exclaimed almost breathlessly, a surge of relief managing to rise within him despite everything else that weighed upon him. “I’m so glad that you’re safe… but what about the others? Were they also rescued from our abductors?”

Sei’s brows drew tightly together. “What? Solonn… none of us were never abducted,” she said, sounding concerned.

Troubled confusion came over the glalie’s features. “…You were, though,” he insisted. “We all were, more than four years ago.”

“No, Solonn,” Sei said quietly. “No one was taken that day except for you.”

Solonn stared at Sei in disbelief. How in the world she could fail to recall her abduction? Maybe the kidnappers had damaged her memory when they’d overcome her psychic abilities… “That can’t be true,” he said. “Morgan told me what happened when she found where they were keeping me.”

Sei said nothing in response to that, holding Solonn in a deeply troubled gaze as she stood in silence. Her eyes narrowed, her stare sharpening. Then she abruptly turned on her heel and sent a brilliant, multicolored wave of psychic energy crashing into the equipment behind her. There was a series of loud popping and hissing noises, and the indicator lights on the devices flickered wildly before going out. A small plume of smoke rose from the ruined equipment, and the containment field surrounding Solonn disappeared.

The room was now very dark, but Solonn could still see Sei as she turned to face him, her expression unreadable once more.

A beat later, “Come here,” she said soberly.

Growing more worried and confused by the second, Solonn rose from the spot and drifted over to her. “What’s the matter?” he asked softly.

Sei sighed. “I thought I sensed something abnormal about your mental signature,” she said. “Now with that element-suppressing field out of the way, there’s no doubt about it. Solonn… someone or something has tampered with your mind.”

“…What?” Solonn said almost voicelessly. “But… how? What do you mean by ‘tampered’? What could have possibly been done to me?”

“A number of things,” Sei answered, taking a step closer to Solonn. “If you’ll allow me to investigate your mind, I can find out exactly what’s been done to it. I will warn you that it would involve opening your mind to me completely, including giving me access to your thoughts and memories.”

Giving another person free access to his mind was a fairly discomfiting notion. But the idea that his mind could’ve been tampered with without his knowledge disturbed him even more. He could still barely believe such a thing could’ve happened; he couldn’t even begin to imagine when, where, or how. But he trusted Sei and her psychic perceptions—if she said something had been done to him, there was a very good chance she was right.

“Go ahead,” he said.

Sei gave a quick nod of acknowledgment. Indigo light filled her eyes, and she went utterly still, barely even breathing. Solonn noticed a definite something within his mind as Sei got to work, something like a nagging, unbidden thought. Whatever she was doing to him wasn’t painful or even uncomfortable—just very distracting. She moved too quickly through his mindscape for him to track her exact actions there, but the foreignness of her presence wouldn’t let him abandon the pursuit.

After only a few moments, she withdrew, the glow fading from her eyes. “My word… what a strange and incredible experience you’ve had…” she remarked. She looked up into the glalie’s eyes with a combination of outrage and pity. “But there’s something very wrong with the circumstances as you recall them.”

“What? What do you mean?” Solonn asked, troubled.

Sei sighed and lowered herself onto the floor, sitting cross-legged and rubbing at her forehead a bit. “You might want to sit down, too,” she said. The glalie heeded her advice, descending gently to the floor. “You might not believe what I’m about to tell you,” Sei said, “but I may yet be able to prove it. You’ve known so much deception since we parted ways… you deserve to reunite with the truth.” She took a deep breath before proceeding. “Solonn… the evening you left Lilycove was not as it seemed. The one who led you away…” She shook her head. “That was not Morgan.”

Solonn’s mouth opened, but he was temporarily dumbstruck. He remembered that evening perfectly clearly, remembered Morgan’s care, sorrow, and sincere love for her pokémon friends—he couldn’t imagine how that couldn’t have been her. “That can’t be possible!” he finally managed.

“Morgan didn’t leave this city that evening or at any time during the days that followed, not even for a moment,” Sei informed him. “When I returned home, I found her there along with a couple of police officers. She’d contacted them the moment she’d come home and found that you were gone. She was so worried about you that she waited by the phone all night after the police had left for any word on your whereabouts. She spent most of her time there for the next few days, as a matter of fact.”

“But… if that wasn’t Morgan, then who in the gods’ names was that?” Solonn demanded.

“I can think of a possible suspect,” Sei answered quietly. “Someone you know who just so happens to be able to pass flawlessly for a human.”

Solonn fell dead silent as Sei’s statement sank in. “No,” he said. “You can’t honestly accuse him of such a despicable thing…” Unconsciously, he rose, letting his gaze bear down upon Sei. “If you’ve seen my memories of him, you know what sort of a man he is. You can’t truly believe he’d do what you’re suggesting!”

“No,” Sei responded, unflinching in the glalie’s appalled stare, “I can’t truly believe it; I can only suspect it. But there might be evidence to prove or at least support my suspicion within your mind. There are parts of it that are artificially separated from the rest. They were so well hidden that I couldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t investigated your mind so thoroughly; as it is, they still nearly eluded me. They’re very well quarantined, sealed in a way that I might not be able to undo. But I’m willing to try.”

“…Go on, then,” Solonn said after a beat, then set himself back down. He couldn’t abide by the fact that there were aspects of his own mind that he couldn’t reach, and he still didn’t want to believe that his last moments with Morgan had been wasted on an impostor. And he refused to accept for even a moment that Jal’tai could have been that impostor.

“Whether successful or not, this procedure won’t be a pleasant experience for you,” Sei warned.

“I assure you, I’ve experienced far worse,” Solonn told her earnestly. “Please,” he said, “just do whatever you can.”

“Very well, then.” Sei rose to her feet and went silent and still for a moment after, gathering her strength and bracing herself for the task at hand. She took a couple of steps back from Solonn, then extended her arms forward and slightly upward and crossed her spoons in front of her as if forming crosshairs bearing directly on Solonn’s forehead. Light bloomed within her eyes once more, but it was deeper in color and more intense than before. The spoons took on the same glow as she focused her psychic power through them. Then, with a cry of effort from its maker, they fired a bolt of psychic energy that struck the glalie’s head with a brutal impact.

The rush of indigo light swallowed Solonn’s vision, and he heard his voice come roaring out of its own volition. The psychic bolt drove deep into his brain, sawing against the fabric of his mind as it strove to break through the barrier that stood before it.

Sei snarled in her struggle to break the seals in Solonn’s mind, fearing that she couldn’t keep it up much longer. Her power was beginning to ebb out of her grasp, her mind aching and longing to relent. But she was sure now that she’d succeed if she didn’t let up, and so she ignored her brain’s pleas for rest. Even knowing how such overexertion could harm her, she reached deep into her psychic energy reserves and drove her power onward with all her might.

Meanwhile Solonn gave a piercing cry as his skull felt like it was being blown apart. But in the next moment, the pain vanished without a trace, and a wave of utter tranquility descended upon his mind in its place.

That peace was broken almost immediately. All at once, the memories of what had truly happened after Solonn had left Lilycove took their place alongside their fabricated counterparts. In an instant, Solonn learned of a version of events that was very different from what he’d remembered:

A morning that found him shoved into another form without warning, without consent…

An attempted escape from a role he’d been forced into…

A terrible punishment for his resistance, even worse than the agony of his reversion…


Sei’s violent drive into Solonn’s mind ended, pulling him back into his present surroundings with a jolt. He saw her crouching before him, panting and sweating heavily. “Are… are you going to be all right?” he asked unsteadily, still shaken by what he’d just experienced.

Sei only nodded in response, fighting to catch her breath. Once she’d done so, she looked up at Solonn, trace amounts of indigo light still lingering in her eyes. “Having compared those two memory chains, I can tell without a doubt which one is native to your own mind. It was the truth that was locked away,” she said. “I think we’ve just learned a great deal about Jal’tai.”

Solonn looked deep into her eyes and started to respond, but words failed him at that moment. He didn’t want to believe that the best friend he’d ever known could have subjected him to the strange and terrible experiences that he now recalled… but at the same time, he couldn’t deny Sei’s findings. On some deep, subconscious level, even he could sense which of his memories were truly his own now that he had both sets to compare.

“You now know the lengths he was willing to go to in order to secure you for his endeavors,” Sei continued. “You should see that it’s therefore quite plausible that he impersonated Morgan to lead you out of Lilycove, to get you where he wanted you to go.”

Solonn just stared at her in silence, his eyelight wavering with unease. Sei’s theory made sense, as much as it pained him to admit it. As he now recalled, Jal’tai had even admitted that’d he’d been in that theater, saying that he’d been prepared to rescue Solonn if Morgan hadn’t done so first. The reality was that Jal’tai had delivered him from the theater. Morgan hadn’t even been there.

Still… while the memories of Jal’tai doing terrible things to him were real, so were the memories of the years of guidance and friendship that followed. Solonn couldn’t deny the worst of what had been done to him… but he couldn’t deny the best of it, either.

He turned back to Sei. “I honestly don’t know how to feel about all of this…” he said, his voice breaking.

“I’d imagine not,” Sei responded somberly. “It must be overwhelming to have your past undone in a single moment.”

Her eyes still held that faint light, and as she rose back to her feet, it turned to a strong, even glow once more. “I’m afraid the recovery of your memories still isn’t finished,” she told him then. “I’m sure you’re aware that a hole still exists within your memory, are you not?”

Sei was right, Solonn quickly recognized. There was a small frame of time from the morning he’d awakened as a human that was still missing.

“I suspect I know where that missing memory is hidden,” Sei went on. “There’s another section of your mind that’s still sealed, a smaller one. But it’s sealed in a different way. As such, I’ll have to approach it somewhat differently, but I should still break through it as long as I give it everything I can.”

Solonn frowned at her, concerned. “I know it took a lot out of you last time… Maybe you should rest before you attempt such a thing.”

“Maybe so,” Sei concurred. “But as I said before, you deserve to reunite with the truth—the whole truth. You’ve suffered such injustice at the hands of a psychic being… let another psychic undo this wrong.”

Sei was as concerned as ever about the honor of her element, Solonn realized. “Sei… I know that not all psychics use their abilities to do harm,” he assured her. Sei made a noise of acknowledgment, though she still wore an apologetic look. “Go ahead and try to undo that seal,” Solonn said. “But please, don’t push yourself too hard. Please.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.” Sei crossed her spoons in front of her again. She stared into Solonn’s eyes for slightly longer than she had last time, as if carefully plotting her course of attack. Then she sent another psychic probe lancing through his mind.

It hurt Solonn every bit as much as it had before, but there was something different about it this time. This seal was putting up considerably more resistance than the last one. Solonn could feel Sei’s power straining within his mind; it was barely making any headway at all against the obstacle before it—

—and then the barrier abruptly gave way, hurtling Solonn into another lost memory.

 

* * *

 

Light suddenly filled his vision, unnaturally crisp and white. With a delay, his eyes adjusted to the brightness. Even then, they couldn’t focus properly, leaving his vision dull and hazy.

Movement in the distance before him caught his attention. There, he saw a silhouette pacing back and forth behind a translucent partition. The barrier in front of the figure was tinted, making the exact appearance of whatever was behind it impossible to determine.

Curious about the figure behind the dark barrier, Solonn tried to move toward it—but he couldn’t. He couldn’t move at all. Terror rose swiftly within him, and he tried to call out for help. But his voice couldn’t respond any more than his body could.

Solonn stared with wide, fearful eyes at the silhouette, which had stopped moving and now seemed to be staring at him. He wondered if it represented someone who could help him—or if it was the one who’d rendered him so helpless.

Then something entered his sight that made him forget all about the figure behind the barrier.

Slowly, smoothly, an enormous pair of thin, spindly arms made of glinting metal and glossy, white plastic descended from above with the faint sound of mechanized motion. Solonn wanted to scream and bolt as they reached toward him, but he couldn’t even do so much as shudder.

The strange hands prepared to close around him…

 

* * *

 

Before it could proceed any further, the unlocked memory warped, then seemed to blow apart with a burst of pain in Solonn’s head and searing red light within his eyes. He shouted involuntarily and heard another voice cry out likewise. His vision returned, and he didn’t understand the dark, blank picture it was showing him until he realized that he’d somehow ended up on his back. He was now staring up at the ceiling.

Solonn sat up and got off the floor, his head pounding at the motion. He saw Sei lying there before him, her eyes wide and bulging as her breath came in pained gasps. “Sei!” he cried as he rushed over to her.

The alakazam looked up at him, her expression changing from agony to sorrow as her pain slowly dulled. “I’m so sorry,” she said very softly once she’d caught her breath. “There was some sort of anti-psychic mechanism there… it repelled me, forced me out. I’m afraid I can’t restore the rest of your memory.”

“It’s all right,” Solonn said. “You did the best you could.” He lowered his head, offering a horn to Sei to help her get up.

“That wasn’t even the memory I was trying to unlock,” Sei said as she pulled herself upright with an effort. “It had nothing to do with the morning you found yourself changed…” She sighed. “That’s even more of your past being kept from you, then.”

Solonn tried not to let himself look as disturbed as he felt. The memory Sei had just resurrected was indeed unrelated to the morning when he’d awakened as a human; its setting looked nothing like the Grand Suite, and it didn’t fit within the small frame of time that was missing from his memories of that morning. He couldn’t explain the silhouette and the mechanical arms, and he got the feeling that he never would.

But after seeing what her last efforts to unlock his memories had done to her, he definitely didn’t want Sei giving it another try anytime soon, or perhaps at all. If she pushed it any harder, so might whatever had repelled her last time—he could all too easily imagine it fighting back hard enough to kill her.

“I think all that really matters right now is that we’ve found each other again and we know that we’re safe,” Solonn said. Sei looked at him for a moment, then made a small, wordless noise of agreement, but she still looked troubled. “How did you find me here, anyway?” he asked then, hoping to ease Sei’s mind somewhat by turning the subject away from his memories.

“Well,” Sei began, “shortly after I arrived here at the pokémon center, I thought I detected your mental signature. I could hardly believe it at first, but I followed it and was led here, to the ward for dangerous pokémon, and to you.”

A fresh pang of guilt swelled within Solonn—his suspicions about why he’d been imprisoned here were correct. The reminder of what he’d done to Byron sickened him to his core, and he turned away from Sei in deep shame as it finally hit him that she’d undoubtedly learned that he’d taken someone’s life today.

“Be at peace, Solonn,” Sei said somberly, correctly interpreting his response. “You know you didn’t mean to kill him.” The troubled look in her eyes deepened. “At any rate,” she added almost voicelessly, “it wouldn’t have made any difference if you hadn’t.”

Solonn turned back to face her at once, looking thoroughly appalled. “How can you say that?” he demanded in disbelief. “He shouldn’t have died so young, so senselessly!”

“I’m sure he shouldn’t have, but he would have anyway.” Sei closed her eyes. “Something terrible has happened, Solonn,” she said gravely. “Something impossible… something unnatural.”

“What… what is it? What’s happened?” Solonn asked, concern already etching deep lines into his face, chilling dread growing swiftly within his mind. The grave sorrow in Sei’s tone and expression already told him that the answer would be painful.

Sei couldn’t reply at first, but finally found the strength to do so. “Earlier today, probably not long after you were brought here… something struck the humans here. I was enjoying another day out on the town, just watching them, when it happened… I saw some of them fall as they walked, but others were stricken in their vehicles… there was chaos, Solonn.” She shook her head at the memories, wincing. “I sought help at their hospital, their police station, everywhere, but everywhere I searched, they all just lay there, fast asleep and fully insensible.”

“…All of them?” Solonn asked incredulously. “You couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t like that?”

“No, I couldn’t,” Sei answered sadly. “They all fell asleep, and we haven’t been able to find any cause for their condition or any means to awaken them. Once I realized that I couldn’t reach any of the humans, I started going around town and releasing pokémon from capture balls and PC storage—that’s what I was doing here in the first place. I sent some of the fastest fliers I could find to other cities in hopes of finding a solution there, and I sent some of those who could teleport or otherwise force entry into locked buildings to let out the rest of Lilycove’s pokémon in case… in case no solution could be found.”

A sorrowful sigh escaped her. “It… seems that no solution will be found. Some of the ones I sent out have already returned, and they tell of the same, strange affliction plaguing the humans elsewhere. What’s more… we’ve also learned that this illness is terminal.” Her last statement was barely more than whispered, with what little of her voice that it carried breaking on the last word. “The very old and the very young have already succumbed.”

For a long moment, Solonn remained silent, an expression of horrified astonishment on his face as he sank back to the floor. “Oh… oh dear gods…” he finally whispered, lowering his gaze. He could never have imagined that anything could so effectively strike down an entire population, and yet here it was. All these humans could soon perish…

Every last one of them.

Solonn’s eyes grew enormously wide, and he inhaled sharply. “You’ve got to take me to Morgan,” he urged Sei, his voice strained with panic. “Now, by the gods!”

Without a second’s hesitation, Sei summoned a teleportation field. Solonn’s heart raced as the golden light engulfed him. He was about to reunite with Morgan at last… but under circumstances he would never have wished for.

 

* * *

 

<Sei! It is fortunate that you—>

Both the telepathic voice and the rattling that accompanied it fell abruptly silent as their owner noticed that it wasn’t just Sei who’d appeared in their midst. Several of Oth’s many eyes stared at Solonn, as did the eyes of three other pokémon. But it was clear from all of their expressions that they had far more weighing on their minds than the glalie’s return.

There they all were: the other four pokémon Solonn had known all those years ago. All of them were safe and sound—but of course they were. They’d been safely together all this time, just as Sei had said.

They were all gathered in a small, unfamiliar room; they’d apparently moved into a new home since he’d last seen them. Oth hovered nearby in the center of the room. The others were all at the far end, gathered around a small sofa with Aaron kneeling in silence at one end and Brett and Raze huddled at the other. The skarmory was crying almost silently as the manectric held her as well as he could, a single foreleg draped over her shoulder. The shock and sorrow emanating from them all was palpable, hanging over the room like fog.

And there was Morgan, fast asleep on the sofa with a little blue blanket draped over her. Without a word, with barely even a breath, Solonn glided over to her. Though she was a grown woman now, her faced looked almost exactly like the one that smiled back at him from his memories. She wore an expression of utmost serenity, her eyes closed and the tiniest ghost of a smile curving her lips. It was hard to believe that someone in such blissful peace could be in the hold of something so strange and terrible.

“I don’t believe it… We were all sure you’d never return,” Brett said in a soft voice as Solonn sat down with a low, sorrowful hiss. “How did you finally find your way back?”

“That’s a very long story,” Sei spoke up at once as she came over to join the others, Oth following at her side and helping to support her. “One that he will tell if and when he feels like it.”

Solonn silently thanked Sei, grateful that he’d been spared the matter of his ordeal for the time being. He couldn’t have focused on it enough to relate that story to them anyway, not now. He could barely focus on anything other than the woman who lay before him, closer than she’d been in nearly half a decade yet so terribly distant in her unnatural sleep. Solonn was sure she’d ached with worry for him all the while they’d been apart. He’d vanished from her life without a trace—neither of them had been given a chance to say goodbye to one another. Now history was repeating, in a sense, only this time he’d have no time with her before she was taken away rather than the other way around.

“Nothing can awaken her?” he asked in a pained whisper, his voice carrying an unspoken plea that his question would be contradicted. “Nothing at all?”

<Nothing,> Oth confirmed sadly. <She does not respond to any stimuli.> A number of their eyes closed. <Her physical processes are slowing, steadily and irrevocably. Soon… they will cease,> they said quietly.

At the claydol’s words, Raze gave a strangled sob. The skarmory’s entire body shook as she sat there weeping, her head lowered next to Morgan’s.

“Shh, it’s all right,” Brett tried to comfort her, but the brittleness of his tone told that he was trying just as hard to comfort himself. “At least she’s not suffering… at least she’s going peacefully.” Raze lifted her head and looked at him over her shoulder for a second, but then turned away, unconsoled.

<It is true that she cannot truly be awakened,> Oth spoke up then, a slight hint of hesitance in their mindvoice. <However… there is a chance that she can still be reached.>

Every eye in the vicinity other than Oth’s own turned toward the claydol. “Oth… what do you mean?” Sei asked.

<There is a method that could allow me to contact her within her subconscious mind,> Oth answered.

The others gained astounded expressions, their eyes wide. “Can you really do this?” Brett asked in a hushed tone.

<Possibly,> Oth replied. They gave a long, low rattle. <I have been attempting it all this time, but to no avail. I did not tell any of you what I was trying to do because I did not want to risk raising your hopes in vain. However, now that Sei is here…> Oth turned to face Sei even though their ring of eyes made that unnecessary. <With your assistance, I may be able to succeed in establishing contact with Morgan,> they told her.

“What do you require of me?” Sei asked.

<You will need only to synchronize yourself with my psychic frequency and provide a moderate boost of power.>

“All right, then.” Sei said. Her eyes closed, and all eight of Oth’s followed suit immediately thereafter.

Solonn and the others watched Oth and Sei with bated breath, wondering what, if anything, was about to happen. None of the four who watched them were sure of exactly what the psychics were doing, but they all warily hoped that the two would succeed, that they’d all get to speak with Morgan one last time…

Seconds passed with no sign that the two psychics were actually doing anything at all. Then all of Oth’s eyes suddenly opened and emitted a flash of pale light that swallowed up everything in sight.

When the light subsided, the tiny room was gone. Solonn and the others were now somewhere very different, but also very familiar. A wooden fence enclosed them in a small field of vividly green grass, with clouds drifting through the sky above them. A sitrus tree stood nearby, its branches covered with delicate white blossoms… and beneath that tree sat Morgan, who was very much awake and staring pensively at a sitrus blossom in her hand, picking off a couple of its petals and letting them fly away on the breeze.

How… how is this possible? Solonn wondered silently, staring speechlessly at the sight of Morgan awake and well once more. Aaron, Brett, Raze, and Sei were looking upon her with equal amazement.

<This is a living dream,> Oth privately told the other pokémon using their mindvoice alone, almost as if they’d picked up on the glalie’s unspoken question. <I have projected her dreamscape into our minds and stirred her own consciousness within it. Her body still sleeps, but her mind is awake in this place.>

It seemed to be the only good news that the circumstances would allow. Morgan couldn’t be saved, but at least she could spend what little time she had left with the pokémon who cared about her—with all of them. Somewhere between illusion and reality, she’d see a face that she’d surely thought was lost forever.

Tentatively, Solonn rose and began to approach her. “…Morgan?”

At first, Morgan gave no indication that she’d heard him, and Solonn feared that this attempt to reach her would be in vain after all. But then she gave an unmistakable reaction, a strange look crossing her face. Slowly, she lifted her gaze from the flower in her hand. Her green eyes met the glowing blue ones before her and widened dramatically before filling with tears.

An amazed smile spread across her face, and with a cry of joy, she jumped to her feet and rushed over to Solonn. There was something strange in the way she moved; she seemed to drift more than run, as if she were under less gravity. The moment she reached Solonn, she threw her arms around him as far as they’d go, hugging him tightly. Solonn immediately made an effort to keep his coldness away from her, not knowing if it could affect her in this place or not.

Seconds passed with Morgan just holding on to Solonn and crying in relief and happiness. Then she found her voice. “Oh my God…” she said finally. Her speech, like her movements, was peculiarly altered; she sounded faint, distant. “I thought I’d lost you forever!”

“I thought I’d never see you again, either,” Solonn said quietly.

“I was so scared,” Morgan said almost breathlessly. “I didn’t know what might be happening to you… Are you all right? Did they hurt you?”

“Yes,” Solonn answered honestly, his tone sober as he recalled just how badly he’d been hurt since leaving Lilycove. “But I’m fine now.”

“Oh, thank God,” Morgan whispered. “Thank God…”

She let go of Solonn and stepped back from him. Her face was still streaked with tears, but she was smiling radiantly. Her gaze swept over the backyard, finding all of her pokémon gathered there with her. “We’re all together again,” she said happily, gratefully, and made a beckoning motion toward the others.

As they all drew close to her in as much of a group hug as they could manage, Solonn noticed the wind starting to pick up. He shifted his gaze away from everyone else and saw the scene surrounding him fade momentarily, very briefly losing color and definition.

Solonn had a terrible feeling about what it might mean, and he shot a worried, questioning glance toward Oth. The claydol nodded insofar as they could, subtly and silently. Solonn looked away from Oth at once and turned back toward Morgan. Soon, he would part with her once more… but he couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye to her. He’d never seen such pure elation as he saw on her face at that moment, as she stood surrounded by some of her dearest friends. He couldn’t bear to shatter the joy of her reunion with him by telling her it wouldn’t last.

But there was, at least, something he felt he should tell her, something she deserved to hear. “Morgan,” he spoke up. The human looked up into his eyes, still beaming brightly, her eyes still shining with tears of joy. “Thank you… for everything,” Solonn said sincerely. “For all the kindness you’ve shown me, all the caring… I never forgot it, and I never will.”

“Oh…” Morgan said, looking up at Solonn with wide eyes. She hugged him once more, insofar as she could. “You’re so sweet…” she whispered. “I should thank you, too,” she said earnestly, “all of you guys. You’re all such wonderful friends…”

She smiled at the pokémon again, and before their eyes, she began to literally fade away. “I love you all,” she told them, her voice growing fainter with each word. “I’ll always love you…”

The wind whipped up into a true gale then, pulling the sitrus blossoms from the tree. They alone kept their definition as the rest of the dreamscape faded into a blur. One final gust swept around Morgan’s vanishing form, and in a swirl of white petals, she was gone.

The room came back into focus as the dreamscape disappeared completely. Six living souls emerged from the illusion and beheld the reality that now surrounded them, the reality that now lay lifeless before them.

A stark, surreal quietness hovered as the full impact sank into them with a delay. Raze’s voice was the first to break the silence, a piercing cry of pure anguish. Her outpouring of grief brought similar reactions from the others, and well into the night, they all remained there mourning the friend who’d just departed from their midst.

 

* * *

 

The sun set over a cluster of pyres on the following evening in Lilycove. Solonn sat and watched them burning from a safe distance, his mind and heart very heavy with thoughts of the recent tragedy represented by those flames. Aaron, Raze, Brett, and Oth were all there with him, and hundreds of other pokémon were also gathered in mourning out in the streets.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a brief burst of golden light. “Hello, Sei,” Solonn said in a hoarse, very weary voice.

“I delivered your message,” the alakazam told him, sounding equally drained.

“Thank you,” Solonn said with a sigh. He thought about how the people of Convergence might be reacting to the message he’d just sent them via Sei: that Michael Layne had perished along with all of the other humans in Lilycove. Solonn imagined they’d be saddened by the news but not surprised. The stantler guarding Convergence had only been hiding it from humans; the flying pokémon scouts who’d searched the west for aid had found the humans of the integrated community stricken with the same fate that had befallen those in Lilycove.

During the course of that day, more such scouts had returned with news that the same, terrible phenomenon had occurred in every human settlement they’d searched. The unnatural, fatal sleep seemed to have touched all of Hoenn—and according to the most recent reports, it had reached humans living in nearby regions, as well.

In the wake of these reports, rumors began spreading about its scope. Many of its witnesses began to believe that as widespread as the malady had already proven, it might very well prove to be a tragedy of global proportions.

Solonn was among those who were possessed of those suspicions, and it was thus that he’d decided not to go back and try to resume his position as the leader of Convergence. If humanity truly was vanishing from the world, then it was no longer necessary for the leader of that or any other community to be able to speak to them. With such abilities no longer a requirement of the position, anyone with the mind and the spirit to lead the people of Convergence could do so. And in such troubled times, Convergence needed the guidance of one of their own number, not some unknown glalie who’d seem to have just come into their midst from nowhere.

Solonn knew there was still a place in his heart for Convergence, and he thought he might like to return there someday, but as just an ordinary citizen. He also felt a sense of belonging here in Lilycove and liked the idea of staying here with his friends. But at the present, there was one place in particular where he most wanted to be.

“Just let me know when you’re ready,” Sei told him. “I’ll take you as soon as you wish.”

“I’m ready,” Solonn said quietly. It had been nearly half a decade since he’d last seen his homeland, his people, his family.

He’d thought about Morgan’s promise to return him to Virc-Dho once his contest career was over. Even though it hadn’t truly been Morgan who’d released him, Solonn knew the real Morgan would have ultimately let him go, too. He was sure she’d want him to return to his original home now that he could no longer serve the purpose he’d agreed to stay for.

<Please, Sei, let me transport him,> Oth offered. <You have done a great deal for these people during the past two days. You deserve a chance to rest.>

“Very well,” Sei said, then took a seat next to Aaron.

Solonn rose from the ground as Oth came to hover beside him, and then he turned to face the rest of his friends. “Maybe we’ll meet again someday. I hope we will… until then, goodbye,” he said, and a chorus of farewells echoed his own.

He gave one last, very faint smile to his friends, then turned toward the pyres in the distance. “Goodbye,” he whispered to one last friend as he gazed into the flames, holding her in his thoughts as golden light surrounded him. Your promise was kept, my friend.

Chapter Text

Light briefly filled the border cavern just outside Virc-Dho as Solonn and Oth materialized there. For both of them, this part of Shoal Cave was familiar territory. It was where Oth had teleported Morgan back home after she’d acquired her new snorunt, and it was where Solonn had first encountered people outside his own species.

It’d been nearly half a decade since Solonn had last laid eyes upon this cavern. At first, he’d never have thought he’d be kept from it for so long. Later, he’d never have imagined he’d be back here again so soon, if at all. He’d never known for sure how he’d feel when he finally made it home. That time had arrived, and he still didn’t know what to make of it.

Solonn turned slightly toward the claydol at his side. “Thanks again for bringing me here,” he said earnestly.

<It was the least I could do,> Oth said. <I know that this is something you have long desired… and I truly believe that this is what she would have wanted, as well,> the claydol added, their true voice faltering as it rattled softly alongside those last words.

Solonn nodded silently in agreement. Morgan would surely be glad to know that he’d ultimately made it back where he belonged, just as she’d intended. “Farewell, Oth. Take care of yourself.”

<As must you. Farewell,> Oth said, then teleported away.

Solonn turned from the spot where Oth had been, his gaze sweeping the cavern in search of the ice barrier that marked the entrance to Virc-Dho itself. He found it quickly and drifted over to it at once.

Though the wall was almost twice his width and nearly thrice his height, it looked smaller and less imposing than it had the last time he’d seen it, and not only because he was much larger than he’d been. He had power over the barrier that he hadn’t before.

Solonn summoned his elemental power to the task, and the barrier dissolved in a wave from the ceiling to the floor. He made it several yards past the threshold before realizing that he’d forgotten to seal the entrance behind him.

If he weren’t so drained after the events of the past couple of days, he might have cursed himself silently for his absentmindedness. As it was, he went ahead and forgave himself. He looked back toward the mouth of the tunnel, restored the ice wall, then turned away and headed deeper into the warren.

Though back in his native land, Solonn had yet to find his actual home. He quickly realized it wouldn’t be easy; he’d only taken the route that led from the surface exit to his family’s cavern once, and that had been over a decade ago.

He only had a faint, sketchy impression of that memory to navigate by, and he soon determined that he might as well have none at all. Things had clearly changed around here since he’d been gone. As he moved through the tunnels, he occasionally passed relatively fresh-looking holes in the walls—offshoots of the tunnel that were still under construction, most likely. Because of them, the picture of the warren in his memory no longer matched reality.

Before long, Solonn acknowledged that he had no idea where he was—he’d have to ask for directions. He had yet to run into anyone since entering the warren, but he kept on searching. There had to be someone about.

Finally, he picked up sounds that proved it. The noises weren’t terribly close, but at least he could tell where they were coming from. They grew louder and clearer as he got closer—those were unmistakably voices, and in considerable numbers. Eventually, he found the source of the chatter. Through another wall of ice, he could just make out a crowd of people.

Solonn removed the barrier, remembering to close it behind him as soon as he’d passed through. He was now in a chamber that was easily the size of the cavern just outside the warren. Glalie were gathered here, dozens of them, doing little more than just milling about and chatting with one another. Solonn had just found his way into a conversation hall, though he didn’t realize this; glalie kept their social habits from snorunt, and Solonn hadn’t evolved until after his capture.

Many eyes shifted his way and locked onto him as he entered the crowd; whether they were staring because he was considerably larger than any of them or because they didn’t recognize him (or very possibly for both of those reasons), he couldn’t tell, nor did he particularly care. He also couldn’t tell whether those who watched him were doing so out of mere curiosity or fear. Solonn hoped it wasn’t the latter. He really wasn’t in the mood to have to chase one of them into a corner just to get directions.

He approached a small clique and came to a stop before them. The three glalie whom he now faced looked up at him, and they all held his gaze expectantly and warily.

“Yes?” the centermost of them spoke up.

“Sorry to bother you,” Solonn said, trying to sound as polite and non-threatening as possible, “but I need your help in finding someone. Do any of you know where I might find a Ms. Azvida Zgil-Al?”

He’d hoped, of course, that one of them would say yes, but he’d also been prepared for the possibility of having no such luck with these three. What he hadn’t been prepared for were stares that went from warily questioning to unmistakably hostile. One of the three glalie even hissed at him.

“Up to her horntips in hellfire, as far as I care,” the glalie in the center said acidly, glaring at Solonn for one last moment before she turned abruptly and began to move away from him, her two companions following closely behind her.

Solonn was initially too taken aback by their hostility to know what to make of it. Then he found himself battling an urge to cut them off and demand that they apologize for insulting his mother like that—and maybe not using his polite and non-threatening tone this time. But doing or saying anything that might scare the locals would only make it harder to get any information from them. He managed to contain his outrage, though not easily.

He expected to have to ask the same question as many times as it took to get an answer, but he wasn’t looking forward to giving it another try. Not if mentioning Azvida’s name would garner the same response from anyone else here. Solonn wondered how his mother could have possibly made any enemies, but he knew better than to ask. He couldn’t trust that story coming from people who disliked her. He’d just have to wait to get that answer from Azvida herself… unless, of course, she made it clear that she didn’t want to talk about it.

Bracing himself for more unfriendly responses, Solonn asked others among the crowd for her whereabouts. Only one of them responded with anywhere near the venom of the first glalie he’d asked, but they all still plainly displayed some dislike or at least unease at the mention of his mother’s name. Those who gave any answer at all said they had no clue where to find her. Whether they were being truthful or simply didn’t want to be of any help where she or anyone associated with her was concerned, Solonn couldn’t be certain.

Meanwhile, he also kept an eye out in case Azvida was there in person, but he saw no sign of her. He wasn’t really surprised. Why would she want to go where she wasn’t welcome?

Eventually, Solonn grew weary of asking and searching in vain despite how earnestly he still wished to find her. Since no one here could (or would) help him, he figured he’d be better off just looking for Azvida throughout the warren on his own. He might get lost more than a few times in the process, but that was starting to sound more appealing than staying here with the stares and the hushed voices. Especially when he was sure that they were whispering dark things about someone he loved.

“Hey. I overheard you asking about an Azvida Zgil-Al,” said someone behind him. His tone was difficult to read.

Solonn hesitated a moment before turning to face him, half out of a desire to avoid startling this person in case he was friendly, half out of reluctance to possibly deal with another person who wasn’t. He found a lone glalie hovering there, looking up right into his eyes—just looking, not staring. There was a peculiar look on this glalie’s face, as hard to interpret as the newcomer’s tone had been.

“Yes, I was,” Solonn confirmed, speaking somewhat slowly and cautiously. “Do you know where I might find her?”

The glalie before Solonn only gave a quick, minimal nod in response, trying to be inconspicuous about it. “Follow me,” he said in an undertone, then turned away, making for the exit at once.

It seemed like a curiously sudden resolution for such a long and draining search for answers. But Solonn was presently disinclined to be picky. Help was help, he figured, and so he followed his newfound guide out of the conversation hall without question or delay.

“All right, just keep following me and you’ll see her in no time,” the guide said once he and Solonn were well away from the conversation hall. “Now, I’ll warn you: it’s not exactly a short trip from here.”

“That’s fine,” Solonn said. “Better than staying back there, at least.”

“Ugh, I second that,” the guide said. “Gods, you’d think people would let it go already; it’s been months now, for the gods’ sakes.” The guide sighed. “I hate seeing her treated like that. She’s a nice lady; always was.”

Solonn nodded in agreement. It was a relief to finally encounter someone here who regarded his mother the same way that he remembered her. “So, how do you know her?” he asked.

“Old friend of the family,” the guide replied, by which he was indicating himself. “I’ve known her since I was a kid.”

He stopped and turned to face Solonn with a peculiar, dancing light in his eyes that suggested barely-contained excitement. “Now, how do you know her?” he asked, his voice filled with that same strange, sudden brightness.

“Relation,” Solonn answered. “She’s my mother.”

The guide’s eyelight brightened even further at that response, and he burst into roaring laughter. “Ha!” he crowed triumphantly. “Knew it, knew it, knew it!”

Solonn stared at him, more than a little bemused. When the guide finally stopped laughing, he met Solonn’s gaze once more, relatively calm and quiet now but still wearing an enormous grin.

“Yeah, I figured it was you,” he said once he’d caught his breath. “Always were a big guy, weren’t you?”

Flags rose in Solonn’s mind. “…I know you, don’t I?”

The guide grinned even more broadly. “Don’t believe I’ve bothered to introduce myself, Mr. Zgil-Al. Name’s Zilag Shal-Zirath,” he said with an exaggerated bow.

Solonn’s eyes widened. “Ah, of course, of course…” He couldn’t help but smile, if only faintly. “Sorry for not recognizing you sooner…”

“Psssh, it’s fine,” Zilag said dismissively. “Neither of us are what we used to be, after all. I wouldn’t have expected you to recognize me just because I recognized you; I just happened to find someone your size asking around for Azvida and put the pieces together. Anyway, she’s going to be absolutely ecstatic to see you,” he said as he went back to leading Solonn through the tunnels. “She thought you were lost forever—we all did.”

“Does she have any idea what happened to me?” Solonn asked. He thoroughly doubted that Azvida or anyone else here could guess what he’d experienced in his time away from Virc-Dho, but maybe they’d figured out he’d been abducted, at least. He wondered if they’d believed he’d been alive all this time and had wondered how he was doing, or if they’d eventually just assumed he’d died.

“Oh yeah,” Zilag said. “She knows because I told her. Soon as I got away from my sister and her gang, I went and told her what they’d done to you. Azvida saw it necessary to bring in the authorities on the matter, but I tried not to get too worried. I was still sure we’d find you right where Sanaika had left you—that is, until they found out you weren’t there…”

He gave a sudden shake, as if to snap out of a funk. “Whatever,” Zilag said brightly. “You’re here now, right? Looks like there’s a happy ending to all this after all.”

“Hm,” was all Solonn could say to that. Zilag was right, really—after all Solonn had gone through in the years since he’d left this place, things were finally going as he’d long hoped they would. The fact that his family would soon be made whole again was an undeniable light among the recent sorrows.

As Solonn continued to follow Zilag, he noticed the path had simplified dramatically. The tunnel sloped gently downward in an almost perfectly straight line at this point; there were no more offshoots branching away along its walls. The ice lining it was duller and more uneven, suggesting that this part of the warren wasn’t well maintained.

Solonn got the impression that this route was scarcely traveled—and possibly because people were inclined to avoid it. A shunned place for shunned people, perhaps. Something threatened to boil in him at the thought of his mother being cast out like that. He still didn’t know what in the world could have turned so many people against her; he couldn’t imagine her doing anything that would deserve that kind of treatment.

He’d known better than to ask the people at the conversation hall about it, but he reckoned he could trust Zilag to give him an unbiased answer. “Just what was it that happened all those months ago?” he asked. “What could my mother have possibly done?”

“Well, she didn’t actually do anything,” Zilag answered. “What happened was that this… this creature came asking around for her—something that scared the hell out of the public. Since this thing was here looking specifically for her, everyone blames her for bringing the thing here.”

“That hardly seems fair,” Solonn said, frowning in disapproval. “Did she even ask for this ‘creature’ to come here?”

“Don’t know. She doesn’t really like to talk about that whole situation, so…” Zilag trailed off. “At any rate, I doubt anyone really cares whether she actually summoned the creature or not,” Zilag went on. “I think the thing freaked them out beyond all logic and reason.”

“And just what sort of creature was this, anyway?”

“Again, don’t know; I didn’t actually see them myself. All I know is what I’ve heard, and what I’ve heard is that they were big—as in, huge—and bright silver. A couple of the people who claimed they got really close said they could see their reflections in the creature’s hide. I don’t know how much of what’s said about the creature is fact and how much is exaggeration, though.”

Solonn couldn’t say how accurate or trustworthy those accounts were, either. But with Zilag’s descriptions in mind, he tried to identify the being that had shaken up the community. He could only think of a couple of species that were potential matches. His memories of them weren’t perfect, but he recalled enough to recognize that any of those creatures would certainly have caused a stir among a nation of ice-types.

“So what became of the creature?” Solonn asked.

“As far as anyone knows, they just left. Whether or not they ever did find Azvida is anyone’s guess.”

“If they left, then there’s really no good reason for everyone to keep holding it against her,” Solonn said, sounding fairly disgusted.

“I know,” Zilag said with a sigh. “But, like I said, they seem to be beyond logic and reason where all that’s concerned.”

Solonn said nothing more from this point, his mind too heavy with thoughts of what had happened to his mother. At length, the long, monotonous path split off in numerous directions. Zilag led Solonn into a rightward branch, and then to a dead end.

“We’re here,” Zilag announced. That they were anywhere other than at a wall was questionable; the ice that stood in their way was very thick and clouded with pale sediment, offering only a hazy view of nondescript darkness beyond. “Of course, we have to let them know we’re here if we want them to let us in… Hey!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, making Solonn wince.

Several seconds passed with no indication that anyone had even heard Zilag’s call, let alone that anyone was doing anything about it. “Maybe no one’s there right now,” Solonn said.

“No, they’re there,” Zilag assured him. “Those two don’t go out very much anymore, as you can imagine.”

Something Zilag had just said caught in Solonn’s mind. “…Did you say ‘those two’?” Solonn asked; Zilag responded to this with a nod. “Who else is there with her?”

“Just her mate,” Zilag answered. Solonn abruptly turned to face Zilag, his eyes wide with surprise, but before he could say or ask anything about what he’d just learned, “Ah, see? They’re letting us in,” Zilag said, directing Solonn’s attention toward the wall with a dip of his horn.

Slowly, the barrier shrunk away in layers, vanishing into vapor a few inches at a time. Solonn and Zilag made their way forward a little bit at a time until the last of the ice disappeared into the walls and revealed the open space beyond.

From what Solonn could see, the chamber they’d arrived at was quite spacious and orderly—it actually looked rather nice, not at all like the miserable hovel that path to this place had led him to expect. First and foremost in his vision and attention, however, was the unfamiliar male hovering right inside the entrance—Azvida’s mate, Solonn presumed.

“Hello again, Zilag… and who’s this?” the man asked as his gaze shifted from Zilag to Solonn and lingered there, raising a single, ice-glazed eyebrow.

“Go get Azvida,” Zilag said, grinning.

The glalie just past the entrance gave Zilag an odd look for a moment, then turned around and set off into the chamber, disappearing into one of its diverging tunnels. Solonn heard a brief, hushed conversation taking place in another room, but he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Then the unfamiliar glalie returned, accompanied by someone who was very familiar.

Her eyes found Solonn at once and fixed their gaze and their sharp, flickering light upon him. Solonn could tell there was something at work behind them. Maybe she, like Zilag before her, had already guessed his identity, but perhaps she didn’t quite dare to believe it. There seemed to be something else in that stare, too, but he couldn’t even begin to interpret it.

“He’s back,” Zilag told her, his voice quavering slightly with excitement.

Azvida’s eyes widened dramatically, and their light flared brightly. Her mouth opened, working mutely for a moment before she found her words. “Are you really…?” she finally managed almost breathlessly, trailing off as she continued to stare at Solonn.

Solonn struggled to find his voice as well before he could respond. “Yes, Mother,” he confirmed softly.

“Oh…” Azvida’s voice cracked and trembled, her eyes giving a quivering, powerful glow. “Oh merciful gods, it’s a miracle!” she cried, then surged forward, her head lowered against Solonn’s side, shaking in dry, silent sobs.

“Well, I think I’d better be on my way,” Zilag said then, smiling at the reunited mother and son. “No doubt Hledas is wondering where I got off to. Take care, folks,” he said, then departed.

Azvida stayed close to Solonn for a few more moments, murmuring thanks to the gods for his safe return. She looked up at him before she’d calmed down all the way, her eyes shining with joy as she beamed brightly. “Welcome back, son,” she said warmly. She turned toward the main chamber. “Come on in, sit down and relax,” she said with a backwards glance. “You’ve most certainly earned it.”

Solonn followed her away from the entrance and sat down with her in the main chamber. He noticed that the other man still hadn’t joined them; glancing back from whence he’d come, Solonn found him lingering by the entrance, restoring the thick wall that had been there in its entirety before joining the others.

“Here,” Azvida said, and conjured three decent-sized chunks of ice: one for herself, one for each of the other glalie. Each of them could have just as easily made their own ice, of course, but Azvida was clearly in a rather generous mood at the moment. Refreshments sounded very good right about then, and Solonn thanked Azvida for them before he began partaking of the ice, as did Azvida’s mate.

“I suppose you’re wondering who he is, aren’t you?” Azvida spoke up then, indicating her right, where her mate sat giving the occasional, mildly interested nibble of his ice. “This is Jeneth Avasi-Ra. We’ve been together for almost two years now.”

“Ah. Nice to meet you, Mr. Avasi-Ra,” Solonn said, bowing his head respectfully.

“Likewise,” Jeneth said. “Jeneth will do, by the way,” he added amiably. All of his attention was now on Solonn; the ice before him lay forgotten for the time being. With a rather appraising look leveled at him, Jeneth said, “I never thought I’d actually meet you in person, you know? I’d always wished that I could—Azvida’s told me all about you.”

“…Thanks,” Solonn responded, doing an admirable job of concealing a sudden unease. The thought that Azvida might have truly told Jeneth all about him wasn’t particularly comforting.

“I’m sure the two of you will get along very nicely. I’m just glad you’ll finally get the chance to know each other—just grateful beyond words that you’re home again,” Azvida said, and the glow in her eyes began trembling again. “I never stopped wishing I’d see you again, but after finding out it was the creatures from above who had you… Gods, I’d never worried so much in my life. I had nightmares about what might be happening to you out there—horrible, horrible things—and I couldn’t help but fear that I’d lost you for good.”

She sighed in a very long-due relief. “But the nightmare’s over. You’re back where you belong now, thank the gods.”

“Seems everything comes back around in time, doesn’t it?” Jeneth said, sending an odd, significant glance Azvida’s way. Azvida’s mouth fell partway open, and then she shot him an alarmed, piercing look that plainly told that he’d crossed some line.

She took a deep breath and turned back toward Solonn, the sudden shock fading from her face. But Solonn noticed that there was still something distinctly amiss behind her eyes; though she was clearly trying to conceal it, she couldn’t help but look a bit troubled.

“I shudder to think what you might have endured out there,” Azvida said then, leaving the matter of the peculiar exchange she’d just had with Jeneth behind without any explanation. “So, how did you finally manage to get back?”

Solonn had thoroughly expected that she’d want to know about that, as well as about what had happened to him during his absence. He was reluctant to share all of his experiences in the outside world, however—some of them were things he didn’t really expect anyone to digest, after all, and there were some he’d prefer not to speak or think of ever again if he could help it.

He decided to just give a minimal account for now and perhaps elaborate on the story another time—perhaps. “One of the pokémon I met out there was able to bring me back. They’d have been able to do so sooner, but I was dragged away from them and… thrown into someone else’s affairs. Eventually, I got away from all that and back to that pokémon, and… well, here I am.” Some part of his mind silently congratulated him for coming up with that succinct, euphemistic response.

Azvida nodded slowly, absorbing that. “You’re very lucky, Solonn,” she said. “It’s a good thing there was someone around who could help you out—most of those who are taken by the creatures from above aren’t so fortunate. Gods, imagine if you’d shared their fate… some of the things that those creatures put people through are just horrible…”

Part of Solonn’s mind began to wonder at once how Azvida knew that, but he had another response to her words that was stronger and more immediate. “Not all of them were so terrible,” he said. “The one who took me was actually very nice, very reasonable.”

He paused and took a deep breath before continuing. He’d known talking about Morgan would be difficult, but he insisted on defending her character. “She was even willing to let me go home once she realized I wanted to, but I was stolen from her before she could. Stolen by pokémon,” he felt it necessary to emphasize. “I know she always wanted me to be happy, and I know she would’ve helped me return here… she just never got the chance…” His throat constricted painfully, and he could say no more.

Azvida wore a saddened expression in silence for a moment, recognizing the way that subject weighed upon her son. “As I said,” she finally responded, “you were very fortunate.”

From that point forward, Azvida didn’t ask anything more about Solonn’s abduction, keeping the conversation geared toward things that had happened in Virc-Dho while he’d been away. Among other things, she told him how Sanaika and his gang had escaped punishment for what they’d done to him by fleeing up into Shoal Cave, never to be seen again. She also told him how she’d met Jeneth and how Zilag had been set up with Hledas by his parents, who’d wanted to ensure that “at least one of our children didn’t end up with a damn fool,” in Ms. Shal-Zirath’s own words.

Curiously, the discussion remained solely between Azvida and Solonn; Jeneth said nothing more in the wake of the comment that he apparently shouldn’t have made. He merely sat silently with something clearly working behind his eyes, something he wanted to say but held back.

Eventually, everyone agreed that it was time to call it a night. Azvida showed Solonn to a spare chamber where he could stay for the time being. He bid her goodnight, and she smiled at him as he disappeared into his room for the night.

She then followed Jeneth into their own sleeping chamber on the opposite side of the main cavern, where she immediately lay down in the soft snow blanketing the floor and sighed blissfully. Something she’d long thought hopeless had actually been set right in the end, and she was sure she’d rest all the better for it from now on.

“The gods have sent you a miracle today, haven’t they?” Jeneth said as he moved over to her side.

“Yes, they certainly have,” Azvida responded. She waited for Jeneth to lie down beside her as usual, but he did no such thing. Puzzled, she turned to face him, giving him a look that asked if something was wrong.

“They’ve sent your son back, safe and sound—and so soon after the last thing they sent you,” Jeneth said, seemingly musing aloud. Yet at the same time, he was looking pointedly at Azvida, his gaze imparting a particular significance to his words. “Maybe they’re trying to tell you something.”

The blissful relief that had enveloped Azvida retreated at those words. “I’ve already made my decision where that’s concerned,” she said, sounding quite discomfited. “I made it long before you came into the picture; you know that.”

“And you’ve questioned that decision ever since it was made. You know that,” Jeneth countered. “You know you made it for all the wrong reasons; you’ve known it all along, but you just wouldn’t own up to those mistakes.”

Azvida winced and turned away from him, but Jeneth circled around to face her, refusing to let her escape his gaze. “The chance to make this right has practically been lined up and laid out right in front of you. You know you can do this. And you know you should.”

“But… Gods, imagine what he’ll think. He’ll never forgive me for it,” Azvida said, her voice constrained. “I’ve only just gotten him back. I don’t want to lose him again now…” she whispered.

“Maybe he won’t forgive you. But then again, maybe he will. There’s only one way to know. And as I said, you’ve been given the chance to make up for your mistakes. The gods have done their part, as has he. Now all that’s left is for you to do your part. Tell him, Azvida, please,” Jeneth said firmly but not unkindly. “He deserves this, especially after all that he’s surely been through.”

Azvida stared back at him with a very cornered expression, at a loss for words. This was a matter she’d always feared to share with Solonn or anyone else; she never would have shared it with Jeneth, but he had insisted on enlightening her mate.

In truth, she agreed with Jeneth. But she was just as terrified as she’d ever been of the revelation he was asking her to make and the consequences it might bring. Deep inside, she’d always felt her son should know the truth and wished that he could, but had never felt that it was safe.

“…I’m sorry,” she whispered finally. “I just don’t know if I can do this.”

Jeneth didn’t respond to her at first, silently holding her in his solemn gaze. Finally, he sighed in disappointment. “I don’t think you can deny what you know is right forever,” he said quietly, “but I also think he’s been denied the truth for far too long. I want you to reconsider this, Azvida—I want you to look into your heart and pay attention to what it tells you. Hopefully, you’ll do the right thing by this time tomorrow. If not, I’ll do it for you,” he told her with a distinct note of finality in his voice, then turned away.

Azvida’s jaw dropped open in the wake of Jeneth’s ultimatum, but all objections failed her. His tone had told plainly that he wouldn’t debate the matter any further. He’d made his decision, and he was clearly determined to carry it out.

With a powerful worry now roiling inside her, Azvida rolled onto her back without another word as Jeneth finally settled down at her side. She closed her eyes, but she knew that sleep wouldn’t come. She spent the rest of the night dreading the coming day, knowing that one way or another, the truth she’d been evading for over two decades would catch up with her at last.

Chapter Text

The new day found Solonn sitting alone in his room, watching the ice on the walls move and transform as he idly manipulated it. Sleep had abandoned him early, leaving him awake throughout most of the morning, and during that time he’d been rather bored. There simply wasn’t much of anything to do in this place when no one else was awake.

Too many years as a human, he reckoned. When he hadn’t been busy with his education, and later his work, there’d been music, books, television, and a number of other things available to keep him occupied.

He began humming to himself as he guided the ice, wordlessly resurrecting one of his old favorite songs. The ice on the walls all around him began shifting in a different way: as if carved by an invisible chisel, swirling patterns etched themselves into it. Solonn began to lose himself in the act, and the lines continued snaking through the ice under a less conscious sort of control until they formed an image right before their maker’s eyes.

There was a delay before he realized what he’d just done. When it finally sank in, he fell silent. The once abstract patterns on the walls had taken on a definite shape: twisting branches covered in delicate-looking flowers. Sitrus blossoms.

The significance didn’t escape him. Morgan had introduced him to the song he’d been humming. She’d come to recognize it as his favorite, and so they’d listened to it together many times. Sitrus branches had given them shade while they listened…and sitrus blossoms had floated on the wind during his last moments with her. A low, mournful sigh escaped him as he let the conjured image vanish back into the ice on the walls.

Solonn was about to go and see if someone else was finally awake, but the question answered itself before he could even turn around.

“Oh good, you’re awake,” Azvida said from just outside the room. There was a distinct note of trepidation in her voice that Solonn noticed right away, and what he saw when he turned to face her matched that tone. She was just hanging there at the entrance, her brows drawn together and the light in her eyes fluttering in clear unease.

“Is something the matter?” Solonn asked, concerned.

Something certainly was, as far as Azvida was concerned; she’d never thought she would ever do this of her own accord. But she couldn’t afford to dwell on that fact; what little resolve she’d managed to gather wouldn’t return if she wasted it by hesitating too long, and she couldn’t bear to dread this confession any longer.

“There’s something I need to talk about with you,” she said, her voice very weak and strained. “Something that’s long overdue.”

Solonn frowned worriedly at her. Her reluctance to talk about whatever it was couldn’t have been plainer. She still hadn’t moved one inch into his room, and now she was shaking on the spot. Solonn tried to look less troubled in an effort to calm her, but he still had an uneasy feeling about what she was going to say.

“I’m listening,” he told her, then sat down. Azvida nodded in acknowledgment and finally forced herself to move closer to him. The moment she entered the room, she felt as though a large stone had just blocked off the exit, trapping her in that room with her obligation. She sat down beside her son, unwilling to face him, and several breaths escaped her before she could give word or voice to any of them.

“When you were very young,” she began, feeling an urge to drag each word back into silence as soon it was spoken, “I told you something that was… not true. I told you your father had died just after you were born.” She swallowed hard. “He’s still alive, Solonn. He only left us… and I was the one who drove him away.”

Her words registered with a considerable delay. Once they sank in, they struck deep and hard; if Solonn hadn’t already been seated, he might have dropped from the air. He turned a shocked stare at Azvida, or tried to; she avoided his gaze in a swift motion, wincing sharply as if in pain.

“My gods,” Solonn said almost voicelessly, shaking his head in disbelief. “All this time, and you never said anything… Why, Mother?” he asked her plaintively, a distinct note of betrayal in his voice. “Why did you do it?”

Azvida shrunk further from him at the hurt in his voice, but she suppressed the urge to flee from him altogether. “There’s something else you need to know about your father,” she told him. “You can’t understand why I did what I did unless you know the whole truth about him.”

She forced herself to face him; it was all she could do not to turn right back around when she saw the raw, earnest demand for answers in his eyes. “I told you that I never really got to know your father. That wasn’t true, either; I knew him very well. His name is Grosh Argrosh, and he’s… he’s not of our kind. He’s… Here, let me show you.”

Azvida looked down at the floor. A second later, ice began rising up through the snow there. It took form, lengthening while crystalline facets shaped its surface. Seconds later, her work was done. Sitting there between the two glalie was a two-foot-long model of a segmented serpent.

Solonn was at a loss for words, but his mind was racing. Less than a day before, he’d thought about the very creature depicted before him—he’d thought the creature that disrupted the community might have been one of them. It was astonishing to think he could be related to such a creature, that he could be the son of one…

“A steelix,” he said almost breathlessly.

“You know of his kind, then?” Azvida said.

“I know of many kinds,” Solonn muttered distractedly. He continued to stare at the tiny model steelix, imagining it in its true dimensions—an immense creature, the sort that would absolutely terrify people who’d never even conceived of such a being, let alone actually seen one. “He was here recently, wasn’t he?” he asked.

“Yes,” Azvida said. “Just months ago… he came back for us, Solonn,” she said, sounding anguished and wincing as if in pain. “But when he found out you were gone and that I’m with Jeneth now, he left again.” There was an odd flickering in her eyes, and she averted her gaze once more, letting the miniature steelix disappear back into the floor.

“Ever since he returned, everyone else has resented me for the fact that I’m the one he came here for,” she said. “His presence surely frightened them, but… well, there’s more to it than just that. I think enough of them correctly guessed what my involvement with Grosh was.”

She hesitated before proceeding. “Our society has… opinions about mating with other species. And those opinions aren’t favorable. It’s considered not only immoral but also very bad luck. And… Gods, I’m ashamed to admit this…” She sighed. “I never really agreed with those old prejudices and superstitions, but I was still afraid of what people would think of what I’d done with Grosh, and it was because of that fear that I pushed him out of my life and yours,” she admitted, her voice cracking in mid-confession.

For moments on end, Solonn sat in silence, stunned by what he’d just heard. That his own mother had lied to him for his entire life and denied him from knowing his father, all in the name of a social taboo she didn’t even agree with…

“I know it was wrong,” Azvida said, her voice heavy with shame. “Wrong to cast him away, and wrong to lie to you about him. I’ve always known. I’ve just been too much of a coward to do the right thing, too scared of what people would think and say and do about me, about both of us… and too afraid of how you might react if you ever learned that I’d lied to you.” She looked Solonn right in the eyes. “I’ll understand if you never forgive me.”

There was a very long pause as Solonn tried to figure out what to make of this situation. He knew he’d likely never be able to condone Azvida’s cowardice and deceit. But he also recognized that she seemed sincerely remorseful about her actions.

In the end, he finally supposed that if Azvida could find the courage to own up to her mistakes, then he should try to find the grace to forgive her. At least she’s finally let go of the lies, he thought wearily. At least she did the right thing in the end.

“I… I’ll try not to hold the past against you,” he said quietly.

Azvida closed her eyes. She’d feared her son would hate her for what she’d just confessed, and yet here he was, willing to forgive her. She silently thanked the gods for this chance to make right what she’d done wrong. She also inwardly thanked Jeneth for giving her the final push she’d needed in order to come clean.

“I know I’ve kept you from knowing someone you’ve deserved to know all your life, and it shames me more than I can express,” she said. “Nothing can give you back the years you two should’ve had together, but… there is a way you can have what you’ve been due all this time. I can take you to him, Solonn.”

Solonn’s eyes shifted her way slowly. Their light was still dampened by weariness, but they still widened in a way that suggested cautious but nonetheless present hope. “You said he left when he saw that I wasn’t here,” he reminded her. Azvida nodded, making an affirmative noise. “So you know where he went, then?” Solonn asked.

“Yes,” Azvida said. “Grosh said he was staying in the caverns above, in a place where he and I once stayed together… he said he hoped you could come visit him there if you ever managed to make it back somehow. I’ll take you to him if you want. It’s the least I could do after how I’ve wronged you.”

Inhaling deeply, Solonn rose from the floor, looking heavily but not unkindly upon his mother. “I’m still very disappointed in what you did,” he told her. “But… thank you for giving me this chance now.”

Very briefly, the ghost of a smile appeared on Azvida’s face. “Again, it’s the least I could do.” She ascended and made her way out of the room. “Come on, then,” she said. If there was any time to do this, it was now, while her resolve was so strong. “I think he’s waited more than long enough to meet you.”

The two of them drifted into the main chamber, where Jeneth was sitting near the exit. His eyes followed them as they approached the thick barrier separating them from the warren outside, and as they stopped there before him, a proud, knowing smile spread across his face.

“We’re going above,” Azvida informed him. “We’ll be gone for most of today and tonight.”

Jeneth nodded. “Take care, both of you.”

“We will,” Azvida assured him. The ice barrier began receding at her silent command, and she and Solonn set off for the warren beyond.

As they made their way upward through Virc-Dho to Shoal Cave, no one disturbed them. Azvida seemed to know exactly which route to take to avoid being noticed. Doubtless she’d had plenty of practice avoiding people lately, Solonn considered, at which he frowned and sighed.

“Now, there’s something you should keep in mind when you meet Grosh,” Azvida said as they traveled. “He doesn’t know of your… talent. You know the one.”

“You’re saying I shouldn’t tell him about it?”

“I’m not saying he’s untrustworthy or anything,” Azvida said. “I just think it would be best to be careful about revealing it… you know, considering what happened last time…”

“Don’t worry,” Solonn said. “I’ve learned my lesson very well where that’s concerned. I don’t think I’ll be using that old trick ever again.” With things at least similar to how they’d been before he’d performed that “trick”, he’d decided that he’d prefer to leave it in the past.

But it might not matter how secretive he was about it if she’d already let it slip to anyone else. He wanted to believe she’d have known better, but… “Jeneth doesn’t know either, does he?”

“Not at all, and I have no intentions of changing that,” Azvida replied.

“Good,” Solonn said, more than a little relieved, “good.” And with that, both he and his mother fell silent once more as they continued toward Shoal Cave. Solonn had only taken a proper route to the surface exit once, and eventually he recognized their current path: this was the part of the warren that Sanaika and his gang had once haunted. Even though they’d left their old territory behind, it seemed that people still didn’t want to come here; there were no signs of recent development here. Nothing had changed since the last time Solonn had laid eyes on these tunnels.

Soon, they merged via a hidden passageway into the path that led to Virc-Dho’s uppermost border. Azvida moved the ice guarding the exit aside, and she and Solonn passed through into the cavern outside.

“We’ve still got a fair way to go,” Azvida told him. “Much of the distance between home and where we’re going is through the caverns beyond this one.” She proceeded onward, leading Solonn over a vast expanse of ice until they reached the far side of the cavern. There, half-concealed behind a broad, flat stone formation that jutted out sharply from the wall, a passageway curved inward.

The passageway was short, and it opened up into territory that definitely didn’t belong to any glalie. The stone surfaces of these caverns were entirely bare, no ice glazing the walls, no snow blanketing the floors. Eventually, Solonn began to see tiny seashells and other little remnants of marine life scattered about. This place was closer to the sea.

There were also natives about. The occasional zubat winged by overhead, while less frequently, spheal and sealeo appeared at the edges of Solonn’s vision. The spheal and sealeo immediately shuffled away toward shelter when they caught sight of the two passing glalie, and Solonn couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt despite having never done any harm to their kind. It seemed a shame that these people were raised to live in fear of his kind, but the fact remained that it was just part of the natural order around here.

Solonn had lost track of how long they’d been traveling when Azvida finally stopped and turned to face him. Some strange discomfort flitted across her face, but it was gone so quickly that Solonn wasn’t sure he’d actually seen it.

“So is this it, then?” he asked.

“No,” Azvida answered. There was that unease in her eyes again; Solonn couldn’t dismiss it this time. But before he could ask about it, “Stay here,” she said. “There’s something I need to take care of, but I need to do it alone.”

Azvida left without any further explanation, but Solonn gave it little thought. They’d been traveling non-stop for a while now; the need to take a break was perfectly understandable. He sat down for the time being, hungry and grateful for a chance to rest. Still, some part of him was ready to get going again as soon as his mother came back, sure that they must be getting close to their destination by now.

Several minutes passed before Azvida returned. Once Solonn spotted her out of the corner of his eye, he rose and turned to face her.

And then abruptly froze in midair with a stunned expression, his thoughts arrested by what he saw.

Silently, Azvida lowered her head, letting something small and blue fall from her jaws. A zubat now lay on the floor before her, nearly motionless. His chest was rising and falling with deep, serene breaths. He was still alive.

Solonn immediately knew why Azvida had brought him the zubat—Gods, she brought him here for me, he thought, shuddering in revulsion. He fumbled for a moment before he managed to gather his words. When he found them, they came out more forcefully than he’d intended.

“Take him back,” he said. “Take him back and leave him be.”

Azvida’s brows drew together in a worried expression. “You still feel the same way about this.”

“Yes, I do. Now, please… just take him back. Please. I don’t want this.”

“Solonn… how long ago did you evolve?” Azvida asked, clearly concerned.

“Not long after I was taken,” Solonn said. “And yes, I know this is something we’re all supposed to do once we’ve evolved, but I’ve never liked it, and I don’t think I ever will.”

“Did you do any hunting at all during all that time?”

“Not really, no.” Solonn vividly recalled the one and only time he’d tried, and he gave another shudder at the memory. At least there was no memory of actually going through with the act to haunt him.

During his time away from Virc-Dho, he’d been grateful to have an alternative to live prey. Later, as a human, he’d enjoyed being able to abstain from eating the flesh of other creatures altogether. “Food was always provided—I never had to kill anyone to get it,” he said darkly.

Azvida sighed. “But that was there and then,” she pointed out. “People may have fed you up until now, and I may have hunted for you today, but you won’t always have someone to provide for you. Ultimately, you’ll have to hunt for yourself. And you’ve known that for a long time, too. This is the way you have to live now that you’re a glalie and now that you’re here again. Sooner or later, you’ll have no choice but to accept it.”

Solonn only stared at her at first, letting his gaze bear down upon her as if he thought he could silently will her to take that back. But in truth, he knew she was right. He’d always known, in the back of his mind, that returning to Virc-Dho would mean becoming an active predator. All those years spent as far from that lifestyle as possible had just caused him to lose sight of that. And it had been especially far from his thoughts when he’d decided to go back home following his reversion and the human tragedy. Now that fact had finally, truly caught up to him, and he felt all but cornered by it.

“…I know,” he said finally, wearily. “It’s just so hard to accept…”

Azvida closed her eyes and nodded in a sort of knowing sympathy. “I understand, Solonn. Believe me, I really do.” She opened her eyes. “When I first started hunting, I also had a hard time accepting it. I wished it weren’t necessary, but… I knew I had no other choice.”

She looked down at the zubat, who still lay there unconscious and completely unaware of the mortal peril that faced him. “We’re all what we have to be, according to the laws of nature,” she said. “There’s nothing right or wrong about it; it’s just the only way that works. Every one of our kind has to accept this part of our nature. It’s the only way we can survive.”

Part of Solonn understood and agreed with these concepts completely; it had done so ever since he’d evolved. His eyes stayed transfixed upon the zubat, and as he stared at him, he tried almost wholeheartedly to accept what he was seeing as food. His predatory instinct approached him from a number of angles: At least you didn’t have to go catch him this time. Maybe she’ll kill him for you. He doesn’t have eyes; that makes it a little easier, doesn’t it?

But none of those little details made it easier for him, not in the slightest. He hungered, and he knew he’d eventually have to deal with it… but he wanted to put it off as long as he could. “I know what I have to do,” he said softly. “I know I can’t escape this forever, but… just please, not yet. I’m still not ready.”

Azvida drew a very long breath, then released it slowly and heavily. “All right,” she said, sounding troubled but not at all surprised. “I got the feeling you weren’t. That’s why I kept him alive.”

“Thank you,” Solonn responded. “But next time… don’t hesitate to do it, all right? I don’t think I’ll be willing to… to take one at first.”

Azvida nodded. The look in her eyes told him that part of her wanted to keep trying to convince him to accept the offering, but she said nothing more for the time being, picking the zubat back up and carrying him away in silence.

You’ll get used to it, Solonn tried to reassure himself. You’ll get through this somehow. But there was part of him that still couldn’t help but doubt that he ever would. And the notion that his only options were to do something he hated or else perish was difficult to bear.

Azvida returned shortly, this time without the zubat, and immediately began moving onward again. Solonn followed her with an eagerness that belied his weariness, hoping he was right when he’d guessed that their journey was near its end. Maybe finally getting to meet his father after having believed he was dead for all these years would help take his mind off of his own physical obligations, at least for a while.

It wasn’t much longer before they reached their destination, but the relief Solonn had anticipated was dampened somewhat when he actually laid eyes on the place itself. He and his mother now hovered at the edge of a fairly wide and deep hole.

“All right… so exactly how are we supposed to get down there?” Solonn asked, peering cautiously into the dark chasm. His question went unanswered, and when he turned toward Azvida to find out why, he recognized at once that she was deeply focused on something. Her eyes were nearly closed, letting only a sliver of blue light seep through.

Around the edges of the hole, ice began to form. It spread inward until the chasm was completely covered, and it was only then that Azvida emerged from her apparent trance.

“Move onto the ice,” she said. “I’ll lower you into the chamber that way.”

Solonn just stared at the platform for a moment, wondering how that solution hadn’t occurred to him. He then did as he was instructed, making sure to leave enough space on the platform for Azvida to join him… but Azvida did no such thing. Puzzled, Solonn turned a questioning gaze toward her, and Azvida’s eyes shifted aside awkwardly.

“I think I’d prefer to wait outside,” she said very quietly. “This time, at least,” she added hastily when she saw her son’s brows draw together in disappointment. “I think… maybe this moment should be just for the two of you, after all these years apart.”

Solonn saw right through her reasoning, though, and she knew it. “I’m sorry… I just don’t think things have healed enough between us yet. I’m not quite ready to face him again,” she admitted, “but, if you really want me to…”

Solonn looked at her sadly for a moment, wishing she hadn’t put her decision into his figurative hands like that. He liked the idea of having both of his parents together with him, a complete family once more, even if only for a little while. But at the same time, he didn’t really want to drag Azvida into a situation that might make her uncomfortable, especially after she’d already battled her fears just to give him this opportunity.

“No, that’s all right,” he said softly. You’ve done enough for me today, he added silently with a weary heart.

Azvida smiled in response, but her guilt kept it weak. She slipped back into her trance, and the ice platform began to descend with a slithering, scraping noise. Moments later, it reached the floor of the chasm, where it dissipated into vapor just as Solonn resumed his levitation.

The shaft he’d descended through opened into a large cavern that connected to another chamber via an imperfect archway. The room in which he currently hovered was entirely empty, but he could hear something in the adjacent one: a rushing, rumbling sound with a distinct rhythm. He could see something stretching clear across that room, something silver that gave off a dim glow of body heat.

Slightly gingerly, Solonn approached the metallic creature in the other room. It was incredible enough that he was about to meet his father, but the exact nature of what he was about to meet impressed itself upon him more than ever. He’d only ever seen steelix in movies—he’d never encountered anything quite like one live and in person before. As he drew nearer, he felt a deep, very primal unease start welling up inside him.

With a faint annoyance, he tried to silence the instinct. His element isn’t important, he told himself firmly. But he was only partly successful.

Nonetheless, he got through the rough-hewn archway, and his perception was immediately monopolized by the enormous creature occupying the chamber beyond. The steelix almost completely surrounded Solonn, his long, segmented body wrapped in an open ring that went nearly all the way around the stone chamber.

Grosh was fast asleep, oblivious to his visitor. Solonn was apprehensive about waking the steelix up—interrupting a good nap might not be the best first impression to make. But all the same, it’d been over two decades since they’d seen each other…

Solonn was torn between these two angles for a short time, but then Grosh stirred unexpectedly, his segments rotating lazily with a grinding noise as he stretched. His broad head lifted slowly, and his heavy jaws opened to let out a yawn that made the walls and floor shudder. He opened his eyes halfway, blinking slowly with an unfocused gaze turned toward the wall.

Now that Grosh was awake, Solonn figured he didn’t need to hesitate any longer. He ignored the instinct within him that still begged to differ. His heart racing, he drew closer to Grosh, trying to calm himself with steadying breaths as he approached. He inhaled deeply one last time, and then, “Father?” he said.

His nervousness had weakened his voice somewhat, and he wondered at first if Grosh hadn’t heard him; the steelix was giving no indication that he had. Solonn watched him with bated breath and was about to try to get his attention again, but then he saw Grosh’s head perk up suddenly, rising almost all the way to the ceiling in little more than an instant. Solonn looked up toward him and saw his father’s red eyes widen and shift his way in their deep, dark sockets, locking into his gaze.

“Hello, Father,” Solonn spoke up again, more steadily this time.

Silence hovered over the room. Then it was shattered to pieces by a thunderous, positively jubilant peal of laughter. “Well, I’ll be!” Grosh exclaimed heartily in a very deep, metallic-edged voice. “Solonn, right?” he said, at which the glalie nodded. “Ah, I’d hoped to death I’d get to see you again someday!”

Solonn couldn’t help but smile at his father’s elation. The steelix slithered in a circle around him, looking him over. “By God, look at how you’ve grown since the last time I saw you!” Grosh said as he stopped to face Solonn again, his eyes shining with tears of pride. “To think how long it’s been since then…” He sighed wistfully. “I reckon we’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” he said, then gave a slightly growling chuckle.

“I suppose we do,” Solonn agreed, still smiling.

“So. What sorts of things have you been up to all this time, hmm?” Grosh asked.

“Well, not much, really,” Solonn replied, “at least, not before a human found me.” He gave Grosh a brief, carefully edited account of what had happened after his capture, still uncomfortable with discussing some of his stranger and more terrible experiences, still mindful that certain details in that story would give away his linguistic abilities.

Still, he felt a bit guilty about keeping things from someone who’d waited so long just to get the chance to talk to him; he figured that Grosh at least deserved an explanation for the withheld information. “I’m sorry,” Solonn said. “I’d like to go into more detail, but… well, I’ve only just gotten away from it all. I don’t feel like I’m ready to talk about some of the things that happened.”

“Understandable,” Grosh said in a kindly tone. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t feel comfortable with.

“Well then, I reckon it’s my turn. How about I start by telling you how your mother and I met and where I’ve been all these years?”

“Sure,” Solonn said. He was genuinely curious, particularly with regards to how Azvida could have gotten involved with the likes of Grosh in the first place. He sat down and looked attentively toward the steelix.

“All right,” Grosh said, settling himself back into a more relaxed position. “Now, I’ll warn you: it’s not the happiest story you’ll ever hear, but it’s the truth. Your mother and I met in an awful place after we’d both wound up with the same human, who’d stolen us from our original captors.”

“Wait… my mother has seen humans before?” Solonn asked, surprised.

“That’s right,” Grosh said. “She got caught by one when she was about… oh, ten years your junior, I believe.”

There was another thing Azvida had never told Solonn. It was incredible to think that she’d been taken by humans and then stolen from the one who’d originally caught her, just like he had. But he quickly ceased to be surprised that she hadn’t told him about her time with the humans. It was too deeply connected to her time with Grosh.

“Anyway,” Grosh went on, “the human who kept us made us fight other pokémon nearly all day and every day, and when I say fight, I mean hard. Those were rough times, and Azvida and I had nothing but each other. I looked after the poor girl, did everything I could for her, and she put all her trust in me.

“We fought for that creep for quite a while, and then one morning, he decided to go and toss us into the ocean while we were in our capture balls for the night. Can you believe it?” he said with a chuckle.

“Hm… yeah, that is pretty strange,” Solonn said. “Do you have any idea why he did that?”

“Well, what I suspect is that someone found out he’d stolen us, and so he ditched us to get rid of the evidence. Ah, I hope that slimebag didn’t get away with it in the end, though…

“So. These grass pokémon found our capture balls out in the water, brought us back to their island, let us out, and told us what had happened. They also mentioned that they knew about a cave to the north where Azvida’s kind was rumored to live. We didn’t know for sure if it was really where she’d come from, but after her ordeal, she wanted to go back home badly enough to check it out. I decided to go with her just to keep an eye on her and help her stay safe… I’d come to care about her quite a lot by then.” Grosh smiled wistfully in the wake of that last statement.

“Two of the grass pokémon swam to the cave, carrying us in our capture balls, and they let us out once we were there,” he then said. “Azvida and I searched through the cave for some time, looking for signs of her warren… and that’s when, much to our surprise, along came your egg.

“Well, Azvida had been acting strangely nervous ever since she’d been told about this cave, but once the egg came into the picture, it got even worse. It came to a head when we finally found the border of her homeland—that’s when I found out what she was so worried about.”

Solonn averted his gaze, feeling a vicarious sort of guilt come over him. “I’m sorry for the way she treated you,” he said sincerely.

“Don’t be,” Grosh said gently. “You know you’re not at fault here, not in the least. I’m not even entirely sure it was her fault, either—the things fear can make people do… Some part of her really seemed to want me to go ahead with her regardless of what anyone might think, but the rest of her was just too scared of what they might do. In the end, I agreed to leave despite how much I wanted to stay—I didn’t want for you and your mother to have to live in fear.

“We crossed paths again one day while she was out hunting—she said she’d just so happened to come by this way, but I have my doubts. She said she still felt bad about how we’d had to part ways, and she told me where she was living at the time and said that maybe I could sneak in sometime and see you after you were born.

“I took her up on that offer, but only once. I was there when you were born, but I left right after.” He drew a long, slow breath. “I was too worried about causing trouble for her… and I thought it would be easier for me to give you two up if I didn’t give myself much of a chance to get too attached to you,” he admitted almost voicelessly. The steelix bowed his head deeply in shame, his long neck nearly doubling over on itself. He gave a deep, shuddering sigh, and tears began to trace the contours of his armored face as they slid toward the floor.

It was a while before either of them could speak again. Grosh wept for moments on end, seemingly unable to do anything else, while Solonn was hushed by the weight of the steelix’s sorrow. Finally, “It’s all right,” Solonn said quietly. His father’s gaze lifted slowly from the floor, his eyes bloodshot and still shedding silent tears. “I don’t blame you for anything you did. I understand… you have nothing to be ashamed of,” Solonn told him.

A low, metallic noise resonated deep within the steelix’s chest, and uncertainty showed through his features. “I don’t know about that,” he said doubtfully. “I think I most definitely ought to be ashamed for not trying to get back into your life even once during all those years—especially considering I’ve been here this whole time.”

Solonn was momentarily stupefied—how in the world had a thirty-foot-long metal serpent been living in the area for so long without anyone noticing? “So… what’ve you been doing all this time?” Solonn asked once his wits returned.

“Oh, you’re not going to like the answer to that…” Grosh half-sighed.

“Try me,” Solonn said evenly.

“All right… all right. I knew it was going to be hard as hell to resist the urge to come back to you two, so I sent myself into hibernation here. Some desperate part of me actually thought that if I let enough time pass me by, then it’d be easier to live without you and your mother. I should’ve known better.”

He gave a sad smile. “When I finally couldn’t stay dormant any longer, you two were the very first things on my mind, and when I realized how much time must’ve passed, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I rushed right into that warren, made a scene looking for her after I found out she no longer lived where she used to—I was so worried about getting her into trouble, and then look what I went and did.” Grosh shook his head, growling to himself in shame. “I abandoned you both to try and protect you, only to fail you to that end. I don’t think I could ever apologize enough.”

“Yes, you can,” Solonn said softly. “As long as you mean it, you only need to apologize once.” He lifted himself from the floor and moved closer to Grosh until he hovered directly under the steelix’s gaze. “You have nothing to worry about,” he assured his father, looking right into his eyes. “Whatever anyone thinks of you, whatever they try and do about it, I can take care of myself, and I’ll take care of my mother, too. You haven’t ruined things, Father. Coming back into the picture was the first step toward setting everything right again.”

Grosh stared silently into his son’s face for a moment, into the sincerity in those eyes. A broad grin spread slowly across the steelix’s face, and he swallowed back a fresh surge of tears. “You’re right,” he said. “There’ll always be people who’ll hold on to wicked ways no matter what we do. But we still deserve to be happy.”

He sighed peacefully. “Guess this is like starting over, in a sense,” he said. “I made my mistakes, she made hers, and we’ve both paid for them by missing out on the family we could’ve had all this time. But now… well, now it’s like we’re getting a second chance.”

Chapter Text

Silent, determined, and swift as he could, Solonn made his way through a bare-walled, nearly empty network of stone tunnels, alone. He knew, as always, that the slightest hesitance could dismantle his willingness to proceed.

Like a passenger in his own mind, he let his instinct guide him, but didn’t lose himself in it completely. This was as conscious an endeavor as it had ever been—he’d always acknowledge the impact and cost of it, never allowing himself to trivialize the matter if he could help it. Though he’d hunted countless times since he’d accepted the need to do so, he was no fonder of it than he’d ever been. For him, it was nothing less and nothing more than the obligation that it was, something demanded but not desired.

His senses remained on high alert, trained toward the particular telltales of his quarry. It wasn’t much longer before he found it. He followed a faint sound of beating wings until the glow of heat confirmed the find.

He closed his eyes for a long, solemn moment. Silently, he apologized to the creature he’d targeted and sent a prayer to the gods, asking them for the safe and sure deliverance of the soul he was about to send their way. He called upon his element, and it responded with an echoing crack. Wings crumpled as their lifeless owner dropped to the floor. The sole witness to her fall drifted forward silently and looked down at her for a short time before closing his eyes and opening his jaws.

Solonn kept respectfully silent as he fed, and when nothing remained of the zubat, he left the scene without hesitation. He looked forward to returning home and not having to hunt again for at least another day. It helped somewhat that he didn’t have to feed nearly as often as he had when he was human, or even quite as often as Morgan had fed him. With the habits of humans and of pokémon kept and pampered by them left largely behind, his body had relaxed its expectations somewhat.

It had been well over a year since he’d returned to Virc-Dho. During that time, Solonn had gotten as used to life as a glalie in the natural setting of his kind as he could, and he’d grown accustomed to the much slower pace of life in the warren.

But even now, there were aspects of Virc society he didn’t quite understand. His friends and family had introduced him to all that they knew of their culture, and he did as he observed them doing. Yet even to this very day, he felt like there was more to the ways of his people than he could see.

Beyond the people he knew personally, the Virc community in general made no effort to bring him into the fold. Though the commotion Grosh had caused was hardly recent, some of its effects still lingered. The fact of the matter was that the origins of those reactions traced back much farther than that single incident.

By and large, the people seemed to know exactly what Solonn was, exactly how he’d come about. They showed him no open hostility—he suspected they were too intimidated by his stature to do so. Still, nearly every time he was in public, at least some of their eyes and faces shifted conspicuously away from him, stealing glances to watch him without seeming to watch him, and he swore he could feel the tension in the air.

Solonn had tried for a while to get through to them, to make them own up to their fears and try to overcome them, but they would not be moved. He’d come to realize firsthand just how deeply ingrained their attitudes were. They were unlikely to change for anyone, let alone a hybrid.

Though still disappointed in their behavior, he no longer tried to get them to treat him the same way they treated each other. To the best of his ability, he instead focused on just living his life like anyone else, regardless of what others thought of him.

After a few minutes’ traveling through the warren, Solonn arrived at what had been his home for the past several months. Jeneth had acquired it for him shortly after its previous owner had passed away. It wasn’t the roomiest place in the warren, but since he lived alone, that suited him just fine.

He’d been less satisfied with the featureless, ice-glazed walls of this place. He’d picked up a preference toward more visually stimulating surroundings as a human, and it had yet to wear off. So he’d decorated the cavern with patterns and images etched into the walls and sculptures raised from the material of the floor, décor that was changed every now and again to keep things interesting.

His passion for ice artistry kept him occupied much of the time in these days. He usually practiced by himself, simply enjoying the serene unity with his element. Just as ever, it offered an escape from the ordinary that he dearly appreciated—especially now that his life contained things he doubted he’d ever be completely comfortable with.

Occasionally, his family or Zilag’s watched him work. He wasn’t interested in performing for a larger audience. He doubted many of the locals would be particularly interested in such a display anyway, and not just because of whom and what he was. Dancing ice wasn’t the exotic spectacle here that it was in the outside world; here, he was just one more ice controller out of hundreds. Any glalie could pull off his art form with equal or greater skill if they practiced as long and as diligently as he had.

He was about to conjure up yet another display, contemplating a number of shapes he might like to sculpt and carve this time, when he heard Jeneth calling to him from the entrance of his cavern. Once he’d unsealed the entrance for him, Solonn got an announcement that immediately drove those ideas away.

“We think it’s happening,” Jeneth said almost breathlessly, his eyelight bright with excitement.

Solonn’s eyes immediately widened. “Is it really?”

Jeneth nodded. “It started moving just before I left,” he said, “and moving a lot. From the looks of it—” He paused as a momentary thrill stole his breath. “—it may very well hatch tonight.”

“Ah, that’s wonderful!” Solonn said, beaming. “Well, come on then; we don’t want to risk missing it!”

The two left with no further delay, hurrying toward the cavern where Jeneth and Azvida lived. They’d anticipated this event with great enthusiasm, for it’d been quite long in the making. For years, Jeneth and Azvida had tried to conceive an egg, to no avail. They were on the verge of losing hope of ever having a child together when, to their immense joy and relief, they finally succeeded. Now, months later, the baby that they’d so dearly wished for would arrive at long last.

As soon as the barrier was in sight, Jeneth removed it with unprecedented speed. Once inside, he and Solonn rushed past the main cavern and into the small chamber where the egg sat, watched by its mother.

Just as Jeneth had said, the egg was much more active now than when Solonn had last laid eyes on it. It was shaking so wildly that if it weren’t for the ring of ice and packed snow that Azvida had mindfully raised around it, it could have easily just rolled right into the nearest wall.

Azvida didn’t look away from the egg for even a second, but she caught Jeneth and Solonn entering the room in the edge of her vision and smiled at them.

“Any moment now,” she all but whispered, her eyes bright, “any moment…”

Solonn and Jeneth sat down, and together the three glalie eagerly waited for the egg to hatch. It kept on shaking… but as minute after minute passed, the shell remained intact.

Solonn’s brows drew together in worry. While he’d never watched an egg hatch before, he was sure the baby shouldn’t be struggling for this long before breaking free. He glanced at the others, and the troubled looks on their faces only reinforced that concern.

“This isn’t right…” Azvida’s voiced was strained. “This isn’t right at all… Dear gods, I don’t think they can get out!”

Jeneth rose from the floor and came to hover directly above the egg. He swallowed nervously. “We’re going to have to help them out, then,” he said tensely.

Fleeting apprehension crossed Azvida’s face at the thought of what Jeneth seemed to be proposing, but then she gave a quick nod of agreement. “All right,” she said. “Be quick, but please be careful.”

“Don’t worry,” Jeneth assured her. He leaned toward the egg, his jaws parting. Azvida and Solonn watched him with bated breath, hoping this ordeal was soon to end.

But before Jeneth could lay a single tooth upon the egg, it blew apart right in his face.

Azvida cried out and turned away in an instant. Jeneth went reeling backwards, spitting fragments of eggshell from his mouth and shaking them from his face. Solonn shut his eyes and raised a protect shield around himself. For seconds after, the three remained frozen in shock, unable to think, forgetting to breathe. Finally, fearfully, they dared to look at the nest of ice and snow where the egg had been.

What they found there calmed their initial shock somewhat, but only increased their bewilderment. There, amid the debris of his explosive birth, a newborn male sat completely unscathed, nibbling daintily and serenely at a handful of the surrounding snow as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.

The three glalie could only stare dumbfounded at him for a long moment, gathering their wits, still shaken after what they’d just witnessed. Finally, “Gods… what in the hell just happened?” Jeneth managed.

“No idea,” Azvida responded breathlessly, her eyes still wide with disbelief, her brow still knitted in confusion and concern. “None whatsoever… I just hope he’s really going to be all right now…”

The three glalie kept a long watch over the newborn to make sure of just that. By the evening’s end, they were certain that there was no further strangeness in store for the child, and with that reassurance, they could finally, truly take joy in their new arrival. Before long, they chose a name for him, officially welcoming Jeneth Marasahn Zgil-Al into the family.

 

* * *

 

Through the years that followed, life became richer and easier for the family. Eventually, venturing out into public became less of an ordeal for Jeneth and Azvida; the hostility and blame toward the latter for Grosh showing up finally seemed to have faded into the past. Consequently, young Jeneth, or simply Jen as he liked to be called, was accepted into his place in society readily. Now old enough to spend time in the snowgrounds, he’d had decent success in making friends.

As for Solonn, his appearance still inspired a little mistrust and discomfort here and there. Not that it upset him too much, though. He was just as content with the company of his family and Zilag’s as he’d been for years now. As long as he had their support, he felt no real need for the approval of strangers.

Though he usually paid his friends and family visits rather than the other way around—their homes, designed for multiple inhabitants, were better suited for entertaining guests—one or more of them occasionally showed up at his figurative door. Such was the case today, when the tapping of a horn against the barrier outside pulled his attention away from the helix he’d conjured in the middle of the floor. He dissipated the barrier and found Azvida and Jeneth hovering there, with Jen standing in front of them and looking a bit antsy.

“Ah, hi!” Solonn greeted them warmly. “Come on in.” He cleared the floor to make more room for his three visitors, taking a quick mental snapshot of the ice sculptures in hopes of being able to replicate them once his company left, and moved aside to let the three in.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Azvida told him with a hint of guilt at the trouble he’d already gone to for their sake. “We’re just dropping Jen off here, if that’s all right—he wants to be taken to the snowgrounds later, but he said he wanted to come see you first.”

“We were hoping you could take him there when he’s ready so that your mother and I can go ahead to the temple. We’re wanting to get there as soon as possible so that we can get back and… try again,” Jeneth said, lowering his voice on those last two words.

Solonn knew exactly what Jeneth meant by that, and he did an admirable job of keeping his unease off his face. Jeneth and Azvida wanted another child, but they’d had even less luck thus far than they’d had the first time around. No doubt they were heading to the temple to offer more prayers for things to change for the better.

“Sure, that’s fine with me,” Solonn said. He’d had plans to go up and spend some time with his father, but that could wait, especially since it seemed like it wouldn’t have to wait for long. “I suppose you’ll be picking him up from there later?”

Azvida nodded. She then looked down toward Jen. “Be good, all right?” she instructed him. “Remember: I’ll know if you don’t.”

Jen gave her a slightly nervous look. “Okay,” he said. “Bye!”

“Bye,” his parents returned in near-unison, smiling, then departed.

Jen entered the living room proper then, and Solonn restored the ice barrier behind him. The snorunt went to a spot just a little off the center of the room, stopped there, and looked for a moment like he was going to sit down, but he paused in mid-motion and straightened his posture once more.

Solonn noticed a distinct look of unease on the snorunt’s face, which brought a concerned frown to his own. “Is something the matter?” he asked. He wondered if Jen had figured out that his parents were trying to have another child. Maybe the snorunt felt like they were replacing him or something. Maybe he just wanted Solonn to assure him that getting a younger sibling wasn’t the end of the world after all.

Or maybe Jen had mentioned little siblings to his friends, the subject of where such things came from had come up, and he was seeking confirmation from Solonn regarding that matter. Solonn sincerely hoped that wasn’t the case.

“Well… I need you to do something,” Jen said.

Solonn looked at him with a mixture of puzzlement and relief; somehow Jen’s response didn’t seem like anything that would lead into having to explain eggs or anything of that nature. Where it was leading, he couldn’t guess. “And what might that be?”

Jen took a deep breath, none too keen on elaborating. Not meeting Solonn’s gaze, “I… did something stupid,” he finally admitted, sounding and looking quite embarrassed.

“Oh… Well… I’m sure it can’t have been that bad…” Solonn said, sitting down.

“It is,” Jen insisted. He shook his head. “Why? Why’d I say that?” he muttered to himself, turning and beginning to pace as he spoke.

Solonn briefly watched the snorunt move in a small figure-eight in the middle of the room. “Well, what did you say?” he asked gently. “And to whom?”

Jen let out a loud, annoyed sigh, though Solonn suspected Jen was directing it toward himself. The snorunt finally got himself to hold still. “I told my friends I could make stuff with ice. You know, like you do. And they said ‘prove it’, and I said I would next time I went over there.” He took another deep breath, then forced himself to look Solonn in the eyes as steadily as possible. “So I need you to come with me and do it for me. Like… hide outside and make things made out of ice appear in there so it’ll look like I’m doing it.”

There was a hint of desperation in Jen’s voice that suggested he didn’t really have much faith in that plan. Solonn had none in it whatsoever. “Jen… sooner or later, they’re going to figure out you didn’t mean it about being able to do that… I can’t be there every time.”

Jen finally sat down, looking only a little disappointed; he’d expected that sort of answer, really. “And you can’t just show me how to do it,” he said. He’d already learned long ago that that sort of control over ice was simply beyond a snorunt’s abilities.

Solonn gave a faint, sad sort of smile. “I’m afraid not. I’d be glad to if I could, but… well, it’s just something you have to find for yourself by really connecting to your element. You’ll be able to do that when you evolve. You’ll know when you feel that connection. There’s nothing else like it.”

“What’s it like?” Jen asked, tilting his head slightly in curiosity.

“It’s…” Solonn began, but just like that, he was at a loss for words. He tried to describe it, calling on memories of past experiences with it… and as he did, he fell into the sensation in the present. The ice on the floor in front of him answered the unintentional call of those straying thoughts, snaking upward and resuming the helical shape it had held before, with wispy little projections growing from the main body of the sculpture and another, smaller helix rising up through its center.

Solonn only realized after the fact that he’d fallen silent and shut his eyes; when he opened them, he saw what he’d done and gave a faint, apologetic laugh for letting himself get carried away. “Whoops,” he said. “Anyway… there’s really no way I could explain what it’s like or how wonderful it is,” he admitted. “And that feeling, that connection… that’s where this comes from,” he told Jen, nodding toward the ice sculpture. “Whenever you connect to the element, this is what can happen.” Maybe this display had specifically happened because the experience of being one with the element was so hard to put into words, Solonn mused silently. Maybe this was the only way he or anyone else of his kind could adequately express that connection.

Jen leveled a stare at the ice formation in front of him for a moment. Then he screwed his eyes shut, his brow creasing in concentration. A couple of seconds later, his eyes popped open again. “…Hey, I think it moved!” he said, gesturing toward one of the thin branches growing out of the main helix.

It hadn’t moved an inch, but Solonn didn’t have the heart to correct him too bluntly. “Well, one day, you won’t just think you made it move. You’ll know when you have.”

Jen made a frustrated noise. “I don’t want to have to wait to evolve to do it, though.” His eyes shifted up to Solonn’s again. “Hey…” he began slowly. “Maybe… maybe I could go ahead and evolve right now. And maybe you could help me.”

“Not unless you want to risk losing your mind,” Solonn told him, his tone serious. “And at your age, I think there’s next to no chance that wouldn’t happen. Evolving brings a kind of power we have to be ready for, and that takes time. If you get it before you’re ready, you could go insane. You wouldn’t even be able to think of making anything out of ice. And if I helped you go insane, Mother and Jeneth would never forgive me. And I’d never forgive myself.”

The light in Jen’s eyes flickered, fading slightly. Whether or not he believed Solonn’s claims, the glalie couldn’t tell for certain, but at least Jen didn’t seem inclined to take the risk. The snorunt sighed once again. “What am I gonna do, then?” he asked.

“Well… all you really can do is tell the truth. Again, they’re going to figure it out sooner or later—you should really probably just get it over with.”

Jen looked aside, worried. “I bet they’re gonna beat me up for lying.”

“They probably won’t,” Solonn tried to assure him. “They’d better not, anyway. If they even so much as look at you like they want to, they’ll have Mother and Jeneth to deal with.”

That they would, and as he thought about it, he wondered if it might be prudent for Jen to tell Azvida and Jeneth about the situation before confronting the other kids so that his parents could defuse any potential problems before they arose. He considered not taking Jen to the snowgrounds at all and just watching him until his parents could return, postponing the trip into Shoal Cave if he had to.

That would mean Azvida and Jeneth would come back here after failing to find Jen at the snowgrounds, he realized as that course of action occurred to him. He could already picture Jeneth’s disapproving stare, could already hear Azvida chewing him out for giving them a scare, however brief. But he figured—or at least hoped—that things would be fine once he got the chance to explain everything.

So, “Maybe it would be a good idea to talk with Mother and Jeneth about this before you go back to the snowgrounds,” he suggested. “Would you rather just stay here and wait for them to come back?”

Jen considered this for a few moments. Then he shuddered. “I don’t want Mom and Dad to find out,” he said finally. “I’m more scared of Mom than I am of the other kids.” He stood then, turning toward the exit. “Come on… let’s go,” he said with resignation in his voice.

“All right,” Solonn said. He rose, unblocked the exit, and escorted Jen out, sealing the cavern off as they left it behind. His half-brother stayed silent all the way to the snowgrounds; Solonn didn’t try to provoke him into conversation, letting the snorunt focus on steeling himself for his confession.

He lingered at the entrance to the snowgrounds after bidding Jen goodbye; it seemed prudent to make sure the other children didn’t react too harshly to what Jen had to tell them. He still didn’t really anticipate too much trouble, but he was compelled nonetheless to stick around long enough to confirm that things would be all right. At the very least, he figured he should be there in a show of support for his half-brother.

Fortunately, the other kids seemed to take the news well enough. There were a couple of groans from among the small crowd in response to it, but they only sounded disappointed, not angry. Solonn heard “I knew it!” out of one of the snorunt and started to suspect that most of Jen’s friends shared a similar sentiment.

He saw some of their eyes find him, regarding him uneasily. He didn’t like it when children looked at him with anything at all like fear, and he frowned in regret. The snorunt watching him turned away quickly.

Jen met his gaze then, and Solonn gave him a reassuring nod. It’ll be all right, he told Jen silently, and as if to confirm that thought, the snorunt changed the subject, carrying on happily. Smiling, Solonn turned and went on his way.

Rather than head back home, he decided to go ahead and visit Grosh. Solonn knew the route that led to the chasm by heart at this point; things rarely changed along that path, and when they did, they were only minor changes.

Therefore it was a surprise, to say the very least, to find his usual path blocked by an unusual obstacle just as he was approaching the passageway out of the border-cavern—one that literally appeared out of thin air right in front of him. With virtually no time to react to it, momentarily blinded by its accompanying burst of light, Solonn collided face-first with the thing with a dull whumpf; sending whatever it was tumbling backward with a strange groaning noise.

Solonn regained his wits and vision fairly quickly after the collision. He looked off to the left, following the source of the odd sound, and what he saw surprised him greatly. Uttering a long string of rattling speech to themself, a claydol pitched and wobbled there as they tried to stabilize themself in midair.

“…Oth?” Solonn said, barely able to believe his eyes.

The claydol finally managed to right themself; once they did, they turned to face Solonn. <Oh, hello, Solonn,> they said, confirming his guess. <I am glad to have found you so quickly; I doubt I could have tracked you down any more successfully than I had done the times before. My apologies for my rather… awkward arrival,> Oth added.

“No harm done,” Solonn assured them. “…The times before?” he then echoed as the words registered with a delay.

Oth gave one of their pseudo-nods. <I have returned to this cavern many times since our parting. However, you were not in this vicinity on any of those occasions, and I regrettably had to terminate my search each of those times before I could find you… It shames me somewhat to admit this, but I did so because I could not tolerate the cold of these caverns for very long.>

“There’s no need to apologize for that; it’s not something you can help, after all. Anyway, since I’m here, I can try to keep you warm,” Solonn said.

<There is no need for you to try,> Oth said. <You are actually doing quite a good job of keeping the effects of this environment upon me at bay even as we speak.>

Solonn was momentarily surprised, but quickly realized that he’d probably employed this type of subconscious elemental control many times in the past. But even knowing that he didn’t have to make an effort to protect the claydol, he suspected he’d still feel compelled sometimes to make certain Oth was adequately guarded against their surroundings.

“So, then. How have you been?” Solonn asked amiably. “And what about the others?”

<We have fared well, relatively speaking,> Oth replied, <though largely, we have done so apart.>

“Oh?” Solonn frowned slightly, wondering what might have separated them. “What happened?”

<Ultimately, we all simply had our own paths to take,> Oth said. <Many of those in Lilycove wished to return to where they had lived prior to being acquired by humans, and Brett was among them. Aaron met another of his kind and chose to go with her to her home in the southwest. Only Raze chose to stay in Lilycove—I doubt she could ever bear to leave that place,> they said, their voice lowering on that statement.

Understanding shone through Solonn’s eyes at this; Lilycove was surely a place of tremendous sentimental importance to the skarmory. She’d been born there, after all, and she’d forged countless memories with the human she’d grown up with there. That city and those memories might be all she had left to hold on to of Morgan and the past.

<Brett, Aaron and Raze have all dedicated themselves to founding and raising families since you and I last spoke,> Oth went on. <Aaron and his mate Rhasth have had a young son together, Brett and Fiela have had two litters, and Raze and Eisen are awaiting the hatching of their first clutch of eggs.>

The thought of his old friends with children was one at which Solonn couldn’t help but chuckle. He was glad to know some kind of joy had befallen them since the sorrow that had hung over his last moments with them.

<As for Sei and I,> Oth said, <we were part of a team that served the effort to help people rebuild their lives after the day the humans died out. We freed those trapped in capture and storage devices, relocated those who needed it, helped those who did not know how to live without humans to fend for themselves capably and peacefully, and did what we could to dispel the chaos wherever they failed.

<Our work continued for quite some time after the human tragedy,> they went on. <It was not only our part of the world that was affected, but every part. Even to the best of our hopes and efforts to find otherwise… the unfortunate truth is that nothing remains of the human species. Nothing at all.>

There was a prolonged, heavy silence in the wake of those words. Solonn was almost at a loss for thought—he, like many, had feared that the human tragedy might have been global in its scope, but to actually hear it aloud, confirmed… “Did you or anyone else ever find out what really happened to them?” he managed at length. “Do you know what caused it?”

<Sadly, no,> Oth replied. <Though many have tried, none have succeeded in determining the origin of the Extinction.>

Another somber pause hung over the two before Oth resumed their account of what they, Sei, and the rest of those they’d worked with had done over the past few years. <Eventually, as things began to stabilize in much of the world, most of us finally went back to our own lives, but Sei… She is still out there, doing anything and everything she can for anyone who appears to have need of her. I think she may never consider her work to be done.>

“Hmm,” was all Solonn could say to that, nodding. Knowing Sei as he did, he wasn’t surprised. “And what have you been up to since your work was finished?”

<Not much. In addition to trying to contact you, I have been checking in on the others from time to time, making sure they were doing well and usually staying with them for a short time before moving on. Other than that… largely, I have simply roamed during these years. I have no single place to stay now, really…>

Oth fell silent, and a strange, faraway look entered their many eyes. The claydol seemed to have arrived at a difficult subject, and Solonn felt sorry for anything he might have said to lead them there, averting his gaze self-consciously. Oth seemed to recognize the awkwardness that had fallen over the situation and moved to remedy it at once. <So, what has been going on in your life?> they asked, changing the subject.

“Well, truth be told, I haven’t really been up to anything interesting,” Solonn admitted lightheartedly. “And I haven’t got any kids of my own… but my mother found a new mate, and they’ve had a son together.”

<Oh? How fortunate for them!> Oth said.

Solonn smiled. “Indeed. And also… you might find this hard to believe, but… my father returned.”

All of the claydol’s eyes blinked in unison. <Your father?> they said incredulously. <I did not know that he still lived!>

“Neither did I, for a while,” Solonn said. “But he is indeed very much alive. As a matter of fact, I was on my way to visit him when you arrived.”

A series of peculiar little clicking sounds issued from the claydol, a sound Solonn had long known to be their form of laughter. <Well, I am certainly glad to learn that he is alive and well,> Oth said warmly. <I wonder…> they then added, <do you suppose I could accompany you? I am rather interested in meeting your family, and now that I have a chance to spend some time with you after so long, I am… not exactly eager to bid you farewell anytime soon…> There was something in their tone that suggested a bit of embarrassment on their part, as if they were worried they might be imposing themself on Solonn.

But Solonn had no problem whatsoever with letting Oth tag along. He was equally interested in prolonging their reunion, and he didn’t want to leave Oth behind with no other option in the cold caverns but to go back where they’d come from. “Sure, of course you may,” he said.

<Thank you,> Oth said gratefully.

“No problem,” Solonn responded as he set off once again, with the claydol following close behind. “Now, hopefully you won’t be too shocked when you see him…”

<Why would I be?> Oth asked.

“Well, you see…”

Chapter Text

Side by side, Azvida and Jeneth entered the temple. They closed off the entrance behind them, then descended into the sacred chamber, moving silently through a small crowd as they sought a nice place to sit.

Those who were already gathered there barely noticed their arrival. People visited the temple as they pleased or needed; it was hard to find a time when there wasn’t someone coming or going through that entrance. And most of the glalie there were too engrossed in their meditations to notice much else anyway.

The couple soon found an empty spot near the front of the chamber and gladly sat down there. Before them, three tall, tapering ice spires rose from the floor in a triangular formation. Their purpose was to focus prayers unto the heavens and channel divine energy into the worshipers. A solid, triple-diamond pattern was etched into a flattened facet on the front of each of the spires.

Azvida and Jeneth looked at them for a moment, then exchanged optimistic smiles before closing their eyes, doing nothing more for a while other than dwelling on the sacredness of this place. They silently offered reverence and praise unto the gods, then sent their gratitude for their prior blessings and appealed to them for more, dearly hoping their prayers for another child would be answered at last.

At the opposite end of the temple, the barrier vanished and reappeared once again, this time admitting a somewhat larger group of new arrivals than usual. The people in the temple paid them no more mind than they’d paid the couple who’d come in just minutes ago. The newly arrived glalie moved into the crowd, one of them making it up front to the altar, taking his place next to Azvida and Jeneth. Soon, all of them were situated, melding seamlessly into the tranquility of the scene as if they’d always been there.

Then that tranquility met an abrupt end.

There was a sound like an enormous peal of thunder: the signature of several nhaza released in unison. The worshipers were snapped violently out of their reveries, and their cries of shock and terror joined the echoes of the blasts when they saw the insensible bodies on the floor. They realized just as quickly that their nightmare had only just begun.

The first thing Azvida saw as she cast a panicked glance about was Jeneth lying motionless by her side, seemingly unconscious. The next thing she saw, in nearly the same instant, was a gray-and-white blur smashing into him from out of nowhere. She reeled backward automatically with a wordless cry of surprise as the glalie hurtled past her, driving Jeneth along with them. There was a sickening crunch as they met the wall, and her eyes darted toward the sound.

Whoever had just attacked her mate was nowhere in sight, but there was Jeneth, propped against the wall at an awkward angle. Oblivious to the crushing blow he’d just been dealt, he wore a peaceful expression. It contrasted harshly with the rapidly spreading pool of nearly colorless, evanescing blood that surrounded him.

Azvida gave a strangled wail as she rushed toward him, desperate to find some sign of life within him. Before she could reach him, his attacker swung back around, turning on her this time. She caught sight of the charging glalie in the corner of her eye, raised a protect aura, and dodged out of the way a split-second before he could strike, veering wildly toward the center of the chamber—but not into safety.

In an instant, Azvida was surrounded by chaos. All around her, jaws snapped, horns slashed and stabbed, and bodies collided with brutal force. The sounds of shattering armor and attempted nhaza filled the air along with furious hisses and cries of fear and agony.

Azvida regained her bearings and looked back toward Jeneth, her heart catching sickeningly in her throat—she was sure he was gone now. He wasn’t alone, either; several others had been smashed against walls, gored, or both. A powerful wave of sorrow and confusion welled up within her, and she couldn’t help averting her eyes from the carnage. In all her time in Virc-Dho, she’d never seen such violence among her people, and she couldn’t even begin to imagine why it was happening now. All that she was sure of was that it shouldn’t be. This once sacred place had become a killing field, desecrated with the blood of innocents, and more were still in great danger, herself included.

She was struck the moment her shield fell; she shrieked in pain as something gouged a burning path across her back, smashing through the sparse armor there. A response came from some long-dormant corner of her memory: she abruptly turned toward her assailant in a violent, wrenching motion, her left horn raking across his eyes. He screamed, only to be silenced when Azvida rammed into him, knocking the breath out of him and shoving him away.

Her eyes swept the chamber, anticipating another attack at any moment, from any direction. In doing so, she saw just how one-sided the battle was. There were clear aggressors, glalie who attacked ruthlessly and relentlessly with great skill. Most of the rest, while earnestly fighting back the best they could, were just painfully outclassed by the other side. Others, having realized they were no real match for the enemy, didn’t fight at all; they just tried to keep their protect shields up and avoid the onslaught.

The fact of the matter was that most of them had nothing in the way of battle experience beyond friendly matches, and there was a significant difference between merely sparring and actually fighting for one’s life. Meanwhile Azvida knew the face of mortal combat all too well. She’d hoped she’d never have to fight that way again, but when their enemy desired nothing less than to slaughter them, she had little choice.

With no further hesitation, she charged into the fray. Wherever she saw someone being overpowered by one of the aggressors, she aided them against the enemy; wherever she saw someone cornered or otherwise helpless against an oncoming threat, she rushed in to intercept the attacker. Knowing that nhaza were unreliable in such a chaotic situation, especially against such skilled opponents, she instead relied solely on physical attacks, her skull bashing into the enemies like a battering ram, her horns seeking the vulnerable eyes and the gaps in the armor of her targets.

Her enemies left gashes and punctures all over her hide whenever her protect aura failed, but she paid no mind to her own pain. Instead she focused on restoring her armor wherever it took damage, glazing over her wounds with ice, and defending her fellow people as well as she could.

But the fact remained that the enemies were all just as skilled as she was, if not moreso. She couldn’t truly defend against them on her own; despite her best efforts, her people were still falling.

Still, she refused to just give up and let them be massacred. She hurtled toward an enemy glalie who was bearing down on a vulnerable, wounded person lying near the altar—only to pass right through the attacker. She cursed aloud—that was the most convincing double team illusion she’d ever seen.

She immediately sought its source, anticipating an ambush—but to her surprise, that ambush came from the “helpless” glalie she’d moved to save, who grinned wickedly as she instantly rose and headbutted Azvida. In nearly the same instant, the glalie responsible for the illusion struck Azvida from the other side. Azvida crashed painfully into one of the altar’s spires; she barely managed to get out of the way before a large chunk of it broke off and fell to the floor.

As she hurried away from the broken altar, shoving her way through the crowd, she saw that a couple of glalie had slipped away from the fight and made their way to the exit. She felt a small surge of hope at the sight, hope that those people might escape with their lives—and better still, they might bring back reinforcements.

But that hope was quickly dashed as moments went by with the barrier remaining stubbornly in place. Desperately, the glalie gathered there tried to simply bash through the wall of ice, but to no avail. As if it were alive, it automatically repaired any damage dealt to it.

“It won’t open!” one of the glalie at the exit shouted. “Why won’t it open?”

An answer came to Azvida right away, and her heart sank. The enemies were exercising control over the barrier. They now outnumbered the defenders, and so their power to keep it closed was too strong for the survivors to overcome, even as a whole.

If more glalie arrived at the other side of the barrier, they might be able to overpower the attackers and enter the temple. If the Security Guild’s lair weren’t located on the other side of the warren, such help would have surely come by now. They could still be summoned if anyone came close enough to the temple to hear the commotion inside, but as far as she could tell, no one had.

And then she got an idea. One of the skills the humans had taught her could draw that badly needed attention—the entire warren might notice it, in fact. It had seemed too impractical to use in combat, pushed to the back of her mind in favor of techniques with less risk of collateral damage. Its potential beyond simple offense hadn’t occurred to her; she inwardly cursed herself for not thinking of this course of action sooner.

There was no guarantee that it would work. Maybe no one would arrive in time; maybe not enough would. Maybe the wrong people would arrive first, though that might happen anyway. Perhaps, the terrible thought occurred to her, similar or even greater violence had erupted elsewhere in the warren, too. In that case, the aid needed in the temple might be wrapped up in trouble elsewhere. But Azvida had to give it a try. It might be the only hope left for those trapped with her—or, at least, for those who’d brought this misery upon them to get what they deserved for it.

With no further delay, she brought up a protect shield so that no one and nothing could disrupt what she was about to do—and just in time, as the two glalie who’d tricked her came back around for another strike then, accompanied by a third this time.

“Everyone!” she shouted as loudly as her partially-spent strength would allow, unfazed as each of the three assailants’ attacks hit her shield in unison. She knew her next actions could hurt the innocents just as badly as it could hurt the other side. Her people needed fair warning. “Protect or get as high off the ground as you can now!”

Deep blue light blossomed around nearly every living person in the temple, while others pushed their levitation to the limit, rising as high off of the floor as their heavy bodies could manage. The enemies naturally did likewise, and their attention was now directed squarely and entirely toward Azvida. They knew she was up to something and weren’t interested in letting her pull it off. In a single moment, the enemies amassed and moved toward her in unison.

But just before they could reach her, she surged up into the air, well above her normal hovering height. She came crashing back down just as quickly and released a powerful discharge of ground-type energy into the floor beneath her, sending shockwaves out from the impact site. The ice glazing the walls, floor, and ceiling filled with fissures and then exploded in a burst of frozen shrapnel; what remained of the altar came crashing down; and the barrier shattered, only to return in virtually the same instant. Her shield fell a split-second after the earthquake, and as the attackers fell upon her, she could only hope her call for help would be answered in time.

 

* * *

 

Deep, rattling echoes filled the surrounding chamber: the sonic companion to Oth’s account of their ultra rank contest experience. Grosh occasionally interrupted with questions or comments, but Solonn, having heard the story several times before, kept contentedly silent as he sat there with his friend and his father.

As the claydol was nearing the end, something strange distracted Solonn: a quick and rather small tremor that rippled through the stone floor beneath him. He wondered if it might have been a small earthquake, something he’d never experienced before.

“Did anyone else feel that?” he asked, turning his gaze toward the others. When it fell upon Grosh, Solonn found the steelix wearing a distinctly troubled expression, and his own changed to match it at once.

<I did not feel anything… What is the matter?> Oth asked as they noticed the others’ worried looks.

“There was an earthquake a moment ago,” Solonn answered, “albeit a small one.”

<Oh… Are earthquakes uncommon in this area?>

“As long as I’ve known this place, yes, they are.” Grosh said. There was tension in his tone and the set of his jaw. He looked down at Solonn. “I think that came from the warren—and I think it was your mother’s doing,” he told him quietly, at which his son’s eyes widened in surprise. “And I don’t imagine she’d have used that unless she was in major trouble.”

“Oh dear gods…” Solonn said almost breathlessly as he rose from the floor, instantly and immensely concerned for not only Azvida but Jeneth, as well—the latter was surely still with her. He heard an untranslated noise from the claydol to his right, a possible echo of their sentiments. A number of the dangerous scenarios that Azvida and Jeneth could be facing raced through his mind in rapid sequence, quickening his pulse and making fear settle heavily in the pit of his stomach.

“She’s a good fighter,” Grosh went on, “and I’m sure she can hold her own in a lot of situations, but if she’s found it necessary to resort to that…” He shook his head. “She might be overwhelmed,” he worried aloud, and his eyes darted fretfully toward the mouth of his cavern and the shaft leading up out of it. “We’ve got to try and reach her,” he decided firmly. “We don’t know what’s going on, how much time she has… I can’t stand the thought of not being there for her if she’s in need…”

“Oth can close most of the distance between here and the warren,” Solonn said, trying to think as fast as he could. “They can get us to the border-cavern at the very least—and if they can do what I think they can, they can get us where we probably need to go.” Some psychics, like Sei, could extract memories of destinations from others’ minds and thereby teleport to places they’d never personally been. But Oth wasn’t as powerful as Sei; there was a chance they couldn’t do such a thing.

Solonn hoped dearly that they could. Grosh was right—there was no telling how much time Azvida and Jeneth had. Every second counted, and being able to warp instantly to their aid could make all the difference in how they fared.

<I can,> Oth said, correctly interpreting Solonn’s statement. <If you will allow me to form a temporary link with your mind, I can take you to any place you can recall.>

Solonn was ordinarily somewhat averse to letting others into his mind, even friends. But such reservations couldn’t have been further from his mind at the present. “Please do,” he consented readily.

Oth brought themself directly before him. All but the foremost of their eyes closed as the claydol focused their power through it. There was no visible beam this time, but Solonn could still feel the distinct sensation of a foreign presence entering his mind.

At the same time, he felt an equally foreign mindscape open up on the outskirts of his perception—Oth was forming a two-way connection, a true link. Solonn hoped he wouldn’t accidentally pick up on any of the claydol’s thoughts, but those concerns kept to the back of his mind.

To his immense gratitude, Oth was finished in no time. <Just think of where you wish to go, and I will transport us there instantly,> Oth told him.

“There’s just one problem,” Grosh pointed out, his frown deepening further. “We don’t know where she is, exactly. We could lose precious time trying to find her.”

“I think I know where she is,” Solonn said. She and Jeneth were probably still at the temple… either that, or they were on their way home. He didn’t think they’d be en route to the snowgrounds just yet, let alone would they have arrived there—he hoped to all gods that they hadn’t, at least. The thought of any children—and especially Jen—being involved in whatever had befallen Azvida and Jeneth only worsened the chilling, sickening fear roiling inside him. “She’s probably at the temple with Jeneth, but if she’s not… well, I think I know where else they might be. We’re just going to have to move as quickly as possible,” Solonn said, trying with little success not to think about what might happen if they didn’t get to them in time. “If we don’t find them in the temple, we’ll move on immediately.”

The others gave quick nods of agreement, and with that, Solonn focused as sharply as he could on visualizing the temple, hoping the swarm of other thoughts and worries in his mind wouldn’t get in Oth’s way.

Luckily, Oth got the message with no trouble at all. <Draw as close to me as you can,> they advised Grosh. The steelix did so at once, coiling loosely around Solonn and Oth. A teleportation field promptly formed around the three, removing them from Grosh’s home.

In virtually the same instant, they rematerialized in the temple, and they gasped and cried out in shock at once. The battle within was still raging despite how many people had already fallen. It was a far more brutal scene than any of the three who’d just arrived had expected.

Their entrance didn’t go unnoticed; several pairs of eyes immediately shifted toward the sudden flash of golden light at the exit, and those eyes widened enormously at what they found there.

A fearful voice cut through the din. “The steel beast is here!” the voice shouted, announcing the arrival of the steelix who’d just appeared on the scene. “Retreat, retreat!”

At his call, a number of the glalie broke away from the fight and surged toward the exit as one, many of them summoning shields around themselves as they did so. The barrier promptly vanished for the small swarm of glalie as they fled the temple as fast as they could. The three newly arrived pokémon they rushed past were still in too much shock at what they’d found to realize why they should intercept them.

Following the departure of those glalie, the scene instantly changed. The fighting had ceased; most of those who were left in the temple were lying on the floor, unconscious or worse, while the few who remained awake hovered warily in place, their darting, fearful glances telling that they didn’t dare believe that the violence had subsided.

Solonn looked upon the scene laid out before him, almost paralyzed with horror and disbelief—he’d never beheld such carnage in his life. With an immense effort, he forced himself forward, shuddering hard as he and the others proceeded into the main chamber of the ruined temple, trying not to faint. A thin, pale, silvery mist hung low in the air, vapors from the blood of the fallen; his stomach lurched hard at the thought that he was actually breathing it.

He spotted a small cluster of relatively unharmed-looking glalie huddling together and moving away from him and the strange, foreign creatures who accompanied him. They froze in place when they realized that the three had spotted them. Solonn noticed at once that Azvida and Jeneth weren’t among them, as did the others; Grosh broke away and immediately began searching the chamber on his own, a couple of his spiked segments rotating fretfully all the while.

Solonn stopped advancing, hoping to seem less threatening to the fearful survivors. But he kept his gaze locked onto them, the troubled question plain in his eyes even before he spoke it aloud.

“Where are they?” he asked, his throat dry and constricted with fear. “Where are Azvida Zgil-Al and Jeneth Avasi-Ra; do you know?” He could only hope one of them knew who they were and could recognize them.

One of the survivors nodded almost imperceptibly. Her eyes shifted to her right—just as a bloodcurdling howl sounded from that very direction.

Solonn’s heart seized at the sound, and he rushed toward it right away—only to be caught short by familiar, yellow light. When it vanished, he and Oth were both directly beside Grosh. And there before them…

Azvida lay face-up, trembling uncontrollably and staring sightlessly into space through fluttering, ruined eyes. It was hard to tell just how badly she was suffering, but the fact that she was hurting was all too clear. Her breathing was ragged, horribly labored. Her armor was deformed, hastily shifted to patch over her many wounds. She must have lost the strength to do so at some point; some of them were still exposed, still bleeding into the already considerable pool that surrounded her. Solonn mindfully took over for her, a wordless, strangled sound of horror escaping him as he glazed over the open wounds as quickly as he could.

“Mother…” he all but whispered, his voice catching in his throat. “Dear gods, what… what have they done to you?”

Azvida stirred slightly where she lay, trying but failing to turn toward his voice. “…Solonn?” she managed in a brittle, almost breathless tone, all too clearly struggling to speak. “Are you… here?”

“Yes,” he answered. “I’m here… and so is Father.”

Something of a sad, wistful gratitude managed to show through Azvida’s marred features at that. “Thank you…” She gave a frail, shuddering sigh. “Wish I… could see you…”

The failing light in her eyes flickered erratically as she unknowingly met her son’s gaze. A wrenching pang seized his heart at the almost colorless rivulets of blood that flowed from the wounds closest to her eyes… it looked to as though she were crying, shedding impossible tears.

“Who did this to you?” Grosh asked, anguish and fury plain in his voice. “I won’t let them get away with it, I swear…”

“Don’t know,” Azvida responded very weakly. “There were… so many…”

“Mother… where is Jeneth?” Solonn asked hoarsely. “Is he… ?” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence.

Azvida couldn’t bring herself to answer, at least not in words. Her face contorted, and a frail sob escaped her.

Solonn’s heart sank even further, and he drew in his next breath as a shuddering, pained hiss. “Oh… oh gods…” he said near-voicelessly, and started to tremble. The ice that had fallen from the walls and ceiling surged back up to surround the four of them, jagged projections bursting out of it and starting to twist and writhe at Solonn’s unconscious command. It was hard enough to accept that Jeneth was gone. The anguish on his mother’s face only made it hurt all the more.

He didn’t want that bereavement to be one of the last things she ever knew—and he had no intentions of letting it. Her potential salvation hovered right at his side.

“Oth,” Solonn spoke up. The claydol made a faint, acknowledging noise. “I know a place where they might be able to save her,” Solonn told them, and he conjured up thoughts and images of the Haven. He could only hope someone still worked there, that the local pokémon hadn’t decided to abandon the old Convergence lifestyle after the Extinction.

Seconds passed, but the scenery didn’t change. Solonn feared that Oth might have failed to receive the images, and so he tried to focus harder on the Haven. It was far easier said than done with such a terrible scene surrounding him, with one loved one already lost and another bleeding before him.

He noticed that Oth had circled around Azvida to hover at her opposite side, and at that very instant, he saw a pale red beam project silently from the claydol’s foremost eye and strike his mother, seemingly to no effect.

“What are you doing?” he demanded urgently. “We have to get her to the hospital right away!”

Oth didn’t answer. They wordlessly widened their red beam and swept it over the wounded glalie before them, passing it over her twice. The beam then vanished, and Oth gave a long, low, almost toneless rattling, a sigh without breath.

<I am so sorry,> the claydol said somberly.

“What is it?” Solonn asked, dreading the answer.

There was the slightest pause as Oth struggled to answer. <I am afraid that in her current state, she would not survive rematerialization,> they said regretfully. <She cannot be teleported.> Their head lowered, their many eyes closing in earnest guilt. <I am so sorry…> they said again.

None of the three gathered at Azvida’s side wanted to believe what was happening, but with that, the finality of the matter was undeniable no matter how dearly and desperately they wished otherwise. Solonn looked upon his mother with a profound apology in his eyes, hating the hopelessness of the situation.

“I just wish I could do something about this,” he lamented quietly, “anything at all…”

Azvida drew the deepest breath she could manage, letting it out on a soft, hoarse note. Her jaws parted and she tried to speak, but a powerful tremor wracked her broken body, stealing her breath before she could give it words. When it subsided, the lines of her face tightened briefly and a small, pained sound escaped her, almost a whimper.

“Just…” she finally resumed with immense difficulty, her words more exhaled than truly spoken. “Please… just stay safe.”

“We will,” Solonn assured her, swallowing against a fresh surge of anguish. “We promise we will. Don’t worry.”

Her only acknowledgment was the slightest nod and something whispered that came short of words. She gave another great shudder, one that seemed unwilling to relent… but then she finally fell still. The light in her eyes faded out, and her life went with it.

For one last, precious ghost of a moment, she still lived in the minds of her observers. Then the truth fell upon them all, and deep inside, Solonn felt something seem to tear itself wide open. The bereavement already aching badly within him swelled until it finally tore its way out through his throat in a long, raw, piercing cry, joining the anguished roaring and somber lowing of those at his sides. The surrounding ice shattered, crumbling from the walls and ceiling in tiny pieces that fell like frozen rain.

Moments passed, unmarked and uncounted. Solonn shook as he huddled against the grieving steelix, his eyes closed, ragged breaths hissing through his teeth. He was trying, however unsuccessfully, to comfort both his father and himself. He felt something slightly rough-textured alight upon his back and jolted slightly at the contact, but then realized it was only Oth’s hand. Opening his eyes, he turned and saw that they’d laid their other hand upon Grosh, embracing both him and Solonn insofar as they could.

<I should inspect the others who have fallen,> the claydol finally spoke up, their mindvoice subdued. <Some of them may require medical attention… if I can transport them, I will do so.>

Solonn only nodded in agreement, unable to reach words. As the rest of the temple slowly returned to his senses, he could hear the lamentations of other glalie, survivors facing loss or impending loss of their own. He hoped dearly that as few of them as possible would experience what he’d just gone through.

Oth parted from the group and started moving toward one of the other fallen glalie, but then stopped. <Someone is here…>

There was a very loud, resounding crack. Without even so much as a chance to wonder what could have possibly hit them, the claydol fell to the floor—and in the same instant, Grosh did likewise, his head dropping heavily to the ground and very nearly landing on his son.

Solonn cried out in shock and immediately looked to his father and his friend in turn, staring agape in disbelief at their sudden fall, fearing for their lives. Thankfully, Grosh was still alive; Solonn could see his breaths making glowing clouds of warmth in the surrounding cold. Meanwhile Oth wasn’t breathing… but then again, Solonn remembered, they never did. Their rather low but nonetheless present body heat confirmed that they’d survived. The nhaza that had struck them had been restrained, diluted into sheer cold attacks.

The moment he was sure they were both still alive, Solonn sought whomever had struck them down, suddenly awash in adrenaline and ready to fight back in case the attack on the temple had resumed. He swiftly found nine glalie at the entrance, newly arrived and trying but failing to conceal their horror at the scene before them.

“Please remain calm,” one of them addressed the survivors, trying to sound comforting and commanding despite the tremor she couldn’t quite keep out of her voice. “No further harm will come to you. You’ll all need to come with us before the Council of Authority for questioning and further aid and instructions.”

Any retaliation Solonn might have had in store for the new arrivals faltered when he realized what was going on: they were of the Security Guild, and they’d undoubtedly come to investigate the commotion here. With horror, he also realized why they’d knocked Grosh and Oth out, what they must have thought upon finding such strange creatures at a scene of carnage and destruction…

“No, you’ve got it all wrong!” he croaked out. “These two had nothing to do with this!”

The guild members regarded him with doubt, and then most of them looked to the one who’d spoken before. “Secure them and get ready to move them out,” their spokeswoman and apparent leader instructed her squad, nodding toward the six glalie gathered at her right. They nodded back in acknowledgment and moved in silent unison toward where Grosh and Oth lay.

“Leave them alone!” Solonn shouted, intercepting the approaching guild members. “What in the gods’ names is wrong with you? I told you, they didn’t do this!”

The approaching glalie didn’t respond, gliding around him and splitting into two groups to surround Grosh and Oth separately. Unable to watch idly as they set upon his father and friend, Solonn brought a piercing, white blaze to his eyes. Hissing furiously, he set off a nhaza in their midst, a warning shot.

No sooner had it gone off than another one just like it followed—but it wasn’t his doing. He shouted in surprise as it went off so close to him that he could feel the shockwave of its birth explode against his back. He turned in an instant to face its source and saw the guild leader there, holding a hard stare upon him.

“Sir, I’m going to ask you not to interfere, and I’m not going to ask you again,” she warned Solonn tensely, her tone telling that she wasn’t bluffing. “You’ll have a chance to speak with the council later, and they can determine the validity of your claims, but first we’re required to subdue all potential threats. If you wish to present yourself as a potential threat, then I’m afraid we will have to respond accordingly.”

Solonn only stared at her in silent, pained outrage for a moment, unable to believe his ears. Whatever was or wasn’t required of the guild personnel, he was sure they held a particular mistrust for unfamiliar species. That in turn surely made it all the easier and more convenient for them to believe that Grosh and Oth had been responsible for this tragedy.

With a tremendous effort, Solonn managed to suppress an urge to knock out the leader in one blast, just aware enough that the rest of her squad would just give him the same treatment if he tried. “Listen,” he pleaded with her. “There are people here who might need help, and you just attacked the only person who can give it to them. You’ve got to give them a chance!”

The guild leader held his gaze, her brow knitting, a frown he couldn’t quite interpret forming on her face. She remained silent for a moment’s deliberation. “I’m sorry,” she finally said, “but letting them awaken isn’t a risk we can take right now.”

“There’s no risk! They didn’t do this!” Solonn cast a hopeful, pleading glance around him at the survivors of the attack, who’d witnessed what had truly happened and could back up his claims… and the conflict on their faces couldn’t have been plainer. Come on, he urged them, tell them!

For a fleeting moment, a couple of them considered coming forward, their brows drawn together as they debated their next actions… but to Solonn’s dismay, none of them spoke up.

“Come on,” the guild leader said quietly. “The council needs to speak with you.”

The survivors slowly made for the exit, some moving more hesitantly than others and throwing glances back at people left lying behind, and then waited there to be led away. With bitter disappointment, feeling defeated for the time being and despising that notion very deeply, Solonn turned away from them to give the guild leader a smoldering, reproachful glare. His attention then shifted toward the rest of the squad as they proceeded to apprehend Grosh and Oth. He wanted to make damn sure they did no further harm to either of them.

They pushed Oth up onto the head of one of the guild members; she held the claydol there between her horns. Another of them lifted Oth’s detached hands up on a pillar of ice, then deposited them on top of his head; he’d correctly guessed that the hands could function while detached and incorrectly assumed that they could do so while Oth was unconscious.

The other four positioned themselves around Grosh, two to each side of his neck, behind his massive head. The six guild members then secured the prisoners (and detached parts thereof) to their bodies with ice, restored the shattered floor beneath them into a smooth surface, and began moving toward the exit. Solonn worked very mindfully to protect Oth and Grosh from the coldness of their captors’ bodies as the guild members carried them along.

“All right then,” their leader said, turning toward the survivors at the exit. “Everyone line up behind me and follow me out in an orderly fashion.”

The survivors did as they were told, and grudgingly, miserably, Solonn did likewise. As he followed them into the corridor beyond, he cast one last look back at the ruined temple, the place where Azvida, Jeneth, and gods only knew how many others had lost their lives. He stared off in that direction until the guild members carrying Grosh and Oth reached the exit, blocking his view behind and forcing him to move on. His heart ached at the thought that innocent people were being punished for those deaths—neither Jeneth nor Azvida would have wanted this, and he doubted the other victims would have wanted the blame to fall upon the wrong people, either.

The only hope left for things to be set right, or as right as they could be after something so terrible had happened, was if the council could be convinced that Grosh and Oth were innocent. Silently, Solonn prayed for the truth to prevail.

Chapter Text

The council chamber was vast. The floor was raised slightly in a strip against the far wall, forming a platform just large enough to accommodate the members of the council. The council, however, was not there. The witnesses brought from the temple, a very small, shaken crowd of fearful, mournful faces, had been waiting for them for countless minutes. The only new arrivals since Solonn had entered the chamber were a couple of glalie who’d still been unconscious when the rest of the squad had left the temple, accompanied by the guild members who’d stayed behind with them.

Meanwhile some part of Solonn still hadn’t returned, lingering in that temple with the rising vapors and the ruined lives. With them. Another part was busy wondering where the guild had taken Grosh and Oth. He’d asked when the guild had split up, with the glalie carrying the prisoners continuing onward past the council chamber. All he’d gotten for an answer was “somewhere secure”, leaving him to fret helplessly for them and hope there was at least someone there guarding them and keeping them from freezing.

The rest of his thoughts and worries went toward his half-brother, still back at the snowgrounds and probably wondering when his parents would show up—not knowing that they never would. Oh gods… Solonn was sure that he’d be the one who’d have to tell Jen what had happened. He could already picture how the snorunt would react, and the image worsened the cold, sick feeling inside him.

So did the fact that the snowgrounds might have suffered an attack, as well—that he might not have to break the news to Jen after all, and for the most terrible reason.

He had to get out of there. He had to know how his loved ones were doing. He looked to the platform, wishing the council would show up and start this meeting so it could end.

Several more minutes passed before they finally made their appearance. The wall on the right side of the platform opened, and out came the Security Guild leader. She descended from the platform and took her position in front of it, off to the side, facing the small crowd.

“The honorable Council of Authority now arrives,” she announced. “Please bow as they make their entrance.” In less-than-perfect unison, the gathered witnesses lowered their faces. A moment later, “Now please give your attention to the lahain Hagen Ar-Vhannen,” she instructed them.

At the cue, Solonn lifted his gaze. The platform before him was now occupied by the most powerful figures in Virc society. The Council of Authority numbered five: two men and three women. Their pale eyes showed considerable age, as well as confusion, sorrow, unease, and fear. Whether or not the minds behind those eyes had been immovably convinced that Grosh and Oth were guilty remained unclear.

The council member in the middle of the row ascended and moved forward slightly before sitting down again. His eyes swept the crowd slowly, and he inhaled deeply before speaking.

“These are most regrettable circumstances that bring us together today,” the lahain began heavily. “This day has destroyed the sanctity of our holy temple and robbed good, honest Virc of their lives. The temple is forever desecrated by the atrocities committed there, and nothing can bring back those who were lost. All we can do is to ensure that those responsible are given their due punishment to protect our people from any such threat in the future.

“Our Security Guild has brought to us two… individuals… whom they found at the scene and whom they suspect to be responsible for the murders in the temple. However… they also tell us that one among you has proclaimed these two to be innocent.” Here Hagen allowed a pointed gaze to fall upon a face in the crowd that was considerably larger than those around it, and he held it there. “What can you offer us to support your claim?”

Solonn swallowed hard, sending out yet another quick, silent prayer for the council to see the truth in his words. Some tiny voice inside warned of the danger in what he was about to say, but he didn’t care. His loved ones were more than worth the risk.

“I know them, Lahain,” he said. His voice was hoarse and pained. “Neither of them would ever do such horrible things. And besides which, they weren’t even there when it all started. They were with me. We noticed the tremor and went to the temple right away… and when we entered, the fighting stopped.

“We were there to help,” he emphasized. “And their help may still be needed. Please, Lahain… you have to let them go. Some of the people back in the temple might be badly hurt; they’ll need to go somewhere far away for the help they need, and you’re imprisoning the only one who can get them there fast enough.”

Hagen sighed. “I’m afraid that all those left in the temple are beyond salvation,” he said quietly. “The Security Guild reported that all those whom they were unable to wake had perished.” At these words, the somber air that hung over the space grew even heavier, drawing mournful sounds from many of those gathered in the chamber. Sickened dismay dampened Solonn’s already dim eyelight further; had Oth been allowed to attend to those last victims, at least some of them might have had a chance.

“As for your claims regarding the two prisoners,” Hagen continued, “can anyone else here back up your testimony?” He lifted his gaze from Solonn and let it encompass the entire crowd. “Is there anyone else among you who claims those two did no harm to the temple and those therein?” he asked them.

There was a moment of silence that felt terribly long. Solonn expected a repeat of the situation in the temple, with no one would speaking up to support him.

But then, to his grateful surprise, “Yes, Lahain,” said one of the other witnesses. “He’s right. We’d already been fighting for a while before they came. They appeared in the temple—just appeared—and when the other side saw them, they bolted.”

“Other side…” Hagen mused aloud. He cast perplexed glances at the other council members, but they didn’t seem to know what to make of the matter, either. “Well then, if it wasn’t the two strange creatures who attacked the temple, then who was it?” he asked.

“As far as I could tell, it was just some other glalie,” Solonn answered.

The reaction to that statement wasn’t what Solonn had expected: a couple of the council members gave scandalized gasps, and the lahain himself looked greatly appalled.

“How could you even suggest such a thing?” Hagen hissed, the light in his eyes blazing. “Virc must not and do not take the lives of other Virc!”

“…It’s true,” another of the survivors dared to insist despite the vehemence of Hagen’s objection. “They just came in, and they hit us with no warning… just like that, everything went to hell.” He shook his head. “There were… no idea how many. Don’t know who they were, either. But they were definitely glalie.”

“Now do you see?” Solonn asked of the council; it came out sounding more like a challenge than he’d quite intended. “The ones you’ve imprisoned are not to blame. You’ve got to let them go!”

The lahain only glared at Solonn and the other witnesses. There was clearly something at work behind those ancient eyes, perhaps considering the witnesses’ claims or perhaps just seething in offense at the notion of Virc showing the same cruelty and disregard for life that members of any other society could. Solonn strongly suspected the latter.

Hagen drew a deep breath with a distinctly disapproving, hissing edge that he either failed or didn’t bother to suppress, and he began to speak. But before he could say more than a single syllable, the entrance to the council chamber opened, and an unfamiliar face peeked in tentatively, clearly aware that he was interrupting something but just as plainly urgent to do what he’d come to do.

“Ms. Skei-Vi!” he hissed, sounding very distressed. He made something of a beckoning motion, jerking his head toward the corridor outside.

The guild leader cast a questioning, troubled glance at the glalie at the entrance, then excused herself and went to join him. The portal sealed, and Solonn could hear them speaking for a short time before their voices drifted out of earshot. Everyone in the chamber wondered what in the world was going on, but before they had long to ponder it, the leader returned, alone. They noticed her grave expression at once, and the crowd watched her attentively as she returned to her place in front of the platform, wondering and fearing what she’d just been told.

“What is it?” Hagen asked her. He no longer sounded angry in the least; he only sounded concerned.

“I’m afraid I’ve just received terrible news,” the guild leader announced slowly, somberly. “A member of my guild has just come from the snowgrounds… all the children who were there have gone missing.”

Gasps and cries of shock and alarm filled the air, and Solonn’s heart froze. “Jen…” His voice cracked as his throat went dry. “Dear gods, my brother was in there!”

“And my children!” another voice in the crowd cried.

“Please, you’ve got to find them!” a third begged the guild leader.

“Members of my squad have already begun searching,” Ms. Skei-Vi tried to assure her, but the guild leader’s words failed to calm her or anyone else in the room.

“This day has grown darker still…” the lahain remarked quietly. “Ms. Skei-Vi, do you have any clue at all as to where these children might be or who might have taken them?” he asked.

“Presently, no,” the guild leader said regretfully. “They’ve vanished without a trace. There’s nothing left to even suggest what has become of them.”

“Hmm…” was the lahain’s sole response at first. He stared pensively at a spot on the floor for a moment. “I think I’ll hazard a guess as to who might be responsible,” he then said, at which every eye in the chamber met his gaze. “I believe this crime may well have been the work of the same ones responsible for the atrocities in the temple—the very ones being held in our cells at this very moment.”

Solonn had expected to hear something along those lines, but the fact that he’d seen it coming did nothing to dampen his reaction. “How can you make such a claim?” he demanded, his eyes burning bright once more. “And how could they have committed two crimes at the same time?” he added as the thought occurred to him.

“No one said those crimes were committed at the same time,” Hagen pointed out. “The children may well have been taken and left somewhere before the attack on the temple.”

“Maybe so,” Solonn responded, conceding the point no further than that. “But still, you can’t just accuse them without anything to base it on! There’s nothing to prove that they did this!”

“I see no proof that they didn’t do it,” Hagen countered.

“Oh, so I suppose the word of these witnesses means nothing to you, then?” Solonn said acidly.

“Mere words can’t be accepted as irrefutable evidence,” the lahain said. “Anyone can say anything, after all.”

Lahain…” one of the other council members spoke up tentatively. It was the first time since the meeting had begun that any of them other than Hagen had spoken. “Surely the fact that so many of them report being attacked by other glalie has to count for something, doesn’t it?” she asked.

“If my suspicions are correct, then no, it very well may not,” Hagen said.

“And just what are those suspicions, exactly?” Solonn demanded.

“I believe that one of the prisoners, the many-eyed one, is a psychic,” was the lahain’s reply.

This brought a fresh surge of astonished responses from the crowd. “How do you know?” one among them asked. Solonn leveled a demanding gaze at Hagen with the same question and the worry that came along with it tightening his brow—how had the lahain correctly guessed that Oth was a psychic?

“Two among you have each offered a very significant detail where that’s concerned,” Hagen said. “The strange ones were described as simply ‘appearing’… and you,” he said, nodding toward Solonn, “claimed that one of them could quickly and easily transport people outside of our territory, did you not?”

Solonn could only stare wide-eyed at Hagen, horrorstruck by what he was hearing. It felt as though his blood had just frozen in his veins—he’d been so desperate to save his friend and his father, but now it seemed that he may have sealed their doom.

“The ability to disappear and reappear elsewhere belongs to the psychic element,” the lahain went on. “The use of that ability could explain how the children could have vanished so easily and completely. Furthermore… it bears mentioning that this wouldn’t be the first time someone among our people’s youth has experienced apparent abduction by a psychic-type… now would it, Mr. Zgil-Al?”

Solonn might have otherwise been surprised or startled to learn that Hagen knew his name, but all that truly got through to him was what Hagen was implying about Oth. “Don’t you even suggest that they had anything to do with that!” he hissed, thoroughly appalled.

“As I recall, no one ever determined who took you that day. I also recall that you told the Security Guild leader of that time that you had no memory of your abduction or anything that took place up to your return,” Hagen reminded him. “For all you know, that creature may very well have been your abductor.”

“‘Creature’…” Solonn spat distastefully, finding more to dislike in Hagen’s words with every moment. “That person is my friend, Lahain. They’re one of the kindest, most gentle-natured people anyone could ever hope to meet—they’d never do anything at all like what you’re accusing them of!”

The look Hagen gave him in response to that was sad—pitying, even. “Mr. Zgil-Al, I fear that you may be a victim of psychic deception. Just as the rest of you who’ve been brought here may have been tricked into believing you were under attack by glalie rather than by the strange ones, you may have been made to see the psychic in a much more flattering light.”

No,” Solonn said firmly, now positively shaking with astonishment at what he was hearing. “You’re wrong, Lahain. And everyone here knows it. Tell him!” he shouted as he turned to face the crowd.

But to his dismay, the faces around him spoke of no desire to do any such thing. In fact, it looked like they might have been seriously considering Hagen’s words.

He turned back toward the council. “Well, what about the prisoners’ rights?” he said. “Aren’t you at least going to give them a chance to defend themselves before you just decide they’re guilty?”

“And just how do you suppose we go about that?” Hagen asked. “If they’re allowed to wake, what’s to stop the psychic from simply disappearing and bringing the steel creature along with them, freeing them to threaten us again in future? It’s a risk I cannot and will not accept.”

“They wouldn’t do that,” Solonn growled. “They were there at the temple today out of concern and love, Lahain. They’re good, decent people, and yet here you are talking about them as if they’re just a couple of heartless monsters!”

“You can say whatever you want about them, but the nature of the day’s events seems all too clear now,” the lahain said resolutely. “It just makes far more sense that the terrible deeds done today could and would be done by such creatures rather than by Virc glalie. Why, anyway, would Virc ever kill their own kind?”

“Maybe they weren’t Virc,” suggested another of the council members, the very same one who’d spoken up before.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Zdir,” Hagen said. “You know just as well as I do that there are no other nations of our kind anywhere near here.”

“I was referring to exiles, Lahain,” Zdir elaborated. “Exiles who perhaps desired to get back at their fellow countrymen for their punishment.”

There was a strange sort of flickering in Hagen’s eyes as if Zdir had struck a particular chord with him. It was gone nearly as soon as it had come, however; his expression now solely and strongly suggested that she’d crossed some line. The faces of the other three council members underscored her apparent mistake further; they looked deeply worried for her.

“I think it’s time we brought this matter to a conclusion,” Hagen said coldly. “The council and I will go and discuss the day’s events and what we’ve learned regarding them among ourselves, and we will return with our final decision.”

There wasn’t a second’s delay between his words and the rest of the council’s response; the council member closest to the side exit opened it at once, and the five filed through it without another word. At the back of the line, Zdir stopped for the slightest moment, turning a supportive but not particularly optimistic gaze upon the crowd. Then she, too, was gone, and the portal sealed shut behind her.

Solonn’s eyes lingered upon the barrier. He could only imagine what sort of discussion was taking place wherever the council had gone, but he was certain that it was far from balanced. From what he’d seen, Hagen had virtually the entire council under his figurative thumb; most of them had come across as meek, obedient people who probably never spoke unless he specifically asked them to.

Zdir seemed to be an exception: someone clearly having a mind of her own, daring to voice her disagreement with the lahain. But she was only one questioning voice out of five. Chances were that wouldn’t be enough to sway or overpower Hagen, not if the rest of the council really did support their leader without question. She’d probably be made sorry in some way for her dissent, Solonn suspected darkly, and the rest of her peers would likely give her theories and opinions no further thought.

It was a bit longer than he’d quite expected before the council returned. Ms. Skei-Vi commanded the crowd to bow again as the council members took their places once more; Solonn refused, earning a disapproving frown from the guild leader.

Ignoring her, he looked toward Zdir, the only member of the council he still respected. Her face told all too plainly that she’d lost; she looked over the crowd with eyes filled with guilt and an unspoken apology.

“We of the council have arrived at our final judgment,” Hagen announced (a distinct bitterness flickered across Zdir’s face at the lahain’s use of the word “we”). “We’ve determined that our two prisoners, the steel creature and the psychic, were most certainly responsible for the destruction of our holy temple, the murders of eleven within it, and the abduction of an as yet unknown number of innocent children.”

It was exactly as Solonn had anticipated, no surprise whatsoever. Nonetheless, the judgment stabbed right into his heart, flooding him with outrage and despair. It was done. He’d failed to save them.

“The guilty parties will remain subdued in our custody until we’ve decided on a more permanent punishment,” Hagen went on. “The public will be informed of today’s tragedy but also assured that those responsible will pose no further threat. The Security Guild will do all in their power to find and bring back the children who’ve been taken from us… however, we must all prepare ourselves for whatever the gods may have chosen with regards to their fate,” he added in a somber tone.

“As for those of you who were caught in the center of all this wickedness… you have truly endured a uniquely tragic ordeal,” the lahain said to the crowd, and he sounded earnestly sympathetic. “It may take some time for you to fully realize and accept the truth about what you experienced at the temple and the ones responsible for it. What I now ask of you all is that until that time, you tell no one of the lies the wicked ones showed you.”

“You can’t possibly be serious!” Solonn responded at once, his eyes blazing. “This is absolutely unbelievable… First you convict innocent people based on nothing more than convenient coincidence and your own blatant bias, and now you honestly expect these people to not only deny what they know they saw but to lie about it from here on out?”

“What we tell you is no lie, Mr. Zgil-Al,” Hagen said firmly. “Your mind, as well as the minds of everyone present during the attack on the temple, has been wrapped up in the psychic’s trickery and abhorrent lies, and I’ll not have any of you spreading those horrid ideas among my people. Do you have any idea what such notions would do to them?” he hissed. “No Virc—or former Virc,” he added with a pointed glare toward Zdir, “has taken the life of their own kind for countless generations. The people couldn’t deal with such an unnatural notion!”

“Will they be able to deal with the real threat when it returns? Because it will; I guarantee it,” Solonn said. “You’ve laid this on the wrong people, Lahain, and more innocents will suffer because of it.”

“Is that a threat, Mr. Zgil-Al?” Hagen asked, his pale eyes narrowing.

“It’s a warning, Lahain,” Solonn said, unflinching. “And for our people’s sake, you’d best heed it. Reconsider your judgment. Let the prisoners go. And do not forbid us to tell the people the truth that could save their lives!”

The lahain inhaled deeply, letting it out on something between a hiss and a growl. He then rose from his seat and descended from the raised platform, gliding determinedly forward and coming to a stop right in front of Solonn in a clear move to show that he wasn’t swayed by his words or intimidated by his stature.

“You concern me, Mr. Zgil-Al,” he said, with a cold, hard stare up into the eyes of the larger man. “I fear that perhaps you can’t be trusted to listen to reason and maintain the peace. But I also pity you, and as such, I’m going to give you the chance to prove me wrong where that’s concerned. To err on the side of caution, however, you and the rest of those from the temple will be watched for a short while by a few of Ms. Skei-Vi’s people. If any of you cause any further disruption, they won’t hesitate to bring you down and put you in their cells,” he warned the crowd.

Hagen turned and resumed his place with the rest of the council. “Go,” he said to the crowd. “Remember your duties, all of you. Don’t pollute the public’s thoughts with the lies that have corrupted your perception. If I come to find out you’ve failed in this responsibility, you will join the prisoners in their fate.”

“Come on, then,” Ms. Skei-Vi said, then began shepherding the witnesses toward the exit.

Solonn lingered at the scene, maintaining his burning, condemning gaze upon Hagen for as long as he could. “You’re making a dire mistake, Lahain,” he said reproachfully. “The real threat is still out there, and anything that happens to our people from this day forward is on your head.”

With an insistent push and a softly reiterated warning, the guild leader finally managed to get Solonn out of the chamber and lead him away, leaving the council with his final, ominous words.

 

* * *

 

“We gather here, in the sight of all gods, for the honor of those who have gone to join them on this day. Eleven souls, good Virc all, have been torn from our midst before their time in a most dreadful act of violence.”

The voice belonged to the leader of the Soul Guild, her words echoing throughout the surrounding space. Assembled there with her within an emormous, low-ceilinged cavern were dozens of glalie: survivors of the attack, friends and family of the victims, the other members of the Soul Guild, and several from the Security Guild.

They all formed a ring around a collection of eleven short ice spires that were arranged in a spiraling pattern in the center of the chamber. Within each of those spires, one of the people who had perished in the temple was encased.

“To those who lie before us: rest well. Though you have departed this life through fear and agony, you will now know only peace forevermore. Though you have fallen by the power of wickedness, take comfort in the knowledge that no wickedness can follow where you’ve gone.”

With a very heavy heart, Solonn gazed upon the spires. They were a nice, lovely tribute to the fallen, but soon he couldn’t bear to look at them any longer. He was overcome by thoughts of what they represented, as well as the full impact of the day’s events. Eleven lives, forever lost. Two innocent souls, unjustly paying for someone else’s crimes. Children, gods only knew how many, taken from their homes into unknown peril. Part of his family was now gone, while the rest of it, as well as all of Virc-Dho, now faced an uncertain future.

“We of the living world now relinquish custody of your spirits to your new keepers, but we will never let go of our memories of you. One day, we may meet again. Until then… farewell.”

With that, the Soul Guild leader began singing a wordless melody. The voices of her fellow Soul Guild members rose to join her. As the Soul Guild sang, the eleven spires began to sink slowly, descending on a circular platform into a very deep hole in the floor. Their peaks disappeared into it, and ice formed to cover the grave.

Neither Solonn nor anyone else gathered within that cavern could shed a single tear. But inside, they were all crying their hearts out, their grief manifesting here and there in frail sobs.

Their sorrow was earnest, but the fact remained that most of them didn’t know the truth about the tragedies they mourned. Most of them only knew what the authorities had told them, believing that the threat was out of the picture when, in reality, it wasn’t.

Solonn couldn’t vouch for anyone else among that crowd, but he knew one thing for certain: he couldn’t stand to remain silent. In that moment, he couldn’t care about the lahain’s threats and warnings, couldn’t care what speaking out might cost him. It was far more important that the people be armed with the truth. If they weren’t, chances were that these caverns would be hearing the Soul Guild’s song many times in the days to come.

Chapter Text

“Just as they have moved on beyond our world, so must we move on within it. Now go, and may the gods give you strength.”

At the Soul Guild leader’s dismissal, the crowd gathered in the burial chamber stirred and began to disperse. Some of them were more reluctant than others to make that final parting from their loved ones.

Solonn was one of those who lingered, staying seated on the stone floor and holding the now featureless space in the center of the room in a sorrowful gaze. Mere minutes ago, they had been there, lifeless and encased in ice like all the others who’d died in the temple with them. Now that they were sealed away beneath the floor, their absence weighed on him more than ever. Once he left this chamber, he’d be leaving them behind for the rest of his life.

He wasn’t left alone much longer. A prod at his side interrupted his thoughts, and he rose and turned to see who was responsible. There, he found one of the Security Guild members. She was looking up at him with an unspoken question—no, a command—in her eyes.

“I’ve been sent by my guild to escort you,” she said, telling Solonn nothing he hadn’t already guessed. Hagen had told him he could expect such a thing. Still, Solonn frowned at her, wishing she weren’t there—and not only for his own sake. “You have better things to do right now,” he told her quietly, “and you know it.”

“I’m afraid that’s not for you to decide,” the guild member responded. She circled around and took up a position right behind him—or tried to. He turned to face her again the moment she got back there. “Get moving, please,” she said. “I don’t know where you live. You’ll have to lead.”

Solonn gave her an odd look. “Who said I was going home?”

“Well, it’s not as though you have anything else to do, now is it?”

He did, but he most certainly couldn’t tell her as much. Letting on that he still wanted to try and warn people of the threat they still faced would just get him knocked out and thrown in a cell. And no one would hear his warnings if he got himself shut away.

Meanwhile, Solonn didn’t particularly like the thought of leading someone who didn’t trust him (or at least answered to someone who didn’t) back home. Very briefly, he considered trying to pick Zilag out of the crowd and go with him instead. He hadn’t even been able to spot Zilag among the mourners, but Solonn was sure he was present. But associating himself with Zilag in front of the authorities quickly registered as a bad idea. He didn’t want Zilag and his family to get wrapped up in any trouble that the Security Guild might give him.

But even if he avoided Zilag, Zilag was unlikely to avoid him—sooner or later, especially in the wake of what had happened, he’d probably pay Solonn a visit. And either that guild member or another would probably still be hanging around.

Resigned to that notion, he sighed and nodded to the guild member, then turned his back on her and began drifting toward the exit. After a short distance, he looked back to see if she was actually following him—she was. She was probably going to tail him literally anywhere and everywhere he went. Solonn gave one last glance toward Azvida and Jeneth’s resting place, sending them a silent farewell and apology for having to leave so soon, then exited the chamber.

The presence behind him did nothing to put his mind at ease. She represented the mistrust of a leader who, as far as Solonn could tell, cared more about being right than about the welfare of his own people. She was also a constant reminder that the nation’s defenders were being wasted on keeping people quiet rather than keeping them safe.

Maybe she trusted him better than the lahain had, but Solonn couldn’t help but suspect otherwise. The lahain had said that he’d give Solonn and the other witnesses a chance to live free (or as free as one could be under constant watch) provided they could stay quiet. But Solonn couldn’t put it past him to decide—or, the chilling thought occurred to him, to have already decided—to forcibly silence the witnesses after all.

Would she do it? he wondered of his escort. He couldn’t be sure what she’d do once he was alone with her, though he felt fairly certain that she wouldn’t just knock him out and drag him to prison before then. Some of the people sharing the tunnel with them hadn’t been there at the temple or the council chamber; they might not understand why people who were supposed to protect them had suddenly turned on them. That in turn might force the guild members to take them out as well, in order to nip any loaded questions in the bud. Surely the guild would prefer to avoid that scenario.

At least, Solonn dearly hoped they would.

Before long, the tunnel branched off in multiple directions. The crowd began to split up down the separate paths, and Solonn’s sense of safety in numbers began to fade. Already, he’d seen a couple of pairs split off and disappear down their chosen tunnels—did those pairs contain guild members? Were those guild members going to strike their charges down as soon as they got someplace private enough, and was the same true of the one who followed him?

It seemed there was truly nothing to be done about it other than continue on his way; another gentle but insistent prod of his escort’s horn emphasized that point. Knowing no other way home from here, Solonn could only retrace his figurative steps and go back the way he’d come, choosing the path that led past the council chamber.

Very few others went that way along with him, and in the distance between the council chamber and what had once been the temple, the number of people taking his route quickly dwindled until there was only his escort. There were no potential witnesses now. No one to see, hear, or ask questions if the glalie behind him made a move.

And he wouldn’t know she had until it was much too late. That was the thing about the mother element’s highest power: it was summoned with a mere thought, and it struck in a near instant. It gave its victims virtually no warning…

Virtually none.

There was a way to see it coming, Solonn remembered, astonished that he’d forgotten about that particular quirk of the technique. Then again, he hadn’t actually seen it since the last time Azvida had hunted alongside him, back before he’d worked up the nerve to hunt on his own. That had been years ago

Hoping his next actions wouldn’t trigger the exact thing he was trying to avoid, he stopped and turned to face his escort, earning an odd look from her.

“Sir, what do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

“I’m just going home, just as you suggested,” Solonn said as evenly as he could, and with that he resumed his drift toward home, but in reverse.

The guild member maintained that baffled look upon him, but otherwise gave no objections and simply kept following him. Whether she knew why he was moving backward or had simply decided he was strange and she shouldn’t try too hard to make sense of him, Solonn couldn’t guess. But he wasn’t really concerned about what was going on behind her eyes at this point. It was what happened in them that mattered at the moment.

If she tried to fire off a nhaza, he’d see it coming. The telltale white flash in its user’s eyes just before its release would give it away. He kept a protect on standby, hoping dearly that he could call it up in time if she attempted anything against him.

Solonn had gone between his home and the temple so many times that he knew the way by heart; he was confident that he could navigate it backward. He knew the number and positions of all the offshoots of the main path, and he silently counted them as he passed them by—those landmarks would tell him when and which way to turn. All the while, he watched his escort’s eyes; thus far, their light remained still and blue.

Their owner kept obligingly quiet as she followed him—to a point. Eventually, “Are we almost there?” she asked.

Solonn winced slightly, trying not to lose the number in his head. “Yes,” he responded quickly, thankful that was the answer, “it’s just a li—”

His voice was abruptly cut silent, lost in a loud crack. Despite his efforts, he’d failed to see it coming. Its source emerged from an offshoot not far behind where Solonn now lay unconscious.

The newly arrived guild member rose a bit higher off the ground to see past Solonn. His partner returned his gaze with an approving nod, silently commending his work. He responded likewise, then sank back down to his normal hovering height and moved closer to their subdued target. The two officers secured the insensible glalie to themselves with ice, then lifted him with an effort and carried him away.

 

* * *

 

The next thing Solonn was aware of was pain: a somewhat dull throbbing sensation in the back of his head. Groaning, he stirred and lifted himself from the floor, slowly opening his eyes as he rose. What he saw left him all too certain about what had happened to him.

She’d got him. Somehow, in spite of his watchfulness, she’d managed to knock him out. Now he was imprisoned in one of their cells—and he wasn’t alone. There was Grosh, lying half-coiled at the opposite side of the room, still out cold. Solonn made to rush to his father’s side at once, but he was caught short by a familiar voice that spoke up in nearly the same instant.

“Good, you’re awake. You can help out with the psychic, then.”

Solonn turned toward its source. Seated nearby was none other than Zdir, the sole member of the council who’d seemed willing to hear the witnesses out, the only one who’d seemed willing to give Grosh and Oth a chance.

Solonn wondered what she was doing in their cell, though he certainly had his suspicions. But for now, he was much more concerned about Grosh and Oth—particularly the latter. He looked upon the claydol with concern tightening his brow; they were still utterly motionless, their hands still lying detached beside them, with nothing but the glow of their faint warmth to suggest that they were even alive.

That glow was notably dimmer than it should have been. The glalie who’d been guarding the cell had clearly done a sub-par job of keeping them warm—on purpose, Solonn suspected with disgust.

“Are they going to be all right?” he asked.

“Can’t say,” Zdir responded. “I don’t even know what this creature is, let alone how they work. But I suspect they’ll come to a lot faster if we can get them warmed up—and we need them to come to as soon as possible.” She dipped a horn toward the other side of the room, where another glalie lay in the corner opposite Grosh. “I doubt he’ll stay out much longer, and sooner or later his relief will show up.”

Zdir turned back to Oth, lowering her head slightly and staring intently at him. “Try to draw the cold from this creature as fast as you can, but don’t shut everything else out completely. We could have company at any moment now.”

That thought certainly wasn’t comforting. Nonetheless, Solonn tried to keep most of his mind on the task before him. It helped that it was his friend lying there in front of him. He most certainly didn’t want to let them down.

Simply protecting another creature from the cold was generally effortless for his kind, but what Oth needed at this point was to be rid of a chill that had already settled into them. Solonn thought back to times when he’d made ice melt or turn to vapor—opposite actions to freezing. That was the power he needed to use, or rather a much slower and gentler version thereof.

He went to work at once. At his side, Zdir was doing likewise, and as the two worked together, Oth’s temperature began to return to normal.

Moments passed, and Solonn began to wonder if maybe he and Zdir should stop—he didn’t want Oth to become overheated. Just as he was about to voice that concern, the claydol awoke, a few of their presently half-closed eyes simultaneously meeting the gaze of the two glalie at their side.

<What…> they began, their mindvoice and their true voice both sounding weak. <Solonn… what is happening?>

“We’ll have to explain later,” Zdir spoke up before Solonn could even begin to answer. “First, we need to get out of here, all of us. We need you to transport us.”

Oth wobbled in place for a moment, struggling to rise, their hands ascending to rejoin their body at different speeds. They tried again almost immediately and succeeded this time, but Solonn remained concerned for them. With a particular vulnerability to the ice element, recovering from an ice-type strike must surely be all the more difficult.

<Where?> Oth asked, still clearly fighting to keep their levitation stable even as they spoke.

“As far away from here as possible,” Zdir said.

Oth nodded slightly and began floating slowly and less than gracefully toward Grosh. Once the claydol was at his side, they proceeded to scan him, checking to make sure the steelix was in any fit state for teleportation.

“We need to go,” Zdir reminded them urgently.

Thankfully, Oth found out what they needed to know quickly. Satisfied that Grosh was more than well enough to survive the journey, <Come here,> they said to the two glalie, who went to join Oth and Grosh at once, Zdir lagging slightly behind.

“Oth… are you up to teleporting right now?” Solonn asked, worried not only for the claydol’s sake but their passengers’, as well. If Oth wasn’t quite strong enough to teleport them, and something went wrong… Solonn didn’t know what the results might be, but he strongly suspected they weren’t pretty.

<Yes,> Oth said. <Do not worry… What about him?> they then asked, gesturing toward the unconscious guard in the corner with one of their hands.

“Leave him. He’s not with us,” Zdir told them. “Now go!”

Without another moment’s delay, the claydol delivered the prisoners from their cell.

 

* * *

 

The golden glow faded out, and its passengers found themselves in a place that contrasted greatly with their previous surroundings. The sky, though overcast, was backlit by late afternoon sunlight, and nearly everything below it was blanketed in green. Steady white noise filled the air: the rushing of a waterfall that lay on the opposite side of a deep, wide chasm and poured endlessly into a river below.

Zdir eyed the water with uncertainty. “Where are we now?”

<Mordial,> Oth answered. <Do not worry—we are nowhere near your territory.> They turned to face the forest behind them, moving a very short distance into it. <There is an herb that grows here that will help Grosh greatly,> they said, gesturing toward the trees. <I will try to find some of it for him as quickly as possible.>

“It would probably be found faster if more than one of us searches for it,” Solonn said. “What does it look like?”

There was a brief delay in Oth’s response, and then an image appeared in the two glalie’s minds simultaneously. The herb in question was a bright yellow-green, with long leaves that curled slightly at their tips. It seemed vaguely familiar to Solonn, but he couldn’t really recall anything about it for certain.

“All right,” he said, moving to Oth’s side. He turned back to look at Grosh, who was still lying there helplessly. Though searching for this herb would benefit the steelix, Solonn found himself reluctant to leave him there in that condition.

“I’ll stay with him,” Zdir spoke up, having read Solonn’s hesitance correctly. “And don’t try too hard to rush back; this herb you speak of sounds like it might be something we’d do well to have readily available. Gathering more of it than he needs would be a good idea.”

“Agreed,” Solonn said. “And… thank you for agreeing to stay with him,” he added sincerely. The significance of her decision wasn’t lost on him—here was a Virc and a near-total stranger to boot, willing to be left alone with a creature whom so many of her people had feared. “It’s good to see someone else who doesn’t fear him.”

“If what you claimed he was doing in the temple is true, then I have nothing at all to fear from him,” Zdir said. “And I’m inclined to believe that it is.”

The light in Solonn’s eyes brightened and trembled. He thought to say something in response, but he was moved beyond words. The way Zdir was treating his father and his friend contrasted so greatly with the way the lahain had that for a moment, it all but overwhelmed him.

“…Thank you,” he finally managed, very quietly. Then he turned and allowed Oth to lead him deeper into the forest.

Making his way among that many trees was no easier for Solonn than it had ever been, but the relatively slow pace at which the two moved helped him avoid losing track of Oth. They didn’t rush, scanning the ground carefully for the plant they sought, but Solonn couldn’t help but suspect that Oth couldn’t speed up even if they wanted to. Their levitation was still a little unsteady; it was clear they still had some recovering to do. Their condition had actually factored into his decision to join them in their search for the herb; he was even less comfortable with the notion of leaving Oth all alone.

“How common is it?” he asked. “How long do you think we’ll need to look?”

<Not terribly common,> Oth answered, <but fortunately not terribly rare in this area, either. I think we will be able to gather a sufficient amount within a reasonable frame of time.>

Solonn nodded slightly, but he couldn’t help making a faint, disappointed noise. Whatever Oth considered a “reasonable frame of time” probably wasn’t as short as he hoped. Aid for his father just couldn’t come soon enough as far as he was concerned.

At least something will be done for him, he told himself silently. That was more than could be said for most of the people who were affected by the recent tragedies…

“Oth,” he spoke up; he saw the claydol pause and turn to face him from a couple of yards away. “Thank you for doing this, for bringing us here,” he told them. “I’m glad you’re willing and able to help him.”

Oth lowered their head in acknowledgment of Solonn’s gratitude. <You are welcome,> they said softly.

Relative silence fell over Solonn and Oth as the search wore on, neither of them saying anything. The very faint skittering and buzzing of insects and the calls of birds in the background were the only sounds either of them could hear. Then, finally, <There! I have found some!> Oth said, beckoning with one of their hands, then sped up slightly as they made their way forward and to the left. Solonn followed, and soon the two reached a small cluster of plants that matched the picture Oth had provided. Oth telekinetically harvested the leaves, lifting them into the air, then gathered the leaves up against their chest with their hands and held them there.

<This will serve Grosh with plenty to spare,> Oth said. <We should be able to return now.>

Solonn eyed the gathered herb samples; there looked to be about half a dozen of them. He hoped Oth was right about there being enough, all the while trying, with no real success, not to think about why keeping the medicine in stock had become prudent.

Well… if it’s not enough, we could always come back for more later, he figured, and he couldn’t help but suspect darkly that they’d end up having to do so sooner rather than later. “All right, let’s go,” he said, and the two of them began making their way back through the forest.

Upon returning to Grosh and Zdir, they found the steelix still unconscious. Zdir was waiting next to Grosh’s head. She looked up from where she sat to acknowledge Solonn and Oth as they took their places at her sides.

Oth let go of the leaves and brought them together in a tight bundle in midair, right in front of Grosh’s face. The claydol kept them hovering there for a few moments, letting Grosh breathe in the scent of the leaves for a while. Eventually, the steelix stirred, albeit not much; his head rose a couple of inches off of the ground, and he groaned very faintly, but his eyes remained closed.

<Open your mouth,> Oth instructed him gently.

There was a slight delay, but then Grosh’s mouth fell open, the jaws slackened. Oth let one of the leaves drift free from the bundle as they brought the rest back up against their chest, directing it onto the steelix’s tongue. The flavor awakened Grosh further; his eyes opened partway, unfocused for the moment, and he grimaced, his mouth working as though he were trying to get the offending herb out.

<No, Grosh. You need to consume it.>

That earned another faint groan from the steelix, but Grosh complied nonetheless, closing his jaws and forcing the herb down. He shuddered and stretched, flexing and twisting his segments, then slowly lifted his head further and shook it a bit as if trying to clear something out of it.

Blinking a few times in succession, he stared out at the unfamiliar scene before him for a moment, finally coming back to his senses in earnest, then turned his gaze upon his son.

“Where…?” he asked hoarsely, unable to finish the question.

Where is she? Solonn couldn’t help but suspect that meant, judging by the anguished look on the steelix’s face. But he couldn’t quite find the strength to speak of Azvida, especially not with his father’s grief staring him in the face and stoking his own all the higher.

Sinking wearily to the ground, “We’re in Mordial,” Solonn finally responded, answering a different but likely present question. “We had to flee Virc-Dho… we were being imprisoned there.”

Grosh’s reaction was delayed, but when it came through, there was something dark in his expression, something that spoke of burgeoning, sickened outrage. “No…”

“I’m afraid so,” Zdir said. “You and… Oth, was it?” She looked to the claydol, who nodded. “You were deemed responsible for the murders in the temple and the kidnapping of the children who were at the snowgrounds at the time.”

Oth’s reaction was left untranslated, but the gist of it was clear enough: they sounded distinctly astonished, even hurt. Unconsciously, they reeled back a bit from the others, then lowered their head and closed all of their eyes. Grosh, meanwhile, reared back as if something had lashed out at him, the motion surprisingly forceful for someone who’d just regained consciousness, and his expression was both the most furious and the most pained that Solonn had ever seen.

“How dare they…” the steelix said in a near-bottomless tone, one that somehow sounded just as vulnerable as it did threatening. Fresh streams of tears welled up and poured from his eyes. “How dare anyone even suggest that I’d—” He winced at the thought, shaking with fury. “—that I’d do anything to hurt her!”

“They also accused you of stealing her son,” Solonn said quietly past a lump in his throat. “Jen… he was in the snowgrounds. He was taken.”

Grosh just stared at him for a moment, still shaking, his jaws parting silently and his eyes widening further in the wake of that news. Then his head sank, his gaze dropping to the ground, tears still falling. “Dear God…” he all but whispered, the words cracking. “And… God, I would never…” he managed before his ability to speak failed him altogether.

“I tried to tell them that,” Solonn said miserably. Hearing the hurt in his father’s voice worsened his guilt and shame over failing to get through to the lahain all the more. “I tried to tell them you wouldn’t hurt anyone, either of you…”

“We both did,” Zdir added. “I refused to take ‘it’s not possible’ as an answer from the rest of the council, even knowing what it would cost me.”

What she seemed to be suggesting came as no real surprise to Solonn. “He dismissed you from the council, didn’t he?”

Zdir nodded. “Tried to take me out and throw me in the cell right alongside you three, furthermore, but I saw that coming and headed it off. The lahain—our leader,” she added for the benefit of Grosh and Oth, “just couldn’t stand to take any chances with those of us who weren’t so willing to let people believe his conclusions.”

<Those who were at the temple when we arrived there… the survivors… they saw that we were not the ones responsible, did they not? What about them?> Oth asked.

“Oh, I don’t think the lahain is concerned about what they saw anymore,” Solonn said bitterly. “He seems to have them all convinced that they were only being tricked into seeing glalie attacking them…” He was almost too ashamed to elaborate any further, to tell Oth how his fellow countryman had portrayed them, but finally managed to do so. “He said that you’d deceived them psychically.”

There was a very small delay in the claydol’s reaction. Then their eyes all widened dramatically, and a noise escaped them that suggested they were even struggling to speak in their true voice, let alone their mindvoice.

“I don’t think I can apologize enough for how you’ve been wronged, all of you,” Zdir said sincerely. “Just… just know that not everyone believes these horrible things about you two,” she said with a glance toward Grosh and Oth, “and that you,” she said to Solonn as she turned to face him, “weren’t wrong to stand up for them.”

Grosh’s only response was something between a growl and a sigh, the look on his face telling that he was far from consoled. Solonn looked at him regretfully, knowing that even just one person believing that Grosh could have done something so horrible to someone he loved so much was one too many for the steelix to bear. He wished dearly that he could have done more to prevent his father from having been accused of such things.

Oth lowered their head slightly, some of their eyes shutting halfway and the rest closing completely. They tried and failed to speak again, but finally managed it on the third attempt. <…I appreciate your trust,> they said, both of their voices subdued, <and I thank you for it. I just wish there were something more that I could do for you and for your people. You are still in danger since whoever was actually responsible has not been identified, let alone apprehended… and in return for rescuing us, you deserve anything I could give.>

“Well… perhaps it’s a good thing you feel that way,” Zdir said. “Perhaps it’s a very good thing…” She rose, moving back a bit so she could hold eye contact with all three of the others more easily. “Against our enemies, there’s little we can do. We don’t know exactly how many there are—though if they’re who I think they are, they number in the dozens. At least.”

“Oh gods…” Solonn hadn’t imagined they were quite that numerous—the thought of how high the death toll might be if the enemy were to attack in full force made him feel like his blood had frozen in his veins. “This is exactly why the people back home need to be made aware that the real threat’s still out there. None of them have any idea just how much danger they’re in!”

“Actually, I suspect they’re about to find out it’s not over yet,” Zdir told him. “By now, the Security Guild has probably discovered the empty cell we left behind. I imagine the people will be told about the escape and warned of the possibility of future attacks by more of those ‘illusory’ glalie.”

Solonn looked at her in silence, conflicted about what she’d just told him. Though the Virc still wouldn’t know the whole truth, they’d at least know to look out for trouble from other glalie now. It was a step in the right direction… but still, the Virc would likely continue to believe that two people who meant very much to him were there behind those glalie…

“Anyway,” Zdir went on, “the exiles are clearly well-trained to have been able to take as many lives as they did. My point is, if any of you are thinking of vengeance, I’m afraid you’ll need to think otherwise.”

The noise Grosh made at that and the way he shifted uneasily suggested that he was indeed harboring such thoughts, at least to some degree. An image of what the steelix would likely do to Azvida’s killers appeared in Solonn’s mind, an image of powerful steel coils crushing bodies, a massive tail falling like a hammer and splitting them wide open… Solonn shuddered hard, grimacing, fighting at once to get the gruesome thoughts off his mind.

“There is, however, one thing we may be able to do,” Zdir said. “I believe we might very well have a good chance of being able to rescue the children—a better chance than the Security Guild might have, anyway.”

Four of the eyes upon her widened instantly, and all of Oth’s blinked in surprise. <You truly believe we are capable of such a thing, given the advantages you believe these exiles to have?> they said.

“We have advantages of our own—you especially,” Zdir responded. “Your ability to teleport people could prove invaluable in getting us out of a dangerous situation, getting the children away from their captors, getting anyone who’s suffered any harm the help they’d need…”

She turned a meaningful gaze on Solonn while speaking those last several words, and he recognized just what she was referring to. He’d mentioned the Haven back in the council chamber, albeit not by name. It was a resource that, as far as he could figure, the Security Guild couldn’t provide for the kidnapped children, or for any of their would-be rescuers if it came to that.

<I… must confess that I have a particular concern about this,> Oth said. <While it is true that I can do as you say, the nature of our enemies presents a problem that could undermine my ability to help in that capacity: conceivably, any one of them could subdue me—and for that matter, any of us—in an instant, without warning.>

“Oh, there’s a warning that comes with it, if you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about,” Zdir said as she turned to face the claydol. “If it’s sheer cold or its mother technique, there’s an elemental telltale preceding them that you can feel and react to if you know how. How else do you suppose I avoided being knocked out and shut away with the rest of you? Get away with living for as long as I have and do the kind of work that I’ve done and you learn a few things.”

Solonn stared at her, not sure what to think of her claim. Yes, those techniques came with a perceptible elemental surge. But in his experience, the part of it that came before the execution of those techniques could only be felt by their user. Any observers would only be able to feel the part that accompanied the execution at the most, with no time to react to it.

But then again, that was only what he knew from his experience. Zdir’s extended back decades before his—quite conceivably time enough, he supposed, to have trained herself to catch that telltale in time to thwart such an attack.

<Well,> Oth said, sounding slightly relieved, <if you can indeed perceive these attacks before they connect, I could share in your perception and thereby teleport us away in response… if you will consent to the mental link, of course.>

“Of course,” Zdir said. “So I take it that means you’re willing to take this on?”

<I will,> Oth confirmed.

Zdir gave a faint smile of gratitude. “Thank you,” she said earnestly. “Your decision could save lives.”

She turned to Solonn again, and the question in that look was as obvious as if it had been spoken aloud. He hesitated to answer at first, still uncertain about their chances and all too aware of what could befall them if they failed, and he couldn’t keep the fear out of his eyes.

But ultimately, he couldn’t deny that he felt even worse about how someone especially vulnerable to ice and someone Zdir’s age would fare on their own. They and the children who might very well depend on them needed all the help they could get. Solonn didn’t know what the exiles had in store for the snorunt they’d taken, but every possibility that came to his mind was unacceptable—especially where a member of his own family was concerned.

“Yes,” he told her quietly. “My brother’s out there—if there’s anything I can do to help bring him back, I will.”

“Well then,” Grosh spoke up, lifting his upper body from the ground once more. “You could’ve counted me in from the start, but now it’s even less of a question—I have to go with you.”

Zdir held his gaze for a moment, then turned away with a faint, concerned sound. “Grosh…” she began uneasily, “as much as I’d appreciate your help, I’m… well…”

“You’re what?” Grosh urged her to finish as gently and calmly as he could manage, which wasn’t much of either under the circumstances.

“I’m concerned that your accompanying us would be at the expense of something we need to have on our side—specifically the need to keep our enemies from becoming aware of our presence well before we’re aware of theirs. Grosh… was it you who came to Virc-Dho all those years ago? Were you the silver creature whom people described as… well, as making a lot of noise whenever he moved?”

The steelix blinked, then groaned, recognizing what Zdir was getting at there. “Yes… yes, that was me,” he said, wilting with a sigh. “You’re right… there’s no way they wouldn’t hear us coming if I went with you.”

<Perhaps… that is not necessarily true,> Oth said a bit hesitantly. All eyes turned toward them. <I think I might be able to keep him off the ground. That should eliminate the sound of his slithering.>

Solonn frowned at Oth. It wasn’t that he didn’t want them to try what they were suggesting—he knew how much his father wanted to pitch in on this mission, knew what it meant to him. He was just concerned about them exerting themself in such a way. Even though they’d been specifically trained for shows of strength, it would be no easy feat even to lift, let alone carry, something as heavy as Grosh had to be. Not to mention the fact that given their recent ordeal, Oth surely wasn’t in peak condition…

Holding his tongue, not wanting to undermine Oth’s confidence and make them choke, Solonn watched as bright, fuchsia light filled the claydol’s eyes. Slowly, Grosh rose up from the grass, coming to a stop just a few inches off the ground. Oth held him there for a few seconds… but then the light in their eyes began to falter. The claydol shook slightly as they struggled to maintain their telekinetic hold on him, but not for long—they abruptly lost their grip, and Grosh fell back down with a loud thunk that sent birds from the forest behind them scattering into the air.

Oth hovered unsteadily for a moment, their hands hanging lower than usual as they worked to regather their telekinetic strength. <I am fine…> they told the others, noticing their worried expressions, <and I am sorry,> they said to Grosh.

“That’s all right,” Grosh told them, his voice a low, resigned rumble. “You don’t need to be busting your brain carrying me around, and I don’t need to be slowing you all down by making you have to stop every few seconds to give Oth a break. I can stay here,” he said, though the words were followed by a sigh that told that he still dearly wished he didn’t have to.

Zdir nodded at him, though she looked earnestly sympathetic. “I’m sorry you can’t join us,” she told him. “Don’t worry—we’ll do our best to return safely.” She turned to Oth. “Before we begin our search, I have a few relatives whom I think we should inform about the situation—at the very least, I think they deserve to know what I intend to get myself into. Is there anyone you feel you need to pay a brief visit to before we head out?” she asked of the claydol.

<No,> Oth said. They gathered the unused herb samples back up as they spoke; the leaves had fallen during the claydol’s attempt to hold Grosh aloft. <I am ready whenever the rest of you are.>

“And you?” Zdir asked Solonn.

Solonn nodded. “Just one stop,” he said. Part of him wouldn’t have minded getting a chance to touch base with his old friends from Lilycove again, now that Oth’s presence made such possible. Especially since he couldn’t help but think that the extra stops Zdir proposed were partly intended as a chance to say goodbye… just in case. But he was concerned about taking too much of the time that could be spent searching for the snorunt; he didn’t know how much they had to spare.

He’d have answered Zdir’s question just as Oth had if it weren’t for the fact that Zilag and his family were back there in Virc-Dho—and therefore potentially in harm’s way. He wanted to make absolutely certain that they knew the threat hadn’t passed.

“All right,” Zdir said. “Come on, then. We should be on our way.”

“Just please come back safely,” Grosh said. “Bring her sons back—both of them.”

“We will try,” Zdir tried to assure him.

Solonn looked to his father, swallowing against a lump in his throat at the pain and worry still plain on the steelix’s face. “Goodbye,” he said with difficulty.

“Goodbye,” Grosh returned hoarsely. “Please be careful. Please.”

Solonn could only nod in acceptance of Grosh’s plea, hoping to all gods that everything would turn out all right as Mordial vanished from his sight.

Chapter Text

Solonn, Zdir, and Oth appeared in a chamber a short distance from the Zir-Arda residence. It was as close as Oth could get them, now that there were a few others in tow. The only other option was to make more than one trip, and Oth had been advised against teleporting too much for fear that they’d tire out.

The additions to the search party were Ronal, Zereth, and Narzen, though Solonn had too much on his mind to recall their names very easily. He also couldn’t remember exactly how they were related to Zdir; one of them had called her an aunt, but he’d already forgotten which.

Solonn broke away from the small crowd, and the others began following him toward his destination. Once he spotted the familiar ice wall that blocked off his friend’s home, he paused, signaling that the others were close enough. He’d be going in alone, just as Zdir had done on their previous stops; she’d reckoned it would be easier and less startling to break the news to each of them without strangers watching, and he’d agreed.

He moved over to the barrier, glancing back at the others waiting just out of sight from the threshold… out in the open, in conspicuous numbers, with an alien creature hovering among them. Zdir had assured him that the psychic link she now shared with Oth would keep them out of trouble if someone spotted them. In that event, Oth would collect the party with a couple of teleports in quick succession, and they’d all be elsewhere before their discoverers could react.

Hopefully Zdir was right. Hopefully things would go smoothly if it came to that.

Somewhat cautiously, wanting to make as little noise as he could, Solonn tapped on the ice wall a few times with his horn. He heard hushed voices from the other side—glalie voices, thankfully. He hadn’t wanted to wake Kavir and Ryneika, Zilag and Hledas’s children. A blurred pair of blue lights drifted into view, approaching the wall, and then the clouded ice before them vanished.

“Oh hey.” Zilag’s tone fell notably short of its usual energy. “Come on in…” He turned and moved back into the main chamber, and Solonn followed. Solonn saw Hledas Zir-Arda lingering over by the entrance to the couple’s bedroom, watching him enter.

“What’s going on?” she asked, keeping her voice low, though her tone suggested that she already knew the answer.

“I think it’s fairly obvious,” Zilag said quietly as he resealed the chamber, then turned a somber gaze on Solonn. “Go ahead and have a seat,” he said, then generated some ice for Solonn. Solonn muttered a wordless thanks as he sat down, then took a couple of small bites. He didn’t want to snub the hospitality, and he figured he’d do well to have a little more on his stomach.

Zilag settled down himself, facing Solonn from a few feet away, and Hledas sat next to her mate. “I tried to get a hold of you after the service,” he said, “but the crowd was…” He shook his head. “I just couldn’t get to you. And when I went to your place, no one was there.”

Zilag sighed again, and for a moment he looked like he was struggling to speak. Finally, in a rather brittle voice, “There was no one at… at Azvida and Jeneth’s home, either. Jen… he was one of the ones who was taken, wasn’t he?” he asked. Solonn nodded regretfully in response. Zilag swore under his breath. “Gods… they’d better find him,” he said.

“I… don’t have much faith in them.” The admission had just slipped out. Solonn had intended to warn Zilag and Hledas about the lingering threat to the warren prior to letting them know what he was about to try and do, but the way their faces saddened further at his words compelled him to go ahead and let them know something else was being done about the situation. “So a few others and I are going to go search for the children, as well.”

Zilag’s brows drew together in distinct worry, while Hledas’s rose in what looked like disbelief. “Solonn…” Zilag said tentatively, “that’s certainly brave of you, but… I don’t know. I’m not sure this is something you ought to be doing—I mean, you know what the ones responsible for this are capable of. I can’t say I like the sound of you going right into their lair like that.”

“Oth is with us,” Solonn told him, “as are a few other glalie. Oth can teleport; they can get us out of trouble very fast if need be. And if any of us—or, gods forbid, any of the children—are hurt, they can take us to a place where we can get help—really good help.”

Hledas cast a meaningful, rather troubled glance at Zilag, who mirrored it somewhat. She looked toward Solonn. “I’ve heard of this… ‘teleporting’,” she began slowly. “And I’ve also heard that it’s a psychic ability…”

Solonn’s expression hardened, his eyes narrowing; he didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking. “That’s irrelevant,” he said sternly. “That ability could be the very thing that saves those children. And I’ll have you know Oth is one of the last people you should be mistrusting right now.” He turned to face Zilag. “You should understand, at least. You remember what I’ve told you about them, don’t you?”

“I do…” Zilag said, but with a hesitance that suggested something left unsaid.

“But what?” Solonn pressed, filling in the blank, sounding more than a little hurt. There he was, having to convince Zilag that Oth and Grosh were innocent when he’d been sure his best friend would just take his word for it. “Please… don’t tell me you think I only trust them because they’re making me trust them.”

“Maybe you should at least consider that possibility,” Hledas suggested. Solonn glared at her in response.

“Look…” Zilag said carefully, “I want to believe this Oth person’s all right. I really do. But the same time… there are some very, very strange things going on around here lately—very strange and very dangerous. And it’s not the first time something strange has happened to one of us—I’m not assuming Oth had anything to do with your abduction,” he added hurriedly when he saw the pained frustration on Solonn’s face. “I’m trying not to assume much of anything at this point.” He drew a deep breath as if bracing himself for something. “And that’s why I’m going with you.”

Hledas shot Zilag a rather distressed look, while Solonn could only stare blankly at him, at a loss for how to feel about his friend’s choice—especially given the reasons behind it.

“Are you insane?” Hledas hissed at Zilag. “You can’t go out there facing gods only know what with people we don’t even know if we can trust!”

“If we can trust them, if they really are the best chance those kids have at being rescued, then they should get all the help they can. I don’t want to have to wonder someday if things could have gone better if I’d helped out. Hledas… that could have been Kavir out there.”

Much of the severity left Hledas’s features, her mouth falling partway open. “…I still don’t like this,” she said quietly, lowering her gaze.

“I know,” Zilag said. “But I have to do this. I have to do my part, and I have to look out for my friend.”

“I don’t need you to protect me from Oth,” Solonn insisted, but his tone told that his anger was beginning to dissolve. Even if Zilag still fell short of understanding the situation, his earnest desire to help make things right made up for it somewhat.

“Hopefully you don’t,” Zilag said. “And hopefully you won’t need protecting from anything else, either. At any rate, I’m still going.”

Solonn held his gaze in silence for another moment, then sighed and nodded in acceptance.

“Fine,” Hledas conceded as well, but she still sounded none too happy about Zilag’s decision. “I’ll stay with the kids—you’d better come home,” she told Zilag, but there was earnest concern there alongside the warning. “Don’t you dare make me have to explain to our daughters that they’ll never see their father again.”

“I’ll try,” he told her, though he sounded a little less than confident. “I’ll try as hard as I possibly can. Just… well, just in case… tell them I love them, okay?”

Hledas’s frown deepened, the light in her eyes wavering. She nodded, apparently unable to find her voice in the moment.

Zilag moved closer to Hledas, closing his eyes and lowering his head, allowing his forehead to touch hers. “Goodbye,” he said, adding, “for now.” He lifted his gaze once more and looked toward Solonn. “Guess we’d better head out, then,” he said, moving toward the exit.

“Wait,” Solonn said, halting him. He turned to face both Zilag and Hledas once more. “There’s something you both need to know—that’s the main reason I came here in the first place.” Zilag and Hledas both looked at him attentively. He opened his mouth to speak… but then paused. Telling them to spread the word about the mistaken leadership and lingering threat could get them knocked out and thrown into prison chambers. Their children might never see them again.

He inhaled and tried another approach. “Just… look after yourselves, all right?” he said finally, opting for a more general warning. “Look after yourselves and everyone you know. Zilag has a point about keeping an open mind,” he acknowledged aloud, though he aimed the notion in a different direction. “Don’t assume you’re safe just because the authorities say you are, and tell everyone you can to stay vigilant, too,” he advised.

Zilag nodded at this, as did Hledas, though the light in the latter’s eyes still fluttered with uncertainty. Hoping that they’d heed his warning, “Goodbye,” Solonn said to Hledas. “You and your daughters stay safe. Please.” Then he turned back toward the exit. Zilag removed the ice barrier, replacing it once he and Solonn were in the corridor outside, and the two went down the hall to join the rest of the party.

 

* * *

 

The search began in the border-cavern. Through Oth, Zdir explained that the Security Guild most likely had the warren covered, and that the children were likely being held by exiles somewhere outside of Virc territory anyhow.

She instructed the others to exercise caution around any glalie they encountered and to avoid conflict—with the exiles, with guild members on a search of their own, or with anyone else—unless it was absolutely necessary to engage them. Meanwhile, wherever circumstances allowed it, they’d seek information from members of other species. Perhaps they’d noticed something that could point the way to the missing snorunt.

There were nods of acceptance from the others, but there was poorly concealed uncertainty on some of their faces, including Solonn’s. He had a hard time imagining any of Shoal Cave’s inhabitants wanting to cooperate with a bunch of predators, to say nothing of how they might react to Oth. But the alternative was a virtually blind search through caverns that extended gods knew how far and in gods knew how many directions. If they wasted too much time…

He caught Zilag’s eye. His friend returned the most reassuring look he could manage. Solonn suspected the sentiment was directed inward as much as outward.

The seven moved through the border cavern in a tight cluster with Oth at the center, staying close together to ensure that no one was left behind if they had to make a sudden escape. But when they reached the narrow passageway leading out into Shoal Cave proper, they were forced into single file.

Oth was fourth in line, hovering high enough to let them see over the heads of the glalie. Worry gnawed at Solonn as he followed at the very back, hoping that he and everyone else at the ends of the line were close enough for Oth to spirit away.

No danger had showed itself thus far. The border-cavern had been devoid of life, and the tunnel that led out of it was proving likewise. As the seven emerged into an open space once more and proceeded to explore it, that trend continued. Minute after minute passed, and one stone chamber after another turned up empty.

This did nothing to ease the tension that hung over the air. Sooner or later, the party knew, they’d run into someone. They could only hope it wasn’t the wrong someone.

Sure enough, the glalie in the party soon detected someone warm-bodied, and everyone heard the sound of flapping wings. The party halted, and several pairs of blue eyes turned toward a tunnel that curved rather sharply out of sight. The creature was just around the bend.

They lay in wait for a short time to see if there was anyone else down that passageway—more specifically, anyone who wasn’t warm-bodied. Apparently there wasn’t; no crack sounded to indicate a hunter picking the unseen creature off. The heat signature remained steady rather than suddenly vanishing, and its source was staying put rather than fleeing.

Zdir turned to face the others and nodded. The party entered the narrow passageway in the same formation as they’d entered all the rest: three glalie ahead of Oth, three behind, and Zdir in the lead. Just as she was about to disappear around the bend, a shrill chittering arose.

In almost the same instant, a thick ice barrier formed behind the party, sealing off that end of the tunnel. Solonn could hear another one solidifying up ahead—the flying creature could no longer escape.

<It is only a lone male zubat,> Oth informed the others. To the zubat, <Do not be afraid. We mean you no harm,> they said, using the most calm and soothing mindvoice they could manage. The zubat had stopped chittering but could still be heard fluttering about out of sight. <We are merely seeking information. Please try to respond as quietly as possible. We need to know if you have smelled or heard anything out of the ordinary recently, and if so, where.>

“Other than you just now, no!” the zubat said. To his credit, he managed to keep his voice down to a hiss. “Now please, go away! Leave me alone!”

<Very well. Thank you for your time.> The ice barriers vanished, and the wingbeats dwindled away as their maker finally fled. <We shall proceed, then,> the claydol said to the rest of the group, and the line began moving once more.

The search wore on. A detached sense of fatigue and hunger was starting to set in, but there was far too much on Solonn’s mind for him to care—a mind that was beginning to play tricks on him. Anything even remotely shaped like a snorunt warranted extra glances back to confirm that it wasn’t one. Phantom movements in the corner of his eye kept seizing his attention only to have nothing to show, with no indication that any of the others had seen anything, either.

The seven encountered and questioned more zubat along the way. Just like the first, the second knew nothing of any value to the party, and the same was true of the third. The fourth’s initial response was to fire a confuse ray at the party; the attack was foiled by Ronal’s protect aura, and an ice beam fired as a warning shot by Zdir dissuaded the zubat from attacking again. But even once he agreed to cooperate, he had nothing useful to say.

At length, the seven found themselves in walrein territory… or what should have been walrein territory. They’d been prepared for trouble from the natives, but the natives were nowhere to be found, alive or otherwise.

Their total absence troubled Solonn further, especially since were no signs of any struggle here. Maybe they’d simply relocated, but the lack of evidence as to why they weren’t around reminded him uncomfortably of what had happened to the missing snorunt—they’d also been described as simply gone. If the same thing was behind the abduction of those snorunt and the emptiness of this place…

He didn’t want to believe it. The possibility reminded him too much of Hagen’s theories. But it was getting harder and harder to imagine that exiled glalie in any numbers could make people vanish so thoroughly. Believing that the enemies might have a teleporter in their midst after all, meanwhile…

Solonn shuddered hard and tried to chase those notions away, tried to remind himself that the walrein and their charges still could have left of their own accord. But the other possibilities just wouldn’t leave him be. He could no longer be certain of what he was facing, leaving him all the more worried for the snorunt, for the party seeking them, and for the Virc.

The caverns beyond the deserted territory mirrored those just beyond the border-cavern; there was no one about, not even any zubat. The imagined presences and movements kept popping up, however, and now that Solonn was helplessly entertaining the notion of enemies who could teleport, his mind’s tricks had him more on edge than ever.

Then a faint blue light appeared in the chamber they’d just entered, followed by a glalie who was carrying a pair of dead zubat in his jaws, and neither Solonn nor anyone with him could dismiss the stranger as an illusion. Solonn automatically raised a protect shield around himself; out of the corner of his eye, he saw some of the other glalie in his party do likewise.

The stranger noticed them right away. “Hey!” he shouted, the zubat falling from his mouth, and as the stranger surged forward, Solonn caught a glimpse of more unfamiliar glalie rushing into the room—only to immediately lose them in a briefly-lingering burst of golden light.

The party reappeared somewhere else altogether: suddenly they were out in a snow-filled clearing in a forest of conifers, under the weak sunlight of the early morning. There was one more glalie in their midst than there should have been, and as he tore away from the others in a hurry, Solonn recognized him as the first stranger they’d seen in their previous location. They were alone with him now.

Why, Solonn wondered at once, did Oth bring that glalie with them?

The stranger lit up with a dark blue aura as he backpedaled, and Solonn realized in nearly the same instant that his own protect shield had fallen. His heart hammering, he tried to bring it back up as fast as he could, feeling the slightest relief when he succeeded.

The stranger’s eyes, already wide and blazing with obvious bewilderment and fear, gave a brilliant white flash—just as everything went gold and featureless again. The picture that followed was nearly identical to the one that had come before; the white light in the stranger’s eyes was gone, and Oth had moved a few yards forward.

The stranger looked about frantically until he found the claydol. Without really giving it any thought, Solonn tapped into the highest power of his element and kept a hold on it, ready to strike the moment the stranger’s shield fell—

—And then there was a third burst of golden light, another lingering one. The first thing Solonn saw in its wake was the now shieldless stranger dropping to the floor as an echoing crack sounded.

Solonn looked over the rest of the party to try and figure out who’d beaten him to the strike. He saw Zdir breathing heavily and staring at the unconscious glalie, and he immediately suspected the nhaza had been her doing.

Though not ungrateful, Solonn couldn’t deny that there was an easier way to have solved the trouble they’d gotten into: she’d said that they’d avoid any conflict wherever possible, and they could’ve gotten out of that situation altogether the moment it had reared its head.

He was inclined to ask why they hadn’t done just that—as it stood, it seemed like Zdir had put them in needless danger. He saw looks on the faces of the other glalie that suggested they might be thinking likewise.

<For any among you who are wondering where we are, we are in Aderi. We are far from Shoal Cave—we are safe here from anyone who would pose a threat to us,> Oth spoke up from beside the fallen glalie, fielding the question of their current whereabouts before anyone could voice it. <We are also far from Mordial,> they added for Solonn’s sake.

<Zdir has identified this person as one of the exiles,> they went on. There was a distinct unease in their mindvoice… a hesitance, Solonn thought. <As such, she believes that he is likely to have been involved with the abduction of the snorunt. He may therefore know their current location.>

A chill ran through Solonn as he looked upon the stranger, his throat going dry, the light in his eyes unsteady. It had just truly hit him: this might have been the one who took Jen. This might also have been the one who took Azvida’s life or Jeneth’s, or even both… Solonn felt his stomach turn at the thought, and he gritted his teeth.

<If it turns out this person had nothing to do with the kidnappings and murders, we will return him to Shoal Cave and resume our search.> They lowered their head very slightly. <I will now determine if that is the case, as well as if this person knows anything else that would be of use to us.>

Solonn’s eyes went wide. He’d realized at once just how Oth was going to determine those things, and he couldn’t pretend it didn’t disturb him in a deep and very personal way. He shot a rather shocked and disappointed look at Zdir—it had to have been her idea. He couldn’t imagine Oth volunteering that course of action. Not when they’d always asked for consent before looking into someone else’s mind.

“Is this really necessary?” Solonn asked her.

Zdir looked at him with an expression he couldn’t decipher. “You can’t mean what you’re asking. Surely you of all people would recognize this as something that needs to be done,” she said somberly. “You heard Oth: this person is very likely to know where the children are—probably moreso than anyone else we’re likely to encounter anytime soon. If he does know something about it, we need to know it, too.”

Offense moved swiftly into Solonn’s features; he didn’t like even the slightest suggestion that he wasn’t giving the kidnapped snorunt due concern, especially considering who was among them. “Well, yes, of course we do, but—”

“But what?” Zdir interrupted him. “Should we really take the time to wake him, deal with any further attempts to fight us or flee from us, and then try and get him to answer our questions once we’ve got him cooperating that far? That could be time that the children don’t have. We don’t know what their captors ultimately intended to do with them when they took them.”

Solonn tried to respond to her. Instead he ended up breaking eye contact with her and shutting his mouth almost as soon as he’d opened it, not knowing what to say. He wasn’t even sure what to think. He agreed with Zdir in a way; he couldn’t stand the thought of further harm befalling the snorunt, and he especially didn’t want it to happen just because they’d failed to stop it in time. But he still had a hard time agreeing with what she’d decided to do with that glalie’s mind.

Gods… why do you even care so much about him? part of him asked, reminding him who that person lying there might be and what that person might have done. Images of broken bodies in the mist-filled temple raced through his mind, images of ruined eyes on a painfully familiar face looking up at him as their owner’s life ebbed away, and he couldn’t bite back the choked, near-voiceless sob they brought from him.

Then another mental image intruded: a dragon made of blazing light with pitch-black holes for eyes. The sob sharpened into a hiss.

Solonn turned to face Oth and ask if they, at least, were fine with what they were about to do… only to find the claydol hovering before and slightly above the exile with their head lowered and all but the foremost of their eyes closed. They’d already begun their scan.

He looked away at once. It was hard enough to see someone hanging there and probing the mind of another person, enemy or not, like some kind of psychic parasite. It was even worse since that someone was his friend. He only hoped at this point that Oth’s search would bear fruit, that it would indeed lead to the children’s salvation.

Minutes passed, a wait made no easier by his awareness that searching the exile’s mind might not yield anything useful, thus resulting in precious time wasted and a mind invaded in vain. Come on, he urged Oth, at least get it over with…

Finally, <This person is indeed involved with the guilty parties, and he knows exactly where the children are being held.> Even now, with the deed done, Oth still sounded hesitant, and something of a somber tone had crept into their mindvoice, as well. This immediately struck Solonn as ominous—had Oth discovered even more bad news regarding the children? <I will be transporting us there shortly, picking up the snorunt, and then transporting them along with the rest of us and this glalie to the Haven. I am sorry to say that someone has… tampered with the children’s minds, making them believe that they belong among the exiles—hopefully the people at the Haven can undo this tampering.>

Solonn could have sworn his heart stopped for a moment at those words. The news that there was someone among their enemies who could control minds and that such a thing had been done to those children—to his own half-brother—hit him so hard and on such a personal level that he had to sit down before he could simply fall from the air. He saw the others moving toward Oth for their imminent teleportation and tried with little success to calm himself, leafing through his memories of the Haven and its various psychic therapists as he managed to rise and join the rest of the party.

Please… let one of them fix him.

Chapter Text

The golden light lingered yet again, for longer this time, but not quite as steadily. Here and there, it tried to fade out like it always did when its passengers had reached their destination, only to pulse right back to full intensity before it could get more than a little dimmer. Every time it happened, those it carried felt a bizarre sense of only possibly having arrived somewhere.

As such, when they finally, definitely reached their destination and the light vanished completely, all but Oth and the still-unconscious exile were left fairly disoriented. The sheer contrast between where they were and where they’d been didn’t help matters.

Once he was finally convinced that he physically existed again, Solonn recognized his artificial, pale-walled, brightly-lit surroundings: he was in the Haven. He recognized something else, as well: a familiar face in a small crowd of snorunt. Relief washed over him, only to falter when he saw a fuchsia aura bloom around the children. It was Oth’s telekinetic hold, there to keep the snorunt from escaping, and it swiftly reminded him of just why they needed to be here.

Most of the snorunt started struggling almost immediately, but to no avail. “Help!” one of them called out, and a couple of the others followed suit. “Help!”

“They’re… they’re not gonna come…” another said, sounding as though he were on the brink of panic, his frantically-sweeping gaze taking in his unfamiliar surroundings. “They can’t…” Most of the shouting snorunt fell silent at his words, but one kept on, raising her voice close to its breaking point in desperation.

The sound of footsteps mingled with her cries, multiple bare feet slapping against linoleum. Solonn turned and saw a trio of chansey rushing to join the group, and he heard what was likely another one coming from the opposite direction.

“What’s going on here?” one of them asked, sounding a bit startled.

<These snorunt have been subjected to some sort of psychic tampering,> Oth answered her; the shouting snorunt went dead silent at the sound of their alien speech. <This person—> They gestured toward the exile. <—is involved with the ones responsible for this tampering.>

The chansey frowned, exchanging not-quite-readable glances with her three coworkers. Then she cast an equally inscrutable one upon the snorunt, and then the exile, and then Oth. “Go fetch Adn, please,” she said to one of the other chansey, who set off at once. “We’ll need Saul and Chandra to tend to him,” she then said with a nod toward the unconscious glalie, “and someone needs to place a call to the station.” Two of the other chansey left to carry out those instructions.

Looking up slightly toward Oth, the remaining chansey said, “Don’t worry; someone will be here to have a word with him soon, and Adn should be here to take the snorunt off of your hands any moment now. He’ll also be the one who’s going to see what can be done about this ‘tampering’ you spoke of.”

Adn… The name didn’t ring a bell, but there were a lot of little details about Convergence that Solonn couldn’t reach with so many things on his mind, one of which was almost literally right in front of him.

He looked back to the snorunt, identifying Jen as one of the still-struggling ones, and he gently nudged his way past Zereth to move closer to his half-brother. “Jen,” Solonn said, trying to keep the worry out of his voice in a desperate attempt to calm the snorunt. “It’s going to be all right,” he tried to assure Jen as well as himself. “They’re going to take care of you.”

Jen stopped struggling against his confines and looked up at the massive glalie who’d just spoken to him. Fear was written all over the snorunt’s face, but his features tightened suddenly, an imperfect and very deliberate hardening. “You’re… you’re not gonna get away with this,” he said, trying to sound tough but failing completely. “You’d better let us go!”

Solonn backed away slightly, involuntarily, the light of his eyes wavering with concern and dimmed by sadness. He sighed, disappointed despite not really being surprised. Jen had no real reason to trust him in his current condition—for all Solonn knew, his half-brother might not even recognize him at the moment. His eyelight dimmed even further.

Nonetheless, “It’ll be all right,” Solonn said again, if only for his own sake.

Once again, footsteps approached from down the hall: lighter, longer strides this time. Their source, a blue-haired gardevoir, almost seemed to glide rather than walk despite his audible steps.

“I’ll take them from here,” the gardevoir said in a warm, resonant voice, thereby identifying himself as Adn. Oth relinquished their psychic hold over the snorunt, but Adn gathered the children up in his own before they could really do anything with their newfound freedom.

“Do any of you know what sort of being is responsible for this?” Adn asked of the party, waving a hand over the snorunt.

<I am afraid not,> Oth answered. <Will this interfere with your work?>

“Well, it may take me a bit more effort if, for example, their reprogramming turns out to be the work of a ghost’s methods rather than a psychic’s, but I’m certain I’ll be able to undo it regardless of its cause.” As he spoke, he lifted the eight snorunt off the ground in unison, levitating them in midair all around him. “It just might have shaved a little time off the process if I could’ve known how to approach it from the start. They still ought to be just fine when I’m finished with them,” Adn said.

“All right, then, let’s let everyone get to their work,” the chansey who’d stayed with the group spoke up as a pair of machoke arrived on the scene to carry the exile away. “Come with me,” she said to the party, beckoning with a stubby, fingerless paw as she began to turn away.

The party followed her out of the room. Solonn glanced back at Adn and his patients, who soon moved out of sight. He hoped Adn was right to be confident in his own abilities, and he reminded himself that he’d had enough faith in the Haven to have brought it up even when he hadn’t known for sure if it was still up and running. He’ll fix this, he tried to assure himself.

The chansey led them into a fairly spacious room with a pair of large windows to the outside showing an early-evening sky over a street with sparse traffic. There were chairs lining the walls, but no one took any of them, the glalie merely seating themselves on the floor while the chansey stood by the entrance and Oth hovered close to her.

“Adn will be here with the snorunt once he’s finished treating them,” the chansey said, holding the crowd of somewhat large creatures together in her sights as best she could. “The people who’ll be questioning the other glalie you brought in will also be here later on with a few questions for you.

“In the meantime, if any of you would like some refreshments, the cafeteria is down the hall to the left,” she told them, gesturing in that direction. “There are restrooms right next to this room—don’t worry; there are instructions posted in there if you need them. And if you need anything else, just ask Catherine at the front desk, okay?” With that, the chansey left.

“Hmm…” Zdir said once the chansey was out of sight. She turned toward Solonn. “Do you know who these ‘people’ who’ll be asking us questions later are or why they want to question us? Is there any chance they think we’re the culprits?” She cocked her head slightly. “Or might they be inclined to offer us aid?”

“It’ll be someone from the police department,” Solonn reckoned aloud. “Their Security Guild,” he clarified almost immediately. “And… I can’t say if anyone is suspicious of us or not, but they’ll want to be as sure as possible before they decide that it wasn’t us.” Unlike some people… he thought bitterly.

“As for offering us aid…” he said, pausing briefly to peruse his memories of Convergence’s policies. Only then did he truly realize just how much they might’ve changed since he’d lived and worked there. “…I don’t know for sure,” he admitted. “They might only be concerned with making sure whatever we’re dealing with back home poses no threat here.”

“Depending on what this unknown, mind-altering being—or, gods help us, possibly beings—the exiles have on their side is, they might very well pose a threat here,” Zdir said grimly.

“Whatever the motives and intentions of our hosts might be, we’d probably do well to have as many answers for them as possible under the circumstances,” Ronal said.

A couple of the others nodded in agreement at this. “How much did you learn while you were looking around in there?” Narzen asked Oth, turning to face them as he spoke.

<Not as much as we might have preferred,> Oth said, <but a fair amount nonetheless. The exile is named Anzen Vin-Siara. He did not participate in the attack on the temple, but he did aid in the abductions. Those of his group call themselves the Sinaji, and their lair is in the far western areas of Shoal Cave, as far from Virc-Dho as one can go without leaving Shoal Cave entirely. Their leader—the one who, according to Anzen, reprogrammed the minds of the children—is named Sanaika Val-Harka.>

That got an immediate reaction; every face other than Zdir’s looked at the claydol incredulously. “Wait, that guy? Seriously?” Zereth asked.

“That can’t possibly be right…” Solonn said. He just couldn’t imagine the same Sanaika he’d encountered all those years ago—or any other glalie, for that matter—having the ability to warp people’s minds. There had to be something else in the equation…

“That’s what I said. I can believe that he’s their leader. That he could have done what else Anzen thinks he did, however…” Zdir shook her head. “No, that, I suspect, is just something Sanaika wants his followers to believe so he can garner more respect from them. There’s something else among them, I’m quite certain, something that people like Anzen don’t know about…”

Solonn looked away from the others, ill at ease all over again in the wake of her words. They didn’t tell him anything he hadn’t already suspected, but they did serve as a chilling reminder that the true nature of their enemy still eluded them.

He looked away and spotted a clock upon the wall next to a dark and silent television set with an “OUT OF ORDER” sign taped to its screen. How long it had been since they’d come here and how long before they could leave, he couldn’t guess. However certain Adn was that he could help the snorunt, it would surely take some time, especially with eight minds to restore. And the police might have their hands full with Anzen for a while before stopping here.

“Gods, I wish someone would get back to us…” he said aloud to no one in particular. “Or that I could have gone with him,” he added.

“That Adn guy?” Zilag guessed from beside him. Solonn made a faint, affirmative noise. “Don’t worry,” Zilag said as comfortingly as he could manage. “I’m sure he’ll be done with them soon enough. He seemed like he really knows what he’s doing.”

“He probably does,” Solonn said, even though he couldn’t help but worry to the contrary. “It’s just… the way Jen looked at me, the way he talked… I really don’t think he recognized me. It’s… it’s almost like we haven’t really got him back yet,” he said with a pained, concerned sort of frustration. “Not until Adn takes care of him.”

“Which he will,” Zilag assured him, though he still sounded a little concerned himself.

Minutes passed in relative silence. Then tapping sounds from somewhere outside the room caught the party’s attention. Solonn’s heart skipped a beat as he realized at once what they signified: they were the footsteps of snorunt. Adn had succeeded.

The gardevoir came into sight, leading the snorunt before him. The children moved with a not-quite-rhythmic, slightly uncertain gait that went with the rather confused and overwhelmed looks on their faces. Adn gently shepherded them all in before him, encouraging them to sit down among the glalie.

As they entered, Solonn noticed that something was still amiss about the snorunt: there were only seven of them. He also noticed that none of them seemed interested in approaching him, and when he looked them over, he didn’t see Jen. He shot a look at Adn, his eyes brightening in a burgeoning panic. Had the gardevoir failed Jen for some reason—or worse still, hurt him somehow?

“I’ve succeeded in restoring their memories,” Adn told the six glalie and the claydol, “and yes, with one exception, I’m afraid,” he added quickly before any of the confused or panicked people in the room could say anything.

“Why?” Solonn asked him, sounding accusatory as well as fearful despite an earnest effort to keep that question coming out as a demand. “Why can’t you fix him?”

“I can,” Adn said, unfazed by Solonn’s tone, sounding every bit as calm and confident as he had every other time he’d spoken. “It’s just going to take a bit longer than it did for the rest of them. Minds are unique—they vary in their resistance to psychic procedures, and for some reason that I’ve yet to determine, his is being particularly stubborn.”

Solonn wondered why in the world that could possibly be the case. He quickly began to fear that it was a sign of some further harm done by whatever had brainwashed Jen—harm that couldn’t be undone. Still… he glanced at the other seven children, all of them successfully deprogrammed—he wanted to believe that Jen would be among them soon. Those seven snorunt were proof that Adn had indeed known what he was doing. He’d solved their problems. Solonn wanted to have faith that the gardevoir would solve Jen’s, as well.

“You’re sure you can help him,” he said, reaching for confirmation, for anything that could help him feel certain that things would turn out all right.

“Absolutely,” Adn said, kindness and reassurance playing about his orange eyes. “Don’t worry, any of you. However long it takes, I’ll make sure that he—”

Quite suddenly, thoroughly unexpectedly, the gardevoir’s voice dropped out, as did all sound. An all too familiar golden emptiness filled the air, lingering for more than a moment and wavering ever so briefly at one point.

When it faded out completely, the Haven was gone with it. Stone surfaces had replaced the painted walls; a wide tunnel winding out of sight had replaced the waiting room. All of the glalie were still present, as were Oth and the seven snorunt who’d been successfully treated. There was no sign of the gardevoir who’d been speaking to them the moment before.

Inexplicably, they had teleported, leaving Convergence behind.

Multiple pairs of blue eyes looked about in confusion, their owners rising in near unison, with several of them turning to the only one there who could’ve pulled them out of the Haven in such a way. “What… Oth, why did you do that?” Solonn couldn’t help but ask, his voice barely above a whisper.

<I… I did not mean to teleport,> Oth said, and they actually sounded rather afraid. <The thought of doing so never even crossed my mind…>

“Well, you need to get us back there!” Solonn hissed. He had to get back to Jen—the thought of leaving him behind was unacceptable as it was, but doing so while the snorunt’s well-being still hung in the balance…

Oth gave no obvious response at first. A few seconds passed, and then they emitted a noise that might have indicated worry, frustration, or both, briefly shutting all of their eyes as if trying to focus harder on something. <I cannot get it to happen… I cannot even find the energy to access for its use!>

“Keep trying!” Solonn urged them, now fearing for both Jen and Oth. What in the world could have made them teleport—and was the same thing involuntarily suppressing their powers now?

“Where are we?” one of the snorunt spoke up, plainly fearful.

“Well… I don’t think we know yet,” Zilag answered him quietly. There was a hint of unease in his voice that suggested an answer might be occurring to him, and not one that he liked. “Do we?” he asked of the others.

“Yes and no,” Zdir said. “I’m quite certain we’re in Shoal Cave—this place looks familiar. Which part of Shoal Cave it is, however… that, I can’t say.”

It seemed no one else among them knew exactly where they were, either. Solonn only knew that their current location put them all at considerable risk; if they were spotted by the wrong people now, especially with those children in tow… He felt sick just thinking about it, and he could tell by the looks on the other glalie’s faces that they were having similar thoughts and feelings about the situation.

“So… now what do we do?” Narzen asked.

“We go home!” the snorunt who had spoken last said. “Please, I just wanna go home!”

“Yeah!” another one said.

There was a brief silence. Then, “Yes. We’re going home,” Zdir said. “I’m going to try and remember the way from here. Now, I won’t lie to you: it might get scary on the way there, but we’ll protect you. We promise.” There were several noises of assent and nods from Oth and the other glalie at those words. Zdir looked down the tunnel in one direction and then the other, deep in thought. She looked to Oth for a moment, the claydol nodding at something she’d just told them privately.

“Come on,” she then said. “Now, don’t be afraid of what Oth’s about to do,” she told the children. “They’re only going to carry you so that you don’t have to walk and so that no one will hear you walking. Just try to relax as best as you can and try not to talk unless it’s really important.”

With that, Oth telekinetically took hold of the seven snorunt and lifted them a few inches off the ground, at which a couple of them couldn’t help but gasp or yelp despite Zdir’s assurances.

Shhh…” Zdir reminded them. “As for the rest of you,” she said to her party, “if at any point you realize where we are and how to get back to Virc-Dho from there, let me know. You can take the lead from there.”

Zdir began moving forward, and everyone else followed, with the adults surrounding the children. The tunnel they traveled through led them on a path that was winding but as-yet unbroken. But sooner or later, it was sure to branch out. They’d be forced to stop and choose a direction—Solonn hoped Zdir would pick the right one.

When they finally did stop, the sight before them pushed those concerns aside.

Chapter Text

If the sight before the party hadn’t already stopped them in their figurative tracks, the sound that came with it—a long and incredibly loud roar, six powerful voices calling out in unison—certainly would have. The snorunt and glalie and the single claydol in their midst now stared at a cluster of walrein blocking their path. Each of the bulky, blue creatures wore an expression that told all too clearly that they weren’t interested in letting the party pass without giving them a hard time about it.

Solonn eyed the foremost of the walrein warily. The Virc didn’t encounter them anywhere near as often as they came across spheal and sealeo. They generally left walrein alone whenever they did stumble upon them, and with good reason. Those who’d gotten on the bad side of one hadn’t come away unscathed, and their tales of those encounters had spread—all Virc glalie knew of the strength, resilience, and dangerous tusks of the walrein.

Taking on just one of them was generally considered risky, and here were six—a potential threat even given their own numbers. The party had planned to simply teleport away from walrein if they ran afoul of them, but that was no longer an option. Now, with the children still in their custody and something clearly wrong with Oth, Solonn wished more than ever that it still was.

<We apologize, sirs,> Oth spoke up. A couple of the walrein’s eyes darted around momentarily, trying to pinpoint the source of the words without sound. The rest of the walrein guessed where it had come from right away, casting an acknowledging and appraising glance at the claydol. Then they went right back to staring the glalie down. <We did not mean to startle you, and we do not mean any harm,> Oth went on. <We merely need to pass through—we must bring these children home. We will not cause any trouble for you in the process.>

The foremost of the walrein drew a deep breath, his already broad chest expanding greatly. “I don’t know who you are,” he said in a booming voice, still keeping his eyes locked onto the glalie in front of him as he spoke, “let alone what. But I reckon you’re not from around here, and I imagine you haven’t been given the most complete picture of how things work around here if you’ve chosen to ally yourself with those creatures. At any rate, no, you’re not passing through, not any of you.”

He’d had to raise his voice on those last few words; a great thundering noise had arisen and was growing louder by the second. A large crowd of sealeo was amassing behind the walrein, and from what Solonn could see, they looked even less hospitable than the walrein had.

“I won’t attack children of any kind,” the apparent spokesman of the walrein went on, “and neither will any of my men here, but they…” He gave a quick, backwards jerk of his head toward the crowd behind him. “They might not be so inclined to show that kind of mercy.”

<With all due respect, sir… do you have any authority over them?> Oth asked.

“We do. But at the same time, we understand their caution may well have saved their lives or their loved ones in the past. Now then, if you’re really interested in getting those children home safely, you won’t push your luck in here. Go find some other route to take,” the foremost walrein said, and his tone told that he was done discussing the matter.

There was a moment that was silent save for the shuffling about of restless sealeo. Solonn worried that they might decide to just charge and try to drive the party away, or worse. It was surprising that they hadn’t done so already.

Then, <We will go. Again, we apologize.> To the rest of the party, <Go quickly, but not too quickly. Zdir does not entirely trust that the sealeo will not charge after us, and neither do I, but we must stay together.>

Not quite in unison, the glalie turned around. The party began making their retreat in nearly the same instant. The sounds of the sealeo were still audible, including something that suggested flippers slapping against stone. For a moment, Solonn was sure that he and the rest of the party really were being pursued, but all those sounds grew softer rather than louder as they left the creatures further behind. Seconds passed, and Oth gave no indication that anyone was following them.

Eventually, <Stop,> Oth said. <We are back where we began. I… regret to inform you that I remain unable to teleport,> they said heavily. <We have no choice but to take the opposite route from here this time. Again, if any of you recognize our surroundings at any point, please let us know.>

Zdir made her way to the front once more as the claydol spoke, and Solonn looked at her with uncertainty as she moved past him. Maybe she’d simply made a mistake leading them to the walrein and sealeo, and the opposite path was the one that led back to Virc-Dho all along. But there was also the possibility that she’d chosen correctly the first time, that the right way back to the warren—and maybe the only way—was now impassable. They were more lost than ever before if that was the case. He caught a look on Zdir’s face as she passed that suggested similar concerns, as well as a hint of embarrassment and apology in the way her eyelight fluctuated.

As the party moved out, Solonn tried to focus on the lingering possibility that Oth would regain the ability to teleport before the party could get hopelessly lost or run into any more trouble. The fact that it was still just a possibility made it hard for Solonn to be too optimistic about the situation. Neither he nor anyone else even knew exactly what was wrong with Oth, though Solonn still harbored dark suspicions about the way that guard back at the holding cell had treated them. He had very little understanding of how a claydol’s body worked; for all he knew, too much exposure to hostile elements could damage whatever mechanism allowed them to teleport, and perhaps permanently.

Please, gods… don’t let that be the case. Please let them heal…

At length, the path split. Both branches led leftward, with the main route curving out of sight a relatively short distance past the entrance to an offshoot in the left wall. After a few moments’ worth of tight-browed consideration, Zdir guided the party into the farther path.

That path ultimately turned out to be a dead end, opening into a somewhat large, oddly-shaped room. Solonn prepared to turn back around and saw Zereth already turning, but Zdir stayed put and looked as though she were thinking.

Then, <We will stop and rest here for a while,> Oth announced; Zdir began leading the rest of the party well into the room, away from the exit, as the claydol spoke. <I will make further attempts to teleport while we are here.>

Most of the glalie put a little bit more space between themselves and the snorunt and sat down, many of them leaning against the walls. Zdir remained where she was, staying airborne, and she turned to face the children as Oth lowered them to the floor. Some of the snorunt looked confused or worried, while a couple of the others looked annoyed.

“Now, don’t stray, any of you,” Zdir said in a quiet, gentle tone once Oth had relinquished their hold on the snorunt completely. “The ones who took you are still out there, and until we get you back home, we’re the only ones who can protect you from them.

“Speaking of the ones who took you…” she went on, “can any of you tell me anything about the one who tampered with your minds, made you believe things that weren’t true?”

All of the snorunt shook their heads or said “no” in one way or another.

“I don’t think we were awake when it happened… were we?” one of the slightly larger, presumably older ones asked of the others, which sent another wave of negatory responses through the children. “I was at the snowgrounds just minding my own business—we all were—and then a couple of glalie showed up. They knocked out Jeril right away. Her and Seska. We couldn’t get out of there. Pretty soon, they got all of us.”

“I tried to fight back,” the snorunt at her side said, looking proud for a moment, but wilted just as quickly, looking aside. “…It didn’t work.”

“At least you tried,” said the snorunt who had been speaking previously. She sounded a bit regretful, even ashamed. “But anyway, yeah. Next thing I knew, I woke up somewhere else, and I thought I’d always been there.”

Zdir nodded in acknowledgment, drawing and releasing a deep breath with a look of disappointment. “Is that what all of you remember, more or less?” she asked, at which the snorunt all nodded in near-unison.

“I’m sorry I can’t remember any more about it,” another of them said quietly, earnestly.

Zdir’s features softened a bit. “That’s okay,” she assured her. “It’s not your fault.”

There was a quick flash in her eyes, and a small pile of snow appeared just beside her. She moved back a bit, and Oth went over to her side a moment later. “Eat,” Zdir told the snorunt. “You’ve certainly earned it.” Four of the snorunt obliged right away, with the rest only hesitating briefly before digging in. She watched them for a moment, then turned to face most of the other glalie.

<Are there any among you who have not successfully hunted in the past couple of days?> Oth asked.

That question seized Solonn’s attention at once. His eyes widening slightly, he looked over the snorunt, not knowing for sure how they might react to such a question… but found them all just sitting there and eating snow, giving no indication that they’d even heard the last thing Oth had said. Oth had transmitted the message to the glalie alone.

Solonn had to stop and think about Oth’s question for a moment. The last few relatively mundane hours preceding the hell that had broken loose in Virc-Dho were hard to reach. He finally managed to remember having hunted shortly before he’d gone to sleep the night before the attack, and he was fairly sure that fell within the time frame Oth had just inquired about. He looked back toward the claydol and shook his head.

Someone else had apparently done the opposite; <I am afraid you will have to make do with ice until the children have returned to Virc-Dho,> Oth said. <Zdir believes that hunting in their presence might disturb them too greatly. She wishes for them to remain as calm as possible, for the sake of their safety and our own.>

That made sense—no one needed to be losing their heads at a time like this. Solonn just hoped that no one, including himself, would be weakened too much by the lack of proper food. Ice could occupy the stomach, could pacify hunger to a degree, but without meat, the glalie in the party would start getting weak and sick before too much longer.

Solonn conjured up a moderately sized block of ice in front of himself. The rest of the glalie served themselves likewise. Though he still felt oddly disconnected from the hunger he ought to be feeling by now, he started in on the ice right away, trying not to eat too slowly. The party should and probably would move on before much longer.

As he fed, he saw Oth and Zdir make their way over to Narzen, who looked up from his ice with a questioning expression. Narzen maintained eye contact with Oth, and he nodded a couple of times over the seconds that followed. His expression changed from vague disappointment to something that suggested he was intrigued by something, and then to something that looked rather eager.

Oth and Zdir then moved away from Narzen, leaving Solonn to wonder what that silent, one-sided conversation had been about. That question moved aside when he saw Oth and Zdir stop in front of Zilag and start up a similar conversation with him.

Solonn frowned in puzzlement, wondering what the two of them—or rather just Zdir, he imagined—could’ve seen fit to discuss one-on-one with the others rather than saying it to the entire party at once. He suspected they weren’t discussing the same thing with Zilag as they had with Narzen, however; Zdir had a more serious expression while Oth spoke to Zilag, and this conversation wore on longer than the last.

It was all too clear that the topic was unsettling Zilag to some degree. But at the same time, Zilag seemed to respond affirmatively to every silent question, and Zdir looked satisfied with those responses.

The two drifted away from Zilag and back to the snorunt. Zilag still looked troubled, and Solonn felt an urge to go over to him and ask what that had been all about.

But before he could, <Zdir wishes to know if anyone else among you wants to stay in Virc-Dho when we return the children,> Oth spoke up.

Solonn was shaking his head before he’d realized he was doing so. He was a fugitive, and a fairly recognizable one at that. Showing his face in the warren was a bad idea, and he got the distinct, unpleasant feeling that it would be for a long time—possibly forever, much as he hated to consider it.

<Very well, then,> Oth said. <If any of you change your minds later, please let me know. Even if we have already returned the children by that point, we will help you get back to the warren.>

Zdir looked pleased enough with the silent answers the rest of the glalie had given her, returning her attention to her ice and sending no further messages through Oth for the time being.

Solonn, meanwhile, was less at ease with the matter. Something in the way Oth had asked about it had struck him and struck him hard: if anyone else among you wishes to be left in Virc-Dho, they’d said. Perhaps by “anyone else” they’d been referring to Zdir, but he promptly dismissed the thought; Zdir had the same good reason not to return that he had, and he was sure she knew it. Instead he suspected that Oth was referring to Narzen and Zilag—that the matter of whether or not they wanted to go back to Virc-Dho was what those private conversations had been about, and that they’d both said “yes”.

This didn’t really come as a surprise, at least not where Zilag was concerned. Of course Zilag would want to go back home to his family. Solonn just wasn’t sure if it would really be safe for Zilag or anyone else in the party to do so.

Once again, he’d remembered the lahain knowing his name back in the council chamber, and once again, he’d wondered just what else the Virc authorities saw fit to know. This time, however, it had occurred to him that maybe they already knew whom he associated with. If they did know such things, then the authorities would likely look to those associates for any information that might help them track down the fugitives. And if they decided those associates weren’t cooperating enough to suit them… Solonn swallowed hard, feeling as though the rest of his ice had just tried to force itself down his throat at once.

But then something else crossed his mind: Zdir had been one of them. Part of the council. She likely knew what they knew, in which case she’d probably know whether or not Zilag and Narzen would be in that kind of danger. And if they were, then she wouldn’t let them go home, would she?

That, he couldn’t answer. He sort of figured she wouldn’t, given how she hadn’t been able to stand the thought of leaving innocent people trapped in the Security Guild’s custody. Still, the possibility that Zilag and Narzen might face trouble from the guild upon returning sent fresh currents of worry through his nerves.

That was yet another reason to hope Oth would be able to teleport again soon, as if they needed any more. If anyone who decided to stay in Virc-Dho got thrown into the Security Guild’s cells, he could see no other feasible way to free them.

<We will now resume our journey toward Virc-Dho,> Oth said, sounding regretful, and telekinetically gathered up the children once more. As the other glalie began to rise and cluster around the snorunt, Solonn hurriedly finished his ice, then quickly got up to join the others. The party and their charges departed the cavern and went back out into the unknown, with Solonn still concerned about what might happen after reaching their destination in addition to what might happen on the way there.

The party backtracked to the fork in the road, taking the other route this time. Not long afterward, they were met with another fork and subsequently ran into another dead end, but they didn’t stop there, and they only made a brief stop for necessities at the third dead end they encountered.

Meanwhile, nothing of their surroundings looked familiar in the least, and no one had given any indication that they recognized anything around them since Zdir had. Maybe that wasn’t the place she thought it was after all, Solonn considered dismally. It truly seemed that they were traveling blind at this point—and there was the chance, he couldn’t help but consider, that they were headed straight for the Sinaji’s lair.

That thought sent a fresh bolt of fear into him. Before he had long to dwell on it, however, <Solonn! This place… we have been here, have we not?>

Being addressed directly when he hadn’t been expecting it startled him at first; he threw a gaze about, but couldn’t seem to connect any of what he saw to anything he could remember.

Then his wits congealed once more, his eyes widening, and he nodded at Oth as he realized that yes, he and the claydol had been here before, and recently at that. He’d been here alone several times beforehand, as a matter of fact. This was simply his first time looking at it from this angle.

Oth had moved to the front of the party and was now leading them toward an irregularity in the path ahead, which turned out to be a large, deep hole in the floor. The party had managed to stumble upon Grosh’s home.

Oth came to a stop at the edge of the pit, and they once again relinquished their hold over the children. <Be careful not to fall in,> they warned them.

The claydol leaned forward, peering down into the hole in silence. Next to them, Zdir was doing likewise, wearing a look of contemplation. She nodded at something no one but the two of them could hear.

<Solonn… do you suppose your father would mind if we were to take shelter here while he is away?> Oth asked.

Solonn quickly realized where Oth was going with this. When he and Oth had been on their way to visit Grosh, he’d told them how the steelix had remained undisturbed in that hole for so many years. If such a creature had stayed hidden there for so long, then maybe the party could avoid being noticed there, too.

Solonn figured Grosh would have no problem at all with them using his home to stay safe—if anything, the steelix would be elated to know that he could help them, even if only in some distant, indirect way.

Gods… he’d be happy just to know we’re alive, he recognized, which made him rather heartsick. Solonn nodded to Oth in response to their question, silently praying that the steelix he answered for would reunite with his home and what remained of his family before much longer.

<All right, then,> the claydol said. <I have proposed that we stop here to rest for a while, longer than any of our previous stops,> they announced, which earned a groan from one of the snorunt. <This—> They gestured toward the hole with one of their turret-hands, the other still clutching the herbs that they’d gathered to their chest. <—has been the home of one of our allies for many years. He is elsewhere at this time, but I have assurances that he would not mind us staying here in his absence.

<Given a bit more time to rest, I may finally be able to teleport us to the warren. I sincerely hope that I will be. If not, that tunnel,> Oth said, pointing toward a passageway off to the left, <ultimately leads back to Virc-Dho, but fear not—it is a scarcely-traveled route. People virtually never come here. Our hope is that we may be able to avoid notice here, or at least likelier to avoid it than we might be anywhere else that we can presently reach.>

In truth, that’s all it was: a hope. Still, it was better than nothing, and Solonn reckoned that a good, long rest really could help the claydol recover. That would make the final phase of their rescue mission much easier to pull off without any further trouble. And resting out of sight in that pit was certainly preferable to doing so out in the open.

An ice platform appeared, covering the hole in the floor. Solonn looked to Zdir, saw the brightened light in her eyes, and figured she was responsible for it.

She moved out onto the platform once it was level with the floor, and Ronal followed her, but she shook her head when Solonn and Zereth tried to do likewise.

<Zdir and Ronal wish to make sure no one else is down there before the children are allowed to descend, just in case,> Oth explained.

As Solonn watched the platform slowly carry Zdir and Ronal downward, the light from the two glalie’s eyes dwindling as they went deeper into the chasm, a thread of concern for them uncurled in his mind despite the fact that he still doubted they’d find anyone down there. He didn’t question Zdir’s choice on the matter; he understood that no one else here—not even Oth, really—had as much reason as he did to believe this place was so rarely disturbed. Now that he thought about it, it occurred to him that maybe he was taking the safety of the pit before him for granted.

Before long, though, <They confirm that it is empty,> Oth said, and the platform rose again as the claydol spoke. There was no one on it as it ascended; Zdir and Ronal had presumably gone into the chamber next to the chasm.

Since the platform was too small to bring everyone else down in a single trip, Oth directed Narzen and Zilag to go and sit down on it next. The claydol went to hover over their heads, assuring the glalie that they’d attend to the snorunt on this descent and assuring the snorunt that they wouldn’t drop any of them in the process. Only a couple of the snorunt looked comforted by the claydol’s words as the fuchsia aura surrounded the children once more, and one of them failed to bite back a whimper as they drifted downward through the air after the sinking platform. Not long after, the platform rose once more, and the rest of the party rode it into the depths.

Grosh’s home lacked some of its familiarity as Solonn now beheld it. With more people gathered in the chamber further inside than he’d ever seen there before, it seemed smaller than he remembered. It was much brighter as well, with the light from so many eyes illuminating it.

“When can we leave?” one of the snorunt asked.

<We will leave once we have all had a chance to rest properly,> Oth answered.

The snorunt who’d just spoken frowned. “But I don’t like this. I don’t like hiding in a hole when we could be going home. You said you knew where home is, right?”

“We do,” Zdir said. “But Oth might not be feeling well. They might be hurt. We want to give them a chance to recover before we continue.”

The snorunt narrowed his eyes slightly, holding Zdir’s gaze, looking as though he were trying to decide whether he liked her response well enough or not. Finally, shooting a glance at Oth, “You’d better hurry up and get better,” he said, then stalked off to sit against the wall. Several of the other snorunt seated themselves as well, as did most of the glalie.

<In the event that I… do not recover during our time here or at any other point prior to our arrival at Virc-Dho,> Oth said, another of those psychic transmissions that excluded the children, <we have decided on an alternate means of getting the children beyond its border. For their safety, Narzen has agreed to escort them into the warren. He has also agreed to having a link established with me prior to doing so. This will allow him to keep us informed of happenings within the warren.>

Out of the corner of his eye, Solonn saw Zereth shudder slightly. A bit to the right, he saw Narzen with that odd, eager look on his face again—it seemed that Zdir had approached the right person about being the party’s eyes and ears back in Virc-Dho.

At any rate, Solonn was starting to like the thought of them having one of their own in that position. They could know if Narzen were in trouble, either through his transmissions via Oth or the conspicuous lack thereof, and Narzen could also tell them if anyone else who chose to stay in the warren was in any trouble.

He’ll have other things to keep an eye on, Solonn had to tell himself. He can’t spend the entire time guarding Zilag and his family.

<For now, we should try to rest as soon as we can,> Oth went on; the children apparently heard them this time, all of them turning to face the claydol. <One of us will keep watch at all times, and we will take shifts. Who wishes to go first?>

“I’ll do it,” Ronal said simply, rising, and he moved over to sit in the imperfect archway separating the two chambers.

<The moment you feel too tired to focus on your surroundings correctly, wake someone else,> Oth told him. Zdir shot them a glance. <Someone other than me,> they added.

Oth set about trying to fall asleep right away then, and the blue light filling the room gradually dimmed as most of the glalie and snorunt eventually followed suit. Solonn lay there, eyes closed, but remained awake as the time passed. Concerns about the party’s future and Jen and Grosh’s present, and even the knowledge that he probably wouldn’t get to sleep for long before someone prodded him awake, kept him too preoccupied to sleep. Above him, unbeknownst to him, ice crept over the ceiling, and the thoughts that attended him marred its surface with aimless, crooked lines that kept abruptly changing direction as if twitching.

At some point, he gave up trying to sleep for the time being. The moment he sat back up and opened his eyes, there was Zereth.

“You want to go next?” Zereth whispered.

Solonn glanced at the archway and found it unoccupied. Ronal was lying nearby, seemingly asleep, and Solonn realized that it was Zereth who was just finishing his shift. Solonn hadn’t noticed when Zereth had relieved Ronal of watch duties; he wondered if any others’ shifts had come and gone without him noticing.

Hoping he’d be more attentive in the task that was being offered to him, Solonn nodded and rose, taking his position in the archway. He tried to stay focused on the unoccupied chamber before him in case anything unwelcome descended into it, but only mostly succeeded.

It helped somewhat that some part of him was already dwelling on the possibility of someone finding them. It also helped that every so often, as he gazed out into the emptiness in front of him, he thought he heard scraping, rustling, or some other noise that compelled him to investigate. Every furtive look that he stole up the chasm showed him nothing, leaving him to chalk each of those sounds up to his mind playing tricks on him. Still, no matter how many times it happened, the first thing that crossed his mind whenever he heard something was the chance that they might have company.

“Hey. Been on watch for very long?”

The words were only whispered, but they sent a jolt through Solonn as if they’d been screeched right in his ear. He bit back a hiss and turned to identify the speaker—it was Zilag—then turned back to stare into the empty chamber once more.

“I don’t know,” Solonn admitted just as voicelessly. He heard Zilag sit down beside him. “I don’t feel like sleeping in the least, though. I think I can stay here a while longer. Go ahead and get some more sleep for now, if you want.”

“Hm. Don’t really feel much like sleeping right now myself, to be honest,” Zilag said. “Besides which… I don’t know. I guess I just kind of feel like you could use as much of a break as you can get after… well, you know. Especially considering what the folks back home decided to do to you and Oth and your dad afterward.”

Solonn turned a surprised glance toward Zilag, but that surprise faded quickly as he realized when and how Zilag must’ve learned about the lahain’s decision. “Zdir and Oth told you about that, didn’t they?” he asked, at which Zilag nodded. “And you believe what they said, right?” Solonn asked, unable to help himself, hearkening back to the way Zilag had spoken before leaving home.

Zilag sighed. “I’ll be honest with you: if your dad were anyone, anything else, I’d be a bit more skeptical. But I know how they feel about him, how… how deep it is, you know? Hell, I even felt a little bit of it myself the first time you took me to see him,” he admitted, looking away guiltily.

“Mm,” Solonn responded dismissively to that. “Don’t worry about that; I used to feel that, too. But anyway… since you do know what happened… what had to be done,” he said carefully, “you know they’ll surely want information at the very least, and they’re likely to see you as a good source. And if they don’t like your answers, they might…” He swallowed, suddenly especially concerned that his next words would make him sound paranoid, less credible. “They might just decide against taking chances and just put you out of commission, same as they did with me.”

“Yeah, she told me that, too. She says she doesn’t think they’re too likely to do that, but she wanted me to know they might, said she couldn’t in good conscience let me go without me knowing what I might be getting myself into.

“And I won’t lie: she had me pretty worried there for a moment, and there’s part of me that still is,” Zilag said. “But… well, I gave it thought; don’t think for a moment I didn’t. It’s been in and out of my head this whole time since, in fact. And what occurred to me is that yes, going back’s a risk, but so’s staying out here. Who’s to say that someone—maybe even the folks back home—won’t find us somewhere out here? If anything, honestly, it would probably look worse for me if I were found along with all of you than if I were approached alone.”

Solonn’s eyes widened slightly; that angle hadn’t occurred to him. “Gods, it might…” he agreed.

“And besides which…” Zilag went on, “besides which, Hledas and the kids are still back there. I know that Hledas at the very least is probably worrying herself sick about me, and Kavir might be starting to get worried by now, too. Even Ryneika might be starting to sense that things are off. I can’t let them go on worrying about me for much longer, Solonn. I just can’t.”

Solonn nodded in solemn understanding. His own thoughts drifted out toward Mordial, toward the steelix who was surely fretting both for him and for Jen at that very moment, and he winced at the pang of guilt that those thoughts brought.

“Just… be careful, all right?” he said.

“You know I have no intentions of doing otherwise,” Zilag responded.

“Hm…” Solonn didn’t question that in the least, but he found it hard to be confident that Zilag’s caution would suffice. What he really wanted was for Zilag not to have to be so careful at all, and the only way such a thing seemed possible at this point was for Zilag and his family to be relocated.

“Maybe,” he said, “when Oth has recovered… if they recover,” he forced himself to add, much as he didn’t want to, “we could get you and your family out of there. You could leave Virc-Dho for somewhere safer.”

Zilag’s eyes flickered a bit, and he nodded slightly. “Well… we’ll get all this sorted out when the time comes, all right? My family, yours, these kids here… we’ll get it all taken care of. In the meantime, go and try to get yourself some rest,” he suggested gently. “I’ll go ahead and take over for you.”

Solonn hesitated at first, but then nodded in acquiescence and returned to the chamber where the others slept, still doubting as he sat back down that he’d see any sleep that night.

When he rolled onto his back and his eyes met the ceiling once more, he saw what he’d unknowingly done up there. Solonn looked at the patterns, the results of him unconsciously reaching out to his mother element for solace, and decided, albeit only half-wittingly, to seek his element once more. Hopefully he could vanish into it as he’d done so many times before—no thoughts for a little while, no fears, just that connection. In doing so, maybe he’d finally get some rest.

A short time later, the room got just a little darker.

Chapter Text

Solonn opened his eyes. It seemed he’d been right about being unable to sleep for the time being. Sighing in resignation, he sat up yet again. Soon after, he took to looking in a different direction every so often, figuring it couldn’t hurt to have an extra pair of eyes watching over the party.

He looked out toward the exit, and at the same time, the glalie hovering there looked back into the chamber where everyone else still lay sleeping. It was Zereth who was currently keeping watch, and this struck Solonn as odd in a detached way; hadn’t Zereth already done his shift? But the strangeness of the situation vanished from Solonn’s mind before it could truly light there, and the fact that Zereth didn’t actually seem to see him couldn’t quite take root there, either.

The loud scraping noise that broke the silence in the next moment had no trouble seizing his attention at all, and it sent a spike of terror straight into his heart.

Much faster than he’d ever seen anyone make the descent, an ice platform brought a group of strangers down into the adjacent chamber. Zereth, still facing away from the shaft leading upward, seemed completely oblivious to their arrival—Solonn opened his mouth to alert him and the rest of the party, but couldn’t get a single syllable out before the intruders poured through the archway, far more than could fit on a single platform, filling the space around them with their eyelight. As if he were vaporized, Zereth simply vanished as they rushed past him.

Solonn tried to shout again, bringing up a protect aura to surround himself and attempting a
nhaza against one of the attackers as he did so, but neither his voice nor his powers answered his summons. Feeling his heart rate easily triple, he tried charging at one of the invading glalie instead—only to find that he couldn’t move.

On the verge of panic, Solonn made attempt after attempt to rise and defend the party and children however he could, but he still couldn’t move an inch or command any of his abilities. The intruders didn’t seem to notice him struggling there at all, but before his eyes, he saw them smash and tear into everyone else. Cries of pain and fear rang out, and the air became heavy with blood mist, and all the while he couldn’t do anything—


The horrible picture before Solonn’s eyes abruptly changed into an entirely different scene. Still, there was a delay before he truly recognized that there was no one there who shouldn’t be, that barring anything that might still be wrong with Oth, everyone around him was all right.

Oh, thank the gods… he thought, taking a deep breath of blessedly clear, mist-free air in an attempt to calm nerves that still couldn’t quite believe the dream was over, feeling his pulse reluctantly slowing back down.

“Come on, move aside,” he heard Zdir say quietly. He turned and saw her gently shepherding the snorunt closer to the walls, clearing a space in the middle of the room where she soon conjured another small snow pile.

<The rest of you should feed yourselves, as well,> Oth said, and the tone of their mindvoice told all too clearly that a night’s rest hadn’t replenished their power as they’d hoped. <We will be heading back out into the caverns above soon.>

Solonn looked at the claydol with dismay for a couple of moments. Something inside him offered up a silent reminder that it had been less than a day since Oth had lost the ability to teleport. Maybe it wouldn’t be much longer before they recovered. Still, the possibility that they simply wouldn’t recover seemed to loom larger than ever. So did the possibility that he’d never see Grosh or Jen again, and that anyone who ran into trouble in the warren would be unreachable.

He still didn’t know for sure if anyone else who’d decide to go back home was aware of the potential threat posed by the Virc authorities. There was a chance that Zdir might have warned them during those private conversations back in the warren; though he’d been within partial earshot of them, he’d had too much on his mind at the time to pay any real attention to what they were saying. At the very least, she might have had Oth run that matter by Narzen.

Still, he had to be sure. He approached Zdir, who turned a questioning gaze up at him at once.

“There’s something I need to know,” he said, whispering.

Zdir raised an eyebrow. “And that is…?”

“The others… do they know?” he asked. “About what was done to Father and to Oth and me, I mean. About what certain people might want from them, considering who they associate with.”

“Of course they do,” Zdir assured him. “All of them, including your friend. I made certain.”

A small wave of relief washed over Solonn. “Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome. Now go on, get yourself fed so we can move out soon.”

Solonn did as he was advised, and once again he found himself having to rush to finish when everyone else was ready to go. Soon, Zdir and Ronal were riding an ice platform back up toward the surface, and it wasn’t long before everyone else had come up, as well. With that, the party set off, leaving Grosh’s home behind.

Apart from a pair of zubat who immediately turned tail and fled as they drew near, they encountered no other living souls as they closed more and more of the remaining distance to Virc-Dho. In passing through the former walrein territory again, they found it empty save for scattered shells of some unknown marine creature, just like last time.

Perhaps the walrein and sealeo they’d run into the day before had come from here. Solonn wondered if such creatures really could have moved so far since the last time he’d been here prior to the attack, which hadn’t been terribly long before—from what he’d seen, they were rather ungainly. Meant more for the water than for the land, his mother had said of them once.

Then it occurred to him that the walrein and their people might have already departed the area sometime before he’d brought Oth along to visit Grosh—as he thought about it, he didn’t remember giving terribly much mind to his surroundings at the time, knowing the path by heart and being fairly preoccupied with conversation en route.

Solonn hoped the former inhabitants of this place really had just relocated of their own accord, by their own power. The possibility, however remote, that they might’ve been whisked away by some unknown teleporter in league with the Sinaji still brought a shudder whenever he thought of it.

There eventually came a point where he could see that the path up ahead was crossed by another, a landmark Solonn recognized as a sign that they were nearing the border-cavern. But before they could reach that intersection, <Raise your shields and retreat at once!> Oth called out suddenly, and Solonn didn’t hesitate in the slightest to obey that command—he’d seen what provoked it himself. There’d been glalie passing by through the tunnel that crossed their path, heading for Virc-Dho. The intersection had been just far enough ahead that there was still some hope that the party hadn’t been spotted; nonetheless, they swiftly moved more than half the distance from it again before Oth indicated that they could stop.

Some of the blue eyes that surrounded the claydol cast questioning gazes at them or at Zdir, while others warily eyed the intersection from which they’d all just fled. <Zdir recognized those glalie as members of the Security Guild,> Oth said to the glalie alone. To everyone present, they said, <There were some people up ahead, and we could not tell for certain whether they were friend or foe. Since they are heading toward Virc-Dho, we will wait here for a brief while before proceeding, long enough to put some more distance between them and us. Hopefully we will avoid any more close calls with them.>

Solonn continued to stare at the intersection ahead, more than half-expecting the guild members or someone else he didn’t want to run into to appear there at any moment, but minutes passed with no such thing happening. Eventually, Oth indicated that Zdir felt it was safe to continue.

When they reached the mouth of the narrow, curving passageway that led into the border-cavern, however, voices sounded from the chamber beyond. Moving ahead now would once again put them at risk of being noticed by the wrong people.

Solonn expected Oth to command them to turn back, but no such instructions came. Putting his protect ability on standby, he turned toward Zdir and found her with that familiar look of deep thought on her face. He frowned, hoping to all gods that she’d decide what the party was going to do quickly, all too aware that the owners of those voices could choose to head their way at any moment.

He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, but it was only Zilag nodding at something. Solonn was immediately sure that Zdir had just had Oth tell Zilag something, and he wondered what it could have been.

<Zdir is going to try and listen in on the conversation in the border cavern from out of sight to try to identify the nature of the speakers,> the claydol announced; once again, they spoke only to the glalie. <If she is able to determine that there are Security Guild members among them and no Sinaji, she will send the children ahead on their own into the border cavern and the guild’s custody. Narzen will stay with us, and I will be establishing a link with Zilag instead. We will allow some time to pass between sending the children into the border cavern and sending Zilag into the warren—hopefully this will reduce the likelihood of anyone believing that he had anything to do with them.>

Solonn stared at Oth for a second, surprised by the change of plans. His eyes darted to Narzen and then Zilag—the former didn’t look nearly as disappointed as Solonn had expected, given how keen Narzen had seemed on the previous plan. Apparently, however much that idea had appealed to Narzen, the idea of staying out with the fugitives appealed to him even more. Zilag looked less at ease, but the fact that he’d consented to the link at all gave Solonn the impression that he was entirely over any mistrust he might’ve held for the claydol, or at least almost entirely over it. Solonn managed to send a small, approving smile his way.

Zdir proceeded into the curving tunnel, and several moments that felt like several minutes passed with her out of sight. Come on, hurry before someone finds us here… he urged her, shooting a quick glance back toward the other entrance to the cavern they presently occupied, still fully aware that the glalie in the border cavern weren’t the only ones the party had to worry about.

But before much longer Zdir returned, looking fairly relieved. Soon thereafter, Oth set the children back on their feet, and the fuchsia aura that had surrounded them vanished. <The voices coming from up ahead belong to Security Guild members,> Oth said, their mindvoice sounding just as relieved as Zdir had sounded, and the way the snorunt all looked up at Oth when they spoke told that they hadn’t excluded the children this time.

The claydol lowered their head slightly toward the snorunt. <What all of you—> Their free hand drifted away from the rest of their body and drew an invisible circle encompassing the children alone. <—need to do now is to go to them. We will remain outside and make sure that no one who poses any danger to you can come in. Now go,> they instructed the snorunt with a waving motion of their still-detached hand. <Hurry, while they are still in there.>

A couple of the small, gray faces that had been staring up at Oth looked with uncertainty upon the claydol for a moment, but soon their owners were rushing to catch up with the rest of the snorunt, who were now running into the passageway toward the border-cavern. In nearly the instant that the last of them disappeared around the bend, <Get back out of here as fast as you can manage,> Oth instructed the rest of the party. The claydol was rushing forward away from the border-cavern even as they spoke, and all of the glalie immediately followed suit at the claydol’s command.

They put a fair amount of distance between themselves and the border-cavern, stopping at Oth’s signal at the point where the path first branched. There, they positioned themselves just within one of the tunnels leading out from the fork, simultaneously watching over the furthest point from Virc-Dho through which all traffic must pass and the tunnel back to the border-cavern. They waited there for a while, giving the guild members at the border a chance to deal with what had just run into their midst.

Solonn gazed out over the heads in front of him toward Virc-Dho. He hoped the children had gotten safely into the Security Guild’s figurative hands and were now being reunited with their families, or at least that they’d be reunited with them soon.

Then it finally, truly hit him that some of them might not have families to return to any longer, and he turned away involuntarily as another wave of heartsickness rolled over him.

Eventually, <It should be all right to proceed now. Zilag, are you ready?> Oth asked, at which Zilag nodded from just inside the entrance to the cavern ahead of them. There was a flash of light in the claydol’s eyes that signified their telepathic connection with Zdir being broken, followed almost immediately by another that signified a new link being forged with Zilag. <It is done,> Oth told Zilag. <We are now connected.>

Zilag found that confirmation unnecessary; he was sure he’d sensed something entering his perception but staying just out of reach. It was like a memory he couldn’t quite recall, but with one difference: he could tell that it most definitely wasn’t of his own mind.

Trying not to let that foreignness distract him too much, he instead opted to test the connection. <Can you hear this?> he asked.

<Technically no, but I am receiving your message.>

Zilag couldn’t help but nearly laugh, wondering if Oth had actually intended any joke there. <Guess it’s time for me to head out, then, huh?> he asked.

<Yes,> Oth responded.

<Okay,> Zilag acknowledged, but didn’t depart right away. He held the rest of the party in his gaze for a few moments more, seeing varying degrees of concern and unspoken well-wishes in the faces there, with the eyelight particularly unsteady and the brows drawn tightly together on the largest face among them. <Tell them goodbye for me,> Zilag said. <And tell them not to worry too much about me; I’ll take care of myself. You all just concentrate on taking care of yourselves, okay?>

Oth relayed the message, drawing acknowledging nods from the other party members. Satisfied as he could be that he was ready to part ways with them, Zilag then turned away and began making his way back toward the warren alone.

<There may well still be Security Guild members in the border-cavern when you arrive there,> Oth told him as he traveled, <even if the ones we saw going in earlier have gone further inside since the children joined them. Zdir believes that there may be guards posted at the entrance now and that they were the ones who were speaking with the guild members we saw.>

Zilag absorbed this with very little surprise; he’d been steeling himself as best as he could to deal with Security Guild members ever since Zdir had told him that they might take an interest in him. <So I should probably just expect there will be, then. But I shouldn’t act like I expected to find them there if there are.>

<Correct,> Oth responded.

<Okay, then… They’re probably gonna want to know what I’ve been up to out here, right?>

<Most assuredly. You are advised to tell them that you had gone out hunting.>

<Yeah, that’s what I’d planned to do,> Zilag said. He’d been rehearsing the lie in his head from time to time since the evening prior. He just hoped to all gods that if anyone had been questioning Hledas in his absence, she hadn’t told them anything that would clash with his story. <I’m gonna tell them I couldn’t find anything, though. I just don’t trust my stomach to keep quiet enough for them to believe me otherwise. Gods, I can’t wait to get some real food again…>

It wasn’t long before Zilag found himself approaching the barrier at the entrance; <All right, I’m here,> he sent back to Oth. It appeared there were indeed guards posted there; three glalie hovered before the barrier, and while none of them made a move to intercept him, their eyes followed him keenly as he drew nearer.

Hoping he looked sufficiently surprised to see them there, “Uh… what’s going on?” he asked as he came to a stop a couple of feet in front of them, wearing a perplexed frown.

None of the guards answered the question, at least not right away. “How long have you been out?” one of them asked, though not harshly. “And what have you been doing?”

Zilag had expected to be hit with questions upon his arrival, though the fact that he’d managed to get one in first did surprise him somewhat. “Too long,” he answered, half-sighing. “I was out hunting… or trying to, anyway. Went out late the night before last and found not a damn thing since. Had to sleep out there and everything.”

There was a moment of silence and a very brief look exchanged amongst the guards. “You’re lucky to have woken up,” another of the guards said seriously. “The steel creature and the psychic escaped while you were gone.”

Zilag’s eyes widened dramatically. “What? Oh gods, my family…” he said at once. “Are they all right? I need to get in there—”

He’d made a move toward the barrier as he’d spoken, trying to vaporize it as he did so, but the barrier remained fully intact, and the guards moved in unison to block him. “Your family is fine, I assure you,” the second guard said. “There have been no further attacks since the prisoners escaped.”

Zilag didn’t have to fabricate the relief in his expression. “Oh, thank the gods…” he murmured.

“Now, I’m sorry you weren’t successful in your hunt,” the first guard spoke up then, “but we’re going to have to ask that you don’t go out and try again on your own, at least not anytime soon, all right? It’s not safe for just anyone to travel alone right now. You’ll need to go with the next hunting party.”

“Okay,” Zilag said, nodding, “okay.” He looked questioningly at the barrier, hoping he’d be let in soon. He wasn’t altogether certain that the guards were buying his story, and every moment he spent with them made him ever so slightly less comfortable around them. He was somewhat grateful for his unease, though, and didn’t make any real effort to hide it at this point, hoping that any nervousness they noticed would be interpreted as an appropriate reaction to having just learned about the escape.

The barrier vanished, but before he could enter the warren, “I’m going to be going home with you, all right?” the first guard said. “Like I said, it’s not safe for just anyone to travel alone right now.”

Zilag nodded in acceptance, unsurprised and figuring he had no real choice in the matter anyway, especially given that the guard had decided on his destination for him. He only hoped that by “going home with you”, the guard simply meant that he’d be escorting Zilag back to his family’s place of residence and not staying with them for any length of time.

Zilag entered Virc-Dho, his escort following, the barrier immediately reforming behind them once they were past it. <I’m being escorted home,> he told Oth. <Looks like Zdir was right about them not wanting to leave me entirely alone. They haven’t acted blatantly suspicious of me yet, though—not that I imagine they would, of course. They’re just claiming concern for me, what with the escape and everything.>

<There does remain a chance that they genuinely do not suspect you,> Oth responded. <Still, remain cautious. Continue to do as you have been advised and you may yet avoid trouble.>

Zilag heard the guard behind him draw a rather deep breath and felt something inside him tense as if anticipating a strike, but the guard only spoke. “I’m afraid I have something to tell you that you’re not going to like hearing,” he said.

Zilag stopped, careful not to turn to face his escort too quickly, and gave him a troubled look. “Oh?”

The guard sighed. “You’re friends with a Mr. Solonn Zgil-Al, right?”

There was no use in denying it; as Zilag had been told, the authorities certainly knew who associated with those they didn’t trust, and the fact that the guard had asked such a question seemed to confirm it. Zilag nodded.

“Have you seen him recently?” the guard asked.

“Well, I saw him at the service,” Zilag said quietly, “but I haven’t seen him since then, no. Why do you ask? What’s going on?”

“Well, we think he might have been the one who freed the steel creature and the psychic. Now, I know you might not want to believe that, but there’s something you need to consider: if it was him, odds are he wasn’t doing it of his own accord. We think he’s under some kind of psychic control.”

Zilag cast his gaze to the icy floor, his brow furrowed, trying to look deep in thought. “This… this wouldn’t be the first time he’s run into trouble with something psychic,” he said, slipping a hint of dawning epiphany into his tone.

“No, it wouldn’t,” the guard said. “We do have reason to believe that the same thing that took him way back when is responsible for what’s going on now. They’ve even returned the children they stole, just like they brought him back.”

Zilag’s gaze shot back up to meet the guard’s, the light in his eyes brightening. “Really?”

“Just earlier today,” the guard confirmed.

“Oh, that’s good to hear…” Zilag said with a sigh of relief. He then turned back around and continued toward home. “At least something’s gone right lately…”

“Well, we don’t intend to let anything else go wrong if we can help it.” The guard’s tone suggested that he was trying to be lighthearted, but there was also something vaguely affronted-sounding in his voice, which sent a little wisp of worry through Zilag; had he said something he shouldn’t have? “Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that Solonn’s whereabouts are currently unknown and that if you see him… be careful, all right? He’s probably not himself, and he might attack you. If you see him, you should probably knock him out and call out for help right away. If it turns out he’s not being controlled after all, I’m sure he’ll forgive you if he really is any kind of friend.”

“…Okay,” Zilag said.

Soon after, the two arrived at the Zir-Arda residence. “So this is it, huh?” the guard asked.

“Yeah,” Zilag answered.

“Okay, then. Stay safe, all right?” With those words, the guard backed away a short distance, but he kept his eyes on Zilag.

Figuring the guard wouldn’t leave until he went on in—if indeed he intended to leave at all—Zilag opened the entryway and passed through it, sealing it shut at once. Inside, he found Hledas holding a troubled and questioning gaze upon him, while Ryneika chased a somewhat irritated-looking Kavir around the main room. The young child broke off her pursuit almost immediately when she noticed her father had returned, and she ran up to him with a squeal of joy. Kavir smiled at Zilag, grateful to have been rescued from her sister’s pestering.

“We need to talk,” Hledas said almost inaudibly.

Zilag shot a look back at the entrance. He saw no light beyond it to indicate a glalie lingering immediately outside, but he figured the guard would know better than to be so obvious anyway. Not knowing for sure if his escort was still within hearing range of anything said in the main chamber, and not exactly wanting his children to be privy to the conversation, he merely gave a quick nod and made for the couple’s bedroom. Ryneika tried to follow him in; “No, no. Play with your sister,” Zilag told her, earning a groan from Kavir.

Once both Zilag and Hledas were in the bedroom, the latter moved to hover at the former’s side. “Did you succeed?” she asked right into his ear, still whispering as faintly she could manage while remaining audible.

“Yes,” Zilag said, keeping his voice just as low. While it was true that Jen was still brainwashed in Convergence, Zilag was still confident enough that the snorunt’s memories would be recovered and that the rest of the party would ultimately be able to go back and retrieve him. As such, he considered the rescue mission a success.

“Thank the gods,” Hledas said as she moved to face Zilag once more, “both for that and for your return.” She sat down. “The authorities came in while you were away,” she then said. “They asked questions, Zilag. They asked where you were and if either of us had seen Solonn lately.”

Zilag swallowed, turning to look her in the eye. “Well… what did you tell them?”

“That you were just out hunting and that the last we saw of Solonn was at the service.”

The light in Zilag’s eyes brightened, and he had to bite back a miniature peal of laughter in the relief he felt. Grinning, he moved forward to press his forehead against Hledas’s. “Oh, thank the gods you said that…” he breathed happily.

“Well, what did you think I would’ve said?” Hledas responded as Zilag drifted back once more. “I already could’ve lost you as it was. Do you really think I’d have done anything that could’ve even remotely risked getting you thrown in a cell if you did make it back?” she asked, looking somewhat hurt.

Zilag’s smile faded a bit. “No… no, of course I don’t.” He drew close to her again, his eyes closing, letting his forehead rest against hers once more. “Thanks for taking care of things. I appreciate it,” he said sincerely.

To Oth, he then said, <I’m back home. That guard who was following me may or may not be hanging around outside, but at least he’s not in here with us. I think he might actually trust me—don’t worry, though; I don’t intend to get careless. And Hledas did get questioned, but her story matches up with mine—and… well, I’m not gonna get careless with her, either. I’ve decided not to tell her about our little connection here.> It had occurred to him that Hledas might stop trusting him or go to the authorities with his well-being in mind if she found out that he’d come home with a psychic link he hadn’t had before.

<That seems like a prudent course of action,> Oth said. <From what I heard of the conversation that you two held with Solonn, she seemed… somewhat more inclined toward believing that I was responsible for the recent tragedies.>

<Yeah…> Zilag said, with a touch of vicarious guilt in his mindvoice and a further shrinking of his smile. But he also felt something of an urge to defend Hledas in that moment. <But again, she’s already saved my hide once, so…>

<She most assuredly has,> Oth concurred. <It seems as though you really can take care of yourselves.>

A sense of pride washed over Zilag, and his smile widened once more. <It does, doesn’t it?> he said. Now that there was at least a little more hope that he and his family would be able to carry on without any real harassment from the authorities, he felt much more confident in such claims.

 

* * *

 

<The Security Guild appears to have shifted its focus from maintaining the silence of the witnesses to keeping an eye out for potential threats,> Oth said to the small crowd of glalie gathered before them within the deep chambers that were Grosh’s home. After taking some time to hunt and feed, the party had decided that this would be their refuge, at least for the time being. They’d been there for roughly half a day by this point. <Zilag and Hledas, as well as friends of the latter, have seen known witnesses to the attack going unescorted and have seen known guild members patrolling the warren, and I am told that guards are indeed now posted at the entrance at all times.>

“I’d figured as much,” Zdir said in the hushed tones that had become the norm for the group, nodding. “At least as far as the shifted focus is concerned, anyway. Now that his prisoners have escaped and Hagen’s been forced to let the people find out as much—to let them recognize that they need to be on the lookout for trouble from other glalie, even if they’re being led to believe that said glalie are merely illusions concealing something else—he’s undoubtedly well beyond the point of feeling like he needs to keep people believing that they’re not in any danger.”

“But Zilag and his family still don’t know for certain whether or not they’re being watched, do they?” Solonn asked.

<I am afraid not,> Oth answered. <Zilag wishes to assure you that both he and Hledas continue to do their best to keep the possibility of the guild monitoring them in mind at all times, however.>

“Hm…” was Solonn’s only reply to that, sounding less than fully assured. He hadn’t really expected either of them to be careless in dealing with the guild, but the notion of them possibly being watched like that still gave him a degree of gnawing worry and a vicarious sense of indignation.

<He also has mentioned that there are rumors of the Security Guild intending to increase its numbers,> Oth then said. <There has been no official word from the guild on the subject, however. It may only be wishful thinking on the part of the public.>

“Hopefully that rumor will prove to be true. I’ll admit right now that I don’t exactly have the utmost faith in the guild’s current ability to defend the warren. At the very least, a small pack of guards at the entrance isn’t going to keep the Sinaji out if they show up in even a third of the numbers I suspect them to have,” Zdir said grimly.

“Sounds like they’d do best to just do away with the Security Guild,” Narzen mused aloud.

That immediately earned him a couple of bemused and alarmed looks.

“What I mean is, they should probably just train everybody to fight like they do,” he clarified. “Just make everyone one of them, basically. From the way you’re talking,” he said with a glance at Zdir, “it sounds like they’re gonna need practically the entire damn warren to stand a chance against the Sinaji.”

“I don’t imagine that’s literally the case,” Zdir said, “but I do agree that making sure that as many people can defend themselves as possible is something that should happen, yes. And that, incidentally, includes all of us, especially since we still have more than just the Sinaji to be concerned with as long as we remain here.”

“Which is unfortunate,” Ronal said. “I for one would like to have the guild on our side, especially with their numbers bolstered. I’d prefer to take the fight to the Sinaji rather than let them make another move against the warren.”

“Under those circumstances, that might well have become an option,” Zdir said. “As it is, though, we’re still fugitives and accomplices thereof in the guild’s eyes. We may be able to seek out allies once we can be teleported from this place—then, perhaps, we can deal with the Sinaji. For now, however, I don’t imagine that most of us are ready to face more than a stray exile or a guild member or two. You all need to be made ready. You need to be trained to fight for your lives. We need to make damn sure that we’re all truly prepared to face whatever lies ahead of us.”

Chapter Text

“Zdir…”

Pale eyes turned Solonn’s way, and he thought he detected a hint of weariness about them as though their owner were dealing with a tiresome child.

“Zdir… what if they hadn’t been Sinaji?”

No response, or at least none spoken. Her expression became harder to read.

“What then?” Solonn’s voice lowered of its own accord. “What would we have done?”

A pause. Then, “They could have joined with us if Oth had found them inclined and able to do so. If not…”

The lines of Solonn’s face sharpened further, his eyes narrowing. Something turned to lead inside of him.

“If not,” she resumed, but then sighed. “I think you already know the answer, whatever you feel about it—and for what it’s worth, no, Solonn, I don’t like it, either. I would hope that any Virc who found their way to us in the future would prove to be no liability, but if not…”

She let it hang. Maybe it was the fact that she couldn’t seem to bring herself to speak of it that stopped him from going off on her any further; maybe it made it easier for him to believe that she really did hate it as much as he did, or at least close enough to suit him.

He turned away, closing his eyes against the orange glow of the beams that were vaporizing the lifeless intruders in the adjacent chamber, wishing he could block out the accompanying sound and taste on the air likewise.

 

* * *

 

The days were starting to shorten again. The forest behind was beginning to change its colors, and the river far below was hosting a different set of creatures than before.

To the large, silver figure coiled on the cliff, all of the changes to his surroundings served as reminders of one constant that had persisted since he’d come to southern Mordial. All this time, he’d waited for the burst of golden light that would bring news of what had become of his family. Months later, that light still hadn’t come.

Grosh had feared for Solonn and Jen from the start, but he’d tried to maintain some measure of faith, some hope that the search party had a chance in hell despite Zdir’s estimation that their enemies outnumbered them several to one. He’d known they’d be operating blind for the most part, scouring a network of tunnels that Grosh knew from personal experience was vast and sometimes confusing. Of course it was going to take a while for the party to return, even if things worked out all right in the end.

But even given that, Grosh hadn’t expected for this much time to pass without seeing any of them again. And he’d by no means forgotten what he’d seen back in the Virc temple. Things could have all too easily gone horribly wrong, and he had no way of knowing for sure if they had.

He hated not knowing. He hated being kept across the sea while God only knew what was happening to the last people in the world who meant anything to him. He’d never stopped wishing he could’ve gone with them. But with no small effort, and despite constantly wondering whether or not he was really making the best choice, he’d stayed in roughly the same area where they’d left him. He didn’t want to worry them with his absence should they return.

But the last drops of belief that they still could were starting to dry up. Now his waking thoughts were nearly as certain that something terrible had befallen them as his dreams had been during the past few months. His restlessness had grown as his faith had waned, and so had his hatred of the ones who’d murdered Azvida and stolen one of her sons.

That they could have killed the other—and by now, Grosh couldn’t help but fear, they surely had—sickened him to his core. The notion that Azvida’s dying wish might have been shot down tormented him, and there came a point when he just couldn’t wait around with that torment any longer. He had to act. Maybe it was too late to bring Solonn and Jen back to safety, but perhaps, somehow, he could make the ones responsible answer for what they’d done.

But despite the fact that his agitation was rising by the minute, threatening to fill his mind with haze, he knew he couldn’t do it alone. He couldn’t even get back to Virc-Dho without help, let alone take on what might amount to a miniature nation of glalie and snorunt.

Rising, he turned his back on the river and entered the forest, silently and occasionally not-so-silently cursing the noise he made as he twisted and crawled among the trees. He could hear local pokémon fleeing as he made his way through their territory, no more keen on interacting with the massive metal serpent than they’d been when he’d simply hung around on the outskirts of the forest. Just stopping someone long enough to hear him out about his need for transportation and aid against his enemies was going to be a challenge.

After some time, with no real luck in flagging down anyone who might be able to help him thus far, he saw the forest thinning before him. Not far ahead, a dilapidated highway stretched across his path. He headed toward it, sweeping a glance from left to right over its cracked, faded surface and the weeds sprouting up through its fissures. Where the road led, Grosh couldn’t tell; it extended all the way to the horizon in both directions with no clear destinations in sight.

Before he had any chance to decide whether or not he wanted to try following the road, a piqued instinct took hold of his attention. An elemental telltale was setting off a familiar warning that fanned out across his nerves in an instant, and it was accompanied by a light rumbling in the ground whose source was several yards off in front of him and approaching rather quickly.

Someone was coming, someone who might be useful to his cause… or who might already be aware of his presence, unhappy about it, and intent on driving him off the hard way. Grosh backed off a bit, his eyes trained on the disturbance and following it as it moved despite being unable to actually see its cause. The end of his tail rose off the ground, shining even brighter than usual as he held an iron tail attack at the ready.

Once they were just a couple of feet away from him, whoever was approaching from underground decided to make a proper entrance. The soil exploded upward, and three fuzzy, brown heads popped out into the open air, blinking and twitching their noses under the sunlight. Almost immediately afterward, a section of the street behind the newly surfaced creature burst apart, scattering chunks of asphalt as another dugtrio emerged.

“Oh, so that’s what that was!” said the second of them.

“Certainly wasn’t what I was expecting,” said the first.

“Or, well, not the silveriness, at least. That I wasn’t expecting. But I knew he’d be big.”

“Oh, same here, same here.”

“But he’s not big; he’s huge!”

“I’ll say.”

“Could probably snap one of us up in two bites, I’ll bet.”

“In one bite, even!”

Grosh had no such intentions—he’d even decided against bringing the iron tail down on them, letting the steel-type energy dissipate. But as the two rattled on, he found himself tempted to speak a little less kindly to them than he might’ve otherwise, his spiked segments twisting in impatience and a touch of lingering unease at the presence of the two ground-types.

He held down the outburst trying to shove its way out of his mouth, not wanting to scare them away. Instead, he merely cleared his throat to try and get the two dugtrio’s attention, though that still resulted in a deep, grating rumble that could easily be misinterpreted as a growl.

Thankfully, the noise didn’t register as anything threatening to the dugtrio; all twelve of their eyes locked onto his in unison, and neither of the dugtrio looked terribly worried despite having discussed the possibility of being eaten by the steelix mere moments ago.

“Hm?” the first of them said, cocking one of her heads. “Something you’re wanting from us?”

Grosh opened his mouth, but then: “Now come on, surely he can tell we don’t have anything on us,” the other dugtrio countered, his rightmost head turning to face the first dugtrio as he spoke, his other two faces still turned up toward Grosh. “Have you ever tried digging and carrying things at the same time? It’s not easy! I’ll bet Silvery here understands what I’m talking about; just look at him. Looks like a burrower himself, doesn’t he? Like a great big worm, don’t y—”

“My family and I need help,” Grosh cut in, his voice easily overpowering those of the dugtrio, who quickly fell silent at his interruption. “I’m wondering if you know anyone who can get me to our enemies and help me fight them.” He didn’t imagine they’d be much help themselves—however swift they were, he doubted they could last long against a horde of well-trained ice-types. He was prepared to dissuade them if they offered to join the fight themselves.

“Oh. You’ll want Valdrey, then,” the second dugtrio said.

“Oh yes, she’d be absolutely elated to help you out. Poor dear’s probably not seen a really good fight in years,” said the first dugtrio. “And she’s got friends all over; perhaps some of them’d be willing to pitch in, too.”

Grosh’s eyes widened and his head rose a bit further, but he made an effort to avoid getting too optimistic too soon. The dugtrio’s response was promising, but there was no way of knowing if this Valdrey person would really be that enthusiastic about joining his cause. Not yet, at least. There also wasn’t any way to know if she’d have enough friends—if indeed the dugtrio were right about them even being Valdrey’s friends—to stand any sort of chance against the exiles, even if every last one of them joined the cause. His search for aid wasn’t guaranteed to end with this lead.

“Where is she?” he asked before the dugtrio could get into another conversation with each other.

Both of the dugtrio jerked one or more of their heads back and to their right, toward the old highway. “That way,” they said in near unison.

“Just follow that path to Wisteria,” said the first dugtrio. “You’ll know it when you see it; humans used to live there.”

“Oh, now don’t assume Silvery knows what humans were,” said the second. “Doesn’t seem to be from around here; who knows what he has and hasn’t seen.”

“No, I’m perfectly aware of what humans were,” Grosh assured them. “Thank you both kindly for your help,” he added, then made his way around and past the two dugtrio and set off down the road.

“Don’t mention it!” the first of them called out to the departing steelix.

In time, stone walls started cropping up to either side as Grosh continued toward Wisteria. They soon rose above his line of sight. Along with the way the road now curved, this prevented him from being able to see where it was actually taking him.

Grosh hoped the dugtrio hadn’t sent him off in some useless direction—or worse, pointed him toward trouble. It was only now, with the faint glimmer of hope they’d given him clearing some of the haze from his mind, that it occurred to him that they might’ve been feigning trust him in order to guide him into a trap.

He started berating himself silently for trusting them so readily when no one else in Mordial had been friendly toward him up to that point, but caught himself short. Come on now, don’t beat yourself up over it too much, he told himself. This might still work out. And you had to give it a try. You know you did.

The steelix carried on in the direction he’d been shown, trying to focus on the name of the person he was seeking in case he needed to ask someone else for an audience with her. Eventually the stone walls shrunk back into the ground, and a cluster of buildings came into view soon after.

It was then that Grosh realized he’d left the dugtrio’s company before they could tell him just where in Wisteria he was supposed to go.

Grumbling in annoyance at himself, Grosh slithered along the downward slope toward the city below. Now he had more asking around to do—he could only hope it would go better than it had back in the forest.

Inauspiciously, the first few pokémon that caught his eye darted away as soon as they were sure he’d noticed them. Others, remaining unseen altogether, could be heard scuttling away from him, evading him among largely empty and decrepit shops and houses and down slowly darkening alleyways whenever he tried to approach them.

At some point, he thought he heard a whole crowd of people gathered and chatting somewhere neither too near nor too far. Before much longer, he pinpointed the source of the noise: there was a large, circular building up ahead, and as he got closer to it he could see a faded sign. He couldn’t read the words on it, but he recognized the IPL’s poké ball logo in its center from his time as a trainer’s pokémon. He was looking at an old gym, he reckoned.

Grosh figured that if there really were as many people hanging around in there as it sounded like, then at least someone among them might hear what he had to say before they could get a chance to flee. Granted, they were sure to know he was headed their way before he got there, but he still hoped that being all cooped up in a large building would impede their escape long enough for him to make someone hear him out.

As he approached the gym, trying to move as quietly as he could, he saw a sawsbuck emerge from it, using his red-leaf-covered antlers to push his way out through the large double doors at the building’s arched entrance. The moment the sawsbuck raised his head once more, his eyes met Grosh’s across the remaining distance between them, and he immediately turned tail and went right back in through those doors.

“Damn it!” Grosh spat, not quite under his breath. Now they’d have even more of a warning and more motivation to get the hell out of there.

Nonetheless, he decided against giving up. It could still work, he tried to believe as he continued onward. Hell, maybe this Valdrey’s in there herself. She doesn’t sound like the type who’ll run—not if those two were right about her, anyway…

Just as Grosh was about to reach the doors, they opened again. This time, three pokémon stepped out into the parking lot. There was the sawsbuck from earlier, accompanied by a rapidash and a golden-armored centaur pokémon that Grosh didn’t recognize: an aurrade.

Both the rapidash and the aurrade awakened little threads of elemental unease in Grosh, and the look on the former’s face suggested that the feeling was mutual between him and the steelix. The aurrade’s expression was a little harder to read; there were hinged plates of her armor covering most of her face, leaving only her eyes visible.

“Hi,” she spoke up crisply, her voice resonating a bit oddly from within her armor. She clasped her hands in front of her waist. “Care to share what brings you to these parts?”

There was a faint sense of relief at the fact that these three had willingly approached him, but Grosh remained wary. They also seemed well-trained, much moreso than the dugtrio had, and he wasn’t so sure he could take them all on if they decided they didn’t like what he had to say.

“I’m looking for someone named Valdrey,” he responded.

“Well, mission accomplished,” the aurrade said; Grosh saw the dark gray skin around her eyes crinkle in a way that made him wonder if she were smiling behind those faceplates. “Any particular reason you were looking for me?”

“I need help,” Grosh said. “Me and my son, and his brother, and their whole nation. They’ve got enemies, horrible ones. They…” He suddenly felt like a stone was lodged in his throat. “They took the love of my life from me,” he said, his gaze lowered. “They’ve taken many lives. And I don’t doubt for a second that they’ll take more.”

Valdrey cocked her head slightly. She cast a quick glance to each of the pokémon at her sides; both of them looked somewhat less apprehensive toward the situation than they had before, but neither’s expression had softened completely.

“Sounds like they need to be taught a lesson,” she said as she looked up at Grosh once more and folded her arms across her chest. Her tone was notably softer, more sober than before.

“Yes,” Grosh said, nodding. “But I can’t do it alone. I can’t even get back to them on my own—there’s an ocean and God knows how much distance in the way. Please… if there’s anything you or anyone you know can do to help…”

Valdrey stepped forward, then made her way around the sawsbuck to the doors and pushed one of them open. “Come on in,” she said. “Let’s see what we can do for you.”

Chapter Text

Crash.

A solid body was smashed against a stone wall. One of its horns snapped clean off, falling to the floor and rolling a short distance away. Ice cracked audibly, bits of it flying everywhere.

With the impact still ringing faintly in Solonn’s bones, he withdrew his horn from the side of his attacker’s head. He pulled back, panting, staring down at the broken form before him.

In the next moment, his victim dissipated into thin air.

“Well done,” Zdir said from nearby. “And that goes for you, too, as always.”

The other one she was speaking to was Oth. The claydol had been puppeteering the “glalie” against whom, or rather which, Solonn had been training, just as they’d been doing for him and the other fugitives in the months since Oth had volunteered the idea.

The ice dummies were conceived to reduce the amount of injury and need for recovery for the fugitives during their training, though they still included some sparring against one another to increase their elemental power. Though the glalie could manipulate the dummies themselves, Oth’s telekinesis was significantly stronger. It quickly proved better suited to making the artificial glalie move with the same speed and force as the real thing.

Oth was unquestionably grateful to be able to help out in this way. Solonn was glad for them, too, and not only because of their usefulness. Throughout all this time, the claydol still hadn’t regained the ability to teleport; being able to do another sort of good in the meantime was helping Oth finally stop blaming themself for that fact.

“I think that’ll do for now,” Zdir then said. “Back to the chasm, everyone.”

While Grosh had abandoned the place where he’d been waiting, the Virc fugitives and the claydol among them had stayed put for the most part, only venturing out of Grosh’s home to hunt.

They descended into the chasm a couple at a time as usual. Shortly after they’d all made it down, <I am receiving a report from Zilag,> Oth announced, at which everyone gathered around them, awaiting whatever news Oth had to relay this time.

Thus far, the news had largely been good. Zilag’s reports from Virc-Dho told that the Sinaji had stayed out of Virc territory since the initial attack. The Security Guild had indeed swelled their ranks, adding to the likelihood that the Virc would be sufficiently defended in the event of another strike. And while neither Zilag nor Hledas were ready to assume the guild no longer monitored them, the authorities had avoided being overbearing about it.

After a few minutes, <A hunting party had an encounter with two exiles yesterday,> Oth told the others. <All of the Virc survived. Beyond that, there has been no trouble among the Virc.>

“That’s good to hear,” Zdir said.

“Yeah,” Narzen said. “Sounds like two fewer problems for us.”

The fugitives had dealt with some of the Sinaji themselves during their time up in Shoal Cave. They’d had a couple of run-ins with them during hunting excursions, which had left a couple among their number with some new scars and had partially depleted their already short supply of dried and frozen revival herbs.

On top of that, it had become clear that the chasm wasn’t as impervious to discovery as they’d hoped. A pair of Sinaji hunters, separated from the rest of their party and lost after a skirmish with a gang of walrein, had stumbled upon the hole in the ground and opted to descend into it. They’d been struck down almost as soon as they’d appeared, and once they’d been identified as Sinaji, their fate had been sealed.

Apart from Sinaji, the fugitives had neither encountered nor been visited by anyone. There’d been no run-ins with the Virc, guild members or otherwise, and no one from outside Shoal Cave had shown up, either. Questions of whether or not they could ever expect help from Convergence, from the ones who might still be holding one of the Sinaji in their custody, had come up more than once, but by this point no one really expected them to pitch in—assuming, of course, that they hadn’t already tried and failed.

Following the report from Zilag, the evening proceeded just as most evenings had since taking refuge in the chasm. The five glalie conjured ice for themselves and began conversing in lowered voices among themselves and with the claydol. At some point, “All right, let’s resume,” Zdir said. Everyone who wasn’t already hovering rose and gathered behind her to return to the cavern above for some more training.

She’d barely begun to generate the ice platform for them to ride on when she immediately dissipated it. No one questioned her actions. They’d all heard the faint voices coming from outside just as she had.

The tension in the chamber where the fugitives now warily and watchfully huddled together seemed to harden the air, making it difficult to breathe. Solonn stared into the adjacent room, keeping himself as still as he could manage, his heart pounding. Its pace only quickened at the sound of ice slithering down the walls of the chasm.

As every other glalie alongside him did likewise, he put a nhaza on standby, hoping to the gods that if it came down to his shot saving their lives, it would succeed. The rigorous training Zdir had put everyone through in the past several months was intended, among other purposes, to put the advantages of the elemental weapon into their figurative hands. They’d be likelier to withstand any attackers’ nhaza, and their own would be likelier to work. But since both the Sinaji and the Security Guild were well-trained, too, there was always the lingering doubt that it had been enough.

The fugitives waited for their uninvited guests to descend further, and Solonn disliked the suspense. He accepted it all the same, understanding well why they waited. It was better to get a clear line of sight before attempting to strike. Better to avoid knocking out whomever was generating the ice platform, in which case its riders could come crashing down before their innocence and what should be done with them could be determined. The intruders would be allowed to come down far enough to make getting back out—and taking knowledge of the fugitives’ location with them—more difficult.

A silver of deep blue light framing the lower halves of gray-and-white bodies lowered into view. The eyes watching it maintained their color, the turret-hands pointed toward the approaching intruders holding their fire. No sense in striking at shielded targets.

And then there the intruders were. Just a few feet away, three glalie in a triangular formation and a fourth actually sitting atop their heads were staring with wide eyes behind protect auras that were due to fade at any moment.

“Wait, don’t strike!” the foremost of them cried out. “We surrender! We don’t want to hurt you!”

“Oth,” Zdir prompted, not missing a beat.

<We must subject you to a psychic scan to verify your claims,> they said.

“What?” another of the intruders responded, sounding more than a little alarmed at that prospect.

But, “Fine, fine!” the one who was being carried said, nodding rather frantically, raising an unpleasant noise as the armor covering her belly scraped against that of the glalie beneath her. Then, as a few seconds passed with apparently nothing happening, “Are they done yet?”

“No,” Zdir said.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” the intruder who’d spoken first said, then winced as if she feared she might be pushing it. A second later, the intruders’ protect shields fell.

“That,” Zdir responded, at which Oth drifted forward. The rest of the fugitives kept staring at the intruders, ready to strike again at any moment.

Oth rose and stopped in front of the glalie who was still perched atop her party members’ heads, and said glalie made a valiant but not entirely successful attempt to conceal her unease at Oth’s presence. Solonn narrowed his eyes at her, hoping her discomfort wouldn’t lead her to try and attack the claydol.

Meanwhile a faint and familiar discomfort of his own reared its head, but it was fleeting. The scan was voluntary this time, after all, and the awareness that he still might have to strike in order to save Oth at any moment was taking up too much of his mind to allow much else to linger there.

Eventually, <Our visitors are Evane La-Zyar—> Oth pointed toward the glalie whom they’d just scanned. <—Viraya La-Zyar, Moriel La-Virj, and Alij Van-Zaria.> They swept a hand from left to right over the other three glalie as they named them off. <Evane intends no harm to any of us, and from her knowledge of the others, it appears unlikely that any of them do, either. They are all deserters. They have all fled from Sinaji territory, and all of them have expressed very strong disinterest in re-affiliating with them.>

Evane watched Oth as they moved backward away from her, then turned her gaze toward Zdir. “…Can I please come down from here?” she asked tentatively. “This is really rather awkward.”

The set of Zdir’s brows suggested that she was somewhat deep in thought, but nonetheless she spared a nod for Evane. Acknowledging this, Evane extended a sheet of ice downward between Moriel and Viraya’s heads, descending the ramp she’d just made toward the stone floor and then making it vanish in a cloud of vapor.

“You can come forward as well,” Zdir told the others, who did so a bit hesitantly.

“Will we need to have a scan, too?” Alij asked.

“Possibly,” Zdir said, “but probably not. For now, I’d like for you to tell me what finally convinced you to leave the Sinaji.”

“There’s something wrong with their leader,” Moriel said. Narzen made a derisive noise at her response; she ignored him. “He hasn’t been acting like himself. Not since they were invaded. Some enemies of theirs got in and out without anyone even noticing, and ever since then… I swear, the leader’s gone crazy. He’s been babbling something about ‘repayment for the blood of the Rannia’, whatever that means.”

“And something about the honor of the ‘Vanished Ones’. Maybe they’re the same thing,” Evane supposed out loud.

“Maybe,” Moriel said. ”All I know is that he didn’t even sound like himself anymore, and neither did the ones closest to him. And there near the end, before we got away, they were threatening us, threatening our lives. And they made good on it with some of us.”

“We’re not the first to try and get away from them,” Viraya said morosely. “Just the first to survive trying.”

No one said anything for a few moments after that. Then, “Understandable that you’d want to get away from such a climate,” Ronal said. “But I do find it troubling that knowing these people were involved in murders and kidnappings wasn’t enough to convince you that you should want nothing more to do with them.”

All of the apparent defectors turned toward him with what looked like genuine shock. “What… When the hell was this going on?” Moriel demanded.

“Right before that invasion you mentioned. Are you telling us you honestly weren’t privy to these doings?” Zdir asked.

“We had no idea,” Alij said hollowly.

“None whatsoever,” Moriel said. “You can have the psychic look in our heads again if you don’t believe us.”

“Sanaika and his gang have had a bad reputation in Virc-Dho for a long time,” Narzen said. “Surely you knew what kind of people you were involved with from the start.”

“Whatever reputation they had down there is news to us,” Evane said. “We haven’t lived in Virc-Dho since we were children. Not since the humans took us.”

“So that’s what became of you,” Zdir mused aloud.

“You knew they’d gone missing?” Solonn asked. But of course she’d had the means to know such things, he realized just as quickly. The Security Guild, and by extension the Council, had found out when he’d been taken. The same was probably true of all abductions.

“Yes. And I know the names of Virc-Dho’s exiles. None of theirs are among them. So,” Zdir said to the deserters, “I suppose when you finally got back here, you encountered Sanaika’s people first?”

“Yes,” Evane said. “A clefable brought us here—teleported us to just outside these caverns, under the sun. The Sinaji told us that Virc-Dho had become corrupt. That their leaders had been overthrown and anyone who acted against them was being attacked and driven out. There was a lot of fighting going on up in these caverns when we arrived, and the Sinaji told us we’d only be safe with them. Since no one else seemed to win when they took the Sinaji on, we believed them.”

“They trained us,” Moriel said. “Trained us in case the Virc showed up and we had to defend our new nation against them. We made them regret it.” She smiled, but there was something rueful in it. “We had to use every last trick they taught us, plus spring a few surprises we picked up on the outside. It was just barely enough… well, mostly enough.” The light in her eyes dimmed considerably. “Wasn’t enough for Kanjara, but…”

“Well,” Zdir said at length. “We are willing to provide sanctuary to you if you’re willing to accept it.”

“Yes, yes of course,” Moriel said; the other three nodded in agreement. “Thank you.”

“Now, considering the training the four of you have undergone, we’d also appreciate it if you were to aid us in any future confrontations with the Sinaji,” Zdir told them.

“Of course,” Moriel repeated. She lowered her head slightly, averting her gaze. “It’s… the least we could do.” She shook her head and sighed. “I regret ever having anything to do with them.”

“We all do,” Viraya said. “I’d definitely have liked to have given them more of a… parting gift, but… well, there were only five of us against nearly three dozen of them.”

“Three dozen of them and some unseen mind-controller,” Narzen said.

“I suspected as much,” Evane said, and she sounded distinctly uneasy. Her eyes shifted toward Oth. “It would explain why some of them have been acting so strangely.”

“The fact that we know next to nothing about their psychic—or whatever they are—is still a strike against us,” Zdir said. “But the numbers of the Sinaji… that’s welcome news. I’d allowed for the possibility that there could be thrice the number you’ve reported.”

“It’s a good thing there weren’t. We wouldn’t have had a chance if…”

Alij’s voice faltered, a look of vaguely troubled confusion on his face as, from above, a strange, continuous grinding sound came rumbling through the stone overhead. Solonn, Oth, and Zdir, meanwhile, looked notably less perplexed.

Eyes wide, Solonn shot a look at Zdir, feeling a thrill of hope surge through him. “Gods, that sounds like…” He couldn’t quite dare to finish the sentence. “Is it… could it be possible?”

<Conceivably. Perhaps he found a way to return somewhere in Mordial,> Oth said.

“What’s going on?” Evane asked, sounding concerned.

Solonn stared up toward the wonderful, presently invisible possibility that had just reared its head, hearing the sound slowly grow fainter as its source kept moving onward. He’s not coming down here, he reckoned, all but certain at this point that yes, he was hearing exactly what he’d hoped he was hearing. He didn’t doubt that they’d be able to track the source of the sound by its sheer loudness and catch up with it easily if it came to that, but he wanted to know if he was right about what it was, and he didn’t want to wait. ”We’ve got to go check it out,” he said.

“Agreed. Come on,” Zdir said with a dip of her head toward Solonn, then led him into the chasm leading upwards. Solonn promptly generated the platform that would lift them out, his eyes blazing and his heart racing as he willed it to ascend as fast as it could.

Please let it be him, please let it be him, please…

The two of them reached the top, and the sight that greeted them halted Solonn’s thought processes at once.

There was Grosh… and there was a small, multispecies army alongside him.

For a moment, Solonn could do nothing but gawk at the sight. Then, “Father!” he greeted him.

The steelix turned his head immediately, as did most of those who’d arrived with him. His face lit up like the sun. “Oh my God, you’re all right!”

The pokémon accompanying him parted as he turned and made for his son as fast as he could. Solonn had begun rushing toward him in nearly the same instant and soon reached him. He buried his face against the steelix’s chest, shaking with joy and relief, and as Grosh gently brought his coils around him in an embrace, he felt tears fall upon his head from above.

“Father… how did you get here?” Solonn asked.

“That’s how,” Grosh answered, nodding toward a lanky, red-furred biped with a long, skull-like face and a black mane. “Quiul here was kind enough to help round up these people for us and bring us here.”

Solonn met the gaze of the mercirance Grosh had pointed out. “I can’t thank you enough,” he said sincerely, the light in his eyes wavering. He’d had legitimate reason to wonder if he’d ever see Grosh again, and now here the steelix was. And Solonn recognized that maybe now, he could also be reunited with other loved ones…

“Oh, it was nothing,” Quiul responded with as much of a warm smile as her face could manage.

“I do hope one of you will consent to a psychic scan,” Zdir spoke up. Solonn looked up in initial disbelief… but then he followed her line of sight. There was a pack of unfamiliar glalie there. None of them looked particularly hostile, but that didn’t mean anything.

“I… what?” one of them responded.

“We’ve been under threat of attack from not only our own kind but collaborators of an unknown kind for months now,” Zdir said.

“Those guys are from Sinnoh,” the aurrade who stood next to Quiul said. “They’re here for the same reason we are: to make your enemies wish they were never born.”

“Valdrey’s telling the truth,” Grosh said. “She and Quiul spent most of the past couple of days getting these people together. I was with them the entire time.”

“I don’t personally suspect them,” Zdir said, “or you. But it would be irresponsible of me to not seek confirmation.”

“That’s fine,” said another of the newly-arrived glalie, drifting forward a bit. “I’ll volunteer.”

“Very well,” Zdir said. She turned an expectant look toward Solonn, who followed her back to the hole in the floor and descended with her.

“So what’s the situation?” Narzen asked them once they reached the bottom.

“We may have just received reinforcements,” Zdir answered him, “as well as access to teleportation and a safer place to stay.”

“Ha, excellent!” Narzen responded. Several of the others mirrored his enthusiasm in some way, particularly among the defectors.

“So it’s really happening, then?” Moriel asked. “We’re really gonna take them on?”

“So it would appear,” Zdir said. “But we do need to have one of them scanned first, just to be certain of what we’re dealing with.”

Wordlessly, Oth moved forward, accompanying Zdir and Solonn as they returned to the cavern above. Zdir indicated the glalie who’d offered himself up for scanning, and the claydol went to work at once. <This is Roskharha Nharitas,> they eventually reported. <He is not of this region, nor has he ever been here before, and the same is true of the rest of the glalie with him. They are soldiers of the Hirashka people.

<These are allies,> they said, and there was distinct hope and wonder in the tone of their mindvoice. <All of these people—> They indicated the entire crowd of various pokémon gathered there. <—are here to try and deal with the Sinaji.>

Zdir looked back toward Valdrey and Quiul. “We’ll aid you in your endeavor,” she told the two of them. “We and our new associates. They used to be involved with the enemy, and they’ve already yielded useful information about them. They may have more to offer us all.”

Valdrey tilted her head back, making a faint, intrigued-sounding noise. “Sounds like your people and mine could do with a good chat.”

“Yes, we could,” Grosh agreed. “I’d like to know how you’ve all been holding up these past few months.” He cast a look down toward Solonn as he said this, one that told that he hoped for the best.

For Jen too, no doubt. Solonn tried to put on a face that suggested good news on that front—they had, after all, successfully delivered him from the Sinaji, and as far as anyone was aware, he was still somewhere very safe. But he didn’t imagine Grosh would be happy about Jen being left behind, and he suspected the steelix was hoping to see him tonight.

It’s all right, Father. We might still bring him back very soon. With a teleporter available, there was a chance they could retrieve Jen in a matter of hours—though not as much of a chance as he’d have preferred.

Valdrey swept a glance over the room. “This doesn’t seem like the best place for that, though. Mind coming back to my place? It’s safe and spacious.”

“That sounds fine,” Zdir said.

<I will go inform the others,> Oth said, at which Zdir nodded in assent. The claydol drifted down into the chasm, and soon after they re-emerged, glalie began filing up to join the pokémon gathered above a few at a time.

Once they were all up, “All right now, gather together, everyone,” Valdrey instructed them. When it looked as though everyone had, “Are we all ready to go?” Valdrey asked, at which everyone gave some form of confirmation that they were. “All right then, let’s go!” And with those words and a burst of light, the small crowd vanished from Shoal Cave.

 

Chapter Text

The fugitives and their new allies all reappeared under a night sky, but there was a degree of harsh, artificial light shining upon them from nearby. Solonn initially winced, but soon he’d adjusted enough to take in his new surroundings… insofar as he could. He was partially surrounded by other pokémon, some of whom were taller than he was.

But he didn’t have to see much before he realized that he recognized this place. This was the Wisteria gym in Mordial. He’d been here before, back when he was traveling the world to spread word of the Convergence project. The gym had been lit by sunlight back then rather than by the few of its lights that still functioned, and there’d been humans dotting the bleachers, watching as the gym leader’s pokémon raced each other for fun on the track that ran around the actual battle platform.

“Welcome to Wisteria,” Valdrey said as the rather tightly packed crowd began dispersing a bit, the eyes of some of the pokémon sweeping the alien environment in curiosity or wonder or mild wariness. She stepped out in front of Zdir. “This is my home, and for as long as you have need of it, it can be your home, too.”

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Zdir said. She settled herself at the edge of the racetrack, and the rest of the Virc fugitives, along with Oth and Grosh, joined her there. Many of the other pokémon clustered off into little groups, as well. “Of course, I do have to wonder what inspired you to come to our aid.”

Valdrey shrugged, spreading her arms wide. “It’s just the kind of thing we do. Me and most of these guys here used to do this kind of work all the time back in the days after the Extinction. I guess we just never got tired of being able to lend a hand. Or, well. A figurative hand, in some cases.”

What the aurrade was describing sounded awfully familiar… “You wouldn’t happen to know an alakazam by the name of Sei Salma, would you?” Solonn asked her.

“Hmm… no, can’t say I do. What about you?” she asked Quiul.

“I’m afraid not,” the mercirance replied. “Sorry.”

“That’s fine,” Solonn said, supposing he shouldn’t be too surprised. It wasn’t as though Sei and her group of psychics were the only ones who could’ve come together and aid people in the wake of the Extinction.

“So I take it you—” Zdir nodded up toward Grosh. “—found her, or the other way around, and she took it from there,” she surmised aloud.

“Some locals directed me toward her,” Grosh said. “But yes.” He drew in a breath and let it out on something of a sigh. “I… regret not seeking help sooner than I did. I was just worried about not being there if you came back.”

“It’s all right,” she assured him. “No real harm came to us or the Virc as a result of your timing. They’ve been lucky these past few months.”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than her eyes darted almost imperceptibly toward where the defectors were gathered together, and there was a hint of guilt in her expression. Solonn remembered Moriel mentioning one of their own not making it away from the Sinaji. He could only wonder if that person could’ve fared better if help had arrived sooner.

<I would nonetheless have liked to have been able to come back for you sooner,> Oth said. <Unfortunately, I lost my ability to teleport shortly after we rescued the abducted snorunt. We have yet to determine what caused this, and I have yet to regain the technique.>

“Hmm…” Quiul approached the claydol. “What you’re describing sounds rather like a case of spontaneous move deletion.”

Solonn’s eyes widened. That was a phrase he hadn’t heard for many years, not since the days of his involvement with the IPL. He’d heard of humans inducing the loss of techniques via artificial means, and he supposed he must’ve been told of it happening on its own, as well.

“Can it be cured?” Zereth asked.

“I can’t say for certain,” Quiul said. “All I know is that it’s not within my capability to heal.”

“It might be within the capability of the people at the Haven,” Solonn pointed out. “And… we might be able to get Jen back while we’re at it.”

Grosh frowned. “You didn’t get them back?”

“We did,” Zdir said, “but Oth’s teleportation misfired and then failed altogether before Jen’s memories could be recovered. He was left behind at the Haven.”

“Well then we’ve got to get him back!” Grosh said, throwing a glance at Quiul.

Solonn sighed. “It… might not be that simple,” he said. “Considering how long it’s been since he was left there, they might’ve decided that we abandoned him. Even if they haven’t, they’re not necessarily keeping him there. And even if we knew where they were keeping him, it might not be a simple matter to get him back.”

Grosh stared down at Solonn all the while as the latter spoke, and Solonn knew that whatever was going on behind those red eyes, it probably wasn’t acceptance. Solonn wasn’t fond of the way things were, either, nor was he especially fond of the way Zdir had told him to approach these complications back when he’d first recognized and spoken of them. But ultimately, he’d come to understand her position and agree with it.

“If it is, it is,” Zdir said, addressing them both and holding the two of them in her gaze as best she could. “We’ll bring Jen here. He’ll be safe. If not… he is, as Solonn has said, safe there, too. Safer than the Virc are in their own homes. We should do what we can for them first. We mustn’t delay them that help for much longer, and we mustn’t squander the time and generosity of our new allies.”

“I’m ready anytime,” Quiul said. “Just say the word.”

“Would it be all right if we could bring Zilag’s family here as well?” Solonn asked. “It would probably be a single trip.”

“Sure,” Quiul answered.

“See if they’re ready to go first,” Zdir instructed Oth.

Oth nodded in their fashion. A couple of minutes passed, during which a couple of the groups of gathered pokémon began conversing among themselves; then, <They are.>

“Very well,” Zdir said, and nodded toward Quiul.

The mercirance made beckoning gestures toward everyone who’d discussed retrieving Zilag’s family and Jen. But only Solonn and Oth moved toward her.

“I… think I ought to stay here,” Grosh said, though he sounded fairly regretful about it. “Jen’s obviously been through a lot since he was taken, and even though he knows about me, it might be a good idea for you to let him know well in advance that I’m gonna be here before he sees me. And… I don’t need to be in Virc-Dho again. Not even for a second.”

Solonn almost tried to reassure him on the first point, at least, but decided against it just as quickly. It made sense, he realized, especially if, gods forbid, Jen’s memories still hadn’t been restored and he had to learn about the massive steel-type all over again. As for the second point, he didn’t even think of arguing against it. Grosh would probably never be safe in Virc-Dho after what had happened, nor would he likely be comfortable there ever again.

“I’m going to stay behind, as well,” Zdir said. “There are a few things I wish to discuss with Valdrey and with the defectors; I might as well get to them.”

“I guess everyone’s ready, then,” Quiul said. “I assume at least one of you has been to the places we need to go?”

<Yes,> Oth answered. <I will transfer the memories to you at once if you wish.>

“Please do,” Quiul said.

As soon as the memories were transferred, “We’ll see you all later, then,” Quiul said, and then teleported away, taking Solonn and Oth with her.

 

* * *

 

Solonn, Oth, and Quiul appeared in front of the Haven. They’d already made their stop in Virc-Dho to retrieve Zilag and his family and dropped them off in Mordial.

Though the family had agreed well in advance to leave Virc-Dho someday, it was clear when the time had finally come that they had their regrets about it. Months ago, Oth had raised the possibility that they could still live among their own kind, in some other nation, in the hopes that letting them retain some familiar element in their lives would make the transition easier on them. The Hirashka were perfectly willing to give them a home in Sinnoh. But while the family and especially Hledas had latched on to the idea, the fact remained that they were still leaving their home and their lives as they’d known them behind. As they’d sat there, all at once in this alien environment and surrounded almost completely by strangers, their faces told that only now was the change they’d chosen truly sinking in.

Solonn felt for them, and as he entered the Haven with the mercirance and claydol at his sides, he hoped his newly displaced friends would be at peace with their new situation soon. At the same time, however, most of him was focused on Jen and Oth and the hopes, however cautious, that he’d be leaving Convergence tonight with the former at his side and the latter in full possession of all their powers once more.

The three crossed the lobby to the front desk, where a chansey sat watching them approach. “Can I help you?” she asked when they stopped before her.

<Yes,> Oth said. <We came here several months ago with eight snorunt who had suffered mental tampering and a glalie who was involved with the tamperer. One of the snorunt was left behind when I involuntarily teleported before his treatment was finished. I subsequently lost the ability to do so, voluntarily or otherwise. We have returned to retrieve him, as well as to inquire about our captive and to perhaps have my lost technique restored.>

The last item on that list was even more of a longshot than the first, Solonn knew. He’d recalled that there were once humans who could restore techniques just as there’d been some who could erase them, but he didn’t know if anything of that art had survived the Extinction. And similarly to the situation with Jen, if they determined that it would take too long to restore Oth’s ability to teleport, that restoration would be postponed.

“…One moment, please,” the chansey said, and turned her sights downward toward something on her desk and out of sight. “Teresa?” she said to what was apparently some sort of paging device there. “Could you come to the front desk, please?”

Soon after, another chansey arrived on the scene. “You came back,” she said simply.

Solonn nodded. “We never meant to leave,” he said.

“They claim something went awry with the claydol’s teleportation,” the chansey behind the desk said. “Something that caused them to teleport away with the others involuntarily and prevented them from coming back.”

“Have you been trying to teleport without any success all this time?” Teresa asked.

<Yes,> Oth said. <It is as though I never even knew the technique.>

“Hmm…” Teresa’s mouth drew into a thin line. “We might be dealing with a move deletion here,” she said. “We can run a couple of tests to confirm it, but in the event that your teleport technique has deleted itself, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.”

<We had anticipated as much,> Oth said, though they still sounded disappointed all the same.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to work this out. If you’ll follow me, we can find out.” Teresa began leading the way out of the lobby, and Oth, Solonn, and Quiul followed.

When they reached their destination, Solonn was expecting to find the same gardevoir there that he and the other fugitives had dealt with before. Instead a hypno stood behind that door, giving them an inquiring look. Teresa explained the situation to her, then motioned Oth into the room with the hypno, closed the door behind them, and began ushering the others toward a waiting room.

“What about Jen?” Solonn asked as he and Quiul followed her lead. “The snorunt who was left here,” he clarified. “My half-brother. Were his memories ever successfully recovered? Is he here?”

“I’m afraid the answer to both of those questions is ‘no’,” Teresa replied.

Solonn’s heart sank heavily. He’d dearly wanted the tampering to be undone, and the thought that he’d be greeted with confusion or disbelief or even fear whenever he finally reunited with Jen was hard to bear. Especially since it seemed likelier than ever that their reunion lay further in the future than he’d hoped.

“Is—” He tried to remember the gardevoir’s name but failed. “Is the gardevoir here? Can I speak with him?”

“If you’re referring to Adn, then I’m afraid that’s another ‘no’. He’s not here right now and won’t be back before the weekend is over.”

Solonn sighed, vaguely wondering just what, exactly, he’d hoped to accomplish anyway by talking with Adn. “Could you tell me where Jen is, at least?” he asked as the three of them entered the waiting room, turning to face Teresa directly as he spoke.

Teresa gave no response at first. Then she took a deep breath. “He was declared abandoned,” she told him. “He was placed in another’s custody, and I’m sorry, but we’re not at liberty to mention whose.”

Solonn stared at her. Their decision didn’t exactly come as a surprise, but he hadn’t expected to be barred from him so completely. “Is anyone?” he asked.

Teresa shook her head, insofar as she could. “I’m sorry.”

For a moment, Solonn couldn’t respond. The light in his eyes dimmed, and his throat threatened to close up on him. Then, “But… he’s safe, right? He’s being cared for?” He almost couldn’t continue. “…He’s happy?”

“I can assure you that he is,” Teresa said consolingly.

“…Good…” Solonn managed, very quietly. “That’s good… Now, what about the glalie we brought in, the one you called the authorities on?” he then asked. “Are you at liberty to tell us how that went?”

“Yes and no,” Teresa said. “I can tell you they didn’t really get anything out of him beyond his name and the fact that yes, he was involved with whoever altered the snorunt’s memories. He passed away in their custody before they could learn more, apparently of natural causes. I’m afraid that’s all I can say on the matter.”

Solonn’s eyes went wide, his brow furrowing over them. He’d suspected that they wouldn’t be getting much more information about the Sinaji from Anzen than they already had. It had sounded as though Oth had already found everything useful that Anzen actually knew during their scan. The reason why they definitely wouldn’t get any more now was rather more of a shock.

He pulled in a deep breath and released it. “Well, it… sounds like they can’t tell us anything we don’t already know,” he said. “Could you send them our thanks for trying, at least?”

Teresa nodded. “I most certainly could.”

She then gave the two of them a quick rundown on where certain facilities were before departing. Solonn watched her leave, then sank to the floor.

He heard Quiul sit down beside him. “Hmm… sounds a little fishy,” she said. “The whole business of your captured enemy perishing before he really had a chance to talk, I mean.”

“It does, yes…” Solonn agreed. “Though I don’t suspect the authorities here of any foul play. I’m… not really sure what I suspect, honestly.”

“I wonder,” Quiul said, “if perhaps a killing mechanism of some kind was implanted. Maybe by whoever brainwashed those snorunt. It could have been set to go off if he was questioned too rigorously about what these people have been up to.”

“I don’t know… It seems like it would’ve been triggered by Oth’s scan if that were the case. They learned more from him than the police did, from what I gathered.”

“Hmm,” Quiul said again, then shrugged. “Maybe it really was just an unfortunate coincidence.”

“Maybe.” Solonn sighed. “More questions. I’d hoped to come back with more answers. And I’d hoped to come back with Jen.”

“I’m sure you would. But the way things have turned out tonight doesn’t mean you’ll never see him again, you know,” she told him gently.

“I know,” he said, though in a way it still sort of felt as though he definitely wouldn’t. “I just… wish I could see him with my own eyes. I wish I could really confirm that he’s all right… insofar as he is. And I wish I weren’t being treated like I can’t be trusted around him, for the gods’ sakes.”

Quiul laid a hand upon his back. “Someday this will be sorted out.”

Someday… Solonn drew in a breath that shuddered slightly, hoping she was right.

Eventually, Teresa returned with Oth beside her. Solonn and Quiul both rose to greet her.

“I’m afraid it was move deletion,” the chansey reported once she and Oth had entered the room.

<It is all right,> Oth assured everyone present. <I do not need to be able to teleport.>

Solonn supposed Oth was right, especially with Quiul on their side now. Still, he’d have liked at least some of the night’s endeavors in Convergence to have succeeded. “Thank you regardless,” he said, “and give the hypno my thanks, as well. At least now we know for sure.” Teresa nodded in acknowledgment.

“I suppose that concludes our business here,” Quiul said then. “Unless you’re wanting to retrieve that glalie?”

“You’d have to speak with the police department about that,” Teresa said.

“I don’t think we have time for that,” Solonn said. “Zdir wanted us back as soon as possible.”

“Then we’d best not keep her waiting anymore. Thank you for your time,” Quiul said to Teresa.

“You’re welcome,” the chansey replied.

Oth joined Quiul and Solonn where they stood, and then the three of them departed.

After they’d vanished, Teresa stood there for a moment, blinking the lingering flash out of her eyes, then turned and left for elsewhere in the Haven. As she walked, she felt a strange sense of something being off, and not for the first time in the past few months.

She frowned at it, wondering if she should see Adn about it. But that would have to wait. For now, she simply carried on about her business, as did everyone around her.

Chapter Text

“So. This is it, huh.”

“So it is,” Solonn said, watching the racetrack not far below. Already pokémon were gathering there. Soon he would join them.

The past few days had flown by, but they’d been incredibly busy. With the aid of the defectors, the force now assembling to move out had constructed their plan of attack. Already, he could see it coming together. There were Grosh and Oth, along with a small team of fighting-types, all pooling their efforts to gather boulders, both conjured and found. There were Zdir and Valdrey with Quiul, most likely reminding the mercirance of her own roles in the mission.

And here was Zilag, and Solonn was about as certain as could be of what he was up to. “They say our chances aren’t too bad.” They’d said it more than once. He’d clutched those claims like treasures.

“I know,” Zilag said. “They really do seem to know their stuff. And you’ve got some great allies on your side. But… well, this isn’t really about them. It’s about you.”

He circled around to meet Solonn’s gaze. “I… think you’re gonna do just fine. You, specifically. You personally. I’m not saying you could take them all on your own. I’m just saying… well, I just want you to know that I believe in you, all right?”

Solonn didn’t doubt his sincerity, not exactly. But he could see the quiver in Zilag’s eyelight. The reassurance was for them both.

But he smiled all the same. It was the least he could do. “Thanks,” he said.

The noise amidst the bleachers had almost entirely trickled down to the track by this point. The mission would begin soon.

Sure enough, <Your attention, please. Your presence is requested at the stadium floor.>

“And there it is.” Solonn knew that Zilag wouldn’t have heard it himself. Zilag, as well as Hledas, would stay behind with the kids. This was mostly because neither of them had undergone anywhere near the amount of training as the ones who’d be heading out—they wouldn’t exactly be dead weight, but their chances of surviving the mission were less favorable all the same. And nobody liked the idea of orphaning their children.

Zilag nodded in acceptance. He moved back around to Solonn’s side, clearing the way for him to descend. “Go make ’em pay, all right? I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”

If it happens, I won’t forget you, that might have also meant. Solonn couldn’t keep the flicker out of his eyes—just how much concern was Zilag holding back for his sake? But again he smiled, and he gave an assuring nod, and with all the confidence he could muster, “Will do,” he said. “Take care, Zilag.”

“You too, buddy.”

Solonn drew and released a deep, steeling breath, then closed the remaining distance down the center aisle, taking his place at nearly the edge of the gathering. Over the heads of the people in front of him, he could see Zdir and Valdrey standing atop a winner’s podium that had been raised in the center of the arena, with Quiul waiting on the steps leading up to it.

“I trust everyone’s here?” Zdir spoke up. Even as she asked, her eyes were sweeping the crowd as they confirmed their presence; she’d know just fine whether anyone was missing, as well as if anyone wasn’t paying due attention.

Apparently satisfied with her findings, “All right. Now, I don’t need to tell any of you why you’re here. I don’t need to tell you what we’re about to do. But I do want to emphasize the value of your contributions today.

“The Virc, by and large, will never thank you. They’ll never know what you’ve done and will do for them. But no matter how their leadership might deny it, I am still one of them. I am still Virc. And on behalf of my people, I want to thank all of you in advance. For the lives we save, for the minds we put at ease, I thank you. Gods go with us all.”

“All right, let’s go kick some ass!” Valdrey said, smacking her hands together with a loud clank of armor on armor. “Split up, folks; it’s time to go…”

At her instructions, the crowd parted swiftly. For the most part, the teams were already assembled, but fitting everyone into the general vicinity of the arena below had required some strategic positioning of some of the larger pokémon.

Consequently, Solonn had to pick his way through the crowd to join Zdir’s group. Grosh had been assigned to her team, as well, as if Solonn needed any help figuring out where to go. He took his place at the steelix’s side and soon found himself crowded against it as the rest of their team gathered close together in the loose semicircle marked by Grosh’s half-coiled body.

“Hey,” Grosh spoke up, at which six different faces turned toward him before following his own line of sight and figuring out whom he was actually addressing.

“Hm?” Solonn responded, still keeping his eyes trained upward as best he could; his horns and the close quarters made leaning too far back unfeasible.

“You’re gonna make us proud,” Grosh told him, a smile playing about his eyes. “Me and her both.”

Solonn’s eyelight flickered at the mention of his mother, and he averted his gaze. “I’ll certainly do my best,” he promised, and not only to those who were physically present.

“Of course you will,” Grosh said. “You’re your mother’s son. You’re gonna have not only your own strength on your side today but hers, too. She’s not gonna let anything else happen to her boys. And neither am I.”

The flickering intensified… but a smile, however faint, formed around it. Solonn didn’t doubt Grosh’s dedication in the least… and he was sure that if it was truly possible, Azvida would be lending her figurative hand in their mission, as well.

Solonn met his father’s gaze once more. “Thank you,” he said earnestly.

With the departing pokémon now divided almost cleanly in half, Quiul descended from the podium and insinuated herself into the group on the far side of the arena, taking her place next to Valdrey. In the next moment, a golden aura swelled around the other team and took them away in a flash of light. Seconds later, Quiul returned for the rest.

As she squeezed her way in among his team, Solonn caught himself counting the passing moments. Counting his heartbeats. He tried to treat it as a countdown—not to their departure, but to their eventual victory. Soon, he told himself silently, it would be over. Or this part would be, at least.

We will win, he told himself as he took one deliberate breath after another. We will make it. Still, as he and the rest of his team left Wisteria behind, those heartbeats grew no softer. 

 

* * *

 

The sunlight was more than a few minutes in the past now, replaced by the cold, blue glare of dozens of eyes. Most of their owners hung back, Solonn included, as Grosh, a gurdurr by the name of Thuras, and a pair of machoke siblings named Daran and Kala worked to block off one of the exits to the Sinaji’s territory with their gathered boulders.

This was just one of four such exits. Each of the teams had already sealed one apiece; separately, as before, they were tackling the last pair.

They’d encountered little resistance to speak of thus far: just a trio of guards at each of the exits they’d hit, all of whom now lay lifeless at their posts. But the team’s current task was not silent work. Stealth was hardly a priority in this venture. Avoiding confrontation was not their goal, not this time. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not they’d be noticed by Sinaji further in, but rather when.

There was nothing to do about that other than wait and keep a watch out for approaching trouble. Each of the teams was large enough to deal with being discovered, provided that the Sinaji didn’t bear down on either of them en masse—or so they hoped. So Solonn hoped, as he mindfully kept his eyes glued to the path leading inward rather than on his father, making a conscious effort to breathe steadily, holding a quick nhaza at the ready all the while.

Don’t jump the gun, he reminded himself. Fire when you have a reason to. No sooner.

Minutes passed, and no such reason came. Before long, “Got it,” Thuras announced. There was a momentary scraping of metal against stone as she retrieved her steel beam from wherever she’d set it down.

A few seconds’ delay; then, “So have they,” Zdir reported. With Zilag no longer reporting from Virc-Dho, Oth’s telepathic connection with him had been severed, and their connection to Zdir had been re-established.

“Come on,” she said, and began moving away from the now blocked exit. Her team filed out with her: nine glalie in the lead, herself included; the three fighting-types; Lirimi, an azumarill; and Grosh grinding his way along from the back, his heavy head looming above the procession. Quiul presently accompanied them, as well: a member of both teams, poised as she’d been all the while to teleport to the aid of either if needed.

The tunnel ahead of them came from the same place as the one leading to the fourth exit. There, they’d join the other team, and from that point they’d move forward as a unified force, able (they hoped) to withstand the full brunt of the Sinaji’s forces in a worst-case scenario.

Even though they could still only guess just what, apart from glalie, comprised those forces.

As they continued onward, Solonn gazed out over the heads of the ones before him, scanning for signs of life, friendly or otherwise, hoping his team would reach the meeting place soon.

The enemy reached it first.

The deep blue light of protect auras flooded the room. A volley of nhaza split the air, innumerable shots fired in unison—but not by Solonn, and as far as he was aware, not by anyone else on his side. He heard one body topple over, saw another—gray and muscular and roaring her lungs out—hurtle through the air on her own power—

—But never saw her land, forced to dodge a speeding glalie barreling right toward him. He wheeled about, his horn catching her as her shield fell; she hissed in pain and shrieked in fury. A number of other voices—one bottomless and all too familiar—cried and screeched and bellowed out in nearly the same instant.

There was no time to turn and find out why. His attacker returned the favor immediately, her horn slashing at his temple, narrowly missing his eye. He roared, and a fresh protect shield came to his summons as she tried once more to blind him. She shielded herself again in the nick of time, too.

Solonn caught her third strike with his horn, and for a few moments after, the two were locked in a fencing match, trying to get their horns past one another.

Then someone slammed into him from behind—he felt and heard something crack apart against his back, accompanied by a short, gurgling cry—and the force drove his horn deep into the eye socket of the glalie before him.

A burst of yellow light filled his vision as he wrenched himself free of the now-dead Sinaji. Nothing and no one caught him as his momentum threw him backward. He spun about in midair, regaining control of his levitation just in time to avoid plowing face-first into the glowing, segmented tail that fell to earth like a hammer before him, splitting the skull of the glalie below. Blood splashed against him, turning into a briefly-obscuring cloud of mist that cleared to reveal a torrent of flame roaring across the opposite end of the chamber.

Valdrey’s team had arrived.

Solonn didn’t stop to gawk at them or at what had become of the glalie hit by the rapidash’s flamethrower—not that he wanted to find out. He’d spotted Alij with a small horde of Sinaji all bearing down on him just as Alij’s aura failed him; without hesitation, Solonn charged to the rescue—only for the pair of glalie in his path to disappear into thin air as he struck them. Illusions!

Alij recognized this at the same time; he dealt a sweeping strike against the “multiple” Sinaji as they closed in, destroying a pair of double team clones and revealing their maker in one stroke. Solonn wasted no time in driving the identified enemy straight into the nearest wall. The Sinaji fell to the floor and didn’t rise again.

As Solonn leaned in to make sure the illusionist wasn’t playing dead, his massive frame glowing deep blue all the while, he noticed that the shouts and shots and cracks of colliding bodies were dying down. He turned and was met by a scene that calmed right before his eyes. The fight, it seemed, was over.

Easily more than a dozen glalie lay before him, their blood-mist heavy on the air. Some quivered slightly in place, still breathing, while others were plainly dead—some more plainly than others. He caught sight of one who looked as though they’d tried to swallow a bomb. He ripped his gaze away in an instant, retching in spite of himself.

Lirimi and Kala were down, too, against the wall near the Sinaji Grosh had smashed, their strange, opaque blood smeared across the floor. Quiul knelt before them, healing their injuries, while Daran watched her work, muttering to himself all the while. A prayer, Solonn supposed.

“Will they be all right?” Grosh asked from somewhere behind Solonn; the latter couldn’t help but glance back to make sure the steelix was all right. To Solonn’s immense gratitude, he was, from the looks of things. But the golduck standing at his side, with medicine-filled pouches belted to his waist, left Solonn wondering how long that had been the case.

Said golduck then offered Solonn a few berries for his own injuries, which he readily accepted. Within moments, he could feel the damage being undone.

Meanwhile Quiul wasn’t responding to Grosh’s question just yet, clearly focused on her work. When the multicolored aura surrounding her and her patients finally dimmed and vanished, “Yes… and no,” she answered. “You’ll live,” she said to the machoke and azumarill, “and you’ll heal. But not if you do any more fighting anytime soon.”

“I’m fine,” Kala insisted. She tried to push herself back up, but could barely get more than her upper torso off the ground before pain distorted her features and brought her back down with a snarl.

“No you’re not.” Daran laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Look sis… I know you’re worried about me. But I’m gonna be okay. I mean, look at us: we didn’t even lose any of our guys.”

“That’s… not true.”

Ronal’s voice carried a distinct and chillingly familiar gravity. Solonn didn’t need any further clarification on what had happened. It was only a question of just who had fallen.

The answer, he found, was Zereth. He lay face-up before Zdir, whose already dull eyelight was muted further still as she held him in her gaze. There was another dead glalie just a couple of feet away, whose face had been gouged so many times that they were completely unrecognizable.

“His killer,” Ronal identified; it seemed he’d followed Solonn’s line of sight.

Solonn looked away from the dead Sinaji, letting his gaze sweep across the room again in helpless, dreading curiosity over whether or not any of his other allies had suffered the same fate as Zereth. Oth thankfully hadn’t; they hovered near the center of the chamber with the luster of half a dozen cosmic powers making their dark hide glitter like the night sky, and no injuries that Solonn could detect. But they were only one of the people he was concerned about. “Was anyone else…”

“No,” Quiul said. “No one else but theirs…” She went quiet for a moment, staring into space. “Eight of theirs, to be exact,” she determined aloud. “And the ones still breathing have a long nap ahead of them.”

“There’ll be more.” Zdir turned to stare down an adjacent tunnel leading deeper into Sinaji territory. “This isn’t over yet.”

“It’s about to be,” Grosh said, and his spiked segments rotated restlessly. He shot a glare that seemed to burn despite its lightlessness at one of the still-living Sinaji, baring his teeth at him.

Solonn wondered just how many of the Sinaji had already fallen to Grosh alone. Not enough, no doubt. At least not as far as the steelix was concerned.

Even after all was said and done, even if they made it out of this alive and triumphant and none of their enemies survived, it might never really be enough for Grosh.

Quiul disappeared then, taking a very tired-looking Lirimi and a none-too-happy Kala with her.

Right before another rush of light filled the tunnels beyond.

Zdir and Valdrey’s forces promptly moved to intercept the incoming wave, to keep them bottlenecked at the entrances to the chamber. Several Sinaji poured in regardless before they could stem the tide, and a couple of them promptly burst into multiple illusory copies.

Solonn took out three of these in succession, then veered sharply out of the way as Haex the bisharp slashed a fourth into nothingness. His next target was solid; he felt the other’s armor shatter against his skull. Someone tore into his side as they rushed past; he hissed sharply but held his ground against the threat that chose to stick around.

The Sinaji he’d engaged lunged at him again at the first opportunity. Solonn lowered his face and took the impact in his heavily-armored head, then pulled back just far enough to rake his attacker’s face with his horn and fling him a short distance away with a toss of his head.

Solonn heard the Sinaji hit the nearby wall, but saw him come back for more. He spotted another pair of them coming at him from the right, but an ancient power barrage pummeled one of them into submission just as quickly. He threw himself out of the way of them both, then fired a nhaza at the already-injured Sinaji as he came to a stop. The attack hit its mark, its target dropping from midair at the impact.

<They are breaking through!> Oth called out. They launched more stones toward one of the tunnels, catching one of the newcomers square in the face, but she endured the assault well enough to unleash a parting shot before a steel beam upside her head brought her down.

Her ice beam caught Grosh in the midst of another iron tail attack. The silver glow faded from around the lower third of him, and he came crashing down, forcing Solonn and several others to scatter in his wake.

He’s alive, Solonn frantically assured himself, he has to be… He couldn’t afford a glance to confirm it, not with jets of something deep purple and foul-smelling peppering the floor bare inches away. He threw his shield up—only to take a toxic shot from another source somewhere behind him the moment it fell.

His hide tingled where it struck him, then burned. He hissed, then groaned as the poison started to kick in. Shaking it off to the best of his ability, he spun about to ram his assailant, hoping to spot Quiul somewhere nearby in the process. Had she even returned yet? Had she tried, only to be deflected back from whence she’d come by a body thrown or charging into her path?

Solonn felt the breath explode out of him as armor—both his own and his target’s—shattered at his heavy impact. The other glalie fell, eyes rolling back, and Solonn was sure he’d be following suit before too long if no one neutralized the poison, all too certain of what the attack he’d suffered had been. He let out a ragged breath, biting back a surge of nausea. His body wanted nothing more than to try and purge the sickness out and sleep off the rest… but the fight still raged on all around him. He was still needed…

He shook his head, trying to clear his mind, but to avail. Facing forward again, he saw two glalie—or one glalie and an illusion—charging him in tandem, horns first. In his delirium, he reacted on instinct, trying to raise a shield—but none came.

Then a powerful burst of water blasted the copy out of existence and its maker yards away. The golduck responsible dropped to a three-point stance in front of Solonn. Barely any sooner than he’d landed, he’d whipped a handful of berries out of his pouch.

He rapped on Solonn’s teeth with his free hand. “Open up, b—” He broke off mid-word to give the glalie he’d hydro pumped moments ago a second helping. But Solonn managed to get the message through the growing pain and illness, albeit barely. His jaws parted, but shuddered all the while; the golduck barely managed to get the berries past them before they helplessly slammed shut.

The last thing Solonn felt like doing right now was eating, but he had just enough sense left to force the medicinal fruits down. Their effects, while not instantaneous, were swift nonetheless; in no time, he was back off the floor, alert and well once more, his wounds no longer bleeding.

He saw something huge and reflective swing back up into view, with something blue darting away from him—Grosh had been revived. Hope welled back up inside Solonn, putting all the more fight back into him—he charged the next Sinaji he singled out full-force. Another caught the business end of his horn soon after.

The din began to fade out once more, and individual shapes became more readily discernible amid the chaos once again. Solonn dared to wonder if maybe it was all nearing an end. Then something new crept into his vision: snaking branches of ice invading the space surrounding them, growing and fanning out and dancing rhythmically.

He wasn’t responsible for them, and he doubted anyone else on his side was, either. Not wanting to find out what the enemy had in mind with the display the hard way, he tried to will it out of being. The branches began withdrawing quickly, very quickly, suggesting more minds than his own trying to override their conjurer’s control… but then halted in their retreat. They quivered, as if uncertain… and indeed, Solonn found himself no longer sure that he wanted their dance to end. A breath later, he was completely convinced that he didn’t.

As he stared, transfixed, at the hypnotic ice formation, he began to want something else altogether. Something far less benign.

His will to fight transformed. Vindictive anguish took its place, and it pulled his gaze away from the ice branches at last and redirected it toward the rapidash a short distance away until the brightness of the flamethrower erupting from the latter’s mouth forced him to close his eyes. But no matter. He was already locked on to his target, already blindly speeding toward the alien creature whom he now viewed as the enemy, as one of those responsible for the death of countless fellow Virc, the death of his mother…

And then his barely-thought notions of vengeance blew apart, and he could have sworn the rest of him was doing likewise.

He screamed so loudly that his voice gave out almost immediately, leaving him gasping and choking. His eyes screwed even more tightly shut, but he could still see blazing orange light stabbing into them. He dropped involuntarily, rolling onto his back and shaking uncontrollably, still fighting to breathe, his heart racing painfully. Only one coherent thought endured the onslaught: the raw, primal, terrifying certainty that he was dying.

Until it, along with all the pain, all the terror, and everything else, simply fell away.

Chapter Text

From out of the nothingness, a gentle pulsing came, nothing at all like the panicked hammering of his heart before everything had gone black.

A couple of beats later, Solonn realized that the sensation was coming from somewhere outside him, not within.

He subsequently realized that yes, he was still alive.

He opened his eyes—or tried to. They still stung terribly, making him hiss weakly.

“No,” a gentle voice instructed him. “Not yet. Let me finish with you first.”

Solonn fumbled about mentally for a moment, still very dazed, trying to remember just whose voice that was. The image of the mercirance it belonged to finally answered the summons. She made it… Even in the midst of all this chaos, she’d found her way back in.

Except… where had the chaos gone? He could no longer hear any signs of battle, couldn’t hear anything at all except scattered mutterings and the occasional pained sound from someone or another.

“There,” Quiul said, sounding a bit winded, “there. That’s the best I can do, I’m afraid. But you are stable, rest assured.”

At her words, Solonn dared to try and open his eyes again, and this time he managed to keep them open. No fighting greeted them, no colliding bodies, no stones or beams in flight.

“Is it really over?” he asked, his voice still terribly hoarse.

“Don’t know,” Quiul responded.

“God, I hope so. You had me worried out of my mind there…”

Solonn looked up, grimacing at the wave of dizziness that accompanied the motion. His expression softened as much as it could at the sight of his father looking down at him from above with tears shimmering in his crimson eyes.

The steelix’s expression, meanwhile, did nearly the opposite as he cast a glance across the room. More gently than he’d moved before, Solonn rolled to face forward and follow it, and he saw that rapidash there, talking to Valdrey about something. She was reassuring him, from what Solonn could hear of the conversation.

Quiul looked off in that direction, too. She sighed faintly. “Grosh… you do realize it wasn’t his fault, right? It wasn’t anyone’s fault but the one who hijacked his brain.”

Hijacked his brain… Just the same as what had happened to him, Solonn recognized. “They did the same to me,” he said.

“And to half of the rest of us. At least.” Valdrey’s voice and hoofbeats drew Solonn’s attention; he found the aurrade striding in slow circles around another glalie who was lying on the ground—a glalie like none he’d ever seen before. A row of spikes ran along each of the stranger’s brows, and while it was hard to tell for certain with their light extinguished, the eyes beneath them didn’t look blue.

“I see you’ve noticed our late arrival here,” Valdrey said. “We think he’s the one who made you turn on each other.” She gave him a little kick with one of her forehooves. “Fried his own brain in the process, though.”

“He was dead inside his own skull,” Quiul said, and she almost sounded pitying. Almost. “The rest of him just hadn’t cottoned on yet.”

That likely answered the question of what, and who, had killed the stranger. But a multitude of questions still lingered about him. He was a hybrid of some sort, Solonn suspected… but what sort of parentage could have possibly given him abilities like those?

Solonn gave the slightest shake of his head, sighing bitterly to himself. They’d known to expect a mind-controller among the Sinaji. They’d been prepared to prioritize any non-glalie they saw who wasn’t on their side. He would’ve never guessed that such a threat could come from one of his own kind.

And apparently he wasn’t the only one who hadn’t. “I’m so sorry,” Moriel said quietly. “I had no idea they had any such thing on their side—I’ve never seen a glalie like this in my entire life.”

“I don’t think any of us have,” Evane said. Alij and Viraya both shook their heads, confirming it.

<You are not at any fault,> Oth said. <There is much your leadership did not see fit to tell you.>

“That… that’s true,” Moriel acknowledged. But the way she still frowned uneasily at the hypnotist, guilt dampening the light in her eyes, told that she wasn’t entirely consoled just yet.

Solonn turned his attention away from the glalie with the spiked brows, and though his body and especially his head protested, he rose from the spot, intent on finding out just how much that oversight had cost them—more to the point, if it had cost him anyone he was close to.

The first such question he had in mind came with a welcome answer, at least. Once again, Oth had made it through all right. They leaned in midair against the wall near the tunnel Zdir’s team had entered through, their levitation a little shaky, but otherwise they looked just fine.

Solonn moved over to join the claydol. “How many?” he asked. That was as far as he could stand to elaborate on the question, and not only because his throat was still so sore. He hoped that the claydol and their many eyes could assess the situation, or had already done so, more quickly and thoroughly than he could or wanted to at this point.

<All but eleven of the Sinaji who entered this cavern have now been slain,> Oth reported, though their tone made it sound almost as much like a confession, <as well as five among our number.>

Solonn fought back an urge to do a quick head count. Too many bodies. Too much mist, drawn into his lungs on every breath… He tried to shake off the unbidden, imagined sensation of it seeping into his veins, consuming him from within. It came right back.

He shuddered hard. “Who?” he managed to spit out.

<Three of the Hirashka: Arkhiah, Ahsrishasa, and Ghirath. Alisari and Daran were also slain.>

Solonn felt his heart sink at that last name. He thought of Kala, waiting back in Mordial for her brother… who would never return. The preceding name clicked soon after, and the weight in his chest grew even heavier—Alisari was the golduck, the one who’d likely saved his life by neutralizing the poison. And the Hirashka soldiers, so willing to put themselves on the line for foreigners they didn’t even know—such a far cry from what the Virc forces would have offered them…

<Three others among us have been put out of commission,> Oth went on. <Zyuirilziurn, Taldira… and Zdir.>

Solonn abruptly turned to face the claydol. “How serious is it? Will she be all right?”

<Quiul gave a favorable prognosis,> Oth replied, <but her recovery is expected to take a considerable while due to her age.>

Her age. The shock drained out of Solonn almost all at once. Of course… of course she’d taken a beating. It was a wonder she hadn’t been killed outright, really. But with all she’d done for them, with all the time he’d spent training under her… even now, some tiny part of him was surprised at the reminder that no, she wasn’t invincible.

He spotted her across the room: she was sitting up with a visible effort. Zyuirilziurn the cryogonal and Taldira the feraligatr were at her sides, both looking worse for wear. She met his gaze—her eyes still glowing, thank the gods—and nodded toward him weakly, as if to silently confirm that she would indeed be just fine.

“Heads up, we’ve got company,” Valdrey called out, and nearly every eye in the vicinity turned toward her. Past her, hesitating just outside the chamber, there hovered another of those thorn-bearing glalie. This one’s eyes still burned bright, though their light flickered at the sight before them, and there was no question about it this time: they were green, luridly so.

Hooves were thundering and glalie were surging and a bellowing steelix was lunging toward the new arrival in an instant.

“No, stop!” she cried out, barely audible over the horde closing in on her. “Please, I surrender!”

“Hold it!” Valdrey shouted, and her voice was far louder and clearer than usual. A glance in her direction told Solonn that her faceplates had retracted, revealing her gray, humanoid face.

One of Haex’s armblades split the floor in front of the newcomer, making her dart several inches backward. Grosh brought his head very, very close to the green-eyed glalie, growling deep in his throat.

Valdrey began striding closer, waving pokémon out of her way, her luminous sword at the ready all the while. As she moved forward, Oth began following close behind.

“You’d best be telling the truth,” Valdrey warned the newcomer, her head tilted back to peer down at her. “Otherwise it’s gonna get a little hazier in here.”

The newcomer nodded, her whole body shaking as she met the aurrade’s gaze once more. “We’ll all surrender, I promise you. Just… please…” She tried to look at some point beyond where Valdrey stood, but it was clear that someone was in the way. “Let me see him, just one more time.”

“We will,” Valdrey said, “after Oth is done with you.”

“Oth? What…” Her green eyes flitted about, trying to determine who Valdrey could mean. “What are you going to do?”

“Oth’s just gonna have a little peek into your head.” Valdrey tapped at her helmet with her free hand for emphasis. “Just to make sure you aren’t trying to pull a fast one on us. I can’t speak for anyone else here, really, but personally, I’m not a big fan of liars.”

The newcomer’s eyes widened, and her mouth dropped open slightly. “I’m not lying,” she insisted, sounding more than a little offended. “There are so few of us now, and so many of you and your… your monsters…” Grosh snarled in warning at that, at which the newcomer flinched, but then she resumed her affronted stare at Valdrey.

“If that’s true,” Valdrey said evenly, putting a hand to her waist, “then you’ve got nothing to hide.”

“It’s in your best interests to allow this,” Ronal told the newcomer. “Your safety—your life—is on the line.”

Her face twisted, her eyelight wavering all the more as she hung there in place, still quaking. Finally, she closed her eyes and nodded in acquiescence.

“Have at it,” Valdrey said, extending an arm toward the newcomer.

Oth placed themself before her, silent and still in their work even as their subject hissed and shuddered. She only stopped doing so once they backed off, but even then she looked no more comfortable than she had since arriving there.

“So what’d you find?” Valdrey asked the claydol.

<Sathir is being sincere,> they confirmed.

Valdrey held the newcomer in her gaze for one last moment before sheathing her sword. “Then today’s your lucky day,” she said, “relatively speaking.”

The discomfort in Sathir’s expression turned to something distinctly bitter. “Can I see him now?” she asked coldly.

“He’s all yours,” Valdrey said, and stepped out of the way.

Sathir drifted forward, casting distrustful looks at the unfamiliar creatures among the small crowd of glalie. She soon came to a stop, sinking to the floor before the dead hypnotist. A hiss shuddered through her gritted teeth, then gave way to sobbing.

“Someone you knew?” Narzen asked. His tone told that he’d already guessed the answer.

Sathir looked to him with disgust written all over her features. “I don’t owe you any more answers,” she said, her voice hitching mid-sentence. But then she sighed, turning back to face the fallen glalie again. “But you’ll just take any answers you want from me, won’t you.”

Before anyone could affirm or refute that statement, “My mate,” she informed them, “and the father of my child.” She sighed again, more bitterly this time, lowering her head. “There are so few of my people left in this world. Even fewer now, thanks to you.”

“Hey now. It was his bright idea to try and brainwash all of us at once that landed him in that position,” Narzen said.

Sathir’s gaze shot back up, and she leveled the sort of wild, furious stare at him that suggested she wanted to call him a filthy liar. But it quickly faltered. “Damn it, Averin…” she said almost voicelessly to her lifeless mate. “I told you not to try it…”

“Well, he didn’t listen, I’m afraid,” Valdrey said. “He really should’ve kept that little trick to himself.”

“You all should have,” Solonn spoke up. “Why?” he demanded. “Why did you do this to my brother? He doesn’t even recognize me now.” The lines of his face hardened with anguish, his eyelight going shaky. “He’s been stranded across the ocean, and if I ever see him again…” He drew in a rattling breath that turned to stone in his throat. “…I’ll have to tell him that both his mother and his father are gone. Because of you. Why?” he hissed again, his eyes momentarily blazing.

Sathir wilted almost imperceptibly under his gaze. She swallowed audibly. “It was never supposed to go this far,” she said in a brittle voice. “When we sought refuge with the Sinaji, we had no idea how dangerous they were… They were outcasts, like us. We thought we were one and the same, or almost the same… We were stupid,” she spat.

She lowered her head again. “We began bewitching a few of them, their leaders… just enough to make them safe company. We used their territory as sanctuary from the Virc, with the Sinaji as guards… but at some point, that ceased to be enough. We became resentful of the Virc for making us live the way we do, the way we have for generations… the fact that so many of us never hatched and so many have been born sick and stayed sick… All at once, we were waging war on the Virc, using the Sinaji as our soldiers. The Virc children they captured for us… would’ve joined them.”

Solonn just stared agape at her as she sat there shaking, at a loss for words in the wake of her confession. Those children could’ve been sent to kill members of their own families, or to be killed by them. He might have been forced to take Jen’s life—and with the latter having surely evolved in that scenario, Solonn might’ve never known that the blood on his horns was his half-brother’s, that it would’ve been his fault that he and Jen would never truly reunite.

The thought of what his mother would think of that came to mind, and he snarled. “Where are the rest of your people?” he demanded.

Sathir hesitated to answer, still shaking.

“We will do them no harm, provided they agree to surrender as you have,” Quiul said. It sounded as though she were genuinely trying to sound reassuring, but her tone was missing a little of its usual warmth.

“Whereas you’ll harm me if I don’t give them up,” Sathir surmised aloud.

“No,” Valdrey said, shaking her head. “You surrendered, fair and square. We won’t change our minds unless you do.”

Sathir looked from one alien face in the crowd to another, still silent as she assessed the situation. Then she rose. “Follow me,” she said quietly, and began to return from whence she’d come.

Everyone else present began filing after her immediately, with Valdrey directly behind her. Solonn could see her hand move to hover near the hilt of her weapon as he moved out himself.

They proceeded in this fashion for some time, finally arriving at a very thick, opaque ice wall. Four Sinaji hovered before it, and wasted no time in shouting in alarm at the approaching pokémon.

“Silence,” Sathir commanded wearily. “They’re allowed to enter, all of them.”

The guards didn’t argue. Nothing about them suggested that any of them even thought to disagree. Most likely “bewitched”, Solonn guessed.

The four of them moved aside, lingering against the walls. “Stay there,” Sathir ordered them; then, “Remove the barricade,” she called out to whomever was beyond it, “and don’t be alarmed.”

There was a delay before the barrier showed any changes. Muffled, uneasy-sounding voices could be heard from the tunnel beyond. Then, slowly, the wall came down.

“There they are,” Sathir all but whispered. “The last of the Rannia.”

Within the chamber that was now revealed, two other glalie like Sathir huddled against the far wall. A very small snorunt, her eyes as green as the rest of the Rannia’s, leaned against one of them, looking very listless. A third Rannian glalie hovered a bit closer to where the barrier had stood, but the look on her face suggested that she’d forgotten why she’d come forward.

And with them, staring in bewilderment, were Sanaika and Kashisha, with a number of blue-eyed and plainly frightened snorunt hiding and shaking behind the two of them and another pair of Sinaji.

Not taking his eyes off the strangers for even a second, “Sathir… what the hell is going on here?” Sanaika demanded.

“Party’s over,” Valdrey responded. “Your forces are down, save for you—” She swept a hand across the room, indicating the entire enemy presence therein. “—and those four out there. Your hypnotist friend here has surrendered unconditionally. I’d follow suit if I were you.”

Kashisha gawked openly at the crowd, shocked or furious or both. Sanaika just stared in silence for a moment, an unspoken dare to contradict Valdrey etched into his features.

“It’s true,” Sathir said sullenly. “We have to cooperate. If we don’t… Look at them, Sanaika. My family can’t defend themselves against such creatures. They’ll slaughter us.”

“Maybe they can’t,” the Rannia who still hovered in the middle of the room said. Her eyes were wild and blazing, and her jaws quivered in the gaps between words as if itching for something to sink their teeth into. “But I can, and you can, and…” She shook her head fiercely. “No, I… I can’t give in. I won’t give in!” A snarl of erratically-twitching ice tendrils burst into being around her, forcing nearly everyone around her to leap or dart out of the way. “I won’t—”

There was a sound like a small thunderclap, and down she went, alive but insensible. Her ice sculpture vanished into vapors in an instant under the control of another now, any hypnotic command it might’ve carried extinguished before it could really take root.

Sathir gazed upon her with pity for a moment, then moved toward Sanaika. “I need to know if you’re going to do this of your own accord or if I’ll have to make you do it. I don’t want to, but I will if you leave me no choice.”

“I’m not answering that question,” Sanaika said. “Not until I know what’s going to become of us if we surrender. We die if we keep fighting; do I understand correctly? The kids, too?”

<No,> Oth said. <The snorunt pose no appreciable threat. They will be relocated, as will any of you who agree to our terms.>

“Speaking of the snorunt… were these stolen, too?” Narzen asked.

“No, they most certainly were not,” one of the other Sinaji said. “How dare you even insinuate such a thing; these children belong to our people and always have.”

“Mind letting us confirm that?” Valdrey asked, signaling Oth to move forward once more.

“Just say yes,” Sathir said wearily.

The Sinaji who’d spoken hesitated at first, but then nodded, closing her eyes. Moments later, <These children were not kidnapped,> Oth said.

“That’s good…” Moriel said.

“So you’re… going to take us away… Where?” the fourth Sinaji glalie in the room demanded. “Do we get any say in the matter?”

“You can come with us to the Hirashka nation, if you wish.” Roskharha came forward, at which a couple of his surviving countrymen cast uncomfortable looks his way. Solonn did likewise—the thought of these mind-controllers and dangerous exiles headed for the same destination as one of his best friends and the family thereof didn’t sit very well with him at all.

“Captain… are you sure that’s advisable?” one of the Hirashka asked.

“They’re few enough that we can handle them. Yes, the green-eyes, too,” he answered preemptively; Sathir glared and hissed at him in response. “We’ll involve the Sisterhood if need be.”

“Hopefully that won’t be necessary,” another of the Hirashka said, and gave a faint shudder.

“It’s up to you,” Valdrey said. “Do you wanna move to Sinnoh with these nice, gracious glalie?”

<You may not get another opportunity to live among your own kind in the foreseeable future,> Oth pointed out.

“…I’ll go,” Sathir said. “And my family will go with me.”

Sanaika exchanged glances with Kashisha, at which she gave a melodramatic sigh that made her opinion of the circumstances all too clear. Nonetheless, she nodded in assent.

“Fine,” Sanaika said, “fine. And I suppose we have to leave right this instant?”

“Sounds good to me. What does Zdir think?” Valdrey asked.

There was a brief silence as Oth consulted with Zdir—if indeed she was still in any fit state to respond at the moment. Apparently she was; <Zdir is in favor of this course of action.>

“Roskharha?” Valdrey prompted next.

“I’m ready,” he responded.

“Quiul? You up to another jump right now?”

“I’m up to several more, if it comes to that.”

“That’s good—I think it’ll take at least two. Wouldn’t want you working yourself to a twitching heap,” Valdrey said. “Thuras? Go tell the boys back there to round up the live ones so we can head out.”

The gurdurr gave a quick nod and headed back down the tunnel at Valdrey’s request.

Sathir, meanwhile, had drifted off to join the three Rannia who were still awake. “Mother? Father? We have to go with them.” She spoke very slowly and deliberately, as if concerned that they wouldn’t understand her otherwise.

“Have they returned?” her mother asked, her somewhat pale eyes unfocused, her tone awed. “They’ve come to deliver us; the Vanished Ones have come to…”

Sathir held her tongue, apparently waiting for her mother’s ramblings to resume, but they did no such thing. “No… no, this is someone else. Our… our new saviors.” She didn’t bother to conceal the bitter sarcasm that accompanied those words, but it seemed lost on both of her parents.

“Oh… all right,” her mother said, then began moving unhurriedly toward the invaders along with her mate; not missing a beat, Sathir conjured a cradle of ice to catch the infant who’d been leaning against the former. The cradle rose on a stalk like a sprouting plant, then moved forward to lay the child down on top of Sathir’s head and shifted to secure her there.

Sanaika moved forward next, with Kashisha grudgingly following. The other Sinaji glalie in the room shepherded the snorunt along to join them, with some difficulty; some of the children were still too terrified to move at first. Solonn couldn’t help but regard them with pity—they hadn’t asked to be here, and they’d had no hand in the Sinaji’s crimes. They probably weren’t even aware of them.

It’s over, he told himself. They don’t have to be afraid anymore. None of us do.

Or so he hoped. Trusting it… was harder. He wanted to believe that yes, the Hirashka and their “Sisterhood”, whatever that entailed, could keep them in check, and that the Sinaji who had yet to wake up would cooperate just as the ones in this room had. That Zilag and Hledas and their daughters would be safe. But with no way to know with absolute certainty that they would, true comfort eluded him.

To say nothing of the effect that a certain loose end remaining in Convergence was having on his ability to really, truly feel as though the struggle were over.

It was then that Thuras returned. “Job’s done,” she reported.

“Good. Go back and stay with them, all right? We’ll be back for the rest of you here shortly,” Valdrey said.

As Thuras departed the scene once more, “Gather together, everyone,” Quiul instructed, motioning toward everyone present to draw closer. The Sinaji and Rannia complied, though not quite in unison; a couple of the children resisted up to nearly the last moment. Once they and everyone else were finally corralled, the former territory of the Sinaji disappeared from view in a golden flash.

 

* * *

 

“And you’re sure that’s all of them?” Hledas asked.

“All of the survivors, yes,” Solonn confirmed. “Oth made sure of it.”

Across the field in a snowy valley in Sinnoh, the remnants of the Sinaji—minus two of the survivors of the initial battle, who’d refused to be taken alive and who’d subsequently been dispatched by Sanaika himself—muttered to one another and surveyed their new surroundings with varying degrees of apprehension.

“I’m sure they’ll be kept in line just fine,” Zilag assured her. Even as he spoke, however, he eyed Kashisha uneasily. That, Solonn imagined, was a reunion his friend would’ve rather avoided.

“So now what?” Zilag asked. “Are you gonna stay here with us, too?”

Solonn’s thoughts briefly drifted elsewhere, his eyes following soon after. His geographical knowledge was a bit rusty after so many years between him and his schooling, but he suspected that Hoenn lay in that direction.

He and Zilag were of very different minds when it came to seeing their siblings again.

“Ultimately,” he finally answered. “But first… I have to go back to Convergence. I have to find him.” He didn’t bother to elaborate. He knew he didn’t need to. “Even if we have to live apart from now on… I want to try and give back what was taken from him. He deserves to know that there’s something left of his family, his real family.”

Zilag smiled. “I had the feeling you’d say that. I wouldn’t mind going with you and getting a better look at that place, you know? From what I remember, it was pretty crazy, heh. In a good way,” he clarified quickly. “But… yeah. I’d really feel better sticking close to my family right now, all things considered.”

“Of course,” Solonn said, nodding in understanding. He rose. “I’ll go find out if and when Quiul’s ready,” he said, “and let the relevant parties know where I’m going. I suppose this is goodbye, for now.”

“Suppose so. Goodbye, and good luck,” Zilag said, at which Hledas echoed his farewell and Ryneika attempted to do so.

With that, Solonn set off in search of Quiul. But before he got very far, “Um… hey. I overheard what you were talking about there, and…”

Solonn turned and saw Moriel there behind him. Alij, Evane, and Viraya were with her. “Yes… what of it?” he asked.

“We were wondering if you’d be opposed to us going with you,” Moriel said. “I mean… from what I understand, there has to be some sort of funny business going on where your brother’s concerned. First he mysteriously can’t be cured of his bewitching, and then the Sinaji you brought over there mysteriously dies? Something’s up.”

“Something is very likely up,” Solonn agreed, and as he zoomed out from his goal in this endeavor and looked more intently at the process that might be involved in getting there, having these people accompany him started to look like a good idea. Possibly a very good idea. Having very many more than that was probably ill-advised—the Hirashka nation would do well to have at least a little more than a skeleton crew keeping a watch over the Sinaji and the Rannia, Sisterhood or no Sisterhood. But surely, or hopefully, they could spare a small handful.

“You’re absolutely welcome to join me,” he said. “Thank you.”

“It’s the least we can do,” Moriel said. Evane nodded in agreement, while her sister and Alij looked on in silence but showed no signs of dissent.

Solonn began leading them away, but not toward his original target. He was all in favor of having the defectors accompany him back to Hoenn for a bit, but a bad idea was a bad idea, and on the chance that pulling them away from here counted as one, he decided to seek a second opinion.

When he reached the person he’d had in mind, he found a potential third opinion there along with her. Good. Roskharha sat there by Zdir’s side, the latter still looking somewhat weak but clearly stable and on the mend.

“Yes?” Zdir inquired hoarsely, taking in the small pack of glalie that had come before her.

“We want to go back to Convergence for… well, for an indeterminate length of time,” Solonn told her. “But… only if the people here can spare us.”

Zdir gave Roskharha a questioning glance. He sized up the would-be rescue party for a moment, seemingly in thought. “I’d say so,” he finally decided.

“Go and get your brother, then,” Zdir said.

Solonn lowered his head, relieved. “Thank you,” he said, and resumed his search for Quiul.

By the time he caught up with her, he’d run into both Oth and Grosh. Upon informing each of them of his plans, they’d requested to go with him and insisted upon going with him, respectively.

After confirming that the Hirashka nation and its new citizens could afford their absence, too, he’d agreed to their wishes, and now the lot of them hovered or coiled before Quiul, with Solonn ready to ask for her assistance.

But she beat him to the punch. “Let me guess: you’ve all got somewhere you need to go, right?” she asked a bit playfully.

“Yes,” Solonn said. “We need you to take us to Convergence, if you would. Jen’s still there, and he might still need help recovering his memories.”

“Well… I’m afraid I’m not much use to you where the latter’s concerned,” Quiul admitted. “But as far as the former goes, sure thing.”

<If I might make a suggestion…> Oth spoke up. Everyone turned to face them. <I think we would do well to establish a link between the two of us,> they said, pointing a turret-hand toward Quiul. With less need for Zdir to dispense orders to her forces now, the claydol was no longer telepathically connected to her, thereby freeing up the link for another. <We would thereby be able to call upon you when we are ready to return.>

“Was just about to suggest the same thing, actually,” Quiul said. “And don’t worry: I can keep the ghostliness to myself just fine,” she assured them.

<I had no doubts that you could,> Oth said. If they actually did have any, they concealed that fact very well.

Quiul made a beckoning motion, and Oth apparently interpreted the prompt correctly; <It is done,> they announced.

“Okay then, away we go…” Quiul said. And with that, she transported them all to Convergence, and to the hope of undoing the last lingering crime of the Sinaji.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t the first time Solonn had been in Convergence in recent memory, but it felt like it all the same. Possibly because, for the first time in years, he was out in the open, looking upon its streets and landmarks directly rather than through a window.

Directly, and with his own eyes.

“Okay, this… this is not what I expected somehow.”

Solonn turned toward Evane and the others who were now left alone with him, their teleporter already back in Mordial. That’s right, he acknowledged, they’ve never been here before. The issue wasn’t an unfamiliarity with human civilization; he knew that much. If anything, it was the familiarity of the place that was throwing them off.

“Weren’t expecting it to be this human, were you?” he asked.

“Well… no,” Evane said. “I mean, from the way you described it, with pokémon wandering about and doing human jobs… it didn’t really sound like any human place I’d ever been.”

“It’s not like most other human places in general,” Solonn told her. Which was still true, he suspected. This city was being maintained by the pokémon trained to work here, but the majority of human cities probably looked more like Wisteria, or worse.

He heard heavy metal armor grinding against the pavement and turned to regard Grosh. “Guess we might as well start looking, right?” the steelix said.

“Guess so,” Solonn replied, though he had no solid idea of where to begin.

Echoing his thoughts, “Where should we start?” Alij asked. “Where you left him’s probably out, I’d imagine.”

“Probably,” Solonn agreed; Jen’s new keepers had almost certainly taken him home by now. Or keeper, if the suspicions that he and the others shared were true. The more he’d thought about it, the harder it had become to believe that the gardevoir from the Haven had truly been unable to restore Jen’s memories. Why he’d chosen not to, however, was still anyone’s guess. “We’ll come back to the Haven if we must, but I strongly suspect he’s elsewhere.”

“Right. So I guess here’s as good a place to start as any,” Moriel supposed aloud. She swept a glance down the avenue. “This way, maybe?” she asked, nodding toward one of the closer streets.

“You can go that way. I think the rest of us would do well to split up,” Solonn said. “But we won’t go alone, any of us,” he quickly amended. “We’ll go in pairs, and then the remaining three can go together.” Not that they’d be much less vulnerable if they were cornered that way, of course. But they’d be less conspicuous than they would in a unified search party, and possibly quicker and more effective. Which would likely do Jen a favor, as far as Solonn was concerned. The sooner his brother was extracted from this mess, the better.

“How does that sound?” he asked the others.

Grosh made a rumbling sound. “I don’t know,” he said, rotating a few of his segments. “I don’t think I like the idea of leaving you alone with God knows what going on around here.”

“Then you can come with me,” Solonn suggested.

“I meant all of you,” Grosh said. He looked down at the small crowd of glalie and the lone claydol with unease. “After all you people have done for me, and for her memory… I’d just hate for something to happen to any of you that I could’ve stopped, you know?”

Solonn didn’t respond, other than to avert his gaze slightly. Yes, he understood. But…

<We do have a better chance of finding some sign of him if we split up,> Oth spoke up, unwittingly sparing Solonn a few breaths and a bit of guilt. <If the ones who are keeping him see us coming all at once, they will most likely anticipate an attack and flee. With all of us moving in the same direction, they could simply keep fleeing.>

“By that reasoning, we should all go in separate directions. No pairs, no trios,” Viraya said.

“Huh. All right, then. We’ll have a vote,” Moriel suggested. “All in favor of each of us going alone?”

Viraya nodded without hesitation. Alij followed suit soon after.

“All in favor of all of us sticking together?”

“Aye,” Grosh said.

“All right, and all in favor of us splitting into small groups?” Here Moriel cast her own vote, inclining her head. Solonn did likewise, and shortly after he did, “That’s four in favor of small groups. The majority wins.”

“Hold it,” Grosh said. All eyes shifted his way. “You’re talking about pulling random people off the street and questioning them. How do you know you can trust what they say if you don’t have them to confirm it?” He dipped his head toward Oth.

That, Solonn had to admit, was a valid point. Especially with the possibility of a rogue psychic in the picture, who could be making people believe things that weren’t true. Oth could not only detect lies but also signs of mental tampering. Their abilities might prove vital in obtaining actual leads.

But a solution, or the closest thing to one that he could think of, occurred to him quickly. It occurred to Evane, too; “We’ll just have to bring anyone who’ll cooperate to a meeting place,” she said. “Oth can scan them all once we’re finished for the day.”

“It’s not ideal,” Moriel said, “but I think it’s going to have to do.” She glanced around, thinking; then, “Let’s meet back here when we’re done, okay?” she suggested. Most of the others nodded in agreement, and almost no one raised any objections.

Almost no one. Grosh grumbled again, louder this time. But he circled around the crowd to Solonn’s side all the same. “Take care of yourselves,” he pleaded with the others. “Please.”

“We’ll do our best,” Evane promised. “Come on, sis,” she said, and Viraya began following her away. Moriel and Alij paired off soon after.

<I will be accompanying the two of you, then,> Oth said to Solonn and Grosh, <assuming neither of you mind.>

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Solonn said. Nor did it surprise him, really.

Beside him, Grosh shook his head in reassurance, and Oth took that as their cue to move the rest of the way forward. With that, the three of them took off, avoiding the streets the others had chosen.

Traffic was light, relatively speaking. Lighter than Solonn remembered it being during this time of the evening. He wondered how many of Convergence’s surviving citizens had given up driving since the Extinction. Or for that matter, how many had simply up and left the town.

There were still plenty who hadn’t, though. Some were presently strolling or floating down the street by their own power, and nearly all of them stopped in their tracks to take note of the noisy metal serpent grinding along past them. The three took those opportunities to ask the locals if they had any leads where Jen was concerned, but thus far, none of them did.

They seemed less unnerved by his presence than the Virc had, at least. Considerably less unnerved, in fact. Only one of them actually had any noticeable adverse reaction to Grosh’s presence: a joltik who took refuge in a nearby trash can.

“You don’t think…?” Grosh began, letting the question hang.

“No, I don’t.” Odds were the poor little bug really was just terrified of the relatively gigantic creature who’d just shown up on the scene.

<I will check regardless. The joltik may still know something valuable.> Oth waited for an opening, then drifted across the street to speak with the frightened bug. Solonn saw tiny blue eyes and a bit of yellow fuzz poke out from under the lid after a few moments. Shortly after that, Oth returned.

<The joltik has seen no one of your kind prior to our arrival, nor does she know anything about a shiny gardevoir,> they reported.

“We’ll keep asking around,” Solonn said. “This isn’t exactly the biggest city in the world. There’s probably at least someone around who’s seen something.”

Whether they realize they do or not. Oth hadn’t found any signs of tampering in anyone they’d questioned thus far. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t. In fact, the more Solonn thought about it, the more certain he was that if they did find someone who knew anything, that fact would only come to light after digging through a pile of implanted memories.

With one last glance back at the trash can—the joltik was finally emerging, and noisily at that—Solonn carried on, as did the others. Fewer people than he would’ve preferred crossed their path as they continued their search, but it was a large enough sample that at least one of them should’ve been able to help out. So he figured, at least, as he finally signaled to the others, with no small measure of disappointment, that it was time to call it a night. The streets were only growing emptier by the hour. There was little else to do for now.

As they slowly neared the meeting place, the fact that they had nothing to report was plain before any of them even said a word. The same was true of the other two teams already waiting there for them.

“No luck, huh,” Moriel surmised aloud.

“None,” Solonn confirmed.

“If it’s any consolation, we didn’t have any, either,” Alij said. Then he grimaced a little. “What am I saying; of course that’s no consolation.”

“We’ll find your brother eventually,” Moriel assured Solonn. “And that gardevoir. I swear it.”

Solonn met her gaze, trying to show at least some comfort at her words. “Thank you,” he said, and managed a weak smile. She had a point, really. The search had only just begun. They still had a chance.

“Hey!” a familiar voice called out from somewhere behind the party. It was Evane, and her sister wasn’t the only one at her side. A sceptile was jogging alongside them, looking slightly winded but still managing a strange, placid smile.

“You found someone,” Solonn said, eyes wide. So he hoped, anyway. There was still one last thing that needed doing to confirm it.

“We did,” Viraya said. “This is Sylvan. She works at a place called the Hope Institute… and according to her, Jen is a frequent visitor.”

The sceptile nodded. “He hasn’t missed a meeting in weeks,” she said, sounding a bit breathless.

Solonn had never heard of the place in his life. It must’ve come up at some point after the Extinction, he figured. “If Jen goes there regularly…”

“We’d do well to han