All right, here's the next chapter. I'll try and have a second one up by Saturday, too. Just for this week. :P
As always, thanks for reading, and please, leave a comment telling me what you liked/didn't like!
Chapter 14: The Ruin Maniac
The interior of the hut was surprisingly well-furnished. In what appeared to be the living area, a sagging, dusty couch and dilapidated old armchair were arranged around a scratched and splintered coffee table. There was a makeshift fireplace, with a ball of fire crackling at the center of a small pyramid of wood, contained by a ring of old, sea-worn stones. A spyglass overlooked the thick forests of the other islands through a small, screenless window. Next to the spyglass was a wobbly side table that still carried breakfast's dirty dishes, flanked on either side by likewise wobbly chairs.
Steven, Stern, and Briney, sitting on the couch, shot nervous glances at each other, but Archie, in the chair, just kept his face buried in his hands. Peeko rustled her feathers, atop Captain Briney's shoulder.
The hut's owner entered the main room from a smaller, closed-off room, which Steven thought he probably slept in, clutching a book in one hand and a metal pike to stoke the fledgling fire in the other.
A mound of dirt began to form in front of the man, and a red-shelled Corphish scampered from its hole and pinched the man's toe, which was exposed through a hole worn through his leather boot. The man yelped and dropped the book on the same toe, causing him to howl in pain, clutching the toe.
Once he regained his composure, he dropped the stoker and grabbed a nearby broom, which he shooed the Corphish out through the door with. He then turned to the fire and nearly jammed the broom in, but realized his mistake with the bristles just inches from the flames and returned to his stoker.
Steven stifled an amused laugh as the man carefully, almost lovingly prodded the fire and then retrieved his book. The man sighed, pulling one of the chairs from the dining area up to the coffee table, and slammed the book down on it.
“I arrived here a few weeks ago,” he began, coughing into his fist, holding the book open with his free hand. “Searching for ruins rumored to have been built in these islands long ago. I had only brought two months' worth of rations with me, so, naturally, I decided to go to Dewford not long after, in search of something a bit more... palatable.” He grimaced, glancing behind him at a pile of assorted berries. “But, as I was leaving this little cove of sorts, my boat was attacked and destroyed by the very same Gyarados that tried to sink your craft. I was lucky enough to make it back here.
“But what I found most interesting is that Gyarados aren't indigenous to this area, and even then rarely come up to such shallow depths,” he said, pointing to a page in the book. Steven leaned in forward from his position on the couch. Sure enough, there was an illustration of a Gyarados, and beneath that, a map of the Hoenn region, with known Gyarados habitats marked in red. While plentiful in Eastern Hoenn, the west was almost devoid of markings. Beneath the map, an old-fashioned, almost medieval script read, “Generally lives one hundred feet beneath the surface. Rarely rises above fifty.”
“What could drive a Gyarados so far from its natural habitat?” the man wondered aloud.
“Well,” came Stern's hesitating voice. Steven craned his neck to look at him. “Gyarados are rather fiercely territorial. Perhaps another Gyarados drove it all the way here,” he suggested.
“That would explain why that thing's attacking ships,” Steven said.
“But not why it's so shallow,” Briney said. “Not many things could chase a Gyarados out of deep water. Dark things we could be gettin' into, lads.”
Steven frowned in thought for a moment. “Maybe it's not another Pokémon at all,” he said. “It could be something natural, or even a human.”
“Could be,” Briney agreed.
“But it would take a rock slide to force a Gyarados so high, and the amount of displaced water would create an utterly massive wave. These islands wouldn't even be here!” Stern said.
“A volcano, then,” Steven said. “One that's been oozing lava for a long time now, or something.”
“That's possible,” Stern said. “The balance of nature is shifting constantly. The sea wears away the land; volcanoes erupt underwater, forcing mountains up from the ocean floor. It's a constant cycle.”
“So, the Gyarados's habitat was destroyed by a volcano?” Archie said, speaking for the first time since the attack.
“Maybe,” the man said. “Name's Foster, by the way.”
Briney politely introduced the group. “We were on our way to take Steven here to challenge the Dewford Gym,” he explained.
“I see,” Foster said. He rose to shake Steven's hand. “Taking the Gym Challenge at such a young age... That's very admirable.”
“Thanks,” Steven said, blushing slightly. “But sometimes I get the feeling it won't be that unusual in the future.”
Foster chuckled. “And modest, too.”
Briney cleared his throat. “What, exactly, were you searching for, again?”
Foster's demeanor changed suddenly. “Well,” he said, rather pompously, leaning forward over the book, “it is a shrine dedicated to a Pokémon said to live in these islands. According to legend, this Pokémon, and the air around it, are always at a temperature of -328 degrees.”
“Why would a Pokémon like that live in Hoenn? It's so warm here,” Stern said.
Foster gave a self-satisfied smile. “According to that very same legend, it is sleeping inside the very shrine I'm looking for. It also has two brothers, one who replaces broken pieces of its rock body with new rocks, and another whose iron body cannot be scratched. They are the key to gaining access to a fourth Pokémon, somewhere in the far north.”
Steven glanced down at the book. It seemed to be an old index of the Pokémon in the Hoenn region. That was something Birch might like. He'd have to talk to him about it the next time they met. Then something occurred to Steven.
“Does anybody else know about the legend?” he blurted.
Foster frowned at him. “Not very many people. Not many at all. Why?”
Steven hesitated. Would Set and Isis know? “No reason,” he answered, half-lying. “It just seems like something my dad might be interested in.”
At that moment, Foster yelped in pain. The Corphish had crawled through the same hole and had clamped one claw to the man's backside. “Get off!” he shouted angrily. “Let go!”
He reached for the broom and smacked the Corphish away, tearing a hole in his khaki shorts. The Corphish scuttled back down into its hole, and Foster dug madly at the hole's sides, filling it in with sand again. “AND DON'T COME BACK!” he yelled.
Foster stood, wiped the sand off of his hands, and returned to his chair.
“So, what is our plan of action?” Steven asked, leaning forward eagerly.
Foster looked dumbfounded. “Buh- what?”
“What are we going to do about that Gyarados?” Steven said, speaking slowly, as though he thought Foster was hard of hearing.
Foster frowned. “I've never thought of that.”
Archie, Steven, Stern, and Briney all dropped their jaws in succession.
“You- you mean you don't even have a plan to leave? You can't possibly be serious!” Steven said.
Foster shrugged his shoulders. “Spending the rest of my life on this island, eating berries and getting pinched by Corphish might not be paradise, but finding that Pokémon would make my life worth it. I came here originally for purely academic reasons, of course, but imagine how much someone would pay to see a real, live legendary Pokémon! I'll open a zoo, and we'll have all three from the Hoenn region! People will come from all over the world to see these magnificent beasts!”
There was an awkward pause. Then, “I believe you've contracted Island Fever.” Briney's mustache rustled with each syllable. “Once we've taken care of Gyarados, we're taking you to the hospital to get checked out.
“But first,” he continued, “we need to take care of that Gyarados. But that's easier said than done, of course.”
“Well, I bet my Metang could fight it off. It's pretty tough. Besides that, Baltoy could blind it with Flash,” Steven said. He glanced down at Baltoy, who was asleep on the sandy floor next to the sofa.
“That could work,” Briney agreed. “And I bet Peeko could help out, too.”
“We'll need all the help we can get,” Archie agreed. “With as easy as that thing took out Carvanha,” he added, glumly.
“I'm sure your Carvanha's fine,” Briney assured him. “Pokémon are resilient creatures.”
“Yeah... you're right,” Archie said. He smiled for the first time since the battle. “I just hope he's still close.”
“If he's faithful, he won't have gone too far,” Briney said. “I remember once, Peeko and I were caught out in a storm, and she was blown away by a strong gust of wind. Not an hour after that storm had subsided, Peeko found my boat again.”
“Wow, that's amazing!” Archie said.
Steven looked down at Baltoy again. Was that faith the thing that kept Baltoy so intent on getting back to its original trainer, even though he'd abandoned it? Steven could understand wanting to stay with a trainer after being with him or her for a while, but not if the trainer was uncaring and neglectful enough to do what Baltoy's had done. But maybe that was what Baltoy was feeling, anyway. Even if Steven didn't understand, nor pretend to, he wasn't going to force Baltoy to let go of its old trainer.
“Let's get some shut eye, then,” Briney said. “We'll have a full day tomorrow, taking on that Gyarados and getting to Dewford.”
“Captain, you sleep on the sofa. Steven and I can sleep on the floor,” Stern said.
“Thanks, lad,” Briney said. “These old bones need their rest. My joints have been a little creaky the past few days. Must be another storm brewin'.”
So Steven and Stern vacated the sofa, allowing Briney to stretch out across it. Archie was almost immediately asleep in his chair. Foster returned his own chair to the dining area and disappeared into the other room. Stern smoothed out a spot in the sand with his hands and laid down. Steven let out Metang, who stretched his arms.
“Metang,” it whispered happily.
“Can you use Confusion to make a place for me to lay down?” Steven asked.
“Me-tang,” Metang confirmed, nodding. It turned to face an empty patch of sand and concentrated hard, shutting its eyes, and the sand smoothed itself out perfectly. Steven laid down on the smooth area. It was soft, too. Steven smiled.
“Thanks, Metang. You can go to sleep now, but if you hear anything that might be dangerous, wake me up, okay?” Steven said.
“Met.” Metang slowly lowered itself to the ground next to Steven, laying its arms flat on the ground on either side of its body, closed its eyes again, and was soon sleeping deeply.
But Steven felt unable to sleep. He wasn't used to sleeping rough. Of course, he wasn't about to let anybody know that. If someone knew he wasn't used to living in the wild, nobody would be able to take him seriously as a trainer. Nobody would give him a second thought. Steven felt it was a sign of weakness, one that he would stamp out of himself. He should be hardened, and perfectly-tempered, like his favorite types of Pokémon.
His mind also drifted to Wallace, and what he was doing right now. He was probably sleeping in a luxurious bed comparable to Steven's bed, back home in Rustboro. Was he staying in the Contest Hall tonight? Did Contest Halls even have hostels, like Pokémon Centers did? Was Wallace even in Verdanturf yet?
What about Winona? Steven had heard the citizens of Fortree City lived in large treehouses, but did the Gym Leader and his family? Did they have a very large house? Was the Gym up in a tree, too?
Steven had never realized just how large the world outside the stone walls and steel gates of the Stone Mansion was. He'd thought about it, of course. Dreamed about riding a comet. Gazed up at the onyx sky as the stars circled past, slowly but unfailingly. Now that he thought about it, most of his time at home had been spent staring off into space or dreaming of exploring exotic places.
Steven glanced out the small window, into the pitch-black sky beyond. Several stars twinkled in that tiny circle of sky. With those stars in his eyes, Steven finally drifted off to sleep.