Here's the first chapter of a much longer fic I'm writing. So far I've written three chapters, but I'll just post the first to see if anyone's interested in reading more. There isn't anything too disturbing in here, apart from one dark scene in the middle.
“Hmmm...” the girl murmured, “Which should I choose? Tauros? Miltank? Arcanine?” She sighed heavily in mock frustration. “Decisions, decisions!”
Putting to one side the leather jacket and tiger-print skirt she been deliberating over, she reached further into the clothing rack and let out a squeal of excitement that made her companion jump. “Oooo! Look!” she trilled, emerging from the forest of clothes with a dress held triumphantly over her head, “Genuine Dodrio feathers!”
The stony expression of the boy indicated he was not amused.
“I’m sorry,” she said, touching his arm in apology. “I know how you feel about this stuff ... but look at it! And look at this!” she cried, waving the price tag in front of his face. “Half price!”
“Yes, it’s lovely,” the boy replied, deliberately looking at the floor as he said it.
“Oh, come on, Sen,” the girl said. She added the Dodrio-feather dress to the pile of purchases she’d accumulated, and sat down beside him on the chairs which the department store had thoughtfully provided for its customers’ bored husbands and bewildered boyfriends. “What’s wrong with you? You’ve been really miserable all day. Normally nothing cheers you up quicker than flying into Peregrine City to hit the January sales.”
The boy continued to look at the floor, saying nothing. His left hand came up and flicked aside a stray shard of dark black hair that had cut into his cream-coloured complexion. He sighed dramatically.
Still the girl waited, sitting companionably at his side. Eight years of friendship had taught her that, eventually, the theatrics would subside and her friend would get to what was actually bothering him.
At last, he did.
“I’m just fed up, Charlotte!” he said. “Completely, and utterly, fed up!”
Charlotte smiled, partly in relief. So there wasn’t anything wrong – just Sen’s usual seasonal malaise manifesting itself once again. She put her arm around the boy’s shoulders, which, to her constant chagrin, were narrower than her own, and gave him a reassuring squeeze.
“I know, this time of year sucks for you,” she said. “But you always get over it. January’s just your bad month. Everybody has one ... and you, well, you have good reason to feel a bit down around this time. But come February you’ll be over it, just like you always are. So how about we get a head start, and you help me pick out a nice outfit? Hmm?” She smiled again, flashing a set of dazzling white teeth that would have melted the heart of most men and had a distinctly opposite affect on other parts of their anatomy.
The smile faltered when Sen lifted his eyes to meet her own. She saw he was more upset than usual. For whatever reason, this was going to be a particularly bad January.
“I just... I think I need to be on my own for a little while,” Sen said. “I think I’ll go for a walk.”
“Oh, okay,” Charlotte said. She glanced over at the line of customers waiting to pay, which had already twisted its way around two corners of the store. “That’s probably a good idea. You go for a walk, and I’ll see if I can squeeze daddy’s credit card till it hurts.”
They both stood up. She saw him struggle to think of something amusing to say that would lift both of their spirits.
Failing, he said simply, “I’ll see ya later.”
“Seeya back at the hotel,” Charlotte said. She watched him walk out the shop without looking back.
It was only as she was standing in the line to pay that, after glancing at her watch, she noticed the date. Crap, she thought. It happened today...
Sen left the clothing store and entered the main rotunda of the mall. He was instantly swamped by noise, as the sound of a thousand different conversations swelling towards the building’s ceiling replaced the calming music that had been piped into the store. Peregrine City’s mall was only the sixth largest in the province, but it was disarmingly easy to become lost in its labrynthine floors of endless clothing, book and music stores, broken only occasionally by a noisy oasis of food courts. To combat the feeling that its patrons were entering the bowels of hell, the mall had been built with a glass exterior and roof that allowed the sun’s rays to penetrate to even the deepest floor. Sen squinted now as the glare of the sun lanced into his eyes, which, combined with the heat and noise of a mall full of people on a very busy shopping day, motivated him to seek out the nearest exit and make his way towards it. Within minutes he was out in the fresh air, the chaos of the mall behind him.
Stretched out before him was the Mall Garden: a beautiful green lawn with a winding network of paths leading to an impressive (if, to Sen’s eye, slightly garish) marble fountain in the middle of the park. Various people strolled along the paths, or sat on blankets on the grass, enjoying the seasonable January warmth. As he passed a handsome couple in their twenties preparing to lie down for a heavy duty session of sunbathing – the girl applying sun lotion to her boyfriend’s sculpted torso – Sen offered up a silent thank you to the after affects of global warming which made it all possible.
With the abundance of sun, fresh air and male skin on show, Sen was starting to feel a little bit better as he approached the marble fountain. He thought about sitting down on one of the benches, listening to the gentle trickle of the water, and finishing that novel he’d been trying to read for the past week.
That was when he saw them.
The fountain was mostly deserted, except for a quartet of ridiculously attired teenagers who were sitting by the water’s edge and attempting, by their facial expressions, to make themselves appear even more ridiculous. Beyond them, on the other side of the fountain, the path stretched away towards the woods that surrounded the park – a dark, rather forbidding area, full of wild Pokémon, it was especially unattractive to most of the mall’s patrons on such a beautiful day as this.
Between the other side of the fountain and the edge of the wood, some Pokémon trainers were having practice battles.
Sen stopped dead in his tracks, so abruptly that an unseen couple walking behind bumped into him. He murmured an apology, unable to stop staring at the dozen or so Pokémon trainers battling just behind the fountain.
Sen walked towards them.
There were ten of them. All young – fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Undoubtedly, all first-time trainers just setting out on their grand adventure. As usual, there were more boys than girls – seven of the former, three of the latter. Only four trainers were actually battling. The others had formed into a small circle, and were either watching the battles or showing off their new starter Pokémon to the admiration of the other trainers.
“Isn’t he awesome?” a sandy-haired boy standing in the middle of the circle of admirers said. At his foot stood a small green lizard Pokémon, standing on its hind legs, with its forearms folded over its chest. The Pokémon’s large yellow eyes were half-closed in a nonchalant, who-cares-what-you-think way, but even from his current distance Sen could see its pupils eagerly flitting between the other trainers’ faces and soaking up the attention.
“Ooooh!” one of the girls in the circle said, bending over the Pokémon, “look at him! He’s so cool! Look at how he folds his arms like that, it’s so rebellious!”
“Yeah,” the Treecko’s owner replied, “he’s a real badass that way.”
“What d’you call him?” one of the other trainers asked.
“Treecky,” the boy replied, to murmurs of “Awesome” and “Cool name” throughout the group.
Jesus Christ, Sen thought.
He turned his attention to one of the battles. A blonde-haired boy of about fourteen was currently pitting his Torchic against a red-headed kid’s Mudkip.
“Torchic, use Tackle!” the blonde kid ordered. The little orange bird lowered its head and charged full scale at the opposing Mudkip.
“Mudkip, you use Tackle too!” redhead responded. His Mudkip lowered its own head and charged at the Torchic.
Sen averted his eyes as the two Pokémon collided. When he looked back they were both lying in a heap, dazed but fortunately unhurt, Mudkip’s head-fin having absorbed most of the damage. The two trainers congratulated their Pokémon and shook hands, pronouncing the battle excellent as they returned the Pokémon to their Pokéballs.
The other battle was still going on, and Sen now turned his attention to it. This time, it was two Mudkip who faced each other. The trainers were slightly older, a boy and a girl of about fifteen, and evidently they were more experienced in the ways of Pokémon battling as both of their Mudkip had already mastered the Water Gun technique. The two Pokémon were engaged in a face off, each spraying a jet of high-pressure water from their mouthes which was aimed directly at their opponent. The streams met in mid-air halfway between the two Pokémon, and the situation was evidently stalemate.
“Come on, Mizu!” the boy shouted. “Harder! You can do it! Come on, for god’s sake, try harder!”
In response, the Mudkip standing before him squinted its beady black eyes shut and stepped forward, forcing itself to advance on the opponent while maintaining the jet of water coming from its mouth.
“Don’t let him do that!” the girl almost shrieked, waving her hands in frustration. “Goru! You can do better than this! More power, NOW!”
The girl’s Mudkip tried, but failed. Its tiny legs shook, and it wobbled on its feet. The jet of water coming from its mouth faltered and then dropped away as it collapsed onto its side on the ground.
“Oh Jesus, Goru,” the girl cried in exasperation. Her opponent grinned, and pumped his fist in the air as his own Mudkip looked slightly unsteady.
“Yeah, alright!” the boy crowed. “Looks like we know who the better trainer is now!” He walked over to the girl to continue gloating as his Mudkip, utterly exhausted, joined the other Pokémon by collapsing into the dirt.
Some people, Sen thought, just weren’t meant to have Pokémon.
“Hey, you!” a voice called out from behind him. Sen turned to find one of the trainers had broken away from the others and was walking towards him. “You! You a Pokémon trainer? Wanna battle my Treecko?” He raised his eyebrows, as if to say Come on, I haven’t got all day here.
“No,” Sen said. “I don’t have any Pokémon. I’m not a trainer.”
“Oh,” the boy said. Sen saw a series of emotions form in his eyes, eventually combining into a mixture of pity, indifference and contempt. The boy made an apologetic gesture with his hands and, wihtout another word, walked off to find somebody else to battle.
Sen had had enough. He walked away from the young trainers without looking back, but the boy’s expression continued to play itself over and over in his mind.
He didn’t remember making a conscious decision to enter the woods. He just remembered walking. And being angry. Walking and being angry, his fists shoved deep into the pockets of his trousers as they only ever were when something had really made him mad. Walking, being angry, and wanting to put as much distance between himself and those trainers as possible.
So that’s what it takes to be a Pokémon trainer these days, is it? he thought. Those are the necessary qualities? A charming ignorance of strategy, a complete absence of empathy, a pinch of arrogance and a real talent for devising crappy nicknames? That’s what’s required, is it? Why, then those kids will go far. FAR.
A part of his mind tried to speak up at this point by saying that he was better off out of it. Unfortunately, this timid and altogether too reasonable part of his mind was quickly shouted down by another part of his mind: the It’s Not Fair part. The It’s Not Fair part always had its say, usually at the expense of logic and always at the expense of reality. The It’s Not Fair part was dominant in Sen’s mind, and it was in close cahoots with the part of him that wanted to Show Them All.
It’s not fair, he thought. It’s just plain unjust, is what it is. It makes no sense, none whatsoever. One little mistake ... one tiny, small, miniscule miscalculation, one unbelievably minor error of judgement, made back when I was a much younger and entirely different person, and they blackball me for life. No second chances. No reprieve. No rehabilitation. No three strikes and you’re out. Complete and total banishment, for life.
While these people, these awful, awful people, are welcomed with open arms as the future of Pokémon training. They’re given scholarships and starter Pokémon and welcomed in by complete strangers every time they land their free-loading arses in a new town. They’re made to feel like heroes just because they turned fourteen and they think Mudkip are cute. It’s un-bloody-believable.
The It’s Not Fair part of his mind, divorced as ever from reality, here decided to conjure up an old fantasy in which he was somehow able to travel back in time several years and make his choices over again. To put right what had gone wrong. To give himself a completely different future, a better one. A slight glow of happiness pervaded Sen’s body at such an idea, but he became all the more cold for the necessary realisation that such a thing could never happen.
His choices had been made, and they couldn’t be unmade.
His life’s course was set in stone.
Jensen Delaney would never be a Pokémon trainer.
He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t even notice the path he had been walking on was growing more and more dirty, the trees were crowding closer and blocking out the light, and low-level vegetation was encroaching ever more onto he dirt trail he was now walking on. A wet leaf smeared dampness across his arm; he hardly felt it. A puddle of muddy water splashed dark brown stains over his obscenely expensive footwear; he didn’t see it.
Why do you even care about this stuff? he asked himself. What’s so great about being a Pokémon trainer? Why do you want to be one of THEM? You despise those people. You loathe them with every fibre of your being. Why on Earth would you want to join them?
Look at your life, he thought. It’s not so bad. In fact, it’s pretty damn great, compared to most people’s. You have plenty of money. You can go wherever you want, do whatever you want. You have great friends. Okay, you have a bunch of people that you kind of like most of the time and ONE great friend, but that’s still better than most people. Most people would give their right arm to have a friend like Charlotte. So, you’ve got money, a great friend, great taste in clothes – and you don’t even have parents to worry about! One endearingly daft brush of an aunt, as mad as she is loaded! So why can’t you just be thankful for what you’ve got and stop obsessing about the one thing you don’t have?
The answer his mind gave never came in words. It never formed itself into a coherent response to the charges that his more rational self held against it. Instead, he just felt a vague but powerful feeling, hovering somewhere above his stomach. A want. A need. He was missing out on something, something really big. He wanted to be a Pokémon trainer. It didn’t have to be like those people in the park, or like every other trainer he’d met. It could be different. He could be different.
Suddenly, he was stopped in his tracks by a rustling sound in the bushes behind him. Three things drove all of the previous thoughts from his mind.
He was alone in the middle of the wood, separated from the trail and with no idea where he was.
It was very dark.
Something was emitting a low, menacing growl from directly behind him.
Very slowly, Sen turned towards the source of the growling.
The trees towered above him, blocking out almost all of the light, so that he could only make out a vague outline of the creature’s shiny black pelt against the murkiness of the wood. It was almost as big as Sen, but the lack of light made Sen doubt his own eyes. It was probably larger than he could tell. The only features he could make out clearly were two powerful white horns glowing in the darkness, shaped like those of a ram, below which the creature’s eyes glinted with blank malevolence. Its orange muzzle was pulled back in a snarl that exposed its fangs. A drop of saliva dripped from its mouth and shimmered as it fell to the ground where it made an almost undetectable hissing sound.
Sen was not an expert on every species of Pokémon – few people, even experienced trainers, knew every single variety – but there were a few creatures that he had always remembered because they had either captured his imagination, his heart, or his dreams. Or, in the case of the beast standing before him, fuelled more than one nightmare.
The Houndoom continued to growl, and placed its paw forward.
Sen’s first thought was that it must be a dream. His second thought was to marvel that such a cliched idea – the one that always occurred to characters in books when they found themselves in such a situation – had actually crossed his mind. His third thought was that he had to get away, FAST.
“Hello,” Sen found himself saying in a small, scared voice. “What d’you want? Food? I don’t have any!” Maybe it thinks I’m a trainer, he thought. Maybe it wants to battle? “I’m not a trainer, look! See? No Pokéballs!” He waved his arms to illustrate the absence of Pokéballs at his waist, but the Houndoom merely growled louder and stepped toward him. Sen stepped backwards.
The Houndoom growled more fiercely, and squatted back on its haunches, preparing to leap forward.
Sen stepped backwards again.
The Houndoom flattened its ears, opened its mouth and leapt at him. Sen saw ribbons of saliva swing from its jaws.
He stepped backwards, and then the world turned upside down.
He was falling, and then there was a hard thump and he was rolling. He was getting wet and dirty, and occasionally something sharp and heavy struck him, but he just rolled over it, getting faster and faster. Is this that death feels like? he wondered. This is kinda fun! Wheeee!
Then he struck something really heavy, and the world was all pain followed by blackness.
He woke up feeling his own blood rushing over his legs.
Great, he thought, I’m dead.
But this was rather cold for blood, wasn’t it? Rather cold, and there was rather a lot of it. Who could’ve believed the young boy had so much blood in him? Sen wondered.
He forced his eyes to open, something he never would have believed could be so difficult. He blinked a few times and the world gradually came into focus.
Not blood, he thought. Water. I’m lying in a river.
Indeed he was. He was lying at the bottom of a steep hill, his path down it revealled by a trail of muck and dirt which had been raked up, most of which was now clinging to his body. From below the waist he was lying in shallow river. Shallow, but deep enough that, had he slipped a few more feet, he would have drowned while unconscious.
Sen tried to move, but his lower body was completely numb with cold. His upper body unfortunately wasn’t, and a hundred different cuts, bruises and sprains made their presence known at the slightest movement of his muscles. He spat several times, eventually coughing up some grass and, he was alarmed to notice, a small trace of blood. Must’ve bit my tongue while I fell, he thought.
Then he remembered the Houndoom, and even the sorest part of his body didn’t stop him making it to his feet.
He staggered over towards the river bank. One of his shoes had come off, and he noticed it lying propped against a rock, its light cyan colours drenched a much darker navy by the water flowing over it. There’s fifty quid I’ll never see again, he thought as he plucked it from its resting place. He eventually made it to the other side, where he collapsed on his knees, cold, exhausted and utterly bewildered.
He looked around him. The slope he’d fallen down had been obscured trees. He’d unwittingly fallen through the foliage and rolled down the hill as he backed away from the Houndoom. There was a small clearing here, but the river appeared from and disappeared into thick clumps of trees. He still had no idea where he was.
Had he really encountered a Houndoom, though? It was beginning to seem like a far away event, something that had happened years ago, maybe to another person, if at all. How long had he been unconscious? He looked at his watch, but its shattered face made the time difficult to read. He eventually made it out: it was flashing at 00:00. Yet another thing ruined. He thumped his fist onto the ground in exasperation, and scanned the clearing again as if looking for someone to blame.
Then he saw the body.
Hang on, he thought, AM I dead?
But this was not his body. Lying face down on the grass several feet away, its bright, almost platinum blonde shoulderlength hair was markedly different to Sen’s own short, jet-black style. Was it a girl? A boy? A woman? Corpses today, Sen thought insanely – you couldn’t tell whether they were men or women!
The body was dressed in a light blue shirt, long, baggy black trousers, with a pair of semi-expensive red trainers on its feet. Not bad style, Sen thought – not great, but not bad. One of its arms was lying along its side, and the other was stretched out before it on the ground, as if whoever it was had died doing the breast stroke. There was a moss-green backpack over its shoulders – the practical yet semi-fashionable kind favoured by hikers and Pokémon trainers.
Whatever happened to him, Sen thought, he didn’t fall down here like I did. There’s no dirt or anything on him, he’s not even wet. He just looks like he fell face-down and died. Jesus Christ. I’m lying in the middle of the woods on the run from a Houndoom and there’s a dead body not ten feet away!
Wait a minute, he realised. Maybe he’s not dead. He doesn’t look dead – I mean, there’s nothing wrong with him, apart from the fact that he’s lying face down in the woods, that is. Maybe he’s just hurt. Or weird.
He should probably go and check.
Sen pushed himself to his feet, and limped towards the body/person lying face down in the clearing. As he got closer, his sense of fear increased. What’s wrong with you? he thought. Even if he is dead, he can’t hurt you! Unless he died of some terrible disease ... but if that’s the case then you’ve already got it just by being here!
Gosh, Sen said to himself, thanks for the comfort.
So, what’re you waiting for?
He approached the body/person.
“Hello?” Sen said with unusual timidity. “Are you ... are you okay?”
No response from the body/person.
Maybe he’s unconscious, Sen thought. He could suffocate. I should probably move him onto his back.
“Hey, uh, guy,” Sen said, “or girl, I mean, I don’t know, the hair’s kind of misleading. I’m just going to try to move you onto your back, so, if you’re really okay don’t go all psycho on me or anything…”
Getting no response, he got down on his knees beside the body/person. He reached towards the body/person’s shoulder, hesistated, and then grabbed it, lifting him up.
It was a body, all right.
Sen leaped backwards, a scream caught in his throat. He scooted away from the body on his back, trying to block out the images that were forcing themselves into his mind. Trying to forget what he’d just seen. Redness. Ragged flesh. White bits ... bone? Two dark holes where the eyes should have been. A bloody bump where once had dwelt a nose. And ... further down on the grass ... the shredded remains of what Sen was fairly sure had once been this guy’s internal organs. As soon as Sen dispelled one image, another saw its opportunity and leapt with glee to the forefront of his mind.
My gods, Sen thought. Something ... something chewed him up. Jesus Christ. Something ate this guy.
Except that it hadn’t. The body was still there. Chewed up, mutilated, dead. But not eaten. Whatever had done this hadn’t been motivated by hunger. It had simply wanted to kill.
When he had moved sufficient distance away, Sen finally allowed himself to look at the body again. It was again just a normal person lying face-down in the grass, the horrid truth hidden once more.
The Houndoom, Sen thought. The Houndoom ripped this guy up, and it’s probably out there looking for me now, wanting to do the same to me. I have to get out of here.
He got back up to his feet and looked around. He hobbled in one direction, remembered his lost shoe, hobbled back and put it on his foot. He stared around him wildly, expecting the Houndoom to appear at any minute. He had to get away.
But where? He had no idea where he was. He hadn’t even known where he was before he’d fallen down the hill. As usual, he’d been walking along, lost in his own thoughts, not paying attention to what had been happening around him. The same kind of stuff that always got him in trouble. The stuff that would, it seemed, get him killed.
Your cell phone! his mind suddenly shouted. Ring for help!
Sen reached into his pocket and closed his hand around something that felt much too jagged and pointy to be his cell phone. He brought out the crushed piece of technology and held it up to his face. The screen, like his watch’s face, was shattered, but in the corner of one fragment the battery bar cheerfully reminded him he had full power. The signal bar was empty, naturally, because the aerial had broken off.
He put the phone back in his pocket. What now? He looked around. The guy’s backpack! Of course! He probably had a phone, or something – he looked like a trainer, and no trainer went out without a phone. Well, unless they were poor. But this guy didn’t look poor. He’d probably have a phone, and since he didn’t fall, it would probably be intact. Sen could call for help.
But he didn’t want to approach the body.
Don’t be so pathetic, he thought. I don’t even have to touch him, just his backpack.
He walked towards the body, slowly at first, then hurrying as he thought about the creature that was searching for him. He reached for the backpack and tried to pull it off, but it was still firmly attached around the body’s arms. Not wanting to look at what was currently being hidden by the grass, Sen unzipped the backpack and started rooting around to see what he could find. He pulled out a half-eaten chocolate bar and threw it aside. He found a few pairs of clothes bundled up. It looked like this guy had just been starting out on whatever it was he’d been doing before he’d encountered the Houndoom – he was travelling fairly light. Underneath the clothes Sen found a book, which he pulled out and searched under. Nothing else. No phone.
Damn, he thought. He looked around in despair. What was he to do now?
He looked at the book. It was rare to find actual paper books these days; most people preferred the downloadable E-books like the one that had been stored on Sen’s mobile phone before its untimely death. It had a plain red cover, no picture. No title, either. He opened it up, and found it was a journal. The entries were written in tight, almost unreadable cursive, and Sen found it difficult to make out what they said. He gave up trying – after all, it wouldn’t exactly help him get out of his current situation.
He closed the book, and that was when something fell out. Sen looked at his feet: there, by his left shoe, was a small card, about the size of a credit card, lying face-down on the ground. Just by the colour of it, Sen could tell what kind of card it was. It had been a long time, but Sen recognised that card now and always would. Its image had been burned into his memory since the day he’d watched his own be shredded before his eyes.
A trainer card.
Sen bent over and picked it up, turning it over to read its front. Unlaminated, made of thin blue card, trainer ID cards were contrived to be as low-tech as possible. The bearer’s name was written in stylish copperplate, along with a crisply typed ID number. There was no other information – not even a photograph. Sen had to smile despite himself. That was Pokémon League for you. All about honour, and dignity, and all of that bollocks which basically boiled down to pretending that Pokémon training was some kind of ancient art that had been around since the dawn of time itself. Ridiculous. As stupid and fallible an idea as these cards themselves. They weren’t even supposed to be a form of ID – as the League so pompously said, the only ID a trainer needs is his reputation, nothing else. In an era of computers and constant data collection, where Big Brother and his extended family always had their eye on you, the Pokémon League had staunchly refused to conform, preferring instead to keep minimal records on its trainers. Part of this, Sen knew, was a desire to maintain its image of quiet, almost anachronistic dignity, but another part was a fear of the shrill civil liberties groups who always rattled their sabres at the slightest sign of somebody wanting to know anything more revealling than your middle name. The Pokémon League system was foolish and ripe for abuse, but Sen also had to grudgingly admit that, so far, nobody had stepped up to take advantage of it. The trainers had acted with every bit of the respect and honour that the League expected of them, the sanctimonious gits that they were. It annoyed him no end.
So, Sen thought, this guy was a trainer. Then where did his Pokémon go? If he already had his ID card, he had to have at least picked up a starter Pokémon. But the backpack had contained no Pokéballs.
Hmm, he thought, maybe the Houndoom got it?
He looked at the name on the card: Richard Sooter, ID No. 387654998. Okay, Mr. Sooter, what happened to your Pokémon?
Sen examined the area around the body – perhaps his Pokéballs had rolled away. There was nothing in the immediate area, but something red and a few feet away caught his eye. He walked over, and found a single Pokéball hidden behind a clump of grass, just beyond the dead trainer’s outstretched hand. It looked like he’d been about to call on his Pokémon before the Houndoom had laid into him.
So why hadn’t the Pokémon come out to defend its trainer?
A horrible idea struck Sen. Perhaps, the Houndoom belonged to Sooter. Perhaps his Pokémon had turned on him, for some bizarre reason.
No, that didn’t make any sense. How would a new trainer, just starting out, end up with a Houndoom? It was hard to tell from what Sen glimpsed of his featureless remains, but Richard Sooter didn’t look much younger than Sen, if he was younger. He could’ve been a late starter, finishing school before starting out on a career as a Pokémon trainer. A lot of people did that nowadays, it gave them something to fall back on when they got their asses handed to them by the first Gym Leader they faced.
So, how could a new trainer get a Houndoom? Was it a gift? A treasured pet he’d trained for many years that had fortuitously evolved into a stronger Pokémon as they started out on their journey together? Many trainers were allowed to start out with non-regulation starter Pokémon, Sen knew. But that made no sense either. If the Houndoom had been Sooter’s faithful friend for many years, why did it rip his guts out now?
Sen bent down and picked up the Pokéball. He shook it, but of course there was no way to tell if it contained a Pokémon ... no way other than to call on it, something he was not anxious to do. Supposing something worse than the Houndoom emerged from it ...
Suddenly, Sen heard a snarl, and he turned to see a dark shape racing towards him through the clearing. He stepped backwards, and this time he tripped over Richard Sooter’s body, dropping the Pokéball to the ground. He landed on his back, rolled, and stumbled to his feet, trying to get away from the Houndoom, looking for any means of escape.
There were none.
Sen faced the snarling Pokémon, the dense thicket of vegetation and trees behind him, the river to his right, to his left more trees. There was no way out. The Houndoom advanced slowly, and Sen could see a chilling look of almost human triumph in its furious brown eyes. It knew it had him.
Movement to the left caught Sen’s eye. He snapped his head around to see that the Pokéball he dropped was twitching in the grass. Once, twice, three times. Then it stopped. Suddenly, it began to shake violently. The ball flipped open, and a burst of white light leaped out from inside it.
I’m saved! Sen’s mind cried out.
The light landed on the grass between Sen and the perplexed Houndoom, where it began forming into a shape. A disappointingly small shape. As the light faded, a small orange bird materialised between Sen and his would-be killer. The Pokémon looked around a few times, its three large head feathers flopping around comically, and it blinked its beady black eyes.
“Torchic!” it announced.
I’m dead, Sen’s mind moaned.
The little Pokémon was barely as big as the Houndoom’s head. The devil dog looked between Sen and the Torchic, as if deciding which would be easier to kill first. In a period of time that was so short Sen would have considered it insulting under other circumstances, the Houndoom decided on Sen, and began to advance on him.
About to attempt his tried and tested plan of backing away and hoping for the best, Sen began stepping backwards, but the Houndoom stopped moving. Confused, Sen looked down to see the small chick Pokémon viciously pecking the Houndoom’s forepaw.
The Houndoom snarled and snapped its head forward with lightning speed. Sen was sure he saw the Torchic disappear inside its mouth, but it had in fact leapt to the right and landed a particularly vicious peck on the Houndoom’s other forepaw. Sen was surprised to see the little bird’s beak draw blood, and even more surprised when the Houndoom withdrew its foot with what could only be described as a pained whine. The Torchic ran underneath the Houndoom’s belly, and began its assault on the right back leg, until the Houndoom twisted its body around, snapping its jaws after the little bird. But, fast as the Houndoom was, the Torchic was too quick; as Sen watched in amazement, the bird was suddenly on the Houndoom’s back, scoring its beak along the dark pelt of its shoulderblades, blood welling up in a thick red line. The Houndoom cried out and rolled onto its back; the Torchic was on its belly, pecking viciously, as the Houndoom writhed and tossed and tried to dislodge its tiny but formidable attacker.
Is it me, Sen wondered, or is that Torchic beating up a Houndoom?
Eventually the Houndoom’s snapping jaws came too close for comfort, and the little bird leapt back. The Houndoom was on its feet in an instant, fuelled by pain and rage – and probably humiliation as well. After all, Sen thought, nobody likes to be embarrassed in front of potential prey. The Houndoom chased after the spritely little bird as it ran in dizzying circles around the clearing, drawing ever nearer to the river.
The river! Sen thought. Torchic, a Fire Pokémon, would be trapped between the dangers of the water and the certain death of the Houndoom.
Hang on, Sen thought. Isn’t Houndoom a Fire type, too?
The Torchic had reached the end of the bank, and the Houndoom was approaching it with none of the arrogance it had reserved for Sen. It intended a quick, unsavoured kill.
Without thinking, Sen dashed forward and raced towards the Houndoom. He threw himself at it, hitting it in the rib cage with his shoulder. The Pokémon was almost as heavy as Sen, but he caught it by surprise, and it toppled off the edge of the bank. There was a terrific splash, and Sen saw the Torchic race away from the spray that was sent up onto the bank. He heard a violent hissing sound, as well as splashing, as he looked around to see great clouds of steam rising from the water. The Houndoom splashed its way down the river, yelping in pain and surprise, contact with the water doing more to damage it than all of Torchic’s wounds combined. It eventually made it to the other side of the river and clambered out. It didn’t have to shake its hide clean, as the water was already evaporating off it in waves, but Sen was happy to notice that its arrow-shaped tail was placed firmly between its legs. With a self-pitying, defeated whine – and not a look back – the Houndoom trotted briskly into the woods and was gone.
His heart humming in his chest, Sen took a few deep breaths before turning around to see if the Torchic was okay. It was standing on the grass, looking up at him with its ridiculously large head. He walked towards it, and it hopped back a few steps. He got down on his knees, holding up his hands to show he meant no harm.
“Hey, I just wanted to thank you,” he said, in as pleasant and non-threatening a voice as he could muster. “You saved my life.”
The bird looked at him, and hopped back a half-step.
Sen was puzzled. How could a Torchic take on a Houndoom, and yet be wary of him?
He slowly extended one of his hands towards the little Pokémon. “Hey, don’t be afraid,” he soothed, “come on, you cute little fella, let me pet you.”
As Sen’s hand got nearer the Torchic suddenly darted forward and pecked him, hard, on the finger. Sen snapped his hand back and clutched it. “Jesus Christ!” he cried. He forced himself to look at it: a round welt of blood was already welling up on his index finger.
“God, what’s wrong with you?” he asked the Torchic. Already it had left him, and was approaching the body of its trainer.
“Oh,” Sen said, lowering his voice. “I’m sorry ... I guess you miss your trainer. It’s awful to lose someone you care about, I know. I mean, I don’t KNOW, since I’ve never lost anyone I care about, but I imagine it sucks.” The Torchic didn’t even turn, but continued to stare at Sooter’s body. Suddenly, it darted forward, and began pecking at the hand nearest it.
“Hey, don’t do that!” Sen cried, running forwards and picking up the Torchic. “You can’t bring him back that way! Just leave him!” The Torchic struggled in his hands, pecking him again and again. It was like a bag of pipe-cleaners come to life, wriggling and jabbing at him. “Ow, ow!” Sen said. He searched around for the Pokéball, found it, and pointed it at the Pokémon. “Return!” he said, and a beam of red light hit the Torchic and sucked it back inside its ball.
“Jesus,” Sen said, dropping the ball and looking at his hands, now covered in bloody red dots. “What the hell is wrong with that Pokémon?”
He looked around the clearing. All was silent again. Just him, a dead body, a book, a trainer card, and a Pokéball containing a seriously disturbed Torchic.
Sen didn’t know what time it was, but he was certain it was getting late. And the later it got, the worse were his chances of getting out of the wood alive. He stood up. He picked up the Torchic’s Pokéball, the book, and the trainer card. He looked back at Sooter’s body.
“Sorry, Rich,” Sen said. “I’ll send somebody back to get you. Uh ... bye.”
Realising the lunacy of what he’d just said, Sen rolled his eyes and walked out of the clearing.
In the opposite direction, of course, from the exit of the Houndoom.
He followed the river for what seemed like an hour. Gradually the light was fading, and he began to hear the first distant murmurs of Hoothoot coming out for the night. Occasionally he was surprised by a rustling in the undergrowth, and sometimes a small creature – a Rattata, a Zigzagoon or perhaps a Sentret up particularly late – would dash between the bushes in front of him. But he saw and heard nothing of the Houndoom. It seemed to have decided to leave him alone, for now.
As he walked, he replayed the events of the day in his mind.
What a day, Sen thought. Talk about going through the wringer. First I have to watch a bunch of snot-nosed little brats setting off on their Pokémon adventures, which just depresses the heck out of me as it does every year because I can’t join them. Hell, join them? SHOW them. Show them how pathetic they are by doing it so much better than they ever dreamed. I can’t show them because the Pokémon League have decided that I don’t fit their “moral criteria” for what a Pokémon trainer should be. Yeah, I failed some test which those idiots in the park today passed. How’s that for a pick-me-up.
It could be worse, he thought. I could be lying dead in the middle of a wood, a chew-toy for a man-eating Houndoom, like that poor guy Sooter. Jesus, that was bad. In a way, it’s lucky I came along. Out there, in the middle of the woods, his body could’ve gone undiscovered for months ... years, even.
And if that Houndoom had got me, the same would be true of MY body.
As he walked, he thought about Sooter’s sad remains, alone in the darkness, unnoticed. Did he have parents? Family? Friends who wondered where he was? Most likely he did... but he hadn’t been reported missing. Nothing had been on the news. Of course, Sooter probably wasn’t long dead ... the flies hadn’t even gotten to him yet, so his parents might not even realise he was missing.
Yuck, Sen thought, and decided to think no more about Sooter’s remains.
All in all, it’s lucky I came along, his mind continued. He looked down at the book under his arm, and the Pokéball in his pocket. Almost all of Sooter’s travelling possessions were on his person now. Hell, if something happened to Sen and Sooter’s body was discovered by someone else, they wouldn’t even be able to tell who he was. Sen had the guy’s trainer card, and since his face was mostly gone (including, although Sen tried not to dwell on it, most of his teeth), there would be no way to identify the body for sure. At least, not until his parents or friends or whatever turned up.
And then an idea occurred to Sen that simultaneously appalled and intrigued him.
Dear gods, he thought, what’s WRONG with you? How could you even entertain a possibility like that? It’s sick! Don’t think about it.
But his mind wouldn’t let him. The idea had captured his imagination, and his brain wouldn’t let it go. It turned the idea over and over, examining its possibilities, extrapolating all likely outcomes, looking for flaws and oversights.
Sen had Richard Sooter’s trainer card. The trainer card, symbolising the trust which the League placed in all of its trainers, was the sole method of identification needed to gain entry to Gyms, Pokémon Centres, and even the Pokémon League itself. No trainer was to let the card out of their sight; if they did, they were to be deemed just as much a failure as any individual who misused it.
Sen had a trainer card, and the trainer it belonged to was lying dead in the middle of the woods. Nobody but Sen knew he was dead, and nobody but Sen knew where the body was.
In other words, Sen thought, who’s to say that Richard Sooter isn’t alive and well and walking back through these woods towards civlisation right now?
He stopped in his tracks. Could he really be entertaining such an idea? And could it really WORK?
It could be the answer to all of his dreams. All Sen needed was one chance, an opportunity, to get his foot back in the door. One small way in that he could use to show those chumps what he could do.
He opened the book and took out Sooter’s trainer card.
Fate, it seemed, had provided him with such a chance. The only question now was ... would he take it?
You can’t, he thought. Think of the guy’s family. His parents, his friends, his brothers and sisters. They’ll worry about him. Do you really want to put them through the hell of not knowing if he’s alive or dead? Don’t be a moron. It was a funny coincidence, a unique set of events that sparked off a strange and sick idea in your head, but you’re not going to act on it. You know what you have to do. You have to go to the nearest police station and tell them you found Sooter’s body, and also tell them there’s a vicious Houndoom prowling the woods. That’s all there is to it, my friend.
Except that wasn’t all there is to it. So what if he’s got family? Sen thought. He’s dead. Them knowing that now won’t change anything. He’ll still be dead. And a few months of not knowing if he IS dead or not will give them a chance to get used to the possibility.
He realised he was rationalising, but that didn’t seem to stop him.
I have a chance here, a real chance, to make something of my life. Am I going to give that up because some run-of-the-mill Pokémon trainer happened to die, like millions of people die every day?
He walked on. Eventually, he came across one of the paths that led out of the wood and back into the park. It was dark by this time, and fortunately there were very few people to see the dishevelled, bloody, soaking-wet wreck who emerged from the woods with an oddly thoughtful expression on his face. It was nine o’ clock by the time he made it to the subway station, and it was almost ten by the time he got back to the Peregrine Plaza Hotel.
By the time he’d showered and changed in his bedroom, he’d decided what he was going to do.
“I’ve decided to stay on here for a few days, Charlotte.”
She stopped in the middle of folding up a cerise jumper and looked over at him.
“What?” she asked.
Sen swallowed. This was it. Could he be convincing? Could he lie well to his oldest friend? He looked at the cerise jumper as she folded it and packed it into her suitcase. Well, he thought, I managed it when she bought that monstrosity.
“Yeah, I’ve decided I need a little time to myself,” he said. “I don’t feel like going back home and seeing everyone yet. I thought I’d stay in Peregrine, do some shopping, catch up on my reading, just try to relax for a while.”
She was watching him carefully. “You know I have work Monday,” she said. “I have to go back.”
“Yeah. That’s okay. I mean, no offence, I’d just like to be on my own for some time.”
She looked hurt.
“Hey, no!” Sen said, coming over and hugging her. “You’ve been great, absolutely great, like always, sweetie. Believe me, there’s nobody apart from you that I could even have stood to be around for the past week. But you’ve helped me a lot, just like you always do.”
She hugged him back. “I just ... I don’t like the thought of you being here on your own when you’re down like this,” Charlotte said.
“I know, but I’m not down,” Sen said. He even managed a cheery smile. “I’m perky! Look!”
She raised a sardonic eyebrow.
“Okay, so I’m not exactly euphoric just yet, but I’m getting there. And believe me, a few days in Peregrine by myself will do more to help me than going back and listening to Mimsy talk about her bloody ski trip.”
Charlotte laughed. “Don’t,” she said, “or I won’t want to go back either.”
Sen planted a kiss on her cheek. “I love you,” he said.
Charlotte blushed. “Oh, shut up, you big poof, and help me pack.”
All in all, it was surprisingly easy. Charlotte’s flight left at eleven thirty that night, and as soon as he saw her into her cab he went to the reception desk and checked out of the hotel. Charlotte had promised to call him tomorrow, as he’d explained that his cell phone had run out of batteries. (Ironic, he thought, given the battery’s the only thing left on it that works.) She’d also promised to tell Aunt Phyllis where he was. And, when she sobered up, tell her again. And probably a few more times, until it sunk in.
Fortunately, Sen had packed very little luggage, and had managed to give a lot of it to Charlotte to take back with her. He had just one overnight bag to take with him when, for the first time in over five years, Jensen Delaney checked into a Pokémon Centre to spend the night.
Or rather, Richard Sooter checked in.
Only a few of the trainers were still awake in the lodging area, watching an old black and white sci fi movie and giggling. Sen joined them, but there was little conversation as everyone was exhausted. Eventually, one by one they said goodnight and crept off to the uncomfortable and noisily creaking cots which had been set up by the Centre staff. Sen went last, switching off the television set before he left. He was utterly drained. It had been a monumental day.
Had he left the TV on five minutes longer, he would have seen something unexpected.
“It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” Sylvia said to her colleague. She’d worked for twenty years as a Pokémon Centre nurse in the metropolis that was Peregrine, and in that time she’d seen her fair share of horrific accidents. And, as always when new trainers started out each year, a good number of them got hurt, sometimes even killed.
But never anything like this.
As she and two other nurses stared at the TV mounted on the wall of the Pokémon Centre, the sombre tones of the news reporter filled the room. Behind him, on screen, police and ambulance men in luminous uniforms were working on something that was obscured from view. Below the reporter, the words ‘BREAKING NEWS’ scrolled across the screen.
“... this grisly discovery,” the reporter intoned. “Police have no idea who the young man is, but his body has been severely mutilated, possibly by a wild Pokémon. Police are intrigued, however, by the disturbances around the crime scene which appear to have taken place after the death. Spots of blood have been recovered which, ballistics analysis indicate, did not come from the victim, and may have come from an attacker or a third party.
“The body was discovered by a family of campers who had been looking for a clearing in the woods in which to set up their tents. All five members of the family are now receiving counselling.
“Police say that the body has no identification, but he appears to have been a trainer, despite the absence of Pokéballs or a licence on his person. They are urging all families with children who are starting out as Pokemon trainers to contact them immediately ...”
Above it all, in an uncomfortable metal cot, Sen slept soundly.