Hello. Notes are at the end to avoid spoilers.
Casual warning, I say the word "blood" a lot and at least one thing dies, so if you haven't watched a PG-13 movie but are somehow on the internet, you may want to consider backing away. Also, to spare you the first few sentences of confusion, the main characters are not people.
“For the last time, Kiran, I don’t know where Mother is.”
The second lie Rikshi told his younger brother was out of denial. He didn’t know if he was lying to Kiran, who had seen six winters and was old enough to see the truth but refused to, or if he was lying to himself, even though Rikshi had seen eight winters come and go, felt their winds beat against his fur in frustration, and knew without a doubt that he was too old to be lied to by anyone.
And deep down, Rikshi knew where Mother was, or he had a strong theory. But to say his idea aloud would be to acknowledge its terrible existence, and he couldn’t bring himself to do that quite yet. He would foolishly continue to hold on to whatever shred of hope he had salvaged when the rest had shattered long ago, even though he knew with chilling certainty, as did most of his kind, that disaster had come and—
Rikshi pulled himself up, the dark pads of his paws crunching against the snow that lined the floor of their cave. He flexed his claws, kneading them into the ground to burn off his unease, and allowed himself a moment to stare at the contrast of black blades on white snow before straightening and announcing, “Kiran, we have to go.”
As Rikshi had predicted, Kiran looked up in alarm, his flat, dark face smudging into features of worry. “Why?” he asked. And then, “Where?”
While he had predicted those questions, Rikshi had no responses for them. He knew the answer to the why, but he didn't want to say it. And he had no answer whatsoever to the where. Rikshi decided on the best course of action: “I don’t know,” he said, and quickly added before his brother could protest any further, “but don’t you feel the disaster coming?”
“I know you can sense the oncoming danger just as easily as I can,” Rikshi said patiently. “That is the way of the absol. You can feel that it’s not safe anymore.”
“Maybe we can ask Skaroth to help.”
Rikshi wouldn’t have been lying if he said he didn’t know where Skaroth was, actually. The oldest of the three brothers had left the cave when he was Kiran’s age, four winters ago. Most absol left the nest around that age and never looked back, and Rikshi didn’t expect Skaroth to be any different. “You know he’s not here, Kiran.”
The younger absol wilted. “I know.”
“Good.” Rikshi knew that Kiran liked to lie to himself about a lot of things, but at least he acknowledged this truth. “Skaroth left, and it’s time we do, too.”
“I don’t know,” Rikshi lied back for the tenth time, gritting his teeth to keep himself from snapping. “She’s not coming back, Kiran. She’s moved on. So should we.”
Not wanting to debate the matter any further, Rikshi turned towards the entrance of the cave and padded out of it. A rush of icy wind came to greet him as he emerged onto the side of a steeply sloping mountain, and he found himself shaking his white mane to clear the snow out of his face.
He was relieved when Kiran walked up beside him, red eyes squinting in the face of the same wind. “Where are we going?”
“Away,” Rikshi said simply, and began walking away from the entrance of the cave in the opposite direction of his mother’s paw prints, which were long ago cold and almost entirely obscured by the sheets of snow. He was grateful that Kiran hadn’t noticed them.
“Are we coming back?” Kiran asked as he bounded ahead to catch up with his brother, his still-short legs struggling to keep him from sinking in the snow up to his stomach.
The sun shone weakly out of the grey sky as the two brothers continued in silence. As the morning wore on into afternoon, the winds slowly subsided, although the bitter cold persisted. The deepest days of winter weren’t yet upon them, but in the far north, more than half of the nights of the year were frozen. Rikshi had never gone far enough down the mountain that there wasn’t a constant layer of snow over hard-frozen ground, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to. Skaroth had told him fleeting stories of the flatlanders. There were strange pokémon there, pokémon that were adapted to days of lazing around in the sun or swimming in great bodies of water.
If he had the choice, Rikshi would’ve stayed up in his cave with his brother forever. But he didn’t have a choice, clearly, which was why he and Kiran were making the dangerous, lonely journey down the face of the mountain in the dead of winter. Hunting had gotten progressively worse as the winters unfolded. His normal haunts, once abundantly filled with swinub and seel, were disappointingly empty, and the few kills that Rikshi had managed were as stringy and starved as the absol themselves.
And there were the humans. Rikshi had seen a couple from afar, and they had the ability to make pokémon of the mountain disappear. They were the true threat.
Although he didn’t want to admit it, Rikshi knew he was right. Disaster was coming, or it was already here. Their mother had left for north in the dead of night nearly a moon ago in search for prey and news of what was causing this famine. She hadn’t returned, and Rikshi knew with unsettling certainty, just as he could feel the howling of the winds of devastation preparing to blow across the land, that she would not return.
And there was another secret Rikshi was keeping, one that was starting to trouble him even though he had taken all the necessary precautions: before the end of winter, his scythe told him, Kiran was going to die. It didn't tell him how or when or why, but Rikshi knew with chilling finality that his brother's fate was sealed.
He didn't mind that much. Absol were solitary creatures; Rikshi had planned on leaving the cave at the end of winter and never looking back. He still intended to do that, and he still was, but Rikshi knew that by leaving now to escape his current woes, he would have to face a long, cold season of starvation with no shelter.
He didn't mind that much, either, but now there was the issue of Kiran. Kiran, who was too young to fend for himself; Kiran, who was too slow to hunt on his own; Kiran, who was going to die before the snows melted. Rikshi didn't want his younger brother with him, for more reasons than one, the greatest of which was the vain hope that maybe, if he left Kiran now, Rikshi could always pretend that his brother had survived the winter and everything else. Or maybe it would just hurt less.
The nights in the winter were long and bitter, and they only had a few hours of sunlight by which to travel. Rikshi would’ve gone further himself, anything to carry him away from the cave and the knowledge of his mother’s demise, but it wasn’t safe to travel at night, especially with Kiran. There were other creatures in the mountains, especially in these unfamiliar ones, and Rikshi had no intentions of becoming dinner for a lumbering ursaring. “We’ll stop here for the night,” Rikshi said at last as the sun began slipping beneath the horizon, staining the whole sky red.
“Where are we going?”
Away, Rikshi wanted to say again, but that was disappointingly vague. Rikshi was a runner, though, not a fighter, and if fleeing would keep him alive, then flee he would, even if it was not the way of the absol. “I don’t know,” he said at last, steering towards a rocky protrusion in the face of the mountain. It bore no scent of any other pokémon, and it offered a decent enough shelter from the snow and the cold. He paced around in a tight circle, feeling the rocky ground beneath his paws, and then he collapsed in a manner that clearly left no room for further argument.
Kiran didn’t seem to get the clue, though. He remained standing, eyes fixated on his older brother, and he asked the question that Rikshi had been dreading for quite a while: “Did the humans find Mother?”
The humans hadn’t caused the winters to be especially bitter or the summers especially short, but they had caused everything else. Where they came in, pokémon simply vanished, never to be seen again. Of course the supply of prey would run thin; of course every pokémon that could would try to leave the peak as danger crept ever closer.
Kiran pressed further, treading ice without even realizing it. "Will the humans find us?"
Rikshi wearily lifted his head. His scythe, black as the night that quickly approached them, burned on the side of his head in response, a dull, throbbing pain as steady as a heartbeat. He knew the answers to both questions, and they worried him. “I don’t know,” he lied for the last time, but even Kiran could see that he meant yes.
“We’re brothers. Nothing tears apart blood.”
The third lie Rikshi told his younger brother was out of concern. Like the second lie, he wasn’t convinced that he was lying to Kiran and not himself. Absol were primarily solitary creatures, and instinct had no cares for family. Skaroth had left the cave and the brothers when Rikshi had only seen four winters, hardly old enough to know what leaving entailed.
But now, four winters later, Rikshi understood that it would be easier for him to travel alone. Kiran was nothing more than dead weight, and in a normal world, Rikshi would leave him for their mother to look after. It was not a normal world, of course, but that didn’t stop the dark, nagging feeling that told Rikshi to run and look after himself. Being alone didn’t help anyone but himself, but it protected him, and that was important in its own right.
Also, the burning feeling in his scythe reminded him, there was the issue that Kiran was marked for death.
“Skaroth left when he was your age,” Kiran continued. He’d been arguing this point since they’d woken up and continued moving in the morning.
Rikshi allowed himself a lazy grin, but he was afraid as he cast his blood-red eyes across the horizon. There was only snow as far as he could see. “If you want me to leave, I always can,” he said, trying to sound as light-hearted as possible. No matter that he’d actually considered abandoning his brother several times this morning, and every morning before.
“No, please!” Kiran’s response was immediate.
“Relax, I’m just joking.” That was probably a lie as well, but Rikshi didn’t want to think about it. “Stop making me repeat myself, Kiran.”
Kiran wilted a little, his tail sinking beneath his legs. He could sense the lie, but he nodded. “Okay, Rikshi,” he mumbled. He took a step forward, but a warning hiss from his older brother stopped him in his tracks. Confused, Kiran squinted ahead and saw a small orange and black figure shuffling ahead of them, its face bowed in the cold as it struggled against the relentless wind. He looked up to his older brother in confusion.
Rikshi flexed his claws into the snowy ground, eyes narrowing as he calculated the distance between them and the orange blob. He wasted no time. “I’ll circle around it from behind; you move in from the front.” His words little more than a breath of wind, Rikshi melted fluidly into the snow.
Absol were meant to live on snow-capped mountains, whereas this orange-and-black-striped arrival clearly was not. Rikshi’s fur, already studded with snowflakes, became practically invisible as he sank into a crouch. At the very worst, the black marks from his face and his scythe appeared like stray sticks or stones, ignored by unsuspecting prey.
Uncertainly, Kiran followed.
The orange figure, while physically not much smaller than an absol and far stockier, stood no chance. It looked up only once, the cream colored patch of fur above its face furrowing as its ears flicked back, and then Kiran leapt into the creature’s face as he had seen his mother do a thousand times before, black claws outstretched. He raked his front paws across the orange blob’s fur, but instead of tearing deep gouges as he had hoped, his claws only left shallow scratches in the surprisingly thick fur, while the momentum of his misjudged blow sent him reeling to the side.
The creature got over its surprise quickly, and began growling in violent alarm as it registered the surprise attack. Its amber eyes focused on the absol struggling to regain its balance in front of it and lunged, its mouth open. At first, Kiran thought the creature—he recognized it now as a growlithe—aimed to bite him, but as he leaned out of the way, a torrent of fire erupted from the growlithe’s mouth, narrowly missing Kiran’s face and singing a good portion of his fur. He looked at the creature with newfound alarm, fear sinking into his eyes as he took a few stumbling steps backwards, trying to find a way out, but he knew: he was an absol, and absol did not run from conflict. Kiran ducked under the next furious jet of fire, which turned the nearby snow to steam, and aimed at the growlithe’s flank this time, only to find that his slashing once again did pathetic damage.
The growlithe whirled around with surprising speed, knocking Kiran to the ground with its shoulder, and glared furiously at him, flames smoldering in its once-tranquil eyes. It opened its mouth and prepared a second jet of fire, one large enough not to miss Kiran at this range. The flickering orange flames formed in the depths of its maw, but Kiran watched in sick fascination as the fire rose out into the mouth, lighting up the growlithe’s jaw and casting each pointed tooth into sharp silhouette.
Without warning, the snow between the growlithe’s legs sprouted a face and a single black scythe, and Rikshi erupted from the bank with unnatural precision, the top of his head connecting squarely with the growlithe’s jaw and redirecting the snout so that it pointed toward the sky.
The heat from the blast of fire was so intense that Kiran could still feel it even as it reached toward the clouds, and he knew without a doubt that he would’ve been gravely injured had Rikshi not intervened. Almost unintentionally, Kiran looked at his claws. Why weren’t they piercing the growlithe’s fur?
There wasn’t much time to answer his question. Rikshi landed on the ground, laughing even as he dodged a retaliatory swipe of the growlithe’s claws and then leapt nimbly over the growlithe, disorienting it and causing it to shift its weight awkwardly to compensate for the completely new location of its enemy. Another flash of white, and Rikshi leapt to the front of the growlithe’s and slashed across its snout with his outstretched claws, sending speckles of crimson blood onto the melted snow beneath them. He laughed darkly and danced out of the way of another snap of the growlithe’s jaws before sinking his own teeth into and black-striped orange flank.
The growlithe roared in pain, but any further protest on its part was violently cut off as Rikshi slammed the flat of his tail into its throat, grinning maniacally as the growlithe's retaliatory strike missed him by a hair's-breadth. He was enjoying this, Kiran realized with a pang of alarm. They were inches away from dying each time, and his brother was enjoying it.
Kiran didn’t have time for any other thoughts as the growlithe released a huge burst of fire, larger than the two that had come before it. The blistering conflagration might’ve been deadly had it been aimed properly, but the disoriented growlithe faced the completely wrong direction as it spewed the contents of its maw in a haphazard blast, skimming thick lines of melted snow into the mountaintop.
“Boo,” a disembodied voice said, and there was a sickening schick as the growlithe sprouted a black horn out of its forehead.
Rikshi slowly withdrew his scythe, and the growlithe collapsed beside him, its blood flowing into the snow in dying pulses. The actual killing was his least favorite part of the hunt, and it sickened him a little to hold so much control over life and death. It was his life or the growlithe's, though, as he had been told many times, even if his life always seemed a little more vibrant when he ran and dodged, slipping out of range of attacks at the last minute and tasting imminent death on his tongue.
Still, he was proud as he picked up the growlithe carcass in his mouth and struggled towards Kiran, his legs buckling under the weight. “I think we won,” he said, sounding muffled, and dropped the growlithe unceremoniously at Kiran’s feet. “Are you hungry?”
The growlithe meat was stringy, like everything on the mountain was, but there was plenty of it, and it stayed warm long after the sun had set. Kiran was struck with a desire to ration what they had and save some of it for later, but Rikshi would have none of it.
“We can always hunt more,” he said around the growlithe leg in his mouth. “It was fun, wasn’t it?”
Kiran nodded uncertainly, but he didn’t mind being able to eat as much as he wanted. By sunset, the carcass was little more than bones and those ridiculous puffs of fur that were miserable excuses for a tail.
They slept with full stomachs and empty minds for the first and last time that night. Or, more accurately, Kiran did, while Rikshi spent his time lying awake and battling the burning feeling in the pit of his scythe telling him that his younger brother was going to die.
“What? Of course not. I was just testing you, Kir.”
The fourth lie Rikshi told his younger brother was out of guilt.
A few hours before, the real trouble had started. Although they had both slept well that night, Rikshi found Kiran frantically shaking him awake before sunrise the next morning. “Something’s here,” Kiran hissed urgently.
By that time, Rikshi had already blinked himself awake and taken stock of the situation. He was still a little slow, however, and jets of fire flew over the rocks surrounding them by the time he sized up everything entirely. “Kiran, I do believe we have company,” he said with a lazy grin. “I think they’re looking for our friend here.” He gestured with his head toward the growlithe carcass, which was by then picked clean. “Or perhaps they’re upset that we ate him. Families, you know.”
“And what are we supposed to do about it?” Kiran all-but-shrieked in return, trying to rein in his fear. He’d counted seven jets of fire the last time, and if Rikshi suggested that they try to fight off a herd of growlithe, it would be the last thing they’d ever do. One had been hard enough.
“I suppose we should start running,” Rikshi remarked, and without waiting to see if Kiran was behind him, he leapt out from behind the cover of the rocks and darted across the snow, narrowly dodging another wave of heat. Hunting calls echoed all around him, but it only served to send the adrenaline in him rushing faster.
Kiran struggled to catch up, floundering in the thick snow and unable to make the graceful leaps and dodges that his brother could. “Wait up!” he almost called, but the plea was silenced in his throat as he pulled up short just in time to avoid getting hit in the face with another blast of fire.
The growlithe seemed to have learned not to approach the absol up close, but instead pick them off from afar, where their quarry was less likely to attack. Rikshi didn’t mind any of this; if anything, he appreciated the challenge all the more. Focusing entirely on the chase, he yowled back his own challenge, all notions of stealth flying from his mind. As he ducked out of the way once again, he noticed that some of his hunters were bigger than normal growlithe, and far bigger than himself, most of the pudgy puppy features replaced with hard, lean muscle like his own.
Arcanine. Wonderful. He could do with a challenge. Rikshi ran across the flat part of the snow, his heart giddy as he searched for a plan. If he kept running in a straight line on a flat surface, the growlithe would pin him down eventually. Arcanine could outrun him if they dared approach, and even Rikshi knew he shouldn’t try to run faster than fire.
With this in mind, Rikshi cut a hard left, veering toward the steep drops that marked the incline of the mountain. He paused for a moment, eyes expertly picking out the safest path to follow as he kneaded the icy turf beneath him. Out of the corner of his eye, he picked up the panting white blob that was Kiran stumbling up beside him.
As the growlithe were about to catch up to him, he pounded his feet into the ground with all of his might, his black claws splitting the frozen sheet. His weight send them lurching backward, the block of ice freeing itself from its neighbors, and there was a moment of stillness as the ice teetered on the edge before plunging down the slope, carrying the two absol with it.
Kiran screamed in abject terror as the ground rushed up to meet them, their only protection a thin piece of ice, but Rikshi threw his head back and allowed the wind to play with his mane and tail, a wild grin on his face. Hunting was great, but the thrill of being hunted had its own special taste on his tongue.
They hit the ground with a jolt, but they did not die. Instead, they began sliding down the hill, a spray of snow rising up behind them. There was no way to control the ice’s movement, and it moved inexorably downward, the snow and rocks only a grey and white blur beneath them. The growlithe pack shrank to a tiny blur behind on the top of the cliff, and none of them seemed brave or stupid enough to risk the sheer face of the mountain.
Kiran seemed to have gained control of himself to the point where he could form words. “Rikshi, I—”
“Wasn’t that awesome?” Rikshi asked, cutting off his brother excitedly. He seemed completely oblivious to the fact that they were still whizzing down the side of a mountain, perched precariously on a narrow piece of dirt-flecked ice.
“Oh, come on, you can’t tell me that wasn’t cool.” Rikshi was struck with the vague feeling that he was being rude, but the energy of the chase had filled him with a sense of boldness that he didn’t feel often. Boldness from cowardice. It was an intoxicating feeling.
“Rikshi, did you leave me behind on purpose?” The question burst out of him faster than he would have liked, but Kiran had to know. He’d heard the lie in his brother’s voice yesterday, the lie in the promise that they would stay together as brothers for as long as possible, but he had forced himself to ignore it. And Kiran had been quite able to pretend that the lie didn’t exist, up until Rikshi had leapt away from him, a strange glint in his eyes as the older absol left the younger to fend for himself.
“What?” Rikshi stiffened. “Of course not.” It was an even bigger lie than yesterday’s. “I was just testing you, Kir.” He grinned broadly. “You passed, see?”
It wasn't a test, but Rikshi wasn't sure if he was disappointed or glad that Kiran hadn't failed.
Even the use of Kiran’s nickname didn’t sway him much. “You didn’t even check to make sure I was behind you,” he said, voice despondent. “Would you still have pulled your ice trick if I hadn’t been on it?”
Rikshi didn't meet his brother’s eyes. He wanted nothing more than to be alone, to hunt and be hunted and live on his own, but there was something Rikshi couldn’t describe that was holding him back. There was some unknown force urging him to stay with Kiran, and as much as he wanted to resist it and flee on his own, he couldn’t bring himself to abandon his brother.
But absol were solitary creatures. Kiran wasn’t old enough to understand that, to know the vicious joy of prowling the mountains alone. They were the harbingers of disaster. Companionship of any kind was unheard of for them, and rare at best. Pups were born in litters of one, and most of them left their mothers and siblings without so much as a glance back. Leave it to Rikshi to find the only possible combination of guilt and circumstance that would prevent him from doing just that. He hated it, of course, but Rikshi wasn't a fighter. Especially not against fate, even the same fate that told him Kiran was going to die soon and it would be smarter to leave him alone.
Rikshi said nothing, and Kiran understood what the silence meant. “Well, fine,” Kiran said to break the long silence that followed. “You can run all you’d like, but I’ll stay right behind you.” He was beginning to understand how the harshness of the wilderness worked. Second chances were few and far between, and the weak were left at the mercy of the strong. He would be weak for now, but Kiran would be damned if he wasted Rikshi’s mercy.
Rikshi bowed his head, what might have been an impressed smile spreading across his face even as despair sunk in his stomach. “Okay then,” he said. “You keep up.”
- - -
“We need to talk,” Rikshi said suddenly after they had walked another few hours with no particular direction.
Kiran felt a rush of relief. He didn’t know where they were going, but he also knew better than to ask. If Rikshi had a plan, it was best to let him go through with it. “Sure.”
“Mother is gone.”
This hadn’t been the vein of conversation Kiran had wanted to go down, but any chance of talking to Rikshi filled him with a fierce sense of joy that he didn’t want to lose. Of course, here the joy was mitigated by the depressing topic of conversation. “I know.”
Rikshi almost paused in mid-step, one black-clawed foot poised to break the flat expanse of snow in front of him, but then he put the paw down with a dry crunch and kept walking. “Doesn’t that worry you?” He’d spent the long winter nights with the sickening feeling in the base of his scythe to remind him that, yes, mother was gone and, no, she wasn’t coming back, and he’d watched through those lonely nights as the moon shrunk from full to a sliver and then grew back to full again. That had been his mourning, his vigil, and he’d come to terms with the fact that he would never see his mother thereafter. That was how he’d coped with the loss. But Kiran? Kiran had nothing.
“No,” Kiran responded. “Everyone dies someday.”
“And that doesn’t worry you at all?” Rikshi knew he shouldn’t have pressed the matter, but something kept dragging him back to the question. And he knew why—he’d coped with the loss, but he hadn’t healed from it yet. Mother was gone, and she wasn’t coming back, and now Rikshi had to be old enough to deal with the consequences.
And maybe he missed her, too.
Kiran gave a weird movement with his shoulders as he walked that might’ve been a shrug. “So that was Mother's someday."
“Oh.” It must've been so easy to be Kiran, Rikshi reflected, to be able to accept the whims of a cruel world simply because they were fated to be. Rikshi hated fate, and it had the unfortunate habit of hating him back.
Their paws made crunching sounds in the pristine snow. Untouched, the white plains seemed to go on unperturbed for miles, patches sparkling in the bleak sunlight. If it hadn’t been so deadly, it might’ve been beautiful.
“Rikshi, are you afraid?”
Rikshi opened his mouth to lie to his brother for a fifth time, but he’d told three lies in three days and was losing the heart to keep it up. Instead, he let out a little laugh that was meant to sound careless but was really much more afraid. “All the time, Kir. Why do you think I run
Your death, Rikshi almost said. "Lots of things." It was an evasive answer, but Rikshi didn't care. He was buying time, and that was enough.
“I don’t make it look like running, that’s all.” Rikshi cut him off before he could finish. “Life’s just a game, and we all die someday, you say, but if I run for today and I live for today, I win and then today will never be that someday. Die another day.”
Kiran looked like he was going to respond, but he stopped short as a deafening crack split the serene, frosty air of the mountain. He looked at Rikshi in alarm.
“I suppose we should go check that out,” Rikshi said nonchalantly, but the fierce glint in his eye told other stories. He bounded off toward the sound, spraying snow in his wake, and Kiran was quick to follow.
The first thing they saw on the other side of the snow bank was a mamoswine, even larger than usual and apparently unaffected by the starvation that had crippled much of the mountain. Its brown fur was still thick and heavy, its white tusks still curved and strong, its hulking figure just as large and round as mamoswine ever were. It turned to face the two absol who had appeared on the bank above it, the red and blue markings around its piggish eyes creasing into a frown, and it let out a fierce roar, shaking the snow around it.
Rikshi grinned and hissed back a challenge of his own. “Okay, so,” he began, clearly thrilled by their change of luck. “This is what we do.”
Whatever Rikshi’s plan was, it went unheard as a blast of white emerged from the snow behind the mamoswine, lunging around the lumbering creature in tight circles and nipping at its legs.
Kiran’s eyes widened. He knew the newcomer attacking the mamoswine must have been an absol, but it hunted like no absol he had ever seen. It lacked the flowing grace that Rikshi had, but its strikes landed with the same precision, hitting the mamoswine in the exact right spot and earning fierce roars of pain. And unlike Rikshi, the absol never moved more than a foot away from its prey, and the careless smile was replaced with a glare filled with determination.
The absol pushed itself off of the mamoswine’s back and executed a tight backflip, spinning in midair so it faced the mamoswine again, and then the absol released a tight pillar of fire from its mouth that wrapped its vaporous fingers around the hulking figure, obscuring it from sight. The absol continued the fiery deluge until it landed on its feet several yards away from the downed mamoswine, at which point the absol closed its mouth with a satisfied gleam in its eyes.
The mamoswine did not get up again.
Kiran stared in a mixture of fascination and awe, aware that this was how a true master hunted, with the same realization that it would take many winters to reach such a level of proficiency. “Rikshi, we should—”
“We should leave him alone,” Rikshi said firmly, a strange tone that Kiran didn’t recognize dropping into the older absol’s voice. “Kiran, come on. Leave him be.”
“Rikshi, why?” Kiran retorted in a voice that was a bit louder than he had intended. The hunting absol’s face whipped around in their direction, and Kiran heard Rikshi’s sharp intake of breath as the absol easily picked the two brothers out from the snow with its intense crimson gaze.
Grumbling all the while, Rikshi disentangled himself from the snow bank and began approaching the hunting absol, his diamond-shaped tail lowered to indicate that he meant no harm. “I had all of this under control,” he muttered as he moved until he was standing almost directly in front of the hunting absol, the smoldering remains of the mamoswine on his left. Kiran stood slightly behind him, not quite comprehending what was happening. “You didn’t have to interfere like that.”
The other absol threw his head back and laughed. The grating sound didn’t seem at home in his throat. “That’s hardly a greeting, you know.”
“Rikshi,” Kiran asked, his own brow furrowed in confusion. “What’s going on?”
Rikshi locked his jaw grimly, crimson gaze never leaving the hunting absol for a moment as he responded, “Kiran, this is Skaroth. I think you've met.”
“Skaroth isn’t being brave. He’s being stupid.”
The fifth lie Rikshi told his younger brother was out of frustration. It was only partially a lie, actually: Skaroth was being brave, but he was also being quite stupid.
The reason for the lie had come a few hours before, when Skaroth responded with a massive grin and seemed ecstatic to see his brothers. Kiran was a bit more cautious, and Rikshi was downright disgusted with the whole affair, but soon enough, Rikshi and Kiran followed as Skaroth led the way back to his cave, his muscles rippling beneath his white coat as he carried the mamoswine, which was nearly ten times his size, between his jaws.
“He’s always been more of the bruiser type,” Rikshi remarked softly as they followed. Skaroth, weighed down as he was with his kill, offered little conversation. “Mother said he should’ve been born as a machamp.”
Kiran nodded, but he didn’t respond. Instead, he stared at his oldest brother with even more fascination, easily impressed against his will.
Skaroth steered them toward a rocky outcropping, dragging the mamoswine behind him with his teeth as he struggled up the slope. With a massive heave, he tossed the mamoswine over his shoulder, where it landed with a resounding thud near the back of the cave. He glanced toward Rikshi, who leapt with practiced ease into the entrance of the cave. “You could’ve helped.”
Rikshi shrugged. “You seemed to be doing just fine. And if we hadn’t stumbled upon you, you would’ve been left hauling that thing on your own. Whatever possessed you to hunt a mamoswine anyways?”
“You mean, if I hadn’t come in to save the day, you both would’ve been crushed,” Skaroth shot back. But while both he and Rikshi replied in casual banter, Kiran could clearly see that Rikshi was not pleased to be in their brother’s hospitality. And he couldn't imagine why.
“I had it under control,” Rikshi repeated with frigid finality.
Skaroth threw back his head and laughed, and the sound once again didn’t seem to fit in his throat. Even his smile was cracked with disuse. “Enough of the semantics. How have you been, brother?”
Skaroth seemed to pick up on the hostility embedded in Rikshi’s voice at last, but he didn’t relent in the conversation. “Well, what brings you this far down the mountain? I know it’s well past your time to hunt out on your own, but you brought little Kiran as well?” He seemed to remember for the first time that his youngest brother was also in the cave, and he turned to study Kiran approvingly. “You’ve grown quite a bit since I saw you last. Both of you.”
Kiran felt a swell of pride and opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could, Skaroth turned back and continued his conversation with Rikshi: “But Kiran is too young to venture this far down the mountain, isn’t he? Unless he’s picked up a couple of his fighting traits from me? I was fighting ursaring when I had seen as many winters as you have,” he added, glancing back toward Kiran for half a moment.
“Mother is gone,” Rikshi snapped, and he felt a savage surge of guilty pleasure as the grin slid off of Skaroth’s face and his attention whipped back to the middle brother. “She either got killed by one of the hunters at the peak, or she got taken away by the humans. We waited for a moon, but it’s not safe near the top any longer. Humans are coming.”
When Skaroth spoke again, his tone was much more somber. “I see.”
“How many humans are down here?" If it was safer to abandon Kiran here, he would do so without a second thought. Right?
“Dozens, probably,” Skaroth said, but he didn’t sound worried by the largeness of his estimate in the least. “They usually move in small packs. Some of them have gotten the pokémon of the mountain to protect them.”
Rikshi tensed. “And doesn’t that worry you in the slightest?”
Skaroth shrugged. “Humans have ventured on the lower slopes of the mountain for as long as I can remember, Rikshi. If you think—”
“—there are dozens, Skaroth, and they’re clearly getting bolder if they come up further to where the absol raise their young. What if—”
Skaroth continued talking as if Rikshi hadn’t said anything at all. “—can fight off all of them at once anyway, so I don’t have anything to worry about. They can’t touch me.”
Rikshi bristled, his coat almost twice its normal size, but he forced the fur on the back of his neck to lie flat. “Skaroth, stop being stupid. What if—”
“—you’re scaring the little one,” Skaroth said, gesturing with his head toward Kiran, who was watching the entire exchange with worry filling his eyes. “Rikshi, you have your own reasons to be mad at me, but there’s no need to make Kiran nervous. There is no danger here.”
“Kiran might forget that his troubles exist, but that’s because he’s only seen six winters. You’re twice his age, Skaroth, and I suggest you start acting like it. The humans—”
“The humans,” Skaroth growled, his own coat bristling as he straightened up to his full size, where he towered over both of the adolescent absol, “don’t threaten me, no matter how many traitorous lowlifes they pick up from the lower slopes! You’ve only seen eight winters yourself, Rikshi, and I suggest you start acting your own age as well. Let the adults handle the adult matters. There is no danger here!”
For half a moment, Rikshi looked like he could continue the argument, but then he backed down, lowering his tail in a manner that was clearly meant to be submissive. “Fine,” he spat, and then retreated to the entrance of the cave and threw himself down near the opening, curling into as small of a ball as possible and glaring out at the snow with crimson eyes.
Kiran was going to die, his scythe reminded him.
“Is he always like this?” Skaroth asked sympathetically, turning toward Kiran with a sigh.
Unsure of what to do and unable to link this kind, understanding absol with the massive one that had threatened Rikshi only seconds before, Kiran nodded.
Skaroth padded closer to Kiran and sat down a couple feet away, stretching his front paws out in front of him for a moment and flexing them. “He was always a little odd back at the nest, but I liked to think he’d grow out of it.” He made a shrugging movement with his shoulders. “I guess not.”
The older absol spoke with such confidence that Kiran found himself wondering why Rikshi would ever think that Skaroth, who could fight mamoswine without so much as a scratch on him, could be in danger. But at the same time, Kiran wanted to protect his older brother. “Rikshi’s okay.”
“He’s not a bad person or anything,” Skaroth said quickly. “His way was always just a little weird to me. Die another day, was it? It's not the way of the absol.”
Kiran was struck with an intense desire to change the subject. “Do you always hunt such large prey as mamoswine?” he asked, eyes wide and curious. “The biggest thing I’ve hunted was a growlithe, and Rikshi helped with that.”
Skaroth padded lazily over to the mamoswine carcass and tore a leg off of it, throwing the hunk of meat toward Kiran before pulling off another leg for himself. Half-heartedly, he tossed a third leg toward Rikshi, who ignored it. Seeming pleased, Skaroth sat down near Kiran again. “Not always,” he answered, “but I take what I can get. Mamoswine are big, but they’re slow as a mountain. Meat’s quite good, though.” He pointed with his nose toward the peg-shaped limb he’d torn off for Kiran. “Eat up.”
Satisfied, Kiran began biting off bits of the leg. The meat was quite good, surprisingly enough, and there was an absurd amount of fat on it for a wanderer in the middle of winter. “And where did you learn to breathe fire?”
Skaroth puffed his chest out a little, and he seemed to swell with pride. “Now that’s a trick I can’t tell you until you’re older,” he said. When Kiran wilted, the older absol hastily corrected himself. “But I can tell you some of the stories about the adventures that I’ve had out here. Would you like me to do that?”
Unable to believe his luck, Kiran nodded.
“Okay,” Skaroth began. “So one cold winter’s day…”
- - -
“…and so there I was, surrounded by forty ursaring, armed only with my wits and my claws, and I looked around and I said—hey, Rikshi, nice of you to join us.” Skaroth cut off from his storytelling, which had completely engrossed him only moments before, to make room for the middle brother in their little circle. “Do you want to hear about how I got out of this particular scrape?”
“Sure,” Rikshi said, with an air in his voice that sounded like he would rather throw himself off a cliff.
Skaroth didn’t seem to pick up on any of that. “So I turned to the ursaring and I said, “Do you know who I am?” And the biggest, fattest ursaring just grunted at me. And then I…”
Kiran allowed Skaroth’s words to wash over him as he glanced without turning his head to study Rikshi. Rikshi clearly took no interest in their older brother’s story, but was studying his claws intently. He glared at his front left paw, face contorted in irritation, and the middle claw began glowing a muted purple, gently illuminating the rocks around it. Rikshi’s face broke out into a smile, but his excitement faded as he extinguished the middle claw and turned to the one beside it, face tightening in concentration. Kiran looked back at Skaroth in confusion, but the older brother was so tightly wrapped up in his own engrossing tale that he didn’t seem to notice that he had no audience.
“Rikshi,” Kiran whispered as loudly as he dared. “What are you doing?”
Rikshi looked up from his work, and the glow flickered away from his claws all at once. “I’m bored,” he said, clearly not feeling guilty at all. “If I wanted to be filled with the desire to gouge my ears out to spare them from endless torment, I would’ve asked Skaroth to sing, but asking him to tell all of his hilariously stupid adventures comes in a close second.”
“…and then, victorious, I retreated back up here and put the leader’s head on my wall,” Skaroth finished proudly, gesturing with his scythe to what could only be the skull of a massive ursaring propped up on a few of the rocks near the ceiling of the cave. “And it’s been there ever since.”
“Fascinating,” Rikshi drawled, with enough sarcasm dripping from his voice that Kiran feared that Skaroth would snap again.
Skaroth was still Skaroth, however, and he seemed absolutely oblivious to the tone in Rikshi’s voice. “It was one of my better moments,” he said modestly. “I could tell you another, if you’d like.”
Kiran glanced toward Rikshi for advice, who shook his head almost imperceptibly, eyes wide and frantic. “Um,” Kiran said quickly, “I'm getting tired."
Skaroth nodded, using his tail to pat the youngest absol comfortingly on the shoulder. “You’re right. It’s quite late. You can sleep over there,” he said, and nudged Kiran toward a flattened area near the back of the cave.
“Thanks,” Kiran said again, and picked his way carefully over to the spot Skaroth had indicated. Not wanting to look behind him to see if either of his brothers were watching, he paced back and forth a few times before picking out a nice spot and settling down in it, wrapping his tail around himself. He shut his eyes, but kept his ears pricked toward the conversation back where Skaroth and Rikshi were, even as he began to drift off to sleep.
“—better off here,” Rikshi was saying.
Skaroth scoffed. “I like the little guy as much as you do, Rik,” he said, “but I’m not keeping him here when you leave. I’m not his mother.”
“At best, Mother is dead,” Rikshi retorted, but there was pain in his voice. “At worst, she’s trapped with the humans somewhere, and you know that no power will save her from them. I can’t look after him forever.”
“He’ll grow up, Rik,” Skaroth replied patiently, raising one paw in what was meant to be a comforting fashion. “We all do. He might be young right now, but he’ll be taking care of himself in a few winters.”
“And I can’t look after him until then,” Rikshi muttered, voice grim. “You know me, Skaroth. I work best alone.”
“—work alone best, for that is the way of the absol, I know, Skaroth” Rikshi hissed back, frustration leaking in. He was beginning to understand exactly what it was about Skaroth that made him irritated and unhappy. It wasn’t the fact that Skaroth was brave and stupid while he was careful and smart, it wasn’t the fact that Skaroth could so easily impress Kiran, it wasn’t the fact that Skaroth could slay mamoswine and breathe fire. It wasn’t even the fact that Skaroth told such awful stories.
No. It was because Skaroth had what Rikshi only wished he could. Courage, for one thing, and freedom, for the other. No younger brother to look after, no hindering dead weight to stop him from living his life as normal. And no resounding guilt named Kiran trailing after him, blissfully unaware that Rikshi could be leading him unintentionally to death. Skaroth had been on his own for four winters now and didn't know his soon-to-die brother very well, and he clearly seemed much happier that way. “But you can look after him better than I can.”
And it was also because Rikshi could sense Skaroth's demise coming, too.
Skaroth shot him a dry look. "I doubt it."
As much as he hated it, Rikshi decided to play his trump card. "Kiran will die before the end of winter with me. And yes," he added as Skaroth opened his mouth to object, "I know this for a fact, just like I knew with Father." The mention of their father was a low blow, but Rikshi needed every trick in his arsenal.
"So are you abandoning him with me because you think it'll keep him safe, or because you don't want to get emotionally attached to him before he dies?"
His brother knew him well. Rikshi look away.
“He won’t like that, Rik,” Skaroth said at last, deep in thought. “He likes you more than you think.”
Skaroth sighed. “I didn’t want to mention this in front of the kid, but I think you should know: I’m planning to launch an attack on the humans soon.”
Rikshi said nothing for a moment, spluttering. Did his brother have rocks instead of brains? That was the only possible reason that Skaroth could be so stupid, unless he was intentionally trying to screw up everything Rikshi had worked so hard for. Finding Skaroth at first had seemed like a curse, then a blessing when he could take Kiran, and now a curse all over again. “You can’t win,” he managed to say at last, when he found his voice. “Especially not alone.”
“There are more pokémon than just me in the mountains,” Skaroth responded calmly, crimson eyes flickering with a mixture of mirth and satisfaction. “I’ve been speaking to a couple of other rogues here. We’re not some great alliance or anything, but there are a good many of us and we all operate best on our own.”
Rikshi did his best not to roll his eyes. “And you’ll all just merrily walk up to the humans and ask them to please leave you alone so we can all stop starving?”
“Of course not,” Skaroth retorted, once again missing the sarcasm clearly evident in his younger brother’s voice. “We’re fighters, Rik, and we intend to dispel these humans once and for all so that there truly will be no danger here. We could use your help, and Kiran’s, too.”
Rikshi’s response was immediate. “I’m not bringing Kiran into this,” he hissed, his resolve clearly evident in his voice. “And if you even think about it, I… well.” He left the threat unfinished, knowing that a vague threat was more worrying than an empty one. “He was young when father left. He doesn’t remember.” And he would be damned if he allowed Kiran to die this way.
Skaroth shook his snowy mane out a little, irritation creeping into his voice as well. “You’re never the one to stand and fight, are you?”
“Die another day,” Rikshi spat back. “And so far, it’s worked. I’d never pegged you for such a colossal idiot that you’d try to confront all of the humans all at once. You’d need an army on your side for that, Skaroth, and I doubt that you do.”
“Well, I don’t,” Skaroth muttered, getting off of his haunches to pace around uneasily. “And it’s cowards like you that aren’t helping our cause.”
“If you think you can insult my pride until I join you,” Rikshi said calmly, not moving as Skaroth paced a tight circle around him, “you're greatly mistaken. I'd much rather live a coward than die a martyr.”
“Haven’t you heard that it’s better to live one day as a defiant Entei than to spend a thousand groveling in the dirt like a caterpie?”
“Die another day,” Rikshi repeated firmly, turning his head as Skaroth paced toward his left side. “And I’ve never heard of anyone hunting down a caterpie to pin its head on a wall.”
The seemed to shut up Skaroth for a moment. “I’ll take Kiran off your hands, but I can’t make any promises,” he said at last, stopping his pacing to return to where he had started.
It could still work. Rikshi could still fool himself with the happy lie that Kiran had survived the winter, his looming death, and Skaroth's idiocy if— “When do you leave for your suicide mission?”
A brilliant gleam leapt into Skaroth’s crimson eyes, and in the oncoming darkness, he seemed more maniacal than usual to Rikshi. “We leave at dawn tomorrow,” he said proudly, standing up to walk away again. “So whether you join us or not, I suggest you get your sleep.” With that, he went to his own corner of the cave and sat down, examining his claws for a moment before rolling onto his side.
Rikshi glared at the retreating form of his older brother for a moment and sighed. He could probably leave right now and pretend that Kiran would be fine, but he knew already that Kiran would be safer as far away from Skaroth as possible. The burning feeling in the pit of his scythe only intensified, so hot it almost made him ignore the numbing cold of the snow. Skaroth was doomed, and he probably knew it, but he was going to prance merrily to his death despite it all.
Kiran was going to die, and Rikshi didn't want to be there to see it. He wanted to work alone, live alone, die alone, as was the way of the absol. He wanted nothing more than to run out of the stupid recesses of his stupid brother’s stupid cave and leave all of the sheer stupidity of the situation miles behind him. Skaroth had no right threatening his plans like this.
Rikshi sighed. “Good luck, brother,” he murmured toward Skaroth, who jerked his head in response.
Last chance. He could still run.
But Rikshi padded over and sat down next to Kiran, who shifted in his sleep before waking up and looking at his older brother.
“And how much of that conversation did you hear?” Rikshi asked quietly, glancing down toward Kiran’s clearly not-sleeping form.
“Not all of it. I fell asleep,” Kiran lied, but for a moment, Rikshi felt a surge of relief. Then, Kiran asked, “Are you really going to leave me with Skaroth?”
Rikshi had no answer to that. He could still leave now and pretend that Skaroth wasn’t marching happily off to his death, and that Skaroth wouldn’t be naïve enough to bring Kiran with him. He changed the subject altogether. “I think I know why you weren’t able to harm that growlithe badly the other day,” he said instead. “Show me your claws.”
Obediently, and a bit drowsily, Kiran held out his paw for Rikshi to study.
“They’re as dull as rocks.” Rikshi nudged the paw down with his nose. “You couldn’t hurt a zubat with those.”
“Absol your age are afraid that they’ll cut themselves if they have sharp claws, I know,” Rikshi said, cutting off Kiran’s protests with a flick of his tail. “But I promise, you’ll never hurt yourself more with a sharp claw than an enemy will when you have blunt ones.”
“No protests,” Rikshi said firmly, nudging his younger brother with his tail. “Now let me see your sharpen those claws.”
Kiran was not permitted to sleep until he had slashed his claws across the pointed rocks on the sides of the cave a dozen times under Rikshi’s watchful eyes. There were twelve claws, and it took quite a while.
“Better,” Rikshi said when he was finished, examining the razor-sharp edge with an approving nod. “Now get some rest.”
“Skaroth's much braver than you are.” Kiran didn’t know what possessed him to say it, but he felt a flare of resentment for Rikshi. He didn’t want Rikshi to abandon him, even if Skaroth was his brother. He hardly knew Skaroth, and he felt… safe with Rikshi, as odd as that sounded. Even if what Rikshi had said was true and Kiran was going to—
“Skaroth isn’t being brave,” Rikshi replied, although he knew very well that his older brother possessed more courage than he ever would. “He’s being stupid. Now go to sleep.”
The lie was only halfway a lie, though. Skaroth was being quite brave, and he was also being quite stupid. The two words were so closely interlinked, however, that Rikshi saw no real need to delineate them.
Kiran might've argued, but by that point, he was so exhausted that he didn’t have the energy to say any more. He plopped down where he stood and curled into a tight ball, feeling the comforting warmth of Rikshi beside him.
Skaroth’s tracks were long gone by the time Kiran woke up.
“There’s nothing we can do to help Skaroth now.”
The sixth lie Rikshi told his younger brother was out of cowardice.
And probably self-preservation, too, but Rikshi knew Kiran wouldn’t understand that. And it was most certainly a lie. They could rush off along Skaroth’s trail and go to his fight with the rest of the idiots who had supported him in his fool’s journey, and they could meet his fate alongside him. That would be some help, Rikshi supposed, and Skaroth might’ve felt more comforted by their presence as they all got killed together, but in the end it would be quite unproductive.
“We have to help him!”
No, Kiran wouldn’t understand that at all. “Die another day, Kiran,” Rikshi murmured quietly. “If there is danger out there that Skaroth can’t fight, we won’t be of any use.” Yes, it felt wrong, but Rikshi would be damned if he sacrificed his younger brother and himself for Skaroth with the full knowledge that such a sacrifice would be in vain.
Kiran leapt forward. “We can’t just—”
Just as quickly, Rikshi shot in front of his younger brother, blocking the cave entrance with his body and bristling to appear larger than before. “We can, and we will, Kiran,” he growled, taking one step forward and waiting for Kiran to back down. Kiran did. “We’ll see if Skaroth returns tonight, and we’ll work from there.”
Skaroth did not return that night or any night thereafter. Rikshi tore off chunks of the mamoswine for them to eat, ears pricked toward the entrance of the cave in the hope that an absol would come limping in, but he was never rewarded.
This was probably why he preferred to be alone. If he didn’t care about anyone, it wouldn’t hurt when they inevitably left him.
The mamoswine carcass was entirely picked clean when Kiran had accepted that Skaroth wouldn’t be able to fight his way out of this one, and by that time, Kiran had devoted all of his resources to forgetting that he’d ever had an oldest brother to begin with. It was easier that way, and it hurt less.
The next morning, they left in silence.
- - -
They were miles away from the cave any anything else recognizable when the human came. Rikshi might have heard the human coming, but his paws were slick with constant travel and his head drooping and his thoughts whirring—he was exhausted, and he let several important details slip his mind. As it was, he only looked up when the human was close enough to see him, and that was certainly too close for anything good to come of it.
The human made some sort of excited sound with its mouth in alarm, by which point Rikshi was already running, Kiran close on his heels. The human tottered after them on two feet, but it was slow, and Rikshi could see that they could outrun a human easily if this was its maximum speed. He waited a bit longer, to see if the human would shoot thunderbolts from its face or do something exciting, but it just seemed capable of stumbling—quite slowly—after them.
There was a flash of red light, however, and a large, chunky arcanine appeared, breathing fire as it did so.
Rikshi didn’t have much of a chance to stay around and wait, although he would have loved to see how the arcanine had achieved its teleportation trick and if the human had helped with that at all. The arcanine, however, seemed quite keen to pursue them, and it could do so even if the human could not.
Die another day, Rikshi thought firmly, and poured as much speed as possible into his legs to run as fast as he could. He was exhausted, yes, but he wasn’t going to lose this part of the game. He would live for the present and die another day, and he was going to start that with finding a clever way to escape this arcanine.
“We could try that ice trick again!” Kiran called from his side, at which point Rikshi remembered and regretted that his brother’s fate, already sealed, was in his paws as well.
“We’ve already done that one before.” Rikshi knew Kiran didn’t experience the same sharp thrill from escaping as he did, and repeating their methods of escape would ruin half the fun. Of course, there were other reasons that they couldn’t pull that trick here, namely that there was no conveniently large sheet of ice. “They’ll probably see it coming, too.”
He kept running, leaping from one boulder to another in a zigzagging fashion as the arcanine shot another blast of fire toward them. It was getting closer, but Rikshi kept his head low and kept moving. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Kiran doing the same thing and following his trail exactly. “Don’t copy me!” he cried out in alarm, claws scrabbling for purchase on one rock before he sprang off of it and aimed for another one.
Panting, Kiran tried to do just that and still follow Rikshi’s erratic path. Tired as the two of them were, the brothers weren’t outrunning the human and its arcanine by a long shot.
Rikshi pulled up short at a rock face that towered above them, sprouting out of the earth and pointing almost straight up with no footholds. He paced back and forth for a moment, muttering something under his breath as he glared at his feet frantically. Rikshi was rewarded a few seconds later as both sets of his front claws burst into purple light, elongating and fizzling with power. The smell of ozone filled the air, but Rikshi didn’t have time to savor it. He crouched, tensing his legs, and then propelled himself as far upward as he could.
Just when gravity began to reassert its control over him and pull him downward, Rikshi sank his claws into the stone. The rock fought back, of course, and sparks flew as Rikshi scratched frantically at it with his glowing claws, but right before he fell, Rikshi’s glowing claws sank up to his feet in the stone, leaving him hanging by his front legs from a rocky cliff. He grinned, giddiness filling him once again as the fear of his imminent death vanished, and he raised his left paw out of the pillar and aimed it at some spot above his head. The left claws sank in this time without protest, giving him enough leverage to pull his other front foot free and replace it higher up the stone.
Rikshi allowed himself to laugh. He’d like to see the arcanine catch him now.
Kiran caught up to his brother by the time Rikshi was almost halfway up the cliff face with no way to follow him. Spluttering and panting for breath, Kiran skittered to a halt on the stone, searching for a way up, but he found none. “Rikshi, help!” he called to the absol scaling the rocks above his head, but as he had expected, Rikshi said nothing. Kiran knew he had promised to keep up with Rikshi, and that was the only reason Rikshi was still with him.
So he had to think like Rikshi. “Die another day, then,” he whispered himself, squinting up as he tried to see how his brother had managed to hoist himself up to such ridiculous heights. His heart sank a little when he saw his brother’s claws glowing with the trick Rikshi had discovered that night with Skaroth. Kiran wouldn’t have minded much, except that it was Rikshi’s secret and Kiran didn’t have the slightest idea about replicating it.
The arcanine caught up to him then and fastened its sights on Kiran, who was still facing the rocks and trying to find a way to climb them. Kiran turned around just as the arcanine leapt at him, and instinctively, he batted it away with his claws and was pleasantly surprised to find that he cut three parallel gouges across the arcanine’s face like it was made of snow. He made a mental note to make sure his claws stayed sharp.
The arcanine yelped and retreated, but Kiran sensed the momentary advantage he’d gained and pressed it, lunging forward and swiping at the arcanine’s face again relentlessly. This time the arcanine stayed back when Kiran stopped attacking it. With the precious few moments he had earned, Kiran bounded back toward the rock face, shaking his head in frustration. Rikshi couldn’t possibly leave him here, could he?
Kiran squared himself, squinting up at the rocks, and then focused all of his irritation, fear, and urgency into his claws. He frowned for a moment when nothing happened, and then his heart plummeted with relief when his paws burst into flickering energy, black like the night.
Die another day.
Kiran’s swipes lacked the simple precision that Rikshi’s had, but he wasn’t picky. He scrambled up the rock face as quickly as he could, his front legs screaming in protest all the while. His claws hurt like they were on fire, and he barely had the strength to pull himself out of the arcanine’s impressive reach, let alone catch up to Rikshi, who was already scrabbling away near the top of the rock formation.
But if he didn’t catch up, Kiran knew Rikshi would leave him behind without so much as a twinge of guilt. The thought made him move faster, and he flailed his front and back legs into a frenzy until he made it to the top of the rocky outcropping, panting as he pushed himself the last few inches until he was on blessed horizontal ground once again.
Rikshi was sitting calmly on the top of the cliff calmly, a wide grin across his face. “Wasn’t that completely awesome?” he asked, pacing around Kiran as the younger absol slumped on the ground and panted.
But in reality, Rikshi was confused. Kiran was going to die, probably today, and Rikshi had been intent on letting fate do its course, as he had done with Skaroth and Mother and Father. He wasn't a fighter of the inevitable. But Kiran was still alive, and Rikshi sort of liked it that way.
“No,” Kiran muttered feebly. But Rikshi had waited for him at the top, at least, and he seemed to be waiting still, so that much was a blessing.
“It was great,” Rikshi crowed, pacing excitedly around his younger brother and peering over the edge of the cliff to look at the disappointed arcanine before. “I’d been trying that claw trick, but I had no idea what to use it for, and then—”
He cut off and tensed with such suddenness that Kiran had no choice but to pull himself up, even though every fiber of his exhausted being begged for him not to. Kiran looked over the rocky cliff himself, feeling a dizzying sense of vertigo come over him as he did so, but his breath caught when he saw a white-furred figure pacing around the cliff alongside the arcanine. He and Rikshi were too far away for Kiran to see properly, but he could’ve sworn that the pacing absol looked a lot like—
“Skaroth,” Rikshi breathed. He seemed as unhappy to see his brother as ever, perhaps even more. His scythe burned.
Kiran, however, lit up with joy, almost taking a step toward his oldest brother before remembering that he, Kiran, was at the top of a very high precipice and he couldn’t walk on air. He opened his mouth to call out an ecstatic welcome for Skaroth when Rikshi hit him in the mouth, hard.
“Shhhh,” Rikshi hissed, which was possibly the worst thing to say when he wanted someone to remain quiet, both because the word was quite loud itself and because it only heightened Kiran’s confusion.
Skaroth, however, didn’t seem to hear them, but he continued sniffing around the base of the rock formation, apparently oblivious to the two absol watching him fearfully from above.
“Rikshi,” Kiran breathed quietly, not daring to raise his voice any louder but still wanting to be heard, “what’s wrong?”
Rikshi didn’t say anything, but the furs on the back of his neck were standing straight up. Without meaning to, Rikshi released a long, low growl from the depths of his throat.
Kiran saw the answer soon enough when the human from before bounded up. He wanted to scream at Skaroth to look out and run, but Skaroth’s head pricked up at the sound of footsteps. When the human came into his view, however, he didn’t turn tail or even attack at it with the same raw, feral power he had used to take down the mamoswine. Instead, he meekly slunk around the humans legs, rubbing himself against the human while it patted him on the head, next to the deadly scythe that should have been plunged into the human’s head, comfortingly. Skaroth was saying something, too, but he couldn’t quite pick out all of the words.
“…gone up the rock somehow,” Skaroth was murmuring, in a voice far too quiet and tamed for his normally boisterous personality. “I’m sorry, Master.”
Rikshi did nothing but grit his teeth, but Kiran recoiled in disgust and terror. When he shivered this time, it wasn’t out of exhaustion. He opened his mouth to say something yet again, but Rikshi silenced him with a glare.
The human made some more sympathetic sounds and patted the arcanine and the absol on their heads, who both seemed to enjoy it somewhat. Then, the human adjusted the blue, sleek thing around its chest that must’ve been its fur and began walking off, while Skaroth and the arcanine followed happily.
Rikshi turned away when the unnatural, sickening trio meandered out of sight. “So that’s that, then,” he muttered darkly, as if the words left a bitter taste on his tongue. He'd seen this coming, but he'd allowed himself to get attached to Skaroth anyway. He didn't want the same thing happening to Kiran.
“Was that… was that really Skaroth?”
A grim nod was all that Kiran got.
“But that couldn’t have been! He was just listening to the human, talking to it even, and he couldn’t have… he promised that he was going to… that wasn’t him! It couldn’t have been!” Kiran had to consciously make sure his voice didn’t slip into a wail.
No. He had to forget all of that. None of it had happened, just like Mother wasn’t gone, just like Skaroth hadn’t abandoned them, just like Rikshi hadn't said that he was going to—
“It was Skaroth,” Rikshi growled brusquely. “That’s what happens when the humans capture us, Kiran. That’s why we fled the peak of the mountain. That’s what Skaroth went up against.”
“Is that…” Kiran found himself floundering in an imaginary abyss, feeling like the world was closing over him in a massive sea of darkness and terror. “Is that what happened to Mother?”
Kiran would’ve thought he was dreaming, but the pain from the climb and the utter shock that he felt from seeing his oldest brother fawn around a human like it owned him was all too real. “How do they do that?”
Rikshi shrugged. “Does it matter? We can’t let them catch us, that’s all. That's why we run. Die another day, live for the present.”
“We can help Skaroth!” Kiran cried out. Some foolish part of him hoped that by saying his wishes out loud, they would come true. “We can talk to him somehow, remind him that we’re still here.”
Rikshi turned away from the cliff, his coat still inflated to twice its normal size with every hair on his body standing up in reaction to the hideous sight he had just witnessed. “We can’t, Kiran,” he whispered with enough dejection in his voice that he hoped that Kiran wouldn’t press the issue any further.
No such luck. “How do you know?”
There was a long silence, and then Rikshi asked quietly, “What do you think happened to Father?” His voice was filled with untold tragedy. When Kiran didn’t respond, he continued, “There’s nothing we can do to help Skaroth now.”
The first time he had said it back at the cave, he had been lying. But now that he knew for sure what had happened to his oldest brother, Rikshi knew that his words were completely and horribly true.
“So what are you going to do now?”
Rikshi shrugged. “Keep running,” he said at last, pulling himself to his feet and examining the path ahead of them. It was long and rocky and filled with icy snow, just like the path behind them had been. “That’s what we do best, right?” This time, he wasn’t able to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
“You’re just going to pretend that that didn’t just happen?” Kiran spluttered. He searched for more words, tried to formulate some sort of coherent argument, but the shock of the past five minutes left him utterly floored.
“No.” Rikshi carefully picked a path leading upward, away from the horrible human and its pets below. The rocks this way weren’t as steep as the sheer cliff they’d just climbed, but it would be exhausting enough. The other option was to go back down toward Skaroth, though, and that was unthinkable. “I run, Kiran, but I don’t forget.”
As much as he wanted that statement to be false, Kiran knew it was true. Rikshi fled, but he remembered. And Kiran tried to fight, but he tried to forget. And until today, he’d been doing a surprisingly good job at it. “We can’t just—”
“Today we run and survive,” Rikshi hissed over his shoulder, not finding the courage to face his somehow-not-dead younger brother with anything more than his head. “It’s not the way of the absol, I know. But we leave Skaroth. He chose his fate, and he can’t change it now. We shouldn’t try to.”
“He’s our brother,” Kiran protested. He felt like he was being pulled in two different directions by a force unknown, one tugging him toward Rikshi while the other called from Skaroth. “Would you still be leaving if it was me out there?”
Rikshi didn’t respond. Kiran took the answer as a yes, which sickened him a little.
“What if it was you?”
“Then I wouldn’t want anyone else risking themselves in a suicide mission to bring me back.” Rikshi stopped his ascent and waited. “I’m not like Skaroth, Kiran. I don’t risk myself for anyone, and I don’t want anyone risking themselves for me. Die another day and live for the present. That’s what I live by. And if you don’t like it, then maybe you shouldn’t stay.”
This was the opportunity Rikshi had been waiting for since he’d realized that Mother wasn’t coming back. This was Kiran’s opportunity to leave his older brother alone forever and stop being a dead weight at last, and as soon as that happened, Rikshi would be unfettered and alone once more, just like he’d always wanted. And Kiran could go off and kick his bucket somewhere else, where Rikshi didn't have to get hurt because of something as stupid as emotion.
But for some reason, he wasn’t as happy as he thought he would be when Kiran glowered at him and then turned away, walking in the opposite direction.
There were only two paths from the rocky outcropping, not counting the impassable way they had come, so Kiran took the one that pointed downward. He walked alone for the first time in a while, missing the familiar weight of his brother’s figure on the corner of his sight.
And as he walked, he stewed. Skaroth could still be saved. He had to be. It wasn’t fair any other way.
Die another day, Rikshi always said, but Kiran couldn’t follow that motto. Few could. It was a lonely path Rikshi trod, and even he couldn’t completely make himself stop caring. Kiran vaguely toyed with the notion that Rikshi felt the same guilty pangs Kiran felt whenever they turned tail and fled.
Kiran didn’t know where he was going, but then again, he never had known with Rikshi either. He found himself back at the base of the pillar of stone. The cliff’s face had two sets of claw marks gouged in it, one bigger than the other, and Kiran wondered if his brother had wanted him gone after all. Rikshi had waited at the top instead of continuing on. Kiran craned his neck up, trying to see if he could spot Rikshi’s solitary figure threading its way up the rocks higher up, but he saw nothing.
His head whipped to one side when he heard the excited shout of a human, maybe even the same one from before, and then something large and white hit him from the side.
Kiran rolled into the ground, his head connecting painfully with the earth as the stony floor became his sky, and then he was on his feet again, shaking his head to clear it as he tried to process what would happen.
“I told you they would return, Master,” a dark and powerful voice said from his right.
Kiran whirled to face the speaker and found Skaroth staring at him, his blood-colored eyes flat and emotionless and so unlike the Skaroth Kiran thought he’d known. He realized then that Rikshi was right, and that there was no saving Skaroth, but it was too late.
The human called some sort of sound of encouragement, and Skaroth yowled in affirmation before lunging toward Kiran. Kiran, in turn, barely had enough time to roll out of the way before Skaroth’s razor-sharp claws sliced the air where his head had been. Scrambling to his feet, Kiran tried to run back toward the stone pillar, but the arcanine emerged from behind it, growling threateningly.
Kiran took a few quaking step backwards, but Skaroth was still there, prepared to attack. The older absol tilted his head back, throat filling with red-hot fire, and Kiran managed to flatten himself to the ground just as the jet of fire passed over his head, skimming and singing the top of his back.
He rolled out of the way of the fiery deluge, but Skaroth was just as strong and just as fast as he had always been. “Skaroth, stop it!” Kiran shouted, but the older absol didn’t so much as blink before trying to snap his teeth around Kiran’s neck at another encouraging shout from the human.
“Rikshi, help!” Kiran shrieked, although he’d learned long ago that relying on Rikshi to help him would get him nowhere, but it felt comforting to try. And Rikshi wouldn't want to help him because he knew and what Kiran knew, and Rikshi had even told Skaroth: Kiran was going to die. Winter was almost over.
Then, he was out of time to talk as the arcanine appeared behind him, far taller and far more able than Kiran would ever be, and slashed out at him as well. Kiran ducked backwards again, trying to bat at it with his claws as he had done before, but Skaroth stopped him with a well-aimed burst of fire. Whimpering, Kiran pulled his claws back, trying to ignore the burning pain he felt in them, and found that the arcanine and the absol had backed him against the rocky pillar, leaving him with nowhere to run.
The human ran up behind them, pointing some sort of red and white device at him, and Kiran cowered back, mind racing as he tried to think of some solution. Rikshi would know what to do, but Rikshi wasn’t there. Kiran closed his eyes, desperately trying to forget and pretend that none of this was happening, but his tricks were useless in the face of a cold, relentless reality.
Kiran tried to look at Skaroth once more, prepared to beg for his life, but the cold, distant look on the older absol’s eyes told him that it was pointless and that his brother wasn’t there.
Against his better judgment, Rikshi turned back. Beneath him, far too far away to jump, his soon-to-die brother faced his worse-than-death fate. Rikshi almost felt happy about it, if only because he was right after all and today was Kiran's someday, but he couldn't—
No. Today was Kiran's someday. He wasn't going to fight that, wasn't going to risk himself. There was no way to climb down the rocks in time to reach Kiran anyway, and Rikshi wasn't going to fight fate for a brother already damned to die. Everyone died someday. Rikshi had spent his entire life making sure that his someday never came; there was nothing he could do for anyone else. That was that.
And his precautions made him so very lonely sometimes, as if there was no point in living alone like the way of the absol. Kiran, unreachable, screamed again, and Rikshi prepared himself. This was the end. There would be no turning back from it. He did the only thing that seemed obvious in such a situation: he took a deep, shuddering breath, filled every possible part of his body with the desperate energy that made his claws glow, and then he fell. Hard.
And then there was a desperate, wordless scream as Rikshi launched himself from the top of the rock pillar, his claws and scythe and tail all lit up with that blinding purple light, so bright that Kiran couldn’t see his face.
“Run, Kiran! I’ll be fine!”
The seventh lie Rikshi told his younger brother was out of desperation.
Rikshi knocked the object that looked like it was painted with blood and snow out of the way before it hit Kiran, and then he landed on his feet, too fast. There was a sickening crunch beneath him that Rikshi realized belatedly was his back leg’s collision with the stone, felt the bone shatter to pieces beneath him. but there was no helping that. The glow almost went out of his claws as vision flashed white, but Rikshi forced himself to remain conscious. He’d already done the stupid; now he had to be brave.
He didn’t have much practice at that, being brave. “Run, Kiran!” he roared, snowy mane bristling as he reared back, flinching a little as he put weight on his broken leg. His claws glowed purple, and he leaned back as Skaroth leapt at him after a short command from the human, but Rikshi found a surge of strength he didn’t know he’d had and thrust his older brother into the nearby rock wall. “I’ll be fine!”
Kiran had to run. Even he, foolish and naïve and damned to die no longer, had to be able to see that there was no saving Rikshi now. But the idiot stayed, paralyzed with fear and watching as his two older brothers began lunging at one another in a tangle of white and black. “Are you coming?” Kiran asked.
“I’ll be right behind you,” Rikshi replied tightly before fastening his teeth into the back of Skaroth’s neck and throwing the absol into the rock wall again. There was no giddy thrill in this fight, no exhilaration from being able to elude danger by a hair’s breadth, because now he could no longer run at all. “Go on, now.” Rikshi found his voice sinking back into its casual register, whether from his own efforts of calming himself or his exhaustion. “Your brother and I have some issues to work out.” He narrowly managed to avoid Skaroth’s scythe a second time before lunging out as far as he dared on his broken leg with a swipe of his own.
Kiran stared, but the arcanine growled at him, approaching with its lips pulled back to reveal pink gums and pointed fangs. The human shouted something, whether to the arcanine or to Skaroth, and both pokémon lunged at their targets.
Heart thumping, Kiran skidded back, unable to tear his gaze away from his brothers. Rikshi was winning for now, raining a heavy torrent of blows down on his brother’s unprotected back, but it was only a matter of time. Rikshi couldn’t bring himself to make his strikes deadly, and he knew that that would be his downfall in the end. Something was wrong here, though. Skaroth should have been able to crush him in a fight. That much was obvious. So how was he even standing?
“Will you be okay?” Kiran asked.
“Die another day!” Rikshi roared, and this time, it wasn’t a mantra but a command.
Taking a hesitant step back, then another, Kiran did what Rikshi was best at and ran.
The arcanine made a move to follow the fleeing absol, but Rikshi lunged toward it and slashed through the air with claws. A shaft of energy, glowing purple and black and dark as night, erupted from where his claws rent the frosty air and collided with the arcanine, which roared in pain and turned back around, setting its sights once again on Rikshi before looking back at the human.
The human shouted something in encouragement, and then both the absol and the arcanine turned to face Rikshi, who spat at them in return.
Rikshi bent his knees to prepare to leap, his broken leg screaming at him in protest. When he finally managed to jump, it was hobbled and short, lacking its typical grace, but it was enough to bring him safely over Skaroth’s blast of fire and put him in range to bring his glowing claws down across Skaroth’s snowy white flank, drawing blood.
The arcanine prepared a blast of fire—it seemed like that was all the damned things could do—and Rikshi ducked out of the way as the arcanine released. The fire came inches away from burning Skaroth instead, but both absol managed to move out of the way. Rikshi reared back, shifting his weight, and then he released the pent-up energy in his legs and leapt as high up the rocky pillar as he could, face scrunched in concentration. He couldn’t try to climb the pillar again, not with his broken leg, but…
Rikshi spun around at the last minute, his tail glowing silver and as hard as a rock, and he hit the pillar with as much strength as he could muster. It tottered, leaning precariously toward the arcanine, before toppling over completely in a magnificent pile of destruction, loose stones and jagged bits of boulder falling off as it fell. Rikshi landed on the ground, panting from the exertion and almost blacking out from the weight he was putting on his leg—when he looked back, he could see shards of milky bone emerging from his snowy fur—but he grinned fiercely as he waited for the pillars to crush the arcanine.
The human shouted in alarm, however, and pulled out another blood-and-snow colored object. There was a flash of red, and the arcanine vanished just as the first of the rocks piled down around the space where its body had been.
Rikshi stared in alarm as the pillar of stone finished its journey down and toppled harmlessly on empty air, the arcanine completely gone as the rocks continued in their deadly, crushing journey downward. Where had it gone? Rikshi whirled back toward the human, eyes narrowing in accusation as he tried to find the answer, but before he could piece together what had happened, there was a blinding pain in the back of his head.
He slumped forward, white spots filling his vision that he couldn’t blink away, and Rikshi looked up, his claws spasming uselessly as the purple light faded from them. Skaroth stood above him, the flat of his scythe glowing from where he had used it to hit Rikshi, and the younger absol understood.
Rikshi remained helpless on the ground, his mind screaming at him while his body fruitlessly tried to pull himself together so he could keep fighting and run and die another day, but he was so very tired, and the darkness was so very inviting…
The human pointed its blood-and-snow colored object at him, and Rikshi found himself floating into the darkness. He looked around, afraid, every nerve of his body erupting into searing hot fire, but he couldn’t open his eyes. Everywhere he looked, there were only inky black expanses waiting for him, darker than the night sky and far colder.
Rikshi felt the walls of his world rock uncomfortably, and he felt a pang of nausea as he tried to fight as best as he could, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Everything hurt.
Die another day. Live for the present. He had to run.
But he was so very tired, and so very alone. He couldn’t bring himself to fight back any more, and he fell away with a violent surge of exhaustion.
He'd saved Kiran. He'd fought fate. Somehow.
Gotcha! Wild ABSOL was caught.
- - -
Rikshi woke up to see the face of a human staring happily at him, its lips distorted in some sort of grimace that might have been a smile. He scrambled to his feet in alarm, pulling away violently as the events from his last time conscious caught up to him. He had to run, now!
“You were hurt real bad,” the human said, and Rikshi realized with a pang of alarm that he could understand it. “You broke your leg.” Rikshi remembered that too, and found himself looking at his back leg in confusion. It didn’t hurt any more, but he hadn’t been unconscious long enough for it to heal, had he? “We patched you up, though,” the human continued happily. “Well, I didn’t, but the people at the pokécenter did. But I brought you there! I saved your life! Isn’t that great? We can be best friends now!”
Rikshi tried to growl at her, but a fierce sensation of nausea overtook him and his growl turned into a feeble whimper as his head split with indescribable pain. They couldn’t be best friends, and it wasn’t great, and the human sure as hell hadn’t saved his life. If it hadn’t been attacking Kiran in the first place, it wouldn’t have to do any saving at all.
There was a stab of pain in his head, like something driving a scythe through his head, and Rikshi backtracked. It hurt. For some reason, hating the human hurt.
But the human had let him out of his confinement, and now Rikshi had a chance to escape. It was going to regret giving him that one chance, because that was all he needed to get away. The human turned away for a moment, fiddling with a device on its midsection, and Rikshi took the opportunity to lunge at her, claws outstretched.
Another wave of nausea washed over him, this one stronger than the last, and Rikshi found himself doubled over, resisting the urge to retch up the scant contents of his stomach. He blinked frantically, spluttering and trying to catch his breath. He had to fight back, had to get away from the human before he ended up like—
“You won’t be able to that,” Skaroth said pleasantly from beside him, shaking his great white head in what might have been pity or amusement. “The pokéball prevents you from causing harm to May.”
“May?” Rikshi asked, trying to take his mind off of the violent, roiling pain he was feeling as he thought about ways to tear the human apart. He was left instead with the thought that his brother was brainwashed.
“That’s her name,” Skaroth replied blankly, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. He pointed with his scythe toward the human with a motion so like the real Skaroth that it physically hurt to watch. “She’s our trainer. The pokéball helps you understand her, so that she can talk to you. Isn’t that great?”
May. What a stupid name. It was a verb.
Even the slightest hint of distaste toward his human—trainer, apparently—sent another blast of pain through his mind, and Rikshi found himself retreating back as far as he could into the calm corner of his mind. “I’m not trying to kill May,” he said aloud, trying to placate the pokéball.
His mind still felt like someone was dangling it over a fire.
“I don’t want to kill May.”
Skaroth laughed. “You have to mean it, you know. Or else it won’t stop.”
No. He wanted to kill the human, rip it to shreds, tear out its—
Rikshi practically fell to the floor when the white-hot stab pierced through every level of his consciousness, and he barely managed to avoid letting out a keening wail. As he finally managed to think about anything at all, he shelved the idea of killing or not killing the human. “Skaroth, are you feeling okay?” he asked at last, settling on a safe question to ask.
Skaroth looked at him blankly. “Who’s Skaroth?”
Rikshi licked his lips and then bit down on them, hard, to keep himself from losing himself. He tasted blood. The pokéball didn’t seem to mind that. “Never mind.”
“My name is Darkness,” the absol-who-was-not-Skaroth said calmly, unperturbed by Rikshi’s reactions. “Your name is Raven.” He paused and thought to himself. “May gave us these names because she is smart and they are good. You’re lucky. That’s a nice name.”
“It’s a girl’s name!” Rikshi hissed back, bristling, but he had to force himself to back down again as he felt another stabbing pain approaching in his mind. He could still run from this. There had to be a way. “And it’s a name for…” He had to stop himself before he could say idiots, but the flash of pain still hurt nonetheless.
Skaroth… Darkness shrugged. “She’ll learn soon enough,” he said nonchalantly, a cheery smile filling his face. It still looked like it didn’t fit him, and the laugh that followed still didn’t sound like it belonged in his throat.
The human turned back around, running one hand through the brown fur on the top of her head. She laughed, a gentle, tinkling sound that didn’t suit the monster in the slightest.
Another stab of pain.
Fine. Rikshi corrected himself hastily. Her laugh was a gentle, tinkling sound that he hadn’t expected from someone who was almost done destroying his family.
“Come on, Raven, Darkness!” the human said happily, pulling a piece of fur around herself. Rikshi’s lip curled. The human was wearing another pokémon’s fur as its own. That was—
He cringed, waiting for more nausea, and decided not to finish that thought at all.
“We’re going to have a battle!” the human finished, walking outside. Rikshi had no choice but to follow, feeling the insistent, tugging compulsion that forced him to happily lift his feet and prance after the human like some sort of pet.
“Battle?” Rikshi asked the absol beside him quietly.
Darkness shrugged. “Yeah. It’s sort of like… well, I guess you wild lot call it hunting, but we don’t kill each other. We just fight.”
“Why?” This battling thing sounded pointless.
“To get stronger, of course!” Darkness said cheerfully. “Don’t worry, you’ll love fighting! I know it!”
Rikshi realized that inside of this horrible, frighteningly happy shadow of an absol, no part of his brother remained. “And I’ve never heard of anyone hunting down a caterpie to pin its head to a wall,” he whispered bitterly, and then followed his not-brother and his not-trainer outside.
- - -
“Raven, you’re up! Show them what you’ve got!”
The human seemed incapable of talking in a voice quieter than a shout, but Rikshi obediently stepped forward. This battling idea was even stranger than what Darkness had told him. The two humans faced each other and exchanged threats, and then both of them used their blood-and-snow colored objects—Darkness said they were pokéballs, and Rikshi realized that they were responsible for shredding his mind—to make two pokémon appear in front of them. The pokémon then fought each other until one of them apparently died, at which point the human made the pokémon disappear and summoned another. From what Darkness had said on the walk over, the humans either did it for entertainment, scraps of paper that they exchanged with one another, or small metal pins that they seemed to enjoy collecting, and the loser wasn't actually dead but fainted, and it was all quite fun if he got the gist of it.
It was all quite confusing.
Rikshi stepped up, hissing, and found himself facing a swinub. He allowed himself a small grin of reassurance despite himself; he’d hunted and killed hundreds of swinub before. This one would be no different. He began focusing his energy into his claws. With his leg healed, all he’d have to do was—
What? No, that would be stupid, and—
Rikshi found himself jerked forward against his will, moving awkwardly to close the distance between himself and the swinub. It was almost like he was watching the proceedings from outside of his body, as if another absol and another swinub were doing battle in his stead. Numbly, he moved his claws across the swinub’s flank, doing little more than to part the fur. Rikshi gritted his teeth and tried to at least swipe at the thing with his scythe, but he felt the onset of the nausea and made himself stop. He didn't want to help the human, anyway. It was okay if the swinub—
“Swinub, hit him with an earthquake.”
He had to dodge. He had to dodge! He could jump now; his leg wasn’t broken now and it would only take a small leap to get over the seismic wave that the swinub was preparing. Rikshi bent his legs and prepared to leap, but the pokéball sent another wave of pain at him and he stopped short, looking to his trainer in alarm. Surely she could see that he needed to—
Even though he was desperately struggling not to, Rikshi moved forward, stumbling across the ground and trying to run toward the swinub, to sink his teeth into its flank like May had commanded even though it was foolish.
He hadn’t even closed the distance between them when the earth began shaking beneath his feet and Rikshi lost his balance, stumbling to the ground and tripping over his limbs as he was slammed into the ground by the quaking earth. He bit his lip to keep himself from crying out, but the shaking continued, tossing him about like a rag-doll.
And it hurt. It hurt so much, almost like the time he’d broken his leg defending—
Finally, when the earth stilled and the movement subsided, Rikshi managed to pull himself to his feet, panting. The swinub was defenseless and thought he was exhausted from enduring that last attack—and he was, but there was no need to say that—but now would be the perfect opportunity, while it wasn’t expecting it, to—
“Raven, use swords dance!”
No! He couldn’t try to do that now; if he let the swinub get another hit like that in, he would be finished! May had to see that.
But Rikshi was only jerked forward with a sham of his original grace, limbs flying around weakly as he began moving his scythe through the air in a complicated series of feints and thrusts, feeling his attacking powers rising. Maybe May was right. If he could get in a hit now that he was stronger, he could—
That was the last thing Rikshi remembered before he found himself splayed on the ground, unable to move. Darkness leapt over him at May’s command and unleashed a torrent of fire from his throat, aiming at the swinub, but Rikshi didn’t care about that.
He was going to die, he thought bleakly, but somehow that made him happy. The human wouldn’t be able to command him anymore, and he would be free. He wouldn’t have to be close to this sham of his brother, he wouldn’t be forced to follow this idiot of a human, and he wouldn’t have to continue this façade of an existence. His soul would become one with the fierce winter spirits, just like Mother had told him when he was younger.
Pleased with these last thoughts, Rikshi rested his head and allowed the darkness to take him.
- - -
Rikshi woke up in the same tiled room as before and found himself looking up at the human again, her big blue eyes wide with worry, and Rikshi hated himself all the more. He wasn't dead. Damn it all.
But Rikshi had other problems besides the human. He had attacked the swinub with his claws, yet he’d hardly inflicted more than a scratch on it. Before, he could flay swinub to tiny pieces with a single swipe of his paws, but now… he was reminded of how Kiran had had trouble with the growlithe. That felt like so long ago.
Rikshi looked at his claws in concern, but they seemed as sharp as ever. He began to scratch them against the ground, trying to sharpen him, but May began speaking and he looked up.
“You fainted again,” she said, and Rikshi realized she was capable of speaking in a voice that wasn’t a shout. She almost sounded sad for him. “You have some training to do before you reach Darkness’s level, and I already have an absol, so…”
Rikshi looked around in alarm, trying to see where his brother was, but the other absol was nowhere in sight. He backed up, even though the pokéball sent waves of pain at him again, like it always did.
May held up her blood-and-snow colored device, pointing it at him, and Rikshi felt himself dissolving into a horrible, empty… nothingness.
“I’ll just store you in the PC for now,” May said. Her voice came from everywhere and nowhere at once, and Rikshi struggled wildly to place it. She sounded horribly distant, and Rikshi was struck with a pang of loneliness. “Maybe we’ll see later, okay?”
Those were the last words Rikshi heard before a vast, empty silence overtook him and he felt his mind slowly entering hibernation. His thoughts were frantic for a moment as he dissolved, and then there weren't thoughts at all.
- - -
He didn’t know how much time had passed before May appeared in front of him, in a different room this time, that omnipresent cheerful smile still there. She looked older, and she was wearing different furs.
It took him a while to get used to having a physical body again, and he pranced circles around May as he stretched his legs. It disgusted him, but the pokéball wouldn’t let him move out of a certain radius from her.
“I traded Darkness away to a friend for a while,” May was saying happily, giggling as the absol began to flex and unflex his claws in front of her. “So I guess we’ll be training you up, huh?”
Rikshi tried not to wretch, the nausea coming from his sudden return to colors and light and breathing rather than the pokéball, and he found himself looking for Darkness. Even if Skaroth was dead and gone, he still felt some tiny modicum of comfort to have his brother on his side.
But Darkness was gone, and this idiot May apparently wanted Rikshi to take his place.
Well. She’d have a surprise for her, then, finding out that he wasn’t strong like his brother. He was about to say something else when the girl pointed his pokéball at him and he dissolved into a flash of light again.
- - -
He appeared in front of another human wearing furs on her head as well as the rest of her body. She sent out a pokémon Rikshi had never seen before, a great, lumbering rocky creature that May said was called a claydol. It had many pink eyes that stared at him in turn as it spun on a central axis and blinked at him, apparently levitating in midair.
As much as he hated battling for May, he knew he didn’t want to faint again. If he fainted, she would send him back to that horrible place with the darkness, and he didn’t want that. If he had to go through with this terrible farce of hunting in order to get his share of freedom, then he would do so.
“Raven, use swords dance!” May called out to him.
He didn’t want to respond to Raven. Raven was a name for girls, and idiots at that, but if he didn’t comply, the pokéball would make him feel sick and then make him do it anyway. So he scythed his head through the air, carefully focusing on raising his attacking powers again. He had to take down this strange creature. He couldn’t let May put him back in the darkness again.
The claydol’s human didn’t seem concerned. “Ice beam,” she responded.
The claydol rose off of its axis and continued spinning in a circle, one of the beak-like protrusions that apparently acted as a mouth opening wide and shrieking. Rikshi could feel the cold from where he stood as the mouth gathered more and more icy energy, crackling blue and white, before the claydol shot it toward him.
Rikshi shook off the cold wave and growled. He’d faced harsher winters, and this pathetic beam of ice was far gentler than the jets of fire the growlithe back on the mountains wielded. And he couldn’t faint again. He wasn’t fighting for May, he told himself; he was fighting for himself and his freedom. That was that.
He wondered vaguely if the claydol was going through the same tumultuous thought process he was, or if it had succumbed long ago like Skaroth and countless others.
Rikshi stopped, genuinely confused. He didn’t know what a night slash was or how to use it. He could bite and scratch all day, but what the hell was a night slash?
It was almost too easy. The pokéball directed his movements for him, trapped his limbs in a steely web and made him raise his front paw, the tips of his claws growing longer and sharpening as they glowed with a black and purple energy. His claws split the air as they had so many times before, and Rikshi felt a wave of disgust as he fired off the attack. This was his special trick, not some sort of move that the human could elicit out of him at will.
But apparently it was, because Rikshi galloped forward and raked his glowing claws across the claydol’s face.
This battling was ridiculous. There was no dodging, no feel of thrill, no rush of giddy ecstasy as he evaded death in a desperate moment. The two pokémon simply stared at each other and took turns attacking, as if beating each other up and tearing one another to shreds was some sort of game.
In the wilderness, a hunt meant life or death for both parties. If the prey lost, it died from bloodloss. If the predator lost, it died from starvation.
But here, with these trainers and their little battles, pokémon could win and lose all day without so much as a real scratch on them. There was nothing on the line, and the trainers themselves only seemed to exchange little bits of paper.
Rikshi wanted to vomit, and he never wanted more desperately to run away in his life.
But instead he attacked the claydol, hit it again and again even as it shot another icy blast of energy toward him and burnt his skin with a flaming attack and even levitated rocks out with its mind and hit him with bone-crushing force that somehow didn’t leave him dead. He was panting heavily when the claydol finally hit the ground, unable to keep itself afloat any longer, and Rikshi was pleased. Now he had done what May had wanted, and she would let him go.
The other girl with the furs on her head pulled out another pokéball and sent out a creature that looked like a rock with four arms and a face.
Rikshi was almost grateful when May told him to take a break and Skyrider the female arcanine came out to take his place.
- - -
“I’m not going to call you Raven anymore!” May crowed one day, clearly proud of herself. “I was looking through my pokédex the other day and realized that you weren’t a female, which is sad but that’s okay, so I decided that Raven didn’t work and I had to change it!”
“Good,” Rikshi growled back, although she only scratched him on the throat while the pokéball prevented him from biting her hand off. “My name is Rikshi.”
But she couldn’t understand him of course, or if she could she ignored him with such chilling precision that it didn’t matter. “So I went to the Name Rater and all, and now it’s official. I’m calling you Nightwish!”
Like hell you are, Rikshi thought at her, but before he could do anything violent like rip her face off with a well-placed—night slash, she called it—the pokéball made his head burst into white-hot pain that obliterated all other thought besides standing there, acting content as May heaped her praises upon her newly-christened Nightwish.
Rikshi gritted his teeth. No matter. The human could call him whatever she wanted until the moon burst into flames and fell from the sky; he was and would always be Rikshi. And he would find a way to escape. He had to.
- - -
Rikshi awoke one night with a horrible sensation in his stomach, one he hadn’t felt for many nights. He’d never questioned it, but he didn’t seem to age or hurt at all when he was in the sickening darkness of his pokéball, and he realized he hadn’t felt hungry, either.
He sat perched by the edge of the building May called a pokécenter, feeling the night breeze threading through his fur. The moon was full again, and it called him to hunt, but the pokéball wouldn’t let him move out of May’s sight.
His claws flexed and unflexed, turning the carpet near the edge of the pokécenter to a fine mess of confetti. He needed to hunt, and after that, eneeded to find Kiran.
“What’s wrong, Nightwish?” the human asked as she approached him. He wondered how they could balance on two paws. “Are you hungry? I have food.”
“Not from you,” Rikshi spat back, but the pokéball forced his fur to shrink back to its normal size and his growl to turn into a harsh whine.
“Aww, you’re hungry,” May said, patting him on the head. “Here, one second!”
It would only take a single flick of his scythe, and he could just—
The moment passed, and May produced a handful of berries out of her large holding device that she carried around on her back. He only could recognize them as food from their smell, and he recoiled in disgust. This was the kind of food that prey ate, reserved for the lowest of the low on the food chain. He was an absol, and he—
—was so very hungry, and the pokéball clearly had no intentions of letting him hunt on his own. Rikshi sniffed at the berries in the girl’s hand, wondering if the pokéball would kill him before he bit off her elbow, and then he bowed his head in shame and began eating from her palm.
The nausea wasn’t just from the pokéball this time.
- - -
He won more battles, and the pangs of guilt he felt for the other pokémon grew less and less each time. The opposing pokémon weren’t dead, after all, and it would only take a quick trip to the pokécenter to heal them up. He fought viciously, at first for the few extra moments of freedom that battling gave him and later to catch up to the rest of the team. They’d been with May much longer than he had, and they were all more experienced and powerful. May had to send them in to help him out, and he didn’t like that.
At first, he wasn’t sure why he didn’t like taking their help. Teamwork was good, and he had a vague memory of working well together with an absol a little younger than he was. The days before May were fuzzy and hurt to remember, though, so he didn’t try.
One day, May told him to attack a wild pokémon that appeared out of the grass. It was small, probably only four winters old, and it barely had time to whimper before he hit the pokémon with the flat end of his scythe to stun it. May seemed excited, and she threw a pokéball at the infant lotad.
He felt guilty for making another pokémon go through what he had, but surely the lotad could see that he didn’t have a choice?
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, closing his eyes as the pokéball wiggled three times on the spot, and he cringed away even though there was nothing left to be afraid of.
- - -
Later, he realized that he fought hard to make May proud. She shone with all of the radiance of the sun in his eyes, and her smile was dazzling and her furs, both the ones that were hers and the ones that she wore from other pokémon, were gorgeous.
- - -
Nightwish won his first gym battle later that moon, no, month, and May was very proud of him. She even cheered for him when the opponent’s last pokémon, a strange, sun-shaped creature made of twisted orange and yellow rocks, fell out of the ground with a resounding thunk, and she gave Nightwish a congratulatory pat on his head before accepting a small piece of metal from the other trainer, who made his pokémon disappear in a flash of red light.
As a reward for doing so well, Nightwish was allowed to stay out of his pokéball for the day, and later he got a treat from May. It was cold and slippery and tasted a little bit like snow, but sweeter, and May said it was called ice cream. Nightwish liked ice cream.
He was happy.
- - -
When May announced that she was going to call him Lupin instead of Nightwish, he didn’t argue. May knew best.
Lupin was careful not to faint again. He didn’t want to disappoint his trainer. Lots of trainers were impressed to see that May had an absol on her side, and Lupin was proud that she was proud. It made him feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Once, after a very long string of battles, Lupin collapsed from exhaustion. As he faded into the black and felt the darkness take him, his misery was accompanied by a pang of regret. He had failed May.
He was so glad when she took him to a pokécenter to get healed. He’d gotten banged up real bad. She’d probably saved his life again.
- - -
Not all of the pokémon were lucky like Sasuke was. May kept him in the rotation for a long time, and sometimes he was even allowed to be at the lead of the party, an honor she usually reserved for Raindrops, her swampert, because swampert was her very first pokémon. Sasuke was jealous; as an absol, he was even rarer than a silly swampert, and he wished that May liked him more.
Skyrider the arcanine got traded to another human for a pokémon with strange facial hair covering its tawny fur. It was shaped like a human, except it had larger ears and floated. May said that the newcomer was called an alakazam, and she went through many different names until she found one she liked the best: Dumbledore.
Dumbledore was a nice name, Sasuke thought, but it wasn’t as good as Sasuke.
Sometimes at night, his scythe hurt a little. He forgot about it by morning.
- - -.
Grey Wind didn’t have to think much anymore. May and the pokéball could do that for him. They were so much better at that than he was.
But sometimes when he least expected it, he dreamed of—
- - -
Bad Wolf walked beside May, his white fur and black scythe gleaming proudly in the sun. The two of them were off on an adventure into the mountains to catch more pokémon, and he was proud that May had let him take the lead on this mission. He didn’t want to disappoint her.
May pointed, and Bad Wolf would leap toward the pokémon that appeared and attack them, whittling away at them with light strikes until they were weak enough to capture, and then May would point her pokéballs at them. Bad Wolf was happy to help May out. He wanted to make their team grow; then he would have more friends.
They caught several pokémon before May found another absol. She pointed at it, and Bad Wolf was careful to hit it with the blunt edges of his claws and scythe only. May didn’t like it when he drew blood when he fought, and he realized that May didn’t want him to hunt the pokémon.
Hunting was bad. Battling was good. Bad Wolf liked battling.
The pokémon at the mountain were much weaker than he was. He could defeat them easily. May had helped him grow strong. May had done so much for him. He liked May.
“What are you doing?” the absol cried out to him. “Why are you helping her?”
It had been so long since Bad Wolf had heard the tongue of the wild pokémon that he almost didn’t understand it. May was civilized; she spoke in human like the rest of the humans did. And he was civilized too, even if he couldn’t speak and could only understand.
“You’ll be fine,” Bad Wolf responded, sinking into a crouch. This absol was stronger than he thought. But Bad Wolf knew he was stronger than the wild absol, so he wasn’t worried in the slightest that the wild absol would replace him on May’s team.
“Scratch, Bad Wolf!”
“Rikshi, look at me!” the wild absol shouted, ducking under Bad Wolf’s scything claws and circling around behind him. The wild absol fought dirty, having no care for the clear system of back-and-forth battling that made the most sense. It dodged when it pleased and sometimes hit twice before Bad Wolf had a chance to retaliate, but he did not falter from May’s commands.
“I am Bad Wolf,” he replied shortly before firing off a scratch like May told him to.
His attack caught the wild absol in the gut, but it got to its feet and began to run away.
“Bad Wolf, after it!” May shouted, and Bad Wolf was happy to obey. He ran, but he knew he wasn’t running away but toward, and the wild absol was his target. He would catch the wild absol and make May proud.
“Rikshi, stop!” the absol shouted, and Bad Wolf wondered why this absol had mistaken him for someone else. He didn’t know a Rikshi.
“Bite!” May called out, and it was so much easier to listen to her voice, so he did.
The absol leapt out of the way and hit him with its claws, which were very sharp. The blow was only a glancing one, though. “Rikshi, listen to me!” the absol shouted. It looked hungry. Maybe May would feed it after they captured it. “I know you told me that you didn’t want anyone risking themselves to save you, but you were being brave and stupid. I looked all winter for you, and I waited, and I finally gave up and started looking after myself again, so don’t you dare show up now after everything and turn up like this!” The wild absol gritted its teeth. “Don’t you dare, Rikshi!”
“Bad Wolf, use slash!”
Bad Wolf leapt forward, his claws outstretched, but something made him stop. He tried to hold his ground so he could sort his thoughts out, but the pain and the nausea, which he hadn’t felt for such a long time now, sent him moving forward again. What was it?
“Rikshi, can you even recognize me?”
The voice was familiar, drifting like a heartbeat in the back of his mind from way back in the dark days, in the horrible time from before he’d met May and she’d helped him grow strong. He frowned.
He knew this voice, and for some reason, he knew it would be bad to attack the voice as well. There was something holding him back, a force more powerful than the stabbing pain that the pokéball sent through his body as he dug his claws into the ground and resisted to the best of his ability.
No. The wild absol would be safer with May. It was dangerous out in the wild; pokémon could get hurt without trainers. Trainers were good. May was a good trainer.
But there was something in him, something that ran deeper than the pokéball and deeper than the pain, and with a violent rush, he remembered.
He remembered, and his head exploded with a violent wash of pain as he faltered again.
But brother or not, May gave him a command, and didn’t want to or couldn’t stop now.
“Rikshi, listen to me,” the wild absol begged, backpedaling until it reached a steep drop covered in ice and could evade no further. “This is real. This is me. I’m Kiran. Your brother.”
May had given him a command. She shouted it again, louder, in case he hadn’t heard it. “Night slash, Bad Wolf!”
“Rikshi, damn you, live for the present! Die another day!”
Although the very thought made him vomit, he pulled himself as close to the wild absol as he dared and raised his claws, the purple energy dancing around their tips—
He could end it now, end the confusion and sink back into May, who was everything to him now, and he would never feel that tiny voice of guilt ever again.
He paused, balanced on the edge of everything.
—and he plunged his claws into the piece of ice, shattering it as he did so while his mind exploded in a blast of searing hot pain and the ice teetered dangerously before dipping backward, plunging into a steep drop below.
- - -
He hurt and everything about him hurt and the waves of agony were so intense that he found himself being dragged forward by the sheer force of the pokéball, which called out to him like a beacon from May’s belt. The only thing that stopped him from leaping to her was the massive slope and the speed of the ice, but he knew that as soon as the ice stopped, the pokéball would call to him and he would be helpless to resist.
But he had to fight back.
Rikshi wasn’t a fighter, though. Bad Wolf was the fighter.
“I’m fine, Kiran. I got away.”
The eighth lie Rikshi told his younger brother was out of regret.
It was most certainly a lie, too. He knew he hadn’t gotten away, hadn’t escaped entirely, even if he’d fought off the sickening waves of nausea as he did what he did best and fled, Kiran hot on his heels. Rikshi wanted nothing more than to crawl back to May’s side and accept her praise, but something kept dragging him on, even when stab after stab of pain shot through him from the pokéball.
It was nearly summer. When he’d last seen Kiran, it had been the very beginning of winter.
Kiran didn’t buy the lie so easily, though, not when the memory of Rikshi’s claws so close to his throat and the trainer so near behind was fresh and raw to touch. “Rikshi,” he murmured, trying not to feel betrayed, “you… you were acting just like one of them. Like one of the pets.”
“It was an act.” Rikshi leapt to the first lie he could think of, and he found that lying to others came easily when he had done it so many times to himself. “I was pretending to work for her, Kir, and when I saw the chance to get away, I took it.”
Kiran didn't buy it, and Rikshi didn't blame him. "Did you find Skaroth?"
Darkness, Rikshi corrected automatically, and hated himself for it. He said nothing.
“Die another day, right?” Kiran asked weakly, but there was no smile on his face. Rikshi could sense the unease roiling off of his brother in thick sheets, and it hurt him a little.
Rikshi bowed his head, trying to ignore the stab of pain that went through his mind again. The pokéball was calling to him, calling him home back to May. He didn’t… he couldn’t… This was his home now. Here, with Kiran. The little semblance of family that he had left.
He knew better than to count the lies he told himself. Better to keep track of the ones he’d told his younger brother, because there were still a small number of those.
Rikshi raised his head toward the sky, feeling the crunch of the snow between his claws and the wind beneath his mane. This was what freedom tasted like, but part of him still ached for May.
No. He couldn’t go back.
“Die another day,” he responded, trying to grin like old times.
He wasn’t lying about being fine, surprisingly enough. He felt okay, as okay as he would ever feel returning to reality while half of his mind hated him.
The bitch and her pokéballs had taken it from him, his mind, and he wasn’t sure if he would ever get it all back.
But he was lying about having escaped, and he knew it, especially when he dreamed of returning to May and eating berries and ice cream from her hand while the scratched him in the spot below his scythe that he liked so much.
- - -
Rikshi left the cave early while Kiran still slept and tried to hunt. Hunting would take his mind off of the pokéball and the human, and maybe it would remind the half of his mind that somehow, inexplicably wanted May that he was Rikshi, and he was of the wild.
When he was six winters old, he remembered, he had brought home his first piloswine even though it weighed more than he had. The hunting itself hadn't been hard; all Rikshi had done was run, but with style. But, two winters later, when he lunged at the snuffling brown lump of fur that was the piloswine, it dodged too fast for him to react in time. Never mind that a piloswine was as slow as a brick covered in mud and he was an absol, wraith of the night. The piloswine simply slipped out of his grasp and fled while he waited for it to attack on its turn, like it was supposed to.
When he was three winters old, Mother had helped him hunt his first swinub. He tried hunting one next, even though that was prey for younglings like Kiran. It took Rikshi a while to find a swinub; he’d long forgotten what it was like to track down prey rather than have a human point its targets at him.
Rikshi felt old and broken, like a deadly toy that had been tossed aside.
He leapt at the slightly smaller lump of brown fur that was the swinub and actually managed to land on it, raking it gently with the dull side of his claws. Rikshi didn’t mean to hold back, but somehow, he did, even if the swinub almost made the cave collapse in a blast of stone.
Damn it, no.
When he was one winter old, Mother had taken him out to hunt the zubat. Now that he had seen eight winters, it should’ve been child’s play for him.
But he was too loud and graceless and tamed, and he couldn’t even approach the zubat before it fluttered away, screeching indignantly at him. Rikshi waited for the thrill of the hunt to fill him, that giddy ecstasy to pound through his veins, but nothing came. He felt nothing except disappointment and—
The pokéball called to him louder than it had ever done before in that moment, and Rikshi leapt back violently, as if putting more distance between him and it would make the calling stop. His legs jerked of their own accord, trying to carry him back to May, but he couldn’t, he wouldn’t, he’d finally…
It wasn’t fair. He was supposed to be free. He couldn’t run from this kind of enemy, though, not when it called for him to run to it instead.
He thought about killing himself somehow. He could jump off a cliff, maybe, or drown in—
The pokéball didn’t like that.
“I won’t try to kill myself,” Rikshi spat through the black spots encroaching on his vision.
But he had to mean it, and he didn’t. And the damn thing wouldn't let him die, wouldn't let him run, wouldn't let him do anything other than live as a hapless, fawning minion at May's side and like it. Of course he wouldn't be permitted to take his own life, not if it no longer belonged to him.
He couldn’t run any more, and running was all he had, and he was desperately trying to hold back the sobs creeping in as he collapsed in the snow. He couldn’t cry. That was the way of the absol. The realization sank in. Running was all he’d ever had, and the human had taken that away from him, so he had and was nothing now.
Rikshi managed to compose himself, sat back on his haunches, and found what he thought was a poetic and irritatingly ironic way to keep himself from crawling back to May. Then he waited, his scythe burning.
When Kiran found him a few hours later, as he had predicted, Rikshi looked up from his mangled and broken foreleg, where he had bitten it hard enough to shatter the bone and prevent him from walking, and said in a calm voice, “I need you to kill me.”
“Go on, Kir. It won’t hurt a bit.”
The ninth and final lie Rikshi told his younger brother was out of acceptance.
Of course it would hurt. It would hurt like hell, far worse than the human’s battles or breaking his leg or losing Skaroth and Mother and Father.
But he was beginning to fear for his existence. He couldn’t hunt any more, even when he tried. He could battle, and he was excellent at it, but wild pokémon didn’t back down when Rikshi hit them with the blunted edges of his claws. Rikshi couldn't be a creature of the wild anymore. Rikshi couldn’t hunt. Rikshi couldn’t run.
Rikshi was breaking.
The pokéball called to him louder than ever before. May could patch up his leg. She’d done it before. She’d saved his life. She could fill him up and put his shattered pieces back together again, and he would never have another concern in his life.
Kiran looked at the shattered creature before him, begging for release, and he knew without a doubt that killing him would be a mercy. But this was Rikshi, this was his brother, this was…
This wasn’t fair.
“No,” Kiran said. But he wanted to shout it, to hold Rikshi between his paws and make sure that he was real and keep the last scrap of his family from slipping away from him just like the rest. “No.”
Rikshi looked at him then, pierced him with a gaze that was so hurt and bloodied and broken, even more mangled than his foreleg. “I got away from her, Kiran,” he said quietly. “I ran away, just like I always did, but that wasn’t enough.”
The pokéball shot another blast of pain through him, one intense enough to make him sway on his feet and lose focus, but he didn’t care. He was Rikshi.
“Die another day, you told me,” Kiran whispered, and then his voice grew louder. “Listen to me, damn you. Listen to me!”
But Rikshi wasn’t listening. He was fighting off in an imaginary battle with his mind, the pokéball taking its turn to attack him while he tried fruitlessly to duck and dodge and leap. He couldn’t go on like this. “I never did, did I?”
"There's plenty of prey near the slopes, but you stay the hell away from humans, okay?"
"You have to stop running eventually. Find someone to guard you back."
“And you make sure those claws of yours stay sharp.”
Rikshi looked up, tired and wan, and he said what they had both been feeling in the pit of their scythes for a while now, even though the truth hurt worse than anything else in the world.
“Kir,” he said, in a voice cold enough to freeze fire, “today is my someday.”
And he wasn’t lying.
“If you run off like that, Kiran, a monster will eat you.”
The first lie Rikshi told his younger brother was out of irritation. Rikshi had found himself, once again, left out of the fun to watch his younger brother, and the sting of the fault left him burning. He had seen three winters already while Kiran had only seen one, and Rikshi knew he was old enough to hunt with his mother and Skaroth. But instead of hunting alongside his older brother, he was left with the younger one, who was just old enough to totter around the entrance of their rocky cave and cause trouble.
Kiran edged to the back of the cave, a mixture of reluctance and fear in his eyes. “I don’t believe you,” he whined, face falling almost comically as he stumbled on his too-large feet. “What kind of monster?”
There was no monster, of course; that was why it was a lie. Rikshi quickly racked his brains for an answer. “A tall one,” he said quickly, trying to think of the most absurd traits he could. “It won’t look like an absol at all. It’ll be enormous, and it’ll walk on two legs and use the other two to fight. It’ll have a face pale like snow and only have hair on the top of its head, and it’ll, uh…” He couldn’t stop lying now; he had to invent something frightening. “…wear the skins of its enemies on its back to keep itself warm. It’ll snatch you away, Kiran, unless you stay inside of the cave.”
The last part seemed to do the trick. Kiran’s eyes widened, and he bounded towards the cave to press himself as tightly to Rikshi’s snowy flank as he could. The younger absol’s voice dropped into a whisper. “Will it find us here?”
“Not if we wait in the back of the cave together,” Rikshi replied. He hid a smile; his stupid plan had actually worked, and maybe he could get a few moments of peace if his younger brother hid and kept his mouth shut. “The monster won’t find us if we’re quiet.”
Kiran nodded, casting his crimson eyes fearfully to the entrance of the rocky cave once again. Outside, the dark night sky, peppered with stars, seemed to hold every threat in the world. “You’ll protect me if it comes, right, Rikshi?”
Rikshi wrapped his diamond-shaped tail comfortingly around his younger brother and pulled the young absol closer to him. Filled with a sort of foolish courage that would rarely flood his veins ever again, he murmured, “Of course, Kir. I’ll protect you from all of the monsters in the world. That’s what brothers do.”
The first lie was the one that Rikshi remembered in those final, fractured moments as Kiran closed his eyes and lunged. But as he remembered it again, Rikshi knew that the first lie he’d told his younger brother hadn’t been that there were monsters in the world, but that he, the cowardly older brother that he was, could ever hope to protect Kiran from them.
And the first lie was the one that Kiran remembered as well as he trailed away in the snow, the white fur of his forelegs matted and stained red. Kiran trudged aimlessly at first, and then he picked up his speed and began to run, panting and gasping and spluttering as he tried to get as far away from the day as possible.
Rikshi would never have to lie to him again.
Kiran stopped running only when he was completely out of breath. His drained muscles practically gave out beneath him, and he could feel them shaking in the cold. When he looked over his shoulder, Rikshi was still gone, but a trail of bloody footprints marked the way back.
It was then, heaving in snow up to his knees, unable to run any further, that Kiran realized why Rikshi had turned tail and fled from peril. It was the same reason Skaroth had kept his stupid bravado and refused to acknowledge that there was danger in the world. It was the same reason Kiran had tried to forget mother, Skaroth, Rikshi.
There were bad things in the world, and none of the three brothers had been adequately prepared to face them. So each of them had run in different ways to distance themselves from the horror. And each of them hadn’t been able to escape.
And their numbers had whittled from three to two to one. Kiran was the last, and he only had to tell himself that none of this had ever happened to make himself feel better. There was nothing left to remind him of his family. He could run away in spirit as well as body, and no one would be any wiser. In this bitter cold, he could let the numbness take him and forget all of his troubles, just like he always did.
But running didn’t help. It didn’t save Skaroth, it didn’t save Rikshi, and Kiran knew it wouldn’t save him, either. He could run and run and run, but there would always be that bloody trail to remind him of all of the horrors he could never elude.
No. He had to be strong now. Strong like Rikshi.
“I won’t forget, Rikshi,” he whispered to no one in particular. There was a long road ahead of him, but Kiran couldn’t run any more. “I won’t forget.”
It was then, too, looking back on the trail of bloody prints that connected him to the dead absol in the snow, that Kiran realized without a doubt why Rikshi had stayed with him instead of abandoning him, why he had bothered lying, why he had doubled back on his survival mantra and stopped running to save Kiran instead of himself.
It went deeper than instinct or humans or fate or blood.